Save the Country
For What It’s Worth
A study table
There is a story by Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”, that revolves around a mother and her two daughters. At the heart of the story are some quilts. One daughter is well educated and prosperous and wants the quilts because they carry some status as folk art and in my imagination they are beautiful to look at, as are “The Quilts of Gees Bend,” for example, that recently made a tour of museums across the United States. The second daughter wanted them because she could use them; they filled a very practical need. This does not mean these quilts were not beautiful to look at in addition to being useful, only that their usefulness was where their true value lie.
The painting above is of musical instruments and books on a table. William Harnett did another painting similar to this that is also of musical instruments and books on a table. In the painting above these objects are sitting on a tablecloth, the other painting, Music and Literature, has them sitting on an unadorned black table. I chose the painting I did because I find the design on the tablecloth pleasant to look at and as enhancing the visual beauty of the painting. It is not clear from Alice Walker’s story if the sister who wanted the quilts because of their value as folk art really valued the quilts as folk art, but the story does invite us to consider art and its value and, perhaps more importantly, to consider whether art must be useful for it to have value.
To return to the painting it evokes three different art forms, painting (because that is what it is), music, and literature. To what extent are any of these art forms useful in the sense that the quilts in the story are useful? Paintings can be pretty, designed purely to accent a room with little if any artistic merit. There is in my doctor’s office a print of a piano in a living room next to a window overlooking a park. The print was selected because of the colors the artist used and the pleasant design of the room. But if one looks carefully at the piano it becomes clear that the piano keys have not been painted correctly, there are three sets of white and black keys between both the keys of “c” and “e” and between the keys of “f” and “b”. On a real piano there are two sets of white and black keys between “c” and “e” and three between “f” and “b”. Not an important detail but one that suggests the artist either did not look closely at the piano before painting it or did not expect the viewer to look closely at the piano. This, perhaps, illustrates a difference between art and decoration or art and entertainment. Art ought to both decorate and entertain, but, hopefully, it does something more.
There are books that we read solely for entertainment, that we are unlikely to revisit, or if we do revisit, it is to be entertained in much the same way we were the first time we read them. Much of the music we listen to on the radio demands little from us (though it might also be mentioned that some of it offers more than we are willing to receive). An important difference between the pretty and the beautiful is the difference between that which merely decorates and that which does something more. This is not to say that popular songs or popular novels do not have artistic depth, though many do not; nor is it to say we should spend more time reading “the classics” or attending the opera. But this is to say for those willing to invest, perhaps it would be better to say who desire to invest, the additional time and effort there are rewards that make the investment worthwhile. It is, though, like many things in life; we do not know what we are missing until we open ourselves up to what we are missing. The print in my doctors office not only does not stand up to close study, it loses much of its decorative value if it is studied too closely.
Clio, Euterpe and Thalie
Eustache Le Sueur
The song, Save the Country, that played at the beginning is about peace and redemption. It is a song with a message and not a bad message. Some see in the study of art, music, and literature a kind of redemption or purification of the soul and spirit; that we read and study the arts because doing so somehow how makes us better people. The painting above is of three muses from Greek mythology, the muses of history, lyric poetry, and comedy. The suggestion is that art was art because it was divinely inspired, that it fulfilled in some fashion the will or purpose of the gods. But what if, as the “art for art’s sake” folks suggested, art serves no purpose, in the sense we usually think of the word, in the sense that the quilts in the story, though they may have been art, served a purpose.
Page from the Book of Common Prayer, 1583
The pictures above and below are of a printed page, from the 1583 Book of Common Prayer and a painting of Mary Magdalen reading. Though the Book of Common Prayer serves a purpose, is designed to be used as part of a religious practice, it also has beauty all its own. The book is printed using a typeface called “Blackletter” or Gothic script. It is not easily read by 21st century readers, but even if unreadable, it delights the eye and is pleasant to just look at, even if it cannot be understood. Perhaps the angels surrounding the letter “A” are enough to articulate its religious message. In the second painting Mary seems to be “idly” reading while those around her are busy doing things. Of course we do not really see enough of the others in the scene to know if they are doing anything, but I think they are. If this is the case is Mary wasting time and letting others work while she idles the time away. Reading with purpose demands all of our attention and it cannot be done either quickly or while we are doing other things. If nothing else, reading, deep purposeful reading, provides a kind of “Sabbath Rest”, a time where all physical labor must cease. I think the jar next to her suggests the jar of ointment that another Mary (this other Mary is often identified as Mary Magdalen, but this is unlikely) used to anoint Jesus. “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.” Jn. 12:3 She was accused of wasting something precious that could be put to good use, that could be sold and the money used to help the poor. But Jesus said she did a beautiful thing and should not be criticized. The same might be said of The Magdalen reading while those around her are engaged in “more meaningful and useful” activities.
Is reading another kind of work, is it a leisure activity, does it work on us and change us? I do not think that readers, or “appreciators” of any of the arts are better people; many terrible people have been appreciators of the arts, but I do think if we are paying attention we are changed and just as art demands we look more closely and carefully at the work of art, this practice carries over to other things and can make us a bit more reflective as people. Of course, the other side of the equation is probably also true, that we can experience the art, no matter how well and perfectly it is executed, solely as decoration, as entertainment.
