Can Art Be More Perfect Than Nature Itself?

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“Sunday Morning on the Hudson River” by Thomas Cole (1827)

I read Hans-Georg Moeller’s Daoism Explained a few years ago, and for me, a relative novice in the study of that religion-philosophy, the book did a pretty good job of delivering on the promise of its title . . . at least as good a job as one can expect from the explaining of an entire religion-philosophy in a single volume. From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory (as the subtitle reads), I understood, could relate to, and went along with most of the concepts and ideas that Moeller explains, with one major exception: the chapter on “Artisanship and Art.”

Moeller describes Daoist (because he uses that spelling, I’ll maintain it here) aesthetics and art as “about the production and not the characteristics of the perfect work of art.” I can support that, as some of my favorite works of art have been conceived in that way. What’s more, I enjoy the idea of creating art for the process more than the result. As Moeller continues to explain, “What is more important for Daoist art and artists [than depicting or representing something realistically] is how a piece of art is made and what its ‘effects’ are.” For me, that’s an appealing concept.

But Moeller elaborates upon this point: “A legend about a Daoist master painter shows how a piece of art, in this case a landscape painting, is not primarily conceived of as a depiction of nature, but rather as yet another — and even more perfect — nature itself . . . .”

This gave me pause. The idea that a piece of art could be “more perfect” than nature itself seems superficial and suggests a devaluation of nature. Something represented visually in two dimensions (or three in the case of sculpture, etc.), often at the exclusion of the other senses, could never be better (more perfect) than the real thing — the fully sensory experience of life itself — right?

Photo available on Wiki Commons
“The Grizzly Giant Sequoia” by Albert Bierstadt

When I first read Daoism Explained, I took its content for what it was worth (quite a bit, in spite of the above), and mostly discounted the ideas about art. But I recently re-read parts of that chapter because I wanted to think about the concepts that had resonated the first time around, about the importance of production and the creative process. I came across a passage that I may have misinterpreted the first time through:

“Daoist art did not try to represent nature ‘realistically’ — in this way it could never aspire for perfection because even the best painter is not able to paint a landscape in exactly the way it appears ‘out there.’ Daoist art does not pursue reality only to find that it can never totally reach it. A Daoist piece of art rather tries to bring reality ‘on the Way.’ The achievement of a Daoist artist consists in ‘giving way’ to something real or natural, not to imitate it. Daoist art is not mimetic — in the sense of an ancient Greek aesthetics of representation or mimesis. It is rather poietic — or even auto-poietic — in that it tries to generate something real itself, not only a good depiction of something real […] a landscape painting and a landscape ‘out there’ consist of basically the same ‘stuff’ or energy. In a good painting, however, the energies of Qi can be brought into a perfect harmony. In this way, a landscape painting can even be ‘better’ than a landscape ‘out there’ — or a rock garden can be more ‘intense’ than rocks ‘out there.’”

Here we find the same veneration of art — but not necessarily at the expense of nature. They consist of different experiences. Truly, art can be created to another degree of perfection, but perhaps neither the production nor the result should be compared to the experience of nature.

The two existences are different, and Moeller uses this difference to demonstrate the Daoist conception of art. It paints art, so to speak, in a beautiful light, and that perhaps is what led to my original understanding of the inferiority of nature. But to reverse the perspective — which I hadn’t considered until recently — perhaps the difference between the two should illustrate the uniqueness and wonder of the natural world as well. That “Daoist art does not pursue reality only to find that it can never totally reach it” does not mean that one is “better” or “more perfect” for us than the other, but that we should embrace the experiences of both.

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.