One member of our group was from the southern US and he did not like to think that Africans were our ancestors. How could we have black ancestors? Right?
There was another aspect of the first episode of the television series on the Great Migrations that struck me as critically important and interesting. This was the importance and role of art in this human story. It showed that we are the artistic species and that this artistic bent played an important role in our survival. Even though a couple of years ago I was in Africa, near where some of the series was filmed, and even though I saw some of that amazing art of our early human indigenous ancestors, this important insight escaped me at that time. At least now I have seen the light.
Niobe Thompson pointed out that ¼ of the world’s rock art sites are found in South Africa. Remember, these were often created by our earliest ancestors. As Thompsons astutely pointed out, “From the moment our ancestors became modern humans we became artists.” I find this astounding. “Art is the signature of our species,” Thompson proclaimed. Art is not some interesting side salad; art is a crucial component of who we are.
This is where I crawled down into a cave That was the only way to get in
This, of course, raises the next profoundly interesting question. Why? Would not drawing pictures on a wall have been a serious distraction for hunter/gatherers? The point is they were more than just pictures. Art helped bring the prey into the mind of the hunter. Art helped them become better hunters, because they were able to identify with their prey. That is what great art does. Art identifies us with the world around us. For hunter/gatherers this is no distraction; it is vitally important.
Thompson also pointed out one of the rock art pictures on the walls. It showed a shaman. Why would they introduce a shaman? Thompson thinks the point is that shamans were also part of the hunting process. Shamans helped the hunters hunt and helped the gatherers gather.
Rock art was part of the important human process of using symbols to look beyond themselves. Rock art was used to store knowledge and information about hunting and gathering. It would also have been enormously helpful in passing on hunting and gathering knowledge to the next generation. The essence of language and the value of symbols is demonstrated in the Rock art of Africa the home of our oldest human ancestors.
At a critical time in the evolution of humans, Homo sapiens learned to communicate with symbolic language. That was a critical tool in the development of humans around the world. Perhaps this was the reason this branch of hominins to survive where all the others failed and collapsed.
Symbolic language allowed us to think about the past, learn from it, and look at the future and plan for it. These were critical skills. With symbolic language humans were able to imagine what the future could be.
Symbolic language and art enabled us to understand who we are and what are the possibilities of our being. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Our early ancestors—long before Socrates—appreciated this as well.
At the dawn of symbolic thought, under tremendous climatic pressure Homo sapiens used that symbolic thought and that art to carve a niche where they could not only survive, but thrive.
Niobe Thompson is a scientist, not an artist. Yet this is what he had to say about art:
“I am an anthropologist who became a filmmaker. I left university research because I believe the communication of science is my path. I want my children to grow up in a scientifically literate society, where films that explore the natural world play a central role. But I also believe in the power of art to enlighten, and I am thrilled to be pushing the artistic boundaries of film, striving to make science just as spectacular as it is fascinating.”
Art is important. It is no mere icing on the cake. Art is the cake.
This art was not from that cave. It is not that old as it was outdoors.
The scientists in the television show were clearly of the view that humans in the caves in South Africa 75,000 years ago must have been talking to each other. How else could they transmit their complex knowledge about the environment, about prey, and about the things that could be gathered, to future generations? With language they could talk about what plants were edible and where and how they could be stored. For example, they learned that water, absolutely vital in the drought conditions of southern Africa, could be stored in ostrich egg shells buried under the ground. With language they could tell others what plants were poisonous. They could use language to show each other how to build better stone blades for spears and arrows. They could use language to help each other harness the power of fire they could learn from others what stones when crushed could be useful for their art.
What minerals would last a long time in their stone art? For example, they learned that ochre would make a fine paint for rock art. They could then tell others where ochre could be found. Communication arts would have given early humans a superlative advantage over other hominins. With language humans were able to advise others what soil could be used for art and how complex chemical processes could be taken advantage of by making fires. All this was done 100,000 years ago.
The earliest humans probably used paint, made from things like ochre, to paint their bodies. They put holes in shells, painted them, and then wore them around their necks.
Human needs, even in earliest times, went well beyond food and shelter. Their concerns went all the way to art.
In many ways, early humans were about as advanced as modern humans.
