|Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais|
A common argument against even considering this subject is that the natural/artificial distinction is meaningless for the simple reason that everything is natural. Nature is everything, humans are nature, ergo whatever we are or do must therefore be natural...by definition. Cars are natural, cities are natural, differential equations are natural, petroleum processing is natural, if we bring ourselves to extinction in a nuclear holocaust or environmental collapse well, that'll be natural too...by definition. However, let's suspend just for a moment taking all the complexity of human existence and submerging it in the molecular acid of cold reason until meaning is reduced to one thing or perhaps nothing at all. Instead, we'll imagine for a moment that this distinction might exist and see what these terms could mean and where the boundary between nature and artifice might lie.
Watch your Language
A first step might be looking a bit closer and giving some definitions to the words under discussion. I appreciate etymology for that. Often the origin of words reveals their intended meaning even if that meaning tends to shift over time and place. Nature for instance originally referred to something born. We have the echo of this meaning in the words "nativity" and "natal" care. The Taoist of ancient China held a concept closely allied with this sense of nature called "wu-wei" (無爲), the "not doing" or "not making" yet implying growth as an internally generative cultivation. So perhaps we could come to a provisional agreement that "natural" indicates some thing or action unforced, not deliberate, that presents itself spontaneously, of its own accord.
So what about artificial? Artifice quite literally conjoins "art", which includes what we'd call today "craft", together with "making". As arts and crafts are already things that are made, this word really reinforces the notion that what is artificial is deliberate, intentional and purposeful, in some respects the polar opposite of how we previously defined natural. Yet as originally expressed, the artificial was also something quite human. Which brings us to the thorny question: What does it mean for a human being to behave naturally?
Well, no simple answers will be forthcoming; however, perhaps we'd benefit from looking at language itself as an human phenomenon. Language has been explained as a collection of symbols and signs that occasionally represent but more often serve as a token of or point towards some thing or action. A repeated and fascinating observation is that children instinctively sense which of the sounds around them have symbolic meaning and seem to learn the languages they're exposed to effortlessly. Furthermore, many children have been observed to spontaneously generate their own independent verbal and gesticular vocabulary shared in a subset of siblings and friends. I've vague memories of doing so myself and definitely observed this on a fairly sophisticated scale with my nephews when they were little just a few years ago. Language at some level does seem to be, dare we say, natural human behaviour.
Yet at another level language is confessedly unnatural. We subject our already verbal and often literate youth to at least 12 years and up to as much as 20+ years of what linguists call codification: reading, writing, spelling, grammar, syntax, style and usage are just appetisers for specialised language of a given field. Essentially, years are invested in curbing the will of children to conform to a standardised system of convention. Then when every trace of spontaneity has been forcibly ground out of them, we make silly declarations such as "thought is impossible without language" and "literacy is the key to freedom". Well, that last one is particularly rich after two decades of stern obligation and six figures of inescapable student debt.
Language quite literally is based on ignorance; in adopting a language one ignores the vast cacophony of sound, rather privileging a select few of them for attention and meaning. It is widely acknowledged that there are two paths to knowledge. First it can be directly experienced, bodily and through the senses. However, knowledge can also be conceptualised and this is where language plays a major role. Therein also lies the danger, as we can expand our ignorance to the rich, often inexplicable embodied experience of life itself, instead privileging language with all its constraints as the primal reality we choose to acknowledge. Today we have constructed a highly sophisticated, intellectual, systematised, global society that essentially lives within its own codified projection of reality. My advice is: watch your language, living inside your head is dangerous.
Imitation and Imagination
Traditionally in the world of art, the tension between the natural and artificial was always present and self-aware. In a certain sense "art" is embedded into the word artificial; all art is artifice. Yet nature was revered as an object of study and likewise a subject of the most profound contemplation. How artists and craftsmen confronted artifice in their depiction of nature as you might suspect is a deep personal interest of mine. For the aspiring young apprentice becoming an artist involves a lot of copying, teaching the hand to render what the eye sees, be that the work of master artists or the ultimate wellspring of inspiration: nature herself. This continual act of copying we call imitation, the aspect of artifice that cleaves closest to nature.
Nevertheless, imitating nature is not that easy. Something as simple as a leaf contains a world of complexity. The more you look, the more you see. Also, the medium in which we're representing the the things we see provides further difficulty. Pencil and paper, paint and canvas can only represent in two dimensions what exists in three. Sculptural mediums such as stone, wood or clay are relatively clumsy materials that are incapable of conveying the delicacy, detail and nuance that exist in nature. All of these mediums can only capture a frame, a snapshot of what is most often a dynamic, living reality embedded in a particular time and place, full of smells, texture and temperature. This is where the simple, practical aspect of Imagination enters. The artist must first absorb the infinite complexity of the object under consideration in its context. Then in an analogy to language, the artist ignores all but a handful of qualities to privilege what he considers to be the essence of the thing, his representation is an act of human communication.
