Pastimes and Times Past

Que Sera, Sera
Doris Day

Pastimes and Times Past

Children’s Games
Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Those who were around in the 1950’s will remember the song as will the Alfred Hitchcock fan who has seen the remake of The Man Who Knew too Much. Doris Day sings this song at the beginning of the film. It is about growing up and how one plans for growing up (the song not the film). It is, of course, not something easily done. How many adults are doing things they dreamed of as young children. But even those with a “Whatever will be, will be” approach to life and the future have to have a certain amount of training to be prepared for that “whatever will be” when it comes along.

The painting also captures the world of childhood and wonder. It is difficult to view properly in such a small scale but it is a street scene of children playing various children’s games, hence the painting’s title. I do not know if this is intentional or just the nature of children’s dress at the time but most of the children look an awful lot like adults. To me this suggests that a lot of what children do is in imitation of the adults around them, but it also suggests that adults, or many of them, do not entirely lose the childlike or the childish.

I like to tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older but no power on earth can make me grow up and I think this sentiment might be in the painting as well. Playfulness is a quality that must be nurtured if we are to survive the world as it is and, maybe more importantly, not take ourselves too seriously. It often seems that the purpose of education, as it is practiced today, is to drive the child out of the person, to make the student a productive and responsible member of the society but not necessarily a happy or content member.

My seniors are starting the book Great Expectations this week. It is a book about aspirations, growing up, and how we treat those around us, especially those that have treated us well. Pip is a self absorbed child, as many children are, but he has been derailed from a path of contentment by malicious forces in the society in which he lives. Some of these forces, Uncle Pumblechook for example, probably mean Pip well; believe that fortune has worked to Pip’s benefit, even if Pumblechook is looking to his own interests in the process. Most of the adults in Pip’s life have advice for him that is intended to make him a productive member of society and this advice though often given to puff up the advisor is not ill intentioned, which is probably true of most of the advice adults give to the young.

But the adult that Pip is closest to, and hurts the most, is Joe, a man who has preserved the child within but who also behaves as an adult should when the situation demands. More than any other character in the book Joe is content and it is a similar contentment that he desires for Pip. But Pip acquires other aspirations. You have to read the story to find out how this all works out and how Pip got so far off track. But his story mirrors how many come of age, looking to status, position, and the good opinions of others to make one happy. The young are forced to decide what they will do when they are often more attracted to the bright surfaces of things than the darker realities that can lie underneath.

Children on the Beach
Mary Cassatt

What many try to preserve of childhood is the carefree quality of childhood found in this painting. To be able to play at the beach without having to worry about where the buckets and shovels come from or how they are paid for. The sailboat in the distance looks inviting and carefree in its own right, but in order for the sailboat to look like this there must be those on board doing the hard work of keeping it on course and before the wind. If the boat is a “pleasure” boat those on board no doubt enjoy the work that they do, but if it is a commercial vessel there may be a different reality.

I met a young man while I was bicycling through England who was in the Merchant Marine. He seemed to enjoy what he did, but he did not really have a choice. He took an exam in the sixth or seventh grade or thereabouts that suggested an academic career was not for him and he was placed on an educational track that would prepare him for a trade and that trade became the Merchant Marine. I had an uncle who began in the Merchant Marine, went on to the Navy and submarines, and on to other things naval and seemed to enjoy it. He had opportunities to become an officer but enjoyed being a common sailor and so went as far as one can go without becoming an Officer, a Chief Petty Officer or something of that nature. Perhaps the young man I met felt about his career as my uncle did, I hope so anyway.

But it concerns me when the adults in a child’s life get too heavy handed about directing the child’s future. It may be that we will all spend our lives working on commercial vessels but I would like to think it is possible to approach our work in the same spirit as those on the pleasure boat; whatever the purpose of the boat, to generate profit or pleasure, the work is much the same. As a teacher I often wonder what is the role of education in preparing one for the world of work, in preparing a student for a career. I know what the image of school and education often is, I know how students often react to what I attempt to do, but I do not know if at the end of the day I have given students clarity about the future and how to prepare for it. Perhaps all anyone can do for others is show them how to use the tools that will help them find clarity.

