Our heroes are not found in portrait art collections

It’s frustratingly comical to watch people go through an art museum (the place where I currently write this). Most are with significant others of various ages, shapes, and sizes, which is frustrating on its own, but that fact is neither here nor there. It is not the speed at which they fly by the paintings & sculptures that perplexes me, as even though I spend significantly more time examining pieces that others do, I still find myself feeling guilty of not giving each work the time it deserves. Rather, what

Rather, what always makes me twinge is hearing most people’s commentary of art as they speed by. I do not mean that potentially incorrect interpretation is inexcusable, but rather what is more troubling is an insufficient interpretation or “missing the point”. While the posture or actions of a painted/sculpted person may be humorous when viewed through the lens of one’s own experienced reality, it is a crime to move on from the work with nothing more than a cheap laugh.

For this reason, I find landscape painting to be perhaps the most honest form of depicting life. The painter’s goal is not to highlight precise physical features or necessarily focus on an individual person, but rather he seeks to capture a seemingly random moment at a particular time. Moreover, he avoids overly romanticizing whatever time period or culture is the subject of the piece, as many works are dominated by the natural landscape with dark green & blue colors rather than with exaggerated vibrancy.

 

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The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice, by Giovanni Antonio Canal

 

The timeline of history uses individual humans as its way of setting reference points along the line. For thousands of years, the subjects of songs, poems, paintings, films, and stories commemorating mankind’s most glorious of events have all been nobility: kings, queens, priests, generals, and the like. In these stories, to stop and lay out the tale of the common man’s life would generate a physical expression of displeasure in the audience, as it would be seen as a deviation from the REAL story. One could say, though, that even as the events of such stories transpire in their time, they are but a sideshow to the onlookers.

Imagine for a moment a painting depicting a king returning from a victorious military campaign to the praises of his citizens. In that moment, the king may appear to be the recipient of his people’s unwavering adulation, but do they sing the king’s praises out of a genuine love for the king or out of a genuine love for not being on the losing side of battle? Not even the king’s victory in all its glory can change the fact that each one of those adulating citizens must return to toiling in his fishing, farming, sewing, or herding so that he & his family may live to see the sun rise again.

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An Italian Port Scene, by Charles François Lacroix de Marseille

French landscape painter Charles François Lacroix de Marseille’s famous piece (above), the focus is on an assortment of Italian sailors, fishermen, and others working on the Venetian shore in the early morning hours with a vague castle perched on a hill far off in the background. If one were to pick what item in the painting he’d prefer to hear the story of, the nondescript castle on the hill would undoubtedly be his answer, and it would certainly produce appeal story. But what is history? Is it merely a photograph album filled with images mankind has deemed entertaining enough to be worthy of its remembering? Or is it simply a clock that stops for no one, remembers no one, and honors no one? Yes, the truth is that human history is a collection of landscape paintings portraying, at best, average men who accomplish average feats in hopes (and nothing more than hope) of surviving a world riddled with incomprehensible chaos & strife.

Is this depressing to hear? It shouldn’t be.

You already knew it, but it’s not a point that will win hearts & minds at a dinner party. But think of what the implication of it is: the standard for making a true impact is now so attainable! You could set your life goal to be survival, such a goal is no small feat, or you could set out to do the boldest, noblest act of all: sacrifice. It’s what makes men like Jesus, the Buddha, and others so extraordinary. When a highly influential person commits a single act that removes him from his high position, legends are written and eventually forgotten, but when someone of perceived little importance commits his life to sacrificing for the sake of others, movements begin that alter the course of history, regardless of whether or not such movements are recorded or even noticed.

To paraphrase Dr. Jordan Peterson’s examination of the Genesis story of Cain & Abel, no species in all the universe has conceived of a practice so incredible as that of personally giving up something in the present in hopes of future gain (short video on his explanation of the concept). In the ancient times, animals were sacrificed because they were the greatest things of value that the ancients could conceive of. Today, sacrifice could constitute a massive variety of acts, but the principle remains the same.

So while mass media tries its best at fearmongering in order to convince the population that the political games transpiring at the macro level will affect the livelihood of each individual person, we must remember our ancestors. The castle on the hill may see itself as the most important piece of the historical narrative, in reality, it is merely a sideshow maintaining its hazy appearance in the background. For every king in history, there are millions of regular people playing their integral role in the foreground playing a part that they never see or feel.

That’s the beauty of sacrifice: the sacrificer makes his sacrifice with no knowledge of its implications. What will come of it? Who is it for? Will they even appreciate it? Will they even realize it happened? Will it really be worth it (it very well may not be, even when the thing sacrificed for comes to fruition)? Why should I do even this?

The heroes of history are not the war heroes, kings, popes, or presidents; they are the lowly commoners who decided the strife and chaos of existence were worth experiencing not just for the sake of those immediately around them but also for those who had yet to come.

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