The Benefits of Having Your Head in the Clouds

by Matt Blair on June 3, 2009

in Inspirations,Perception

For at least half a day earlier this week, a story about clouds was the most shared story on the BBC News website:

Clouds: More popular than Reagan and Bee Thieves

Clouds: More popular than Reagan and Bee Thieves

Clouds, something most humans see all the time, were ranked above something quite rare: a jet falling out of the sky over the Atlantic.

Of course, the clouds that were eliciting such excitement were not just any clouds:

Asperatus (Credit: Merrick Davies, Source: BBC's The World)

Asperatus-type clouds (Credit: Merrick Davies, Source: BBC's The World)

That’s obviously not something we see every day.

Why are clouds so compelling?  What can we get from clouds?

The Cloud Appreciation Society, generators of the buzz described above, makes a strong claim in their manifesto:

“Clouds are so commonplace that their beauty is often overlooked.
They are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul.
Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save
on psychoanalysis bills.”

(Shh, don’t tell the FDA, but that almost sounds like a medical claim! Good thing CAS is based in the UK…)

Are clouds art?

What makes clouds so pleasing to us?

They hit a number of my own aesthetic pleasure points.

Clouds are abstract: There’s no message or agenda lurking inside a cryptic scene. There are no hidden cultural references to miss.

They are dynamic, never finished, rarely even pausing. They are ephemeral, a reminder that nothing lasts. We pay closer attention to what won’t happen again, and to that which requires presence. As Emily Dickinson put it:

“To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie —
True Poems flee —”

Clouds are free — to all who are free to see the sky — and more readily accessible than most aesthetic experiences. Also from the CAS manifesto:

“We think that they are Nature’s poetry,
and the most egalitarian of her displays, since
everyone can have a fantastic view of them.”

And the sky engages multiple senses: rain is a cloud reaching out to touch you. (Well, not really — I’m personifying a bit here.) Lightning, too, though in a more extreme and thankfully rarer form. A good thunderstorm also engages our senses of sound and smell. What would summer be without the scent of the air just before a good soaking begins?

Some Notional Lessons from The Sky

What can we learn from an enthusiasm for clouds? Can a bunch of water droplets suspended in air teach us anything about creativity? How can clouds remind us of what we already know?

The Ephemeral requires attention. We don’t know what we might miss, but we do know we might miss it.

Portland, June 2007

Technology is limited. When not even a tenth of what we see fits within the frame of a photo, we can’t pretend that a camera captures much more than a token reminder of what it was like to actually be there.

Portland, November 2008

Nuance emerges as a result of process, not design. Clouds are the product of a complex, generative system. Instead of trying to meticulously make and fix every detail, set up a system that creates nuance, and hone the results.

Our surroundings set the mood and shape our perceptions.

How does this image make you feel:

Deliberate Underexposure

Portland, March 2007

And this one?

Portland, May 2007

There’s a need for a star. Beauty emerges from interactions. It’s not just the clouds, or the light alone, but the interplay between the two which can make the sky so compelling. A subject without illumination, illumination without a subject — neither alone is as good as their combination.

Osaka Skyline

Osaka, December 2001

A star can also overwhelm. The sun is so intense it blanches everything in its path. Beauty is more often found away from its spotlight, in the shadows, in layers of oblique, indirect light.

Art without an Artist? Are clouds a reminder that the art and Beauty we seek externally are actually in us?  Could it be that Beauty is an attitude? A way we choose and learn to perceive? Are cloud formations art without an artist? Or does observing clouds remind us that we are all artists?

"What's this cloud type called? Who cares..."

Naming is but one of many kinds of knowing. We can appreciate Beauty without learning a taxonomy or a specialized vocabulary, or having the ability to articulate why we are affected.

There are certain enhancements of experience available if we learn what chiaroscuro is or the role a French-sixth chord plays in a harmonic progression.

Maybe a better indicator of Beauty is to be rendered mute: To have an experience so profound we are less worried about the distinctions between stratus nebulosus translucidus and cumulus humilis, and more worried about being hit by a bus because we’ve stopped in the middle of the street, transfixed by the sky’s tableau.

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