Illustration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Norman Rockwell

I think this painting by Norman Rockwell probably captures if not the reality of school the spirit of it, or how it feels, if only metaphorically, to be a student. In the painting a number of students appear to be taking delight in seeing a fellow student put on the spot so to speak, being beaten by an adult in authority. Teachers cannot work their way through a supply of willow branches, as the instructor here has done (notice the broken sticks on the floor) but they can put students on the spot, make them feel inadequate because they cannot read a passage in a book or solve a math problem in front of a classroom of their peers. I remember when I was a freshman in high school I had started to nap in an algebra class. The next instant I heard my name called. I did not hear the question, I did not know what was going on in class but I saw an equation on the board and gave the answer to that equation. Evidently that was what I was supposed to do because the instructor was pleased and things moved away from me. I felt very pleased with myself and have obviously remembered the event to this day nearly fifty years later. But that was the exception and certainly not the rule; I have just forgotten most of the other less pleasant class room experiences.

From Big
Gracie Films and Twentieth Century-Fox

In the film all the character wants is to be big enough to ride the exciting rides at the amusement park, so he makes a wish. He wakes up a child with an adult’s body. He cannot stay at home, he does not have enough money to support himself, and he does not have the skills to make his way in the work force. He finds his niche in society and gets a different kind of education from the one he got in school. In many ways the education he received packaged as an adult was more meaningful than the education he got in school but what he missed out on was some of the play. He was literally a kid in a toy store so he was not deprived of the toys themselves what he was deprived of was another to enjoy the toys with him. We never lose our hunger for community. Even the shiest most introverted, whether a child or an adult, yearns for a community in which to participate.

As an English teacher I make it my life’s work to foist books on young people that would rather be doing something other than reading books. This may not be true of all students but it is true of many students. What is often missed in the stories we tell in school is the stories. We make them into objects for analysis; things to be pulled apart and dissected like a dead frog and it is no wonder that many students have no more interest in them than they do in dead frogs. I read an essay by Philip Pullman. It is his “Isis Speech“. I do not know what Isis is as an organization, only as a myth so I do not know what the purpose of the speech was or of the organization to which it was given. I do agree with what he has to say about the teaching of literature and the importance of teaching it.

Among other things he believes that we all love stories and that it is often the story that is removed from a book when it is studied in school. But he also believes that stories we study in school need to be challenging and difficult. That just as human beings have many layers to their personalities so should the stories they tell each other. One purpose of studying stories is to see that there is more to most things than meets the eye. When we are reduced to who we are on the surface of our personalities we are reduced to stereotypes and one way to outgrow stereotyping others is to see beyond the stereotypes in the stories that we read.

Stories are what many of us had read to us by our parents as children and what we in turn read to our children. It is in telling stories that we come to understand the world, but it is also in telling stories that we come to find what is delightful in the world. For me stories are how I guard against growing up, stories preserve the magic and mystery beneath the surface of life and the mundane activities that fill up much of what we call living. Life is my beach and the books I read are my bucket and shovel.

Reading by the Book

“I’ll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book”
Jimmy Durante

Reading by the Book

Library of Alençon

There is in Durante’s song an attitude towards reading that reflects the attitude of many today, especially those who are in the process of receiving an education. The song is from the 1940’s, as near as I can tell, which suggests that unfriendly attitudes towards books and reading is not a new thing. Mark Twain in his definition of a classic (“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”) captured a similar sentiment.

A book published last year, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard takes this idea a step further by instructing us how to sound knowledgeable about books we have not only not read but have no real desire to read, while also recognizing that there is an image that attaches to a well read person that many who are not well read would like to project. Andre Agassi sold tennis shoes by telling us, “image is everything”, though he probably did not say it first. And he cultivated the image of a champion long before he became successful at actually winning major tournaments. So why is it that so many people do not want to read but want the circles in which they move to think they do?

Inscription regarding Tiberius Claudius Babillus of Rome (d. 56 CE) which confirms that the Library of Alexandria must have existed in some form in the first century AD.”Forschungen in Ephesos”, Vol. III, Vienna 1923, p.128.

