Category Archives: art

The Oscars are Great


You may scoff at the title to this post. How could the Oscars be great? They are not good at determining which films and which actors or technicians did the best job?  No of course not. How naïve can you be?

But they are good at one thing. They point to some very good movies and, of course some dogs.  Yet they have made suggestions to me about movies I might not have notice otherwise. In fact, that I probably would not have noticed otherwise.

Every year I try to watch all the films nominated for Best Picture and this year, I believe for the first time I did it. I watched all 10 of those films so nominated. I watched 2 of them in Steinbach before leaving on our southern journey and then the other 8 in Arizona.  I watched 4 in one week since it was hard for me to find them all until a local theatre chain here had an Oscar film festival. They showed every film at theatres around this huge city and charged a mere $5 a pop. What a great deal!

As a result I saw films I would have never seen before. For example, I likely would not have seen Zone of Interest or Anatomy of a Fall or Past Lives because of the heavy use of subtitles. I find subtitles difficult.  I would have missed each of these 3 films is a gem. Actually, I liked all 10 of the films. Some more than others, but all worth it.  Some were outright gems of civilization. I think I am a better person for seeing them. Isn’t that what great art if for?  I am still not good let alone great, but I am a little better. That is enough for me.

I wanted to blog about the films so I have reflected on them. In some cases I actually read the entire screenplay. That is sometimes a task. But I have learned a lot about the films.  I have enriched my life.

Is the Academy Award ceremony absurd? Absolutely. How can you compare films and say this is the best? It is an absurd task. But looking carefully at films is well worth the effort. I actually think it is part of my spiritual quest in the modern world.

Now what is the best Film? I don’t think the Academy Award ceremony will help us determine that. I don’t know which is the best. I know the pundits have a very hard time predicting too. This year most critics say Oppenheimer will win. Will it? I have no idea at all. So I will just say which of all of these wonderful films I liked the best.  That was The Holdovers!

I am writing this literally one minute before the ceremony starts. So soon we will know. I also really like Past Lives, Zone of Interest and Killers of the Flower Moon. I also liked Oppenheimer a lot but don’t want to vote for the favourites.

Let the show begin! Let the best show win!

The Oscars are great. They inspire me.


Maestro is a supercharged film. It needs to be for it is a story of life that was huge. It is the story of Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper)  the legendary Maestro and his prickly but loving relationship with his wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).  From the opening scene where Leonard Bernstein, an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is called to the big stage as the conductor, his career was explosive. He was called up on very short notice to replace the conductor who was sick. Needless to say, Bernstein was up to the challenge. A new star was born. Immediately.  For Leonard Bernstein was an absolute star. He conducted with astonishing exuberance. The audience seemed to enter a state of rapture with the performance. When I watched Bradley Cooper play the star I was as mesmerized as I think I would be seeing a supernova’s birth. Compelling is not a strong enough word.

Bernstein said this about art: “A work of art does not answer questions it provokes them, and the essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” That is what Leonard  Bernstein did and this film is true to that fact and those tensions.

In the film Bernstein was interviewed on television by the famous Edward Murrow who wanted to know what was his primary occupation. After all Bernstein was a world famous conductor and  composer of music. Added to that he was a teacher of music. So what was his main occupation? He had a good answer that neatly ducked the question—he was a “musician” he said.  “Anything that has to do with music is my province. Whether it’s composing it, or conducting it, or studying it, or playing it. As long as its music I like it and I do it.”  That was the central point of the film No one occupation could contain him. And no one person could contain his love. It overflowed. Like many great artists he needed many lives to live. And that can be very hard on those he loves.

The first part of the film is shot in black and white and the latter in color. Ultimately, as his wife Felicia eventually realized, Bernstein could not be constrained by 2 choices. They could not contain him. He loved his wife. And he loved having sex with men. Such a man must be experienced in color. Black and white alone is not enough.

Murrow then asked him what is the difference between the life of a composer and the life of a performer. Bernstein replied:

“It’s a personality difference between which occurs between any composer or creator versus any performer.  Any performer whether its Toscanini    or…whoever it is, leads a kind of public life. An extrovert life if you will. It’s an oversimplified word, but something like that. Whereas as a creative person who sits alone in his great studio that you see here and writes all by himself and communicates with the world in a very private way and has a rather grand inner life rather than a grand outer life. And if you carry around both personalities. I suppose that means you become a schizophrenic and that’s the end of it.”


