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Friday, April 9, 2010

In the footsteps of Socrates


[click on the photos to view larger size]

Herodotus puts the following defiant words in the mouth of the Persian King Cyrus, prior to the Achaemenid invasions of Hellas in the early fifth century BCE: "'I have never feared men who have a place set apart in the middle of their city where they lie and deceive each other. . . . .' - and, Herodotus continues - "This threat he uttered against all Hellenes because they have agoras and buy and sell there; for the Persians themselves do not use agoras, nor do they have any." (Herodotos 1.153)

The agora of Athens is one of the most famous of these open places where the Athenians bought and sold, and eventually governed themselves. It was the assembly place where the citizens met daily in the open air for all purposes of community life. Among the ruins of the Athenian agora, and by the stream of the Ilissos, it is possible to retrace the footsteps of Socrates at the heart of today’s Athens.

The Athenian agora has been systematically excavated since the 1930’s by the American School of Classical Studies. In the 1950’s, the Stoa of Attalos was reconstructed, and this provides the area with a focus, and with a Museum. The rest is only ruins, scattered stones in a garden, but so well studied and preserved, that the life of ancient Athens can be made visible.

Socrates walked the agora and engaged the young aristocratic boys in dialogue, founding thereby the philosophy of his great admirer Plato. Plato’s Dialogues are the primary source of our knowledge of Socrates. Plato follows Socrates about in the agora, and describes his death in the State Prison. From other historians we know of Socrates’ having presided over the Boule (Council) of Athens, and of his sitting at the portico of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios to discuss philosophy with the aristocratic youths of the city. Ruins of these buildings are still visible in the agora. (see below)

The excavations undertaken by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, have uncovered about thirty acres on the slope northwest of the Acropolis. Material of all periods from the Late Neolithic to modern times has been excavated, shedding light on 5,000 years of Athenian history. My concern here is only with the Athens of the fifth century BCE. Below are photographs of the agora in the 1930’s, as excavations began, and as it looks today.

A gradual change from private to public land seems to have occurred during the middle of the sixth century and the first certain public buildings or monuments, such as the Peribolos of the Twelve Gods, were erected in the 520s, during the rule of Peisistratus. He seems to have reorganized the area and established the government’s center there.

Great drain of Kleisthenes

The Great Drain of Kleisthenes, aligned with the Old Boueluterion, and well constructed of polygonal blocks of limestone, channeled the waters from the hills on the S.W. towards the Eridanos brook to the N. The two branches visible in these photographs were dug in the fourth century BCE or later. At the intersection of the great drains stood a row of dwellings and shops, including the one known as the house of the cobbler Simon. The discovery here of hobnails and of a black glazed cup dating to the third quarter of the fifth century and bearing the name of its owner, Simon, makes it likely that there really was a shop of the cobbler Simon, where, according to Diogenes Laertius, Socrates spent much of his time talking to passers by and engaging them in dialogue.

Foundations of the house of the cobbler Simon, where Socrates used to hang out and hail the youths of Athens to interpelate them

The creation of the new democracy in 508/7 BCE led to the construction of the Old Bouleuterion (Council House) on the site of the later Metroon, as well as the setting of boundary stones, and the construction of the Stoa Basileus (Royal Stoa). The Persian destruction of 480/79 left the city in ruins, but the buildings in the Agora were repaired and many more were added in the 5th and 4th centuries to accommodate the Athenian democracy at its height. The Stoa Poikile, Tholos, New Bouleuterion, Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, South Stoa, Mint, and Heliaia (popular tribunal) were all added to the periphery of the great square, as were fountain houses, temples, and shops. Below are two photographs of the ruins of the Tholos.

Ruins of the Tholos

Model of the New Bouleuterion (below on the left center of the drawing), built in the last quarter of the fifth century BCE to the west (left) of the original building which was later rebuilt as the Metroon to house the shrine of the Mother of the Gods and the public archives. The round building is the Tholos.

A drawing of the interior of the Tholos, sometimes called Skias or sunshade from the shape of its roof. Here, as Aristotle records, the fifty Prytaneis dined daily at the public expense and offered sacrifice before their deliberations. The Prytaneis were the executives of the Boule, or the City's Council, and presided over the Bouleterion, the Council House, of ancient Athens, and therefore, the Tholos was the effective headquarters of Athenian government. A small kitchen on the north side made it possible for those presiding in the Bouleterion to remain on duty and dine while working. Socrates would have eaten here when he presided in 406-05 BCE.

