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Susan Jane Walp

Four Figs, Two Swans, and Pair of Scissors, 2017, oil on linen, 10.125 x 10″

Matt Klos invited me to sit in on a group Zoom last week with Susan Jane Walp, hosted by Klos and Candice Hill, who teaches in the English Department at Anne Arundel Community College, where Matt teaches painting. Walp has a quiet, distinguished career, living in Vermont, studying Tibetan Buddhism and painting and doing little else, having moved there from Soho where she worked in the 80s. It was a long, interesting conversation partly because so much of it felt attenuated by Walp’s difficulty in putting the most essential elements of what she does into words. That’s refreshing, a person of few words in an era where we live under a tsunami of social media inanity. A lot of the discussion was about a series of improvisational paintings she’s done as a meditation on the loss of her husband six years ago, paintings that somehow remind me of Jung’s The Red Book images, not in form but in spirit—as if she has been sketching emotional and spiritual archetypes drawn from her own subconscious. These are quite different from her core work in still life. What I found most useful was the discussion of these still lifes on linen.

The most interesting questions and answers were on how her work in oil resolves itself into something she considers finished; how she manages to keep the process feeling alive and risky after investing long days and weeks or months into a given painting; and what her primary considerations are, the core values, she tries to observe in the process of making a painting.

This last issue was very appropriate to this particular conversation, because Candice Hill specializes in lyric poetry with a focus on Emily Dickinson and found many parallels between Dickinson’s sidelong, elliptical poetry and Walp’s spare, improvisational watercolors. Walp has said she draws inspiration from Dickinson’s poems, their paradoxical sense of scale, particularly in Dickinson’s ability to evoke cosmic truth through such a tiny pillar of words on the page. That use of scale links her with Dickinson: the leverage involved in using something small to evoke something big. Walp’s paintings feel in some ways even smaller than Dickinson’s gnomic lines. Walp said: “Even in these paintings that are quite small, eight inches by eight inches, if that relationship becomes accurate (between the precise detail and the more indefinite lines of larger areas), I feel there’s something big about the painting.” Given this indebtedness to poetry, it wasn’t shocking that Walp cited Elizabeth Bishop, who was a serious painter as well as a uniquely great poet, as someone who perfectly articulated the three qualities creative work must have. Bishop said every poem needs to be accurate, spontaneous, and mysterious. Walp wants her paintings to hew to those rules.

There is a tremendous tension implicit in those first two qualities. How to be both improvisational and accurate seems to be a core competency for perceptual painters in general and a difficult tightrope to walk for any painter. (Fairfield Porter managed to balance accuracy and spontaneity perfectly again and again toward the end of his career, but Walp’s work doesn’t owe much to the way Porter handled paint, except in a few instances.)

Walp said: “In Dickinson the thing that has struck me in my non-scholarly reading of her work is the way that she can go from some very almost microcosmic detail to just the macrocosm. This idea of scale; how there can be an infinite space in such a physically small poem. That’s something I aspire to certainly in the still lifes . . . Bishop’s . . . three criteria for evaluating poems: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. I’ve spent a lot of time working on the spontaneity. The mystery is divine grace. It’s given to you in certain work.”

Matt asked about how a painting arrives at a state she considers complete and didn’t get a direct answer, but more of a meditation on her process, especially the symbiotic counterpoint of going from watercolor to oil and back again. Specifically, she touched on a struggle all painters endure: having the courage to do what you don’t know how to do with a painting after having spent many days or weeks or months on it, plus the simple investment in materials, the monetary cost, all of the selfish concerns that work against creativity—how the prospect of loss in time and money can kill the courage required for spontaneity.

I’m a painter so in love with working toward articulating detail and the danger can often be that things kind of tighten up, so working on paper is a way to work more quickly. It has to do with the support I’m using. On paper, there’s a freedom in working on paper. If it doesn’t work out you can just toss it. It doesn’t really matter. Once you have this stretched linen that has been prepared with white lead and the stretchers are ordered custom-made, so there’s a certain pressure to actually bring the painting to completion. On paper it’s a much freer kind of endeavor. I always have worked on the paintings on paper, and I often work on two pieces on paper as I work on something on linen, and it becomes almost like a horse race. In the morning I’ll pick the piece that is the least good, and it’s very freeing because there are two that are better, so it frees you up to be courageous with it.

Klos asked her if the assiduous rendering of a little town on the side of a cork in one of her paintings was the byproduct of the same process that produced the rest of the much less minutely detailed surface. Her answer demonstrated how difficult it can be to describe the impetus of a painter’s quest—the inarticulate imperatives that govern how somebody applies paint in a certain way. Braque is without parallel in this regard, and there is much in her work that reminds me of Braque. His mid-career gueridons all look perfectly realized, and cosmically monumental, but their accuracy and grandeur has little to do with anything Braque could have captured with a photograph. There is nothing but the painting: no familiar source for the image against which to compare it. It has to have its own “inner necessity” as Kandinsky put it. It’s all pushed toward an intricate, decorative flatness, and yet you feel you’re almost looking at a life form he’s evolved in his studio lab rather than an image of anything outside the painting. Every centimeter of a Braque oil from that period is alive and proper in a way that can’t really be arrived at through a reasoned process. Walp talks about working from what she sees but the heart of her process is about “keeping it alive” which is when the representation of what she sees fails to be enough. Like Braque, but in a less radical way than his neo-Cubism.

Walp said, “I’m someone who believes that technique should follow the seeing because I’m working from observation and looking at the motif for a long, long period of time, so the technique just follows and serves the observation. (The question is) how do you keep the surface of the painting alive for as long as it takes to bring the painting to resolution. Every painter finds their own way to work with the surface of the painting so it can continue to receive however many layers are required to take the observation and see where it needs to go.”

She said that she’s reluctant to teach or critique another’s esthetic, and avoids value judgements about work her students have done, preferring to stick with technical tips, matters of craft or motivation and she especially avoids delving into a painter’s internal relationship with the work.

