Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Two Videos

First, Star Trek meets The Hobbit.

I had a friend (definitely past-tense) who has a great love for fantasy and even greater respect for the monarchs of fantasy: Tolkien, Lewis, and LeGuin. Knowing this, I sent him a link to the following video, anticipating with eagerness his resultant horror and anguish. And yes, his reaction was everything for which I hoped.

I am still laughing.

Second, I stumbled across this piece while surfing the blogosphere. I laughed so hard I think I broke something. Naturally, humour is highly subjective, but I offer it anyway.

Dedicated to the mildly warped...

- V.

Ochlophobist and Art (Part II)

We resume our examination of Ochlophobist's recent post on art - my previous comments are over here.
When I went to Russia in my late teens, I had an experience in front of an icon of the Theotokos, one written in a traditional style, as I have briefly described here. While visiting a number of monasteries, churches, and "museums" in Russia I saw a number of icons. At that time I had never read or been told anything regarding the theology or aesthetics of traditional Orthodox iconography. Yet it was clear as day to me that there was a distinct difference between those icons which were Italianate and those which were traditional, and I was very much drawn to the traditional, and recognized a gravitas in them which I did not recognize in the Italianate icons. Indeed, I immediately regarded the Italianate as religious kitsch, a regard I hold to this day. Now, as a Protestant I grew up in an religious environment which had images, in our Baptist churches and most Baptist homes there were images of Christ, the Last Supper, hands folded in prayer next to a loaf of bread, and so forth. The aesthetic style of these images was much closer to that of Italianate iconography than it was Orthodox iconography. Now, one might suggest that like many Protestants I was only longing to find or create the NT Church all over again, and therefore would want something that was utterly foreign to my religious conventions as this would seem more "authentic." But this is not the typical paradigm through which virtually all Protestants assimilate and act on the desire to get back to the real NT Church. In almost every example of Protestant aesthetic purification of aesthetics, they either use iconoclasm to minimalize or eradicate prior forms, or they maintain the same artistic styles but change the content of the art. This is exactly what Baptists did. They adopted the artistic style of a given time and changed the content of the art to suit their aesthetic needs. Heck, a great example of this is the Mormons, who adopted 19th century aesthetics forms (painting, sculpture, and even faux-hieroglyphic manuscript writing) and assigned to such ancient pedigree. Thus it seems to me that if I had been very much in tune with the Protestant aesthetic ethos, I would have preferred the Italianate icons to the traditional Orthodox ones. I would have accepted them as a form of changed content (with Mary and Saints and somber Jesus instead of folded hands and laughing Jesus, etc.) in a common, "received" style in order to bring myself closer to the ancient Church. For in Protestant aesthetics, style and form, as it were, is decidedly arbitrary - whatever communicates the token talking points of content in a stylistic manner which is "heard" is the most acceptable. But I saw something in the traditional icons which was worlds apart from any religious art I had ever seen before. These icons spoke of a truth that far transcended my little "Jesus and me" self-evangelistic moment or my lust for didacticism or my religious sentimental inclinations or my need for a socio-religious commercial. The traditional icons were uncomfortable, demanding, and not, in the slightest bit, concerned with my own affectations or "needs." I thought there might be mercy to be found in them, and in one instance I was overwhelmed by such mercy, but it was not the sort of mercy I had encountered before.
Again, I don't want to dissect Ochlophobist's work (dissection being messy, usually involving something dead), but I feel that certain points he makes deserve further comment.

First, there is a clear difference between iconography and Italianate kitsch. "Gravitas" distinguishes icons from the Italianate painting, he says. Yes. Gravitas, sobriety, transcendence, a taste of eternity. In infusing religious art with the principles of realism and humanism, including emotionalism, the earlier qualities of transcendence and the eternal were lost. In essence, religious art became Nestorian, as it emphasized Christ's humanity at the expense of His divinity. And His Apostles and Saints lost their sanctity, as sanctity is not a humanist trait; their most sensational qualities had to emphasized instead.

Second, the aesthetic style of Protestant religious art is very similar to that of Italianate kitsch. Unfortunately, this is all too true. And where Protestant aesthetics is not of the Italianate kitsch variety, it belongs to the images of nature motivational poster variety, which is, if anything, worse. I remember two posters from my childhood: "Moi, je suis le chemin, la vérité, et la vie" ("I am the way, the truth, and the life" in French) on a rainy, rainbow-bannered landscape, and "I know I'm victorious, Lord, but it sure feels like I'm getting stomped" on a picture of a sad-faced dog. Somehow, neither attains to the watered-down respect for the holy that a pair of praying hands has.

