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In the Details: The Discovery of Classical Beauty

“The message of the flower is the flower. Beauty was not planted in the world by God, but discovered there by people…. Most of the time our lives are organize by our everyday concerns, but every now and then we find ourselves jolted out of our complacency in the presence of something vastly more important than our immediate desires, something not of this world.” — Roger Scuton

It’s not often that one can witness another human being discovering “Beauty.” I’ve been fortunate to observe it once in Amsterdam. I was there with one of my oldest friends along with a few other reprobates in from the States. We were not exactly “on a mission from God.” No. It was the mid-1990s and we were there as judges in the annual High Times Magazine’s Cannabis Cup. The Cannabis Cup is, to make a long story very short, the Oscars of Weed.

As a “judge” one had the overwhelming task of sampling about 70 different strains of hand-crafted, artisinal, local, and (more or less) organic marijuana and hashish to determine which strain said in the most assertive way, “May the baby Jesus open your mind and shut your mouth.” How were we to do this? The Cannabis Cup officials didn’t say. They just issued us our credentials on the top floor of the headquarters of the Communist Party Headquarters of Amsterdam, handed us a souvenir notebook and pen and said, “Good luck.”

The cannabis competition was, to say the least, challenging. Even in the mid-1990s customized cannabis cultivation in the hydroponic grow tanks of Amsterdam produced an herb which took only two or three hits to erase your afternoon. Getting through all 70 would be like climbing the Everest of Chronic without oxygen. One particular strain we sampled was so potent I found myself superglued to the couch in the hotel suite watching my friend paste together one cigarette paper after another until he was in a position to actually roll, among many other bizarre objects, an entire orange (And I don’t mean tangerine). Clearly we needed a break from our duties as judges.

The next morning we declared a mini-rehab day free from the testing of various buds, hash blocks, and Thai sticks. Instead we took off for the Rembrandt and Friends Clubhouse AKA the Rijksmuseum.

For a viper my friend is an extremely practical kind of man. He likes bull markets, fashion models, fast cars, and sleek yachts in the Bahamas. He is also not the sort to take to classical art in any kind of structured way.You won’t catch him in a bow tie and pince-nez evaluating The Night Watch as art, but wondering instead why somebody had to saw off a few feet of it. But on this day our need to clear our heads was the primary goal so we found ourselves strolling down the main avenue at the museum with galleries containing Dutch Masters opening on both sides. Suddenly I noticed that my friend wasn’t keeping up. Turning back I found him dumbstruck in front of one of the many still lifes in the museum’s holdings. He was standing so close he risked tipping forward into the canvas.The guards were looking a bit tense.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve never really understood why everybody was so fascinated by art but this painting just gets to me. Look at it. Look at the detail that the artist makes by just a few touches of color here and there. When you get right up to it you can see the brushwork, but even a couple of feet away and it all just flows together. Look at that, that glass. You not only see the glass and the water in the glass, you see the reflection of the window behind the painter in the glass. And then you see th e reflection of that reflection in the water painted in the glass. And then you see that the reflection in the water is painted with just the right degree of refraction. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. Look. Look at that detail. How does anybody do that?”

Fast forward give or take twenty years.

I’m talking to my old friend on the phone and somehow got around to the ancient trip to Amsterdam and the Cannabis Cup. There were plenty of things that we managed to remember from that excursion but my friend’s favorite memory was of the obscure painting whose details opened up the world of art to his understanding. “Do you remember that painting? Do you remember the details?”

The effect of the painting was as if a new star flashed into existence inside his soul. And the power of the painting was in its beauty which was made from that singular quality that lead many to say, “God is in the details.”

Here’s another example from the same period. Is the hand of God glimpsed in these details of an artifact made by the hand of man? You tell me:

All details of this painting.

Portrait of a Young Woman, 1632, Nicolaes Eliasz. Pickenoy. Dutch. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 54.PB.3.

Portrait of a Young Woman, 1632, Nicolaes Eliasz.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jaynie October 24, 2017, 4:21 PM

    Marvelous story! And exquisite artwork, wow! Thank you.
    Eager to watch that video about beauty when I get the chance.

  • Harry October 24, 2017, 4:51 PM

    At 8:35 of the video, a glass of water on a shelf is an oak tree. Today a man is a woman. A woman is a man. Either can be whatever they say they are. They can be either gender, both genders, something inbetween genders, neither gender, or a duck-billed platypus. Is there a connection?

  • Cloudesley Shovell October 24, 2017, 4:56 PM

    I discovered Roger Scruton’s “Beauty” a few years ago. I’ve encouraged a few friends to watch it, with limited success. One good friend finally watched it about 6 or 8 months after I sent him the link. He had the reaction I expected, and thanked me profusely. It’s a wonderful 60 minutes.

  • indyjonesouthere October 24, 2017, 6:02 PM

    The arts/architecture are designed to be ugly, simply as part of the long walk through the institutions. Beauty is not part of that design. If you want beauty quit allowing the left access to taxpayer money to continue the trend of granting funds to the ugliest projects created by the ugliest “artists”. Europe has always supported artists and will get ugly works to match their ugly socialism. The left flourishes by converting taxpayer money into leftist projects…end the ugly spiral by keeping them off the dole.

