Art as Energy

By Eli Siegel


Strong against tide the enormous whale
Emerges as he goes.

—Christopher Smart, A Song to David 

Art is the energy that sees a thing as it is, by seeing it more as it is. Always in energy is the idea of more: energy is more than stillness, more than leaving a thing as it is at any one time. So, in art as energy there is the change that is care, the power that is good will. Art is the finding of goodness in motion, of power simply in being. To change paper into a crackling universe is energy; to change an insect into a little locomotive is energy; to change an eye into an eye with the meaning of earth is energy. To enjoy being is energy, for being, enjoyed, is more than being, not enjoyed. Appetite, love, and form are energy. In art, the excessive is the accurate; the energetic is the proper.

There are two dimensions to energy: force and accuracy. The accuracy shows that the force is true. To throw a stone is a kind of energy; to throw a stone so that it hits a circle in a wall, completes the first energy. In art, the way is from repose to motion with form to more repose, a greater repose. A stone is in the light, next to a red flower; what this stone and red flower are is seen; when shown, the stone in the light and the red flower are more, because of how they have been seen.

In customary life, there is dullness of perception or disorder of perception. Art changes dullness through energy, and at the same time gives dullness a quality of true reposefulness. The energy that does not culminate in reposefulness is that much false.

Energy in art, art as energy, takes the withinness of things and makes it outward. When we see what is within a thing as outward, we see that thing as more. And the artist, while he shows what is within a thing as outward, sees himself as within and without, likewise: the deep will be the surface.

Reality is energy and restraint. Art shows energy in reality as restraint. The principle on which art works is that if whatever is, has motion in it; then to show a thing as motion is to deal with it exactly: and this exactitude in fullness makes for restraint. A complete oak seems in a way more restrained than an incomplete, injured one.

In all the forms one can find energy. A form insists on being what it is, and when something seems to insist on what it is, it is more than what it is. A point is a point, but if one thinks of the point as stating what it is, announcing it, insisting on it, that point is more than what it was before it announced itself. A definite form draws attention to itself, and that is a kind of energy. If a person is sitting quietly on a bench, our perception may lose him: but if someone says, That's he, at that moment the person in taking on more definition takes on more energy. And so, when people talk they seem to be more than what they were; if they move, they are more. All motion is expression, and expression, as motion, is energy.

A Line Has Energy

A line, looked at, has energy. It is going somewhere, in a certain way. A twisted line seems to have more energy than a straight one—but the energy of motion may be in a fight with the energy of insistence a straight line has. To see a circle as asserting itself, would be to see it as energetic; if we see a circle as not asserting itself, the idea of energy is so much not there. Everything can be seen as asserting itself; if a thing asserts, also, that it has relation, means something, it is that much more energetic.

A picture, then, is energetic if it seems to say it is itself and it is going out, too. Being and relation, thought of together, are the beginning of energy. Motion is the way a still thing visually insists on relation.

Color in a painting seems more energetic than form, because color is more obviously a going out. Brightness is energy. Darkness is energy when we think of all it has—for hasness is a kind of going out; and darkness is energy when we think of all it does—for doing, clearly, is energy.

Rising seems more energetic than falling, for rising is a going out, while falling seems more within. Art shows the going out of all things. The sun coming out of night is the old, tremendous example of energy. If we think of the Egyptian pyramids as just there, we don't have the feeling of energy so much; but if we think of the pyramids as going out, rising, energy is felt. However, if we see the pyramids as rightly—even if quietly—insisting, energy is about, too.

Rembrandt's A Polish Nobleman

If we think of a picture as insistence, resistance, and change, we see energy. There is Rembrandt's A Polish Nobleman. The mere looking at the nobleman as picture gives rise to insistence. We also feel that the man would resist what is against him. And then there are two "goings-out," typical of Rembrandt. We feel that the nobleman is strong—that he could change things; he could keep a door shut against enemies; check a galloping horse; impress an impertinent companion, wrathfully. But we also feel that there is a going out into the whole world, that in the Polish nobleman there is the subtle and comprehending thought which is man. The richness of the fur the man is wearing, the strong round stick he has, the gold decorations, all say: This is. Richness is energy, for it is both an insistence and a going out. The form of the picture as containing all of it, insists that everything be, and be in relation. Form as insistence is energy. The Rembrandt picture The Man with the Gold Helmet likewise has this insistence, resistance, change—all in quietness.

