Monday, June 25, 2012

The ordered love of art: Three Talks in Austin

St. Augustine once said that the virtuous person is the one who

has ordered his love, so that he does not love what it is wrong to love, or fail to love what should be loved, or love too much what should be loved less (or less too little what should be loved more), or love two things equally if one of them should be loved either less or more than the other, or love things either more or less if they should be loved equally.

While this may feel like a tangle of phrases and conditions, it is a much simpler vision of the faithful life than what is often on offer in our churches. We want someone to tell us the rules: do this, don't do this. We look for the formula: if you do X, Y and Z, the godly life is yours. We demand that the Bible answer every question we put to it, despite every evidence from the Scriptures themselves that they're not interested in answering all our self-involved questions.

What the Scriptures offer us instead is a Person. That Person introduces us to two other Persons, who in turn introduce us to a body of kindred-hearted people who together seek to indwell the kind of individual and communal pattern of life which the triune God eternally attests. The Scriptures furnish us a coherent vision of life. The Scriptures invite us to taste and see the world as God tastes and sees it.

The Scriptures, in short, summon us to love the Father as Christ by the Spirit loved him and then to do whatever we please, which is another way of saying doing whatever is necessary and good in the actual circumstances of our life.

This, I submit to you, involves an appreciation and enjoyment of the arts and of all things beautiful, however difficult they may be to discern on any given day.

In three weeks, on July 14-15, I'll be giving a triad of talks sponsored by Christ Church Anglican, in Austin, Texas. It's open to the public and I warmly welcome you to come if you're able. Here are three descriptions for each of the talks. For all other info, please go here, especially because you'll need to register for the first and third event on account of space limitations.

(All images, save that of St. Augustine himself, are in honor of the American Dance Festival, which occurs in our very own backyard here in Durham. I've included the PINA movie trailer below.)

"On Art, Beauty and a Flourishing Humanity" 

July 14,  Sat. 10 AM: "The Virtues & Practices of a Flourishing Artist" 
In this talk I explore four virtues and four corresponding practices that enable artists to flourish in any circumstance or station of life. A virtue, as Aristotle once explained, is a habit that disposes us to be the kind of person who does "the fitting thing in the fitting way at the fitting time for fitting reasons." A virtuous artist, by that reasoning, would know when to risk greatly, when to be cautious; when to pull out all the stops, when to plug away quietly without notice; when to labor, when to rest; when to stretch their audience, when to be gentle; and so on. Along with these ideas, we'll do a few individual and group exercises to tease things out practically.

July 15, Sun. 9 and 11 AM: "On the Place of our Physical Bodies in Corporate Worship" 
In this sermon I draw out the important role that our bodies play in corporate worship. Our bodies, I'll suggest, play both an active and a passive role, and if public worship is a place where we bring our whole humanity along with the whole of the people of God in a dramatic enactment of prayer and praise before the whole Godhead for the sake of the whole world, then what we do with our physical bodies contributes significantly to our discipleship as Christians. I'll consider this as a big idea but I'll also look at how it is worked out in the different movements of the Anglican liturgy. And we'll practice together!

July 15,  Sun. 6:45 pm: "On the Reconstructive Power of Beauty"
When you and I taste something beautiful in the world, we get a taste, even if only partially, of the shalom that marks God's world. When we expand beauty in the world, whether in small or in extravagant acts, whether in simple or complex works, whether in public or private, we enter into the kind of work that Christ by his Spirit is on about throughout all of creation. When we offer these kinds of experiences to our neighbors, they communicate, in mysterious fashion perhaps, a reconstructive power over against the destructive forces that surround us daily. In this talk I'll propose a provisional definition for beauty, offer a few ways in which an experience of beauty can become a reconstructive experience, and tie it all in to the kind of work that God has been on about since the beginning.

PINA - Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost - International Trailer from neueroadmovies on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On the vocation of an artist: Part I

Before reading this post, if you wish, go ahead and fill out the following sentence: "The vocation of an artist is...." Keep your answer in mind as you read this first of several entries exploring the vocation of an artist.

For an artist to choose to enter seriously into her calling is to enter into a very confused world. In the world at large, beyond the walls of Christendom, one encounters a babel of opinions. 

Matthew Fox, for example, the defrocked Dominican priest and author of the popular book Original Blessing, once argued that an artist is “a co-creator who births the mystic self or allows it to be born.” On this understanding a "cosmic christ" (lower case c) invites the artist to "give birth" to herself through new imagery by means of an innate capacity for transcendence. While the theology is questionable at best, this is the kind of counsel that in fact leaves artists more frustrated than freed because too much, rather than too little, is being asked of her on this kind of view of artmaking.

