Rainer Maria Rilke on colour and self-awareness

Vincent Van Gogh once wrote to his sister that “it is possible to express poetry by means of a good arrangement of colours and nothing more”.

What did he mean? There is a superficial answer — as obvious as it is misleading — which would reduce this intuition to the “content” of art or even to “messages” it conveys. Take, for example, Leo Tolstoy — characteristically pleonastic — description of art:

“The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. … And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”

The content of poetry and painting is the same — feelings and experiences; a painter can “receive” the feelings expressed in a poem and express them in a painting (and vice versa). Simple as that. But I don’t think that was what van Gogh meant: he was not talking of colour expressing the same thing as poetry does, but of colour expressing poetry itself. His intuition of affinity between poetry and painting goes beyond the divide between “content” and “form” (utterly meaningless in the realm of art anyway).

Paul Cézanne. Self-portrait. Oil on canvas. 1880.
Paul Cézanne. Self-portrait. Oil on canvas. 1880.

Rainer Maria Rilke sensed this affinity from, as it were, the other side, as a poet learning from painting, above all from Paul Cézanne. On October 21, 1907, he writes to his wife, Clara Rilke:

“<…> no one before him ever demonstrated so clearly the extent to which painting is something that takes place among the colours, and how one has to leave them completely alone, so that they can come to terms among themselves. Their mutual intercourse: this is the whole of painting. Whoever meddles, whoever arranges, whoever injects his human deliberation, his wit, his advocacy, his intellectual agility in any way, is already disturbing and clouding their activity.”        

He talks about painting and colour, but the whole context of Rilke’s “Letters on Cézanne” makes it clear that he is also thinking about poetry and language: a poem as a mutual intercourse of words. Like van Gogh, he is talking about interaction of colours, but there is an interesting point of divergence, underscored by their use of words “arrangement” (van Gogh) and “whoever arranges” (Rilke). Van Gogh speaks as an active participant in the process of painting, as though a director putting on a play in which colours are actors, whereas Rilke mistrusts any conscious human interference with the interplay of colours. He continues:

Ideally a painter (and, generally, an artist) should not become conscious of his insights <…> That van Gogh’s letters are so readable, that they are so rich, basically argues against him, just as it argues against a painter (holding up Cézanne for comparison) that he wanted or knew or experienced this and that; that blue called for orange and green for red: that, secretly listening in his eye’s interior, he had heard such things spoken, the inquisitive one.”

The elimination of conscious self from the process (so markedly and refreshingly different from the discourse of “self-expression”, so overwhelmingly common nowadays) is the very core of Rilke’s understanding of art, be it painting or poetry. On October 18, he writes about Cézanne’s work:

“This labor which no longer knew any preferences or biases or fastidious predilections, whose minutest component had been tested on the scales of an infinitely responsive conscience, and which so incorruptibly reduced a reality to its colour content that it resumed a new existence in a beyond of colour, without any previous memories. It is this limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling in an alien unity, that strikes people as so offensive and comical in Cézanne’s portraits. They accept, without realising it, that he represented apples, onions, and oranges purely by means of colour (which they still regard as a subordinate means of painterly practice), but as soon as he turns to landscape they start missing the interpretation, the judgment, the superiority, and when it comes to portraits, there is that rumour concerning the artist’s intellectual conception, which has been passed on even to the most bourgeois, so successfully that you can already see the signs of it in Sunday photographs of couples and families.”

Colours, as Rilke encounters them in Cézanne, act as sentient beings, as though they were aware of themselves. Here is how he describes one of Cézanne’s portraits (a portrait of Madame Cézanne), in the next letter (October 22, 1907): 

Paul Cézanne. Portrait of Madame Cézanne. c. 1886. Oil on canvas.
Paul Cézanne. Portrait of Madame Cézanne. c. 1886. Oil on canvas.

“It’s as if every part were aware of all the others—it participates that much; that much adjustment and rejection is happening in it; that’s how each daub plays its part in maintaining equilibrium and in producing it: just as the whole picture finally keeps reality in equilibrium. For if one says, this is a red armchair (and it is the first and ultimate red armchair in the history of painting): it is that only because it contains latently within itself an experienced sum of colour which, whatever it may be, reinforces and confirms it in this red. To reach the peak of its expression, it is very strongly painted around the light human figure, so that a kind of waxy surface develops; and yet the colour does not preponderate over the object, which seems so perfectly translated into its painterly equivalents that, while it is fully achieved and given as an object, its bourgeois reality at the same time relinquishes all its heaviness to a final and definitive picture-existence. Everything, as I already wrote, has become an affair that’s settled among the colours themselves: a colour will come into its own in response to another, or assert itself, or recollect itself. Just as in the mouth of a dog various secretions will gather in anticipation at the approach of various things—consenting ones for drawing out nutrients, and correcting ones to neutralise poisons: in the same way, intensifications and dilutions take place in the core of every colour, helping it to survive contact with others. In addition to this glandular activity within the intensity of colours, reflections (whose presence in nature, always surprised me so: to discover the evening glow of the water as a permanent coloration in the rough green of the Nenuphar’s covering-leaves—) play the greatest role: weaker local colours abandon themselves completely, contenting themselves with reflecting the dominant ones. In this hither and back of mutual and manifold influence, the interior of the picture vibrates, rises and falls back into itself, and does not have a single unmoving part …”

And as a living and sentient being, a colour may have a story, almost a biography, in which individual painters are but stages in its evolution:

“And I noticed that this blue is that special eighteenth-century blue that you can find everywhere, in La Tour, in Peronnet, and which even in Chardin does not cease to be elegant, even though here, as the ribbon of his peculiar hood (in the self-portrait with the horn-rimmed pince-nez), it is used quite recklessly. (I could imagine someone writing a monograph on the colour blue, from the dense waxy blue of the Pompeiian wall paintings to Chardin and further to Cézanne: what a biography!) For Cézanne’s very unique blue is descended from these, it comes from the eighteenth-century blue which Chardin stripped of its pretension and which now, in Cézanne, no longer carries any secondary significance.” [October 8, 1907]

The following little gallery illustrates this episode in Blue’s biography, from La Tour to Cézanne:

But, of course, it’s also the same Blue that lives in nature:

