On Structure and Beauty
Photo by Linda Laino
Every artist and writer has their own approach to the creative act, and what leads them to arrive at the essence of their particular expression, but regardless of the outcome, and whatever the materials, at its core, every creative form contains structure and beauty. These two attributes give us a foundation to help form meaning in art.
They’re evident in the plastic and functional arts, but also dance, music and all forms of writing. Structure not only provides the foundation as the word suggests, but can contribute to the very beauty that captivates us: the visible vaulted ribs of a 15th century Gothic cathedral adds to its grandeur and genius of engineering. Or the elegance of a simple spider web in the forest. We marvel at nature’s intelligent design while drawn in by the beauty created against a backdrop of rain, ice or sunlight.
I took the above photo while on the Caribbean island of Curacao. I captioned that this little shell lineup was “my idea of structure” that week. Even on vacation it seems, we naturally want to have a little structure. As humans, we are conditioned to rely on it.
Repetition, the foundation of structure has an elemental attraction. We repeat many actions on a daily basis and sometimes call them habits. Some of these, we know are good and necessary, like exercise or brushing our teeth. Science has taught us that with repetition, we create grooves or neuro pathways in our brains for that particular habit. Once established, these habits (healthy and unhealthy) become second-nature.
Repetition is also a fundamental part of songs, prayers, and mantras. There is a reason for this, and maybe why we often only recall the refrain of a song while forgetting the rest. We are cyclical as humans and our response to cycles is comfort, even though we may not be conscious of it. Reciting or singing a refrain is often soothing.
The structure in our lives helps to ground us in between flights of what sometimes feel like out-of-body-experiences with beauty. In the creative process, structure is often consistent, while beauty ripples and flows — sometimes unbidden — merging the perfect pair.
Photo: Linda Laino
Most of us aspire to spontaneity, as this descriptor often makes us sound more exciting. On the surface, structure sounds stiff and staid. Someone who is “structured” is someone who never learned to color outside the lines. Like list makers who need to know what’s coming next in order to avoid the anxiety we often associate with chaos.
But structure has an elegance that helps make sense of the world. Artists encounter the world of chaos in the studio with a certain amount of anxiety. Making art inherently embodies this kind of anxiety because an artist rarely knows what is coming next. But this is also the very thing that keeps art-making exciting!
Just as in life, we are lured by curiosity (morbid or otherwise) into situations that feel tenuous or scary, artists dive passionately into the unknown over and over, unsure of what will result. Structure in the form of composition, pattern or verse keeps us with one foot on the ground and gives us something to rebel against.
When I was a young fiber student in art school, I fell in love with structure. For a number of years, my art form began with tapestry weaving. When I learned to “dress” the loom — threading a thousand cords through a narrow metal reed and heddles in myriad sequences — some kind of calm would enter my body. Others might have found the job tedious or boring, but to me, it was meditative.
Repetition suited me. I firmly believe that studying textiles allowed me to more astutely hone in on patterns and structures in the world, both natural and manmade, and to incorporate them visually into my work.
So then, what is beauty? A color-streaked sunset, a dewy rose, the ever-present moon? A question so vast and deep, poets, artists and visionaries have been answering since forever, by trying to capture it. Beauty has always been both fluid and personal, not to mention mercurial, and therefore notoriously hard to capture. One person’s beast is another’s beauty as we know. And what of nature’s terrible beauties? A string of tornados racing across the plains of Kansas will kill and devastate many, but the awe that we experience watching this display of power can take our breath away. Surely, something that takes our breath counts as beautiful.
Sometimes the beauty of something is not apparent right away. Certain aspects of it need to sink in and be known more intimately. Like a long friendship, paintings and poems need time to enter our minds and hearts in order to grab our devotion. We need to get to know them.
Repetition aids in this as well. A poem should be read aloud at least a few times before it may begin to have an affect on us. We return to view the same paintings over and over in an attempt at a fuller understanding. In this way, we develop an intimate relationship with art’s beauty and learn to recognize it when we see it.
There will always be certain forms of beauty that are indisputable, usually having to do with grand nature or architecture. No one has stood before the Grand Canyon or inside Notre Dame and not thought beautiful as part of their jaw-dropping response.
The first time I went to Florence, I gave myself a wrenched neck by constantly looking up at the myriad painted and gilded ceilings in all of the churches and museums there. Beauty in these forms universally captures us because we are stunned by the vision. But just as grand displays of nature, or buildings conceived as art can move us, we are as well, fascinated with the various colorful patterns of even the tiniest insect.
It’s not objective beauty that necessarily moves us but it is our perception of that beauty that enthralls, because it connects our emotional life to something we just discovered with one of our senses. The most moving art includes the viewer as co-creator, with something to contribute to the experience, and in that moment, we share in the artist’s profound emotion. Rilke thought this kind of exchange was quite meaningful declaring, “The rich language of these intimate confessions is what we call beauty.”
Photo of Notre Dame, Paris, by Design Pics
In terms of visual art, “beauty” is not necessarily the same as powerful. But striving to create a compelling, complex, or ambiguous image, can lead us to beauty. A compelling image extends beyond our viewing or reading time, by crawling through our senses and emotions, continually deepening the experience. The creative process itself is similar, and ultimately how artists are able to convey that experience to an audience.
When I was 19, slinging drinks in a university town, a regular bar customer once gave me a piece of writing that was entitled The Certainties. It was hand written and long ago lost to time, but I kept it for many years and took it out to read on occasion.
Without remembering the specifics, it was essentially a poetic teaching on life. The basis of thought being about cycles. How nature is rooted and built on them, and so we as humans — products of nature — are as well. Knowing the sun will always rise, and spring will always come gives us room to invite the chaos, while keeping some sort of equilibrium. As we come to accept this dance, it allows us to come to our shared humanity.
We are all of us the same skeletons beneath our no-two-alike beautiful skins. We are as wed to structure and beauty as we can possibly be. You don’t have to be an artist to have that experience, but these are the components that artists employ every time they paint a picture, compose a piece of music, or pen a poem. And it is the very thing that nature employs in order to perform everyday miracles. You could say, structure and beauty are what make art — and the world — go ‘round.