Stability, Stasis, and Comfort Levels

A comment on another blog got me thinking about stability and comfort in society. The discussion had drifted to “why do to people, and some governments, want to lock things into a certain level of economics/cultural norms/seasonal patterns forever and ever?” Part of it is the comfort of familiarity – we want the sun to rise in the east, the seasons to change when they are supposed to, cinnamon to taste like cinnamon, and our pay-check to arrive on time. Among other things. For most of human history, major changes to the routine generally meant Not Good Things – natural disasters, wars, plagues both human and livestock . . . Stability was safe. Predictable change was good. Children were supposed to grow up and marry and either move out or start working in the family business or farm. The old overlord died and his son or widow took over and did things just like he had. The occasional trader or traveler from a few villages over, or from a different part of the region, added a little variety but not too much.

Then you also have the “things were better back then.” It could be “when the old lord ran things, taxes stayed reasonable.” Or “in the golden age, when Numa Pompilius was king of Rome,” or “before Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil . . .” or what have you. For peasants it was the ideal time before overlords started taking over the “traditional rights” of free commoners. For the nobles it might have been when [kingdom name] was the greatest power in the region. Or back when peasants knew their place, and everyone stayed contentedly in their station of birth and no one challenged those who were born to rule. Or the wonderful era when wise women and subordinate men lived in harmony with Nature and farmed and all was at peace. Or when you were twelve, and old enough to ride your bike unsupervised and go to the candy store and stay out until the fireflies swarmed on long summer evenings, but didn’t have to pay bills.

Three of those scenarios are about control. ‘When we were in control, things were better. So if we stay in control/go back to those days, things will be better and we can lock things into place and Paradise.” If you look at some the Great Reset ideas, or some of the ideals of groups like Extinction Rebellion, you see a lot of both control and “going back to when everyone was poor (but dignified) peasants farming the land and doing folk-crafts with native materials.” Not that they phrase it like that, but “a less consumptive lifestyle that makes fewer demands on the environment” translates to poorer, when you measure standards of living. Experts and the self-appointed elite should be in control, because they are the experts and elites. Switch “nobles” for “experts and elites” and we’re back to the Renaissance and Middle Ages. Use “Confucian scholars” and you have the mandarins of imperial China. Again, control.

Chaos is the default state of the universe, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Most people don’t do well in chaos. I don’t. I like a theme with variations, variations of my choosing for the most part. That’s not how the world works. Chaos created on a temporary basis, for a reason, can be a little scary even for the creators, because chaos doesn’t always behave. Fire behavior is predictable on a macro scale, for certain terrains, fuel loads, and weather patterns. On the micro scale? You can’t predict which embers will be picked up and tossed over the fire-line to land in just the right materials and start an explosive blaze. You can’t predict which person will cut the wrong wire and take out a municipal water system.

Totalitarian systems are about control. Certain pyschologic conditions are also about control, often control over how others see the individual or react to the individual. When those combine with a Cause, trouble for society really ensues. “I’m doing this for your own good,” ranks down there with “True [philosophy] has never been tried. We’ll get it right this time!” as far as words that should strike terror in the hearts of the sane.

I want to be in control of my particular slice of reality, such as it is. I game out situations in my head so that if X happens, I can control my response and (ideally) limit the damage and chaos. But I know darn well I can’t control other people. I can’t even control the characters I put onto the page! [Yes, Joschka von Hohen Drachenburg, I am looking right at you as example #1.] The idea of me trying to micromanage a world full of other people should scare the socks off of everyone, especially me.

The technocrats and fans of a neo-feudal order don’t see that. The totalitarians have always believed that they really can have total control over what is in people’s heads, as well as what the environment does and how society should respond to that. It doesn’t matter what flavor of totalitarian – theocracy, Communist, NSDAP, Fascist, Eco – control, order, and stasis are their end goals.

They missed the lesson of Greek tragedy and the tower of Babel. Hubris begets nemesis. Control begets collapse and chaos.

