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Blog Archive February 2014

Judging the Judges: Distrust and the Rise of Violence against Courts

Judges are expected to be impartial storytellers, weaving their narratives from the evidence presented to them, considering previous cases with similar facts, and deciding how the law applies to the findings of fact. A judge without impartiality is like a priest without faith. Religion is not an accidental metaphor. Good faith in the judicial system is underscored by a belief in its impartiality.

If you’ve spent time in courtrooms in Canada, England, Burma, and America you’d find the same churchlike devotion to symbolism, ritual, gowns and reverence from those in attendance. Oaths are taken to tell them the truth. Lies made under oath are punished by fines and imprisonment.

Judges sit on an elevated bench looking down as from Olympus at those in the courtroom, and those below look up to them.

Judges are in a business not unlike a mystery author who must tie up the loose ends that explains the story. Unlike most writers they must also be public performers in the ritual of justice.

Edmund Burke wrote, “It is hard to say whether doctors of law or divinity have made the greater advances in the lucrative business of mystery.”

A crime fiction writer may entertain, enlighten, stimulate, provoke or expand our understanding of the psychology of criminal and victim. Judges have the heavy responsibility of knowing their finding of the ‘true’ story has great consequences for the liberty of the people in the courtroom and the society outside of the courtroom. Like all storytellers, judges write decisions that can’t help but reflect their own cultural and personal biases.

Is it reasonable to expect our judges to rise above the prejudices of their history, culture, class, and time?

That is a burning question asked in Thailand where there is talk of a judicial coup to oust the government. Many judicial systems not just in Thailand are bending under the weight of full-scale political conflict. In those parts of the world set on fire with violence and strife, people seek answers about who is judging the authorities inside a political system and who is judging the judges.

Most judges are drawn from the ranks of the ruling elites. They aren’t elected. Judges are vetted and appointed by a narrow spectrum of state officials. They serve for life. During their tenure on the bench, it is fair to ask: are judges main duty to protect the powerful and the system that confers power on them or are judges serving to mediate and protect ordinary citizens who challenge power, conventional wisdom, or dissent from the mythology that power cloaks itself for legitimacy?

“As long as you’re scared you’re on the plantation.”  ― Cornel West

To which I’d add, justice cages fear while injustice opens the cage door. Judges act as the gatekeepers, opening and closing the door on the actions of others and state officials who left to their own devices generate fear of among powerless people.

Unlike other storytellers, judges can send people to prison, ban them from civil rights and liberties and political office, overturn laws, regulations and edicts, and select among competing philosophies, norms, and values the ones that become the law of the land.

Judges in many systems exercise by their position considerable power over other institutions of state and over citizens. That is why their role has enhanced importance in times of great dissension and debate about the direction of society.

In the common law countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States (at the state level judges are often elected) and elsewhere in the Commonwealth judges are selected and appointed from the top ranks of lawyers. Lawyers who have proved themselves as not only versed in the law, but who have gained a reputation for qualities of restraint, honor, knowledge, experience, fairness and integrity.

In civil law countries such as Thailand, Japan, and most of Europe, judges enter the justice system soon after law school and work their way under the civil service ladder. The civil law system has a different tradition of recruitment, advancement, and cultural history.

In Thailand, the judges are an important source of power within the context of the political turmoil that has followed since the 2006 coup. A number of decisions on the constitution and laws have created controversy as to the neutrality of the courts to administer justice in light of powerful forces seeking to expel the government. The Thai political system and judicial system are going through a period of credibility crisis.

Distrust of politicians is acceptable if not necessary to ensure that decisions aren’t made for politicians and their cronies but for the people. But distrust of the courts undermines the last resort to monitor and hold the state authorities and those contesting those authorities to resolve their differences within the boundaries of the law.

The players may cheat but the referees are there to keep the game within the rules. If a referee appears, through his calls, to be favoring one side, the game is rigged and a free for all may follow. Thus if a judge is seen to appear at a demonstration protesting for or against the government, he or she has given the appearance of taking sides.

