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Paul Gauguin Was Wrong

David Cowles

Jun 20, 2024

“Within a work of art, there is no space or time. There is no sequence. The work is a whole, a quantum; it cannot be vivisected.”

Paul Gaugin believed that art did not stop at the edge of a canvas. For him, the frame was part of the work itself, as was the broader exhibition environment. Gauguin’s proposals blur the boundary between ‘natural beauty’ and ‘artistic beauty’, but he may be forgiven. Beauty is beauty after all. 

That said, the transcendental value we call ‘Beauty’ inheres in different materials in different ways. Nature and art can both be beautiful, but they are beautiful differently - a distinction that deserves to be respected. 

In the Arnold Arboretum (Jamaica Plain, Boston), there is a tree we call The Merlin Tree: stately, complex, beautiful. And the artist? No, not God, at least not directly. The artist is Nature itself, aka the Cosmos. 

How so? What I lovingly know as Merlin is the product of a single DNA molecule (seed) which in turn is the product of 4 billion years of evolution. There’s a lot of history in those limbs. But that’s only half the story.

Merlin is also the product of its environment. From its hillside vantage, Merlin is shaped by the contents of the soil, the frequency of rain, the strength of sunlight, the velocity of wind, the weight of snow, the character and intensity of cosmic radiation, etc. 

Ultimately, Merlin is the product of the tree’s own generative impulse interacting with the push-and-pulls of its environment. It is a product of the Universe recursively interacting with itself. As such, it is sui generis

Sidebar: What manner of thing is Nature that Beauty inherits in it? In everyone’s life there are times when the physical world seems enchanted. Colors are brighter. Buildings radiate light, like icons, instead of absorbing or reflecting it. 

No, you’re not having a stroke! This is the way the world actually is, even though you experience it this way only in maddeningly brief bursts. Want to experience this enchantment more often and for longer periods? No problem! Just fall in love. Or heed Jesus’ advice and ‘become again as a little child’ (Mt. 18: 3). Or read Ulysses.

All trees are beautiful, but not equally so, and not all in the same way. The sensible features of Merlin reflect natural forces; the Beauty that those features reveal does not. Beauty is not a function of Nature; it is the immanence of the Transcendent.

Beauty, Truth, and Justice are Transcendent Values. They owe their being to a higher power. Make no mistake, “a kiss is just a kiss,” and a tree is just a tree, but ‘the beauty’ of the tree does not reside in the tree itself. It is a function of the tree’s participation in the Universe and the participation of the Transcendent in the tree.

Joyce Kilmer nailed it! Well, half of it. He wrote, “Only God can make a tree.” A tree, and everything else we see in Nature, is ultimately an expression of the entirety. It takes a Cosmos to raise a twig!

It is unclear where a tree ends and its environment begins: the leaves, the rain drops that cling to its leaves, the glint of sunlight off those leaves, the parasites that chew the leaves, the symbionts that protect the leaves, the breeze that ruffles the leaves, the gales that strip the leaves; the roots, the fungi that grow alongside those roots, the ‘wood wide web’ formed by those fungi, mediating communication between trees in a forest. 

Nature is like Pando.. Everything in nature is connected to everything else so that each thing is ultimately an expression of the whole – a highly focused, massively non-linear  expression.

Art is a totally different kettle of fish! First, any work of art is a rupture in the fabric of Spacetime. Art is ‘no space’ amid space, ‘no time’ within time; and within a work of art, there is no space or time. There is no sequence. The work is a whole, a quantum; it cannot be vivisected.

Of course, the work depends on canvas and paint. These things are in the physical world and they do occupy a region of spacetime. But they are not the work of art itself. The artist transubstantiates those materials into a pattern that transcends its material substructure. 

Is the word ‘transubstantiate’ out of place here? Perhaps. The paint and the canvas do still enjoy a physical existence…from certain perspectives. But from the perspective of the art itself, they do not. They are merely ‘the appearance’ under which the ‘substance’ of the work, the pattern, is revealed. 

Conceivably, the artist could have used any tube of ochre to produce the same image. Or the same tube of ochre could have been used to make innumerable other paintings.  While not fully analogic, the paint and canvas do play a role in art somewhat similar to the role played by bread and wine in the Eucharist.

A work of art is entirely self-contained. It needs a frame just for that reason. There can be no ambiguity re where one ‘world’ ends and another begins. A work of art must be finite so that it can reveal the infinite. 

Gaugin was proposing that works of art have only limited autonomy from their environments. At the material level this is true, but not at the conceptual level. A painting has nothing to do with its frame. (The same painting is often reframed many times.) 

Ideally, a work of art is entirely unaffected by the environment in which it is exhibited. Just listen to Dr. Seuss: “I do not like them in a house, I do not like them with a mouse, I do not like them here or there, I do not like them anywhere, I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them, Sam-i-am.”


Image: Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897–1898, Oil on canvas, Post Impressionism, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


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