Ideas are scary

They come into this world ugly and messy

Ideas are frightening

Because they threaten what is known

They are the natural born enemy of the way things are

Yes, ideas are scary

And messy

And fragile

But under the proper care

They become something beautiful.

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This General Electric ad is now back on the air, and might leave you “mildly unsettled.” The petit truth here is that the world can indeed be a hostile place for new ideas. The grand truth of this strange little story is that beauty is not the only inhabitant of eye of the beholder, but beauty’s inverse — the repulsive — resides there as well. Idea enters the world as a hairy, innocent, woebegone allegory. He is not only an unheimlich twinned embodiment of both disgust and beauty, but also an embodiment of the potential of each of those qualities — both in him and in us. Once Idea undergoes the allegorical transformation, from abstract idea to the gritty world of (filmic) actuality, the hostility he encounters seems to emit from the visceral depths of his tormentors. The hate Idea endures is borne in reptilian-brain reflex.

Art trains us to overcome this reflex. To be able to realize the work of art, in both Panofsky’s and Sedlmayr’s sense, we are required to approach the work with the kindness of an open mind — a deliberate attitude of rigorous empathy, responsibility, and humility. Art history, on the other hand, requires no such effort. Art historians, generally, spend surprisingly little time in the presence of art, preferring, instead, the library. Digging up citations requires far more tenacity than it does tolerance.

There is an important lesson from, of all places, the military-industrial complex, for art historical disciplinarians and other brittle thinkers in this odd ad — ideas aren’t bad, it’s the resistance to them that is so ugly.

— Michael Westfall