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New work from Jean Stephens

Through the Hedgerow, Jean Stephens, encaustic on board, 8″ x 8″

Jean Stephens has one of her newest paintings on view at the Annual Spring Member’s Exhibition at Mill Art Center and Gallery in Honeoye Falls. It’s a small landscape in encaustic, Through the Hedgerow, an example of how she’s working more loosely with her medium, with impressive results. It’s a more experimental phase for her, part of a transformation in her work over the past couple years, and she’s getting some remarkable results. The show includes the work of a couple dozen member artists, all of it interesting. Stephens also has an excellent figure drawing chosen for a national show at Main Street Arts, on view now as well in Clifton Springs, juried by Steffi Chappell, assistant curator at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. Both exhibitions close on June 11.

The Poet Wonders

Nationally, it has been poetry month, but personally, it has been gardening month (with plenty of gravel schlepping!). In the realm of poetry, my collection Hope of Stones was nominated as a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. I wait to hear the results. In the realm of gardening, I planted seeds. I wait to see the results. 

 

I’ve always honored the timeless metaphor of a garden, but it’s one thing to write about it. It’s another to prepare the soil and plant the physical seeds. 

 

Since I’ve spent far more time with a shovel than a pen this month, I thought I’d pull out a poem from Hope of Stones. Unlike the opening line, it is still the “month of April & maybes.” So much waiting. And even more than the results of the book awards, I am excited to see what this coming harvest season will bring. 

 

The Poet Wonders

Oregon, October

 

The more I wonder, the more I love.—Alice Walker

 

It is no longer the month of April & maybes. 

It’s October & root vegetables—the soil-

pulled concretions of harvest. What we seeded 

in spring has grown up & down & waits 

for us to lift it from the skin of earth. 

 

How silent prayer was revelation & heresy.

 

The clouds roll in. The leaves redden. 

The cat’s coat thickens. We gather 

the tangible close & prepare for cold. 

 

How physics is the science of prayer.

 

One friend is dying. Another is trying to love 

someone who doesn’t love her back. 

 

I visit the first friend, & we sit on his deck 

watching tractors in the adjacent forest dig 

foundations for new houses he will never see. 

 

I visit the other friend & notice the old 

potatoes she keeps on a shelf. They’ve 

shriveled a bit but have new eyes—new shoots 

already looking for somewhere else to grow.  

 

How a perennial can inspire prayer.

 

Bartlett Pears, Redux

Bartlett Pears, 12″ x 16″, oil on linen

My life the past two years has toggled between slow-burning family emergencies punctuated by intervals of regular, predictable daily hours of painting. The crises have morphed into ongoing obligations to care for family members who need assistance, but this is a shift toward regularity that allows me to restore the concentrated, monotonous, repetitive attention essential for painting. I’m finally emerging from unpredictable interruptions and, if I’m lucky, I’m hoping I can look forward to quite a few years of being able to put in significant daily hours of work.  It’s what I need to finish a suite of paintings I started more than two years ago: images of salt-water taffy I haven’t been posting because I want to complete most of the whole series in order to decide what to put on view. I’ve completed only ten of these paintings so far—even the smaller ones have taken four to six weeks, with six weeks as the average for painting the largest of them. Even at that deliberate rate, I should have completed far more than ten, but for the entire summer two years ago while providing care for my father I was unable to sit at the easel and then I had several months helping my brother get my mom’s life in order in his absence. Then my son and daughter-in-law left California to stay here in Rochester during the pandemic, finally deciding to actually move here when Laura realized she could work remotely as a video producer—which Matthew may be able to do as well once they hire help for childcare. A freak automobile accident created a situation similar to what we faced with my father two years ago—but Laura eventually recovered enough for them to buy and move into a home a mile away. And then she had a baby, their second son. Her recovery and the new grandchild are a blessing, but also—in a wonderful way—it has provided fresh excuses to do things other than paint. All of this has prompted me to go dormant for periods on Instagram and this blog, still working pretty diligently, but not communicating much about what I’ve been doing.

Next month I should be able to restore the daily/hourly discipline I enjoyed two years ago and eventually finish my series of salt-water taffy paintings and offer them as a solo show. Meanwhile, as a balance to the deliberate, painstaking work on the salt-water taffy paintings—they are not hyper-realistic; the marks are visible up close, as usual, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse (in my view)—I’ve started a side practice of doing small, traditional paintings with a quicker, more painterly technique. As the first in this line, last week I finished a second version of a painting I did more than a dozen years ago, two Bartlett pears in a small metal dish. It’s a second version of the first painting I ever entered into a juried exhibition—my first entry was also my first acceptance—at the Arkell Museum. This version required four days, but could have been finished in two. I’m pleased with the results, but it was a fascinating learning experience. At every turn in the process, I recognized my ability to get the image convincingly close to the original painting, but also saw how impossible it was to duplicate the exact tone of the original paint. There’s an almost greenish undertone at the bottom of the foreground pear, in the dents, a marvelous cool tone I came up with mixing who-knows-what color into another. It was enjoyable to look at my past work and react the way I do when I see work that impresses me from other painters: How did that happen? The impression this painting gives, now that it’s complete, is virtually identical to what I see when I glance at a photograph of the first painting, but in each detail, the color is slightly different from what I mixed while painting the first version. The relationship among all the tones is what holds up between the earlier painting and this new one. I did this once before—doing a second version of an earlier painting—with a small painting of a sugar bowl I exhibited at the Butler Institute of American Art. In that case, I discovered that I actually preferred the second version to the first. I don’t plan on doing a slew of new versions of old paintings. I want to embark on a new set of small, simple still lifes—with a less assiduous attention to photographic detail, more emphasis on “putting one spot of color next to another spot of color” in a way that captures how light falls on various colors and forms. I hope to make the character of the paint on the surface of the canvas part of what gives the viewer pleasure. What I’m hoping is to experience the pleasure of actually finishing a painting a bit more often than the taffy paintings have afforded.