Third, a desire to get back to the NT Church results in iconoclasm or the same style with a different content. I have never heard of the Protestant drive to return to the NT Church (or even the primitive Church) resulting in a change in aesthetics. I don't think Protestants are built that way with respect to art - they are, sadly, uneducated as to art or are hostile to it. The intimate nature with which theology interacts with art is completely lost on the average Protestant... maybe even your average liturgical Protestant. A change in theology will not, cannot, result in a change in aesthetics.

Unfortunately, far more common than altered content is outright iconoclasm. At one time in my varied (or is that checkered?) past I was an art teacher in a Christian setting. And time and again I would run into parents who had no understanding for the value of art, save as a historical phenomena, or in rare cases, as a part of Western culture. For these parents, the intersection of image and God, no matter how remotely or tenuously linked, was sacrilege. My freedom to put the sacred into art, or simply to present religious art in class, was not welcome, and my decision to do so resulted in some pitched battles.

[Perhaps at some point in the future I will give my patented five minute defense of religious art against those who attack it on the grounds of the Second Commandment.]

Fourth, iconography transcends the vagaries of art history and societal aesthetic tastes. This transcendence is formed in carefully defined theology, and it is preserved and perfected in Tradition. Because Protestants never had a theology of art, and because Catholics have regrettably lost theirs (save for isolated pockets of conservative Catholics where Italianate kitsch is the tradition), both are left helpless before the whims and the winds of fashion. The new method of "communication", no matter how inarticulate it may be or how imperfectly it speak the colours and the tones of eternal truth, must perforce become the new mode for the masses. In the absence of tradition, the new and the unconventional is a seduction for which there is no defense.


We look forward to Ochlophobist's next post on art.

- V.

The Different

Back in the day, every village ...
  • had its idiot, imbecile, or moron,
  • had a man (or several) maimed or crippled from a recent war,
  • could boast someone with a disfiguring tumour or skin ailment,
  • etc.
Perhaps this day to which I refer is a largely fictionalized one, and, to be honest, I would rather make a point here than look up 17th or 18th century statistics. The point is that up until fairly recently, every town and village had to get used to a certain degree of difference within people - they had to adjust to a wide spectrum of humanity. In some towns derision might replace the hoped-for kindness and respect, but learning to deal with Others, for better or for worse, was a major part of former times.

Modernity and its technological marvels have allowed us to cure many diseases once incurable, to give the maimed and the crippled the chance at a normalized lifestyle, to hospitalize those who cannot care for themselves. And it is not a bad thing that we can help so many that were otherwise doomed.

However, there are consequences. Firstly, the spectrum of difference has narrowed - what is different is not quite as different. We do not learn to see that God has made man with infinite variety, and so instead we become prescriptive like the inhabitants of Waknuk in The Chrysalids. The minute differences between the normal and the other normal become everything, and magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Elle tell us how we are to look.

Secondly, as the wrinkles of difference are ironed out by the flatiron of technology wizardry, and as the remaining abnormalities are shut up into homes or aborted before they have a chance to live, we lose. We lose on an opportunity for ascesis, for humility, for learning to serve the alien and the stranger in our midst.

- V.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Random Thought

Is it just me, or does a mid-rant Bill O'Reilly bear an uncanny resemblance to Lewis Prothero from Silver Pictures' V for Vendetta?

Just a thought.

- V.

On the Origins of Antisemitism

I have given some thought over the years to the question of antisemitism, mostly because it is an irrational belief leading to irrational (and wholly evil) actions, and irrationality bothers me.

Now when I was younger my parents "explained" the theodicy of antisemitism by telling me that the Jews were God's special people, and for this reason the world hates them.

I don't have any real issue with the theory that the world hates God's people - this seems amply borne out by persecutions and martyrdoms from the time of St. Stephen to this present day and hour. And Christ Himself said that the world would hate His followers.

I do take objection to the theology of that explanation. For it is one of the most basic teachings of the Church that we Christians are Israel, the heirs of the promises of the Old Testament, and God's own people. (Only in the heresy of dispensationalism is this teaching overturned.) As such, I cannot accept my parents' simplistic and heretical explanation, and must look outside of it.

One possibility (again relating to theology) is that the Jews brought down a curse upon themselves when certain of them were calling for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. "May His blood be upon us and upon our children," they said.

