A Portrait of Plants as Artists

by

Michael Marder

 

I find it quite impossible to imagine art totally vacant of plants. Even those theological traditions, like Islam, that (as part of their reaction against idolatry) proscribe the depiction of animals and humans, excel in floral designs. Plants figure prominently in landscape paintings and still lifes that extract them from the hardly noticeable background of everyday existence. The vegetal content of traditional art is not what interests me here, however. I want to focus not on the artist’s plants but on plants as our equal, if not superior, partners in aesthetic and poietic processes broadly understood. With these brief reflections, I would like to contribute a few conceptual brushstrokes to the portrait of plants as artists.

Before anything appears on canvas or is etched in wood, plants serve as materials for the artwork. The substratum for visual arts is often vegetal. Spreading pigments on paper, we paint with plants on plants: with gum arabic from acacia trees in watercolours, with oil paints using linseed oil, and so on. (As painters, are we the mirrors, in which plants see without seeing themselves?) Before the digital age, motion pictures used celluloid film, made on the basis of plant substance, cellulose. Wood carvings date back to the very beginnings of humanity.

Putting aside the strange question about human mirrors that has imposed itself on me, it might appear that the human artists’ use of vegetal materials reduces these to a passive role of means for purely external ends. Unless we recall that the remains of plants we paint, sculpt, build houses, or film with not only receive the sensuous image of the artist’s idea but also offer the sort of resistance that bends the initial blueprint. In woodcarving, the size of the tree trunk determines the dimensions of the finished sculpture. The grain of wood dictates the course and direction of the sculptor’s work, typically cutting plant fibres across the grain. “Imperfections” in plant materials may be incorporated as the unexpected and previously unplanned features of the art piece. Drying vegetal-derived pigments will impose their own color scheme on the painting and change with the passage of time. The varying absorption capacities of canvas paper or fabric will introduce their corrections into the hues and outlines of whatever is depicted on it.

These examples are much more than instances of mechanical resistance to “spiritual” human endeavours that modify our abstract ideas falling into the world of matter. The afterlife of plants in a chopped down trunk or in vegetal-based paint is an alien intentionality, with which the human artist must be in constant negotiation and collaboration. The work of art wherein vegetal materials participate is thus a product of plant-human synergy overflowing the boundaries between animate and inanimate beings, let alone distinct biological kingdoms.

If the Greek poiesis means creation, then plants are the co-creators of the artworks, for which parts of their bodies are utilized, as well as the creators of themselves, of the atmosphere, and of the world. More on this later. For the moment, another Greek word is worth considering, namely aesthesis. At the root of aesthetics, it refers to perception (from the verb aisthesthai, “to perceive”). In this sense, too, plants are aesthetic agents. They appeal to the human and other-than-human perceptual apparatuses—for instance, through the shapes, colours, and smells of their flowers or the taste of their fruits. And they perceive the world occasionally better—on a wider spectrum of possible stimuli—than we do, as Daniel Chamovitz has recently shown in his book What a Plant Knows.

With respect to how plants give themselves to the perception of bees, humans, butterflies, and birds, we might say that they are not inertly available, as a rock might be. Instead, a rose prepares itself for the moment when its petals would open, exuding a delicate aroma; delicious figs take the time to ripen before their fruits release their honey-like contents in our mouths; orchid flowers shapes themselves in a certain way to resemble a female wasp before a male specimen spots them and flies over so as to consummate, by mistake, a cross-kingdoms sexual act. Plants paint the world in intense colours and fill it with elaborate shapes. They swathe life in a plethora of smells and addictive tastes.

It is not that an individual rosebush, fig tree, or orchid deliberately presents itself in this or that fashion to the senses of beings who not plants. Vegetal aesthetics consists in the achievements of evolution, sometimes coupled with human efforts at cultivation. Cultivating a particularly aromatic variety of flowers, we, once again, participate together with them in a creative process, in aesthetic synergy. As for evolution, we still need to come to terms with what this concept actually signifies. The tendency is to treat it as a new, scientific incarnation of God, through which everything makes sense and all the phenomena of life are explicable. In fact, evolution is nothing but the ties that bind this rose or this fig tree to countless generations of its predecessors, as well as to a coevolving environment. It disperses vegetal subjectivity across space through collective constitution together with genetic kin and drowns this subjectivity in deep time. Henri Bergson’s notion of creative evolution touched upon something of an aesthetic agency in excess of the phenotype, even though the French philosopher also risked fetishizing evolutionary reason.  

The self-presentation of plants is more obviously aesthetic to the extent that it revels in the spectacle, in the spectacular dynamics of display. The drama and suspense preceding the opening of flowers is quickly followed by the exuberance of the blossoming period and a similarly stunning fading, withering, and decay. The nonflowering varieties that rely on asexual reproduction do not stay far behind, because vegetal display is a corollary to the maximum exposure that distinguishes the plant’s mode of being.

