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May 13, 2010

Gavel yes; easel no

Pity the poor nominees to the Supreme Court. Not one ever fulfills our polymorphous desires. Why cannot Elena Kagan be, in addition to all that she is, a child of the Montana grasslands; an evangelical convert; half Asian; and a proud alumna of the University of Georgia -- how 'bout them dawgs.

Well, Elena, you're likable enough. Still, I confess that my heart sank when I read what your fellow law clerk, Carol Steiker, had to say about your turn away from private practice.

At some point probably in the late 1980s, Kagan had an encounter with a young associate at a mergers and acquisitions firm. According to Steiker:

"He was single and he had no family and he was earning -- the sum seemed unimaginable -- $750,000 a year as a young partner.  So she asked the guy, 'What do you do with all that money?' And he said, 'I buy art.'  I remember her telling that story and just shaking her head."

It is fine, laudable even, not to be motivated by money. But why so dismissive of the desire to purchase art? Does art leave Kagan cold?

If so, and if she is confirmed, she is apt to find herself in good company. The current members of the Supreme Court are not generally known for their great love of art. The one exception may be Stephen Breyer, who floored a curator at a dinner party some years ago when he brought up Poussin.

Breyer deserved the credit. Hardly anybody brings up Poussin. Monet maybe, or Picasso. But not Poussin.

You would first have to know that Poussin is perhaps the greatest French painter of an under-appreciated period in French art history (the 17th Century). And then you would have to be open to figures in classical drapery; cherubs here and there; and strangely lit landscapes with the occasional Greek temple tucked amid the trees.

Breyer is avid about architecture too: he helped oversee the design and construction of the Moakley Federal Courthouse, in Boston. (Take it away, Robert Campbell?) But otherwise, art's standing among the justices is a bit shaky.

To be sure, not all art forms suffer equally. The Supreme Court has its share of opera buffs. They include Ruth Ginsburg; Antonin Scalia, who is loud about it; and Anthony Kennedy, who is quiet. (Scalia and Ginsburg both had roles last year in a Washington National Opera production of "Ariadne auf Naxos.") Elena Kagan also reportedly loves opera. (Barring a few fans who have yet to declare themselves, this particular devotion would bring the court to another of those nasty 5-4 splits that are so debilitating for the nation. You are herewith warned.)

But there seems to be a special gulf between visual art and the legal profession.

The young associate who so appalled Elena Kagan was probably not the only lawyer buying art in those days. But most were probably not. Some lawyers will put a Daumier print on the wall, congratulate themselves and leave it at that. But many more will not go even that far.

And maybe it does not matter.

But if art is good for people (a point that thank heaven needn't be argued here), then it is presumably good for lawyers. (No lawyer jokes, please.) However, I like to think something more is at stake among those lawyers who become judges.

Interpreting the law demands a constant boxing up of the world into analytical categories. To the extent that judges to do this, they limit and inevitably falsify experience. At best, you get opinions built on an incomplete version of reality.

Think of the visual imagination needed to grasp the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which has been pumping an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, for more than three weeks now. Can any judgment about the damage be complete without such imagining? Moreover, how to interpret the photographs of the spill, some of them eerily beautiful?

A discerning eye does more than keep a judge well-rounded. It keeps her responsive to what she beholds, and to all that resists interpretation.

Like all the senses, seeing is among the wellsprings of empathy. It was unfortunate for all of us that empathy became such a dirty word during the Sotomayor hearings, because empathy vitally balances the work of interpreting. The visual universe reminds us constantly of the inadequacy of language. Yet the law, even with its self-acknowledged limits, constantly reaches toward absolutes through language. A person who loves looking at art may still love the law, but she will beware ever confusing it with truth.

May 13, 2010 9:20 AM | | Comments (1)


Damn, Art was one expensive guy!

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