I have two problems with this interpretation. First, and most importantly, Christ said, "Father God, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Are we seriously going to posit that God is carrying a grudge for an act that He Himself forgave? Secondly, as it has been Christians (or, rather, those bearing the name of Christ) who have done most the persecuting, it leaves us in the awkward position of claiming that God's people - the meek, lamb-like, child-like, loving servants of God - have been required or appointed to act as the tools of the devil in carrying out a curse.

Having exhausted the theological possibilities, let us look at this more rationally; rather than looking to God for reasons why the Jews have been hated, let us look to something a little more human. It appears to me that there are two logical reasons for the genesis of antisemitism, if anything that gives rise to hatred can be called logical.

First, xenophobia. In my estimation, this sin is a perversion of a love of kin. Something good has been turned to something darker, and when xenophobia turns to action, we see the birth of evil. Not only does the fear of the alien explain hatred of the Jews, it explains hatred of Gypsies, of the Irish, of the French, etc.

Second, usury. This shouldn't ever have become an issue, as usury was specifically forbidden in the Old Testament, and was not practiced by the early Church. However, certain Christian rulers needed great amounts of money to finance their wars, Crusades, and explorations. No sane person would lend large sums of money interest-free for such risky ventures: too much risk, no security. Risk is only mitigated if the money is loaned with interest. Not being permitted by the Church to handle usurious transactions with other Christians, these rulers went to the only non-Christians in their midst: the Jews, who were not permitted to do much else but loan money. Naturally, these Jews grew wealthy, as a kind of banking elite. The unfortunate corollary to wealth is that it stirs up envy, and the unfortunate corollary to usury is that it stirs up anger and desperation. The net result is that some that bore the name of Christ grew to hate the Jews for practicing a business that Christians imposed upon them to finance unChristian wars.

Which is as nonsensical as it seems.

- V.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Ochlophobist and Art (Part I)

Once more, Ochlophobist has impressed me with a brilliant post, this one on art. It comes out of a dialogue involving Daniel Matsui from The Lion and the Cardinal and Arturo from The Sarabite, and is chiefly a reaction to Arturo. Arturo's reasoning frequently gives me headaches, so I appreciated Ochlophobist's response.

There is a lot to process, a lot of meat in his post, but I am not going to examine it piece by piece. Rather I am going to simply react to a couple comments he makes. More in keeping with my patience levels.

1) Classical art is not the model for a Christian art (paragraph 9). Although classical academies today and the preponderance of artists and art critics from the time of the Renaissance to the time of the Impressionists regard and regarded Greco-Roman art as the be-all and end-all of truth and beauty, it is a truth worth noting that the Fathers of the Christian faith did not feel so. Instead, they guided us into our respective iconographies (Western and Eastern) for the sake of adhering to theological truth and beauty, for the sake and purpose of forming the people of God into Saints of God, and to praise God with brush and pen.

As a sidebar, modern art did not come into being until the salons - the guildhalls of the art world - crumbled under the impact of Impressionism, leaving no larger principle to guide them or keep them from deeper error. Hitherto it was classical art that was the larger principle.

2) Catharsis in modern art is akin to the release of orgasm (paragraph 10). In his critique of catharsis in art, Ochlophobist says that catharsis is foreign to Orthodoxy, and then he proceeds to define this catharsis as orgasmic, ecstatic. Elsewhere he goes further and links post-Renaissance art to what he calls pansexualism.

I am not fully with him on this point, mostly because I don't understand the bit about pansexualism. However, I think I get the bit about catharsis. In my art classes we were not urged to paint out our feelings, but I saw a lot of that in the university program I didn't take. There it was de rigeur to work in tar and newspaper clippings. I still remember the "deeply meaningful" exhibition to which a friend of mine invited me, involving tar, dismembered dolls held together by wires, and her own blood. Apparently she had expressed or channelled her inner pain. I wasn't happy for her - I was horrified, as this was manifestly not art, being neither true, beautiful, nor good.

Despite not being trained in cathartic painting, I find that most of the artwork that I have done was a response to strong emotion (passion?) and not disciplined, not work. This I would feel is a great weakness - though I haven't gone so far as to identify it as unOrthodox.

3) Rouault is the one big exception (paragraph 11). I have never chatted with either Ochlophobist or Mr. Mitsui, but I would like to. Having waded through modern art (no matter the precise appellation: modern, post-modern, cubist, etc.), I would have to reject almost all of it. Certainly that which is held up as exemplary - with one exception: Georges Rouault. Unlike Ochlophobist, I do not like Rouault's clowns and whores, but I am moved by his images of Christ, especially Crucifixion, which to me has all the feel of a stained-glass window.