I haven’t taught for a while, but . . . I’ve always admired Morandi, who gave so few interviews. He said the reason he taught only etching is that he only wanted to teach technique, his knowledge of print-making technique. He wouldn’t presume to pass esthetic judgement on his students’ work. That’s always been my favorite way of teaching, someone who wants to know the limited knowledge I have. I’m much more comfortable teaching technique than talking about students’ inner lives.

Matt said, “If spontaneity is the muscle you are trying to work on and accuracy is your home base, maybe using the different substrates is a way to cut against that, and you can remember when you are working on linen the spontaneity (of watercolor and wonder) how can I do that on linen?” She answered:

I start the linen paintings very freely, they start the same way as the paintings on paper. Technically this is something I probably learned from Lennart (Anderson). What you do the first thing in the morning sets the tone for the entire day; what you do first on canvas sets the tone for the rest of the painting. You have that memory of the beginning being very free and spontaneous. It’s important to keep the edges open and not prematurely define those edges. In nature edges are porous, they’re different.

With her watercolors she tries to recapture the tone and mood of a dream she has had. With her still lifes on linen, it’s more about arranging objects without a pre-determined motif in mind, and discovering the right arrangement for a particular painting. It’s a process of discovering the motif rather than re-excavating the dream. This is something I would imagine most painters would recognize, the sense of connection and “rightness” with something seen or imagined.

The set up becomes very important. I take a lot of time to set up the motif. I’m really waiting for this image to appear and it comes with a very strong feeling, and I’m waiting for this feeling of the rightness of it and my connection with it. I do a lot of measuring, and so I’m constantly redrawing, but generally I’m not moving the objects in the motif. At some point I’ll dismantle the motif and it goes on the wall and the painting takes over. That often happens. It’s usually nothing that dramatic. (It’s) important, but nothing very radical at that point. Sometimes it involves bringing out the more abstract properties or a simplification.

Near the end of the Zoom, Matt Klos brought up a particular work, Walp’s simple painting of a luminous greenish-yellow compote she has used in many paintings—she goes back to a certain set of objects again and again as Chardin and many other still life painters have done—and he marveled at the value of the dish in comparison with the background, which is of almost the same value, so that the dish pops toward the viewer only because of its hue, the tone of that vibrant yellow and not because it’s lighter or darker than the ground. It contains a few figs, and is accompanied only by a pair of scissors and a greeting card, maybe, showing a pair of facing, symmetrical swans. (Maybe a callback to the days of her marriage.) It’s probably my favorite of all her oils, probably because of the almost neon intensity of that hybrid yellow-green—a sort of pickle-juice color—that seems to glow in a rambunctious way that oil paint almost never can, alongside the incredibly beautiful and much more typical muted blue-green of the patterned swans below it. That brilliant compote brings the image to life in a unique way, full of a spring-like affirmation of the present moment. And yet if you squint you can hardly see it. It’s a rare technical achievement and an image of rebirth, full of restrained energy.

“The thing that’s so remarkable is that the green is so invisible if you squint,” Klos remarked.

“It’s the same value, yeah.”

“They are just kissing values, and you always talk about the need for experimentation and constant change and people might look at the still lifes and say, oh that’s a Susan Jane Walp. But in this painting and in your work there’s a quality of risk-taking from one show to the next,” he said.

“Yes, this was in the last show. That object, one of my friends in New York alerted me to the fact that it’s Depression-ware and a lot of it is radioactive and I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve decided I’m just to attached to it. At my age, what does it matter. . . “

“Just don’t eat the figs,” he joked.

Lydia, oh Lydia

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Agnieszka Nienartowicz

The ultimate tramp stamp. Amazing work from a young Polish artist, evoking both Bosch and Richter, with a cautionary twist to the allure it conveys.

The famous little patch of yellow

Vermeer’s “View of Delft”

I find it encouraging that the greatest philosopher and the greatest novelist of the 20th century agreed about some fundamental, crucial things, at about the same time, early in the century. It seems everyone else except maybe T.S. Eliot were heading in the opposite direction—Nietzsche a bit earlier, the modernists in art, Einstein in physics, Freud in his field, Marx in economics and politics–all of them striving to destabilize the values and norms of the Western world. Meanwhile, Wittgenstein and Proust were suggesting that the most fundamental realities hadn’t changed at all and would never change, even though many didn’t understand this about the philosopher, and it this isn’t immediately obvious in Proust, given the structure of his virtually plotless novel, a tapestry of interwoven stories that evolve almost imperceptibly toward his majestic renunciation of society in favor of art.

Wittgenstein, whose efforts have been camouflaged by his role as the patron saint of analytical 20th century philosophy, asserted that human values can’t be derived from our experience in the world. They exist outside the world, and thus, in a sense, can’t be analyzed or deduced, but are simply a given, transcendent and immune to rational justification or questioning. They have no utility. They just are. You don’t “adopt” them to make the world a better place (on what grounds would one chose a set of values that give you the rules for calculating which values are best?). Goodness is an unassailable framework within which human purposes evolve and can be understood. Goodness and truth and beauty govern human behavior, as the essential structure of human experience, whether or not an individual is conscious of them or not. In other words, Wittgenstein actually had a metaphysics, about which he forbade himself to talk, because its truth was impossible to prove, hence the famous last line of the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.” However, he meditated quite a bit on these values during that silence. He carried around a copy of Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief all through his service in World War I, and he relinquished one of the largest inheritances in Europe. He seriously considered becoming a monk at one point. These transcendent values he lived, rather than asserted, because he appeared to consider them impossible to justify through reason or philosophical language. His silence about everything that actually mattered seems, in retrospect, almost uniquely noble and honest.