We’ll see if successive efforts lead me toward some insights I can apply to the more strenuous project of the large taffy paintings—I’m already discovering many new things to keep in mind in those paintings, new personal guidelines I discovered as I finished the tenth one a month ago. Also, I’m planning to have a new studio built as an addition to our home this summer as well—so, in preparation for the construction I’ve moved into a more confined space at the moment, while looking forward to the largest and brightest studio I will have ever had. I’m determined not to let the construction distract me from my own work, but I know how that goes, based on the past two years . . .

Flash of genius

Mark Tennant, untitled from Instagram

Mark Tennant ought to be understood as one of the perceptual painters, but he doesn’t really adhere to any of the half dozen implicit rules the hardcore members of that group observe: the delicate balance between flatness and the illusion of depth; the preference for middle values, the slight fetish for letting one’s process show through a palimpsest effect that, for example, allows the viewer to see pencil lines through thin layers of paint or ghosts of earlier and abandoned shapes; their willingness to repeatedly rework a surface, groping toward a final resolution; a preference for middle values; and a general avoidance of photography. Tennant doesn’t adhere much to any of this, but his work shows random glimpses of mundane life in a way that works as both representation and almost gestural abstraction, which seems the prime directive for most perceptual painters. Tennant always works, it seems, from snapshots. His paintings seem intensely immediate and present—an impression of human motion frozen by an explosion of light. The work of the perceptual painters seems closer to the indeterminacy of memory, its slightly faded moodiness, than to the crisp detail of what greets the eye here and now. Tennant’s work oddly toggles between past and present, but it seems to make the past look contemporaneous, rather than the other way around. The look of a snapshot evokes the past, by definition, but what you see in one of his paintings seems alive and ready to move, something that caught your eye fifteen minutes ago. He loves the baleful glare of flash photography and the way it gives relief to figures, nudging them toward the viewer by coating them with dark outlines, penumbras of visible shadow that often seem, by some inexplicable leap, to hint at moral decline.

What’s so remarkable about his paint is the way it looks fresh, spontaneous, alla prima, and yet so astonishingly accurate—each little painting is like a visual haiku, the scene reduced to the fewest possible descriptive details, a face nothing but spots of color with three tiny marks to indicate eyes and nose, no need to even indicate a mouth. But nothing looks all that worked over: he’s giving you just what’s there, minus all the information you simply don’t need. That’s classic painting, but it feels, in his hands, like something fresh and unfamiliar. (And that’s great painting.) So simply executed, yet that little face of the woman in the center of her cocktail party chatter, that visage the size of a fingerprint, would be instantly recognizable to anyone who knew her, whoever she is. How is that possible? The eyes—like the tiny eyes in a very small El Greco I saw in New York years ago—convey a whole world of personality and experience, a soul. But Tennant has nothing else in common with the Greek. There’s no transcendence here, just that unforgiving flash of light and the darkness it only briefly penetrates. At first, his brushwork seems to descend from Matisse and Porter, looking loose and bold, everything quick as a sketch. But he’s intensely accurate, and his sensibility is brooding and ironic. His process may be much slower than it looks, so the painterly effect probably goes back more to Manet and Sargent, where you have a sense of mastery closer to Velasquez than the Impressionists, and they share Tennant’s vision of how metropolitan sophistication draws some of its energy from decadence. Matisse and Porter use color and tone for their own sake, presenting the joy of natural light just as it is, reaching out and embracing the world with love and appreciation; Tennant inhabits a spiritual world as distant from theirs as Alaska is from Africa. Perhaps what continues to awe me with the work he posts is how much it has evolved and crossed some kind of qualitative border late in his career into this recent mastery. Decades of work leading to the alchemy of this transformation after so much effort: Porter crossed that border too in his last decade. You can see something similar happening as well in the work of some other painters, like Stuart Shils, on Instagram. It’s marvelous.