Bernstein has more than 1 life. He lives with his wife whom he loves, but he has another life where he has affairs with men. One life is not enough. His wife Felicia thought she could survive on what Bernstein had left for her. But she wanted more. It was not enough.

These lives were still not enough for Leonard. As he told Murrow, “Music was the greatest thing I could do and when you add it all up, I haven’t done much.”

As a result of not being able to give Felicia all that she needed, Bernstein said “she has a deep sense of futility.” Therefore, he felt he was not creative enough. “I feel like the world is on the verge of collapse. I’m quite serious. The grinding of creativity which is coming to a grinding halt.”

Bernstein knew that he needed time alone, but because of his performing personality it was hard for him to be alone. That was part of his struggle as a composer. “Can one ever believe that man is just this trapped animal. He is a victim of his own greed and folly. And either one believes in the divine element in this or one doesn’t. As long as I believe it, which is I assume I love people so much, that I have to believe in a remote corner of my soul, there is a way out.”

After one stirring concert of a work, he had created he is sitting in a box seat with his wife Felicia and his lover Tommy. She sees Leonard holding hands with Tommy and not with her, right beside her. They did not even try to hide it. They had always agreed that he would be discreet with his dalliances.  It upsets her terribly. But Leonard is the great artist. Everyone has to bend to his desires.

When Leonard and Felicia have a terrible fight and she denies what he said about all the love in his heart. She says, he has “hate and anger” in his heart. Not love.  “Your truth is a fucking lie,” she yells at him.

Leonard’s sister Shirley tells Felicia, “He is a horribly aging old man who just can’t be one thing.”  She understands him well. He can’t be contained by one thing.

Yet perhaps Leonard’s best person came out when Felicia was dying of cancer. He was relentlessly there for her. Felicia has a change of heart and tells Leonard lovingly, “There is no hate in your heart.” He becomes a devoted husband until she dies. And he learns a valuable lesson: “All you need is to be sensitive to others. Kindness.”

That is all that anyone needs.


Leonard also shows the same feelings to his music students.  He tells the orchestra: “I think the whole point of the piece is becoming one.” All the instruments and all the players become one. Then when he meets a student at the bar, and quotes Edna Vincent Millay to her:  “If summer doesn’t sing in you, nothing will sing in you. If it didn’t I would have jumped in the lake a long time ago.” There was no doubt that summer sang in Bernstein for a while. A considerable while in fact. But not forever. Eventually his life of great music, great wealth, fame, sex, alcohol and drugs took its toll. The summer song could no longer be heard in him. But of course, summer is just a season. It is not a life.


But this film sings. For a season. And that really is enough.

Pursuing Truth and Beauty


When I saw this cactus in Green Valley Arizona, south of Tucson and near the Mexican border I thought it might be the most beautiful cactus I had ever seen. I was on a church yard, so I thought I could walk and photograph it without fear of being shot.


When I first retired I said I wanted to stop spending my time in order to make a living and feed my family, I wanted now to pursue “truth and beauty” as John Keats said. I have done that. And it has been great fun.

When I went to university, in my first English literature course, taught by Jack Woodbury, one of the best professors I ever had, the first poet we studied was John Keats. English poet. He published only 54 poems before he died at the age of 25.  That is 54 more than I have published. And many of them were great poems.

John Keats was an English Romantic poet, along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others. His poems had been in publication for less than four years when in 1821 he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. Talk about brief beauty!


One of the poems we read was “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  This might have been the 3rd or 4th poem I studied in university. The poem describes an urn with an image of  a young shepherd pursuing a beautiful young woman who he wants to kiss. But of course, in the image he never catches her. She is forever, a “still unravished bride of quietness.” She never speaks. Their love is never consummated, but their love never turns stale either. It is a love that never withers. The shepherd is also a piper whose song is never heard.  But this too is fine. As Keats says in the poem, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

The last two lines of that poem go as follows:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


There has been much critical debate about what those words mean. Many, including me, have puzzled over the meaning of those words. I think they make sense in the context of the whole poem. In a way it is a summation of the poet’s thinking expressed by the previous 48 lines.

By beauty I think he means beauty in a wide sense. Beauty basically is art. And art is true or it is not art. So beauty is truth and truth is beauty. Some cactuses bloom only for a day. What a dreadful pity.

