"I have no intention of marking Pete Seeger's passing by relitigating the Cold War. A lot of very good people paid a ghastly and inordinate price for having spent the 1930s and 1940s looking for a solution to an economic catastrophe outside a political spectrum that ran from Herbert Hoover to Huey Long. Seeger spent his life in the most honorable way possible -- he tried to teach America about itself. First, he helped teach it about itself through all the music it had forgotten, a darker and infinitely more fascinating place than the America that was selling itself Brylcreem on the TV, an America of murder ballads, and of the pain wrought in music of all its lost promises, and of the hope that the music itself could redeem those lost promises..."
Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee- "Down By The Riverside"
This Land Is Your Land Words and Music by Woody Guthrie
This land is your land This land is my land From California to the New York island; From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters This land was made for you and Me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway, I saw above me that endless skyway: I saw below me that golden valley: This land was made for you and me.
I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts; And all around me a voice was sounding: This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling, And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling, As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting: This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there And on the sign it said "No Trespassing." But on the other side it didn't say nothing, That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, By the relief office I seen my people; As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me, As I go walking that freedom highway; Nobody living can ever make me turn back This land was made for you and me.
Bonus Track: Pete Seeger & Johnny Cash Sing "Worried Man Blues"
Halloween is commonly thought to have pagan origins, even though its etymology is Christian.Halloween is, quite literally, the popular derivative of All Hallow Even, or the eve of All Saints’ Day (1 November).Taken together with All Souls’ Day, which falls on 2 November, it is a time
assigned in the Christian calendar for honoring the saints and the newly departed.In past centuries, it was also the occasion for praying for souls in purgatory.Yet because Halloween is popularly associated with the supernatural, it is often believed to have strong pagan roots that were never eliminated by the holiday’s subsequent Christianization.
Some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia.More typically, it has been linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain or Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in) meaning summer’s end.
(excerpt from Halloween- From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers)
All Souls by Edith Wharton (published in Scribner’s Magazine 1909)
A thin moon faints in the sky o'erhead, And dumb in the churchyard lie the dead. Walk we not, Sweet, by garden ways, Where the late rose hangs and the phlox delays, But forth of the gate and down the road, Past the church and the yews, to their dim abode. For it's turn of the year and All Souls' night, When the dead can hear and the dead have sight.
Fear not that sound like wind in the trees: It is only their call that comes on the breeze; Fear not the shudder that seems to pass: It is only the tread of their feet on the grass; Fear not the drip of the bough as you stoop: It is only the touch of their hands that grope-- For the year's on the turn and it's All Souls' night, When the dead can yearn and the dead can smite.
And where should a man bring his sweet to woo But here, where such hundreds were lovers too? Where lie the dead lips that thirst to kiss, The empty hands that their fellows miss, Where the maid and her lover, from sere to green, Sleep bed by bed, with the worm between? For it's turn of the year and All Souls' night, When the dead can hear and the dead have sight.
And now they rise and walk in the cold, Let us warm their blood and give youth to the old. Let them see us and hear us, and say: "Ah, thus In the prime of the year it went with us!" Till their lips drawn close, and so long unkist, Forget they are mist that mingles with mist! For the year's on the turn, and it's All Souls' night, When the dead can burn and the dead can smite.
Till they say, as they hear us--poor dead, poor dead!-- "Just an hour of this, and our age-long bed-- Just a thrill of the old remembered pains To kindle a flame in our frozen veins, A touch, and a sight, and a floating apart, As the chill of dawn strikes each phantom heart-- For it's turn of the year and All Souls' night, When the dead can hear and the dead have sight."
And where should the living feel alive But here in this wan white humming hive, As the moon wastes down, and the dawn turns cold, And one by one they creep back to the fold? And where should a man hold his mate and say: "One more, one more, ere we go their way"? For the year's on the turn, and it's All Souls' night, When the living can learn by the churchyard light.
And how should we break faith who have seen Those dead lips plight with the mist between, And how forget, who have seen how soon They lie thus chambered and cold to the moon? How scorn, how hate, how strive, we too, Who must do so soon as those others do? For it's All Souls' night, and break of the day, And behold, with the light the dead are away. . .