“… In the east behind Notre-Dame and Saint-Germain l‘Auxerrois all of the last, gray, half-discarded days had bunched together, and before me, over the Tuileries, toward the Arc de l’Étoile, lay something open, bright, weightless, as if this were a place leading all the way out of the world. A large fan-shaped poplar was leafing playfully in front of this completely supportless blue, in front of the unfinished, exaggerated designs of a vastness which the good Lord holds out before him without any knowledge of perspective.” [October 11, 1907]

The way Rilke describes colours — their intercourse within a painting, a single colour’s evolution through history — that’s how one might also describe words: their interaction and interplay within a poem, a single word’s history from one age to another, punctuated by contributions of individual authors. His eyes trained by Cézanne, Rilke reaches out to language for words that would express the nuances of colour, and the biography of blue spills out into the realm of language: a barely-blue, a blue dove-gray, a densely quilted blue, an ancient Egyptian shadow-blue, a waxy blue, a self-contained blue, a wet dark blue, a listening blue, a thunderstorm blue, a bourgeois cotton blue, a light cloudy bluishness, a juicy blue, and, in van Gogh’s landscapes, full of revolt, Blue, Blue, Blue.

Both colour and language have their mundane, pragmatic, adaptive functions; we use colour to recognise objects in our environment, and we use language for everyday communication. But in painting and poetry, colour and language become as it were aware of themselves; it is indeed as though they know themselves better than any human being possibly could.

I don’t mean it in any mystical or supernatural sense: this self-awareness must, for all I know, rely on the same neural substrate as our own. It is in our brains, just not fully accessible to the conscious mind, even if it’s the mind of a painter or a poet. And so it follows that the artist’s challenge is, in Rilke’s words, to “leave them completely alone”, not to meddle with them, not to let the human conscious self interfere with their play; indeed, to remove one’s own self from the process altogether.

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On freedom, art, and danger

Boris Nemtsov surrounded by riot police

“Our inheritance comes to us by no will-and-testament,” 

I came across this aphorism by René Char, a French poet and writer, in Hannah Arendt’s books (she mentions it on more than one occasion), and it keeps recurring in my mind, like a line from a forgotten poem, like an answer to a question I haven’t yet asked.

Char was writing about his experience in the French Resistance: French intellectuals who were thrown, unexpectedly, into the realm of political action discovered that

“<…> he who joined the Resistance ceased to be “in quest of [himself] without mastery, in naked unsatisfaction,” that he no longer suspected himself of “insincerity,” of being “a carping, suspicious actor of life,” that he could afford “to go naked.” (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, p. 4),

And in this new, naked state of mind, they have been “visited by the apparition of freedom” —

“<…> without knowing or even noticing it, [they] had begun to create that public space between themselves where freedom could appear. “At every meal that we eat together, freedom is invited to sit down. The chair remains vacant, but the place is set.” (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, p. 4)

This was their unexpected inheritance, accidentally found in the time of darkest crisis: both a state of an individual mind, and a “public space”: a space of interaction, the medium in which communication can happen, where a genuine connection can exist. Arendt calls it “the lost treasure of the revolutions” — because it seems to come into existence only in times of political crisis, and then disappears again in the trance of day-to-day “normal” life.

We don’t have a name for this experience; it’s absent from our languages. Arendt equates this namelessness, the elusive nature of the “lost treasure”, the non-existence of will-and-testament for it, with a failure of the Western intellectual tradition:

“Without testament or, to resolve the metaphor, without tradition which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future, only sempiternal change of the world and the biological cycle of living creatures in it. Thus the treasure was lost not because of historical circumstances and the adversity of reality but because no tradition had foreseen its appearance or its reality, because no testament had willed it for the future. The loss <…> was consummated by oblivion, by a failure of memory, which befell not only the heirs but, as it were, the actors, the witnesses, those who for a fleeting moment had held the treasure in the palms of their hands (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, pp. 6-7).

I have had a similar experience — this glimpse of freedom, and the naked reality of being — during the collapse of the Soviet Union, three days in August 1991, filled with danger and hope, when its future was decided on the streets; and then it was lost, as though in an unfathomably stupid nightmare.

But I am writing this just a few days after Boris Nemtsov, one of the very few people who had not lost our shared inheritance, was murdered under the walls of Kremlin. But there is a recurrent theme in all obituaries written by those who knew him personally: he has always been incredibly, overwhelmingly alive; someone even said: almost indecently alive, as though echoing René Char’s metaphor of going naked. All through these last days, mixed with sadness and anger, I’ve been feeling something else — a sentiment I could not recognise at first, so out-of-place it was. I now know that it was envy: Boris Nemtsov won in this game of life, because he has never lost the treasure of freedom, and nobody can take this victory away anymore.

Why is it, I wonder, that some people can keep the treasure alive, while others lose it, or never find it? I recall another similar experience, from even earlier times. Back in the years of the Soviet Union, in its freezing and thoroughly false public atmosphere, I was growing up in an oasis of free thought. My father organised a “home seminar”, a small public space where people could come and talk freely. It was about everything really: history, philosophy, mathematics, art, memoirs, poetry, politics. That space was free from political pressures, from ideological and social considerations of academic and literary carriers, fashions, conventions. It wasn’t going to advance anyone’s career in any field; quite the contrary: unlicensed by the omnipresent totalitarian state as it was, participation could easily put one in danger. But people would come, because they needed this breath of the fresh air, this space of freedom.

This was an atmosphere quite different from anything I knew later, in a variety of seminars and conferences all over the world, where the politics of academia was always present, in one form or another. It is, as they say, “the real life”: nobody can afford to go naked in real life. But Hannah Arendt is right: it is not the “adversity of reality” that makes one lose the treasure of freedom. The atmosphere of modern free world is by no means more adverse to freedom than the Soviet Union or the German occupation of France. But is it just a failure of intellectual tradition, the lack of “will-and-testament”? Come to think about it, it may also be the lack of courage — why else would we seem to find the treasure of freedom only in the darkest times, when there is nothing to lose?

A couple of days ago, Google+ brought me a link to Steven Kotler workshop on flow states (or “optimised brain performance”) on the Big Think website. What caught my attention in this workshop was Kotler’s emphasis on risk and danger as “triggers” for flow states: essentially, he says that we need danger to be at our best (and also at our happiest). The danger need not be physical — social and emotional risk-taking has the same flow-inducing magic in it — but it must be danger nonetheless. This, I feel, is the missing piece of the puzzle — when everything seems well, safe and secure, it takes willingness to put oneself in danger to find the treasure. Paradoxical as it sounds, it’s easier when the times are perilous and dark. It’s not just the lack of intellectual tradition, it’s also the desire to feel safe that keeps one from finding the treasure of being alive.