Trees or Scrub, Forest or Damaged Grassland?

What happened to the grass? That’s an odd question, or perhaps Odd*, to ask while driving on the Edwards Plateau. Most people ask about “missing” trees on the Great Plains and High Plains, but grass in the Hill Country? Hasn’t it always had trees, even if many of them are a little short and twisty? Mesquite, lots of shinnery oak and other oaks, some cedar, elm, cottonwood, and a few other trees cover the land. The shade is nice, but not the stands so thick they block the wind and mosquitoes wait to gang up on you. This year, there were also a lot of broken trees and deadfalls laying around thanks to the ice and snow from Snowvid 21. I kept muttering “My kingdom for a chainsaw. And bulldozer. And burn permit. And firewood sale stand. And . . .” You get the picture.

If you don’t know the history of the region, it looks a bit overgrown but not bad. Trees are good, right? The National Arbor Day Foundation and others are strong encouragers of tree-planting. Trees soak CO2 out of the atmosphere, they produce shade (most of the time, mesquite and some oaks aside), some produce things people can eat, birds like them . . . More trees are good, right? Especially native species, because those fit the landscape and climate better than do exotics, and don’t harm the ecosystem.

Um, well, sort of. The problem for me is that I’ve read about the pre-Anglo environment of Texas, and . . . Grass. Grass covered large swaths of what is now Texas, far more so than today. Much of the brushy land was grassy land because of pyro-management by the Indians, and by lightning, and intensive grazing by bison. Trees tended to be confined to stream and river courses, where they were protected from fire and heavy grazing until they grew big enough to tolerate creeping fires and the occasional nibble. When the German settlers moved into the area, they found more grass than trees, although trees certainly existed, enough for a sawmill or two.

The problem was thin soil and drought. And no one understood the need for fire management. European forests are 1) very different from North American, and 2) have not been fire managed since, um, well, I have yet to find anything in the archaeology records about controlled or otherwise burns. The grasslands were steppe or wetland, or both (Hungary), and trees tended to be managed, either by property owners or the state. So the new arrivals plowed, planted, grazed heavily, didn’t burn, and farmed as they best knew how. Some techniques worked, others didn’t. In wet years, all was well.

Then there’s the rest of the time. Overgrazing of the grass allowed brush to move in. Drought favors brush, as does fire suppression. As early as the 1890s, extension agents reported problems with good pasture land becoming brush choked and weedy. Toss in the dry years of the 1917-18, then the 1930s, and especially the 1950s, and grass retreats ahead of brush and then scrub forest. Deer, wild hogs, and some other game species do well to OK in brush, so ranchers shifted to farming game as well as cattle and horses. Even so, you can have too much of a brushy thing.

Given my personal preferences, if I won the lottery and could buy property, I’d do what I could to bring back the native grasses. But that’s just me, and I’d have to buy lottery tickets first. It takes a LOT of work and on-the-ground knowledge to do a good job of clearing out enough trees and brush for grass to return, and then manage things properly after that. Large infusions of cash are also required in the beginning. The benefits can be great, including increased stream flow and ground water, greater species diversity, fewer weeds and noxious plants, and healthier livestock and crops. All it takes is cash, sweat equity, knowledge, and labor.

For a few academic generations, we thought that ecosystems had a “climax state,” an end-goal that once reached, was the ideal final equilibrium point for any given ecosystem. Turns out that’s not true. Land use, climate fluctuations, geologic and weather events (think back to the enormous storm that leveled huge swaths of trees in England) . . . They all cause changes. Fire as a land management tool goes way back in human history, and is partly responsible for the savanah’s in Africa and is very responsible for the grasslands of North America, as well as for some of the forests of North America. The brushy Hill Country is just one possibility, brought about by climate shifts (end of the Little Ice Age) and human land management. A grassy Hill Country is another possibility, with large meadows and pastures ringed by fringes of trees, and tree-lined watercourses.

