Reading notes (2021, week 10) — On metaphors, how wonder works, and exposing our deepest, rawest self

Mark Storm
28 min readMar 6, 2021
Imagine Montessori School in Paterna, València, by Gradolí & Sanz Arquitectes — “The project grows like an organism, each cell acquires its shape according to its needs and then regroups and interacts with the other cells. Once the classrooms have been arranged in a fan, the space of relationship that unites them is not only a functional place of passage, but, with its extensions, its corners and its balconies and walkways over the outdoor patio, it becomes a meeting space, work and play. An agora turned to the outside puts an end to this journey of spaces of relationship.“ (Photograph by Mariela Apollonio)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: How the metaphors we live by shape our experience; wonder — the linchpin of inspiration and inquiry — makes humans unique; art can shatter the façade we put up for others; the differences between happiness and meaning in life; the history of the colour blue; Goethe and how the Greeks saw their world; the joy of seeing Venice’s Renaissance beauty again; and, finally, Nina Simone and the universality of being human.

Metaphors matter

“Far from being mere ornamental flourishes that render our speech more vivid, metaphors create important conceptual bridges between fields. They spark our imagination and activate our meaning-making faculties, allowing us to see things from a new perspective. Perhaps most importantly, the metaphors we live by shape our experience,” Anna Katharina Schaffner writes in You’re not a computer, you’re a tiny stone in a beautiful mosaic.

This is particularly true of ‘mind-metaphors,’ the metaphors we conjure to describe our inner lives. “The imagery we use is never neutral — it reflects deeper cultural assumptions, often about agency and personal responsibility. This has consequences,” Schaffner argues.

“In recent decades, popular mind-metaphors have also drawn on the worlds of finance and business. Many self-help texts reference our social capital and emotional bank accounts. Self-improvement is often presented as a long-term sustainable investment in ourselves that will eventually pay off, yielding higher profits. For instance, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (3rd ed, 2020), the American businessman and motivational speaker Stephen Covey encourages us to optimise our inter- and intrapersonal effectiveness by using better self-management technologies. He sees the self as our ‘greatest asset,’ and self-care as ‘the single most powerful investment we can ever make in life.’

However, these kinds of metaphors reduce us to achievement-driven and advantage-seeking entities, condemned constantly to self-optimise, as if our highest purpose is to be effective instruments. But effectiveness for effectiveness’s sake is an empty aim. Such imagery also casts us as competitors vying for scarce resources in a playing field in which the fittest survive — in this case the mentally fit, the emotionally agile, those who are the best self-managers.

This notion of self-optimisation contrasts starkly with the much older ideas of self-cultivation and Bildung: a life-long process of socio-psychological formation, learning and inner development. The ancient idea of self-cultivation, as explored by Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Aristotle and the Stoics, for example, evokes a slower, incremental, less dramatic mode of developing our good qualities. It emphasises ethical and character development over skills enhancement. Using botanical imagery, it encourages us to nurture our virtues patiently, as we would nurture seedlings in a garden, so that we might grow and blossom. We must find the right climate and soil for us to flourish. Occasionally, we might have to prune wild growth, plant new seeds and pull out weeds,” Schaffner writes.

“The dominant technology mind-metaphor of our age is the mind-as-computer. We’re warned of cognitive overload and advised to switch off more often to recharge our batteries. But we’re not machines. We’re biopsychosocial organisms, embedded, embodied and encultured, developing in constant feedback with our surroundings. If we become too entangled in computer mind-metaphors, our imagination will suffer. We’ll trust that we can be repaired by external techno-magical interventions, rather than accepting that all inner work takes patience, effort and time,” Anna Katharina Schaffner writes in You’re not a computer, you’re a tiny stone in a beautiful mosaic. (Photograph: Detail of the gorgone Medusa, opus tessellatum, 2nd century CE. Collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens)

“The choice of metaphors we use to talk about our inner lives reveals how we see ourselves and our purpose, whether we’re motivated by material, spiritual or experiential rewards. Most importantly, they disclose whether we think of ourselves as part of a wider social community with shared aims and obligations, or as lone fighters in a hostile environment, out there to secure a personal advantage.

