North West Quadrant, Avebury

In the midst of my love affair with Barnett Newman, that most megalithic of artists (I was later to discover), I read a book by Peter De Bolla; called ‘Art Matters’. Over five chapters, he attempted to understand the condition of being affected by a work of art, through consideration of his reactions to Newman’s ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’, to Glenn Gould’s second recording of the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and to Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’. And he had something apposite to say, regarding the aesthetic response (2001, 18); “.., the quality of being “art” lies not, in any sense susceptible of description or analysis, in the object but in the response it elicits…Yet aesthetic value is determined by the quality of the response: if a particular object arouses the kind of response one can recognise as “strong” or “deep”, then it has claims on a high aesthetic value no matter how simple, trivial, or roughly worked up the object itself may be.”

If you happen to go to the Tate Gallery in London and wish to test this, then go to the section that contains the American Abstract Expressionists. There are usually two paintings, by Barnett Newman, there, called (appropriately for visitors to Avebury) Adam and Eve. Both canvases seem, at first glance, simple; Eve is a wide bright expanse with one thin strip at the side, and Adam has a few bold ‘zips’ splitting and cutting through a dark-hued background. Stand at a point at which you can see them both, but also the paintings that surround them; an angled position at a distance and to one side, perhaps. Look away, then look back. When I do, I find that these two paintings, and these alone, have what I would describe as a ‘presence’. To put it another way; they seem to have an existence beyond their parts – they live. The others, no matter what the intention behind them, are, at best, only representations of something else. In his own words (1992, 93); ”…it should be made clear to all those who think of primitive art in terms of Western European aesthetics, as the expression of a reaction toward the universe, that the artist among primitive peoples was anything but a commentator. He was a maker of gods that had animate life, that had intrinsic meaning.” This is exactly what I mean. I’m not talking about sensing energy, or spirits, although, in the case of megaliths, it could be (and often is) taken up that way and may well, as Newman suggests, have been the original intention. But of a particular type of (or a particular part of a) strong aesthetic response to the object itself. These are the dogs that I wouldn’t touch in case they growl.

What De Bolla said was that; “the quality of being “art” lies not, in any sense susceptible of description or analysis, in the object but in the response it elicits” Are megaliths, by this definition, art? My own experience of aesthetic response says – yes. But note the connection between the object and the response it elicits. Can we, consequently, attempt to gain an understanding of the past through this relationship (such as the one that I claimed for myself, earlier, in the Louvre)?

Magee (1998, 477), channelling Schopenhauer, suggests that it may be; “the specific function of the arts to convey profound and unique insights that are unamenable to conceptual communication.” In fact, you may already respond to monuments in this way – in terms of communication – and fully absorb the powerful message that you receive through them. Perhaps inclusive, even, of the senses of ’where I came from’ and ‘presence’, of which I’ve spoken (these were my impressions). But doesn’t a true ‘insight’; the form that this understanding of the ‘object’ must take, require an absolutely ‘clear’ response? Anything that doesn’t conclusively apply to its original context could have blurred its surface (I wrote part of that Louvre message, unknowing, myself, for example), or worse, directed our gaze into something else altogether. Deeper responses can often follow (what might appear to be) deeper understandings. And these will have lead many of us, ultimately, to what is referred to as the ‘intentional fallacy‘, or; “confusing an artist’s intention with his achievement” (Magee 1988, 78).

In the case of monuments only that which rests with structure; visible (what you can see – in my analysis; the ’presence’), or invisible (archaeological information), can have a ‘clear’ claim on understanding. And even that which is visible may be compromised – by the influence of landscape change on its immediate setting, for example, or by romantic expectation (the waters and the wild), or by deterioration of its form. And that which is invisible, by false interpretation.

As I’m writing, for example, on a bright Friday morning, back in Ireland, I’m half-listening to Mitsuko Uchida playing the Mozart piano sonatas. If I were to give them more attention, then everything around me would begin to feel like it was falling away. My mind would open – as if it was skimming over the ground, flying as a floating, free treble, while my body, the bass, rode its wake; attached yet still earthbound. I love these pieces, but I’ve never felt compelled to dig too deeply into the life of Mozart and I’ve no idea what intention, if any, is in the music. But it never fails to give me a strong impression of him, nonetheless. And my reaction, including placing myself mentally inside the piece, remains the same as when I first heard K-whatever on the radio. This; Kandinsky’s (trans. Sadler 1977, 19) “expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound”, is what I mean by a ‘clear‘ response.

Now, think of the word; ‘shock’. It’s one of those words that can convey a message in its sound, as well as in its meaning. Both are part of its effect. And, in a similar fashion, music, such as my Mozart sonata, would need only the ’sound’, where painting would use the ‘sound‘ and, often, some of the ‘meaning‘. And monuments may be closer to evenly balanced. Their (often potent) ‘presence’ is delivered by the fact that they are made, by their form, by their setting and material. This is the ’sound’; the deep ‘growl’. But that effect can be magnified (and your response altered) by their ’meaning’; by an understanding of them, whether it be right or wrong.

If I apply this to Stonehenge, you’ll probably see what I mean. It was built, for instance, in a wide, expansive setting and it was made by the hands of people, like us. It is mostly made of stone. It has verticality, like those tilted portal tombs and monoliths, to enable it to “soar” (De Bolla 2001, 51), and it has circularity to tense it. Or, as Bradley theorises, to extend it; “outwards from the individual and upwards into the sky” (1998, 109). These are features that may be valid, ‘clear‘, even powerful, as communicators of ‘insight‘, or understanding. But what if that ’sound’ is coupled with ’meaning’? With experience of other sites (and your heightened expectation of this one), with interpretation of the monument and with archaeological information about it? How it was made, in other words, what can be imagined of the people that made it, what influenced it and what magic it may have been used for (even as my response, in the Louvre, to Naram-Sin had been animated by the non-applicable myths that I had read, by the information in the guide book and by my own previous experiences of art). Does it not go deeper?

As De Bolla suggested, the quality lies not “in the object but in the response it elicits”. But the greater your inclusion of personal experience and interpretation, the harder it will be to separate your own construction of what you’re looking at, from what you’re looking at, and the less likely a ‘clear’ response, or ’insight’ will be. And if it is ‘clear‘ – Kandinsky‘s “expression of the artist’s soul” – then what is it? All you can assert, without detailed accompanying qualification, is that these monuments make you feel like this. And that the deepest of those reactions, so rare, are unforgettable.

“At its fullest”; according to Cézanne (ed. Doran 2001, 112), the sensation; “is in harmony with all existence.” Stendhal syndrome. Isolde’s words (in another context) describe it well;

“…Friends! Look!
Do you not feel and see it?
Do I alone hear
This melody
So wondrously
And gently
Sounding from within him,
In bliss lamenting,
Gently reconciling,
Piercing me,
Soaring aloft,
Its sweet echoes
Resounding about me?
Are they gentle
Aerial waves
Ringing out clearly,
Surging around me?
Are they billows
Of blissful fragrance?
As they seethe
And roar around me,
Shall I breathe
Shall I give ear?
Shall I drink of them,
Plunge beneath them?
Breathe my life away
In sweet scents?
In the heaving swell,
In the resounding echoes,
In the universal stream
Of the world-breath –
To drown,
To founder –
Unconscious –
Utmost Rapture!”
(from Isolde’s Liebestod; EMI 1994)

On the liner of Scott Walker’s ‘Scott 4’ are the following words, from Albert Camus; “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

De Bolla notes (2001, 3) that, what he calls, “mutism” has been singled out by some writers; “as the distinctive aspect of aesthetic experience.”


Part 1. Part 3.