The story of where the ideas of Chaco came from arose far from Chaco. Archeologists Anna Roosevelt and Chris Davis were interviewed in the series Native America. They explained that they have been trying to answer such questions. They have been searching for evidence of the earliest people in the Americas.
Some interesting data has been discovered in the Amazon Rainforest of western Brazil. They looked in a cave there referred to in Portuguese as the Caverna da Pedra Pintada, or in English, the cave of the Painted Rock. The walls of the cave are covered with art of animals and the sky. “This cave in the Amazon is re-writing the history of when and how people settled the Americas and who those people are.”
For a long time history books presented only one view of how this happened. They said that about 11,000 B.C. during the last Ice Age big game hunters from Asia crossed over to North America a frozen land bridge in the area known a Beringia. That land bridge arose when sea levels dropped dramatically during the last Ice Age. Later when the continental ice sheets of North America and the world melted. the ocean levels rose again sharply growing that land bridge once more. It was thought that after the ice melted the people of Asia who had arrived in North America migrated south into North and South America. They were thought to have hunted mammoths, giant sloths and caribou with finely fashioned stone spear points. Many of these animals have since disappeared.
According to the standard view people reached the Amazon about 1,000 years ago. Recently scientists have discovered evidence in caves that people arrived in the Amazon much earlier than that. ?That evidence even includes some surprising art as well as human remains which have been carbon dated. . As Anna Roosevelt from the University of Illinois said, “The remains we found and dated in the cave show that people were living deep in the Amazon forest at least 13,000 years ago. This is some of the earliest art and its definitely so far, the earliest art, so far, in the hemisphere.”
This demonstrates, she said, that, “Thousands of years before the Romans or Greeks, eight thousand years before the Egyptians, at least 13,000 years ago, people arrive in the Amazon, and their stone tools and paintings reveal these first Americans are not only mammoth hunters, they are foragers, fishermen, artists, and perhaps scientists.”
Chris Davis is a specialist in archaeoastronomy, the study of how ancient peoples looked at the sky. He and Roosevelt found images that appear to be a grid that indicates how something was tracked in the sky, because it was outdoors, not in a cave. These two scientists believe that these images represent calculated observations.
Davis thinks the art represents very sophisticated thinking. As Roosevelt said, “This art links people with their environment through its animals, its plants, and the heavenly bodies of the sky.” This actually reminds me of what Northrop Frye, Canada’s pre-eminent English literature scholar described as the purpose of art. The purpose of art is to give the world a human face. Artists try to connect the world to us.
Bertrand Russell also agreed. As he said in his book On God and Religion:
“Men, as is natural, have an intense desire to humanize the universe: God and Satan, alike are essentially human figures, the one a projection of ourselves, the other of our enemies.” Of course this is exactly what Northrop Frye said too.
Roosevelt concluded, “These paintings are the earliest art ever found in the Americas. They suggest that people 13,000 years ago had already developed ideas about the world that centered on the sky, caves, and nature. But what exactly are these First American artists trying to say?” What is clear though is that we ought to be wary of making easy conclusions that Europeans and their descendants were vastly superior in knowledge to the Indigenous people. If you recall, this is the point I am trying to make. I think that for too long we in the west have been blinded by bias about our own superiority to Indigenous peoples. The point is that this is a bias.
This trip was a celebration of colors—particularly the unique colors of autumn in the Eastern deciduous forest. A time of magic and splendor, unmatched anywhere in the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, and even South America have nothing quite to compare.
An Impressionistic version of a maple leaf
Paul Cezanne the French artists was an acknowledged master of color. He knew color better than anyone. Cezanne said, “Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet. I think this trip proved that was true.
The English writer George Eliot also knew a little about color. Eliot was actually a woman. She used a male nom de plume to be taken more seriously. It was a pity that she thought that was necessary. Her most famous novel was probably Middlemarch. 2 pretty good modern novelists, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes said this was the greatest novel in the English language. She said this about color” It is strange how deeply colours seem to penetrate one like a scent.” That was certainly true of the colors of autumn.
Winston Churchill no sentimentalist said, “I cannot pretend to be impartial about the colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns. Churchill would no doubt have celebrated had he ever seen an eastern forest in its autumn splendour.
