Children are filled with wonder. Why does this happen, Mommy? Why did that happen Daddy? Their world is filed with wonderful things and experiences. As we grow older, however, the wonder diminishes. This is especially true in our age of Google. If we have a question we take out the iPhone and Google it. The things we used to marvel at are no longer worth a moment’s thought. We presume to know so much and we laugh at those who can’t keep up.

I recently finished a novel by a former student, Bart Sutter, who won the Minnesota Book Award in fiction with this collection of short stories (My Father’s War). I was struck, as I read, how this man is still a young boy, how he is able to capture those fleeting moments when the things around him make him wonder. I do not disparage here; I admire.

In one of his stories Bart describes a blizzard going on outside the house where he and his brothers have been trapped after visiting their Mom and Dad at Christmas. He describes for us the beauty of the snow as it is softly and gently falling and, later, the beautiful sculptures the wind makes with the fallen snow. While walking outside with his brother the hero of the story is stunned by the complete silence that surrounds him in the deep snow at night. I share with Bart my love of the Winter snow and shake my head as my friends head South to escape the Minnesota Winters. I especially love the snow that sparkles like a thousand diamonds in the moonlight or even the light cast be a nearby street light.

In all his stories Bart is looking around and seeing the wonders that surround him. And he listens as well and shares with us the sounds of the forest and the angry lake as it laps fiercely against the shore in a storm. This is a true gift and one that I wish I had. But nevertheless I can appreciate the world this author, and a few others like him, are able to create and put into writing. They help all of us to cling to the remnants of that wonder that filled us when we were young — at least those of us who still read.

Some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen have come during a Minnesota Winter and while reading Bart’s book I shared with him the wonder that the world presents to us each and every moment — if only we take a moment and look around. But we don’t. We are in a hurry and we have in hand the magic tool that allows us to look up the answer to any questions we might have. We have lost our sense of wonder. This is truly sad.

A good friend and fellow blogger recently said that she has no interest in turning back the clock to a world in which so many of the things we take for granted were not yet even thought of. In a way I agree with her. I would have been dead several times over with various ailments if it were not for modern medicine. And I am the first to take an aspirin when my head aches — rather than to lie down with a cold rag on my forehead and wait for the pounding to stop. But at the same time, those simpler times were superior to ours in that things moved so much slower and the temptation to hurry was not everywhere present. We were not victims of the desire for immediate gratification. We miss so much when we scurry along like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, watch in hand a late for something or other. Only we don’t hold a watch, we hold a mobile phone where we can check up on what’s going on around without even looking around.

I don’t advocate that we remain children all our lives — though emotionally a great many of us do so uninvited. But the wonder that the child has is worth preserving and should be carried with us in a locked box well into old age. It is one of those things — like love and beauty — that makes life worth living.


Antiques Roadshow

Several years ago I posted a piece about the popular PBS show “Antiques Roadshow” where folks bring in their treasures to find out what they are worth. I want to expand the point I was making at that time. As you assuredly know, folks dust off the antique vase that has been sitting in the attic for years collecting dust and stand in line for hours to ask an “expert” how much it’s worth. The underlying assumption here is that value is a  function of cost. We want to quantify everything and cannot accept any sort of value in our world aside from cash value.

Except, perhaps, utilitarian value: what can it do? We do readily recognize this sort of value: the vase can hold flowers. But there are other kinds of value as well, such as  sentimental value, the value of colors on a canvass, and, what interests me most, moral and aesthetic value. Why have these sorts of value gone by the board? I wonder.

In fact, I have wondered about this for years and some time ago I even wrote a book about it titled Rediscovering Values in which I defined values (aesthetic and moral values) in the following manner:

“Values are regional properties of objects or events that ‘require’ a positive response on the part of anyone who considers the object or event with discernment.”

Now this sounds a bit technical, but it is easily unpacked.  My main point is that values are putatively “there” in the world. The “requiredness” of which I speak is a notion developed by the gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler and it refers the quality of the smile of the baby, or the regional properties evident in the act of a starving child who takes the bread he is offered and hands it to his younger sister. I don’t speak of the feelings these things evoke in us, I speak about the act itself or the smile itself which provoke those feelings. In addition, requiredness may simply refer to the strong sense of necessity that attaches itself to the conclusion of a valid syllogism or the final line in a mathematical equation. When we see that A is greater than B and B is greater than C we are “required” to acknowledge that A must be greater than C. Our world is full of properties in the region of objects and events that make them more interesting and important to us, that “require” positive or even, at times, negative responses. These qualities are all around us if we only open our eyes and ears.

