Essay: No Need For Meaning

Snake River Basin: Boise River and Willow, 11″ X14″, acrylic on 300lb. paper, 2012, Mark W. McGinnis

In reading Edward Abbey’s 1968 book, Desert Solitaire, I came across the sentence; “It is as it is and has no need for meaning.” The statement was made in regard to one of Abbey’s many reflections on the condition of the desert of the canyon land southwest.

What struck me about the statement was the universal applicability of the concept. Meaning need not be applied to pristine desert landscape with the setting sun flooding the rock with colors and value, it simply is. The same could be said for a scene described a few pages earlier in the book where he comes upon a frequent campsite that is scattered with the refuse of the people who frequented the site. Abbey described them as Slobivius americanus. I recently felt the same disgust when I was walking a favorite stretch of the Boise River greenbelt to find half a dozen plastic bottles floating in the river and human debris along the shore. Immediately negative judgments came to my mind but there is no more meaning in the garbage than in the sunset, both simply are. This very hard for me because I want to make judgments — I want to put the subjective meaning of my values on the experiences.

This has been a valued and long-standing aspect of my personality. It is certainly related to a 30 year teaching career in the fine arts, where subjective judgments were at the core of what I did every hour of my teaching day. The same mindset carried through into my personal creative life where my judgments were continually engaged to bring meaning into my art projects.

What is meaning? Is it part of the conscious process? Is it the drive to want to know why? Is it part of the associative process of thinking that helped us to survive but has now run amuck. I feel I am constantly looking for meaning to the extent that I miss want is happening now, which is the only true time there is. If  meaning is what something signifies or the purpose of something, in most cases we already have an intuitive understanding that needs little elaboration. Subjective meanings often complicate and confuse what is self-evident.

Am I finally at the point in my life that I am ready to abandon the need for applied subjective meaning and live life for what is? I hope I am. I turn on the radio and accidently hear the news (I try not listen). I hear of the massacres in Syria or a group of wealthy senators doing their best to stop 30 million poor Americans from obtaining minimal healthcare.  I want to put meaning on those events. I want to cry out against those callous, unfeeling, barbarians in the Congress. I want to project my judgments – but why? Certainly from the perspective of the big picture (the Earth, the Universe) they are miniscule if not meaningless. I am miniscule from that vantage point as well. I simply am – another little piece of cosmic dust very temporarily arranged in this organic arrangement, albeit with the blessing or curse of consciousness. Is that a bleak or fantastic view of existence? One part of me knows that all is simply a long, long unfolding of energy and matter. The ego part of me wants to scream out, “No! No! I am much more than that.” It is hard for me, and I think many others, to accept our place in this universe. But the tiny bits of wisdom that others have gifted to me want to say, “To be a part of this cosmic story, no matter how small, is miraculous beyond comprehension.”

I have come to the conclusion there is no meaning other that the unfolding of cause and effect. When I accept this, the question then arises if anything in our lives matter if they have no deeper meaning than cause and effect? (This question has been asked by some of the greatest minds in history and I feel rather sheepish posing it.)  How should I live my life if this is true? This a recurring question of my musings over many years. My life is as much part of a series of cosmic cause and effects as was the Big Bang. By my decisions, and those imposed on me, I shape my place in this system and by my existence I infinitesimally change the system. It simply “is.”

I have come to believe that as I move through the unfolding of cause and effect I should try to make it as pleasant an experience as possible for me, those around me, and the rest of existence. Not because it gives meaning, but because it creates pleasure and harmony — or is that meaning? It makes this short time I have a joy rather than a sorrow. This may seem a rather simplistic, hedonistic life view but it is not as easy as it sounds. For some reason my mind often focuses on sorrows rather than joys and spreads those sorrows to others. If I can leave the subjective meanings my mind behind and focus on what “is” in the moment — as the cause and effect unfolds — I have a much better chance of making that moment pleasant for myself and others.  Why not?

