The Coffee Shop
by Donald DeMarco
Good art rings true. The word “ring” is just right because it resonates nicely with the sound of the alarm clock that wakens people to a new day. Unlike the alarm clock, however, good art awakens the somnolent to moral verities. Consider, for example, Picasso’s Guernica and Michelangelo’s masterpiece that decorates the vault of the Sistine Chapel. Good philosophy may be sound, but it may leave people sound asleep. The combination of art and philosophy can not only awaken people, but can enable them to smell the coffee.
Art can be prophetic, an early alarm that warns people of approaching storms. The artist, to borrow Ezra Pound’s phrase, is the “antennae of the race”. He senses certain distortions or contradictions in society and gives them coherent expression before they become widespread. Dostoevsky did not live long enough to see the abominations that he predicted; Solzhenitsyn experienced them first hand.
Edward Hopper painted Nighthawks in 1942. It is an icon of anonymity and alienation. The artist himself saw it as an image of “the loneliness of a large city”. In the painting, three customers and a counter server are present in a coffee shop late at night when nothing else, apparently, is going on. They are, as one critic remarks, “as remote from each other as they are from the viewer”. The shop is painted with no discernable doorway, a somewhat disturbing image that brings to mind Jean Paul Sartre’s most celebrated play, No Exit, in which three misfits personify Hell as “other people”.
The uncommunicative night-owls are frozen in time in what seems to be a sealed environment. They appear to exist without goal or purpose. T. S. Eliot may have captured their mood in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock when he wrote, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”.
The painting conveys a clear moral message: it is not good for human beings to be strangers to each other, to have nothing to do late at night except drink coffee, to inhabit an environment that is devoid of any hint of vitality or cordiality, a place where the only warmth is in the coffee cups. Another critic senses a “menacing air” that haunts the interior of the coffee shop.
The Art Institute of Chicago purchased Nighthawks not long after it was completed for $3,000. It has remained there ever since. But has it retained its moral force? Unfortunately, in our consumer culture, good art often decays into a cliché. Hopper’s most famous work of art has been the subject of endless parody. In one version, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Humphrey Bogart inhabit the shop. Another version features cartoon characters. Prints of Nighthawks are readily available through the internet. It is now very much part of the commercial landscape, a tired cliché that has lost much of its original moral force.
The transition from art to cliché results in the weakening of a work of art’s moral power. We wonder how that original power can be revived at the present time when it is needed more than ever before. Do we now take anonymity and alienation for granted and no longer see them as aberrations? Have we allowed them, almost without noticing, to enter into the fabric of our everyday lives and even, heaven forbid, into our most sacred precinct of personal intimacy procreation? Could the stolid environment of Hopper’s coffee shop in any way be replacing the marriage bed? Such a suggestion sounds utterly fantastical! But a world without moral values is utterly fantastical.
The October 2, 2011 issue of Newsweek features an article entitled “The Coffee Shop”. In this instance, the coffee shop remains a scene of anonymity and alienation, but one that has, indeed, become a setting for human procreation. The article draws attention to three coffee shop customers. Two are lesbians who are “married” to each other; the third is a sperm donor. The man enters the bathroom and exits with a sperm-filled latex cup. One of the lesbians takes the cup into the other bathroom and attaches it to her cervix. And then, as writer Tony Dokoupil states, “the three sat down for coffee together”. No conception resulted, a non-event that seems to mar the trio’s elaborate strategy.
We have given too wide a berth in today’s society to anonymity and alienation. With little if any moral realization, we have allowed them to substitute for the fruitful intimacy expressed between husband and wife. In the attempt to make all marital relationships equal (and offend no one in the process), society has unwittingly brought about a radical depreciation of the moral value of conjugal intimacy, and, at the same time, a wholly gratuitous promotion of impersonal and alienated forms of procreation. Two-in-one flesh and one in each public bathroom are now presumed to be equal.
What forms of new art do we need in order to cast a revealing spotlight on the present moral confusion? Can we still rely on the timeless relevance of Shakespeare, Dante, Brueghel, Da Vinci, Beethoven, or Plato? If art does not degenerate into a cliché, it is now routinely deconstructed into a text, purged of any moral significance and as ambiguous as a Rorschach Test inkblot. As University of Leeds professor Frank Ellis has complained, “the Bible, Shakespeare, and rap ‘music’ are just texts with ‘equally valid perspectives’”.
We raise a triumphant banner to equality when we should be writing an epitaph for the death of moral meaning. We have become deconstructed, as C.S. Lewis warned in his 1947 classic, The Abolition of Man, into “men without chests”. So eviscerated, we may well wonder if we have also become men without hope?
Donald DeMarco, a frequent contributor to Voices, is professor emeritus of philosophy at Saint Jerome’s University, Ontario, and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Mater Ecclesiae College. Dr. DeMarco is well-known as a writer for Catholic publications, and for his numerous books, including The Many Faces of Virtue.
WFF is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible.
Membership Donation - $25.00 a year
you will receive Voices quarterly
Foreign Membership Donation - $35 a year
you will receive Voices quarterly
Voices copyright © 1999-Present Women for Faith & Family. All rights reserved.
All material on this web site is copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without prior written permission from Women for Faith & Family,except as specified below.
Permission is granted to download and/or print out articles for personal use only.
Brief quotations (ca 500 words) may be made from the material on this site, in accordance with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, without prior permission. For these quotations proper attribution must be made of author and WFF + URL (i.e., “Women for Faith & Family www.wf-f.org.)
Generally, all signed articles or graphics must also have the permission of the author. If a text does not have an author byline, Women for Faith & Family should be listed as the author. For example: Women for Faith & Family (St Louis: Women for Faith & Family, 2005 + URL)
Link to Women for Faith & Family web site.
Other web sites are welcome to establish links to www.wf-f.org or to individual pages within our site.