FIAT LUX – Impressionist Painting in Light of Trump

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An art historian friend convinced this attending metaphysician to take a boat tour down the Seine to visit some Impressionist painters’ hangouts in northern France, plus a few days in Paris to squeeze through the city’s Impressionist exhibitions. The group consisted mostly of retirees pursuing long-postponed avocations— travel, painting, writing, reading, and, if possible, becoming more active citizens.

For ten days in May we enjoyed the glories of crisp sunny weather in Montmartre, Auvers-sur-Oise, Etretat, Honfleur (where sunshine morphed into dark clouds, flash rain and back in under an hour), Rouen (where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake), Monet’s magnificent pond and garden at Giverny, and back to Paris for a cruise of the city’s magical nightlights. Throughout, we tried to retain scraps of the vast knowledge of art, doused with sly wit by our unforgettable guide, Jennifer Burdon, whose presence was worth the price of the trip.

Footsore and awestruck from tromping through so many sites made historic by the Impressionists’ depictions of them, we sat down to wine-soaked—this was France, after all—and waistline expanding gourmet meals. Alas, lunch and dinner conversations seemed to drag themselves helplessly toward the elephant in the room. Those willing to reveal their views had grave fears that President Trump would undermine or destroy our democracy. This was before he revoked U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord.

How could we apply what we were learning about art to said elephant? Our hearts were touched by reminders of the near-starvation poverty of Vincent Van Gogh, supported whenever possible by his brother Theo, and the sight of the brothers’ graves, side by side, symbolically united by a thick cover of ivy. We heard about Armand Guillaumin, a lesser-known but influential painter who won a lottery, was able to leave his job and devote himself to painting, sharing his breakfast rolls with less fortunate artists out painting with him. Under the roiling coastal skies of Normandy, birthplace of Impressionism, we learned how the emphasis on the play of light and color on myriad subjects—including just clouds—gradually transformed traditional standards of beauty and artistry.

Jennifer informed us that not all Impressionists accepted the term, as it once implied sloppy workmanship. But they might have agreed with commentators who claimed that, because of them, the painting itself became the subject, rather than what was being painted. –With that insight, against our will, we were brought back to Trump.

It was hard not to notice that this President tries to make whatever he paints—in words, at least—more important than the actual subject, which is the reality of facts. He got elected by promising what he is unable to deliver in terms of jobs and health care, playing upon people’s fears and stirring up misogynistic hatred of his opponent in the presidential campaign. Now that a slim lead in the Electoral College has given him the Presidency—when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a decisive margin—his self-portrait is becoming one of a willfully ignorant winner of a campaign based on his own lies, fake news, and widespread tampering with social media by right-wing extremists and a foreign, anti-democratic government. What kind of impression does that make on those paying attention to his abuse of light and color? The lineaments emerge as a very real and dangerous paradox: a legitimately elected, but morally and ethically illegitimate President.

What chance does our country have to not be dragged down into less than reliable—even former—status as the world’s indispensable nation? Those of us who have no handle on political power can only rely on our powers of attention. In particular, the motivation to protest dishonest leadership and to support responsible media and nonprofit organizations willing to expose this administration’s threat to our democracy, our health, environment, economy, and our responsibility to help others here and around the world.

The Impressionists started out in poverty, their works rejected by those in power in the art world, the French Academy. But gradually, after great effort and the undeniable genius of a new form of art, their achievements (if not the artists personally) prevailed. Let’s hope that what made America great will prevail—being a nation of immigrants fleeing poverty and injustice, helping win two world wars, assisting war-torn nations to rebuild after those wars, providing moral leadership during the Cold War and in matters of human rights, and an economy based on freedom to innovate.

Let us also hope that our nation’s mistakes, yet uncorrected—failing to bypass the Electoral College, which enabled a previous loser of the popular vote to preside over major disasters such as the invasion of Iraq, the ruthless speculations of Wall Street investors and banks that caused the collapse of the housing market and triggered the Great Recession—will also be overcome, so that the tyranny of wealthy oligarchs does not prevail.

Even it means removing President Trump and his cronies from leadership.

Let there be light. And hope. And attention to activism.

WHEN ATTENTION GOES DARK

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So far, this attending metaphysician has focused on positive, life-enhancing aspects of attention. But after the 2016 election, much of our country, and the world at large, has had a bitter taste of what could go wrong when attention, facilitated by false information, anger and fear, can lead to dangerous choices. In itself, fear is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance are forces that can derail whatever is civilized in human civilization.

