Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Observations on a poem

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Every now and again, a poet will ask his audience for thoughts on his poem. This has always struck me as a vaguely indecent proposition. It’s rather as if someone stood before you fully clothed and asked for a commentary on their body. Technically all modesty is preserved, but it’s still a rather awkward request.

My feeling of awkwardness is further compounded by my dogmatic insistence that good poetry conveys something that is beyond the ability of prose. Naturally, I feel inadequate to talk about good poems with mere prose. And when I do talk about poetry with prose it almost seems like an implied insult.

This problem has a simple cure. I try to avoid answering all questions relating to a poem’s interpretation even if the questions come from the poets themselves.

But an occasion has arisen where such tactics will not suffice. In this case, the unfortunate occasion is Joel Dueck’s request for observations on a poem he wrote. Normally, I would ignore such a request for the reasons that I have already elaborated on. But this is not a normal situation.

For one thing, Joel Dueck’s poem was added to the august list of Poem of Week over at The Ethereal Voice. More to the point, a couple of the residents here in the Ethereal Land took Mr. Dueck up on his offer and sent him their observations. I happened to see these replies and as is my habit I offered up some criticism. This has created some pressure on me to put up or shut up, as it were.

Moreover, it was Mr. Dueck’s blog that inspired my essay site and indirectly this site as well. Before my brother showed me Mr. Dueck’s site, I did not believe that a blog could be anything other than useless drivel. But upon reading Mr. Dueck’s inspiring example, I ventured off to make a fool of myself with the rest of the blogging crowd. Given that, I think it would be churlish of me to ignore a simple request from the man.

Since I don’t intend to make a habit of voicing my thoughts on a particular poem to the world, I am going to turn this into a two for one deal. I figure that this would be a good time to explain how I approach a poem. I happen to suspect that there might be one or two people in my audience who are interested in knowing such things.

But enough blather. I have put my analysis of Mr. Dueck’s poem below the fold in order not to scare off those who have no interest in pondering poetry.
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Why New Urbanism is Doomed to Failure

Monday, October 8th, 2007

This was cross posted over at Watching the Trades

Over at Architecture + Morality (they changed the “and” to the plus sign) Corbusier has a new post up called “What Makes a Community: The Problem of Property Ownership and New Urbanism.” As usual, Corbusier’s post is excellent and long overdue. (How come all the good writers take so long to post on their blogs?) But I want to elaborate a little bit on his post.

As much as it might surprise the people who know me, I have to admit that I am sympathetic to core idea that lies behind the New Urbanism. As best as I understand it, New Urbanism is basically an admission that the historical way to design a city was the best and the post World War II departure from this historical standard was a big mistake.

Of course, the proponents of New Urbanism can’t just leave it at that. They have to throw in a heavy does of ecological and social justice concerns. And to top it all off New Urbanism people tend to have a big time god complex. Read too much of their stuff and you will want to clutch both your wallet and your pistol every time you hear the word “New Urbanism”.

Still, if you ignore their methods, you have to concede that ideas of New Urbanism have some merit. Since the time that man has first settled cities until World War II, cities were a place where people’s living quarters, the places where they shopped, and the places where they worked were all closely intertwined. In the medieval period the craftsmen and their families would live over their place of business. Even after the Industrial Revolution was well under way, small shops and residential areas were closely intertwined.

But after World War II, some dingbats got into their heads that commercial areas, industrial areas, and residential areas should all be strictly separated. So cities started imposing all kinds of zoning and other sorts of codes to make sure that happened. And that has stayed the controlling idea behind city planning all way until quite recently.

As any proponent of New Urbanism will tell you, the post World War II changes were all a big mistake. The whole point of cities is to have things close together. If some stuck a gun to your head and made you live in a city, which would you choose; an old style city or a modern one?

