Berkeley Connect Philosophy students visit the Berkeley Art Museum 

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Berkeley Connect Philosophy students had an eye-opening experience on April 4th: a guided tour of the Berkeley Art Museum with museum curator Lynne Kimura, specifically tailored to students of philosophy.

The first work the students viewed was a large 14th century bronze Tibetian Buddha. Lynne pointed out in particular the Buddha’s downturned eyes. For those who kneel before the Buddha, the eyes seem to look towards them as they pray. “Once you look at the eyes, the statue must be treated as a proxy for the God,” Lynne told them, adding that sculptors had to take extra precaution to avoid the eyes or to put in the eyes last. (Berkeley Connect Mentor Michael Rieppel noted that this reminded him of Plato’s allegory of the cave and its emphasis on sight.) Lynne then showed the students a square cut in the back of the statue, explaining that people used to fill the Buddha with precious things, including scripture and bones. In the same exhibit, students visited a tapestry of a fierce Tibetian deity. “Its role is to cut through the frustration so you can find inner serenity and meditation,” Lynne told them. She also added that these deities are often a result of the integration of local deities into the Buddhist religion.

Moving to another gallery, students examined a series of prints made by William Hogarth in 1731 titled A Harlot’s Progress, which detail the story of a woman who falls into prostitution. As Lynne told us, Hogarth was very interested in reform, and attempted with his art to provoke a moral reaction in his wealthy audience. In the first print, which shows the young woman being propositioned by a well-known madame, Hogarth included on the side people who should be intervening (a clergyman and an average Londoner), neither of whom seem to be paying attention. At the end of Hogarth’s cautionary tale of moral corruption, the woman is arrested and dies at a young age of syphilis.

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Finally, moving on to the 20th century, the students examined a monoprint by John Cage, famous for composing a piece called 4′33″ that featured four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. “The sounds of the audience become part of the piece,” Lynne explained. In this case, Cage again employed an unusual technique. At first glance, it is a simple, abstract artwork that students decided vaguely resembled mountains. But it was not so simple after all. To create this and other prints in the series, Cage created a system in which he would assign different conditions and techniques–including whether and how long to smoke the paper–to numbers, then throw coins to determine how each monoprint would turn out. In this way, the unique nature of each piece was determined largely by luck. “If you wait for inspiration, you may wait a long time,” Lynne said, explaining Cage’s reasoning, “but if you use system and chance, you don’t have to wait for inspiration to begin.”

As this tour proves, art and philosophy go hand in hand, and there is no doubt this tour gave Berkeley Connect students – and myself! – plenty of food for thought.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant