please see attached instructions
The Value of the Humanities
Read/review the following resources for this activity:
· Textbook: Chapter 1
· Book: Humanities through the Arts by F. David Martin
· Minimum of 1 scholarly source (in addition to the textbook)
Initial Post Instructions
For the initial post, address the following:
· What is the value of studying the humanities in the field of health professions?
· How might a topic such as art, literature, music, dance, etc. from other time periods enhance your career and personal life in the present?
· Select one aspect of the humanities that is meaningful to your personal life and one for your career. Explain how is each meaningful.
· In addition, include a specific example of a work (a specific work of art, literature, theater, or music) that you feel is meaningful to your personal life and/or career. Explain the connection
THE HUMANITIES: AN INTRODUCTION
The Humanities: A Study of Values
Today we think of the humanities as those broad areas of human creativity and study, such as philosophy, history, social sciences, the arts, and literature, that are distinct from mathematics and the “hard” sciences, mainly because in the humanities, strictly objective or scientific standards are not usually dominant.
The current separation between the humanities and the sciences reveals itself in a number of contemporary controversies. For example, the cloning of animals has been greeted by many people as a possible benefit for domestic livestock farmers. Genetically altered wheat, soybeans, and other cereals have been heralded by many scientists as a breakthrough that will produce disease-resistant crops and therefore permit us to continue to increase the world food supply. On the other hand, some people resist such modifications and purchase food identified as not being genetically altered. Scientific research into the human
genome has identified certain genes for inherited diseases, such as breast cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, that could be modified to protect individuals or their offspring. Genetic research also suggests that in a few years individuals may be able to “design” their children’s intelligence, body shape, height, general appearance, and physical ability.
Scientists provide the tools for these choices. Their values are centered in science in that they value the nature of their research and their capacity to make it work in a positive way. However, the impact on humanity of such a series of dramatic changes to life brings to the fore values that clash with one another. For example, is it a positive social value for couples to decide the sex of their offspring rather than following nature’s own direction? In this case who should decide if “designing” one’s offspring is a positive value, the scientist or the humanist?
Even more profound is the question of cloning a human being. Once a sheep had been cloned successfully, it was clear that this science would lead directly to the possibility of a cloned human being. Some proponents of cloning support the process because we could clone a child who has died in infancy or clone a genius who has given great gifts to the world. For these people, cloning is a positive value. For others, the very thought of cloning a person is repugnant on the basis of religious belief. For still others, the idea of human cloning is objectionable because it echoes the creation of an unnatural monster, and for them it is a negative value. Because this is a worldwide problem, local laws will have limited effect on establishing a clear position on the value of cloning of all sorts. The question of how we decide on such a controversial issue is at the heart of the humanities, and some observers have pointed to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus, which in some ways enacts the conflict among these values.
These examples demonstrate that the discoveries of scientists often have tremendous impact on the values of society. Yet some scientists have declared that they merely make the discoveries and that others—presumably politicians—must decide how the discoveries are to be used. It is this last statement that brings us closest to the importance of the humanities. If many scientists believe they cannot judge how their discoveries are to be used, then we must try to understand why they give that responsibility to others. This is not to say that scientists uniformly turn such decisions over to others, for many of them are humanists as well as scientists. But the fact remains that many governments have made use of great scientific achievements without pausing to ask the “achievers” if they approved of the way their discoveries were being used. The questions are, Who decides how to use such discoveries? On what grounds should their judgments be based?
Studying the behavior of neutrinos or string theory will not help us get closer to the answer. Such study is not related to the nature of humankind but to the nature of nature. What we need is a study that will get us closer to ourselves. It should be a study that explores the reaches of human feeling in relation to values—not only our own individual feelings and values but also the feelings and values of others. We need a study that will increase our sensitivity to ourselves, others, and the values in our world. To be sensitive is to perceive with insight. To be sensitive is also to feel and believe that things make a difference. Furthermore,
it involves an awareness of those aspects of values that cannot be measured by objective standards. To be sensitive is to respect the humanities, because, among other reasons, they help develop our sensitivity to values, to what is important to us as individuals.
Cave painting from Chauvet Caves, France. Discovered in 1994, the Chauvet Caves have yielded some of the most astonishing examples of prehistoric art the world has seen. These aurochs may have lived as many as 35,000 years ago, while the painting itself seems as modern as a contemporary work.