The Peribolos of the Twelve Gods

Photo of the Peribolos of the Twelve Gods and drawing of the Peribolos (Altar) in a restored condition, the center from which distances were measured, established in 522-21 BCE, and destroyed by the Persians in 480-79 BCE, and rebuilt in the latter part of Socrates’ lifetime. The Twelve were not synonymous with the twelve Olympian gods but represent a local Athenian grouping. The remains of this altar are now partly hidden by a wall and by the railway tracks beyond it.

Monument to the Eponymous Heroes of Athens

Above is a drawing of the monument to the Eponymous Heroes as they were re-established in the fourth century, and, below, a photo of the ruins of the monument today. Only traces of the fifth century monument are now recognizable under the foundations of the Hellenistic ‘Middle Stoa.’ The eponymous heroes were the Athenians known of old who gave their names to the ten official divisions of the Athenian citizenry, the ten tribes (phylai) into which the statesman Kleisthenes re-organized the citizens of Athens in 508-7 BCE.

The Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios

A photo of the ruins of the front portico of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios and (right) a drawing of the model of the Stoa, which is shown left of center in foreground. The Stoa was a public arcade, like a Mall. The portico of this Stoa, which had two projecting wings, was built by unknown architects, c. 430 BCE, to honor Zeus as savior of the Athenians from the Persians. Under its colonnade, citizens transacted their private business. Socrates is known to have discussed philosophy here with the aristocratic youths of Athens.

The State Prison of Athens, where Socrates died, as described in Plato's dialogues, the Apology and the Phaedo:

The prison in a drawing of its restored aspect shows the northeast wing as a guard tower.The view of these ruins from the north have been identified as remains of the State Prison in which Socrates spent his last days.

Ruins of the prison of Athens where Socrates was executed

The Ilissos River in downtown Athens

The Ilissos Area is probably the only spot where the ancient river is still visible in Athens, since its course has been interfered with and its waters have largely vanished underground. But this small wooded area at the foot of the Olympieion (Temple to Olympian Zeus, barely visible in some of the photos) may well be the location described by Plato at the beginning of his dialogue Phaedrus. In the dialogue, Phaedrus points to a house near the temple of Olympian Zeus, and Socrates then suggests they “turn aside here along the Ilissus. Then we can sit down in peace wherever we feel inclined.”

View of the Ilissos river bed

When Phaedrus and Socrates find a place for rest, Socrates describes the spot in detail:

SOCRATES: It is indeed a lovely spot for a rest. This plane tree is very tall and spreading, and the agnus-castus [a purple-flowered bush, native of the Mediterranean region] splendidly high and shady, in full bloom too, filling the neighborhood with the finest possible fragrance. And the spring which runs under the plane, how beautifully cool its water is to the feet. . . . See too how wonderfully delicate and sweet the air is, throbbing in response to the shrill chorus of the cicadas – the very voice of summer. But the most exquisite thing of all is the way the grass slopes gently upward to provide perfect comfort for the head as one lies at length. Really, my dear Phaedrus, a visitor could not possibly have found a better guide than you.

PHAEDRUS: What a very strange person you are, Socrates. So far from being like a native, you resemble, in your own phrase, a visitor being shown the sights by a guide. This comes of your never going out beyond the frontiers of Attica or even, as far as I can see, outside the actual walls of the city.

SOCRATES: Forgive me, my dear friend. I am, you see, a lover of learning. Now the people in the city have something to teach me, but the fields and trees won’t teach me anything.”

