Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Come to Your Senses

Recently, as I taught my 7-year-old granddaughter Lily and her best friend Michele to paint, Lily’s 4-year-old brother Max built with Legos alongside us.

He worked hard and long, struggling to get the thing he built to stand firmly on the table.  Finally, he announced, “Grandma, look.  I made a dinosaur dragon.”

I saw a vertical construction consisting of two upright rectangles (legs) holding a large square central unit with pieces sticking out of it (body with wings) out of which sprang a very long rectangle (neck) topped by a tiny square unit (head).

Max beamed with delight.

He got it to balance.

Why do kids love to do things like this?  Whether with blocks, Legos, or anything else, they build complicated structures, working hard to get them to balance.  As they add units, going higher and higher, their excitement builds. 

The simple answer: they enjoy it.

The more complex answer: balance, symmetry, suspense, novelty, rhythm, and expectancy are of an aesthetic nature.

Etymologically, “aesthetic” has its root in the Greek aisthanesthai, to perceive or to attain awareness or understanding.

Violette de Mazia, in an essay titled “Aesthetic Quality,” says we feel this sense of satisfaction when we successfully balance our checkbook or solve any problem.  A physician feels it when he renders a diagnosis, even if the diagnosis reveals something negative.  We read crime novels or watch murder mysteries, no matter how violent, because a murder can be “beautifully” planned and carried out, and the suspense (who done it?) intrigues us.  We enjoy a sunset simply for the colors and patterns.  We enjoy watching a fire, not for its destructive effects, but for the drama and power of its actions.  We enjoy the color and shape of daffodils on a hillside.  But until, like the poets Wordsworth or Herrick, we try to objectify the meaning we discover in those daffodils and recast that meaning into poetry, our experience is short of theirs.  As a poet writes the poem, selects the words, experiences the effect of the words, their cadence, their pattern, their sound, his intent becomes clearer and clearer.  Just as Max with his Legos, the poet revises and adjusts all the means.  When finished, the “artist” embodies in the work of art the meanings, the feelings, the identity born from this adventure in perception. (The Barnes Foundation: Journal of the Art Department, Vol. II, No. 1, Spring 1971, p. 13).

The process I am describing in these posts allows you to take in and enjoy “through your senses” the art in art.

Let me say that another way.  With adults, I usually start my first class with a grape, not an apple.  A seedless green grape is easier for adults to handle and less cumbersome for me to bring to a large class.  I ask them to examine the grape in the same way I ask children to examine the apple:  first they look at it and list everything they see;  then I ask them to touch it with their fingers, to rub it on their arms, and to list how it feels;  I ask them to smell it;  I even ask them to put it to their ear and listen for any sound;  finally, I asked them to pop it in their mouths and examine it with their tongue, then take a small bite out of it, and listen to that bite as well as taste  it. 

They tell me what they discover, and we make a list of the attributes of a grape. 

Sensory in nature, this exercise demonstrates how our senses allow us to understand those qualities we enjoy for their own sake, not for any practical use or significance. 

Max did not build his dinosaur monster for fame or fortune; he did not have any other motive than his simple enjoyment of the process.   The children learned to appreciate an apple, or the adults a grape, for the simple pleasure of doing so.  No research required.  No experts consulted.  As Dewey argued, “we learn by doing.”  Satisfaction results directly from doing the work of perception, not for any other reason.  The result, if we think about it and find meaning in the experience, Miss de Mazia argues, produces an intellectual sensuousness. 

Since the artist specializes in the aesthetic, what better way to experience the meaning in works of art than to use our senses to do so?

Let’s work with one aesthetic quality: rhythm.  Rhythm means repetition with variety.  Think of a metronome or the ticking of a clock, both useful and necessary sounds, but repetitive.  If forced to listen to either one for an extended time, we would declare the experience boring.  Listen, on the other hand, to jazz drummer Mongo Santamaria, and the multi- layered rhythms capture your interest.  Or watch and listen to this video of José Greco and Savion Glover creating intricate, complex rhythms in a face off fusing Flamenco and Jazz tap.

In visual art, shapes, patterns, colors, and spatial units repeat with variety.  We call these motifs.  Once identified, they offer clues to the picture idea.

Look at this picture:

David Hockney, Garrowby Hill, 1998

List what you see: remember to look for color, light, line, and space as you always do.  This time, however, list every repetition you find of each element and describe how each varies.

Does this add up to a coherent visual idea?  If so, state it.

In the next post, I will discuss why I am asking you to do all this hard looking.

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