Friday, January 06, 2006

Domesticating Nature via Art

Roberta Smith has a charming review in the Times today of an exhibition of painted furniture at the American Folk Art Museum. The range of imagery in the exhibition apparently runs the gamut from representational to pattern to abstraction, but it was the following line in Roberta's review that brought back an idea an artist I know was exploring for a while:

The Folk Art Museum show suggests that in the American colonies, starting in the late 1600's and well into the 19th century, quite a bit of painting talent and ambition found an outlet in the decoration of everyday wood objects. It was a cheap and easy way to satisfy the human need for civilized beauty in a place where the wilderness was overwhelming and anything man-made was usually highly
prized and heavily used. Adding the artistic to the functional was one way to make the most of things.
What this artist (Vanessa Conte) was exploring a while back was how, in addition to being a cheap and easy way to satisfy the human need for civilized beauty in a place where the wilderness was overwhelming, motifs or depictions of nature were also a way to civilize (read: make less frightening) that wilderness. Vanessa's earlier work emerged from her becoming aware of how patterns representing animals or wild plants were overwhemlingly what her suburban mother (and aunts and neighbors, etc. etc.) chose to decorate their homes with. She noted how it seemed as if by bringing it inside, they were making it less threatening. (Vanessa is currently living with her new husband Marcus in Germany, so I haven't been able to keep up on her most recent work, but she did recently have an exhibition at Van Horn gallery in Dusseldorf.)

Vanessa's thesis, though, always made me wonder if the urge to paint (i.e., decorate our cave walls, tents, tombs, homes, even ourselves) with themes from nature indeed arose from an effort to control those threats. Perhaps it's as simple as the fact that, back when painting first began, in looking around, nature was all we had to inspire us. But perhaps there's something more primitive or even genetic about the need to reproduce such things, in essence to own them.

Would this partially explain why similar themes in painting emerged in various cultures around the world that never had contact with each other? There are simpler explanations, perhaps, but it's always amazed me that painting and sculpture of "nature" seem to be universal developments among the pockets of people on the planet. Perhaps, again, it's as simple as their lives being dominated by a struggle with "nature," but if so, why do contemporary suburbanites (who'd have to drive for half an hour or more to see anything resembling dangerous nature), still overwhelmingly decorate with such themes?

I ask in order to learn...

23 Comments:

Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edward,

"Perhaps, again, it's as simple as their lives being dominated by a struggle with "nature," but if so, why do contemporary suburbanites (who'd have to drive for half an hour or more to see anything resembling dangerous nature), still overwhelmingly decorate with such themes?"

Actually, in Reston, Virginia (a planned community designed by Robert Simon) we have the illusion of not having to travel that far to experience "nature". This 8,000 plus acre uptopia reserved more than 1,400 acres of "open space", complete with 58 miles of walking-through-the-woods paths.

We even have a "wild life preseve" in Reston. It's located not that far from the National Wildlife Federation's corporate headquarters in Reston.

We have it all here: high-tech industries with well-paying jobs surrounded by a blissful natural environment.

...and yet, it seems as though every home in Reston is overloaded with paintings, prints, sculptures and photographs of ducks on the water.

Why? I honestly have not figured it out yet. I suspect that (in Reston's case at least, being that it was founded by a group of idealistic first generation upper income white progressive hippie-flipped-into-SUV-drivin'-yuppies during the 60s)that there is a Unitarian Universalist Church call to stay connected to Mother Earth at all times. And maybe a little bit of guilt that Simon's master plan for Reston very quickly went awry on the natural environment preservation side as soon as his project slipped into bankruptcy and was taken over by Gulf Oil.

But across the rest of the land, I think people suck up this type of art for the very simple reason that they like it. They think paintings extracted from nature are beautiful. It occupies space on their walls and beautifies their homes. It's nothing really more compliated than that.

True Deep South story:

Years ago my dear Aunt in Jackson, Mississippi, bought a rather large poster of a flower painting by Georgia O'Keefe. She was so proud of this piece of "art" because it was so huge and colorful. She spent a fortune to have it framed.

She asked me my opinion about it when I first saw it. I proceeded to tell her, in a very troubled and concerned-for-her-soul tone, that I was fearful about what her church friends would think when they saw this piece of artwork.

"What in heave do you mean, son?" she asked.

I then dropped the bomb on her:

"Aunt Mary, you do know that Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings are actually paintings of vagina's, don't you?"

A month later when I visited my Aunt's home, I noticed that the O'Keefe was missing. She told me that she had decided she didn't really like the thing and had thrown the poster away. She gave the frame to her son so her could mount his vintage Texas Chainsaw Massacre film poster in it.

