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08 APRIL, 2015

The Power of Aesthetic Force: Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on Beauty as a Tool of Justice and a Catalyst for “Nonselfing”

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“The law represents a part of the people’s will but … the people’s will is moved by beauty.”

“Beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us,” Marilynne Robinson wrote in her exquisite reflection on beauty. In our visually voracious culture of accelerating “aesthetic consumerism,” is there still room for beauty not as a trifled commodity but as both an elevating force of transcendence and a grounding force of moral solidity?

That’s what Harvard art historian Sarah Lewis, author of the excellent The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) — one of the best psychology books of 2014 — explores in the final segment of her altogether fantastic New York Public Library conversation with artist, playwright, actor, and MacArthur genius Anna Deavere Smith.

Oe of the most piercing parts of the conversation calls to mind Susan Sontag — “The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty,” Sontag wrote in her characteristically elegant argument against the argument against beauty. “Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.” Smith reads from her 2009 interview with Harvard’s famed English and aesthetics professor Elaine Scarry, contemplating the role of beauty as a moral agent and a tool of justice:

We also know the limits of the law… That in the end the law represents a part of the people’s will but that the people’s will is moved by beauty.

[..]

[Scarry] is talking about beauty and she says, “Beauty was for a long time [was] not only eliminated from universities, but even from museums… Lots of different museum directors have told me that for a while it was as if you weren’t supposed to be talking about beauty, which is hard to imagine if you’re teaching literature or if you’re a museum curator, but I mean one thing is just the way in which beauty … does lead people I think to be concerned with justice. Beauty brings about what Iris Murdoch called “a nonselfing.” She said that when you suddenly see something beautiful — her example was suddenly seeing a bird lift off — it brings about a nonselfing. You can see beauty pressing us towards justice. There are certain attributes that beautiful things have. Some people would say symmetry. Any definition of justice always involves at its heart some idea of balance or symmetry. Even if you look back over lots of philosophers who are talking about forms of justice, they always have this idea, say, equal pay for equal work, that’s a symmetry.”

Okay, that’s my favorite part. But this is an important part. “But sometimes people will say to me, well, first of all that they believe that it’s right, that the whole unselfing part is right, but they don’t believe in symmetry, and I really do believe in it because — and I think part of the reason why in this country we don’t like to talk anymore about symmetry in art or in justice is because we’re so asymmetrical, with so much money and so many weapons and, you know … if we had to start saying the heart of beauty is symmetry everybody would have to say, ‘gee, you know, we’ve got a big problem.’”

And she calls beauty a life pact. But that whole idea of the nonselfing — you see, when you talk about that you’re there but you’re not quite there, I think that’s a really creative moment because it is that moment when you, like a bird, take that lift-off. You’re not here and you’re not there. You’re in the rise… It seems to me a kind of a lift.

Lewis, who notes that beauty “slips in the back door of our rational thought and gets us to see the world differently,” examines the subject in greater depth in one particularly fascinating chapter of her book — a penetrating look at the legacy of Frederick Douglass, who paved the way for contemporary visual culture and pioneered the power of “aesthetic force.” Lewis writes:

The words to describe aesthetic force suggest that it leaves us changed — stunned, dazzled, knocked out. It can quicken the pulse, make us gape, even gasp with astonishment. Its importance is its animating trait — not what it is, but what it does to those who behold it in all its forms. Its seeming lightness can make us forget that it has weight, force enough to bring about a self-correction, the acknowledgment of failure at the heart of justice — the moment when we reconcile our past with our intended future selves. Few experiences get us to this place more powerfully, with a tender push past the praetorian-guarded doors of reason and logic, than the emotive power of aesthetic force.

The Rise, which I’ve previously admired in greater detail, is a superb read in its entirety. Treat yourself to Lewis and Smith’s full conversation below — a wide-ranging and enormously stimulating dialogue exploring the role of failure in the conquest of greatness, the crucial difference between success and mastery, and what it takes to stay encouraged through rejection and roadblock in creative work — then please consider supporting The New York Public Library in making such ennobling cultural discourse possible and freely available to the public.

