Art as the Exquisite

By Eli Siegel


Fine by degrees, and beautifully less.
Prior, Henry and Emma

Art as the exquisite shows that the smallest things explain reality. The fact that the atom or electron is about the whole world is both exquisite and tremendous. The idea of the all is exquisite—and sublime. The idea of germs, bacteria, viruses, is exquisite and universal—if foreboding. Art as exquisite shows the philosophic meaning of the small—just as, in their ways, chemistry and physics do. If molecules have shapes in chemistry and vibrations have intensities in physics, why certainly art may have shapes and intensities from the exceedingly small, and in the exceedingly small.

The exquisite can be described as that which shows order and drama in the very little. The exquisite shows drama in the fine, order in the minute. The exquisite shows the interesting vicissitudes of reality in the microscopic; the differences and relations of forms in the tiny. Lucretius, the mighty Roman poet of the atom, saw the figures of "seeds"—tiny first things in reality and life—making for color:

Though seeds are colourless, and free from dyes
They're form'd of diff'rent figures; whence arise
The num'rous colours, gay varieties.

(De Rerum Natura, Creech translation)

Art, being of reality, begins with the atom; or whatever the atom may be called at any time. Form and color begin where reality begins: and there is nothing smaller, finer, subtler, more intricate, more exquisite than reality. Dürer and Hokusai felt that if they were to show reality well, they had to be fine or exquisite about it. You can't be just to a hummingbird's wings in the sun, and miss the exquisite; you can't be just to the delicate forms melancholy takes, and not be exquisite. Exquisite has to do with the Latin word meaning "to seek": to be exquisite is to seek, or question, what things are where they begin most hiddenly, most finely.

Nothing and Something at Once

The exquisite deals with the trembling drama between something and nothing; between matter and space: shows matter just where it is about to change into space. A fine line is exquisite because you can feel it is nothing and something at once; a delicate point is like that; a very faint color. Art as the exquisite shows that the interval between, the relation between just what is and just what isn't matters very much. So lace, gossamer, spiders' webs, almost imperceptible lines, evanescent light, airy blues, sunbeams, shadowy dullnesses—and all such—are philosophic situations about Being and Non-Being. Reality being the relation, the togetherness, of Being and Non-Being, is about the tremulously exquisite.

That which tends to vanish while definitely there is exquisite. And so a light cloud is exquisite: and a cloud is exquisite in a painting by Constable. That which is fine and yet has meaning, exists, is exquisite: and so is a line by Dürer. That which is clear and yet seems of another world, is exquisite: and so is a child of Raphael or a skin by Renoir. That which is bold, entire, and yet is pure is exquisite: and so is a color by Vermeer: for whatever is pure, even if definite, makes matter seem of another world, the world of form. The red of a neat cherry is exquisite; for it goes with the definiteness of a sphere, the softness and firmness of the cherry's texture. The exquisite and the sublime are in a beautiful, brotherly interaction. A line by Da Vinci is exquisite, for though it is definite, it seems to tremble at the edges of another world. We come, then, to a short description of the exquisite: Smallness, Faintness, Lightness, Purity, or combinations of these, with Meaning.

Light in a small space is always exquisite. Lightness of weight and symmetry of form and purity or faintness of color make a flower delicate: however, if the color is too insistent, as in a pansy, delicacy or exquisiteness is impaired. The light green of grass in relation to water has been exquisite through history.

The pyramids coming to a point have exquisiteness that much. For wherever matter is felt as changing into lightness, delicacy ensues. And through the base of a pyramid coming to a point in air, something akin to the exquisite occurs. The exquisite here is the religious. The thought of the base of a triangle being at the same time its point is a thought with lightness and definiteness.

The curve is more exquisite than the straight line because the curve gives more of a chance to a thing for being seen as vanishing: the vanishing proceeds in a curve. The assuredly vanishing is always present in exquisiteness. A perfume is exquisite when felt as insistent, there, and yet faint, vanishing. It is the there quality and the vanishing quality that make a picture pleasingly delicate, likewise.

Texture in Painting

Texture in painting is a way of showing the exquisite as meaning. When we are pleased by texture in painting, we think, such smallness, such fineness, such nonobviousness, such modesty making for all this! Modesty in texture making for boldness is exquisiteness; on the other hand, a bold, obvious effect, which, looked at, comes to modesty, fineness, is also exquisiteness. A deep red can be at once audacious and modest.

The impersonal can make for exquisiteness. As soon as a person insists as person, as self, the exquisite is that much assailed. And so there is an exquisiteness to be felt in Persian paintings, for one thing because the figures in them don't seem to be agitated, threatening, ambitious figures—even the princes seem to be part of the landscape—if there is one—or just part of everything. One can see this in the Portrait of a Prince in the Metropolitan Museum. The prince's personality seems to be vanishing correctly. He insists on being curves, which don't assert: which seem to change into space and form. The horse in the picture doesn't seem to have hoofs which can stamp. There is hardly any weight in the picture: it is a dream in form; and when dreams have form—that is, don't exist and do exist—they are philosophically delicate.