©Javier Trueba/MSF/Science Source
There are numerous ways to approach the humanities. The way we have chosen here is the way of the arts. One of the contentions of this book is that values are clarified in enduring ways in the arts. Human beings have had the impulse to express their values since the earliest times. Ancient tools recovered from the most recent Ice Age, for example, have features designed to express an affection for beauty as well as to provide utility.
The concept of progress in the arts is problematic. Who is to say whether the cave paintings (Figure 1-1) of 30,000 years ago that were discovered in present-day France are less excellent than the work of Picasso (Figure 1-4)? Cave paintings were probably not made as works of art to be contemplated. Getting to them in the caves is almost always difficult, and they are very hard to see. They seem to have been made for a practical purpose, such as improving the prospects for the hunt. Yet the work reveals something about the power, grace, and beauty of all the animals it portrayed. These cave paintings function now as works of art. From the beginning, our species instinctively had an interest in making revealing forms.
Among the numerous ways to approach the humanities, we have chosen the way of the arts because, as we shall try to elucidate, the arts clarify or reveal values. As we deepen our understanding of the arts, we necessarily deepen our understanding of values. We will study our experience with works of art as well as the values others
associate with them, and in this process we will also educate ourselves about our own values.
Because a value is something that matters, engagement with art—the illumination of values—enriches the quality of our lives significantly. Moreover, the subject matter of art—what it is about—is not limited to the beautiful and the pleasant, the bright sides of life. Art may also include and help us understand the dark sides—the ugly, the painful, and the tragic. And when it does and when we get it, we are better able to come to grips with those dark sides of life.
Art brings us into direct communication with others. As Carlos Fuentes wrote in The Buried Mirror, “People and their cultures perish in isolation, but they are born or reborn in contact with other men and women of another culture, another creed, another race. If we do not recognize our humanity in others, we shall not recognize it in ourselves.” Art reveals the essence of our existence.
Art, Commerce, and Taste
When the great paintings of the Italian Renaissance were being made, their ultimate value hinged on how good they were, how fully they expressed the values—usually religious but sometimes political—that the culture expected. Michelangelo’s great, heroic-sized statue of David in Florence was admired for its representation of the values of self-government by the small city-state as well as for its simple beauty of proportion. No dollar figure was attached to the great works of this period—except for the price paid to the artists. Once these works were in place, no one expressed admiration for them because they would cost a great deal in the marketplace.
Today the art world has changed profoundly and is sometimes thought to be art of an essentially commercial enterprise. Great paintings today change hands for tens of millions of dollars. Moreover, the taste of the public shifts constantly. Movies, for example, survive or fail on the basis of the number of people they appeal to. Therefore, a film is often thought good only if it makes money. As a result, film producers make every effort to cash in on current popular tastes, often by making sequels until the public’s taste changes—for example, the Batman series (1989 to 2017). The Star Wars series (1977 to 2019 [projected]) cashed in on the needs of science-fiction fans whose taste in films is excited by the futuristic details and the narrative of danger and excitement of space travel. These are good films despite the emphasis on commercial success. But in some ways they are also limited by the demands of the marketplace.
Our study of the humanities emphasizes that commercial success is not the most important guide to excellence in the arts. The long-term success of works of art depends on their ability to interpret human experience at a level of complexity that warrants examination and reexamination. Many commercially successful works give us what we think we want rather than what we really need with reference to insight and understanding. By satisfying us in an immediate and superficial way, commercial art can dull us to the possibilities of complex, more deeply satisfying art.
Everyone has limitations as a perceiver of art. Sometimes we assume that we have developed our taste and that any effort to change it is bad form. The saying “Matters
of taste are not disputable” can be credited with making many of us feel righteous about our own taste. What the saying means is that there is no accounting for what people like in the arts, for beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Thus, there is no use in trying to educate anyone about the arts. Obviously we disagree. We believe that all of us can and should be educated about the arts and should learn to respond to as wide a variety of the arts as possible: from jazz to string quartets, from Charlie Chaplin to Steven Spielberg, from Lewis Carroll to T. S. Eliot, from folk art to Picasso. Most of us defend our taste because anyone who challenges it challenges our deep feelings. Anyone who tries to change our responses to art is really trying to get inside our minds. If we fail to understand its purpose, this kind of persuasion naturally arouses resistance.
