A Wicked Good Guy

Bad Man’s Blunder
The Kingston Trio

A Wicked Good Guy

King Richard III

The song is about an inept outlaw for whom, perhaps because of his incompetence, the listener feels a bit of empathy. Most of us are incompetent at something and so we understand the poor outlaw’s problem. Still there is the problem of the deputy that, he tells us frankly in the opening stanza, he killed. The name in storytelling circles for such a character, for the likable bad guy, or the guy with too many flaws to be heroic, is antihero. What lies behind the antihero is a belief that we all have the capacity to be villainous and part of our reaction is a “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of sympathy. We see our own potential in these characters. In the conventional tragedy we encounter a good man or woman with a significant character flaw. This flaw proves to be the character’s undoing. Because in so many other respects this character is so good the reader or viewer sees the consequences that result from this single flaw as undeserved. But no one sees the antihero as undeserving of her or his fate; it is just that that fate falls too close to home.

The painting is of Richard III. As Shakespeare tells his story he is a totally villainous unredeemable character but many throughout history have championed his cause. When I was growing up it was Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time that made his case. Tey was a writer of detective fiction and her detective, while in the hospital for reasons I have forgotten, becomes intrigued with Richard and the story history has preserved of his legacy. He receives a card with this painting of Richard on it and his curiosity is aroused, also his sense of justice. He does not believe someone with the sensitivity the portrait captures could commit the heinous crimes associated with this “wicked” king. According to history, especially Shakespeare’s history, Richard became king by murdering everyone, including two young children, ahead of him in the line of succession. The Richard of the painting, though probably not the Richard of history, is a bit of an anti-hero in the sense that this portrait provokes a kind of empathy that his actions cannot easily support.

Gustave Dore

There was an article in The Guardian last week, “Francesca Simon’s top 10 antiheroes” on the great antiheroes from literature. Number ten on the list is Satan from Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. I am not sure that Milton intended for this character to be seen in this light, but since the Romantic era this view of Satan as the wronged “hero” of the poem has been popular. It is still a popular view espoused by Philip Pullman, the writer of children’s stories who has made a Satan-like character the hero of one of his tales, and Harold Bloom America’s most popular literary critic. Those who see Satan as, well, “Satanic” point out that the Biblical account of this character is as a liar and a seducer consumed with unbounded pride. He has extraordinary gifts combined with ambitions beyond his station. Of course it is the “beyond his station” part that makes him “likable” because most of us have aspired to things that seemed beyond us and have been “put in our place” as a result. Often it is the point of view we bring to what we read that determines how we understand the characters that live in the stories we read. For the atheist and, perhaps, the agnostic Satan is the ultimate hero, for the theist he is the ultimate villain.

Egill Skallagrímsson from Medieval Illustrated Manuscript

Egil Skallagrimson is one of my favorite anti-heroes. He is a smart and capable man. He is a ferocious fighter and a great poet. His actions are not always to be emulated but he is audacious and it is his audacity that makes him attractive. His flaws are numerous; he is egotistical, ambitious, and avaricious to name a few. He is slow to let go of a grudge and the “quality of mercy” is not something he was interested in cultivating. One must consider the times in which Egil lived which were very harsh and unforgiving times in which mercy and forgiveness were not often rewarded and were often seen instead as signs of weakness. He belonged to a free and independent people that rather than submit to the authority of a king left Norway and established their own “democratic” nation in Iceland. The Icelandic “Althing” is the world’s oldest standing parliament having met in continuous session since 930 CE and still meets to this day.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

The film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is about a Russian submarine and its crew that run aground off the New England coast of the United States. The Russians were the villains of the cold war, though there are probably some in Russia who would take a different view. The crewmembers, though, are just ordinary folks who are trying to survive with little interest in international politics. They run aground because the ship’s captain wanted to see what America looked like. When the film was released the cold war was still intense and these hapless sailors were quintessential antiheroes, members of an “evil empire’s” military, who were really not much different from the Americans that viewed the film. What responsibility do everyday folks have for the decisions their government makes. These sailors are not interested in fighting any war, cold or otherwise, they just want to go home, and who of us, in difficult circumstances far from friends and family would not also want to go home?

