solicitous angels

Its melange of naivete and erudition (1), yes that may well be what I love best about art history.

This naivete is to be found in even the most sophisticated art historian, in as much as he or she can’t help being aesthetically and sentimentally moved by a work of art. (2)
Apart from some sour iconophobic postmodern specimens (3), I haven’t yet read an art historian who didn’t at some point lapse from scientific erudition & distance into genuine love for the art works they research.

More, art historians’ sheer devoted erudition can be endearingly naïve. Meticulously tracking down the ancestry or the afterlife of a certain image throughout the ages, accumulating documentary evidence from musty archives: what could be more devoid of utilitarian cynicism? What could be a greater testimony to that discredited humanistic notion that the evolving formal expressions of human concerns have a value as such, even after the societies that have spawned them have collapsed. (4)

But still, there’s the question – how much cultural background information do we need to process in order to properly enjoy a work of art. And what is “properly enjoying”? Is it about grasping the “meaning” of a work of art, recreating the initial intention of the maker? (5) Is it about formal aesthetical enjoyment? Is it about a naive, uneducated emotional response? Or do I need to be familiar with the bible and with medieval scholastic thought & iconography to appreciate a 12th century relief from a French cathedral? (6)

Did I pin the above image on my kitchen wall because of its religious significance? Because I like to be reminded of the angel-assisted resurrection of the Virgin Mary while devoutly drinking my morning tea?
Or because, in general, I dote on statues of winged creatures gathered around a dead body?

Eh, no, that’s not it. Well then, why do I love this image?

Oh, because I found it in a second-hand book , a lovely bundle of essays by the French art historian Emile Mâle who at the turn of the century set out (not without French-chauvinistic and Christian-religious zeal) to restore the fame of French roman-gothic imagery.
And because he wrote so engagingly and affectionately about these swift & gentle angels. (7) .
And because this tympanum relief was so expertly sculpted by an anonymous artist in the 12th Century.
And mostly I love this image, because, in that tumultuous & harsh age, someone took the pains to lovingly represent an image of unalloyed gentleness & solicitude.

suitably naïve notes
(1) self-consciously post-modern readers may now sigh and click on to less naive blogs
(2) Roland Recht in « L’historien de l’art est-il naïf ? » :
« Le spectateur peut se trouver place à différents degrés de “naiveté”, à savoir d’illusions sur la plus ou moins forte implication de son propre équipement culturel dans l’appréhension des œuvres du passé »
But the art historian would then not be naive, because he is aware of the cultural distance, and should be able to dissociate naive aesthetic enjoyment from a cultural & intellectual interpretation of the work.
« Une ligne de démarcation entre une forme « sentimentale » de l’appréhension de l’œuvre d’art et une forme intellectuelle qui se définit (entièrement) par la conscience de l’histoire sous sa forme la plus élémentaire : la conscience de la distance »
(3) A sure sign of this sourness is the lack of reproductions/images in these postmodern art history books, which excel in ironical and conceited meta-discourses-about –the- historical - art historical-discourses
(4) E Panofsky in “the history of art as a humanistic discipline” : “from the humanistic point of view human records do not age"
(5) E Panofsky, Ibidem. "Thus, in experiencing a work of art aesthetically we perform two entirely different acts which, however, psychologically merge with each other into one Erlebnis: we build up our aesthetic object both by re-creating the work of art according to the “intention” of its maker, and by freely creating a set of aesthetic values comparable to those with which we endow a tree or a sunset
[…] the sensual pleasure in a peculiar play of light and color and the more sentimental delight in « age » and « genuineness, » has nothing to do with the objective, or artistic, value with which the sculptures were invested by their makers. "
(6) I’d like to refer here to all the libraries which are filled with highly enjoyable erudite tomes about this ‘what is art’ question. But, sorry, I really can’t go into all this right now. I have to leave for work in about 1 hour and, well, the whole point of this post was just to reproduce a beloved image of solicitous angels, so I’d better get on now.
(7) Emile Mâle - Art et Artistes du moyen âge : recueil d’articles publiés à des dates s’échelonnant de 1897 à 1927. La première édition est de 1927, la quatrième est de 1947.
The reproduction is from the essay about « Le portail de Senlis et son influence »
« Puis, les anges viennent ressusciter ce corps sacré et le tirent doucement du tombeau.[…] La résurrection du corps de la Vierge par les anges est une scène nouvelle dans l’iconographie religieuse et pour laquelle [les artistes de Senlis] n’avaient aucun modèle : ils en ont fait un chef-d’œuvre de vie et de grâce . […]La belle pensée de Senlis .[…] C’est à Senlis que se forme l’iconographie de la résurrection […] de la Vierge . La légèreté, l’allégresse des anges de Senlis […] ».