For us, the study of the arts penetrates beyond facts to the values that evoke our feelings—the way a succession of Eric Clapton’s guitar chords playing the blues can be electrifying, or the way song lyrics can give us a chill. In other words, we want to go beyond the facts about a work of art and get to the values revealed in the work. How many times have we found ourselves liking something that, months or years before, we could not stand? And how often do we find ourselves now disliking what we previously judged a masterpiece? Generally we can say the work of art remains the same. It is we who change. We learn to recognize the values illuminated in such works as well as to understand the ways they are expressed. Such development is the meaning of “education” in the sense in which we have been using the term.
Responses to Art
Our responses to art usually involve processes so complex that they can never be fully tracked down or analyzed. At first they can only be hinted at when we talk about them. However, further education in the arts permits us to observe more closely and thereby respond more intensely to the content of the work. This is true, we believe, even with “easy” art, such as exceptionally beautiful works—for example, those by Giorgione (Figure 2-9), Cézanne (Figure 2-4), and O’Keeffe (Figure 4-12). Such gorgeous works generally are responded to with immediate satisfaction. What more needs to be done? If art were only of the beautiful, textbooks such as this would never find many users. But we think more needs to be done, even with the beautiful. We will begin, however, with three works that obviously are not beautiful.
The Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Echo of a Scream (Figure 1-2) is a highly emotional painting, in the sense that the work seems to demand a strong emotional response. What we see is the huge head of a baby crying and, then, as if issuing from its own mouth, the baby himself. What kinds of emotions do you find stirring in yourself as you look at this painting? What kinds of emotions do you feel are expressed in the painting? Your own emotional responses—such as shock; pity for the child; irritation at a destructive, mechanical society; or any other nameable emotion—do not sum up the painting. However, they are an important starting point, since Siqueiros paints in such a way as to evoke emotion, and our understanding of the painting increases as we examine the means by which this evocation is achieved.
David Alfaro Siqueiros, Mexican, 1896–1974, Echo of a Scream. 1937. Enamel on wood, 48 × 36 inches (121.9 × 91.4 cm). Gift of Edward M. M. Warburg. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Siqueiros, a famous Mexican muralist, fought during the Mexican Revolution and possessed a powerful political sensibility, much of which found its way into his art. He painted some of his works in prison, held there for his political convictions. In the 1930s he centered his attention on the Spanish Civil War, represented here.
©2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City. Photo: ©The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
PERCEPTION KEY Echo of a Scream
What are the important distortions in the painting?
What effect does the distortion of the baby’s head have on you?
Why is the scream described as an echo?
What are the objects on the ground around the baby? How do they relate to the baby?
How does the red cloth on the baby intensify your emotional response to the painting?
Peter Blume, 1906–1992, The Eternal City. 1934–1937. Dated on painting 1937. Oil on composition board, 34 × 47? inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. Born in Russia, Blume came to America when he was six. His paintings are marked by a strong interest in what is now known as magic realism, interleaving time and place and the dead and the living in an emotional space that confronts the viewer as a challenge. He condemned the tyrant dictators of the first half of the twentieth century.
Art ©The Education Alliance, Inc./Estate of Peter Blume/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo: ©The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Study another work, very close in temperament to Siqueiros’s painting: The Eternal City by the American painter Peter Blume (Figure 1-3). After attending carefully to the kinds of responses awakened by The Eternal City, take note of some background information about the painting that you may not know. The year of this painting is the same as that of Echo of a Scream: 1937. The Eternal City is a name reserved for only one city in the world—Rome. In 1937 the world was on the verge of world war: Fascists were in power in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. In the center of the painting is the Roman Forum, close to where Julius Caesar, the alleged tyrant, was murdered by Brutus. But here we see fascist Blackshirts, the modern tyrants, beating people. In a niche at the left is a figure of Christ, and beneath him (hard to see) is a crippled beggar woman. Near her are ruins of Roman statuary. The enlarged and distorted head, wriggling out like a jack-in-the-box, is that of Mussolini, the man who invented fascism and the Blackshirts. Study the painting closely again. Has your response to the painting changed?
PERCEPTION KEY Siqueiros and Blume
What common ingredients do you find in the Blume and Siqueiros paintings?
Is your reaction to the Blume similar to or distinct from your reaction to the Siqueiros?
Is the effect of the distortions similar or different?
How are colors used in each painting? Are the colors those of the natural world, or do they suggest an artificial environment? Are they distorted for effect?
With reference to the objects and events represented in each painting, do you think the paintings are comparable? If so, in what ways?
With the Blume, are there any natural objects in the painting that suggest the vitality of the Eternal City?
What political values are revealed in these two paintings?
Before going on to the next painting, which is quite different in character, we will make some observations about what we have said, however briefly, about the Blume. With added knowledge about its cultural and political implications—what we shall call the background of the painting—your responses to The Eternal City may have changed. Ideally they should have become more focused, intense, and certain. Why? The painting is surely the same physical object you looked at originally. Nothing has changed in that object. Therefore, something has changed because something has been added to you, information that the general viewer of the painting in 1937 would have known and would have responded to more emotionally than viewers do now. Consider how a Fascist, on the one hand, or an Italian humanist and lover of Roman culture, on the other hand, would have reacted to this painting in 1937.
A full experience of this painting is not unidimensional but multidimensional. Moreover, “knowledge about” a work of art can lead to “knowledge of ” the work of art, which implies a richer experience. This is important as a basic principle, since it means that we can be educated about what is in a work of art, such as its shapes, objects, and structure, as well as what is external to a work, such as its political references. It means we can learn to respond more completely. It also means that artists such as Blume sometimes produce works that demand background information if we are to appreciate them fully. This is particularly true of art that refers to historical circumstances and personages. Sometimes we may find ourselves unable to respond successfully to a work of art because we lack the background knowledge the artist presupposes.
Picasso’s Guernica (Figure 1-4), one of the most famous paintings of the twentieth century, is also dated 1937. Its title comes from the name of an old Spanish town that was bombed during the Spanish Civil War—the first aerial bombing of noncombatant civilians in modern warfare. Examine this painting carefully.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica. 1937. Oil on canvas, 11 feet 6 inches × 25 feet 8 inches. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain. Ordinarily Picasso was not a political painter. During World War II he was a citizen of Spain, a neutral country. But the Spanish Civil War excited him to create one of the world’s greatest modern paintings, a record of the German bombing of a small Spanish town, Guernica. When a Nazi officer saw the painting he said to Picasso, “Did you do this?” Picasso answered scornfully, “No, you did.”
©2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: ©Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY
PERCEPTION KEY Guernica
Distortion is powerfully evident in this painting. How does its function differ from that of the distortion in Blume’s The Eternal City or Siqueiros’s Echo of a Scream?
What are the most prominent objects in the painting? What seems to be the relationship of the animals to the humans?
The figures in the painting are organized by underlying geometric forms. What are they and how do they focus your attention? Is the formal organization strong or weak?
How does your eye move across the painting? Do you begin at the left, the right, or the middle? This is a gigantic painting, over twenty-five feet long. How must one view it to take it all in? Why is it so large?
Some viewers have considered the organization of the images to be chaotic. Do you agree? If so, what would be the function of chaos in this painting?
We know from history that Guernica memorializes the Nazi bombing of the town of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. What is the subject matter of Guernica—what the work is about: War? Death? Horror? Suffering? Fascism? Or something else?
Which of these paintings by Blume, Siqueiros, and Picasso makes the most powerful statement about the human condition?
The next painting (Figure 1-5), featured in “Experiencing: The Mona Lisa,” is by Leonardo da Vinci, arguably one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance. Da Vinci is a household name in part because of this painting. Despite the lack of a political or historically relevant subject matter, the Mona Lisa, with its tense pose and enigmatic expression, has become possibly the most famous work of art in the West.
EXPERIENCING The Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the history of art. What, in your opinion, makes this painting noteworthy?
Because this painting is so familiar, it has sometimes been treated as if it were a cliché, an overworked image. In several cases it has been treated with satirical scorn. Why would any artist want to make fun of this painting? Is it a cliché, or are you able to look at it as if for the first time?
Unlike the works of Siqueiros, Blume, and Picasso, this painting has no obvious connections to historical circumstances that might intrude on your responses to its formal qualities. How does a lack of context affect your understanding of the painting?
It has been pointed out that the landscape on the left and the landscape on the right are totally different. If that judgment is correct, why do you think Leonardo made such a decision? What moods do the landscapes suggest?
The woman portrayed may be Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the wife of a local businessman, and the painting has long been known in Italy as La Gioconda. Is it necessary to our sense of participation that we know who the sitter is, or that we know that Leonardo kept this painting with him throughout his life and took it wherever he went?