One finds a similar point of view, an even more Platonic one, from Marcel Proust in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, written during the years Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus, about the death of Proust’s fictional novelist, Bergotte. In The Captive, he talks about the role of the creative imagination, in painting and fiction and music. These thoughts precede one of the great revelatory moments in the story, when Morel’s musical performance triggers for the narrator a crucial moment of enlightenment about the nature of art. (It is typical of Proust that Morel is one of his few genuinely evil characters, the embodiment of sadistic cruelty, yet he is also, despite his depravity, a rare musical genius, one of God’s messengers, as it were, through the medium of the violin.) This passage makes Proust’s narrator sound a bit like a Cathar or a Buddhist, but his essential point is that human beings don’t pick and choose their “values;” those values precede and ground all human choices and behavior, and people spend their lives struggling to simply see them and exemplify them as directly as possible, to live “beneath the sway of those unknown laws”—an achievement that is, like a great golf swing or a sumi-e painting—both unconscious and ego-less, almost automatic, when done perfectly, and yet immensely difficult to “get right”:

He was dead. Dead forever? Who can say? . . . All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only—if then!—to fools. So the idea that Bergotte was not permanently dead is by no means improbable.

–The Captive

 

Two girls at dusk

From Jim Mott, this little passage from a short story about a painter by Chekhov. It conveys to me, like many landscapes described by Proust in his novel, exactly why someone would develop a passion for landscape painting:

Doomed by fate to permanent idleness, I did positively nothing. For hours together I would sit and look through the windows at the sky, the birds, the trees and read my letters over and over again, and then for hours together I would sleep. Sometimes I would go out and wander aimlessly until evening.

Once on my way home I came unexpectedly on a strange farmhouse. The sun was already setting, and the lengthening shadows were thrown over the ripening corn. Two rows of closely planted tall fir-trees stood like two thick walls, forming a sombre, magnificent avenue. I climbed the fence and walked up the avenue, slipping on the fir needles which lay two inches thick on the ground. It was still, dark, and only here and there in the tops of the trees shimmered a bright gold light casting the colours of the rainbow on a spider’s web. The smell of the firs was almost suffocating. Then I turned into an avenue of limes. And here too were desolation and decay; the dead leaves rustled mournfully beneath my feet, and there were lurking shadows among the trees. To the right, in an old orchard, a yellow hammer sang a faint reluctant song, and he too must have been old. The lime-trees soon came to an end and I came to a white house with a terrace and a mezzanine, and suddenly a vista opened upon a farmyard with a pond and a bathing-shed, and a row of green willows, with a village beyond, and above it stood a tall, slender belfry, on which glowed a cross catching the light of the setting sun. For a moment I was possessed with a sense of enchantment, intimate, particular, as though I had seen the scene before in my childhood.

By the white-stone gate surmounted with stone lions, which led from the yard into the field, stood two girls. One of them, the elder, thin, pale, very handsome, with masses of chestnut hair and a little stubborn mouth, looked rather prim and scarcely glanced at me; the other, who was quite young–seventeen or eighteen, no more, also thin and pale, with a big mouth and big eyes, looked at me in surprise, as I passed, said something in English and looked confused, and it seemed to me that I had always known their dear faces. And I returned home feeling as though I had awoke from a pleasant dream.

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh

From Brideshead Revisited:

Restrained by this wariness I asked him nothing of himself, but told him, instead about my autumn and winter. I told him about my rooms in the Ile Saint-Louis and the art school, and how good the old teachers were and how bad the students. ‘They never go near the Louvre,’ I said, ‘or, if they do, it’s only because one of their absurd reviews has suddenly “discovered” a master who fits in with that month’s aesthetic theory. Half of them are out to make a popular splash like Picabia; the other half quite simply want to earn their living doing advertisements for Vogue and decorating night clubs. And the teachers still go on trying to make them paint like Delacroix.’ ‘Charles,’ said Cordelia, ‘Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?’ ‘Great bosh.’ ‘Oh, I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try and criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist, and snubs to her.’

3D color field

K.81 Combo, 3D painted sculpture, Frank Stella

I’ve been frustrated for years by my fruitless search for a catalog of Frank Stella’s work that gives the reader a comprehensive view of his gorgeous protractor series of minimalist abstractions in the 60s.  I long to see the colors of those paintings reproduced as accurately as possible in a book, and especially in a retrospective devoted only to that series. To see those paintings assembled together, all on their own, would be worth the effort. Most of his career represents a repudiation of Clement Greenberg’s elevation of “flatness” as the defining characteristic of painting, an axiom that seems more and more irrelevant, even silly, with time–and now in retrospect seems even more to miss its target when applied to the painters he was trying to glorify. Rothko’s paintings are certainly a flat surface, but their simple glowing colors recede and advance as the tones of earth and sky do in a landscape, and that illusion of depth gives them part of their somber allure. They invite you to step in, toward that horizon line. After the austerity of the black and metal paintings, in which he constructed shaped canvases at least partly to defy Greenberg’s dictum, Stella embarked on a long exploration of color harmonies in a surrender to flatness, more or less. Many were shaped, but they worked because of color applied in flat patterns on a flat surface. Their lyrical restraint was what made them so charming. For me, they are distinguished by the thin gutter between each straight or curved stripe, a little buffer of white between each designer tone that allows each individual color to respond to the ones around it cleanly and distinctly.

I was reminded of these wonderful paintings–painted in a spirit of what I would consider mid-20th century abstract version of neo-classicism–serene and vibrant despite the relentless geometric order of their flat patterns, a celebration of Athenian moderation and order after the sturm und drang of AbEx. They were another avenue, along with Pop, for a rejection of the grim seriousness of the 50s. Why so serious, painters in the 60s seemed to be asking, but with a smile less violent than The Joker’s. Stella’s protractor designs are a celebration of art’s ability to manifest joy, as Dave Hickey’s last sentence does in The Invisible Dragon: “Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highways.” It’s a sentence so full of the promise of America half a century ago, when Hickey immersed himself in the art world, when we were building a launch pad to fire ourselves at the moon and bringing civil rights to those who had never had it before. America–and Stella’s paintings along with it–felt like a launch pad for an unlimited future. Those protractor paintings are a visualization of happiness and possibility untainted by resentment or anxiety. The global economy hadn’t arrived just yet to erode the burgeoning American dream by narrowing it to exclude those who don’t have a share of Wall Street largesse. Stella’s brief Apollonian phase continues to be a reminder that human life can be a balance between head and heart, math and emotion, open roads under that beckoning, unattainable blue sky.

