Nature and the Improbability of Art
There is a school of thought, which I ascribe to, that says, “It’s all Nature.”
Of course the beautiful charismatic stuff like canyons and sunsets and flocks of geese in flight and spring buds and a robin’s song are all Nature.
But, more controversially, the distasteful stuff like war and thermonuclear bombs and pesticides and inequity are also.
Laws of Nature
Biology follows the constraints of chemistry which salutes the laws of physics.
We believe as humans that we have this property called “consciousness,” but it too must be rooted in Nature, however roundabout the chain of causality. We don’t yet fully understand it and may not for a long time, but there does not seem to be any aspect of it that violates laws of Nature.
And on top of human biology we place higher-level concepts like morality, intent, and aspiration. They may seem purely human, separate from the world at large, but they too emerged from Nature.
Art and Nature
Where does Art fit into all of this? If Art is part of Nature, how do we identify it specifically as Art?
Placing Nature into a box requires a very large box. An impossible box, since every edge, if found, is called into question and moved further out.
When we look at a painting, we do not need any convincing that it is human-made and not “natural.”
The first clue is that it is on a stretched canvas on a wood frame, or some other substrate, like a sheet of paper or a luan panel, something not found in the wild.
We know this because we’ve been in the world for some years and we have become good at pattern identification and sorting things into categories.
We learn this process through a combination of innate abilities and education by our elders. “Easels” and “paintings” are not associated with “trees” and “stone” and “landscape” unless someone carried them there.
Andy Goldsworthy’s Art from Nature
The sculptor Andy Goldsworthy has made a career out of exploring the boundary of Nature and Art. Examining his work provides some insights into the nature of Art.
As we have opined in a previous post,
Great art is associated with complexity and un-resolvability, not solely in the artwork itself but rather in the collective system of artwork and audience.
Art challenges the model of reality of the person who experiences it, to evoke thought and emotion and sense-making.
Goldsworthy’s art seems to fall into two main categories, both of which use ‘found’ materials with minimal processing. Rocks are minimally chiseled, branches look pretty much as they were found, autumn leaves are collected.
One category of his art is long-lived forms made of found materials- walls, assembled stone structures, arrangements of natural landscapes. The materials are not at all unusual, but their arrangement definitely is.
His other principal category is also made of found objects in highly improbable arrangements, such as colored leaves arrayed in striking patterns in a natural woodland setting. This art is so short-lived that it really only exists by virtue of photography.
A configuration of elements is created, then photographed before wind, rain, and biological decay destroy the effect.
The reason it is not possible to include an image here is that none of the relevant images are in the public domain, as the photographs are how the art reaches its audience.
In this one-step-removed character it has more in common with music than with painting. In music, we think of the art as the composition, but we experience the performance.
Improbability, Engineering, and Art
It seems as if one of the defining characteristics of art is it’s improbability, even if made from very common materials. In the last blog post, we introduced the sample of a tornado hitting a junkyard and producing an operable airliner as an example of spectacular improbability.
As Justice Potter Stewart famously said in the 1964 Jacobellis vs. Ohio case on the subject of pornography,
I’ll know it when I see it.
Justice Potter Stewart
Art is also like that—our sense-making and pattern recognition can work no other way.
Engineered systems could be said to be similarly improbable, but there is a crucial difference. Engineered systems are subjugated to purpose, they have to *do* something, something that is widely recognized as desirable, something that can be optimized to achieve a common goal.
Art has no such commonality, which is the source of its compelling richness. It is a confederation of creativity, united in improbability.
With gratitude from my studio to yours,
Congratulations to our daughter, Kimy, on her first book of Cello arrangements. It’s the #1 New Release in Cello Songbooks on Amazon.
Click on the arrow to play the video. Get your copy of the Songbook HERE.
The print book is also the #1 New Release in Cellos on Amazon! The E Book is #5!