Post Script:  A short story related to littering mentioned early in the essay. Many years ago I had group of art students in a secluded valley of Northeastern South Dakota. We were going to do some watercolor sketching. It was a beautiful spring day and we were along the stream that ran through the valley. There a wonderful, water-loving yellow flower was profusely blooming along the banks. Unfortunately the area was also profusely littered with cans, bottles, wrappers, and other garbage. I was outraged that such beauty would be tarnished by human disregard, and my mood sunk and I grumbled and grumbled to myself. As I was walking around checking on where my students were settling in to do their painting I noticed one of the students (the most punked-out student of the bunch as it was during those years) had set aside his materials and was walking around making piles of the garbage to facilitate easier clean up. It was a revelation to me that instead of getting angry and complaining, the best reaction to the moment was what the student was doing.  I am not always successful living what I know, as I wasn’t earlier in this essay, but when I remember that student, it is a lesson to me to not project meaning or judgment and just do what needs to be done.

© 2012 Mark W. McGinnis

Essay of the Month: Alternatives to Consumerism? Part One

It does not take an economist or scientist to see that to sustain consumer societies on their current trajectories the earth’s resources will be spent in a few short centuries or sooner and the earth may no longer be fit for human habitation. It will not happen in our lifetime and not in the lifetime of our children either. While several centuries are the blink of an eye in relation to the age of the planet it is nearly three times the lifespan of a human being. To project our concern into such a time span does not seem a natural use of our consciousness, especially if one is enjoying the perceived benefits of the consumer system.

To base one’s economic system on consumption is a very modern form of human social organization. Certainly people have been consuming and with the elite consuming far beyond their needs since early civilizations, but the organization of the success or failure of a nation’s economy being dependent on excess consumption grew to maturity only in the 20th century. I was born at the halfway point of that century and have enjoyed the comforts of it for the past 61 years.

The end of the Cold War in the final decades of the 20th century and the dominance of capitalistic consumerism in the world market have increased the pressure on the planet’s resources. First world consumer societies have seen the re-forming of third world nations into consumer societies as primary new market. China’s remarkable transition to “Communist Consumerism” was alone a tremendous new pressure on the planet.

Global warming is in part a result of the consumer society and is but one symptom of the many to come as the more of the world’s population become modern consumers. I do not think that any person on the globe can be blamed for wanting to be comfortable – that is to have adequate food, shelter, clothing, education and medical care. The question is, “Can comfort be obtained without destroying the planet?” Since it is obvious that it cannot be obtained through the consumer society model, how can it be obtained?

I am certainly not the first ask these questions and one of the most appealing answers to me came from E. F. Schumacher, who in the 1970’s promoted a return to small, sustainable economic systems. Much has evolved from his and like ideas in the past 40 years, but nothing to keep pace with or challenge the huge expansion of the consumer society. The financial and political forces behind consumerism are monumental. This is remarkable if one again reflects on what a short time this system has been a dominant economic force.

I wonder, could people be happy with smaller, simpler, sustainable economic structure that did not demand consumption that destroyed the planet?  If the incessant pressure to consume were removed or drastically reduced (advertising), and a new emphasis was put on relationships with human beings and nature rather than stuff to buy, I believe many people would not only find it a manageable transition, but many would also be more content and less stressed.

But a problem arises when the consuming slows. In an economy that is based on consumption, we see the dire troubles that arise with a simple recession. Jobs are lost and people have nowhere to turn for making a living. So obviously, a different way to structure a society is needed. The potential of problems in large authoritarian governmental control of society was seen in the Soviet model of the 20th century. Scandinavian democratic socialism has fared better and been more sensitive to the environment but that does not seem the whole answer.

To me, even smaller economic units have appeal, such as social units based around natural geographic boundaries and ecosystems. Population limits seems inevitable. I am sure many brighter minds than mine are thinking about and working on this problem, but we do not hear much from them. This is no surprise considering our media is itself sustained by the consumer model.

