The Philosophical Roots of Biomorphism in Art


Philosophy's influence on art practice is generally intangible and indirect. However, often enough, art has incurred the reproach of philosophy and, less often, art has served as a subordinate role, by merely illustrating or embodying the outer shell of some dominant paradigm, or dominating ideology. Conversely, artists have, from time to time, subordinated philosophical systems, or discourses, by employing them to justify visual manifestations (e.g. I. Rice Perrea's extensive and albeit quite convincing metaphysical foundations, or, even more recently, the rather dubious claims of Peter Halley's self-infatuated intimacy with both Euclidian geometry and cybernetic circuitry).


Other instructive examples can follow: e.g. Robert Smithson's stronger than implicit reliance upon the efficacy of Boltzman's 2nd Law of thermodynamics (entropy) to justify his process work in the extended field of industrially spent landscapes. Or, Joseph Beuys' dependence upon a theosophical grounding supplied by the Dutch mystic Rudolf Steiner. Or, Barnet Newman's and Wallace Berman's liberal flirtations with Kaballah. Or, the inherent and conflicted fusion of Platonism and materialism in minimalist sculpture, exemplified by Judd, Andre and Le Witt.


Although philosophers rarely employ examples from the visual arts to buttress their respective maneuvers, they nevertheless occasionally position their argument so as to be aligned with the spirit of art in their own epoch. E.g. the recent instance of Robert Nozick's 750-page tome, Philosophical Explanations, the very end of which, he makes a sudden plea to understand philosophy as an art form. Another 20th century case operates in reverse...This is when the Logical Positivist Rudolph Carnap snidely dismisses all metaphysics as merely bad art, and that what the metaphysicians are attempting to say is best said in art's terms — since, according to Carnap, art cannot possibly make any claim to verifiable truth, while the unwitting and dismissible metaphysicians mistakenly do. Carnap of course is giving a backhanded compliment (with very faint praise) to the spirit of art, while using the comparison to savage any philosophical position in conflict with his own.


Ideational cross-engagement between philosophy and art has taken yet other sorts of twists and turns. Structural foundational analogies 56 and subsequent arguments in philosophy occasionally cast considerable light on implicitly accepted critical distinctions in art. Perhaps the most prominent of these emerges from Rene Descartes' ruminations on the essential difference between imagination and conceptualization. In Descartes opinion, imagining is one thing, and conceiving something is another thing. He argues that what we cannot imagine we can very well conceive of. Descartes’ rather brilliantly illustrates this distinction with the comparison of a chiliagon (a regular 1000-sided polygon) in contradistinction to a 999-regular-sided polygon. He maintains that in the imagination both figures are indistinguishable from each other. Both the chiliagon and the 999-sided figure appear to be circles to the sensible eye and thus to the imagination, since the imagination is implicitly dependent upon the indeterminate and quite fallible bodily senses. Conceptualization, Descartes argued, is a separate faculty of mind, independent of the fallible bodily senses and therefore more ascendant in the overall hierarchy of mind. Since, in the imagination, the image of a chiliagon is indistinguishable from, or confused with, that of a 999-regular-sided figure, it is necessarily distinct from the concept of, or the conceptualization of a chiliagon. Further implications which can be drawn from this particular line of argument are clear — e.g., we cannot possibly imagine God, but we can conceptualize God...we may fail to imagine the infinite, but through the grace of mathematics we can conceive of the infinite.


Now, to the heart of the matter at hand. That is, the philosophical backdrop informing biomorphism and geomorphisim in the plastic arts. Cutting to the quick, three philosophers, all of quite different stripes and all of whom span the divide of the 19th and 20th centuries, are central to this issue, namely, Henri Bergson, D'Arcy Thompson and Henri Focillon.


With an exceedingly broad descriptive brush, one could (and for the purposes of the current argument, will) distinguish virtually all and every philosophical division as that which obtains between atomists and morphologists.


