Thursday, November 22, 2012

Art, Aesthetics, Evolution, and Work in Progress

In my last post I wrote about the nature of abstraction and the (possible) responsibility of the artist to work the abstract idea until it becomes somehow understandable to a viewer. We might look at a successful abstract artwork as a conveyance of the artist's ideas, something unique to the artist communicated to the one engaging the art. This challenging idea, suggested to me by my friend and teacher Renato Riccioni, led to more challenges.

Once again the "Man in the Holocene" exhibit at MIT provided a nourishing substrate for new ideas that arose from Renato's challenge. Lots of sparks there and as an aside, a great example of how it helps to take in an exhibit several times. The heuristic nature of a well curated show emerges as you study it more. Just like nature.

All of the ideas of a scientist arise from observing nature. Though they are processed in some subconscious, the fact of nature provides the material for the scientist's thought.

Roger Caillois, a thinker whose work I had never heard of was featured at the Holocene show. He wrote that biological mimicry is a form of photography. Here is my interpretation of that idea.

Everything alive is a product if evolution. Though we cannot see the process of evolution, every form, every living tissue, every biologically derived molecule reflects the evolutionary process. In a lab manual I wrote for my undergraduates I noted that the world as we see it is a sort of snapshot, the physical manifestation of an instant in time that is constantly, inexorably changing. The words of Caillois put this idea in another, perhaps more nuanced light.

The living world is an evolutionary work in progress. Whatever we observe has been shaped by billions of years of evolutionary history. Any living body, whether a single cell or a redwood tree was literally formed and survives by the forces of evolution. Its physical existence captures all the forces that shaped it in a visible, tangible, albeit temporary presence. Like a photograph that captures the moment, the living body is a proof of the physicality of evolution.

We could take the idea of Caillois a step further and consider the life as a sculpture molded by the "hand" of evolution. In a sense, this makes a satisfactory connection to the concept of communicating abstraction. In another sense the question is left unanswered. Darwin and modern science understand that evolution is the force of change behind all life. And it's hardly rocket science to understand the biological function of most of the things we observe in nature. The difficulty comes in trying to understand the smaller nuances, a curve, a color, a combination of shapes and angles, the folding of a bud or the trail of a slug. How has evolution shaped these things?

A further look at this question may reside in the realm of aesthetics, a work in progress we still need to uncover.

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