Fine Arts Column: The space between nature and art


Some years ago, while taking a 100-level philosophy class, I was told by my professor that one of the few opinions she intended to hold strongly to during class was that nature could not possibly be art. I, being that one smart-alecky student, of course decided to write my final essay on why nature could possibly be considered art, for the sheer thrill of it.

Thankfully, the professor decided to give me an A. Whether this was despite or because of my audacity I may never know, but it remains a point I still reflect on occasionally, that ill-defined yet ever present relationship between nature and art.

The influence that nature has had on art both as a subject of it and an aid to its creation is undeniable. Nature has become the focal point of entire sub-genres of art: in painting, the landscape; in music, the pastorale; etc.

As regards nature as an aid to the creation of art, who among us is unfamiliar with the image of the artist retreating to the countryside for the sake of dedicating himself wholeheartedly to finishing a novel or a piece of music? This quality of nature for the artist can perhaps be considered a sort of silence, a removal of self from the quotidian cacophony of human existence, which serves to reconnect us to what is transcendent from our everyday experience.

It is a characteristic shared by art and religion that in both we encounter something (or someone) which is wholly other from our day-to-day lives and yet in which we seem to feel our truest selves. (This, of course, is why shadow is as important as light for a painter like Caravaggio, and why sacred silence is an important aspect of the Church’s liturgy.)

Seeing nature reflected in art is one thing, but what about the conception of nature as a sort of art? Clearly the two bear some qualities in common – both are created things with a sense of beauty and form. Often, we refer to God as “the master Artist,” praising him for the beauty he has instilled into this world he has made.

Perhaps it is here that my professor from philosophy class would raise an objection. Surely, art that reflects nature is only a copy of something greater, with an entirely different purpose. Surely, nature is more of a raw material from which art is made. Pure art, one might argue, shouldn’t have practical function, whereas nature sustains countless living things and lends stability to the environment of the world as a whole.

One might question what is meant, of course, by “pure art” or “practical function;” if I put a painting in my house to impress guests and bolster my social standing, perhaps that is a practical function. Some distinction seems to linger between the two, for often art is praised not when it is an exact replica of what is found in nature, but precisely because it obscures or veils some aspect of reality and exaggerates or emphasizes another.

At the very least, in the spirit of philosophers and smart-alecky students everywhere, I refuse to point to a real and definite answer to the question in this column. I remain, however, sincere in my hope that I have provided herein some food for thought.