Deep Form in Art and Nature

By Betty and Theodore Roszak

(reprinted with permission from  Resurgence, 176, May/June 1996, pp. 20-22)

The spiritual crisis of the modern world has been described in many ways. From the viewpoint of the arts, Herbert Read’s diagnosis is among the most incisive. Read believed a serious loss of aesthetic sensitivity has paralleled our progressive estrangement from nature. we suffer, he said, from an ‘atrophy of sensibility’. Art as well as science and technology harbours the illusion that we live outside or above the natural world, and so may treat it as we please, turning it into an object of exploitation for the exclusive benefit of our species.

Over the past century whole philosophical and aesthetic movements have been predicated upon and even dedicated to our alienation from nature as if it were the inevitable human condition.

The essence of modernism has been a deepening immersion in extremes of despair, anxiety, or outright cynicism. Few would dispute that it is the role of art to reflect its times. But ‘reflection’, should include what art itself has to offer to the soul in need. It must look beyond the contemporary wasteland to find life-enhancing possibilities.

Settling for the fashionably anguished or fashionably cynical, mainstream art stops at the city limits of a culture that has lost or forgotten its ecological roots. In a time when so many artists have learned to confabulate with extremes of horror and alienation, the most daring thing an artist can do is to fill a book, a gallery or a theatre with joy, hope and beauty. This is more than a matter of calling for a new ‘movement’ or ‘style’. As the degradation of the planetary environment worsens, we are being forced to recognize that a culture divorced from the biological foundations of lie is simply not sustainable. both environmental ignorance and aesthetic atrophy are rapidly approaching terminal status. To refuse despair has become an ecological imperative.

In her provocative survey of the outer limits of modernism, the art critic Suzi Gablik asks ‘After the avant garde, what’. Her answer can be found in the title of her book The Re-Enchantment of Art. There she writes hopefully of a new art ‘ushered in by twentieth-century physics, ecology and general systems theory, with its call for integrative and holistic modes of thinking.’ The terminology Gablik uses is drawn from modern science, but the re-enchanted sensibility she calls for takes us back to the shamanic roots of art.
On the far side of modernism artists may find they have a great deal to ‘learn from Lascaux’. This is not a matter of scavenging the ‘primitive’. There has been enough of that in the twentieth century. Too often the effort to salvage ancestral images has been animated by a domineering consciousness, one that insensitively ransacks or even plunders the tribal cultures. Lately, spokespeople for traditional societies have taken issue with such invasive practices. Jerome Rothenberg’s ‘ethno-poetics’ is a better approach. It seeks to redress this essentially colonialist attitude by preserving and enhancing the human values that connect us with primitive people. Our goal should not be to borrow from elsewhere, but to search among our own cultural resources, perhaps even in modern science and industrialism, for ways to restore art to the status it has always held among primary people as a form of knowledge..

In the modern western world, the Romantics were the last major cultural movement to assert the ‘truth of the imagination’, defending art as a way of knowing the world that equalled or surpassed scientific reason. In their resistance to what Blake called ‘Satan’s Mathemitik Holiness’, their goal was not to reject science hut to enlarge it. Newtonian science sought to understand the world by a process of reductionism. The method may be legitimate enough, but it can carry over into reducing in value. Phenomena deprived of their dignity and vitality become ‘nothing but … nothing but’. They are cheapened by the very act of knowing. In contrast, the Romantics sought to understand by augmentation. In Blake’s terms, they sought ‘fourfold vision’ rather than ‘single vision’. From the Romantic perspective, a landscape by Constable makes our knowledge of nature bigger: art adds to what we learn from any combination of physics, biology, geology and chemistry. It tells us the world is (to offer a poor verbal translation) magnificent, perhaps sacred, therefore deserving of reverence. At its highest level, it transforms our consciousness by uniting us with Deep Form in the natural world.