While the ancients saw the self primarily as relational, modern Western self-help writers often cast us as atomistic and competitive. However, there is good news. Different models are emerging in the recent genre of more sophisticated self-help, which once again emphasise virtue, meaning and character development. This is evident in popular psychology books written by academic psychologists in the past two decades, such as Grit (2011) by Angela Duckworth, Flourish (2011) by Martin Seligman and Transcend (2020) by Scott Barry Kaufman, as well as in popular philosophy books by academics, such as Aristotle’s Way (2018) by Edith Hall and How to Be a Stoic (2017) by Massimo Pigliucci, among others. A fast-growing tendency in our life-advice literature now emphasises the importance of locating our purpose outside the self, overcoming our fixation with chasing happiness and personal fulfilment. It seems that self-transcendence, as advocated by Viktor Frankl and Alfred Adler, is starting to top self-actualisation as our most desired goal.


Perhaps we’ll see a broader cultural paradigm-change soon, inviting us once again to imagine the self as relational, interdependent and pro-social. This new kind of self could, as the US psychologist Robert Kegan suggested in The Evolving Self (1983), be understood as a work in progress, a process rather than a fixed entity, as dynamic rather than static. I believe that our new self-metaphors need to be based on a more sophisticated conception of the relationship between the self and the social, giving birth to notions of selves that are capable of striving for self-authorship, intimacy and contribution at the same time.

Nothing, then, is more urgent than minding our metaphors — especially our mind-metaphors. They not only shape the way we experience and seek to improve our inner lives, but they can perpetuate specific sociopolitical assumptions — for example, based on individualism rather than community. We should pay more careful attention to the imagery we use to talk about our inner lives, and be less tolerant of metaphors that cast the self as a broken machine, an entrepreneurial entity, or a lone fighter in enemy territory. I hope we can begin to create different kinds of metaphors that emphasise our connectedness — comparing us to bees, for example, to threads in a multilayered fabric; or to tiny, multicoloured mosaic stones, each unique and distinctive, but together forming a beautiful work of art.”

How wonder works

Theories of a unique humanity have evolved enormously throughout history, with a significant tendency in recent times to diminish our claim to be truly distinctive. Still, most scientists and philosophers do believe that we are, in some sense, different from any other lifeform on the planet. But what sets us apart?

According to Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, our unique position among animals is rooted in a particular emotion that has long been overlooked: the emotion of wonder.

“Wonder is sometimes said to be a childish emotion, one that we grow out of. But that is surely wrong. As adults, we might experience it when gaping at grand vistas. I was dumbstruck when I first saw a sunset over the Serengeti. We also experience wonder when we discover extraordinary facts. I was enthralled to learn that, when arranged in a line, the neurons in a human brain would stretch the 700 miles from London to Berlin. But why? What purpose could this wide-eyed, slack-jawed feeling serve? It’s difficult to determine the biological function of any affect, but whatever it evolved for (and I’ll come to that), wonder might be humanity’s most important emotion, Prinz writes in How wonder works.

Prinz’s favourite definition of wonder comes from the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith. Wonder, he wrote in History of Astronomy (1795), arises “when something quite new and singular is presented… [and] memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance’. Smith associated this quality of experience with a distinctive bodily feeling — ‘that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart.”

“[T]hese bodily symptoms point to three dimensions that might in fact be essential components of wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes. The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them. This leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled: we gasp and say ‘Wow!’ Finally, wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration; hence Smith’s invocation of the swelling heart,” Prinz writes.

He then argues that “science, religion and art are unified in wonder. Each engages our senses, elicits curiosity and instils reverence. Without wonder, it is hard to believe that we would engage in these distinctively human pursuits. Robert Fuller, a professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, contends that it is ‘one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order.’

In science, that invisible order might include microorganisms and the invisible laws of nature. In religion, we find supernatural powers and divine agents. Artists invent new ways of seeing that give us a fresh perspective on the world we inhabit.”

“When in the Middle Ages Giotto broke free from the constraints of Gothic painting, he did not produce secular art but a deeply spiritual vision, rendering divine personages more accessible by showing them in fleshy verisimilitude. His Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is like a jewel-box, exploding with figures who breathe, battle, weep, writhe, and rise from the dead to meet their God beneath an ethereal cobalt canopy. It is, in short, a wonder,” Jesse Prinz writes in How wonder works. (Painting: The Betrayal of Christ (Kiss of Judas), between 1304 and 1306, by Giotto di Bondone; fresco, 200 x 185 cm. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

“Art, science and religion appear to be uniquely human institutions. This suggests that wonder has a bearing on human uniqueness as such, which in turn raises questions about its origins. Did wonder evolve? Are we the only creatures who experience it?

