Lest this blog turn into a hockey-only affair here in the midst of the playoffs, I’ll inject some art to liven things up a bit. The four works that follow are four of my favorites. I can think of plenty of good ones that aren’t here, and a few of my favorite painters don’t have any one single work that really stands above the rest like these do. But these four have captivated me in one way or another over the past four years or so, so they make the cut. Here they are.
I. Scuola di Atene (The School of Athens)
Anyone who’s bothered to read all of my philosophical ramblings won’t be surprised to see this one leading off the list. It is a fresco in the Vatican, and it pays homage to the philosophical roots of the Western tradition, of which Christianity is also a part. The great minds of the ancient world debate questions great and small. It’s not always entirely clear who is who, but the central subjects of the fresco are obvious enough: Aristotle and Plato, forever in a friendly tension, the real and the ideal juxtaposed against one another. Basically every philosophical debate ever since has its roots in this one, and even the rejection of this debate can be found sitting a few steps below them in the form of Diogenes.
It’s become fashionable in some circles to dismiss Greek philosophy as an anachronism, or a narrow Western imposition. But in many ways, the Greeks had the human condition measured better than anyone who came after, and they can be valuable guides. Of course the Western Canon has its flaws; all who contributed to it were a product of their times. Instead of trashing this self-evident truth, it’s much more useful to see what they got right, and how those simple early thoughts endure far more meaningfully for lived experience than anything in the arsenal of postmodern jargon. In a rare occurrence, I side with Plato over Aristotle: this is the ideal of how debate should look, with respect and camaraderie and deeper search for the truth.
II. La condition humaine (The Human Condition)
René Magritte, 1933
At one point while I was in Washington DC, I wandered through the modern wing of the National Gallery on my own, drifting along from one picture to the next with no particular enthusiasm. Then I came to this one. I stood there, transfixed, for at least a few minutes. It was hard to put into words exactly what it meant, but I got it immediately, and it couldn’t be any more right. From Sara Whitfield’s Magritte (1992):
“This is how we see the world,” René Magritte argued in a 1938 lecture explaining his version of La condition humaine in which a painting has been superimposed over the view it depicts so that the two are continuous and indistinguishable. “We see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the inside.” What lies beyond the windowpane of apprehension, says Magritte, needs a design before we can properly discuss its form, let alone derive pleasure from its perception. And it is culture, convention, and cognition that makes that design; that invests a retinal impression with the quality we experience as beauty.
The point here, I suppose, is not wildly different from the one I was making with The School of Athens: we all come from a certain context, and view things through a certain lens. We are our histories; we embody the people and places we come from, and cannot shake them off as we gaze out upon the world.
III. Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park)
Diego Rivera, 1947
A high school Spanish teacher showed me this mural long before I’d considered studying abroad in Mexico, and while I probably rolled my eyes at her gushing like most high school kids do, something lingered. By the time I headed south, it had become an essential stop, and on my first free weekend, I hiked up Paseo de la Reforma alone to stand before the mural, which occupies an entire wall in its own museum. It didn’t disappoint. I was riveted.
It tells the story of Mexican history from left to right, from the first conquistadors to the Revolution of the 1910s. The heroes and villains all mingle in the park, strolling down its promenades, forever tied up in a contradiction of a nation. At the center is Rivera as a boy, standing next to the calavera, that reminder that death levels all the differences between these many people, arm-in-arm with its creator, José Guadalupe Posada. National myth, fantasy, and harsh reality all blend together in vibrant color, a crowd that captures the soul of a contradictory nation.
Once I’d drunk my fill, I then spent my own Sunday afternoon wandering the Alameda of 2010 Mexico. It was a chaotic mix of vendors and protesters and pleasure-seekers; none as famous as those portrayed by Rivera, but even if they had been, they would have been lost in the crowd. I sat down on a bench and wrote for a bit, happy to have arrived, but slowly realizing that this fleeting glimpse was only the beginning. I had more work to do. I set out to find a nation and wound up finding myself instead, in large part by coming to understand that wild cast of characters that had wandered through my own life.
IV. Et in Arcadia ego
Nicolas Poussin, 1638
Even in Arcadia, there am I. The speaker of these words, of course, is Death, and the shepherds of Arcadia have just discovered death in the form of a mysterious tomb. The pastoral lives they live are but a dream, and no one can hide from it forever. My fatalist impulse comes through here, Posada’s calavera once again underscored: it is all so fleeting, and even in paradise, nothing is eternal.
It’s a somber note to sound, perhaps, but this isn’t to cast a pall over it all. Instead, it shows just how precious those moments of bliss can be, and how we must adapt to their lack of permanence: we must treasure them, and never lose sight of how little time we have to do whatever it is we’re setting out to do. That awareness is at the root of my hunger to figure things out, and to get as much right as I can. We all need our occasional retreats to Arcadia, but we cannot linger: the world calls.
It is no coincidence that two of these four works are filled with people, attempting to sort out their roles within a society or some other social environment. Another looks out from within, at how the individual sees the world; another steps out, while reminding us that we can only do so for a little while. It’s all part of the cycle.