Culturing Nature
Prof. A. Richard Turner
New York University
Spring Semester 1994

nature n [ME, fr. MF, fr. L natura, fr. natus, pp. of nasci to be born -- more at NATION] 1 a: the inherent character or basic constitution of a person or thing: ESSENCE

essence n [ME, fr. MF & L; MF, fr. L essentia, fr. esse to be -- more at IS] 1 a: the permanent as contrasted with the accidental element of being

-- "Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary," 1977

"Nature" is one of those words that drives me to the dictionary in order to use it deliberately. So, for the purpose of this essay, I selected the meaning quoted above knowing full well that most people think of nature in terms of "out there," the external world we experience through our senses and, given the time and place, either include or exclude ourselves and basically consists of all those things in the world that would be here if we were not. But there are those today, like Bill McKibben in his book "The End of Nature," who believe that this latter idea of nature no longer exists because man has so totally exploited the world that there is no thing that does not bear our trace. I'm inclined to agree on the grounds that "out there" suggests an Arcadia where there is a border or frontier we must cross to enter and I prefer to think of nature in relational terms that includes both the natural and the artificial world and the way we are an integral part of it all.

I date my awareness to this world to the summer of 1977 when I stepped out of the elevator on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum into a vast, nearly empty room bisected with a sheer scrim suspended from the ceiling down to eye level and a thin black line, also at eye level, painted on the perimeter wall and continuing along the bottom of the scrim. It was the Robert Irwin retrospective and I remember that I felt my life change, however subtly, then and there.

Of course I was all of twenty-three-years-old and had just escaped from an aborted graduate school experience at Indiana University and had landed, flat broke and stupid, in New York. I've since learned that at twenty-three almost anything can change your life, especially if you think of yourself as an artist and sense the possibilities involved in making art. But at that age it hadn't occurred to me that a work of art could actually do something to you physically as well as mentally. I still, to this day, can vividly recall the sensation that came over me as I walked into that Whitney gallery space, the sense of disorientation and the need to find my bearings within the space itself.

I don't recall whether I knew who Robert Irwin was (someone took me there) and it was unlikely that I'd seen much of what he'd done since Irwin was, at that time, reluctant to have his work photographed, actually forbidding it until 1969, because he believed that a photograph could convey image but not presence. And it is the presence of the Whitney piece, "Scrim Veil -- Black Rectangle -- Natural Light" that has stayed in my mind and body, actually causing a physical sensation to run through my limbs fifteen years later. I can even, just faintly, remember the smell of the material of the scrim.

I took this experience to be my baptism into "real" art, what art was suppose to be in New York, oblivious to the fact that Irwin was as much of a foreigner to that world as me. The piece was viewed by many as a Dadaist gesture or conceptual stunt and provoked the easily provoked Hilton Kramer to call it "a repudiation of art and life." Luckily, I was ignorant enough to view it, as Barnett Newman would say, "without the nostalgic glasses of history" and even began to understand Newman's "zip" not as an image (or documentation) of an experience but as an on-going perceptual experience. That is, I've now come to understand, the difference between natura naturata and natura naturans.

For an Italian Renaissance artist of the Quattrocento "nature" had two aspects to be imitated that had originated in Greek thought: the passive reality of our daily experience (natura naturata or created nature) and the active power that directs and governs life as well as the growth of a work of art (natura naturans or creating nature). Alberti developed these concepts into a theory of architecture based on the Laws of Nature, the most general being that of harmony. And, contrary to the Medieval doctrine that nature is a divine creation and therefore perfect, he suggested that nature was not, except as a harmonious whole, perfect and that the artist who selected the most beautiful parts of nature to imitate could produce a work that surpassed nature.

By the fifteenth century the active aspect of nature developed into the idea of nature as an order to be discovered and imitated as it was believed had been done by Classical artists. Artists therefore looked to Antiquity for ideal art to imitate rather than natura naturata while at the same time stressed the creational lessons to be learned from natura naturans that had allowed Classical artists to surpass nature in beauty.