Thus I also talk about the “discernment” of the one who responds to those values and this is equally important. Discernment is a function of experience, sensitivity, and imagination. Those who have lived in the art world for much of their lives, like our friend “Zeebra” for example, tend to be much more discerning judges of works of art than the rest of us. Those who have suffered through many trials in the world, or experienced them vicariously in well-written novels, are in a better place to respond to the regional properties we call “moral values.” It is possible, of course, that there are people who are born with an innate ability to respond to certain values — a heightened development at birth of the right side of the brain, perhaps. But experience, sensitivity, and imagination play a very big role. And experience and imagination are not, by and large, valued by our culture (sorry!). We prefer to reduce all value to quantities we can measure and add or subtract with our electronic devices that tell us all we think we need to know about our world.

But, if I am right, we miss a great deal in this sort of reductionism. We miss the many features of the world that the artist sees, the many sounds the musician hears, the subtle movements the dancer sees, and even the beauty of a well-hit tennis shot or a fade-away jump shot. These things take training (experience), and sensitivity. And they take imagination and at times effort. One needs to look around and one needs to open oneself to the “regional properties” of objects or events that surround us and attend to them long enough to allow those properties to make an impression.

Instead of taking the vase out of the attic and dusting it off and then taking it to an expert to find out how much it is worth, we would be better off dusting it off and placing it near us, perhaps with freshly cut flowers, so we can appreciate its many beautiful properties and those of the flowers, both visual and olfactory. It may not be “worth” much in dollars and cents, but it may be worth a great deal as an object that can make our world richer and fuller.

Photography As Art

The question of whether or not photography can be regarded as art is a very tough question.  I have never addressed it myself. But I recently picked up a follower who does beautiful photography and the question forced itself upon me: when does the photograph become a work of art?

To address this question, I will begin with Monroe Beardsley’s definition of the artwork which he proposed back in the 1980s in the last essay he ever wrote on the subject just before he died. Beardsley told us then:

“An artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest.”

Beardsley chose his words carefully. He stresses the “capacity” of the work to “satisfy the aesthetic interest.” The object may not, in fact, generate any response whatever. But the notion of aesthetic interest is particularly important. It contrasts with the sorts of interest we take from day to day in ordinary objects, interest that generates feelings of sentiment, fear, anger, lust, or whatever. The aesthetic response when it occurs is distinctive. It results from attention that is focused entirely on the object itself. Eliseo Vivas called this “rapt, intransitive attention” to the object. The object holds our attention to itself and does not let our minds or feelings wander off into memories, associations, irrelevancies. When we look at a Norman Rockwell painting, in contrast, it conjures up all sorts of fond memories of past Thanksgivings, childhood pains, family gatherings, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, — complete with a small dog at our feet. These are not aesthetic responses and Rockwell characterized himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. He knew whereof he spoke.

An artist can produce an object, a painting, sculpture, dance, musical composition, poem, or even a piece of driftwood that demands of us a “rapt, intransitive” response. We behold the object and we become lost in it. Our minds do not wander and strong feelings do not obtrude. We simply feel at one with the object. It approaches the religious experience described by mystics.

Now Beardsley doesn’t say the object always yields such a response. he says, rather, that it is the artist’s “intention” that it have the “capacity” to satisfy the aesthetic interest. He wants us to focus on the artist’s intention — to the extent that we can figure out what that was (and even assuming that the artist herself even knew what it was at the time). We look at the object and we see forms, shapes, colors, relationships that announce the presence of beauty. My new blogger friend is a photographer and her blog contains a number of her photographs that are clearly works of art. They are beautiful. They speak for themselves and need no explanation. In fact, any attempt at explanation is doomed to fail, because explanations involve discursive language whereas the language of art is immediate, intuitive and instinctive. Works of art do not seek to evoke nostalgia, memories of long walks in the woods, past memories of lost moments in childhood. None of these things is present as we simply look and our interest is absorbed by the photograph itself. That distinctive, decidedly aesthetic, response is the only one that seems appropriate.

I do think there are photographs that rise to the level of art. In days long gone the photographer was able to control the finished product as it was developing by altering the time spent on taking and developing the photograph, altering chemicals, etc. In cases such as the photographs of Ansel Adams, for example, the results (even in black and white) were clearly works of art.

Today, with digital cameras — and iPhones! — the artist requires an eye for composition, color, shadow, subject-matter, and the subtleties of form. One can simply point and shoot with a PhD camera (“push here, dummy”) and relish the shot of one’s self (!) or friends, or the lovely spot where we saw the eagle soaring in the deep blue sky. But only the artist is able to capture the moment when all of the pieces fit together and the finished product speaks for itself.

