The Beauty of the Material

Back to art.  I’ve missed it, it’s fun, and one can only talk about academic publishing so much.*

In discussing a painting, drawing, print, etc., most of the time the focus is on what the painting is of—what it represents.  For instance, consider this painting:

If asked what it was, there would be several obvious, and correct, answers, mostly relating to the depiction of the Madonna and Child.  The chances of someone pointing out that it’s not actually a painting, but rather a slightly out-of-focus photograph (sorry . . .) of a painting in the National Gallery are probably slim, and likely to result in accusations of smartassery.  However, the fact that it’s a tempera on panel is likely to be mentioned—certainly in the title card next to the painting in the museum, if nowhere else.

There’s something interesting in that statement.  It’s not simply “tempera on panel,” but “tempera on panel.”  In talking about the painting, we treat the material components as if they were indicative of the genre of the piece, but not as if they were the work itself.  Perhaps more interesting, when we discuss plural art objects using their material tags, the mass nouns used to denote many/most artistic materials (“tempera,” “marble,” “porcelain,” “bronze,” etc.) become count nouns (“temperas on panel,” “the Elgin Marbles,” “blue-and-white Chosun porcelains,” “the Freer Chinese Bronzes,” etc.).  While we refer to art objects by their material components, it is clear that, somehow, we are exceptionally conscious of them acquiring certain properties beyond their matter.

Blah blah, Aristotle, hylomorphic composite of matter and form, things are named by their form, not their matter, etcetera.  Thanks, canned philosopher answer; now, tell me, if that’s entirely the case, why still use the material label?

One answer—perhaps obvious, sure, but it’s an answer—is that we are inherently interested in how a work of art was made, who made it, and from what.  The matter is as much a part of the origin of a work as where and when it was made, so it make sense to include it.  Plus, the use of one material over another—say, oil rather than watercolor—does determine to some degree the process by which the artist creates.  Thus, the genetics of an art object are dependent on the matter from which it comes.

Another is that we categorize and compare works by their materials, and, by extension, the techniques used to work those materials.  Bronze has certain optical, tactile, and acoustic qualities that make it good for finished sculptures, as well as certain physical ones that make it good for sculpting.  What’s more, the basic idea behind bronze casting hasn’t changed that much in the last 3000 years; sure, we now use different and more efficient tools and materials, but the basic technique of pouring molten bronze into a mould?  In many ways, that hasn’t been changed for millennia.  The skills and artistic vision needed for a modern bronze caster are similar to those an ancient worker would have needed.  By focusing on the material, we can see how different artists used similar (or evolving) techniques to create distinct works.

However, these answers, as well as many others that could be given, still view the matter as something subservient to the form, or even the technique used to impart it.  Is there not a sort of beauty inherent to certain materials in themselves, even beyond any formal considerations?

This is an aesthetic vision not commonly seen in Western philosophy—or at least in the dominant strains that survived past the fall of Rome and/or early Modernism—but is seen in at least one school of Japanese aesthetics.  Of course, to call wabi-sabi purely “Japanese” at this point would probably be incorrect; while it certainly does have its philosophical origins in a Zen Buddhist metaphysics and is the dominant aesthetic theory in the largest schools of cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony, thanks to the influence of Bernard Leach and other Japanese-trained potters, the wabi aesthetic has become perhaps the most influential ideology in contemporary pottery.**

Wabi-sabi is hard to describe; most sources that try to either devolve into pseudo-mystacism and quoting poetry or trust as much to examples as formal definitions.  It’s not helped by the fact that the dictionary definitions of the two words used to mean something like “lonely,” “isolated,” and “desolate,” “withered.”  While there certainly is a sort of austerity and sobriety to this aesthetic, as well as a tendency to prize that which is a little insufficient or a bit flawed, it’s certainly not a sad ideal—rather, it seeks to avoid any sort of emotional extreme, living in the many sorts of grey, keeping to a course that thinks, above all, that this too shall pass.


It’s an aesthetic that emphasizes the impermanence of form and the primacy of the material.  All forms given to matter come to be and then pass away; what is permanent is transcendental and beyond matter, but all else is in a constant state of becoming.  Atoms coalesce in the swerve, seem to form the objects of our everyday experience, then dissolve into randomness again.  Yesterday, the clay was an amorphous lump; today it is a bowl; tomorrow it shall be shattered, the next day repaired, and the day after that, reduced to dust.  What you have before you is merely how things are at this particular moment in time.  Be mindful of these things, as this moment, this way of being, will never again come to pass—indeed, all these things shall pass away.

It’s not exactly a cheery aesthetic, true, but it’s not entirely miserable either.

Alright, enough with my blending Zen with Epicureanism (or just using what they have in common).  The upshot of all this for aesthetics is that, as the form is just a way the matter happens to be arranged at a particular moment in its transitioning between a plurality of forms, then the matter that receives the form should have some dignity and worth in itself.  Its properties and qualities ought to be enjoyed, as they will endure long after the present shape has been lost.  Indeed, it is not clear whether, say, a stoneware tea bowl ought to be understood as a tea bowl made of clay or clay given the form of a tea bowl; both matter and form are given emphasis, and are to be appreciated, the one because it is transient and will never appear quite like this ever again, the other because it is what endures beyond many changes.

One of the unique things about the aesthetic appreciation of material qualities is that a different emphasis is placed on the use of the senses.  It’s possible to appreciate the form of a thing without touching it, but some of the most important material qualities can only be known by handling a thing.  The clay used in a bowl may be dark and toasty from a hard reduction firing, but it’s also probably a bit rough—though not unpleasantly so—dense, and warm in the hand.  The clay used by the potters of the Picuris pueblo is known for both its slight green tint and shiny bits of mica, but what about the smoothness of its burnished surfaces or the light weight of its thin earthenware walls?  Statuary marble is often chosen because its pale color doesn’t obscure fine detail in shadow—but what of its smoothness and coldness when touched?  Pygmalion could craft a statue that looked perfectly lifelike, to be sure, but it was the warmth of Galatea’s flesh that showed her life.

Sure, most museums don’t exactly look too kindly on people who go around touching their stuff, and I doubt arguing that you’re trying to experience the beauty of material qualities is going to keep you from being thrown out on your ear.***  Still, there is a neglected aspect of the beauty of things, one found as much in what a thing is as what it’s been made to look like.

*Okay, I’m sure some can rant ad infinitum, but that’s a bit dull.  I’d rather not.
**Yes, there’s been a fair bit of reaction against wabi-sabi in recent years—the whole Bernard Leach/Shoji Hamada/Warren Mackenzie Japanese-style pottery complex got to be a bit too much—but it’s a rebellion against a particular Japanese aesthetic, rather than a simple abandonment of it.  Even in consciously rejecting the wabi-sabi ideal, the influence of this aesthetic is still evident.
I should also mention that I don’t think by any means that Japanese art, much less Japanese pottery, is the only thing that embodies this ideal.  Part of it is that I’m somewhat familiar with ceramics, part of it is that most of the studies of materialistic aesthetics deal with Japanese arts and crafts, and part of it is just that Japanese pottery makes for good and handy examples.  I think that Taos and Picuris pottery, for instance, embodies the wabi ideal at least as well as anything that came out of the Mino or Seto kilns, and is as worthy of serious artistic study and consideration.
***Though some museums, like the Sackler/Freer, will let you make appointments to do just that—get thrown out on your ear.
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One thought on “The Beauty of the Material

  1. Pingback: Yves Klein and Interpretation III: Much Ado About Nothings « Intentio Lectoris

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