A Few Thoughts On Thomas Cole’s ‘The Voyage Of Life’

A good decade ago, while visiting D.C., I saw Thomas Cole’s ‘The Voyage Of Life:

It’s a four-part series: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age.

One person’s life, and all of our lives, can be broken-down into four allegorical stages, pregnant with visual and universal symbols.

From Cole’s bio:

‘Although Cole had ample commissions in the late 1820s to paint pictures of American scenery, his ambition was to create a “higher style of landscape” that could express moral or religious meanings.’

From this more interactive page:

‘In the late 1830s, Cole was intent on advancing the genre of landscape painting in a way that conveyed universal truths about human existence, religious faith, and the natural world. First conceived in 1836, the four pictures comprising The Voyage of Life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age fulfilled that aspiration.’

These scenes in the Romantic style can have an emotional pull for me, as generally does the work of the Hudson River School. Such allegory certainly tends to function as a vehicle into memory (Cole’s work has really stuck with me…in a sort of haunting way, mixed with some thought of how I’m supposed to live and what might be coming next).

Also, the wild, untamed nature we Americans have often faced is perhaps requiring of a spirited and grand attempt at putting our experiences within Nature into some context:  To soar as high as our hopes often do.

Or at least, to find in paintings:  Familiarity. I like to see the roll of a hill like I’ve seen, or an opening of clouds, sky and light like I’ve seen.

Perhaps Wild Nature can be ordered in a Romantic, neo-classical or more modern way.  Perhaps Nature can be made, with the tools at our disposal, to conform to some of our deeper ideas about Nature, mirroring our hopes in some recognizable fashion; giving some basic comfort and meaning.

Maybe, after all, we can find a home here.

On the other hand, allegory with overt moral/religious meaning can also come across as heavy-handed, sentimental, and moralistic. Too lush and pretentious; perhaps a bit anachronistic.

Do I really have to hunt for all the symbols and put the puzzle together?

‘So, you’re going to reveal universal truths, eh?’

This can seem distant from the experiences of the modern viewer, often finding himself a little further down the modern/postmodern ‘river’, where such attempts at universality might seem a wash.

Much more common these days are the very personal shards and glimpses of the inner life of an artist, attached to high ambition and great talent surely in some cases; as well to form and tradition, but generally making less bold claims to knowledge than ‘The Voyage Of Life‘.

In painting, I’m reminded of the abstract expressionist movement seeking meaning in reducing experience to the abstract in order to reveal something essential within Nature, or essential about our relationship to Nature: A transcendent place where shape, form and color can be isolated from anything immediately recognizable in the world.

Or maybe, I’m being too generous?

‘The movement’s name is derived from the combination of the emotional intensity and self-denial of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstract schools such as Futurism, the Bauhaus, and Synthetic Cubism. Additionally, it has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, nihilistic.[5] In practice, the term is applied to any number of artists working (mostly) in New York who had quite different styles, and even to work that is neither especially abstract nor expressionist.’

The exploration of the Self is often pursued, as well as that of Nature, but the general hope that it might all make sense (life, death, Nature, purpose etc) in many more modern movements is often left abandoned.

Or so often, as we’ve seen in the past few generations:  The pursuit of The Self can easily become subsumed to the pursuit of fame, celebrity, and money.

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Towards a theme: Perhaps you’ve also heard of the Rothko chapel, in Houston, Texas.

Mark Rothko undertook the idea that within the modern context, one could create temples of universal meaning through aesthetics, art, and beauty:

‘The Rothko Chapel, founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief. A tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Chapel welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year, people of every faith and from all parts of the world.’

There’s even a suite of music by Morton Feldman, entitled ‘Rothko Chapel’

See Also On This Site:  Trying to stick something against his poems: Wednesday Poem: Wallace Stevens-Anecdote of The JarWednesday Poem: Wallace Stevens, The Snow ManFriday Poem: Wallace Stevens And A Quote By David Hume

Some Updated Links On Postmodernism

Repost: From The NY Times Via A & L Daily: Helen Vendler On Wallace Stevens ‘The Plain Sense Of Things’

Some Sunday Songs-Metal, Myth, American Romanticism And The Civil War

Within A Bank Of Modern Fog-Another Link To Robert Hughes On Jeff Koons

Insights Into Equality Of Opportunity

As I see it, one major purpose of institutions is to to not interfere too much with genius, to get the best people working on specific problems and challenges, and to try and give talented others on down (the rest of us, per IQ tests and abilities) opportunities to succeed.