while updating my CV

Updating one’s Curriculum Vitae is nothing but a banal act of prudence, adapting to these uncertain times. While doing so, you’re obviously not supposed to ponder in earnest the course of your life, and even less should you start wondering about what that life really amounts to. But staring at the neatly unbroken sequence of Dates and Facts, resuming Work Experience and Education and Skills, one can only conclude (with bewildered puzzlement): this is not it, this is not it at all, my life has flown into another channel .... (1)

And this is not just about the evident difference between public and private life, not just about the fact that a CV will not list how people came and went, how loves were found & lost and found & lost again. It is about the amazing fact that a CV does not give the slightest hint of one’s sense of self , does not give a single clue to one’s inner life (be it of the mind or of the soul).

Imagine then a thematic CV, built around one’s defining insights, passions & obsessions – a CV full of objective information diligently based on say, significant evidence found in one’s cupboards & book-cases – such as fading photos with pin-holes testifying to a former personal iconic status; such as doubly & triply -underlined sentences in books, ….

A prominent theme in such a CV of mine would surely have to be “Angels”, “Angels” in their most poignant sense of atheist longing of course. The available evidence might point to a certain sentimentalist & kitschy aesthetic streak in youth
- but all in all, what sets the tone of the theme is rather the somber & knowing reflective-ness of angels, their powerless sympathy with vainly striving humans.

Chronologically Wim Wender’s film “Der Himmel über Berlin”/ “Wings of desire” has to feature first on the CV ( with the mention it is the only film I ever went to see three times in the same week, & with the mention I saw it at age 22, just before I had to plunge headlong in the work-experience as detailed on the official CV).
Oh, it was all there – humans and their catastrophic history, and their eternally clashing or frustrated desires, and their loneliness, and their longings.

And the melancholy sense of this human condition which only the contemplative, the irrelevant members of society truly have.

Thus, seeing and pitying human drama & comedy is the task of powerless , eternally silently murmuring angels. The task of angels, because humans are too wrapped up in their own present battles – too busy preparing the future.

Yes – it was all there (2) , and this poignant image of the powerless, horrified and sympathizing angel has accompanied me for the next twenty years. And surely it is no coincidence that all of my most cherished writers and artists did have something to say about angels ... Like the perfect sentence to resume our dependence on angels as our non-judgmental witnesses of last resort, I found it somewhere in the works of Anna Blaman (3): “only the powerless attentiveness of sympathizing angels”.

Later of course, I could feel challenged by the Rilkian despair that not even angels would hear us: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? “ (4)

And then, ah, the encounter with Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, which does merit a lengthy quote :

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (5)

Only angels can thus bear to view & remember history as this catastrophe of human suffering. Only angels, or perhaps also some rare melancholy contemplative humans (the kind of irrelevant individuals which are disqualified anyhow for the optimist task of building the future).

So it’s clearly in this sense that I interpret Benjamin’s insight of history “ as a process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly”. (6)

Now I shall refrain from a brief history of angels in art (7), and only quote the very latest acquired angelic reference (for which I have to thank a certain flowervillain ) : here’s Gombrich on a statue by Anna Mahler:

[..] the entrance of a cemetery for which she created a model twenty-four years ago: the erect figure of an angel standing on a high square pillar, wiping his tears with one of his wings - an austere vision, utterly devoid of sentimentality”

But what on earth set off this pathetic angelic post? A CV??? Yes, and the moral musings inevitably produced by these dire times.
More specifically, the growing realization that in the practical world, wanting to hold high moral values of human sympathy and wanting “to stand guiltless” in fact condemns one to irrelevance and powerlessness. ( And people may even despise those who have not the power to help them).
What a choice – either compromise on tender moral feelings, play the game and be rewarded with at least some relevance in the world (including the power to, maybe just maybe, right some of the wrongs).
Or stand unwaveringly guiltless and therefore renounce any position of real power in the world and so be condemned to “powerless sympathy” … (8).

CV’s don’t carry footnotes, do they?