This inscription from the first century makes a reference to the ancient Library at Alexandria. It was destroyed on three separate occasions and on all but the last occasion rebuilt. It is said to be the first library that aspired to assemble a serious collection of books and actively sought out books from all parts of the then known world. To this day most communities in America recognize the importance of having a town library, though the library is often one of the first institutions to lose funding when the economy becomes troublesome.

I live a few miles from one of the oldest libraries in the country, The Boston Public Library. It is an impressive place to visit. It is not just a collection of books, but of sculpture and painting as well. There is a collection of murals by John Singer Sargent that have recently been restored among other exhibits in the library that attest to its value as more than a book depository. The New York City Public Library has a cottage industry of sorts accumulating lists of facts and information contained in its collection and publishing them in books under their imprimatur.

If the culture seems to care so little for books why does it go to such lengths to accumulate them and make them available to people, especially if people do not want to read them? Is it just so people can sound credible when they claim to have read a book they have never owned? I think that in spite of what some people say, including many students who do not seem to be personally interested in books, there is a belief that books are important to a culture and that someone should read them. Samuel Goldwyn once said “I read part of it all the way through.” And the parts that he read were turned into some impressive films. I think perhaps this attitude pervades aspects of the culture, that for many it is enough to have read a page or two to get the flavor of a book, they are just not hungry enough for the complete meal.

Part of the blame for this is probably public education that requires everyone to get an education whether they want it or not. Not everyone aspires to be literate, though I believe in the mission of the public schools that encourages everyone to be literate and that the process converts many. But if public schools too rigorously maintain a high academic standard those without academic aspirations will be lost. But to fail to maintain a standard trivializes the whole enterprise. A middle ground of sorts needs to be found that preserves a meaningful standard while providing a path through the process for those that are not interested in the standard. Ideally those that lack interest would be won over, but I am not sure that is possible to win over everyone. It seems that at the heart of the public schools is this compromise between standards and student interest and how far the compromise can go before the diplomas the nation’s schools award lose their value.

There was a discussion this week in a social network for English teachers English Companion. The name of the discussion was “The Difference Between Good Literature and Books We Like to Read.” I cannot link to the actual discussion because you have to be a member to gain access, but do feel free to join and check it out. The gist of the discussion focused on what books should form the curriculum and whether there is a place in the curriculum for the books students like. I do not think students need a whole lot of instruction on the books they already like and in my experience it is as much the analysis of a text that students resist as the books themselves and if I were to introduce more current and popular fiction I would probably be criticized for analyzing it to death, which I am sure I would do because as an English teacher I love analyzing texts to death.

The cover art of the novel The Name of the Rose.

A book about books that I thoroughly loved when it came out about ten or so years ago was The Name of the Rose. It combined a love of books, with a medieval setting and a good detective story. Who could ask for more? Even the detective in the story evoked Sherlock Holmes, one of my favorite detectives. But what I thoroughly enjoyed was the labyrinthine library with its vast collection of books, including one by Aristotle that has since disappeared from the face of the earth. There is also a sentiment on the part of certain characters in the story that books are dangerous things and cannot be entrusted to everyone. I think sometimes that one of the unintended consequences of public education has been that by making books available to all the hunger for books has been quenched. There is something subversive that is appealing to many about doing something that has been forbidden or deemed unhealthy by those in authority.

I think reading is important. All reading. I think more information is gotten from reading an article in the newspaper than is gotten from watching a summary on the nightly news or reading the blurbs on Netscape or MSN when we open our web browsers. I think there is also a broader spectrum of coverage in a newspaper. The paper does not have to be read off sheets of newsprint, it can be read online (I just got an iPod Touch that lets me read books and newspapers and even instruction manuals online wherever I go). It is not the venue in which the reading is done but the reading itself.

I want to introduce students to the wonders of great literature as was done for me, but I also understand that like solving the Riemann hypothesis, it is only those who already posses an interest, or are susceptible to the temptation to cultivate an interest that are going to be won over. As an English teacher I am not only passing the wonders of the language on to the next generation of English teachers but also to the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and carpenters whose interests lie in different directions. I do not remember much of my high school biology, but I imagine I would remember significantly more if I had gone on to become a Biologist instead of an English teacher.