In an old style city you could walk around a couple of blocks, do all your shopping, chat with all your friends and half your family, and still make it back in time to make supper. In a new style city, you have to take your car through city traffic or fight your way through the crowds so that you can use the public transportation. Once you get to where you are going, you will be shopping in these big impersonal places where nobody knows your name and there are even more faceless crowds.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which kind of city is more livable. Such stupidity is one of the reasons why all the middle class people started moving out of the cities. They figured that if they were going to have to take the blasted car everywhere they might as well live in the suburbs where it was easier to get around. The end result is that most of the residential-only areas turned into slums where only people to poor to escape live.

Now that most of their middle class tax base has got up and walked, cities are starting to wonder what they should do differently. This is where the New Urbanism people run into the room saying “Your problems are solved. We have all the answers.”

But as Corbusier points out, New Urbanism does not have all the answers. You can’t change a culture just by building differently.

The center piece of Corbusier’s essay is a project he is working on out in the Rockies that tries to reproduce the old European city style. Most notably, residential housing built over retail space, though there is more to the development than that. Corbusier muses on some of the problems that this is likely to bring in this modern culture by saying…

And naturally there are blocks and blocks of housing on top of street level retail, much like traditional town life anywhere outside post-war suburbia, but with a distinctive twenty-first century twist: almost all the units will be condominiums instead for-rent apartments. My more experienced colleague had objections with that particular part of the programs declaring that all sorts of problems emerge when people who own and live in dwellings above retail stores. Noises, smells, and the coming and going of service vehicles are often too much for condo boards, which have been the institutional vanguard of NIMBYism. I can image nothing more unpleasant than squabbles between the hundreds of residential owner, the handful of retail tenants and the commercial landlord.

Corbusier goes on to blame these problems largely on prejudices against people who rent and on the financial realities of large scale development. While I think he is right as far as he goes, I think he is missing the larger issues.

In the first place, the old way of doing things would have the workers in the retail outlets below living upstairs. But the people who work in retail outlets are primarily working class people such as sales clerks, bank tellers, and waitresses. In this country working class people can not afford to live in new buildings that are up to code. Instead, they must live in older building because they are the only ones they can afford to live in. Thus, in the development that Corbusier is working on, the workers in the retail outlets will not be able to afford to live upstairs. If they can’t, who else would want to?

I think that the upstairs would be too expensive for working class people even if Corbusier got his way and the space above was rented instead of being made into condominiums. New construction is just too expensive for working class people to afford no matter how you offer it. You can’t make a profit renting it to working class people anymore than you can make a profit selling it to them.

But even aside from that, there are broader cultural issues standing in the way of New Urbanism. The old styles cities worked because the culture of the time interwove family, work, and community. Just because you build old-style buildings does not mean that you can bring back mom and pop stores, children who follow their parent’s trade, and close knit communities. But without that kind of culture, I don’t think that New Urbanism will ever work.

Poetry's religious function

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

So once again I continue my unbroken string of not completing a series. I ought to be putting up Revenge of the Invisible Hand Part II right about now. I did start on it, but time and tide have sidetracked me.

For those of you who care, that series has a better chance of being finished then most of my uncompleted series. Though you would never know it from the way I started out in Revenge of the Invisible Hand Part One, the series relates to my personal feelings of self pity over the last year or so. Since those particular feelings show no sign of going away in hurry, the impetus to finish the series is likely to remain.

But today I am going to put aside my personal “tragedy” and offer up my observations on poetry in general.

Now normally I don’t like writing out my thoughts on poems. Analyzing a poem in prose almost misses the point poetry. If prose can capture and explain a poem in detail then the poem is nothing more then a glorified cross word puzzle. Such a poem is an unnecessary act whose only function is to make its author feel sophisticated.

On the other hand, good poetry takes you places and shows you things that are beyond the power of prose. This is a hard thing to articulate. You know good poetry when you see it but how can you explain it?

Someone I know argues that good poetry is a type of prophecy. I understand what he is saying, but I think that this is a poor choice of words for this day and age. When you say the word prophecy everyone understands you to mean the foretelling of the future.