There is a striking similarity with the experience of art, another “lost treasure”. It might seem that this inheritance, at least, has been properly cared for: stored, catalogued, exhibited in museums, performed in symphony halls, printed in numerous editions, and, more recently, added to the mind-staggering web of knowledge given to us by the internet. But no: although it is here, for all to read, see, and listen, this treasure, too, came to us without will and testament. We have a whole vocabulary of names for forms and genres of art, for its styles, techniques, and epochs, and libraries filled with books of art history and criticism, but there is really no proper word for the genuine experience of Art, which opens the way for the same apparition of genuine freedom, the reality of being alive, to the incomprehensible place where the mind of an artist connects with the mind of the beholder, beyond the usual capacities of language.

It may sometimes seem as though each of us can stumble on this treasure only by luck, because there is no “will and testament” to tell us how to find it — a problem recently raised by Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong in “Art as therapy”. They write:

“Since the beginning of the twentieth century, our relationship with art has been weakened by a profound institutional reluctance to address the question of what art is for. This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent”.

There is a truth in this, but, again, it’s not the whole truth. There is no doubt that the experience of art can be facilitated by a tradition of appreciation, by art education, but, in the end, it’s also a matter of courage, risk, and danger.

Just like the apparition of freedom comes in the darkest political times, when there seems to be nothing more to lose, so the genuine experience of art often touches us in the darkest valleys of our lives, in the midst of emotional turmoil, loss, mourning, grief. But when all is well, when one feels emotionally safe and secure, this experience is easily lost, and art degrades into a matter of entertainment, luxury, taste, style, technique, social status, small talk. It takes willingness to risk one’s emotional stability, to put oneself in danger of sorrow; otherwise, the door remains closed, the apparition never comes. It’s not unlike the risk Vincent van Gogh took when he opened himself to Paul Gauguin’s influence — the beholder’s share in the risk is not as huge as the artist’s, but it’s a risk nonetheless.     

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On Vincent van Gogh’s vision, or memory of the Garden of Eden

Vincent van Gogh. Memory of the garden at Etten. 1888.
Vincent van Gogh. Memory of the garden at Etten. 1888. Oil on canvas. 73.5 × 92.5 cm.

Last week, we talked about how to see like Claude Monet — that was an easy one: to begin with, his was an insight that, once found, is easy to share; and, probably more importantly, seeing like Monet is a mental skill that, once learned, tends to fill one’s life with joy. In a very palpable sense, it makes you a happier person (not unlike meditation practice). That’s why he created this movement that’s still alive today: you won’t find too many post-impressionists or cubists working today, and — more to the point for today’s topic — hardly any “cloissonnists”, but there are many a painter working today associate their work with impressionism.

Vincent van Gogh’s is an entirely different story. No easily shareable insights, no trainable skills to acquire. In a sense, one just cannot learn to see like van Gogh; and to the extent you can, it is very unlikely to make you happier. More intense, more compassionate — perhaps, but hardly happier. And if he can be said to have had any followers in the history of painting, they departed from any representation of visible world altogether. I know why: many, many years ago I stopped painting because there was just no point in painting after van Gogh. I distinctly remember the moment of this decision, which had defined my life for the following twenty years at least: I was standing in a doorway to my room in my childhood home and taking in, for a millionth time, a reproduction of his blue tree trunks on the wall.

Vincent van Gogh. Tree trunks in the grass. Oil on canvas. 1890.
Vincent van Gogh. Tree trunks in the grass. Oil on canvas. 1890.

I was overwhelmed by a confusing mixture of admiration and despair, love and pain; it was the beautiful, irresistible path I felt I had to follow, but could not, not even close. It was like to be or not to be, which, at that moment, was resolving itself into not to be — to stop what I had, by then, come to see as my life, to make my quietus — not with a bare bodkin, but by abandoning my childhood dream. This is the memory that his “Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)” keeps bringing back to my mind.

What is the mystery of van Gogh’s sense of vision? I believe the closest anyone had come to expressing it in prose was Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to his wife (June 24, 1907; published in “Letters on Cézanne”):

“<…> works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity …”

Except for van Gogh, it was — almost always — a direct visual experience. He could see all the way to the end, to the point where a visual motif becomes personal, singular, and irrepressible, to where there is no difference between the outside and the inside; I believe this was (or it had gradually become) an immanent part of his sense of vision. And it is not a skill one can learn: it’s a new danger, new risk, new void every single time. No wonder Rilke’s train of thought — begun as a contemplation on art in general (and based, doubtlessly, on his own experience) — lead him to van Gogh. He writes in the same letter:

“I often think to myself what madness it would have been for van Gogh, and how destructive, if he had been forced to share the singularity of his vision with someone, to have someone join him in looking at his motifs before he had made his pictures out of them, these existences that justify him with all their being, that vouch for him, invoke his reality. He did seem to feel sometimes that he needed to do this in letters (although there, too, he’s usually talking of finished work), but no sooner did Gauguin, the comrade he’d longed for, the kindred spirit, arrive than he had to cut off his ear in despair, after they had both determined to hate one another and at the first opportunity get rid of each other for good.”

I said “almost always” just now, because this painting, “Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)”, is, in a sense, an exception: not a single visual experience, but its explicit, conscious merger with the memory of another one. This painting is a response to his attempt to open himself to Paul Gauguin’s influence, during their nine-weeks sojourn in Arles — something that happened within Rilke’s “no sooner”. Here is what van Gogh wrote to his sister about this painting:

 “I do not know if you can understand that it is possible to express poetry by means of a good arrangement of colours and nothing more, just as one can express consolation by means of music. In addition, the bizarre, contrived and repetitive lines that twist through the whole picture are not meant to represent the garden as it normally looks, but to render it as we might see it in a dream, in its true character, yet at the same time stranger than in reality.”

For all we know, this intentional distance from what how things “normally look” is a result of his attempt to follow Gauguin’s concept of painting as an abstraction from nature, simplified and formalised, subordinated to a two-dimensional visual idea designed by the artist (rather than borrowed from visible reality). Living as they were in the midst of an earth-shattering change in painting, they all seem to have been obsessed with finding the one true path for it, and Gauguin had just participated in launching a new movement, called “cloisonnism”. And van Gogh didn’t just (in Rilke’s words) “share the singularity of his vision” with Gauguin, he almost completely opened himself to Gauguin’s influence, trying to absorb this new approach to painting. Almost, but not quite. Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger write in “Vincent van Gogh. The complete paintings”:

“Paul Gauguin, after giving the matter careful thought, had evolved a ethos of making painting independent of the obsessions, spontaneous reactions and passing moods of the artist, and Vincent van Gogh, appropriating the method, used it for his own immature purposes, his own self-admiring ends, his need for intense dedication!”