By the time of the High Renaissance the idea natura naturans became identical with God, which meant that imitation of active nature became equal to an imitation of God with the artist as an individual genius with a mind that transforms itself into the mind of nature that can act as interpreter between nature and art (or God and man).

. . .we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.
-- Barnett Newman, "The Sublime Is Now"

Newman's zip and Irwin's installation re-present creative nature (natura naturans) rather than represent created nature (natura naturata) and succeed because they draw the viewer into an act of perception. Irwin's piece, by being interactive and by instigating perception in the viewer, sets creative power into action. Irwin has argued for perception being the essential subject of art. By stripping out the contextual elements in a work of art, the things we usually think of as essential in the recognition of art (i.e., imagery, permanence, method, painting, sculpture, etc.) we are left with the essence: perception. A work of art that re-presents natura naturans successfully is interactive, and allows the viewer to take part as an active participant rather than a passive viewer.

This could be seen as a sort of aesthetic therapy that could lead to, what William James called early in this century, a restitutio ad integrum, a mental environment like the primal "happiness of Eden." James felt that the ideas of Christian churches were not efficacious in the therapeutic direction of their day, whatever they may have been in earlier times. Christianity had always regarded itself as therapeutic, with healing, wholeness and unity its goals. James spoke of a divided soul in need of coming to a point of wholeness. To do this we need to imitate, as Leonardo pointed out, natura naturans because imitation of active nature was equal to an imitation of God. In order to come to that point of restitutio ad integrum we need to imitate those powers that created it in the first place.

Art has traditionally been viewed as the handmaid of religion in Western culture and while I won't go so far as to say that viewing art can be a religious experience, particularly in a country like ours that has never been, contrary to popular belief, a devoutly religious nation, art and religion do have a great deal in common in that both are a form of cultural memory. Religion, however, seeks unity of thought and cohesion of the group to impart morality while art, divorced from religious dogma, is free to focus on the individual.

Ruskin maintained that the first end of art is the representation of facts and the second the representation of thoughts. While it is possible to reach the first without going on to the second, thought is always dependent on fact. Irwin (and Newman) gives us facts that are based on a certain ambiguity that allows for variation in perception. Ruskin could not abide ambiguity in art and considered it an affront to God, particularly in Whistler, a result of his inability to shake his strict Christian upbringing and the fact that he was essentially attempting his own Reformation to convert the whole of Catholic art and architecture to Protestantism.

It was Ruskin's near-contemporary, Thoreau, who had the advantage in that he lived in a nominally Protestant culture that he was attempting to convert to individualism. Both had the same obsessiveness about observation but there was always something of the Pope in Ruskin, passing judgments ex cathedra. Thoreau acknowledged the "different drummer" in each of us that allows for ambiguity. Thus, this ambiguity promotes a richness of thought over the clarity of thought so dear to Ruskin's heart.

This ambiguity is still an important aspect of American art, it provides for a certain messy vitality that tweeks orthodoxy at every chance and drives art historians and critics (like Hilton Kramer), who attempt to catagorize it, crazy. Though often arbitrary and incompetent, when successful, as in the Irwin piece, this art reflects the free market and the mythic frontier spirit, it sails on Henry Adams' drifting history and crosses borders. It instigates perception and allows for the participation of the viewer. It is natura naturans.


Bialostocki, Jan. "The Renaissance Concept of Nature and Antiquity." In The Renaissance and Mannerism: Studies in Western Art vol, 2, 19-30. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Hess, Thomas B. Hess. Barnett Newman. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1971.

Marty, Martin E. Modern American Religion Volume 1: The Irony of it All, 1893-1919. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Ruskin, John. The Art Criticism of John Ruskin, ed. Robert L. Herbert. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc, 1964.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Portable Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1977.

Weschler, Lawrence. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.