James

1/06/2006 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

Started a long time ago

To my mind, the "aesthetic response" and art itself exist because they are necessary for the preservation of the species.
After years of evolution, (or ID, whatever) base level aesthetic experiences are genetically encoded in at least a part of the species because they have enabled survival. Over a long period of time, the direct survival responses have been abstracted but the instincts remain.

See this NY Times article which mentions Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art in New Zealand, who is writing a book on Darwinian aesthetics
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/03/science/03cute.html

1/06/2006 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger Edna said...

Good morning, all.

I would wager that a good part of it is simply tradition. Like the tipped-over basket of strawberries that never seems to fade away - accepted, tried-and-true visual icons.

Ironic, though (considering the "taming the wilderness" theory) that these images have become so completely NON-threatening!

E

1/06/2006 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Ironic, though (considering the "taming the wilderness" theory) that these images have become so completely NON-threatening!

Which perhaps points back to the tradition argument. Or perhaps, we forget what still seemed threatening when we were children. By decorating our homes with the non-threatening imagery of the monsters outside, perhaps our parents were easing us into that frame of mind, consciously or not.

1/06/2006 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

but if so, why do contemporary suburbanites (who'd have to drive for half an hour or more to see anything resembling dangerous nature), still overwhelmingly decorate with such themes?

Maybe because at some basic biological level, these garden of eden images trigger a calming response. Maybe they are little more than pleasing, bountiful grocers of promise?

I imagine a similar line of questions could be asked about traditions of figurative work and human sexuality.

1/06/2006 12:27:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

JL said:
Maybe because at some basic biological level, these garden of Eden images trigger a calming response. Maybe they are little more than pleasing, bountiful grocers of promise?

Yes, Why should we have any preferred response, an aesthetic response, to any image? I'm suggesting that part of the response occurs at a base biological level, that it is genetic. If this is the case, it implies that a capacity for these particular responses has been reinforced by genetic selection. Why would this be other than they posses some type of survival value?

A sunset, a landscape, the seasons, animals, the hunt, fertility all these images carry implied knowledge which would give a primitive man, or woman, an edge in survival. When to plant the crops, when to seek shelter, how to choose a mate, when to mate, how to hunt, how to understand the land and what to fear. Over time, the original meanings have morphed but the basic impulses remain.

1/06/2006 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

Isn't there an important difference between images whose main purpose was/is education and/or documentation (such as primitive paintings indicating how to hunt or mate) and those that are intended to be decorative from the get-go?

I would argue that it is conditioning rather than genetics that has prolonged the use of nature as decoration.

But who knows for sure, baby.
E

1/06/2006 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Oh, boy...I'm actually at a loss as to how to respond coherently. This subject is what I write and paint about and, as so often happens, that which most concerns us becomes bloody messy, rendering us inarticulate.

I agree that the early (prehistoric) depictions of Nature were born of a desire to understand - or at least possess - and, as George and James mention, aid in survival. However, ritual and magic allowed such limnings to transform or embody the essence of the creature depicted. Furthermore, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not distinguish between human and "other" in the same way we do today, so that a goodly number of the bison or antelope we see on cave walls are in fact hybrid human creatures. Anthropologists still debate as to the meaning and significance of these early "artistic" acts.

I think the desire to bring Nature-themed artwork - whether folk furniture, duck pillow throws, contemporary landscape photography or wildlife painting - into our homes is not just a matter of tradition. Increasingly, Nature (and I include Homo sapiens in Nature) is hemmed in, controlled and paved over, so we - urban, suburban and rural alike - turn to other ways of "staying in touch" with our environment, the one we evolved to occupy. We are Nature, and we need it. Evolution is a slow process, and our hard-wired programming in 2006 is the same as it was 6,000 years ago, even 10,000 years ago. The Lamarckian developments of social evolution inform our chemical, genetic evolution to a degree, as physical responses to our changed environment - some of these environmental changes are a result of social change - but they have been unable to alter our base character in any significant way.

In any event, even the Romantics made sure to distinguish between the merely decorative Nature painting and that which is "sublime," in the older sense of the word. Sublime was once interpreted to mean that which inspires awe, even overwhelms, and is ultimately ambivalent, or perhaps, on a particularly lovely day, neutral. How very different from the "sublime" experience offered by a fine wine?

1/06/2006 01:50:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

There isn't any proof that the cave paintings were more than doodles. We imagine they had a prominent place in the culture of the time, but we have no real way of knowing. It is just as likely they represent the work of a rare individual or a small group with no other intention than to show something they had figured out (ie "hey look what I can do if I blow this berry juice onto the wall using my hand as a mask. It looks like the buffalo, doesn't it?" {the reply constitutes the birth of art criticism})

We can imagine a darwinian purpose for art (I spout such stuff all the time) but we have to allow that the appreciation of beauty could be the happy but incidental outcome of having excess brain power and the ability and desire to change the world.

