Posts Tagged ‘benevolence’

Another of my gurus died this week.

I first encountered Nathaniel Branden long ago when I was a shy, introverted young man of questionable self-esteem. Initially I found him a bit off-putting. Like most of the followers of Ayn Rand, Nathaniel was (at that time) a dogmatic Objectivist with no room to even enter into discussions with people like me – we who want to wrestle with hard questions like the existence of God; the possibility that not everything about individualism is good; the possibility that there is something to be learned from Kant or Rousseau no matter how much we disagree with – perhaps even detest – them; or the idea that dogmatic, doctrinal,, rationalism is not necessarily any better than dogmatic, doctrinal religion. The evidence of the senses and the finitude of Aristotelian logic were, in early Objectivism, incontestable. And Nathaniel was the great teacher with the great aversion to even speaking about other possibilities.

I once told Nathaniel that I was a practicing reform Jew because I felt it was to only way to preserve the culture and civilization of the Jewish people. I asked him if there was a way to compartmentalize and to live a rational life while still saying prayers and practicing rituals. He told me that it would never work and that if I wanted to have high self-esteem I need to live consistently not in perpetual contradiction. Of course, you know, he’s right. But, Judaism is important to me and if keeping our culture alive forces me to live with contradictions, I’ll accept that. Long ago Nathaniel would chastise me for saying that and even in these last years he would not agree with it. But, by the end, he would no longer refuse to admit that I’m a good person even with my imperfect application of reason.

When I say that, what I mean is that over the years, Nathaniel shed his dogmatism, became willing to enter dialog with all sorts of people (evening going so far as to befriend Ken Wilbur, who could not be a more opposite thinker), and learned the power of benevolence and spontaneity. That is why I like Nathaniel more than almost any other Objectivist I know.

Nathaniel was part of Ayn Rand’s “Collective”. He and Ms. Rand had a sexual relationship and split entirely when their affair ended inharmoniously in the late 60’s. After that, all “official” Objectivists were required to denounce him, Evidently Ms. Rand did not leave all of her Soviet history behind! Still, the break was a good thing and eventually Nathaniel became an extremely successful writer on human psychology, and the pioneer of the “self-esteem” movement.

It is Nathaniel’s work in Los Angeles that brought me to revere him. Although he remained an Objectivist to the end of his life, he was more of a pragmatic “doer” than he was a philosopher. Nathaniel never gave up devotion to even a single Objectivist virtue. What he did give up was that dogmatic devotion to Ms. Rand. He could have remained in the class of Randian rationalists who viewed Objectivism as a closed system. But, no. Like other more open-minded Objectivists such as David Kelley, Nathaniel came to accept diversity, to have a willingness to discuss even what he did not agree with, and most profoundly, to realize that objective happiness could include spontaneous joy, benevolence for the pure sake of benevolence, and kindness unhinged from self-edification.

From his early beginnings with Ms. Rand, to his death this week at the age of 84, Nathaniel grew and matured. Ultimately being a man who I personally view as “Atlas Matured”.

Rest in peace, Dr. Branden!

Since 1980 I’ve had the desire to experience a whole array of emotionally charged installation and video art. Since 1988 I’ve had a continuously growing collection of pastel and pencil drawn nudes hanging on my walls. Since 1989 I’ve had a personalized Oregon vehicle license plate that says “R MUSIC”. Interestingly (at least to me) is the thread that binds together those 3 seemingly disparate aspects of my life. To understand the thread, you need to know why each is important to me.

Let’s begin at the end – with the license plate. I moved to Oregon in 1989. I had California plates that said 3DGRFX because working with 3D Graphics is what I did for a living. When I moved to Oregon I wanted to make a change to, not only my state, but also my identity. So, I changed what the plates said. For a long time I did not know what to put on those new plates. Then, one day I was going to lunch with a friend and the car stereo had been turned up quite loud on my drive in to work. As soon as we got into the car, the Opera “Tosca” went blasting through the parking lot. My friend turned to me and said: “turn it off! Turn it off! I hate that kind of music!” I apologized for the volume and then said: “hey, lots of people don’t like opera; but Patt and I LOVE opera so Opera is what plays in MY car. This is our car and this is our music!” That was the very instant that I decided on my new plates: R MUSIC.

The nudes represent a less silly story. I used to hang out in Los Angeles at a place on Traction Avenue, called “Al’s Bar”. One day, one of my downtown friends brought a postcard into the bar and showed it to me. It was a painting called “Denouement”  by an artist who lived across the street. I was stunned by the uplifting beauty of the painting and I had to meet the artist. While I could never afford to own Denouement or any of his other major works, we did become friends and I did start buying his pastels.

As for the video and installation art, all I can say is “read my last blog post”. Several times in my college career I saw video work by an artist who’s work I could neither afford, nor take my eyes off. The artist came to teach in several video art classes that I took from Professor Gene Youngblood at CalArts. He is my favorite artist and I still can’t take my eyes off his work.

So… who are these 3 guys and why do I consider their work to be contributing factors in my own personal philosophical, emotional, and psychological development? The first question is easily answered. These 3 guys are Giacomo Puccini, Michael Newberry, and Bill Viola. The second question is relatively straightforward but is not as easily answered. The simplest answer is just that each of these artists focuses like a laser beam on the thing that I personally find most powerful in art and in life: EMOTION. But that’s a rather banal explanation unless coupled with the rationale. So, here goes.

