notes on Nature Representing Itself



ART can be regarded as

“a fragment of nature as seen through a temperament”

(Emile Zola (1866):[i])


For example:  The artists of landscape selectively represent aspects of environments which move them (for example…).  They are often (possibly always) moved when they feel that efforts at representation help them better know what they are looking at and why they are moved.  (“why?” — an assortment of everyday answers

Obviously, artists experience their landscape because of the visual stimuli, fine-tuned by experience and context. The outcome of their efforts at representation inform them about themselves (perception, mastery of technique), inform others (about them and about their subject), are persistent representations of ephemeral events of special significance to themselves or others.

What if the artist is taken out of the art? that may never be possible: photographers, pebble collectors, storytellers are still making decisions informed by their temperaments.  Of course there are also the vast documentations of scientists, especially motivated by urges to describe as objectively as possible–but their objectivity is mindfully driven by phenomena of interest: cosmic, subatomic (see particle physics, below) 

I collect stones, but not just any stones: they have qualities…  (see, for example, scholar stones) that are intrinsically or metaphorically interesting to me–and maybe to others–and I may or may not care.

For another example, see Tim Knowles’ efforts in a project, “Scaling the Sublime; art at the limits of landscape” (Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham, UK  23rd March 2018 – 17 June 2018 )











[i]. From my 1988 paper, “Art, Science, Arete”:  Emile Zola (writing of art) termed “fragments of nature seen through a temperament.” (Emile Zola (1886), “Proudhon et Courbet,” In Mes Haines (Paris: Bibliotheque- Charpentier, 1923). Originally published in 1886. “Une oeuvre d’art est un coin de la creation vu a travers un temperament” (p.25).   Zola later changed `creation’ to `nature’.     Zola quotes Claude Bernard in The Experimental Novel near the end of Part I: “The appearance of the experimental idea,” he says further on, “is entirely spontaneous and its nature absolutely individual, depending upon the mind in which it originates; it is a particular sentiment, a quid proprium, which constitutes the originality, the invention, and the genius of each one.” 

This view recalls Longfellow’s “Art is the . . . revelation of nature, speaking through man” (Hyperion, 1839).  It was recently reinvigorated by Joseph Wood Krutch (Experience and Art, N.Y.:  Collier Books, 1962




Scientists also know “landscapes” by means of qualities not  so easily accessible to human perception.

Vast cosmic phenomena known only by our prosthetic detection of wavelengths not detectable by the “unaided” eye or the illustrations of subatomic particle physics: 

Seeing the invisible: Event displays in particle physics





“This artistically enhanced image was produced by the Big European Bubble Chamber (BEBC), which started up at CERN in 1973. Charged particles passing through a chamber filled with hydrogen-neon liquid leave bubbles along their paths (Image: BEBC)”




Often naturalists of the 19th century professed their interest in “God’s works” was to “better know the mind of god.” 

(Compare to the cosmologist, Stephan Hawking’s famous comment, “… in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist [if] we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.” –from Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays 1993)



And photographs?  At almost every scenic pull-off driving through the country there are more or less tourists taking photos. Some are occasional, other obsessive.  Now that photography is widely accessible and enthusiastically undertaken: WHY do we do it? 

1. Because it makes me feel something

2. To hold on to memories

3. To learn to see

4. To tell a story

HOLISM?   AND There’s another idea that seems to be neglected–not just for photos, but all art–the more deeply involved we become (speaking for myself) the more a sense of “empathy” is evoked– becoming one with your medium, your subject, and your abilities to see and represent.   (16 November 2021).   (Painters: do you grind your own pigments, stretch your own canvas, make your own brushes … live in a landscape (As did the artists of the Sung Dynasty) or spot it while travelling and set down your sketch pad and easel on the spot?  I think we can find many examples of ways we become involved with our subjects –and even the ways of representing those subjects–though multiple paths of knowing