Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Memento Mori

September 13th, 2009 · 1 Comment

I must admit that I had high expectations for the National Gallery, but from the majority of paintings I saw I can say that my expectations were not met.  Monet and his impressionism simply had no affect on me.  His work just seemed very dull/boring.  In Pitmen Painters it was said that art itself doesn’t have an affect on someone, but it is the relationship between that person and a particular piece of artwork which creates meaning.  However, I had no connection with Monet in any of his works; there was just aesthetic value in it.

This lack of feeling was not just with works of Monet.  Paul Cezanne’s “An Old Woman with a Rosary” tried to show despair and a need for help.  But staring at it, I could see or feel any of that.  It was just a portrait of an old woman to me.  Cornelis van Haarlem’s “Two Followers of Cadmus devoured by a Dragon,” though graphic, seemed like something I would see in a fantasy novel.

However, there were two paintings in particular I enjoyed quite a bit.  Both dealt with the concept of “memento mori” (Latin: “Remember you are mortal.”)  The first was Frans Hals’ “Young Man holding a Skull.”  The name of the painting is self-explanatory as to what it shows, but if you dig deeper you can see it as a “reminder of the transience of life and the certainty of death.”  It was simple and to the point; the reminder is hauntingly felt.  The second piece was Jan Jansz. Treck’s “Vanitas Still Life.”  The painting was “intended to cause the viewer to reflect on the inevitability of mortality and the consequent foolishness of all human ambition.”  It succeeded very well in accomplishing this objective.  In the painting itself, a skull is used to represent death, an hourglass is used to represent time, a helmet to represent war/death, musical instruments, a pipe and other items used to represent the joys of living.  What I found most interesting regarding the piece was a title-page of a play entitled “Evil is its own reward.”  It was the title of the play which caught me off guard as I wasn’t sure what Treck meant by it.  Of course (as Pitmen Painters pointed out), it only matters what I think it means and not what he intended it to mean.

I am sure the concept of memento mori does not sit well with many people.  After all, who likes to think about death, especially your own death?  People tend to avoid thinking about death because they see it as a life-denying force; you cannot enjoy the things in life if you are dead.  Treck’s “Vanitas Still Life” wants to show how every action we take is idiotic since we all die in the end (a concept related to memento mori); and it is very easy to see life as pointless in that light.  Such a bleak and dark picture is life-denying.  Yet memento mori can be seen in another light.  Being reminded of one’s own mortality is not a life-denying force, but a life-affirming one.  Think of the translated phrase itself: Remember you are mortal.  It is a reminder that you will die; it’s inevitable and there is nothing you can do about it.  So why worry about dying?  Everyday people see themselves as how they would like to be, how they wish they did this or that, how they wish that could say this or that to someone.  Memento mori is a concept telling you to act, to live and to do what you want because of the FACT that you are going to die; you only have one life so truly appreciate it by actually living and do not hold yourself back.  It’s not worth it to pretend that you can’t do this or that when the only thing really stopping you from acting is you.  So the next time you get worried about something silly just remember memento mori.  Getting a bad grade, starting a conversation with someone at the bar, bumming a cigarette, whatever it is that you worry about just remember that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter…so why not act?

Tags: Andrew F

The Will and Courage to Change Yourself

September 11th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Let me begin by saying that Pitmen Painters was the best play I have seen thus far.  It seemed to me that almost everyone enjoyed the play quite a bit.  Pitmen Painters was full of passion, philosophy and humor.  However, it was the passion and philosophy which truly captured me during the play.

The socialist overtones were quite apparent throughout the play, but I’m not entirely sure if it was a glorification of socialism.  It’s true that Oliver turned down the stipend and instead decided to continue working in the mine; an obvious case of promoting the proletariat.  However, what comes of his actions?  Instead of having a much different life, Oliver (and the rest of the miners) doesn’t seem to grow, either artistically, which Helen points out, or personally.  The miners latch on to the socialist movement hoping for change, but that change never came as was pointed out by the projector screen at the end of the play.

