“That the world is loveless results directly from the repression of beauty, its beauty and our sensitivity to beauty. For love to return to the world, beauty must first return, else we love the world only as a moral duty:
Clean it up, preserve its nature, exploit it less.”
In Douglas Rushkoff’s newest book, Team Human, he explores how our technologies and institutions are encroaching on our humanity, quietly invading every aspect of our lives, leading to more isolation and estrangement from our very nature. Machines are binary; it’s either a one or a zero, it’s on or off. There’s no room for subtlety or paradox, no place for individual meaning or the universal and ineffable experience of beauty.
In this context, we have collectively moved from primarily valuing the subjective beauty of life to focusing on objectively quantifiable metrics of success. No one talks about how many sold out shows Mozart played or what Henri Matisse’s net worth was, but it seems now that whenever a musician’s success is mentioned it’s related to their sales, and when an artist makes headlines it’s regarding the price a work fetched. In a world that wants to add a tangible value to everything, creating art for its own sake can be a rebellious act.
I remember the first time I saw one of Claude Monet’s water lily paintings in a gallery. I had seen the images before, but not the paintings themselves, and the impact was totally unexpected. Sure the images I’d seen were beautiful, but encountering the massive painting was an experience. An unfamiliar feeling overcame me, something I can only describe as awe. Suddenly I got art. I mean I had always loved art, my school teachers even said I was a little gifted in art, but I had never realized the potential scale of its impact.
Years later I took up photography, which didn’t feel like art when I compared it to the works of Monet. Nonetheless I pursued it and started to look at the world differently. When I was looking to take a beautiful or meaningful photograph, I was confronted with the question: what is beautiful or meaningful? I started to see beauty not just in the big sunsets or smiles, the large experiences that normally draw our attention, but also in the “in between moments”, as a friend of mine reflected when looking at my photos, when nothing is really “happening”, and yet if we really open ourselves to it, we realize there’s actually a lot to be savoured.
Wilhelm Worringer, a 19th century German art historian, divided art into two categories with his now classic work Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style. Abstract art explores shapes, colours, textures and patterns that connect to or impact our inner world. It’s universally human, found in every culture if you go back far enough. Mandalas, totem poles, pyramids, masks with exaggerated features—abstraction connects with a part of ourselves that is beyond the rational, experiences that cannot be explained or communicated, only felt.
Empathetic art, on the other hand, is aimed at appreciating the world we live in. A beautiful landscape or a moody portrait honour their subjects, they give a still snapshot of a moving world so we can really appreciate the subtleties and absorb moments that are normally fleeting.
My practice in photography was aimed at exactly this, a sort of reverence for the world, each shot capturing ephemeral beauty. The more I looked for those special moments, the more I found them. I went from shooting very little, to shooting a lot, trying to capture the beauty all around me, to then of course realizing it’s impossible to capture it all, and they don’t all make great photos anyhow.
While empathetic art is extroverted, an appreciation of the external world, abstract art is introverted, evoking and exploring our inner world. What they have in common is they pull us out of our everyday existence and invite us to experience a beauty that cannot be commodified. To engage with art is to reclaim our humanity, to transcend our day to day roles and feel into the mystery of life.
When we get “lost” in a work of art, what is really happening? Our thinking mind disappears, and we end up in a sort of trance state, totally absorbed in the experience. It’s no wonder then that people often describe their art practice as meditative, or why art itself is used as an object of meditation.
Art, like meditation, bolsters appreciation of our inner workings and our connection to the natural world, offering respite from our society’s emphasis on quantifiable achievements. With all the noise and tension in the world right now, maybe taking a contemplative timeout to connect with our humanity, create and soak in some beauty is exactly what we need.