Art and Emotion – part 1

The Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh recently held an exhibition of paintings by Susie Leiper, an artist who is also a fine calligrapher. Duncan Macmillan, art critic of The Scotsman, gave the show a five-star rating and this is truly well earned.

The exhibition is called `The One Life’ and Leiper acknowledges two influences by quoting from Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude and also from the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text. Both quotations are on the theme of the unity that lies behind the great diversity of things. Yellow Court Studio takes its name and some of its inspiration from Taoist literature and we are glad to find kinship.

The paintings in `The One Life’ are for the most part semi-abstract, suggestive of dramatic landscapes, with backgrounds sometimes as closely textured as rock faces, sometimes vague, open and spacious like the sky. Above these grounds the words may pour down like torrents or drift in fragments. As to the words themselves, they are generally quotations from great poetry such as The Prelude or Tennyson’s In Memoriam.

A major virtue of this show is the near-perfect fusion of words and images. This is a rare achievement. Leiper manages to make these two enhance one another, both in sight and sense, in ways that are possible because the calligraphy is visually stunning in itself and because the meaning of the words fits extremely well with the mood that the imagery conveys.

Wordsworth’s passionate response to the mountainous landscapes of the English Lake District is well-known and in The Prelude it is richly expressed. I gather that Leiper has the same kind of feeling for the mountains of Scotland. This comes through strongly in her works, even in those where there are no words; but with Wordsworth’s weight added the effect is very strong. At any rate this viewer felt it strongly, so did Duncan Macmillan — and so, I think, did many others.

There is something about mountains that tends to affect people deeply – not everyone, of course, and perhaps mainly people who lived among them in childhood. The effect comes most strongly through visual experience, but in The Prelude Wordsworth does speak also of sound, telling how he remembers standing under a rock, with a storm rising, and listening to “the ghostly language of the ancient earth….”

This seems scary and no doubt was, at least in part, as it happened; but for the most part Wordsworth is recalling experiences of delight, and also his growing awareness of what moves his mind to joy and how important this is.

Experiences of joy, delight, wonder and so on are powerfully emotional. Yet when people speak about emotions they are often thinking only about the dark and grim kinds or about the weak and silly ones.

Emotions are feelings that arise in response to things that matter to us. We feel them in our bodies: they move us. The movement may be slight, barely perceptible, or it may come with overwhelming force, but it’s always there, quite literally. We may shake or tremble, clench fists, draw the breath in, jump up, cry aloud, tingle gently along the spine. These physical effects and a range of others are characteristic human responses to an encounter with something that we find strongly significant, either in a positive or a negative kind of way.

So then are emotions a good or a bad thing? There is no adequate simple answer to such a question. Whether emotions are good or bad for those who experience them, or for others, depends on the nature of the values that evoke them. You can’t escape this: it’s quite fundamental to human modes of being.

Many of our emotions are about things that matter only in a narrowly personal way. It’s typical of this kind that what’s `good for me’ is bad for someone else. Such emotions often arise because we are comparing ourselves with other people competitively, asking ourselves such questions as: Am I doing better or worse? What do the rest of them think of me? And so on.

With such a mind-set, even coming a close second in some contest may lead to a bitter feeling of failure. But if you come first, then you have the problem of holding on to this `first place’ in future. On the other hand, if you end up far below the winner, does that mean you’re worth nothing at all? What misery! A mind filled with such thoughts and feelings is like someone stuck in a muddy trench during a pointless war.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with Susie Leiper’s exhibition. The relevance is that good art, like mountains, has the power to evoke a very different kind of emotion. We’ve just been considering a kind that holds people down. Now it’s good to come back to a kind that enables us to soar.

This latter kind arises when we encounter something that matters to us for reasons remote from the happenings of our everyday lives. We generally experience this kind as having its source above and beyond us. We may understand little else about it at all, for it is on the edge of mystery, but it is something we cannot deny. It comes as a widening of scope, an expansion, a liberation. Perhaps it is what Rumi means when he speaks of the soul’s own joy. (See post of 24th October)

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