The bed of the Ilissos river in Athens with

the ruins of the Olympieion above the hill

The slope of the Ilissos

The Obama Years

The decline of the American Empire does not seem as if it will be a dramatic, or traumatic, affair, or sorrowful, with solemnly departing viceroys and lowering flags, like the British Empire after the last World War. It appears rather as if it will be a hushed, imperceptible devolution, lost in details, inconspicuous for long stretches of time, a gradual diminishing of the light. The people of America are not encouraged to be informed about what happens abroad, nor are they predisposed to the study of History, and they consequently do not know of the passing of old empires and the birth of new ones. They don’t know of the great cities that are rising in India, in China, in Brazil, in Europe, of the dazzling new architecture, efficient means of transport and communications, orderly schools, and colorful markets and fairs. They don’t know what is happening outside, as their own lights begin to dim. The spread of debilitating poverty occurs in small increments. After each economic downturn there follows a lackluster period of recovery, each one less of a recovery than the previous one. Permanent unemployment and under-employment grow. It takes years to notice the decline in our collective education and the impoverishment of our discourse, which follows, as day follows night. It takes decades to note the deterioration of our health, and the gradual deformation of our bodies. Can we tell that our culture is increasingly threadbare entertainment, the more boring it becomes, the more passivity it induces in us? What do we produce anymore? Is there industry left in America? Are we making anything other than money? And our unending imperial adventures and wars, isn’t that where all our money is wasted? But the decline is not noticed. Every morning there is ‘Good Morning America,’ and the ‘Early Show’ and the ‘Today Show,’ and everyone is laughing and running about, working to exhaustion. The devotion for mediocrities and the engorgement of our plutocrats is our only real show. And every few years there is a new wave of gadgets and toys to play with, and the kids don’t know things are getting worse, imperceptibly, quietly . . . .

C.P. Cavafy

With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind—
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The guilt of the Artist

Georges Braque, Artist and Model, 1939 (Norton Simon Museum, Permanent Collection)

Some time ago, I sat for a while and observed Georges Braque’s painting of 1939, Artist and Model, which is in the permanent collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. I decided to record and write my thoughts on it, as its dazzling appearance suggested a disturbing emotion of guilt without any apparent source, and it seemed to me that the process of articulating a response might reveal such a source, as in fact it did. This is a late painting of Braque, though it still has some of the Cubist elements of his earlier work, and his preoccupation with texture is consistent with his earlier work as well. It was painted in 1939 in Paris, on the eve of the world war. Its surface is grainy and gives an overall appearance of collage, though it is not one. You may not agree with my interpretation of it, but I think it may stir you to put on it an interpretation of your own.

The objective representation in the painting is based on a very traditional motif: the artist and his model. The artist is in his studio, with his sitter, his easel in front of him, showing the painting he is painting, and his palette is in his left hand, all black, within the hemispheric darkness of his figure. It’s a motif, a scene out of real life, a “perception,” that has been painted many times before in the history of Western Art. But here, Braque has subjected the motif to a complex convolution in its creative process: he has thought out the motif in his mind’s eye to re-build it on a more symbolical conception. He has broken it down conceptually, deconstructed it, as we would say in our time, along a Cubist style of raisonnable de-construction, to then re-construct it in his mind in the act of creation, and depict it, finally, on the canvas, as it appears to us now. And that whole creative process is represented in the painting. He has painted a “reconstruction” of a reality. It is still a painting about a painting, and about ‘painting,’ but now there are a lot of new clues for the viewer to understand what the artist thought when he performed the mental reconstruction of this reality of himself in his studio while painting a female model.

For example, the role of the large black areas of the painting raises a lot of questions. What is Braque trying to tell us? Why are the artist and his palette painted in total black, as well as the back and the right side of the model, as if it were the shadow of another person behind her? These areas of pitch black could be seen simply as the part of their bodies that are in shadow, the light coming from the right background. But, as well, one could interpret the black as having a different and ulterior meaning. I think the artist is painted almost all black because he is meant to be not important, almost inconspicuous. He is meant to be seen as merely the conduit between reality and art. The artist, the part of the artist that is painting, has been obscured. But his work, his ‘art,’ is seen in the painting on the easel, which is why the palette is painted totally black, as if there was no color on it, and all the color is in the painting on the easel, a cubistic non-objective painting which, by the way, has nothing to do with what the artist is looking at, which is the model. On that little painting on the easel, the model is only faintly outlined in a thin white stripe. If you zoom in on the detail image, you can see it.

The model, meanwhile, also has the black shadow upon her, on her back and right side. A shadow envelops her and grabs her clothing from the back, but the shadow is also the model, depicted in Cubistic fashion, facing the artist directly (you can see the right eye of her face within the shadow), while the rest of her is a beautiful fleshly color and faces the viewer. That black shadow on her also suggests an ambiguity about who is undressing her, taking her corset off. In fact, the shadow of her is kissing her mouth. Since the painter is almost all black, it could be the painter himself who is undressing her, as indeed he is, in reality, when he gazes on her as he paints her. The artist is undressing his model with his eyes, and in the painting he is undressing her with that little, crawling, right sided, black, hand that, simultaneously, hides her pudenda.