Abstract painting becomes the model of the brain using its problem solving abilities unbounded by any real problem. A blank canvas is smudged with a bit of color and immediately the mind can imagine improvements and the hand can move to make those improvements even though a moment previous there was no awareness that something was missing.

Dangerous nature exists in the suburbanites backyard. I can attest, having been bitten by a black widow in my pretty garden a few years ago (I have since given up the suburbs for the much safer inner city) So, Maybe the pretty pictures on the wall are really a gloss on what is not under control after all. We have seen nature's ugly side lately and how it can rear its head at the least expected moments and kill everyone you know. The ducks flying by in that picture are struggling to help us stay calm in the face of the unknowable and terrifying.

My two, contradictory, cents.

1/06/2006 04:03:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

Barny the dinosaur and the teddy bear both are frightening animals reduced to cuddly form.

I always thought the purpose of Doris Day movies was to do unto sex what the teddy bear did to grizzlies - make it seem controllable.

And a final disconnected thought: landscape as a genre began when city life expanded and intensified with industrialization. The garden was a metaphor for the Virgin Mary. Only in our lifetimes has wilderness been associated with recreation and not fear.

1/06/2006 04:14:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

Abstract painting becomes the model of the brain using its problem solving abilities unbounded by any real problem.

Wow, Tim. I thought I was trying to capture/explore abstract ideas in my paintings - time, loss, memory, order/disorder. I didn't realize I was "unbound by any real problem."

1/06/2006 04:19:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

Yeah, Tim, I must agree that your description of abstract painting is swiss cheese.

Love
Edna

1/06/2006 04:23:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

tim said:

(I have since given up the suburbs for the much safer inner city)

Nice! That anecdote made me grin.

HH said:

In any event, even the Romantics made sure to distinguish between the merely decorative Nature painting and that which is "sublime,"

True... but sublime or decorative, one underlying question remains: Why are some images of nature pleasurable in the first place? You wouldn't for example decorate your grandmother's home with embroidered cow pattie throw pillows or antique chairs lined with carvings of vermin nibbling at disemboweled entrails. (unless of course your grandma is quite exceptional!)

For some reason, it is almost always green, vast, and occupied by mammals and birds that trip our "cuteness" response mechanism. In short, disgustingly lovely, calming and pleasurable. And again, that underlying question remains: why are these things disgustingly lovely, calming and pleasurable?

tim:

We can imagine a darwinian purpose for art... ...but we have to allow that the appreciation of beauty could be the happy but incidental outcome of having excess brain power and the ability and desire to change the world.

Ayup. If I had to, I'd put my money on the "excess brain power" dynamic. It might not be precisely that feature, but you touch on one of the more popular explanations for any sort of breakthrough in Darwinian-style evolution. That is: traits and features selected for being applied towards problems that were not part of the initial selection criteria. This is sometimes used to explain why biological evolution seems to follow a path of "punctuated equilibrium."

But I don't want to pull this thread TOO far off topic.

In my original response, I was being curt and cheeky. I think that tradition has a lot to do with it as well. For most of human history, the imagery has been reinforced both ends: consumption AND production.

Consumption via familiarity, communal identity, etc etc.

Production via training of craftsmen, developing intricate techniques and skills, etc etc. Arguably with machine controlled production (which is to a degree partially the case in most factories now), the production end becomes liberated a bit more from tradition. In many ways, prototyping CAN (not does) happen more rapidly now.

edna:

Yeah, Tim, I must agree that your description of abstract painting is swiss cheese.

Then get the fondue pot out, because both can be yummy in the proper context!

1/06/2006 04:37:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

edna:

Yeah, Tim, I must agree that your description of abstract painting is swiss cheese.

me:

Then get the fondue pot out, because both can be yummy in the proper context!

Okay, give me an F on reading comprehension for this next quarter. I read that originally and thought edna agreed with his description of abstract painting AS swiss cheese, and ergo, must for some reason be avoided...

damn lack of edit function... *grumble* *grumble*

1/06/2006 04:49:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

"Wow, Tim. I thought I was trying to capture/explore abstract ideas in my paintings - time, loss, memory, order/disorder. I didn't realize I was "unbound by any real problem.""

I bet you never thought about doing any of that until you stared at a blank canvas. You are trying to improve the blank space. If you never did any of it you would still be alive tomorrow. its not a survival skill, but it uses the machinery that was evolved for survival for a completely elective purpose.

You're reaction surprises me. The idea that art is not about survival is a very general statement which your reply actually supports.

