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August 24 2011

Call of nature: when art imitates life

A recent trip to Kew Gardens revealed to me that John Ruskin was right: the loveliest art has its roots in the natural world

The great Victorian critic John Ruskin believed all beauty comes from nature. For him, art that takes anything but nature as its pattern is ugly, monstrous and immoral. You might think such ideas would make him a savage critic of today's art, were we to somehow reanimate him and send him along to Tate Modern. Certainly his name and ideas have been quoted by fierce denouncers of contemporary art, such as Peter Fuller. But are Ruskin's ideas really so antipathetic to the art of today? I recently had a revelation at Kew Gardens in London that illuminated a whole new way of thinking, Ruskin-style, about art and nature.

It's amazing how profoundly Ruskin's ideas shaped British attitudes to culture and nature in the 19th century. In his book The Stones of Venice, he argues that all architectural ornament should represent nature, and gives examples of good things to carve, including fish and snakes. The builders of the Natural History Museum in London followed his instructions to the letter, peppering its interior with realistic replicas of animal creation. The museum's founder Sir Richard Owen believed, like Ruskin, that nature is God's work – which made him a fierce opponent of Darwin.

Whatever you believe about nature, 19th-century depictions of it are very rich, from this magical museum to the paintings of Turner. The glass houses at Kew also embody this Victorian passion for nature – the Palm House is a kind of scientific installation, a representation of a jungle made of living jungle plants. Ruskin stressed the curves and irregularities of nature that he observed hiking in the Alps and the Lake District. But what about the repetitions and symmetries of nature?

At Kew you can look closely at a superb collection of living cacti, kept in a desert-warm glasshouse. They are fascinating – especially when you look closely at the prickles. On larger cacti it is easy to see how strangely these are composed and arranged. Each cluster of spines has the same number as every other cluster, and these are spaced with awe-inspiring regularity. It is as if each cactus has been constructed in a factory. Like mineral crystals, these plants exhibit wondrous symmetry. But what is bizarre is the way they are stacked up, unit on unit, like … well, like minimalist art.

Looking at these cacti, I found myself thinking of the art of Donald Judd. No wonder the American minimalist chose to place a permanent exhibit of his work close to the desert at Marfa, Texas. Right across the American South, from Houston to the Roden Crater, minimalist artists have chosen to show their work against a backdrop of the natural world.

The world is not as Ruskin saw it. For one thing, Darwin was right. And as Darwin was right, it means the forms nature can take are boundless and strange. If nature is unlimited – and now visible to us right down to its genes – so are the possibilities for an art that imitates nature. Let's hear it, then, for Ruskin, Judd and the minimalist cactus. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 07 2010

Natural selection

Charles Darwin never patronised his audience but presented his evidence modestly; Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, lacks the patience to let natural history speak for itself

Charles Darwin was not a clever man. Well, clearly he was a very clever man. But he was not self-consciously clever: he never talked down to his readers. His masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, is a modest book. It begins with evidence – and down-to-earth, homely evidence at that. Even though Darwin's encounter with the island species of the Galapagos and other exotic discoveries on his voyage with HMS Beagle was so important to his intellectual evolution he starts his great work with observations about domestic British breeds. Similarly, in The Descent of Man he offers copious anecdotes about his study of primates in London Zoo (he wasn't above teasing the animals).

Darwin is the finest fruit of English empiricism. His modest presentation of evidence contrasts, I am sorry to say, with the rhetorical stridency of Richard Dawkins. Visit the famous atheist's website and you will see two causes being pushed. Dawkins is campaigning with other secular stars against the pope's visit to Britain. Meanwhile he is touring the paperback of his book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The trouble with this book is that it lacks Darwin's empirical style. Where the Victorian writer presented masses of evidence, and let his astonishing, earth-shattering theory emerge from common-sense observations of nature, Dawkins lacks the patience, at this point in his career, to let natural history speak for itself. He has become the mirror image of the theological dogmatists he despises.

He just can't separate science from the debate he has got into with religious people. "Debate" is too kind a word. In a debate you are trying to convince your opponents, but the new atheists have closed off the grey area in which, for a long time in the west, science and religion co-existed. In The Greatest Show On Earth, Dawkins tries momentarily to backtrack, pointing out that all educated bishops believe in evolution. But he is soon back to the realm of dogma, asking himself why it took so long to come across the reality of evolution. This is clearly a historical question, although it may not be a good historical question (why did it take so long to discover the iPad? Well, first you had to invent the wheel ...) No sooner does he ask this question than Dawkins replies, in effect – and I am only slightly caricaturing – that it was because people were a bit thick. He offers no intellectual history of how Darwin's big idea was born from centuries of natural science, how the religious Victorians created an intellectual atmosphere in which such a leap in the dark could be contemplated.

Nor does he offer what is surely needed – a blow-by-blow introduction to evolution that starts calmly from the visible evidence all around us. In a telling aside, he is dismissive about the fossil Ida, which he cannot resist telling his readers was massively overhyped. Missing link? You'd have to be an idiot to think that, he grumps ... I am not defending the publicity for this fossil, but it typifies the self-regard of the public atheist that when an accessible, immediate, exciting piece of visual evidence for The Descent of Man enters the mainstream, his reaction is to sneer. He doesn't actually want to persuade, he just wants to be the cleverest kid in the class. Which Darwin never was. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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