Is it art?
A lot of landscape art seems to represent a contest to render the most colorful, most spectacular, most mysterious, most extreme scenes we can still comprehend as real. What doesn’t seem to happen is a good faith acceptance of the scene over time, letting it work into our subconscious and then letting our subconscious work on us. We, our culture that is, doesn’t do reflection over time; we demand immediate impact or we’re out of there.
Flannery O’Connor was quoted as having said that the role of an artist is to deepen the sense of mystery in the world. Maybe that’s what the art that’s so spectacular is striving for. Or one of the things. But contemporary people lack patience and tolerance for mystery. We want to identify it, name it, categorize it, and to define rules that predict it, program it, control it, and tame it. We want it to be safe. But mystery, art, life itself, can’t be safe. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, advocating for peace in a speech in the 1930s said that the road to peace was not the road to safety. He was not arguing for passivity in response to evil but rather that the objective of resistance to evil was peace, which would never be safe. “Peace is the great adventure” he’s quoted as saying, “it must be dared.”
For those of us who find a relationship to the landscape transformative, these are trying times. I’ve started to become familiar with the work of Robert Adams, the photographer and writer. I’ve known of Mr. Adams’ writing for longer than I’ve been aware of his photography. He finds natural beauty in a places that are not Iceland, Antarctica, Namibia, which is to say, he finds beauty in places that are anything but spectacular. Robert Adams finds, or at least recognizes, beauty in places that have been damaged and he works to bring the beauty that remains in such places into his imagery, an acknowledgement of the poignant struggle for life that continues even in difficult circumstances.
It’s challenging to photograph landscapes when you don’t have the raw material of a place like Iceland to work with. And if it challenges the photographer, it challenges the viewer, as well, to give the work a chance, to be open to what it might be saying, and to what it might draw from us as members of the audience, while possibly also being part of the subject, even if we’re not shown or named, because of the role we all play in impacting landscapes that have endured too much human impact in recent decades. But if that sounds like an indictment of all us as members of the bad species, that’s not my intent. It is, as noted, that the more poignant beauty that arises where the struggle to make it and recognize it and keep it is the hardest.
The late Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue said that beauty isn’t about “nice surface loveliness,” but rather embraces a wholeness, a deeper, more rounded becoming. We can get that in art, including in photos of a perfectly beautiful landscape moment. But the universe is in motion – we are in motion – and the perfectly beautiful landscape moments change. Yet his point about becoming is insightful. If the work isn’t pointing to some sense of emergence or questioning or transformation, I’m not sure it’s doing what it should be as art.
The work that’s not spectacle, that’s not an over-enhanced, airbrushed, choreographed, staged and predictable version of reality has more potential to speak to us over time, drawing us in with a deeper appeal than we find in spectacle, or in the obvious or overly enhanced images of nice scenes, beautiful as they are. The more genuine work doesn’t hit you over the head; it gets under your skin. At least it doesn’t always have to hit you over the head.
Moreover, our perception and understanding of the work can change over time, as we change, and hopefully grow. But what ultimately matters is where the work leads us. If we’re not drawn to greater connection, more generosity, deeper understanding, or at least to a yearning to connect and understand, I think it’s fair to question the effectiveness of the work as art – and maybe question whether the work qualifies as art.
Art for art’s sake is a nice phrase that is functionally nonsensical. Like it or not, we live in – our very existence is tied to – relationship with the physical earth and the other creatures that occupy it with us. We don’t have any choice in that. But the essential nature of our species is that we’re also separate from our surroundings. Our challenge now is to figure out the relational aspects of our lives, of our very existence. Good art can be a powerful tool that can show what’s right before of us that we don’t usually see, that we see but don’t usually perceive, that we perceive but don’t find meaning in. There’s more than one answer to what that meaning might be and some of the possible answers are wrong. But there’s also more than right answer. And the work that confronts us as makers and consumers of art is to suss out which is which.