Author Archives: Peter

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

color-blindness makes it to an art museum

I am color-blind. I have the common red/green type sometimes called Daltonism.

I do not mind. In fact, I don’t think I would accept a permanent “cure,” if there were one. I might like to experience the colors that most sighted people see, but I wouldn’t want to leave the world I know on a one-way journey. I love what I experience.

Miguel Fructuoso, Maria Sanchez and Miguel Angel Tornero are established Spanish artists. Although Fructuoso was born in 1971, he was recently diagnosed with Daltonism. I am curious about that story. Adults realized that I was color-blind when I was still a little kid. Fructuoso is a painter, and he has the same physical condition I do. I am not sure how he remained undiagnosed for half a century. It has been suggested, but not widely accepted, that the English landscape painter Constable was color-blind at a time before that condition was recognized.

In any case, Fructuoso’s realization “initiated an intense collaboration” with Sanchez and Tornero, who have co-produced works as “formal exercises” that help them to explore “empathy and exclusion, the rare and the common, individualism and the collectivity.”

They have created several such works for the Centro Jose Guerrero in Granada. Guerrero was born here in 1914, spent a considerable portion of his life as an abstract expressionist painter in New York City, and died in Barcelona in 1991. He was known for vivid color. That makes his eponymous museum a perfect location for an exhibition about color-blindness.

The photo (above) that illustrates this post shows a painting by Guerrero from ca. 1970 (I think), copied by the three contemporary artists, with color-blind “Bill” choosing the paints. Yes, the two images look very similar to me, except along the top band.

Below is the result when many people with red/green color-blindness were offered a large selection of paints and asked to paint a line of a single color around the room in the Centro Jose Guerrero. Yes, I perceive a green line going all the way around.

Installation in the Centro Jose Guererro (Granada) showing a line painted by many color-blind people. Many would perceive it as changing color,

And here, the artists have reproduced the standard tests for color-blindness as gallery works in paint and print. (No, I cannot see any numbers, but I do like these images.)

Color blindness test reproduced as a paining for the show Daltons at Centro Jose Guererro, Granada

Since I have not felt mistreated as a result of color-blindness, I was not deeply moved by the exhibition’s message of empathy and inclusion, although it’s certainly benign. And I suppose I am sympathetic to Fructuoso, although he has done very well in a conceptual/expressionist mode.

I find aesthetic questions about color-blindness interesting. For example, how might we compare the art that I see (and love) to what most of you see? Does it matter that I don’t see what was intended? And how should I feel, as a person with Daltonism, about monochrome art, expressionist art that is meant to look different from the real world, or impressionist works that reproduce nature’s colors for me even though both the paintings and their objects look different to you?

propose sessions for Frontiers of Democracy 2023

Proposals for sessions at the annual Frontiers of Democracy conference are due by March 31. You can propose a session here.
You are also encouraged to register and purchase tickets soon since space is limited.
Proposals are welcome on any topic at the “frontiers of democracy”—for instance, political reform, organizing and social movements, dialogue and deliberation, journalism and media, civic education from K-12 to college or community settings, nonviolent resistance, collaborative governance, social entrepreneurship, democratic theory, online forums and tools, issues such as climate change or racial justice, engaged research methods, democracy in any region of the world, and more. Many formats are welcome with a preference for interactive designs over pure presentations.
The last face-to-face Frontiers conference before COVID-19 drew about 140 people, of whom 30% were nonprofit staff, 25% were scholars/researchers, 15% were educators, 5% were community-organizers, and the rest came from many fields, including the arts, philanthropy, business, and government. Most came from beyond the Boston area and a few from overseas.
Most proposals for 2023 are not expected to address the special theme: religious pluralism and robust democracy in multiracial societies. That theme will mainly be a topic for two of the plenary sessions, which will be panel discussions involving Cornell William BrooksBrandon Thomas CrowleyDiana EckAndrew HanauerAminta Kilawan-NarineEric LiuCristina MoonSimran Jeet SinghMichael Wear, and others to be named. Some conference participants may be interested in considering connections between religion and your proposed topic, but you do not have to mention religion in your proposal.
The submission form for a session requires a title and description for the conference agenda, some thoughts about your format and audience, and the contact information of confirmed collaborators.
This year’s conference will be in-person, not hybrid. However, session organizers may propose to include remote people in their own sessions.

Time and location: July 13 (5 – 7 PM) to July 15 (noon) on Tufts University’s Medford, MA campus near the Medford/Tufts Station on the Boston Green Line.

Cost: $240 for a standard ticket with discounts for current students. This includes hors d’oeuvres on July 13, breakfast and lunch on July 14, and breakfast and lunch on July 15. Other meals and lodgings are not provided.

sabbatical update

I’m in Granada, Spain, for three months, as part of a sabbatical. We’re living in a “carmen,” which is a “a type of urban housing” typical of two specific neighborhoods in this city, “with an attached green space, both garden and orchard, that constitutes an extension of the dwelling, according to the classic definition of Seco de Lucena. A Carmen is a space closed to the outside, surrounded by walls about two meters high, usually whitewashed, with lush vegetation” (per Wikipedia).