A Dime Novel Featuring Jesse James

The pictures above and below capture another side of the antihero. Some whose behavior was seriously out of line have managed to wrap themselves in the aura of romance. In the “wild west” Jesse James was such a character. He was robber and a killer but one way or another he was greeted warmly by some in the culture. The romance surrounding his exploits inspired pulp fiction like that of the cover illustration above. In this “dime novel” (that according to the cover cost a nickel) Mr. James is not only not an outlaw but he as a protector of the people and a solver of crimes. This Mr. James is “the law” not the outlaw. No doubt his criminal record is the result of some misunderstanding and that at heart he has more in common with Pat Garret than with Billy the Kid. Of course, Billy the Kid established his own aura of romance and is an antihero in his own right.

Coin de table (Corner Table, Rimbaud is second from left)
Henri Fantin-Latour

The painting is of a group of French writers. The second writer from the left is Arthur Rimbaud a poet with a “colorful” history. He was an influential and popular poet. He gave up poetry to pursue other interests that culminated in gun running among other things. He is the author as antihero and his life after poetry is part of the “romance” that attaches to this writer. He does not, in this painting, look that radical or counter-culture, in fact no one in the painting looks that revolutionary, with the possible exception of the two bearded gentlemen sitting at the back of the table. He became an inspiration to many twentieth century writers, like some of the Beats in America and folks like Jean Genet in France, who sought to cultivate an aura of anti-heroics. They were antiheroes not because they were engaged in activities that were outside the pale but because they were “labeled outlaws” (culturally not legally) by a culture that was, for them, outside the pale and rather than answer the accusations against them, they embraced those accusations and after a fashion made antiheroes of themselves. Whether the post poetic Rimbaud was an antihero or a true villain would depend on who he was running guns for and who benefited from the business that he transacted.

There is something in human nature that wants to rebel. It is this something that makes the antihero attractive. Whether he is the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause or Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise. Laws may be broken, maybe laws it would be better not to break, but these characters are seen to be driven to illegality by other “crimes” the culture chooses to ignore, like sexism and intolerance. Often these characters desire to do good but are driven in other directions by a culture that does not believe them to be capable of good. In the book Frankenstein a monster is created. Monstrous things are expected of him because he looks like such a monster. However, he tries to do the good and noble thing, to be compassionate and kind in his dealings with others, but he is always rewarded according to the expectation and not the act. At one point he is shot for saving a young girl from drowning. He changes, he realizes that no one is ever going to give him a chance and he begins to fight back. That too, is part of the story of the antihero. If we do not let people become kind, if for whatever reason we judge them by something superficial, we should not be surprised if they become what we have pre-judged them to be and that it becomes difficult to identify the true heroes and villains.

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from Frankenstein


The Same Old Song

Beethoven – Symphony #5 In C Minor, Op. 67 – 1. Allegro Con Brio
William Weller and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Op. 107
Cesar Cantieri, London Symphony Orchestra

The Same Old Song

Still Life #20′, mixed media work
Tom Wesselmann

There was an article in this Sunday’s Boston Globe on the cliché. It was called “Let us now praise… the cliché”. The article points out that often clichés convey bits of useful information and folk wisdom quickly and somewhat universally, universal at least to the culture that created the cliché. The opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has become a bit of a musical cliché, in that it is well known and carries a certain meaning that listeners are quick to recognize, it has in a way become a cliché for Beethoven’s symphonic work and classical music in general. The work itself is not clichéd, or at least it wasn’t when it was first performed but it has evolved into one. The clip from Mendelssohn that accompanies the Beethoven clip employs a musical cliché of sorts from the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Because this piece of music is so recognizable it conveys quickly a musical idea that gives its name to the symphony as a whole, it is often referred to as the Reformation Symphony.