This core divide (between atomists and morphologists) has its origins in pre-Socratic and Periclian Greece…a philosophical division that has survived pretty much intact into our present. Briefly, beginning with Democritus and Epicurus, atomists have maintained that the irreducible constituents of the world are atoms, which are uncuttable, indivisible and have no parts...Further, that these indivisible constituents are impenetrable and unchangeable, and are thus the solid basis of existence and reality.


The morphologists (exemplified by Plato) on the other hand, argue that the basis of reality and existence resides in assembled or composed elements which are shaped by some force of Mind; generating a

practical infinity of distinct forms…Further, it is the distinct forms themselves (and not their constituent parts) that are the ground of sentient existence.


All three of our philosophers now in focus — Bergson, Thompson and Focillon — dwell comfortably within the morphologist's camp.


The centrifugal idea dominating Bergson's philosophy is the illusive notion of the elan vital. This central, etherial and non-mechanistic concept, which is roughly translated as a "vital principle", a "vital impulse" or a "vital impetus", can be defined as the force driving life-forms on to ever higher and more complex levels of structure and organization — providing creative direction to evolution. It can further be described as analogous to a current or flow of consciousness with which the entire universe is imbued, saturated with, and which determines the direction of evolution. Bergson himself identifies the elan vital with a nonemprical supra-consciousness, that is, a non-verifiable, intangible and invisible active force which advances through the course of evolutionary time. The elan vital is hence the wave, not the water.


Enter into this dicey mix biomorphism in the plastic arts, particularly in the sculpture of this century. Here, we measure the pulse of connection...A vibrating link between Bergson's elan vital and the work of Picasso, Gonzales, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Arp, Brancusi, Klee, Ernst, Miro, late Matisse, Hepworth, Moore, Dove, and Fontana...and down the chronological line into the present; with the significant work of Pollock, early de Kooning, Yves Klein, Baziotes, early David Smith, Hesse, Merz and Penone. What we have here is a resonance of similitude, a templatic match-up that justifies aesthetic form by its variant proximity with biological forms…not in the literal or configural sense, but in a deep-structural sense. However they may differ from each other, they nonetheless share certain attributes that conform to proportions and internal ratios resident and observable in biologic forms; and thus sharing as well the elan vital possessed by those biologic forms.


One reasonably suspects that this connection, with acceptable risk, can be reduced to some constant rationic correlation, which is governed by strict yet flexible parameters prevailing in the creation, evolution, and maintenance of both organic and artistic forms.

Last summer I made a long overdue visit to Pollock's house and studio in Springs. To my delight, if not my surprise, on inspecting his rather concise library of 300 or so books, I took notice that it included, along with the original Bollingen two-part edition of the I Ching, and a well-worn copy of D'Arcy Thompson's culminating masterwork, On Growth and Form (talk about double takes). The satisfaction of this discovery perked-up in me is surprising enough to convey. Let us merely say that the presence of these two volumes on that shelf confirmed the fact that Pollock was keenly attuned to both perennial and recent morphological philosophy.


Returning to the point, D’Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, first published in 1917, presented the great argument that organic form (its magnitude, shape, and transformation) is directed by ineluctable laws of proportion. However, according to Thompson, it would be downright repugnant, even ludicrous, to reduce living organisms to blind mechanistic operations. Predictable, in mathematical terms, as the laws of form and growth may be, there nevertheless exist overarching conditions, which instruct and direct these terms, resulting in variation, mutation, difference and unrelenting change. Such that, for example, the laws governing the development of a sunflower, a Radiolarian, a Nautilus shell, and the horns of a Gazelle are one and the same.


The implications extracted from Thompson's work in direct support of biomophism in the plastic arts are clear, if not obvious. Again, as with Bergson, it is a question of resonance; wherein the internal ratios and proportions resemble, or even mimic, those held within the infinite variety of organic forms.  Aesthetically articulated, such forms perforce resonate within similar templatic constrictions.  Outside these confines, articulated images fail to resonate. That is to say, they fail to register as biomorphic and, in addition, they fail to satisfy aesthetic criteria aligned with the biomorphic.


