Photo after Elina Krima, pexels.com
For those who often come from a purely scientific background like engineering, medicine or IT, it seems to be very difficult to get convinced of not only the importance of visual art (especially painting), design and architecture but also their complexity and the role they play in our daily life. They ask me while doubting the objectivity as I insist on how fundamental they are; “what is the point?”. They even go as far as saying “… I mean if there is no art, the world would be pretty much the same…“. Since they are also the type of people who are too busy or simply avoid investing some time having adequate exposure to good quality works or designs, I ask in my turn, isn’t it also biased to judge based on an overly opinionated theory full of faulty assumptions rather than experience?
To illustrate my argument, I suggest that we begin by explaining the limitations of two points that form the basis of their perspective before moving on to the more complex aspects of the discussion. The first is a common misunderstanding of the line separating art and science, which has been discussed in the works of Pallasmaa and Peter Zumthor, clarifying the connections between neuroscience, art and architecture. The shared areas of communication, influence and meaning in relation to the human being form the basis for their argument around the significance of “life-enhancing details” and the spirit of place that make architecture play an active and essential role on daily basis.
The second and more general point is a sense of entitlement charged with the mistaken assumption that the world in all its complexities, diversity and mystical nature can only be grasped by a single mode of logic, science, or the like. Those who had to work their way through different languages know that having a variety of languages at hand increases the ability to apprehend the world more and in different degrees and ways. The translation is not always enough since there is a certain layer or level of meaning in one language that just cannot be put into the words of the other. A logical question to counter the advocates of singularity including those of pure logic; if one language is not enough to fully absorb or embrace the world, so how come one way in our humble minds will do?! But is it logic or is it the demand of overly simplified justification that they demand which they perhaps chose to filter what makes sense to them?!
The difference that the underestimated works of art and architecture bring to our existence and experience in the world is very much the same as that of particular detail in those works. For a better explanation, I invite you to take a careful look at a couple of examples; the two paintings below are “Girl With a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer and “Tänzerin Baladine Klossowski” (Merline) by Eugen Spiro. Now imagine that the pearl erring is not in that beautifully framed painting or that the dress of the dancer in the painting on the right doesn’t have the extra layer of black chiffon. Do you see the difference? Can you feel their importance?. I for one can tell another important dimension of that difference as I have also seen how dazzled the visitors of the Berlinische Galerie were, looking back and forth between the tactile model on the stand and that represented by the skilled hand which turned dense and dark paints into light, semi-transparent and delicate folds of fabric above the already dark dress in the middle of the painting. Now let me repeat the old question to you, what is the point?
Girl With a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer Photo after CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Tänzerin Baladine Klossowski (Merline), 1901, Photo after http://labellerevue.blogspot.com/
Now that we have discussed the product, let`s discuss the producer. What makes those artists put so much effort into adding that level of detail and refuse to stop before it is complete?. Unfortunately, some of the practitioners in those disciplines themselves do not fully realise the significance or the power that distinguish the “fruits of their labour” and how the lack of successful communication reflects badly in its turn on the reputation or the stereotype spread about their professions. This vicious circle seems to begin by missing the “point” which is also particularly obvious when they allow their “labour” to be “lazy”; that is to be satisfied with their works being superficial and devoid of depth and meaning. Some would argue, how about “less is more”, and I understand where they are coming from but the motto should not be misused to justify poor results that come from doing less. If doing more is replaced with doing less and yet results in less ever so much, then doing more becomes even essential; in the same way that sometimes happiness can only be gained by making a vital effort.
To effectively get the point across, I will explain by focusing on an extreme case of how the aforementioned professions serve an often forgotten group of the people (or persona within people). People who went through habitual burnout, trauma and depression know how hard it is to living and yet not feeling like you truly do for whatever reason that has left your view of the world brutally altered. Something more like what Germans call “Weltschmerz” or World Pain. Unlike what the majority might think, depression, for example, is not only the result of a critical change in the body’s chemistry, psychology and emotional wellbeing. To be depressed is to stop seeing the beauty of this world or, to be more specific, your world. It is not necessarily due to lack of company but it is always linked to a lack of fulfilment, understanding, belonging and a desire to live that is painting your world all over with the same brush to make it even less interesting. It is to push your mind to recognise the good things and yet a stubborn child in you, who has been repeatedly put off and disappointed, stands up to your face asking “What is the point?“.
