I ate dinner in a clearing off a trail that overlooked Phillips Pond in the hills outside Bangor, Maine. I prepared a meal that included salmon braised in olive oil and garlic and left a few minutes to firm-up in a steel skillet. I cut the result into manageable medallions and laid them over a bed of spinach and assorted greens. I accented the salad with shaved almonds and crushed walnuts, sweetening the repast with a bar of dark chocolate. I cleaned my palate with a moscato d’asti and raspberries.
I reached the scene of the painting “Geography” when the day had nearly gone. The air was cool, and the light filtered through the leaves, tinting the scene with ebullient hues of green. The yellows vibrated against this background. Considering the composition, how the eye is drawn across the objects represented in the field, I understood how a landscape, in all its forms, might inspire introspection.
This interest in landscapes comes from some sensibility, such as the desire to know a place and, in knowing it, gain power over it. This power is to transform the image into either a social or monetary value. It is worthy of praise or of being consumed as an object of fading solicitude, of waning beauty.
Knowing Place: Fundamental Principles
Knowing a place is accomplished by moving through it. Motion translates into thought, which, for instance, explains the impulse to graffiti, a form of expression that relates to the emotional contours of a place.
During a trip to Isle Royal in Lake Superior, I spent a few nights reading graffitied passages scratched onto the walls of the shelters. One of these passages has stayed with me. It was a simple truism attributed to Goethe or maybe Rimbaud, but the source may be more mundane: “What is it you plan to do with you precious, lonely life?” The irony is clear. A lonely life isn’t precious and may not be, in the Strum und Drang zeitgeist, worth living.¹ Implied in both the saying and where it was left is the idea that when we view or paint a landscape we engage objects in a way that recalls fundamental principles.
To imagine beyond the immediate circumference of the body slouching across the land is to map the context of experience. Perception is defined by it, giving shape to the sweep of the hills, warmth to the hues, scent to the objects, and memory to what emerges beneath the brush. Meanings that can persist outside us. And provide deliverance from the anxiety of knowing, the sheer preponderance of knowledge.
Beauty has a long etymology.² Meanings we think we know. But clarity is elusive because the concept is burdened with romantic presumptions and sexual implications. The concept roughly equates with desire. A beautiful thing is wanted, and in being wanted acquires a value. John Berger claims that “paintings did to appearances what capital did to social relations” (Seeing 86).³ If capital defines social relations by determining who has access to the means of production, then paintings might determine those appearances that have a social value by selecting those to be featured in the marketplace of ideas and so reproduced. Berger locates this value in the role paintings plays in seeing. They fetishize sight, focusing the exchange on a desire that makes the process akin to voyeurism. These are representations that we can’t and maybe shouldn’t experience. We can see non-representational art, but can we know it. The association at the center of such a work is unknowable, which places the demand for meaning on the viewer. And what the viewer makes of the scene reflects her emotional state, how she responds to mere suggestion.
In another sense, she either transforms the image into a coherent story that speaks to her experiences, or denies its relevance to any reality. This is the emotional weight non-representational art creates and why it can be so satisfying.
The Painter: Ritual of Self-Affirmation
The experience of these issues is different for the painter. More than appreciating the scene, he needs to design the composition, drawing the viewer through the scene to enact an experience. That experience might be to appreciate the objects inhabiting the canvas and perhaps respond to them–paintings as knowledge, a museum exhibit. According to Levi-Strauss, “painting was perhaps an instrument of knowledge, but it was also an instrument of possession” (qt. in Berger 86).² During the Renaissance, paintings might catalog the benefactor’s possessions. But possession also implies power, and it seems more likely that the painter gains a measure of power over the objects in her view. This power cannot be to own something by enacting its image. Rather what pervades is the implied ritual involved in perceiving the object, a ritual of self-affirmation.
Self-affirmation underlies most acts of creation. Isn’t God’s erstwhile creation of the Earth and all the crap cluttering it an affirmation of God’s power? All uses of art butt up against this first principle. When I sell or give away a painting, I hope to affirm the value of my vision more than inspire appreciation, but appreciation affirms that value (so goes the conundrum of communication). Still, I can only guess the reason a viewer is drawn to an image. She might say, “I like the colors,” “the flowers are pretty,” or “it reminds me of something.” These comments matter and are offered as a kindness, nodding at the apparent effort involved in doing something odd, something predominantly useless. But such social niceties make understanding the effect of the work difficult. The exchange is complicated.
Applying the ideas of Walter Benjamin suggests that a viewer might be drawn to the aura of the original work, and all that is involved in its singular, always ephemeral, and audacious creation. This confrontation doesn’t mean the viewer will find the work “good,” or worth purchasing. Instead, it means she will consider the chunk of mind the work represents: the emotional turmoil conveyed in its sweep, the conflict in its dimensions, or the simple uncertainty in the movement of paint toward some need anyone might feel. A failure that haunts all language and defines most of our regrets.
In one sense, a painting is a map of regret. The work that remains captures the moment the painter stopped trying. It captures his limits and points to the vulnerability at the nexus of his being–all physical, emotional, and intellectual effort has converged to create something gloriously imperfect. And that is nakedly human and sad, beautiful–the joy that bends the leaf.
¹Read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther for an example of the Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) sensibility. The late poet Philip Levine claimed the book was embarrassingly sentimental (see his collection of essays The Bread of Time).
²Leo Tolstoy wrote a detailed exploration of beauty in What is Art? In his review of the literature on aesthetics, he noted that for many “beauty is truth,” an observation that explains why we find art both attractive and important.
³Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin, 1977.