Once you start demanding equality of outcome, you’ve gone too far, in my estimation.

There seems a lot of going too far in many parts of our institutions lately, demanding utopian ideals be their guides and that nature/human nature/reality submit to these utopian, post-Enlightenment ideals guiding these institutions.

Henry Kissinger here.

“The purpose of bureaucracy is to devise a standard operating procedure which can cope effectively with most problems.  A bureaucracy is efficient if the matters which it handles routinely are, in fact, the most frequent and if its procedures are relevant to their solution.  If those criteria are met, the energies of the top leadership are freed to deal creatively with the unexpected occurrence or with the need for innovation.  Bureaucracy becomes an obstacle when what it defines as routine does not address the most significant range of issues or when its prescribed mode of action proves irrelevant to the problem.”

and:

“Moreover, the reputation, indeed the political survival, of most leaders depends on their ability to realize their goals, however these may have been arrived at.  Whether these goals are desireable is relatively less crucial.”

In the world of politics and the political economy, there is endless competition over limited resources and their allocation, hence the bloodsport and all the fighting.

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Here’s another take, the entirety of which can be found here.

“[Thomas] Sowell’s argument is a relatively simple one:  “innate” mental abilities do not develop spontaneously but must undergo development, which is differentially fostered by different cultures, even when the abilities are general and abstract and do not consist of items of cultural knowledge.

“…Sowell’s approach splits the difference between “nature” and “nurture“…

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With Larry Summers being pushed out by members of the Democratic party for his nomination as chairman of the Federal Reserve, it reminds of when he was pushed out of the role of President at Harvard.  For the many reasons that may be involved, I suspect the notion of a faint, scarlet ‘S’ for ‘sexist’ marked on his chest is one.  You don’t need much logic or reason to make that charge.

I keep putting this post up, because, one hopes we’ll arrive at a little sanity in pursuit of truth.

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He may have been fired for many reasons, but Summers off-the-cuff Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce had a lot to do with it:

1.  The first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis-Summers notes that high positions demand high commitment.  Science could be analogous to other professions like law.   He appeals to a longitudinal study that suggests that fewer women may agree to, or be willing to, devote such time and energy to their jobs over their careers as do men.  Changing the nature of these professions to higher female ratios may change some of the fundamental ways we arrange our society:

“…is our society right to expect that level of effort from people who hold the most prominent jobs?”

Perhaps…though the subtext might be:  are some members of our society right to expect that the guiding ideas of diversity and equality won’t come with a host of other problems…?

What about biology?

***Charles Murray takes it a few steps further, asserting that our social sciences are leading us to become more like Europe (less dynamic and less idealistic in our pursuit of Aristotelian happiness)  He also argues that there is a sea-change going on in the social science that will come to support his thinking. This last part could be a few steps too far…but it’d be nice.

2.  The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end-The bell curve argument that there are more genius and idiot men.  When you get to MIT, 3 and more standard deviations above the mean…means a lot.

3.  The third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search-If discrimination is such an important factor in there being a lack of women scientists, then economic theory holds that there are going to be:

“…very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating.”

So if the theory holds…where are the science departments scooping up all women scientists at low cost…who’ve been rejected elsewhere due to discrimination?

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I believe there is quite arguably discrimination against women in the sciences, and they have a harder road to reach success.  But there is also substance here…and clearly politics was a factor in Summers’ firing as well;  the women’s groups who viewed his ideas as an attack on their belief appealed to public sentiment in the worst kind of way.

Will social science ever be enough to address such an issue…or is it possibly changing to adapt to the demands people require of it?

On This Site:  Charles Murray Lecture At AEI: The Happiness Of People

Addition:  I always get an email or two that suggests I’ve joined the ranks of those who don’t fully understand the problem and seek to oppress women.  I don’t think I’ve done such a thing, and if women are going broaden and deepen feminism, they may well have to answer to arguments like these.