So a beautiful cactus flower, caught in a silent moment by a camera, is a work of art (beauty)  that never withers. It  is an eternal thing of beauty. If is it good, it is good forever.  It never changes. That is truth which also is truth forever.



Banshees of Inisherin




This film shows how easy people can become estranged and how easily that estrangement, even among friends, can lead to violence. In this case shocking violence. Perhaps nowhere is that better understood than Ireland where former friends and neighbours have repeatedly come to blows, and worse, over minor disagreements. Sometimes the more minor the disagreement the more deadly the response to disagreement.

Ireland generates drinkers, great writers, and violence.  That is a potent brew. And it can be a toxic brew. It was in the case of Pádraic (played by Colin Farrell) and Colm played by (Brendan Gleeson).  I might add played brilliantly in both cases.

The movie opens with a sharp rupture between the two friends. The rupture occurs in a dark and dank Irish pub. How do I know it is dank?   It takes place in Ireland. Moreover, I can feel it. It must be dank.

The film takes place on the fictional island of Inisherin on the coast of Ireland and mainly in the homes of each of the protagonists and the nearby pub where, as good Irishmen they must sojourn. The setting is Ireland in 1923 when the Civil War was already firing separating erstwhile friends so the rupture here is merely a piece of the main. Occasionally shots are heard from the battle. But no explanation is offered.  Pádraic says he doesn’t even know what they’re fighting about, just like he doesn’t know why Colm is bent on separating from him and then going to such violent extremes to do it. That is how disputes so often go.

As in all art the particular is universal. Ireland is saturated with violent separations. So are the parties on Inisherin. Violence is inevitable. And so is the legendary mythic banshee cry that follows.

Notwithstanding the dankness of the pub, the pub is the heart and hearth of western civilization. Well at least Irish civilization. It is what civilization is all about. Convivial conversation and interesting music (art really) in the midst of darkness. An interesting feature of Irish pub music, which I love, is the democracy of it.  When I was in  Irish pubs it was explained to me that anyone can join the group of musicians sitting on chair in a corner, ignoring the audience. But in this case the civilizational aspect of it was broken by Colm abruptly breaking off the relationship with his friend Pádraic. He claims to do it to preserve his art. He feels he cannot take the time out from his art to spend time witha dullard like  Pádraic. But the severance seems deeply wrong. After it happens, Pádraic’s best friend is a donkey.

There is an interesting side bar involving a simple young man, Dominic, who is being beaten and abused by his brute of father. This is another parallel severance that results in violence with Dominic eventually found floating dead in the water. The cause of death is not clear, but he might have taken his own life. Once more no explanation is offered.

Pádraic  and his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon)  both have little respect for Dominic as they think he is dull, echoing Colm’s views about  Pádraic. Dominic also asks her for a date but is rejected, just like Pádraic was rejected. Both rejections lead to violent deaths, suggesting that this is the common result of the severance of a relationship.

Throughout the film Pádraic runs into a quirky old woman who seemingly knows all the town gossip but is hungry for more. This is Mrs. McCormick (played by Sheila Flitton) and perhaps she is the banshee in the movie title.  According to Irish folklore a banshee is a wailing woman who signals an impending death. She seems bizarre and eerie befitting a banshee. And death does follow her.

In this way that convivium of the small community is shattered, selfishly and inexplicably but viscerally real. And what follows when the sense of belonging is wrenched apart is fierce violence. Again, that is something Ireland is quite accustomed to, but it is difficult to witness even in a film.  It is pungent barbarism. They may have forgotten why they are fighting but that does not heal the wounds.

I thought this was a fine film, well deserving of its accolades.


The Fabelmans



This is a movie about movies. A subject dear to the heart of Steven Spielberg. This movie is based on the story of his own life. Really, it goes farther than that. This is a movie about passion.  Sam Fabelman is a young man who is a stand-in for Spielberg. Perhaps no one in the film exemplified passion more than Sam’s uncle Boris played by Judd Hirsch with consummate skill . Uncle Boris the disreputable Uncle Boris makes it clear that passion matters.  Perhaps it is all that matters. People who know they have talent must commit to it. The worst thing they can do is waste that talent. That would be a great sin. If that means they might have to neglect their loved ones, so be it.