The painting also makes use of clichés. The door to the cupboard above the sink suggests Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book being a red square (a cliché in and of itself) with a white star, the symbol of Communist China. The white bread, a cliché for wholesomeness, placed strategically next to another grain product that is a bit less wholesome. Then there is the Coca Cola glass, which is another cultural icon/cliché. The Piet Mondrian painting above the bananas is also a bit iconic, especially as it is representative of a kind of modern abstract painting. These components of the painting, because they are clichés, convey quickly a certain depth of meaning to the viewer that enables the painting to succeed as a comment on American culture of the early 1960’s. The painting is from 1962, before the Vietnam War dominated “popular culture.” The colors and the “product placement” suggest the conflict between Communism and Capitalism or perhaps the consumer culture of America.

As a teacher of writing I am usually encouraging my students to avoid clichés. Because clichés are by definition overused they tend to reflect badly on a piece of writing and make the writer appear to be a bit unimaginative. I am not sure that it is always necessary to find a new way of saying something that can be said effectively by a more commonplace phrase, but that is the “conventional wisdom.” As the article points out, many clichés are still around because they “say best what needs to be said” and we will have to wait and see if any of the substitutes writers struggle to invent will go on to become as successful, though, as the music of Beethoven may suggest, this success is something of a “two edged sword”.

It also important to be careful with clichés and how we use them. Sometimes clichés are used as a way of avoiding a real problem or of ignoring an impending problem or, perhaps, as a way of avoiding a little extra work. “Why”, for example, “reinvent the wheel” may be a way of avoiding the work of reinventing something that needs to be reinvented. We do not, after all, use wagon wheels on automobiles, so at some point it was indeed necessary to reinvent the wheel and it may not always be easy to tell which came first the “automobile” or the “reinvented wheel.” Some will tell us “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But just because a thing is not currently broken does not mean it is not in the process of breaking and a bit of preventative maintenance may be “just the ticket.” A cliché, like any piece of writing, needs to be judged by the circumstances in which it is employed. Some may always be dubious, but others may at times still serve a useful purpose. It is also very difficult, at times, to find a phrase that is not on some level clichéd. Is, for example, the phrase “serve a useful purpose” a cliché? Is it an over used expression? Some might think so. Others may see in it an avenue to a more economical compositional style.

The Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, La Gioconda)
Leonardo da Vinci

The paintings above and below are not unlike the two pieces of music, one having become a cliché and the other playing games with clichés. It is a danger for an artist who does something too well that that something may eventually become a cliché. Leonardo da Vinci is almost a Renaissance cliché in and of himself. He is often pointed to as the definition of the Renaissance, an inadequate definition in that he did not represent all areas of cultural advancement with which the Renaissance is associated but probably he was adept at enough of them to make the comparison work. C. S. Lewis said, “For it must be noticed that such dominance (the dominance of a literary form in any given age) is not necessarily good for the form that enjoys it. When everyone feels it natural to attempt the same kind of writing, that kind is in danger. Its characteristics are formalized. A stereotyped monotony, unnoticed by contemporaries, but cruelly apparent to posterity, begins to pervade it.” This is often the fate of the cliché, whether in painting, music, literature, or any other art form. It is because Beethoven’s Fifth (or the opening anyway) has become clichéd that the music often evokes a comic response when there is not necessarily anything comic in the music. Or is there? Was Beethoven being a bit over dramatic to serve a kind of satiric purpose in the music? Does the musical cliché it has become serve the musical purpose for which it was created? I am not sure. I do not think there is a comic intent behind the Mona Lisa but it has devolved a bit into “kitsch” because of the place it holds in the culture.

The Disquieting Muses
Giorgio de Chirico

The painting by Chirico plays with iconic forms from classical art for comic purposes and, probably, social commentary as well. It also plays with allusions to classical culture when it plays with the muses from Greek and Roman myth. There is the juxtaposition of the castle, a Renaissance cliché with the factory, a modernist cliché. The muse in the background appears as a conventional human likeness while the muses in the foreground have . . . well I am not certain what they have for heads. The colored box suggests the motley costume of the clown Pierrot from the Comedia del Arte. But are these in fact clichés or are they archetypes or symbols that add richness and do not in any way detract? For an icon of any kind to work it must be readily identifiable with that which it represents and it is this quick identification that gives it power. The issue is not so much the cliché as it is its use, is it a kind of laziness that enables us to avoid thinking deeply about something by letting the cliché do the thinking for us, or does it evoke ideas that lend a bit of depth to the issue being examined.