This is not what poetry is about. If I tell you that the sun is going to rise tomorrow, that is not poetry, even though it is a type of foretelling.

But if you think of prophecy as speaking for the gods as opposed to specifically foretelling the future, then the idea that good poetry is prophecy is pretty close to the mark. To put it another way, good poetry is the giving voice to the formless things that are beyond our understanding.

Sometimes this giving voice to those formless things can seem prophetic in the Old Testament sense. One thinks of William Butler Yeats famous poem “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

When you read that poem and remember that it was written in 1919 you cannot help but remember that Stalin and Hitler did come and set themselves up according to a messianic type. The remorseless beast did arrive in Bethlehem so to speak.

Yet if Yeats had simply predicted the rise of men like Stalin and Hitler it would not have been poetry. “The Second Coming” still has power because we recognize that the formless beast is still striving to be born.

But the “prophetic” nature of most good poetry is not as evident as it is in Yeats poetry. Take Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” as an example…

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now most people would not think of the above poem as being “prophetic” in any sense of the word. But then, most people do not seem to have a very good understanding of “Do not go gentle into that good night.” This quote from Wikipedia is sadly typical….

Thomas addresses wise men, good men, wild men, and grave, or serious, somber men all with the same message to pursue their passions even in the face of their mortality and impending death. The message is not to let your passions be compromised. However, we are subtly reminded throughout that their rage will be ineffectual in the face of death. It is one of his most popular, most easily accessible poems, and implies that one shouldn’t die without giving death a battle or fighting for your life.

What this quote from Wikipedia and many other analysis of this poem miss is what Dylan is referring to when he says “Do not go gentle into the good night.” It simply amazes me that people can read that line and think that Dylan is simply telling people to try to battle death and stay alive.

To me, it seems obvious that Dylan’s phrase “going gentle into the good night” is referring to the ideal of peace in death that most Christians hold. After all, Dylan grew up in conservatively religious rural town in Wales. In such an environment, you would be expected to face death calmly and profess that you were ready for it. To rage against death in the way that Dylan demands would be to rage against all the values that such a community held dear.

Dylan is not up holding his rage as something will help you live longer. Nor is he giving you some kind of pap about how life is good and you should cherish it. Instead, he is holding up his rage as something that is better then the peace of those who go gentle into the night. In other words, Dylan is not writing out a prescription to help you live longer, he is writing out a moral imperative.

Once you understand what Dylan saw as the alternative to his rage and how his poem is demanding obedience to a moral imperative, you can how his poem is “prophetic.” Not prophetic in the sense of foretelling the future, but prophetic as in speaking the word of his “god” to an unbelieving people.

I have been stressing the “religious” nature of good poems in spite of my ambivalence over the use of such terminology. Such terminology can all too easily become a barrier to communication. But it can’t be helped. True art and religious thought are twins that can never be separated. So it is hard to talk seriously about one without talking about the other.

These two subjects can never be separated because the core of both “art” and “religion” revolve around the subject of meaning. You can not prove that this is meaningful or that this is not. Yet your understanding of what is meaningful and what is not meaningful governs how you live.

What gives your life meaning is your “god” regardless of whether you profess to believe in one or not. The meaning you attach to things reveals what your “god” is like no matter who you profess to believe in or what you say he is like. We get so hung up on names that we neglect the reality of people’s actions.

Put it another way, there is no gulf between the gods of the pagan Norse of long ago and the gods of Dylan Thomas. Both the Norse pagans and Dylan Thomas had a conception of what was meaningful that is almost indistinguishable. To argue that Dylan Thomas was an atheist while the Norse were polytheistic is to get hung up on meaningless words. The sprit that speaks through them both is the same even if the words are different.

That is not to say that all good poetry accomplishes the same “religious” function. More importantly, it does not mean that all poets attribute the same meaning to things. In other words, good poets can have completely different “religions.” But if you hold that good poetry is meaningful, then you should acknowledge that good poetry is in some sense “religious”.