By ‘Deep Form’ we mean the correspondence between formative processes of mind and formative processes in nature. As Coleridge put it, ‘the rules of the imagination are themselves the very powers of growth and production.’ For the Romantics, recognizing this congruency between creativity in art and in nature was not a mere subjective reflex, it was as much a fact as anything a botanist tells us about photosynthesis or a geologist about continental Drift. Deep Form offers us the knowledge that an authentically deep ecology requires in order to place us in a respectful, sustainable relationship with nature.
‘Great works of art,’ Goethe believed, ‘are works of nature just as truly as mountains, streams and plains.’ The oneness of art and nature has not been wholly beyond the reach of scientists themselves. Even as tough-minded a Darwinian as Thomas Huxley once admitted to the fact that ‘in travelling from one end to the other of the scale of life, we are taught one lesson, that living nature is not a mechanism, but a poem.’

Georg Groddeck, Freud’s most eccentric follower, was among the few psychotherapists who granted art an epistemological status of its own. An admirer of Goethe, Groddeck regarded art as the key criterion of sanity. Healthy art creates a healthy soul, sick art creates neurosis. Groddeck believed that, since the renaissance, the art of Western society has been corrupted by an excessive humanism. He warned that when we turn away from nature we lose ‘the chance of cultural development, cease to recognise our dependence upon the universal whole, and direct our love, fear and reverence only upon the strivings and sufferings of our fellow men. ‘ This degenerates into a narrow psychologism especially as our lives come to be bounded by what the neo-Romantic poet Robinson Jeffers called ‘the incestuous lie of the cities’.

It is heartening to see how the sense of Deep Form has managed to survive in the arts despite all that urban industrial society has done to shatter the natural continuum. We can find celebrations of Deep Form among some of the masters of modernism, a small, gallant contingent who never lost their nourishing connection with the Earth beneath the pavement. While their style is distinctly of our time and place, their sensibility allies them to the dawn of human culture. Paul Klee is a leading example. He once gave this advice to a fellow art teacher:
Lead your students to Nature, into Nature! Let them learn by experience how a bud is formed, how a tree grows, how a butterfly opens its wings, so that they will become as rich, as variable, as capricious as Nature herself. Perception is revelation, follow the ways of natural creation, the becoming, the functioning of forms. That is the best school.’

According to Werner Haftmann, Klee collected skeletons of small animals, mosses, bark and lichen, shells and stones, beetles and butterflies. ‘They were most carefully selected, hr if one can see through them and master the laws governing their existence and their form, nature itself becomes transparent, the spirit moves and the artist eels compelled to attempt similar acts of formal creation.’

Similarly, Emil Nolde subscribed to a deeply organic aesthetic. He too sensed the forces of nature that work within the artist, bringing us the knowledge of an animated universe. ‘My aim,’ he said, ‘was that colours should be transmitted to the canvas, through myself as the painter, with the same inevitability as when Nature herself is creating forms, just as minerals and crystals are formed, just as moss and seaweed grow.

One can name many others whose work is an expression of Deep Form. They are not the dominant movement in twentieth-century art, but they appear here and there like upstart springs that flow from the distant shamanic sources of their vocation. The voice of the Earth sounds throughout Walt Whitman and his major disciple Pablo Neruda. Georgia O’Keeffe must be numbered among the company and so too Emily Carr, who so vividly recalls in her diaries the unitive experience that comes with the discovery of Deep Form. ‘I woke up this morning with ‘unity of movement’ in a picture strong in my mind. . . . For long I have been trying to get the movement of the parts. Now I see there is only one movement. It sways and ripples. It may be slow or fast but it is only one movement sweeping out into space but always keeping going – rocks, sky, one continuous movement.’

The Artist, like a tree, drinks up nourishment from the depths and from the heights, from the roots and from the air, to bring about a crown of leaves. The organic metaphor is essential here to the concept of Deep Form. Nature is reborn through artistic vision. ‘Think what it would be like, [Italo Calvino once wrote] to create a work outside the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring.’
Yes, and to the stones, clouds, and stars.