The word “emotion” can mean many things. In my context, it really refers to something more broadly called “The Passions”. Honestly, I know very little about intellectual history prior to the 17th century so I won’t pretend that I know where the categorization of the passions began. What I do know is that in 1668 Charles Le Brun cataloged 22 of them based on facial movements. Three and a half centuries later, today’s master of emotional communication, Paul Ekman, is still working on understanding them. What I also know are two things that are entirely personal and subjective. I know that I respond very strongly to highly emotional art. And, I know that the art I personally find most powerful is that which helps us to develop our ability to see or hear deeply and with sensitivity. So, if I was writing a manifesto (right… in my dreams!) I would say that the purpose of art is to provide audiences or viewers with tools that cultivate their mindfulness, and sensitivity to the subtle beauty of all that surrounds us. Each of these artists provide me with exactly that.

Puccini often took everyday experiences, rather than heroic Wagnerian characters and subjects, as the basis for his operas. This neither implies that Madame Butterfly is “everyday” nor does it imply that I like Wagner. Both are untrue. What is does imply is that Puccini understood the subtleties of ordinary life and was able to portray them sensitively. More important was Puccini’s ability to write extraordinary melody in a way that evokes enormous emotion. The man clearly understood the power of melody to express every subtle aspect of every possible emotion.

In a very different way, Bill Viola understands emotions on a very subtle level. He wants his viewers to experience these emotions but he also wants to heighten out awareness of them. Bill’s work serves to make us aware of how life is lived and experienced and how we emotionally respond to that. Not every emotion that Bill wants us to experience is positive. As much as he want’s us to know what love and ecstasy are like, he also wants us to understand things like sadness, fear, death, loss, grief, confusion, emotional conflict, anger, and everything in between. That’s why Bill can create a piece like “The Passing” which eloquently examines the spiritual, emotional, existential extremes of human birth and death; concurrently juxtaposing them.It’s why he can create something like “I do not know what it is I am like” that does the exact same thing with the natural world. It’s why a viewer can sit transfixed in an installation of “Five Angels for the Millennium” and feel uplifted. And, it’s why “The Passions” can effectively juxtapose everything from “Man of Sorrow” to  “Emergence” in a way that maintains philosophical integrity. Bill doesn’t only want us to be uplifted. He wants us to know what every emotion feels like and, through experiencing his work, to become sensitized to those emotions and to be better able to recognize and wrestle with them. All of Bill’s work reaches it’s pinnacle in “The Passions” because all of those pieces deal with what John Walsh calls “Emotions in Extreme Time”. The pieces were not shot on video. They were shot on 35mm film at an extremely high frame rate. The result is that we viewers need to spend time with the pieces (you can’t just walk by them). But, when you do, you experience the most intricate subtlety imaginable. You learn everything about the emotion expressed in the work. For I guy like me, who values emotion as the most affecting component of art, nothing is more powerful than Bills most recent work!

Like Viola and Puccini, Michael Newberry’s work is about emotion. Somewhat different from Puccini and drastically different from Viola, Newberry’s work focuses on a only a subset of the passions. That subset, however, is the core of both his aesthetic and his beliefs about the purpose of art. Michael DOES have a manifesto and it’s not the same as what I said mine would be. I have a broader range of art that I would call “good” than Michael does but that is because Michael has very solid, rational, consistent beliefs about why he does what he does. So, much of the art I like, Michael does not like because it does not meet his standards for what he believes art should do. I had a conversation with Michael recently, about Picasso’s composition. Michael sad this: “Picasso is one of my favorite painters but he is not one of my favorite artists“. I’ve never discussed Viola’s work with him but I have the feeling he’d feel similarly.  Michael has an aesthetic that is strongly rooted in Romantic aesthetics. To him, the most important thing that art should do is to help the viewer or listener understand his potential for greatness; to make the audience see their human potential; and to make them have a desire to be the best, most productive, most glorious humans that they can be. Michael does not try to work with the whole gamut of emotions. Many of Le Brun’s 22 passions are exactly the opposite of what Michael wants his work to express. What he wants is for his viewers to see intense love; pure, unfiltered, unimpeded ecstasy; and the feeling of joy brought to its ultimate heights. Unlike Viola, or even Puccini, Michael does not want his work to have anything to do with fear, anger, disappointment, sadness, or death. Where Viola wants us to see everything and to be forced to deal with our own responses, Michael wants only one thing: to show you your highest, greatest, most amazing potential and to make you strive to achieve your own.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to all three of these artists. To Puccini I owe my love for some of the most passionate aural experiences one can ever have. To Viola I own my love for visual experiences that forever change ones perceptions. To Newberry I own a house full of some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, the daily renewal of my desire to strive to be my best, a constant reminder to take the personal responsibility for achieving (or not) my goals, and the acknowledgement that it’s okay (dare I say mandatory) for one to nurture one’s own joy, happiness, and love.

What my favorite artists would think of each other, I don’t really know. I’m pretty sure that Puccini would love Newberry’s painting and, at least, the most recent of Viola’s work. I’m certain that if Viola saw Newberry’s painting he’d feel he’d found a kindred spirit. I know that Newberry loves Puccini because we’ve spoken about it and listened together; about Viola’s later work I guess that Michael would respect it and love (or come to love) “The Passions”. Each of these guys would have a different view of how the others meet the aesthetic objectives of their own artistic conceptions. But, that’s why they are all great artists. Their artistic conceptions each differ but, unlike so much of the terrible art that has been produced in the last 100 years, what make each of these aesthetics unique is their unadulterated nobility.

As for me, I am just a lover of emotionally charged art with a bunch of pastel and pencil drawn nudes and a silly “R MUSIC” license plate. But the thread that binds together those really important parts of my life is passion. Today I live more passionately, more compassionately, and with greater mindfulness of our world and our human potential because of them.