ALASKA: In a pit house dating to around A.D. 1200, archaeologists uncovered a cast-bronze buckle that appears to be East Asian in origin and older than the house in which it was found. The oldest known cast bronze in Alaska, the artifact may have been part of a horse fitting, perhaps traded in from as far away as Manchuria. It was probably used as a charm or noisemaker by a local Inupiat shaman. (Courtesy Jeremy Foin, University of California, Davis)
TEXAS: The last issue of Archaeology detailed sites at risk (Top Ten Discoveries of 2011"), including those exposed by the drought in Texas. In addition to wrecks and human remains, receding waterlines revealed a mysterious 4-foot aluminum sphere. NASA officials confirmed that it was a fuel-cell tank from the space shuttle Columbia, which was destroyed during reentry in 2003. Along with other remains from the shuttle, it can teach us something about the effects of high-speed atmospheric reentry. (Courtesy Nacogdoches, Texas, Police Department)
GRENADA: People on the tiny island of Carriacou may have feasted on animals imported from South America over 1,000 years ago. Remains of South American animals, including piglike peccaries, armadillos, and guinea pigs—none of which are native to the island today—were excavated from prehistoric middens. The find suggests regular contact between natives and people on other islands and the mainland, but because the bones are scarce, archaeologists think only a select, high-status few got to eat these exotic treats. (Wikimedia Commons)
ENGLAND: Using stable isotope analysis, researchers examined remains of infants from the crypt at Christ Church in Spitalfields, London, to study breastfeeding in the 18th and 19th centuries. They found that prolonged breastfeeding was common in the 19th century among this relatively well-off population, which does not necessarily agree with the idea that more women were entering the workforce at the time as a result of industrialization. The breastfeeding mothers of these infants may have had the means to hire wet nurses—or they may have been homebound due to an economic downturn. (Wikimedia Commons)
SWITZERLAND: High-end Swiss watchmaker Hublot has created a wrist-mounted version of the Antikythera Mechanism, the mysterious 2,000-yearold astronomical machine recovered from a Greek shipwreck in 1901. It contains 495 precision elements in a 3x4-centimeter package. The manufacturers claim that it is the first watch inspired by an archaeological finding. Would a wrist-mounted sundial count? (Courtesy Hublot)
CHINA: A cracked skull may be the oldest known evidence of interpersonal aggression among modern humans. A CT scan of the skull, which is around 130,000 years old and known as Maba Man, revealed evidence of severe blunt force trauma, possibly from a clubbing. Remodeling of the bone around the injury, however, shows that he survived the blow and possibly was well cared for after his injury—for months or even years. (Courtesy Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Science)
JAPAN: An excavation at a train yard in Dazaifu has revealed the remains of two large, prestigious buildings, as well as expensive eating utensils and pottery. The finds, including tin and copper alloy spoons, Chinese and Korean pots, and Nara tricolored ware (the finest tableware in Japan at the time), date to the 8th and 9th centuries. The assemblage appears to identify the site as a diplomatic facility, mentioned in ancient documents, that housed and fed envoys from China and Korea. (Courtesy Nobumasa Inoue, Board of Education of Dazaifu, Japan)
PAKISTAN: 4,500-year-old Indus city of Harappa is thought to have been relatively peaceful. A new analysis of human remains excavated at the site found that while the overall level of violence in the city was on the low side for a statelevel society, it was not evenly distributed. Some communities endured much higher levels of trauma, inflicted on women in particular, suggesting a potentially brutal social hierarchy. (Images of Asia)
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: The seafaring Lapita, who settled the South Pacific more than 3,000 years ago, were not thought to have lived in Papua New Guinea. Findings from a new dig there have overturned that idea. The remains of several villages, including stone tools, shell ornaments, and thousands of pottery fragments have been discovered. The site is both unusually deep—including pre- and post-Lapita sequences—and perhaps the largest Lapita landscape yet discovered. According to researchers, the site opens a whole new chapter in Pacific history. (Courtesy Steve Mortin, Monash University)
OMAN: It's often thought that modern humans emerged from Africa through the Arabian Peninsula by hugging its shores, which may have protected them from swings in climate. However, 100,000-year-old stone tools found in the Dhofar Mountains suggest that some people traveled over the now arid—though once wet—interior. The find adds another layer of complexity and understanding to the path that modern humans took on their way around the world. (Courtesy Jeffrey Rose, University of Birmingham)
Starting in 2012, at the end of each month, I will be posting world archaeology news here at The Athenaeum. Also plan to participate in digs on the West Coast of CA & will periodically post journal entries from that as well.