Plan Nine from Outer Space
Ed Wood

Ed Wood enjoyed a moment of popularity a few years back when a film biography was made about him. But what made Wood an attractive subject for this film was the excruciating excess of cliché and poor production techniques that characterized his films. These excesses made them comic, though comedy was not the Wood’s intent when he made the films. From the clip it can be seen how on one level there is almost a Monty-Python-esque humor to them. The characters are so over-blown and caricatured that it is difficult to take them seriously. Groucho Marx once said of Margret Dumont that she was the perfect foil for the comedian because she did not get the jokes. Others disagree with this assessment, but perhaps it has some truth in regards to Ed Wood, maybe he was a film comedian who did not get his own jokes.

Still, the problem with Ed Wood and taking him seriously as a filmmaker is that he did not seem to understand when a film convention had been overused. Films are full of clichés and conventions, even very good ones. Sometimes these are used to point the viewer in the direction of the filmmakers influences, as when Harrison Ford makes his way across the bottom of the German truck in The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg is paying a complement to John Ford by evoking a scene from one of his films, Stagecoach, where John Wayne does something similar traveling underneath a stagecoach. It works like an allusion in literature to an earlier piece of writing. These allusions add richness to the film as they add richness to a poem or story. It is not necessary to understand the allusion for the scene to work, but it gives an additional level of pleasure to those that understand the allusion. They remind us that most works of art are produced by a culture that has a cultural heritage full of symbols, archetypes, and images that connect the parts of the culture to the whole.

Front Cover for the LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the artist The Beatles.
The cover art copyright is believed to belong to EMI Records, Ltd.

If we look at the images that fill the album cover of The Beatles record Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band we will see figures from throughout the culture, including an early version of The Beatles behind the more current incarnation of the album’s release. But amongst the crew that surrounds them are comedians and cowboys and film stars; writers, scientists, and clergy. There does not seem to be much that is left out. What is the point of putting all these images into the cover? Does it make a commentary on the music or is it just there to catch the eye of the record buyer to help sell the record? Often clichés are comfortable because whether they serve a real purpose or not they do not usually ask much of us or even if they do, it is not that difficult to avoid the work they invite us to perform by just focusing on the cliché itself. This is perhaps the ultimate weakness of the cliché, that even if it is intended to serve a higher purpose and the writer or artist is not being lazy in the use of the cliché, it is still very easy for the reader or viewer to be lazy in her or his interpretation of it.

When the World Changed

From Jailhouse Rock
Elvis Presley

When the World Change

Map of the World
Martin Waldseemüller

Some see Elvis Presley as the beginning of rock and roll, that his popularity signaled the end of one kind of music and opened the door to another. Some think he introduced to white audiences music that was already popular with black audiences and that he profited a bit off the work of others. Of course, and this may just be me, the names that come most immediately to minds after Elvis’ when the discussion is 1950’s rock and roll are Chuck Berry and Little Richard. After all, it is not Elvis Michael J. Fox imitates in Back to the Future but Chuck Berry. Still, whatever one thinks of Elvis, popular music became a different world the day Elvis topped the charts.

The map above is also credited with changing the world, at least according to Toby Lester in “A world redrawn” an article that appeared in this weekend’s Boston Globe. Copernicus was born into a world that believed the planet earth occupied a sphere of water and that the only reason the planet was not completely submerged was because this sphere of water was set at an angle so that half the surface of the earth could keep its “head” above water. This would place the Eastern half of the world above water and the western half under water. Not many scientists of Copernicus’ day took this cosmological model seriously, there were too many observable contradictions, but there was no opposing system and the existing order of things had become a part of the religious beliefs of the day, a day that did not treat kindly those that challenged its beliefs.

According to Lester, when Copernicus saw this map the “submerged earth theory” became untenable, because according to the map, there was a continent filling that half of the globe that should be under water and though this continent looks nothing like the North and South America of our maps today, it was enough. Once the sphere of water evaporated and Copernicus took a second look at the heavens other cherished beliefs, like the sun revolving around the earth, were seen to be problematic. Lester believes that this change was possible in part because Copernicus did not live in an age that was given to specialization; he lived in an age that could see connections between the earth’s geography and that of the heavens, just as Einstein’s work with clocks in the Swiss patent office contributed to his work in physics and helped him to visualize his theory of relativity.