As people who have followed my writings know, I believe that everyone is “religious.” To use a more commonly accepted philosophical terms, I believe that “existential” issues governs our reasoning process. To my mind, there is no such thing as a man whose core beliefs have been derived by reason. Rather, what man can reason is limited by his beliefs.

This is why I have been making a big deal about the “religious” function that poetry serves. To my mind, good poetry deals with the existential issues that shape how we can reason. Thus, I feel that good poetry provides a truer view into why people believe what they believe then a well reasoned polemics.

But that raises the question: If good poetry is the exploration of the existential issues that govern our thoughts, how can we understand poetry that comes from a “religious” (or existential if you prefer) starting point that differs from our own? But that question will have to wait for another day. I am already running out of time.

This calls for some celebration

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Yesterday, I wrote to Mr. Nichols in spare moment saying…

Poetic temperament is a valid excuse for having problems writing. But not for taking stuff that you have already written down. Have a little mercy on the rest of humanity.

He never responded. But Philosophical Poetry went back up today. Hooray!!

Given Mr. Nichols past record you can never be sure how long the thing will stay up. So those who have never had the opportunity to read some of Mr. Nichols’ poetry should immediately go and read some today.

You can start with Why the Titanic Sank, It is not envy that consumes, and How inadequate the howl.

You can also read a review of his two sites that I did awhile back.

Songs of Community

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

I know, I know, I owe a post on one of the three subjects that I said I wanted to blog about. And I will have a post on The Economist article on demographics up today or tomorrow (per Mr. Vistesen’s request I decided to do that one first). But Andrew Cusack linked to three u-tube clips that I want to link to on my own site with my own commentary.

Normally I post videos over at The Ethereal Voice. But one of the u-tube clips that Cussack posted has direct relevance to a post I recently wrote on Quebec’s demographics and they are all loosely tied together so I thought I would share them here as well as at the Voice.

This is a clip of the song ‘Dégénération’, by Mes Aïeux (in Québécois French, with English subtitles). According to Cusack this song is wildly popular in Quebec right now. Its relevance to my recent post on Quebec should be obvious and hopefully I don’t need to elaborate on the song for those that have read my post. But one thing I would like to note is the continued references to government jobs in the song. This is no accident. The Government commands an extremely large percentage of GDP in Quebec and it is about the only place to get “good jobs” in Quebec these days.

This next clip is ‘Roots’, by Show of Hands (an English Folk group). It is an angry lament over Britain’s lost culture. The song obviously has something in common with ‘Dégénération’ and musically I actually enjoyed it more. But the primary reason that I am posting this is that I found it interesting how similar the complaint was in these two songs written by people in two different cultures. There seems to be a common despair in the face of modern culture.

It is common for people to dismiss the sentiments expressed in these songs as misguided longing for a golden age that never was. I disagree.

There never was such a thing as a golden age. That I will admit. But modern culture has lost something in the transition to the modern era. We have more material things, but we are losing our social fabric.

I don’t see how anyone can deny that people are not as rooted in their communities as they once were. In fact, the very concept of a community is disappearing. To be a modern person is to be a rootless person. You are not tied to your brothers, cousins, or neighbors. You are free, but you are also rootless.

For some, like the blogger over at Free Exchange, this is a price worth paying. But for others, like Mes Aieux and Show of Hands, this is something to be lamented.

Needless to say, I have more sympathy for the likes of Mes Aieux and Show of Hands then I do for Free Exchange’s view point. But like all things human, a longing for community and the struggle to maintain it can be an ugly thing. That is what Cusack’s clip of the ‘De La Rey’, by Bok van Blerk (in Afrikaans, with English subtitles) reminds me of.

Now this song skillfully plays on the sadness of what happened to the Boer woman and children and the braveness of the Boer fighters. Yet I can’t help but remember all the peoples that that the Boers destroyed and all the African villages that the Boers burnt to the ground. And I think that it is fitting that such great devotees of the Old Testament as the Boers should receive an Old Testament punishment for their crimes (and eye for an eye…).