I am sure there are those who say that we will economically evolve out of these problems. That may well be. Human beings are remarkably adaptable mammals. But I hope we will apply conscious, active problem solving to transform our society before massive suffering begins on a global scale, a catastrophe that could begin before the end of this century.

I don’t think it would be a matter of major sacrifice for the first world to begin this transition to non-destructive economic structure. It would more require a change in priorities and expectations. Now that the economy is showing most of the population in the U.S. a bleaker future with consumerism than the last generation experienced, it seems time to present alternatives. But again, where are those alternatives? I am going to start looking.

copyright 2012 Mark W. McGinnis

Walt Whitman #32, 8" X 8", Acrylic on Paper, 2011, Mark W. McGinnis---------- The old, old urge, Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer, higher pinnacles, From science and the modern still impell'd, The old, old urge, eidolons. -- Walt Whitman

(Very Short) Essay of the Month: Accepting the Gift

This world is filled with suffering and injustice. Where and when we have the ability we should try to lessen these problems. But in our short time of existence we should also enjoy the great beauty and goodness that is all around us. The wonder of a grain of sand to the expanse of the universe is not a gift to be wasted.  (copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis)

Snake River Basin #1 (Malad Gorge), 68" X 68", acrylic on nine panels, 2011, Mark W. McGinnis

Essay of the Month: Why Do I Make Art?

Grand Canyon #4, Acrylic on Panel, 16" X 20", 2011, Mark W. McGinnis

After over 40 years seriously trying to make the
stuff, it seems a rather strange time in my career to ask myself such a
question. At different points in my life the answer would have been quite
different. When I was young there was a great challenge involved in making art.
As my proficiency grew there was the recognition gained. Sometimes I felt my
art could inspire my students who wished to be artists. Several times in my
career I was making art for the pure joy of creating color, texture, shape, and
making new visual experiences for myself and the viewer. At times I felt I was
trying to communicate things with my art that needed to be said on a social
level. I used the process of making art as a self-education tool gaining
knowledge in politics, economics, and religion. I used art to embellish and
hopefully add new dimensions to literary works.

But the real question is why do I make art now? I am
no longer teaching. I have a little trickle of retirement income that keeps me
from starving (and my art never did sell and still doesn’t).  I have lost my youthful fervor and conviction
that my art could change the way people think. So why continue to make it? I
could read, or stream Netflix all day. I could go for long strolls in nature. I
could go to the gym and have a leisurely swim, sit in the whirlpool and steam
room. I could play cards with or go to the movies with Patricia. I could get
lost in the endless amusements of the Internet. I could take up a hobby like
woodworking or papermaking. There are many ways I could keep busy but I keep
making art (and it keeps piling up).

Maybe I should look at each types of art I continue
to make and think about why I make each variety — watercolor sketching first,
because it is the easiest. It is simply fun. To sit out in nature, let your
head go blank, and make a quick impression of some element of your surrounding
is a therapeutic exercise. Next black ink painting – being in the continuum of
this painting tradition has great appeal to me, although I am certainly no
purist. To sit and grind your ink and then use a brush and paper as artists did
1500 years ago has great appeal to me. This being my most recent medium it is
also still very challenging which takes me back to very early motivations for
making art. My literary projects are done with acrylic on paper – they are
small 8” X 8”. I have completed three books totaling over 300 paintings and am
36 paintings into a 72 paintings series based on passages from Walt Whitman.
Many people think of illustration as being very confining, and if done within
limitations it is. I have varied the amount that I limit myself depending on
the project. In my Cloud Messenger book I was truly telling a story and my
approach to the work tries to keep the paintings as an aid in that process. In
my project based on the haiku of Kobayashi Issa I felt a need to maintain a
stylistic approach to match the natural beauty of the short verses. When
producing the 103 painting for my Gitanjali book, following the 103 poems by
Rabindranath Tagore, I did not feel inclined to maintain one stylistic
direction. Something about the freedom and diversity of the literature let me
express myself in with a variety of approaches through the series. In my
current series on Walt Whitman this freedom is without restraint. Whitman’s
remarkable creativity, audacity, and energy give me the opportunity to try to
show some of my own diversity. The reason I enjoy these projects so much is
that, once again, they present such unpredictable challenges both technically
and conceptually.