One of my favorite photographers, Freeman Paterson, who lives in New Brunswick part of the eastern forest, oddly prefers the browns even though he lives in an area famous for its autumn coat of many colors,
Artist Paul Klee, who also knew something about colors, explained that “Color possesses me. It will always possess me. That is the meaning of this happy hour, colour and I are one.”
Finally, John Rushkin, another English writer, summed it all up, when he said, “Of all God’s gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn.” I am just not sure it is solemn. I would say colours are joyous and celebratory. Not solemn at all. Otherwise well said.
We visited a second exhibit at the National Gallery in Ottawa. This was very different from the first one that displayed works by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries. This one did not have beautiful art. Or rather it did, but in a weird way.
The exhibit featured amazing works of photography by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier using a variety of techniques and technologies. Their works are stunning, but deeply disturbing, and that is what good art should do. It should disturb us. These 3 artists ask us to consider the environmental and ethical issues involving the exploitation of Earth’s resources by one species—Homo sapiens.
The exhibit included about 30 new enormous photographic prints and high definition murals as well as film installations. The title of the exhibit is Anthropocenea concept I have been interested in for a number of years. The concept arises from an important but little understood fact: Human beings now affect the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined.
This word has recently been invented. I wish it had not occurred to anyone that this word was needed. The word is anthropocene. It refers to the fact that humans have had such a profound influence on the planet that the era we are now in needs a name to reflect that. That word is anthropocene.
The word is closely associated to another word—anthropogenic. This word also refers to profound planetary forces that have a human origin. We created these forces. And many of these forces are not benign. Far from benign in fact. Malignant would be much closer to the truth in many cases.
In the spring of 2013 Christiane and I visited Africa. It was a marvelous experience. Never have we seen wild life that. We were astounded when we safaried into our first African ‘Game’ Park. That was Chobe National Park in Botswana. It is not the park with the most wildlife in Africa. That privilege probably belongs to the Serengeti. Yet we were completely stunned by the amount of wild life we saw that day. We saw large numbers of elephants, giraffes, gazelles, impalas, hippopotami, crocodile and water buffalo as well as small numbers of many other animals. Of course we saw many species of birds as well. It was one of the most exciting days of my life. We had never seen anything like it in North America.
Yet North America used to be like that. It is hard for us to believe. 200 to 300 years ago the Great Plains of North America resembled the plains of the Serengeti. It has been estimated that some 30 million to 60 million animals were found on the Great Plains of North America. These included the American bison and pronghorn antelope in the millions. They roamed freely across about 500,000 sq. mi. of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi. That is difficult for us now to comprehend. It is difficult because most of those animals were slaughtered—deliberately slaughtered. Now it seems incomprehensible that we could do that. But we did. Our species did that. This destruction was anthropogenic. We were the cause. Destruction on such a vast scale beggars our imagination.
The epoch we are currently living is called the Holocene epoch. It started 11,700 years ago. In geological terms that means this current epoch has barely begun. Yet already, some scientists are saying we need to declare that the Holocene epoch is over and a new one has begun–the Anthropocene.
Epochs are marked by momentous events–like Ice Ages. Usually they have lasted millions of years. For example the epoch that preceded the one we are now in, The Pliocene orPleiocene Epoch is the epoch in the geologic timescale that extended from about 5.333 million to 2.58 million years before present. It lasted about 2.8 million years and was by no means the longest.
Originally it was thought that the Holocene epoch would begin during the last Ice Age and then end when a new Ice Age started. That would make the Holocene an interglacial period between an experiencedice age and an anticipatedice age. During this period the climate has been relatively stable and this has allowed Homo sapiens to dominate the earth. Yet recently many scientists have become convinced that this traditional analysis is no longer accurate. They believe that over the last 200 years, or since the time of the Industrial Revolution, the impact of this one species has been so great that an entirely new geological age has been ushered in—the Anthropocene, or Age of Man.
According to British geologist Jan Zalasiewicz there is now a widespread belief among Earth and environmental scientists that changes created by human activities are now so great that they rival some of the great forces of nature that have in the past so altered the planet that at least 5 mass extinctions of species have occurred since the planet was created 4.56 billion years ago.
