Georgia O'Keeffe III
Bill Long 6/30/07
Art, Emotion, Abstraction and Life
One of the reasons I visit art museums is that I often encounter, in the artistic work, a real flesh and blood person who is trying to communicate something about life in his/her work. When visiting the Georgia O'Keeffe museum in Santa Fe (the 10th anniversary of the museum is coming up in mid-July), I found myself being captured not only by her art but also by her sense of beauty, abstraction, and life. This essay reflects on flowers and art, on emotions and abstraction as I was taught by Georgia O'Keeffe on a memorable June morning in Santa Fe.
Beginning with a Few Quotations
The exhibit entitled "Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction," encourages reflection on the relationship of the "real" to the "abstract." We Americans are, we say, hard-headed practical people. We don't have much time for "useless abstractions." We like people who are "real," and we normally seem to favor those expressions of art that "show something." Yet O'Keeffe, who spent all her time looking at things and painting them, had this to say, about fragments, art, realism and abstraction:
"I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could...I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at...not copy it."
O'Keeffe had originally been trained in 19th century "imitative realism," where the goal was to try to reproduce nature and life as one saw it. But she was discouraged with this method, and she gave up painting until she saw the work of Arthur Dove, who articulated his aim in painting as to express his emotions on canvas. What O'Keeffe was wrestling with was a philosophical weakness in "realism," and that weakness is the assumption that you can reproduce something precisely as it is and that, further, you ought to do so. I like her emphasis on "fragments" in the above quotation because it captures my approach to knowledge. For example, I have just finished writing five detailed essays on John Fremont's abortive 4th exploration trip (Nov. 1848-Jan. 1849). It was more important to me, and more soul-nourishing for me, to take this small slice of his life and "blow it up" than to try to "describe the whole" of a life. Indeed, knowledge comes with the examination of fragments. Any kind of speculation after that is simply that--an attempt to "reconstruct the whole dinosaur" out of one thigh bone. The general public might like the whole dinosaur, but knowledge is gained when we examine and patiently describe the fragments of life.
From the exhibit: "Nothing is less real than realism...Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."
How true. Those of artistic temperament, who want to take the various "texts" around them and give treatment to the texts, to "read" them in a new way, to "paint" them, to "write" them, realize right away that you can never give all the relevant facts truly to set the proper context for understanding something. Lawyers are taught that fact-selection and presentation are crucial to making one's case. The best we can do in presenting or describing the world is to give an "angled" treatment of something. We filter and select, giving more "color" to one feature than another. We are all caricaturists of sorts.
Also from the exhibit: "Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or a tree cannot make good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint."
Ah, now we are getting somewhere. Painting, and really all creative work, is a dialogue between the self and the objects before it. When a preacher enters the pulpit, s/he has (I hope) connected the dots between the texts for the week and the tugs on his/her own soul to bring a fresh word to the people. The "text" of life are all around us, and part of the joy of discovery in our day is that almost anything can become a text, a subject matter for creative expression. One can write a book on Kachina dolls (Hopi dolls) or on Katsina, a section of Nigeria. You could spend your life trying to explain one flower, because, as O'Keeffe says in another quotation,
"Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time--like to have a friend takes time."
But she also had a "practical" dimension in her. When commenting on her blockbuster works from the mid-1940s on the pelvis bone, entitled "Pelvis with Shadows and the Moon" (1943), she said that she threw in the moon for her less abstract viewers. That is, the skeletal pelvis lying across the desert sand, or in a slanted position, might just have been "too abstract" for her viewers. By "anchoring" her work with the moon, everyone could identify with it, and those inclined to abstraction could still have a field day with their own mind.
The Role of Emotion
We know now that creative expression is a conversation of sorts between the needs and desires of our own heart and the world, or fragment of the world, we have decided to explore and re-present. It takes some courage to be a creative thinker and writer, because expressing creativity takes time and time is something that is precious in our day. There is so much emphasis on "performance" or not "wasting time" or "being productive" in our culture that one has to tamp down these insistent voices in order to hear what nature and life wants to teach us. O'Keeffe encourages us to listen to life, to observe it, to let it speak its words to us and then to try to put in our own way what we have seen.
In the exhibit at Santa Fe is a quotation which was on the recorded guide to some of her paintings, and went something like this. She used to have students listen to music and then "paint what they heard." Her approach to art was to see what kind of emotions were triggered by the light, the color, the setting, and then try to express these emotions on canvas. Shouldn't that be the goal of education--not simply to learn the data or to master facts about life (important as they are), but to learn to cultivate, charm, and express the emotions?
Concluding Reflections on Learning
What would happen to the American educational system if we decided not to teach "for the test" (the standardized tests that now dominate American education) or "for the exam" (in college or professional schools), but for the emotions? What if we said that the goal of our education is to learn to understand how we feel about various things, and that we use all kinds of subjects--from a study of astronomy, to Greek myths, to flowers, to mathematics, to literature, to popular culture, to try to unfold our understanding of our own feelings? If this was the case, we certainly would revolutionize our approach to learning. And, we might also discover that valedictorians are not simply those who have learned best how to survive boredom.
Georgia O'Keeffe provides hours of entertainment, instruction and marveling. But, most of all, she helps us do what every good teacher should do--turn back to ourselves to try to understand and embrace the roots of our own creativity.