The proliferation of living exposed surfaces, whether green or multicoloured, is ultimately responsible for the rich aesthetics of vegetation, which Schiller includes under the heading of material play, a prototype of the formal play drive, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. In Letter 27, he writes: “Even in mindless nature there is revealed a luxury of powers and a laxity of determination which in that natural context might as well be called play. The tree puts forth innumerable buds which perish without developing, and stretches out for nourishment many more roots, branches and leaves than are used for the maintenance of itself and its species. What the tree returns from its lavish profusion unused and unenjoyed to the kingdom of the elements, the living creature may squander in joyous movements. So nature gives us even in her material realm a prelude to the infinite, and even here partly removes the chains which she casts away entirely in the realm of form.”[1]

Display and, even more so, play are the aesthetic antidotes to the seriousness of evolutionary reason. As Schiller has it, they happen for nothing, out of the overabundance of life in a playful, displaying creature. Above all, in a plant. Schiller goes so far as to deem the play drive a sign of happiness, of a plant, animal, or human rejoicing in itself. Of course, at issue is not joy as an emotion but ontological joy, a being revelling in its power to be and in the actualization of this potentiality beyond what is strictly needed (say, for survival). The exuberance of flourishing, the abundance of display, is the aesthetic function of play, which in the logic of means-and-ends is utterly superfluous. In the last instance, the leaves are exposed not in order to maximize their capture of sunlight and opportunities for photosynthesis. Instrumental exposure is what remains of the plant’s massive “squandering” of itself into the outwardly expressed joy of its being. Georges Bataille’s general economy, of which restricted economy oriented to specific calculable ends is a subspecies, follows on the heels of such play. And, with regard to Bataille’s suggestion, we might say that playful aesthetic experimentation, not the least by the plants themselves, is the milieu, the atmosphere, or the climate within which adaptation and survival become possible.

Across its play and display, vegetal being does not diverge from appearance: the plant wears what it is on its sleeve, or, more accurately, on its leaf. To assert that plants are the artists of sensuous appearances, offering untold aesthetic riches to whomever they attract, is to claim in the same breath that they are the artists of being. In effect, plants create and recreate themselves all the time, growing new limbs, shedding leaves, putting out new sexual organs (i.e., the flowers). They are performative creatures par excellence, the artists of themselves. Vegetal self-creation and self-recreation takes its cues from the conditions outside—cold for shedding leaves; warmth and longer hours of daylight for flowering; sun exposure for growing new branches—without a rigidly predetermined organismic plan. The artistry of plants that make themselves is, therefore, of one piece with the world.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that, attentive as they are to exteriority, plants are manipulated, marionette-like, by their environment into self-creation. Not only do they reach complex decisions on the timing of changes in their morphology and physiology, but they also make the places where they grow, by which they are, in turn, made. Photosynthesizing, plants are the artisans of the atmosphere and of the world. They bring together the organic and the inorganic realm and gather around and on themselves creatures from various biological kingdoms: fungi, insects, bacteria, animals… Before they are landscaped by human hands and well before they feature in landscape paintings, plants create airscapes and earthscapes, microclimates, and breathable air, cooling and humidifying the sites of their existence, and returning organic richness to the earth in the process of decay. Our moulding of the world is an inverted image of its vegetal creation: we fill the air with C02, deplete the soil, prompt global warming, make the desert expand. The human art of world-creation verges on world-destruction, diminishing the concrete possibilities for future life. Conversely, plants are the architects of the environment who expand the liveable realm both through their crafting of climates and through their activities of growth and decay.

It is often observed that plants are marvellous alchemists, converting inorganic particles coupled with sunshine into organic matter fit for the nourishment of others. This is artistic creation, the culinary arts of ripening with the varying degrees of solar heat and in symbiosis with human and other-than-human palates. Making their fruits edible, sometimes by adding an enzyme intended just for that, refining their juices, and cooking in the sun, plants are exquisite chefs, rather than suppliers of raw materials for gastronomy.

A final brushstroke I would like to add to the portrait of plants as artists has to do with their unique subjectivity. Vegetal existence is, to borrow the expression of Jean-Luc Nancy, singular-plural, thriving above and below the thresholds of individuality. In other contexts, I have addressed its ontological, ethical, and political implications; the aesthetic sense of the plants’ mode of being is yet to be thought through. At minimum, their mode of being indicates that plant authorship and artistry are anonymous and dispersed, as well as collective and collaborative. Postmodernism celebrates the death of the author as a solitary genius, a heroic and creative individual behind the work. What this theoretical current leaves out is the upside of the momentous event it points out: the afterlife of the author and the artist is vegetal. Don’t “our” writing and aesthetic practices approximate those of plants once the illusion of autonomously individual authorship is laid to rest? Don’t their outcomes become not just ours—the property that is mine, yours, or yours and mine at the same time—but also of the plants with which and on which we write and create, of the microorganisms that nestle in the work, of the dust that settles on and gets engrained in it?

But I have gotten carried away and started painting outside the frame of the portrait I’ve been working on together with plants, inorganic materials, and—yes!—dust. How intellectual property rights might metamorphose, grow or decay, upon contact with plant subjectivity is a theme for another sketch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man, translated by Reginald Snell (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), p. 133.