The Blog of John Walford, British-born, but long resident in The United States. I am an art historian, currently studying satire in Netherlandish art, an amateur photographer, and occasional writer, who writes here about art, photography, and the human condition--some of it ekphratic poetry, responding to works of art. This is to be a site for words and images, interacting on one another, as vehicles of human expression.

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Friday, July 1, 2011

The Alchemist's Workshop, VII, (or "The Pursuit of Knowledge"), 2008

Prudence and the Internet: An Exchange of Ideas

I have been discussing with a bright, but younger friend, who studies Communications, the tricky issue of how to confront the pervasive, negative aspects of contemporary media, such as the easy and pervasive access to pornography, exposure of our fertile, but corruptible imaginations to every imaginable form of violence, and/or the temptation to spend hours alone at home, on social networking sites, as opposed actually being sociable. Thus, for example, we risk ending up to having a legion on-line virtual “friends,” but actually experiencing the social isolation of having live access to few, real, practical, helpful friends. To these examples we can all add other, analogous ills, that every parent of teenagers – even of yet younger children -- know all too well, to say nothing of what can equally come between a husband and wife.

In exchanges with my young friend, I had referred to the wise counsel of Martin Luther in face of analogous social ills of his time – such as the idolatrous and misleading power of art as used in the church of his day – who sagely cautioned that ‘abuse of a practice is not grounds to reject the practice per se, as otherwise one must first go out and destroy one’s own body.’ I have pondered the wisdom of Martin Luther’s counsel for years and years, and perceive it’s perennial wisdom, in face of whatever are the social ills that confront any of us, in our own time and place. His point is that all human culture – wherever found, whenever made, is shot through with intertwined, and virtually inseparable elements of good and evil. This is because all human culture proceeds from the human heart, which itself, as the generative force working on the potential of the created order, leaves its mark of intertwined good and evil in whatever it touches. The child carries the genes of the parents, the created order carries the marks of its Maker, and all the techne that humans devise is shot through with our own DNA, itself a mix of brilliant, good, not-so-good, and evil energies, powers, and devising.

I have therefore concluded, from Luther’s insight, that the challenge for those of us who seek to nurture what is good and curtail was is bad - to state it without nuance - is not to seek to eliminate the bad, and flee from it, because, firstly, where is there to go, where the corruption of the human mind, as well as its brilliant ingenium, has not gone before us, or, at very least, goes with us. Secondly, what then is left to us to embrace and enjoy, since all good is nevertheless shot through with traces of a downside, that is less desirable, to state it softly? Will we cut ourselves, and our children, off from the very technology and media that our own minds have devised, and which shimmer with potential – albeit, and as always, for good and evil alike? My conclusion is than we not isolate our children, or ourselves, from the technology and media of our day, but rather teach prudence in their use, and learn to manage ourselves, as users, rather than censor the technology, as vehicles and providers.

My thoughtful friend, in reaction to some of the above, responds, and I quote, “I am dissatisfied with responding to a wide-spread social problem (such as the effects of television and the Internet on literacy) with merely saying "use prudence! Become a master of the tool, do not be mastered by it yourself," when the reality of the situation is dire indeed. I feel like it's akin to moving to the suburbs as a method for dealing with inner-city crime. Sure it fixes YOUR problem, but what about the rest of the people who aren’t blessed with the resources (intellectual, social, monetary or otherwise).”

In turn, I respond as follows: “Yes, that is a fair critique, yet the response of "use prudence" should be taken also in a wider sense, "TEACH PRUDENCE."

Expanding on this idea, I seek to support my point-of view, and suggested strategy, with another theological perspective: The bible teaches that it is not what enters a person that corrupts them, but rather that "out of the heart of mankind proceeds all the issues of life." Now, think about it. If we were to face all the evils of society with a big stick, beating down every one until none was left standing, we would discover that we were striking Medusa, since for every head we cut off, six more would appear. Why? Because there is no end to what proceeds from the heart of humanity, and humans will always devise yet further perversity - until redeemed.

Thus, to raise children in the wisdom of the Lord, to teach discernment, to teach prudence, is to influence people’s attitudes and behaviors for good, which – to a degree- is an attainable goal, whereas overcoming the evils of society is beyond human reach. But as more people choose the good and refuse the evil, less people will devise evil, and more people will learn to live as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves, exercising discernment, and prudence, in their cultural dealings.

I acknowledge that there is certainly a place for lobbying for political action to abolish slavery, indeed injustices of all and any kind. That, equally, there is a place for the occasional Jeremiad about the evils of the Internet, there is for each Jeremiad the need for ten thousand voices, in ten thousand different places, teaching by example and instruction, however issued, on how best to handle the available resources with prudence and wisdom - whether the resource in question is oil, air, water, and/or any natural resources imaginable, be they brain cells, adept fingers, sperm, eyes, and those extensions of ourselves, that include email, texting, twitter, fritter, flickr, YouTube, blogging, Google +, Facebook, TV, movies, CDs, DVDs, mp3s, digital image manipulation, animation, Skype, etc. etc.

It always, and has always, come down to the heart, the spirit, the mind and the will of those who devise, and those who use, techne - ingenium - the devising of humankind - and always has been, ever since Cain used a club to kill his brother, when he could have used that same club to fend of a ravenous bear. Are you going to blame the club - or the one who wields it? I never heard a prophet or Christ, or an apostle preach against anything that humanity devised - but rather they preached against the usage to which humanity put such tools. Remember, we are created in the image of God, the prime deviser, and hence our capacity to devise. But the wrong is in our hearts, out of which proceeds all the issues of life. Scripture makes that very clear. Hence the prime target is not the devise, but the operations of the human heart. Hence the need, above all, to teach wisdom and prudence, as I indeed here strive to do. As a footnote - short of the Internet, I would not have been continuing this exchange of ideas, with my young friend, or at least it would have had to be deferred until we next saw one another. Whereas now, I have heard his critique of what he perceives as the apparent cop out of teaching prudence, and he can be thinking about his response, so that when we next see each other, we can proceed yet further. Besides, by writing my response to him, via Facebook, this text could be copied and pasted, as now it has been, and published for all who are curious to consider. Thereby a discussion between the two of us, can even reach a wider group, and in turn receive their consideration and subsequent input. Thus, I believe the Internet is an ideal forum for such exchanges of thought - and it costs far less, in time, effort, and money, that for all interested parties to fly or drive to a conference center, to thrash it out in a rented hall!

John Walford, Professor Emeritus of Art History, Wheaton College, Illinois, July 1, 2011

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John Walford

John Walford
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I am a British-born, art historian, teaching in the USA; I studied law, in England,1964-68; worked part-time in the art world, 1968-69; then studied art history at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 1969-76; completed my Ph.D. diss. at the University of Cambridge, 1981; moved to the States in 1981, and have since written, or co-authored, other books. I am currently studying satire in Netherlandish art. My wife, Maria, was born in Milan, Italy, where she worked as an interpreter, in business; she spent seven years in Switzerland, at the University of Lausanne, 1963-70. She came to Amsterdam in 1971, and we soon married. She is a wife, mother, literary critic, of Italian (and French) literature, and completed her Ph. D. diss. in 2002, at the University of Chicago, on Cesare Pavese and His Critics. We have three married children, and eight grandchildren, all of whom we excessively adore! I welcome dialog about art, photography, human behavior, beliefs, and motivation from all comers, regardless of race, color, gender, orientation, values, or beliefs. This is to be a site for words and images, as vehicles of human expression, around topics of mutual interest.

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