In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards brilliantly shows us the importance of background or negative space when we draw a contour of any object or person. By noticing the negative space and drawing the edge that defines that negative space, we shift into right-brain mode and can much more accurately draw the image. (I never thought I could draw until I read her book and did the exercises. Truly amazing.)
The late cultural icon Marshall McLuhan also wrote about the importance of the background (he just called it “ground.”) His point was that there is much we don’t see because we only notice the central figure or object of a situation, but not the context or space around this object. And in a different field, the British scientist Gregory Bateson also wrote about ground. In his book Mind and Nature, Bateson discusses the wider knowing which he described as “the glue holding together the starfishes and sea anemones and redwood forests and human communities.” His point was that we humans notice the starfishes, but we don’t notice the glue that holds the starfishes and the rest of the world together.
So why does it matter whether we’re aware of this background context that creates the space for the starfishes, streams and forests? Because the background is what makes them possible. Think about an empty container–it’s the space within the container that makes it useful. We love our houses, but it’s the space within the house that makes it a house. The Tao Teh Ching says, “While the tangible has advantages, it is the intangibles that makes it useful.”
According to Bateson and many other writers, thinkers, and scholars, this background or wider knowing is aesthetic. Back in the early 1800s, the German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also claimed that the fundamental nature of the world is aesthetic. We live in the midst of a large aesthetic space, and we don’t typically notice it (much less honor it for its wisdom.)
Bateson describes a time when he was teaching a class of “young beatniks” at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Bateson showed them a starfish and asked them, “How are you related to this creature? What pattern connects you to it?” Bateson tells us that this was an aesthetic question that he posed to the students.
Bateson later writes, “Is this what Plotinus meant by an ‘invisible and unchanging beauty which pervades all things?'” The ultimate unity, Bateson argues, is aesthetic.