CALIFORNIA: Over 7,500 years, the skulls of the Chumash people and those of their ancestors gradually shrank. Scientists think that these people, who inhabited coastal California for over 10,000 years, might have suffered a long-term health decline and growth impairment from exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), common pollutants found in oil and coal. The Chumash had extensive and increasing exposure to PAHs through tar, which they used to seal baskets and canoes, applied to the body as medicine, and even chewed like gum. (Courtesy Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)
NEW YORK:During demolition at what was once Bellevue Hospital Medical College, a 15-pound metal box, sealed on November 14, 1897, was discovered. Among student registries and notebooks found in the time capsule was a vial containing spores of Clostridium perfringens, bacteria that live in the intestine. Bacteriologist Edward Dunham included them so future generations could check if they were still viable. They weren't, but doctors today might be able to observe how bacteria have changed since the introduction of antibiotics in the late 1920s. (Courtesy New York University Langone Medical Center)
LOUISIANA: In the time before bridges made the bayou more accessible, small rafts and cable ferries were the only path into the swamps and between plantations. Now, in a few tarred wooden platforms and some rusted gearwork, a river guide might have located the remains of Vester's Crossing, one of the last cable ferries—a boat pulled back and forth via cable—in the area. The site may become part of a heritage paddle trail. (Courtesy Web Helbling, Bastrop Daily Enterprise)
NORWAY: As glaciers recede, hundreds of artifacts are discovered each year. One of the latest finds was a men's tunic or coat that emerged from a glacier in Breheimen National Park. Dating to the 4th century A.D., the wool garment—made with an advanced technique called diamond twill—is one of very few known from this period in Europe. Without close attention, many of the artifacts that emerge from melting ice will be lost—decomposed or washed away—before they can be studied. (Vivian Wangen, Museum of Cultural History, UiO)
SPACE: One of the next frontiers for archaeology is out of this world. Scientists in England are attempting to contact Prospero, a satellite launched in 1971, to see how its circuits have held up. First, they have had to rummage for the satellite's communications codes and build custom equipment, and now they are attempting to make contact by sending a simple signal. NASA has also begun drafting guidelines to protect three dozen lunar sites, including the Apollo 11 and 17 landing sites. The guidelines could include ground-level boundaries and no-fly zones—for when private spaceships (and even tourists) start arriving. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)
AUSTRALIA: Hanged for the murder of three policemen 131 years ago, Ned Kelly—the country's most notorious bushranger and outlaw—is considered both folk hero and killer. He robbed banks, wore homemade armor to his final confrontation with police, and reflected the tension between poor Irish settlers and the wealthy Anglo elite. Following his execution, Kelly was buried in a mass grave. Forensic scientists, ending decades of speculation, have identified his bones by comparing DNA with a descendant's. But his skull, perhaps separated as a souvenir, remains at large. (Damien Plemming, The Age, Courtesy Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine)
TURKEY: On the Gallipoli battlefield of World War I, where Allied armies, including soldiers from Australia and New Zealand called Anzacs, were defeated by Ottoman forces, archaeological surveys have revealed some of the battlefield conditions, which historical sources state were quite dreadful. In particular, it appears the Anzacs were eating canned or stale food, while the Turkish forces had frontline kitchens, suggesting they had access to hot meals. Other artifacts found include water bottles with bullet holes in them, fragments of barbed wire, and expended ammunition. (Courtesy Antonio Sagona, University of Melbourne)
KENYA: From the banks of Lake Turkana archaeologists have excavated what they believe are the oldest "advanced" stone tools yet discovered. At 1.78 million years old, the handaxes are the oldest known examples of Acheulean tools, probably made by Homo erectus, and predate other examples by 300,000 years. Compared with older, cruder stone tools, the handaxes are heavier and have sharp edges for butchering, scraping, and smashing. The find raises interesting questions about which early humans first left Africa and what tool technologies they took with them. (Courtesy Pierre-Jean Texier, National Center of Scientific Research, France)
EGYPT: An analysis of 15 mummy hair samples shows just how important styling was more than 2,000 years ago. To understand how the complex hairdos were achieved and maintained after death, scientists studied coatings on the hair with electron microscopy and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. They found that the ancient Egyptians used a kind of fatty hair gel to keep their hair coiffed in both life and the afterlife. The absence of embalming materials in the hair suggests that it was covered during mummification. (A. Aufderheide, Courtesy Natalie McCreesh, University of Manchester)
EL SALVADOR:Under 17 feet of volcanic ash at the ancient Maya city of Ceren, archaeologists have discovered a raised road called a sacbe. Usually these roads, connecting temples, plazas, or towns, were lined with stone, but this one, which probably led to two ceremonial buildings nearby, was not. In the absence of the stones, the rapid burial by the eruption of the Loma Caldera volcano helped keep it intact for identification. (Courtesy Payson Sheets, University of Colorado)
This is the season when religious symbolism is prominent – especially in the Christian world. We tend to assume that similar symbols figure in the same manner in other religions. That is not so. Buddhism is the notable example of why.