[René Descartes] claimed that it was innate in human beings; in fact, he called it our most fundamental emotion. The pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson also posited an inborn sense of wonder, one especially prevalent in children. An alternative possibility is that wonder is a natural by-product of more basic capacities, such as sensory attention, curiosity and respect, the last of which is crucial in social status hierarchies. Extraordinary things trigger all three of these responses at once, evoking the state we call wonder.

Other animals can experience it, too. The primatologist Jane Goodall was observing her chimpanzees in Gombe when she noticed a male chimp gesturing excitedly at a beautiful waterfall. He perched on a nearby rock and gaped at the flowing torrents of water for a good 10 minutes. Goodall and her team saw such responses on several occasions. She concluded that chimps have a sense of wonder, even speculating about a nascent form of spirituality in our simian cousins.

This leaves us with a puzzle. If wonder is found in all human beings and higher primates, why do science, art and religion appear to be recent developments in the history of our species? Anatomically modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, yet the earliest evidence for religious rituals appears about 70,000 years ago, in the Kalahari Desert, and the oldest cave paintings (at El Castillo in Spain) are only 40,000 years old. Science as we know it is much younger than that — perhaps only a few hundred years old. It is also noteworthy that these endeavours are not essential for survival, which means they probably aren’t direct products of natural selection. Art, science and religion are all forms of excess; they transcend the practical ends of daily life. Perhaps evolution never selected for wonder itself.

And if wonder is shared beyond our own species, why don’t we find apes carpooling to church each Sunday? The answer is that the emotion alone is not sufficient. It imbues us with the sense of the extraordinary, but it takes considerable intellectual prowess and creativity to cope with extraordinary things by devising origin myths, conducting experiments and crafting artistic representations. Apes rarely innovate; their wonder is a dead-end street. So it was for our ancestors. For most of our history, humans travelled in small groups in constant search for subsistence, which left little opportunity to devise theories or create artworks. As we gained more control over our environment, resources increased, leading to larger group sizes, more permanent dwellings, leisure time, and a division of labour. Only then could wonder bear its fruit.

Art, science and religion reflect the cultural maturation of our species. Children at the circus are content to ogle at a spectacle. Adults might tire of it, craving wonders that are more profound, fertile, illuminating. For the mature mind, wondrous experience can be used to inspire a painting, a myth or a scientific hypothesis. These things take patience, and an audience equally eager to move beyond the initial state of bewilderment. The late arrival of the most human institutions suggests that our species took some time to reach this stage. We needed to master our environment enough to exceed the basic necessities of survival before we could make use of wonder.

If this story is right, wonder did not evolve for any purpose. It is, rather, a by-product of natural inclinations, and its great human derivatives are not inevitable. But wonder is the accidental impetus behind our greatest achievements. Art, science and religion are inventions for feeding the appetite that wonder excites in us. They also become sources of wonder in their own right, generating epicycles of boundless creativity and enduring inquiry. Each of these institutions allows us to transcend our animality by transporting us to hidden worlds. In harvesting the fruits of wonder, we came into our own as a species.”

Exposing our deepest, rawest self

“A devastating loss can shatter the façade we put up for others, exposing our deepest, rawest self. A work of art can do the same, the senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, and author of Tanzen ist die beste Medizin (forthcoming in English in 2022), Julia F. Christensen writes in To the core.

“[T]here is an authentic ‘me’ inside all of us. [It] contains our true thoughts and feelings, our personality, our wishes, dreams and fears, everything that makes us us. The true self is genuinely present, unmuffled, and visible to anyone who cares to look. However, according to the teachings of the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, most of us outwardly live as an unauthentic me, a façade. ‘Unauthentic me’ is ‘me’ plus layers of social convention added on the outside, like a coating, to make the outside appearance appealing to others and ourselves. For example, that fake smile that you put on to greet the colleague you don’t like? According to Kierkegaard and other existentialists, this smile corrupts you,” Christensen writes.

“Thanks to a complex neurohormone cocktail of bonding hormones, our brain happens to like and to bond with those who move like us, look like us, and like the same things as us. In fact, our brain has an in-built tendency toward conformity. When we behave within the norms of our group, this pings our reward system. It motivates our brain to pretend to be as expected. We feel the pleasant knock of pleasure when we please our peers. Our brain literally includes the hardware to connect with others, and to conform and to adapt.

