The Permanent Things

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I like art. Perhaps that sounds pretentious; let me put it another way. Beauty is attractive, and art is about beauty — and truth. I find that it calls to me ever more enticingly as the years roll by. What’s not to like? And I don’t limit myself to "fine" art. Fine craftsmanship has an equal appeal. The craftsman applies esthetic principles to practical objects. Wonderful!

But what I like about art, besides the beauty, is the fact that it is utterly unimportant. I am not especially fond of ballet, for example, whereas many others rhapsodize about it. But so what? It makes no difference. You prefer Chippendale; I like Queen Anne. Are we going to fight about it?

Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone scale leaves me not just cold, but with an intense desire to plug my ears; his fans — I assume he has them — can’t get enough of the stuff. So they can listen to it to their hearts’ content, and I can avoid it whenever possible. But the sun continues to rise in the east, and no harm comes to us from our diverse tastes.

You might, if your strength is as the strength of ten, remark, at an exhibit of the works of Kandinsky, that you prefer Norman Rockwell. But words directed at you will never hurt you — at least physically — and you will survive withering glances. (You might even find a few people surreptitiously whispering "I do too.") But your dog, and perhaps even your wife, will continue to love you. Your roses will bloom anyway.

Prefer Rodin to Calder, or vice versa. No one will attempt to seize your property, or imprison you. You will not even risk being charged with a hate crime, or hurtful speech. The Rodin (or Calder) groupies will not seek damages for their wounded feelings. Isn’t that wonderful! (Or maybe it simply reflects the fact that the aesthetes are not as politically sophisticated and organized as other minorities.)

Paradoxically, though, I find that as I age, art, while supremely unimportant, becomes more and more important to me. It is precisely its unimportance that makes it so significant.

When I was younger, I burned with resentment at the flagrant injustice in the world. It still rankles me, but with less urgency. I no longer flatter myself that I can do anything about it. The Beatitude has assumed new meaning for me: Blessed be those that hunger and thirst for justice! The blessing is upon those who hunger and thirst, not necessarily achieve. The lesson, so slowly and painfully learned, is that justice may be too much to expect in this world, except occasionally, or by accident.

Society is disintegrating around me, and I know the causes, and could do something about it. I’m not bragging; you could probably say the same. But I couldn’t do it alone; we’d have to work together. Ultimately, we’d have to establish some sort of organization that would be powerful enough to compel respect for the law and individual rights. In other words, a government! Good grief! I know better than that! How many times have I said that power corrupts, inevitably, yet to remedy the corruption of today, we would need power that would corrupt us tomorrow.

Evil can best be fought by moral suasion, not physical force, or the threat of it. Those who would reform the world ought to begin by reforming their own lives. That would seem like a job for the churches, but they don’t seem terribly interested in doing it, preferring bland social programs, more appropriate to the Boy Scouts, to spreading the word of God.

So beauty beckons! I do indeed hunger and thirst for justice, but expect injustice. Perhaps I might rouse myself to write an occasional letter to the editor, but will spend more time learning to play the piano. Maybe I can truly master at least one simple piece. Beethoven beats Bismarck. Both men are remembered: Beethoven for giving the world — or at least those who care — beauty, while Bismarck imposed his will on all under his influence, whether they cared for it or not. If you didn’t like Beethoven’s music, you could walk away from it. (But if you did, you could spend your life performing/appreciating it.) But if you didn’t care for Bismarck’s works, too bad! Bismarck’s will be done, like it or not.

There are plenty of laws, and plenty of guns and bombs. Have they made human life richer and more rewarding? If we are sickened by the corruption that surrounds us, shall we try to right things with still more laws, and bigger and better guns and bombs? That’s one way, but it’s been tried and found wanting. I prefer passive resistance. I don’t expect to win a great victory, but only, perhaps, a small, quiet one. The secret to reforming the world may lie in sublimating one’s passion for social justice into a search for personal perfection.

Don’t tell me that for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good men do nothing. No one "does nothing." Even a person in a coma provides an opportunity for a caregiver to perfect himself or herself. Removing the mote from one’s own eye is not doing nothing; it is, on the contrary, the first step in a revolution that could turn the world upside down, if enough of us did it.

I recall a teacher (was it Aristotle?) telling us, in college, that art was "anything done well." Let each of us mind his own business, and do what he does well, making us artists! Life could be simple and sweet, and no one need be hurt.

Let the revolution begin within!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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