Incidentally, isn’t it strange that, while writing a book on van Gogh, they seem to identify completely with Gauguin’s point of view? One can almost hear Gauguin’s own frustration in their choice of words: “immature”, “self-admiring” — even though, from what we know, if there was any “self-admiration” in their studio in Arles, it was all Gauguin’s.

Rilke’s concept of art was, it would seem, closer to van Gogh’s:

“So surely we have no choice but to test and try ourselves against the utmost, but probably we are also constrained to keep silence regarding it, to avoid sharing it, parting with it in communication before it has entered the work of art: for the utmost represents nothing other than that singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the work as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic.”

He pinpoints — with precision which would have been almost unbelievable in anyone but Rilke — the exact point of divergence between van Gogh and Gauguin. One feels that, for Rilke, the very idea of “independence” of a work of art from artist’s mood and obsessions would have sounded as shallowness, falsehood, self-deceit.    

 But that summer in Arles, that wasn’t — I believe — what van Gogh must have felt. His attempt to follow Gauguin’s path, his admiration and reverence were genuine and sincere. And fully opening himself to influences — nearly dissolving himself in other artist’s visions — this was his strength, his way of enriching his sense of vision. This is, after all, what van Gogh’s famous “discovery of colour” in Paris was all about. And it was also, I believe, one of his ways, in Rilke’s words, to put himself in that danger that leads to artistic insight— and he had to go through this “experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further”. “Memory of the Garden at Etten” was such an end to this particular experience: he couldn’t follow Gauguin any further.

Paul Gauguin. Old women of arles. Oil on canvas. 1888.
Paul Gauguin. Old women of arles. Oil on canvas. 1888.

Van Gogh’s painting is arguably much more powerful than Gauguin’s simplified, decorative take on the same motive. Gauguin’s painting is visually impressive, but not much more than that; van Gogh’s is, as he intended, poetry expressed in colour — the poetic unity between human beings and nature, and between seemingly distant moments in time, the present as seen now and the past remembered and contained in the present. All its black contours (a defining feature of cloisonnism) cannot interrupt the unity and fluidity of colour and shapes; their conspicuous presence just stresses their inability to break this unity.

But there is something else here, too: the experience of an end, of a path one felt one had to follow, but couldn’t. There is this sadness, a to be or not to be on the verge of resolving into not to be, an overwhelming self-doubt— this is why, I believe, this painting makes me relive the moment of abandoning painting again and again. Etten is a small village where van Gogh’s father served as a pastor, but I must have misinterpreted this unfamiliar name as a child — and had been convinced, for an embarrassingly long time, that this painting is about the memory of the Garden of Eden. Such childish errors are usually corrected soon enough, but not this one. Is there something in the painting’s dreamlike quality that reinforced this interpretation in my mind, or is it just that painting is, and always was, my “Garden of Eden”, my own lost paradise? I don’t really know…—  but I have always known I would return.

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The Magpie, or how Claude Monet has changed our sense of vision

Claude Monet. The magpie. 1868-1869. Oil on canvas.
Claude Monet. The magpie. 1868-1869. Oil on canvas.

Paul Cézanne once said: “Monet is just an eye, but my God what an eye”, and it’s easy to see what he meant. When looking at this painting, “The Magpie”, one is overwhelmed with the sheer variation of colour in something as self-evidently white as a field of sunlit snow. It is less visible in reproduction, but luckily it is now available on the Google Art Project website, where you can zoom in to see all the details (it’s still not the same that seeing the original, but there is a bonus: no museum guards to warn you sternly away the moment you step closer to the painting than their rules allow).

But was it really Monet’s eye that just happened to have more sensitivity to colour than most of us are born with?

I am not sure how literally Cézanne meant his remark to be understood, but one often encounters a somewhat overly simplistic reduction of colour vision to the sensitivity of the eye, and its individual mix of photoreceptors. Had it been so simple, each of us would just have to be content with what we are genetically endowed with — there seem to be no way to change this mix of photoreceptors. Yet, with possible exception of some cases of colour-blindness, the very experience of looking at this painting shows the beholders that it’s not their eyes that usually prevent them from seeing these nuances of colour in snow — because, after all, we do see them in the painting, don’t we? And this means our eyes are capable of perceiving this variation — but we don’t have access to this ability most of the time. Why?  And is it possible to change this?

Eric Kandel writes in his book, “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present”:

“The brain’s Creativity is evident in the visual system’s ability to reveal the same picture under strikingly different conditions of light and distance. As we move from a brightly lit garden into a dimly lit room, for instance, the intensity of the light reaching the retina may decrease a thousandfold. Yet in the dim light of the room, as in the bright light of the sun, we see a white shirt as white and a red bow tie as red. We see the bow tie as red because the brain is interested in acquiring information about the constant characteristics of an object, in this case its reflectance. How is this accomplished? The brain adjusts for the changes in light; it recomputes the colour of the tie and of the shirt to ensure that those critical identifying features are maintained under a wide variety of circumstances.”

Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral at noon. 1894.
Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral at noon. 1894.

Obviously, all these creative adjustments happen well below the threshold of consciousness: one will see snow as uniformly white because that’s what their brain is interested in. And it has a point: it probably is (or at least was) much more essential for survival to recognise snow as snow (as opposed to, say, earth or asphalt) than to get immersed in all the nuances of light and colour. But Claude Monet spent his long painting life unrelentingly undoing this specific aspect of the brain’s unconscious creativity — for himself and for us. That’s what his famous series (his haystacks, Waterloo Bridge, Rouen Cathedral) are all aboutseeing (and showing) how breathtakingly different the same thing looks from one moment to another.

But what is the point of undoing the evolution’s hard work of fine-tuning human brains for perception of colour constancy?