Think about this concept for a minute. This means that the consequence of activities of our species, are so enormous that we compare to the effects caused by an asteroid smashing into the planet about 65 million years ago that killed more than half of the species on the planet. According to this view our actions are so profound that the stability of the Holocene epoch has been disturbed to such an extent that the very life support systems that have nurtured and favored our species. How is that possible?
Scientists believe that so far there have been 5 major extinctions. the most massive extinction was the Permian Extinction that occurred about 600 million years ago and changed the nature of the planet forever. It was probably the most extensive extinction ever. It led to the extinction of 95% of life on our planet!
This extinction ended that Permian world. The cause of this extinction is not universally agreed upon. Some have suggested that massive volcanic forces inside the earth led to massive eruptions that poisoned the atmosphere and oceans so much that 95% of all species died. Other causes have been suggested but all of them are on the order of magnitude of what we call forces of nature. No pipsqueak can change the world’s climate.
To think that our actions are being compared to these massive destructive natural forces is stupefying. Yet that is exactly what some scientists are now doing. This is a disconcerting thought, but on this basis, our species isthe greatest serial killer of other species that the earth has ever seen.
Andrew Miall, a professor at the University of Toronto described this well,
Deforestation, agriculture, increase in erosion, the pumping of all kinds of artificial things into the hydrosphere; all these phosphates and nitrates going into the river systems (so that) we now have this huge dead zone in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico because of all the agricultural chemicals that have gone down there. These are all undeniable effects. There is no point in trying to evade it. To call this now the Anthropocene epoch would certainly crystallize that concept. It does seem that a number of scientists have started to use the term
How have we—one species—been able to have such a profound effect on the planet? According to William Marsden,
Scientists say the principal agents of this change are the machinery of the industrial age and its chemical toxins. Modern mining, urbanization, forestry, agriculture and fishing practices have refashioned both the terrestrial landscape and continental shelves. Toxic pollutants are changing weather patterns, warming oceans, increasing their acidity and raising sea levels.
Scientists say that there are already clear and distinct geological markers of this human impact that are clearly visible in the atmosphere and sedimentary rock as well as discerned changes to our weather patterns.
This impact has been felt in not just species extinctions, but species invasions. According to Jan Zalasiewicz, “the CO2increase associated with global warming and ocean acidification—this is large in scale and probably unprecedented in its speed.”
The idea that we have created our very own geological age has been around for decades, but the effort to formalize this notion began with a scientific paper by Paul Crutzen in 2002. He is the scientist who received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 for his work on the effects of ozone in the atmosphere. He is a respected scientist.
Scientists like Crutzen treat our actions as equivalent to a geological phenomenon that caused some of the greatest events in the Earth’s deep past. They also make it clear that the driving force for the global changes we are undergoing is human behavior, particularly in the social, political and economic sectors.
There is not yet general agreement about when the Anthropocene began. Some say it started with the start of the Industrial Revolution that began in about 1800. At that time in England a rapid transformation of English society from a predominantly rural agricultural one to an urban society began. This spread throughout Europe and from there to North America.
It was during this time that the concentration of carbon dioxide started to rise above the 278 parts per million (‘ppm’) that had helped to stabilize the planet so favorably throughout the Holocene. By 1900 the levels of CO2in the atmosphere had reached 300 ppm. We have now gone above 400 ppm, even though scientists warned a few years ago that it would be “dangerous “for us to allow it to go over 350 ppm. We are now well beyond that. We are in the danger zone.
Other scientists believe that the Anthropocene started later at about the end of the Second World War. Some have called this the period of great Acceleration. During this time the human population doubled to more than 6 billion people. During this time the number of automobiles grew to 700 million from 40 million, people began to abandon agriculture as a way of life, the use of fertilizers rose to 300 million tonnes a year from about 50 million tonnes while CO2expanded to 390 ppm from 311 ppm.
Most of the Grand Acceleration was powered by Western countries, but new emerging economies like China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa all had an important impact too. Greenhouse gas emissions have exploded exponentially. Coal use rose sharply, but 90% of the recent increase in the use of coal—a primary cause of increased greenhouse gas emissions—can be attributed to India and China alone.