For me, the Boers are a prime example of how a people can deify their sense of community. The Boers had this conception of themselves as a holy people chosen by God which meant that they saw no difference between their desires as a community and the desires of God. For them, the two were one and the same. Like the deification of anything else human, this lead to horrible things. There is no restraint on a society that considers its desires the desires of God.

The Boers are not alone in that failing, and I don’t mean to single them out. It is just that the song ‘De La Rey’ calls to my mind the dangers of venerating your own community and the messianic desires that often accompany that veneration.

But in remembering this danger, we should not forget that man cannot live by bread alone. A society based solely on economic transactions will soon cease to exist. The question is: what is the proper way to fill this human need for community without creating some kind of pagan nationalistic god?

A Preface for Ethics and Design

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

One of those weird issues that I devote my thinking time to is the intersection between values and architecture. So I was very excited when I came across a blog called Architecture and Morality (Thank you Marginal Revolution).

Unfortunately, the blog does not live up to its name as much as I would like. Most of their posts seem to be about morality or architecture, but they rarely talk about how the two intersect. But I did not give up on the blog and my patience was rewarded with a recent post by Corbusier called Lesson from Mexico: Cities and Social Trust.

I have wanted to call attention to this post ever since it came out. But every time I sat down to write a post about it, the post would get unwieldy with the weight of my own ideas. When one has thought about how architecture and values intersect as much as I have, one is strongly tempted to use any excuse to get up on a soap box. So today, I am going to see if I can’t finally get away from my inner voices long enough to quote from Lesson from Mexico: Cities and Social Trust and explain why I think Corbusier’s point is important.

Here is the quote…

These kind shortcomings testify to a broader pattern of a lack of social trust in developing nations. One of the essential ingredients to national prosperity is a high level of social trust, allowing an environment where strangers can interact freely with one another, collaborate on joint ventures, provide capital to entrepreneur’s ideas and so on. It is not enough for an elaborate set of laws to be drafted to force strangers to trust each other, it is imperative that respect for another’s property and dignity as a human being be deeply ingrained in a society’s cultural psychology. Such unwritten but consciously internalized safeguards make it possible for drivers not even to contemplate driving over medians or sidewalks, for street-level windows to be unprotected, for people to wander around the city or a store without uniformed personnel minding your business. What’s most important is that social trust makes possible for cities to be more live-able, for life to be a bit easier as we don’t have to worry about our own security. Until that level of social stability is achieved, the rich will wall themselves off from the poor, the poor will remain in their ghettos, and the influence of “bourgeois” values of respect, decency, scholarship and ambition to those who need it most will be stifled. This class isolation retards progress on all fronts, not least in the development of mobile and economically dynamic cities .

Now it is tempting to just dismiss this. If we have thought about it all, we have probably already come to the conclusion that the ethical character of society makes a big difference on how it develops. We also all assume that a country that is not very developed economically speaking will have architecture that will reflect that fact. So at first glance it might seem like the above quote is superficial and obvious.

But if you think about it, I think you will find that the above quote cuts a little deeper then your first impressions lead you to believe.

First of all, the idea that values shape the nature of architecture does not get the attention that it deserves. Most people tend to think of architecture as something that is shaped by technology, economic concerns, and taste. We do not think about architecture as something that reflects our moral values. If the effects of our values on architecture are considered at all, they are considered through the lenses of environmental issues.

Thus, the point in the quote that I took from Lesson from Mexico is rather original in that it looks at how a broad spectrum of values affects architecture. The only reason it seems obvious to us is because we are outsiders looking in. We know how Mexico City could be different because we live in a different cultural.

But I doubt that it seems obvious to people living in Mexico City. They probably think that it is just the way the world is and that there is no other realistic way to build. In the same way, I don’t think most of us are aware of how much our values impact the architecture that is around us.

