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8/28/2015

The White Bird

THEWHITEBIRD
JohnBerger

FromtimetotimeIhavebeeninvitedbyinstitutionsmostlyAmericantospeakabout
aesthetics.OnoneoccasionIconsideredacceptingandIthoughtoftakingwithmeabird
madeofwhitewood.ButIdidn'tgo.Theproblemisthatyoucan'ttalkaboutaesthetics
withouttalkingabouttheprincipleofhopeandtheexistenceofevil.Duringthelongwinters
thepeasantsincertainpartsoftheHauteSavoieusedtomakewoodenbirdstohangintheir
kitchensandperhapsalsointheirchapels.Friendswhoaretravellershavetoldmethatthey
haveseensimilarbirds,madeaccordingtothesameprinciple,incertainregionsof
Czechoslovakia,RussiaandtheBalticcountries.Thetraditionmaybemorewidespread.
Theprincipleoftheconstructionofthesebirdsissimpleenough,althoughtomakeafinebird
demandsconsiderableskill.Youtaketwobarsofpinewood,aboutsixinchesinlength,alittle
lessthanoneinchinheightandthesameinwidth.Yousoaktheminwatersothatthewood
hasthemaximumpliability,thenyoucarvethem.Onepiecewillbetheheadandbodywitha
fantail,thesecondpiecewillrepresentthewings.Theartprincipallyconcernsthemakingof
thewingandtailfeathers.Thewholeblockofeachwingiscarvedaccordingtothesilhouetteof
asinglefeather.Thentheblockisslicedintothirteenthinlayersandthesearegentlyopened
out,onebyone,tomakeafanshape.Likewiseforthesecondwingandforthetailfeathers.
Thetwopiecesofwoodarejoinedtogethertoformacrossandthebirdiscomplete.Noglueis
usedandthereisonlyonenailwherethetwopiecesofwoodcross.Verylight,weighingonly
twoorthreeounces,thebirdsareusuallyhungonathreadfromanoverhangingmantelpiece
orbeamsothattheymovewiththeaircurrents.
ItwouldbeabsurdtocompareoneofthesebirdstoavanGoghselfportraitoraRembrandt
crucifixion.Theyaresimple,homemadeobjects,workedaccordingtoatraditionalpattern.Yet,
bytheirverysimplicity,theyallowonetocategorizethequalitieswhichmakethempleasing
andmysterioustoeveryonewhoseesthem.
Firstthereisafigurativerepresentationoneislookingatabird,morepreciselyadove,
apparentlyhanginginmidair.Thus,thereisareferencetothesurroundingworldofnature.
Secondly,thechoiceofsubject(aflyingbird)andthecontextinwhichitisplaced(indoors
wherelivebirdsareunlikely)rendertheobjectsymbolic.Thisprimarysymbolismthenjoinsa
moregeneral,culturalone.Birds,anddovesinparticular,havebeencreditedwithsymbolic
meaningsinaverywidevarietyofcultures.
Thirdly,thereisarespectforthematerialused.Thewoodhasbeenfashionedaccordingtoits
ownqualitiesoflightness,pliabilityandtexture.Lookingatit,oneissurprisedbyhowwell
woodbecomesbird.Fourthly,thereisaformalunityandeconomy.Despitetheobject's
apparentcomplexity,thegrammarofitsmakingissimple,evenaustere.Itsrichnessisthe
resultofrepetitionswhicharealsovariations.Fifthly,thismanmadeobjectprovokesakindof
astonishment:howonearthwasitmade?Ihavegivenroughindicationsabove,butanyone
unfamiliarwiththetechniquewantstotakethedoveinhishandsandexamineitcloselyto
discoverthesecretwhichliesbehinditsmaking.
Thesefivequalities,whenundifferentiatedandperceivedasawhole,provokeatleasta
momentarysenseofbeingbeforeamystery.Oneislookingatapieceofwoodthathas
becomeabird.Oneislookingatabirdthatissomehowmorethanabird.Oneislookingat
somethingthathasbeenworkedwithamysteriousskillandakindoflove.
ThusfarIhavetriedtoisolatethequalitiesofthewhitebirdwhichprovokeanaesthetic
emotion.(Theword"emotion",althoughdesignatingamotionoftheheartandofthe
imagination,issomewhatconfusingforweareconsideringanemotionthathaslittletodowith
theothersweexperience,notablybecausetheselfhereisinafargreaterdegreeofabeyance.)
Yetmydefinitionsbegtheessentialquestion.Theyreduceaestheticstoart.Theysaynothing
abouttherelationbetweenartandnature,artandtheworld.
Beforeamountain,adesertjustafterthesunhasgonedown,orafruittree,onecanalso
experienceaestheticemotion.Consequentlyweareforcedtobeginagainnotthistimewitha
manmadeobjectbutwiththenatureintowhichweareborn.
Urbanlivinghasalwaystendedtoproduceasentimentalviewofnature.Natureisthoughtof
asagarden,oraviewframedbyawindow,orasanarenaoffreedom.Peasants,sailors,
nomadshaveknownbetter.Natureisenergyandstruggle.Itiswhatexistswithoutany
promise.Ifitcanbethoughtofbymanasanarena,asetting,ithastobethoughtofasone
whichlendsitselfasmuchtoevilastogood.Itsenergyisfearsomelyindifferent.Thefirst
necessityoflifeisshelter.Shelteragainstnature.Thefirstprayerisforprotection.Thefirst
signoflifeispain.IftheCreationwaspurposeful,itspurposeisahiddenonewhichcanonly
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8/28/2015

