Practical objects of beauty.
More than a few years back, one of my sons came back from a trip to Philadelphia, armed with the modest presents a teenager sent on his way with a limited amount of spending money could afford to buy for all of the family. He’s the hard and yet easy to read one we’ve always kept a special eye on, the one who really thinks about an appropriate gift rather than the price ticket. I got a big rolled up black and white print of a photograph in a cardboard tube with a second, much smaller document rolled up inside.
The print was one I’d described to him from memory some years prior. It was of a row of construction workers sitting in a line on a steel girder high over New York eating their sandwich lunch. I’d said if you study the picture carefully for five minutes, the personalities, the friendships and even somehow their stories seemed to come out of it at you across the years.
When I was a child, working men like that were veritable giants to me, my heroes, and even with the passing of so many years, I still admire the men and women of that generation for putting in the hard daily grind without complaint that would eventually catapult us, their children and grandchildren, up into a less arduous life. They got through the Great Depression, which was inconveniently sandwiched between two world wars in which so many of them served and despite it all, were fine generous people and not at all embittered.
And we sometimes think we’ve got troubles nowadays …
That’s the picture heading up this piece, and I’d said if you looked carefully at each of those men or how they’re interacting with each other, you could start work on a decent novel. For instance, those two men third and fourth in from the left are having some deep discussion and you can somehow tell that happens between them pretty much every lunch break. Or that scrawny little guy on the right hand end of the bar with his pugnacious “who the hell are you” look at the photographer is someone you’d like on your side in a bar fight, or if he weren’t then someone you’d make damn sure to clobber first.
Sight is our primary input medium, if only because we tend to trust more what we see with our own eyes rather than what me might have been told about it. The phrases about liking or not liking the look of something are more than just figures of speech.
We’re blasé about having our pictures taken nowadays, but in the early twentieth century and the nineteenth, most people had never had a photograph taken of them, so if it happened it was a special occasion. Here’s another picture, but from Tasmania in the nineteenth century. Take your time, have a long careful look at it. There’s lots to see.
Some stuff that leaps out at me.
The man in the middle with the bow tie looks to be the boss and the fastidiously neat man to his left who looks intimidated by the company is probably the works clerk. The man second in from the left wearing the bowler hat at a jaunty angle with a cheeky expression looks to be the joker of the crew. The guy on the right with the white shirt and not wearing a jacket looks to be a man with a past, and it isn’t one he talks about. A hard worker but you’d keep an eye on him. A dangerous man.
Notice that nearly all of them have taken off their hat for the photograph, but put back on their jackets. They want to look their best.
It also tells you the technique they’re using to cut down such a huge tree with nothing more than manual sawing. They’re cutting a successively bigger wedge into the trunk and the bottom lip of the wedge is what they’re all sitting on. Given how hard the manual labour obviously was, you can see why none of them is carrying extra weight and if anything, are lean, wiry blokes.
There’s a look about them – they’re a tight crew under the command of an alpha male they trust and respect.
The smaller document was a reproduction of the Gettysburg address, a copy of the original penned it is said at the time. I’d once told my son it was the most perfect, most succinct, most subtle and yet bravest political speech in the English language, a type of prose anyone who aspires to write or even talk to a crowd would do well to know intimately. That’s why Churchill, who would become a superb orator in his own right, had memorised and could recite all of Lincoln’s major speeches.
For me, both presents were in their own way practical objects of beauty, and there is such a thing – a practical object of beauty. They’re feasts for the eyes, the heart, the intellect but most of all for your soul. They mean something to you. They’re artefacts, created by human beings for the pleasure of other human beings, and when it’s done well the ordinary person doesn’t need an explanation from some self-appointed expert as to why it’s good. It’s obvious.
Any sort of art form when raised high enough on a pedestal for the exclusive appreciation of connoisseurs, tends to die because the artists start creating works to impress each other or the critics rather than the average person, who find them increasingly remote and irrelevant to their tastes. The latent and terrible pathology of all art critics is they want to dictate how it should be done while at the same time lacking the courage or talent to try doing it themselves. They’re eunuchs offering advice in a bordello.
Once the aesthetic intelligentsia capture an area of art, they kill it every time.
There is no absolute standard as to what is beautiful or what makes you happy or sad or just simply moves you. It really comes down to what you like – it’s as easy as that and it’s an arrogance by anyone else to somehow insist that what they like, or don’t, somehow overrules your preferences. I have friends with whom I share a great liking of classical music, but it drives them mad that I enjoy good-time rock and roll bands like Slade or the Bay City Rollers that they consider to be nothing more than noise pollution.
To my way of seeing things, they’d enjoy a lot more music if they just got down and dirty and broadened their tastes. Cue a decent bop.
More than most things, music and songs can paint pictures, cheer you up or make you sad and the performer can really lend their own personalities to them. Here’s the late Jeff Buckley singing the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah. Lyrically, the song itself is really poetry, a broken hallelujah, but it’s the sheer intensity of his performance of it which is the reason the video has already clocked up more than 64 million views and is still climbing.
Put simply, he gobsmacks you. Like the sound engineer, who’s probably worked on hundreds of recording sessions says at the end of the performance, “wow, great” …
Since we’re in the area, some links to poetry would be more than welcome, as I’m constantly stumbling over poets and poems I’ve never heard of. It doesn’t have to be epic stuff either, just one that plucks at your heart, in the way that Jenny Kiss’d Me by Leigh Hunt, a poem heading for two hundred years old still plucks at mine. Men come and go, but quality abides.
A book, of course, will be hard to fit into the wham bam thank you ma’am niche of blogging, but perhaps a few words about why you love it and a quote or two. A paragraph on the first page of Ernest Hemingway’s opening to Islands in the Stream springs to mind, though I’ll keep to my secret heart why I love the book.
“It was a safe and fine place to bathe in the day but it was no place to swim at night. At night the sharks came in close to the beach, hunting in the edge of the Stream and from the upper porch of the house on quiet nights you could hear the splashing of the fish they hunted and if you went down to the beach you could see the phosphorescent wakes they made in the water. At night the sharks had no fear and everything else feared them”.
Whatever it is you’d like to share, post it or a link to it as a comment under this article, which I will be adding as a permanent menu item on the blog. Music, videos, great engineering, art, links to interesting articles, stories, cartoons, photographs, sexy science, humour, poetry, the killer equation from hell, your thoughts on what you find delight in.
Bring it on, rock us out of our socks.
What is shared can of course be commented upon, but please no vicious reviews. It’s not about throwing Christians into the Coliseum to be torn apart by the lions of good taste, but rather introducing each other to a few delights we might not otherwise have stumbled upon. If you like it, say so but only if you want. On the other hand, if it doesn’t float your boat, it costs absolutely nothing not to comment.
Think of it as your local, a comfortable place, armchairs, good table service by an amiable barman or a slip of a girl who unfailingly remembers your drink and you always have a little joke with because you remember her going to school with your kids who’re now her age. It’s somewhere you can drop into and have a glass and an easy chat with whatever friends happen to be there at the time.
The bums, bores and blowhards have long ago been ran out of the place and know better than to reappear.
All that’s left is the kind of friends who after a few laughs with you are perceptive enough to stay quiet and listen for a few minutes when you talk about something they can tell means something to you.
Your move, gentle Reader …
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