A judge’s authority rests upon the appearance of being neutral. If a member of the federal court in New York had carried a placard at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, such an act would make it difficult for the judge to appear neutral in a hearing based on the legality of the demonstration and an application for an injunction against the rally organizers.

The quickest way to compromise a judicial system is for the judges to become associated with one faction in a political dispute. The friend of justice is seen as being no friend or enemy of either side to a dispute.

If that appearance of neutrality is shattered, the probability of attacks against the courts rises.

A number of recent stories reporting insurgent attacks on courts suggest they are becoming routine in a number of countries. Courts and court officials are being targeted as combatants on one side or the other in political struggles.

An extreme example of discontent with the court system spilling over into acts of violence is happened in Pakistan on Monday March 3, when a suicide bomber settled scores by blowing himself up in a courtroom, killing eleven and injuring twenty-four people.

In early April  2013, The ABA Journal reported 53 people were killed and 90 injured, including two judges, when suicide bombers attacked a court house in Western Afghanistan.

USA Today reported that in mid-April 2013, in Mogadishu Nine Al-Shabab Islamic extremists in suicide vests and firing rifles attacked Somalia’s main court complex. 16 people including all the attackers were killed

In February M79 the Bangkok Post reported an armour-piercing grenade was fired at the Criminal Court on Ratchadaphisek Road. An earlier this week on Monday 3March The Bangkok Post reported that two M-61 grenades were used in an attack on the Criminal Court in Bangkok by two men on a motorcycle.

It would be mistake to think such attacks are limited to judges and court personnel living in quasi-democratic or non-dramatic countries in the Middle-East, Asia, or Latin America.

Fourteen years ago, in a report titled Safe and Secure: Protecting Judicial Officials violence in the American judicial system was detailed. The report illustrated the rising threats and actual violence against judges, judicial personnel and others working in the court system. Measures such as designing the court building as a ‘harden target’ and the use of of metal detectors and x-rays to detect weapons, alarms, and CCTV cameras were installed as a response to the potential of an attack.

It is one thing to survey and describe the attacks on judges and court personnel, it is quite another to explain why such attacks appear more frequently and with substantial causalities.

One explanation is illiberal, traditional tribal forces are taking their insurgencies to the place where captured insurgents face justice. In Thailand, some have argued that the illiberal, traditional non-democratic forces are protected by applying a double-standard supported by the courts.

In other words, violent attacks on judges and their personnel may originate from deep-seated political conflicts in a society and judges find themselves in the cross-hairs as warring factions demand that court favor their interpretation of justice.

Another explanation is the absence of perceived fairness and impartiality of judges. Seneca confirms this is an ancient issue. “Auditur et altera pars–The other side shall be heard as well.” If one side to dispute believes their side is systematically, as a matter of policy, not being heard along with a perception the judges are automatically siding with the powerful, violence may well follow.

There is, in the Western tradition, a notion that courts, like free speech, are part of the safeguards needed to secure democracy.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Courts are places where people in conflict go to obtain justice. And justice is in the quality of the assessment of what story most plausibility emerges from the competing stories told by the parties through witnesses, forensic evidence, and expert testimony.

In time of political chaos, the judges in a political system are called upon to resolve issues arising from the constitution or other laws. The problem is that what is argued as a ‘legal’ issue may have a significant political dimension and that draws the judges into the fray.

Each side of a political conflict seeks to convince the judges of the merits, fairness, common sense and justice arising from the assembly of facts, time lines, and role of actors in the political drama.

What is at stake isn’t found in the ordinary civil or criminal case. State authorities often have a horse in this race. Judges are by their nature also state authorities. The theory has been, while judges are state authorities, part of their job is to keep those authorities in check and to enforce civil liberties on behalf of those challenging what may be abuses of authority.

There is considerable gallows type humor about the courts that goes back many years. Judge Sturgess wrote, “Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel.” Raymond Chandler would have agreed as well as any noir fiction writer.