For example, most people would probably attribute the US interstate highway system to advancing technology and economic need. In reality though, it is primarily a testament to American values. On a purely economic rational, America would have been better of investing in rail based transportation links.

This post is really not the place for proving the above point. But I would like to point out to the skeptical that private money built the railroads in this country. Yet it took massive amounts of public money to build the highway system that we have now. Those people who assume that the fact that railroads declined in the face of this massive subsidy for highways proves railroads intrinsically less useful economically than highways need to rethink their assumptions.

Moreover, people should not assume that railways would be like they are now if we had poured the kind of capital into them that we put into our highways. Just as highways were quite different that roads that preceded them, so to the rails system would have been quite different if we had made the equivalent investment.

Even if you doubt that realistic case can be made for the economic superiority of robust rail system and a subservient road system as opposed to robust road system with a subservient rail system, you should still be able to see why I say that the highways system is a reflection of American values.

Imagine, if you can, that I am right about the economic superiority of rail. Would that mean the America would abandon the highway system?

I think that anyone who knows the American public realizes that a vast majority of them would pay a heavy price to avoid having rail be a major part of their transport. Economics alone would not be enough to get them use rail unless they had no other realistic choice.

Like I said, the subject of highways vs. rail really needs a separate thread. I don’t want to argue the case for rail in this post. I just want people to think about how Corbusier’s observations on Mexico might apply to the US.

This is admittedly hard to do. It is hard to be self-critical and to think about how our society might be if we had different values. But I think that exploring those issues can lead to valuable insights with benefits beyond architecture.

My Problem

Monday, May 28th, 2007

Though you would not know it by how infrequently I update my essay site, I have lots of subjects that I would like to write an essay about. Yet, on this blog I rarely touch upon those subjects about which I wish to write an essay because I am afraid of ruining the effect of my future essay. To understand this absurd hang up, you need to understand my conception of what makes a good essay.
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Did Winslow Homer put hidden images in his paintings?

Monday, May 7th, 2007

When I was writing an essay a while back, I came across this web site put out by Peter Bueschen that argued that Winslow Homer put hidden images in his paintings. Now I dismissed that idea out of hand at the time, but I just can’t get that idea out of my head.

On the one hand, I don’t find the evidence that Bueschen presents convincing. I think he is just seeing images in the clouds as it were. The human mind is great at imputing meaning where there is none. On the other hand, Winslow Homer is just the type of guy who would stick hidden pictures in his artwork.

In spite of my doubts, I still come down on the side of not believing that Winslow Homer put hidden pictures in his art work. Much of Bueschen’s evidence just seems too forced to me. In most of the visual evidence he provides, I find it hard to believe that the images were put there deliberately. I think in any painting you can see sub images if you wanted to just like you can see images in a cloud. But that does not mean that those images were put there deliberately.

What really irks me about Bueschen’s argument though, is his use of the literary source material. He quotes extensively from people who knew Homer to argue that Homer and some of his close friends felt that Homer’s art was not properly appreciated (as in understood) in his time.

Well, no duh. It was not properly appreciated then and I don’t think it is properly appreciated now. I don’t think that many people get the depth that is in Homer’s paintings. But that does not mean that Homer deliberately put hidden little images in his paintings.

Yet, I still can’t get rid of the nagging little voice that whispers “what if you are wrong?” This is odd, because I am not one to doubt my own judgment on such matters.

I think the main cause for my self-doubt is that I can easily imagine Homer putting in secret images. It just fits with his personality and his aesthetic sense. The other cause for my self-doubt is that I have always been bad at seeing hidden images even when I know that people deliberately put them there.

So I am curious about what other people think. Of all of Bueschen’s examples, this is the one that I find easiest to see myself (this is how Bueschen sees the picture). Here is a picture in which I would never find the image that Bueschen sees (and here is how Bueschen sees the picture). There are many more examples at Bueschen’s site.

Anyone out there have their own opinions?

