Barnett Newman on the Aesthetic Roots of Humanity

“Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin.”

Mandalic Compass, for Matt, ink and pencil, 2015, by Bonsai Ramey

“Undoubtedly the first man was an artist,” begins a remarkable little speculative essay written in 1947 by Barnett Newman.  It proposes that the aesthetic act of wonder precedes the social and utilitarian acts of animal survival.  The aesthetic experience requires a mind capable of connecting disparate dots, that can render the non-local local, the concealed revealed, that can ask whether “to be or not to be.”  Although historically Newman is remembered as a modernist painter who challenged, and continues to challenge, with his large, minimalist color field paintings, I will always, probably, think of him as the one who wrote “The First Man Was an Artist.”

The essay was published in a periodical called Tiger’s Eye at that time when the home of modern art was shifting from Paris to America. Its power reminds me of that poetic power typical of essays of the past, from writers like Emerson, Stevenson, Montaigne, and Chesterton, which subtly illuminates the limits of analysis.  Chopping things up into little bits may lead one to understand a system and to a kind of wonder, but the analytical process of sizing something up, of measurement by separating something into its constituent elements, cannot grasp meaning.  “The whole is other than the sum of its parts,” as the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka wrote.  Other is the operative word, commonly misquoted as “greater.”  The whole (whether we’re talking about life or an artwork) has a reality of its own; no cataloguing of parts can ever indicate that reality, and that reality is what I mean by “meaning.”  Nevertheless, it is possible to court this connectivity, to glimpse the whole within one of its parts.  William Irwin Thompson writes that this glimpse is precisely what the sacred is.  In The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, Thompson writes:

To begin to understand what is going on in the…art of the Upper Paleolithic, we have to escape not only the ethnocentricity of academic male subcultures, but also the limited epistemology of social science.  We have to use the “Imagination” to recover a sense of the sacred. The sacred is the emotional force which connects the part to the whole; the profane or the secular is that which has been broken off from, or has fallen off, its emotional bond to the universe.” (102).

Matt's Mandala Compass

We could replace Thompson’s “Imagination” with “aesthetic sense.” The aesthetic is a connected, sacred, imaginal, intuitive, emotional force.  The modern scientific-material mindset has not done well to encourage the fostering of creative self-reliance and the health of whole systems, tending more toward bottom-linism and banal profit motives.  While it should be no surprise when intuitions are written off as airy ethereal “fluff,” it should be a deep concern that we are in the middle of an aesthetic crisis.

Even with an experience of the sacred, the question is likely to remain for one who thinks in material terms and seeks material proof: what sustains the underlying Celtic knotwork of things on Earth?  It is as unknown today as it has ever been, despite our becoming conscious of ecology and despite our looking to nature for models of how to live, build, and organize, as in the field of biomimetics.  We know it isn’t a substance, but the hard sciences only can deal with experimentally viable phenomena.  This rules out the possibility of science reasoning out the connection between human dreams and termite mounds.  Still, for our own lives, we don’t need to look far into the analogous ways of the wild to be thrown into reverie: why is it you never see a line of ants on a log in gridlock for an accident ahead?  Can the Department of Transportation take its next cue from the ants?  Questions like this are fantastic, practical endeavors for scientific research, and they may be the best hope for restoring a healthy balance between our species and the rest of the world.  This is the gift rationality offers us. But notice that the connectivity is understood by category (how is human infrastructure connected to insect infrastructure)?  How is a part related to another part?  Not, How is a part related to the whole of Nature?  The latter is the question we are all forced to ask today. Rationality reaches its limit.  To get at this question, other means are necessary.  Perhaps we are in the present ecological crisis because we have ceased to make decisions for aesthetic reasons, insisting always on the utilitarian angle.  We must learn to employ that ancient inherited aspect of us which is creative, for the aesthetic act is a byproduct of an intuition of wholes and the urgent desire to express them.

In its earliest flowering, according to Newman, “speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication.”  It is human to feel deeply, not just to communicate, and the need to express what is uniquely human in us is deep-seated.  It is even more human to become aware that however loudly one may cry out, the source of that expression and the purpose of that expression are one and the same.

“It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need.  In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before any desire to discover the unknown.”

Matt's Mandala Compass Detail

How in control can a creature be?  We are in control in much the same way as a man who builds a bridge as he walks out in space across it.  He floats in the air and is free to hammer in the next board.  He extends the bridge, and he may choose to begin curving its path, but he is confined to build forward, standing on a small walkway.  Therefore, he is far from complete control.  His destiny is determined by the section of the bridge he has just created.

Showing Promise

Egg grown in a Tree
ink, 2015, Bonsai Ramey

A student puts off his final essay till the night before it’s due.  The stakes are high.  Four pages and 10% of his final grade for the course are on the line.  The deadline looms guillotine-like above his head, and this motivates him.  He gets his grade back soon and proclaims to his peers, “I don’t know how I got a 95% on my paper; I pulled it out of my butt the night before!”  What’s notable about this common scenario, putting aside his rectal storage site, is that this 95% is viewed as a major shortcoming of the teacher and a buckling of the high standard of quality he or she is known or supposed to maintain.

Let’s assume for the moment that while this is true, it is not entirely true.  Perhaps a second reading of the situation would ask, Why is the student not more impressed by himself, his transcendent nature, and what he was able to do with a few long, intense hours of focused, guillotine-dreading time?  He has produced not just passable work; the work is good.  It shows PROMISE.

We say of someone showing potential that he shows promise, exhibiting an aptitude or skill early in its flowering.  Why do we use the word “promise”?  Because, however nascent in its development, the potential culmination of the skill is perceptible.  Because, like promising something will come to pass, those who show promise would lift themselves above their current orbit merely by staying their present course.  Every person is a becoming, but that person who shows promise in a given capacity can consider himself promised a privileged position, a sacred earning, a gift, a power, merely by holding to the path along which he already finds himself.  This is special, for noticing the path means already some part of the conflict about life has been overcome.  A unifying direction has become visible from the chaos, a means to trump entropy, to “contribute a verse.”  As Walt Whitman wrote:

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Trusting the Ground of Learning

In order to access that “world in a grain of sand” which William Blake wrote about, physically, nothing more is required than to walk the beach, sit and comb the sand.  In the end, physically, there is probably nothing required.  What he meant was a psychological alignment.  Only we think the weight of “infinity in the palm of the hand” is too great to bear alone, or it seems cheap, so we hire all kinds of help and conspire to lift the entire beach to see what’s holding it up.  If we can do it together, after all our labors, then, maybe, the reward will be great.  But a single grain of sand—there has got to be more to it than that.  We’re not used to finding greatness without great expenditure.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said in a speech that, to be concerned for others, we must “project the I into the thou.”  The only way to test something truly is to test it on its own ground, to walk that ground in those shoes.  This in itself is challenging enough; but it is impossible if one does not “know oneself” first.  So the reverse is just as true.  Nietzsche knew this well when he said, “The you is older than the I; the you has been pronounced holy, but not yet the I: so man crowds toward his neighbor” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 60).

Original Blue Mandala2