*Over at AtH, it has become common to use Odd to describe those of us who are eccentric in eccentric ways, inclined toward individualism (“just leave me alone to do my thing, please,”) often bookish, and frequently very knowledgable about unusual and fascinating fields, even if they are not our every-day vocation.

Not My Question to Ask

I was walking on the treadmill the other morning at the gym* and listening to Sabaton. “Lost Battalion” came up, which sent my thoughts to WWI, then WWII, and Grandpa Carl. He covered a lot of Holland-Belgium on foot, and was one of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne.

His office had various and sundry memorabilia in it, including a small, very simple framed item hanging on the wall. The frame was plain, dark-brown wood. It was perhaps eight inches long by five inches high. In it was a set of black and silver shoulder boards and a collar patch. And a neatly typed note card, smaller than a three-by-five index card. The card read “From an SS officer who no longer needed them.” If you looked closely, you could see brown stains on the silver and black. They hung where he could see them as he turned the light on and off when he came and went from the office.

The first time I ventured into his office (up a steep, narrow flight of stairs, one of two rooms under the roof, plus a tiny washroom), he told me about some of the things there. He nodded to the patches and just said, “After Malmedy we were a little mad.” I nodded in turn and that was that. He knew that I knew what he meant, and it needed no further discussion.

I sussed out very quickly that some topics were not open for discussion or query, as I’ve mentioned before. Bastogne and the Bulge, his first marriage. If he made an observation or said something, then I locked it into my memory because I assumed that he’d never tell the story again. The only time he talked in any detail about Bastogne, he spoke to himself and perhaps the TV, not to me. I sat where he couldn’t quite see me, slightly behind him to the left, and I’m not sure I breathed for ninety minutes. I sure as heck didn’t move.

I never asked if he regretted killing the SS officer. It wasn’t an appropriate question, and not mine to ask. That was between him and G-d. I suspect at the time the answer was “[rude word in GI] no!” Later? It was a different time, different place, and one he preferred not to return to.

If I could go back, or he were still alive, I still wouldn’t ask. I wish I’d gotten to see Saving Private Ryan with him, if only to hear him grouse about the stupidity of some of the things in the movie as compared to what he did. He said that the first fifteen minutes were the only time any film has ever come close to catching what D-Day was like. I’d ask about D-Day, and probably ask more about Market Garden and Wesel, but not the Bulge.

He was a Southern gentleman, for all that he grew up poorer than dirt in the Ozarks and considered Boot Camp to be gourmet dining (and the first time he’d had enough to eat in quite a while). Some things are not discussed around ladies, even ladies who like military history and study it. I tried to be that Southern lady, and did not press. Some questions are not mine to ask.

*Yes, I drove to the gym to go walking. It’s hard to find an incline around here otherwise. And I was safe from inattentive drivers, especially on a dark, rainy morning at 0630.

” . . . a decent respect to the opinions of Mankind requires . . .”

Many of my readers can recite parts of the Declaration of Independence, and most people at all familiar with US history know the bit about “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The first two sentences of the second section are what people think about, argue over, and debate heatedly. Should Jefferson have stuck with Locke’s original “Life, Liberty, and Property?” What is liberty, anyway? What if your pursuit of happiness collides with my happiness? It’s easy to miss the next chunks, especially what comes after the right to abolish any government that infringes on inalienable rights.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The Declaration was drawn up in June of 1776, and ratified on July 1-2.* The shooting had started on April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord. The Continental Congress waited over a year before declaring independence from Great Britain. Why? The paragraph above explains why.

It wasn’t easy. People had family in England, in Germany and Holland. Ben Franklin’s son ended up on the Loyalist side. Complaints about the Crown and Parliament’s actions went back to 1765, with the Proclamation Line limiting westward expansion, and the Stamp Act. People in England had every right to want the colonists to pay for their own protection and upkeep, since the folks back home already paid some of the highest taxes in the western world. Ten years had passed from the Stamp Act to “the shot heard round the world.” In that time, the colonists had begun shifting from thirteen independent and culturally different provinces into a block with a common sense of what government ought to do, and ought not to do. Not everyone agreed on everything, and some of the people who “should” have supported independence didn’t because someone they hated did favor breaking from England. Others used the chaos of the revolution to pick up old grudges (the Regulators War in the Carolinas and then the Revolution. British officers were horrified by what the back-borderers would do to each other.)