What does all this mean? According to William Marsden,
Some scientists believe a formal recognition that mankind is now the most powerful force of nature on the planet will help draw the world’s attention to the damage mankind is causing to the Earth’s life support systems.
A paper of the Royal Society published in 2011 says, “The ultimate drivers of the Anthropocene, on the other hand, if they continue unabated through this century may well threaten the viability of contemporary civilization and perhaps even the future existence of Homo sapiens.” This is the consequence of modern industry, mining, urbanization, forestry, agriculture, and fishing activities. Pollutants are filling the air and water and soil with toxins. All of these human activities are refashioning the earth. They are changing the game. We have a lot that we are responsible for.
The photographic display we saw explored the effects of human activity on the planet in artworks that are amazing, horrible, and in some weird way beautiful. Bringing us images of places such as the enormous Dandora landfill in Nairobi, massive log booms on Vancouver Island, and the Gotthard Base railway tunnel in the Swiss Alps, among many others. Collectively these works show us the pervasive and complex repercussions of our modern way of life. It is disturbing to look at. It should be disturbing. What are we doing?
I love art. I love it a lot. But I don’t know if understand it. At least not very much. I wish I did. Of course ignorance of a subject has rarely stopped me from commenting, as readers of this blog no too well? So why start now? I have tried to learn more about art, ever since I watched the BBC television series Civilization written and narrated by Kenneth Clark. I have visited art galleries around the world and have tried to educate myself about art.. In Ottawa we visited the National Gallery. It is an immense gallery and it is never possible to see it all. One must be selective.
We opted to see 2 exhibits. One a temporary exhibit on the Anthropocene. I will comment on that later. The other was an exhibit of art of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries from the permanent collection.
I wanted to see the Group of 7 exhibit, even though I had seen it before, because it felt to alive to me as a result of travelling through so much of the countryside where they did much of their painting.
I have always had a soft spot for the Group of Seven. The group was started by 7 artists who thought of themselves as revolutionaries in art. They wanted to paint Canada in a Canadian style. When they first announced themselves as a group Toronto art critics were largely indignant. They wanted a style that was appropriate to and born out of Canada.
In particular the Group of Seven was fond of and attached to the Canadian landscape in and around Algonquin Park and the Georgian Bay area. Ever since I first travelled there I felt the same way. It often seemed like my spiritual home.
The painting above of the Tangled Garden by J.E.H. MacDonald the senior member of the group is one of the most famous in Canada. It was quite controversial when first revealed in 1916 because it was a painting of what was considered a prosaic subject and it was painting on a large canvas. One critic called it “a huge tomato salad.”
The Canadian Encyclopedia described the group this way, “With their bright colours, tactile paint handling, and simple yet dynamic forms, the Group of Seven transfigured the Canadian Shield, the dense northern boreal forest, and endless lakes into a transcendent spiritual force.”
I believe this painting was created by Lawren Harris who is probably my favourite of the Group. I really admired this painting. The Canadian artists realized that the light on a cold Canadian winter day reflecting from the giant reflector under their feet—the snow covered ground—was very different from the light on a warm day in the south of France. They had to learn how to display such differences in their art. They could not just copy the French artists they admired. They needed a Canadian art. I loved the way the brilliant white snow in the background lake is so different than the foreground snow which is more dull. What is more Canadian than snow?
North Shore, Lake Superior
This is probably my favourite work of art by the Group of 7 and not just because we had driven around the north shore of the lake on our way to Ottawa (though that helped. I love the stark and simple landscape and how the art is not really representational. Sort of an early abstract work of art on a brilliant and dark day on the world’s largest lake. What could be more Canadian than this?
We had a great day in National Gallery. More Canadians should see how their tax dollars are spent.
My brother-in-law Norm took Chris and I together with his partner Monique and their daughter Margo to Mosaïculture. This is an international horticultural event being shown for the second year in Gatineau Quebec. The display contains 45 larger-than-life plant sculptures on a stunning 1km loop on the banks of the Ottawa River overlooking the Parliament buildings on the Ontario side. The exhibit uses 5.5 million plants as part of 45 sculptures.
