Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Some Post-Stockbridge Thoughts

View from "Laura's Tower," The Berkshires. 
We spent a weekend in Stockbridge Massachusetts, in New England's beautiful Berkshires. You might know what famous American illustrator lived there. You might not. I'm guessing you know him if you are my age and that -- based on some anecdotal evidence I gathered yesterday while teaching my classes -- if you are under the age of twenty, you have no idea who he was; or, that, even if I mention his name, you still don't know who he was. (You might, however, say, "Oh... That guy," if I show you a picture of his work.

He is, of course (of course?) Norman Rockwell.

My first (typical and self-disappointing) reaction to my students not having ever heard of Norman Rockwell was to think of it as a deficiency in the kids. But, as always, I realized it is not their fault but the fault of the adult world if they are ignorant about anything in our culture.

It could be that we didn't teach them well enough. But, more likely, it is because we have created a world for them in which the philosophy is that the more information we can have flying around our heads, the better. These kids know more about more things than I did at their age because of the Googlenet. More is not always better.

Would we like to have a TV in every room? Every closet? Inside our silverware drawer? Some might say yes, but all must agree it would be a tremendous distraction.

How do they not know who Norman Rockwell is, when, in my mind, an American not knowing who he was is the equivalent deficiency of an American not knowing what baseball is. Will the world end? No....but it just ain't right...and it means we are doing something very wrong.

At the Norman Rockwell Museum, we watched a good documentary video about the artist. It fascinated me and it broke my heart just a little. (Don't worry -- it's already full of cracks. It's not like it's that first "ding" in a new car.) There was a recorded statement by Rockwell saying that he knew that what he did wasn't "high art." He even emphasized that point by saying "No one knows that better than me..." 

What the hell does that mean? If Picasso is high art, why isn't Rockwell? Was Rubens "high art"? Was Edward Hopper "high art"? Whatever the answers to those questions are, somehow, Rockwell allowed himself to be beaten into submission. The snootier critics were always rough on him (as was evidenced by his "artistic crisis" referred to in the film; he went to Europe to study "modernism") and it had its effect: he decided -- like an obese person making statements about his fatness just to let the world know that he is aware his physical deficiency -- to join up with them. 

It's tragic. Of course what he did is "high art." Rockwell was both a mirror and a lamp on our world even if, as he said, he chose to literally paint an optimistic pictures of how things "ought to be." In the end, his work is no less "high art" than is the world of film composers like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith; than the popular music of Paul McCartney or Leonard Cohen; than the plays of Neil Simon... 

Are any of these people's work not "high art" because they are popular? Is inaccessibility the key to the "high art" label? How stupid would that be? Are people disqualified from "high art" -- in the cases of the film composers -- because they are "hired guns"? Is any artist working on commission not an artist? Is art automatically low because it is made to compliment another kind of art (scores; illustrations...)?

It is horrible that Rockwell felt that way about his work. Again, and always: damage done by the "world." Rockwell had everything he needed and felt that he didn't. 

Rockwell is part of American culture -- a culture that all Americans share, regardless of descent. I once heard someone say that he is not relevant anymore because he depicted primarily white America. Truth is, he was consciously active in painting multicultural characters, especially later in his career...

...but who cares?  How long are we going to think along lines of color and race? We're Americans and Rockwell was a treasure. We should all be proud of his work. While -- especially as a teacher -- I understand the importance of and audience "relating" to the material at hand, I also think great is great. Langston Hughes and Robert Frost are both brilliant poets. We shouldn't skip teaching one of them because of the color of our classroom, nor should we accept ignorance to one or the other and make cultural excuses for it.

Standing, after a hard, uphill hike, upon "Laura's Tower," looking down upon the Berkshires, I realized that feeling small can really teach us how vast we are, within. Original? No. But the truth seldom is, I find.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Wisdom of Innocence: Lessons from Krimpet

Krimpet and me. 
My dog, Krimpet, is not well. While I might write a reflection about her one day (I love her way more than I've loved most humans), this is not that reflection. It's a meditation on wisdom and innocence.

Sick though she is, she is still after table scraps and she is still addicted to affection in the form of ear-scratches and cuddles. She still perks up when any of the family enter the room. In short, for her, it is business as usual; her focus is still on "the important things" that people put on static-cling plastic wall decorations in their kitchens: "Live, love, eat." That kind of thing.

My son, fourteen, observed this as she lay her long poodle/retriever nose on the dinner table last night. He pointed out that she just keeps carrying on with her life, sickness or not. I started to say that this is because dogs realize what is important; that they don't feel sorry for themselves despite their misfortunes and that we could learn a lot from them. Then, after a long pause and a few bites, I said, "Or, it can be because she is too stupid to know the difference." Everyone laughed.

But, as with most family conversations, this one rings like an infinity bell in the back of my mind.

A dog, I think we can all agree, is, if nothing else, a truly innocent being. Usually, we draw a line between innocence and wisdom; we assume we need to leave the former to approach the latter. But, could it be that innocence is wisdom itself? Could it be, even still, that our sometime regression, in old age, back to a late-life infancy, is God's way of telling us that while ignorance may not be bliss, innocence is? Can it possibly be that even something that looks as awful as regression is the pathway to heaven?

Maybe that is too optimistic. As I know, first-hand, dementia is horrible, for all of us on the outside, and we can see that it can be a profound kind of suffering for those who fork to the unhappy path of it. (Some with dementia are silly-happy, some miserable...)

Still, the fact remains that no matter how deeply we dive in terms of philosophy, we can learn a lot from my dog, Krimpet. Does it matter that her wisdom comes from a lack of understanding? Is fire not fire, whether it is lit by a match or by a bolt of lightning? Either way, fire burns.

Regardless of the source of her innocent wisdom, I often find myself wanting to be more like my dog.  If nothing else, she is a testament to the wisdom of carrying on and not feeling sorry for one's self. Let's hear it for the fur-clad, philosophical imbeciles and let's profit from their innocent wisdom.