The Boston Citgo sign, all 3,600 square LED feet of which has served as the backdrop to Red Sox games since 1965, is now officially a "pending landmark."

Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí spent much of the 1940s in the U.S., avoiding World War II and its aftermath. He was a well-known fixture on the art scene in Monterey, Calif. — and that's where the largest collection of Dalí's work on the West Coast is now open to the public.

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The middle of summer is when the surprises in publishing turn up. I'm talking about those quietly commanding books that publishers tend to put out now, because fall and winter are focused on big books by established authors. Which brings us to The Dream Life of Astronauts, by Patrick Ryan, a very funny and touching collection of nine short stories that take place in the 1960s and '70s around Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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This is the first in a series of essays concerning our collective future. The goal is to bring forth some of the main issues humanity faces today, as we move forward to uncertain times. In an effort to be as thorough as possible, we will consider two kinds of threats: those due to natural disasters and those that are man-made. The idea is to expose some of the dangers and possible mechanisms that have been proposed to deal with these issues. My intention is not to offer a detailed analysis for each threat — but to invite reflection and, hopefully, action.


Investigations Of Experience

Feb 15, 2013

The painter Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) is not well-known, even in his native Germany. He was tiny and ugly and never married; he wrote in his will that "there is a lack of any kind of self-made bond between me and the outside world." Perhaps this lack of bond is what made it possible for him to devote himself so totally to the task of making pictures.

Menzel drew constantly. He drew everything. He drew with his left hand and with his right. He drew on napkins and on the backs of menus. No social event was so formal, or so intimate, it seems, as to quiet his active hands.

I heard a great writer say recently that her inspiration comes from an impulse to record, document, fix the moment, to hold on to time, to put things in words.

Menzel must have shared this impulse. But there was more to Menzel's mania.

Plato thought of the painter as merely recording an image that was delivered to the senses; it's easy to make a picture of anything, he wrote; you simply hold a mirror up to it.

Anyone who has tried to draw knows that Plato got this wrong. It isn't easy to make pictures. It is painstaking. It requires physical effort and thought.

Plato's mistake went deeper. The human action of seeing is, for Plato, also akin to holding up a mirror to the world. What we see are nothing but images.

Enter Menzel, whose work embodies a commitment to the refutation of this Platonic idea.

Sure, we look about and we name what we see. But really seeing, really noticing, discerning, finding, discriminating? This is not easy and maybe not even possible.

The world is not a given. We need to work for it, as we need to work to build a painting or reason out a drawing. First you look here. Then you look there. The visible world outstrips what can be taken in at a glance. Seeing is active, and thoughtful. It requires a philosophical eye.

And the sketches of this compulsive and unstoppable artist, no less than his oil paintings and his gouaches, are not so much documentations of what there is, as they are investigations of the way we manufacture our own experience.

Go to the Old National Gallery in Berlin and visit with one of Menzel's smaller paintings of the 1840s such as The Balcony Room. Ask yourself this question, what do I see? Give yourself the time to realize how very difficult it is to say.

In my case, Menzel taught me that art can be a way of doing philosophy.

The quote from Menzel's will is taken from Michael Fried's beautiful book Menzel's Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Berlin (Yale University Press, 2002). My whole approach to Menzel is indebted to Fried.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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