Here is the rub: in presenting us with recomputed uniform colours, however useful this might be in some circumstances, the brain, by the same token, robs us of one of the purest delights this life has to offer, of the pleasure of witnessing, moment to moment, the glorious interplay of light and colours all around us. Could it be, then, that Claude Monet’s work is not undoing the evolution’s work, but rather continuing it, pushing it forward? Now that the immediate pressures of survival are not that pressing anymore, wouldn’t it be grand to adjust the vision system of the brain to make our life more joyful and (literally) more colourful?

Let’s have a closer look at how this system is organised. Kandel writes:

“Vision <…> begins in the eye, which detects information about the outside world in terms of light. The lens of the eye focuses and projects a tiny, two-dimensional image of the outside world onto the retina, a sheet of nerve cells covering the back of the eye. The data emerging from specialized cells in the retina resemble the visual world in the same way that the pixels in the image on your laptop computer resemble the actual image that you see on the screen. Both the biological and the electronic system process information. The visual system, however, creates representations in the brain (in the form of neural codes ) that require far, far more information than the modest amount the brain receives from the eyes. That additional information is created within the brain. Thus, what we see in “the mind’s eye” goes dramatically beyond what is present in the image cast on the retina of our real eye.”

Kandel emphasises that the information on the retina is insufficient for creating an image in the brain, but what’s important for us here is the opposite: it is, at the same time, a much richer information about light and colour than what will eventually reach the level of consciousness. These “raw data” are available to the brain (if not necessarily to the conscious mind). This conclusion coincides with what we have learned from looking at Monet’s painting: I see more colours in Monet’s snow than I would have seen in the real-life snow on the same day. The context of looking at a painting — as opposed to freezing on a snowy day and dreaming of a cup of hot tea or mulled wine — somehow changes the way my brain processes all these neural codes, so that I get a better, more direct conscious access to the raw data of my eyes.

How does the brain recompute these raw data? It seems to be rather a complicated and multilevel process; I don’t know about you, but just Kandel’s list of brain regions involved makes me a bit giddy, and this is just a short summary of what is known:

“The nerve cells that process visual information are grouped into hierarchical relays that send information along one of two parallel pathways in the visual system. These relays begin in the retina of the eye, go on to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, continue to the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe, and then to some thirty additional areas in the occipital, temporal, and frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. Each relay performs a particular transformation process on the incoming information. ”

One of these parallel pathways has to do with what we see (including colour), the other determines where these objects are located. For now, we are interested only in the first one, and here is what happens when its information reaches the higher regions of the brain:

“<…> it is reappraised. This top-down reappraisal operates on four principles:

  • disregarding details that are not behaviorally relevant in a given context;
  • searching for constancy;
  • attempting to abstract the essential, constant features of objects, people, and landscapes;
  • and, particularly important, comparing the present image to images encountered in the past.”

I have added bullet points to Kandel’s plain list of four principles, because they all seem very important in my quest to transform the vision system of my own brain. To begin with, the concept of “behavioural relevance in a given context”  offers a clear explanation of why we see in a painting what we usually miss “in real life”: the painting creates a “sanctified place” where other behavioural concerns are suppressed by the very process of seeing. I imagine it somehow sends a “top-down” signal to the brain to pay attention to nuances rather than to search for constancy and for familiar objects.

A different — but not less rewarding — change of context happens in the very process of painting, especially en plein air. I know from experience that my colour vision changes perceptibly between the “in-painting” mode and  the “default”, outside-painting mode (it is possible, though, to switch to the “in-painting” mode of paying attention even outside the context of painting, and enjoy it for its own sake).

Lilla Cabot Perry recalls in her reminiscences of Claude Monet (in “The American Magazine of Art”, March 1927) that he once said to her:

“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.”

She also recalls that he wished to have been born blind, and then suddenly gain sight, so he could paint without knowing what are the objects before him. It sounds to me like he tried to consciously switch off the third principle in Kandel’s list, that is, to train his unconscious vision system not to search for “essential features” of objects and people, at least not in the “in-painting” mode. Or maybe that is impossible — I don’t know — but the system can certainly be trained to focus on a completely different range of “objects”: these squares of blue, and oblongs of pink, and streaks of yellow.

Be it as it may, the last principle — the relevance of past visual experiences — gives us hope that once we have seen colours in snow (instead of always seeing it as plain white), the brain may begin to “get” that that’s also interesting and rewarding, and so gradually learn to make more colours from the raw data of the eye accessible to the conscious mind.

This, I believe, is how Claude Monet changes the unconscious vision system of the beholder — and that’s how he has changed our reality.

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On art as Baron Munchausen’s pigtail

BaronMunchThere is an age-old paradox inherent in any attempt to “live a better life”, or “to better oneself” consciously: your life reflects who you are, and you are shaped by your life. To change your life, you’ve to got to change yourself; and to change your self, you’ve got to change your life; so where to begin? Whether you want to or not, you find yourself in the position of Baron Munchausen trying to pull himself (and his horse) out of a swamp by his pigtail (I believe this is called “bootstrapping” nowadays).

I was reminded of this paradox when I read the following passage from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on “Creativity”, where he explains why it makes sense — for any one of us — to study lives of extraordinarily creative people:

“Their lives suggest possibilities for being that are in many ways richer and more exciting than most of us experience. By reading about them, it is possible to envision ways of breaking out from the routine, from the constraints of genetic and social conditioning, to a fuller existence. <…> Indeed, it could be said that the most obvious achievement of these people is that they created their own lives. And how they achieved this is something worth knowing, because it can be applied to all our lives, whether or not we are going to make a creative contribution.”

Is it really possible to change one’s life in this way, just by learning how extraordinary people live theirs?

I believe it is, if only because sometimes it’s just a matter of removing a “blind spot”: you suddenly see a possibility for change in your environment — maybe something easy, small, seemingly insignificant — which will turn out to be a catalyst for further changes, in your life and in your self, the beginning of a new path.

What resonated with me most in Csikszentmihalyi’s book is what he says about the role of our visual environment: beauty not just a source of pleasure and fleeting enjoyment, but as a shaper of our thoughts and feelings. I did read before about stubborn scientific problems magically solved when a scientist all but gives up and goes on vacation to one beautiful place or another — but I used to assume all these stories were mainly about letting one’s thoughts incubate below the threshold of consciousness rather than about the role of beauty in this process.

I now think it might have been a wrong assumption. Csikszentmihalyi writes:

“The belief that the physical environment deeply affects our thoughts and feelings is held in many cultures. The Chinese sages chose to write their poetry on dainty island pavilions or craggy gazebos. The Hindu Brahmins retreated to the forest to discover the reality hidden behind illusory appearances. Christian monks were so good at selecting the most beautiful natural spots that in many European countries it is a foregone conclusion that a hill or plain particularly worth seeing must have a convent or monastery built upon it.”