Boris knows that Sam doesn’t want to make the film about his mother’s camping trip because he wants to work on his own war film.  As Boris says,

“But you, Mr. Director, you don’t wanna do this, what your daddy tells you, because you wanna make your war picture, ah? [Sammy’s embarrassed, startled to be understood so exactly. BORIS (CONT’D) Yeah, yeah… Believe me, Sammy Boy, I get it. Family, art: (he makes a fierce gesture meaning: “Pulled apart”]”


That is the price the artist must pay. Art plays hell with family life. along with everything else.  But Sam agrees to make the film and it leads to big trouble. That film does more to break up the family than his war film would have done. It really does rip the family apart.

Uncle Boris explains to Sam how important art is in their family. At least it is important for his sister Mitzi, him, and for Sam. As Boris says to Sam:

“You see what she got in her heart is what you got, what I got – ART. Like me, like you I think, we’re junkies and art is our drug. Family we love, but art, we’re meshugah for art. You think I wanted to leave my sisters, my mama and papa and go stick my stupid head in the mouth of lions?!?! SAMMY Putting your head in a lion’s mouth is art? BORIS (roaring with laughter, then with ferocious seriousness:) NO!! Sticking your head in the mouth of lions was balls!! Making sure that lion don’t eat my head?? That is art!! (he takes a drink:) You see Teenee, she didn’t say to Mitzi “go do what you gotta!” I mean she was a good person, my sister, but she was scared. Scared for your mother, she should have safety and family. So Mitzi, she gave it all up.”


Boris wants Sam to know how hard it will be to pursue his art. He squeezes Sam’s face and it hurts. Sam howls. That is what art does. He tells Sam:

“I want you should remember how that hurt. Because when they say all this – [gesturing to the film preparations all over] – when they say what you do, it’s cute, it’s a hobby, it’s like stamps or butterfly collecting, you feel your face how it feels now!

And Sam knows. His uncle nearly pulled off his face.

Boris tells Sam,

“So you remember your Onkl Boris and what he’s telling you: Because you’re gonna join the circus, I can tell. You can’t hardly wait, you wanna be in the big top, you’ll shovel elephant shit until they say “OK, Sammy, now ride the goddamn elephant!” Oh you love those people, ah? (gesturing to the rest of the house) Your sisters, your mama, your papa, except – [whispering, gesturing to the editing machine]– except this, this I think you love a little more.”


Sam denies it but it is obviously true.  Boris tells him:”

Run all you want, boychick, but you know I ain’t whistlin’ Dixie here!! You will make your movies, and you will do your art, and you remember how it hurt so you know what I’m saying: Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on earth. BUT!! It’ll tear your heart out and leave you lonely. You’ll be a shonde for your loved ones, an exile in the desert, a gypsy. Art is NO GAME!! Art is dangerous as a lion’s mouth, it’ll bite your head off!! LOOK AT ME!! LOOK AT ME!! IS IT A WONDER THAT TEENEE, SHE WANTED NOTHING TO DO WITH ME?! WITH – WITH M- [crying brokenheartedly:] TEENEE!!! OH, TEENEE!!! [He tears his undershirt and pulls at his hair].

Sam is horrified by his uncle, but his uncle knows the truth.

Sam’s mother, Mitzi, is also obsessed by art. But she did not pursue it like Sam will. Yet she passes on some wisdom to Sam. In her case her art is the piano. She recognizes that her son has the passion. All she can do is get out of the way, and keep her husband, the practical scientist, out of the way. She tells her son:

Movies are dreams that you never forget”…You do what your heart tells you you have to, because you don’t owe anyone your life. Not even me.”


There are other interesting aspect to the story. Like Sam’s wacky Christian girl friend who thinks Jesus is sexy and asks Sam, after he gives her a cross, if he found Jesus and he says, “Yeah in the jewelry store.”  What kind of religion is that?

The viewers job is also hard.  And important. It is to appreciate the art. Go ahead and stick your head in the lions mouth: watch this film, if you dare. But remember, it might hurt.

Toxic Masculinity; Toxic Femininity




When  recently I was frantically trying to see all 10 movies that had been nominated for best Picture, I never realized that the Oscars ceremony would so closely mirror the films and life. After they award show was over where Will Smith walked up to Chris Rock who was  introducing an award and made a poor joke about his wife I was amazed. It is amazing how much we can learn about life from art and about art from life.


