I’ve always liked to play games. Board games, card games, dominoes, you name it. Even today, I’m much more likely to play Monopoly or Risk online than any of the current crop of video games.
One of my favorites from my teenage years was one called Masterpiece. Do you remember it? It was an art auction game with a variety of postcard-sized reproductions assigned different values—from forgery to $1,000,000—at the beginning of play. I don’t remember much about how the actual game was played or any strategy associated with it, but I do remember that the paintings used were actual masterpieces belonging to the Art Institute of Chicago.
So by the time I finally got to Chicago for the first time to visit a college friend who had moved there, I was keen to go to the Art Institute. Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso, plus Grant Wood and Edward Hopper. But, strange as it may be, the painting that fascinated me when I got to the museum was not one from the game.
It was Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Back then, security was more lax, and one could practically put one’s nose on the canvas. I remember standing close to the painting and looking at the dots used in the pointillist technique, so close that I couldn’t possibly see the images being conveyed. And then I would step back to try to determine when the figures, the trees, and the shadows would come into focus. Once they did, I would move further away to get the full perspective. And then the painting would draw me back to it, and I would get closer and watch the dots emerge while the painting itself became obscured.
Life can be like that, I think, going in and out of focus depending on which dots are the subject of our concentration. Sometimes it’s work, other times it’s family, or it can be some project or goal to which we’re committed. We even have clichés for this condition—one can’t see the forest for the trees or past the end of one’s nose, for example.
When it comes to politics in America, we see this happening, too. Both major parties have a history of being somewhat near sighted. For most of my life, they have seemed most frequently to stand in front of the painting far enough away that they can see the lady with the black umbrella, but not with enough perspective to see the sailboat on the river.
After all, there are six other umbrellas in the painting and about that many other boats. Without perspective, we don’t see any of that. It’s tempting to focus on that figure, especially since she’s the largest one in the painting with her big bustle. But moving a bit further back, we see that’s she only one of several dozen figures, large and small, that populate the canvas. Her position on the far right further demonstrates that she isn’t the central character in this tableau.
Of course, there are several other larger figures that we can observe so closely that we lose our perspective. There’s the lady with the reddish umbrella in the center of the scene, for one, and the fellow lounging on the grass on the left side of the painting. If we look too closely at them, everything else starts to fade out.
As with La Grande Jatte, there’s a whole host of characters in our political world that warrant examination—this president and those who seek to replace him, the elected and appointed officials of both parties, the commentators and pundits, and everyone else who shows up with an agenda. We need to zoom in to see what these folks are made of, especially the ones we think we already know. They all need to be reviewed in the light of the current environment and how they are either driving it or responding to it.
It’s like getting close to the painting to observe Seurat’s technique. Once we’ve seen the dots, we must step back to see the point.