Instinct is your highest form of intelligence.” ~ Sarah Lewis

Find more of Smith’s galvanizing genius in her enduring wisdom on how to listen between the lines in a culture of speaking, what self-esteem really means, how to stop letting others define us.

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08 APRIL, 2015

Stunning Victorian Cyanotypes of Sea Algae by Anna Atkins, the First Female Photographer and a Pioneer of Scientific Illustration

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Beautiful blueness from a trailblazing woman in science.

English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (March 16, 1799–June 9, 1871) is considered the first woman to take a photograph and the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. This she accomplished in an era when women’s formal foray into science was yet to come.

Less than a year after the great polymath Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype photographic process — one of the 100 ideas that changed photography, which was originally used for architectural sketches and which lent its azure tint to the origin of the word “blueprint” — 44-year-old Atkins began applying the technique to sea algae, determined to overcome “the difficulty of making accurate drawings” of these marine species and ushering in a whole new medium for scientific illustration. In October of 1843, she self-published the resulting images in the pioneering volume Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, dedicating the book to her father — the British chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist John George Children, who had given her a scientific education uncommon for women at that time. “To my dearest Father this attempt is affectionately inscribed,” read the first page.

Over the decade that followed, Atkins produced and self-published three volumes of these simple yet strangely beautiful algae illustrations. Today, the original books are extremely rare — only seventeen are known to survive: a few are held by some of the world’s great cultural institutions, including the British Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a private copy occasionally surfaces at a rare books auction to be sold for a six-figure sum. All reproductions of the cyanotype plates, however, are in the public domain and were eventually included with the rest of Atkins’s major work in the altogether stunning posthumous monograph Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms (public library).

Here are some of the most mesmerizing, generously digitized by the New York Public Library, which houses one of the surviving copies.

In this wonderful episode of Objectivity, host Brady Haran joins Rupert Baker of The Royal Society to take an intimate look at one of the surviving copies of Atkins’s masterwork:

Complement the luminously beautiful Sun Gardens with 500 years of stunning scientific illustrations from the Rare Books Collections of the American Museum of Natural History, then revisit astronomer Maria Mitchell’s trailblazing crusade for women in science.

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07 APRIL, 2015

Hurry Up and Wait: Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman’s Whimsical Children’s Book for Grownups about Presence in the Age of Productivity

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“It feels so good to go someplace. Except when you want to stay right there where you are.”

“Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” Alan Watts observed in his magnificent meditation on the art of timing half a century before our paradoxical modern mecca of ever-multiplying procrastination options amid a Productivity Rush in which we’re mining every last frontier of sanity and stillness for the tiniest nugget of precious efficiency. “Of all ridiculous things,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness nearly two centuries earlier, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” Somehow, even if we know that we habitually miss most of what is going on around us, we rarely break our busy gait on the hamster wheel of goal-chasing. And yet when we do pause — be it by will or, perhaps more commonly, by accident — the miraculous reveals itself in the mundane.

That’s what longtime collaborators Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler explore in the immensely wonderful children’s-book-for-grownups Hurry Up and Wait (public library) — the second installment in their collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, following their quirky Girls Standing on Lawns.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Paris, Avenue des Acacias, 1912 (printed 1962).

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2015 Association des Amis de Jacques Henri Lartigue

It feels so good to go someplace.

Except when you want to stay
right there where you are.

Once again, Kalman and Handler wade through MoMA’s impressive archive to curate a set of unusual, whimsical, and purely delightful photographs that capture the osmotic relationship between motion and stillness. The images come from the middle of the twentieth century, the heyday of the Mad Men era that set the hedonic treadmill of consumerism into motion and ripped the modern psyche asunder by the conflicting pulls of doing and being.

Garry Winogrand. New York City, 1961.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2015 The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

This is the history of the entire world.