But sometimes we overdo it. This conformity-reward brain-link can take us far from ourselves; when we pay too little attention to ‘le vrai,’ we create a gap, between who we really are and our image. That’s when existentialists such as Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Martin Heidegger roar out loud to make us understand that acting in accordance with our true self is the only authentic way to propel our lives. But are they correct? Are there actually benefits for those inclined to reduce the gap between our self and the image we give?

Important psychological research shows that the answer to the above question is yes.”

“Don’t show off! Don’t pretend to be, be!” — A research experiment by Julia F. Christensen and Manos Tsakiris, a neuroscientist at the Warburg Institute in London, showed that “[p]eople with no dance experience at all preferred dance movements that had ‘du vrai’ [the dancer’s personal expressivity], over the very same movements when they were performed with mere technical perfection.” (Photograph: Nederlands Dans Theater in Sol León and Paul Lightfoot’s Shoot the Moon, by Rahi Rezvani)

“Hardship can lead us back to our authentic self, providing we’re resilient enough to emerge on the other side. But there is a gentler way. The arts! Paintings, movies, dances, statues, poems, stories, architecture — all have the power to move us emotionally, make us feel small and out of our depth, force us to re-think … and to re-feel.

The emotional impact of an artwork can be life-changing. The emerging multidisciplinary research domain of neuroaesthetics studies ‘aesthetic emotions’ — those emotions we might feel while we experience common events in our lives, but also in response to the arts: fear, wonder, sympathy, heartache, awe. Besides, research in this domain finds that the arts trigger a built-in distancing mechanism in our brain that helps us derive joy, pleasure and other aesthetic emotions even from negative events that would usually cause stress.

Think of Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or that thriller you watched on TV the other night. When an artwork touches us, suddenly there’s this feeling inside, a memory of ‘me.’ To return to your authentic self, you can wield the arts like a sledgehammer, such as Lars von Trier’s film The Idiots, or use it as a gentle brush, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, tickling our senses back to life. Von Trier said it well: ‘A film should be like a stone in your shoe,’ reminding us of the self we’ve left under wraps.

Consider dance. The neuroscientist Dong-Seon Chang tells the story of how he witnessed the performance of a dance piece choreographed by Ohad Naharin to the song Echad Mi Yodea for the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. All the dancers moved exactly the same, were dressed the same, had the same facial expressions. Every once in a while, one of them would break out of the circle but, each time, the dancer would be re-absorbed. Dong-Seon shares how deeply he was touched by this display of what he understood as a call to conformity. As a child at school, he’d been painfully forced to wear the same, eat the same, say the same as everyone else. This dance stirred that memory, and made him remember to remember who he is.”

There is a but, though, says Christensen, as many high-profile artists struggle with social conventions, with adaptation. “This sensibility can cause one to lash out, to feel misunderstood, and to go to great lengths to maintain one’s authentic ‘me.’ Sometimes, such people can overstep, be overly defensive and aggressive. Then, protecting the turf of their inner world seems narcissistic, indeed.

Aristotle gave us the formula for getting it right. Be true to yourself, but virtuously so. According to him, art should be practised in the context of good habits, then positive change will gently ripple through all layers of your life. Therefore, for Aristotle, the arts are an important building block of a happy, authentic life.”

When I play, I’m playing with my ears, my heart, not with ‘notes.’ I don’t want to control the music, it controls me instead, it is me,” says the musician Mohammad Reza Mortazavi — “While artists engage with their art, they dive deep down, to where their true ‘me’ is, unconstrained by social conventions, unharmed and unimpressed by the hardships of everyday life,” Julia F. Christensen writes in To the core. (Photograph: Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, courtesy of Rundfunkchores Berlin)

“Aristotle said: ‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.’ Millennia later, the French ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem said: ‘Technical perfection is insufficient. It is an orphan without the true soul of a dancer.’ In the same vein, the American choreographer Martha Graham said: ‘Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.’ Even in ballets, such as Jewels (1967) by the American choreographer George Balanchine, where the sole aim of the movement is the expression of beauty, there’s an artistic intention other than ‘a perfect execution.’ The beauty expressed in the movements of Jewels comes from the quality of their expressive intention. Without this, it wouldn’t be dance but movement mechanics, contortionism or acrobatics.

