Thursday, September 05, 2013

Impressionism and the meaning of life

Today I went to the Monet exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. It was outstanding. I love the style of impressionism. It is clever that a painting that consists of a number of daubs or strokes of paint can look like a bit of a mess close up, but at a distance a wonderful picture emerges. I did this a few times, got as close as I could and then stepped back to about 8 feet and took in the wonder. I demonstrated this to my 10 year old son, who appeared to enjoy the day.

In one sense, impressionism merely demonstrates to us what reality is like. Close up, material reality is made up of sub-atomic particles, which when observed from a distance look like solid matter. Maybe they are little loops like some theories suggest. We perceive colour by light of a particular wavelength hitting our eyes and being interpreted by our brains. Colours arise from absorption (pigments) or diffraction (think some insect wings). 

None of this is to deny the reality of what we see but points towards the idea of emergence. The Monet painting is nothing less than the individual daubs of paint, but neither is it anything less than the scene portrayed.

Could we also apply the idea of the impressionist painting to life? Is there a canvas on which events are painted, and from a distance make a picture? One might argue that a materialist view does such a thing, a painting that paints itself, but then one might ask how the painting is to be interpreted if we are merely daubs of paint like everything else? Stuart Kaufmann in Reinventing the Sacred might argue that we emerge from the daubs as something more, the way in which the universe comes to know itself.

The theist is at an advantage in the sense that there is a divine painter, and the assurance that although at the level of details things might appear confused, there is a story to be seen at the right distance.

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