The Buddha image is the most exceptional of religious icons. Its aesthetic is unique. Sculptures, paintings and photos have made it as familiar as portraits of Jesus on the cross. Ubiquity, though, has voided it of mystery and meaning. For stylistic simplicity makes it all too easy to miss the refinements of expression that convey the essence of Buddhist cosmology. The observer thereby fails to grasp its value as an aid to meditation as well.
In the first centuries after Siddhartha’s death, the emergent spiritual movement that was early Buddhism created no images of their guide. That was not due to any prohibition on physical representations such as that laid down in Islam against depictions of Allah or Mohammed. Rather, it reflected two cardinal features of Siddhartha and the religion that he inspired. Paramount is the central fact that he was not a prophet, did not see himself as a prophet and was not viewed as a prophet by his disciples. Comparisons with the prophetic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are quite beside the point. The Buddha did not claim to be a messenger for an anthropomorphic god or have special access to any sort of Supreme Being. Indeed, unlike the Hindu sages of his times he never affirmed the existence of a universal spirit or immanent consciousness. In other words, his perspective deviates from the core Vedic concepts of the individual atman as an emanation of the universal brahman. That distinction was the theological difference that has separated the two great Indian religions.
Buddha’s teaching stemmed from two elemental truths. The first, experiential and inferential, is that human life is a veil of tears. We suffer because the practicalities of life are painful and pain is everywhere, because we are afflicted with illness and the dread of death, and because we cannot make sense of any of this. The human condition. His answer offers no fairy tales of salvation or a paradisiacal afterlife. There is no cosmic drama, no creation myths – not even the consolation of belief in a spiritual unity at some deep level of existence as with the Hindu’s ‘divine ground of being.’ Buddha’s austere teaching speaks only of the state of Nirvana which, once attained, liberates us from a world where we are consumed by the cares and things of this world. Those cares and things have no fixed reality or meaning; they are no more than transitory states of mind that are in constant flux.
Nirvana is commonly described as ‘nothingness’ or a ‘void.’ From our commonplace perspective it seems as such. (For example, how we feel when hung-over on a Sunday morning and awaken to the drone of politicos on Sunday morning talk shows). But the Buddhist conception is of unnatural serenity and bliss. It is what persons feel when they are in the most rarified mystical experience - or ‘zero experience’ as it called (itself a misnomer). That experience is transformative insofar as one retains a residual awareness of the insignificance of our prosaic wants and passions. Hence, we can live at peace with ourselves and our condition. Upon physical death, those who have achieved Nirvana will forever be in that state.
How then can the ineffable be conveyed? The only way that Buddhists have found to do so is to represent the Buddha as he appeared when in Nirvana. There is reason to assume that Siddhartha was born with the propensity to slip into the zero experience with relative frequency. Unlike other famed mystics, he had no preconceived religious beliefs or doctrine to which he could revert for supernatural explanations. Nor any inclination therefore to concoct a doctrine to attach readily comprehensible meaning to his experiences, i.e. become a prophet. To put it somewhat differently, he was disposed not to – since he was surrounded by the rich, symbol laden and inquiring spirituality that pervaded early Hindu India that could have inclined him in that direction.
So the tangible Buddha image bears the heavy weight of coming as close as possible to hinting at the ultimate intangible. The great, unmatched achievement of the finest Buddhist sculptures is to do exactly that. These supreme masterpieces literally raise the aesthetic to the plane of the most distant spirituality - all with no or the very slightest symbolism as an assist.
(To what extent they also serve to assist the seeker of Nirvana to advance toward his goal is unknowable). The artist’s success, therefore, cannot readily be explained in terms of particular features or technique as in commonly done for Western art forms depicting religious figures. Why some piece of sculpture succeeds while others do not probably has something to do with the particular artist’s own inner spiritual aesthetic. The subtleties that make the difference are unlikely to be consciously planned; they confer the sentiment of piece’s creator at the time of creation.
