The All-Seeing “I”
The Western world for centuries has focused more and more on the individual. For example, in the 1700s when people sat down to a meal in America everyone ate out of common platters and bowls. There was no such thing as an individual place setting. That would have been considered bizarre and unsociable. And it is only in the last generation that every American family member has acquired their own bedroom. The ancient Romans didn’t even give personal names to their women (The Julius family, for instance, would call all of their daughters Julia; The Antonius family would call all of their daughters Antonia).
Generally speaking, the shift towards a focus on the individual instead of a larger social group began around the time of the European Renaissance. This becomes immediately evident in art, with the emergence of artistic perspective. Prior to the Renaissance, European art looked something like this:
This jumbling of space isn’t seen again until the surrealists and Cubists re-invent it in the early 20th century, and for the same reasons. We look at art like this today and think it appears childish, unsophisticated. But that’s because children, and surrealists, and the medieval folk, weren’t focused on the ego of the individual. They were/are interested in a broader view, all space and time occurring together, not one thing closer than another, not one angle of sight or point of view dominating. For them, the real world could not exist inside one person’s head only.
Once the Renaissance was in full swing and the specific perspective of a single viewer, an individual, became more important, art changed. And along with it the philosophy of the self developed. We now think that what we, as discrete individuals, perceive is the “real” world and what “really” happens in it. The painting below, in Renaissance style, seems “normal” to us whereas the medieval one appears distorted and dreamlike.
This is only an example of how the dominance of the ego consciousness has changed us and our world.
A View From Above
It is too easy to say that an event is an event, and that any one present would see it in the same manner – Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore
This 16th century painting by Joachim Bueckelaer, The Well-Stocked Kitchen, gives astonishing and appetizing details on fruits and vegetables and meat and fowls and pots and pans. The painting is very realistic and vivid. The title would have you thinking that the idea of plentiful food was the point of the painting. Not so.
Way in the background are several tiny figures. Jesus Christ and Mary and Martha are among them, depicting a scene in the New Testament (Luke 10:38-42) where Martha complains about having to cook all the time while Mary gets to sit around and listen to Jesus preach. Jesus tells Martha to quit nagging and let Mary to listen to the gospel since that’s more important than worrying about food.
The central message of the painting is pushed to the background and what’s more, it lacks the luster and color of the food in the foreground. The painting has a moral: don’t let the things of this world, the glitter and the glamour and the good living, get in the way of more important things like your spiritual health. And of course that’s just a replay of the gospel scene itself, and it works as a sort of “gotcha!” since any viewer would naturally be attracted to the beautiful foreground scene (it even makes me hungry!).
Funny thing is, today most people see this painting as an ode to food on a canvas. This work of art appears in webpages related to kitchens, food, cuisine, and so on. The only Martha on those sites is probably Martha Stewart.
How much is hidden from us as we walk through life with our precise, spot-light consciousness that does not stray from the flamboyant and obvious? Or doesn’t appeal to “our” point of view?