The
final body of work I continue to work on is a series of acrylic on panel
paintings titled, Sentient Landscapes.
Or at least that is what they are called now. They began as a series called The Tree of Life and Death. Then I
changed it to Metaphysical Landscapes
– now Sentient Landscapes. Never have
I messed around with a series title so much. Most are 16” X 20” and a few at
24” X 36”. After I had stuffed my daughter’s 4 stall garage ¾ full of my crated
artwork, I swore to keep my work small for the rest of my career, but the urge
to go big again is always there. When I ask myself why I do this series the
answer is not so clear. To me this seems my most “serious” current body of
work. When I recently needed to write something about the series I wrote, “This
series attempts to produce images that go beyond our perceptual abilities and
create visual experiences that make us think in new ways about our relationship
to the natural world.”  Hmm, that sounds
pretty good, but it doesn’t fully express what is happening in the work. Maybe
what is totally happening cannot be put into words, which would be a good thing
for a painting. When I think about art I love – the poetry of Tagore, Whitman
and Mary Oliver, the paintings of Paul Klee, the ephemeral constructions of
Andy Goldsworthy – the connection to the human condition and/or our
relationship to the universe is always given not in explicit terms but in ways
that have the capacity to change with each individual who interacts with it and
expand their consciousness. I do not know if this series will ever reach that
level, but I know that is why I do it.

 

The bottom line is that I make art because I have to. It is not an
option. I don’t really need the praise anymore (but I never turn it down). I am
confident that I will never reap any marked financial rewards from my work
(maybe my daughter will from all that stuff in the garage when my ashes are
mingling with the mud of some river). But, I will go on making it. With my
later years hopefully will come the common sense to keep it small.

 

Copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis

Essay of the Month: Eidolons I

I met a seer,

Passing the hues and objects of the world,

The fields of art and learning, pleasure,
sense,

To glean eidolons.

Lo, I or you,

Or woman, man, or state, known or unknown,

We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty
build,

But really build eidolons.

The
old, old urge,

Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer,
higher pinnacles,

From science and the modern still impell’d,

The old, old urge, eidolons.

Densities, growth, facades,

Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant
trees,

Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,

Eidolons everlasting.

All space, all time,

(The stars, the terrible perturbations of
the suns,

Swelling, collapsing, ending, serving their
longer, shorter use,)

Fill’d with eidolons only.

The above five verses are gleaned from Walt Whitman’s 1876 twenty-one verse poem Eidolons. Eidolon is a word of Greek
origin meaning phantom or apparition. Whitman lays out that all we express, all  we are, all we do, all that is — all is phantoms. A similar concept was a
dominant part of eastern thought, in India expressed as maya — simply put, all  we experience is illusion projected by our limited capacities.

As our capacities have expanded though science the evidence that what we experience as life is illusion has been verified
to the extent our limited capabilities allow. All of what we experience as our
solid existence is infinitely tiny bits of energy that appear to temporarily
manifest as forms our consciousness calls me, you, chair, computer, earth, etc.
— eidolons. This can be difficult to absorb. Human beings have found it much
easier to formulate religions, philosophies, and other designs to try to give
the apparitions more substance and solidity.

While this realization that nothing is as it seems may be unsettling it can also be reassuring. For one thing, it is a powerful
example of the relative nature of point-of-view. If we can accept that what we
experience is a very limited and partial view of reality it seems obvious that
we must be humble in our fragmentary understanding, be this in personal
relationships, political arenas, or cosmic awareness.

As creatures who will always be incomplete in perception and understanding (no advance in technology will ever give us
complete understanding) we must learn to use our minimal intelligence to make a
positive and possibly enjoyable experience (be it an illusion) of the short
years we have as individuals and a species in this shifting flux of energy.

