I also want to say thanks to the many other friends and family members who have said such nice things about the site by email, as well as thoughtful critique from a few of you. I want to respond especially tonight to the comments of one friend who wondered about my recommendation of the work of B.J. Christofferson. Not because she doesn't like the work, she made clear -- she finds it "endlessly fascinating" -- but because it didn't seem to be as "peaceful or restful" as what she would expect of something that she would call contemplative. I think that is entirely valid. Christofferson's work is colorful and full of ornament and so forth, and not contemplative to all, perhaps.
I bring it up because it leads me into what I wanted to talk about next. I want to say a little bit about what I see as the main characteristics of contemplative art, with the clear understanding that not everyone finds the same things contemplative. Not that this quality is "in the eye of the beholder" exactly, but because we are talking about relationships, the living interactions between artworks and viewers. Naturally, relationships, being inclusive of both object and viewer, differ from person to person as well as from artwork to artwork. I believe, like all relationships, they also change from one day to another. I don't mean to say that I find them to be fickle -- they're not -- but the best relationships grow with time. They are never quite the same from one day to the next. They might depend, to some degree on a person’s mood, or even the circumstances under which the art was seen. For instance, how crowded was the art museum when you were there? How quiet was it? What was the lighting like? In the case of the Sistine ceiling, were you craning your neck to see it?
So the parameters are fluid, and I don't think there is any wisdom in trying to nail them down or try to be too categorical about the term contemplative. That being said, I would like to try to describe what I mean by it. Yes, "peaceful and restful" might be excellent descriptors. Unless by those words you imagine I mean innocuous and insipid. I think contemplative art is deeply engaging. Frankly, the most engaging. Or the most meaningfully engaging anyway. As such it might even be unsettling in some ways. Not aggravating and annoying, but possibly disturbing. Disturbing in a good way. Something that gets your attention on a certain level. Like contemplating your own mortality.
I have listed here a few other attributes that I would like you to consider.
I think Contemplative Art…
…is Healthy for the viewer, i.e. it is experienced as "good for" the viewer, if not necessarily easy to view.
…is Meaning-ful -- without necessarily having a particular meaning. As we often think of “nature,” as important to us, as contributing to the meaning of our own lives.
…is Quiet-Voiced and non-demanding. I think it might have something “to say” to me, possibly even something quite specific, but it’s not going to insist that I stop and listen, much less change my views accordingly.
…is not about the artist. It is often anonymous, as almost all western art was from the fall of Rome to the Italian Renaissance. Usually art is expected to be self-expressive, but contemplative art is more often a self-less expression. It will not be understood in terms of what the artist is “trying to say.”
…is not Aggressive or neurotic, but considerate of the viewer. If it is therapeutic, it is more likely therapy for the viewer than the artist.
…is not Strident, pushy or threatening. It does not have “attitude.”
…is Non-Topical, Non-Political. It has no agenda. It may indeed have political implications for the viewer, but only as a byproduct. For instance my stone poems may serve to raise a viewer’s awareness of the beauty and mystery of nature, and that may inspire them to take a political stand on environmental issues, but these images are not a call to arms.
…is not Ironic. It is not clever, tongue in cheek, or otherwise insulting to the viewer. It has no hidden message or subtext that only the in-crowd will “get.” It is for everyone. It is meant to be taken at face value. As such, it is respectful.
…is Non-confrontational – without being innocuous.
…is Attentive… though not to the usual distractions of the prevailing pop culture or “art world” concerns. It is not mindless, but its mind is elsewhere.
…is Humble. I like the Japanese word, shibusa, meaning the “spirit of poverty.” The implication of it is that this artwork does not expect great things for itself. Million dollar price tags, gala gallery openings, and splashy reviews are of no concern.
…is more interested in residual impact than immediate impact. Contemplative art might be quite simple on the face of it, but it is never simplistic. Like a poem, it does not scan well. It might take time to really connect to it.
…is interested in the specific and the particular, as opposed to the general and the typical. The contemplative gaze is not interested in the “sort of thing” being examined, but rather in the object itself, as if it is unique in the world. It wants to know its subject as opposed to its mere optical identity. It is not interested in finding a perspective on it, but rather on the phenomenological nature of its existence.
Contemplative art finds the extraordinary in the ordinary.