9 April 2013

Missing the mystery

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." - Albert Einstein

I think there's a misperception out there that artists are in touch with the sense of mystery, beauty and awe, but scientists are only interested in 'hard facts' and the mathematics that describe them.

Perhaps the misperception is partly due to the way some scientists talk as though explaining how something works reduces it to the entirely comprehensible and mundane. We can describe the inner structure and workings of the atom, so what else is there to explain? It's no longer a mystery.

Yet the very existence of the atom is itself a mystery. That such complexity occurs at such a minute level is awe-inspiring. That human beings have, over the centuries, found ways to discover so much about the atom is also awesome.

In some ways it's easier to see how scientists, rather than artists, could find themselves 'standing rapt in awe'. I've heard mathematicians talk excitedly about 'beautiful equations' without any hint of sarcasm. Surely Einstein was right about the mysterious being the source of  all science.

But was he right about it inspiring all art? What does he mean by 'true art'? For Einstein, true art comes from a beautiful experience related to a mystery that arouses awe and wonder. By that definition, the 'art' that I saw at MoMA in Hobart last year – pictures of mutilated bodies, twisted metal, rows of plaster casts of the female vulva - was not 'true art'. If anything, the exhibits seemed to arise more from the shock of revulsion and horror than the beauty of mystery. There was a mystery involved in some of the works but it could hardly be described as a beautiful experience, for the artist or the viewer.

But at least the artists were still sensitive to what they were seeing. More worrying are those who meet Einstein's description of people who are as good as dead, who experience no sense of awe in the face of all that surrounds them. The evening news, the night sky and a forest walk leave them equally unmoved. They have no curiosity about the workings of an ant colony, or the way in which a baby becomes a walking, talking child. A new gadget or technology might momentarily inspire some curiosity and awe, but it quickly becomes passe.

I read an article recently about this phenomenon - gadgets that perform feats that once would have staggered us rapidly become part of our normal, unnoticed life and we only complain of what they fail to do. I must admit to having fallen into this trap myself. My sense of awe and wonder is badly out of practice. I take so much for granted. Here I am writing on a laptop-sized computer, using a web-based 'paper' whose characteristics I can change on a whim, with music streaming from a site thousands of miles away, and I'm not even noticing it. None of these things would have been possible when I was a child, or even twenty years ago.

Perhaps part of the problem is not leaving enough time in each day to notice what is around me or think about what I'm seeing, hearing and reading. It's very easy to flit from one activity to another. With so much available, the risk of 'missing' something makes it very tempting to consume without thinking or really experiencing any of it.

Einstein spoke about pausing and standing. Surely that's integral to experiencing the beauty of mystery. In my own experience, those awe-inspiring moments often come after looking at something for a while without really seeing. I must have looked at the garden every day for years before I consciously noticed how amazingly different every plant is. The Grand Canyon might produce an instant "wow!" effect, but the furrows in the bark of a tree or the creases in an older person's face are also mysterious and beautiful, once you take time to really look at them.

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