Some time spent in the presence of one of these exceptional sculptures allows us to sense the difference. That is, we sense something that is absent when we view less exalted works even where their depiction of Buddha is well done by technical standards. The physical differences are ones of millimeters in size, curvature and plane. It would be illuminating to place them side by side, but that opportunity rarely presents itself. I possess one high grade, if not masterpiece, Buddha. I also have a couple of heads done by Thai artists who sought to emulate the purest of Khmer and Ayodhya classic works using the same materials and conception. After a while, it becomes evident that the ‘true’ sculpture evokes feelings that the excellent modern work does not.
This not simply a matter of aesthetics as conventionally understand. Some of the most exquisite works of Buddhist art are from the Gandharan period. These refined pieces display the influence of classical Greek sculpture. Of unsurpassed beauty, they remain of this world. To my eyes at least, they do not manage to convey that extra-worldly dimension that their finest counterparts in Indian, Khmer, Thai, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese Buddhist sculptures somehow realize.
These subtle issues of the Buddha images’ spiritual aesthetic bear on the religious life of the most Buddhists only slightly. For few intentionally seek advance toward Nirvana through contemplation of Siddhartha’s image. Ritual, virtuous deeds, ecstatic devotion, immersion in the learned texts are all avenues that the faithful can follow to find edification. Together they compose the rich legacy of a religion whose stringent eschatology is oddly permissive of a full range of spiritual practices. Siddhartha is a pervasive presence in all forms of Buddhist religious expression – as guide, teacher, model, and icon. So, too, is his image. Through two and a half millennia, it has evolved as the visual expression of a multiform religious persona. Siddhartha could not avoid being cast as the incarnation and the embodiment of all truth. So he is the object of devotion for Buddhists desiring inspiration, hope, consolation and wisdom as well as the ultimate release. The Buddha’s teaching of transcendence of the world we experience did not preclude his prescribing principles for the virtuous life. Like the other great sages of the Axial Age, his abiding concern was the well being of all humanity while in this mortal coil even as we navigate the path that leads beyond it.
This is the season when tourists flock to museums abroad in search of inspiration or edification. Most are satisfied with registering impressions. A few submit themselves to the tutorial provided by cassette and headphone. The art student dwells on form and technique. Only over time do we stumble across the puzzles, the stories and the inner meanings that elude both casual viewing and scholasticism.
The realization that something is there that needs explication crystallizes unpredictably. One such encounter occurred while strolling through the Renaissance galleries of the Uffizi. It suddenly struck me that Jesus is invariably portrayed with the same visage and expression. His face is placid, the expression disengaged, the look that of a mild -tempered man who feels for others. Stylization to this degree is understandable in Buddhist representations of Gautama. Still, those convey an inner force, a commanding silence. And, the Buddha has achieved Nirvana. Jesus, though, was of this world - whatever his emanation and spiritual essence. He acted and reacted with others. Yet little if any emotion is evident, even when involved in acts of great drama. The Jesus casting the money changers out of the Temple (a Rembrandt excepted), the Jesus walking on the waters of the Galilee, and the Jesus taking the Last Supper in awareness of what awaited him appear no different from Jesus the pacific soul in more prosaic settings that painters have drawn for us. Of course, the Calvary is a different story - but the puzzle of why such uniformity in other scenes remains.
Prophets are men of passion. They radiate great force. They fire the spirits of their followers. They are charismatic in the true sense. There is no blaze in the eyes of the Jesus shown to us. There is no physical expression whatsoever of whom he is. The Jesus who has come down to us doesn't even stand out among his disciples. If he weren't seated in the center at the Last Supper and crowned with a halo, we'd have to look carefully in order to identify him - in many renderings, anyway. The Roman authorities had to bribe Judas to identify the scourge of Jerusalem – as it is recounted. I know of only one painting that deviates from this norm. The Renaissance painter Melozzo da Forli did a stunning Christ portrait that hangs in the Palazza Ducale of Urbino. His Jesus has intense eyes that burn like ice. They bore into you. His Jesus could stir the soul. I suspect that Melozzo had a keen insight into the psychology of prophecy that eluded his fellow artists. He painted the son of God - not a pious saint.