(1) Paraphrasing Anna Achmatova
(2) Not all was there : I don’t remember for instance much insistence on angels’ androgyny . Angels not being trapped in human genetics, they’re of course neither male nor female. An d their androgyny is obviously integral to their impotence/ barrenness, which in turn guarantees their disinterested attentiveness : indeed, they’re not propelled by selfish genes bent on reproduction.
(3) Anna Blaman: Dutch writer, active in the 40s & 50s – I don’t know whether she’s still read today – I suspect she’s far too pathetically-earnestly existential for our ironizing times. Here’s the quote (as I remember it, I couldn’t track it down) in Dutch: “ Alleen de machteloze belangstelling van sympathiserende engelen”
(4) It is such a strong line that I have to quote it “jeder engel ist schrecklich”, but clearly it does not at all enter in my personal iconology of boundlessly empathizing angels
(5) From Benjamin’s “Theses on the philosophy of history” as compiled in Illuminations
(6) Straying from angels to melancholy writers such as W. G. Sebald and Orhan Pamuk – at the core of their work there is this same reflective and pitying sadness, a sadness of knowing too much, a sadness of too much moral non-judgmental sensitivity, too much understanding while “speaking of very ugly matters” .
(7) Though what a history that is!!!! The little shrieking & crying & hand-wringing angels of Giotto (as described by Proust), the grave Renaissance angel-musicians, the many impetuous Annunciation angels with fluttering wings , the sensuously swinging angels of Bernini, the angel accompanying Tobias on his winding road, Dürer’s terrible angels, not to mention the many weeping angels at graves, and the irreverent little fat putti so far removed from both heaven and hell …
8) a good occasion to quote from Pamuk's Snow (that sublime, melancholy, moving, kind, desperate novel): "an honest and well-meaning man, like those Chekhovian characters so laden with virtues that they never know success in life - full of melancholy"

Kant in the Boardroom

Poor Kant! Our foremost western philosopher, so proud of his rationally determined moral imperatives. And yet, in any busy & conceited Boardroom he’d be derided as an irrelevant irrational moralist. Just imagine that board-members, before an important business decision, would not only demand assurance regarding profitability and compliance with legal, fiscal and operational constraints but would also test the decision on its obedience of the Kantian imperative: “ Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.”

Glad I made you laugh. The “business of business is business” , isn’t it (1). Of course, any successful organization, to ensure its survival and growth, is interested only in what people can contribute to its business ends, and not in their intrinsic worth (whatever that may be). If people don’t perform, they’re out, however good as persons they may be, however great the suffering of being sacked (2) may be. Idem, if a business line would no longer be profitable, then you have to close units down and “make people redundant”.
And “we” all accept that, knowing that the success of our western business models depends on a “rational allocation of resources as dictated by the market” . And in the end, so the reasoning goes, everyone is the better off if resources (ie people and capital) are put to profitable use.
Surely we don’t want wasteful soviet-style inefficiency (or do we)? Surely we prefer economical “creative destruction” which ensures that obsolete activities make way for brave new & innovative industries . And yet, in this “rational allocation” game, it is clear that (all too) often people are not treated as an end, but merely as a means.
So: are we immoral? Or was Kant wrong?

But perhaps we can still wriggle out of our moral dilemma if we formulate Kant’s imperative differently: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”.
This one does permit us to point to a greater collective good down the road, one that would more than compensate for the individual cases of ‘using people as a means”. So we could say it’s just an economic game that we as a society have collectively agreed upon. And each of us individually, by signing a labor contract, accepts the rules of this game. Plus, modern society does try to smooth out the worst effects of this ‘being used as a means’: by sets of labor laws, social protection, redundancy pay etc.

So neither we nor Kant should worry about our business customs: it’s all about a rationally calculated, limited suspension of morality to get the job done. And having qualms about that is against the company’s and the society’s greater good.

Being rational in business terms would then mean you have to suspend your natural emotions of sympathy for your fellow-man so as to be able to take a decision that takes into account only objective factors of performance and suitability to the company’s goals. Yuk. This sounds awful, doesn’t it?
And yet, if I would present this differently, it would sound not horrendous at all but only just and reasonable. Here we go: suppose that you’re a team’s supervisor and that you would leave in place a blatantly incompetent team-member because you feel personal sympathy for him or her: this would be sheer nepotism or favoritism that would be rightly resented by the rest of the team….

