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The Danger of Pedestals



I recently had the interesting experience of someone being upset by some artwork I chose for my Facebook profile picture. The art in question is the sweet painting above, Great and Small by the talented artist Fran Downs (you should order a print -- really you should). The person felt that this work of art somehow desecrates the original, which is The Creation of Adam, part of the Sistine Chapel fresco ceiling paintings done by Michelangelo. No, the person concerned isn't Christian, at least not as far as I'm aware. They simply thought it was inappropriate to rework Michelangelo's original into a cutesy modern piece (which, frankly, I think is adorable, but maybe that's just me).

What got me was not so much that the person disliked the painting -- I see plenty of art that I don't like -- but that they were upset with me for liking it and displaying that like publicly. It took me a while to figure out why that might be, and it got me thinking about a certain aspect of the human psyche that makes us want to put people on a pedestal.

I'm no celebrity, not by a long shot, but some people do look to me as a spiritual leader or facilitator of sorts. And as happens when we look up to people we don't know very well (and even sometimes to people we do know well), it's easy to put that person on a pedestal, to see them as we want them to be rather than as they truly are.

We all do it. I know I've been surprised and a little disappointed to discover things about people I admire, from what they eat to their taste in books, movies, art, you name it. And of course, I'm always shocked when I learn that people I look up to have done horrible things (plagiarism, abuse, cheating on a spouse, the list goes on). When that happens, I have to remind myself that they're just people.

Sure, we create images in our minds of how we want our heroes to be. And that can help us decide how to live our lives, what to strive for, how to improve ourselves and the world around us. But those images aren't real. They're illusions, and when they come crashing down, it can be difficult to deal with. We might get angry or decide that nothing the person has done is worth our time, that their whole corpus should be discarded because they didn't turn out to be who we thought they were.

I'm not going to ignore Martin Luther King, Jr.'s contribution to the civil rights movement because he cheated on his wife. I look to the good things he did and remind myself that he was a fallible human being, doing his best, even if that best is disappointing to me.

I still love Marion Zimmer Bradley's books in spite of the horrible revelations about what she was like, what she did to her children and others. That's a real conflict for me, to be honest, especially because I was also abused as a child. I don't know what to do with it, but there it is. Love the books. Be disgusted by the author.

And then there are the smaller ones. The times I discovered that people I admired (maybe not such big names as King or Zimmer Bradley, but still) are right-wingers or think climate change is a hoax or are picky eaters or don't like cats. Nothing earth-shattering, but enough to seriously crack the illusion I had built in my mind.

When we admire people, public figures, that admiration typically stems from something they do: act in movies and TV shows, write books, work on the front lines of activism, and so on. It's natural to extrapolate from there. It's natural to want to think that everything else about them is something we would like, that everything else about them matches our tastes and our values and our beliefs. So we build up a mental image of how we're sure they must be, and when it turns out we're wrong, we get upset.

I don't guess there's much we can do to stop this process. I know I do it, and I see it all around me. Maybe it's just a natural human thing.

But ultimately, we need to remember that we're all humans, all fallible and imperfect and flawed. Shoot, some of us don't even like kitschy modern versions of Michelangelo's paintings. I guess you can't please everyone.

#ethics #symbolism #art #culture #psychology

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Copyright © 2020 by Laura Perry