People would – and will – put up with a lot if they thought things would get better, or if they were just to focused on survival. But once a critical mass of people agreed that enough was enough, then all Dade County broke out and armies came into being. Armies of soldiers, armies of support, armies of clergy to explain why the Scriptures did not prohibit — or even encouraged — overturning an unjust government, armies of people who just stayed as far out of the way as possible.

The next part of the Declaration lists the things the King (and Parliament) had done wrong. If you compare the accusations with the Magna Charta’s 1215 edition and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, you will see that Jefferson and Co drew straight from English history and law. They are arguing as Englishmen that the King has failed to follow the laws that bind him, and thus forced the English people to take matters into their hands to fix things. Because of that:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Or, translated into modern English, “Guys, we tried, we warned you, we did everything we could by the laws we share to keep this from happening. You wouldn’t listen, the king became a tyrant, and so here we are. G-d help us, because we know what’s coming even if we win. Bye.”

*John Adams famously assumed that July 2 would be the date of Independence Day, if the colonists won. Americans being Americans, we went with the Fourth instead.

Citations from the Declaration of Independence are from the National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

Happy Canada Day!

There’s a tempest-in-a-teacup going on up north about should Canada Day be celebrated or be a day of repentance, sackcloth, and ashes. For . . . um . . . doing things that the US, Australia, and others did because at the time it was a good idea and helped people in the long run. Among other terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad things. That completely miss all the very good things in Canadian history, and how much good Canada and Canadian people have brought into the world.

Canada is a beautiful place, with a fascinating history. Yes, it has problems. No, it is not perfect. The national anthem is as hard to sing as is the “Star Spangled Banner,” except that the Canadians start by weeding out most musicians in the first three measures instead of waiting.

Happy Canada Day! Here’s to our neighbor in the north, and here’s hoping that things improve and that Canada returns to being one of the beacons of freedom in the world.

Source: https://cottagelife.com/entertaining/5-canada-day-celebrations-to-check-out-in-ontario/

Show Museum or Teaching Museum?

A re-post about museums and their purpose.

You probably can tell without my saying much that I am a sucker for museums. Art museum, science museum, history museum, folk-life museum, botanical garden, I’ll probably at least poke my head in to see if it looks promising. I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to visit, and re-visit, many of the great art and history museums north of the Alps, like the Kunsthistorischesmuseum [Art History Museum] in Vienna three times, the Gamäldegalarie [painting gallery] in Berlin twice, and a few others, like the Louvre (twice over two days. Don’t bother with the southern art section, IMHO). Continue reading

Size vs. Cost – The inversion Point

To make a long story short, I had to purchase a small item to make an inherited piece of jewelry truly wearable. As those of you who have been around things like jewelry, airplanes, certain other vehicles, and various pieces of occasionally touchy equipment are aware, there’s a point where the price to size ratio inverts. The smaller it is, the more it costs. I actually had someone joke once that we should call it the Marx Point, because labor added more value than did the raw materials. (Note that we were talking about restoring furniture, including trying to match chipped veneer and inlay. Tiny pieces of wood, lots and lots of very careful work.)

This isn’t necessarily because the small thing secures a larger thing, which keeps everything held together. The prime example of one of those is the nut that is found on the top of a helicopter rotor, colloquially known as the “Jesus nut” (Spanish pronunciation of Jesus.) Or that one last lugnut on the tire. You know, the one on that car.

