The beauty of the ethereal thought, of an idea or ideal, can capture our attention over that which is real, tangible, and present. Our mind’s belief not only transforms our perception of reality, but will in fact transform reality itself. Such is a key element of the terrible goodness of life.
About a week ago, I went to the National Gallery of Art during lunch. It seemed like a nice break and an opportunity to immerse oneself in objective beauty and the subjective beauty of the creative act, at least for a short while. On my way through, I stopped to peruse the books for sale, and one grabbed my attention – “The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper”. This book unites some of Hopper’s beautiful artistry with poetry inspired by those works. I quickly purchased it and put it away for a time when I would have a chance to look through it. Yesterday, just before leaving for work, I picked up the book to glance through paintings for the first time. Just as I was coming to the end, Excursion into Philosophy (1959) vividly caught my eye and imagination.
I took immediate notice of the obvious features: the window illuminating the room; the man’s sullen downward look into the frame of light; he is sitting with his back to the woman lying on the bed; the open book is next to him…. But as I set the book down and headed out the door I kept thinking about the painting, and I had questions. What was he thinking about? What was the book? Who was the woman? Why does he have his back to her, and what does this signify? Does the title tell us that he is abandoning the real, the physical, for thought and idea? Or has he tried that road and found it wanting? It stayed on my mind during the day.
Getting aboard the Metro, I picked up where I had left off in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine. As the train rattled along, I read with great interest the enjoyable and brilliant essay “The Language of Work” by Mark Kingwell. Inspired by such a wonderful piece, I picked up Harper’s later in the day, turned a few pages and found the randomly inserted painting Comedian (2010) by Martin Mull (yes, he is also the famous actor and comedian).
I was struck by the similarity of themes between Mull’s Comedian and Hopper’s Excursion. Knowing nothing about art, research led me to a comment by one reviewer that “[l]ike Edward Hopper, Mull exposes the contradictions in the American Dream, showing isolation and incongruity in the lives led by ordinary people.” Amen to that, and I would find it hard to believe that Mull was not inspired by Hopper’s piece. That I randomly came across both paintings in two different sources within hours of each other set me – the existential third man – to thinking. My catalyst was the combination of these two works of art.
Before I began to consider the similarity of artistic devices, however, a different thought immediately came to mind. Synergy. Synergy can be defined as two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable. Over the past few years, I have become increasingly aware of the oddity of “coincidence” when reading two (seemingly unrelated) books simultaneously. At times, they will both strike on the same chord with regard to some aspect of the natural world or the human condition yielding a unique result when combined. It has happened so often, and with such widely diverse authors, that I have come to expect it. Yesterday’s confluence was the first time I have experienced it with art.
Each man in the paintings shares with the other similarity of elements of reality, and they are obvious. There is the window providing light to the right; the woman lying on the bed; the man sitting with his back to the woman, lost in thought; likeness of vertical and horizontal lines; and far more, I am sure. I could go on about reinforcing similarities, to which I believe the appropriate response would be, “so what?” There may be some message in addressing how alike are the two paintings; when two pieces come together, the similarities serve to legitimize or confirm each other. But it is within the differences between two alike items that we find the message that exists independent of each individual work. Synergy can not work the with similarities because similarities are independently obtainable through each piece. It is in the differences where synergy produces its results. In the synergistic analysis to discover a message, the comparison of difference is necessary for discovery. It is a dialectic analysis of a kind, to crudely borrow from the Platonic.
The differences between the thematically similar Excursion and Comedian are important for how we view human thought. Hopper’s man is lost deep in his own contemplation. He is turned generally toward the window, which is providing all of the light for the room. Perhaps he is considering the natural light at his feet. He has set aside the book he has been reading. In a ledger, Hopper’s wife had written that the book was Plato.  In some way, perhaps through his acceptance or rejection, it has influenced him. Hopper’s woman sleeps, apparently oblivious to the man’s inner turmoil. His piece is soft in muted colors. Mull’s work, on the other hand, shows marked and dark differences. Mull’s man is tuned away from the window, the source of a harsh natural light, and offering no glimpse of another world. Instead, he is focused on the television, not on Plato or even his own thoughts. He is passively and blankly receiving the messages it is pouring into him; an inane, vacuous used car salesman – the designated representative of today’s society. Interestingly, the artificial light from the television occupies the same space in Mull’s painting as the natural light reflected off the wall does in Hopper’s. Mull’s woman does not peacefully sleep. She holds her hands to her face either in despair or to block to light from the window. The piece is stark in its black and white.
“Comedian is not funny.” It is cold, harsh, and disturbing. By comparison, despite the intensity of the main subject, Excursion is gentle and reflective. There is a natural feel and warmth to the light coming in from the window. We can see the landscape beyond, the outside world. The natural world full of color is tangible. There is a book on the bed; and an absence of electronics. The subject is contemplating and trying to make some decisions or reflect on those made, he is trying to make some sense of it all. None of this is true inComedian. Herein lies the difference. Devoid of significance, the man’s life and those with him slowly slide into meaninglessness, perhaps to the silent horror of some, but without even a thought from the object of attention. Fifty years separate these pieces. Do the differences reflect a type of transformation – or a warning of one that is happening – in that short time? What does it mean to be a person in the modern world? And what, I ask, will be the outcome of our thoughts if they become not even worth having?
Despite the remarkable similarity in how the two men appear, they are worlds apart. Regardless of where our ideas come from, we must be active in processing what they mean and how we will act. The messages we receive demand from us a choice. We can consider, and reconsider, and evaluate, and care, and be connected to the warmth of the material world around us and the people beside us. Or we can be receptors of the propaganda marketed to us to make us part players in the means of production, or whatever other reality that sophistry can spin into existence; be disconnected from the tangible, physical reality; and in the process be so much less human. It is this point of departure that makes all of the difference in the world.
Something else happened yesterday. A man in Norway murdered over 90 people in a wave of terror. It is claimed that he wrote the following: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.” But, consciously or not, our interests reflect our beliefs; and, as it did in Norway, force of all kinds – good and bad — transfers our ethereal beliefs and interests into very tangible reality. That transfer brings forth terrible goodness or evil into the now; and this also is synergy. Thought transformed by action creates its own independent reality. It is the essence of life, it is inescapable, and no plunge into a thought, idea, or philosophy can change the universal truth that the journey into the labyrinth of the mind will have tangible results for all. It will impact the course of life. This slavery of free thought is one that none can escape. And it is only in striving for The Good in thought and action that we can hope to mediate evil. We must preserve the tools we have to do just that.
 http://www.101bananas.com/art/hopper4.2.html (“Plato praised the realm of ideas as the ultimate form of reality and relegated physical manifestations of them to a lower realm.”)