Experiencing a painting as frequently reproduced as Mona Lisa, which is visited by millions of people every year at the Louvre in Paris, takes most of us some special effort. Unless we study the painting as if it were new to us, we will simply see it as an icon of high culture rather than as a painting with a formal power and a lasting value. Because it is used in advertisements and on mouse pads, playing cards, jigsaw puzzles, and a host of other banal locations, we might see this as a cliché.
However, we are also fortunate in that we see the painting as itself, apart from any social or historical events, and in a location that is almost magical or mythical. The landscape may be unreal, fantastic, and suggestive of a world of mystical opportunity. Certainly it emphasizes mystery. Whoever this woman is, she is concentrating in an unusual fashion on the viewer, whether we imagine it is us or it is Leonardo whom she contemplates. A study of her expression reminds us that for generations the “Gioconda smile” has teased authors and critics with its mystery. Is she making an erotic suggestion in that smile, or is it a smile of self-satisfaction? Or is it a smile of tolerance, suggesting that she is just waiting for this sitting to be done? Her expression has been the most intriguing of virtually any portrait subject in any museum in the world. It is no surprise, then, that Leonardo kept this for himself, although we must wonder whether he was commissioned for the painting and for some reason did not want to deliver it.
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa. Circa 1503–1506. Oil on panel, 30¼ × 21 inches. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Leonardo’s most personal picture has sometimes been hailed as a psychologically powerful painting because of the power of Mona Lisa’s gaze, which virtually rivets the viewer to the spot. The painting is now protected under glass and, while always surrounded by a crowd of viewers, its small size proportional to its reputation has sometimes disappointed viewers because it is so hard to see. And in a crowd it is impossible to contemplate.
©RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY
The arresting quality of the painting is in part because of the enigmatic expression on Mona Lisa’s face, but the form of the painting is also arresting. Leonardo has posed her so that her head is the top of an isosceles triangle in which her face glows in contrast with her dark clothing. Her hands, expressive and radiant, create a strong diagonal, leading to the base of the triangle. Her shoulders are turned at a significant angle so that her pose is not really comfortable, not easy to maintain for a long time. However, her position is visually arresting because it imparts a tension to the entire painting that contributes to our response to it as a powerful object.
The most savage satirical treatment of this painting is the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (see Figure 14-15). By parodying this work, Duchamp thumbed his nose at high culture in 1919, after World War I, and after the Mona Lisa had assumed its role as an epitome of high art. His work was an expression of disgust at the middle and upper classes, which had gone so enthusiastically into a war of attrition that brought Europe to the verge of self-destruction.
Structure and Artistic Form
Your responses to the Mona Lisa are probably different from those you have when viewing the other paintings in this chapter, but why? You might reply that the Mona Lisa is hypnotizing, a carefully structured painting depending on a subtle but basic geometric form, the triangle. Such structures, while operating subconsciously, are
obvious on analysis. Like all structural elements of the artistic form of a painting, they affect us deeply even when we are not aware of them. We have the capacity to respond to pure form even in paintings in which objects and events are portrayed. Thus, responding to The Eternal City will involve responding not just to an interpretation of fascism taking hold in Italy but also to the sensuous surface of the painting. This is certainly true of Echo of a Scream; if you look again at that painting, you will see not only that its sensuous surface is interesting intrinsically but also that it deepens your response to what is represented. Because we often respond to artistic form without being conscious that it is affecting us, the painter must make the structure interesting. Consider the contrast between the simplicity of the structure of the Mona Lisa and the urgent complexity of the structures of the Siqueiros and the Blume.
The composition of any painting can be analyzed because any painting has to be organized: Parts have to be interrelated. Moreover, it is important to think carefully about the composition of individual paintings. This is particularly true of paintings one does not respond to immediately—of “difficult” or apparently uninteresting paintings. Often the analysis of structure can help us gain access to such paintings so that they become genuinely exciting.
PERCEPTION KEY The Eternal City
Sketch the basic geometric shapes of the painting.
Do these shapes relate to one another in such a way as to help reveal the obscenity of fascism? If so, how?
Artistic form is a composition or structure that makes something—a subject matter—more meaningful. The Siqueiros, Blume, and Picasso reveal something about the horrors of war and fascism. But what does the Mona Lisa reveal? Perhaps just the form and structure? For us, structures or forms that do not give us insight are not artistic forms. Some critics will argue the point. This major question will be pursued throughout the text.
