Profile Theatre Welcome to Arroyo's at Imago Theatre Portland Oregon

Artists on the snooze of reason

What's the nation's current mess mean? We asked a few literary and artistic experts. You might be surprised.


THE PAST FEW DAYS HAVE BEEN FILLED WITH NEWS BOTH ANTICIPATED AND SHOCKING, news that’s had the airwaves, opinion columns, and social-media sites chattering with outrage and occasional glee. As the man who could saunter down Fifth Avenue with a smoking gun in his hand has been set free to frolic once again in the Florida sun, the whole disaster’s kept our political commentators and cultural prognosticators hopping, trying to figure out everything from the strategy to the morality to the long-range meaning of it all. Is the sky falling? Could the small folkloric chicken have been right?

To get a fresh perspective on the whole nasty business, we asked a few arts observers whose insights we admire to comment on the proceedings. Our French correspondent, Honoré Daumier, responded with an illustration of the actual trial proceedings, in which the legal team made its impassioned argument while the judges/jurors listened with keen attention, eager to sift through every piece of evidence in order to arrive at an honest and well-reasoned verdict. In M. Daumier’s penstrokes you can see their ardor and determination in the alert postures and earnest facial expressions they present for the world to see. Truly, a model of the judicial system at work!

Honoré Daumier, “- Yes, they would plunder this orphan, whom I cannot necessarily describe as being young, since he is fifty-seven years old, but it is no less an orphan… yet ….. I am, reassured knowing that justice always keeps an open eye on all guilty manoeuvers….,” plate 11 from “Les Gens De Justice,” 1845, lithograph in black on white wove paper, John H. Wrenn Memorial Collection, Chicago Istitute of Art

We turned then to that masterful Russian storyteller Fyodor Dostoevsky, who told us that January’s rupture of the peace at the Capitol and the provocations leading up to it reminded him of a passage from his own novel of cultural and political malfeasance, Demons, also known as The Devils or The Dispossessed: “You cannot imagine what sorrow and anger seize one’s whole soul when a great idea, which one has long and piously revered, is picked up by some bunglers and dragged into the street, to more fools like themselves, and one suddenly meets it in the flea market, unrecognizable, dirty, askew, absurdly presented, without proportion, without harmony, a toy for stupid children.”

Next we turned to Abraham Lincoln – known primarily as a political leader but also one of the nation’s great literary voices – to ask him what he thought of the extraordinary performance before, during, and after these proceedings of the Honorable Senator from Tennessee. Mr. Lincoln responded that after all these years he really couldn’t recall whether he’d actually made the comment so often attributed to him, but he thought it fit the moment, anyway: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Just then Mr. Dostoevsky came back on the line to amplify on his previous comments, from the same source, addressing himself to the general comportment of those senators in the successful minority: “One must be a great man indeed to be able to hold out against common sense. Or else a fool.”

Mr. Dostoevsky’s interjection came just as we were asking the Sage of the Mississippi, Mr. Samuel Clemens, for his opinion on the trustworthiness of the very senators who were in thrall to the defendant to set aside their personal agendas and render a just and reasoned verdict. Between puffs on a fine Cuban cigar he referred us to the third volume of his Autobiography of Mark Twain: “I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.”

What, then, of the role of patriotism in this whole sordid affair, the making great of which was prominently on the lips of January 6’s rioting mob? For a response we turned to the honorable gentleman from England, the noted poet, essayist and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson. “(A) man may have the external appearance of a patriot,” he told us, “without the constituent qualities; as false coins have often lustre, though they want weight. A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it.”

Finally we turned to our good Spanish friend, the painter and printmaker Francisco Goya, for his opinion of the underlying causes of the whole unsavory situation. Like M. Daumier, he responded with an illustration, accompanying it with a single comment. “The sleep of reason,” he declared drily, “produces monsters.”

Francisco Goya, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (No. 43), “Los Capricos,” 1799, etching with aquatint and other intaglio media, 7.44 x 5.87 inches, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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