Ignzio Silone said, “An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain – the equality of all men.”

None of this jaundice about political systems or courts that are an essential part of a functioning political system is new. Tacitus reminded us, “The more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws.”

It wasn’t just the Roman who had this view, the author of The Art of War, Lao-Tzu wrote, “The greater the number of laws and enactments, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

And our cultural view of judges goes from admiration to suspicion as the often-quoted phrase indicates: “Good lawyers know the law; great lawyers know the judge.”

When it comes to the character of judges, one finds a range of opinions, including this one by David Dudley Field, “Judges are but men, and are swayed like other men by vehement prejudices.  This is corruption please.”

Corruption, a word that swarms around the hive of anti-government protesters in Thailand, has more than one sting in the tail. As Horace wrote, “A corrupt judge does not carefully search for the truth.” Even if that truth may discredit the actions of the powerful.

That raises the awkward question of what is the ‘truth’ and who is to be trusted with find the truth amongst factions each claiming the prize for themselves?

Even judges of American justice Benjamin Cardozo’s standing recognized the issue: “There is in each of us a stream of tendency, whether you choose to call it philosophy or not, which gives coherence and direction to thought and action. Judges cannot escape that current any more than other mortals. All their lives, forces which they do not recognize and cannot name, have been tugging at them—inherited instincts, traditional beliefs, acquired convictions; and the resultant is an outlook on life, a conception of social needs. … In this mental background every problem finds it setting. We may try to see things as objectively as we please. None the less, we can never see them with any eyes except our own.”

Cardozo isn’t along, Felix Frankfurter wrote, “No judge writes on a wholly clean slate.”

Each age recreates its own justice system and selects the judges and other personnel to run it. And in each age, the status, reputation, and standing of the judges is reinvented to suit the purposes of the day. Much in our world has been disrupted by technology. Including the courts.

America has a secret court with judges deciding on the scope of government surveillance of its citizens. Thai courts sometimes hold closed sessions in Lèse-majesté cases. Michael Ponsor wrote in The Hanging Judge, “If you want the best evidence of just how strong our democracy is, come into the courtroom.” That’s hard to do if it meets in secret.

Novelist George R.R. Martin had his own idea about the connection between a judge and the justice he administers, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

History suggests that once the courts are drawn into political conflict, the seeds of doubt and suspicion are easily sown and fall on the fertile field of doubt in government institutions.

The search for truth, justice, and impartiality is difficult in the best of times, and at the worst of times, hard men take justice into their own hands, sometimes with the tacit approval of the courts, and sometimes for revenge for the suspicion of such back channel signals of approval.

In Thailand, all eyes are on the courts to deliver judgments on a host of legal cases with large social and political implications. In a judicial system where judges have the power to remove prime ministers, sack MPs, and dissolve political parties, the perception of good faith is essential.

Whether the Thai judges, through their decisions in fact-finding and legal reasoning clear a path that appears fair and reasonable is a question on the minds of many. Whether any court of law can be designed or recruit judges capable of making such political decision acceptable to most citizens is another question altogether. Go to Google and type in Thai courts and click on images. This visual montage tells a story about conflict, power, justice, anger, fear and hate, and in the midst of this narrative are the courts seeking a legal way out.

Posted: 3/6/2014 7:55:03 PM 

 

Bangkok’s Rabbit Hole

“Off with their heads!”
― 
Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Power. Grab it. Earn it. Put it to a vote. The tango between power and violence is the stuff of literature.  Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined  illustrates a dramatic decrease of violence over the centuries. But the world I live in seems extremely violent making such a statement appear counter intuitive. Facts are facts. And “Which way you ought to go depends on where you want to get to…”

In part, this 30-fold decrease in violence means we are historically less likely to be a victim of homicide than our ancestors. But homicide, like the future (to use William Gibson’s clever observation) is unevenly distributed across countries and cultures. Richard Florida in What the Most Violent Nations in the World have in Common, cites three factors that explain why there are elevated homicide rates in some cultures and not others. (1) Social economic inequality, (2) gender inequality, and (3) the macho index based on levels of masculinity, testosterone, and aggression. Florida’s article focuses on private acts of violence that results in death. The question is whether these factors may also explain why some States are more ready to use of violence against their citizen or why protesters in these places resort to violence against State and its security forces.