We are not likely to respond sensitively to a work of art that we do not perceive properly. What is less obvious is what we referred to previously—the fact that we can often give our attention to a work of art and still not perceive very much. The reason for this should be clear from our previous discussion. Frequently we need to know something about the background of a work of art that would aid our perception. Anyone who did not know something about the history of Rome, or who Christ was, or what fascism was, or what Mussolini meant to the world would have a difficult time making sense of The Eternal City. But it is also true that anyone who could not perceive Blume’s composition might have a completely superficial response to the painting. Such a person could indeed know all about the background and understand the symbolic statements made by the painting, but that is only part
of the painting. From seeing what da Vinci can do with form, structure, pose, and expression, you can understand that the formal qualities of a painting are neither accidental nor unimportant. In Blume’s painting, the form focuses attention and organizes our perceptions by establishing the relationships between the parts.
Abstract Ideas and Concrete Images
Composition is basic in all the arts. Artistic form is essential to the success of any art object. To perceive any work of art adequately, we must perceive its structure. Examine the following poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) and consider the purpose of its shape. This is one of many shaped poems designed to have a visual formal structure that somehow illuminates its subject matter.
THE PILLAR OF FAME
Fame’s pillar here at last we set,
Out-during marble, brass or jet;
Charmed and enchanted so
As to withstand the blow
Nor shall the seas,
Of storms, o’erbear
What we uprear;
Tho’ Kingdoms fall,
This pillar never shall
Decline or waste at all;
But stand forever by his own
Firm and well-fixed foundation.
PERCEPTION KEY “The Pillar of Fame”
What is a pillar and in what art form are pillars used?
In what sense is fame the subject matter of the poem?
Herrick is using a number of metaphors in this poem. How many can you identify? What seems to be their purpose?
In what sense is the shape of the poem a metaphor?
To whom does the word “his” in the last line refer?
The poem includes abstract ideas and concrete things. What is abstract here? And what is the function of the concrete references?
Robert Herrick, a seventeenth-century poet, valued both honor and fame. During the English Civil War he lost his job as a clergyman because he honored his faith and refused to abandon his king. He hoped to achieve fame as a poet, in imitation of the great Roman poets. His “outrages” and “storms” refer to the war and the decade following, in which he stayed in self-exile after the “overthrow” of King Charles I. He portrayed fame as a pillar because pillars hold up buildings, and when the buildings become ruins pillars often survive as testimony to greatness. Herrick hoped his poem
would endure longer than physical objects, such as marble, brass, and jet (a black precious jewel made of coal), because fame is an abstraction and cannot wear or erode. Shaping the poem to resemble a pillar with a capital and a stylobate (foundation) is an example of wit. When he wrote poetry, one of Herrick’s greatest achievements was the expression of wit, a poetic expression of intelligence and understanding. This poem achieves the blending of ideas and objects, of the abstract and the concrete, through its structure. The poem is a concrete expression of an abstract idea.
In Paradise Lost, John Milton describes hell as a place with “Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death.” Now, neither you nor the poet has ever seen “shades of death,” although the idea is in Psalm 23, “the valley of the shadow of death.” Milton gets away with describing hell this way because he has linked the abstract idea of shades of death to so many concrete images in this single line. He is giving us images that suggest the mood of hell just as much as they describe the landscape, and we realize that he gives us so many topographic details in order to get us ready for the last detail—the abstract idea of shades of death.
There is much more to be said about poetry, of course, but on a preliminary level poetry worked in much the same way in the seventeenth-century England of Milton as it does in contemporary America. The same principles are at work: Described objects or events are used as a means of bringing abstract ideas to life. The descriptions take on a wider and deeper significance—wider in the sense that the descriptions are connected with the larger scope of abstract ideas, deeper in the sense that because of these descriptions the abstract ideas become vividly focused and more meaningful.
The following poem is highly complex: the memory of an older culture (simplicity, in this poem) and the consideration of a newer culture (complexity). It is an African poem by the contemporary Nigerian poet Gabriel Okara; and knowing that it is African, we can begin to appreciate the extreme complexity of Okara’s feelings about the clash of the old and new cultures. He symbolizes the clash in terms of music, and he opposes two musical instruments: the drum and the piano. They stand, respectively, for the African and the European cultures. But even beyond the musical images that abound in this poem, look closely at the images of nature, the pictures of the panther and leopard, and see how Okara imagines them.