Go find art that touches you. Your art is what moves you, full stop. Otherwise, it’s useless for you as an authenticity drill, no matter how many millions it might fetch at auction. Modern neuroscience shows that artworks that touch us stimulate feelings in the observer through neurobiological mechanisms in which the spectator mirrors the creator. Some artworks will resonate with who you are, others won’t.

And when you make art yourself, remember this: actions activate specific patterns of neural activity in our brain. It is up to us to make our brain light up in the best possible patterns, through the actions we perform. That’s how what we do shapes who we are.

What pattern would you like to sculpt in your brain? Next time you feel dizzy and strangely out of focus, corrupted by the role you play at work or the formal social coating that makes your heart scream, go to a museum, listen to the music of your youth, copy a painting by sticking it against the window, knit a scarf, dance a dance. Let aesthetic emotions guide you back to yourself.”

And also this…

“Humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.” — Roy Baumeister et al, Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life (The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013, Vol. 8, no. 6, page 505–516)

“A wealth of research in positive psychology suggests that happiness and meaning are […] essential elements of well-being. Happiness and meaning are strongly correlated with each other, and often feed off each other. The more meaning we find in life, the more happy we typically feel, and the more happy we feel, the more we often feel encouraged to pursue even greater meaning and purpose. But not always,” Scott Barry Kaufman argues in The Differences between Happiness and Meaning in Life.

“In recent years, a number of studies have further supported the differences between happiness and meaning. In one clever study, [Roy Baumeister et al] found that factors such as feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored contributed to both happiness and meaning.”

But there were also some important differences. Finding one’s life easy or difficult, for example, was related to happiness, but not meaning. Scarcity of money reduced happiness more than meaning, while helping people in need was linked to meaning but not happiness.

“It seems that happiness has more to do with having your needs satisfied, getting what you want, and feeling good, whereas meaning is more related to uniquely human activities such as developing a personal identity, expressing the self, and consciously integrating one’s past, present, and future experiences.”

“In his delightful book Meanings of Life, Roy Baumeister used examples such as these to argue that people seek not just happiness but also meaning in life. Likewise, eminent Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously argued that humans have a ‘will to meaning’ in his seminal recounting of his harrowing (yet often meaningful) experiences living in a concentration camp during the Holocaust,” Scott Barry Kaufman argues in The Differences between Happiness and Meaning in Life. (Photograph: Viktor Frankl in New York, 1968. Courtesy of Imago/Getty)

“There is a general consensus that meaning has at least two major components: the cognitive processing component involves making sense and integrating experiences, and a purpose component, which is more motivational and involves actively pursuing long-term goals that reflect one’s identity and transcends narrow self-interests.”

A study conducted by Jo Ann Abe on the impact of happiness and meaning-making over an extended period of time “adds important nuance to the emerging science of meaning. In studying meaning, and its similarities and differences with happiness, it’s important to use multiple methods. In addition to self-report and journal writing, other researchers use peer-ratings and genomic methods. To get a fuller picture, we will need to look at the overall pattern that all of these methods reveal.

While this study focused on the differences between happiness and meaning, it should be noted that optimal well-being often consists of both. As Todd Kashdan and colleagues note, ‘Years of research on the psychology of well-being have demonstrated that often human beings are happiest when they are engaged in meaningful pursuits and virtuous activities.’ Indeed, when we are deeply engaged in an activity that is in accordance with our best self, we often report the highest levels of life satisfaction (see here, here, and here).

In my view, further investigation of the similarities and differences between happiness and meaning can contribute substantially to our understanding of this ‘sweet-spot’ of well-being: that seemingly magical combination of happiness and meaning that sets off the virtuous cycle that can ultimately lead to a life well lived. Now, that would be really meaningful.”

“In paintings, blue is the most majestic of the new pigments — we say ‘new’ because in fact there’s no trace of this colour in cave paintings, it is not mentioned in the Bible, and Homer doesn’t use it in the Iliad and the Odyssey — while he mentions white, black, more rarely red, yellow and green, and even the colour of the sea which is described as ‘as dark as wine,’” Valentina Petrucci writes in In the blue, painted blue.