Pictorial representations of Mary observe the same pattern of stylization and emotional neutrality. There is one occasion in the biblical story that allows for deviation from that aesthetic norm - the Annunciation. The young woman (always so portrayed) hearing the stunning message from the heraldic archangel Gabriel reacts with emotions ranging from apprehension through wonderment to awe. This medley of emotions is brilliantly conveyed in the gilded sculpture of Donatello that serves as the centerpiece for the Tabernacle of the Annunziate in the church of Santa Croce, in Florence. Although scenes of the Annunciation leave some room for individual artistic expression, there are still implicit rules that artists have followed. Mary is innocent, she is tender, she is ethereal.
Here, too, I know only one exception. Antonello da Messina, a 15th century painter from Sicily, gave us quite a different Mary. She is an exquisite young lady with a face of refined sensuality. The artist captures her at the first moment she hears the flutter of angel wings at the door. Her expression suggests that she has surmised the message, finds the portending offer less than irresistible, and is prepared to tell Gabriel that the woman he is looking for lives across the street. There is no record of Antonello having run afoul of the ecclesiastical authorities as a consequence of his profane realism. However, a later portrayal of the same lady wearing the same bright blue shawl at the moment of Annunciation suggests that he either suffered a pang of religious conscience or had it pricked for him by the powers that be. Indeed, it goes to an emotional extreme rarely seen in the Mary iconography.
By the way, why are Mary's eyebrows always plucked? And why does she often sport mascara?
Modernism is something that we all grew up with. It’s in our aesthetic bloodstream. We tend to take its forms and modes of expression as natural; after all, it has been the dominant aesthetic motif for a century. Some of its features are more pronounced, and obvious, than others. In literature, music, and much painting the common trait that our senses perceive is its jagged, disconnected, and fragmented nature. Those are also features of our current lives – a case of art anticipating life? For the artists who were the fountainheads of modernism actually lived in social settings quite coherent and orderly by today’s standards.
The motor force of the modernist movement was freedom of self expression, the rebellion against the constraints of all formalisms. Rules were the enemy. The society and the culture that insisted on fixed norms imprisoned the self. Modern art was at once an act of liberation and an assault on the established order. Disorder became seen as virtuous by its very apposition to all convention. There is an intriguing connection between modernism’s claim to unbridled liberty and the way that it has shaped the physical environment in which we live.
That trait stands out when our attention turns to architecture and décor. It this sphere, disorder gave way to clarity; complexity to simplicity. Uncluttered, clean, spare are the words that come to mind. For some, such a setting provides maximum room for a rationally organized and directed existence. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the renowned positivist philosopher, designed and minutely supervised the construction of a house in Norway that was an exemplar of the modernist philosophy. Every linear specification was realized with exactitude. Austerity of décor matched the architectural precision. Its interior was occupied by little more than the philosopher himself. There are more recognizable exemplars.
Think of Bauhaus design that has so profoundly influenced modern visual sensibility. Think of Le Corbusier and the regular lines of the omnipresent office block or commercial park that is its derivative. Think of the bleakly functional Pompidou Centre in Paris. Think of up-scale Italian décor. The physical environment they have modeled for us is sleek and unencumbered. It is pale. The living habitat emphasizes open space. It invites us to do what we will within that space. It’s almost as if the modernist motto in this domain is: “it’s up to you.” There is no dictation of what to pay attention to since there is so little to look at. The stark geometric alignments offer only bare hints as to how we may arrange the space they compose. We are encouraged, in fact, not to fill the space with things. A spare abstract painting here, a bit of fabric there, a slight modulation of color tones. That is about it. The unstated message is a powerful one: this is about you – only you.
This is narcissism friendly terrain – no threat, no challenge, no contender or contention for the imperial self. The narcissistic personality implicitly rejects all claims on it by opinion, by custom or even by visual obstruction. The absence of a defined aesthetic order, like a nihilistic public disorder, offers a convenient blank canvas for the socially disengaged.
The age of modernism is the age of self-conscious individualism. That strong affinity is mutually reinforcing. The very fact of whom and what a person is takes precedence over how he participates in a social environment. The ‘authentic’ individual self is somehow detached from any intense social interaction. Whatever comes out of that pristine self is thereby privileged as being truest and most genuine. It is sacrilized. Minimalism is taken as an implicit virtue since it does not ask us to express anything deep or complicated - feelings, thoughts or emotions. For just trying to plumb those depths can interfere with what really counts: the self-absorbed, self-referential and restless individual doing his thing – however superficial and fleeting that thing may be. From the outset, the modernists’ envisaged community of free spirits risked materializing as an assemblage of narcissists. So it has.