No, I’m thinking of small items that are complex, or delicate, or that require a great deal of precise assembly or carving or machining to make. The amount of effort put into making the piece exceeds the cost of the stuff. In my case, buying the thing was optional, but I want to be able to wear the larger item. I’m as fond of jewelry-box queens as I am of hangar queens and gun-safe queens. If I can’t wear it, no matter how pretty or discounted it is, I don’t need it. Since this item has some family history behind it, having the new bit added (it will be removable without damaging the original thing, don’t worry) makes sense.

Restoring old airplanes and old furniture is similar. If you can’t find the part, you have to make the part. This may require a lot of machining, special permission from the FAA (or changing the category of the plane if you are willing to accept certain limitations on use), and expertise. I got to watch an expert create a carbeurator air box for a radial engine after the original, ah, suffered prolonged contact with the ground while the engine and attached airplane were in forward motion.* The 1941 version of the box had been cast, something that could not be done now without investing more than the cost of the airplane. So the new one was welded and bolted. Welding sheet aluminum is an art. Making the air flow control “flapper” was even more of an art. The box assembly is, oh, six inches by six inches? It’s been a few decades since I last saw it. The materials didn’t cost that much. Love and labor? A great deal.

Likewise making inlay or veneer for furniture. Back in the day, people paid for inlaid pieces in order to show their taste and disposable income. The market has shrunk since the late 1700s, to put it mildly, but some craftsmen still make and repair that type of furnishing. There’s a lot of planning, precision, handwork and attention to detail required, obsessive attention to detail in some cases. The cost of the section of inlay far exceeds the dollar cost of the materials. But ah, the results!

*Someone (I was on on board the aircraft) decided to be helpful. They moved a switch without telling the pilot-in-command or being asked to move the switch. Very expensive noises followed. Don’t be that person.

Fuchur, Falcor, The Luck Dragon and a Neverending Story

I didn’t see the film in the theater. I first saw it as a rented VHS movie, and I loved it. Yes, it has plot holes and the animatronics and effects have not aged well (1984) in places, but as a story about imagination, determination, and the need for creativity and love, it’s fantastic. When the world says that only reality matters, well, the world might be wrong.

The great white luck dragon with ruby eyes was one of the best characters in the film, in my opinion then. He was different from the sci-fi dragons (Anne McCaffrey) I’d read, or the nasty, mean traditional dragons of the European fairy tales. He was more like the Asian dragons of mist and cloud.

Fulcur is the character’s name in the original German novel (Die Unendlische Geschichte) that became The Neverending Story. The novel, in German or English, is different from the first movie. As far as I’m concerned there were no second or third films made. Apparently a lot of people feel the same way. The novel continues past the end of the film.

For those who are not familiar with the plot, I won’t spoil it other than to say that the story centers on the danger of The Nothing, an evil force destroying the world of Fantasia. The Nothing says there is no fantasy, no hope, no light or creativity, only chaos and darkness and hard reality. The Nothing threatens the world of Fantasia — and potentially our world as well — with extinction. Sound familiar? The minor bad of the Black Wolf was one of the scarier bad-creatures in a film that I’d seen to date, in part because he was a psychological manipulator as well as just being large and ferocious.

The white luck dragon, Falcor, plays a major role in the story. He’s wise, dignified, and always encouraging. It says a lot that when I glanced on Etsy, there were hundreds of people selling Falcor things – stuffed animals, knitting patterns, decals, statues, paintings, birthday cards, you name it. I think he speaks to something a lot of people want to hear, or need to hear. That the Nothing can be defeated if you believe and dream hard enough.

And of course the theme song [does contain spoilers]:

Manners: Current Day and Fictional

I was reading a book entitled Why Manners Matter, which concerns the need for some sort of self-restraint and code of behavior in society. I had trouble getting into the book at first, until I caught on that the author is Australian, and so “manners” had a different cultural connotation than in the Southern US culture that I grew up with. “Manners” in Australia carries the sense of class difference and pretensions of rank and station, something that is anathema in Australian popular self-perception. Being polite and decent, on the other hand, is OK.

