Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Lord, may your Spirit rush through us today,
this day of mourning for the lives blown out,
of impotence transmuted into rage,
of fear that’s masquerading as a shout.

Breathe, Spirit, that the one deprived of breath
may in his perishing bring something new
in this divided, dismal land; may death
bring life to justice, righteousness, and truth.

Come, Spirit, bring your love, defeating hate,
convict obdurate hearts of racial sin
burn off what separates us with your flame,
and blow away excuses with your wind.
Lord, we are lost unless you offer aid;
come recreate us once again as kin.

Pentecost, by El Greco

I’ve been making it part of my spiritual practice to write a poem each Sunday. Sometimes I have an idea days before, but other times on Sundays I have no idea what to write about and I’m looking for some touch of grace, some glimpse of the transcendent, to try to put into words. Such was the case the last Sunday of 2019. Earlier in the day I went to a show of 17th century Dutch painting at the St. Louis Art Museum and was particularly struck by one portrait by Rembrandt. The subject was an older woman, rather plain in appearance but vibrant nonetheless. She’s been identified by scholars as Aeltje Uylenburgh, 62 years old at the time and wife of a Protestant minister.


In her book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth described the modern tendency to think that only the present matters. She wrote:

“If time is always moving forward, the past is always becoming more distant and irrelevant. In a sense, modern people are ‘stranded in the present,’ without a meaningful connection to anything that has gone before.”

As the title of her book indicates, she thinks that reflecting on the lives of earlier generations can be a meaningful spiritual practice. As a Christian, she especially encourages believers to engage with the lives of those who have preceded us in the faith. Aeltje Uylenburgh is quite likely to have been one such predecessor, and Rembrandt’s portrait of her was the occasion for me to reflect on her. Here’s the poem I wrote:

Aeltje Uylenburgh, who are you?
I saw your portrait at an exhibition that toured from Boston;
before that the canvas had time-traveled almost five centuries.
I doubt that even in your day
your black gown and black fur-lined cape were stylish–
same with the flat white collar and cap equipped with side flaps.

What calls across the years is not your clothes but your face.
You were old when painted; wrinkles and some sag
along the lower jowl attest to this, and decades of experience
seem encompassed by your gaze.
Your trunk is turned a little to the left, but your head turns less
and your eyes come near to looking out directly,
so that as I stand before you they aim just over my shoulder.
It seems you’re seeing something in the distance.
I suspect the sight is beatific; some such holy vision could account
for why you appear both old and childlike all at once.
You are ageless though of a particular age.

You’re Dutch enough you won’t permit yourself a smile,
but I can see it’s nearly there despite yourself.
I almost know you, sister! One day, when the saints unite,
I hope to recognize you amidst the throng.
I’d like it then if you’d describe
the touch of grace reflected in your face.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw The Disaster Artist, the movie about the making of The Room, one of the worst movies of all time. James Franco both directs and portrays Tommy Wiseau, the main force behind The Room. James’ brother Dave plays Greg Sestero, Tommy’s friend and collaborator.

Among other things, the film is about friendship, about the making of movies, about art, and what it’s like to live without self-awareness. Tommy’s inability to view himself accurately or imagine how others see him were major factors in his conceit that he could write, direct, and star in a major motion picture. Early in the film, he and Greg move to Hollywood to pursue acting careers, but he receives a uniformly negative response. In one scene, he accosts a famous director (I didn’t catch who it was) in a restaurant, bombarding him with lines from Shakespeare. When Tommy persists despite a polite rebuff, the director is unstinting: never in a million years could you become an actor. Slowed only a bit by this onslaught, Tommy pleadingly asks, “But after that?”

Through the second half of the film I kept wondering how someone so singularly incompetent and unqualified actually succeeded at making a movie that opened in a first-run movie theater. Why didn’t reality stop him early in the process? I don’t have the answer to that question, and I haven’t seen The Room, which might provide some insight. Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, though, I came up with three factors that may have played a role.