I had noticed from the stunning film The Power of the Dog how masculinity could be toxic. Phil one of the two brothers in that film shows himself as a vessel of toxic masculinity when he mocks the “art” of Rose’ son Peter who he clearly sees as effeminate and weak. Later he comes to change his views, perhaps because of his own latent homosexuality. Then Peter is driven to extreme measures to protect his mother, much like Will Smith at the Oscars was driven to extremes to defend his wife from a perceived insult. This may have been brought on by the fact that  at a young age Smith saw his father beat his mother and always considered himself a coward for not defending her. At the Oscars he tried to be more manly and do better. Did he succeed or cruelly flop again?

I noticed that when at first Smith heard the poor joke about his wife that he was laughing and enjoying it. Then the camera switched to his wife who started laughing but quickly switched  to disapproval when she realized what was being said.  Did she communicate her disappointment to her husband? Did she goad him to act? That was not shown, but it was remarkable how quickly Smith’s manner change from jocularity to menace. It is also remarkable how quickly men can stoop to violence to defend the honour of their women. Do women like that?  Do they want their men to get violent in their defence? Sometimes it seems so. I was surprised to read 2 New York Times female writers  presumably, weak kneed liberals, say they thought Smith did the right thing?

I had just the day before watched the film The Tragedy of Macbeth. The tragedy was that Macbeth’s  wife goaded him into killing the king  and in doing so mocked his lack of courage. If that is not toxic femininity what is? When Macbeth hesitates to do the dirty deed she urges him to do it. This is part of what she said,


“When you durst do it, then you were a man;

…I have given suck, and know

How tender it is to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while  it was smiling in my face

Have pluck’d my nipple from his toothless gums,

And dash’d the brains out, had I sworn as you

Have done to this”


Then after he kills the king but still has doubts,  she mocks him and finishes hiding the evidence for him.


I realize that this entire Oscar  incident was coloured by the ugliness of a black man defending his insulted wife. Many a black man has been cruelly emasculated by such actions. Violence is deeply engrained in American and Canadian societies. This is true even in societies where black men react violently against other black men.  This is one product of centuries of oppression. Deep and persistent hatred has led to deep and persistent self-hatred. After all they learned it from their masters. What can be more cruel than that?


But to deny this painful and ugly fact, as we are urged to do by white supremacist pundits today, is to drive the hatred and resentment deeper where it can do even more perverted harm. Ugly truths must be faced. Denying them is not the way out. It just makes things worse.


What really bothered me about this incident at the Oscars was that about an hour or less later, when Will Smith won the award for best actor, and he stumbled through a tearful speech that included an apology to the Academy and fellow actors, but notably not Chris Rock, the audience erupted with applause.  What are the rest of us (including children who witnessed it) to think? Are we to think that violence is the answer to insults? That after all is the American way (with Canadians not far behind). Is this not how cycles of violence perpetuate themselves harming no one more than the victims turned aggressors?


Art can help us understand such questions, but it offer few clear and definitive answers.


The Chair



Netflix had an interesting television series this year called The Chair

The incomparable Sandra Oh stars as Professor Ji-Yoon Kim a recently appointed chair of the English department at Pembroke University. The department is filled mainly with aging academics spinning their wheels in a fruitless attempt to educate their students. as Chair Kim  tries to get a young black female colleague on the tenure track as she also tries to navigate a tricky relationship with a popular and rebellious fellow professor Bill Dobson  and a young adopted daughter who also largely ignores her motherly advice, as daughters and sons tend to do.

The series grew on me slowly.  At first, I thought this can’t possibly be interesting. The students were typically “woke” and belligerent. The professors were absurd. How could this end well?

Well, I was wrong. In the final episode of the first and perhaps last season I thought things got very interesting. By goose stepping in one of his classes, Dobson got in trouble with the woke rabble and also the staunch and largely vegetative older faculty. The  Dean and the University lawyers as lawyers tend to do, crush her crush on Dobson and insisted she abandon him to the circling university sharks of cancel culture. The Chair agrees to do as instructed.

The Dean tells her that for the good of the department, she must be the intellectual executioner of her young rebellious professor with whom she has a complicated relationship. With no defenders and no obvious good reason to defend the hapless professor. Kim nonetheless embarks on a spirited defence of the recalcitrant academic after her  young daughter wakes her up from her slumber: “Why are you a doctor? When is the last time you helped someone?”

