This is a continuation of an exchange begun several months ago with New Zealand photographer Tony Bridge. Tony has been waiting for a response from me all this time, while I've been snowed under by work and by family crises. So here is a letter, and I hope to be able to post his response soon. Please feel free to comment on this post in the interim.
Tony, I'd like to continue talking about beauty in art. In our last exchange you wrote:
Re-reading this passage made me reflect: are we, as artists who depict nature in words or images, trying to show and share the beauty we discover there, or do we find in nature an expression of an abstract ideal of beauty that already lives in our souls? What did your moths represent on that night? Didn't they stir something in you that was already present, just as a landscape may, or the flocks of snow geese I stopped and watched a few weeks ago, and this is what moves us to try to create, to try to express the emotions that arise? In other words, I think there is an interplay between the human being and the natural environment which is, itself, natural: we are meant to be part of each other, and to feel something - but we realize that a lot of people are much less in touch with this aspect of themselves.
Like you, I also made a choice: to try to write more about positive aspects of life and less about argument and politics and what is wrong. Some of that choice is based on self-preservation, some on personality and temperament, but some of it is simply an artistic decision: I want to try to share what moves me, and to express something about my own journey through life, a journey which is a search for meaning, connection, and truth. The longer I live, the more sure I am that the sages are right: that truth and light are within each of us - and that everything is connected. But it is also true that everything has its opposite: for the light, there is the opposite side of darkness; for truth, falsehood; for beauty, ugliness; for order, chaos.
In the assisted-living home where my father-in-law lives, the walls of the hallways are hung with beautiful pictures: bouquets of flowers, children playing, lovely landscapes, pastoral meadows, calm pictures of houses and seashores and gardens. I go by them often, and think about why people choose these sort of images: when I was a young painter I painted my fair share of them too. But now, at mid life, they all feel like cliches to me, except for the occasional image, often a watercolor, where instead of a frozen perfect moment, the sky indicates change and movement and a more complex emotional state than calm-happiness-that-once-was.
The truest art, for me, does this: it tries to hold the dark and the light together. There is a sense of edginess or uneasiness, as Pete and Dave and Miguel mentioned before, which may not mean literally showing the garbage on the side of the trail, but does indicate an awareness of the change that is ever-present in life. (I feel this in some of your landscapes but it's hard to describe or point to what does it.) The beautiful moment passes, a cloud obscures the sun, calmness and upheaval alternate in our lives, death follows birth. As humans we know this, while we may we try forever to deny it. While we may be drawn to beauty for its own sake, and need it very much, it is the poignancy of this deep knowledge of passage and change that stirs me as an artist and writer. Frankly, I find it much easier to express in words than in pictures, but you may disagree!
With best wishes from Montreal --
(related article from today's NY Times: "What (Ansel) Adams Saw Through His Lens")