Jacopo Tintoretto
Self-Portrait, c. 1546-48


We spent Monday through Wednesday of the past week in the nation’s capital.  Jerry had been invited to the annual Board meeting of the higher ed organization he founded, of which he’s emeritus chairman.

When we were first married, I found the role of “spouse of” almost weird, like pretending to be a native of some foreign country that I’d never even visited.  By now, however, there’s hardly a friend we meet in D.C. whom I don’t know and like, which means the socializing there is closer to a joint venture.

In separate meetings, we saw eight people in three days, subtracting at least eight waking hours of travel all told from the three days.  Now that’s a lot of people – in not a lot of hours.  Neither of us is an extrovert.  Personally, I feel like a deep sea diver coming up with the bends.

While Jerry was at his Board meeting, I decided to take in the National Gallery.  I wasn’t sure how I’d do at a big museum that I didn’t already know well.  My neuropathy condition makes walking uncertain.  Also, I did not remember if the nation’s premier museum was or wasn’t situated at the summit of a crescendo of stone stairs.

Happily, the front doors were at ground level.  (For the handicapped, life is a long series of sub rosa stratagems.)

All the while, another obstacle was giving me pause.  For me, perceiving paintings or other works of art has involved more than the eyes.  When my legs were trustworthy, I would move toward, back from, and around works of art with my whole body.  The body rhythm became part of the perception.  If it was a statue from another time, I would stand like the statue I was looking at, trying to feel what it was like to be him or her, back then, back there.  For me,

perceiving art was something like impersonation.

What kind of seeing could I do, if I couldn’t dance around the thing seen?

All the same, as I moved along, walking stick in the left hand, it was turning out feasible.  There must be some sort of virtual body that accompanies the sincere viewer.

At the present time, the National Gallery is hosting a blockbuster exhibit of Tintoretto.  I hadn’t come all that way to visit Tintoretto, whom I’d always thought of as the poor man’s Titian – the Venetian painter nobody today needs to see.

Well, I don’t know where I got that narrow notion, but it’s all wrong.  Tintoretto is an utter marvel!  Draughtsmanship perfect in its kind, colors bright and unashamed, placement of figures almost shocking in its unconventionality, telling portraits that seemed to stay in their frames by choice, not perforce.  So alive!

Nobody rich and powerful is flattered – except by being depicted, according to protocol, at the right end of large canvasses paying homage to the Virgin Mary and saints at the other end of the same canvasses.  The holiness of the idealized figures doesn’t spill over onto their powerful patrons — rendered here just as who and what they were, in their jewels and expensive clothes — no more and no less.

What a great thing was the art of that day!  The artist was fully embedded, and a knowing player, in the politics and belief systems in which, then as now, people lived!

By contrast nowadays, to depict persons or things “honestly,” it’s thought that they must be rendered ungainly or in some way visually absurd.

But why?  What’s the message?  What’s the point?  Spell it out, please.  Why is visual disappointment a necessary feature of the truth?

In our actual lives, when people (including absurdist philosophers) want to make a favorable impression, they still dress to look right.  Is it so much truer to be ugly?

Why not make the real beautiful?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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