Monday, June 29, 2009

A Word from Jacques Maritain to Michael Jackson

Why is it weird that Michael Jackson has died? Miriam-Webster defines weird as "an unearthly or supernatural strangeness, or it may stress queerness or oddness." Weird things usually land somewhere between the boundary of Normal and Supra-Normal. The "King" of Pop dies in debt. That's weird.

The Most Successful Entertainer of all Time, according to Guiness World Records--13 Grammy Awards, thirteen #1 singles, the sale of 750 million records worldwide--never learns how to be an adult. That's weird.

On November 21, 2008, Michael Jackson, in the presence of Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens), converts to Islam. That's weird, weird because it follows no clearly discernal logic of human behavior. What did all his facial surgeries produce? A sad and unearthly strangeness. Or in street speak: creepiness.

Michael's total lifetime earnings are estimated at $500 million, while his debt approaches $400 million. That's weird.

The parents of one of the most powerful artists of our day question whether their son died with a valid will. The fact that his family is squabbling over what kind of funeral to hold for Michael just makes things weirder, not in a weirder-than-other-normal-family-funeral weirdness, just weird in its own hyper-exposed way.

Farrah Fawcett dies on the same day. News of Michael's death plows like a juggernaut over her news. Farrah, the sex symbol of the '70s, dies of anal cancer. That's weird. The New York Times publishes an article with the title, "Farrah Fawcett, a Sex Symbol Who Aimed Higher." It's a title that strikes me as downright weird. What exactly is a 'sex symbol'? What exactly does it mean for a sex symbol to aim 'higher'? And what is a sex symbol who dies of anal cancer? In a word: weird.

Both Michael and Farrah, both haunted by their alter ego in the pin-up poster world, lived a pathetic life, chock full of pathos. The NYT writer notes this about Farrah:

"A scrim of sadness covers Farrah Fawcett's career. Her stardom traced that cautionary Hollywood arc: meteoric fame followed by years spent trying first to overcome it, then, too late, seeking to recapture it."

I feel sympathy for the way that Farrah might have felt tossed around like a puppet in the Hollywood machine. But I equally feel it's pathetic to see her try to recapture fame. Did it not terrify her the first time around?

After his 2005 child abuse trial, Jackson flees to Bahrain to hide away from the oppressive glare of the public eye. The public eye wanted to behold him, like a god, night and day. They wanted to know what Michael ate (strictly vegetarian), what he wore (rhinestone-studded gloves), how he parented (lovingly, apparently), how he failed (multiply just like Us), the amount of money he spent on vacation ($10,000 for in-flight goods on Swiss Air) and the way he dealt with regret (he built the Neverland Ranch). The man adored by millions hid from them by lodging with sheikhs in the Middle East.

In his music he bridged ages and races. He danced with the energy of James Brown and the grace of Fred Astaire. He redefined the music video. Elizabeth Taylor named him "The King of Pop," while George H. W. Bush proclaimed him "Artist of the Decade" for the 1980s. The American Music Awards honored him as Artist of the Century. The German-based Hubert Berda Media conferred on him the Pop Artist of the Millenium Award.

But how, pray God, do you top that? "Greatest Artist of the Last 10,000 Years? Bezalel at #2"?

Humans cannot bear the weight of this kind of mass adoration. Nor are humans meant to give anyone but God their total devotion. When we place our adoration on another human being, we crush them with our neediness. When a human being seeks this kind of adoration, it disfigures them.

Jesus once said, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?" Michael gained the whole "world," yet it came at the cost of his own anxieties and obsessions. And to what extent were we his audience complicit in the forfeiture of his soul? Perhaps more than we're willing to admit.

To my mind, it is a basic question of health. What does it mean to be a whole and hale and even happy, healthy artist?

I believe a healthy artist is one who is integrated and fruitful. That understanding comes out of my reading of Genesis and the Gospels. But I like how the French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) puts it. In his essay "On Christian Art," he says to talk of Christian art is as if we were to talk about the art of the bee or the art of man. Christian art is nothing less and certainly nothing more than "the art of humanity redeemed."

"It is implanted in the Christian soul, by the side of the running waters, under the sky of the theological virtues, amid the breaths of the seven gifts of the Spirit. It is natural for it to bear Christian fruit."

By nature we are all of us broken. But grace heals our wounds. And but for the grace of God, any one of us could end up as profoundly disoriented as Michael or Farrah.

Echoing Augustine, Maritain locates the specific identity of Christian art in the interior life of the artist. The art of redeemed humanity, or the Christ-transformed humanity, cannot be limited to any particular kind of object or style. On the contrary, as Maritain insists:

"Everything, sacred and profane, belongs to it. It is at home in the whole range of man's industry and joy. Symphony or ballet, film or novel, landscape or still life, vaudeville or opera, it can be as apparent in them all as in the stained-glass windows and statues of churches."

