Nature Is Haphazard: Art Is Arrangement
( Originally Published 1913 )
We have seen that the characteristic of nature is abundance, while that of art is selection. Now let us note another difference between the two—nature is haphazard, art is arrangement.
I do not forget that nature works by laws; that the workings of nature are not accidental, but the result of certain causes which produce certain effects; so that the operations of nature produce an endless chain of cause and effect. Thus in the fall, because the sap flows downward in the tree, the fiber of the leaf's stalk is gradually weakened, until the leaf by degrees loses its hold on the branch, and, because everything obeys the law of gravitation, falls to the ground. But where will it fall ? That may depend upon the force and direction of the wind. It may happen that the wind is from the north or from the west; that its breath is soft, or that it blows a gale. I say it "may happen" so or so; for this is our habit of speech. When we don't understand the cause from which an effect springs, we use the word "happen," as if the affair were an accident or chance.
But a scientific man would say that such words as " accident " and " chance " are inaccurate, and would tell us why the wind was blowing from a certain direction at a certain moment, and tell us why it was soft or fierce. And yet, why should the tiny leaf have been ready to let go just at the moment when the breeze came ? Upon what particular spot will the dandelion seed, after floating far in the air, alight ? We may believe that the moment and the place are controlled by one Great Mind to whom everything is plain. But to our finite minds, whose capacity to understand is limited, such things are not plain. They seem to us like chance, and their results appear to our eyes haphazard.
Compare, for example, the appearance of nature with that of a well-kept garden. The latter has straight paths, intersecting one another; trim borders with rows of lettuces and radishes; separate plots, reserved for peas, corn, spinach, potatoes, and other crops. Even the straggling vines of the cucumbers are kept within certain bounds. Everywhere is an appearance of order and arrangement, beside which the tangle of growth in the woods, or even the dotting of trees on the hillside, seems haphazard. Or look out into the street, which, as you remember, in the painter's sense of the word is a part of nature. The city authorities have laid out the lines of the street, but the buildings vary in size and style ; each one according to what happened to be the need and the taste of the man who built it. And the appearance of the sidewalk and roadway will vary from day to day and hour to hour, according to what may be the number and the character of the people and of the vehicles, as they happen to move or stand still. Compared with that garden, the appearance of the street is haphazard.
Compare two parlors. One is a medley of furniture and bric-a-brac, of all sorts of sizes and shapes and colors, picked up at auction sales, or in the shops, each because it happened to be a bargain or to strike a moment's whim, and then set in the parlor where there happened to be room for it. The other parlor, on the contrary, shows signs of order and arrangement. There are fewer objects in it, and they have been carefully chosen and arranged for the double purpose of making the room comfortable and agreeable to the eye. It is an illustration of good taste in selection and arrangement.
The haphazard of nature we enjoy. But the con-fusion of the parlor distresses us, if we have any sense of selection and arrangement. This sense the artist possesses in a marked degree, and on it he bases the making of his picture.
We have already noticed how he selects, but may have to mention it again in describing how he arranges, since the two acts are mixed up together, as when you select some flowers and then arrange them in a vase.
When we first made the acquaintance of the artist in the previous chapter, he had already, you will re-member, " roughed in " with his charcoal the objects he was going to paint. We were so interested in what he had selected, that we paid little attention to the arrangement of the objects. It is this that we are now going to study.
His canvas is on the easel, its bare white surface inclosed within the four sides. He is going to fill this space, not only for the purpose of suggesting to us the appearance of the scene he has selected, but in such a way that the actual arrangement of the objects—the pattern which they make upon the canvas—shall give us pleasure. This he calls his composition. The word, as you know, if you have studied Latin, means simply " putting " or " placing together." But, as the artist uses it, it always means that the placing together shall produce an effect that is pleasing to the eye. It is only when it does, that the result can properly be called a work of art. For you will recall what we said in the first chapter, that the artist is one who fits his conception with a beautiful form. And this form is his composition.
Now, before we go any farther with the artist's method of composition, let me invite you to do a little composing on your own account. That wall in your special room or den where you hang your favorite photographs—how is it arranged ? Are the photo-graphs pinned up higgledy-piggledy, so as to crowd as many as possible on the wall? Is your only idea just to hang them up where you can see them? Or have you placed them together in such a way that their actual arrangement, as they spot the open space of your wall, is agreeable to your eye? For, in a way, your wall, before you hung the photographs, was like the bare canvas of the artist. The four edges inclosed it ; the space is yours to do with it what you wish.
Suppose, now, that you are starting with the wall bare. Your family has moved into a new house, or the old one is being repaired. There is your plaster wall, as white as the artist's canvas. You are allowed to decide what shall be done with it. What will you do with it?
Oh ! you are going to choose a paper. Well, what shall it be? Yes, pretty, of course. But pretty by itself, or when your pictures are hung? For, if you choose a paper with a large pattern of many bright colors, it may interfere with the effect of the pictures. You don't wish to do this ? Then it will be well to choose a paper that is not too prominent; one that has a small pattern, or none at all, only a single tint. Some people prefer a neutral tint; one, that is to say, which is neither one thing nor the other; not very green, or blue, or red, or yellow, but rather so ; some color that is difficult to define. For, because this paper does not attract particular attention, it al-lows the photographs, hung upon it, to show up more prominently.
However, the papering is your affair, and you have made your selection. At last the workmen, their ladders, their paste pots, and shavings are cleared out of the room and you can begin to arrange it. You have placed the furniture where it best fits in, looks best, and seems most comfortable, and now you turn your attention to each of the four walls. Once more, is the placing of the photographs to be higgledy-piggledy, " any-old-how," just to show them, or are you going to arrange them carefully, so as to make each wall a pleasing composition ?