It’s not like there aren’t women in the sciences either, Vera RubinLisa Randall and Lise Meitner come to mind, but this debate is clearly not just about science.  It’s also about feminism, the social sciences, money, politics, public opinion etc…

Larry Summers - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2007 by World Economic Forum

Response To A Reader On ‘Radical Chic’ And A Link to Banksy’s ‘Dismaland’

As to the quote from Louis Menand’s piece on Joan Didion entitled: ‘Out Of Bethlehem:’

‘After the Old Sacramento moment, Didion came to see the whole pioneer mystique as bogus from the start. The cultivation of California was not the act of rugged pioneers, she decided. It was the act of the federal government, which built the dams and the weirs and the railroads that made the state economically exploitable, public money spent on behalf of private business. Didion called it “the subsidized monopolization” of the state.’

Of course, there’s some truth in this.  The U.S. Federal Government is a huge landowner and manager of public lands and natural resources across the West, sometimes overseeing competition between private firms and contractors to create the infrastructure (roads, aqueducts, bridges, especially), that has made some of civilized life possible.

But yes, it is the work of pioneers, settlers, and farmers, too.  It’s the work of businesses, employees, voluntary contracts and sometimes exploitation, working apart from the government. Sometimes, it really does come down to survival; new roads built out of necessity, common purpose and ingenuity.

The overall view of ‘economically exploitable’ masses of ‘People’ is a definite turn Left, though, as is the idea that an economy can be centrally planned successfully in the first place (it’s all rigged man…’they’ hate us individuals or ‘the People,’ so it’s either control or be controlled).

Rugged individualism is very common the West, but more Leftward ‘radical chic’ collectivism and solidarity-seeking tend to thrive in California and the coastal cities.

My argument would be this:  By Menand’s account, Joan Didion as a writer seemed to drift away from one of the California families earning success through its virtues, ambition and hard work, bringing benefit to many more than themselves.  I can’t speak to their character.

Frankly, it’s not uncommon for writers to engage in such drift either, especially solipsistic ones, while always seeking some context or meaning in which to frame their lives.

Thus, passing through the 60’s and growing up in California, having gone to Berkeley, and wandering around amidst some pretty sad, desperate people drawn to the Bay Area, Didion may well have been shaped along more radical and Leftward lines.

But, aside from such ideas, by all means, if you like Didion’s stuff, read it.

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On that note: Banksy, the mildly talented, ironic/iconic graffiti artist tries to shock you awake to how the world really is.

It’s not Disneyland, it’s ‘Dismaland.

Get it?

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I admit I find Disney theme parks to be rather sentimental recreations of nature, civilization, and storybook themes.  There’s a lot of kitsch in them thar walls.

Clearly, though, many people love them.  They provide families with a place to go and spend time with their kids, and provide the kids a safe place to explore.

They’re a business, operating for profit.  I get it, but I don’t really care.

I can understand that a Frenchman, living in the shadow of Euro Disney, consuming a local wheel of perfectly aged cheese might have a different set of concerns, and perhaps some valid concerns, but I still don’t care that much.

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So, why ‘ironically’ target Disney, copying their model of people paying to wander through rather sentimental recreations of nature, civilization and storybook themes?

Artists often want your attention, usually to have shaped your imagination in a slightly different way, or to make see the world anew by creating something beautiful enough that your reasons can’t justify your aesthetic pleasure.

So, ironically, and with politics infused, Banksy has deigned to get your attention by making something shockingly modern and urgent, globally just and socially conscious enough to direct your attention to the world as it really is.

Deep man, deep.

Surely, while highlighting the problems artists have always had with money and patronage, Banksy has no commitment to post-Enlightenment ideas that offer rather sentimental recreations of nature, civilization and storybook themes…still haunting the landscape like so many abandoned theme parks that few people care to visit.

What a sad use of the imagination and relatively little in the way of artistic technique to back it up.

