The art of nature

Silhouette of a bald eagle, Kachemak Bay, Homer, Alaska.

A bald eagle headshot, silhouetted against a glowing sunset, Kachemak Bay, Homer, Alaska. Click the image to view a larger version of the photo.

Hey Folks,

I read a great blog on art yesterday, by Paul Grecian. The subject was a play on the aural equivalent of the old adage, ‘if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it does it make a sound’. Paul takes the viewpoint that art is a human pursuit, and exists only when it has a human audience. “If there is no human to perceive it and translate the experience into an emotion, then there is no art” – I’m not so sure I subscribe to that idea, for a number of reasons.

I think art is a verb; art is something we do. The results of that process might be nice to look at, or not, or nice to listen to, but the essence of art is creating. The act of creating is where art lies, not the products of that process. And we are not at all the sole creators. An American Tree Sparrow calling the tune of the alpine country is as artful as Joshua Bell playing a Beethoven concerto. The dance of the Japanese Red Crowned Crane is glorious. A Bower bird’s building her nest? The song of the wolf pack over the frozen night air is as spell-binding as Aretha or Stevie on a good day, no? What distinguishes human art from the performances of our fellow creatures, other than our own ability (and endeavours) to relate to it?

Art is essentially play. When we talk of making music, it’s no coincidence we use the term ‘play‘. Play teaches us who we are. Play is expressive, creative and participatory. It’s also innate. Play is both personal and communal. Play, unlike work, comes from within, though it may be honed via external sources. Play is in this sense a medium through which expression occurs. Whether that play is Michael Jordan soaring 15’ through the air to dunk a basketball or Nureyev leaping across a stage, I see clear parallels. Animals play all the time; I’ve watched grown grizzly bears play tug-of-war with a stick they found floating in a river.

Paul asks “Maybe it is enough for the creator of a painting, sculpture, photograph, poem, to perceive the work for it to be art, but how much more is it art when there is a second, third, or ten million observers, readers, listeners”? I don’t believe an ‘audience‘ is requisite for art to exist, because I suspect when we use that term we’re framing it awfully anthropocentrically. A wider perspective might be useful.

John Muir wrote that we may ‘receive the good tidings of mountains‘. Many indigenous cultures hold the view that inter-species communication is not just a common occurrence, but the norm. Inupiat Indians, of the arctic north, believe their song to be well-received by the wolverines, ravens and other creatures they share the frozen country with. Tlingkit Indians, of the Pacific Northwest, tell us that ‘glaciers listen‘ or ‘mountains listen‘.

Does a greater audience make something ‘more art‘? I’m listening to Oumou Sangaré sing Djorolen as I write this post, a tune she recorded with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck – Listen to it here – Track #17. Most likely you’ve never heard of it, yet it’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard. Is the incessant, tawdry bellowing of Michael Bolton ‘more art‘ because his audience is far greater in number? American Idol is a TV show, it’s not a system by which we might seek to explore ‘art‘; if anything, I think we can make a reasonable argument that as our audience increases, the answer to ‘how much more is it art‘ would be a negative. Photography prints, for example, mass-produced and marketed via the Wal-mart world, are hardly ‘more art‘ than the hand-made, singly produced works of an artist in his/her home.

Have you ever seen the elephant art? The argument that the elephant needs to be trained to do this applies equally, I think, to people. I’ve taught guitar lessons for nearly 20 years now, and believe me, nobody picks up an instrument and plays music without some time and effort. Some folks spend tens of thousands of dollars, and more, attending schools to learn how to make art, yet we argue that elephants can’t paint like humans without training?

Some folks say that art is self-expression, though I think that’s a limiting perspective. We can’t even fully understand the ‘self‘, I’m not sure we can grapple with extensions of that concept just yet. But if art is indeed self-expression, then surely not just  animals, but indeed all of nature, engage art. The cry of a the loon, the raucous Howler monkey, the dance of the bumblebee, etc, are most certainly communicative, very clearly expressive. But what of the fading light at sunset, or the storm clouds of a darkening mountain range? Are they not forms of expression? Isn’t fall color nature’s last hurrah? Or the frenetic boreal forest on a sunny spring morning isn’t an expression of the joy of life? The wither leaf voices a life well-lived, perhaps as profoundly as any blues tune might.

