I’m in a maundering mood, trying to pin down the meaning of a tiny revelation I had the other day.
I was doing my 7 AM walk with my digital camera, getting photos of flowers, shrubbery, moss, walls, the usual panoply of residential flora on the pleasant July streets of Portland Oregon. But suddenly I found myself seeing the foliage and supports, stems and stamens, bricks and buds, as Art.
Now I’m a longtime nature lover and have always thought of nature as good for art (and perhaps vis-versa). But I had never had my vision overwhelmingly charged with the groupings of nature as embodying the basic elements of design — field and composition, shape, line, and form, texture and color — done not by me or even by my eye, but simply there, ready for the seeing. Of course, I have taken pictures which are artfully composed. But somehow my vision of nature qua photography was that my compositions were not nature’s but rather mine, achieved by leaving things out, zooming in, choosing the point of view.
But this revelation was that the groupings themselves were natural and artful.
The rest of my walk was charged with this sense of coming upon the artful arrangements of nature — shape, form, line, texture, color, unity, harmony, balance — all those basics simply evident, all around me.
I was trying to explain this revelation to Jer, but he just looked puzzled. Of course, he said, garden flowers are beautiful, of course we compose our photos and crop them for the best design features.
And then he switched the conversation to what seemed to be a different topic altogether, focusing on the astronomy picture of the day for 2007 July 17. It’s an example of an optical illusion, of which there are many more on Michael Bach’s optical illusion site.
Optical illusion sounds pejorative, as if exposing a malfunction of the visual system. Rather, I view these phenomena as bringing out particular good adaptations of our visual system to standard viewing situations. These adaptations are »hard-wired« in our brains, and thus under some artificial manipulations can cause inappropriate interpretations of the visual scene. As Purkinje put it: »Illusions of the senses tell us the truth about perception« (cited by Teuber, 1960).
I had to ponder on the connection Jer had made, but I think now I get it. Perhaps I received the opposite of an optical illusion, perhaps an illusion in my perception was removed, perhaps my brain had suddenly connected the wires (or crossed them) and I got that electrifying instance of art and nature being one.
This then got connected to a somewhat different attribute of nature that I’m very aware of — that it’s always in flux and seldom absolutely in control. So the design elements that I observed in the floral “arrangements” that morning would probably be changed by the afternoon — a worm would have eaten into a leaf, a stem would have broken, the petals would begin to drop. Which then brought me to the conundrum of my life.
I have always maintained that death is the mother of beauty (a line from a Wallace Stevens poem which has that as its theme). The temporal nature of existence is what makes it and all that surrounds it (i.e. nature) beautiful. And yet at the same time I had also thought of Art as eternal, or as eternal as the human entity can manage. I think there’s a connnection between eternal flux and natural art, perhaps that you can’t step into the same river twice, and yet it’s the same river.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this — maybe I’m just playing with words. And my vision of the foliage decorating my morning walks has returned to its ordinary pleasantness, without the charged electricity of the mingling of nature and art.
But I haven’t quite gotten over the experience.
Lawrence Weschler, in To See is to Forget the Name of the Thing One Sees quotes Robert Irwin talking about the complexity of consciousness:
“It’s like you’re on a swing, and you swing way up to the top and for a split second you can see over the wall, you can see all that light, but you’re already on your way back into the world. So you swing harder and you get a little higher and you see a little more, but back down into the world you go. To recognize something and then live there takes a tremendous conversion of your being. You don’t just swing up there and say, ‘Oh,that’s nice,’ and stay there, hanging in midair. Hanging in midair can be nice…. But the world always draws you back.”
Has anyone else had this kind of revelatory moment, when art and something else merged for a moment and then disengaged?
The photos in this post were all taken on that morning of my fleeting integration of art and nature, external and internal, mind and vision and reality.