First of all, because Tommy couldn’t see himself through other’s eyes, he didn’t feel shame or embarrassment. Thus he is undaunted when doing things that make others quiver. Early in the film he and Greg are eating in a packed restaurant. Tommy insists that they perform a scene from a play right there, which they proceed to do at full volume. Greg is clearly uneasy, but not Tommy. The stares of others, their negative comments and thinly veiled derision have no effect on him. When I feel shame, I’m quite uncomfortable, and at times I wish I wouldn’t feel that emotion as easily as I do. Watching Tommy, though, I was thankful for the capacity to feel shame; it does provide information that sometimes steers me away from doing things that I would later regret.

Part of Tommy’s defense against shame is that he sees himself as an artist whose vision isn’t appreciated by others. This second reason for Tommy’s imperviousness to feedback comes up over and over again on the set of the movie, whenever anyone suggests a change to a scene. “You don’t understand my vision,” Tommy laments. The narrative of the misunderstood artist comes from Romanticism, one of the cultural metanarratives that affect how we see ourselves and live our lives. Unfortunately, not all artistic visions are of equal value, and probably none of them provide the kind of unerring guide to goodness and truth that the Romantics thought they would. For Tommy, the idea of artistic vision is a convenient way to deflect criticism and legitimize incompetence.

None of these factors would have been enough for him to complete the film, though, if Tommy hadn’t also been rich. He bankrolled the entire project; it’s estimated that he spent six million dollars making The Room. After several days of filming, we see script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogan) trying to cash a check from Tommy. He is apprehensive, doubtful that the check will clear. The banker reassures Sandy that there are vast sums in Tommy’s account. Having learned this, throughout the filming Sandy tolerates Tommy’s rants and indulges his whims. The rich are treated more leniently than the rest of us. At the same time, they become blind to how others view them. As summarized in The Atlantic, several research studies have found that the powerful have more difficulty than the powerless in understanding what others are feeling. Money is a form of power, and can be expected to produce similarly diminished awareness of the reactions of others. There’s a wrenching scene near the end of the movie when Tommy learns how others view his movie; he squirms with discomfort. It might have been better for him had he been able to feel some of this uneasiness before spending a fortune.

Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, then, I’m grateful that I can feel shame, unpleasant as it is at the time. I’m glad, too, that I don’t lay claim to an artistic vision that elevates me above others. As a middle class American, I have enough wealth that I don’t empathize with the poor as well as I might. Still, I’m not flush enough that people cater to me–not as far as I can tell, at least. As confident as Tommy appeared, it must have been difficult to be him. I may have a more modest ego, but at least I feel comparatively little pain when it’s deflated.


I wrote previously about the lessons I gleaned from the movie A Late Quartet concerning the various ways that individuals interact with others.  I also was intrigued by the metaphor for relationships the movie’s writers found in Beethoven’s Opus 131, the piece the movie’s string quartet is preparing to perform.  I’ll say a little about that metaphor in this post.

To recap a bit of what I said earlier, the movie portrays the musical predilections of the members of the quartet as representative of their interpersonal styles.  Thus, the first violinist leads forcefully, expecting the others to follow, the cellist provides a deep, mature sound that serves as a stabilizing influence, and the second violinist sacrifices individuality to work on pulling the other instruments into a cohesive whole.  I see myself as akin to the second violinist.  I tend to focus on what’s going on with those around me before I focus on what’s happening with me, and I do value creating cohesion—harmony—among members of a group.

What I found intriguing regarding the connection between music and interpersonal relationships were the dynamic adjustments that occur during a musical performance, and, by extension, in the course of relationships.  Peter, the quartet’s cellist, tells a class of young students that Beethoven insisted that Opus 131 be performed without breaks for re-tuning, though the strings of the instruments will be stretched off-key, each in a different way.  Peter asks rhetorically, “What are we supposed to do, stop or continue to struggle to adjust to each other until the end, even if we are out of tune?”  It is the listening to and adjusting to the sounds coming from the other instruments, or failure to do so, that makes the performance a success or failure.