Florence Cathedral domeFilippo Brunelleschi

Brunelleschi is known mostly as an architect, but he is credited with figuring out the rules of perspective in drawing and painting. Painting prior to Brunelleschi’s discovery was somewhat two-dimensional. Medieval artists had a sense of perspective in that buildings often had corners and the like, but space and relationships of size were depicted poorly. With perspective came paintings that captured space very well. It became popular to paint frescos on walls and ceilings of buildings that created the illusion they went on forever. In theater perspective drawing produced a kind of scene design that was stunning in its evocation of space and distance. Of course there was only one seat in the house where all the lines of perspective worked perfectly. This seat was called the “eye of the duke” because, of course, only the town’s most privileged citizen was permitted to occupy that seat, at least at performances.

I think it is interesting that Brunelleschi might never have abandoned his trade of goldsmith, and as a consequence not have gone on to develop perspective drawing, if he had not lost the competition to design some Baptistery doors for a church in Florence. A college professor of mine said Brunelleschi painted a panel depicting the Florence Baptistery that illustrated how perspective painting worked. The doors of the Baptistery were perfect in every detail except that Brunelleschi substituted his doors for those of Ghiberti, the gentleman who actually won the competition and designed the doors that would be seen by anyone actually visiting the Baptistery. I do not know if this is in fact true, but it is one of those little stories that is, in the words Foucault, “so beautiful it must be true.”

21st Michigan Infantry: Sherman’s Volunteers, 1860s
Mathew B. Brady (American, 1823–1896)
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933 (33.65.232)

The photographs above and below suggest how photography has changed journalism and over time how photography as journalism has evolved. With the photograph a journalist could not only describe an event but provide actual images of what the event looked like, making the coverage not only more real, but, allegedly, more irrefutable. Of course photography as a tool for propaganda followed very shortly afterwards. The photograph as a tool of journalism emerged during the Civil War and with it the practice of “doctoring” photographs to influence public opinion (see “Does the Camera Ever lie” exhibit at the Library of Congress website).

The image below acts more like commentary on an event than as reporting on an event. The Cartier-Bresson photograph is literally a “bull’s eye” view of a bullring. It is difficult to tell if the photograph is a collage, is the man seen through the open doors looking through a window, for example, the same man with the glasses and cigar that faces us? The open gate is the gate through which the bull would enter the arena and the photographer is standing in the bull’s path, were the bull actually entering the arena. The photograph has become an art form in its own right. It is no longer a mere adjunct to the story a reporter tells, but becomes its own story, its own unique form of reportage where each detail of the photograph sends its own message, is its own paragraph in the story the “reporter” tells. In this sense the photograph has changed the world of story telling.

Valencia, Spain, 1933
Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908–2004)
Gelatin silver print
7 11/16 x 11 1/2 in. (19.6 x 29.2 cm)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew W. Saul Gift, 2005 (2005.100.164)

In an article for the Huffington Post Adam Peneberg reports that “It’s the End of the Book as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. The article is about the influence of the Kindle and what it may mean for the future of the book. He seems to think we are in the midst of a Guttenbergian revolution, that the book is taking a great step forward and that it will never be the same again. This may be true, it feels like it is, but of course, the problem with predicting the future is that no one knows what tomorrow brings. Steve Jobs left Apple in the 1980’s and developed the “NeXT” computer that was to be the wave of the future. He had credibility; he had been responsible for the “Mac” after all. But NeXT never caught on, though some of its innovations may have gone on to find a home in other technologies., and Jobs is back at Apple. Perhaps Kindle has changed the world a bit but we may have to wait a day or two to find out.

