The relationship between nature and art has long been considered in Philosophy. We can look at Plato as the first point of appeal in explaining this relationship. The idea, essentially, is that art is a kind of mirror for nature.
The second, and likely most familiar to anyone reading this, is Kant’s similar proposal that nature is the exemplification of beauty. Again, leaving art as an inferior aesthetic experience. The comparison, according to Kant, can be made possible with the “picturesque”. This concept advocated that the natural world can be understood in terms of the same aesthetic properties as art; it can be divided into scenes, and this can be compared directly to a painting.
I spoke to Ryan Hoffmann, Australian visual artist about his thoughts on these philosophical ideas, and how they relate to his own experience of art and nature.
When you see something natural is it understanding nature in terms of art, or understanding art in terms of nature?
This has a funny plot hole, because – which is not where you’re going – but it’s interesting because we’re using these natural elements, and then we are nature. To kind of say ‘is one understanding the other’ is, I think, irrelevant, because it’s kind of like nature understanding itself, and we’re just using these things as tools to do that.
The truest answer for me personally though, is that through art, and using nature as a motif in art, but also approaching nature separate from art, they are both used to understand myself. So, if I am painting something that is derived from nature – which I often do – but I still see them as abstract, the representational parts, are kind of seeing the same elements in nature, that I see art doing the same thing. This might be to give me a transcendental experience or kind of see a quality in myself through those things, which I would not be able to see otherwise. This is potentially through a meditative practice or seeing the sides of your footprint or whatever.
The nature of your work seems to suggest that you think art and nature share some aesthetic properties. What are they?
Art for me has always been a language. I’ve always been tactile and visually inclined my entire life and I’ve always understood things this way – even better than having a conversation. There are a lot of artists who think that you don’t have to talk about it through language – it’s one of it own – it’s not the same thing as language. So I suppose they don’t necessarily share aesthetic qualities – what I’m trying to do is take part of one and use it to open peoples’ eyes to something new. It may look like they share aesthetic qualities, I’m actually just taking elements and simplifying them to kind of create a language or something that gives a little part of what I felt in that moment.
If you’re using representation in any way, which my work does, even though it is abstract, you’re kind of still creating a window, like the picturesque idea. But through that I’m searching for something else. That something else is a kind of meditation through creating.
What do you think is elusive about nature that art can present to us more clearly?
The link I make here is what might be elusive is our desensitisation over time. Over time you kind of get desensitised to everything. So going out hiking for example, you might be taken by the scenery, but as you go hiking in the same place over and over again, it loses that potential quality of beauty. So you have to continue to search for new versions of that, and that might become more and more extreme. I suppose the thing that art can do, especially for me because it’s through the creative process that I can approach that in a more palatable way; I can choose when to do it, but you can’t always choose when this happens in nature. In terms of what I’m gaining from both art and nature, I can simulate a similar experience in the studio. This is because beauty for me is not an aesthetic thing, it is a feeling.
Is art an imitation of nature?
Well that’s what I meant by the material elements that make up art. The idea of ‘art’ itself, is an idea, and the further you go back, the more the meaning changes. So potentially what you would say was art now v then, the things that they share are how they operate in a society and what they communicate. When I talk about the material elements, I think about things that are ancient object were just functional objects at the time, but now they’re art. In terms of art imitating nature, as I was saying before, art IS nature; we are nature and these are just things that we used to live. Where I come from is that the art is in in the making, and sometimes the object left behind is kind of like a trace of that process.
Isabella is studying for an MA in Philosophy and is a classically trained pianist, which she still practices on the side. She currently lives in London but is from Sydney, Australia.