Kim makes a bold attempt at rescuing his caree with a vigorous speech to ancient faculty:

“To be an English teacher you have to fall in love with stories. With literature. What you do when you do that is you’re always trying to see things from someone else’s point of view. You’re trying to occupy a different space.  When you’re in the middle of the story you’re in a state of possibility as opposed to the state of oppressiveness you’re in, in real life. The text is kind of a living thing. And it’s a dance. An on-going conversation that you have with it. Sometimes you love a poem so much, every time you reach it you learn something new. You feel transformed by it. It’s a very complicated but faithful relationship.”

That’s sort of what I said about classics earlier in the year. After that she explains to the faculty what they’re jobs actually are, for they have no clue:

“What are we doing here?  Firing him is not going to change the culture here. (Looking at the Dean) When is the last time you were in a classroom?  Or had a personal interaction with a student? I don’t need you to save my reputation.  Those people (pointing to the protesting students outside) there are our students. Our job is not to trick them, or manage them, or make them fall in line. Our job is to offer them refuge from the bullshit.   To level with them. Why should they trust us?  The world is burning and we are sitting here worried about our endowment. Our latest ranking on World Report.  If you think Bill is a Nazi, by all means fire him. But if you think by getting rid of him you’re going to stop what is going on outside they’re going to see right through that.  What do you think is going to happen when he’s fired and nothing else changes?”


After that, by amazingly crude academic warfare she loses her position as Chair and is replaced by the most unlikely of candidates. She returns to the classroom where she belongs.  She gives the new Chair an appropriate name plate for her desk: “Fucker-in-Charge.”  Kim was a lousy Chair anyway, but we can quickly see she was a great teacher. As she teaches a great poem by Emily Dickinson, we see that she is able to really wake up these “woke” students.  Here is the poem

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

But if you really want to see how a great teacher can wake up a class and a poem at the same time watch this final episode. It’s worth the trip.


Pursuing Truth and Beauty


I decided when I retired that I wanted to do something. Not work. Not chasing the all mighty dollar. Nothing wrong with that, we all have to do it, but I have done that for nearly 40 years (really more when you include the 7 years of post-secondary school education I had to do in order to qualify for my profession). Of course, given current market tribulations I might have to return to work again.

This next phase of my life was inspired by the English poet John Keats. In particular it was inspired by his famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

He wrote about an old urn that has an image on it showing Dionysian revelries. It showed young lovers in flight and pursuit. That urn freezes a moment in time. It is a moment of time—an instant—forever frozen by the artist’s art, which in turn is celebrated by the art of the poet. It opens like this,


“Thou still unravished bride of quietness,

Thou foster child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or both”

That bride that Keats refers to is forever pursued; forever uncaught, and hence eternally virgin. The bride never loses her luster. Her beauty lasts forever. Only true beauty can do it. The beauty of artistic achievement is forever. Keats always longed for permanence, but of course in life could never find it. He actually died very young. I think he died at 29 if I remember correctly. Only in art could permanence be found.

Eternity is inexplicable. It mystifies us. Everything of this world is subject to change, decay, and disintegration. Keats wanted more than that, so he lamented this fact but acknowledged the only way out, was art. He found permanence in an image on a Grecian Urn :

“Thou, silent form, dost tease out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

That is what I mean.  I think Keats meant beauty in a wide sense. He was not talking only about the beauty of a young woman—though that too. After all there is beauty in old women too. Even old men have a faint streak of it from time to time.

Keats wanted to include the beauty of artistic achievement. That is the beauty that lasts forever, or at least a long time. As close as we can get. A young woman’s beauty turns old. It is still beauty, but it is different it has changed. The beauty of the image on a Grecian Urn remains the same forever unchanged forever avoiding decay.

Now as I enter the time of my degeneration I notice the changes more deeply. Until recently I thought I would be healthy and powerful forever. I believed I would never decay, never diminish. Sadly, I now know clearly that this is not to be. I am not to be. I am draining away. But in my last years, I want to pursue truth and beauty, even though I know I will never catch up with them. Beauty and truth will be forever unravished by me at least. There will be no consummation. Keats urges the lover not to grieve for his lover will never “fade”, because even though the lover will never get to kiss her,

“She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss

Forever will thou love, and she be fair!’

