Saturday, February 23, 2013

Natural Beauty/Acheiropoieta

Agate from Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones
Natural beauty is harder to define than you'd think. And I should read Kant and find out if he provides some transcendental loophole, and I should pull out Umberto Eco and see what he has to say. But here it is another Saturday morning, already later than I want it to be due to household tasks, and little time to think but a lot of desire to write. SO. This particular beauty, this category we have called natural beauty.  It emerged because of two student comments, one presenting the "inherent and inherently shared" beauty of something like a sunset; and the other offering the marvelous phrase "it seems that nature's agency is in its appeal to our senses." For good measure, I put the medieval concept of "acheiropoieta" on the table: the idea of images "not made by human hands," an idea that I can now discuss as an aesthetic concept of non-human agency (thanks to Bennett and Bogost and object oriented ontology).

Pointe du Raz, Finistère, Brittany, France
First to speak of "inherent and shared." Nobody doesn't like a sunset. You can say you don't, that you find them stupid and trite, but so what? It's there and it's gorgeous and it's expansive and it doesn't care if you like it or not, in fact it has no consciousness of you and that, claimed a student, is part of its beauty.  So we tried to articulate the appeal of natural beauty, to identify what it is that calls out - that makes students gasp when they see one of Caillois's rocks in class, the slide flooding the classroom with a reddish hue; or makes them ecstatic when we walk together on the cliffs of Brittany and the sun comes out for the first time in six days halfway through a four hour hike. All this, by the way, needed to be folded into an understanding of medieval portable altars' use of porphyry - why these expanses of visual abstraction in the midst of ritual framework? why this "rougher, less manipulated (than the wood and metal surrounding it)" stone element? More on that in a minute. The art students in the class quickly identified aesthetic principles at work: moments of symmetry, apt color, "composition even." And here, the science students came in with the idea of "madeness" as something that appeals about natural beauty. As in: natural beauty are those moments when you are presented with something that looks like it was made by "some other" agency than human.  I loved the student hesitate for a fleeting second before saying "some other" - broader than God or Nature, but still specifically not human.  Now. You could say that it is the human gaze that makes the image, that without our perception, the particular framing of that moment, you would lose composition, symmetry, and any sense of madeness.  This is where the lack of consciousness of a human audience comes in. As much as we delight in finding madeness (symmetry, composition, color, etc.) in rocks, flora, stones, water, and other things without voices (which would otherwise express intent), we also delight in being ignored by those things. You can call it the Sublime, or a kind of eco-voyeurism (ha! I saw beauty, but it didn't/can't see me!), but unmistakeably, there is a thrill in being on the edges of an expanse (rock slide or cliff hike), witnessing it, possessing it with sight, but - despite the physical intimacy of shared space and multiple other conditions - knowing that when our gaze drops the ocean will still churn, the rock will remain fervent, and the sun will continue on its trajectory.

Anglo-Saxon Portable Altar, Cluny Museum
Critique: a student (and I think Tim Morton (and I!) would agree) worried about any process of aestheticization (even the phrase and exploration of "natural beauty") and its effects on environmentalist efforts because of the distance it creates, because one day we will drop our gaze and the ocean will rise up and churn on land. So how to collapse that distance, but still acknowledge natural beauty? Enter acheiropoieta, a principle that explores the "madeness" of things not made by human hands.  One of the satisfactions of natural beauty is recognition, both figurative (and this can stretch from people recognizing things in clouds to Caillois's landscapes and other figurative forms recognized in rocks), and abstract (fantastic crystalizations, juts of colors, shapes and forms that stretch or seem placed, even without figurative purpose).  This porphyry had both for my students: they saw constellations of a night sky, and they saw a vast abstract expanse.  The classic medieval acheiropoieta is figurative: the icon of the face of Christ pressed, not painted, onto a linen surface (think Mandylion or the veil of Veronica). But (calling Meyer Schapiro), what of an abstract acheiropoieta? What of a thing that manifests madeness but does not represent anything? Do we call it an aesthetic of ontology? Images that resist iconographic breakdown? Images whose priority is to be instead of signify? I am letting myself be swayed by Marbod of Rennes (author of a lapidary that poetically presents stones' agency, its being in action) more than, say, William Durandus (who saw representational symbolism in the stone pillars of churches).  I am wondering if the stone's ability to manifest madeness (to appear to have been fashioned but not by human hands) could not also be a glimpse of the body of Christ as it becomes manifest above the altar in the midst of the ritual of the Eucharist: an absolute presence, a natural beauty.

The Caddisfly Larvae art of Hubert Duprat
Of course with ritual, the question of agency becomes very troubling indeed.  Rituals are frameworks created by humans, and enacted by them, but for the purpose of being in the presence of non-human agency (God, love, power, etc.).  And so I'll close with a natural beauty orchestrated, but not made, by human hands: the slips that caddisfly larvae make when artist Hubert Duprat gives them gold, corral, pearls, turquoise, and lapis lazuli instead of the usual twigs, leaves, and broken shells they find in the rivers of southern France. What stuns is the patterning, the band of pearls and turquoise, and the composition and the structure. It's lovely. And the problems -- of consciousness (theirs/ours), of use (can they live there? does he sell what they made?), of setting (given the choice between gold and leaves, which would they choose?) -- are fantastic.


  1. Oh, so much to contemplate in this one, Anne, and it particularly resonated with some thinking I'm doing right now about Insular ornament, particularly carpet pages and cross slabs. The makers of those patterns produced them by following a rather limited set of rules, and I've been wondering if they didn't perceive the eventual emergence of the bewildering, otherworldly results as something like an acheiropoietos. The incorporation of the natural world into the patterns (in flora and fauna) would bring it right in line with what you're saying here: the human ardor for the agency of "some other." I need to kick this all around in my head a bit more... expect to hear from me!

  2. Ben! I already can't wait. Working with the portable altars, and other moments of metalwork, and thinking about the repetitive gestures of making those (and now carpet pages and cross labs), I do wonder about ritual aspects of art making, especially in terms of how ritual frames (invites?) non-human agency. This would not be a formal ritual (like, say, Irene Winter's work on the Gudea statues that I just taught and adore), but rather the idea of setting and repetition as ritual. i LOVE your phrase "eventual emergence" - the patience of your pattern makers, "human ardor" indeed. Thanks so much!