Perhaps the art of the wolf pack isn’t the art of humans, but possibly that is the reason both wolf packs and humans exist. Parameters, though, can be funny things, and shifting them, even slightly, can often illuminate things more clearly. Certainly the art of Paul Grecian (a fantastic photographer) isn’t the same as my photography either. Nor is my photography the same as my music. I think more likely we tend to frame things in an extraordinarily humanistic manner; the tireless human ego never lets us down, eh? 🙂 I might hazard that the bald eagle soaring overhead this afternoon looked down on myself, seated and eating my lunch on the back deck, and wondered why I wasn’t creating the same glorious circles his wheeling, informal glide carried him on, drafting the winds of the sky.



13 thoughts on “The art of nature

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  2. Mark M

    Well said Carl. It’s hard to write sensibly about the subject of art without getting caught up in semantics.

    The Oumou Sangaré track is great. It led me to the Sasha Paladino documentary ‘Thow Down Your Heart’ about Béla Fleck’s trip to Africa. It’s now in the Netflix queue. Thanks.

  3. Mark

    Great post Carl. You touch on many thoughts that I have had myself over the years, especially when it comes to interpretation. Especially when trying to interpret the visual world, I can’t tell you how many times I have wondered what does this scene look like to the bear, the wolf, the eagle, or the whale. Placing one of our own specific interpretations upon it seems…. so limiting.

  4. Carl D Post author

    Hey Mark M

    Thanks for the comment and kind words, I appreciate it. Yes, that DVD of Béla’s travels in Africa is very good. Unfortunately, one of the coolest music segments in the film, a blues jam in the streets, isn’t on the CD recording – enjoy it on the DVD, it’s awesome. But Oumou’s track is.

    (other) Mark,

    Thank you. It’s so interesting how these other creatures might experience the things we perceive to be ‘real’. I’m quite sure what we see as ‘reality’ is not at all the way bears see things, or eagles or mink or mountains might. That abstract thing you do SO well is a great example of how interpretation functions, especially in art. Powerful stuff!



  5. Paul Grecian


    I am flattered by both your kind words and continuation of this topic on your own site. I would like to explore further 2 points. First, I do not believe that all communication is art but I do believe all art is communication. And for at least that reason, I do not consider the dance of a bumble bee or the song of a bird as art. Humans may appreciate both as beauty in sight and sound (beauty alone is not art), but we have no way of knowing how a bird or bee considers them beyond being just communication. An ant mound is an amazing structure, but I certainly don’t believe that ants consider it art (or have any concept of art).

    Secondly, the idea that art is “more” so if seen or heard by more people comes from my belief that art is measured by it’s impact. I do feel that a painting, a song, a book, a photograph is “more” art the greater the number of people that are impacted by it . That is not to say that the work is “better” as a result, but that it has done to a greater extent what I believe art does, communicate and make people think more or feel something. And so in that respect it is “more” art.

    I’ll look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  6. David Leland Hyde

    As I wrote on Paul Grecian’s blog, the eminent photography critic John Szarkowski once claimed that Ansel Adams photographed entirely for his own enjoyment. Several photographers and photography critics including Philip Hyde made vehement and effective counter-arguments to Szarkowski’s statement. Hopefully I can dig up that material and share it with you, if you are interested. It touches on what you say here and on what Paul recently said in his post. Echoing those who have gone before, I say as Paul did that the appreciation of art is part of the process that makes it such. An audience is part of what makes it art. However, the SIZE of the audience does not make it MORE or LESS art. Isn’t something either art or not, like the old adage about being pregnant. You can’t be MORE or LESS pregnant. On the other hand, I completely agree with your idea that art is certainly not limited to creation by humans, or even by what we perceive as “living” beings. Though perhaps it is easier for us to talk about art created by people. Harder to relate to birds and other wildlife, though some are friends of mine, maybe more so than many people.

