Finding your Bliss & Avoiding Melancholy
“You’re always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the music that you really love, even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects.” — Joseph Campbell
I recently offered similar advice to my daughter, who leads a very harried life. Taking care of five children she’s always doing something required of her so I wrote, “If you want to relax but avoid all of the ugliness on TV, especially on Fox, just turn it off, watch and listen to this beautiful music of Claude Debussy as background to the equally beautiful paintings of Claude Monet.:
My daughter responded saying she enjoyed the video very much but doesn’t watch Fox, only the Disney Channel!
With all the nastiness Donald Trump has brought into our lives I’ve felt particularly melancholy and often just down-right sad during the last few months. It seemed like the best thing for me to do was stay away from all things trump along with CNN, which seems to be overwhelmed with the content filling opportunities an outrageous person like trump provides them.
According to the great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, “artwork is beautiful insofar as it instigates an intellectual activity he termed ‘reflective judgment’”. Kant explained, “…Beauty is never experienced as a determinate thing. We do not experience beauty directly, although it is always implicated in our experiences of the world. Beauty is a feeling induced by our sense of an ordering, a valuing, at work in the world that lies beyond any explicit demonstration.”
This is a collage of the top 5 paintings of those judged to be the best 10 paintings of all time. Paintings by Da Vinci, Botticelli and Van Gogh are all included.
While not in rank order, the collage includes from upper left to lower right:
- Starry Night — Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
- The Birth of Venus — Sandro Botticelli, between 1482 and 1485,
- Mona Lisa — Leonardo da Vinci, 1503–1517
- Girl with a Pearl Earring — Johannes Vermeer, around 1665,
- Arrangement in Grey and Black — James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1871
Each of the top 5 paintings visually tells a story. In some cases the painting is no more than a novella. In others it’s an epic but like all art, each creation tells it’s own story eliciting, in Kant’s words, a viewer’s “reflective judgment”.
Interestingly, none of the first five of the top ten paintings of all times include floral arrangements, like that of Henri Matisse, Bouquet, 1916–1917 or grand scenes of nature like Gert J Rheeders’ Grand Canyon or even beautiful architecture like the Charles bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, painted by Yuriy Shevchuk.
It may be that artist, like their viewers, are first and foremost human beings and because of their humanity are inclined to tell and like stories about the human condition. The top 5 paintings above tell stories about extremely self confident women like Mona Lisa and beauty that can rise from ugliness like the Birth of Venus and how we all may see scenes like Van Gogh saw when he looked out from his room at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, indicating we all may be just a few steps away from our own kind of madness.
From the moment we’re born and perhaps even before, visuals are our first connection to the outside world. Almost 50 percent of our brain is involved in visual processing and although we have five senses, 70 percent of all sensory reports is with the eyes.
Our eyes are so good (and so much better than the rest of our senses) that we can grasp a visual scene in less than 1/10 of a second. This is true for the top 5 of the 10 most famous paintings of all times as well. This all means our eyes are a large part of our “reflective judgment’ and why painters and paintings can have such great influence over our reflective judgement.
Paintings attempt to engage our reflect judgement and this is largely why the great works of art are focused on what has been called the “human condition” or human nature, beautifully described in prose by William Shakespeare in Act II Scene VII of his play “As You Like It” and painted by William Mulready in the adjacent “The Seven Ages of Man” in 1838.
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Humanism is defined as “an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek the original series”, was an ardent humanist and imbued the show with those ideas. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek rational ways of solving human problems.”
Roddenberry believed that humans were wonderful creatures and would be responsible for their own accomplishments. He often said: “Ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids. Human beings built the pyramids, because they’re clever and they work hard.”
So while Kant may have been right that “artwork is beautiful insofar as it instigates an intellectual activity he termed ‘reflective judgment”, from a review of the top 5 paintings of all times and some related poetry it appears highly likely the creators of that art, were driven by the same view of humanism as William Shakespeare and the 20th century science fiction writer, Gene Roddenberry.
“Otherwise we would not use the term humanities to denote the study of those very special phenomena that make us human.” — E. O. Wilson
Something we all want to keep in mind the next time melancholy tries to intrude our “reflective judgement”.
- E.O. Wilson, On Human Nature, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. 1978