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm

Abel Gance in his film Napoleon introduced the triptych of Medieval and Renaissance art to the cinema. He put three screens next to each other and projected three separate moving images that created one panoramic landscape. It was thought for many years that this film was forever lost, though it was rediscovered in the 1970’s. Though the film was believed to be lost, its technological innovations had been passed along by word of mouth. In the 1950’s Cinemascope was developed as a technology for making films. The clip above from The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm is an example of a film shot in Cinemascope. There are brief moments here and there throughout the film where the three screens become visible. This widescreen technology changed the way films were made. Before this the film lived in a box, after this it came to inhabit a wide and narrow rectangle. There is something about the box that is claustrophobic and something about the rectangle, the longer and the narrower the better, that is panoramic.

Newton’s Telescope

Little things often produce great changes and those that pay attention often see what is coming early on. Perhaps it is those that see the changes taking place the earliest that are the ones that profit most from those changes when the changed landscape becomes visible to the rest of us. There is always a case to be made for being attentive and open-minded. Perhaps the Newton telescope is indicative of this. Those that looked through the Newton reflecting telescope saw the same universe as those looking through the more conventional “refracting” telescope but Newton’s telescope presented a clearer more accurate picture of what he astronomer was looking at and this suggests that it is not only important to look and be vigilant, but to use those tools to aid our vigilance that present the clearest view of the changing world.

Life in Miniature, or Making Much of Very Little

From Light Over Water: Part III
John Adams

Life in Miniature, or Making Much of Very Little

Paris Metro sign Image
Photograph by ChrisO

The music of John Adams has always aspired, or so it seems to me, to do a lot with very little. There is not much variety in its instrumentation or in its use of the musical scale, but the music has succeeded over many years to draw listeners into the worlds that it creates. I will sometimes give my students an exercise where I ask them to write me a three or four page paper on the Ezra Pound poem “In a Station of the Metro.” The poem is short:

THE apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It is an imagist poem intended to suggest a Japanese haiku. I suppose a student could manage a page and a half or so on background information concerning the imagist movement in poetry and the haiku as a poetic form. And that is the point of the exercise; in order to write a lot about a poem this short it is necessary to say something about background and influences. But there are other things that could be done as well. What is suggested by the word “apparition”? What is the “Metro” and why make the metro station the subject of the poem? What does the last line suggest? The Wikipedia article on this poem suggests that Pound is playing with the sonnet because the first line has eight words and the second line has six, mirroring the sonnet form of fourteen lines with a turn between the first eight lines and the final six lines. The point of the exercise is that often quite a lot of meaningful stuff can be said about a poem of two lines and a mere fourteen words.

The Paris Metro itself is something of a story in “smallness” or at least short distances. Every building, or so the Paris promotional blurb suggests, is 500 meters from a metro station, meaning that everyone in Paris is within walking distance of a subway station. Being such a convenient rapid transit system it has always attracted a large ridership. And perhaps these riders are the “petals” on the “black bough” and the ghosts that haunt the Metro. The Metro signs, as seen in the photograph above and other aspects of the stations are done in the “Art Deco” style of the time in which it was built. Perhaps this too was something Pound found attractive.

The Shaikh al-Islam Discoursing to an Audience: Page from a dispersed Divan of Mahmud cAbd al-Baki, 1590–95; OttomanIraq (Baghdad)Ink, colors, and gold on paperH. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm), W. 6 in. (15.2 cm)
Gift of George D. Pratt, 1925 (25.83.9)

The painting above and the carving in ivory below point out other ways in which smallness can be beautiful and deeply evocative. Each of these works is rich in symbolism, and imagery. They both tell stories that the viewer can follow even if they do not have access to a written text. Many of the miniatures painted by Christian artists to fill books of hours, early prayer books, told the story of the accompanying text. The paintings often served a purpose not unlike the illustrations that make up comic books or graphic novels, to tell visually the story that is told in the written text, though in comics and graphic novels the text and the images share the narrative burden as opposed to each telling the same story in a different medium, as is the case with a conventional book of hours. But what I find attractive is how so much meaning is gotten into such a condensed space.

The painting above is an Islamic miniature, a style of painting popular in Persia in the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. What is intriguing about these paintings, at least to me, is that they come from a culture that eschews representational art, seeing it as being a bit idolatrous. The artwork found in a Mosque, for example, is non-representational and of a highly geometric quality. In fact, if we look at the interior decorating that is captured in the painting we notice that it is geometric and conforms to our cultural expectations. But then art should surprise us and do the unexpected.