In Classical art there is no more recognisable ornament than the acanthus leaf. Furthermore, it is depicted in a dazzling variety of ways, most of which do not occur in nature. The structure of the leaf of the actual acanthus plant is unbelievably complex. There is no end to the detail. That it became the preferred inspiration for rendering in stone is therefore somewhat perplexing. Like the lotus the acanthus became a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. A hardy weed, it is in fact quite difficult to eradicate. Even when you think you've uprooted it completely, there it is again springing back to life the next season. Acanthus features prominently on the Roman Ara Pacis monument, both in the more literal leaf interpretation as well as the flowering stalk and conventionalised scrolling acanthus or rinceaux design. This is of course complete artifice as regards acanthus, adapted from other spiraling vines that are common in the Mediterranean. An artist both highly skilled in imitation of natural forms as well as having developed his imagination to adapt them to a highly stylised design thus created a composition that at once feels natural yet artistic, one could say perfectly human.
In one of Leonardo's most iconic paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks, the scene
depicts a great human drama with divine pretensions. The positioning and lighting of the subjects, the delicacy of the facial features, and the detail of the folding of veil and cloth indeed worthily capture our immediate attention. However, in a nod to nature, the more you look the more you see and we begin to appreciate how much work, experience and inherent skill is found in a painting like this. The foliage certainly was not a bit of filler, a mere afterthought. To the contrary we find the plants and flowers rendered both accurately and artistically. As such they would be immediately recognised by a botanist today. Here we see Imagination operating in its other, higher capacity. Unlike the reduction and conventionalisation typifying ornamentation, in this narrative scene Leonardo paints a picture ostensibly of what was yet in another sense a lofty depiction of what could be. It's an aspirational image that takes the very best of what is and pushes it to the foreground. In essence, we witness here a preeminent example of the distinctly human contribution to the natural.
|botanical detail, The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci|
Entropy and Generation
"The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum" - The second law of thermodynamics, Rudolf Clausius
During the Industrial Revolution scientists and engineers quickly turned their attention to difficulties with the machines that they were constructing. First, in the conversion of fuel into mechanical energy and again in the simple operations of the machine much of that energy was converted and subsequently dissipated in the form of heat. Secondly, the machines themselves would break down over time. In the mid-19th century Rudolf Clausius coined the term "entropy", meaning an "inner transformation", to describe this tendency for things to devolve from highly ordered and complex states into cycles of decay and eventual chaos. As the Enlightenment vision of nature at the time was materialist, this discovered "law" of thermodynamics was projected onto the entire universe. In an unwieldy union with the pre-exisiting Judaeo-Christian conception of God as the great potter and man having been made in his image, there was a correlation made between divine artifice (nature) and man's: it was all going to break down eventually.
To a large extent I believe humanity is still saddled with this world view. For example, the best concept that we seem to have come up with thus far to protect the natural environment is "sustainability". It's not a very good one. The main focus seems to be on improved mechanical systems that are more efficient, produce less waste and utilise cleaner sources of energy. These are directed in turn by self-enclosed control systems be they digital automation primarily associated with industrial production but now increasingly integrated into the state and corporate bureaucracies that constrain and encode behaviour through policies, standards, laws and codification.A vision of life and nature as a machine with systems and code to look after her. In this way of thinking, an improved care of nature comes from advancement in our mechanical models and efficiencies of control systems.
So what's the alternative? A bit of humility; look to nature and learn. Everything we've come to understand about nature indicates that it is the very opposite of entropic. Our universe has cyclically grown and expanded from a raw state of chaos to higher states of successively ordered complexity. Yet we don't have to look far into the infinitude of space to understand this, it's an ongoing process right here on planet earth. Life on earth is generative, so much so that we can see in human timescales the patterns unfolding before us. Land areas devastated by natural disaster or human exploitation heal rapidly if left alone; restated in technical language we could say that life is negentropic, manifesting a tendency to move from disorderly states of chaos to enriched, complex environments. Here is the hopeful part, human beings too are fully capable of being generative. We can and have nurtured for millennia animals and plants bringing land into higher capacities for both cultivation and richer environments for life to thrive. A seeming paradox from a mechanistic perspective, the key to being generative appears to be doing less, at least consciously. Like "nature", "to generate" has the same original meaning "to beget" or "give birth". This can be illustrated with a very personal example. The development from an embryo to a fetus to a delivered child is an extraordinarily complex living process which we still don't fully comprehend. Yet at another level we totally understand, we do it successfully all of the time! We know it so well in fact that we hardly have to think about it.
So once again, what does it mean then for a human to be generative, to act naturally?
I'll leave you to contemplate an ancient Taoist analogy:
"When in doubt look at water, it always knows what to do." Stop trying to flow upstream.
Contributed by Patrick Webb