Tag Archives: Art

Virtue, Gemstones and Art

I used to read to my children from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. The chapters are sequenced like gemstones on a bracelet: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

That’s a pretty good list. I especially like the way he leads off. Without self-discipline, compassion and responsibility you won’t get very far with the others.

As inspirational as William Bennett’s collected tales are (and my kids did love them), our understanding of virtue can grow deeper than mere lists of what it means to be good. I love this passage from Ethical Empowerment, by Arthur Schwartz.

Lists of the virtues are not difficult to find.  … Courage, Honesty, Trustworthiness, Resilience, Loyalty, Independence, Selflessness, Perseverance, Wisdom, Compassion. However, is courage or loyalty in support of a brutal, despotic regime a virtue? …   Is honesty a virtue when, in order to be honest, a promise must be broken? Is selflessness a virtue when the devotion to others is so strong that self-sacrifice leads to illness or personal ruination? … And compassion is surely a core principle of morality, but even compassion can turn sour if it is blind to issues of justice or other moral imperatives.

Specific virtues are not autonomous gems but, rather, are expressions of a deeper morality to which they owe their truth. (Kindle location 328, emphasis mine.)

Many of us wish virtues were like gems. Making a difficult moral decision would then be as easy as choosing the shiny pebble from among the dull. Alas; it’s not that simple.

Or maybe it is, but we need more sophistication. While a child may think that the biggest diamond is always the best, a professional diamond cutter balances carat, color, cut, and clarity to produce the most valuable finished product(s) from whatever hunk of compressed carbon was found in the mine.

We all know it’s the same with moral decisions. There are always competing considerations and we must make our best judgment.

As Schwartz says,

Conformity to virtue is by no means a black and white affair and it is, perhaps, more like an aesthetic judgment than it is a calculation, or perhaps it is a bit of both. (Kindle location 326, emphasis mine.)

An aesthetic judgment: life as art.

Art is even more difficult to judge than gemstones. What makes good art? In any medium, there are certain rules: symmetry, variety, novelty, and so on. Yet, art that is perfectly symmetrical is generally bad, unless other virtues such as novelty carry the day. Too much variety can be bewildering. Art that is so utterly novel that it does not connect with anything is not usually successful.

To enjoy art, it helps to be trained to recognize specific virtues in it, but that can’t be the end of the story.

Perhaps it’s the same with moral virtues. If we’re honest or compassionate, chances are good that we’re on the right track, but if we fixate on just a few virtues, we’ll probably miss others.

Virtuous living takes skill, balance and alertness to all the artistic possibilities. It’s hard. Here’s hoping that you become a virtuoso.

Ruled for the Pleasure of Men

On Friday, I visited the wonderful Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, where I saw Dancers in Pink by Degas. The docent told us that these girls were poor, and were selected more for their looks than for their talent. They were not the main attraction, but would perform during the intermission at the opera.

As you can see, one of them wears an earring.

The earring signified that its wearer had a patron — someone who had promised to take care of her and her family for the rest of her life.

“For the rest of her life, or for the rest of his life?” one of my fellow tour-takers asked.

“Good point. For the rest of his life,” replied the docent, a sweet woman in her seventies.

“So was she like a mistress?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the docent finally disclosed.

All at once, I saw two things.

The first was that poverty brings with it many ills and humiliations beyond being poor. One can imagine a poor family with a beautiful daughter. It fell to her to sell her very person to support her family. You can write the script from there — her degradation; the devaluing of her own marriage, if she were fortunate enough to have one; her worries for her children; her feeling of being forever trapped.

Dancing girls looking for “patrons” no longer vie for the attention of wealthy men during the intermissions of operas. However, plenty of women resort to prostitution, or simply live with abusive, unstable boyfriends because they feel they have no better option.

I call on those who loudly care about morality (I’m looking at you, Religious Right) to work to structure society so as few women as possible face these impossible choices.

I readily agree that we cannot solve the problem by throwing government money at the symptoms. We have tried that by giving money to women who have out-of-wedlock births, and — surprise — the out-of-wedlock birthrate has gone up, not down.

What will work? I’m not sure, but I do know one thing: the people least likely to find the solution are the powerful, white males who have both promoted and benefited from the inequalities of power and wealth for all of Western history.

That brings me to the second thing. I felt another reason to rejoice in President Obama’s reelection victory. He won with a coalition of the relatively powerless: young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, homosexuals, secularists — and women. Romney’s base of older, white,  evangelical men are no longer enough to carry the day. They still have plenty of power, but they don’t have the monopoly they once had.

With Obama’s reelection, all segments of society are seated firmly at the table, so we are more likely to find solutions to some of our most vexing problems. No segment will write the rules for everyone else.

Powerful males wrote the rules of Degas’ society. The dancers were ruled for the pleasure of men.

I’m glad we have given ourselves a chance to get past that.

31 Days – Crop Circles

If you followed the links at the bottom of yesterday’s post, you saw the wonders of the Julia set. Actually, the Julias are a whole family of sets. Here is one of them. In this representation, a white point is a member of the set. The other points are not, with a darker shade of grey corresponding to rapid disqualification.

A Julia Set

The Julia sets inspired some famous crop circles that I thought you might enjoy. As you probably know, a crop circle is a pattern made in a standing crop. The early ones were just circles, but these days they are much more elaborate.

There is considerable controversy over whether crop circles are produced by humans, aliens, or even Gaia herself. Whatever their origin, they are beautiful works of art, well-qualified for August’s 31 Days of Wonder.

This Julia set-inspired formation appeared right next to Stonehenge (!) in 1996.

Julia Set Crop Circle

What could have caused it? Crop circle researcher Lucy Pringle interviewed an eyewitness who claimed it appeared under a mysterious, swirling mist during daylight hours. Circlemakers.org, a Website for human crop-circle artists, presents a more skeptical interview of someone who claims it was made the night before, by people, and was only noticed during the following day.

Also fun to visit is BLT Research‘s Website, which is largely devoted to the strange attributes of crop circles, which have convinced some people that some of the circles could not be of human origin.

If you just want to look at pretty pictures, CropCircleConnector.com has plenty of them. Enjoy and wonder!

 

 

 

Life as Art

71: Into the FireIn the Korean War movie 71: Into the Fire, a few dozen high school students who barely know how to hold a gun bravely defend an outpost against an overwhelming North Korean force for 11 critical hours. In the end, the students are all dead but the time they have bought allows the main South Korean army to achieve an important objective. (It’s based on actual events and very stirring. See it!)

Why did they choose to fight and die when the North Korean commander offered them life in exchange for surrender?

Our lives are works of art. We get to choose whether they will be beautiful or ugly. I think we all know at some level that a noble death is more beautiful than an ordinary life.

For those of us whose actions are not 100% guided by a guru or a holy book, I think beauty is a good guide. Faced with temptation or dilemma, a good questions is, “Which choice would make me more proud to display my life as a work of art?” Beauty calls out sacrifice rather than selfishness; tenacity, not torpor; harmony, not hatred.

Nobody likes to look at the ugly, least of all in oneself. The most important artwork we’ll ever see is in the bathroom mirror.