Related On This Site:  Jay Z And Marina Abramovic Via Twitter: A Pop-Rap Art Marketing Performaganza

They designed a city in the heart of Brazil that really doesn’t work for people: Brasilia: A Planned City

No thanks to living in planned communities upon someone else’s overall vision.: Roger Scruton In The City Journal: Cities For Living–Is Modernism Dead?Repost-Via Reason: ‘Salvador Allende’s Cybersocialist Command Center’From Grist.Org Via The New Republic Via The A & L Daily: ‘Getting Past “Ruin Porn” In Detroit’… some people don’t want you to have the economic freedom to live in the suburbs: From Foreign Policy: ‘Urban Legends, Why Suburbs, Not Cities, Are The Answer’

A structure in the desert…not even a city Update On LACMA, Michael Heizer And The ‘Levitated Mass’-Modern Art And The Public;..where is modernism headed? Via Youtube: Justin, The Horse That Could Paint

Denis Dutton suggested art could head towards Darwin (and may offer new direction from the troubles of the modern art aimlessness and shallow depth…the money and the fame) Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

From The Hoover Institution: ‘Nature Fakery’

Full piece here.

Our author points out two myths underlying the environmental movement. The topic is hot given the influence of the Greens on our politics at the moment:

‘The Noble Savage is that inhabitant of a simpler world whose life harmonizes with his natural surroundings. He does not need government or law, for he has no private property, and hence no desire for wealth or status, nor for their byproducts, crime and war. His existence is peaceful, free from conflict and strife. He takes from nature only what he needs, and needs only what he takes’

On this site see Roger Sandall in Australia: ….Roger Sandall At The New Criterion Via The A & L Daily: ‘Aboriginal Sin’Roger Sandall At The American Interest: ‘Tribal Realism’

Also, our author argues:

‘The myth of the Golden Age, which the West has inherited from Ancient Greece, is another idealization of the lost simplicity of living in a complex society. This myth imagines a time before cities and technology, when humans lived intimately with a benevolent nature that provided for their needs and for lives of leisure, health, and happiness, free as they were from the unnatural desires and appetites created by civilization’

As posted on this site previously:

I would offer that there are many to whom environmentalism serves as a kind of religion.  On this view, man has fallen away from Nature, and built civilized society atop it through harmful, unsustainable means.  He must atone, and get back in harmony with Nature, as he has alienated himself from his once graceful state (tribal? romantically primitive? collectively just? equal and fair? healthy?  ”spiritually aware?” morally good?).

Related On This Site:  Did Jared Diamond get attacked for not being romantic enough…or just for potential hubris?:  Was he acting as a journalist in Papua New-Guinea?:  From The Chronicle Of Higher Education: Jared Diamond’s Lawsuit

Instead of global green governance, what about a World Leviathan…food for thought, and a little frightening: At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas Hobbes

Ronald Bailey At Reason: ‘Delusional in Durban’A Few Links On Environmentalism And LibertyFrom George Monbiot: ‘How Freedom Became Tyranny’…people who argue the earth is warming sure don’t live like it:From The American Spectator: ‘Environmentalism and the Leisure Class’

Which Lens Are You Using? Some Links

David Hockney ‘On Secret Knowledge: On Rediscovering The Lost Secrets Of The Old Masters’:

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Optical devices were likely common practice more than is commonly known these days, way before the camera, the television etc.

As previously posted:

Just as optics revolutionized the sciences and the boundaries of human knowledge, from Galileo to Newton and onwards, Tim Jenison wonders if optics may have revolutionized the arts as well.

‘But still, exactly how did Vermeer do it? One day, in the bathtub, Jenison had a eureka moment: a mirror. If the lens focused its image onto a small, angled mirror, and the mirror was placed just between the painter’s eye and the canvas, by glancing back and forth he could copy that bit of image until the color and tone precisely matched the reflected bit of reality.’

Good Vermeer page here for a refresher on the Dutch master.

Penn & Teller helped make a documentary which has gotten good reviews, entitled ‘Tim’s Vermeer.