On this understanding, the movie The Apostle, in which Farrah plays the neglected wife of a Pentecostal preacher, or Jackson's, call me crazy, famous Moonwalk could be regarded as Christian. How so? The movie shows sin as sin and grace as grace and neither are made easy for us. Michael's dance move is fun, athletic, silly, mesmerizing and as unnecessary as grace. The songs could stand on their own. But adding dance introduces an excess of joy; and if grace is anything, it is an excess, among other things, of God's joy.

What is it that secures us as artists? What is it that protects us from turning our gift into an idol? How do we guard against the crushing weight of our own power as artists, our power to create and our power to influence? Again I believe Maritain gets it right. The art of humanity redeemed will be powerful and beautiful, he says:

"only on the condition that it overflows from a heart possessed by grace. . . . And if the beauty of the work is Christian, it is because the appetite of the artist is rectified in regard to such a beauty, and because Christ is present in the soul of the artist by love."

The work will be Christian, he adds, "in proportion as the love is alive." This isn't a feelings-based love. This is the love of Christ, humbled and broken, and thus both beautiful and powerful.

How then do we pursue a healthy and fruitful life as artists? Maritain answers: seek to be a saint. You will be a great artist, regardless of your productivity, if you seek to be possessed by love. That is what it means to be a saint, to live in love, to live with and to be possessed by Christ. Then, Maritain insists, the artist "may go and do as he likes." Make your vaudevilles. Dance your moonwalks. Sink yourself fully into the neglected wife of a Pentecostal preacher and find Christ there.

I'm sad both Michael and Farrah have died. There's nothing I could ever do to prevent their death of course. We all die some day, famous people included. But I'm sad all the same. I was a Jackson fan in the '80s. I've attended a Michael Jackson dance party or two. I'm sad for the loss, the loss of their presence in the art world and the loss of so many things I imagine they wish they could have recovered over the course of their lives. “I never had the chance to do the fun things kids do,” Jackson once explained. “There was no Christmas, no holiday celebrating. So now you try to compensate for some of that loss.” Farrah lost the integrity of her physical body.

All I can do is pray. I can pray for their families. And I can certainly continue to pray for the artists I know, some of whom possess an uncommon giftedness, all of whom face the kinds of temptations, the "carnival of the uneducated passions," as Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it, that Michael and Farrah faced.

But for the grace of God, here we all go.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

800 Acres of Texas Living

"Unless you don't give a damn for painting, painting won't give a damn for you." -- the French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

Phaedra and I are officially in the transition tunnel. On the other side of this tunnel lies Durham, North Carolina: six weeks away. It's funny how stress multiplies like fruit flies in times like this. We're trying to keep our heads sane. Trips to the swimming pool and to the nacho bar at Chuy's certainly help, but there are moments when you wonder.

Anyhoo, we had a chance to go on a family vacation last week. That'd be my side of the family: mom and dad, Cliff and Christine and the kids, Stephanie and Scranton and the kids. We spent four days in the middle of west Texas, near a small town called Goldthwaite. I love that name. It's a name that belongs in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Our temporary home was a quintessentially Texas ranch: 800 acres, a small pond, a herd of Longhorn cattle, tractors, guns, a go-kart. We ate ribs and brisket. We drank strange brews. We played Farkle.

We jumped on trampolines and fed catfish. Dad taught the grandsons how to shoot a b-b gun. Stephanie almost led us in a Dan In Real Life-esque family kick-boxing workout. (We ran out of time.) Phaedra and I slept with an AC unit, a ceiling fan and two floor fans. We made homemade ice cream (mint and bolders of dark chocolate). And on the last morning before we all took the rode home, we céilidh danced, or danced a céilidh , or jumped a jig, or however you say that. It was very fun.

Here are a few pictures from our west Texas getaway.

(Phaedra tearing it up on the go-kart.)

(The pond with the catfish.)

(Skye Warner looking cute as a button and ready to run through that sprinkler in the background.)

("Papa" teaching Brendan how to shoot right.)

(Phaedra holding some red-headed yumminess: Sohren Twohey.)

(Sohren and Speight: mad max boys.)

(The fam.)

(Early morning in the middle of nowhere and all is quiet on the Texas frontier.)


(Cruising with the boys.)


(Dancing with the Stars.)


(Riding down our dinner.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Top Ten: Lewis, Siedell, Russian lit, Nietzsche, rockalicious hair et al

(PHOTO: Myself, Malcolm Guite, John Perkins and another dude standing outside the Great Hall at Duke University.)