“Made from the stone lapis lazuli through a complicated process, blue became a very expensive and therefore highly valued pigment. In 1464, Filarete wrote in his Treatise on Architecture: ‘Fine blue is derived from a stone and comes from across the seas and so is called ultramarine.’ Blue doesn’t only derive from lapis lazuli: a less expensive, but far from cheap, blue was obtained from azurite, which was much used by western artists, since deposits of that stone were also found in France, Spain and Germany. For example, Dürer relied on azurite to make blue.

But what is so special about this colour that it has always fascinated so many people? According to Wassily Kandinsky, ‘The power of profound meaning is found in blue… Blue is the typical heavenly color. The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest.’ Picasso’s Blue Period, on the other hand, coincides with the years of poverty spent in Paris, and blue becomes a way of expressing a feeling: ‘I started painting in blue when I learned of Casagemas’s death.’ In fact, he started his monochromatic production with the painting that depicts his friend in a coffin. However, even before the blue we know today, we have the exuberant blue used by Titian, as we can see in Bacchus and Ariadne or in the omnipotence of the Virgin’s blue dress in the many paintings by Sassoferrato, Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, and many more.”

Paula Rego’s large pastel ‘The Sky was Blue the Sea was Blue and the Boy was Blue’ (2017) takes it name from a 2005 story by the Portuguese writer Hélia Correia in which a boy, believing his father to be the sea, goes in search of the shore. On reaching the water’s edge, the boy immediately dies and assumes the colours of water and sky. (Photograph courtesy of Paula Rego and Victoria Miro; via The Guardian)

“Blue was symbol and substance. Using blue not only meant showing off wealth, but especially in medieval works, it served to give virtue to the painting. The use of ultramarine could be stipulated in the contract to emphasise the devotion and merits of the patron and to express, at the same time, due reverence. We can see, for example, that in the contract for the Madonna of the Harpies (1515) by Andrea del Sarto, it was required that the Virgin’s dress be rendered in ultramarine blue costing ‘at least five broad florins the ounce.’ The blue dress of the mother of Jesus became a convention that continued even after the Renaissance for a profane reason, although art critics disagreed. According to them, in works depicting the Virgin, blue was chosen for symbolic reasons: the colour was celestial, spiritual, denoting humility and other virtues.

‘One morning, one of us ran out of the black, it was the birth of Impressionism.’

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s words show us how this colour continued to dominate the history of art, especially when it comes to a group of artists who painted exclusively en plein air. Blue can be found in the sky, in the water and in everything that is linked to nature, and the artist tries to savour the taste and texture of it by painting outdoors. Colour was used in a revolutionary way, colours were combined without first being mixed, thanks also to the invention of tubes, which made painting much simpler, quicker and above all cheaper.

In the 20th century, blue was the colour that generally represented males, while pink was for females. In ancient times, however, it was completely different. Red, bright and fierce and reminiscent of the colour of blood, was the colour of men, while blue was for women, probably because of the history of the blue mantle of the Virgin. This tendency to use blue and pink was born in the early 1950s in America, essentially for marketing reasons, as distinguishing the sexes through colours made it easier to sell clothes and toys.

Blue blood. Here again we use the colour blue as a metaphor for wealth, although in reality this expression has a completely different origin. In fact, it comes from the Spanish expression sangre azul — the pale skin of the aristocrats, who did not have to work in the sun, basically allowed their blood vessels to show through their skin in blue color. Blue is therefore a rich colour that comes to us from the past in all its elegance, mystery and seductiveness.”

“The Greek colour experience was made of movement and shimmer. Can we ever glimpse what they saw when gazing out to sea?,” Maria Michela Sassi, a professor of ancient philosophy at Pisa University, wonders in The sea was never blue.

“How differently the Greeks must have viewed their natural world, since their eyes were blind to blue and green, and they would see instead of the former a deeper brown, and yellow instead of the latter (and for instance they also would use the same word for the colour of dark hair, that of the corn-flower, and that of the southern sea; and again, they would employ exactly the same word for the colour of the greenest plants and of the human skin, of honey and of the yellow resins: so that their greatest painters reproduced the world they lived in only in black, white, red, and yellow),” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote when he tried to capture the strangeness of the Greek colour vocabulary.

Like Nietzsche, also Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed these features of Greek chromatic vision. “The versatility of xanthos [which covers the most various shades of yellow, from the shining blond hair of the gods, to amber, to the reddish blaze of fire] and chloros [which suggests the colour green but can also itself convey a vivid yellow, like honey] led him to infer a peculiar fluidity of Greek colour vocabulary.”

