ALERT: Be prepared to slow down. Glass, greenery, and mind-alteration ahead.
Last week I was at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami where the 83 acres of barely tamed palms, cycads, and flowering trees were embedded with the blown glass art of Dale Chihuly. It was glorious, and forced me to rethink my beliefs about beauty.
Beauty is not absolute. We may cluster around Monet’s waterlilies, Venus de Milo, and Vermeer’s woman with a pearl earring and gasp in awe, but beauty is not absolute.
My heart may skip a beat over any painting by Odilon Redon or Wassily Kandinsky. Yet, beauty is not absolute.
We may feel a visceral snap, zap, ping that seems to have come across 40,000 years to reach us when we look at cave wall drawings of bison, horses, and deer. Still, beauty is not absolute.
To keep it simple let’s focus only on the visual arts even though the principle that beauty is relative applies to our perception of beauty in music, poetry, dance, film, and humans.
The functioning principle is: Beauty is relative because humans decide individually what they believe is beautiful and what they believe is not. The work of art is not saying to itself “I am beautiful.” We do that, and we have different opinions.
Humans assign beauty and other values to art based on filters inside ourselves that we do not even realize exist. Everything we see passes through these filters and is judged – tainted or enhanced – by them. We feel that we are discovering beauty or ugliness when, in fact, we are assigning beauty, ugliness, and all sorts of other qualities to art – and so much more.
The filters are determined by where we live, when we live, our experience, our education, and our wildly-varied personal quirks. It is all personal. There is no other explanation for Elvis on black velvet.
This is not to say visual arts are inert, flat, dead. They have internal resonance determined by their color combinations and spacial relationships. Paintings and sculpture have “chords” just like music. Their colors, scale, and depth can be analyzed and charted. They may be “harmonic” or discordant.
The majority of people prefer “harmonic” – that is, mathematically balanced – resonance where the light spectrum of different colors feel “connected” with each other and the spacial relationships feel cohesiveness, i.e. most people don’t like things to “clash.” Most of us like art we perceive to resonate harmonically inside itself that, by extension, then resonates inside us.
Until last week I never resonated with the blown glass works of Dale Chihuly. I found them stunning but soulless. Analytical, intellectual, a little too like a painting by Salvador Dali. Slick. Lacking the mess of human emotions.
But the idea of walking through the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden to see Chihuly’s glass works in sito was intriguing. Besides, my host was charming, and it was a sunny day with blue skies over Miami.
My friend and I were enchanted, and I saw Chihuly’s art as for the first time.
Suddenly the works were not shallow, but sensuous, brilliant, outrageous, and organic. Yes, organic. They created an Alice in Wonderland world where everything was alive, and slightly dangerous. They rose from the earth among vines and flowers. They “bloomed” and thrived on the sun like the carbon-based life around them.
The works resonated with the plants. Newts crawled on them, dragonflies rested on them, and birds walked among them. The plants, animals, insects, and glass were at home with each other.
This 180 degree turn in perception reminded me of a book I read years ago. The author explored our ability to change instantly what we think is ugly to what we think is beautiful, our ability to re-perceive.
She used the example of palm trees, how she considered them ugly until one day she saw them as beautiful. Reading that, I suddenly no longer saw palms as ugly but as beautiful.
Hold on. We’re going to take this to its extreme.
Years ago, within seconds of starting to meditate on a beach in California, I watched the setting sun become the center of a universe of love that held – in fact, was – a beating heart. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub, through the sky, the ocean, the sands.
The fly came closer, but did not enter. As the fly, I reconsidered. As a person, I felt no abhorrence.
In the suspension of a world divided into beautiful and ugly, what would normally be felt as grotesque was felt as exquisite. I understand this is shocking when viewed from the constraints of normal perception and judgement, but it was a lesson I have never forgotten. It was a world alive in beauty without filters. It touched me so deeply that I could not speak of it for months and then only in tears of wonder.
As humans we assign not only designations of what is beautiful and what is ugly but of what is alive and what is not. We say a tree is alive, but glass is not.
We are as wrong in assigning life as we are in assigning beauty and ugliness. Everything is alive, everything is made of energy.
Sometimes we know this – an hour on the beach looking at the sun over the ocean. Sometimes we don’t know this.
Glass, to me, is now organic, both as the substance of glass and as the expression of an artist.
Most days the filters have less and less power. Most days, there is more and more beauty.
Thank you, my friend, for taking me to the garden. Thank you, Chihuly, for creating new forms of life.
The show continues through May 31. More on Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and its programs at www.fairchildgarden.org.