Therefore, dealing with the mental state of a depressed person is not only a tiring process but also full of risks. Seeking treatment is certainly an essential step for recovery from depression, but the key thing on which the success of the operation depends is the tendency to rebuild that natural will to stay and stay here. Fortunately, while fixing what is in the mind is not always easy or even accessible, fixing the input that is entering the body is not just about the right diet but also the embodied perception of the world. Since the occasional arguing with the depressed is almost like a labyrinth, there is a need for some other way to make his body recognize, experience, and assimilate another view or meaning of the world, and that is exactly the power of art and architecture.
Those who experience depression, know all the rational answers, for example, that they are here to flourish the earth, they could even know the alarming statistics that forecast a deterioration of the planet if a decline in the number of those who under 15 years old continues but still there is always something missing. Meanwhile, reading the fantastic poem”The making of the beautiful” by Annie Johnson Flint offers another dimension to consider:
“The Making of the Beautiful”
Meadow and vale and mountain,
Ocean and lake and wood,-
God looked on the fruit of His labor
And saw that His work was good;
And yet was there something lacking
In the world that He had made,
Something to brighten the greenness,
Something to lighten the shade.·
He took a shred of the rainbow,
A bit of the sunshine’s gold,
The colors of all the jewels
The mines of earth enfold,
A piece of the mist of evening
With the sunset woven through,
A scrap of the sky at noonday,
A clear, unclouded blue;
Of these He fashioned the flowers,
And some were red, like the rose,
And some were a lovely azure,
And some were pale as the snows;
Some, shaped like a fairy chalice
The perfumed honey to hold,
And some were stars of silver,
And some were flakes of gold.
They flashed in the gloom’ of the forests,
They clung to the boughs of the trees,
They hid in the grass of the meadows,
They drifted away on the breeze,
They fell in the clefts of the canyons
And high on the mountains bare,
Where never an eye should see them
Save His Who had made them fair.
But still there was something wanting,
His labor was not yet done;
lie gathered more of the colors
Of rainbow and sky and sun,
And now unto these He added
The music of sea and land,
The tune of the rippling river,
The splash of the waves on the sand,
The raindrops’ lilting measure,
The pine tree’s crooning sigh,
The aspen’s lisping murmur,
The wind’s low lullaby,
Faint fluting of angel voices
From heavenly courts afar,
And the softest, dreamiest echoes
Of the song of the morning star.
Then deftly His fingers molded
The strong and the delicate things
Instinct with the joy and the beauty
Of song and of soaring wings;
Nightingale, heron and seagull,
Bobolink, lark-and then, ·
I think that He smiled a little
As He tilted the tail of the wren,
As He made the owl’s face solemn
And twisted the blue jay’s crest,
As He bent the beak of the parrot
And smoothed the oriole’s vest,
As He burnished the crow’s jet plumage
And the robin’s breast of red;
“In the cold of the northern springtime
The children will love it,” He said.
So some were quaint and cunning,
And some were only fail-,
And some He gave a song to,
And lo, the birds of the air.
And the snippets of things left over,
He tossed out under the skies,
Where, falling, fluttering, flying,
Behold, they were butterflies!
Not long after, I could not help but wonder, could this be it?!. The metaphorical picture of God`s creation similar to that of an artist in that poem made me realise that with all their uniqueness and complexities, humans to this world are just like the pearl earring to that painting. Rushing through the dictionary investigating the linguistic roots of the word “Bashar” which mean human in Arabic, I found that it is indeed related to whatever is pleasing and beautiful. Only then I realised that we are not here just to be working in this world, our existence is meant to beautify the world. It justifies a lot of other things to me, why for example, paintings of an empty desk under the tree look somewhat sad and incomplete, why the empty house or the city in a lockdown is just not the same. Only I have come to know this answer, in such depth, I started truly appreciating my existence, and that is the point.
I cannot stress enough that cognition is embodied and that humans know things using their bodies and not the mind. The body is exposed directly to the qualities of these great works that communicate powerfully and beautifully. This is what helps in the healing journey for those who are struggling; an open, calm and welcoming invitation to consider the humility of their experiences of the world by experiencing it differently. By communicating the appreciation for their existence and making them reassured that their world still has something to offer that can change the way they feel significantly so that they better experience life instead of feeling trapped, and finally realising that they still have something beautiful to offer, their world will not be the same.