People are seen striding and strolling, racing and ruminating, dashing and daydreaming — living testaments to the counterpoints of disposition by which we orient ourselves to the same mundane daily actions and to the present moment itself. We are reminded that even something as simple as a walk can be, as Thoreau believed, “a sort of crusade” — but we get to choose whether to crusade for productivity or for presence.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

Jump right in, or wade in slowly.
Advantage to one, it’s over quickly.
Advantage to the other, it isn’t.

Handler’s meditative writing is a kind of aphoristic prose poetry, at once irreverent and wholehearted and profound, partway between Mark Twain and Rumi, with a touch of Virginia Woolf’s perfectly placed commas to punctuate attention into reflective pause of just the right duration.

The accompanying paintings by Kalman — herself a patron saint of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments” and an unparalleled noticer of the magic in the mundane — reimagine the historical photographs through the raw material of Kalman’s art: that delicious dialogue between representation and response.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

You’re supposed to stop and smell the roses
but truth be told it doesn’t take that long
to smell them. You hardly have to stop.
You can smell the roses and still have time to
run all those errands before the sun goes
down and it’s dinner time.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

What emerges is a contemporary counterpart to Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, a Walden for the modern metropolis reminding us what it really means to be awake, yet wholly original and scrumptiously singular in spirit.

Jens S. Jensen. Boy on the Wall, Hammarkullen, Gothenburg, 1973.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist

I’m just standing still, and then suddenly
I think I am waiting for something.
Once I’ve decided I’m waiting it’s like
I’m not standing still anymore.

Helen Levitt. New York, 1982

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Marvin Hoshino in memory of Ben Maddow © 2015 Estate of Helen Levitt

If you go too fast you might not notice
everything. On the other hand, you don’t want
to be late. So allow at least half an hour to do
everything. Minus sleeping and staring
out the window that’s maybe ten things you
can do today, and you already woke up.

Tod Papageorge. Fifth Avenue, 1970.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. John Parkinson III Fund. © 2015 Tod Papageorge, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

Somewhere in the world, always,
somebody is twenty minutes late for something,
and I am annoyed at them.

Dorothea Lange. On the Road to Los Angeles, California, 1937

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Farm Security Administration

Some people, surely,
die on the way to something.

Then we call them
the late so-and-so.

Michael Putnam. New York City, 1970

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist

I was going to say something more about
hurrying, but why take up your time? You
have things to do. You can flip through this
and go on to what it is that’s waiting for you,
the next thing.

And by this I mean everything.

All childhood long they told me to
hurry up, and now all this
time
later I can’t imagine what the rush was.
But every morning my child never puts on
his shoes on time, and we have to go,
we have to go.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

When I was a kid my father would say,
if you get lost, don’t look for me.
Stay there. Stay there an I will find you.

He’s gone now.

Complement Hurry Up and Wait, to the magical totality of which neither screen nor script does any justice, with Pico Iyer on the art of stillness and this wonderful wordless celebration of the art of noticing.

All photographs courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art; all paintings courtesy of Maira Kalman

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07 APRIL, 2015

Simone Weil on Temptation, the Key to Discipline, and How to Be a Complete Human Being

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“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.”

“The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention,” Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating our moral responsibility as human beings. This relationship between morality and attention was a primary concern for French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most incisive thinkers of the past century, who dedicated her short life to the dual task of refining the truth of the human experience and alleviating its suffering, then pursued that task with the uncommon combination of transcendent idealism and piercing lucidity. Her ideas influenced such luminaries as Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West. At the age of nineteen, she placed first in France’s competitive exam for certification in “General Philosophy and Logic”; Simone de Beauvoir placed second. Albert Camus — himself a man of strong opinions on our greatest moral obligation — referred to her as “the only great spirit of our times.” But what makes Weil’s mind so miraculous is that no matter the passage of time and the changing conditions of each era, hers remains one of the great and necessary spirits for all time.

Her death was a continuation of her life — that grand act of love and sympathy for the suffering of others: After joining the French Resistance in London and toiling tirelessly for the cause, she came down with tuberculosis; in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, despite the doctor’s orders to eat heartily, she consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation. Most scholars believe that this sympathetic starvation was the cause of Weil’s death. Although other theories have emerged, her first English biographer, Sir Richard Rees, puts it best in concluding: “As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.”