Panel with the Evangelist Mark and His Symbol, carved 1000–1100Ottonian (probably Cologne, Germany)
IvoryOverall 5 1/2 x 4 1/4 x 5/16 in. (13.9 x 10.8 x 0.8 cm)
Inscribed in Latin: [I am] the voice of one crying [in the wilderness] (Mark 1:3)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.36)

It is often the little things that matter most in our daily interactions with one another. It is often enough to be kind and courteous which comes at no real cost to us, though they may not be in practice “little” things. There was a review of a number of books on etiquette, “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”, in this week’s Washington Post. The reviewer did not really like any of the books that he looked at and came to the conclusion that those most in need of reading them were the least likely to give them a look. This is no doubt true. Courtesy requires a bit of selflessness, a conscious awareness of those around us and their worth as fellow human beings. Discourtesy is, among other things, a sign of self-absorption, though it may just be a temporary lapse due to a poor night’s sleep or something. Those that are insolent in their treatment of their neighbors probably approach their neighbors, at best, with indifference. Sometimes the little things require more than some people are capable of giving.

My Dinner with Andre
Louis Malle
Saga Productions

The film is a “small” film in the sense that all the action takes place around a dinner table in a restaurant. The two characters in the film are two New York writer/actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. The movie is a conversation about the world and where it is heading. This part of the film focuses on boredom and its consequences. Boredom puts us into a stupor where we will agree to most anything, especially if it promises momentary relief from the boredom. In some ways it seems prophetic, the film was made in the early 1980’s, though it may just be rehashing old ideas in a new medium.

There is much in the film that gives a sophisticated spin to aspects of the “hippie” philosophy and much that is probably a bit naïve. But it is certainly true that the film is difficult to enjoy for a person who is not excited by ideas even if the ideas are beginning to show their age a bit. There is no spectacle, there are not really any raised voices or raised fists. The two men are friends and they are enjoying each other’s company and the conversation, though there may be an undercurrent of competition, an effort on the part of each to dominate the conversation, as Andre Gregory does in this brief clip. But it is a friendly competition and each can be seen to be taking the other very seriously.

Rosary Bead, early 16th century
South Netherlandish (Brabant)
Diam. 2 1/16 in. (5.2 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.475)


Spectacle can overwhelm us with the power of its images and the force with which it assails the senses. Miniatures surprise by how much is crammed into a small space; it is spectacle of a different kind. The rosary bead above is only two and a half inches in diameter and yet it contains the heavens and the earth. In a world of super sizes the miniature may fail to impress, many may not take the time necessary to see the detail that is present in the carving. Impressed or not, there is much that can be said about this little bead and all the images and symbols that it contains. The bead is part of a string of beads that are intended to aid in prayer. And prayer, if nothing else, takes us out of ourselves and reminds us that there are forces that are greater than we, they may be impersonal forces like those that work in nature to produce evolutionary change or they may be something more powerful and personal, that, of course, depends on the beliefs of each individual looking at the bead.

Watch, ca. 1680
Movement probably by Nicolas Gribelin (French, 1637-1719)
Case: painted enamel on gold; Dial: painted enamel with champlevé gold chapter ring; Movement: gilded brass, steel, partly blued, and silver; Diam. of case 2 3/8 in. (6 cm); Diam of back plate 1 15/16 in. (4.8 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.1559)

The workings of a watch must be small and delicate by definition because the watch must be able to fit into a small place, a pocket or a person’s wrist. The details of the watch are intriguing in their design but the wonder of the watch is in the work it does. When manufactured well and maintained well it keeps accurate time as time passes, it was, after all, a watch that enabled European sailors to find latitude at sea precisely because it kept precise time over a great expanse of time. It is usually the little things that separate a great work from a mediocre one. It is the ability to see nuance and subtlety in a poem or a laboratory experiment that separates the true scholar from the dilettante. To see subtlety and nuance, though, the eye and the mind that operates it must be observant and take some delight in its ability to observe the littlest of things.