In my fruitless search for such a catalog of those late 60s paintings, I came across one of his much more recent baroque constructions, included in the Whitney retrospective a few years ago: K.81 Combo (K.37 and K.43) Large Size. It’s a continuation of his Sixties ebullience, by other means, in three dimensions. Stella considers it a visualization of a Scarlatti sonata. In three dimensions, and with color as delightful as a series of life-affirming musical tones, he is bringing what the color field painters did in the 60s into a branch of sculpture. It takes the fountain of interwoven counterpoint that is Baroque music and uses it as an imaginary armature for the construction of brightly colored surfaces that seem to swirl outward and back into themselves like orderly solar flares. As I gazed at the reproduction of Stella’s sculpture, I was struck by how it’s doing something I’ve been trying to echo in my current paintings of salt water taffy.

I think of these paintings as portraits of a highly simplified, three-dimensional color field painting, as if someone had taken a painted canvas and crumpled it into a ball and then let it expand randomly into its final punished shape–all the spirals and glowing quadrants of color deformed and fused into a lump and then wrapped in translucent waxed paper, giving the patterns of color a diffuse, glowing, partly concealed quality. In the shards of translucent paper that surround the candy and flare outward at each side like wings, I’m establishing patterns and lines, whorls and dents and fissures, that repeat and connect in unexpected ways, as the lines in a Braque gueridon do. Before I ever pick up a brush, I create much of these formal qualities, the composition itself, with my fingertips. I often unwrap the taffy and rewrap it myself with waxed paper from the kitchen. I try to gently twist the wax paper (I cut it to precise dimensions) so that it wrinkles it as little as possible while preserving the curved planes. As I’m doing this, I create the object I will work from, building this uniform “armature” for color in the painted image. As I paint flat patterns of tones I will rework with greater and greater detail, I feel the spirit of a dozen previous painters whose work I love flicker through the process. It’s as if the painting goes through its Milton Avery and Braque period when it’s a flat pattern of uniform color and then emerges as a greatly enlarged single object still life–but it’s a still life of three-dimensional chunks of candy making patterns that remind me mostly of color field painters from half a century ago. As I was doing in my candy jar paintings, and intend to do again in future ones, I’m constantly drawing energy and desire from the qualities of those modernists: Stella, Noland, Hammersley, Avery, Frankenthaler, Francis, and so many others, painters whose work became a sort of visual equivalent to music.

 

Objectivity and the good

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis, from The Abolition of Man, a passage that serves as a commentary on post-modernism, before there was such a thing, and how all moral imperatives ultimately are based on values that are accepted as “given” rather than individually chosen or invented, or culturally determined. What’s good is ultimately good in and of itself and not because certain individuals or groups of individuals chose it or enjoy it or invent it:

In their second chapter Gaius and Titius quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it ‘sublime’ and the other ‘pretty’; and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust. Gaius and Titius comment as follows: ‘When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings’ Here are a good many deep questions settled in a pretty summary fashion. But the authors are not yet finished. They add: ‘This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.’

The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration. If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker’s feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings.

The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant. It is true that Gaius and Titius have said neither of these things in so many words.

The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.

From this passage the schoolboy will learn about literature precisely nothing. What he will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible.

Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.

The differences between us may go all the way down. They may really hold that the ordinary human feelings about the past or animals or large waterfalls are contrary to reason and contemptible and ought to be eradicated. They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set.

They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.

‘Can you be righteous’, asks Traherne, ‘unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.’

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.

The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.14 In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill- grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.

In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’ and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it.

The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.17 ‘In ritual’, say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with Nature that is prized.’18 The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true’.

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.

The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.

However subjective they may be about some traditional values, Gaius and Titius have shown by the very act of writing The Green Book that there must be some other values about which they are not subjective at all. They write in order to produce certain states of mind in the rising generation, if not because they think those states of mind intrinsically just or good, yet certainly because they think them to be the means to some state of society which they regard as desirable.

And this end must have real value in their eyes. To abstain from calling it good and to use, instead, such predicates as ‘necessary’ or ‘progressive’ or ‘efficient’ would be a subterfuge. They could be forced by argument to answer the questions ‘necessary for what?’, ‘progressing towards what?’, ‘effecting what?’; in the last resort they would have to admit that some state of affairs was in their opinion good for its own sake. And this time they could not maintain that ‘good’ simply described their own emotion about it.

Wit and beauty

The Moon Woke Me Up Fifteen Times, Sara Genn, acrylic on canvas

Back when an office copier seemed to be something almost large enough to step into and drive, there was a gag familiar to most people who ever used a big Xerox machine. Someone would inevitably hop up onto it and moon its flashing light to duplicate their naked rear end. It was a trending gag in office spaces for a while: drop trousers, sit on platen glass, press button. Judd Apatow humor. I was amused that all of this was brought to mind by Sara Genn’s marvelous cluster of paintings, assembled into a grid—lovely and suggestive tulip petals, rows of them, each in a color as subtle and lyrical as the tones of Stella’s floral geometry in the Sixties. It’s little wonder her work was awarded finalist status for the Luxembourg Prize last year. Hers was the most beautiful and accomplished of all the work entered for that generous prize.

The Moon Woke Me Up Fifteen Times seduces the viewer gently but relentlessly with the quiet joy of its variations on a single note: a curved bifurcated shape that’s part ravenous Pac Man, part tulip in profile, part suggestion of human life’s anatomical axis in the shape of a Xeroxed moon. What I mean is, along with everything else it evokes, it’s also a colors-of-Benneton cluster of bare derrieres—and that hint of irreverent burlesque puts a cheerful cap on all the work’s other virtues.

