Giving You a Piece of My Mind

One of the most important pieces of advice for those who engage in any kind of public communications practice is to know your audience. Whether you are giving a speech, writing a blog post, or tweeting a comment, having some idea of the knowledge possessed by your audience will help you to get your point across effectively. At the same time, we ought not to shy away from opening up the possibility for discussion in an area with which perhaps the members of our audience may not be familiar. There is a fine line to walk between engaging the listener/reader and having their eyes glaze over, but we have a duty not only to encourage a greater curiosity about the world in which we live, but also to have people stop and ask questions about why we are the way we are.

This was brought home to me yesterday in court when, in chatting with opposing counsel and the court reporter, I made reference to the great Japanese-American furniture designer Isamu Noguchi. This took place in the context of a discussion over what to do with the remaining remnants of the trunk of a fallen black walnut tree. The blank stares I received brought home to me that this audience was not aware of Noguchi’s work, but it also gave me a brief opportunity to explain it to them.  To my relief, an explanation of Noguchi’s method turned the lead balloon into something more buoyant.

Noguchi, for those of my readers who are unfamiliar with his work, wore many artistic hats, including that of sculptor and landscape architect.  However he is perhaps most famous in this country for his extraordinary furniture designs. While his work as a conventional sculptor leaves me unimpressed, his furniture concepts, beginning with the creation of the now-iconic “Noguchi Table” in 1939 for MoMA, then later collaboration with the legendary Herman Miller furniture company, and continuing on his own later in his career to combine furniture and sculpture using monumental materials, are oftentimes extraordinary examples of sensitivity to the natural form.

Particularly as he got older, Noguchi became more interesting as he moved away from the amoeba-like forms that defined the earlier period of his output, forms which were copied by so many lesser furniture companies that the idea eventually became rather diluted and somewhat kitsch. Later in life he began to use massive boulders, stones and ancient timbers to create seating, tables, and the like by paying attention to the natural formation of the material, with its strengths and weaknesses, cracks and fault lines, and working on a piece just to the point where he felt it was no longer in the rough, and yet still maintained its raw natural qualities. Earlier designers from the Art Nouveau period, such as Gaudí, would have greatly appreciated his thought process and output.

The idea here is not (necessarily) to have the reader form an opinion about the work of this particular designer, but to illustrate a point. If you have never heard of Noguchi before, now you have. I have given you a very basic, indeed perhaps overly simplistic, concept of his approach to design which is now resident in your head. Not to be too precious about it, but I have shared some of my knowledge with you, almost as if I had downloaded a copy of part of my brain into yours.

Consider the many implications and possibilities of what that means, and what a powerful thing it is to share your knowledge of things you are fascinated by with others. I have planted an idea in your head: will it germinate? Will you take the time to go read about Noguchi, Herman Miller, American mid-century art, and so on?

Now imagine that we are not talking about a Japanese-American designer and his appreciation of nature, but rather that we are talking about something at a higher level. If during a drinks party chat I tell you, an agnostic who is curious about why the Catholic Church believes what it does in the face of so many competing modern philosophies, briefly about the work of G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, what might the end result be? If we are sitting on a train and not going anywhere anytime soon, and you raise some points about American history and culture that seem misinformed, so I point you toward someone like Alexis de Tocqueville, is there the chance that you may look into his ideas and subsequently change your own? And what would happen then?

My fellow Catholics know that we must always remain aware of Christ’s command that we go teach all nations, as something we could be called to act upon at any moment. Sometimes, like the Apostle St. Philip when he met the Ethiopian court official on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza in Acts 8:26-40, we have one of those moments when a real opportunity for engaging in apologetics, or discussion of natural law, arises because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. However we do not necessarily need to go about looking for people on the road to Gaza, Emmaus, Rome, or anywhere else for that matter.  It is in how we live and interact with other people that we can provide such an opportunity.

If the people whom we meet professionally or socially find us to be interesting, well-rounded individuals, who want to educate ourselves about the world in which we live while at the same time maintaining the ideals and standards we believe in, we will naturally find ourselves in the kinds of teaching situations described above, even if we are not aware of it ourselves at the time. We do not know what little seed we will plant, that will later germinate into something grand and beautiful, as a result of sharing a bit of our own thinking with others.  The important point is to plant it, and hope that it takes root.  And like in Noguchi’s naturalistic designs, we can only hope that the beauty of Creation, which is ultimately a reflection of the beauty of God Himself, will come through.

The Noguchi Table