A possible reason for this, he suggests, is that complex and harmonious sensory experiences influence our cognition even when we don’t focus on them, and lead our minds to “novel and attractive patterns” — not a simple causal connection (just go to a beautiful place, and your mind will overflow with beautiful solutions and beautiful thoughts), but a connection nonetheless.   

Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers. 1888.
Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers. 1888. Oil on canvas. 92.1 × 73 cm.

What, then, about art? — not as a grand transformative experience one might have in a museum, or in the Sistine chapel, but as something just silently present in the visual environment of your life, often below the threshold of conscious attention.

There is a chapter in Csikszentmihalyi’s book about what people make of their home (and office) environments — and this, of course, applies not only to extraordinary people, but to every one of us. He writes:

“In one of my studies we interviewed two women, both in their eighties, who lived on different floors of the same high-rise apartment house. When asked what objects were special to her in her apartment, the first woman looked vaguely around her living room, which could have passed for a showroom in a reasonably pricey furniture store, and said that she couldn’t think of anything. She gave the same response in the other rooms—nothing special, nothing personal, nothing meaningful anywhere. The second woman’s living room was full of pictures of friends and family, porcelain and silver inherited from aunts and uncles, books she loved or that she intended to read. The hallway was hung with framed drawings of her children and grandchildren. In the bathroom the shaving tools of her deceased husband were arranged like a tiny shrine. And the life of the two women mirrored their homes: the first followed an affectless routine, the second a varied, exciting schedule.”

Here, of course, there is no simple and direct causal connection either: its not like the homes of the two women created their lives all by themselves. It seems much more likely that each woman created her own home and her own life: the same difference between them that we see in their homes is also reflected in their lives. After all, we are who we are, and changing our home decoration won’t change that, right? We are back with Baron Munchausen, and his horse, and his pigtail…

But let me tell you a story about myself, and how home decoration saved my life… 

Vincent Van Gogh. Head of a woman. 1883.
Vincent Van Gogh. Head of a woman. 1883.

 In 1996, we moved to Germany because I accepted a job at the University of Bielefeld. This town, Bielefeld, had been almost completely ruined by the Allied aviation during the Second World War, and then rebuilt in the spirit of austerity and pragmatism: reasonably comfortable, but without a touch of beauty. We rented a furnished apartment; it used to belong to the owner’s elderly mother, and the furnishings reflected that — it probably looked similar to that old woman’s apartment visited by Csikszentmihalyi. I remember there were remote controls for the bed and for all armchairs and only one small writing desk (certainly not enough for our family of three).

I was completely focused on finding my way in the university, learning to teach  in a rather unfamiliar language, arranging my son’s school matters, dealing with the quirks of department head’s temperament, and so on, and so forth — the usual routine of life, made more stressful by the move to another country. Our visual environment wasn’t on my list of priorities. In retrospect, I believe I took it as an immutable fact of this new life, without giving it a moment’s thought.

But then we went to Paris for a few days, and somewhere, in a small street behind Musée d’Orsay, serendipitously found a small dark shop filled with heaps upon heaps of reproductions in various sizes. Believe it or not, the idea that we can add reproductions of our favourite paintings to our environment in Bielefeld had not even crossed my mind before this chance encounter — it was only then that I understood clearly what had been missing in my life all along.

Marc Chagall. Over the town. 1918.
Marc Chagall. Over the town. 1918. Oil on canvas. 45 x 56 cm.

I don’t remember how much time we spent there, browsing through all these heaps of prints, but we went away with several huge posters to bring back — Chagall, Matisse, Van Gogh —  most of them for our apartment, and a nude by Matisse for my office (the very anticipation of shocking my head of department was just too tempting to resist; to his credit, he took it in his stride, which had the unexpected effect of improving our working relationship).

Henri Matisse. Nude seated with crossed legs. 1941-1942.
Henri Matisse. Nude seated with crossed legs. 1941-1942.

It would be a lie if I told you that our life changed miraculously once these posters were hanging on the walls of our Bielefeld apartment— all problems resolved, stumbling blocks dissolved, research ideas flowing freely and happily. Not quite. But it had certainly become much more of a life: I was feeling more alive every day, there seemed to be more reasons to get up in the morning, more laughter, more research, more trips to beautiful places.

What is probably more important and more to the point, I began to see more aspects of my life as changeable: seemingly unbreakable constraints and routines were being gradually unmasked as limiting but transient illusions. To repeat Csikszentmihalyi’s words, I was growing more and more aware of “ways of breaking out from the routine, from the constraints of genetic and social conditioning, to a fuller existence”. Now — nearly twenty years since that trip to Paris — I see that my life and my self have transformed completely, or at least more than I could have imagined then; this seemingly small change opened a path to revitalising — and living — my childhood dreams.

Does it all sound like one of Baron Munchausen’s adventures?

Have I pulled myself out of a swamp by my own pigtail (which doesn’t even exist)? I don’t think so — I believe it was the presence of Matisse, Chagall and Van Gogh that pulled me out. Since then, I had never again forgotten that I need paintings on my walls to be alive, and our collection of printed reproductions had been constantly growing before (much, much later) I began to replace them with my own oil studies of my favourite paintings.

And yet I obviously used to have this “blind spot” before that visit to Paris: I didn’t see what was lacking, even though the depressing emptiness was right in front of me. That’s what I recalled when I read about this old woman living in a showroom of a furniture store — maybe it’s not really who she was at all. Maybe she could have lived a different life — but no serendipitous occasion had helped her to recognise a similar “blind spot”, to become aware of what’s missing, what can be changed in her environment.

 I wish I had a time machine to go back and give her the right poster for her wall — for some reason, I imagine a nude by Matisse might have amused her… After all, if it did amuse my department head in Bielefeld, then everything seems possible.


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On Art as Möbius strip

In their recent book, “Art as therapy”, Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong write that the question of what Art is for “has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent.”

Do I share this feeling — and the accompanying reluctance to discuss this question?