It is public violence by State authorities and those challenging State authorities that is a common thread in the political struggles in Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, Venezuela and Thailand. Projecting violence has escalated in Thailand since January 2014. What is the cause of this surge in political violence in Thailand? There is no simple answer, though Richard Florida’s three factors are a guide to following precursors of violence. We had bombings and shootings. Twenty-two people are dead. Hundreds have been injured. Four children are dead from bombings and shootings.

What emerges when you drop down the rabbit hole is the world inside offers up a wide variety of possible sources to explain these deaths. It is one thing to describe violence. It is another to explain it. Pundits make lots of explanation that are convincing, plausible argument as to causation. But don’t be fooled. Plausibility and truth are two different matters.

What appears to fuel the current Thai power struggle is a controversy over who has the legitimate right to exercise power.  At the heart of the political turmoil is a perplexing issue: On what basis does the caretaker government support its claim to govern in Thailand?  Owning power, through an electoral mandate, tribal tradition, military coup, or a strongman, can be traced like bullet wounds in the corpse of empires and nations recounted in political history. Long before The Lord of Rings was written, Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Power means that A can compel B to do or not do an act that B wouldn’t otherwise wish to do. For example, obtain a driver’s license, pay taxes, refrain from drinking and driving. You don’t have the option of refusal. You can be compelled with threat of violence to do something you don’t wish to. Objects of power are taught a script to perform and the best script makers don’t need guns to enforce their power over the actors. The actors patrol themselves for accuracy, which means loyalty.

Power, at its best, safeguards the larger interests of a community and individuals sacrifice a degree of freedom they would otherwise have to accommodate that interest. Power is a river with many streams. Elections are one way power is conferred as a communal agreement, the power holder has legitimacy in forcing others, within the law, to comply with new policies and law. Power also has other rivers where power flows from the barrel of a gun, from a family name, from a reputation for brutality, or according to cultural custom.

Power also means claiming privileges and immunities. Absolute power means the laws of the land do not apply to that person. He or she can bury alive hundreds of public ministers or court officials on a whim. Chinese history has a number of such examples to illustrate the dangers of concentrated power. Less dramatic, but still substantial, is the power that comes with vast wealth, through cartels and monopolies, through the accumulation of data about your private life, through the power to indoctrinate children to the ideology to support the powerful. True power has the capacity to make us fearful, grateful, or to silence us, and the power to use networks to defeat opponents.

Political power needs to be monitored and checked and for good reason. Over time, despite the best intention, the power holder will exhibit autistic behavior. His privileges become entitlements. The attitude spreads like a pandemic infection through the whole ruling class with hubris. Once the unrestrained power virus spreads through agencies, courts, armies and civil servants the capacity for empathy with the governed is destroyed.

The monopoly on violence is fragile. The State is many places is losing control over violence. The danger is that power and violence are being privatized like shares sold in a state enterprise in one of those rigged auctions.

People with power are mindful of those who would challenge their power, compete for it, or question it. Freedom of expression is the one defense ordinary non-powerful people seek; it exists as a peaceful way to limit the powerful. Free speech allows us to voice our suspicion of power abuses and make the powerful accountable. The two most hated ideas of the powerful are accountability and transparency. It means you can’t just shoot whoever you want without some due process preceding the firing of the bullet.

Criminalizing speech is one way the powerful push back to control their challengers. You can read a great deal about allocation of power arrangements from the degree of freedom or repression in the exercise of political speech. The more free the speech, the more accountable power holders are in the exercise of power. The powerful rarely attack the ideal of free speech. The really powerful aren’t quite that stupid. They have another argument up their sleeve. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, “What better way for a ruling class to claim and hold power than to pose as the defenders of the nation?” Thus political speech is restricted to prevent ‘enemies’ from attacking the institutions of State and those who are the face of such institutions.