It can happen by accident, of course. In a recent trip to the North Shore with my wife’s niece and her brother, for example, our niece took a photograph of her brother sitting on some rocks at the shore of Lake Superior in the evening with the moon shining on the lake. It was a work of art. The photographer was able to capture just the right moment, when things were aligned and the finished product demands our complete attention. It is a truly beautiful shot.

The Shores of Lake Superior at Dusk

Yes, photography can become art. But it usually falls short because not all of us see with the artist’s eye and it is so difficult for even an artist to capture the precise moment when all things come together; and, of course, there is never any guarantee that those who view the photograph will have an aesthetic response. In a world flooded with images and sounds and diversions surrounding us on all sides there are rare moments when we are willing to take the time to just look and appreciate, allow ourselves to get lost in the picture. It takes imagination, time, patience, experience, and sensitivity. And these things are becoming less and less common. But artists are still among us and they paint, they sculpt, they dance, they play. And they take photographs.

Thank goodness!

The Meaning of Life

Alexei Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s The Demons insists that people don’t commit suicide because of the fear of pain. I suspect the fear of the unknown plays a part as well. Dante, in strict accordance with Catholic dogma at the time, places the suicides in the seventh circle of his Hell where they take the form of thorny bushes tormented by Harpies who eat away at them, causing them untold pain. They have denied their bodily form in life and are therefore denied human form in Hell. Sartre somewhere says that the meaning of life consists in asking ourselves from time to time why we don’t commit suicide. Perhaps it is the fear — of pain, the unknown, or the possibility of becoming a thorny bush tormented by Harpies.

For my own part I am convinced that, given the unfettered greed and sheer stupidity of a significant portion of the human race, there is a large probability that one way or the other the planet on which we depend will not survive — a likelihood that increases daily with the crowding human population, the manufacture of every new nuclear bomb, the next outrageous comment from the mouth of a politician, the determination of so many of us to settle our differences through violence. I find myself, like Sisyphus, living in an absurd world in which we all move huge boulders up the hill only to have them roll to the bottom each time, demanding that we start again. Despite all this, (as Camus admonishes me to do ), I imagine Sisyphus  to be happy.

I am also happy in spite of the above absurdities and bleak prognostications, because I have determined in my old age that happiness does not consist in how much money one has, the power or status he or she may have achieved, but in the small things that surround us and invite our delight. I speak of the Monarch butterfly that miraculously finds its way to Central America each year, the white-tail deer that disappears in the distance, leaping effortlessly over the log, the returning smile of the little girl in the store as I smile and wave at her, the quiet moments with my wife of more than fifty years as we sit together in the evenings and watch British mysteries and play the “I know her” game — “wasn’t she the one….?”

Moreover, despite the fact that there are so many people that are, let us face it, wicked and self-serving — and stupid enough to think that a man bloated and blinded by his own self-love can save the world — there are good people who want to do the right thing. Each in his or her small way seeks to make a difference and face life’s uncertainties with optimism, hope, and inner strength. Some of these people write blogs and I read them and find myself also filled with hope. Others gather together and wave their fists at injustice and wickedness. Others quietly and out of view, take care of the sick and wounded, animals as well as humans. Yet others paint and sing to reveal to us the world around his that we have tried to shut out.

In a word, the meaning of life — to use that ponderous and even pompous phrase — consists in the small things that surround us, the things we ignore as we go about our daily business of increasing our security and our pleasure. It consists in hanging onto the thread of hope woven by the beauty and goodness that exists all around us — if only we take the time and trouble to pause, perceive, and reflect.

The Eye Of The Beholder

After forty-one years of trying to open the minds of college undergraduates to the possibilities of fine art, several things finally dawned on me. To begin with, in the end it is a matter of taste. The fine arts, including painting, poetry, sculpture, literature, and dance, are immensely complex and there is no argument (that I have come across) that will make a person appreciate what they find dull and uninteresting. That’s the first thing, though things are not this simple as I shall try to explain below. The second thing I have learned is that the sensibilities of the spectator, whoever it may be, vary immensely and since no two people are alike, reactions to the same object will vary proportionately.

There are three things to consider when talking about the fine arts. There is the object itself, say, the painting in the gallery. Next, there is the spectator who is gazing at the painting with varying degrees of attention. And finally there is the interaction between the two — which some insist is the actual “work of art.” But we will ignore this third thing entirely (which gets us into metaphysics) to focus attention on the first two. Let’s talk about the object itself, the painting on the wall. There are objective factors that all can see — the canvas, the paint, the arrangement of the figures in the scene, for example — and there is also what some would insist is the tendency to evoke a certain response, say, fear, delight, rage, or perhaps calm. These things can be pointed out and an “expert” is the one to do this because she has had the training and is probably a painter herself.