Leonid Pasternak. Rilke
Leonid Pasternak. Rilke

I think so, yes: if someone were to ask me this question, “What is Art for?” in a personal conversation, I would probably feel awkward and look sheepish (or arrogant — these two are commonly confused). Questions feel impudent if you feel obliged to know the answer, but don’t. And so it is with this question: I don’t know the answer — even though, as a painter, I feel that I probably should have one ready. But then again, it may be one of the questions that don’t really have the answer; one may have to live the question, as Rilke said in a letter to a young poet. “Perhaps, — he continued, — you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.

Perhaps I should just go ahead and memorise Rilke’s suggestion just in case someone asks me? Because insofar as I feel like I have lived into some answer to this question (an answer if not the answer), how can I put it into words? Try to put it in general, universal terms — and it sounds too audacious, too lofty, way over the top (I almost hear myself telling myself “Come off it” before I even open my mouth). Try to be more personal — but then the question feels way too private, the answer too intimate to be voiced (as though someone were to casually ask me to explain what it is I love about my husband).

Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863
Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863

And so, unfairly or not, but the question does end up feeling illegitimate and impudent — which makes it immensely tempting to resort to the familiar “art for art’s sake” adage; perhaps Kandinsky was right: it’s the best the age we were born into can attain to.

But there is the rub: we aren’t just born into this age; it’s also we ourselves who make it what it is, complete with its growing art-alienation (which may be but another aspect of the life alienation of the modern world). As Kandinsky puts it, “those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing.”  Or, in de Botton and Armstrong’s somewhat more detached language:

“We are likely to leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed, or even bewildered and inadequate, wondering why the transformational experience we had anticipated did not occur.”     

And this is what they propose to change with their concept of “art as therapy” — the concept of art as a “tool” that, like other tools, “has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with.” Art “compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.

Lascaux animal painting
Lascaux animal painting

Metaphors are our way of understanding the unknown: we equate it with something familiar, something we feel we already know. “Art-as-therapy” is such a metaphor: therapy stands for a familiar, established way of healing human psyches — or, if we abandon Greek and put it in plain English, of healing our souls. If an artist were to tell you that he is out to heal and transform your soul (as Kandinsky does, by the way), it would likely sound pretentious and overblown to a modern sceptical ear. “Art as therapy” metaphor has exactly the same meaning, but adds a demystifying, comforting, almost “scientific” ring to it. Actually, I am hypothesising here, because I happen to be less familiar with (and more suspicious of) therapy than with art. After all, art has been around for fifty thousands years at least, while therapy is what? Barely one century old?

“Art-as-tool” is another demystifying metaphor; after all, we’ve got lots of tools for expanding the capacities of our minds — so art must be just one of them, something like an old-fashioned Google Search (in fact, compensating for the inborn weakness of human memory is the very first “function of art” discussed in the book; I suspect Google Search might be a more effective tool for this particular job).

The value of these metaphors (of which, as you might have noticed, I am not entirely convinced) will become clear (or not) in how well they “work”: whether they make their way into our shared worldview and help to decrease the art alienation in our world (and the book is filled with specific proposals to this end).

In the meanwhile, they made me think of another metaphor for art — something I could honestly say if casually asked what art is for. Here it is:

Art is a Möbius strip for reality.   
M.C. Escher. Möbius strip I. 1961

If you don’t know what “Möbius strip” is, it might not seem like a good metaphor. But you can do it yourself very easily: just take a paper strip, give it a half-twist, and then join the ends to form a loop. What happens is this: the paper strip now has only one surface. If you look at it at any specific point, it still seems to  have two neat sides — but follow it from this point with a finger tip, and it will soon find itself on “the other side”, without ever actually jumping from one side to another. With one movement, you have created an object with a single surface. And not only this: it now has neither a beginning nor an end. I still remember the sense of unbelievable miracle when my father showed me how it works (I must have been about five — one is eager for miracles at that age, but this one still stays with me).

But what does it have to do with art? The thing, our lives are happening in the constant state of duality — between spirit and matter, between soul and body, between consciousness and nature, between “inner” and “outer” (each age choosing its own terms).

Whether this duality is real or illusionary is an interesting question, turning the duality on itself: Does it reside in consciousness or in nature? Does it belong to the mind or the matter side of itself? And which of these sides is actually real? Be it as it may, we are stuck with it, because it is so deeply and unavoidably embedded in our languages: one cannot even begin to talk without, consciously or unconsciously, dragging the duality in. Notice how it is right there when de Botton and Armstrong explain the function of art (in the quote above), in this case opposing the mind and the body.

What art does with reality is exactly what a Möbius strip does: it temporarily banishes its duality. It gives the reality a half-twist and momentarily joins the ends. It quite simply, literally doesn’t belong to either side (or belongs to both of them, which is the same thing), however we define or describe the split: it’s the inner making an appearance in the outer, the mind shaping the matter, the subjective transforming into the objective (and vice versa).

As I was writing this, Maria Popova published a post about Anne Lamott’s book (“Stitches: a handbook of meaning, hope and repair”). Here is one quote:

When you love something like reading — or drawing or music or nature — it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is.    

This sense of connection comes, I believe, from the dissolution of duality — from connecting the two sides of life into one. That’s what Art is for.

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On sonnet 65: art and immortality

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””] ... is it immortality that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace immortality of nature? [/feature_headline]

J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.
J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil o’er beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 65

There is one inevitable stage in the process of painting a sonnet: getting thoroughly puzzled with something about it. For this sonnet, the puzzle was this:

The couplet seems to give a tentative promise to preserve for eternity the young man’s beauty, but then why does the sad mortality of long-lasting things play such a huge role, taking over the whole body of the sonnet?

Does one really need this grandiose background to appreciate the fleeting transience of human beauty? We know much more about the mortality of nature than Shakespeare and his contemporaries possibly could, accustomed as we are even to the perishability of stars and the universe itself, but I could neither feel nor see the connection: What does the death of the sun in the distant future have to do with the imminent ageing of one’s lover? How might it possibly help if the sun was, indeed, immortal?

