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Art as an Antidote-

Updated: Mar 15

Contemplating the fate of art education today -and considering art as a benefic process for a troubled world- Brian Keeler

To assuage the ill effects of life, the idea of art as a balm for the soul has been put forth by many notables over the centuries. Most recently in the current New York Times, Jan 28,2024, Sunday edition, there is a splendid opinion page article by David Brooks. Many will also know Brooks as a featured weekly commentator on the PBS news hour.

Above- Rembrandt's painting of 1669 depicting the biblical theme- the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This canvas was used by David Brooks in his NY Times article to illustrate the salubrious aspects of experiencing art.

The title of Brooks' column is, "How to Save a Sad, Angry and Mean Society." We don't have to speculate as to how and where this perception arises, as our world is replete with bombast, ugliness, partisan politics, and vile behavior in our nation's court rooms. I'll say at the outset, that when we see the fellow running for the office of president, defiling our institutions, public officials, public servants, courtroom officials and inspiring a cadre of followers to issue death threats, then we know we are in perilous times. This is just for starters, and the most prominent, as the rest of world provides an abundance of onerous events. The precarious nature of tinder boxes of global war zones is certainly up there from Ukraine, Gaza to Taiwan- and then environmental collapse on a grand scale, displacement of populations and refugee flights add to the mix.

Brooks' article was inspired by his visit to a musuem, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where he noticed a tote bag with the inscription, "You are no longer the same after experiencing art." The implication is that we become better people or perhaps even ennobled. Speaking of ennobled, there is wonderful enscription that greets visitors to the Clark Art Institute in Williamston, MA that states "In this place men and women will be strenghtened and ennobled by their contact with the beauty of the ages." And yes, we can certainly relate to this. I certainly can, as I love to contemplate and study the wonderful art in musuems.

Brooks does have an odd way of phrasing the experience. He wonders if the tote bag message is true with this speculation.

" Does consuming art, music and the rest of what we call culture make you a better person?"

A good question. But the idea that we are merely consumers of art strikes me as peculiar. It brings a materialistic quality to the experience of art - as if attending a concert or a gallery were merely something like a statistic, say, of eating so many pounds of food per year. So I just wonder about this concept of "consuming art" as it sounds like we are a voracious public out to injest a product. So, Is art just a product? One would hope for the altruism that Brooks advocates in the rest of his article- which is art serving to inspire- which to me implies a non-material essence.

Still, I love Brooks' balanced wisdom that he imparts in this article and many of his commentaries. In answer to his own question, Brooks mentions Aristotle, who is said to have valued culture and art- but today our nation is trending away from valuing the arts. He notes that our schools are veering sharply in favor of computer sciences at the expense of humanities. A case in point is the fate art education in Pennsylvania.

In the news of my area of Pennsylvania- is the shuttering of the art department at the college where my art training started in earnest, Keystone College, located just north of Scranton, PA. They recently had an event where the faculty members that started the art department in the 1960's and early 70's were feted. The entire art program was axed by the current president due to lack of enrollment. But according to Bill Tersteeg, one of my teachers there- the recruitment of potential students through an outreach to nearby high schools was also axed. Consequently the enrollment suffered. This school, were I also taught for a year, was a well-established and well-rounded art program, complete with art history and a varied studio curriculum.

More notably, on a national scale, was the recent closing of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia- which was America's oldest and perhaps most venerated art school. It goes back to 1805 when it was founded by the portraitist Charles Wilson Peale and Wiliam Rush. Some of my favorite American painters attended and taught there including; Thomas Eakins, Roberrt Henri and Ceclia Beaux. I have visited the PAFA museum (which will remain open) many times . This school was reportedly losing three million dollars per year and dwindling enrollement also figued into the reasons for closing. The art school, where I received the core of my tradionalist training, the York Academy of Arts in York, PA was likewise shuttered in 1980 after a rancorous dispute between faculty and the administration. I've heard some disheartening stories of this schools breakup from my former teachers.

Speaking of Philadelphia, there was a noteworthy cultural success story, that shows that art is valued by the public. I am referring to the saving of the painting by Thomas Eakins known as The Gross Clinic. It is a remarkable large painting of a surgeon at work in a lecture hall. This canvas done in 1875 by Eakins is an icon of American art. It was on the verge of being shipped off to a museum in Arkansas. Forutunately there was public outcry, and grassroots fundraising to purchase the painting and keep it in Philadelphia. So there are small triumphs like these that show that art is truly valued. I did a portrait of a friend and fellow painter posing in front of Eakins work in the Pennsylvania Academy Museum. It is shown below.

Above- An 18" x 20" oil on linen done as an homage ( by the author) to the 1875 Thomas Eakins painting of the Gross Clinic. Friend and fellow painter, Lou Pontone poses in front of the painting.

So we come to relate more emphatically with Brooks' sentiment as we see art schools closing and the priorities shifting. Here's a quote from Brooks' article that sheds some light on the state of the arts today.