The model is most beautiful. She is Hellenic, as is evident from the broken left arm, which is like the missing arms of the Venus of Melos at the Louvre, and which is also evident in the classic features of her (half) face.

In our painting, the model looks towards the viewer, but above and beyond him, towards the distance, like an ancient statue. I sat in front of the painting for a long time and observed the other viewers as they passed by. They all invariably looked towards the model first. When the viewer approaches the painting, he/she is almost lost in it because it is quite large. And the viewer almost invariably looks towards the model. She is very erotic and appealing. She is a sexual goddess. There are some Cubistic elements even in her classic rendering, like for example that strange nipple in the middle of her right breast, which is rather an odd finding, since the outline of the breasts both point towards a downward looking nipple of their own. But she is beautiful, and her skin has been painted in the color of human flesh.

The entire experience felt as if I was witnessing an outrage, although also, at the same time, a great moment of artistic creation. I think the painting calls for a reading of it that is of the “image as witness.” We are seeing something happening. And in my interpretation, we are witnessing an outrage. A beautiful outrage, but an outrage nonetheless.

The artist, who is almost all in shadow, is literally non-descript. But his profile is rather rakish, with its triangular satanic jaw and beard, and the cigarette dangling from his mouth. And also it is a profile that is enhanced by its background, which is actually a little more lime color than the almost pure yellow you see in the reproduction. The background exalts the painter, shows him as surrounded by a heavenly radiance.

It reminds me of the Byzantine icons, or the early Italian Sienese paintings, where the background is all done in gold leaf to represent the light of Heaven. If you zoom in on the picture you’ll see what I mean. The painter is in heaven, the heaven of redemption through art. He is also the inspired creator, inspired by the light of his Muse. But you see that in his background, not in himself, for he is almost all hidden in the dark, in his black shadow. The artist is a vehicle for the idea, which is to be conveyed from his inspiration to the viewer. And his darkness is also behind the model, undressing her.

Theodor Adorno says in his book, Aesthetic Theory, that when Modernist Art broke away, in the first decade of the twentieth century, from its traditional bondage to institutions, - to the Church, to the Court, and, later to its rich bourgeois patrons -, it took upon itself the promise of an emancipation of mankind. But as the world became uglier all around it, in the course of the twentieth century, and nothing changed, Art became uncertain as to its role and purpose in society. It became guilty. I think this painting of Braque shows that guilt of the artist. That is the ‘outrage’ I referred to above. It is here represented in the very act of creating, because the creation necessitates an outrage: the undressing gaze upon the young woman, her possession in the mind of the artist, her being stolen, as it were, and her ultimate alienation on the canvas, where she will remain as a picture forever, pinned down by the gaze of the artist. This act of painting a young woman, a very traditional motif in Western art, becomes here the object of the artist’s guilt. We are witnesses, in short, to the guilt of the artist and to the outrage that causes it.

Monday, April 5, 2010


"Mens aeterna est, quatenus res sub aeternitatis specie concipit." (The mind is eternal in so far as it conceives things from the standpoint of eternity) [Tr. Schopenhauer] Spinoza, Ethics, V, Prop. 31, schol.)

Schopenhauer quotes Spinoza in this fashion to support his own argument about how to find a way out of the suffering and travail of willing, striving and desiring. Schopenhauer's deep pessimism causes him to look askance on life, insofar as it is the eternal cycle of desire. The only release from this "wheel of Ixion" is possible if the "subject," the self, were to withdraw into purposeless contemplation. To do this, it is necessary for the observer, one's self, to pry the thing we are observing from the context which makes it understandable to us, namely, its context in time, in space, and within laws of causality. I am staring at the computer screen, for example, and it is here (in space), now (at this time of day, today), and I know it because I know what it's for, how it got here, what it does for me; it is enmeshed, in other words, in a whole network of causes and effects that make it understandable to me. If I take all that context away, time, space and causality, what is left is an idea, a thing whose essence I will, hopefully, comprehend as neutral to me. "If, therefore, the object has to such an extent passed out of all relation to something outside it, and the subject has passed out of all relation to the will, what is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea, the eternal form, . . . " World as Will and Idea, Part I, volume I, sec.34, p. 178 of the E.J. Payne translation) [emphasis added]. And there's that other requirement, namely, that the subject, the self, must contemplate without willing, without a "vested interest" in the thing, as it were. And then we have the Ideas in their eternity, conceived from the standpoint of eternity. Then the computer screen, in my instance, becomes an essence, a thought for me to contemplate, and is no longer a tool to use, to write all this down.