Mosaïculture is upping the floral ante. Last year’s run saw three million plants, while this year, more than 5.5 million will sprout across the park. The number of plant-based sculptures has also grown to 45 from 33.
The astounding artistic display weds nature, culture, and horticulture in which the plants are designed a sculpted to appear like objects of art. For example they display a lobster fisherman, 3 ships from France, Bill Reid’s famous killer shale, snowy owls, polar bear, a howling wolf, bison, voyageurs, Glenn Gould’s piano, the 1972 hockey summit, Wisakedjakand the creation of the world through indigenous religion, the raven and the moon masks by a Haida artist, and many others.
To me the most interesting sculpture was of Mother Earth as described in North American indigenous belief systems together with the legend of Aataentsic who is really the same being portrayed as Gaia in Greek mythology, Terra Mater in Roman myth, and Mahimata in Hindu beliefs, Pachamama among South American indigenous peoples, among others. It is really the same idea expressed by different cultures. The sculpture of Mother Earth was inspired by the speech that Chief Seattle gave when he met American President Pierce and it captures the fundamental belief of many North American indigenous people that we are all part of the earth and inseparable from it. If this is true, as they, and I too for that matter, then it has profound importance for our relationship with nature and our environmental obligations which take on a spiritual impulse.
Tree of Birds
There was another outstanding creation: the Tree of Birds which featured 56 endangered avian species from around the world. Chris and I were photographed in front of this sculpture.
I have been blogging lately about a Japanese philosophy that goes by the name of Wabi-Sabi. It celebrates impermanence, the here and now. Is this not exactly what impressionism does too? Both disciplines found truth and beauty in the ordinary, mundane, and fleeting experiences that traditionally had been discarded as of no consequence. The Impressonists, like practitioners of Wabi-Sabi knew better.
Pierre-Auguste renoir: Still Life with Blue Cup (1900)
I recently attended a wonderful exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, it displayed magnificent works of art by expressionists and others from its own collection, temporarily loaned works, and a large number of works owned by the Brooklyn Museum. Often hyped, exhibits splash prominent names of artists but deliver a paltry plate of vittles. This was not like that. I am no expert, but I thought it was an outstanding display of modern art.
Henri de Fantin-Latour: Bouquet of Mixed Flower with Zinnias and Dahlias in a Bowl (1865)
The exhibit was called, French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950 and contained works of arts from many of the great artists of the 19thand 20thcenturies including Cezanne, Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Matisse and many more.
This old building, I found in western Manitoba, was one of my favourites until it sank into this pond. I thought it was beautiful. Until then I enjoyed it. Joy can be short-lived, but that does not make it less real.
Wabi-sabi is a philosophy that is a determined opponent of soulless consumption. It resists consumer society that insists always on something new. It cherishes the old. It reject the modern fetish of the new. It accepts the old for what it is—something of lasting durable value, even where the outer appearance is shabby is worn. The real value of the thing remains. It is what endures, no matter what blows are suffered upon it. Until it disappears that is.
It is only the dull, shallow, and shabby who no longer appreciate old thing or old people. People who are swindled by the temptation of shiny appearances, baubles in other words, are the same ones who can no longer recognize true value. There is an enduring value in things that the genuine conservative wants to preserve. The conservative wants to conserve the valuable no matter how old or no matter how likely to decay and die.
Those who don’t see the enduring value think that time spent on repairing, protecting, or restoring is time wasted. So often in today’s shallow world as soon as something is apparently not working as well as it should it is discarded. Not only is that wasteful, it is foolishness. The person of Wabi-Sabi cherish what is of enduring value.
This is one of my favourite old buildings. It is located near Beausejour Manitoba. A number of months ago I wrote about a new philosophy I had discovered. Well to me it was new, but it was really an old philosophy. The philosophy is called Wabi-Sabi and it has found a congenial home in Japan, the same country that brought us forest bathing. More on that another time. Wabi-Sabi is a philosophy of genuine conservatism—not the shallow rancid kind practiced by some modern politicians of the right. Wabi-Sabi cherishes what has stood the test of time, even though it is already decaying. Nothing lasts forever, but we should embrace the good while it lasts and then give it up with regret, but understanding.