The book’s author tries hard to avoid religious and philosophical arguments, and instead focuses on practical “because it keeps people from going nuts trying to figure out everything and makes people happier and less stressed” sorts of benefits. She also notes that the military requires manners and self-discipline, something she sees as good. I’m inclined to agree with her on many points, although I’d point out that all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity until they prove otherwise just because they are human and made in the image of G-d. Once they prove otherwise, then especially treated in a way that you maintain your self-respect and dignity. Sometimes the kindest, best thing to do to a rabid dog, once it is proven rabid, is to put it out of its and society’s misery. That can apply to social situations – tossing someone out of a gathering, for example, or ending a relationship, on the mildest end of the spectrum.

Which got me thinking a bit about self-identity. How we see ourselves, how we see our place in culture and society, which bits of culture we accept and which we try hard to stay away from. Readers know that I tend to avoid the easy, casual style of modern day popular media culture, and incline more towards formality and “good manners.” Not quite Victorian or Edwardian levels of politeness — I don’t wear gloves indoors, I drink soda-pop from a can, I’m bad at small talk — but certainly more restrained behavior than most younger people, and than a lot of people my age. Part of it is my being an introvert who gets twitchy around groups of emotional people, part of it is that I prefer having a mental script to fall back on in new situations.

Restraint and distance also help prevent a lot of problems from starting. It’s easier to start “hard” and then relax than it is to back up if you start all hang-loose and casual. In the fraught world of men, women, and “harassment means he looked at me for a half-second too long,” manners and formality are safety.

Self-control is part of good manners. I learned as a teen that letting my emotions show guaranteed trouble. That’s what the bullies wanted. I also realized that I might do something really, really antisocial if I lost my grip on my temper. The two are probably related, but the dark streak may predate my teens. I’m not going to dig in that part of my mind to find out. The point is, if you are in control of your mouth and temper, you are a lot less likely to get in trouble or cause trouble. Good manners are part of that self control. “A gentleman does not . . . A lady never raises her voice in anger.” OK, sometimes increasing the vocal volume is needed just to cut through the roar and get attention, but projection is not yelling. Emoting all over the place is rarely called for, at least in my personal world. Other cultures are different. There’s also a balance between making other people aware of your discontent with the situation and repressing things so much that it causes you problems.

Which led my wandering mind to a comment a reader made about how Arthur’s manners around Lelia changed. In the first two books, he’s more “relaxed” and “casual.” Over time, he becomes more formal, as does she. The clan tends toward formality, partly because of the need to keep intraclan violence to an acceptable level. Formality is Arthur’s default within the clan. As Lelia became more of a dependent, then peer, then family member, Arthur treated her more and more the way he would treat a relative in the clan. Part of Lelia’s persona as glamor [glamour?] goth is formality, likewise André, so she slid into the role relatively easily. It’s armor in a sense, for Lelia, her boss, and her husband. Especially when André is having trouble, formality gives all of them space to sort through what is bothering them and how to deal with it. Both men are predators, both are territorial, and both respect each other, and love Lelia in their different ways. Formality is appropriate. And as in other situations, Lelia and André look to the senior person for cues as to when manners are relaxed.

“An armed society is a polite society,” as Robert Heinlein phrased it. When people are armed and situations can shift quickly from irritating to lethal, civility and manners lubricate things and keep the friction to a minimum. Low friction doesn’t cause combustion.

What Purpose Art?

Theodore Dalrymple wrote an essay recently, based on two paintings of a mother and child. One is by a modern artist from 1975, the other a Northern Renaissance painting by Dieric Bouts the Elder.

Original in the Met Museum: “Virgin and Child” Dieric Bouts c. 1455-60. Fair use under Creative Commons: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435762

The other painting Dalrymple talks about is “Ginny and Elizabeth” by Alice Neel. I found it rather disturbing, as does Dalrymple.

I’m not going to argue that art has to have a purpose, or to demand that nothing but what I like be shown in public. Different things make people happy, and sometimes artists (and writers) release a lot of frustration, anxiety, and other things through the work. Then on occasion display or sell the results. Sometimes people just noodle around for themselves and enjoy the process. That’s great!