The powerful need enemies, real or imagined, to give them a mandate.

“What is the cause of historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the sum total of wills transferred to one person. On what condition are the wills of the masses transferred to one person? On condition that the person express the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. That is, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand. ” ― Leo TolstoyWar and Peace

Sometimes the messy battle to merge democratic and non-democratic power centers spills over into violence. Power now stays stable because the aspirations, economic realities, and technology are constantly shifting and often faster than tradition institutions can adapt. This leads modern political forces to undermine the authority and status of existing power holders. These forces respond by abandoning the legislative assembly and take to the streets. Once in the streets, sooner or later violence surfaces. Violence is a weapon to recover lost power.

The purpose of a modern political process is to provide a mechanism to resolve conflict over the exercise of power within democratic institutions. Democracy is a peacekeeping patrol to keep the powerful forces in society from slitting each other’s throats. The worry is when one faction gets the upper hand and uses that position to put the knife in.

In every political system people have grievances. Not everyone is ever happy. What is sometimes ignored are the grievances of those who once exercised unquestioned power after they lose power in an election. When power is stripped away as a result of an election they are left vulnerable and feeling unprotected and their interest unjustly ignored. Anger and hatred, threats and intimidation, and breakdown of law and order follow. They plot to recover what has been lost. George Orwell in 1984 wrote, “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”

In the struggle for power that a culture defines itself and the identity of its people are formed.

The never-ending struggle for power is something children need to learn early on. Some of the best books that children read prepare them to understand the nature of power, its dangers, seductions, violations, and corruptions. The Lord of the Rings is a classic for children and adults and the ring of power becomes a symbol for its corrupting influence, and the greed and excesses surrounding power struggles. Plato taught wrote, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.”

If we measure the probabilities of what people will do with power if left to their own devices, it is clear checks and balances are essential to prevent tyranny.

What literary influences have shaped your opinion about power and violence? And what books would you recommend to a child to learn about power? The books I’d recommend are: Alice in Wonderland, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Philip Pullman’s Dark Matter trilogy, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Readers can add their own favourites to this short-list.

Here’s a brief reason for each selection:

Alice in Wonderland is a descent into the madness, capriciousness and arbitrariness of power. There is no better book to illustrate how whim couple with absolute power creates selfish, dangerous monsters. Once you slide down that rabbit hole, you enter an alien world of Mad Hatters.

Lord of the Flies illustrates the tribal nature of power, the symbolic nature of power attached to an object, and the horrible abuses that lead to violence and murder. Stranded on an island boys revert to a feral state where seizing power over others turns into deadly games.

The Dark Matter trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) by Phillip Pullman is a portal into the corruption of mystical beliefs and ideology by the powerful to enforce conformity and to destroy freedom.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm a parable of power, violence, dictatorship, repression, hatred and injustice.

The best foundation for a crime fiction writer, or any genre of writing, can be found in children’s literature. You don’t need to be a writer to take in the profound insights that will guide your own way through a lifetime of political power plays and public violence. The saddest thing about arriving at adulthood is so many of these classics are tucked away, spine out in a forgotten part of our personal library, gathering dust.

I would like to walk you through the maze of the political power struggle in Thailand. The fact is I set out with a compass and map and a few steps along the path, get hopelessly lost. So I go back and read Alice in Wonderland, and ask how she did what she did? I am curious to know just how far the rabbit hole goes and what I will find at the other end.

Along my Thai journey of 25 years I have uncovered some clues. What I call clues are the things I stop to pay attention to. Do you ever wonder why you pay attention to something things and ignore others? Have you ever thought that just maybe people who live in different rabbit holes, with different culture and language might stop to look at different things? That’s what I seek to do in my books and essays—examine those different things.

