“Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time.” – Plato, Timaeus
I’ve been working hard on finishing four new paintings for a group show, now hanging in Lethbridge Gallery, Bulimba. I took a week off to go camping in January and lost a few days to a fog of schedules around the first week of school (and ballet, and piano, and tennis…), but otherwise it’s been a year of ‘quickening to creation‘ and producing paintings in haste.
Thankfully the deadline helped to focus my creative faculties and the four works happened almost effortlessly. It also helped to clarify for me what it is that I’m really inspired by – what tugs at my heart and says: ‘look at me’…’paint me’. Every blank canvas asks this question and believe me, it helps to have a prepared answer.
It is meaning.
I know that sounds silly, too simple, not specific enough, even ridiculous (if you are a nihilist). But it clarifies things for me because it is simple; because by ‘meaning’, I mean nothing other than meaning. In itself. And while in terms of art meaning can be found in mythology, narrative, magical realism, romanticism, natura morta, even in post modern text installations (because the emptiness is reflexive and always points to the meaning it denies), it has to exist in the first place in order to be found there.
Plato began with the experience of reality (which he called the realm of shadows) and used our understanding of it as a stepping stone to understanding something higher. But seeing the world of sensory perception as merely an image does not empty it of meaning. On the contrary, it fills it with meaning. Because the unity of eternity is represented in visible things, in time. One way of recovering this latent meaning is beauty. As St Augustine points out in his Easter sermon c.411 A.D., “Their beauty is their confession.”
“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays, question the animals that move in the waters, that amble about on dry land, that fly in the air; their souls hidden, their bodies evident; the visible bodies needing to be controlled, the invisible souls controlling them; question all these things. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look ; we’re beautiful.'”
I would add tape-measures to Augustine’s list.
The relationship between aesthetic appreciation and understanding is hard to put words to but as an artist who trades in both, I’m going to try, if only so when I read this later I resolve never again to attempt what is probably beyond me. The point is: when questioned, beauty communicates meaning. And meaning is beautiful.
It takes time to ask a question. And you have to wait to get an answer. This is a theme that I see clearly in many of my favourite artworks of the past and present. Still, observational, contemplative paintings are it’s hallmark. A stark beauty is there. And despite the apparent absence of narrative and intellectual purpose, meaning is there, because time is the catalyst in the formula, and time is there.
T.S. Eliot had this to say about the moment of creation in Genesis: “for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning.”
There is no beauty without meaning, because beauty is meaningful. There is a type of art that trades in beauty but skimps on meaning. That would be kitsch. For fear of this stealthy assassin of meaning whole generations of artists have abandoned beauty, and looked for meaning in it’s absence. But there is no meaning without beauty, because meaning is beautiful!