Spinoza is recapitulating Plato. Schopenhauer repeatedly refers to Plato's famous Myth of the Cave from the Republic. There, people are chained down staring at a wall in the back of the cave. There's a fire behind them, and between the fire and their backs are people and animals and things, and the shadows of these objects are projected on the wall that people are facing. We see shadows only, says Plato, and can only see the eternal realities if we cast off our chains and turn around, and leave the cave, to see the world in its truth, in what he would call its "reality." Schopenhauer argues that, as long as we are chained to the will, to striving, desiring, living the life of intentions, we are seeing only shadows. We can only see the eternal things that are truly real if we cast off the chains of the will.

Spinoza's house in Rijnsburg

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Tango Negro

What is the Tango Negro? We are familiar with the tango, the Argentinean music, the music of Buenos Aires, immortalized by Carlos Gardel, Astor Piazzolla, Anibal Troilo, so many musicians of the past hundred years: the music of the "arrabal" of Buenos Aires, the working class neighborhoods of the city. But its origins in the culture of the African slaves of the nineteenth century, and their music, the "candombe" or "candombie," have been forgotten, which is what Tango Negro is designed to remind us of.

And here we hear the references to the despot, Juan Manuel de Rosas, who governed the city, the province of Buenos Aires, and the region now known as Argentina, from the 1830's to 1852. The reference to the "owner" who left by sea ("el amo se fue por mar"), is of Rosas, who in 1852, after the Battle of Caseros, took ship and sailed to England and to exile.

Don Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877)

The tango has its origins in the music of the slaves, the "candombe" or "candombié" . What is the connection of Rosas and Tango Negro? To be sure, the presence of the black slaves in Buenos Aires was far more prominent in the days of the hegemony of Rosas than it was later, when the tango became known in Europe, in Paris, and eventually in the salons of Buenos Aires. But there is more here than is hinted at in the juxtaposition of historical chronology, the portrait of an age that had not yet banished the black African slave from Argentinean society, and the culture of slavery that was an intricate part of the life of the city in the days of Rosas.

Rosas, on the far left of the picture, enjoying a Candombie

In the Tango Negro we hear the rythm and structure of African music and the words that would make the tango familiar in later times. It is a synchretism of cultures that has been erased from the history of the tango and from the history of Argentina. But most interestingly, we hear of the nostalgia for a time that is past, from whence the old tango negro has disappeared: "te fuistes sin avisar" (you left without giving notice), and where the candombe was no longer heard: "se acabaron los candombes en el barrio e' Monserrat" (no more 'candombes' in the neighborhood of Monserrat). The lyrics testify to the passing of an age, "Tango negro, tango negro, la cosa se puso mal, no hay más gauchos mazorqueros y Manuelita que ya no está. . . " Black tango, black tango, things have gotten bad, the "mazorqueros," - Rosas' gaucho police force -, are gone, and so is the daughter of the despot, Manuelita, who patronized the 'candombe,' the African slave dances and rythms. The 'tango negro' is thus the testimony of an age and a music that is past, laced with nostalgia, even though it is also the matrix for a music that is not yet born, and that will become the quintessential music of the city of Buenos Aires.

Manuelita Rosas while she was still in Buenos Aires, in the 1840's. Portrait by Prilidiano Pueyrredon (1823-1870)

Lyrics: (English translation below)

Tango negro, tango negro,
te fuiste sin avisar,
los gringos fueron cambiando
tu manera de bailar.
Tango negro, tango negro,
el amo se fue por mar,
se acabaron los candombes
en el barrio ‘e Monserrat.

Más tarde fueron saliendo
en comparsas de carnaval
pero el rito se fue perdiendo
al morirse Baltasar.
Mandingas, Congos y Minas
repiten en el compás,
los toques de sus abuelos
borocotó, borocotó, chas, chas.

Borocotó, borocotó borocotó,
borocotó borocotó, borocotó, chas, chas.

Tango negro, tango negro,
la cosa se puso mal,
no hay más gauchos mazorqueros
y Manuelita que ya no está
Tango negro, tango negro,
los tambores no suenan más
los reyes están de luto
ya nadie los va a aclamar.

English version:

"Gloomy [Black] Tango, Gloomy [black] tango
You left without a warning,
The 'gringos' gradually changed
the manner of your dancing.
Gloomy Tango, gloomy tango,
The Owner went away by sea
the candombes came to an end
In the neighborhood of Monserrat.