But when it comes to the spectator things get very complicated indeed. The supposed “tendency to evoke a particular response” may fall on deaf ears (as it were). The spectator may be color-blind, inattentive, or bored. He or she may never have looked at a painting before and doesn’t know how — which may sound strange, but it takes sensitivity,  attention, and concentration to appreciate the many complex factors that go into a single painting, musical composition, or piece of sculpture. Not everyone has these abilities. Indeed, in our age it becomes increasingly difficult to get young people, in particular, to stand and look at a painting that is simply hanging there and not moving and/or making noise. It takes work, in a word, and a great many people simply don’t want to make the effort or have diminished attention spans.

The last thing I have learned is that the quick response to fine art, that it is (just) a matter of taste, is a sign of intellectual laziness, the same sort of laziness that makes it difficult, or impossible, for a person to stand before a painting and open himself or herself to the many qualities that are there for all to see and appreciate. It is easier to shrug one’s shoulders and ask “who’s to say?” This translates into: “don’t bug me. There’s a party Thursday night and I have to get the keg. I have more important things to think about than this damn painting (class,problem, issue, etc. etc.)

Thus, while art IS a matter of taste in the end, there is much that can be said before we reach that point. And taste can be affected by having features of the work pointed out and increasing one’s experience and sensitivity to the things that “go on” in the painting. It can be “improved” as we say — which doesn’t mean “more like mine,” but more aware of what is going on in the work itself. Think, for example, how much more complex is a Beethoven sonata than, say, the latest hit on the top 40. There’s more there for the mind to get ahold of, and it takes an effort and willingness to be open to the new and different. The same complexity is present in all works of fine art and it takes an effort to appreciate this complexity. The unwillingness or inability to open oneself to these complexities results in a flattened world that is devoid of the many features that surround us and can make our world a richer and more exciting place to live. Not only in the fine arts, but also in the world the artist is revealing to us.

Fish As Artist!

You may have heard about this, but the attached photo is of a “carving” made by the tiny Puffer Fish off the coast of Japan. It was discovered 80′ deep in the Pacific Ocean and is 6.5′ across. Shells are also incorporated into the sculpture. The fish makes the sculpture to attract the female and it is believed the contours protect the eggs from underwater currents that would otherwise destroy them.

Here is the tiny fish at work:





Can we say the fish is an artist? Or can only humans create works of art?  Do we speak metaphorically when we say God or Nature create works of art when we are looking at breathtaking sunsets or the beautiful Northern Lights? Or do we mean it literally? What about this little fellow?  {For more about this little guy, click here.]

Have a Happy Sunday!!

The Good Life

Socrates, among others, spent his adult life searching for the Good life. He was convinced in the end that it consisted of the search itself. Needless to say, as a philosopher he prized the life of the mind, and I recall when I was teaching how the students for the most part would dismiss his ideas as totally irrelevant to their own. They didn’t intend to spent their lives thinking about thinking. They had a fixed purpose and it didn’t have anything to do with Socrates or the Good life.

Most of us don’t think about the Good life much because we figure we know that it obviously consists of having as many things as we can and as much fun as possible in the process. We as a society are focused almost obsessively on pleasure and possessions as the only goods. We don’t need any damned philosopher to tell us that his kind of life is the best for us. We know better.

But this sort of focus does really diminish us as human beings, it seems to me. There has to be more to life than simply earning enough money to have more stuff than the Smiths next door while we play in our spare time. For centuries, until quite recently, the earning of money was considered a necessary evil. Usually, it was something that “lower classes” did and it left the “upper classes” time to pursue higher ideals in their leisure time, to reflect and improve themselves through education and travel — not to muddy their hands in the making of money. That was the case for a very long time, and it was reinforced by the Christian view that the poor are blessed and the rich need to give their wealth away. The love of money is, after all, the root of all evil. That idea never caught on, of course, and as more and more people got tangled up in the making of money gaining wealth became acceptable. People like Calvin began to write apologies for wealth-getting, making it not only acceptable, but a sign of God’s favor.

In the confusion that developed during the industrial revolution and the two world wars, people gave less and less credence to strict Christian views and more and more attention to this life, here and now. And money was the way to go. Money could buy happiness. And the notion that we struggle and suffer in this life so we can be rewarded in the next life became a useless fiction. Along with this view went any serious thought about the Good life. It’s simple: the Good life consists in making money, and more is better.