Throughout the movie, the members of the quartet each go “off-key” emotionally.  The quartet is at risk because they have trouble recognizing how they and their colleagues are out of tune and don’t accommodate these variations from fidelity very successfully.  Don’t we all struggle with this in our relationships, though? Early on, we’re convinced we are in tune with the individual or group, and they with us.  As we continue to interact, the back-and-forth of relating strains us, and one or another person starts to play off-key by being insensitive, demanding, or critical, to give just a few examples.  The change is subtle at first, and we may not recognize what’s happening.  Sometimes, we adjust subconsciously to harmonize better, and that improves matters for a while.  Eventually, it becomes evident that the music is discordant.  Do we ignore that and each try to play in tune ourselves?  Do we try to adjust to each other?  Do we quit and walk away in disgust?

I’m going to go out of tune eventually, and so will you.  Let’s be honest about that, and remember that listening and adjusting to one another is our best chance to keep from ending in cacophony.

Conceptions of art and artists have changed over the centuries.  In the middle ages, painters and sculptors were artisans, their status little different from that of stonemasons or seamstresses. The category of fine art was created during the Renaissance, and artists were accorded a more elevated status than had been the case previously.  The reasoning behind this improved regard was both that painters and sculptors needed specialized knowledge in fields such as geometry and anatomy to create realistic portrayals and that poets—and by extension artists—were thought to receive divine inspiration enabling them to provide revelations similar to those given by a prophet (see a description of the Renaissance idea of art here).  Art was thus a special, profound vision of reality, and the artist was endowed with a unique capacity to see deeper and experience more fully than could ordinary mortals.  Art didn’t maintain its perch atop the holy mountain, though.  In the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp proclaimed that art was anything the artist produced—thus, he could (and did) proclaim a urinal was a piece of art.  Art might still retain some distinction if the artist had some sort of exalted vision of the world so that what was declared art really had hidden value.  For Duchamp, though, the artist didn’t create value and bring it to the masses.  Those who viewed the art were co-creators of its worth:

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Presumably, any spectator can co-create a work of art, and anyone can be an artist.  You don’t have to have dazzling technical skills, original insights into the nature of reality, or even anything much to say.  Then again, you may have all these things in abundance.

I found Duchamp’s conception of art to fit well the works on display at the fourth annual Artprize, currently taking place in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Artprize is an art competition in which the winning entry is selected by popular vote (there are also separate prizes awarded by a jury of experts).  With 1517 entries displayed in 161 venues in and around downtown Grand Rapids, it is said to be the biggest competition of its sort in the world. I’ve been trekking from venue to venue—I’ve probably hit about 30 of them—and have seen hundreds of entries.

“Small Parts”–teabags as art

So, what is art?  It can be 2,000 used tea bags hung on a wall, or a portrait made entirely of jelly beans, or Harley motorcycle parts assembled to look like people, or someone dressed up in a worm costume slithering around on the ground , as long as someone calls it art and an audience accepts it as such.  All these works were in Artprize, by the way, and I saw all of them except the worm-man.  Aren’t they all art just as much as Warhol’s soup cans and Brillo boxes were?  Maybe art can be defined as anything that an originator (I don’t know that the term “artist” means much of anything in this context) can convince an audience to accept as art.  That makes art parallel to Foucault’s concept of truth: something is true if you can get others to accept it as true.