In time they still came out
for Comparsas or Carnaval,
but the ritual was forgotten
after the dying of Baltasar.
Mandinga, Congos and Broads
now move to the beat
of their grandparents' sounds:
borocotó, borocotó, chas, chas.

borocotó, borocotó, borocotó,
borocotó, borocotó, borocotó, chas, chas.

Gloomy [Black] tango, gloomy [black] tango,
everything went all wrong.
Gone are the 'mazorquero' gauchos,
and Manuelita is now long gone.
Gloomy tango, gloomy tango
the drums are heard no more,
and the Kings are deep in mourning
that they'll no longer get any applause."

Gainsborough Portrait

Thomas Gainsborough, "'The Morning Walk' William Hallett and His Wife Elizabeth, nee Stephen", 1785 (National Gallery, London)
Willem de Kooning, Clam Digger, Bronze, 1972 (Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York)

[click on images to enhance their size]

"Now, I say, the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, and only in this light (a point of view natural to every one, and one which every one exacts from others as a duty) does it give us pleasure with an attendant claim to the agreement of every one else, . . ." Immanuel Kant, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, (1790), Section 59.

The Kantian notion that "the beautiful" is the morally good, that which is morally correct, and which presupposes that every viewer tacitly agrees on what is beautiful and will enjoy the pleasure of the perceived beauty on that basis, is sustained by a social and political order. [I wrote this sentence a long time ago, and I see now that it is not entirely correct in the way it characterizes what I referred to as the "Kantian notion."  Actually, Kant is of course at pains to point out that his critique of the aesthetic judgment never touches upon the practical reason, or morality, which has to do with will and desire, and not with pleasure. Nevertheless, I have to say that there is an implicit "morality" in Kant's theory of the aesthetic judgment, namely, its reliance on Reason.  As Nietzsche said, behind Reason there is always Morality:  that which is rational is always assumed to be also "good".  But, as well, there is a sense in which Kant's aesthetic theory of consensus, of "that which we are all expected to agree upon" is a form of morality, although a morality about what we feel when we perceive.  So, I don't entirely dismiss what I said, but only wish to clarify it a little.  And, of course, the subject of Kant's great Third Critique is a very complex subject about which a lot has been written, and which I still consider to be, as I did when I first wrote this in Pasadena, in 2005, a very important issue.]

[And, I continue] That is ultimately, after all, what morality is. It says: What *is* is as it *ought* to be. For every one to agree that X is beautiful, there has to be a pre-existing agreement on what is 'allowed' to be beautiful. Beauty is therefore prescribed by authority and undergird by an aristocratic ideal. What is beautiful is what is best and good, and we all must agree on what it is, and, if we 'exact that from others as a duty,' like Kant says, then we have an aristocratical ideal in place, which must be universally acknowledged by the culture."

 Immanuel Kant (1724-18040

For Kant, the beautiful can be the work of art itself, the quality of craftsmanship and creativity that the painting or sculpture reveals, or it may be the subject that the work of art represents

At the time that Kant was writing his third Critique in Koenigsberg, Gainsborough was painting large-scale portraits of his rich bourgeois patrons in England. Once completed, the paintings were no doubt paid for and admired by the sitters, the patrons of the work, their friends and visitors, and eventually by the patrons of the National Gallery in London, to this day. All would, and usually do, agree, that the painting is beautiful and that it is *about* that which is beautiful. One can imagine the comments of the viewers upon seeing the portrait of William and Elizabeth Hallett entitled “The Morning Walk” the portrait illustrated by the copy above: 'What a good likeness of William and Elizabeth Hallett!' 'What a handsome couple' 'What elegance, dignity and aristocratic demeanor!' 'What a beautiful dog!'

How can we say of this painting, as Kant would have said, that it stands for what is morally good?

My feeling, my own subjective assessment in the early twenty first century, is that the painting is indeed beautiful, and it is beautiful because it is elegant, and it represents the idea of elegance, of its beauty, in the age when it was painted.  It  is that the painting is remarkably elegant and, I believe, by far the best, or one of the best, of Gainsborough's great portraits. Even the "Blue Boy" fails to convey the dignity of the aristocratic ideal as this painting does, because of that faint hint of perversity that pervades the portrait of Jonathan Buttall. "The Morning Walk", on the other hand, is quintessentially aristocratic, both in its craftsmanship and artistry, and because of how precisely it represents the ideal of its time: that which was the most aesthetically desirable and best in its society. The question that prompted me to write this is, how does the artist convey this aristocratic ideal, which is the 'beautiful' in the Kantian sense: as "symbolic" of the morally good?

