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Survival of the Beautiful, by David Rothenberg

David Rothenberg


Late in his embroiling meditation on art in nature and art for us, David Rothenberg puts his cards on the table. "I want your relation with this book," he writes, "to change the way you see and conceive the world of natural evolution and the world of human cultural evolution, with art and science, beauty and use, now much closer and intertwined."

Amen. If this was his aim, he has certainly succeeded. He has set Jackson Pollock against the peacock's tail, performance artists against colour-morphing squid, dazzle-painted camouflage ships and cryptic moths against paintings of wood ducks and other creatures who hide in plain sight.

It is a wonderful project, insofar as it shakes us out of our complacent notions about evolution on the one hand and art on the other. He has the temerity to suggest that far from selecting for function, evolution may often favour the beautiful for its own sake. His reflections – and those of the scientists he interviews – regarding the habits of the bowerbird, an Australian-New Guinea genus that builds impossibly elaborate structures to please the ladies, are alone worth the price of admission.

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But this border of art and science is hard territory to navigate. Sometimes, I can follow Rothenberg's lead, and sometimes I cannot. His description of a squid that changes colour at will – sometimes even making cryptic coloration on one side of its body while it makes a flamboyant display on the other – is fascinating. It becomes even more so when he mentions the work of an ethologist who is trying to determine whether or not these colour ways constitute a language.

On the other hand, although he obviously does not like E.O. Wilson's Consilience – an awful book, which attempts to prove that every other way of thought should give way before the wonders of science – he ends up calling Wilson a Renaissance man and insists upon almost canonizing someone he has every reason to oppose. There are a good handful of people in our time who might be given that epithet, but Wilson is not one of them.

Then, too, Rothenberg spends a great deal of time describing the work of a currently fashionable conceptual artist who, novelty of novelties, sets up "salons" in museums, where a select group – including of course Rothenberg himself – are prepared to provide a stimulating walk-around for the arts intelligentsia. One wonders why the artist did not instead just start a salon. But that might have been to become merely useful. Likewise, he admires artists who teach elephants to paint. On occasions like this, Rothenberg seems almost to become a carnival barker.

Just when you are ready to throw the book across the room, however, along comes another gem for reflection. He knows the work of the great American mathematician George Birkhoff, and cites Birkhoff's aesthetic equation, M = O/C, where aesthetics equals order divided by complexity. Rothenberg wants to dismiss this idea as trivial, but he does not, in spite of the fact that he patronizes the mathematician's 1930s view of the human brain.

And what is trivial about the idea, particularly when you remember that Birkhoff was one of the great exponents of dynamic system equations? These are equations that try to resolve situations of enormous complexity, and when you carefully write the equation, you find that it has only one flaw: It cannot be solved.

He recounts Birkhoff's experiments with the equation and the mathematician's extreme caution with his results. I wish he had done more with the dynamic character of the equation, however. The very issue is that he cannot properly quantify either order or complexity. These are experienced variables, not abstractable.

Perhaps the reason that Rothenberg does not go this way is that he very much wants to stand up for abstraction in art and wild abstraction in the nests of birds, the scribbles of elephants, the colours of squid. He is at pains to show us that Jackson Pollock's work can be shown to be fractal, like the pattern of light and shadow on a forest floor. Pollock then is educating us about the act of seeing.

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This is too facile a connection.

Pollock good?

Fractals good!

Ergo, Pollock good!

In short, Survival of the Beautiful is a wild ride. But at its heart is a wonderful wish: to make us see the stories and the beauty in everything from the warbles of flying cranes to the cries of crows, From the shape-shifting squid to the bower-building bird, to the elephant and to the cryptic moth, which hides beneath his drab wing-tops a flash of crimson red.

William Bryant Logan is an arborist in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the author of, among other works, Oak: The Frame of Civilization and Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.

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