Andy Goldsworthy: Nature, Metaphor and Humanity


I recently had the opportunity to view a screening of a documentary on the nature artist, Andy Goldsworthy, entitled Rivers and Tides. Goldsworthy has developed a unique form of art, which involves going into nature, using the natural materials around him and then creating an artwork, which complements or accents the natural surroundings. Due to the nature of such work, his artworks are often temporary, taken back into nature by wind or water. The actual work of art, then, is not only found in his structure of the natural material, but also in the process by which he makes it and in the photographs and film used to preserve it. He spends all morning, for example, building a wooden round structure, resembling a beaver dam, on the shore of a lake (shown in photo above). At the top of the wooden structure, there is his signature hole, representing eternity or infinity. When the tide comes in, the structure slowly moves away from its original location, breaks free from its foundation and is gradually carried out into the water. The beauty of the art is found not only in the way it is created, but also in the way it is broken down as it returns to nature.


Another example, which I found particularly beautiful, was where he placed brightly colored leaves according to a particular pattern in a small pool at the side of a creek (similar to the photo on the right). The vibrancy and brilliance of the colors were astonishing; it was almost as if the water was on fire! And yet, all the colors were from the surrounding trees, simply arranged in a striking way. Again, this work was only temporary, for when the creek rose, the leaves were carried away.

I will admit, however, that at the beginning of the documentary, I was skeptical of the value of Goldsworthy’s work because I felt uncomfortable with its temporality. With some of his pieces only lasting a few hours or less, I wondered if their value and impact would be diminished. Others, who have encountered Goldsworthy, most likely have posed similar objections. Yet, after reflecting on the power of his art, I realized that all art, and all of humanity, for that matter, is as temporary as the leaves being taken away down the stream. The prophet Isaiah reminds us of this:

All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.[1]

Robert Wood eloquently remarks on this fleeting characteristic of humanity as represented in Andy Goldsworthy’s work in Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us: “ . . . it brings to mind the way in which every form that we introduce into Nature eventually succumbs to its processes as do we who emerged out of Nature. [Goldsworthy’s] work makes a powerful case for the metaphoric use of Nature.”[2] Many other metaphors, in addition to the temporality of humanity, speak to us from Goldsworthy’s profound use of nature.

What is it about Goldsworthy’s nature-art that attracts us and allows us to explore such metaphors? The attraction of his projects, in my opinion, does not lie in his reliance on the natural environment or in his human skill at creating art, though both of these are important and attractive elements of his work. The source for such profound beauty is in his wedding of the natural and the human. Although they are inspired by natural forms and processes, his artworks are not nature look-alikes; each of them is uniquely human in their design and execution. On one hand, his artwork shows the stark contrast between wild, untamed nature and rational humanity, but, on the other hand, it also displays connections and similarities between them through elements of temporality and unpredictability.

Kant speaks of the power of this type of aesthetic contrast towards the end of the first book of the Critique of Judgment. He gives an example of how a pepper garden in itself is not so amusing, but if one were to stumble upon a pepper garden in the middle of a forest, it would be much more attractive. For, he states, “wild beauty, apparently irregular, only pleases as a variation from the regular beauty of which one has seen enough.” [3]. He argues that the variation between wild beauty and regular beauty is what is attractive to us and draws us in. This variety is necessary for aesthetic experience, according to Kant, because it allows us to have free play between our imagination and our understanding.

Goldsworthy’s art certainly does allow our imagination and understanding the freedom to explore new metaphors, and, I would argue, through such exploration, we can be brought to meditate on even deeper metaphysical and spiritual reflections. If you can spare the time, I would encourage you to view the documentary, Rivers and Tides, and allow yourself further meditation on the metaphors between nature and humanity. I welcome comments on Goldsworthy’s work here as well.

  1. [1] Isaiah 40:6-8 (Quoted again in 1 Peter 1:24-25).
  2. [2] Robert Wood, Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us, Forthcoming, Quote at End of Ch.1.
  3. [3] Kant, Critique of Judgment in Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 307.

A Starting Point for Metaphysics: Kant and Lonergan

Immanuel Kant’s famous distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal world naturally poses problems for metaphysics. The noumenal world is the intelligible world or the world of things-in-themselves where, if we had access to it, we would be able to understand our sensible experiences in the phenomenal world. Access to the noumenal world would include understanding pure ideas such as justice and courage as well as an understanding of causes and effects seemingly found in our world. But, according to Kant, we do not have access to the noumenal world and are stuck in the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, where we can only make speculations about what is really going on. We cannot make synthetic a priori judgments; in other words, we cannot make any universal truth claims based on our experiences in the world. Our link between experience and truth is cut off. In light of this, Kant must reject metaphysics since we are unable to make any metaphysical claims about reality. Metaphysics may exist but we have no way of knowing anything contained in it.

However, Kant appears to take a step closer to the noumenal world in his third critique, Critique of Judgment. In this Critique, he discusses how aesthetic judgment links art to morality. As Wood puts it, “Our shipwreck in the theoretical order points to the real purpose of our faculties: moral action in this world” [1] Art brings out our act of judging and through this act which reflects both freedom and nature, Kant may be finding a unity between the world of appearances and the world of truth. Wood argues, “The whole region of reflective judgment – the beautiful, the sublime, and the organic – points to the possibility of the insertion of causality through concepts into the mechanical world of nature and thus serves to bring together the fractured halves of the field of thought . . .” [2]

Though Kant would not claim that human judgment is a starting point for metaphysics, others, such as Bernard Lonergan, do offer such a proposition. Lonergan seeks to understand the human faculty of judging (along with the other human faculties) in order to first, find a method for how we come to know things (epistemology) and second, to discover a starting point for metaphysics. In his carefully structured 700 page masterpiece, Insight, he slowly finds that the capacity to judge or “revise” the world is where we can find truth about the sensible world. In the Chapter 14, “Method of Metaphysics,” he states, “Bluntly, the starting point of metaphysics is people as they are.” [3]

Sadly, Kant was unwilling to make such a claim, although perhaps he was drawing closer to it in his third critique. Lonergan, in contrast, offers this rather simple starting point for metaphysics: people as they are. People have the unusual capacity to judge the world around them, have insights, revise insights and slowly build up a dynamic set of metaphysical principles. Though all other metaphysical principles are able to be questioned, the fact that we are questioning is unquestionable. Thus, the fact that we are revisers cannot be revised: “for there is no revision of revisers themselves.”[4] It may seem like an obvious principle to grant, but as Lonergan attempts to do, from it, one can begin to discover many other metaphysical principles along the way.

This is not to say that this principle is the only starting point for metaphysics. Certainly, there are many other points on which to begin as philosophers have shown over the centuries. For, if there really is a metaphysics, there will be more than one way to find it.

  1. [1] Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 125.
  2. [2] Ibid., 145
  3. [3] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 422.
  4. [4] Ibid., 302