We are hardwired with survival and propagation instincts that drive much of our behavior, albeit strangely
disguised in this stage of civilization and culture in which we live. We also
have the capacity to move beyond security and sex and delve into some of the
more refined behaviors of conscious existence – compassion, creativity,
contemplation. I believe that it is in this realm that we have the most to
offer in shaping and refining the eidolons in which we exist. While these
illusions seem to be largely shaped by the cause and effect of the energy
forces that ripple through our lives, I think we have the capacity to send
positive ripples into that energy. We are, after all, not only part of that energy;
we are no more or less than any other component. This is the great egalitarian
truth of existence.

But here is where the big obstacle lies. The eidolons are so convincing and the sweep of the illusion is so swift, and our
time is so short in the tumbling series of apparitions which we see as our
lives, that few see the opportunity to send out those ripples. Most people feel
that they cannot “change” things as they might like to. War, poverty, hunger, inequity
seem to be a permanent part of the eidolon and maybe they are. But to make an
impact on that ever changing energy field one does not need to eliminate hate
or greed, one needs to help a neighbor or teach a child or write a poem or sit
quietly. Everything we do impacts everything else – we have no choice. It is
only a matter of what kind of impact we wish to have.

I understand that this all seems to have a bit of a wishy-washy flavor, but I am coming to the conclusion that wishy-washy
is the nature of being. I think I have been taking existence far too seriously.
We creatures who have had the mixed blessing of consciousness have often made a
mess of it and created eidolons of pain for ourselves and others. It is time to
understand our limitations and drift in this energy field with harmony and
gratitude.

copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis

Essay of the Month: Walt Whitman & The 21st Century

Whitman #5, 8" X 8", acrylic pn paper, 2010, Mark W. McGinnis

Walt Whitman & the 21st Century

 

The 1850’s of Walt Whitman’s most
creative years and the early years of the 21st century hold some common
qualities: the business world was corrupt and in control; conflicts in
government led to a standstill; violent entertainment was rampant; pornography
commonplace; and the country was on an irreversible course to disaster. The
disaster of Whitman’s day was the Civil War – the disaster to come in our day
is Climate Change.

Whitman wanted to create a literature that
could change and reverse the march to chaos and the decline of culture. The
1855 edition of Leaves of Grass was his unabashed, bold, audacious, brilliant
attempt to create that literature. His poetry broke the rules of structure and
content. He cried out for an American culture that was vibrant, alive,
altruistic, individualistic, and passionate. His efforts were met with
acceptance by an intellectual elite, shock by a conservative few, and
indifference by the masses that he wished to influence.

When the war came in the 1860’s, in spite of
the incredible horrors of the war which he experienced to the maximum as a
volunteer nurse in army hospitals, he felt the war could be cleansing agent for
the culture. He believed the blood of the hundreds of thousands of young men
could wash the corruption from the American land. At the end of the war the assassination
of Lincoln, who he idolized, was to Whitman the ultimate sacrifice in this
effort.

As the corruption of the post-war years set
in with the Johnson and Grant administrations, Whitman realized his dreams of
completely renewed America was not to be realized. But his belief in the
evolution of human culture sustained him and he believed that the future would
bring American potential to fruition and future poets would sing this new
culture into being.

In the 21st century we are experiencing the
problems of the mid 19th century amplified by technology and a population of
unthinkable size. While the American culture is denying the magnitude of what
is approaching, it seems that chaos and widespread suffering on an
unprecedented level will be needed to create the drastically different level of
consciousness to change nearly every aspect of our way of life.

This drastically different way of living may
include the following as part of this change: population – a one child policy
will be needed globally; government – while a global government may be
impossible, a major consolidation of governments will take place as control of
resources will be necessary for survival; economically – the stratification of
wealth will no longer be an option. A leveling of resources among surviving
people will be reshaped according to subsistence needs and quality of life and
that quality will no longer be based on wealth but on basic physical and mental
comfort. The cult of the individual will end and natural selection will create
a society that is consciously symbiotic with all life forms on the planet.