And my argument would be as follows: Every detail of the painting is crafted so as to reveal elegance and dignified demeanor. I know I seem to be begging the question ('Why is it aristocratic? Because it depicts the aristocratic ideal'), but withhold your objections for a moment. The backdrop is theatrical, in that it is carefully designed to *present* the couple to us, as in a play, or a Mozart opera. This 'morning walk' has been staged for us. William walks in his black suit against a dark background, whereas Elizabeth is seen against a background of foliage and clouds. The willowy, feathery, foliage blends easily into a willowy and feathery sky of clouds. The beautiful white dog, the cloudy background, and Elizabeth's white dress form a circle of white light to the left of the painting. The bright white, right leg of William, echoes that white circle of the left hemisphere on the dark right side of the painting, and serves to contrast the polished, smooth, black suit William is wearing, and the darkness of the background against which he moves. Black and white are the colors of bourgeois elegance, from the time of the Puritan revolution to the tuxedo of our times, which is only used in the most important ceremonial occasions. This painting is primarily black and white. The pale greens and browns and pinks of the background don't disturb what is primarily a black and white color scheme. I think this is the key to the elegance of this painting. There are two brief moments of black on Elizabeth, in her hat and belt, contrasting with her white aura, and two brief moments of white on William, his stockings and his neck piece, against the deep darkness of his black suit. The faint violet-purple hues on Elizabeth's veil, over her right arm, the feather in her hat, and on William's wig, which are echoed in the clouds and distant hills of the background, serve to enhance the basic aristocratic black and white palette of this painting.

The demeanor of the couple, as they walk arm in arm, is rich in the expression of an aristocratic ideal. They do not look at the viewer, but rather to the side, indifferent to their public, as if something was happening somewhere to their right, in the distance of the Park. But whatever it is that they are looking at doesn't seem to interest them very much. They show aristocratic indifference. Both have their mouths shut. They appear calm, he is serious and his gaze is a touch more intense than hers. They show aristocratic tranquility. Even the dog at her side doesn't seem to be acting very rambunctiously, as most dogs would on a walk in the Park. The dog is well behaved. William and Elizabeth, nee Stephen, both have their right foot forward, and they pace on their land with confidence. Finally, the hands, the most aristocratic of the extremities of the human body, endlessly worked on, cured, cared for, anointed, gloved, protected and displayed, how are they displayed? It's always a little difficult to know what to do with the hands when they are not being used, particularly when they are not meant to be used, but rather only to be displayed. Where to put them? In this case, Elizabeth holds her veil lightly with her right hand, and her left hand rests on William's crooked arm. His right hand is in his jacket, like Napoleon's would be, later, in his portraits, and his left hand carefully holds on to the flap of his jacket, as if wanting to keep the jacket properly in place. He moves forward as if in a ceremonial procession, very conscious of how he looks, with his bride on his arm. They might as well have been walking up the main aisle of a church, to be wed before an altar.

Gainsborough's painting of "The Morning Walk" presents us with an aristocratic ideal and, at the same time, it preserves in place an aristocratic ideal. That's the point of this esthetic. It's what the Media always does: *This* is what is good and best and morally and esthetically superior. It is 'The Beautiful.' At a time when the English aristocratic society was being ravaged and undermined by the seismic social consequences of the industrial revolution, Gainsborough made a work of art out of the compromised aristocratic ideal of the late eighteenth century. He is saying 'this is what is beautiful and best.' And that is the corroboration of Kant's view of the beautiful, namely, that which is also morally good and correct. The painting upholds a hierarchic state of affairs, which is the threatened status quo of the culture.


One of the tasks of Modernism, it seems to me, was to dethrone this notion of the beautiful. I don't know whether it has replaced it. The bronze sculpture of Willem de Kooning, which I illustrate below, is a representation of a working dude, a clam digger on any empty beach. It depicts the worker on his own, alone on the earth, surviving through his brutalizing and body-destroying labor. The man holds some objects in his gouged and mangled arms. His hands have disappeared into the amorphous objects he carries in them. His rough, wobbly, legs, stand on huge, clod-hopping, booted, feet. These are the big, earth-bound feet that carry him daily through his labors. His face is anonymous, his eye sockets empty. He is a clod of earth. If the artist hadn't told us the creature is a clam digger we wouldn't know what kind of a human it was, except that he was a laboring human. It is a human being, in all its pathos and courage and dignity that the sculpture represents. But is it beautiful?