"I'll argue that we have become so sad, lonely, angry and mean as a society in part because so many people have not been taught or don't bother practicing to enter sympathetically into the minds of their fellow human beings. We're over politicized while growing increasingly undermoralized, under spiritualized and undercultured."

Well said. I would agree with his sentiments mostly. But as a caveat, this would certainly not seem the case when one visits some of the major musuems of the world; the Louvre, the Uffizi and the Metropolitan Musuem of Art in NYC for example are always thronged. When we visied the MET after Christmas this year to attend the Manet-Degas show and the permanent collection the line outside was a long snaking affair and inside it was absolutely mobbed. Still, these are the exceptions and as a general perception the observations of Brooks' hold true.

The illustration for Brooks' article was a paitning of a biblical theme of 1669 by Rembrandt, titled "The Prodigal Son." It is a tour de force of empathy and human tenderness rendered with Rembrandt's characteristic dramatic lighting and deep warm palette. I recognized the work from across the room when Linda was reading it. This painting underscores the article's thrust, which is that art widens our optic, increases our tolerance, compassion and increases our understanding. Our humanity is likewise given more breadth. The humanist ethos of the Reniassance is brought to a new apogee, by seeing individuals rather than archetypes. Rembrandt did this throughout his career with many canvases that show us ourselves in more compassionate light. There is a great book on Rembrandt that beautifully brings this out, titled, "How Rembrandt Reveals Your Imperfect Self- Life Lessons from the Master" by Roger Housden.

The canvas by Rembrandt illustrating the parable of the Prodigal son is an incredibly beautiul work. The paint quality can be appreciated even in photos. Note the lovely impasto in the brushwork of the faces. The mystery of the background figures hidden in shadows is virtuosic. Rembrandt's etching to the same theme shown below, shows another completely different conception of the Old Testament story.

Above- An etching of the same theme of the Parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt.

I have made the study of Rembrandt, a favorite mode of my art research- as when I am in museums with his work I often stop to sketch from his canvases. Most recently this process was enjoyed in the NGA in DC and earlier last spring at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Seeing the dignity in the commonplace and in humble origins and less than glamorous faces is the key. Here is another quote from Brook's article that underscores this point.

"The novelist Frederick Buechner once observed that not all the faces Rembrandt painted were remarkable. Some were just average-looking old people. But even the plainest face "is so remarkably seen that it forces you to see it remarkably." We are jolted into not taking other people for granted but to sense and respect the immense depth of each human soul."

Indeed, well said again. Moreover, I recall the story of the judge presiding over the horrendous trials of Nazi war criminals after WWII in the Hague. It is reported that as an antidote the littany of reports of incredible cruelty that were meted out in concentration camps that visits to the nearby Mauritshuis Muesuem to contemplate the Vermeer paintings helped him endure with the process of this courtroom travail.

In my life now as a shop owner and a gallerist, as I paint in a new space on the Commons here in Ithaca, which is open to the public, it is interesting to note how people relate to art. Most visitors are respectuful, curious and interested. Others stumble in as if just taking up time between appointments. On a few occasions I have seen some visitors rush through the gallery as if in a race to get to the back without looking at any of the paintings. On other occasions, the ubiquitous cell phones keep them hunched over without looking up. This, of course, has been observed in spades in musuems. There should be a course or at least handout in etiquette for museum goers. Just recently in the Rembrandt room at the MET, I witnessed a young girl applying makeup while viewing herself in her cell phone.

There are many quotable passages on how art elevates and expands our awareness in Brooks' article. These observations have a spiritual quality that inspires.

"Your way of perceiving the world becomes your way of being in the world. If your eyes have been trained just a bit, by the way Leo Tolstoy saw, if your heart can feel as deeply as a K.D. Laing song, if you understand people with as much and complexity as Shakespeare did, you will have enhanced your life."

Above- Keeler studying a self portrait of Rembrandt by sketcing in the NGA in DC.

In closing I will mention Rembrandt again to underscore his propensity to increase our compassion especially in relation to vision, worldly perception and the light of insight. He has several canvases about vision, for example the Blinding of Sampson, a violent narrative and the restoring of vision of Tobit- both biblical stories. The canvases show us dramatic events but also they serve to honor our creativity and vision in the larger sense of the word. In relation to this, It was pointed out by a friend's recent visit to Sicily and Naples where Saint Lucy, the patron of vision is honored in many Renaissance canvases. Stone masons of Italy particularly honored her as their vision was always at risk due to the chipping of stones that could damge the eyes. The upshot here is to appreciate the common acts and everyday life of seeing the world and the light.

To view a video of Brian Keeler sketching from a self portrait by Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2023- view this Youtube link-

And a Youtube video- Keeler sketching from another Rembrandt in the NGA- DC

Above- A wall insription from the Clark Institute in Williamston,MA.

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1 Comment

Timothy Butler
Timothy Butler
Jan 29

Thanks for espousing art's virtues- I can never hear that song enough! -Tim Butler

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