Here are some other observations from the time I spent at Artprize:

  • Most of the art I saw clustered around relatively few themes.  There are lots of landscapes (divided largely between rural settings and cityscapes), plenty of animals, human portraiture, and, especially among the sculptures, human figures.  There is more representational art than abstract art, but abstract art is fairly well represented.  Quite a few pieces have religious themes, but these are almost all either of Christ or of personal religious experiences—other Biblical stories and historical religious figures are almost totally absent.  There aren’t many still lifes.
  • Given the limited range of themes, after a while the art started to seem quite repetitive.  Often what was original about a piece was the material or technique that the artist used.  Thus, as mentioned above, there were tea leaves, motorcycle parts, and jelly beans.  Someone reproduced van Gogh’s “Starry Night” using rice grains.  There was a piece consisting entirely of candle soot on paper.  An eight-foot tall self portrait was made of plastic bottle caps.  “Found objects” are a particularly popular construction material.  I wondered at times whether those who didn’t really have any creative ideas were trying to simulate creativity by using unusual materials.
  • A number of works appear to offer some sort of social commentary. For example, “Mr. Weekend,” a huge sock puppet

    “Mr. Weekend”

    covering an obsolete mechanical arm from a car factory, makes rueful comments about his former and current life; I take this to be a comment on the nature of work and both mechanical and human obsolescence. “Marilyn,” a portrait of Marilyn Monroe made with discarded plastic objects, seems to allude to the artificial and impermanent quality of both fame and of the things that surround us.  Among the entries that offer social comment, there is a subset of pieces that advocate for some social cause.  The pieces at Fountain Street Church, a outspokenly liberal church in downtown Grand Rapids, are almost all of this sort.  For example, “Disturbing Reality,” a painting of a naked woman chained and lying in a bed, is about abolishing slavery.  The majority of entries don’t seem to be political or social statements of any kind, though.  It seemed to me that local artists were especially unlikely to make any sort of social statement.

  • People love animals.  In the 25 top vote getters, there were two featuring herds of running horses, two dragons, a fish, polar bears, penguins, a moose pursued by wolves, elephants, and a wall of trophy heads made out of recycled materials. Animal art doesn’t put many demands on the viewer—there usually aren’t many complexities to unravel.  Art tames the creatures’ ferocity, so they aren’t wild and unchained as they are in the natural world.  To some degree we may identify with the creatures being portrayed, in which case they represent versions of ourselves shorn of the complications of human self-awareness.

    From “Elephants”

  • Artists—at least the ones here–are dedicated and passionate.  Some of the works took thousands of hours to construct.  A dragon consisting of buttons along thousands of strings took about 1,800 hours, and the tyrannosaurus rex took 4,000 hours.  I spent some time talking to Fraser Smith, an artist from Florida who makes “quilts” and other fabric objects out of wood.  He has made 17 such quilts.  The one he is displaying (named The Lake) took about 1.200 hours, “mostly sanding.”  He said that the creative process is difficult and not all that enjoyable, but he gets tremendous satisfaction from the finished product.  Talking about it clearly filled him with pride.  I can’t imagine spending that kind of time on a single work of art.
  • Lots of wood, metal, paper, and pigment went into the creation of these 1,517 entries. What’s going to happen to all this stuff?  In years to come, is anybody really going to want a full-scale reproduction of a dinosaur skeleton cluttering up their lawn?  Who is going to house 4,000 clay flowers that take up close to 900 feet of floor space (it’s a piece called Floral Metamorphicae 2012)?  Who wants 2,000 tea bags hanging on the wall? I can’t help but wonder if many of the works will end up in landfills someday, or maybe be recycled into new works for Artprize 2032.  If an object becomes art when it is presented and received as such, is the object no longer art when someone decides it’s junk?

Artprize continues through October 7. Anyone can register as a voter and can vote as many times as he or she wants. I voted for about thirty pieces. The first week and a half of Artprize narrows to 10 the contenders for the $250,000 top prize; those finalists were announced this past Sunday, September 30.  In the second round, everyone has just one vote for their top choice.  I’m still trying to decide which piece I’ll vote for.