Let's say that we can make an argument that Claim Digger is a work that contains the beautiful in it, and I can't think of many people that would say so, is it still a "symbol" of what is "morally good?" Does it represent *what ought to be* as the Gainsborough painting intends to do? Or does it simply represent *what is*?

Notes on Romanticism: Part 3

Wordsworth, “Lines: Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798. from Lyrical Ballads [London: J. & A. Arch, 1798]

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

Tintern Abbey on the Wye

“No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of four or five days, with my Sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol. It was published almost immediately after in the little volume of which so much has been said in these Notes.”--(Wordsworth, The Lyrical Ballads, as first published at Bristol by Cottle.)

My concern here turns on the notion of a Philosophy of Nature, the Pantheism of the Romantics. As well, the discovery of the self, which is the subject of my Notes on Romanticism, Parts 1 and 2, on Goethe's Werther, now leads to the more ambitious subject of The Ego in Nature: “Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part / Of me and of my soul, as I of them?” Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, III, lxxv. Once again, the fundamental notion of nostalgia is central here, and particularly in its context as a re-visitation.

My concern is with the question of the relationship of the emancipated 'self' of the early Romantics and the relationship with "Nature" that was crafted onto it. Both are intimately related to one another in this discourse. In the poems of Hölderlin, for example, the self is directly reflected in Nature. Nature speaks of the absence in the poet's soul, the lack within his heart, after the gods have departed.

In Wordsworth, however, a more objective consideration of Nature begins to emerge. The Prelude is a well-known paean to the nature of the poet's homeland. But in 'Tintern Abbey,' Nature and the Gothic become the vehicles of nostalgia. And they are something else as well: they are a much needed refuge from the contemporary reality of the poet's life. The phenomenon that has come to be known as the 'industrial revolution' had unleashed a dramatic confrontation between man and Nature, where Nature came to be exploited for the sake of production determined by markets. In a whirlwind of change that began as far back as the seventeenth century, and first of all in England, not only was the economic and the social structure of the country forever changed, but its landscape as well underwent a process of transformation which is still visible in its scars and contrasts. Red brick factories rose next to Gothic church steeples in the hills and vales of England, canals cut through the fields, pits and mines were gouged out of the earth, and small towns invaded their surrounding farmlands, pitting and pocking the landscapes, a monstrously ugly process that was clearly visible during Wordsworth's life time.

The unstoppable dynamic of the industrial revolution moved to exploit the population of England no less ruthlessly than it did its landscape. In his early poems, Wordsworth had exposed the miserable lives of urban dwellers and of the children of the poor, as he became a notorious commentator on what was then known as the "condition of England question."

However, this was not going to be the tenor of the poem celebrating his return to Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth could not have expounded on nostalgia and past loves, on the search for absence, in such famous landscapes of the changing England of his own day, subject of so many discussions and parliamentary debates, such as the famous furnaces of the West Country, Coalbrookdale (Loutherbourg's painting of Coalbrookdale at night, 1801, below), the desolation of industrial landscapes (print of Lombe's silk mill at Derby, below), the iron bridges of the industrial revolution (cast iron bridge at Coalbrookdale, 1779, below), or the Birmingham canals. He chose instead, as he had to, the ruin of a Gothic Abbey, untouched in its green, sylvan, environment since the looting of the monasteries in the sixteenth century. This was required by his own intent at idealization, which is the underlying psychological mechanism of nostalgia.

Louthenbourg, Coalbrookdale, 1801

Lombe's Silk Mill (1719):
the most advanced factory in
the early eighteenth century

Coalbrookdale, Cast iron bridge built in 1779, considered a
marvel of engineering prowess at the time.

Preston Bridge with industrial landscape
in Lancashire


FIVE years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.--Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,

Gainsborough, The Cottage Door, 1780

Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone. These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:--feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,--
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Gainsborough, Landscape

If this Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft--
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart--
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.--I cannot paint
What then I was.

Gainsborough, The Marsham children 1787

The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.--That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

Gainsborough, Cornard Wood

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,--both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being. Nor perchance,
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,

Gainsborough, Portrait of his daughters 1759

My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance--
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence--wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love--oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!


Tintern Abbey