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Reflections On Art and Design

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

By Cameron John Robbins

Images can be more articulate than words. A picture truly is worth thousands of them. They can express ideas for which we still have no language, and yet somewhere within us, we understand.

The creation and appreciation of art is as universal as the human appreciation of beauty. We may disagree on what we consider beautiful, but we all hold something in that regard. And while nearly everyone is profoundly moved by the majestic beauty of the earth itself (the mountains, the oceans, sunsets, flowers, etc.), nearly everyone also feels an impulse to create more beautiful things.

Relatively few people consider themselves artists. But everyone combines different articles of clothes into an outfit that they find aesthetically pleasing. Everyone rearranges their furniture from time to time, or chooses a new paint color for their walls, or pops a bunch of flowers into a vessel. All of that is the uniquely human attempt to remake their environment and to create something beautiful.

What is a paint brush?

On the one hand, it is nothing more than a bundle of hairs fastened to the end of a stick. A simple, primitive tool.

On the other hand, it is literally a magic wand. By using it, an artist can smear colored pigments suspended in oil onto a flat surface and create a vision; one that can compel generations of people to feel profound, life-altering emotions.

Is that not magical?

What is a painting?

If it is nothing more than an image, then a painting is fundamentally the same as a photograph. In fact, the more realistic a painting appears, the more apt people are to remark on how much like a photograph it seems. Yet there is a vast difference between them.

A photograph is an indiscriminate mechanical record of what was in front of the camera. The skilled photographer may aim her camera judiciously. She may adjust the settings skillfully. And she may make artful alterations to the image in post-production. But the process is still nothing like the creation of a painting.

A painting is an elaborate construction. It is a statement of intention and a record of activity. There is a reason we refer to a new beginning as Starting with a blank canvas. When an artist begins a painting, they have only a vision in their mind of the result they hope to create. To begin creating that vision, they must make a mark on the canvas. That mark is an expression of intention. It is an artefact of the artists physical presence, and their movement through space. Each mark must then be evaluated for its contribution to the ultimate vision. That process must then be repeated thousands of times.

As the painting progresses, the original vision evolves and crystalizes. It may expand or contract, gain new meaning or change directions based on how the emerging painting matches the mental vision, and how each serves the artists intention. And when they are finished, whether the artist succeeded or failed in achieving their vision comes down to the answers to three questions - What did you do? What were you trying to do? How well did you do what you were trying to do?

Why do we decorate our lives?

It isn’t clear what the nature and function of beauty may be. Yet we are inexorably drawn to that which we consider beautiful. Aesthetics are undeniably powerful, but why?

Who knows why we decorate our lives? But from the most isolated primitive tribe to the most technologically advanced society, everyone does it. It seems to be an innate and irresistible human impulse. From cave paintings to gothic stained-glass windows, from Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel to a wretched prisoner scrawling doodles on the wall of his cell with a nail, or graffiti spray painted on an overpass; we all do things to design our environments.

Another universal is that we only create things that we’re attracted to in some way. But what is it that causes our attractions? What does it mean to like or dislike something? What do we mean when we say, I’m in the mood for this, or I’m not in the mood for that? We can even be attracted to radically different things, depending on our changing moods. Is there a common denominator beneath the disparities?

Why is it that the work of some artists, which is clearly masterful in a technical sense, can leave some people elated while others are apathetic or even repulsed by it? And why do we jealously keep some objects around us while we feel disgusted at the thought of living with others? Is it cost, or sentimental associations? Is beauty an imposed social construct? Are there embodied aesthetic qualities in the objects that hold power over us, independent of our will? Is the appreciation of beauty an intellectual exercise, or are we moved by emotions which we then try to justify? Maybe the answer is that it’s all of these and none of them at the same time, as well as so much more.

The environments we create are a reflection of our inner world. But we can also change our inner world by deliberately changing our environments. In either case, the nature and design of our environment is extraordinarily powerful, even in a mystical sense. Clean up your garden and put a fresh coat of paint on the house, and see how the feeling of home changes.

What if our compulsion to design is a quest for harmony and unification? If our thoughts and feelings, even our intentions can be described as a frequency, then perhaps we are drawn to things which harmonize with our wavelength. That may be why we feel comfortable in one setting and uncomfortable in another. Home feels like home because we are in harmony with the environment, and it with us. Perhaps the reason why we are so thoughtful about the ways we dress and decorate our living spaces is because we are always seeking to unify and harmonize the way things are, and the way we are with the way we wish them to be.

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