The Magdalen Reading
Rogier van der Weyden
There was an article recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading”, that suggest most people will never develop into readers who will read deeply and well and that there is, perhaps, little value in trying to teach literature in schools, if our purpose in teaching literature is to make students deep and thoughtful readers. Of course, by this way of thinking there is probably not much point in teaching students geometry or algebra as most will not go on to use or value abstract mathematics. But in the book this essay was taken from, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, the author, Alan Jacobs, argues that this kind of reading is done best if it begins as a whim, with our being carried away by a “fancy” to read and discover. In the book Jacobs recounts Richard Rodriguez’s experience of reading difficult books as a young child where he kept a record of each book along with the book’s “big idea” or theme. In Rodriguez’s view (and Jacobs’) this diminished the books, if only because as literary art, but probably even as just entertainment, most books do not lend themselves to so easy a reduction.
To teach literature well the teacher must not only expose students to the books, but in some way pique their interest enough that they will explore on their own. I am dyslexic and when I was in high school I could not finish the books we were assigned in the time given to read them. So I had to rely on helps, helps familiar to most students. However, the effect of these helps on my imagination was to give me a hunger for these books and over the summer when no one was making demands on my time I read these books, Moby Dick, Great Expectations, Gulliver’s Travels, and others. My affection for these books did not come directly from studying them in school, but if I had never studied them in school I would never have gone on to read them. Even though I would be oblivious to how my life was diminished by not having read these books, that is, I would not know what I was missing, my life would still be diminished.
The video makes a couple of points about art and how we assess its value. My favorite story from this film clip is of the man who sold the Vermeer to the Nazis. The sale was treated as an act of treason for which there was no defense. He was Dutch and Vermeer contributed significantly to the Dutch culture. The art dealer, Han Van Megereen had a defense. He, not Vermeer, painted the painting he sold to the Nazis. He went from traitor to folk hero. Of course the painting lost all, or most, of its value. But this raises another question. Is an artwork’s value determined by its content or its history? The painting is what it is, regardless of who painted it. One of my favorite novels is a book by Robertson Davies What is Bred in the Bone. It is about the life, work, and education of an art forger, a very successful art forger. If the forgery contains all the elements of a great work of art, is it not still a great work of art even if it is not what it pretends to be? There is also the issue of how we define ourselves as a culture. For the Dutch Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh are a part of their national identity, in the sense, perhaps, that Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and, perhaps, John Steinbeck are part of our cultural identity. But what do these artists add to our cultural identity? How are we different as a people by the presence of this art in our midst, by these details of our cultural heritage?
The Museum of Fine Art in Boston has recently returned, or agreed to return, a part of a statue to the Turkish people and in the process reunite the two parts that make up the one statue. There has been talk about returning the Elgin Marbles, the Greek statuary that provoked poems by Lord Byron and John Keats that are now part of the British identity, to Greece, their proper home. It is now almost universally a crime to remove artifacts such as these from their native cultures, but it wasn’t a crime when the statues in question were removed from their homelands and now, because of their great beauty those that have them are reluctant to return them.
This film clip raises another question about art and that is accessibility. Amit Snood is responsible for the Google “Art Project” and as can be seen from the film this project not only brings great art to anyone who wants to look at it, it enables those who wish to, to see the art in ways they could never see it even if they went to the museums in which these painting and statues live. The Art Project enables the viewer to see the paintings so closely and in such detail that aspects of the painting that are nearly invisible become clear. Also, unlike the print in my doctor’s office, these paintings reward the attention to detail. Things that no viewer could really be expected to notice become clear and reveal the importance of every detail to the painter. It will always be true that some works have more to offer than others, but if the work is well done it will always be true to the vision it tries to capture.
When I was starting college there was an issue of the magazine The Saturday Review that featured two articles, one on the public poet, Rod McKuen and one on the private poet, James Merrill. McKuen is for the most part forgotten and Merrill, outside of academic circles has not been that well known, though his poetry deservedly survives. Merrill’s poems are quite beautiful and some are very funny but he places demands on his readers and those that read because they enjoy the demands are richly rewarded. McKuen’s poems entertained for a time, but they did not offer much on rereading. Perhaps this is just me and that I do not have the proper sensibilities to see what lies beneath the surface of his poems, but every time I read a poem by Merrill I continue to be rewarded with new insights, and frustrated by that which remains unclear to me, that which must wait until another day to be revealed. That is in part why I go back to his poetry.
There is a book recently published by Marjorie Garber, The Use and Abuse of Literature. The book argues that literature is important for the questions it raises and not for the answers it gives and that a literary work reveals different things to different readers. What is important is not that we read and arrive at a preordained destination but that we read and consider and reflect. She makes a case for literature being “useless” in the utilitarian sense; that we do not read to accomplish anything; that in reading we will not change the world, though if we read deeply, perhaps carefully, and well we might change ourselves. But the importance of literature, the importance of any work of art, is in its ability to make us aware of the beautiful; of that which exists for no other purpose than to open our eyes to splendor and the sublime and asks nothing in return except that we take it seriously, that we enjoy it, and that we do not give it a job to do.
Roger van der Weyden