Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Great Blueness and Other Predicaments

"Long ago there were no colors in the world at all.
Almost everything was grey, and what was not grey was black or white.
It was a time that was called The Great Greyness."
The Great Blueness and Other Predicaments is a story by Arnold Lobel about a wizard who introduces color into the world, and the effect on his neighbors. Like much of Lobel's work, the story is both philosophically suggestive and captivating.
I have used this story to talk about the mysteries of color with students from kindergarten to eighth grade. It can be used in a classroom philosophy session or at home with your own child. Some of the questions raised by Lobel's story that make for good discussion prompts include:
Do you think that there was a time when there was no color in the world?
How did color come to be?
If something is red, can it also be blue? Can it be pink? Maroon?
Is the color green made up of blue and yellow? If so, is green only blue and yellow? Or is it something else in itself?
Does color make you feel a certain way? How? Why do you think color can do that?
Are things different colors in different light? At night? Think about what colors the following things are during the day and at night:
A tulip
The rug in your room
Your hair
The blanket on your bed
A tree
Does the color of things change? Or is it the way we see that changes?
Is color in the things that we see? Or is it in us?
Do we all see the same colors the same way? For example, does the color red look the same to everyone? How would we know?
Is color real? What would make you think color is real, or not?
Would the world be different if it were made up of different colors?
Draw a world with colors unlike the ones in our world.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Just Delicate Needles

It's so delicate, the light.
And there's so little of it. The dark
is huge.
Just delicate needles, the light,
in an endless night.
And it has such a long way to go
through such desolate space.
So let's be gentle with it.
Cherish it.
So it will come again in the morning.
We hope.

-- Rolf Jacobsen
Translated from the Norwegian by Robert Hedin

December Birthdays

December 4 Arthur Prior (New Zealand, born 1914)

December 7 Gabriel Marcel (French, born 1889), Noam Chomsky (American, born 1928), and Lady Anne Conway (British, born 1631)

December 9 Ernest Gellner (Czech, born 1925)

December 11 Michael Oakeshott (British, born 1901)

December 12 Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz (Polish, born 1890)

December 16 George Santayana (Spanish, born 1863)

December 20 Suzanne Langer (American, born 1895)

December 21 Peter Kropotkin (Russian, born 1842)

December 30 Charlie Dunbar Broad (British, born 1887)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part V

This will be the final post in this series.
What is music?
Is there some quality that anything considered music must have?
Can any sound count as music?
Does all music express emotion?
Is the emotion that music expresses in the music itself? In the composer? In us, the listeners?
What makes music pleasurable to listen to?
Why do we listen to sad music?
This week I invited Lynette Westendorf, a local pianist and composer, to visit our philosophy sessions to perform John Cage's 4'33" and to join the conversation with the students and me about the nature of music. We met in the school band room, and we began by asking the students to consider the above questions, which I wrote on the board, as they listened to Cage's piece. Lynette talked a little about Cage and his work, and then sat at the piano to perform the piece.
It was interesting to watch the students try to figure out what was going on as Lynette raised and lowered the piano lid at various intervals to mark the beginnings and ends of the movements. After 4 minutes and 33 seconds, she stood and bowed. In both classes in which we did this, the twenty plus students had all been incredibly respectful and quiet, and as she bowed they applauded.
First, I asked the students what they were thinking while Lynette was performing the piece. They had various answers -- "I thought she was preparing for a really long time to start playing." "I thought that she was doing some kind of spiritual preparation before starting." "I thought that maybe she was having an anxiety attack." -- but all said that they had realized eventually that the point was that she would not play anything. I told the students that they were a far better and more accepting audience than the audience that first witnessed the performance of this piece in Woodstock, New York, in 1952, who whispered, walked out, and burst into an infuriated uproar at the end.
I told the students that John Cage considered this piece to be a "listening experience." What did they hear? They heard, they said, "the shuffling of feet," "the sound of the piano lid," "the movement of bodies in chairs," and "the humming of the room."
Does the piece count as music?
The students were pretty divided in their views about that. A couple of students argued that it was music because the movements were timed and there was a lot of sound to which to listen.
One student said, "Yes, the piece is music because it is the sound of the world."
Other students asserted that just because there are sounds doesn't mean something is music.
One student took a book and dropped it on the floor, and asked, "Is this music?"
"Well," said another student, "it could be. It depends on whether it is recognized as music."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I think music exists when it is acknowledged as music. Anything can become music if it is understood by someone to be music."
Other students claimed that to be music, there must be rhythm and it must be intentional. Does music have to be intentional? Lynette noted that Cage's view was that it was not necessary for music to be intentional. Part of what he was trying to demonstrate with 4'33" is that music is already present in the world in the form of sounds that we often do not hear, like rain falling or a room humming.
We talked about how of all the arts, music was probably the form most central to human experience. One student pointed out that for most people, not a day goes by that we do not hear music in some form. And yet, we agreed, it is completely mysterious. Why do people like some forms of music and not others? Why does it make us feel so strongly? Can any sound be music? What really defines this art form about which many of us feel so passionately?