Saturday, June 27, 2009

Art and the Divine

Just what is "good" art is of course very much a matter of taste but in a certain sense it goes beyond mere "taste" and has a certain "objective" reality perhaps related to the way the human brain is hardwired so that objects that fit a certain series of patterns, finishes etc, come across as beautiful.

It is apparent that being symmetrical, finished / smooth, carefully balanced are all associated with beauty. For example the conventional idea of female beauty or the notion of a finished work of art. Yet it is also recognized that something can be beautiful and violate these notions of beauty. In music for example a raspy, scratchy voice can be beautiful or a least interesting to listen too. (Kim Carnes anyone). And in physical beauty a certain strain of ugliness can have a certain beauty. (Keith Richards anyone).

So in the end it appears that we may have great difficulty defining what is beautiful but we seem to recognize beauty despite the difficulty of defining it.

too illustrate the point consider the following example

The Twelve sided Stone

This is perhaps the penultimate example of Inca stone work and it is found on Hatun Rumiyoc street Cuzco, Peru, probably created sometime in the late 15th early 16th century C.E. In many ways it is a violation of traditional notions of beauty. It is irregular, very unsymmetrical a bit rough and unpolished. It certainly is not conventionally beautiful. Yet it is!

I think the reason for the fact that it is beautiful is the very fine craftsmanship involved in creating a twelve sided stone and fitting it among other stones without mortar! The detail involved in making it fit so well that a knife cannot be slide between the stone blocks! In fact that this irregular, unsymmetrical stone block is so well and carefully fitted in and then carefully polished to a rough smoothness gives it a beauty.

It is also seemingly so simple that at first glance it doesn't seem all that impressive but has you gaze at the sheer audacity and difficult nature of the task completed by the Artist and Craftsmen who made it sinks it. Its simplicity is deceptive a trick played on us by the Artist. The emotions evoked are direct and visceral and frankly very hard to express in words. It is a powerful object that invokes both human aspiration and the divine.

It appears that the Artist / Architect had a moment of "Godlike" inspiration and probably shared by the Craftsmen who executed the Artist / Architect's vision. This powerful yet cool vision indicates just what humans can achieve when they are touched by the divine.

Sadly the Artist and Craftsmen are unknown to us.

The Twelve Sided Stone and it's street

Another example of a truly extraordinary but far from conventional beautiful object is this hand made of Mica.

Hopewell Mica Hand

This extraordinary artifact was found during excavations conducted in the 1920's at Hopewell in Ross County Ohio, in mound 25. It is a burial offering buried in the mound as a offering to the dead. Culturally it is related to the Hopewell culture / phase of the Americas also called the Moundbuilders. This particular artifact seems to date from c. 400-500 C.E.

Like the twelve sided stone it is not conventionally beautiful. The hand is not a realistic depiction of a hand but a stylized almost abstract rendition of a hand. The most intriguing feature of the hand aside from the fine nature of its outline cut is the curiously elongated nature of the fingers. Certainly no human has had such elongated fingers. It gives this piece a eerie feel and look and generates within the viewer a sense of unease.

In terms of technique, unlike the twelve sided stone it is likely that the artist may in fact have created this piece very quickly maybe in a matter of minutes. Certainly it is likely that the artist may in fact have spent much more time selecting a piece of Mica to work with than actually working the piece.

One of the intriguing features of this piece is how the natural creases and cracks of the mica were used to suggest ,joints and the creases of skin on fingers and the palm of the hand. Like the twelve sided stone its simplicity is deceptive it is in many respects a complicated piece.

What it means is rather hard to guess. Since it a burial offering it is possible that the offering an open hand was symbolically some sort of greeting by the dead to the afterlife world.

Unlike the twelve sided stone here we have a work created by a single Artist, probably someone who worked quickly in a moment of inspiration to create something stunningly simple and yet evocative. A moment of divine inspiration.

In some respects it fits conventional notions of beauty more than the twelve sided stone in that it is balanced and regular and yet it is ruthlessly pared down to an almost abstract rendition of a "hand", not so much a particular hand but the idea or ideal "hand". It is in many respects an example of how sometimes less is indeed more.

Another Photo of the Hand

The above photo shows how the way it is photographed influences how a work is perceived. In this case the object is more ghostly, otherworldly and ethereal. it belongs in this photo to the other world where in the previous photo it was more of an object of this world.

These two objects are examples of the Precolumbian art of the Americas an art that even today much of it is not well known and in many respects it is poorly understood These two objects were part of a world that was largely swept away but from that vanished world we have objects that show that even in that lost world humans touched the divine.


Milner, George R., The Moundbuilders, Thames and Hudson, London, 2004. A picture of the Mica Hand is on p. 169.

Stone-Miller, Rebecca, Art of the Andes, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002. A picture of the Twelve Sided Stone is on p. 198.

McEwan, The Incas: New Perspectives, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2006.

Pierre Cloutier

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