While this speculation may seem optimistic
and utopian it is projected for a global population of a billion or less people
– one seventh of what we now have. One could also speculate a hellish, barbaric
future, or one that has no human population at all. Certainly all are possible,
but I do have some faith in the adaptable capacity of human beings. I believe
we can make a “leap” of consciousness over a period of centuries that can bring
a positive future. This reflects the same kind of hope that Whitman had in
human evolution after the Civil War.

To return to Whitman, will great creative
artists play a part in this transformation? Yes, I believe they will, but no
more than Whitman played a role in the transformations of his time. Artists
will be part of any culture that has human beings in it – they always have and
always will. And they will look to future – to what could be – what “should” be
– and as with Whitman, their voice will be heard quietly or sometimes not at
all, especially at the time they are sounding them. But in retrospect, cultures
look back on their great voices and learn from them, as we do with Whitman
today. The greatest change today is the question, “Will there be anyone to look
back?” This was always the future – eventually our species will come to end –
the question now, as always, is, “When?”

2011 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

Essay of the Month: Our National Parks

I was captivated by the northwest rainforest during my month last fall in North
Cascades National Park and rainforest, and after a long winter I needed to get
away from the studio and commune with nature.  After some deliberation I ended up in the Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. I was not disappointed with the rainforest or the Pacific beaches.

In particular the Hoh Rainforest was breathtaking–the great trees, mosses, ferns, birds, bugs–layers and layers of life, life that has taken millennium to evolve. To simply sit in it was joyful. To be able to also sketch and try to interpret a bit of that beauty with my skills was therapeutic. When I sit quietly in an environment that has been changing and building for so many centuries, I get a glimpse of what life should be, of how an organism can support not just itself but also form symbiotic relationships with so many other organisms around it. One of the great Sitka spruce in the forest might be 500 years old and all during its life host hundreds of other species, but death does not end its bounty. It continues to give nutrition and shelter for up to another 500 years as it decays. What lessons the rainforest has for us–what priceless gifts, not measured in board feet.

The problem came in getting in and out of the park. The interior section of the park is
huge with the vast majority devoted to wilderness. The coastal part of the park
is a very narrow strip intermittently running down the west coast of the peninsula.
Most of the land on the peninsula that is not in the park has been logged or is
being logged now. After the massive logging of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the
timber industry has had its boom and bust periods since and is now on an
upswing with Asian demand for lumber high. Areas of former rainforest have been
converted to tree plantations with the huge rainfall of the area stimulating
rapid growth. I expected this, but what I did not expect was the continuing
destruction of old-growth rainforest. When I first drove into a clear-cut area,
I almost drove off the road. I cannot adequately describe either the visual or
emotional experience. It was a scene of total devastation–enormous stumps,
smaller stumps torn from the ground and scattered, grotesque piles of branches
all a ghostly gray color. Other than a bit of brush, little was growing.  It was dead and the death was not a peaceful one. Rape, pillage, destruction, devastation all seem words that contain some of what I saw.  What took so many thousands of years to create was gone. It was not an uncommon sight. On my many drives to sketching sites I found area after area in this condition. I thought
that maybe the grayed color of the stumps I was seeing meant that clear-cutting
was not being practiced today. That idea was dispelled when I came upon a fresh
cut of old-growth—the same scene of devastation but the flesh of the trees
still fresh. Moving from the sublime of the preserved rainforest to the terror
of the decimated areas several times a day for a week weighed heavily on me
with sorrow for the wanton destruction humans can thoughtlessly apply to other
life.

