Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The spaces between: geology and art

In the blog ‘accretionarywedge’. a geologist has written that his subject is a science riddled with aesthetic values. It “is a science driven in many cases solely by imagination and creativity, which then leads to an artistic representation or recreation of a time we’ll never visit, a place we’ll never see with our own eyes, or an organism that was only partially preserved". Not only does he believe that geology is riddled with aesthetic values, but many geologists also yearn to see geology within ‘traditional’ art, literature, music, etc. These are the yearnings for understanding that reside in conceptual spaces between a material object and its mental representation.

These spaces which link art and the Earth sciences—geology in particular—have not been widely recognized, yet both areas of human creativity have impinged on each other in the following ways.

-earth sciences phenomena as a source of artistic inspiration;
-geological illustrations as art;
-the use of geological materials in earth art;
-and geological investigations of the material basis for art objects.

All of these areas give us a glimpse of the great complexity inherent in the natural world, helping us appreciate the beauty and order of things. This, in turn, makes us aware of our place in the long-term material flux of a dynamic planet. Its then a short step to begin thinking about our own daily lives in a wider spiritual context. Beyond that, the study of geoscience in everyday life can give us an enormous amount of information of practical value while revealing much about the world in which we dwell. The earth sciences are, quite literally, all around us, and by learning about the structures and processes of our planet, we may be surprised to discover just how prominent a place geoscience occupies in the aesthetics of our daily lives and even our thought patterns.

Greg Wessell, co-curator of an exhibit called The Fusion of Geology and Art at the Two-Wall Gallery in Vashon Island, Wash., says the physical world is never that simple, it's never “just” anything, for behind the geological discoveries and findings and insights is a simple concept of beauty in the complexity of the system that creates folds, striations and cracks.

"Geologists by nature have to think in ways that engineers and others don't,” Wessell said. “They have to be able to picture complex processes in time and space using parameters (such as the concept of geologic time) that are largely outside human experience. So, it helps to be imaginative and creative ... putting all these disparate pieces of information together to construct a working model and then being able to tell others about it."

Wessell's picture of cross section with dropstones in soft sediment and accompanying soft-sediment disturbance was accompanied with the statement "Her life was like the sediment in a pond; criticism from her parents made a big splash on the surface and a permanent crater in the mud below."

His picture A lesson from stratigraphy was accompanied by the phrase: "Everything you say and do makes an impact, but the impact may not be measurable to you."
Carol Nelson was stimulated to produce a series of abstract paintings inspired by the colours and textures of the Grand Canyon. "The view is straight down from the south rim. The colours of the water constrast with the warm canyon walls"
Geologists have the ability to represent the geology they see in the field on drawing paper or canvas--an inherit ability and one that was used extensively in the classical (pre-computer) period in geology. Artists, on the other hand, tend to see a scene from the composition, light, and perspective, which includes the geology. This contrast prompted three geologists of the Kansas Geological Survey to explore how well Kansas geology is represented by artistic works of several indigenous Kansas artists. For example in Gove County, there are chalk remnants forming spectacular outliers. The Monument Rocks are perhaps the best known.
Monument Rocks in Gove County, by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

What does not seem to have been explored artistically is a tract of landscape from the point of view that it expresses a unified biogeological system embedded in the local culture, with notional spaces linking biology, geology and culture. In this connection, art is fundamentally produced by acting upon two main principles-a principle of form, derived fom the organic world, which is the universal objective aspect of all works of art; and a principle of origination peculiar to the human mind. The latter impels us to create and appreciate the creation of symbols, phantasies, myths which take on a universally valid objective existence only in virtue of the principle of form. Form is a function of perception; origination is a function of imagination. These two mental activities exhaust, in their dialectical counterplay, all the psychic aspects of aesthetic experience.

But art has other aspects-biological and social. Indeed life itself, in its most secret and essential sources, is aesthetic in that it only is in virtue of the embodiment of energy in a form which is not merely material, but aesthetic. Such is the formative principle discernible in the evolution of the universe itself. It would seem that the more the scientist is able to reveal of the nature of the physical structure of the world, the more he relies on numerical harmonies which are aesthetically satisfying. Fundamentally, the geologist, no less than the artist, should be ready to accept a view of planet Earth that finds that the cleavage between the aesthetic and the extra-aesthetic domain of experience, no less than that between the scientific and the extra-scientific explanations, is the cleavage between the metrical and the non-metrical, rather than that between the concrete and the transcendental.

European sedimentary basins (PaintShop Pro image)

In philosophy of mind the general claim is made that the mental supervenes on the physical. The term 'supervenience' is used to describe a kind of dependency relationship, typically held to obtain between sets of properties. The value of a physical object is sometimes held to be supervenient upon the physical properties of the object. Kendall Walton's analysis of various aesthetic properties takes this idea further and suggests that the 'supervenience bases' of artworks extend well beyond their physical boundaries to include the artists' intentions, the actual or apparent processes that led to the formation of the works, the character of other contemporary or historical works, and the various categories recognized by the artistic community as a whole.

In aesthetics, such "wide" supervenience of artworks is generally accepted to support people classified as contextualists who believe that the study a work of art's non-perceptual hidden properties, such as its historical and cultural background, is necessary in order to appreciate it. For example, the beauty of Sueurat's La Grande Jatte might supervene on the physical composition of the painting (the specific molecules that make up the appearance), the artistic technique of the painting (in this case, dots), the figures and forms of the painted image (the behaviour of Parisians at leisure), or the painted canvas as a whole (the concept of a work of art in France at that time). On the other hand, formalists believe that the aesthetic appreciation of an artwork generally is a private affair and involves an attentive awareness of its sensory or perceptual qualities only, and does not require knowledge about its nonperceptual properties.

What does this hidden knowledge add to our appreciation of the picture? To Marcus Aurelius it was important to 'know' the hidden things of life.

"Observe and contemplate on the hidden things of life: how a man's seed is but the beginning, it takes others to bring it to fruition. Think how food undergoes such changes to produce health and strength. See the power of these hidden things which, like the wind cannot been seen, but its effects can be".

We know by a process of immersion. We enter a state of intellectual absorption in an action or condition. Popper says immersion is characterised by "diminishing critical distance from what is shown and increasing emotional investment in what is happening". The idea that the meaning of a work derives more from an audience's interpretation of it rather than simply the author's intent is central to much twentieth-century criticism.

One important way in which the experience of art becomes more than a private affair is in the form of art criticism. Art criticism is an interpretive portal between artist and viewers. In theory, art criticism assesses the aesthetic excellence of works of art, just as in the popular imagination the critic is first and foremost someone who judges. But a survey of visual art critics at American newspapers in 2002 ranked judgement well behind education as the perceived task of the critic. This change from making an aesthetic judgement to telling the story behind a work of art has come with modernism and a shift away from beauty as being the main goal of artists.

Supervenience also applies to scientific presentations. In biology, the building blocks of the cell do not alone account for the cell's development and functioning, which are subservient on environmental factors and chemical changes at the level of the cell as a whole. They work as a process to promote the expression of genetic potentials in a sort of "top-down" causation. However, the question may be asked to what extent this supervenience is necessary to appreciate the following photo-micrograph of a six-cell human test tube embryo as a subject of contemplation. Does it matter if the observer is ignorant of the subject matter altogether?

Similarly, the subject of the following watercolour is a key geological element in our knowledge of primeval processes that occurred 220 million years ago. These physical processes were responsible for the present physical appearance of a swathe of Britain, from Scotland to the West Country. Would knowledge of these processes aid contemplation of the picture?

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