  • Casey Klahn October 24, 2017, 7:21 PM

    I agree with Scruton, but then you munged it. You got the glove in the dirt, top down-then your mitt is turned backwards. The ball pops you in the eye!

    We need to talk, Gerard. I’ll buy the first rounds…

  • MMinLamesa October 25, 2017, 1:42 AM

    It is really all about detail.

    My gal comes into my studio as I’m finishing a couple pieces of glass for a leaded window I’m executing. She bemoans how long it’s taking me because I have so many small pieces with numerous treatments that just take time. She says in the future I should have larger pieces like these to cut my labor.

    She doesn’t get it.

  • Mike G. October 25, 2017, 5:36 AM

    Ahhh Amsterdam, good times and bad. Was there for a couple of days in late 1978. Got to try some really good Hashhish.

    Then later, got ripped off trying to buy some from a guy on the street. ( Ever tried to smoke pressed Tea leaves? ) Me and my buddy found the guy who ripped off us off and “asked” for our money back. The guy said he didn’t have it. So we told him to take us to where we could get it back or he was gonna take a leap into the canal.

    He took us to a row house and we started up the stairs. By the time we got to the landing at the top, we were surrounded by at least a half a dozen other guys, one of whom picked my pocket for my wallet. They told me and my buddy we should git while the gittin’ was good, but I refused until they gave me my wallet back. It had my ID and pass in it and I wasn’t leaving without it. It was touch and go whether we were gonna get out of there with our skins.

    The guys who ripped us off were Turks, so I reckon we were pretty lucky to have gotten out of there with our pride diminished. But we did get our wallets back.

  • Dr. Mabuse October 25, 2017, 6:00 AM

    For some reason, I didn’t really like the movie “Tim’s Vermeer”. On the one hand, it was fun to see a scientific experiment unfold. But on the other, it seemed to treat art as a mere mechanical process. I don’t believe Vermeer used some mirror trick to basically paint a photo of what was in front of him. I think some artists have the gift to see every detail and then paint them. Perhaps Vermeer’s mind was able to magnify everything so he could get the details right. I don’t know how he did it, but he did.

  • pbird October 25, 2017, 9:23 AM

    It takes time and practice and good observation, but its very doable. Its a skill like any other.

  • Bill Jones October 25, 2017, 9:53 AM

    It is ,of course, the hand of man, specifically White man. No one else does this, certainly not the Bantu.

  • Suburbanbanshee October 25, 2017, 1:31 PM

    Are you freaking nuts, Bill Jones? Have you never gone to a Chinese or Japanese art gallery? Have you never seen the finer sort of African metalwork? Have you never seen tiny little pieces of Incan gold? Even the Cro-Magnon people exulted in making tiny little pieces of art, because fine detail demonstrates skill and is just plain fun to play with.

    Don’t display your ignorance of art and your lack of cosmopolitan knowledge.

  • Butch October 25, 2017, 1:38 PM

    Who is the artist who created the first painting?

  • Howard Nelson October 25, 2017, 6:55 PM

    It is God, who paints with tears and laughter, and love, forever and after.

  • Casey Klahn October 25, 2017, 10:08 PM

    It wasn’t the stuff in the Dutch paintings so much as the illumination in a clear and coherent way. But even rembrandt couldn’t stay rembrandt, you know. He got looser as he matured. Your opinion don’t come into it, either. He was painting for himself by then: he actualized his art.

    Duchamp is twice the philosopher of Scruton. I like Scruton, and agree with much, but I can drive holes through a lot of his details. FFS, he understands dissonance in a musical piece, but demands symmetry in paintings. Bleeding ignorance, in my estimate. Duchamp’s urinal is as rigorous as it is shocking, ain’t it? I mean, since then, nothing shocks us, and the attempts are cringe-worthy. I get that. Shoddy bed, piss on X, pile of bricks. But Duchamp had the single-minded integrity to get out of art after he threw his bombs, din’t he? He played chess the rest of his life, you see.

    Scruton’s arguments are hollow drums when he talks about Modern art. It’s like watching a brake failed car ricochet down Lombardy, hitting every plant and abutment on the way. He gets to the bottom, but it’s ugly. Modern art is beautiful, full of hope and promise. Some of it sucks, but so did some of Baroque art. Doesn’t sink the whole.

    Beauty is one element of art’s purpose, but not a duty. Duty don’t enter into it (said with Michael Caine accent, if you haven’t already figured that out). ‘F Roger had his way, there’d be nothing new, or creative, in the arts. Just push the button on the cassette deck if you want some music, right?

  • Ed Brown October 25, 2017, 11:44 PM

    Casey @ 10:08…
    “…he actualized his art.” WTF does that mean?
    After reading the rest of your discourse, it becomes more clear…hit the bong again, Casey, and then chill.

    Hope ya got lotsa munchies close at hand.