It is this impersonality which makes Byzantine art and early medieval art exquisite, too. The definite without assertiveness makes for visual otherness: and this we see in medieval work. A glare is one of the least exquisite things possible; and the determination of ego as ego is like a glare.

The mysterious is close to the exquisite, for the mysterious is something which is not entirely seen as existent. What exists is palpitatingly close to what doesn't exist. The mysterious is close to exquisiteness as seen in a lively butterfly's wing or in the white flight of a moth.

Perhaps as good an idea of the exquisite as any (in a short while) can be had from thinking of, or seeing, a one-half inch square in light blue. I have said that a square as such doesn't make for exquisiteness; but because the square is small (you may make it one-quarter inch if you care to) and because there is that delightfully spiritual color, light blue, in the square, the square is defeated, even while it is felt. The defeat of an assertive idea by the definitely meditative, suggestive, airy makes for the exquisiteness art is after.

The shape of a leaf, its swelling and vanishing; the green of a leaf, often almost transparent; and the veins of a leaf, make it a rich repository of the exquisite. However, when the leaf is given meaning, it is even finer as a thing contemplated.

In medieval art, delicacy is in the slain Christ, for Christ is passive, sweet in his passivity. Sweetness, understanding, and death have made for exquisiteness in the art of early Europe. Passivity without defeat is present in ethical and aesthetic delicacy.

As I said, exquisiteness is with both lightness of weight and color. Being in air, then, or flying, makes for exquisiteness. But the flying must not be of a determined, laborious kind. Exquisiteness as lightness, curve, and definition is in Sassetta's Marriage of St. Francis and Poverty. In this picture, there are light lines in space. A thin curved line in space is that trembling, definite merging of the this and all beyond, which is philosophical exquisiteness. Space is where there are faintness and flutter.

Ethical Exquisiteness

There is exquisiteness in Fra Filippo Lippi's Madonna in his Madonna and Child with Two Angels. In Mary, there are naivete, interest, far-offness. There is a vanishing that makes for hereness. It is as if we had to use the remote and strange fully to understand what is before us. When the distant serves the present, ethical exquisiteness is about. That is why "Long, long ago there was a poor man" is a statement with ethical attractiveness.

In the exquisite, there must always be something light. The exquisite can use the heavy, but must make it light. Therefore, when there is such richness and form in matter that we can accept it, the light ensues. What we can truly, gladly accept is light; may be exquisite. And so, rich velvet and a cherry become light because we are so much for them. The complicated becomes simple and light when seen with form. The complicated as arrangement, organization, becomes light.

The insistence in Dürer was to make richness of detail orderly, light; that is, exquisite. Were a heavy packing case to become light suddenly, were a mountain to trip along the landscape, were a complicated structure suddenly to seem simple—the lightness, the correct vanishing that would ensue, is the lightness of deep, perceptive delicacy.

Dürer St. Jerome in His Study is exquisite, because detail, depth, heaviness of mood are made simple and light. The exquisiteness of this engraving is like the feeling one would get from seeing many fractions suddenly as 1; or the feeling got from contemplating 1 as containing many subtle complications, while still being 1. In Dürer's engraving we see lines as we see thought, and the lines make the thought quietly merry. And Dürer is technically light, definite, and many: his technique, then, is delicate and important.

There is a relation of curiosity to the exquisite. When you go inquiring into reality, you will see it as finer and finer. The atom becomes more delicate; the line more diverse; the cell more related; the point richer. As we see reality more deeply, we see it more finely; as we see it more widely, we see it more delicately. The test tube and the telescope, art says, have the same purpose. When the planet explains the cell in art, we have sublimity; when the cell, the point, the line, the trembling interval, explain the planet, we have exquisiteness. To see the sun in a drop of dew is akin to fine artistic curiosity.

As we ask, what do objects mean, we are asking that objects mean more and be finer at once. We want to see reality as delicately interior, and lighter, too. When the cubist changed objects into planes, he was making matter more lightsome, and, in a fashion, deeper, too.

Art wants to see the flutter in objects. It wants to see how the subtle makes the mighty. It wants to see how the point widens, and the line explains.

Reality Is Finer than We See

All art goes on the presumption that reality is more delicate, finer than we ordinarily see it. Once a bone was seen as more exquisite than customarily seen; then a person; then persons; then persons and skies; then persons and fabrics and skies; then animals; then insects; then points—then and now: things. The search for meaning is also a search for exquisiteness.

Christ was made profound and exquisite in the Middle Ages. And now, the desire to see reality as profound and exquisite is hardly absent.


Copyright © by Definition Press 1960, 1962, 1974


NOTE. "Art As Exquisite," appeared in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 861, October 4, 1989.