At the end of my final day of sketching at Ruby Beach, I began the drive back to
my motel in Forks. I had passed a sign for a turn-off to see a “big
cedar” many times during the week. I decided that it would do me good to
see a great tree before my return to the studio. It was a long drive on a small
road through state land that was being “managed” by a timber company.
Mostly I saw plantation trees but there were still some gruesome clear-cuts.
The road became smaller the further I went but finally led me to the tree. I
thought it was dead at first but then saw that it still had some live growth on
a few upper limbs. It was big. As a matter of fact, it was the largest western
red cedar in the world. It towered above the logged tree plantation around it
like a dying sentinel. Someone had scrawled on the informational sign
“this tree would not be dying if the forest around it had not been removed.”  Maybe so. How many more trees as great or nearly as great have been removed for profit, taking with them an ecosystem so deep and rich most of us cannot begin to understand it.

 

What I take away from this story is that we must support our National Park system.
Support in every way possible–economic, political, support for any possible
expansions, and moral support for those who dedicate their lives and
professions to maintaining these natural wonders. The parks are our best hope
to preserve bits of what this world once was, to save the wisdom, information,
beauty, and lessons they contain that are beyond all monetary value, and to
guard these remnants from the greed of humanity. This certainly goes for
Olympic National Park and equally for every other nature-oriented national park
in our country. Someone once said that the National Park system is the best
idea the United States has had. I am in complete agreement.

Essay of the Month: Significance/Insignificance

from the Issa project, 8" X 8" 2008, Mark W. McGinnis

What is significant? What is not significant? As with beauty this seems to be a subjective area of inquiry, but subjective or not, it certainly deserves consideration as what we perceive as important in our lives shapes how we live our lives.

Certainly the universe(s?) is significant. It is what is and all that is. Human beings have long thought of themselves as significant and many have thought of themselves as of the utmost significance. While the concept of the earth as the center of the universe has been gone for some centuries, the concept of the individual human being as the center of the universe is still
very much alive. To some extent this is understandable. We know the universeonly though ourselves – it is the only way we can know it.

Therefore to place ourselves at the center and to put primary importance on ourselves is a natural
thing to do. But natural though it may be, with what limited understanding as
we now have of what the universe is, we can now see that we are less than an
atom in the overall picture of the cosmos. This seeming extreme insignificance
can lead to distress in many. How could something as significant to us as
ourselves be so apparently meaningless in the big picture? While so troubling
at first, this same understanding can be equally liberating. What we have been
placing such supreme importance in can now be placed in proper perspective. Our
every thought and action is not of great consequence. Our lives need not cause
us great worry and stress as the truth is that we are not that significant.
That may seem a rather harsh sentiment, but I feel it is actually a kind one.
If we can truly understand the meaning of our place in the universe we can be
at peace with it. We can let life flow rather trying to shape it into something
that we feel fits our great importance. We can enjoy life rather than
attempting to manipulate it.

An argument that can follow this reasoning is that if we are
so insignificant, then what does anything matter? Why should we strive, care,
create, love, and so on? Living with a realistic sense of humility does not
diminish need to live a good and fulfilling life. To enjoy life ourselves and to
attempt to make life more enjoyable and sustainable for all is a completely
rational way to exist. Just because we and our planet is tiny piece in the
cosmos does not mean we are inconsequential. Because we only have a very brief
time, in cosmic terms, does not mean that that time should not be used well.

While we may be insignificant in size and life-span, we are
made of the very same stuff as the rest of the universe. What we are has been
countless other aspects of the universe and will be countless more. We are part
of the unfolding of the universe – we are immortal and ever becoming. What we
do is not inconsequential in the cosmic sense either. It has been said that a
butterfly flapping its wings in San Francisco can impact the weather patterns
in China. While this seems absurd, in the reality of how matter interacts it is
a statement of fact. This comes back to the how little we can sense of what is
truly happening in our world and universe. Can the way I lead my life impact
the Andromeda galaxy? I don’t know, but I do know enough to say that it may be
possible.