I'm incapable of writing a coherent blog right now. I'm going to drop a Top Ten instead.

1. CS Lewis' Experiment in Criticism.
I have to say: Lewis is a rockstar. I just finished reading Experiment and find yet again that his writing style is eminently satisfying. I especially appreciate it as I'm about to enter Graduate School Land. It's the land where smart people live. They live and they write books. Thank God for the good people who produce good scholarship. But intelligence, even brilliance, is no guarantee that a man can generate clean, crisp English--or German or any language. We should pass a law that forbids the publication of turgid writing. It's criminal what some scholars get away with. So I thank my lucky stars when I read a sentence like this from Lewis:

"Escape, then, is common to many good and bad kinds of reading. By adding 'ism to it, we suggest, I suppose, a confirmed habit of escaping too often, or for too long, or into the wrong things, or using escape as a substitute for action where action is appropriate, and thus neglecting real opportunities and evading real obligations."

That, my friends, is a dog that will hunt. That is a philosophy of reading that pastors and parents and artists and school principals and anybody who cares about the moral health of the civitas should meditate upon.

Here's another juicy turn of phrase. Speaking of our envy as adults of childhood (the things we should naturally envy, that is), he includes "its well-thatched scalp." A full head of hair performs the job fine. But a well-thatched scalp is vivid and, I'm not sure why, funny.

2. Dan Siedell's God in the Gallery.
I've just finished writing my review of Siedell's book for Books & Culture. I only had 800 words to work with, so now I have reams of pages full of commentary that will go nowhere but around my head and perhaps into this blog. Along the way I wrote down a list of general observations. I noted that Siedell, at bottom, seems to be asking for an overhaul of the way we live and move and have our artistic being as Protestants. Tall task that. The kind of overhaul he has in mind, I believe, would implicate the following general habits:

- our discomfort with unsolved mystery
- our ambivalence about the goodness of the material world
- our aversion to contemplation over against action
- our allergic reaction to the senses vis-a-vis the rational
- our insecurities about the paucity of visual artistry in our history
- our prejudice against the visual, as if it pulled us ineluctably, like a STAR WARS tractor beam, into idolatry
- our assumption that a de-nuded worship space is more holy and therefore pleasing to God than an "ornamented" one. (The fact that God lingers with our primal mother and father in a sensory overloaded garden seems to always be ignored.)

3. "It's not a program, stupid." That's not the politest way to speak but it gets the message across. As I sat in our all-day meeting at Duke Divinity, talking about the future of a theology and arts institute, it struck me that a lot of our comments revolved around programs and activities. There wasn't a stupid person in the room of course. People were offering great suggestion--suggestions I want in on. But a light bulb went off in my head at one point. It's gone off before.

It's a light bulb that made it into the Introduction of my book. If we really want to experience the kind of environmental conditions in which the arts will flourish in a Protestant setting--in the same way that the fruit and flora of God's creation flourish, both in kind and degree--then we don't need programs. The best program money could buy would still not accomplish what we yearn to see. What we need is a different theological and practical ecology. We need a different tradition.

I'm talking about a massive overhaul of a culture. In such a culture every bit of labor, every bit of a program matters. But what a culture has that a program the size of Jupiter doesn't have is positive inertia. That's what we need. We need for the current to be constantly and positively running in the direction of artistic flourishment, not fighting against us half the time.

4. It always makes me happy when I see Phaedra working on her art. She's doing that right now. Poor woman, she's stuck in that miserably hot garage of ours. I'm proud of her, though, the heat and mosquitoes be damned.

5. Our friggin AC is running night and day, world without end. It's hot in Austin, Texas. I'm starting to go batty.

6. Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

7. And from the mind of Gilbert Keith: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Chesterton, that is.

8. I am completely jealous of this man's beard.

9. Russian Literature: Olga Grushin's The Dream Life of Sukhanov. St. John the Forerunner Orthodox Church here in town has invited me to come speak to their community about art. We have some good friends who attend there. I'm excited to be going. It'll be great. Father Aidan told me one of the things that they want to talk about is Grushin's novel. I just picked up a copy at Half Price. The New York Times thinks it's a good book. I've only gotten a few pages into it. I'm not crazy about her handling of adjectives, but no worries, I have another 336 pages of story to discover and it's been a while since I read anything by a Russian.

10. Beautiful art. I've had a stimulating exchange of late with Bobette Rose from Madison, Wisconsin. She's created a series of encaustic paintings that I find very beautiful. Here is one I particular love; and with this I wish you a merry June 12.