Fraser Smith and “The Lake”

Two days before Christmas I went to see the exhibit “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” (at the Detroit Art Institute through February 12). The thesis of the exhibit is that Rembrandt discovered a new way to picture Christ. During the Renaissance, artists tended to paint a brown-haired, light-skinned Christ, often with a muscular, well-proportioned anatomy patterned on the Greek ideal. This Christ is active and heroic, typically gesturing with emphasis or emoting openly. Rembrandt’s early representations of Christ usually fit this mold. However, over the course of years, Rembrandt’s portrayals of Christ changed. For example, an early print showing the raising of Lazarus has Christ dramatically raising his arm over the grave, while a later version of the same event shows a much more subdued miracle worker. An early print of Christ’s trial shows him as a bold and dramatic, but, in a print made 20 years later, Christ is so unobtrusive that the viewer has to look carefully to pick him out from a clutch of figures.

The curators are particularly attentive to tracing Rembrandt’s change from painting fair-haired European Christs to painting dark-haired, Jewish Christs. Rembrandt lived much of his life in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and became quite familiar with his Jewish neighbors. In the mid-1640s, he made studies of a young Sephardic Jew, and, shortly thereafter, he and his school produced several pictures of Christ that had the hair style and facial features of that Jew. Rembrandt had discovered Christ’s Jewishness. (The view that Rembrandt was influenced in his portrayal of Christ by his interactions with his Jewish neighbors is disputed by some scholars, as noted in an article in the Huffington Post.) Rembrandt’s new way of picturing Christ continues his tendency towards a less active, more subdued Christ, but also evokes a new interiority. This is a contemplative figure whose serenity is suggestive of inner depths of spirit. The portraits of Christ made in the late 1640s are small, with a dark background that pushes the image of Christ towards the viewer. They invite intimacy.

The exhibit prompted a fair amount of reflection on my part. I was fascinated by the process of discovery that Rembrandt had to go through to find this Christ. The preconceptions bequeathed from his culture had to be stripped away little by little until he discovered a Christ freed from those preconceptions. It was courageous to follow this road of discovery to its end. Though Amsterdam was a city of relative tolerance, presenting a very Jewish Christ to a society that looked down on Jews took boldness, especially for someone whose livelihood was dependent on how the public received his work.

I also am interested in how the change in his representation of Christ is correlated with events in Rembrandt’s life. He achieved prominence in his twenties, moving to Amsterdam when he was about 25 and quickly becoming a successful and sought-after portrait painter. However, three of the four children he fathered with his wife Saskia died in infancy, and Saskia herself died when Rembrandt was about 35. Though he earned a decent income, Rembrandt lived beyond his means and went bankrupt when he was about 50. Isn’t it likely that these losses and struggles influenced his art by making it less showy and more subdued? Might the contemplative Christ reflect a more contemplative Rembrandt?

I also wonder whether Rembrandt’s process of discovery of a more interior Christ entailed a progression in his religious understanding. The earlier Christ is patently God-like—a distinctive figure who stood out from those around him and exercised his power in a dramatic fashion. The later Christ is more human—a man who was remarkable primarily in the sensitive and meditative qualities he displayed. This Christ is less intimidating and more approachable than the earlier version. Many followers of Christ go though a similar progression in how they view him. Early on, he is much different from us: the great prophet, the worker of miracles, the savior of the world. Though none of these elements disappear, they come to be counterbalanced by Christ’s humanity. He experienced the same times of confusion and struggle that we do; he felt the same feelings as we experience, and he sometimes faced daunting obstacles, just as we do. This is a Christ we not only respect, but one with whom we can relate. Perhaps in his later works Rembrandt was portraying Christ as he had personally come to know him.

The earlier, Classical portrayal of Christ evokes the universal myth of the hero. A more ethnically distinct Christ is a more parochial, less universal figure. Rembrandt was inviting his viewers to consider Christ as having been embedded in a particular culture and living in a particular time and place. At first, this might seem to make Christ less relevant to those from other cultures or living in other circumstances. Yet being tied to a certain time and place is a universal human experience. Like Christ, we all need to be engaged with our particular place and time. None of us lives as a universal man or woman; we all live as Jews or Dutchmen or Argentines or Americans, born in a specific era, with unique challenges and opportunities. Christ the Jew was Christ in the flesh, dealing with all the limitations that implies. He lived a life in the particular; he was human.

