Today, I learn something at a fancy benefit dinner.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I'm not often to be found at
big fund-raising benefits, but this evening I'm a
guest at one. And this evening is unusual. It's a
birthday observation for Dominique de Menil, who
died in 1997. While she lived, she created a
cluster of important art museums in Houston and
filled them with remarkable art as well. Now the
museums seek support to continue what she began.
Dominique de Menil was educated in math and science
at the Sorbonne in Paris. Her acuity as an art
collector was tempered by her scientist's
understanding of the creative process. That theme
runs through the evening. The speaker is Fred
Murad, the Houston doctor who won a Nobel Prize in
medicine last year. Murad talks about creativity as
it works for scientists and artists alike.
At each place setting is a different de Menil
quotation about the creative process. We go around
the table, one by one, reading our quotation aloud.
Then we talk about process. De Menil was not
simplistic. The artist leans on the past,
she said, but creates in reaction to the
past. Compare that with Albert North
Whitehead's disturbing remark, A science that
hesitates to forget its founders is lost. De
Menil is tempering what Whitehead said. She clearly
sees the need for leaving the past. But she sees
the past as a point of departure, not an impediment
to our thinking.
Or try this one: When they appear, great artists
are not easily recognizable. They use a new
language that we have to learn. That one is
tricky. Many new artists are far from great, and
their language is nonsense. We have to be alert to
recognize the new van Gogh among them. (That's also
true in science and invention.)
De Menil has more to say. The attitude of
receptivity, indispensable in art, is also
necessary for ecumenism. Even as we sit
at our table new bombs are falling in Serbia and
Kosovo. Against that backdrop, the linkage of
ecumenism and receptivity grows poignant.
The conversation continues. A gentleman with a
clearly practical bent leans over to me and says,
All this talk is fine, but what's to be the
result of it? I like that. We need to
ask where all this anchors in our daily lives.
Another De Menil quote helps answer the question:
Wounds to beauty, she writes, are not as
innocent as they look. ... They pull us all
And what is a wound to beauty? War in the Balkans?
Bad design? Dishonesty? Failure to pursue the
common good? I'm reminded again that all great art
is, at some bedrock level, representational.
Art that doesn't represent the human dilemma, and
guide us through it, is a waste. De Menil's wounds
to beauty are our failure to see possibilities for
curing the ugliness that's always there.
This was no simple benefit dinner -- not just one
more chance to dress up and sip wine. We left the
hall realizing this had to be about the
transforming force of creative renewal in our
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds