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  • Matthew Baker

One Cathedral or Several?

In the 1890’s, the French impressionist painter Claude Monet fixed on the idea of painting the same subject under different lighting conditions at different seasons to show how color constantly changes according to the sun’s position. One of the subjects Monet turned his attention toward during this period was the Rouen Cathedral. One sees in this progressive series of paintings the way light and other atmospheric conditions cause certain details of the cathedral, especially its form and color, to appear in remarkably different ways and it’s interesting to note the way these renderings evoke various shades of tone, mood, and feeling. The interplay or intra-action of celestial bodies, fleeting atmospheric conditions, and the biological apparatus of the observer seem to suggest something of a relational ontology considered aesthetically, and I’m reminded of the following quote taken from a transcribed 2009 conversation between philosopher Alva Noë and New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra. Alva says this:

“Think of a brand-new automobile on a rainy day that is parked on the street. Down at the street corner there’s a busy intersection where there’s a red light, and now it’s a green light. And now you look at your car sitting there and it’s red across its surface, but it also has highlights where it reflects the green from the traffic circle, and now the red from the traffic circle. Over here there’s a little bit of direct sunlight that hits it and it shines brightly almost like hot rice. And over there where it’s in shadow it’s almost a grayish, dull red. We are able to look at this car and see two things simultaneously. We can see its redness, its uniform redness, and we can also see this fabulous variation in color across its surface. Here it’s one color, there it’s another color. It’s constantly changing, it’s constantly interacting, and I think that what the redness of the car is, is not something simple, but something complex. It’s the way the car changes as the light moves, as the lights change, as you move in relation to it. The color is this sort of dynamic quality that depends on our nervous system and our brains but also on the car and the environment and the surface of the car and its interaction with the environment. So, I think the color of the car or colors is what I called earlier in our conversation, environmental properties. Whereas our tradition, our philosophical tradition and maybe our common sense tends to think of them as simple, kind of simple sensations. I think that’s a misleading analogy.”


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