Deep Form reveals the web of vital relationships embedded in all things its vision of the universe is what Read called ‘a prodigious animism’. It reminds us that the great drama of our time is the discovery that all things and creatures on Earth share a common destiny. We are linked to one another in what the poet Robert Duncan once called a ‘symposium of the whole’.

Duncan’s poetry is among the most eloquent appeals for the creation of what the Deep Ecologists have called an ‘ecocentric community’. She writes, ‘to compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign, the animal and vegetative, the unconscious and the unknown, the criminal and failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.’ The words echo Klee’s profession: ‘I sink myself beforehand in the universe and then stand in a brotherly relationship to my neighbours, to everything on this Earth.’

As examples of work that embodies the full ecological significance of Deep Form in the visual arts, we have chosen two artists; both are English now living in California. Gordon Onslow Ford began his artistic lie as a surrealist. From that school he took his powerful introspective orientation. Now in his eighties, Onslow Ford has gone well beyond the purely personal subconscious that delimited surrealism. In his major work we enter territory where inside and outside, microcosmos and macrocosmos, merge and mirror each other. He inhabits ‘an inner world beyond dreams’, where ‘the world is the subject and the painter eventually becomes one with what is happening in the world.’

Onslow Ford’s is an activated space where, in an instant, matter becomes energy and energy matter. He speaks of his paintings as experiments in ‘ecomorphology’ that offer us the inner, vision experience of such otherwise speculative scientific concepts as the black hole and the Big Bang. His canvases become visual hymns to the material foundations of life and mind in the cosmos.

Christopher Castle’s art is also a vision of the inner energetic spaces, the worlds of inner earth. Both he and Onslow Ford are concerned with an organic concept of space and matter. Castle, who identifies his work as ‘geomantic’, creates layered archaic images that reverberate with those hidden, telluric forces that our ancestors experienced as animate and divine. This requires the closest attention of the viewer: lines of force, growth patterns, seeds, stones, the folds and fissures of land, and the dark pulsating symbols of ancient sites. In Castle’s work we view the landscape, usually a sacred site, simultaneously from above, from below, from the air, from beneath the earth.

Both artists present us with a world of unbroken inter-relationship, with a space vibrating with energy, with a depth not of perspective but of multiplicities. Oscillations of figure and ground occur in which images appear, disappear, then appear again. In Onslow Ford’s work, as in the tracings of subatomic particles in a cloud chamber, form appears and disappears mysteriously in that boundary zone at the moment of creation. Castle draws upon Neolithic patterns spirals and zigzags imprinted on sky or earth. He reclaims the runic script of nature, the sinuous serpentine movement of dark, telluric powers, rising from great depths to mirror the heavens.

As stylistically different as the two painters may seem at first glance, both assert the vital link between the artistic celebration of from and the real existence of form in the world. In their work, aesthetic pleasure becomes knowledge, the mind is thrown open to that primordial form-making power from which the cosmos has arisen.

Deep Form offers the artist a new repertory of gestures instead of grasping, seeing, mastering, struggling, it attempts a tender touching, a non-interfering gaze, a receptive bonding with Earth and the other. The dark, submerged feminine reappears as image and informing spirit, a new anima mundi with her rich welter of sensuous experience in colour, scent and sound. Wherever Deep Form wells up among the poets, the painters, the architects, the performers, life is made whole again and the universe is re-animated. The creative imagination returns us to an aesthetic both old and new, to a mode of knowing the natural world which can be the ally of science. The human again becomes an integral part of nature, life and mind become part of a vital matrix as vast and as old as the universe. This primal ecological insight views human art not as anomaly or arbitrarily fashionable decoration, but as integral to the natural order, the common root being inherent formative processes at work at every level of reality from the structure of atoms to the formation of galactic clusters.

Betty Roszak is a poet who has written and lectures on eco-feminism.
Theodore Roszak is a Professor of History at California State University.
He is the author of The Voice of the Earth

Follow these links to find out more about the artists mentioned in the article
Christopher Castle    Onslow Ford    Suzi Gablik    Robinson Jeffers
Paul Klee                      Emil Nolde        Georgia O’Keeffe