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  10. Carl D Post author

    Hey Paul

    Your point is probably valid – “not all communication is art” (but I’m not entirely clear why not). But why do you imagine ants consider there mounds to be anything ‘less’ than how we view our own productions? I’d wager the beaver thinks his lodge every bit as beautiful and grand as we do our architectural achievements. If you ever watched a video of any of the Birds of Paradise, it’s pretty hard to argue that they don’t a rather grandiose sense of their own beauty, no?

    I think it’s too easy to construct a system of measurement that is is completely humancentric, and then claim we’re the only ‘makers of art’. “Humans may appreciate both as beauty in sight and sound (beauty alone is not art), but we have no way of knowing how a bird or bee considers them beyond being just communication”. For example, one could just as easily say that that birds or bees have no way of knowing whether we consider our art as anything more than ‘just communication’ either.

    Why draw up parameters that always resolve to humans being the center of everything? If we’re to be the sole judge, then the outcome is foregone. People make and appreciate art in a very humanistic way; as one would expect. I’d submit that wolves and caribou and rivers to it in similarly unique ways. I’d take it further to say that the interplay of wolves and caribous and rivers is art unto itself .. a universal creative expression. This relates to Peter’s questions about “sentience”.

    On the subject of ‘more art’, I think you might need to clarify a little what you mean by ‘more’. If you mean simply the “amount of ‘impact’ (if we might actually be able ever measure such a thing), then I think you miss the value of creating. The product of creating is something that strokes our ego, but is really of little consequence. That’s why most artists aren’t sitting around pointing at the the photo they took back in 72, but are out making photos today. Eric Clapton is what, 65 years old, yet he’s working on a new album – artists make art, not merely ‘hit records’.

    Secondly, measuring “impact” is simply a function of drawing arbitrary standards. Your comments seem to imply measuring merely by the number of witnesses or spectators. Millions of people might see a particular episode of American Idol, but by the following week, they’ve moved on from last week’s performance. What of a single person whose life was turned around, completely, upon hearing a particular performance or reading a particular essay/poem/etc? Isn’t that a ‘greater impact’? Perhaps touching one person, if only the artist themselves, is more profound and greater impact than reaching a pre-determined audience threshold.



  11. Carl D Post author

    Hey David

    Thanks for your comments.

    I think we live in a world that places more and more emphasis on living life as spectator, instead of a participant. We watch the Olympics, we read books, we go to exhibitions, we listen to recorded music. In other times and other places, people play games, they tells tories, paint and draw, sing and dance. We’ve been conditioned that such things are best left to experts, the ‘professionals’, those whose deft fine motor skills and diligence have given them an edge over the rest of us.

    I think it’s unfortunate – the real joy is in participating. The world doesn’t need more spectators.



  12. Carl D Post author

    Hey Peter,

    I don’t think art ‘implies a conscious intent to create’, no. In this sense art, as creating, might be likened to sex – I suspect that most of the creatures walking, swimming, squirming, flying, etc, on this planet are not the result of a ‘conscious intent to create’. Here’s perhaps a better example:

    Have you ever watched a good telemark skier run turns down a slope of fresh, untracked powder? In their wake might lie an awesome line down the mountain, perfectly symmetrical curves running from summit to the valley floor. It’s beautiful art. But the conscious intent to create is not requisite at all – the goal is to ski. The product of that is a sweet line down the mountain.

    Playing guitar can be the very same thing – I pick up my instrument and play – just play. I don’t, usually, consciously intend to create’ .. I intend to play. Sometimes what comes out is gibberish, and sometimes it’s beautiful.

    “Can a non-sentient entity make art?”

    Sure (though I’m not sure exactly what is ‘non-sentient’) .. Gaia, baby.



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