84 Charing Cross RoadBrooks Films and Columbia Pictures

Many find this movie overly chatty because all that really takes place in the film are conversations, through the mails, about books. The hunt for books, the nature of books, whole works verses abridgements and the like. But anyone who appreciates a passion for books will find that passion comes through the dialogue in this film. I also like the film because like the book collector in the film, Helene Hanff, I am captivated by British Literature. As a result I could identify personally with most of the authors that are mentioned.

It is this passion that cannot be taught. I can share the passion I have and that passion might be a bit contagious, but for someone who has never experienced this passion for the written word it may not resonate very much. I think most of my students have books that have deeply moved them and they will probably go on to read books that resemble the books they have enjoyed. I am not certain there is a decline in the number of people, as a percentage of the population, who read classic literature or the kinds of modern books that will one day be classic literature. I imagine that as a percentage of the population those moved by language are probably comparable to those moved by quantum physics or evolutionary biology. But whatever the numbers actually reveal there will be some that got so excited the day they read a book that they rushed out and read another and others for whom it will be a fond memory of something they did once upon a time.

A Roof and Someone at Your Side

“I Love L. A.”
Randy Newman

A Bigger Splash

David Hockney


A Roof and Someone at Your Side

What does it mean to know a place? In the song Randy Newman identifies a number of locations familiar to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Los Angeles. Imperial Highway, The Valley, the East Side, and the West Side; if you have lived in Los Angeles you know these places and can picture not only the name of the street on the traffic sign, but the shops and sites that live there. Imperial Highway is a very long street that goes through well to do sections of town and some not so well to do sections. The West side has the mansions of Bel Aire and Pacific Palisades; but the East Side is where much of the poverty is found. If you live in L. A. you know these places and are familiar with them.

David Hockney is a painter born in Great Britain but he too has made Los Angeles his home. The painting captures the swimming pool and palm tree character of certain parts of L. A. When I was four years old my parents moved from Schenectady, New York to Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. We soon moved to the San Fernando Valley, or The Valley. There were many houses in the neighborhoods I grew up in that resembled the painting by Hockney. Even though I never really felt at home in Los Angeles and always missed the snow I know most of the places in Newman’s song and the ethos captured in Hockney’s painting.

Still when I first moved to The Valley it was not developed. It consisted of a few rambling neighborhoods that were becoming the outskirts of a great city but it also consisted of small ranches and a great deal of open undeveloped land. I hiked, fished (after a fashion), swam in ponds within walking distance of my house. For most of the time that I lived there orange groves were always close, in our last house they were at the edge of our back yard. We would purloin the oranges and dodge the agricultural police. Fruit always tastes best fresh off the tree. But we finally left because the city finally overtook the wilderness, or what felt like a wilderness to a child of ten or so years old.

The point is that home is represented by many things. In part it is represented by memories. But it is more than the house in which you live it is the relationships, family and otherwise that are made. If growing up is a pleasant experience these memories and relationships can contribute to the success that is experienced later in life. But of course, like most things it depends on what we do with the experiences. They might just as easily form a kind of cocoon from which we cannot easily escape in order to shape our own unique existence. Though on the whole, a positive home environment is more likely to produce success than an unhappy one.

The Artist’s House at Argenteuil

Claude Monet

The house that Claude Monet called home when this painting was done appears to be a very pleasant space in which to grow up. The child seems happy and the woman at the door watching the child seems to be content. Of course as the woman is almost invisible and the child has her or his back to us it is difficult to know for certain. The house looks like the kind of house most would be happy to call home. A more traditional house than David Hockney’s but it has the same bright blue sky. The house was enchanting enough to Monet that he decided to live there and also decided to paint it. It is a public face and it is difficult to know if the private face would be less compelling. Often the home and family the world sees is different from the home and family we grow up in day to day, or grew up in in the days of our youth.

There was an article in the magazine section of this Sunday’s New York Times. It was called “What It Takes to Make a Student“. It concluded that to a large degree what makes a successful student is successful parents in a successful home environment. The article concerned itself with how well we educate those who come from less successful households with less successful parents, especially those households whose lack of success is largely due to social inequities, largely, but not entirely, of race. The article suggests that the conditions in which children are raised, the vocabulary they are exposed to as children, the positive reinforcement they receive when very young have a lot to do with the academic success these children have in school.

