Is Beauty Possible?

Q: What do you mean by “the beauty of nature”? Where do I find it in Manhattan?

A: When I talk about nature, I mean all that stuff out there that wasn’t made by people; squirrels and the Grand Canyon count, the concrete canyons of Manhattan don’t. The people in the caves knew very little that wasn’t nature, the Manhattanite knows little that is. I don’t think it is too difficult to draw a distinction between the works of man and those of nature, especially if we are trying to learn something from the latter. Certainly there is some overlap: breeds of dogs, fields of wheat, eroded mountains—but I don’t think that as artists we need to get hung up on the definition. Nature can be said to encompass man and his works, but I don’t think the reverse is true. We exist within nature, neither “above” nor below. The consequences of human activity are disastrous to many forms of life (rhinos, tigers, coral reefs) but helpful to others (rats, pigeons, cockroaches). The overall effect is one of homogenization, and reduction to a biota of the least common denominator. Obviously, for a devotee of natural beauty this is deplorable. Perhaps if more value was placed on nature’s beauty these unfortunate trends could be moderated. This is where artists could be leading the way. I think the artists of the 19th century should get a certain amount of credit for the preservation of areas of great scenic beauty that would otherwise have been “developed”. (I still have hopes for the artists of the 21st century, but the artists of the 20th century never got their act together in this regard.)

Now I realize that the perception of beauty is a subjective phenomenon, and you may have trouble seeing a rat, a pigeon or a cockroach as beautiful, but if I look closely enough, I can definitely find beauty even there. I find that people tend to have a mechanism of identifying and labeling things, then seeing only the “label” rather than the thing itself. We don’t have to sit there and appreciate the dimpled glint of its body armor, we can just say “yuk, a cockroach”—squish. This undoubtedly speeds up the progress of daily life, but it is a mechanism that must be subverted if Nature’s beauty is to be appreciated. New methods of perception available to our era can be useful in this regard. A thermographic image of a squirrel’s tail, an infrared trace of a pigeon’s passage, an electron micrograph of a cockroach’s mandibles can give us new ways to exercise our atrophied organs of aesthetic enjoyment.

So, you may ask, why natural beauty? In a mathematical proof, you have to start with certain basic assumptions, or “givens”, if you want to arrive at a valid conclusion—I would postulate that if we are to arrive at a working theory of beauty we must take into account the givens—the pre-existing world of natural forms and images. As an artist, I have become fascinated by natural objects and the information they contain. I have endeavored, by capturing and rearranging these elements, to confront viewers with the richness of Nature’s beauty when seen in a new context, thus to be appreciated freshly. All mankind shares a world filled with shapes that predate us; we have always striven to come to terms with it artistically; and we share an innate sense of beauty although it is perceived differently by different people at different times.

Obviously all materials used however artificially are ultimately “natural” in origin, and anything that is built must reckon with the effects of natural forces. I think you have to strain pretty hard to see Manhattan as an example of natural beauty—not that it is altogether impossible—I read once about a paleontologist who found all his fossils in the slabs of marble and limestone that cover New York’s buildings. The harnessing of nature in any way does of course compromise its pristineness, but purity is an elusive philosophical quality that artists need not concern themselves with any more than they wish to.

I don’t think it is necessary to come up with an airtight definition of “Beauty” any more than “Nature” in order to use nature’s beauty in art. Both of these are somewhat nebulous concepts that shade off in various directions. Beauty is a subjective experience; it is more an emotion than a Platonic ideal. Perhaps some people only experience it when they see an absolutely pure form, like a red cube or a totally white canvas, but for myself it is most often associated with the things that predate the advent of humanity—i.e. the myriad forms, textures, and images of the natural world.

It is in recognition of this that I have gone off on a tangent, becoming increasingly isolated from the concerns of the rest of the “Art World”, and trying to construct work that is not referential to Art History or its various recognized schools of thought, does not owe anything to other artists except the freedom to choose a different path, and that seeks to distill something from the unregarded richness that surrounds us. I believe it is up to artists to lead rather than follow fashion, and I think the time is ripe for artists to reclaim our birthright, the world of Nature, especially in these exciting times when so many new ways of perceiving and portraying are at hand.

by Andrew Werby