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On The Absence Of Art

I cannot understand the world’s desire to “speed read.” My preference is to slow it down, sit with an idea and let it marinate a little.

More often, however, I get taken hostage by words. I cannot get beyond a paragraph because the words render me powerless to turn the page until I contend with them.

Which is precisely what happened on page 22 of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Carl Zimmer’s book on heredity. 

The book so far (I’m not done) is fantastic. I have no quarrel with Zimmer, nor his thesis; it’s just that in one paragraph on page 22 there’s a throwaway comment that stung when I read it. I don’t think it’s Zimmer’s fault, I think most people think this way, but I need to address it because I cannot get to page 23 until I reconcile this. 

The chapter is about the Hapsburgs’, a family famous for inbreeding, hence its relevance in a book about heredity. Here is the sentence(s):

“Philip IV was insulated from the chaos within the confines of his huge palace. He hung masterpieces by Rubens on the walls and listened to poets sing his praises. They called him the Planet King. The endless pageantry was disturbed only by….”

Ok, that’s it. All you need to know is it’s 1600something and this king is supposed to be an entitled millennial, disconnected from reality, and a privileged POS who soon becomes responsible for the demise of the empire (and also…failed to have “an heir” because his offspring kept dying, so after his last son died, Philip legit married his dead son’s fiancé and HOW IS THIS NOT THE FOCAL POINT OF THE STORY! I swear to god the way we just *allow* this shit to be a detail as we move on and talk about The Empire is literally THE problem.)

But I digress.

I want to talk about why we demonize ART.

One of the ways in which we insult assholes like Philip IV is by accusing them of living in a bubble, wasting away in a castle absent from suffering, distracting themselves with music, books, plays, fashion, and art.

I have a problem with this accusation because – first of all – there is no such thing as a life absent from suffering. Second of all, you don’t need to have suffered to *NOT* be an asshole. 

Third – and this is where I need help: reading books, poetry, and “hanging masterpieces by Rubens,” does not mean you’re ignorant of the world.

The contrary.

Shouldn’t, if you spent your day with books, poetry, and paintings, be MORE in touch with the world? MORE aware of people’s pain and suffering? MORE in tune with people’s needs, wants, and desires?

Aren’t artists truth-tellers whose work exists to challenge and mirror – not placate?

I think what’s really going on here is Philip The Asshat wasn’t around art at all. He was around sycophants afraid of telling him the truth. “Poets sing his praises” – no way. I call bullshit.  I dunno how many poets you know, but I know a few and they will not praise you for ANYTHING. They’re the most critical of all the artists! (Well, that, and the most in love. They’re in love and critical, which is why they’re more in touch with reality than most of us).

Meanwhile, Rubens was problematic for a lot of reasons, but if you’re actually looking at his stuff, you can’t not learn from it. Most of it is Greek mythology and some butchering of the Old Testament, which is a decent text in what not to do.

The point is: I’m really tired of people dismissing the Arts as vapid luxuries when the opposite is true. 

So, Philip IV, while I still think you are an asshole. I’m sorry there was no one in your life who cared about you enough to share good poetry with you. To challenge you. To explain why Ruebens was a misogynist and the scenes he depicted, while technique-wise were strong, were problematic and grossly inaccurate. That there was no one to express grief over how many kids you lost.

I’m sorry you lived in a world where people thought it was ok for you to marry your dead son’s fiance. And I’m sorry to that 14-year-old woman whose name wasn’t even included in the book (I googled it, it’s Mariana), that no one stood up for you because they were busy hiring non-poets to sing them praises.

What we see here is a decided absence of art.

Art demands honesty, creativity, imagination, and innovation – which was REALLY important at this point in history because you know what imagination and creativity did next?

It FIXED science. 

Philip’s legacy of sick and dying children (and being an asshole) led leading medical professionals (one in particular) to pause go, “Hm. Maybe the world is not at the whim of divine punishments, MAYBE something else is going on.”


To tell you more I need to turn to page 23. But I couldn’t turn the page without understanding why we continue to use Art as an insult when it’s the very thing we need more of. 

If you’d like to express the idea that someone is spoiled and disconnected from reality, do not use art as your weapon. It disqualifies your point. Someone who is vapid and shallow is not consuming art at all.

The contrary. 

The liberal arts, for example, demands you take nothing at face value. Challenge, question, poke, flip over, reexamine, try again, argue better, argue stronger, find your bias, defend your thesis, acquire better evidence to make your point.

Art isn’t what makes you shallow.

It’s the absence of art that does.




PS: Speaking of challenging perspectives, please meet my husband who had a lot to say about last week’s piece on media literacy and opting out. Notably, this:

“I would appreciate the opportunity to comment on a piece like this.  For example, your characterization of how nobody noticed is false.  I notice every day how you never know what the weather is, you never know what I’m doing at work, and we also now have a house full of smart devices.  so you haven’t protected us from the spyware everywhere because you don’t watch the news.”


I stand corrected.

One person noticed.

And there have been consequences (ones I don’t believe outweigh the benefits, though my husband disagrees. We’ll continue the debate tonight and I’ll let you know who wins).

Aside from the man who lives with me, last week’s piece on media literacy struck a chord. Seems we are all (covertly 🤫) on the same page, which is why I wanted to share the feeling I had after receiving so many responses from y’all:


That so many of you have disengaged, but not grown ignorant is a reason to celebrate. You’re reading books, you’re going DEEPER on ideas, you’re going outside. You’re getting still.

Seems America may not be doomed after all…