Finally, we arrive at The Life of Forms in Art, Henri Focillon's elegant and quite romantic magnum opus ...Whereas the connection between Bergson and Thompson spins around the idea that physics and chemistry alone, cannot possibly account for all aspects and attributes of life, or subsequent organic forms, and that rules and laws governing biotic morphology mix and overlap within the descriptive territories of elan vital and the organic laws of form, while simultaneously informing aesthetic conduct — Focillon posits: “A work of art is immersed in the whirlpool of time; and it belongs to eternity. A work of art is specific, local, individual; and it is our brightest token of universality..." With this luxuriant remark, Focillon opens up and displays his compelling hypothesis.


A genuine work of art is invariably unpredictable, but it is never arbitrary, and it invariably engages some necessity. This is the confluence where all three meet. Focillon, however, and in the flowery turbulence of his prose, sets up a series of conditions that separate his position from Bergson and Thompson. And this difference is at the same time considerable...yet strangely, obliquely, compatible with them both. In an elliptical, round-about way Focillon's stance inferentially endorses Bergson's elan vital, with this proviso: the vitalism of aesthetic forms remains independent of (and even prior to) those rules & laws directing the fate of forms in any other domain. Which is to say, that the life of forms in art run parallel to other realms of form, and emphatically do not emerge as extensions of those other forms, biotic or otherwise.


Hence, we have a bifurcation of philosophical views...One branch in this garden of forking paths leads to a clearing wherein organic forms serve as the model, are the ultimate archetype. Here, any aesthetic theory shares with and reflects the structural order governing the organic, and biotic.

The other branch brings us to the view that although organic and artistic forms operate under the aegis of parallel systems, or forces, they are nonetheless quite distinct and, consequently, any following aesthetic is compelled to assert its independence from the nonasethetic.


By extension, other implications can be drawn from this argument. Tantamount among them are two. The first is the slippery question of animism. The second is the entire spectrum of questions raised as to the relationship obtaining between theories of matter and the materials utilized or employed in the plastic arts.


The principle assumption of animism is that all things (and thus all forms) are, to some relative degree, alive. Whether they are rocks, rivers, trees, stars or animals — all necessarily possess something akin to a soul, an immortal soul, at that. Hence, by further extension, authentic works of art also possess animated attributes. In contemporary critical parlance, this attribute is identified as a sense of presence...Continuing this line of argument, an animist's position in the domain of sculpture and imagery is perhaps best exemplified by, although hardly restricted to, the carved and cast figures of the Dogon and Benin cultures of West Africa. In addition, sculptural objects, in the guise of religious relics, come into play here. Whether referring to a Christian crucifix harboring the fingernail of a saint, a spindly hair plucked from Mohamed's beard and lovingly placed in a gold chamber, a thread from Buddha's cloak, or an envesseled sample of the Ganges — all partake in the same animistic phenomena. While secular sculptural objects and contexts, from the animists' point of view, exude this living presence...thus distinguishing them from mere and crass artifacts.


Finally, there is the complicated and paradoxical question abutting theories of matter with the appointment and manipulation of sculptural and imagistic materials...In line with Aristotle, matter is the capacity to receive form, or the capacity to be formed. Matter is, in addition, anything which acquires a permanent identity in any thing or form which changes...While form is defined as that fleeting novelty or variable uniqueness which appears in things while they change, evolve, and transform. Matter is thus the water, and not the wave.


Matter, and materials, therefore transcend any momentary configuration. Their significance lies in the substrate of the particular forms they embody, only to the extent in which their permanence lends meaning, or incurs importance to, the configuration itself.


In direct opposition to animism, materialism argues for the non-spirited intrinsic qualities of the virtually infinite varieties of material substance...And in the very bowels of this classic opposition, there resides one of the preeminent narratives of western philosophical discourse: Matter versus Spirit.



Frank Gillette

Oct 24 1994 / East Hampton / Lecture delivered at SVA - NYC Oct 27 1994