We will suppose you decide upon the latter plan. How will you proceed ? I can imagine you choosing one of two ways.
Either you will select your biggest picture, or the one you prize most, and place it in the middle of the wall, and then place the others on each side of it, so as to balance one another. Or, you will feel that such an arrangement would be too stiff and formal, too obviously balanced, and will sprinkle the pictures over the wall space, so that their arrangement is irregular and looks as if it were accidental, and yet seems balanced. For, if you are trying to arrange your pictures in the way in which they seem to you to look best, consciously or unconsciously you are working to secure a balance.
Yes, one of the principles of artistic composition is balance. Like all the principles, adapted by artists, it is founded on an instinct of human nature. Have you ever noticed that when a man carries a bucket of water, he holds the free arm away from his body ? He does it by instinct, to offset the drag of the bucket on his other arm and to balance his body. Have you ever walked upon the steel rail of a rail-road track ? Most of us have, I imagine. We tread pretty firmly for a little while, and then we totter. Out go our arms immediately to restore our balance. We walk up and down the deck of an ocean liner, when the sea is rough, and slope our bodies to the movement of the vessel. Why? To keep our balance. If we lose it we are hurled across the deck in a very undignified fashion. On the contrary, what a beautiful spectacle is presented when a good skater balances backward and forward; perhaps an even more beautiful one, when a good dancer who feels the joy of movement sways to the rhythm of the music.
So, to maintain a balance is an instinct of human nature; to lose it produces ugly results; while beautiful ones may be secured from it, especially if the balance is rhythmic.
Another principle, then, of artistic composition is rhythm, and this, too, is founded on an instinct of human nature. Let us see what rhythm is. A small boy has found an old pot, catches up a stick, and be-gins to belabor the pot and make himself a nuisance. By and by he gets tired of his own noise, imagines his pot a drum, and hits it with rhythmic strokes, one following the other in measured beats. Watch how his legs begin to move to the time of the strokes, and how the other youngsters fall in behind him. Left, right, left, right, on they march; their legs and shoulders swinging to the rhythmic beat. I wonder if they know they are following an instinct, pretty nearly as old as humanity. Probably they don't, and wouldn't care if they did. All they know is that they are having a good time. That's just it! And they are having the same sort of good time that the primitive man gave his friends, when he first hit en the idea of clapping his hands together in rhythm.
Later on he found he could get more stirring effects and save his hands by rhythmic hammering, of one piece of wood upon another. Then came along a primitive Edison who perfected the principle and put tom-toms on the market. And so, in time, music came to be invented. For the basis of music and of the pleasure that is received from it is its measured beat or rhythm.
It is, however, not only from the actual measured beat, appealing to our ear, that we gain pleasure, but also from the suggestion of rhythm to our sense of sight.
A man stone deaf can enjoy watching a dance. He has never heard a sound in his life, but his sense of sight is stirred to pleasure by the spectacle of measured repetition of the movements. Similarly, the measured repetitions of stationary objects gives us pleasure,—the measured repetition, for example, presented by the West Point cadets, as they suddenly halt, either in close formation or in open ranks. " How beautiful ! " we exclaim. And it is because the Athenians realized the beauty of measured repetition and the pleasure that it gives to the sense of sight, that they surrounded their great temple, the Parthenon, with ranks of columns, arranged at equal distance from one another. For, though they may have learned the beauty of repetition from studying the tree stems in the woods, yet, when they built their work of art, they avoided the haphazard of nature, and introduced order and arrangement by making the repetitions measured.
Behind the columns, however, high up on the out-side of the temple wall they set a frieze or band of figures. It extended clear around the temple, rep-resenting a procession of people on their way to the great festival of the goddess Athene. The remains are now in the British Museum; but, doubtless, you have seen casts of portions of it, and will recall some in which young men are riding, the head of each horse overlapping the body of the one in front of it. There is here no longer an actual measured repetition, as in the case of the columns. The bodies are not separated by exact intervals, nor do they repeat the same forms. The youths differ, so do the horses, and the actions of the forms are dissimilar. And yet the arching of the horses' necks, the prancing of the forelegs, and the bodies of the youths swaying to the movement of the horses are so arranged, that there is no break or interruption or confusion, but the whole seems to flow up and down regularly. There are no actual, measured intervals or actual repetitions, yet the feeling of both is suggested. The arrangement of the forms is rhythmic, in that it suggests rhythm. And the principle of this also the Greeks found in nature, as you may, if you watch the waves rolling shoreward.
But all this while the artist's canvas is standing white and bare upon the easel, and must continue to stand. For, when he gets to work, I want you, not only to see what he does, but feel the meaning of his intention. And we can best enter into another per-son's feeling, if we have experienced something of his feeling in ourselves. So, I have rummaged among our own experiences, in order to make you feel how much we have in common with the artist. He and ourselves are creatures of like nature, with similar senses, similar sources of pleasure and pain, and similar instincts leading us to do and to like similar things. Only the artist has keener senses, and has cultivated his instincts and study of nature, and has drawn from them certain practical hints to help him create his work of art.
Among the instincts that we share with him are, as I have tried to show—first, an instinctive preference for order and arrangement; secondly, the need of balance and the pleasure we receive from it; thirdly, the increased pleasure we derive from balance, when it is accompanied with rhythmic repetitions. These are the principles on which he relies when he makes his composition. For let me repeat, and not for the last time, that the purpose of his composition is not only to suggest some scene of nature, but to make the composition itself a source of pleasure to our sense of sight.