Wabi-Sabi is a philosophy that accepts impermanence and even celebrates it. Like buildings that are collapsing into decay. Or old vehicles or other instruments. Even old people are embraced and appreciated for what they can bring, even when it is less than they could bring at one time.
Wabi-Sabi rejects the current relentless pursuit of the new in favor of cherishing instead the old, which is still valuable. Like all good art Wabi-Sabi finds and then celebrates the extraordinary that can be found in the ordinary, provided one has the eyes to see. Or has the mind to see. Common everyday things can have a startling beauty if one is alert. One must be alert for the marvellous as otherwise it might pass one by.
I think Wabi-Sabi fits in well with my search for moral humility. One can forsake the hyper-beautiful in favor of a quiet beauty that stills the soul rather than puffing up the chest. It is modest or humble.
Early on in photography, I saw images by photographers who found beauty in the mundane even if they had never heard of the philosophy of the Wabi-Sabi. Freeman Patterson is one of my favorite photographers and I think he exemplified this approach. I remember the first time I saw his photographs of collapsing buildings in South Africa and was amazed at the beauty he found there. I am nowhere near the photographer that Patterson is, but I have caught on to the beauty in the ordinary even if I fail to match his skill in displaying it. But I try. And, of course, I am not perfect, and never will be. The perfect is the enemy of the good and sometimes even of the one who strives for beauty.
One artist who appreciated the beauty of the flawed was Leonard Cohen. Remember the line from his song,
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Too often who seek perfection are continually dissatisfied with the good. What a pity. The good is good enough.
Life is always frayed and if you don’t like the untidy ends you don’t love life. You love death instead. The art, the photography, I am interested in sees beauty and truth in such rough timber, for as Shakespeare said, we are made of such rough timber. Art that is perfect is too often lifeless. By definition the ideal is not alive. The ideal can inspire us, but it does not keep company with us. This is the art of the rough.
Recently on the radio I heard a Broadway musical star talk about her “dream home” that she had bought in the country. She said she loved that it was 100 years older than she was. It was more than 150 years old. Not old for Europe where such homes are appreciated, but very old here in North America. She also loved that it had its original floors. She said she loved to walk barefoot on that floor, especially on the “uneven floor.” She loved the flaws. I love flaws. Of course, some say I love flaws because I am so deeply flawed. Maybe they are right.
I must admit that this movie mystified me. I found everything about the film masterful. First of all the acting was brilliant, particularly by the lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis who played wealthy and celebrated fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. Yet Lesley Manville who plays his sister Cyril with chilling calm that alludes to other cinematic Ice queens, is also sensational. She helps to run the family business, The House of Woodcock, with wooden professionalism and is an able executioner (in the traditional sense) who dispatches her brother’s consorts as soon as he has lost his taste for them. Taste is critically important to this film. Woodcock’s current paramour Alma played by Camilla Rutherford is a surprisingly strong young peasant woman whom he summons to his lair from the hotel dining room where he met her. I call her a “peasant” without derogation, only because she does not fit into the pristine elegance of Woodcock home. She is like a fly on the wall, but she does not buckle in to his cruel disdain. She is not a weak victim of his advances. She is a proper foil to his predations.
The food and clothing, of the finest taste of course, are filmed with leisurely sensual opulence. That was what I liked best about the film, but I don’t know why. For the life of me I can’t figure out why I like that stuff. I think I got sucked in. After all what could be more meaningless than fashion? Fashion is the final refuge of the soul-starved. Fashion is fascism.
Woodcock is a man determined to pursue taste and beauty and demands utter tranquility for that purpose. His wife’s clothes (and his) must be of the finest taste (I presume for I know I confess absolutely nothing at all about good taste) and fashion. His house must be tranquil. That is something Alma cannot provide. She grates and disturbs the tranquility to such an extent that Woodcock asks, “Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?” Ultimately Woodcock is right when he says, “There is an air of quiet death in this house,” Reynolds says. That is exactly what it is, but it is of his own making, with able assistance from his sister.
So the movie completely mystifies me. Elegance and skill in service of an illusive ideal. I fail to see its purpose. Probably that is because I am not smart enough to see it. As I keep saying over and over again, life is hard when you’re stupid. What was it all for? Craftsmanship without soul? A phantom no doubt.