I invite you to a journey of discovery of power and violence and ask how and why people pay attention to one thing and not another, and how we share many similarities on this journey but at the same time it is a winding, twisty road and sometimes we find people stop and look at things we’d rush right passed. How they manage love and hate, fear and hope, lying and truth, justice and injustice, and how we all put our nose against the window pane and seek a glimpse of who these people who control our lives and our freedom and liberty, and wonder if they see me, see us as people like them. Or are we invisible?

What happens when we see each other through the pane that separates us? How does it happen that I’m on one side and they are on the other? How can I see and understand what people using different languages in a different culture see? Do I know what deep passages inside their rabbit hole their language leads them? I try to follow but I discover it is hard work understanding life deep under this surface. I try the best way that I can and know that what I witness, describe and shape into words is a rough approximation of the reality.

I look around Bangkok where I live and I feel the pain of the Thais. I see the sadness and worry in their faces. I have heard their rage and frustrations. We all started as those four children killed in the past week. A child wants to be loved and to be free. Carefree. They want crayons and a coloring book. Even a child’s level of Thai fluency opens an expat’s heart to the suffering all of us experience each day.

The bombs and guns, the hate and the threats are on a page we should turn. Make it go away, a natural child’s request. One that I wish was in my power to grant. But it’s not. Instead we must face the violence as not some remote event out of sight, but as touching our lives, only then can we deal with it, and deal with ourselves.

Posted: 2/27/2014 7:48:47 PM 

 

Man With a Scarf

The legacy of artists depends on their enduring ability to make succeeding generations pay attention to nature, mankind, humanity, beauty, and the dark, dangerous shadows that surround life. They make us notice things about ourselves, frame them in a universal way. Mozart, Bach, Sibelius, Shakespeare,  Goya, Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco, Lucian Freud (you weren’t expecting that one), Wagner, Dante, Chaucer, Dickens. . . the list of great artists is Borges’ Library of Babel long.

Lucien Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, who along with Francis Bacon are two of the most important painters in England over the past 100 years. They specialized in portraits. They observed people and painted what they saw in others. Some say they painted images of themselves reflected in others. What of those who sat for these paintings? These patient sitters most of whom no one will remember spent many hours. What is their story of being observed? What of their observations of the painter observing them?

Think of these painters as emergency room doctors who took the pulse of their time.  The blood, bone, flesh are inside these artistic works. They embody a range of health and disease. They create an illusion of immortality.

In his brilliant Man with a Blue Scarf: On sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud (2014) Martin Gayford who sat for a period of one and a half years for a portrait painted by Lucian Freud, reminds us that in 1800 there were a billion people on the planet. Each and everyone one of them is now dead. Not a single survivor walks amongst us. Looking over some of the names on the list above to discover the ethics, morality, and temperament of those we will never meet. Our passions and emotions are no different. What moves us to tears and laughter may have changed (though As You Like It still makes us laugh), but the reality of tears and laughter is unaltered.

These artists have taught us how to look, what to look for, and what patterns bring understanding, joy, hope, terror, hate, anger and despair.  Mostly we don’t consult this list. We dart in and out of their worlds like we clean our teeth, and shortly thereafter we are greedily on to our next meal.

They have thrown us a life preserver to someone in the middle of a sea with no horizon but the sky on all sides. We are that dot floating, waiting for rescue.

In the world of noir, that rescue never arrives. We are abandoned inside our lives to struggling to keep our heads above water. We seek not truth, but allies. Others who experience life as we do and share with them a common emotional reaction to life, experience, others, and meaning.

Our looking is an experience of bias management. Like a thirsty wander in an undrinkable sea we search for drinking water. We reject any idea that such a search is futile or that we are going about it the wrong way. Our group feels its way toward the shared goal. Nothing can persuade us that we are deluded or looking in the wrong place.