The Little Street (Perhaps the street where he lived, perhaps not, but homey non the less)

Johannes Vermeer

I do not know, but this street does not look affluent to me. It looks like an old street that has been allowed to fall into a bit of disrepair. The look of the brick and the shutters in the windows and the people all suggest poverty to me. This may be because I do not know that much about life in Holland in Vermeer’s lifetime, but poverty has a face that it wears and this painting seems to reflect that face. I wonder about the lives of the people in this painting. The two figures kneeling on the street look like children to me, but it is difficult to say. But if they are children what is their life like? What were their educational opportunities?

I think that present day America takes more seriously the education of its children than do many cultures past and present. The difference between Holland of the seventeenth century and America of today (at least the stereotype that I carry with me) is that we question the quality of education those in poverty receive and take steps, not always effective, to achieve parity between the schools of the rich and the schools of the poor. Often this is little more than lip service, but certainly not always. The strength of the private schools in America is that, for the most part, they only accept those students they can succeed in educating, but that is also their weakness. What does success mean when the possibility of failure is largely removed from the equation? It is often the fear of the consequences of failure that produces the most striking innovations. On the other hand America’s public schools attempt to educate everyone and that is their strength. This is also their weakness. How can schools give a quality education to all when there is such a broad mix of skills and academic needs, not to mention political forces?

I wonder about the article in the New York Times because on one level it suggests that poor families care less about their children than rich families. Parents on the whole want the best for their children, though they may not always know how to provide the best. Poverty is demoralizing and some are better than others at distancing their children from the consequences that being demoralized often produces. I grew up with stories about people who lived in poverty that successfully provided for their children’s needs and this included their educational needs. Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry comes most immediately to mind. Having educated parents is a real advantage for a child’s education. But having nurturing parents is at least as great an advantage.

Our Town
Paul Newman

Thornton Wilder in his play Our Town captures not only small town American life, but the essence of home and family, at least how it is imagined to have been, in small town America. Grover’s Corners is a nurturing place, a village that raises its children. But this monologue from the play suggests that not much of importance happens in life and family on this side of the grave; that there is a race to forget this side of the grave. There are good people and good families in the play and children that are raised to be happy and successful. The families of George and Emily are supportive and give their children the skills living well require, though there are also many missed opportunities and sacrifices made which produces a kind of quiet unhappiness in some.

In many ways the world of Our Town suggests the world of the film It’s a Wonderful Life which also focuses on family and the obligations that come with being a member of a family and a community. In both Grover’s Corners and Bedford Falls place is important and the people that make each place what it is are important. The lives these characters lived has an appeal, there is much that is desirable about the lives, memories, relationships, and families these people have. There are also many significant sacrifices and perhaps it is true that for a life to have value choices must be made and some things given up so that other more important things can be achieved. This is especially true with education. It is costly but the failure to educate has long run consequences for the community and the country.

I look back fondly on the music of The Beach Boys, the bright blue California sun and the bright blue waves of the Pacific, perhaps bluer in memory than in life. My parents made sacrifices for me and the parents of the children I grew up with were largely committed to seeing to it that their children had at least as a good a life but hopefully a better life than the one they were enjoying. And perhaps the key word is “enjoying”. It is easier to sacrifice if at the end of the day there is enough to make the day enjoyable. It was a neighborhood of fisherman and engineers, carpenters and doctors. It had a nice mix, though a rather homogenous one in certain respects; this was the 1960’s after all. I think over all we are judged as a culture by what we are willing to give up for our children more than by the things that we accumulate or the things we accomplish. And all children deserve a good family, a good education, and a community in harmony with itself where all children can say “I Love . . . .