I recently drove up to Washington, DC and spent a day touring museums.  I saw a couple exhibits devoted to Andy Warhol, fifteenth century tapestries celebrating Portuguese king Afonzo V’s conquests, and some of the National Gallery’s permanent collection.   The exhibit that had the deepest impact on me, though was    “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through January 8, 2012.  According to its website description, the exhibit is an examination of “the nineteenth century American belief

Peale's "The Artist in his Museum"

Peale's "The Artist in his Museum"

that the people of the United States shared a special genius for innovation.”  The exhibit is introduced by a self-portrait of 19th century naturalist and artist Charles Wilson Peale holding open a curtain revealing a museum of natural specimens.  Peale apparently did found such a museum where he exhibited a mastodon skeleton and other natural wonders.

The exhibit portrays significant technological advances of the age, including steam engines, railroads, and steamboats.  I was particularly struck by the section on railroads.  Included is the often-reproduced photograph of trains from east and west meeting nose-to-nose, linking the country by rail.  There are several paintings depicting trains chugging across the countryside.  Most of these show the train in the distance– pencil-thin and with a puff of smoke tethered overhead—an unobtrusive and innocuous addition to the landscape.  One picture titled “The First Train” shows Native Americans watching with wonder as a train steams across the prairie.  Another painting is probably more accurate in portraying the destruction that railroads brought in their wake.  A town is in the middle distance, smokestacks piercing the sky.  A train chugs up from the town; a barren field of tree stumps is shown in the near distance.  According to the curator’s notes, the artist was not lamenting nature being despoiled, but was instead favorably disposed towards the progress that the scene represented.

"The Waterworks"

The works included in the exhibit seldom give any evidence of conflict over the changes wrought by technological advances.  Some works dress these changes in noble garb.  A striking example is an 1825 sculpture by William Rush titled “The Waterworks” (I found the photograph of the sculpture here).  It is a celebration of the Fairmount Waterworks on the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia.  The reclining woman represents the river; she’s dressed as if she were a river goddess from classical times.  Her hand is posed over a water wheel and she’s smiling, apparently delighted at having her waters flow through this mechanical device.  The faux-classical blessing given the water plant seemed pretentious to me, but it was apparently well-received at the time.  I researched the history of the Fairmount Waterworks and learned here that “it was celebrated as a prime example of the blending of nature and technology.”  A park was built at the site, and it became one of the primary tourist attractions in the area.  Rush’s sculpture was once displayed there.

The 19th century’s unabashed celebration of technology contrasts with the 21st century’s ambivalence over technological advances.  We may like the comforts and electronic gadgets associated with technology, but we recognize the Faustian bargain by which the pleasures of modernity come at tremendous cost to the planet, to those less fortunate, and to our souls.  That sense of conflict over technology has been present in our society my entire adult life (that is, since the late 60s), and I imagine it’s been the dominant response to progress since the world wars.

Claire Perry, who curated the exhibit, seems heavily influenced by this conflict.  She’s appears uncomfortable with the exuberance over technological wonders and the confidence in progress that was so much a part of the 19th century mindset.  I infer such discomfort based on her inclusion of some topics that have little to do with America’s “genius for innovation.”  For example, there’s a room of works portraying Niagara Falls; another room on buffalo, and a third room devoted to the trees of California, especially the sequoias. Why include these things?  The curator’s notes speak about American’s fascination with the natural bounty of the country and the belief that the vast American continent provided a suitable canvas for living out America’s destiny.  I think there’s more to Ms. Perry’s choices than cataloguing America’s fascination with abundance.  The pictures she chooses show buffalo herds being killed promiscuously and sequoias being logged to excess despite being unsuitable for construction.  Though she doesn’t say so directly, Ms. Perry seems appalled by such destruction in the name of progress.

