On the compulsion to symmetry

What makes the novice artist start a composition by concentrating his marks, lines or brush strokes, on the center of the canvas or sheet of paper, ignoring the dynamics of form within the total space and the active role of format (the original rectangle of the paper or canvas) in composition?

The unreflected, unconscious search to balance visual elements by means of concentration within a central space and repetition along a central axis, resulting in the creation of static arrangements and formal monotony, maybe part of a larger tendency of living matter towards an ideal "point of repose" within the ceaseless agitation of life. This unconscious drive we may name the "compulsion to symmetry", something that the art teacher (and at times the artist) has to struggle with on a regular basis in studio classes.

But rather than a "metaphysical" question, it may well be that the "compulsion to symmetry", at least in some important aspects related to formal preferences in the visual arts, is rather culturally constructed. This is suggested by the following quote from The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, a reflection and presentation of Japanese culture to Western readers published in 1906.

"The absence of symmetry in Japanese art objects has been often commented on by Western critics. This, also, is a result of a working out through Zennism of Taoist ideals. Confucianism, with its deep-seated idea of dualism, and Northern Buddhism with its worship of a trinity, were in no way opposed to the expression of symmetry. As a matter of fact, if we study the ancient bronzes of China or the religious arts of the Tang dynasty and the Nara period, we shall recognize a constant striving after symmetry. The decoration of our classical interiors was decidedly regular in its arrangement. The Taoist and Zen conception of perfection, however, was different. The dynamic nature of their philosophy laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself. True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete. The virility of life and art lay in its possibilities for growth. In the tea-room it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself. Since Zennism has become the prevailing mode of thought, the art of the extreme Orient has purposefully avoided the symmetrical as expressing not only completion, but repetition. Uniformity of design was considered fatal to the freshness of imagination. Thus, landscapes, birds, and flowers became the favorite subjects for depiction rather than the human figure, the latter being present in the person of the beholder himself. We are often too much in evidence as it is, and in spite of our vanity even self-regard is apt to become monotonous."
(my italics, M.L.)

Notions worth of reflection by the art student.


text source: http://www.246.dk/teatbot.html#04


related links:

The Book of Tea

Okakura Kakuzo

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