Goethe believed the Greeks weren’t interested in defining the different hues. He underpinned his judgment through a careful examination of the theories on vision and colours elaborated by the Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato, who attributed an active role to the visual organ, equipped with light coming out of the eye and interacting with daylight so as to generate the complete range of colours, Sassi writes.

“Goethe also noted that ancient colour theorists tended to derive colours from a mixture of black and white, which are placed on the two opposite poles of light and dark, and yet are still called ‘colours.’ The ancient conception of black and white as colours — often primary colours — is remarkable when compared with Isaac Newton’s experiments on the decomposition of light by refraction through a prism. The common view today is that white light is colourless and arises from the sum of all the hues of the spectrum, whereas black is its absence.”

Goethe set the Greeks’ approach to colour against Newton’s for their having caught the subjective side of colour perception. He considered the Newtonian theory to be a mathematical abstraction in contrast with the testimony of the eyes, and thus downright absurd. The ancient Greeks already knew, he wrote, that, “If the eye were not Sun-like, it could never see the Sun.”

“Blue. This colour has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.’ — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Artwork: Goethe, 1982, by Andy Warhol; colour screenprint on Lenox Museum Board, 96.5 x 96.5 cm. Courtesy of Christie’s)

Today, “thanks to our modern ‘anthropological gaze’ it is accepted that every culture has its own way of naming and categorising colours. This is not due to varying anatomical structures of the human eye, but to the fact that different ocular areas are stimulated, which triggers different emotional responses, all according to different cultural contexts.”

Goethe was indeed right when he wrote that the Greek experience of colours is rather peculiar. “There is a specific Greek chromatic culture, just as there is an Egyptian one, an Indian one, a European one, and the like, each of them being reflected in a vocabulary that has its own peculiarity, and not to be measured only by the scientific meter of the Newtonian paradigm,” Sassi writes. But can we hope to understand how the Greeks saw their world?

“In trying to see the world through Greek eyes, the Newtonian view is only somewhat useful. We need to supplement it with the Greeks’ own colour theories, and to examine the way in which they actually tried to describe their world. Without this, the crucial role of light and brightness in their chromatic vision would be lost, as would any chance to make sense of the mobility and fluidity of their chromatic vocabulary. If we rely only on the mathematical abstractions of Newton’s optics, it is impossible to imagine what the Greeks saw when they stood on their shores, gazing out upon the porphureos ‡ sea stretching into the distant horizon.”

Porphureos is probably the most difficult chromatic term to grasp. “Not only does porphureos not correspond to any definite hue, placed as it is on the borderline between red and blue (in Newtonian terms), but it is often applied to objects that do not appear straightforwardly ‘purple,’ as in the case of the sea. (The fact that the sea can appear purple at sunset is not sufficient to explain the frequency of this epithet in Greek literature.) When the sea is called porphureos, what is described is a mix of brightness and movement, changing according to the light conditions at different hours of the day and with different weather, which was the aspect of the sea that most attracted Greek sensitivity. This is why Homer calls the sea ‘winey,’ which alludes not so much to the wine tint of the water as to the shine of the liquid inside the cups used to drink out of at a symposium. As shown by the naval friezes and the aquatic animals painted inside many drinking vessels, vase painters turned the image around, so that the surface of the drink suggested the waving of the sea. Porphureos conveys this combination of brightness and movement — a chromatic term impossible to understand without considering the glimmer effect.”

“After four continuous months of not being able to step into a museum, I can safely say that seeing and being surrounded by art is what I have most longed for,” Agnès Poirier writes in Life in Venice.

Like others, Poirier had “taken part in virtual visits of exhibitions that would sadly never see daylight; followed virtual tours given by erudite and well-meaning curators. Those were enjoyable for a short while but there is a limit to what you can emotionally and physically gain from an online experience. Besides, art, whether sculptures or paintings, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They are not just objects hung or placed here and there in space. They are not flat like our screens, and even drawings and paintings have presence, a relief even, just like mountains. Art objects and their surroundings create a vital synergy just like a constellation of planets. Covid lockdowns and the omnipresence of screens in our lives have, by contrast, enhanced the sheer physicality of art, whatever its nature or form.”