A lot of art does end up serving a purpose, however. It brings pleasure, praises the patron, praises or encourages contemplation of a deity, it fills space. It can be useful as well as decorative (applied arts), or just nice to look at. Yes, it can also be used for money laundering, which seems to be the purpose of some Modern Art. I’m thinking more about popular art, works that are not confined to the rarefied world of the critic and the connoisseur: works that people buy copies of for their homes, designs that please the eye.

Long-time readers know that I have a special spot for Renaissance art, mostly Northern Renaissance. I also prefer images that I can recognize, or that look realistic. So Western Art, especially Charlie Russel, and Tim Cox, among others fits the bill. Basically, with a few exceptions, my fondness for fine art tapers off after the Impressionists. I know what I like, I like it, and if other folks prefer something else, that’s great. However, one thing about all the find art that appeals to me: it uplifts the spirit somehow. It is beautiful, or poignant, or stirring. It may tell a story, or just show a private moment between a mother and a child. Or it may be chilling.

BAL4106 Madonna of the Burgermeister Meyer by Holbein the Younger, Hans (1497/8-1543); 146×101.6 cm; Schlossmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany; (add. info.: pictured with wives (living and dead), sons who had just died and surviving daughter); German, out of copyright
“The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” Hans Holbein the Younger 1521 (Kunstmuseum Basel)

The painting above is striking. It was meant to form the bottom of an altarpiece, and is life sized. It is disturbing. It is supposed to be. It is to inspire meditation on mortality, and the awe-full idea of G-d dying. But the family portrait is also about death, sort of. Except it has hope as well. I would not hang a reproduction of the lower painting in my house, but having seen the other Holbein? Yes, even knowing the story behind the painting. Perhaps especially because I know the story.

Art should inspire, or make you smile, or intrigue you. It should improve your mental or physical world. It doesn’t have to be an Old Master. Tim Cox paints landscapes with cowboys and horses. He’s not Rembrandt, or Jan Van Eyck. But I like his paintings. They make me happy, because he catches the western sky so well. I needed that, still need that some days. I also need Van Eyck, “St. Luke Painting the Virgin,” and Monet landscapes, and other lovely things. Or exciting and inspiring things, like the little portrait of Prinz Eugen von Savoy on my desk. It is a detail of a much larger battle painting, and shows him smiling a little and pulling back a curtain to reveal one of his victories over the Turks. The dude managed to hold off Louis XIV and the Turks, while operating on a Habsburg budget! If he could do that, I can get my chores done and papers graded on time.

Art should also uplift. Yes, many of the old works are idealized, glossing over things like Phillip II of Spain’s terrible congenital jaw malformation (ditto his father, although Charles didn’t have it quite as badly). There’s a reason Oliver Cromwell was very insistent that his portrait literally show him with warts and all. The battles in the enormous battle paintings were never that neat and tidy, the horses not so sleek and well groomed. That’s part of the point. It’s like saints in Christianity – they are to inspire, to serve as models, in some cases to combine horrible warnings (“don’t do that. No, seriously, just don’t”) with encouragement (“These people fell short, they lost their temper, they got in trouble as teenagers, and yet G-d used them and they improved, or held firm when everything else came crashing down.”) Ditto art.

The painting of Ginny and Elizabeth . . . does not inspire. It does not make my world better. It worries me, for both mother and child. That may have been the painter’s goal, in which case she succeeded admirably. But I’m not sure the world is a better place for having the work in it.

No, my Polish tea-cup doesn’t inspire me to great thoughts. It does fit my hand and pleases my eye with the shape and colors. It does its job, and is attractive. A Titian, or Caravaggio, or Breughel, or Mary Cassat painting, or a lovely statue, please the eye, and ease the spirit, or inspire it. Tim Cox’s work makes me smile, and lets me get away for a few minutes. Which is all I ask of art. Make my world a little better. Please?