Her title is an homage to a Basho poem, “The moon woke me up nine times.” It’s a haiku full of Basho’s characteristic simplicity, profound in its matter-of-fact celebration of the moon’s fleeting beauty and its uncharacteristic sense of humor, a quality more typical of Basho’s poetic descendant, Issa. You can’t tell whether the moon stirred him because it was bright and full, and thus impossible to escape as he slept outside on one of his itinerant quests into the natural world, or did he keep waking up on the hour all through the night because he didn’t want to miss a moment of its luminous silence?

Aside from changing the number of awakenings to suit her formal ambitions, Sara Genn modifies the line into a smiling affirmation of how many times her duplicated moon woke her to rapt attention and celebration of one subtle color after another. But you have to recognize the funny pun packed into the word moon in order to understand this affirmation of her artistic awakening. Alongside that, you realize the line asserts a night of unquenchable desire, the way an old blues lyric is likely to do. But the desire here has been sublimated into a sequence of notes, like a refrain from Erik Satie. The tension between the title’s humor and the simple perfection of those color harmonies, the slight way in which each pair of lips has been parted to create a unique spire of negative white space that disappears into the rich color that surrounds it—the pull between the sincerity of that beauty and the slightly ribald remix of Basho reminds me of how Frederick Hammersley worked so hard to make his viewers smile at his clever titles for small-scale, heartfelt color harmonies. Genn’s work is a close neighbor to Hammersley’s minimalist lyricism. She’s absolutely serious about the radiant beauty she composes in this simple sequence of tones, but she lets her wit give it a title it doesn’t require to do its work. Ever since I first saw this image months ago, I haven’t yet been able to look at it without smiling.

Mediums: chicken feathers, nutshells and unfinished boats

John Steinbeck

From Cannery Row:

Henri the painter was occupied, for Holman’s Department Store had employed not a flag-pole sitter but a flag-pole skater. On a tall mast on top of the store he had a little round platform and there he was on skates going around and around. He had been there three days and three nights. He was out to set a new record for being on skates on a platform. The previous record was 127 hours so he had some time to go. Henri had taken up his post across the street at Red Williams’ gas station. Henri was fascinated. He thought of doing a huge abstraction called Substratum Dream of a Flag-pole Skater.

Henri the painter was not French and his name was not Henri. Also he was not really a painter. Henri had so steeped himself in stories of the Left Bank in Paris that he lived there although he had never been there. Feverishly he followed in periodicals the Dadaist movements and schisms, the strangely feminine jealousies and religiousness, the obscurantisms of the forming and breaking schools. Regularly he revolted against outworn techniques and materials. One season he threw out perspective. Another year he abandoned red, even as the mother of purple. Finally he gave up paint entirely. It is not known whether Henri was a good painter or not for he threw himself so violently into movements that he had very little time left for painting of any kind. About his painting there is some question. You couldn’t judge very much from his productions in different colored chicken feathers and nutshells. But as a boat builder he was superb. Henri was a wonderful craftsman. He had lived in a tent years ago when he started his boat and until galley and cabin were complete enough to move into. But once he was housed and dry he had taken his time on the boat. The boat was sculptured rather than built. It was thirty-five feet long and its lines were in a constant state of flux. For a while it had a clipper bow and a fantail like a destroyer. Another time it had looked vaguely like a caravel. Since Henri had no money, it sometimes took him months to find a plank or a piece of iron or a dozen brass screws. That was the way he wanted it, for Henri never wanted to finish his boat.

Henri had been living in and building his boat for ten years. During that time he had been married twice and had promoted a number of semi-permanent liaisons. And all of these young women had left him for the same reason. The seven-foot cabin was too small for two people. They resented bumping their heads when they stood up and they definitely felt the need for a toilet. Marine toilets obviously would not work in a shore-bound boat and Henri refused to compromise with a spurious landsman’s toilet. He and his friend of the moment had to stroll away among the pines. And one after another his loves left him.

“That painter guy came back to the Palace,” Hazel offered. “Yes?” said Doc. “Yeah! You see, he done all our pictures in chicken feathers and now he says he got to do them all over again with nutshells. He says he changed his—his med—medium.” Doc chuckled. “He still building his boat?” “Sure,” said Hazel. “He’s got it all changed around. New kind of a boat. I guess he’ll take it apart and change it. Doc—is he nuts?” Doc swung his heavy sack of starfish to the ground and stood panting a little. “Nuts?” he asked. “Oh, yes, I guess so. Nuts about the same amount we are, only in a different way.” Such a thing had never occurred to Hazel. He looked upon himself as a crystal pool of clarity and on his life as a troubled glass of misunderstood virtue. Doc’s last statement had outraged him a little. “But that boat—” he cried. “He’s been building that boat for seven years that I know of. The blocks rotted out and he made concrete blocks. Every time he gets it nearly finished he changes it and starts over again. I think he’s nuts. Seven years on a boat.” Doc was sitting on the ground pulling off his rubber boots. “You don’t understand,” he said gently. “Henri loves boats but he’s afraid of the ocean.” “What’s he want a boat for then?” Hazel demanded. “He likes boats,” said Doc. “But suppose he finishes his boat. Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water? ’ Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water. So you see, he never finishes the boat—so he doesn’t ever have to launch it.”

BLM vs. MLK, spiritual art, apple fritters

Jim Mott’s painting of a mailbox, after arriving at this spot in his Landscape Lottery.

Jim Mott came by this weekend for a conversation after a long absence, and we picked up more or less where we’d left off last time, talking partly about spirituality, art and God, BLM vs. MLK, his new art project, and some other things I ordinarily don’t talk about, like apple fritters. Though Jim is deeply political, in a way that goes back more to the Sixties than what’s happening now, he’s the least confrontational and least angry political person I know. Many people obsessed with politics seem to have embraced it as a substitute for religion. Jim already has a faith, so politics is simply a way of thinking about how to put that faith into action. What I like about his politics and his religion are the way in which they get submerged into his paint, in a sub-rosa way, neither overt nor strident, producing work that embodies his spirituality rather than illustrates it, if that makes sense. Most of the artists I’m close to are deeply spiritual, but each one in a very different way from the others. Here’s a good portion of our long conversation:

Dave: I went through this spiritual crisis in my teens and it was discovering Van Gogh who got me into it.

