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Day 07/08/2012

On the White Bird, the transcendental face of art, aesthetic emotion & being human

 

The notion that art is the mirror of nature is one that only appeals in periods of skepticism. Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply…the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer. -John Berger, The White Bird

Last week, I wrote about the role that street art plays in my life, and how it affects my experience of self, others and the world in which I operate. I made a passing observation on the differences between ‘institutionalized’/’gallery’ Art and ‘street art’, making the point that both ‘types’ of art are inextricably tied together in a symbiotic relationship. In The White BirdJohn Berger gives us a poignant description of art as being, fundamentally, a response and expression of human existence and experience. According to Berger, art “imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply…the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.” As such, the meaning and function of art and aesthetic emotions transcend the contexts in which they are embedded. It is not so much the medium as the reaction and impact of something (object, scene, etc.) on the human experience that express the potential, power and nature of art and aesthetic emotions.

Berger starts off by describing the white wooden birds crafted by the peasants of Haute Savoie, but found across various other European countries. He seeks to describe aesthetic emotions by identifying and describing the five qualities of the wooden birds that, “when undifferentiated and perceived as a whole, provoke at least a momentary sense of being before a mystery.” (These are: figurative representation; symbolic representation; respect of the material used; formal unity & economy; provokes a kind of astonishment.)

While the man-made white bird provides an aesthetic emotion to its beholder, Berger point out that we experience a similar sense of mystery and emotion when viewing objects and scenes made and embedded in nature: sunsets, deserts, the moon, trees, etc. We must therefore broaden our exploration of the definition and investigation of art past man-made objects to account for the aesthetic emotions and transcendent face of art found across human experiences, man-made or otherwise. Ultimately, Berger defines art as the human hope that beauty, connection, empathy and other authentic human needs and emotions are more than rare and ephemeral occasions in a world that is often perceived as being largely indifferent and dangerous.

In essence then, art and the aesthetic and transcendental emotions and qualities it engenders, are best understood as a primal human response to our condition and “the nature into which we are born,” which is governed by the fearsome indifference of nature and the evils at work in the world. Art is a statement of hope and an attempt to fix the instantaneous, undifferentiated flux of existence that we (humans) sense but which remains locked away beyond the confines of our perception mechanisms and cognition.

If art is a response and an expression of human experience and existence, designing one’s life should be understood as being, to a certain extent, an aesthetic endeavor. I want to keep that in mind, the aesthetic factor and the power of aesthetic emotions, as I meticulously design a life around core concepts and values over the course of the rethinked*annex project. But intent is irrelevant to the impact of art and aesthetic emotions. Naturally occurring objects or scenes can have the same impact on the human psyche as planned, man-made ‘masterpieces’. It becomes clear then, that the act of living–which can be broadly understood as a response to the nature into which we are born– whether with obsessive intent or in the spur of the moment with no premeditation or afterthought, is inextricably tied to aesthetics. Art is thus an inherent and important part of all lives.

The White Bird is a splendid short read that gives a glimpse into Berger’s thoughts on nature (physical & human), craftsmanship, the human need for shelter and resistance to the forces of evil and indifference that push &pull our existence; the potential and purpose of aesthetic and transcendental emotions, the nature and function of art and the quality of being human. Berger’s writing is as beautiful as it is salient and I hope you will read the essay for yourself. But in case you don’t have time to get to it just yet, here are some favorite quotes from The White Bird:

Source: Berger, John. The White Bird. London: Chatto & Windus, 1985. From Sense Of Sight

The problem is that you can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil.

Despite the object’s apparent complexity, the grammar of its making is simple, even austere. Its richness is the result of repetitions which are also variations.

Yet my definitions beg the essential question. They reduce aesthetics to art. They say nothing about the relation between art and nature, art and the world.

Before a mountain, a desert just after the sun has gone down, or a fruit tree, one can also experience aesthetic emotion. Consequently we are forced to begin again–not this time with a man-made object but with the nature into which we are born.

Urban living has always tended to produce a sentimental view of nature. Nature is thought of as a garden, or a view framed by a window, or as an arena of freedom. Peasants, sailors, nomads have known better. Nature is energy and struggle. It is what exists without any promise. If it can be thought of by man as an arena, a setting, it has to be thought of as one which lends itself as much to evil as to good. Its energy is fearsomely indifferent. The first necessity of life is shelter. Shelter against nature. The first prayer is for protection. The first sign of life is pain. If the Creation was purposeful, its purpose is a hidden one which can only be discovered intangibly within signs, never by the evidence of what happens.

The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see (and by seeing also feel) sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this coincidence, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed and, at the same time, the seer is affirmed by what he sees. For a brief moment one finds oneself–without the pretensions of a creator–in the position of God in the first chapter of Genesis… And he saw that it was good. The aesthetic emotion before nature derives, I believe, from this double affirmation.

Yet we do not live in the first chapter of Genesis. We live–if one follows the biblical sequence of events–after the Fall. In any case, we live in a world of suffering in which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope

I try to describe as accurately as possible the experience in question; my starting point is phenomenological, not deductive; its form, perceived as such, becomes a message that one receives but cannot translate because, in it, all is instantaneous. For an instant, the energy of one’s perception becomes inseparable from the energy of the creation.

The white bird is an attempt to translate a message received from a real bird. All the languages of art have been developed as an attempt to transform the instantaneous into the permanent. Art supposes that beauty is not an exception–is not in despite of–but is the basis for an order.

The notion that art is the mirror of nature is one that only appeals in periods of skepticism. Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply…the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.

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