They discuss the project and Tim’s theory below (perhaps only the Girl With The Pearl Earring knows for sure if the painter used such a technique):

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Interesting quotation from Quora, on Richard Feynman’s discussion of light in ‘QED: The Strange Theory Of Light And Matter’:

‘Mirrors and pools of water work pretty much the same way. Light interacts with electrons on the surface. Under the laws of quantum mechanics, each photon interacts with ALL of the electrons on the surface, and the net result is the sum of all possible pathways. If the surface is perfectly smooth, then most of the pathways cancel each other out, except for the one where the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. ‘

Click through for the illustrations to help explain Feynman’s theory, which fascinated me when I first came across it; much as I understand of it.

Have you ever seen sunlight reflecting off a body of water from a few thousand feet up in a plane?  A rainbow in a puddle with some oil in it?  A laser reflecting off a smooth surface like a mirror?

Related On This Site: In The Mail: Vivian Maier

Goya, that modern, had to make a living from the royal family: Goya’s ColossusGoya’s Fight With CudgelsGoethe’s Color Theory: Artists And ThinkersNASA Composite Image Of The Earth At Night…Beauty?Garrett Mattingly On Machiavelli-The Prince: Political Science Or Political Satire?

Repost-From The NY Times: Schlieren

From Gizmodo: ‘The Eerie Ruins Of 11 Abandoned Hotels’

Click through (just one photo apiece)

When I was about nineteen, or twenty, there was a farmhouse nearby that had been sitting vacant for a few years, ready to be demolished.  It had been lived-in and seemed decently kept for most of my life, and was still sitting there in my mind, where I had left it, but that was a different farmhouse, one I’d been in only briefly.

The farmhouse I entered, one spring day, with the thrill of trespass, boarded-up and shuttered, was in shockingly bad shape: I remember sunken floors in most of the rooms and wallpaper peeling off most of the walls.  A great bloom of mold traced a crack in one bulging wall, in particular, where the spring melt was still re-freezing and tearing things apart at night.  There were broken windows in every room, where I remember a few birds, beating their wings in and out.

There was a lot of silence. After just a few years, things had fallen apart in an unsettling, pretty unforgiving way.

Maybe that’s why I’m linking to these things.

As posted previously:

-Photographer Ben Marcin has a series called ‘Last House Standing.’ Solitary row-homes…the only ones left on the block.

-From Popular Mechanics, ‘Creepy Abandoned Military Sites From Around the World.

-Hippies in an old nuclear missile silo!:

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-Check out Buzludzha, the abandoned communist monument in Bulgaria’s Balkan mountains, which still draws up to 50,000 Bulgarian Socialists for a yearly pilgrimage.  Human Planet’s Timothy Allen visited the structure in the snow and took some haunting photos.  You will think you’ve stepped into a Bond film and one of Blofeld’s modernist lairs, but with somewhat Eastern Orthodox tile frescos of Lenin and Marx gazing out at you, abandoned to time, the elements and to nature.

-Click here to experience ‘The Gobbler.

‘If you’re ever wondering what the War Room of “Dr. Strangelove” would look like if the movie had been directed by Prince, here you go.’

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Pastoral

When I was younger
it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
Older now
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best of all colors.

No one
will believe this
of vast import to the nation

William Carlos Williams

They designed a city in the heart of Brazil that really doesn’t work for people: Brasilia: A Planned City

No thanks to living in planned communities upon someone else’s overall vision.: Roger Scruton In The City Journal: Cities For Living–Is Modernism Dead?Repost-Via Reason: ‘Salvador Allende’s Cybersocialist Command Center’From Grist.Org Via The New Republic Via The A & L Daily: ‘Getting Past “Ruin Porn” In Detroit’

A structure in the desert…not even a city Update On LACMA, Michael Heizer And The ‘Levitated Mass’-Modern Art And The Public;..where is modernism headed? Via Youtube: Justin, The Horse That Could Paint

Interview With Vladimir Nabokov In The Paris Review

Interview here.

A little bit about politics and also the politics amidst fellow writers and critics:

‘…when in doubt, I always follow the simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.’

and:

‘Who’s in, who’s out, and where are the snows of yesteryear. All very amusing. I am a little sorry to be left out. Nobody can decide if I am a middle-aged American writer or an old Russian writer—or an ageless international freak.’

On his professional collection of butterflies:

‘The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.’

Via Youtube: An interviewer, Nabokov and Lionel Trilling discuss ‘Lolita:’