"time, loss, memory, order/disorder" these are not survival issues, they are formal ideas that pop up out of doing the work, churning the 'problem' in your head and on the canvas. This is in no way a judgement, but a simple statement of fact (I believe)

I think at the base I mean to say that no further justification is necessary. New tools lead to new ideas, voila.

1/06/2006 05:02:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

Something not to say at parties: "Abstract painting is what you do to improve a blank space."

I LOVED the wacky fondue comment.

James, are you asking why we're attracted to the "disgustingly lovely, calming, and pleasurable" (I think it's a no-brainer if we're comparing green pastures to cow shit) or are you wondering why certain images qualify at all?

I, for one, grew up in an undisclosed location with plenty of weird pictures on the walls, including ships rocking in stormy waters and a delapidated and abandoned old red barn. Frankly, they freaked me out more for their unfamiliarity than for their particular subject matter. Perhaps this is why I'm so dead set on the conditioning theory.

E

1/06/2006 05:27:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

James, are you asking why we're attracted to the "disgustingly lovely, calming, and pleasurable" (I think it's a no-brainer if we're comparing green pastures to cow shit) or are you wondering why certain images qualify at all?

I'm asking about the latter. Why do some qualify as "disgustingly lovely, calming, and pleasurable."

Intuitively, in addition to the conditioning, I think there is some hardwiring involved.

For some hardwired attractions, the selection criteria is easier to consciously identify. Example: the "cute response." Look at ALL cute cartoon animals, baby dolls, and even cute animals. They all bear traits of infants: proportionately larger heads, eyes, and hands and feet. It's only a short leap to connect these to selective criteria for childrearing mammals. (Heck, there may even have been a spill over of selection via mimicry in some prey species. i.e., that lioness pauses just a micro second because something about the prey triggered maternal "cutesy" feelings, the prey might get away. Hence, after many many generations, we get cuter rodents and gazelles. Now they've become so cute, that we humans can't help but keep them in cages just so we can baby talk to each and every one. I digress...)

Back to the landscape question: what about certain landscapes trip mechanisms of serenity? And why? Rinse and repeat this line of questioning for numerous other favourable qualifiers. Personally, I find them much more ellusive and mysterious than (though equally present and effective as) "cuteness" or "sexiness."

1/06/2006 06:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Something not to say at parties: "Abstract painting is what you do to improve a blank space."

what sort of standard is that?

Thanks for the party hint, anyway

1/06/2006 06:10:00 PM  
Anonymous juryduty said...

Beyond Control/Majesty/Beauty of Nature, a few more potential angles:

Pleasant 1 / Cabin Fever: Vision of anywhere outside this stinking snowbound lean-to inhabited by me and my spouse's entire extended family (preferably depicts a sunny day in a season when I can take my shoes off).

Pleasant 2 / Pragmatic Darwinism: Vision of a healthy functioning ecosystem (usually includes water).

Not-Necessarily-Pleasant 1 / The Sublime: Nothing scarier or more humbling than being reminded exactly how small you actually are (I'm remembering a long lonely wander in the Alaskan arctic).

Not-Necessarily-Pleasant 2 / The Other: Context for the human intellectual 'matrix' - there's more than just the shadows on the wall in Plato's cave.


Abstraction? I'll lay off that one for now...

1/06/2006 06:16:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

Actually I don't stare at blank canvas, Tim. I see the idea manifesting itself in my mind then I paint.

And art is for me is like metaphysics and epistomology and ontology all combined. Discovering my place in the universe, examining my view of the universe, analysing my understanding of the universe - it's critical to life. Basic survival is what all animals require. An awareness of our place is what separates us. Art is essential to human life and has been since the caveman.

1/06/2006 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger Ashes77 said...

I'm a newbie, recovering lurker, and have been trying to keep up lately... but I am with ml, above. " metaphysics and epistomology and ontology all combined" sounds nice. But I think also there is a gap between understandings of "nature" per se. yes yes

1/06/2006 07:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nature=Nurture.
albeit not the disembowelled entrails;0)

1/06/2006 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger benvolta said...

“What is material but light which has become exhausted? The mountains are exhausted light, spent light. The streams are exhausted light. The air is exhausted light, and we are made from exhausted light.” Louis Kahn

I made a joke a few weeks back that Thomas Kinkade should read up on his Louis Kahn - the tragedy of the painter of light not knowing that its all exhausted.

Something in nature reminds me of the mystery of my own life and growth. Like the city, the forest clusters all different forms to make a whole. There is something in the clustering, and the motion being set that is beautiful to me. I like how Kahn sees it as this mystical light continually shining, being spent, and exhausted. Maybe we try to equate with it because we are made from the same stuff as forests, storms, and earthquakes?

just some rambling Sat morning thoughts.. thanks for the link Edward:)

1/07/2006 11:54:00 AM  

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