Discussing the Washington Post Experiment with Joshua Bell

Monday, April 16th, 2007

This post is a response to a comment on the Ethereal Voice. But since some of you do not follow The Ethereal Voice, I am going to have to give some background.

As one of its wired quirks, The Ethereal Voice selects an essay that can be found on the web to highlight each week. This week, The Ethereal Voice chose to select a Washington Post article for this week’s Essay of the Week.

The focus of this article/essay was an experiment that the Washington Post did with the famous violinist Joshua Bell. They wanted to see how many people would stop and listen to the man widely considered the best violinist in world during rush hour at a subway station. Now anyone who knows anything about human nature already knows the answer to that question. But for those few of you who cannot already guess, hardly anyone stopped and listened.

Now both the Washington Post and the Ethereal Voice interpreted the results of the experiment as being something that reflected poorly on people in general. But a commentator who goes by the name Michelle on the Ethereal Voice disagreed. She gave us a link to a blog post by the Saw Lady.

The Saw Lady is a busker, and she argues that it was Joshua Bell’s fault that nobody stopped and listened. The core of her argument is this…

The thing is Joshua Bell is a great violinist but he doesn’t know how to busk. There are violinists who are not even close to being as good as he is (such as Jim Grasec or Lorenzo LaRock), yet they get crowds to stop and listen to them. It’s because when you play on the street you can’t approach it as if you are playing on a stage. Busking is an art form of its own. You need to be as good a musician as to audition for any stage gig (the competition over permits is fierce) but in addition to that you have to relate to the audience and be a real people’s person. You can’t hide behind your instrument and just play, with an invisible wall between you and the audience, the way a stage performance is conducted. In busking you use the passers by as if they were paint and your music is the paint brush – your goal is to create a collective work of art with the people, in the space, in the moment with you and the music.

Now as far as the Saw Lady goes, I am sure she is correct. I am sure Joshua Bell made a lousy busker. And as one of her commentators correctly points out, the Washington Post made it even harder for him by choosing rush hour, when almost no one wants to stop.

But I think that to look at the experiment from the angle that the Saw Lady is looking at the experiment it is wrong. She might feel proud that her set of skills can not be easily duplicated by someone who gets paid far more than her. But the real experiment was not about how to be a good busker, it was about how we perceive beautiful and meaningful things.

Joshua Bell did not play the catchiest tunes he knew. Rather, he played the most meaningful tunes that he knew. Even the Saw Lady admits that Joshua Bell is very good. In that context, then, who would you rather be like if you had a choice: John Picarello, supervisor in the post office who recognized the beauty and stopped to listen, or the hundreds of people who hurried by and noticed nothing?

I don’t think that Joshua Bell really wants to be a good busker. And I know I could care less about what makes a good busker. But I do desire to develop the skills to recognize beautiful and meaningful things.

The Washington Post experiment is a lot like life. We are all very busy. We all have little time for all that we need to do. In life, only the people that have the skills which the Saw Lady describes can catch our attention. But is this a good thing?

As the Washington Post experiment shows, by only being open to people who are skilled at playing to the crowd or the things that are eye catching, we miss some of the most beautiful and meaningful things in life. This is true whether we are flipping through a rack of books or we are walking down a busy street corner.

To see meaningful things, we must see past the obvious; we must be willing to make time. We must be able to appreciate beauty even when we are not being played to. As the Washington Post article shows, that is a skill that few of us have.

But I, for one, would rather have that skill than have the skill to be a good busker (not that the two skills need to be mutually exclusive).

My Favorite Modern Art

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

I think of atomic explosions as art. Few things capture the sprit of the modern age as well as setting off the bomb.

In the resulting explosions I see all the power and knowledge and beauty of the modern age combined with all horror and nihilistic furry that have accompanied it. An exploding atomic bomb is the hell that is in man expressed in a technological form. It is perversely beautiful even in its ultimate futility.

I happen to be thinking about such art today because I came across this collection of atomic explosions. It is one of the best collections of atomic explosions on the web.