So for the time being, let’s leave it at this: by presenting things in black and white, we won’t get anywhere, this is yet again a case where “being good” is a matter of striking a balance, of pursuing ends as efficiently as possible, but while respecting certain minimum standards of human dignity.

Leave it at this???? While we’re living in a time that has exposed the Great Geniuses of Finance, those eminently Rational Allocators of Capital, as incompetent at best and as crooks at worst? A previous post circled around the benefits and risks of greed. And it ascribed the current economic catastrophe mainly to weak regulation failing to keep excessive greed in check.
But maybe one should question further the dominant economic paradigm that equates “Good” = “rational” = “ efficient pursuit of self-interest and greed”. Perhaps one should not meekly accept a definition of rationality in which there is no room for moral feelings or for sympathy.
Perhaps it is this one-sided definition of rationality that got us into this incredible mess in the first place. (3)

Time for a bit of cool-headed, objective analysis. Greed is an emotion, right? Fear is an emotion, right? Greed and fear are powerful primitive emotions having evolved very early on to ensure personal survival. OK, and survival = good = rational. That’s how the reasoning goes.
But! Later on in the evolution moral feelings of sympathy and a sense of justice (4) have evolved too, probably because a sense of community and trust allow people to collaborate, which is no mean evolutionary advantage.
And as Adam Smith himself (thé proponent of self-interest as leading principle) has always pointed out, moral feelings of sympathy for one’s fellow-man are needed to avoid the excesses of greed.

A very interesting blog post argues that the current state of huge global companies does no longer permit the natural checks that spontaneous human sympathy might place on selfish greed, because neither CEOs nor flashy traders ever actually see the people impacted by their decisions. Hence, a structural absence of natural sympathy would explain why the greed-bubble could reach such horrendous proportions.

So lo and behold – perhaps we really should not settle for anything less than a redefinition of economic rationality : Good = rational = “the efficient and just pursuit of self-interest, judiciously balancing the emotions of greed, fear, justice and sympathy”. Granted, not the pithiest & sexiest expression ever. …..

But apart from monstrous formulations, the point I do want to insist on: we should no longer accept being ruled by a concept of rationality that is based only on the most primitive urges of greed and fear, and that discounts as irrelevant and irrational our moral feelings and our sense of justice.

Perhaps it’s bit rash for a humble Sunday Blogger to just ditch ruling economic paradigms like that and to pretend to redefine economic rationality itself. So let’s go for a less grand example.

Let’s present a wholly fictitious (5) small scale boardroom drama (to keep in style). Suppose the members of the board of a small subsidiary of a larger group, are invited by the chief commander of this large group to validate his decision to fire the boss of the small subsidiary. The chief commander, of course, is made of steel , does not ever come back on decisions and does not suffer opposition gladly. The board members of the subsidiary are all employees either of the subsiduary or of another entity of the Group (so in the end all subordinated to the chief commander).
The case against the small subsidiary boss, who has a 10 year record of good management and is widely respected , is presented by the chief commander: no fraud, no obvious incompetence but some petty acts of assertive independence and so yes, clearly a matter of clashing characters.

There are those who say it is rational to vote for dismissal of this boss, as asked by the chief commander. There is the personal risk of irritating the chief commander, there is the fact of going against an order of a superior and the decision has been taken anyhow.
Abstention would then be irrational, because it goes against one’s own self-interest in the strict sense and has no impact anyhow. A personal assessment of the presented evidence would be futile and a sense of justice should not enter into the decision, because, again, that would be irrational.

Here I want to yell (yelling ever so demurely & ever so rationally, of course): those “rational followers of the chief commander" are wrong, they delude themselves, they are entirely mistaken about the rationality of their decision : theirs is a decision wholly inspired by fear (and maybe greed too).
And over the ages , it’s that kind of allegedly rational decisions (which abandon personal responsibility and stifle the own sense of justice) that have gotten us in the deepest trouble.

a rationalized set of footnotes
(1) This brilliantly alliterating & deep phrase was coined by the eminent economist Milton Friedman
(2) the psychological suffering of being fired ranks in the top of the stress factors, together with severe illness, divorce, loss of a beloved one etc.
(3) Lovely Wikipedia primer on “rationality”
(4) they are located in a “later” part of the brain
(5) An enlarged opinion, if you will …. “a sensus communis” - Yes, just like Kant’s aesthetical judgment that wants to claim universality.
(6) Any resemblance with real life situations or persons is of course entirely accidental