Reimagining the World

La Bohème: Act I, “O Soave Fanciulla” (“Oh Sweet Lady”) Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert Von Karajan, Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni & Rolando Panerai

Reimagining the World

Description: Rodolfo’s garret – set design for Act I of La bohème for the world premiere performance, Teatro Regio di Torino, 1 February 1893.Adolf Hohenstein

Puccini’s opera La Boheme is about “Bohemians” or the starving artists that were associated with Bohemia in the European mind of the nineteenth century. In this song Rodolfo and Mimi meet for the first time and immediately fall in love. It is a Romeo and Juliet at the ball kind of moment. It even ends with Rodolfo’s friends calling to him to come join them, as Romeo’s friends call to him when he sneaks off to court Juliet. The story ends tragically but not because of feuding families but an incurable disease. The story was recently updated and became the Broadway musical Rent. In both Rent and La Boheme the artists are outsiders and their art under appreciated.

Public schools, and perhaps private schools as well, struggle to maintain an arts program. These programs are often dismissed as non-essential to the core mission of a school. Often people think of “art-types” like the characters in La Boheme, folks who are a bit outside the mainstream and a bit odd. Science and math produce all kinds of tangible results that everyone can see but the benefits of the arts are often more subtle and difficult to put a name to. Math and science change the visible world but the changes produced by the arts are internal; the arts change the person. These changes to the individual are not always observable and where they are observable are often attributed to other things.

There was a review in the New York Times Book Review section on a study of the role of art in human evolution. The book is called The Descent of Taste. When I saw the title of the book being reviewed I thought it suggested a study of how taste in art has declined over the years. I anticipated a book that charted a decline in artistic sensibility that compared the music of Bach to John Cage or the paintings of Rembrandt to those of Jackson Pollack. There are many in the art community that do not care for the direction the arts have taken in modern times and I thought this was another book written by “one of those people.” But when I read the review I found that it was about something else, the role the arts have played in human evolutionary development. The title refers to an instinct for art that resides in us all that has descended down to us from our earliest ancestors.

Lascaux Cave Painting

The painting is from a cave in France and was painted many thousands of years ago. It suggests that art, the desire to capture some aspect of the world around us, has been a part of human experience for a very long time. The book contends that the urge to create art goes back about a million and a half years. The book also suggests that this urge to create is a part of what separated humans from the rest of the creatures with whom they cohabitated. There is also the suggestion that skill at creating art made a person more desirable to one of the opposite sex, and perhaps this played a role in the evolution of the “art instinct.”

Saint George and the DragonRaphael Sanzio

As artists became more skilled at capturing the world around them the pictures they painted, as well as the sculptures they sculpted, became more lifelike. But is it the ability to capture the world as it is that makes a work of art, “art”? In this painting by Raphael the horse and the knight on the horse are real, the woman in the background is real, but what about the dragon? Is the dragon intended to capture a slice of the real world or is it more allegorical or symbolic? Perhaps it captures the world the way the painter believed the world to be once upon a time.

G. K. Chesterton once said, “Art exists solely in order to create a miniature universe, a working model of the universe, a toy universe, which we can play with as a child plays with a toy theater.” Does this view of art require art to be representational? Perhaps, but then as a novelist Chesterton often wrote novels that portrayed a world that was in many ways dissimilar from the world in which we live. In the novel The Man Who Was Thursday, for example, there are events no one would expect to find taking place in the real world, the premise of the novel is hardly realistic, and there are characters it is safe to say no one is likely to meet on the streets, then or now. But then the novel is satire and satire often plays by a different set of rules.

Cafe Terrace at NightVincent Van Gogh

Perhaps the first question that must be asked is what does the universe look like and does the universe the artist creates have to resemble the universe in which the artist lives? Van Gogh’s painting is recognizable as a café on a town street with people milling about. But though it resembles cafes we all have seen it does not look exactly like any café we are likely to see, even if we went to the street in Arles where this café could be found. Still, in the words of Chesterton a universe is created and Van Gogh seems to enjoy playing with that toy universe. But more importantly I am changed by looking at the painting. I do not know if a photograph digitized on a blog page moves the viewer, but seeing the actual painting does, or at least it did move me.