Here is the answer I’ve found…

The seductive idea of immortalising something (or someone) in poetry originated in the Greek antiquity, and outlived its cornerstone: the ancient belief in the absolute immortality of nature. For the ancients, all things in nature were immortal, either ever-present (in inorganic nature) or constantly renewing themselves (in organic nature). They simply didn’t know that neither brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea but sad mortality over-sways their power, and so they lived in a now barely imaginable world where everything was eternal except humans. This is how Hannah Arendt describes this worldview in her 1961 essay “The concept of history”:

“<…> embedded in a cosmos in which everything was immortal, it was mortality which became the hallmark of human existence. <…> The mortality of man lies in the fact that individual life with a recognisable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. […] This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.(Arendt 1961: 42)

Hence the fundamental tragic paradox of Greek culture:   

“<…> on the one hand, everything was seen and measured against the background of the things that are forever, while, on the other, true human greatness was understood, at least by the pre-Platonic Greeks, to reside in deeds and words […] This paradox, that greatness was understood in terms of permanence while human greatness was seen in precisely the most futile and least lasting activities of men, has haunted Greek poetry and historiography as it has perturbed the quiet of the philosophers.” (Arendt 1961: 45-46)

Poetry’s role was to resolve this paradox by praising great deeds and words and thus immortalising them in the everlasting memory of humankind (that’s why Mnemosyne is the mother of all muses)— as an animal species, the humankind shared in the immortality of organic nature, so one could rely on the immortality of its memory.  

Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.
Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.

Shakespeare is separated from the antiquity by a whole epoch defined by Christianity and its radical reversal of the ancient worldview (now nature was perishable, and individual humans were immortal). But in the sixteenth century, things were a-changing; as the Roman Church was losing its central political role, intellectual and public life was gradually being secularized; in the words of Hannah Arendt, “men once more had become mortals”. When the Renaissance humanists went back to the source of their intellectual tradition, “the ancient opposition of a mortal life to a more or less immortal world failed them. Now both life and world had become perishable, mortal, and futile” (Arendt 1961: 74).

This, then, is the historical context of this sonnet. Its lament over sad mortality of everything actually subverts the immortalising power of art, traditionally grounded in absolute immortality of nature. Paradoxically, though, the couplet reasserts the power of art: what the sonnet seems to be saying is that this miracle of poetry may still “work”; art might be able to replace immortality of nature, instead of relying on it. But how? If earth and boundless sea are perishable, then so is, evidently, black ink

And yet, that’s the world we live in now, don’t we? We don’t exactly know how and why, but art is still here. And even if its original promise of absolute immortality is gone and forgotten, the conceptual link between art and immortality persists. In the following quote, for instance, Aaron Copland invokes this conceptual link as the raison d’être for arts:

“The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant.” (quoted from Brainpickings.org)

Great works of art are actually our only direct experience of immortality, almost the only context which keeps this very word alive in the world: we wouldn’t call earth or sea immortal, but we do still use this word for poems and paintings. But the key word here, I believe, is significance — the meaning of life.

Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.
Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.

Shakespeare belongs to the age when the sad mortality of nature first threatened the meaningfulness of life. The modern age has grown habituated to the idea that not only earth, but the sun, the stars, the universe itself — everything is mortal, nothing is forever; so habituated to it, indeed, that, for most of us, this knowledge has lost its personal urgency, the immediacy of its connection to our own lives: that painful urgency that can still be heard in Shakespeare’s voice. As Arendt writes, “Today we find it difficult to grasp that this situation of absolute mortality could be unbearable to men” (1961: 74).

This may be true (it is certainly true for me, personally), but this personal longing for immortality in nature has not disappeared from our world completely; Alan Lightman, in a very recent book, writes of it as of an intrinsic paradox of human condition:

To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete. […] Despite all the richness of the physical world — the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies—nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. ” (Lightman 2014). 

Perhaps that’s why we can still hear Shakespeare’s pain in his verse, even though the longing has been gradually dulled by resignation and acceptance. But this longing for absolute immortality in a perishable world may not be an eternal universal of human condition, as Lightman suggests, but rather an unhappy part of our intellectual inheritance from the Greek antiquity. It left us with the concept of immortality and its implicit connection to meaningfulness, handed down through generations neatly “packed” in our various languages for easy, unconscious acquisition, even though immortality itself disappeared from the world.

But is it immortality per se that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life, its seductive promise of significance? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace the antiquated immortality of nature? Isn’t this what Shakespeare’s tentative hope in this miracle is about?    

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Kandinsky on “art for art’s sake”

[pullquote cite=”Wassily Kandinsky” type=”left, right”]…art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul.[/pullquote]What is Art for? In their recent book, “Art as therapy” (Public library), Alain de Botton and John Armstrong write: “This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent”. In my experience, this usually happens when people don’t know the answer but feel they ought to.

In the case of art, of course, we have this saying, “art for art’s sake”, to fall back on — originally a slogan of artists’ defiance of contemporary utilitarian and moral conventions, which has turned into a platitude over its almost two centuries long history. Wassily Kandinsky didn’t shy away from the question of what art is for, and this is what he had to say about “art for art’s sake” in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (Public library):

With cold eyes and indifferent mind the spectators regard the work. Connoisseurs admire the “skill” (as one admires a tightrope walker), enjoy the “quality of painting” (as one enjoys a pasty). But hungry souls go hungry away.

The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures “nice” or “splendid.” Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing. This condition of art is called “art for art’s sake.” This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colours, this vain squandering of artistic power is called “art for art’s sake.”

These words of bitter indignation are for the viewers, but the artists aren’t spared either:

The artist seeks for material reward for his dexterity, his power of vision and experience. His purpose becomes the satisfaction of vanity and greed. In place of the steady co-operation of artists is a scramble for good things. There are complaints of excessive competition, of over-production. Hatred, partisanship, cliques, jealousy, intrigues are the natural consequences of this aimless, materialist art.

Here Kandinsky is harsh, and unapologetic, but he certainly has a point (the century that has passed since the time of his writing has hardly improved the condition of art, and it’s easily recognizable). And yet later on, he mentions the idea of “art for art’s sake” with more compassion. He writes:     

Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul <…> If art refrains from doing this work, a chasm remains unbridged, for no other power can take the place of art in this activity <…> at those times when the soul tends to be choked by material disbelief, art becomes purposeless and talk is heard that art exists for art’s sake alone.

And then, in a footnote to the last sentence:

This cry “art for art’s sake,” is really the best ideal such an age can attain to. It is an unconscious protest against materialism, against the demand that everything should have a use and practical value. It is further proof of the indestructibility of art and of the human soul, which can never be killed but only temporarily smothered.

It’s not even only about “practical value”, I believe. The idea of “art for art’s sake” was the art’s revolt against the increasing identification of meanings with purposes (which, according to Hannah Arendt, foreshadows “the growing meaninglessness of the modern world”), an attempt to build a defensive wall around art. But while protecting art from meaninglessness, hasn’t this wall separated art from life itself?