So what is there to show for in the end?  Quite a bit in my opinion.  The play was not a promotion of socialism, art or even the Pitmen Painters.  It was both a warning and revelation about change.  The play wanted to make clear to the viewer that a person cannot expect to latch on to an ideology and expect to be saved.  Ideologies are merely abstract concepts of the world at a particular moment in time.  They cannot be true because the world (and us as human beings) is constantly in flux.  True change, personal rebirth, transcending yourself or whatever you want to call it can only come from within and without the help of false idols or flawed ideologies.  To say that Oliver would have sold out by accepting the stipend is simply not true.

In the end, each of the Pitmen Painters sold out by rejecting the opportunity for personal change.  Oliver, the rest of the miners and the dentist all decided to join the socialist movement, placing the opportunity for change in someone else’s hands.  The unemployed man decided to join the war effort not because he really wanted to, but because he was convinced by recruiters that it could fulfill something missing in his life (probably the “honor” of having a job at last and being part of something “important/larger than oneself”).  In both cases, each character, instead of looking within themselves to find what they truly wanted from life, decided to look outwards for something they thought could fill that meaning.  Though their lives were tragic and their dreams left unfulfilled, the play and the characters in it is a message to the viewers that change is possible only if you have the will and courage to make it so.

Tags: Andrew F

The Pitmen Painters and Existentialist Thought

September 11th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Philosophy post! Prepare for pretentiousness, big words, and most importantly, bullshit! I’m only kidding of course. Yesterday’s play, The Pitmen Painters raised some important questions about personal identity. In fact, the entire first act was dedicated to that theme. The miners are faced with an important challenge to their working class identities. When the wealthy heiress Helen Sutherland offers Oliver Kilbourne a weekly stipend for painting, he declines after much deliberation, hollering on about how a miner absolutely cannot be an artist. He is a pitman through and through and that will never change. His identity does not extend any further than his career.

Oliver is a perfect example of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of mauvaise foi, translated as bad faith. Sartre realized that humans tend to define themselves as per a list of finite list of descriptors, such as profession, sexual orientation, actions committed in the past, etc. His most famous example is the infamous waiter. This particular waiter wakes up every morning and thinks about waiting tables. He goes to work and is in his element, focusing primarily on his job and considering everything else to be either peripheral or in some way related to working in a restaurant. He is more waiter than human. Sartre considers such a person to be lying to himself, because human identity absolutely cannot be isolated into one overarching trait.

Oliver is in bad faith, at least throughout act one. There really isn’t much more to his shallow existence beyond his job as a pitman. He considers Helen to be part of “Them,” the upper class of Britain who might as well belong to a different nation. The two classes are worlds apart. Oliver and crew can’t even fathom pursuing a career in something as lofty as painting, a profession stereotypically associated with those who actually have time to paint, namely the upper class.

I apologize, but some technical jargon is necessary at this juncture. A key concept in existentialism is undefined nature of humanity. There are two important ideas to be understood here: facticity and transcendence. Facticity is past actions or social roles, or what most people attempt to use as fodder for definition. If I killed a man last week, the murder is part of my facticity. Transcendence is what a person is yet to become, an infinitely open space to be filled with future facticity. Sartre famously writes in the god-awfully long Being and Nothingness, “I am what I am not and I am not what I am.” Read that one a few times. To be what one is not is not as contradictory as it seems. The nothingness represents the freedom all people possess to make choices and live dignified lives. Do not become too deeply ingrained in your past; it does not define you.

The Ashington Group initially disagree with everything Sartre said. A pitman you’re born a pitman you’ll die, and you’ll never be anything more. As the men become more and more well known in the art world, they insist on remaining “non-professional” artists and keep their dismal jobs down in the mines. I believe that the group, especially Oliver, conquer their bad faith. They finally realize the crucial balance of facticity and transcendence. Their art remains based on working-class life and pitman culture, but they learn to embrace the future instead of gluing themselves to their past.

Tags: Andrew B