Perception is energy, for perception to existence is as going out to stillness. All perception simultaneously changes the person who perceives, and the thing perceived—for a thing perceived, simply by being perceived, is different from what it was. Every large thing, then, in art history, being a victory for man's perception, is also a victory for his energy. The artist says, I must see what this is; a person not as artist says, I must use this or protect myself from this. The energy that insists on a thing's having more meaning is deeply the true kind.

The artist is dissatisfied, but wishes to give his dissatisfaction form. Cézanne said, a naked man's body is certainly more than it has seemed; he made that body various and bright, and related it to rich, swelling foliage. The richness of men's bodies and the almost spherical, abundant foliage made the world look energetic. When the world seems rich, it is energetic; when the world has meaning, it is energetic; and Cézanne in his Bathers gave richness to objects, and meaning. Color was a way for him of making existence seem richer. Make space look red, and space seems less recessive, more meaningful.

Energy in art pierces, widens, gathers, makes stay. Artistic energy looks within, widens into relation, arranges, gives accuracy or repose. Michelangelo had to give things more strength and richness and had to show that they could be tamed, too. Poussin likewise saw the world with energetic hope. Rembrandt had the energy that was perceptive hope. The world is looking to have more meaning given to it, and more form, too. Art as energy does this.

To run wild and to bind are both forms of energy. And so, to be a fast horse, and to ride or check a fast horse are both phases of energy. They are both in art.

Neat Frenzy

Meanwhile, energy of many kinds is to be found in all artists who have seen existence with neat frenzy. There is energy in The Swing, by Fragonard, and in The Judgment of the Damned, by Signorelli. In both these paintings something runs wild, even as it is given shape. It is art as energy which is behind the wild as shapely. And in Piero della Francesca and Ingres, we see the shapely as wild, or free.

Is this energy of art about what is true? Is energy given to things, or do things have it? The upshot of art history is that it takes energy to find energy. Physics and chemistry show that there is energy in a handful of earth, a bit of glass, a berry, a bit of wood, water. Being is motion—all of which has the world behind it.

To find the world behind the motion of a twig, is to give the twig true energy. To find the world behind the energy of evil, is to give form to evil. Energy as art, art as energy, gives the twig more universal wildness than it had, and gives evil chastening as form. Form is a beautiful punishment for disorderly evil.

Energy Is Good When

I have said that all forms have their energy. Form seen as recessive makes for an energy akin to evil; form seen as destructive, while it is going out, is also akin to evil. Energy is there: though it can be called bad energy as such: pounding one's head against a wall is after all a kind of energy, as is tearing up newspapers for hours. A form that some coils have is recessive; a form that is like the meeting of two claws is, as such, on the side of evil. For energy is good when, while it insists on itself, it goes out, changes things, and is in a relation to the whole world. In early Italian painting we can feel the energy proud of itself and pointing to the meaning of the whole world: this can truly be called spiritual energy.

The idea of energy as art can be seen in the use by physics and philosophy of the word event to describe fundamental reality. If a thing is an event, it is on the move, it is doing things. Art as energy shows that a thing is as it is, does what it does, means what it means. Art as energy implies a person alertly passive: that is, giving attention. How much attention one can give is a problem of energy.

As great questions as any in art are: How does energy, as art, take on form? How, in doing so, does it make motion, change, force reposeful? How does form make motion ethical? And how does energy become "ethical," that is, with form represent the turbulence and symmetry of the world?

These questions are for us because energy in art is still beauty; and beauty is the world when kind.


Copyright © by Definition Press 1960, 1962, 1974.

NOTE. "Art as Energy " appeared in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 802, August 17, 1988.