That describes our rented house quite well. We’re located near the summit of the Albaicin, the neighborhood of which the young Lorca wrote, “[El] tiene sonidos vagos y apasionados y esta’ envuelto en oropeles suaves de luz oscura” (“It harbors vague and passionate sounds and is wrapped in soft tinsels of dark light”). I see what he meant, but the views are usually crisp and vivid–with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada rising behind the sharp angles of the Alhambra–and the birds that provide most of the soundscape seem raucously cheerful rather than wistful for the lost world of al-Andalus.

I’m busy with several research projects that will benefit from concentration, including an interesting collaborative study that involves trying to diagram the logic of open-ended responses to a political survey. I appreciate the quiet hours when Americans are asleep, although I’m glad to hear from people once dawn breaks in the USA.

Although I’m certainly learning about Granada and Spain, I feel too much of a novice to post much about those topics yet. I presume I will blog normally about civic engagement and related matters.

politics without metaphysics?

During three recent talks on What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, I received interesting questions of a similar type.

In the book, I argue that human beings must come together in a whole variety of groups in order to learn what is right by discussing and acting together. I claim that this is our best way of pursuing wisdom.

The questions I received were about animals and/or the divine. Does my account presume that people are the only beings that fully count? That assumption could be cashed out as a metaphysical view–for instance, that human beings alone have free will and therefore represent the sole intrinsic goods. As such, it would conflict with many other metaphysical views–for instance, that all sentient beings have been given harmonious roles by their attentive creator.

My answer (hardly an original one) is fundamentally pragmatic. I think that discussing and acting with other human beings is the best way we have to make ourselves wise. We don’t have the option of including animals in our discussions because they can’t talk. And we don’t get direct and explicit divine instructions, unless perhaps very rarely.

This does not mean that animals don’t count or that there is no higher power. Perhaps we have very important duties toward other sentient creatures (which may require close attention to their expressed needs) and toward God or gods. But we must define and honor these duties by interacting with other human beings.

John Rawls is the most famous advocate of the idea that politics does not require metaphysics (see Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” 1985). I am saying something similar, except that my view is much more polycentric.

The main focus of Rawls’ thought is a constitutional democracy as the sovereign power in a nation. He sees a legitimate government as the mechanism for deciding what justice demands. Because its citizens have the right to hold their own religious and other fundamental views, a legitimate state must be neutral in relevant ways, which makes it “liberal” in a certain sense of that term.

I view any religious denomination as one of the venues in which people come together to decide what is right to do together and to learn from one another. It may be defined by certain metaphysical premises that all its members endorse (although that is not uniformly true of religions). Unlike Rawls, I do not see the liberal state as one uniquely legitimate umbrella organization set over the religious denominations and other groups. Rather, a society is a panoply of associations that have diverse purposes and assumptions, and the liberal state is simply the association that is charged with settling a range of issues that involve public law. The society as a whole generates wisdom (and folly, in various proportions).

Most of our associations have no need to be neutral about metaphysics. They are entitled to take strong positions about the divine, about nature, and about other philosophical questions. Still, all of them are necessarily groups of human beings, and the topic that interests me is how to design them to bring out the best in their members. That topic does not seem to require getting the metaphysics right.

Objection: When some groups of human beings gather to decide what they should do, they consult non-human sources. They pray, they study texts of revelation, or they commune with nature and try to learn from non-human animals. Must we not decide whether their beliefs are correct in order to assess their behavior? For instance, perhaps it is wise to pray to a divinity that exists but not otherwise. In that case, metaphysics must come before politics.

I would answer this objection from two different perspectives. First, as an individual, I must put myself in groups to learn from others and keep myself accountable to them. To some extent, I can choose which groups to join. Their core philosophical commitments are relevant to my decisions about membership. I should be less likely to join a group that I fundamentally disagree with, and some of those wouldn’t want me in the first place. However, core philosophical commitments represent one kind of consideration among others. Plenty of people are good members of religious communities despite doubts. In short, I can critically assess groups and join only my favorite ones, but I shouldn’t be too fastidious about these choices.

Second, as a citizen, I should be glad that there are many different groups. They reflect freedom of association and diversity. They contribute to the society-wide discussion. Not only should I fight for their First Amendment rights and tolerate their presence, but in many cases, I should actively learn from them. Even if I disagree with their metaphysics, they may have insights that would benefit me. From a different perspective: even if I am foolish in doubting their articles of faith, their divine inspiration can speak to me through their human members.

I often return to John Dewey’s formulation of “the democratic idea in its generic social sense” from The Public and Its Problems (1927). He proposes three principles. Everyone should belong to many groups, which must “interact flexibly and fully” with each other. These groups should derive the full benefit of all their members’ contributions. And people should be involved in “forming and directing the activities of the groups” to which they belong. This vision is all about human beings, but I don’t think it challenges either religious beliefs or deep concerns for nature. It is rather an idealistic account of how people–who may hold diverse fundamental views–should govern ourselves, because that is something we must do.

See also: modus vivendi theory; bootstrapping value commitments; what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; social justice from the citizen’s perspective; what secular people can get out of theology; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare, etc.