Yet the pursuit, I hope, can be filled with grace, and wonder, just like the lover pursuing his bride of silence, forever uncaught, but forever beautiful. I will pursue truth and beauty because that is all I know and all I need to know. It will be part of what Keats called “a mad pursuit.” Yet he also says it is “wild ecstasy.”   That’s what I want—wild ecstasy.

Of course the next question is how to do that? How does one pursue truth and beauty in the modern world? There are many roads to truth. Art is one source of both truth and beauty. Keats knew that. Philosophy is also one. Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom through thinking. Reason is the instrument of philosophy. When reason shows the truth, it is beautiful. Music is a source as well. An important one is nature. It is the unedited manuscript of god. Religion can be a source, though often it is a restrictive source of narrow thinking, that leads to falsehood not truth. Then it leads to exclusion, superiority, and hate. And then it ceases to be religion. An expansive religion—one, which connects us to the world, and to each other is a deep source of everything that is true and good and right.

Northrop Frye said that he had carefully arranged his life so that nothing ever happened to him. That gave him time to do what he really wanted; to read and think. What a great goal. To many it seems absurd. But it is not absurd; it is a delight. That is the way to pursue truth and beauty. That includes moral as well intellectual, artistic, musical, truth and beauty. And it’s all beautiful. And its all true.

The Importance of Art in Human History

One member of our group was from the southern  US and he did not like to think that Africans were our ancestors. How could we have black ancestors? Right?

There was another aspect of the first episode of the television series on the Great Migrations that struck me as critically important and interesting. This was the importance and role of art in this human story. It showed that we are the artistic species and that this artistic bent played an important role in our survival. Even though a couple of years ago I was in Africa, near where some of the series was filmed, and even though I saw some of that amazing art of our early human indigenous ancestors, this important insight escaped me at that time. At least now I have seen the light.

Niobe Thompson pointed out that ¼ of the world’s rock art sites are found in South Africa. Remember, these were often created by our earliest ancestors. As Thompsons astutely pointed out, “From the moment our ancestors became modern humans we became artists.” I find this astounding. “Art is the signature of our species,” Thompson proclaimed. Art is not some interesting side salad; art is a crucial component of who we are.

This is where I crawled down into a cave That was the only way to get in

This, of course, raises the next profoundly interesting question. Why? Would not drawing pictures on a wall have been a serious distraction for hunter/gatherers? The point is they were more than just pictures. Art helped bring the prey into the mind of the hunter. Art helped them become better hunters, because they were able to identify with their prey. That is what great art does. Art identifies us with the world around us. For hunter/gatherers this is no distraction; it is vitally important.

Thompson also pointed out one of the rock art pictures on the walls. It showed a shaman. Why would they introduce a shaman? Thompson thinks the point is that shamans were also part of the hunting process. Shamans helped the hunters hunt and helped the gatherers gather.

Rock art was part of the important human process of using symbols to look beyond themselves. Rock art was used to store knowledge and information about hunting and gathering. It would also have been enormously helpful in passing on hunting and gathering knowledge to the next generation. The essence of language and the value of symbols is demonstrated in the Rock art of Africa the home of our oldest human ancestors.

At a critical time in the evolution of humans, Homo sapiens learned to communicate with symbolic language. That was a critical tool in the development of humans around the world. Perhaps this was the reason  this branch of hominins to survive where all the others failed and collapsed.

Symbolic language allowed us to think about the past, learn from it, and look at the future and plan for it.  These were critical skills. With symbolic language humans were able to imagine what the future could be.

Symbolic language and art enabled us to understand who we are and what are the possibilities of our being. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Our early ancestors—long before Socrates—appreciated this as well.

At the dawn of symbolic thought, under tremendous climatic pressure Homo sapiens used that symbolic thought and that art to carve a niche where they could not only survive, but thrive.

Niobe Thompson is a scientist, not an artist. Yet this is what he had to say about art:

“I am an anthropologist who became a filmmaker. I left university research because I believe the communication of science is my path. I want my children to grow up in a scientifically literate society, where films that explore the natural world play a central role. But I also believe in the power of art to enlighten, and I am thrilled to be pushing the artistic boundaries of film, striving to make science just as spectacular as it is fascinating.”

Art is important. It is no mere icing on the cake. Art is the cake.

This art was not from that cave. It is not that old as it was outdoors.