  • Chuck October 26, 2017, 5:00 AM

    If you look at the art displayed at the Armory Show (1913) it appears almost normal. Most of the works are representational or impressionistic; nothing hardly new here. But Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was like a hand grenade tossed in among the innocent. Duchamp was a visionary who clearly saw how the 20th Century would play out. And he was to the art world as Lenin was to politics. What followed was not pretty by any measure.

  • Casey Klahn October 26, 2017, 7:43 AM

    Thanks, Ed. Your disapprobation is my delight, because that was one hell of a great comment I wrote.

    4 paragraphs, and each one argued with reason and logic. Do you get out much?

  • Bunny October 26, 2017, 8:36 AM

    Mr. Klahn is correct that Duchamp was a philospher. This explains a lot. “With his urinal, Duchamp offered presciently asummary statement. The artist is not a great creator—Duchamp went shopping at a plumbing store. The artwork is not a special object—it was mass-produced in a factory. The experience of art is not exciting and ennobling—it is puzzling and leaves one with a sense of distaste. But over and above that, Duchamp did not select just any ready-made object to display. He could have selected a sink or a door-knob. In selecting the urinal, his message was clear: Art is something you piss on.” Stephen Hicks argues that modern art became a quest for truth rather than beauty. Art became philosophical rather than artistic. “The urinal is not art—it is a device used as part of an intellectual exercise in figuring out WHY it is NOT art.”
    Read the whole thing if you want to be depressed. I think some modern and post-modern art is beautiful. More is simply throwaway, novel or entertaining, like our culture in general. But I’m no critic.

  • Vanderleun October 26, 2017, 9:27 AM

    Everybody’s a critic, Bunny. Nice link….. although depressing…. except that the truth is most of this art is just garbage and in time will be in a landfill.

  • Rob De Witt October 26, 2017, 10:22 AM

    I’m a critic too – but I know whereof I criticize:

    Congressional Record–Appendix, pp. A34-A35
    January 10, 1963
    … an excerpt from “The Naked Communist,” by Cleon Skousen:

    22. Continue discrediting American culture by degrading all forms of artistic expression. An American Communist cell was told to “eliminate all good sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms.”
    23. Control art critics and directors of art museums. “Our plan is to promote ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art.”

    Quod erat demonstrandum.

  • Casey Klahn October 26, 2017, 1:28 PM

    Hmm. I’m looking for new ways to get this across because I’m speaking from inside the art profession to an esteemed group of laymen.

    Much is made of the ineffability of “art.” Allow this: the root of art is ar, which is also in “arm,” which means connected. You may think your skill set resides in your hands, but do not mistake the fact that your arm connects to your head and heart. This is the way art is; if you put too much on skill, you lose the whole. In fact, skill often kills good art. Sometimes, it helps.

    The reason there are details in the Dutch paintings is the patrons were wealthy merchants, and they wanted a brag pic. The paintings don’t look good because of the bling, but rather the artist’s conception of the whole.

    Recently, a computer painted a new Rembrandt. The main thing it missed, after collating every painting he did and regurgitating it in a summary, was what he would’ve painted 1 day after he died. He was a soul; he was an artist. Rembrandt said fuck the whole mess, BTW. He got so loose, that his patronage keel-hauled him and burned his butt in debter’s court. SOB was an heroic artist, and his immaculate skill, as I am fond of saying, “don’t enter into it!”

    Congratulate me: today an article on my art was published in The Pastel Journal. I’ve had 2 in trade pubs, but this is a national pub. My next article will be in a French magazine, publication date TBA.

  • grace October 26, 2017, 8:02 PM


  • Pbird October 26, 2017, 10:41 PM

    speaking as a painter, i know that most of the stuff said about any individual piece is likely total bull. If it has to be explained it didn’t work.

  • Ed Brown October 26, 2017, 11:50 PM

    Let me be the first. Congratulations, Casey. Really, congratulations!

    Regarding Rembrandt, if he indeed “got so loose, that his patronage keel-hauled him and burned his butt in debter’s court,” sounds like he shoulda quit while he was ahead. We probably wouldn’t agree on the “heroic artist” or praiseworthiness, or not, of “his immaculate skill” either. I defer to you. I don’t have the interest or energy to look it up. You got one thing right. These are the perils of “speaking from inside the art profession to an esteemed group of laymen.” That’s gotta be the nicest thing anybody said about me today.

    Party on, Casey

    Oh, almost forgot…no, actually I don’t get out much. So sorry my observation touched a nerve. Your four paragraphs, “4 paragraphs, and each one argued with reason and logic,” read to me like the stoned monologue of a former house mate, a fine arts major by the way, back in the day. Ya gotta expect that from an esteemed group of laymen, I s’pose.

  • Casey Klahn October 27, 2017, 7:32 AM

    Ed, I was going to write that I’m mostly a layman on architecture, and when RS gets to that subject, I begin agreeing with him uncritically.


  • Casey Klahn October 27, 2017, 7:35 AM

    Oh! I should’a included my favorite Marcel Duchamp quote, which agrees with our honored host. MD: “Not everyone is an artist, but everyone is a fucking critic!”