“In my heart I thought that only beautiful things should be painted, and that only ancient things and the stuff of dreams were beautiful.” Yeats said that once in reference to the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s an absurd statement on the face of it. You can’t just hold out for beauty and dreams. We all know that. We all have to grow up, just as civilization has grown up, moving from the pre-modern days of myth and fable to the enlightened present, a disenchanted era in which we see the universe as it really is. Right?

“The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875.” Through January 30. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Pre-Raphaelites weren’t so sure. In case you’ve forgotten, the Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists (the Pre-Raphaelite Brethren) in mid-19th-century England who decided that… More…

It’s a shame the 20th century was such an unrelenting nightmare. Especially if you were anywhere near Central or Eastern Europe (though by no means exclusively so). Those who perished more often than not perished in suffering and fear. Those who lived had to make do.

“Making do” could mean a lot of things. Keeping your mouth shut while the Nazis rounded up everyone else on the block. Mentioning something you overheard your neighbor say to the local Stasi agent to deflect suspicion from yourself. Perhaps outright collaboration with the secret police. It was a dirty business, and it reached down deep. We like to pretend of ourselves and our heroes that there was a way to remain untainted. But that was the cruel genius of the police states of the 20th century. Whether out of Soviet or National Socialist motivations the point of the total state was to reach… More…