The White Bird

bediscoveredintangiblywithinsigns,neverbytheevidenceofwhathappens.
Itiswithinthisbleaknaturalcontextthatbeautyisencountered,andtheencounterisbyits
naturesuddenandunpredictable.Thegaleblowsitselfout,theseachangesfromthecolourof
greyshittoaquamarine.Underthefallenboulderofanavalancheaflowergrows.Overthe
shantytownthemoonrises.Iofferdramaticexamplessoastoinsistuponthebleaknessofthe
context.Reflectuponmoreeverydayexamples.Howeveritisencountered,beautyisalwaysan
exception,alwaysindespiteof.Thisiswhyitmovesus.
Itcanbearguedthattheoriginofthewaywearemovedbynaturalbeautywasfunctional.
Flowersareapromiseoffertility,asunsetisareminderoffireandwarmth,moonlightmakes
thenightlessdark,thebrightcoloursofabird'splumageare(atavisticallyevenforus)a
sexualstimulus.Yetsuchanargumentistooreductionist,Ibelieve.Snowisuseless.A
butterflyoffersusverylittle.
Ofcoursetherangeofwhatagivencommunityfindsbeautifulinnaturewilldependuponits
meansofsurvival,itseconomy,itsgeography.WhatEskimosfindbeautifulisunlikelytobethe
sameaswhattheAshantifoundbeautiful.Withinmodernclasssocietiestherearecomplex
ideologicaldeterminations:weknow,forinstance,thattheBritishrulingclassintheeighteenth
centurydislikedthesightofthesea.Equally,thesocialusetowhichanaestheticemotionmay
beputchangesaccordingtothehistoricalmoment:thesilhouetteofamountaincanrepresent
thehomeofthedeadorachallengetotheinitiativeoftheliving.Anthropology,comparative
studiesofreligion,politicaleconomyandMarxismhavemadeallthisclear.
Yetthereseemtobecertainconstantswhichallcultureshavefound'beautiful':amongthem
certainflowers,trees,formsofrock,birds,animals,themoon,runningwater...
Oneisobligedtoacknowledgeacoincidenceorperhapsacongruence.Theevolutionofnatural
formsandtheevolutionofhumanperceptionhavecoincidedtoproducethephenomenonofa
potentialrecognition:whatisandwhatwecansee(andbyseeingalsofeel)sometimesmeet
atapointofaffirmation.Thispoint,thiscoincidence,istwofaced:whathasbeenseenis
recognizedandaffirmedand,atthesametime,theseerisaffirmedbywhathesees.Fora
briefmomentonefindsoneselfwithoutthepretensionsofacreatorinthepositionofGodin
thefirstchapterofGenesis...Andhesawthatitwasgood.Theaestheticemotionbefore
naturederives,Ibelieve,fromthisdoubleaffirmation.
YetwedonotliveinthefirstchapterofGenesis.Weliveifonefollowsthebiblicalsequenceof
eventsaftertheFall.Inanycase,weliveinaworldofsufferinginwhichevilisrampant,a
worldwhoseeventsdonotconfirmourBeing,aworldthathastoberesisted.Itisinthis
situationthattheaestheticmomentoffershope.Thatwefindacrystalorapoppybeautiful
meansthatwearelessalone,thatwearemoredeeplyinsertedintoexistencethanthecourse
ofasinglelifewouldleadustobelieve.Itrytodescribeasaccuratelyaspossiblethe
experienceinquestionmystartingpointisphenomenological,notdeductiveitsform,
perceivedassuch,becomesamessagethatonereceivesbutcannottranslatebecause,init,all
isinstantaneous.Foraninstant,theenergyofone'sperceptionbecomesinseparablefromthe
energyofthecreation.
TheaestheticemotionwefeelbeforeamanmadeobjectsuchasthewhitebirdwithwhichI
startedisaderivativeoftheemotionwefeelbeforenature.Thewhitebirdisanattemptto
translateamessagereceivedfromarealbird.Allthelanguagesofarthavebeendevelopedas
anattempttotransformtheinstantaneousintothepermanent.Artsupposesthatbeautyisnot
anexceptionisnotindespiteofbutisthebasisforanorder.
Severalyearsago,whenconsideringthehistoricalfaceofart,IwrotethatIjudgedawork
accordingtowhetherornotithelpedmeninthemodernworldclaimtheirsocialrights.Ihold
tothat.Art'sother,transcendental,faceraisesthequestionofman'sontologicalright.
Thenotionthatartisthemirrorofnatureisonethatonlyappealsinperiodsofscepticism.Art
doesnotimitatenature,itimitatesacreation,sometimestoproposeanalternativeworld,
sometimessimplytoamplify,toconfirm,tomakesocialthebriefhopeofferedbynature.Artis
anorganizedresponsetowhatnatureallowsustoglimpseoccasionally.Artsetsoutto
transformthepotentialrecognitionintoanunceasingone.Itproclaimsmaninthehopeof
receivingasurerreply...thetranscendentalfaceofartisalwaysaformofprayer.
Thewhitewoodenbirdiswaftedbythewarmairrisingfromthestoveinthekitchenwherethe
neighboursaredrinking.Outside,inminus25C,therealbirdsarefreezingtodeath!(From
TheSenseofSight)
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