Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Aesthetic Connection

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

From Wordsworth, The Tables Turned

I have said reading the color (the medium of visual art) takes time and patience.  If you have continued reading this far, you have the patience and you have made the time.
What do you need to do to understand the meaning of a work of art, an aesthetic object?

Did I surprise you with that last question? 

Why, you may have asked yourself, did she call a work of art an aesthetic object?  I did, because an artist records the meaning of an aesthetic experience via a medium of expression (visual art, music, dance, theatre, etc.).  The medium is the message.  In other words, we will understand the “why” if we focus on the aesthetic qualities inherent in the medium (color is the medium of visual art—color carries the meanings).  We call this the expressive aspect.  You already know color, light, line, space, the subject, and the traditions all work together to make a work of art.  Now I will show you what role expression plays in this process.

First, a story:

One fall day, I went for my usual run.  I use the trail that wraps around the Hockessin Athletic Club (HAC) on Limestone Road in Wilmington, Delaware.  The morning’s weather report told me to expect a record-breaking day of 90-degree temperature and high humidity, so I got there by 8:30 a.m. to avoid the hottest part of the day.

As I tied my shoes, I said to myself, “OK, let’s get this over with.”

In that “positive” spirit, I started to run. 
At first, the remarkably cool air surprised me given what I expected.  As I rounded the first curve and ran onto a small wooden bridge, I noticed the sound of my footsteps changed from a thump thump—thump thump—thump thump beat on the black asphalt to a higher key thwack thwack—thwack thwack—thwack thwack on the slats of the bridge.  I noticed the sun felt warm on my back when it was behind me, and then warm on my face when it was in front of me.  The warmth felt good.

Did I say black asphalt?  I started looking at it: in the shade of the woods, the black asphalt turned out to be dark blue, purple, cerulean, and even alizarin red.  It had small rises and recessions, and these became jigsaw-like puzzle pieces, curvilinear rather than angular in shape.  As I emerged into the sunlight, the “black” asphalt glowed golden.  It snaked through the wooded areas and then circled a large, open, recessed bowl-like area, usually used for children’s soccer games. It was under construction—divided into two half-moons, one of a dark brown, smooth top soil and, the other, of cream-colored, dry, burned out grass.  It reminded me of the black and white cookies I enjoyed as a child. Iced in halves with vanilla and chocolate, the base consisted of cake shortbread laced with a hint of lemon.  In Pakula’s Bakery in the Bronx, 63 years ago on my way to school, I spent 25 cents for this cookie. At this moment, I again tasted the sweetness of the first lick of smooth, hard “frosting” on its top.

This “memory recollected in tranquility,” as Wordsworth said, returned with the taste and aroma attached.

At this point, I noticed something else.  The steady beat of my shoes was varied by my breathing: the thump thump—thump thump repeated about six times, and then I exhaled.  So now I had some variety:  thump thump—thump thump—thump thump—thump thump—thump thump—thump thump—haaaah.  While not the caliber of Mongo Santamaria’s intricate drumming rhythms or Savion Glover’s tap dancing rhythms, it did provide me much needed variety from the steady beat of my footsteps.

With the underpinning of these rhythmic beats, and the repetition of the snaking trail through the woods and open spaces, the passing landscape soon offered relevant connections.  The shrubbery lining the trail consisted of rounded, bushy volumes of muted greens, tans, and ochre varied by straight branches, some bright red, others light tan in the sun.  These receded into the deeper space of the wooded areas.  One set of bushes sported a profusion of small, daisy-like, lavender flowers, which riveted me because of their color against so much subdued, grayed, and muted browns.  Some of the bushes sent plumes of grayed, cone shaped flowers drooping downward.  The curved branches set against the straight ones, the rounded small volumes lining the trail and then receding into the deeper space of the woods, the muted colors and shapes, all caught my attention because I knew Pissarro’s and Renoir’s paintings. 

The beat of my footsteps provided a rhythmic continuity to the surrounding peacefulness and quiet.  However, when the trail approached Limestone Road, the jarring sounds of car engines and horns honking interrupted my experience and created a “hole,” a note out of keeping.  I felt annoyed by the distraction.

My run usually takes 30 minutes and, in that time, I run the trail three times, roughly doing a 10-minute mile. This time, however, because of my reverie, I had no idea what lap I was doing, whether I had run the trail two times or three.  I checked how I felt:  I was not tired, achy, or hot.  I also had no idea how much time had elapsed, because I did not wear a watch.  I told myself, “Keep going.”  And I ran the trail one more time.

When I came inside to shower and dress, it was 9:15 a.m.  I had started at 8:30 a.m. This meant I had run four miles in four laps in forty minutes, and I felt fine.

I share this experience with you because it has all the ingredients of an aesthetic experience.  My perceptions are just that: perceptions.  I enjoyed them, not because they were useful in any way, or would bring me anything in return, but just because they were.  They were completely absorbing, so I had little sense of time passing or how many laps I had completed.  I remembered things that pleased me: the black and white cookies, the paintings of Pissarro and Renoir.  I realized that my experience was one of connections and peacefulness. The snaking trail held in and set off curvilinear and angular spatial harmonies in relatively deep space.  The perception had unity—a beginning, middle, and an end.  With the exception of the noisy traffic, all the parts fit.

Violette de Mazia, in the essay, “Aesthetic Quality,” describes her experience of a sunset (6-7; 9-12). I tried to do something similar here.  I did not go out that morning intending to do this.  It happened to me.  My trying to share it with you helped me make sense of it.  As I ran on this trail, I discovered visual details of aesthetic interest, I had an adventure in perception, and my hope is that when you read my description, you can share my experience.

On that day, when I arrived home, I “shared” the experience with my husband.

The conversation went like this:

Me: “I had a great run this morning.”

Him: “That’s nice.”

That conversation did not communicate an experience.  My subsequent journal entry, which I just shared with you, came closer. However, one more step must occur if we are to use an experience like this as the subject for a work of art. That step is the transformation of the experience into a medium of expression.

That will be the subject of the next post.


  1. Why isn't your writing about your experience the transformation of the experience into a medium of expression? Writing is a form of art. True, you may be a better visual artist than writer but writing is certainly a tranformative outlet of experience. From reading your post, it seems it was for you too.

  2. You have a point. I did transform the meaning of my aesthetic experience into prose. However, this "essay," while artful (thank you for saying so), has a very practical intent: to explain a process. If I were to write a poem, compose a symphony, choreograph a dance, I would be transforming the experience into a medium of expression so its aestethic qualities could be directly experienced--its qualities--not its practical message. It is a fine point: the difference between "art in something" and "a work of art."