The scientists in the television show were clearly of the view that humans in the caves in South Africa 75,000 years ago must have been talking to each other. How else could they transmit their complex knowledge about the environment, about prey, and about the things that could be gathered, to future generations? With language they could talk about what plants were edible and where and how they could be stored. For example, they learned that water, absolutely vital in the drought conditions of southern Africa, could be stored in ostrich egg shells buried under the ground. With language they could tell others what plants were poisonous. They could use language to show each other how to build better stone blades for spears and arrows. They could use language to help each other harness the power of fire they could learn from others what stones when crushed could be useful for their art.

What minerals would last a long time in their stone art? For example, they learned that ochre would make a fine paint for rock art. They could then tell others where ochre could be found. Communication arts would have given early humans a superlative advantage over other hominins. With language humans were able to advise others what soil could be used for art and how complex chemical processes could be taken advantage of by making fires. All this was done 100,000 years ago.

The earliest humans probably used paint, made from things like ochre, to paint their bodies. They put holes in shells, painted them, and then wore them around their necks.

Human needs, even in earliest times, went well beyond food and shelter.  Their concerns went all the way to art.

In many ways, early humans were about as advanced as modern humans.

People of the Amazon Rainforest

The story of where the ideas of Chaco came from arose far from Chaco. Archeologists Anna Roosevelt and Chris Davis were interviewed in the series Native America.  They explained that they have been trying to answer such questions. They have been searching for evidence of the earliest people in the Americas.

Some interesting data has been discovered in the Amazon Rainforest of western Brazil. They looked in a cave there referred to in Portuguese as the Caverna da Pedra Pintada, or in English, the cave of the Painted Rock.  The walls of the cave are covered with art of animals and the sky. “This cave in the Amazon is re-writing the history of when and how people settled the Americas and who those people are.”

For a long time history books presented only one view of how this happened. They said that about 11,000 B.C. during the last Ice Age big game hunters from Asia crossed over to North America a frozen land bridge in the area known a Beringia. That land bridge arose when sea levels dropped dramatically during the last Ice Age.  Later when the continental ice sheets of North America and the world melted. the ocean levels rose again sharply growing that land bridge once more. It was thought that after the ice melted the people of Asia who had arrived in North America  migrated south into North and South America. They were thought to have hunted mammoths, giant sloths and caribou with finely fashioned stone spear points. Many of these animals have since disappeared.

According to the standard view people reached the Amazon about 1,000 years ago.  Recently scientists have discovered evidence in caves that people arrived in the Amazon much earlier than that. ?That evidence even includes some surprising art as well as human remains which have been carbon dated. .  As Anna Roosevelt from the University of Illinois said, “The remains we found and dated in the cave show that people were living deep in the Amazon forest at least 13,000 years ago. This is some of the earliest art and its definitely so far, the earliest art, so far, in the hemisphere.”

This demonstrates, she said,  that, “Thousands of years before the Romans or Greeks, eight thousand years before the Egyptians, at least 13,000 years ago, people arrive in the Amazon, and their stone tools and paintings reveal these first Americans are not only mammoth hunters, they are foragers, fishermen, artists, and perhaps scientists.”

Chris Davis is a specialist in archaeoastronomy, the study of how ancient peoples looked at the sky. He and Roosevelt found images that appear to be a grid that indicates how something was tracked  in the sky, because it was outdoors, not in a cave. These two scientists believe that these images represent calculated observations.

Davis thinks the art represents very sophisticated thinking. As Roosevelt said, “This art links people with their environment through its animals, its plants, and the heavenly bodies of the sky.” This actually reminds me of what Northrop Frye, Canada’s pre-eminent English literature scholar described as the purpose of art. The purpose of art is to give the world a human face.  Artists try to connect the world to us.

Bertrand Russell also agreed. As he said in his book On God and Religion:

“Men, as is natural, have an intense desire to humanize the universe:  God and Satan, alike are essentially human figures, the one a projection of ourselves, the other of our enemies.” Of course this is exactly what Northrop Frye said too.

Roosevelt concluded, “These paintings are the earliest art ever found in the Americas. They suggest that people 13,000 years ago had already developed ideas about the world that centered on the sky, caves, and nature. But what exactly are these First American artists trying to say?” What is clear though is that we ought to be wary of making easy conclusions that Europeans and their descendants were vastly superior in knowledge to the Indigenous people. If you recall, this is the point I am trying to make. I think that for too long we in the west have been blinded by bias about our own superiority to Indigenous peoples. The point is that this is a bias.