Jim: The crisis?

No, he got me into painting. He was so screwed up, but he responded to it by painting. He started by preaching and then went from that to painting, so it was kind of the way he dealt with there being something wrong with the world, or with him.

There’s that romantic notion or tradition that the world doesn’t get it and the individual poet does, so you’re at odds with the world.

It was just the opposite of that with me. I didn’t get it. Life was absurd and I didn’t get it, but that was repugnant to me, so at some level I knew I wasn’t right to have that perception. That was my dilemma. The idea that meaning seemed impossible and this was a crisis, a problem. It seemed the world was pointless and amounted to nothing, and this was horrifying because I couldn’t see out of that mental trap. But there’s a contradiction I didn’t see in this. Camus based The Rebel on a recognition of this contradiction: that people inwardly rebel against nihilism. If nothing matters, then there’s no reason to be dissatisfied with that, just enjoy what you can and that’s that. Why is it horrifying that life seems to amount to nothing? There’s some context in which the absurdity of life is unacceptable but if everything is genuinely pointless how can anything be unacceptable? I couldn’t get to that state of “there’s no way any of any of this can really matter, including my anguish over the impossibility of meaning, so I might as well enjoy life while it lasts.” I couldn’t reconcile myself to this nihilistic certainty I had. So I looked at Van Gogh because I assumed he had to have gone through something like that and responded to it by painting. I’d already been painting pictures of my favorite guitarists, Hendrix, Clapton, Bloomfield. I was in a band, I loved playing my Telecaster. I did the paintings just to have them on my walls. Enlarged copies of album covers. Then I read about Van Gogh and thought, hm, painting is an activity that’s interesting in itself, partly because Van Gogh, this incredibly discontented guy, was so devoted to it. Van Gogh got me to that point. My reading later gave me a way to understand this crisis I’d gone through in a spiritual perspective. So the painting and the spiritual perspective merged.

When you’re doing a good painting you feel like you’re participating in something larger than yourself, at some level it’s about ego-lessness and service. Given all that, the way the art world is all about ego competition and material symbols of success, what would happen if, I don’t know, what happens to you when you buy into that at all. You’re doing what you need to do to advance yourself but, as a result of that, cutting yourself off from your deepest, most authentic sense of what it’s all about – and that awareness of doing something in service to something larger, that awareness and how it imprints itself on the painting, that might be as important to the viewer as all the other qualities that would make a painting conventionally successful.

You mean given the art world’s definition of success. Should you fight it or resist it? That’s always a question.

You’re working to show this . . .

Mystery . . 

Right. The art world wants someone who’s world-famous. If someone had handed me world fame, I’m not sure I’d turn it down, but . . .

If it does amount to something, a painting, then if you aren’t known, how do you get it out there? Something essential to your life, how do you connect it to other people?

Even with the significant but moderately narrow level of recognition we get, is it worthwhile to generate a counter-narrative about what it’s all about? As an alternative to the pursuit of the material rewards or even critical recognition. I don’t know. Just to have a small audience to tell that to, you’re still having an impact. Integration is the mission now for me: art and spirit, left and right.

<Behind him on the little end table, I always display his night painting of the Memorial Art Gallery and nearby Tom Insalaco’s painting of an eclair. We have a sidebar discussion of eclairs vs. apple fritters and where to find the best fritters, which was possibly the most impactful part of the entire conversation, but not worth transcribing.)

So what are you painting?

Well, I find I’m not very motivated unless I have a project. So I’m doing this project with my wife’s niece. During the protests, my wife was saying the protestors were destroying the neighborhood where she’d grown up here in Rochester. She said, “My friends in the suburbs were cheering them on, but the people who live there, the ones the protests are supposedly helping, don’t have anywhere to get groceries now. She said, “Defund the police? What are the victims of domestic violence going to do when they’re getting beaten? So she was thinking of writing an essay. She knows the inner city. Her family comes in all colors.  She’s keenly aware of racism and poverty. She was writing an essay about how your lawn sign isn’t helping anyone. She had just visited her niece. Her niece’s son, whose father is Black, doesn’t see those signs.  What he does see is poverty and chaos and a school system that’s failing. He’s in third-grade at a school where the majority of students can’t pass state exams for their grade in math and English – on a good year. During Covid he’s been doing his schoolwork, doing all his classes on a smartphone with a smashed screen.

What a year.

So I was thinking, she went around looking for Black Lives Matter signs in her nephew’s neighborhood, where the message might reach him and make some difference, and there was just one in this area of several blocks. She was saying the people in those neighborhoods don’t need people in the suburbs to put up signs; they need people to go in and connect with them and understand poverty, start to make a larger sense of community a reality. So I decided to work with her niece. The project was to get together once a month and go sketching at a series of places that are meaningful to her. I’ll make paintings to go with the sketches. Ideally we’d have our sketches and the painting and a story about a place that meant something to both of us. But mainly we both sketch. It’s a model for how to reach out and connect with someone, using art – which has the benefit of being visible – show-able. It’s the next project after the Itinerant Artist series and the Landscape Lottery.

All of these projects encourage me to go out of my way to pay attention to parts of the world I otherwise would overlook or not see.  There’s a forced getting past my own interests in order to connect with something more (which I suppose is a deeper interest). Art is inherently spiritual, and this sort of builds on that, makes art practice a spiritual practice. I found what I painted in Ferguson, when I went there a year after those riots, it felt like a vigil or prayer, just being there doing a painting.

Did you see the Simone Weil quote I sent you in that material from Matthew Crawford. She said basically . . . Crawford wrote these books . . .

The World Beyond Your Head.

Right. Shop Class is Soul Craft was the first one. 

Which one did you like better?

