All Nature Is But Art

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This is another set of salt-and-pepper shakers that my son Asa made me, this one a few years ago. As you can see from this view of their tops, he made them of modelling clay formed around an already-existing set of plain ceramic shakers.

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I’ve asked Asa for an explanation of what he intended them to represent, but he tells me he’d rather hear how I interpret them. So here goes:

To me, this set is the ultimate expression of the idea of binary opposites. They are an animal–most likely a bear?–and a robot. And they are wearing boxing gloves, as if ready to start a match. What can they be but symbolic representations of the most basic conflicts at the heart of our view of life for us on this planet? The bear, clearly, is nature, the wild. The robot represents what we make of the natural–civilization, perhaps, or artifice–what people create as opposed to what remains as we found it. Asa was clearly intending to make a profound statement about our relationship to the environment, right?

Except, of course, that’s not quite right: for a bear in the wild does not smile, as this one appears to be doing. And a bear in the wild does not put on boxing gloves, or for that matter, what appear to be boxing trunks or any other form of human clothing. Meanwhile, also, robots are equally unlikely to be programmed for boxing. And if they were, how likely is it that they put on human-type boxing gloves? Wouldn’t battering rams be better? So while the two things these creatures represent might be understood as being in a conflict, at war with each other, in an eternal and ongoing symbolic boxing match, the characteristics of the actual creatures they represent have been distorted in order to make them express that conflict symbolically. In this way, then, they are more like allegories or political cartoons than like representations of actual creatures. Or perhaps more likely, they are more like typical creatures of the salt and pepper miniverse than like real bears and robots. They are humanized. They are cute. Despite whatever sizeable dangerous forces they represent, they appear to be entirely and completely harmless. Unlike the ship and wave I discussed in my last post, this pair seem to fit quite readily into my collection. They are, alas, and unlike that ship and wave, not art.

One other thing about this pair: they remind me of my days as a grad student in literature studies many decades ago, before structuralism or deconstruction or cultural studies or feminist studies or queer studies existed,when what was still then called “the New Criticism” was at the height of its power. As New Critics, what we literature students did above all (or even exclusively) was produce close readings, detailed interpretations of poems and novels that teased out the structure or pattern of images and ideas that sustained their plots and stories. And we always wrote essays that had two opposites in their title, like “Love and Hate in Hamlet” or “Appearance and Reality in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.'” Back then, there was a common belief amongst the students I knew that, if you couldn’t think of anything else, you could always write an essay about “Appearance and Reality in–” well, in whatever text you’d been assigned to write about. But it was also true that, if all else failed, you could also always write a persuasive essay about “Nature and Artifice in” whatever text you’d been assigned to write about it. We did a lot of talking about nature and artifice, a whole lot. It came naturally to us, and it was the basis of our critical art.  So for me, these shakers of Asa’s remind me of what it was like to be a graduate student back in the sixties.

And come to think of it, maybe it was my grad school training in binary opposites that lies behind my interest in novelty salt and pepper shakers?

And hey, maybe Asa’s set of shakers is actually a clever New Critical interpretation of a favorite of my grad school days, Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” with the bear as the dying generations and the robot as the artificial bird:

The young In one another’s arms, birds in the trees —

Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

. . . . . . . . . .

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

I totally could write an essay about that. Actually, maybe I just did.

2 Replies to “All Nature Is But Art”

  1. I have been informed by a presumably reliable source that that bear might actually be a monkey. Even so, I stand by my interpretation: monkeys are natural, too. And also, I’m intrigued about how once you cutify an animal, i.e., make it round and chubby and smiley, they all start looking like each other–see my previous post “Ambiguously Gay Pigs and Kitties (or Bears)” from Dec. 20, 3012.

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