I recently saw a cartoon of a fat man standing at the window looking out at his business empire with his arm around his young son. “One day, son, this will not be enough for you either,” he is saying.  Indeed. We never have enough. That’s the trouble with making wealth the center of one’s whole being. Life as we have come to know it is spent on a treadmill. Perhaps it is time to take a page out of the old philosopher’s notebook and reflect on the deeper meaning of the Good life. It may not be the life of the mind, as Socrates insisted it was. But, surely, it cannot be the shallow life we now prize as the way to live. We confuse “life” with “life-style,” and we adopt a shallow, artificial way of living that takes us away from the things that really matter — like friends, family, beauty, and the preservation of the good earth that sustains us all.

Is It Porn Or Art?

One of the intriguing questions that arises in aesthetics is how to distinguish art from pornography. How does one determine, for example, that Rubens’ “Sleeping Angelica” is not smut? And if it isn’t, then what about the centerfold in Playboy? Or, again, what about the beautiful woman standing naked next to a bed while giving the camera a “come-hither- look” as she fondles a dildo? Clearly, there are differences, but what are they?

The philosopher Monroe Beardsley wrote an essay toward the end of his life where he addressed the question “what is art?” and he came up with the following definition: “An artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest.” Let’s unpack this. Keep in mind that Beardsley is the one who coined the term “intentional fallacy,” insisting that we can’t really determine what the artist’s intention is when he or she creates a work of art, so we must look elsewhere to determine what the work is all about. But the word “intention” plays a key role in his definition of the artwork above as we shall see. For now, let’s focus on the key words, the “aesthetic interest”; these words can help us determine whether porn is art.

The nude in the Rubens painting plays a central role in the overall composition of the painting; she is not there to arouse sexual interest. She seems pretty clearly to be there to arouse what Beardsley called the “aesthetic interest.” This notion refers to the response of closely attentive spectators that engages the imagination and arouses the gentler emotions of pleasure and approval; aesthetic interest is attached to the object itself, held there by the ability of the artist to create an object worthy of our full attention. It is clearly different from an erotic arousal which is somewhat violent and generates considerable physiological unrest, which we call “passions,” and which is not intended to hold our attention, but allow it to wander freely elsewhere. Erotic arousal leads to sexual encounters, as a rule. This is not what the Rubens painting is all about. It seems fair to infer this from the painting itself, even to infer what the artist’s “intention” happened to be. The same is true of the beautiful woman holding the dildo: she is there to arouse erotic interests, not aesthetic ones.

However, to be sure, the Rubens’ nude might in a particular case arouse erotic interest in a particular spectator — depending on how hard-up he is! But we are talking about the general rule here, and Rubens was pretty clearly on another tack; the erotic arousal wasn’t what he was going for. We can judge this from looking at the painting as a whole and giving it our full attention. But the adult photographer certainly was going for erotic arousal, and that is a key difference.

The interesting cases are those that lie on the border between the two, so-called “soft-core porn,” that seems to have both an aesthetic and an erotic appeal. In the case of the Playboy foldout, for example, because it appears in a men’s magazine, and the model is posed in provocative ways, the intention seems to be to arouse erotic, not aesthetic interest. But the latter could be the case, because the intention is not as clear as it is in the other two cases discussed above. Thus we are invited to focus on the nature of the “interest” we take in the photograph in this case: is it aesthetic or is it erotic?  And that’s the strength of Beardsley’s definition: it gives us an idea what criteria we should be looking for when we debate the question of porn versus art. Clearly, there are subjective elements in this definition; that cannot be helped. But there are also things we can look for and discuss that are part of our shared world. The issue may not be settled once and for all, but progress can be made toward a solution of the problem. And it helps us to determine what other objects are art and which are not as well. The piece of driftwood on your mantle is art if the one who put it there (the artist) placed it there with the intention to arouse aesthetic interest, to enjoy it for its sensual properties — its texture, color, and shape — for their own sake, and not for anything else. Is your attention drawn toward those properties of the driftwood? If not, should it be? Those are the key questions.

In the case of pornography, then, we ask ourselves, is it beautiful (do we find pleasure in the object itself?) or is is provocative (does it seem intended to arouse passion and lead the spectator’s attention away from itself to other things, such as sexual engagement with the object?) To the extent to which an object seems designed to hold our attention to it itself and hold it fast, it is art. But Beardsley was right to focus on the question of the intention of the artist: it is a key, but not the only one.