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Art and The Inconsequentialness of Nature

February 9th, 2009 by Bill Brown · 9 Comments · Culture

This is a guest post by Joseph Kellard, a journalist and commentator living in New York. You can visit his blogs at and

On Saturday I was enticed to the Nassau County Museum of Art for the exhibit: “Poetic Journey: Hudson River Paintings from the Grey Collection.” (The next day, the New York Times gave it a well-deserved positive review: “For Serene Transport, Hudson River School Paintings.”)

I enjoy some paintings from this school, particularly those of Albert Bierstadt, for their panoramic landscapes of valleys and mountains and their stylized recreation of nature, especially their brilliant colors and sharp contrasts between light and dark (e.g. The Oregon Trail). When men appear in these paintings, I view them mainly as a means for the artist to accentuate the vast landscapes and to lend them some perspective.

Unfortunately, my positive experience at the exhibit was undercut, slightly, by some of the descriptions of the paintings (which, I was told, are usually written by the curator):

The Trout Pool by T. Worthington Whittredge, 1870

“… The man fishing in the background is symbolic of the smallness of humanity compared to the grandeur of nature. The fisherman seems so inconsequential next to the enormous trees and beautiful, glittering steam that he almost vanishes into the wilderness.”

View of Yosemite Valley by Thomas Hill, 1887

“ … On the left-hand side, there is a man riding a horse, but he almost blends into the earth, which conveys the smallness of humanity against the rising cliffs and the great, never ending expanse of nature.”

Here I was reminded of the passage from The Fountainhead when Dominique asks Wynand if he’d never felt how small he was when looking at the ocean:

“Never. Nor looking at the planets. Nor at mountain peaks. Nor at the Grand Canyon. Why should I? When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man. I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all that senseless space. When I look at mountain peaks, I think of tunnels and dynamite. When I look at the planets, I think of airplanes.”

At the exhibit, the curator described another landscape, Sunset by George Inness, 1878-79, as follows:

“ … There are no people in this image, though in the background there is a building with smoke of the increasing human presence and the negative impact industrialization has on the Earth’s natural resources.”

Perhaps, the curator recognizes that the smoke stack represents man’s “magnificent capacity” to conquer nature, thus demonstrating how inconsequential nature is next to man’s rational mind.

9 Comments so far ↓

  • Mike N

    Obviously this curator is an altruist.

  • Andrew Dalton

    “… smoke of the increasing human presence and the negative impact industrialization has on the Earth’s natural resources.”

    You have to love how the curator projects the political fetishes of the 21st century onto an artist from the 19th century.

  • Ryan Mulkerin

    Ah yes, man is horribly inconsequential, yet able to control the future of the planet! Nope, there’s no contradiction there!

  • L-C

    Ryan, it is only man’s triumphs that are inconsequential. His failures are eternal.

  • EdMcGon

    Bill, your post reminded me of a show I saw last year, where this guy would hypnotize sharks (some of them were fairly large and aggressive maneaters too). And he was successful.

    While I thought the guy was a loon for even attempting it, it does prove your point in a rather eccentric way. Nature submits to reason.

  • Bill Brown

    EdMcGon: this post was actually by Joseph Kellard. I’ve edited the byline (and the one for his previous submission) to make that clearer. Sorry for the confusion. Also, good point.

  • Amy Nasir

    What a corrupt individual that curator is. I’d like to see him “respect” nature, dropped into a forest with no civilization or roads for miles. What does it say about a person’s view of the world and view of himself when projecting onto these paintings? I suppose it’s self-loathing and inefficacy. It reminds me of Alec Baldwin’s character in the movie, “The Edge.”

  • Jim May

    Joseph: why would you read those things? I don’t. The art shouldn’t need to have an explanation next to it… if it does, it fails as art IMO.

  • Joseph Kellard

    Hi Jim,

    That’s for your reply and everyone’s reply here to my post.

    In answer to your comments, I always take in a painting first, before reading any accompanying description that may explain it. Then I read the explanation see if there is anything I can learn.

    A painting should stand on its own, without any accompanying explanation — and that’s why I take it in first, before reading anything about it, to see what my initial reaction will be. Having that explanation as an option is a value in my book. I don’t see it as any different as having a good teacher explain aspects of the painting too me and provide valuable insights.

    I read and thoroughly enjoy Diane Durante’s essays on art in The Objective Standard, as well as her excellent book Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan. I don’t always know the subjects I am looking at in a work of art, and reading about them can enhance my understanding and appreciation of a painting. It may not change my initial, sense-of-life reaction to the painting, but it very well may provide some insights I might have missed. The same can be said about the biographies of the artist, who often times are obscure. Again, this may help me understand and better appreciate a work of art.

    Moreover, if I hadn’t read those accompanying descriptions at this exhibit, I probably wouldn’t have written my post.

    ~ Joseph Kellard