PIANO AND DRUMS
When at break of day at a riverside
I hear jungle drums telegraphing
the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw
like bleeding flesh, speaking of
primal youth and the beginning,
I see the panther ready to pounce,
the leopard snarling about to leap
and the hunters crouch with spears poised;
And my blood ripples, turns torrent,
topples the years and at once I’m
in my mother’s lap a suckling;
at once I’m walking simple
paths with no innovations,
rugged, fashioned with the naked
warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts
in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.
Then I hear a wailing piano
solo speaking of complex ways
in tear-furrowed concerto;
of far-away lands
and new horizons with
coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,
crescendo. But lost in the labyrinth
of its complexities, it ends in the middle
of a phrase at a daggerpoint.
And I lost in the morning mist
of an age at a riverside keep
wandering in the mystic rhythm
of jungle drums and the concerto.
Reproduced from Gabriel Okara: Collected Poems, edited by Brenda Marie Osbey, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2016 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Such a poem speaks directly to legions of the current generation of Africans. But consider some points in light of what we have said earlier. In order to perceive the kind of emotional struggle that Okara talks about—the subject matter of the poem—we need to know something about Africa and the struggle African nations have in modernizing themselves along the lines of more technologically advanced nations. We also need to know something of the history of Africa and the fact that European nations, such as Britain in the case of Nigeria, once controlled much of Africa. Knowing these things, we know, then, that there is no thought of the “I” of the poem accepting the “complex ways” of the new culture without qualification. The “I” does not think of the culture of the piano as manifestly superior to the culture of the drum. That is why the labyrinth of complexities ends at a “daggerpoint.” The new culture is a mixed blessing.
We have argued that the perception of a work of art is aided by background information and that sensitive perception must be aware of form, at least implicitly. But we believe there is much more to sensitive perception. Somehow the form of a work of art is an artistic form that clarifies or reveals values, and our response is intensified by our awareness of those revealed values. But how does artistic form do this? And how does this awareness come to us? In the next chapter we shall consider these questions, and in doing so we will also raise that most important question, What is a work of art? Once we have examined each of the arts, it will be clear, we hope, that the principles developed in these opening chapters are equally applicable to all the arts.
Participate, analyze, and participate again with Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (Figure 1-6).
Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning. 1930. Oil on canvas, 35 × 60 inches. When the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased Early Sunday Morning in 1930, it was their most expensive acquisition. Hopper’s work, centered in New York’s Greenwich Village, revealed the character of city life. His colors—vibrant, intense—and the early morning light—strong and unyielding—created indelible images of the city during the Great Depression.
©Whitney Museum of American Art/akg-images
On one level the subject matter is a city street scene. Packed human habitation is portrayed, but no human being is in sight (incidentally but noteworthy, a human figure originally placed behind one of the windows was painted out). We seem to be at the scene alone on New York’s Seventh Avenue. We seem to be strangely located across the street at about the level of the second-story windows. We see storefronts,
concrete examples of business activity. But above the storefronts are windows, some with curtains, some open, some closed, implying the presence of people in their homes. The barber pole suggests a particular neighborhood. What is missing is people to make the street active. Are they at church? Or is the painting portraying loneliness of the kind that is sometimes associated with living in a city? Loneliness is usually accompanied by anxiety. And anxiety is expressed by the silent windows, especially the ominous dark storefronts, the mysterious translucent lighting, and the strange dark rectangle (what is it?) on the upper right. The street and buildings, despite their rectilinear format, seem to lean slightly downhill to the left, pushed by the shadows, especially the unexplainable, weird, flaglike one wrapping over the second window on the left of the second story. Even the bright barber pole is tilted to the left, the tilt accentuated by the uprightness of the door and window frames in the background and the wonderfully painted, toadlike fire hydrant. These subtle oddities of the scene accent our separateness.
Unlike scientists, humanists generally do not use strictly objective standards. The arts reveal values; other humanities study values. “Artistic form” refers to the structure or organization of a work of art. Values are clarified or revealed by a work of art. Judging from the most ancient efforts to make things, we can assert that the arts represent one of the most basic human activities. They satisfy a need to explore and express the values that link us together. By observing our responses to a work of art and examining the means by which the artist evokes those responses, we can deepen our understanding of art. Our approach to the humanities is through the arts, and our taste in art connects with our deep feelings. Yet our taste is continually improved by experience and education. Background information about a work of art and increased sensitivity to its artistic form intensify our responses.