The Unspoken in Landscapes: How to Listen to and What is Heard from the In-Between of Art and Wild
That which is argued here: The world, opening itself to us through a plethora of vignettes, gives more meaning than concepts can capture, more than we are capable of putting into words, more than we can even experience as any singular moment. The world is pregnant with possibility; its being is the actual and all that is otherwise, at once. The landscape captures this fullness of being better than any sentence or fact. The landscape is most fully what is, what was, what will be; it is noun and verb, it is space and place. Any conceptual message it seems to give us must be received with the open awareness that the communication of landscapes operates through the co-presentation of appearance embedded through with an indirection towards potentiality. To be able to read a vignette like a slogan shows only that we are not listening with our full bodies and being. Landscapes are more than messages, vehicles for communication, or settings for revealing subtexts; they are sites and activities of communication of mood beyond simple comprehension. Forever dynamic, no matter how antique and unchanged they may appear, wild, no matter how groomed, and cultivated, no matter how chaotic, landscapes are open sites of encounter with the complete communication of possibility.
While depicting a swarm of more than 65 encamped figures, Eugène Boudin’s large oil painting, The Pilgrimage at Sainte-Anne-La-Palud, is better considered as a landscape. The mass of people make up only a small swath of foreground, giving only depth, by which to better view the golden to brown stretching hills and articulate church spire, nevertheless mostly sunken behind indistinct trees. A curious puff of steam or smoke rises to obscure a glimpse, perhaps, of the ocean that fades up into the hazy blue to purple and clouded sky. Critiquing his own painting, Boudin wrote, “My picture is full of mistakes, there is no doubt that my dreams are much better. There are too many details and nothing which captures the essence of Brittany …”[i] Stand back, overlook the details, and a land does present itself: a peaked and tired one, fading, autumnal only in the sense of exhaustion, not a plentiful harvest. But, what was the essence that he thought had escaped his brush? Why would dreams better capture what his painstaking precision did not? Why is it that the painting does still speak, as a landscape, but not as a representation of a trek of pilgrims?
It is a mistake to speak of art as if it were an act of communication, rather than an act of production, Etienne Gilson reminds us in his The Arts of the Beautiful.[ii] The scolded are all those who write on art who have, necessarily, as a chief concern, the rendering of art into something that says something and, thus, can be talked about. Gilson aims to reawaken the argument that art is about creation, not communication. The purpose of art, he argues, is not to speak, but to create beauty for beauty’s own sake. This reminder hearkens Kant’s seminal discernment of the beautiful as mute. For Kant, beauty is an aesthetic judgment that we make when we approach a work of art with disinterest in its originary intent and ends, even as we must mistake it to have purposiveness. Beauty is a subjective judgment, even as we must assume to be universal. It is a judgment that we make, not by the faculty of cognition, but by that of desire. That is to say, that which is beautiful speaks to us without communicating some meaning or message. It calls to us, alone, as if by saying sweet nothings, yet brings such pleasure that we are sure all who view it will deem it to be beautiful.[iii] Beauty is a judgment that we make about the work of art. Nature, of course, is defined most often by its distinction from the human-made. The lines, however, between art and nature become blurry in both Kant and questions of landscapes.[iv] Thus, the question to explore: can this prohibition against art as a form of communication awaken a thesis about a more meaningful, unspoken speech that physical landscapes offer?
This question demands bifurcation for its pursuit. The first step is to inquire how can art speak to us, to solicit our judgment of beauty, while it is barred from speaking through concepts? The second step asks how can landscapes blur the distinction between judgments of art and nature? The endeavor through these questions is interwoven with aesthetic and phenomenological accounts of distinct landscapes, from paintings to my backyard to a guerilla garden on a broken street corner, from the cityscape of Pittsburgh to a lavender farm in the Cotswolds to a mountainside in Wales. The goal is a thorough exploration of how to listen to and of what one hears in landscapes. The premise and conclusion consist of the thesis that landscapes have a communicative power that exceeds any intended by their creators, that they speak in a way that subverts and transcends our presumption of communication, and that this speech is meaningful to us, even while it is more meaningful than our grammar-bound language can capture.
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As something more than mere art or nature alone, a physical landscape, be it a gritty city or verdant forest, conjures a response beyond the mere pleasure offered by the beautiful and the awe from the sublime. In the sublime, for Kant, awe yields to pleasure when reason kicks back in from its state of shock and grasps the aesthetic object. As one stands at the edge of the abyss, vertigo’s awe gives way to reason’s rejoice when it pauses, thinks, I am safe, that is a deep chasm, I can measure it. In the landscape, meaning is created in encounter more full and rich, more like the spontaneity of “beautiful!”, than some species of delight that later gets filled in with details. We can always learn more, but the meaning of my standing upon the mountainside in Wales looking over endlessly stretching fields dotted with sheep and receding into misty fog is not completed by my knowing whose fields I am looking at and what type of sheep waddle below. Instead, the meaning from that landscape came at me in wind-whipped cheeks splattered with rain drops and tearing eyes blurring the landscape of miles and miles, infinite were it not for the fog that consumed the edges of the endless green, miles already surreal for the massive sheep bodies with dirty fur and big rumps splotched with day-glo spray paint ambling across that painter’s spectrum of every shade of green, scratched with tree row veins. It made no sense for understanding; it filled me through and through with more meaning than any description could capture. The landscape calls forth the fullness and immediacy of the judgment of the beautiful while also yielding more than pleasure alone. It engulfs subject into itself. The landscape is in-between art and nature and aesthetically generates the pleasure of meaning in-between the beautiful and the sublime.
The regret that comes from admitting this thesis its accuracy, even without being able to logically dissect it, is that we are animals endowed with reason, the animals who speak, who want to know the world in such a way we can communicate with it and about it. We want to express our thoughts through art and the manipulation of nature. We want to create memorials and sites of remembrance and monuments and messages. We want our art to have meaning and we mistake this as meaning that we want it to have a voice and be able to say those same concepts we think. Beauty for beauty’s sake seems vacuous in this age that has gone through holocaust and genocide, unfolds horror and murder every minute. But, the concepts that lead one to dig beds and plant rocks and mound earth or mount fountains cannot achieve an universal communicability that the pure subjectivity and presumed purposiveness of aesthetic judgments generate. Beauty’s fusion with awe, that forever delays any transfiguration by reason, communicates otherwise than by the concepts we may try to implant in a landscape.
Notes: [i] Jean Selz, E. Boudin, trans. Shirley Jennings (Norwalk, CN: The Easton Press, 1983), p. 43. The work in question is his The Pilgrimage at Sainte-Anne-La-Palud, 1858, oil on canvas, 78 x 155 cm, held by Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux, Le Harve, France. Available ~~Here~~ [ii]Cf. Etienne Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000), pp. 9-16. [iii]Cf., the “Analytic of the Beautiful” in Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000), §§ 1-22, pp. 89-127. [iv] Regardless of Gilson’s easy pronouncement that “The difference between natural beauty and artistic beauty is obvious,” he does, at least, suggest that the difference rests in the necessity of the human as creator in the latter (Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful, Op. Cit., p. 24).