We are prisoners of these biases. No one escapes from them. They are our black hole. The pull of their gravity is far stronger than reason, which acts as the weak force. What we see is all there is. What we want is confirmation of what we believe and feel. Contrary evidence is misinterpreted so we can maintain our illusions.  We all claim to be truth seekers. What we seek is the truth that makes us comfortable with what we believe to be true. We can’t accept there might be a contradiction. Cognitive dissonance makes us angry and dangerous. Our cure is to back into our corner with our community and turn up the sound and sights of what we know in our hearts to be right, truthful, honorable, and fair.

Our tragedy is we fail to train ourselves to pay attention to the fine details around us. We gain our identity, our selves, our information from instruments and machines. Not from nature or each other. That separates us from our ancestors, their lives, burdens, and social life.

It takes endurance to pay attention, and to seek clarity and definition in what we are attending to. If there is a single reason why I continue to write books and essays, it is to continue on a journey of exploration of what is in front of me, and the expression in words, pictures, and music of what is found along the way as we stopped to take in life.  Those who lived before our birth continue to dwell in our time through art. The presence of these ‘sitters” share our space along the river of time. We look over our shoulder and let them inside our minds. We try to see through their eyes. We seek a glimpse of ourselves in their faces. Mostly, though, I fear we suffer an illusion that we navigate on our own, that we captain our own boat, without much thought for those who lived before us.

It takes a large amount of psychological resources to pay attention. Basically we are lazy. Putting on filters and recharging our biases is our lazy way of idling through life. Imagination fires on distant shores hold no interest. We crave excitement but fear adventure. We take no risk. When our adrenaline rush is over we lose interest quickly. We move on like junkies looking for a new fix. What all great artists teach is the discipline to keep paying attention at those small details we no longer see, and to keep up that concentration for weeks, months, and years. Great art results when the artist channels his or her attention over time and emerges with an artifact that makes us feel larger than ourselves, expansive and connected.


[CAPTION] Lucian Freud, the artist, and his subject, Martin Gayford, “the man with the blue scarf” on the right and on the canvas

We avoid disorder, chaos, ambiguity and uncertainty. These things are unsettling and frightening. The great art doesn’t pander to this fear. Instead such art animates and discloses how our current of charged feelings passes through this invisible, unstable field.  We need an artist’s angle to view our own passage through life. Paintings, music and words are a psychic map to master new landscapes of the world inside and outside us. If we allow them in, we find that they’ve created a bridge between our everyday ‘us’ and the objects that surround ‘us.’ We are in harmony with those objects, and those others, people and animals, when we understand the nature and scope of our connection.

Here’s what Lucian Freud had to say about a visit to the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albi:

It is was very interesting, very exciting. That marvelous subject of the whores sitting round a circular pouf, when you look at it you realize that the one thing he couldn’t do was people together. To me, the most touching Lautrec in the museum is the one of the two girls, both whores, in a bed; you just see their heads. It’s so moving. They’ve finally finished their work and there they are; because they actually like each other.

Lautrec captured the most human of all moments: mutual liking of two people, and in a setting, which is commercial and people aren’t thought of as liking each other. It’s a fleeting moment. And it reminds us that liking, love, pain, hate and anger are constantly shifting in and out of our lives. None of this is stable; just the opposite, it is in constant flux. Five minutes later the two ‘whores’ could have been at each other’s throat. But that is not the moment in the painting. We choose our moments like an artist. What to record, what to remember and what to ignore. The two women in the Lautrec painting showed their liking. Now they would click the ‘like’ button on Facebook.

Gayford’s lesson in sitting for Lucian Freud is that we are different every day. Every hour of every day. Our mood, temperament, our interests fade in and out, cancelling one another, and that leaves us with the sinking feeling of unreality. It is not possible for the artist to capture the ‘real’ you because that person is in constant transition. Underneath the mask we wear is someone who is in flux. Persona from the Greeks was a reference to our mask. The one we put on at home, school, office, or inside the car or at a restaurant, or on Skype video calls. We have a certain face for the camera. For looking in the mirror. For displaying to our loved ones and for strangers.