Poirier chose Venice, not just because “art seems to be in the air you breathe,” but also because it “offered the luxury of open cafés till 6pm — cafés having been the thing I had missed most after art.”

“The calle leading to the Accademia Bridge was drenched in sunlight and the pavement covered with crispy frost. I was early so I stopped on the way to have a double espresso. I sat at the small caffè’s terrace despite the sub-zero temperature and held the warm china cup in my hands, watching the vapour curling in the sunshine. I was reprising some old European rituals. Some moments in life are exquisite. The organisation of the Accademia was a little shambolic, they had not had visitors for months, they too had to re-adjust. The cloakroom and the shop were closed, visitors’ temperature had to be taken and their numbers per room limited, with only one way in and one way out, no going back and forth, no crossing paths, with keepers feverishly reminding you what not to do. And there we were.

“I was early so I stopped on the way to have a double espresso. I sat at the small caffè’s terrace despite the sub-zero temperature and held the warm china cup in my hands, watching the vapour curling in the sunshine. I was reprising some old European rituals. Some moments in life are exquisite. The organisation of the Accademia was a little shambolic, they had not had visitors for months, they too had to re-adjust. The cloakroom and the shop were closed, visitors’ temperature had to be taken and their numbers per room limited, with only one way in and one way out, no going back and forth, no crossing paths, with keepers feverishly reminding you what not to do. And there we were.

The Saint Job Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini greeted me like an old friend. Inspired by an outbreak of plague in 1485, this ‘sacra conversazione’ (an art piece inviting different holy figures from different epochs into one place) is a feast for the eyes. It has everything: the architectural trompe l’oeil effects, star quality characters (Madonna and child, Saint Sebastian, Saint Dominic, Saint Louis, the Old Job, Saint John the Baptist), the theme of admirable endurance displayed by Saint Job and Saint Sebastian, and three little angels playing instruments. The angels especially caught my attention. One looks like he is daydreaming, another pondering and the third withdrawn, lost in his own world. Isn’t this the most perfect and reflective Renaissance beauty to stare at in our Covid times?”

“And those Renaissance colours! ‘The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most’, John Ruskin wrote in The Stones of Venice. How right he was,” Agnès Poirier writes in Life in Venice. (Painting: The Saint Job Altarpiece, c. 1487, by Giovanni Bellini; oil on panel, 471 × 258 cm. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)

“From the Accademia, I continued my pilgrimage and walked towards the Doge’s Palace. The streets and canals were so quiet, I could hear the sound of my footsteps on the cobblestones, the cries of seagulls above and the cadence of water lapping against old pink bricks eaten away by salt. The absence of tourists suddenly made the city so visible, so present, so alive, in other words so physical, just like art. At the Palazzo Ducale, there was one room in particular I wanted to see again: the Chamber of the Great Council, around 1300sqm in total, 53 metres long and 25 metres wide. I wondered how many of us would be there. In it, in the late 1580s, Tintoretto and his studio painted Il Paradiso, allegedly the largest canvas in the world, placed just behind the Doge’s Throne. Right in the middle, a path of divine light invites the souls of the Just to ascend to Heaven. There are said to be around 500 characters on this canvas. I stared ahead, trying to concentrate on a few of them. After a while, it felt as if I was one of them, as if I had been sucked into the canvas. I was in Heaven.”

Photograph: Nina Simone performing on a TV show filmed at BBC Television Centre in London, 1966, by David Redfern.

Nina Simone, as a musician, understood the universality of being human. Music, after all, is our common emotional language. It does not know age, or race, or class, or gender. Though it informs each, it is available to all. Protest music, specifically, is nothing more than a complaint when such equality — a condition articulated by our founders, but not yet fully achieved — is violated.

‘It’s funny about music,’ she said at the end of the Down Beat interview. ‘Music is one of the ways by which you can know everything which is going on in the world. You can feel…through music…Whew…you can feel the vibrations of everybody in the world at any given moment. Through music you can become sad, joyful, loving, you can learn. You can learn mathematics, touch, pacing…Oh my God! Ooh…Wow…You can see colors through music. Anything! Anything human can be felt through music, which means that there is no limit to the creating that can be done with music. You can take the same phrase from any song and cut it up so many different ways — it’s infinite. It’s like God…you know?’” — Tom Maxwell, A History of American Protest Music: When Nina Simone Sang What Everyone Was Thinking

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought