Lawrence's Ontology of Art: A Meditation on Van Gogh's Sunflowers

By Stewart, Jack | Studies in the Humanities, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Lawrence's Ontology of Art: A Meditation on Van Gogh's Sunflowers


Stewart, Jack, Studies in the Humanities


In "Morality and the Novel," Lawrence reflects deeply on what Heidegger calls "the creative process" (40):

When Van Gogh paints sunflowers, he reveals, or achieves, the vivid relation between himself, as man, and the sunflower, as sunflower, at that quick moment of time. . . . The vision on the canvas is a third thing . . . the offspring of the sunflower itself and Van Gogh himself. [It] is forever incommensurable with the canvas, or the paint, or Van Gogh as a human organism, or the sunflower as a botanical organism. . . It is a revelation of the perfected relation, at a certain moment, of a man and a sunflower. (171)

Lawrence's choice of Van Gogh's Sunflowers (August 1888; see Schapiro 69) is significant, for he recognized how much of himself Van Gogh put into every brushstroke and how intensely his vision fused with objective forms. The artwork springs from an "act of pure attention" (Lawrence, Sketches 62) that defamiliarizes the object and opens it to the gaze. Schapiro calls The Sunflowers "a piece of the sun, a poem of joy in light and intense growth" (68). Involving "the perfected relation between man and his circumambient universe," the painting represents "life itself' ("Morality" 171) and gives form not just to perception, but to the creative impulse. Such art springs from a spark of contact and illuminates a moment of being.

"Morality," in the context of art, is a combination of ethics and aesthetics that preserves flux, indeterminacy, and constant interaction ("the trembling instability of the balance" [1721), while activating a potential for wholeness. Lawrence maintains that "[the] true artist. . . always substitutes a finer morality for a grosser" ("Art" 167), meaning that he achieves a vital equilibrium of style. Beyond ethical codes, "morality is that delicate, forever changing balance between me and my circumambient universe," which it is "[the] business of art . . . to reveal" ("Morality" 172, 171). The artist's morality includes "vital awareness," "livingness," and openness to Being. As Herbert Marcuse puts it: "Prior to all ethical behavior . . . [or] ideologica expression, morality is a 'disposition' of the organism, perhaps rooted in the erotic drive . .. to create and preserve 'ever greater unities' of life" (qtd. in Levin 320). Art and morality are virtually the same thing for Lawrence, who finds "[the] vast, unexpl ored morality of life itself," in Hardy's novels ("Study" 29). It is not surprising that he rejects "that beastly Kant," who divorced art from ethics, for he wants fiction and philosophy to be harmoniously united ("The Future" 154). Art and ontology have a common source in "acts of attention" that open up vision.

Drawing on futurism and vorticism, Lawrence imagines the fluctuating rhythms of life as "lines of force" in space, or "opposites [that] sway about a trembling centre of balance" ("Morality" 172, 173). In art as in life, "the relation itself. . . is the quick and the central clue" to livingness ("Morality" 175). Lawrence sees the creative process as a dynamic interaction achieving momentary synthesis in the work of art. Rather than seeing the artwork as a heterocosm of insulated forms, as in the aesthetic modernism of Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, and Fry, he sees its interaction with life as potentially revitalizing: "The novel is a perfect medium for revealing to us the changing rainbow of our living relationships. The novel can help us to live, as nothing else can" ("Morality" 175). The artwork, born of the artist's struggle with himself, his motif, and his medium, emerges from and irradiates life-experience, "mak[ing] the invisible visible" (Max Beckmann, in Chipp 188). Art has the power to transform and revitalize , "to make you see," in Conrad's terms (225) or to make you be, in Lawrence's, for whom "the only form of worship is to be" (Symbolic Meaning 137). The two sides of the artwork, creative perception and aesthetic response, call, in their own ways, on "sensitive awareness (Lady Chatterley 101) and "living relatedness" ("Art" 167). …

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