The colors of this painting when seen on the actual canvas have a “something” that the picture on the blog page does not. I do know if the right word is vibrancy, energy, or something else, I do not really believe there is a word for it. Real art often escapes language. A photograph of a great painting often makes the painting look more like an illustration; something designed to lend some color to the page. There are painters who work for interior designers whose sole job has become creating a canvas with colors that match the design of the room in which it will hang. The painter probably sees her or himself as an artist but does that make the person an artist.

I was once walking down Lakeshore Drive in Chicago and I was stopped by an elderly man. He pointed to an office building (I was on a section of Lakeshore Drive that bordered on the business district of Chicago) and said he started his career working in that office building. He started talking about his career as an artist. He said that he began as a commercial artist in the office building that we were facing. He said that at one time he did a portrait of the Duke of Windsor. He was an elegantly dressed man and his dress suggested he had been successful in whatever had been his career, so it was not impossible that he painted the Duke of Windsor, but I am not sure that it was likely. But if he had painted the Duke, would that make him an artist? Is it enough to capture faithfully an image?

No._5,_1948, An abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, taken from Art Market,_1948.jpg

This painting by Jackson Pollack is not at all representational. There is depth and texture to it. It conveys an energy and movement, but what is there about the canvas that causes some to see it as a great work of art? Why are some people moved by this painting in the same way that I was moved by the Van Gogh when I saw it on a museum wall? W. H. Auden wrote a narrative poem about the same time that this painting was painted called The Age of Anxiety. The poem characterized the modern world of its time. It was an anxious time. A war had just ended and people lived in fear of another war, a nuclear war. The painting and the poem both evoke a time of uncertainty especially about the future.

But to return to the original question, why study art, why make art a part of a school’s curriculum when there are so many more important things to study. Does art and the appreciation of art make people more humane? Probably not. The Nazis loved great art, but were also capable of great cruelty. Nor are the Nazis unique in this regard, history tells of many others. If art does not make us better people, than what does it do?

Art does train the imagination and art does reflect back to us the world in which we live. The paintings on the cave in France, the paintings by Raphael, the paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, and the paintings of Jackson Pollack all reflect back to people the world of their unique time in history. They were Chestertonian toy universes that re-imagine the universe in which the artists that painted them lived. Raphael lived in an orderly world, if not in fact at least in the popular imagination. Jackson Pollack at the other extreme lived in a world where order seemed to be collapsing.

Kenneth Clark Civilisation

Kenneth Clarke’s television series Civilisation (Mr. Clarke could spell, he just spelled as an Englishman) was very popular about the time I graduated high school. At the beginning of the film he talks about there being three books in which a civilization records itself, its history, its words, and its art. There are not many who know the names of those that reigned when Raphael painted or when Van Gogh painted. If we remember who ruled when Pollack painted it is probably because it is still recent history and it is our history which most spend a year or more of their lives studying. It is perhaps too early to tell whether or not we want to be remembered by the things that our leaders have done or by the things our artists have produced.

The Getty Museum carved out of a hillside of Los Angeles, as a museum provides a resting place for the art that has characterized the world’s civilizations but it also stands as a statement of the architectural art of our generation. The music of The Beatles, John Adams, and John Harbison will probably have more to say about how the present age is viewed in the future than any of the leaders that have led the nations of the world in our time. The science of Dante’s time has for the most part been forgotten (though the science of that day was instrumental in producing the science of our day), but Dante is still with us.

I do not know if there is a satisfactory answer to why we should study art as fervently as we study science and math but it is very likely that the art we produced will play at least as significant a role in defining who we are as a people to future generations as any of our scientific advances. Artists often look funny to the rest of the culture and often believe odd things. But what is to be said of a culture that can put a machine on the planet Mars that will take photographs of the Martian surface and test the Martian geology that cannot appreciate the sublime nature of that stark Martian landscape and does not know how to make a song about it.

What does it say about a culture that does not see the need to train its youth to understand and appreciate the sublime; to develop the eye of the imagination as diligently as it cultivates the practice of the scientific method? It is the artist in us that must be cultivated that can imagine more to Mars than reddish dust. This realization may not stop us from exploiting the resources of Mars, but it may encourage us to feel, like the Walrus, badly about what we do and that is a good thing. But even if it doesn’t the realization will remain with many that it is a beautiful thing that has been destroyed.