Underneath the face is changing moment to moment. We look at paintings, listen to music and read books to find out what lies beneath the mask, to embrace it, to recoil from it, to recognize it inside us. It is the part of our psychology hidden from our own view. Gayford showed how Lucian Freud, like his famous grandfather Sigmund Freud, was in the business of reading the person hidden behind the mask. He waited, like his grandfather, until the sitter patient involuntarily revealed himself or herself. It might take hundreds of hours. Lucian Freud was a psychologist who diagnosed using paint. Every patient mood recorded deep inside the face as surely as daily notes by an analyst of the mental condition.

Artists pretty much do the same thing, treating their subject as a palimpsest to be decoded. They blend observation, memory, emotion, and imagination, and then find the right colors and shades and tones of paint to recreated these layers onto a flat surface. A writer or composer does something very similar with words or musical notes.  Artists see a wide range of possibilities that most of us overlook in the hurry of the day.

Gayford reminds us that we have 22 muscles on either side of our mouth. The muscles are tattered to our skin and not to bone. They can move like a 44-instrument-orchestra and the number of piece of music that can be played in huge.  Adams was off by two digits away. 44 was the actual number that the supercomputer called Deep Thought in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave as the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. There is a near infinity of possibilities in the human face, body, attitude, mood, disposition and none of it stable for very long like clouds passing through. How to express the depth of that range? That’s always been the unanswered question. No one knows. The answer may well be in observing the human face.

I also recommend Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe. Lightman is an interesting author as he holds a dual position at MIT in humanities and the physics department, as well as a physics and novelist. He’s been on both sides of CP Snow’s Two Cultures.

Where scientist and non-science in the humanities seek to understand each other’s language and premises and to establish a line of communication. This has been a divide as large as any political divide. Near the end of the book Lightman talks about electromagnetic fields crosses a broad spectrum and how we perceive light is a very narrow range inside that spectrum. We know these other ranges not from our sensory system but through our instruments. Unplug the instruments, study them a thousand hours and you will see nothing. They could never painted as various positions of the 22 muscles around the right or left side of the mouth. The physicist in him notes that in the electromagnetic field at the upper range there are more than 10 trillion frequencies and in the lower ranges an excess of a 100 trillion frequencies. Those are number beyond our imagining.

Art is carried inside our sensory range. It is what we share as we pass through time and the electromagnetic fields pass through us. Lightman leaves open the possibility of mortality as a state of perception experienced along a narrow band nestled in a vast of infinity of possibilities that preceded and succeeds our brief experience inside the human band range. It is a comforting speculation. But it’s not provable. It’s a belief. So the debate will never end.

Meanwhile, Martin Gayford has left us with a testament to Lucian Freud’s artistic temperament and way of being that created portraits of the many layers within each of us and they be studied for expression of the many emotions and moods and vulnerabilities a face can hold so as long as there are people to care.

Lucien Freud had a burning need to closely observe, to understand what he observed, to find paints to explore the range of observations. Though as Gayford concludes, he wasn’t a man given to introspection. What an observation meant in the larger scheme of things didn’t interest him that much. He lost himself in that observer’s world where he was in control.

At the end of the book, Lucien Freud’s words make for a perfect closing, a way of making the debate largely irrelevant.

The notion of the afterlife is much he same, giving people the idea that this life – your actual life – is just hors d’oeuvre in comparison with what comes later. As far as I’m concerned, the whole idea is utterly ghastly. I’m not frightened in the slightest of death; I’ve had a lovely time.

This may be the most lasting of legacies. The final obit when wishing to remember a departed loved one or dear friend: “He had a lovely time.”

If you observe long enough, closely enough, Lucien Freud’s life suggests you will find your own key to Number 44. Time passes on this search but it is let go of without regret knowing the full of richness of life comes from observing the fine detail. There lies enduring satisfaction. It’s enough. For a lovely time.

Posted: 2/20/2014 7:48:23 PM 

 

 

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