The deliberate architecture of Weil’s character comes alive in First and Last Notebooks (public library) — a rare, revelatory, and infectiously unselfconscious self-portrait of this extraordinary mind-spirit. As Rees writes in the introduction, she “is not so much making notes as meditating, coherently and lucidly, with a pen in her hand.”

In 1933, shortly before taking a yearlong leave of absence from her teaching position to labor incognito at a car factory in order to better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil penned a notebook entry reminiscent of young André Gide’s rules of conduct, capturing the incredible moral vigor and ethical ambition with which she set about becoming the person she aspired to be — the person she ultimately was.

Weil writes:

List of temptations (to be read every morning)

Temptation of idleness (by far the strongest)

Never surrender to the flow of time. Never put off what you have decided to do.

Temptation of the inner life

Deal only with those difficulties which actually confront you. Allow yourself only those feelings which are actually called upon for effective use or else are required by thought for the sake of inspiration. Cut away ruthlessly everything that is imaginary in your feelings.

Temptation of self-immolation

Subordinate to external affairs and people everything that is subjective, but never the subject itself — i.e. your judgement. Never promise and never give to another more than you would demand from yourself if you were he.

Temptation to dominate

Temptation of perversity

Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.

In an entry shortly thereafter, she adds:

Refuse to be an accomplice. Don’t lie — don’t keep your eyes shut…

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Some days later, Weil revisits this moral framework and considers the particularly problematic issue of time — that peculiar dual pull of hurrying and waiting, that elastic ongoingness:

Two internal obstacles to be overcome

—Cowardice before the flight of time (mania for putting things off — idleness…)

Illusion that time, of itself, will bring me courage and energy…. In fact, it is usually the contrary (sleepiness). Say to yourself: And suppose I should remain always what I am at this moment? … Never put something off indefinitely, but only to a definitely fixed time. Try to do this even when it is impossible (headaches…). Exercises: decide to do something, no matter what, and do it exactly at a certain time.

You live in a dream. You are waiting to begin to live….

This discipline, she goes on to reason, is best cultivated through the transformative power of habit. Echoing William James’s memorable wisdom, she writes:

One must develop a habit. Training.
Distinguish between the things I can put off, and those [I cannot].
Begin the training with small things, those for which inspiration is useless…

Every day, do 2 or 3 things of no interest at some definitely appointed time.

Reach the point where punctuality is automatic and effortless. — Lack of flexibility of imagination. An obstacle to be methodically overcome. The second screen between reality and yourself. Much more difficult. What is needed is something quite different from a methodical training… But precious.

She considers the trifecta of faculties necessary for attaining the optimal habit of mind:

Discipline of the attention for manual work — no distraction or dreaming. But no obsession either. One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it. Another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination. And yet a third kind for reflection. You scarcely possess even the third kind. A complete being possesses all 3. You ought to be a complete being.

Of special interest to Weil is the subject of the will, which she sees as the great mediator between body and mind, between the conditions of the present and the aspirations of the future. A few days later, in a related meditation, she examines its role in the carrying out of those moral resolutions:

The will. It is not difficult to do anything when one is inspired by the clear perception of a duty. But what is hard is that when one is suffering this clear perception vanishes, and all that remains is awareness of a suffering which it is impossible to bear.

But the converse is also true: at the moment of taking the decision, the duty is present and the suffering is still far away. The will could not triumph if it had not fight against forces stronger than itself. The whole art of willing consists in taking advantage of the moment before the struggle begins to contrive in advance that one’s objective situation at the moment when one is weak shall be as one desires it to be…

The will’s only weapon is that it is able, in so far as it consists of thought, to embrace the different moments of time, whereas the body is limited to the present. Therefore, in short, it is simply a matter of withholding the assistance of thought from the passions.

It is not a question of “making resolutions” but of trying one’s hands in advance.

Complement First and Last Notebooks, which is deeply out of print but well worth the hunt, with young Leo Tolstoy’s search for moral direction, André Gide’s rules of conduct, and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

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