Who is more significant: a politician who finally brings
universal health care to the United States, a poet who brings insight and
beauty into this world, or a housewife who helps an elderly neighbor? The
politician may have improved the health of tens of millions of people. The poet
may have brought joy and understanding to thousands. The housewife improved the
quality of life for her neighbor. For that neighbor the housewife was
undoubtedly the most significant. That kind of significance is not subjective –
it is real. There are endless ways of being significant in our lives the only criteria
are that we reach beyond ourselves to others and to the universe.

image and text copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis

Essay of the Month: Beauty

Mice on Sauk Mt., acrylic on panel, 36" X 24", 2010, Mark W. McGinnis

 

 
The old saying the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is, of course, quite
literally true. Each individual is going to gauge what they believe to be
beautiful by their own experiences, culture, education, environment, social
standing, mental capacities, and the subtle or not so subtle individual qualities
of their eyes or other senses with which they are experiencing the beauty.

The term aesthetics often comes into play to when discussing the qualities of
beauty and volume after volume has been written on the subject from the
ancients onward. Among the many and varied definitions of an aesthetic
experience my favorite is that which transports the individual from their
everyday experience of life into the world of art, object, or experience. This
definition fits well with what most consider a traditional sense of beauty.
Standing before a Rembrandt painting I can easily become completely absorbed
into the world of the painting, to the point where I may temporarily forget to
breathe. The same may happen for me in a transcendent moment with nature, be it
a single blossom, a panoramic view, or an image of a distant galaxy. These
aesthetic experiences will and must vary with each individual due to reasons
given above. In popular culture most aesthetic experiences have taken the form
of entertainment. Television, movies, computer games, and seemingly countless
and ever-evolving Internet activities play the role of taking the individual
from their immediate experience of life and transporting them into world of the
entertainment. There are instances in all these forms of entertainment that
would fit within many people’s sense of traditional beauty, but there are also
many that would not. The violence and brutality that is found in much popular
media is not a contemporary phenomenon, it has been found in cultures as far
back as we have documentation. Its rise of popularity in a time when some hope
that human beings are becoming more “humane” seems a contradiction, but a more
objective look at the 20th and early 21st centuries seems to refute the assumption of an increase in compassion or empathy for others

The visual arts have often been an aesthetic experience for primarily a privileged
class. The primary exception to his has been the use of visual art by religions
that have most skillfully used art to create the many forms of
“other-worldliness” in associations with the belief systems they evolved. There
have also been many “primitive” cultures that have used art to enhance their
everyday lives rather than to transport one to another world. Utilitarian
objects were designed and decorated to not only fulfill their function but also
to tie the user to their environments and beliefs. This has carried through to
some extent in the craft world of contemporary life and in high craft with
amazing artistry, but for the common person our everyday environment seems
focused on function, comfort and status rather than any true aesthetic
connection partially due to the lack of emphasis on artistry and craftsmanship
in all areas of our lives.

The environmental movement is a bright point when discussing beauty in our times.
They have brought many people back to a deep appreciation of the beauty of our
natural world and true aesthetic experience. While this is certainly not the
only reason to preserve what is left of the incredible beauty of this world, it
is a very important one, as this beauty is diminished, we are truly diminished
in a proportionate degree.

copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis

Essay of the Month: Animals

Issa #100, "8x8", 2007, Mark W. McGinnis

The development of consciousness in human beings have left most with what
seems to an incurable superiority complex in regard to the other creatures on
this planet. Because we have the capacity to hold and develop thought in our
minds, contemplate the past and future, and create tools which seem to be more
sophisticated than those of other creatures, we happily put the other beings in
an inferior to position to ourselves. This is one of the most glaring examples
of the arrogance of our species.

What makes us believe that we understand the consciousness level of other creatures?
The only way we can measure the level of other creatures is from our own level
of consciousness. We can study them physically and determine nervous systems
and brain capacities and development, but does that truly give us a sense of what
their conscious capacity is? I think not, not if we allow that consciousness may
take many forms of which we have no way to perceive or understand with our
capabilities. This seems true not only with mammals but with but with all
beings and may even extend to non-living matter. How all matter interacts in
our universe is symphony of mysteries of which we are just being to gain some
understanding and that understanding can only be gained from the limited
perception and consciousness that we possess as human beings.