Master builder

There’s a nice video on YouTube about Philip Reed, a professional model builder: “a man who has committed his life to his craft; a lifetime of scrutinising detail, obsession, perfectionism, and in the end, something truly beautiful.” The short film is more reverential than instructive, if you want to know how he actually does what he does, but some of his comments in the video certainly resonate:

I remember Gerald Cooper, a very renowned painter. One day he just stood and looked at us for a while. He said, “I’m going to tell you the secret to happiness. Get up every morning and paint a flower before breakfast.” That is what he loved to do. So the first thing he did in the morning was that which he loved.

I think of them as three-dimensional paintings.

There are many times when little is achieved. There is frustrating research to be carried out and dead times when nothing seems to move forward. But then there are many others when the work just flows and you enter a very quiet space. Time passes effortlessly.

I go through very dark times sometimes. A recent model I’ve been building, every day has been struggle. It’s difficult. I need focus. The work is very fine. I don’t want to be there. But if you keep going you discover something new and suddenly it’s as if the sun’s come out and I’m loving what I’m doing again.

There are moments of excitement and pleasure when you start to see it come together. If you can get the tone, the color, and everything blend together, that final stage, working through it, is a joy.

 

Engaging in creative work can be, at its best, a mystical experience. I don’t know what is behind the creation of art. It’s something innate in man. It’s one of the profound mysteries in human life: creative work and art.

2021 And We Are Back In Oregon!

Hello!  Happy 2021! I had not realized that I have been gone so long!  So, I send you my deepest apologies! And, I am sitting here, having recently finished a cup of espresso, wondering where I have been.  That is, what has kept me away from this blog?   January: Class. You see, the year …

2021 And We Are Back In Oregon! Read More »

The post 2021 And We Are Back In Oregon! appeared first on Margaret Stermer-Cox.

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.

Vision Quilt Images for Atlanta and Boulder Mass Shootings

Dear Friends of Vision Quilt, I imagine your hearts are heavy with the tragedies of the last two weeks.
My nephew taught and coached one of the Boulder young women and my son’s friend lost her sister in the same shooting. Vision Quilt is determined to honor these blessed loved ones and to continue to do our part to amplify the Call For Change. Let us know if you want to be involved in any way.

Thanks to a new wonderful volunteer in Oakland, Janine Grossman, I am sharing the blog Janine has written about Nancy Bardos’ commitment to honor these lives. 

Feel free to share these images on social media.

Ever onward, Cathy DeForest, Vision Quilt

Nancy Bardos is a dear friend and a long-time supporter of Vision Quilt. Ever since the Charleston shootings, Nancy felt a strong inner calling to express her grief and pain in a creative way, much like many of our young people who make the quilts. She uses her iPad and the image of hands to memorialize and honor the names of the victims. The number of hands corresponds with the names. 

Before COVID, we printed Nancy’s images on canvas and now we show them digitally. In 2019, we were invited by Moms Demand Action to showcase these panels in Sacramento, at California’s State Capitol. When the pandemic is over, we look forward to showing these panels live. In the meantime, check them out at https://www.visionquilt.org/view-quilt.html

Thank you Nancy, and together with you, we reach out our hands and hearts to those who are left with the pain of the aftermath.


TOGETHER WE CAN PREVENT GUN VIOLENCE

Vision Quilt empowers communities to create solutions to gun violence through the power of art and inclusive dialogue.www.visionquilt.orgInstagram, Twitter, Facebook Pinterest.
DONATIONS made here are tax deductible.

More from Nancy Bardos:

You may recall when Cathy DeForest operated her lovely gallery in the Railroad District years ago.  She has stepped aside from all that and for the past 6 years or so has devoted herself to the cause of gun violence and gun safety measures through the 501C3 she started, Vision Quilt.  I was part of one of the first teams formed but eventually stepped away because of the time commitment.  However, I could not step away from the cause itself…and when the shooting occurred at the church in Charleston I knew what I wanted to do.  I have made 24 of these banners since then…way too many for a civilized nation…and I am sure I have missed some.  I recall the banners I made for Orlando and Las Vegas had so many victims I didn’t have room to add the names…though, as in all the others, there is a hand for every single victim filling those banners.

I guess the point of my writing is to let you know that this is an instance of an artist’s artmaking for the sake of acknowledging and documenting important and shattering events as well as a recognition and honoring of the innocent people who became the victims. Perhaps there is a healing of sorts, too.

I did NOT create the original art of the hand silhouettes.  I saw it in a blog post years ago and ended up emailing the author (a woman Episcopal priest as I recall) on the East Coast.  She had used it and I knew I wanted to use it so she gave me the name of the artist……who happened to live in England.  The artist had offered it upon one of those sites artists and photographers use to post things that people can use without attribution and can “buy them a cup of coffee” as payment if one wants to.  Which I did.  I also emailed her and told her how they were going to be used and she was quite touched I think.

I can’t recall how many hands were in the original piece I downloaded from the site but I adapted it over and over and over again as every massacre consisted of a different number of victims.  It has been a sad task to do.  And a small task to do…..but I still feel this is a quiet and meaningful and powerful way for VISION QUILT, as people as well as an organization fighting for change, to honor them.

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