Well… I have been “unfriended” from a longtime “friend” on Facebook. Evidently he did not take kindly to my responding to his post that we should “…all be reporting to the authorities on our friends and families who are articulating ‘extremist’ views.” (His articulation of extremism was to reference those who voted for President Trump.)
His absence in my life will not become an insurmountable obstacle to my happiness.
This did, however, get me thinking about Harper Lee, Skokie, Illinois, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Daniel Chester French.
I’m sure you are all wondering how I’m going to string these together!
When I was in middle school, two events took place in my life that have had a profound effect on whom I have developed into. Maybe it would be better to say, “assisted me”, in becoming the man whom I have become. The first was the reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. I ended up reading this book twice while at El Rancho Jr. High. The first was as part of my English class. We did a deep dive into the structure, the alliteration, and subtext plots of Ms. Lee’s work. We wrote essays and analyzed the book to comport with the teaching objectives outlined either by the teacher herself or some other obscure governmental agency. The time spent was utterly worthless, and I suspect for many of my prepubescent colleagues their memory of To Kill a Mockingbird is either completely missing or, at best, some random book they had to read many years ago.
I, however, saw that there might be some merit in the work. After the school year, I read the book again. It was a transformative experience for me. Atticus Finch, the lawyer defending a framed black man in the South, and literally putting his heart and soul into that defense, awakened me to the nobility of the bar. I wanted to be Atticus. Hell… even the idea of a young, distinguished Southern gentleman defending the accused against the injustices foisted by the State, as well as the passions of the majority, seemed attractive to me. Sadly, growing up in Southern California, I knew I would never be able to do justice to an antebellum Southern accent.
I also ended up watching a made-for-TV movie staring Danny Kaye simply called Skokie. The movie came out in 1981, and while the Danny Kaye character is inspiring, it was a minor character whom I found the most interesting. The movie chronicles a real-life event. A Neo-Nazi organizer wants to have a rally in Skokie, Illinois. A large group of Jews who are Holocaust survivors live there. The rally is intended to be provocative, and the town’s Jewish population is being persuaded by two prominent members to simply ignore the Nazis. Their thought is that by acknowledging them, they are giving them power. Danny Kaye, a survivor himself, takes a different position. He wants to confront them directly with violence if necessary.
While the drama and debate is interesting, the character who portrays real-life attorney David Goldberg caught my philosophical attention. Mr. Goldberg works with the ACLU and they represent the Nazis.
Mr. Goldberg, who is Jewish himself, takes on the case not because he bears any allegiance to his client’s vulgar politics… rather because he realizes that unpopular, even grotesque, speech is precisely the type of speech that needs to be protected.
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Fast forward to my college years.
When I was receiving my classical education at The University of San Francisco (Thanks, again, Jesuits… it has been appreciated.), I took a variety of art classes… not the physical method to sculpt and paint (I would have actually liked that)… no, my art classes were focused on classical art appreciation and interpretation.
During that time, I was introduced to three famous artists whom I am sure you are familiar with, and one who you will instantly recognize by his work, if not his name: Leonardo Da Vinci, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Daniel Chester French.
Many are familiar; of course, the Da Vinci’s iconic work, Mona Lisa, is displayed at the Louvre. While his interests in engineering, science, and philosophy are typically focused on, there is a second painting (actually two paintings) I found awe inspiring when I was first introduced to them in my late teens. Known as Madonna on the Rocks and The Virgin on the Rocks, these two paintings… both very similar to each other with some subtle, and some overt, differences are, in my opinion, Da Vinci’s best work. The evocative nature of his paintings are transcendent over time, and there is a complexity that radiates the intelligence of the artist. Not only does Christ, St. John, and the Virgin Mary figure prominently in the pictures… but so does Da Vinci himself, not in the ingrained imagery of the pictures… but in the totality of the art work.
The next artist who had an impact on me, frankly even more than Da Vinci, was Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a baroque artist who sculpted such outstanding works as The Veiled Virgin (Sandy’s favorite), David, Apollo and Daphne, and my absolute favorite, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.
I have always felt that the technical capabilities of Bernini were far greater than the more famous Michelangelo. His ability to evoke an emotional response on the part of his viewer is apparent in the gasps heard by the many visitors to the Santa Maria del Vittoria in Rome when they see the Ecstasy and the enraptured look on St. Teresa’s face as she is about to be pierced by the cherub’s arrow (Yeah… you can let your mind wander a bit on this one).
Lastly, is Daniel Chester French. Most people are familiar with Mr. French’s work, if not his name. He is the artist who carved Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. He is also the first sculpture artist whom I ever encountered that created an emotional response in me. I remember distinctly standing at the entrance to the Lincoln Memorial as a young 13-year-old boy and feeling goosebumps as I stood before the towering statue. Lincoln, I felt, was actually there looking down on me and, in a sense, encouraging me to stand fast against tyranny.
So… then how are these all interweaved? Well, to a large extent, I wanted to show how art has the ability to enhance life, if not necessarily transform it. All of us growing up in the United States have either read, or at least are familiar with, George Orwell’s 1984. Yet, here we are. The admonitions have done nothing to dissuade the collectivist movement.
Since the 1960s (and perhaps even earlier than that), there has not been a movie, television show, or popular novel that has, as its central protagonist, a racist. We have literally grown up on a diet of anti-racism. Yet, while many debate if the racism that exists in our country is systemic, none would argue that it is not present at some level. How could that be? Wouldn’t the artists and entertainers have ensured a post-racist environment? Clearly they can’t. We cannot transform ourselves from the outside. Our personal growth must come from within us, not from external factors. Artists, politicians, and even “friends” on social media can provide exposure… but that exposure can never be transformative.
It can, however, be emotionally uplifting, educational, and perhaps, in the final analysis, even just simply entertaining.
Art, and even the dialectic, enrich our lives. It does not serve as a proxy for it.