The first one because it was so out of the blue. The second one is sort of the sequel, extending his philosophy beyond craftsmanship and the trades. His way of doing philosophy was to repair motorcycles. It’s analogous to painting in the way it connects physical skill and physical awareness. Iris Murdoch was one of the most powerful references in the first book. She wrote about how art is a way of simply paying attention to something else but yourself. That’s what you were saying: egolessness, just redirecting your attention to anything but yourself. That alone is ameliorative or just a way of approaching the Good. She calls it unselfing. 

Not just attending to it, but identifying with something greater.

The whole surround, the world you are in. You a part of this wholeness you’re inhabiting and just trying to be aware of it. Weil was saying that any moment of intense awareness is akin to prayer. That’s all prayer is, surrendering to something bigger. I thought that was interesting that you made that connection too.

I went through some of her stuff in my thirties and was really impressed.

Crawford talks about skilled physical labor. He talks about how, in motorcycle repair, it becomes intuitive because you get so familiar with the machine, the sounds it makes, the way it moves, whatever, that you diagnose what needs to be done, sometimes, subconsciously, by attending to physical cues without even being conscious of it. It’s partly a physical learning. Like muscle memory. It all derives from intense periods of just paying attention with care, even love.  

That reminds me of one of my hates. At Mendon park, one of the workers cut down some bushes that work as habitat for certain birds and put one of these carved benches with a little awning over – it doesn’t work as shade, the bench is crudely made, and it all looks horrible. He’s crafting but there’s no aesthetics and no knowledge of the environment. I complain, but who’s to say what’s bad. I am, I guess, . . . but you know . .

These days nobody hesitates to say what’s bad. Everyone is constantly passing judgement on someone else.

Right, and that doesn’t dissolve the ego. I realize I can be very judgmental.  There was this show in NYC in the 80s that was called Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

Wasn’t that Kandinsky’s title?

Yes. I was excited. But it was such bad art – well, a lot of it was weak. More to the point, the curators seemed clueless, and the writing in the review… it was clear the person didn’t know what spiritual was.  It was just something theoretically defined, satisfied by certain prescribed “spiritual” criteria.

Kandinsky’s art was spiritual, but it wasn’t overtly religious. If you asked someone to do a spiritual painting, you might get an illustration of a story from the Bible. Of course that could be a genuinely spiritual painting, but not necessarily

Someone who goes to a church I sometimes go to tried to get me to paint a picture of a holy mountain in India, but he wanted saints faces floating around it and I told him I didn’t do that kind of work. I tried to persuade him that a painting of an everyday landscape could be spiritual. He just got mad and found somebody else to do the painting. The guy just wanted that and nothing else would do. That’s one end of the spectrum, but the NYC end is that spirituality is one small sub-category of abstract painting, and nothing else was.

Kandinsky didn’t mean a particular kind of painting, but that painting itself is an attempt to show what’s there in the world unseen that might become more visible through the imaginative struggle with paint.

And for him it was mainly abstract – although he did leave room for “Landscapes with Spirit”. There were no landscapes in that NYC show.

With the surrealists and the heart of abstract expressionism there was an attempt to channel spiritual energy, not just a formal innovation.

They painted as if their lives depended on it. So I met with my niece once and did some sketches and tried to get some paintings done from them. She sketched a tree and it was good. She isn’t being artistically ambitious – at least not yet –  it’s mainly a chance to focus on something good or benign – in this case a tree – that she doesn’t make time for otherwise. It was just a way to get her out there sketching. She said she missed that. The first location was a church where she said she’d been baptized. And then, more recently, when her life was getting too crazy and she needed to get away, she’d slept on the back steps of this church one night.

So she got something out of the sketch that others wouldn’t. We did a sketch of houses with shadows on the roofs and the sketches were exciting, but the painting didn’t have life of the sketches. I got this photograph from that setting and I was blowing it up and just to focus I blocked off a panoramic strip of it and that strip got really interesting so now I may have this little thin painting that has nothing to do with poverty.

If you’re drawn to it, do it. Don’t stick with the plan.

<Then I contradict myself, talking about how I’m sticking to my plan, despite resistance. We talk about my marathon of taffy paintings and the way I have to postpone other things I’d just as soon be painting. I do small sections every day, a very laborious and long process but I don’t want to drop it and move on until I get the project done. A painting takes six weeks generally and when I get to week five, that’s the test in terms of energy and focus. They aren’t hyper-realistic but also not overly rough in a painterly way. You know it’s paint but you don’t see all the execution, the mark making. I’m surprised that this is what I want. I thought I wanted something else in the handling of the paint when I began this series.>

I don’t do much plein air anymore. I sketch and do photographs and work from them in the studio. I miss working from life. It’s different. You might change the image in ways that are poetic.

Yes. I think the people who are opposed to working from photographs, they are looking for variations you can’t help but make in the way you render what you see. Like Van Gogh’s marks. There’s no way he could get away from those marks. There’s no way a photograph could tell him to make them.

I have a selfish question. I feel I should try to do a Landscape Lottery somewhere else. I’ve done it here with good results. You get public interest. I’m trying to think of where to go next. It should be a city.

You randomize the GPS to come up with the locations.

Yes, for the Landscape Lottery the idea is to define an area – say Greater Rochester – then generate random points within that area to determine where I’ll go to paint.  The first time I did it – in Tucson – I used a computer to generate random GPS points. For Rochester I used a pair of dice and six by six grids superimposed on a map of the metropolitan area, nested grids. Roll dice three times and you end up with a fairly precise location. With randomized locations you find something demanding that you might not have picked voluntarily. It challenges my preconceptions about what’s worthy of being painted, my ability to feel a sense of connection. I like the idea that “there is significance in all things waiting to be attended to.” But it can be hard to tune into.

It’s just you and the device. Not someone else saying or giving you a suggestion. The itinerant project as you and the other people you stayed with.

One of the rules I give myself for the Lottery is that at any painting stop I have to try to meet people. Particularly, if I meet a stranger, I will ask them to roll the dice – determining my next painting destination. Someone in the inner city rolls and I get sent to farmland in Hilton. The farmer I meet there “sends” me to the next stop (it happened to be the airport). And so on.  It’s a way of getting to know people I wouldn’t meet otherwise and weaving these invisible connections through the community. (These people from very different backgrounds are sort of collaborating.) I would need to do it probably in a metro area with a gallery that would want to show the results.