The auteur filmmaker David Cronenberg, author of cult favorites such as The Fly and Videodrome as well as the mesmerizing one-two punch of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, offers this off-the-cuff resume for his vocation: "At the time you’re being an artist, you’re not a citizen. You have, in fact, no social responsibility whatsoever." This echoes at some level, even if hyperbolically, the advice that Jacob Khan gives the young Asher Lev, in My Name is Asher Lev:

“Listen to me, Asher Lev. As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it. Do you understand? An artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda. Anything else is what the Communists in Russia call art. I will teach you responsibility to art. Let your Ladover Hasidism teach you responsibility to Jews. Do you understand?”

While this novel is on my all-time top ten novel list, I'm afraid that I cannot agree with the counsel given, though I'm acutely aware of the kinds of reasons that motivate the character (and perhaps Potok too) for giving it.

Adam Gopnik, in an article for The New Yorker, hints at the kind of calling that many artists in the contemporary art scene perceive for themselves when he writes,  “Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art.” It is art, that is, that nearly exclusively disregards the needs of the audience in favor of the artist’s needs. While this of course does not describe all contemporary artists, it does describe enough of them to warrant a measure of concern or at least a reassessment of what is at stake in society’s experience of such art—as well as society’s responsibility to the artist.

The British Post Punk rocker Philip “John” Brennan spews—well, yes, because that’s usually what punk rockers do—this opinion (circa early 1980s):

“It’s self-explanatory, isn’t it?  Rock’n’roll, by definition, is against Thatcherism.  And if it isn’t, it’s not rock’n’roll. . . . I’d say rock’n’roll should always be anti-establishment—whatever the establishment is.” 

This sentiment is shared far and wide. Shifting to a more popular context, Adam Lambert, the 2009 American Idol runner-up, states bluntly: “I’m not a baby sitter. I’m a performer.” By that I gather that he means that his primary responsibility is to his art, not to his audience’s needs, fears, wants, pleas or protests. Strangely enough, Flannery O’Connor said something very similar; and one might be tempted to think that O’Connor and Lambert are working out of the same playbook. They’re not. O’Connor says it much more subtly (see section 5 in Mystery and Manners), though no less bluntly. 

It's the distinction between wanting two spheres either separated or differentiated. Where Lambert and company want the former, O'Connor and saner heads plea for the latter, often, and rightly so, against the naive wishes of fellow Christians. Where O'Connor envisions a symbiotic relationship between artists and pastors, or the community of artists and the church, Lambert lacks an equivalent social institution to partner with on behalf of the good of society.

Lady Gaga, the sartorially hyper-imaginative alter ego of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, continuing the theme of separable spheres, perceives her task as an artist this way:   

“We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we percieve ourselves to be or rather to become, in the future.  When you are lonely, I will be lonely too. And this is the fame.”

This is said by the woman who, at last count, has amounted  52,049,063 “friends” on Facebook. While taking her comments with a large pinch of poetic salt, Lady Gaga epitomizes the artistic practice of generating two versions of oneself: the person and the persona. At a relatively benign level, this has included the historical habit of picking a pseudonym for public representation. Samuel Clemens chose Mark Twain. Mary Anne Evans adopted the pen name George Eliot. Robert Matthew van Winkle took the infamous nickname Vanilla Ice, while Paul David Hewson sounds much cooler as Bono than, well, Paul David Hewson. At a more hazardous level, artists like Lady Gaga lose the capacity to be their "regular" selves in public and resort to elaborate and often expensive means to hide behind the public image. It begs the question: What does it mean for an artist to be at home with herself and with others?

Finally, David Morgan, professor of religion at Duke, describes one branch of contemporary philosophical aesthetics in strong language, when he states (rather than spews) that, for this party, the arts are “ideological constructs that serve the privileged in human society.  Beauty, ugliness, truth, value, authority—all are constructed by the class, race, gender, or state that seeks to enforce its dominance.” True in some cases, perhaps not in all cases, and perhaps not as simply as that. But still, it is worth a friendly reminder, especially when we recall the attitudes of Madison Avenue and of 18th century missionaries to Africa who brusquely imposed organs and hymnals upon people groups whose musical forms were regarded as liturgically “lesser,” if not perverse.

I could go on. But you get the point.

When you enter into discussion with fellow Christians, the situation unfortunately isn’t much better...especially when we encounter the all-too-ready appeal to the notion of artist as prophet (per our nifty representation above).

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Videos for a cloudy day

Professor lists excuses he will not accept
Some days you need to laugh. You're feeling bummed out, you walk around with a Charlie Brown-like rainy cloud over your head and you're wondering to yourself, "I think I take myself too seriously. I do. I really do and I probably need to chill out. I need to laugh."

That's why you need this blog entry. 

I'm taking Latin at the moment and it's sucking up all my brain cells. Declensions, conjunctions, principal parts, irregular verbs, vocab cards--that's my life right now. It's good, of course. I've wanted to take Latin since I was in college, and now I get the chance. But every once and a while I need a good chuckle. Here are a few videos that I've stumbled on in the past month while I eat my lunch on the fourth floor of the Perkins Library.

Enjoy. Or, Gaudate.