Musings on art: passing time with Waldo

When I have been reading Emerson, I see a deeper beauty in many things. The voices of the past offer refreshing insight that is seldom celebrated in modern life, and Emerson’s voice resonates with me.

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We are the sculptors

Often in discussions about art, we focus on aesthetic, beauty, form, or function. I’ve always appreciated fine art, though I have no confidence I can produce anything of merit in this realm. Despite this, Emerson describes the sculptor’s creative process with such poetry that I wish I had such an aptitude with clay.

“Here is the artist himself improvising, grim and glad, at his block. Now one thought strikes him, now another, now another, and with each moment he alters the whole air, attitude and expression of his clay.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ever the individualist, Emerson encourages his reader to place less emphasis on the technicalities of fine art and consider the lone artist from a time long ago. In their solitary workshop they toiled in ignorance of others like themselves, and created their work with no templates, but rather through necessity and inspiration.

In the modern study of fine art, this is easy to forget. Through numerous attempts to conform to a certain style or technique, an aspiring artist can easily lose the essence of themselves and their individuality.

Depth of insight and contemplation determine an artist’s power, their rhetoric, and representations of the world. To Emerson, an artist’s skill is the reflection of one’s soul and, “A man should find in it an outlet for his whole energy.”

He urges us to sculpt our reality accordingly and allow for introspection.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The muse within us

Nature is ever the obliging muse in Emerson’s work. In many of his essays, he refers to nature. He is in awe of the immensity of the world and the opulence of human nature.

“Thus, historically viewed, it has been the office of art to educate the perception of beauty. We are immersed in beauty, but her eyes have no clear vision.”

As a proponent of Transcendentalism, Emerson criticised the view of seeing things only for their economic use. He stressed that “the laws of nature do not divide its beauty from its use. In nature, all is useful, all is beautiful.”

“Art and luxury have early learned that they must work as enhancement and sequel to [nature’s] original beauty.”

In seeking inspiration, I often take a long walk and soak in my natural surroundings. This simple act affords me the necessary clarity to continue being creative. The latin phrase ‘solvitur ambulando’ captures this perfectly, it means “it is solved by walking.” To find inspiration, I simply have to take it in my stride.

The quest for inspiration

Art is the way one perceives and responds to the world. It springs from necessity and, as Emerson describes, is “the height of the human soul.”

We are inevitably attached to the place and time within which we exist, therefore we can never truly free ourselves from this context. As products of our environment, we respond to the world we live in via the medium we feel most confidently and coherently expresses our thoughts, “[…] for it is the inlet of that higher illumination which teaches to convey a larger sense by simpler symbols.”

Art should exhilarate, and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work [revealed] in the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson speaks of new art being born from the old, “The Genius of the Hour always sets his ineffaceable seal on the work, and gives it an inexpressible charm for the imagination.” Adaptations are a vehicle for new art. We borrow and we build upon the canon of art, and we add our own voices to history.

“No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages, and arts of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so wilful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew.”

How fortunate we are that we can learn from those that came before us. Those, like Emerson, who were good enough to document their thoughts for the benefit of future generations. Next time I hit a creative block, I know only to look as far as nature, literature, and within me for my muse.

[First published on The Serenade Files 25 August, 2020.]

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