Whether or not she disapproves of the felling of trees and buffalo, seeing images of such destruction had a powerful effect on me.  Pictures showing multitudes of wounded or dead buffalo in particular evoked horror and revulsion.  What sort of progress is this, to slaughter such magnificent animals for sport?  An even greater travesty was lightly touched on; the slaughter and displacement of Native Americans.  I came away from the exhibit troubled by our nation’s capacity for destruction and even more conflicted than before about science and technology.

When I was in Milwaukee early last month, I went to see the Chinese art visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum through September 11. The largest and most impressive of the exhibitions is The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City. The emperor in question is the Qianlong Emperor, an 18th century ruler, and the private paradise referred to is the Qianlong Garden, a two-acre walled compound of courtyards and buildings that was built to be his retirement garden. The artifacts on display—including woodcarvings, paintings, calligraphy, furniture, porcelain, and statues—are all beautiful works of craftsmanship. They also prompt reflection about the emperor for whom they were made.

The garden was intended as a winter residence—the emperor spent summers in one of the palaces outside Beijing—and the decorative themes match the season. For example, there are numerous carvings of the “three friends of winter”—pine branches, bamboo shoots, and plum blossoms. The carved branches and leaves are finely detailed and lifelike, while at the same time being tamed into well-ordered designs. The emperor was elderly when the garden was constructed, and I imagine such carvings prompted him to reflect on the winter season of his life.

The emperor was interested in the world beyond China. There were paintings utilizing Western-style perspective and even an Italian cityscape. Some of the screens and windows incorporated panes of glass, another import from Europe. He was also devout; the collection included Buddhist shrines at which he worshiped. He was a writer and contemplative, and examples of his poetry and calligraphy were on display.

I was particularly struck by one quote from his writings: “I want to be called a person with nothing to do.” What an interesting sentiment for an emperor! In our day, those who wield political power tend to think that their activities are essential to the well-being of the populace, and would probably be dismayed if others thought they had nothing to do. It’s not just politicians who would have such a reaction. In a society like ours, where our worth is often judged in terms of accomplishments, having nothing to do threatens both one’s reputation and one’s self-regard.

Screen featuring a carving of the three friends.

So why did the Qianlong Emperor aspire to be regarded as someone with nothing to do? Perhaps he was tired of the demands of his office and wanted to devote all of his time to contemplation. One of the pavilions in the garden was named the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service. Was he exhausted by ruling and yearning for retirement? He reportedly devoted less attention to affairs of state late in his rule than he had earlier, and he abdicated in February, 1796 in favor of his son. His abdication was supposedly to fulfill a promise made at the time of his ascension to not rule longer than his grandfather had. It seems doubtful that he wanted to escape public life, though, since he continued to rule the kingdom, relegating his son to figurehead status, until his death in 1799 at age 89. He never moved to his retirement garden, instead living until the end of his life in the Hall of Mental Cultivation, the Forbidden City equivalent to our White House. (I found most of this information about his life here). Maybe he saw a life of writing, hunting, and collecting as ideal but was too caught up in the public sphere to ever leave it.

I have been thinking of whether I would like to be called someone with nothing to do. Few in middle-class America view themselves that way. The people I know who are retired all have tasks that fill their days—work around the house, doctor’s appointments, family commitments, community involvement, and the like. The emperor’s comment alludes to how others view him rather than how he views himself, though, and in our society retirees are more likely than workers to be viewed as having nothing to do. I’m nearing the point where I could retire, but I’ve never seriously considered not working. My attitude has been similar to that of Margaret Mead, who said: “Sooner or later I’m going to die, but I’m not going to retire.” That’s not to say that I feel compelled to work because my identity is defined by my work, though. Being a teacher or therapist seems less and less central to who I am. Rather, I expect to be doing something in the workplace for the foreseeable future because there will always be something to do—students who need instruction, marriages that need restoration, souls who need encouragement. If I can help people with some portion of the problems they face, I will. I would like it if the human community was flourishing to such an extent that my talents were no longer needed. Then I would happily occupy myself with the books and people I love, and I would be glad to be thought of as a person with nothing to do.