Try Cincinnati. It’s a big art town. Manifest might be interested in a project like that.

That’s good. The heartland.

They’re non-profit. It’s a research center. They’re always looking for new ideas. They aren’t going to turn it down because it isn’t a money-maker.

I’m not really sure why I’ve made enforced randomness such a big part of my practice. Initially, with the Itinerant Artist Project, the focus was more on a way of sharing life – typically with strangers – that art made possible, especially getting outside the gallery and into their homes. The unpredictability was just a byproduct of relying on volunteer hosts. But I was drawn to the challenge of making art anywhere and being able to connect with anyone. And I’ve noticed the hosts for the IAP are self-selecting – I’ve gone all over the country, but it’s mostly been the world of middle-class white people who can afford to put me up for a night or two. When I do the Landscape Lottery, it’s different. I end up interacting with people from all walks of life. In both Tucson and even more here.  One of the memorable stops was – I think I told you this – the random point was in Gates and there were all these things on the way I really wanted to paint. But I had to keep driving to get to my spot. No, not the quarry, not the railroad. . . oh it’s just a residential street. And the light’s nice. But there were a bunch of American flags and odd little houses and nothing picturesque at all. It was a Republican street. That’s not bad, but there was a vibe that I was in a place . . .

That’s funny. Democrats don’t put out flags.

There was a certain feel. I knocked on the door of the house I parked in front of to explain why I was there. I was very uncomfortable, but I told them about the project and this nice old lady and her daughter living there, we had a great time. They rolled the dice and sent me to the next place, which turned out to be Mount Hope Cemetery where her husband was buried. <Along with Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony> But then the scene I actually chose was just a mailbox on that Republican street with some old Fifties ranch house, and it ended up being a really popular image for the show. The woman who lived there came out to get the mail, and I apologized for being in the way and I said, ˜You know any artists around that I can give a sketch pad to?’ She said “my husband sketches all the time.’ Sure enough, he was coming down the road, and he looked suspicious, kind of unpleasant, but it turned out that he sketched everything, all the time. I got him to talk a little. He’d done a painting in high school, in Manhattan, which the school kept and he once went back to try to look at it and someone from the board of MOMA had bought it.

I remember that story.  

I like being on my own and withdrawn but I actually enjoy making these connections. Extending who I can identify with. I can be very very left on some things and my whole family, my grandfather was a socialist who helped set up Canada’s healthcare system and my parents were activists. Everyone was so enthused about the BLM movement but Sonja and I were horrified that they were demonizing the police.

Now you have this “insurrection” and the police are heroes.

It’s just, I’ve had bad interactions with lots of police. They’re often power-hungry jerks but . . .

But you have to have them.

Try to be on good terms, at least keep open the potential to interact with them as human beings, reach their humanity.

There aren’t that many serious anarchists anymore. Where is Bakunin these days? 

<Jim read from his phone Obama’s chastening comments about how unwise it is politically simply to talk about defunding police.>

As soon as someone’s camping on your lawn, you will call the police. The new District Attorney in L.A. says he isn’t going to enforce trespassing laws. As soon as someone pitches a tent on a front lawn in Brentwood, that will change. Compton too, probably, for that matter.

Strategically, when the protests started, I remember the news. Police all over the country were taking a knee. Yes, some are very racist. L.A. and St. Louis, but a lot weren’t that way. After a few months of demonizing police, that changed.

If I’m just a racist copy why should I answer the 911 call? With social media you feel as if you have to respond to stupidity with stupidity. It’s like the Goya painting of those two giants just bludgeoning each other with cudgels. That’s social media.

Almost all I watched of the Washington protests were these moderate Republican senators who had just lost Georgia and were talking about just getting along. They looked as if they’d had a conversion experience. Some of them really meant it.

Of course, they did. What happened to Martin Luther King Jr? Who is out there calling for the sit-in rather than the riot?

I have a friend, also named Dave Chappell, who is a student of Christopher Lasch and he’s now considered one of the top scholars on the civil rights movement. He’s white, but he’s . . .

But he’s really Black, like Bill Clinton?

He has an inside pass. He works so hard on that stuff. One of his books was about what made civil rights work. His argument was that it was prophetic religion that really had force and the leaders were willing to die for it. They had these high principles. The segregationists used church to reinforce their convictions but they didn’t have the same energy because they didn’t have the moral foundation.

It was the New Testament. Resist not evil. Love your enemy. It all comes from Tolstoy’s later writing when he embraced his own form of Christianity. He inspired Gandhi. They corresponded. MLK followed the example. Don’t answer evil with evil. Give love in response to evil.

Which is hard.

It’s seriously hard. But anyone can realize that if you’re sitting there in the photograph being attacked by police dogs and offering no violence in return, you’ve won. You don’t win against evil by being evil.

The movement now doesn’t have religious conviction.

It’s postmodern. It’s completely abandoned the absolute values that were undergirding the civil rights movement. Values are whatever works to seize and sustain power. Now it’s just power against power with no underlying absolute value. We have narratives, not values.

The push for justice and not being treated with bias is good but when you start pushing the police lines because you have demands based on what the people did who rioted last week and treating people like animals to get what you want – that’s not the moral high ground.

It’s Saul Alinsky not Martin Luther King, Jr. If the conservatives could wake up the same way. A hundred thousand people show up and sit down on the steps of the Capitol and refuse to leave, demand an investigation of the election. That’s a sit-in with a clear objective. Just sit peacefully and force the troops to carry them away. How would the media condemn them? That would be a way to ask for an investigation to find out whatever actually happened and move on. Everyone turns it into a struggle to the death because they want to turn the opposition into the enemy.

Well art can still save the world, Dave, right?

It’s certainly a way of sitting still and refusing to move. Wasn’t it Dostoevsky who said beauty will save the world? It’s worth a try.