A Natural Art

I was struck by a phrase of Robery Fry's: that it is only artists who can access the aesthetics of a historical period, without being encumbered by the related "social emanations." Indeed, to look at the work of impressionists and post-impressionists is to wonder at the 'primitive' and 'foreign' transplanted influence, like the Chinese influence in Matisse or the Tahitian women and sculptures in Gauguin, or the African inspired abstractions of Brancusi. Fry writes that in the face of such art, the public may - perhaps rightly - feel that they are being submitted to an artist's caprice. It is too early, Fry said one hundred years ago, to tell whether art would be successful in its attempt to create a pure, abstract language.
As if drawing a parallel, Fry writes that ancient cave paintings are more like a language than they are paintings, due to their sytlised forms. I think he convincingly explains the modern fascination with these other ways of looking: it is the same thing we teach in class, that we are to break free from the cliche, to be able to see unencumbered by presupposition.
That said, the modern language of abstraction is only legitimate if we are more married to form than we are to content. Even stylised language is married to its form; Brancusi's form is married to lines. Neither are simplifications because one's brain has to know how to fill their forms out, to relate them back to familiar reality. This is called 'knowing how to read.' Abstract art is not a pure language of universals because it is a language, and no language is known at birth. So, many people do not speak this language.
The problem of art reveals the problems of culture. We may get so caught up in learned forms that we forget to perceive the essence - like through noein, through the senses. Herzog's subjects sense part of the meaning of Chauvet just as we may sense the meaning of our metal boxes. The computers and phones may be the stylised, abstract language to the future man.
I would argue that noein is close to creative thinking, where it is inspired (where muses, music, and the mind are combined in primordial dreams or memories of belief, seeking, and picking up the scent of understanding). Creative thinking does not have to follow the one path set out by habit or cultural practice. Is this not the essence sought by 19th century painters; was the Romantic dream not to return to an art of living naturally?

In a moment of serendipity that I admit was afforded me by an algorithm (I had bought a paperback and Amazon recommended "more by the same publisher"), I encountered the beautiful nyrb edition of Fukuoka's One-Straw Revolution, which reminds me a little of Rousseau's Emile: to prune a tree, the author writes, is like teaching children music: in our misguided pursuit of the nature that we all like but know so little about, we may degenerate our true appreciation of it. Scientists ruin their sight as they come up with a cure for short-sightedness, he continues. And while such ideas lean towards the defeatist regarding the human agency to create (which he allocates to poetry writing in winter), it brought to mind an article I read about the inventor of an alternate internet platform who committed suicide despite his genius - the reporter's comment being that mental illness is the malady of our time and often goes undetected.
"Before researchers become researchers," Fukuoka writes, "they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create." Isn't this what we expect of artists - who fall short of our expectations? Ruskin answered these questions by asking his own in The Ethics of Dust and Queen of the Air. He wonders about colours, the meaning of myths, and the nature of world, just like Fukuoka does, though with far more flourish.
Arguably, at the turn of the 20th century, there was deep, epistemological questioning, which later led to extreme answers: in postmodernist detached art, existential and self-denying philosophies (which includes some aspects even of Buddhism, now claimed by some Westerners), and a scramble towards the safety of materialism, which includes the bid to get rich as individuals.
Fukuoka considers science from the perspective of the little man and concludes that the results of scientific research are arranged for its own convenience, not for the convenience of people with ailing diets or the farmers. I recall the tragedy among Indian farmers, forced to buy expensive GMOs, who took their lives - a point all the more excruciating when one reads in his 1970's book One-Straw that the natural way in farming had been feasible in India. "So that is how it is. You study the function of the plant's metabolism and its ability to absorb nutrients from the soil, write a book, and get a doctorate in agricultural science. But do not ask if your theory of assimilation is going to be relevant to the yield." Or quality of life.

Man, as we know well, becomes lulled by instant gratification. Who doesn't enjoy the reserve of canned chickpeas for a quick meal, summer or winter? Instincts become bewildered by caprice. Diet is changed in order to delight; the palate is the circus ring of yesteryear. "This is false," Fukuoka writes. "A fear of nature and a general sense of insecurity are often the unfortunate results." Well yes, I'd feel insecure without my chickpeas: it has become too expensive to make my own winter store. And as for a fear of nature, luckily, I am a child of Kurt Hahn, but as a city dweller, it takes me three uncomfortable days of acclimatisation when I return to nature (oh, the mosquitoes!). So we aren't free, but enslaved to something else.
The path of science endlessly divides phenomena, according to Fukuoka. "Seen as complex, the world becomes frighteningly abstract and distant." I do  not have a problem with abstraction, my livelihood and imagination depend on it. But I do have a problem if abstraction becomes the new hegemony. Fukuoka notes that science creates conditions in which it becomes necessary. Thence the "single-minded" economic model of industrial development, wherein science, self-gratifyingly, proves through its own methods the necessity of, say, scientific chemicals. He urges we consider what it means to "improve technique".
It's a fact that there are chickens with genes that allow them to get so fat that they cannot walk. To my imagination, that is worlds away from the also perverse Kobe cow, fed beer and massaged all day. An Asian sensibility is missing from the bigger, better, faster, more model of greed. When I read Fukuoka, aside from marvelling at how well he applied Lao Tzu's principle of doing nothing, I am reminded of the Chinese scholar-official (士大夫) of yesteryear, who also enjoyed "the satisfaction of living close to the source of things". There is a tradition in China of appreciating nature: describing it was part of the Imperial Examination in some dynasties. Also characteristic of this respect of nature is the long process of observing it, beautifully illustrated by watercolour scrolls: the scene cannot be observed in one glance.
A lot of 'background knowledge' is needed to see properly whatever is represented, in life, or in art. But life will always belong more to those who are living, than those who think about it. "Life is song and poetry," Fukuoka writes. The artist can take shortcuts that scholars must then - try to - explain.

1 comment:

  1. Hope you had a wonderful Easter.
    I wish you a beautiful spring :)