Yurruun.ga wetlands ~ art as beauty & interesting
I have been visiting these wetlands for a few years
This photograph from the site won the 2017 Bellingen Community Arts Council (BCAC) Members’ Art Prize for photography.
At one point I travelled with two small SLR cameras, for B&W and colour, then realised that I was looking for photographs, alert to light and composition, but absent from being where I was. This reminded me of Coleridge wryly observing visitors to the Lake District in 1800, ‘Ladies reading Gilpin’s &c while passing by the places instead of looking at the places.’[i] I gave up photography for decades. Moving from the city to live in Gumbaynggirr Country, northern New South Wales, I found the environment too beautiful and too interesting to ignore. ‘Beauty is useless’, says Rosemary Laing, but adds, ‘When necessary – exploit beauty – to give the image that which is necessary.’[ii] Rather, beauty is natural and useful. ‘The ancient Greeks called the world κοσμος, beauty. Such is the constitution of all things’, wrote Emerson, and the trigger for this project was his friend Thoreau, and his project at Walden Pond.[iii]
Daniel Gerwin notes, ‘Back in 1993, critic Dave Hickey wrote The Invisible Dragon, a series of essays attacking what he identified as a reigning taboo against beauty in the late 20th century. Hickey needn’t have worried. Nearly three decades later, visual pleasure has not been choked off by the theoretical focus of conceptualism, nor by the postmodern dematerialization of the object. Nevertheless, beauty remains an uncomfortable territory for many contemporary artists.’[iv] Santiago Zabala rejects beauty and contemplation as exemplifying art. He wants art works to change the world, requiring new interpretations. ‘The truth of art no longer rests in representations of reality but rather in an existential project of transformation.’[v] There is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The 20th century was hostile to the aesthetic foundations of beauty and the sublime, and the 21st century has been hostile to the Romantic ideology of ‘spirituality, ‘creativity’ and ‘uniqueness’.[vi] Sianne Ngai argues that recent attempts to ‘rescue’ these terms misread contemporary culture.[vii] She promotes three new categories to engage current aesthetic practices – zany, cute and interesting.[viii] Only one of these holds any relevance for an art concerned with the ecological.
Art should be interesting, after all, the world is. Aesthetic evaluation is never purely aesthetic, the personal and political, cultural and formal all play a part. Aesthetics is a mode of enquiry, a way to experience the world and sense what is happening. I am interested in the aesthetic of interesting, which Sianne Ngai takes back to Schlegel and his notion of the modern being ‘subjective’ and interesting – as compared to beautiful ‘objective’ Greek art. Schlegel cited Shakespeare as an exemplar of ‘Interessante’ literature, being concerned with the particular, the original, the local, the new, and the open-ended.[ix]
Ngai points out that to call something beautiful usually deters further discussion. She argues that when we say something is interesting, we are inviting conversation. We want to be asked to explain ourselves. Interesting covers multitudes, and this album contains: the list of poisons this site owned (including arsenic) and their symptoms, Walden, poetry, natural aesthetics, art, politics etc.
[i] William Gilpin encouraged the fashion for seeing paintings as one travelled though landscapes, – the picturesque. Letter cited in Jason N. Goldsmith, ‘Wordsworth’s ‘Lyrical Ballads’’, in Oxford Handbook of William Wordswoth, Ed., Richard Gravil, Daniel Robinson, OUP 2015.
[ii] Rosemary Laing, script for the video, ‘What is Photography?’ Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2001.
[iii] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836.
[iv] Daniel Gerwin, ‘The Feminist Power of Beauty’, Hyperallergic, July 31, 2021
[v] Santiago Zabala, Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency, Columbia UP, 2017, p7.
[vi] Jerome J. McGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation, University of Chicago Press, 1983, p32.
[vii] Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: xZany, Cute, Interesting, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012.
[viii] Cute isn’t necessarily cute. Simon May begins his new book ‘Cute is colonizing our world. But why? And why, so explosively, in our times?’ He asks, ‘What if Cute isn’t a frivolous distraction from the zeitgeist but rather a powerful expression of the zeitgeist?’ The Power of Cute, Princeton UP, 2019, p9. https://www.degruyter.com/document/. I din’t find cute powerful, more a sentimental distraction, In a review, Catherine Malabou comments, ‘Comforting and uncanny at the same time, cuteness incarnates nihilism as plenitude, infantilism as art, and desexualization as seduction.’, quoted by Princeton UP, https://www.degruyter.com/document.
[ix] Sianne Ngai, ‘Merely Interesting’, Critical Inquiry 34:4, 2008.