Paintings on the Wall in My Aunt’s Basement


There were three paintings which occupied my attention.

The first is a scene from the nineteenth century or turn of the twentieth century. There are some people lounging on the edge of a harbor. A man and woman are strolling. There is lattice work enclosing the patio on which they all relax. Beyond the lattice work, to the right, is uncultivated green vegetation. Beyond the vegetation, straight ahead, is the harbor. Most prominent within the harbor are several commercial vessels, very large, their smoke stacks billowing dark exhaust. The scene is idyllic. Those people in the foreground, clad in cleanliness and white and pastels and funny hats, are enjoying a leisurely after noon in the spring or summer sun at a waterfront getaway outside of whatever city – whatever industry – provides for their affluence. They are middle or upper class. They are at some kind of a resort. They look out on nature’s beautiful bay and also on humankind’s wondrous technology; presumably, the same technology to which they owe thanks for affording such a leisurely and plentiful lifestyle.

I’ve seen many paintings like this.  They are popular, commercial reproductions.  Such paintings are escapist, of course. To look at them is to dream of a better life. To look at them is to praise technology and industry and that which they afford and to hold a sanitized view of the natural environment as well.  They suggest that we can have or do have complete and total control over the natural and artificial environments and our technologies and that comfort and happiness is made possible by such control.

Most people, I suspect, just enjoy the idyllic quality of paintings such as this. Some who are critical may say that the painting is capitalist bourgeois propaganda. They may say that it deifies nature, albeit simplistically — and perhaps sadistically (see comment on control above) and also glorifies technology in an overly simplistic and dangerous manner. They may point out that it does not let on that there are evils, wastefulness, exploitation, suffering, and perhaps a troubling ethos of control, or at least perceived control, used to develop and utilize both nature and technology in ways which disengage us from the realities — both the beauty, complexity, and subtlety, but also the dangers and horrors — of each.

What was particularly interesting to me in that moment of viewing the painting was this thought:  Is the propaganda in the painting? No. It is in the mind of the viewer. The painting is not the propaganda. The subject matter of the painting is not the propaganda. It is literally swirly chemicals on stretched fiber.  No, this processed concoction of materials is not the propaganda, it only prime the mind. The mind already knows what propaganda to utilize when cued in this way. The painting cues and the mind conditions itself with propaganda in response– how insidious! — in this case.  But how potentially powerful and useful if/when humanity appropriates this tendency for each of us to marshal the environment to help us further our own goals and dreams.  What I noticed in viewing this painting is the willingness and even dependence of the mind on offloading onto the environment and the potential power of this tendency.

 The second and third paintings are similar. The second is the more powerful and so I’ll focus only on it. Like the first painting, it is an ideal of liesure in Nature’s garden, but with celebratory references to industrial might. The perspective is from just to the left of a colonnade of a large porch on a large house, presumably a bed and breakfast lodge, overlooking the water. The perspective, down the row of white columns, perhaps four in a row, does not extend cleanly out to the water beyond. Instead, on the corner of the porch, there is an integrated gazebo, of octagonal shape. The view looks right through the gazebo to the water beyond. It too, is a white-painted wood structure. The roof is perhaps reddish or bluish-grey. There are flowers, maybe vines, growing around the porch and gazebo, perhaps up some lattice work. This painting, also, can be classified as offering escapism.

It is of interest for this reason:  it is a framing of a framing of a framing of a view, leaving the viewer to consider multiple subjects simultaneously.  The view looking through the gazebo is more or less centered on the space between two of its columns. Because the gazebo is either octagonal or hexagonal, the view looks through columns both on the near side and also a pair on the far side. If one were standing on the gazebo looking out at the water, looking through the pair of columns effectively frames or ‘suggests’ the view. From the painting viewer’s viewpoint, i.e., me, looking through one set of columns, which frame the far set, which frame the idyllic view, the actual idyllic view is itself framed by the near columns. That is, my focus is not the idyllic scene beyond, but is centered on the very framing of the view. Put another way, the subject of the painting is the framing of the view, not the view itself.  Furthermore, the very nature of the painting is also a framing of a view. So for this painting our subject is the framing of the framing of the framing of an idyllic view. So what is really of value/interest in the painting? Is it the bucolic view or the undisturbed land surrounding the bay with the pleasure sailboats darting around? Is it that leisurely space on the gazebo where one enjoys the luxury of enjoying such views. Occupying this space is itself symbolic of blissful escape. Is the value in contemplating the very desire/dream of occupying the gazebo, i.e., being able to have that sort of leisure and material wealth in one’s life?  Or is it all of the above?  And if all of the above, is the subject really to be mindful of the constructed-ness of our environment and our engagement with it, especially how we frame our own views onto reality, and to use this ability to construct our viewpoints to suit our purposes when/if possible?

We marshal our environments, we marshal materials, we marshal physical and symbolic structure/order, and we marshal our points of view primarily to marshal our minds.

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