To estimate the vast range of the power of attention we have to look at its dark side. As this election has demonstrated, when people let their thoughts and feelings be manipulated by others, or base their decisions on appearances without backup information, or trust a charismatic personality without taking into account his previous life history, or allow any other factor to prevent them from making informed decisions, then their choices can endanger our entire culture.

Normally we do not look for the dark side of attention, but we do feel its effects. Especially in the past year or so, we sense it in our deeply polarized political climate, when people who voted differently became enemies or former friends.

There’s reason for recent talk of tribes, information silos, fake news, and the growing distrust of facts even when presented by traditional sources of expertise such as responsible journalists and scientists. If not a sickening awareness, there is at least a justified fear that we live in a post-truth era. In order to discredit the most pressing issue of our time, the reality of human-caused global warning, a handful of ultra-rich, conservative industrialists and politicians—represented most recently by Donald Trump—have called global warming a hoax. Doing so requires ignoring enormous factual evidence. Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches have been so rife with falsehoods, and so many fact-checkers have called him out on them, that he and his allies have retaliated by denouncing facts and truth in general.

A telling detail emerged soon after Mr. Trump was assured of winning the election—despite losing the popular vote. He no longer insisted on some of the key premises that brought him victory. The most obvious was calling his opponent crooked, corrupt to the core, probably a murderer, and if elected he would put Hillary Clinton behind bars. Instead, in his victory speech, he insisted (rightly) that the nation owed her a “major debt of gratitude” for her many years of public service.

That statement alone revealed how cynical were the false accusations Trump and associates had hurled against Mrs. Clinton, stirring up hatred to the point where many of his supporters were dismayed to hear that their hero was not going to “lock her up.” In a thank-you speech to his supporters, bewilderment showed on their faces when he brushed aside their chants as having “played well” during the campaign, but were of no further use to him. Were they not, sadly, the ones who’d been played?

This revelation also exposed how easily Donald Trump had built his campaign upon decades of hate-filled smears against Hillary Clinton by far-right talk radio and Fox TV News commentators. Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” After years of angry, fear-mongering diatribes against Mrs. Clinton in right-wing media silos, many people were ready to believe that she actually was a criminal. They primed to accept fake news that the Pope had endorsed Trump for President, and that the Clintons were operating a child molestation ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor–inspiring a father of four to drive 20 hours on a weekend and fire his assault rifle in deluded defense of those imaginary children.

I am reminded here of a long neglected warning from a great but little read philosopher, Bernard J.F. Lonergan. In his classic work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1978 [1957]), Lonergan dared to claim that what people accepted as “common sense” was often the result of mental laziness, received ideas unredeemed by individual reflection and intelligence. If he were alive today, Lonergan might well identify the widely accepted but unfounded assumptions and suspicions about Mrs. Clinton as examples of what he called the “social surd.”

Lonergan borrowed the term surd from mathematics—surds being numbers such as the square or cube root of 2, that cannot be reduced to a fraction of two integers, and are called irrational numbers. Both surd and its better known cousin, absurd, come from surdus, Latin for deaf, dumb or stupid. The force behind Lonergan’s idea of an irrational social surd lurking within “common sense” was his identification of the accumulation of unexamined assumptions and emotional bias as components of cultural evil.

Why evil? Because received ideas—such as someone’s being “crooked” or a murderer without evidential proof—distance people from their personal responsibility to consider someone’s character in light of verifiable facts. Innocent until proven guilty remains, despite too frequent compromises, the basis of our justice system. As in a court of law, if jurors/citizens accept the opinions of others without looking into them, or assume that news items on social media or the opinions of “talking heads” are true when they are not supported by credible evidence, we leave ourselves open to mental and emotional manipulation. And small manipulations increase injustice in a society, distort “common sense,” and can end in tyranny.

How tyranny? Think of the rise of Goebbels’ boss, Hitler. As a society accumulates unfounded judgments—racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious bias, etc.—it can fall under the sway of charismatic leaders who are amoral sociopaths. But even without a demagogue setting the tone, biased reasoning can rip up the social fabric and undermine democracy, which stands or falls on the basis of citizens’ commitment to vote thoughtfully and fairly.

This gives new meaning to the old adage, Constant vigilance is the price of virtue. Today we must be more vigilant, to protect ourselves and others from the dark side of attention. More on that later.