Some words have a peculiar history. The term “sensibility” is among them. If we can trust Wikipedia (and we do, don’t we?) then the term was coined around the end of the 17th century to describe a scientific-philosophical concept were sensory input and ideas are connected. Then, the word and attitude became fashionable in the 18th century and young people detected their feelings. Finally, the term fell into disregard. In 1811 Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” was published in which sensibility was rebuked and ridiculed. Since then the term has never really recovered.Now it is used mostly in the plural form and not in an entirely positive way.
Still in the jungle of English terms regarding the senses, it remains one of the few terms describing the connection between our senses and our inner life.
This connection, however, seems to me quintessential to any creative work. Since Zong Bing, in the text I quoted in the last post, artists have highlighted the need for sensibility, being impressionable and allowing an emotional response to what the eyes see. In fact without that sensibility one doesn’t “see” things in the first place. Without it a plant stalk is a plant stalk and remains plan stalk, not matter how long it is looked at. Only in allowing our sensibility to come into play one is able to see all the possibilities and ways in which a plant stalk can be something else. The same applies to the flavour and mood of landscapes described earlier.
At this point people tend to mix up the artists response with “reading something into it” this overlaying with meaning I described in the last post. But that is not what I mean or what happens.
We are finely tuned by evolution and education to “function” in the world. Thus our senses are focused on survival and social interaction; one could call this functional perception. But the world is much more multifaceted than can be captured in such dimensions. In fact our whole system of surviving and social organisation is the truly artificial overlay on the world. I don’t think the universe cares about our survival or our social structures. It just is – and wondrously and beautifully so. Many visual artists, I think, are hunters for these other dimensions of reality, for the non-obvious and a view on the world that breaks out from our limitations.
In a recent interview and quite surprisingly (because he is usually rather shy about these matters), Michael Kenna has called this hunt a spiritual one. For myself, I really try to avoid the term “spiritual” because I think it is more misleading than helpful and gives people all the wrong kind of ideas. But I think I understand what he means. I would call this sensibility to what the world looks outside our functional perception.
I know, I know. This begs for an example. Take clouds, for example. Unless we are very young, very old or on holidays, we rarely see them as something else than indicators for the weather. But if you think a grey featureless sky is only dull and depressing, take an airplane and fly over it. Suddenly, it becomes a magic landscape of hills and valleys that constantly changes it shape. It was indeed as a frequent-flyer that I first became a cloud-connoisseur. Let that sink in for a moment: once you don’t think about umbrellas and once you, literally, change your point of view they can turn from ugly to beautiful. And quite spectacularly so.
Now, using the term “beautiful” here is problematic and can entangle us in all kinds of questions, e.g. whether there is beauty outside of categories in our mind and our functional perception. I think there is. I think that beauty is not only an evolutionary side-product but something that adheres to reality itself. In other words beauty is how the universe is smiling at itself. Purposeless and independent of whether we look or not. And that might well be what Michael Kenna was talking about.
But this sensibility to the smile of the universe is not something that easily fits into our social norms. If on that airplane you sit there with open mouth and tears running down your cheeks you will only alarm the flight attendants. We are not supposed to react so strongly to the world. Thus the young men and women of the 18th century walking the fields waxing ecstatically about the flowers quickly became a joke.
On the other hand, I make now here boldly the claim: one cannot create anything worth looking at without a high degree of sensibility. We have invented new, socially accepted terms like “passion” to describe how we are allowed to feel about things. Isn’t that strange? In a relationship we wouldn’t see mere passion as sufficient, but we see it as acceptable to found start-ups and to make art.
I confess, I am not passionate about the smile of the universe, I am deeply in love with it. Now it is said. Here I stand, I can do no other.