As for the rest? So much trash. I remember admiring Dali at one point in my life. Then I read a 600-page volume of his collected works. The man was an obsessive pervert whose nightmarish images of clocks, horses, and breasts should have had him locked up somewhere. A few years later, and wiser, I visited a Picasso exhibit - under duress - with a friend. He thought it would be cultural, I think. Afterwards, we looked at each other with horror. Picasso was no genius, unless it was a diabolical genius. The man was evil, with every bestial thought made tangible through his "art" - the exhibit left us feeling soiled. Art cannot be art unless it be beautiful, unless it be true, and modern art has failed us in these two regards. And we have failed art, by not demanding better.

4) Arturo claims that a love of medieval iconography comes from a Protestant aesthetic (paragraph 12). This assertion just horrifies me - it insinuates that iconography is sterile, beauty-hating, or iconoclastic. As a sidebar, not all Protestants are iconoclastic or beauty-hating, but then, they usually aren't terribly Protestant either.

5) Baroque/Italianate/modern Catholic folk art are not true, if only because they betray an overt religious eroticism (paragraphs 18, 19). My agreement here is experientially based. When I was in my late teens I was - somewhat understandably - consumed by a love of the erotic, and nowhere was this more manifested than in my artwork and in the artists I most admired and emulated: Klimt, Rossetti, and Bellini. In Bellini's case, it was the clearly erotic, even orgasmic, Ecstasy of St. Theresa, which caught my attention, and which, while wonderfully rendered and beautiful, revealed something perverse and false. Not all Baroque artists (and their descendants) are as obviously untrue, but I can see this tendency to varying degrees.

As for modern Catholic folk art, I would have to make an exception for Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is to my eyes more iconic than erotic.

6) Schoenberg's gravestone is perhaps the best example of a Protestant aesthetic (paragraph 21). Iconoclastic? Beauty-hating? Sterile? Yep. As a broad caricature, this statement works for me.

I will come back to this post - to paragraph 14 in particular - but a small child beckons, and that insistently.

- V.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Christmas Baba"

A tale well worth reading, from Fr. Tobias' Second Terrace:

It was hard for her to remember many things, especially what she had for lunch that day, and maybe, once in a while, just where she was going in the hall. Sometimes – maybe it was yesterday? – she didn’t even know which hall she was in.

For years, she had no difficulty remembering the old Christmases with her mother, her father, her grandparents, aunts and uncles, and her ten brothers and sisters. What a big family she had. That was just the way back then. Families had lots of children. They don’t do that anymore.

Memory after memory unveiled scenes of brightness and magic. She and her brothers and sisters, huddled by the window, looking carefully for the first star of the Holy Night. “There, there it is!” she remembered, her own little girl pudgy finger pointing at the joyous glimmer in the cerulean night.

That was the signal for Christmas Eve to begin, and the mystical, magical Holy Supper. How the scenes of those Holy Nights gleamed brightly, like picture slides on a screen, in her mind. Straw tied in bunches and strewn on the table. Candles and wine, honeyed fruit and delicacies prepared just once a year.

She closed her eyes, so she could see and hear. Yes, there was her mother, dipping her finger into the honey, tracing a cross on each forehead. There was her father, with his words of the toast every year, “And above all, my Little Jesus, born this day, bring peace, health and happiness!”

But one day, the picture was not complete. She could not see the other faces – the faces of her aunts and uncles. This time, the carols were not sung. She could not taste the dishes. And she could not remember her brothers and sisters’ names.

She opened her eyes to the harsh fluorescent light of the nursing home where she stayed, where everything was clinical and made to look like a store, where every hall and every room and every meal looked the same.

For the next few times, when she tried to remember, another detail would be lost. More faces would be nameless, more voices fell into silence. The last thing left was the evening star, her finger still pointing, her voice still whispering, “There it is!”


The tale is continued over here.

- V.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Artistic Temperament as Disease?

Over at Daniel Mitsui's blog, he offers us the following quote by G. K. Chesterton:
The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being... Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure, and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament. Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men... There are many real tragedies of the artistic temperament, tragedies of vanity or violence or fear. But the great tragedy of the artistic temperament is that it cannot produce any art....

It need hardly be said that this is the real explanation of the thing which has puzzled so many dilettante critics, the problem of the extreme ordinariness of the behaviour of so many great geniuses in history. Their behaviour was so ordinary that it was not recorded; hence it was so ordinary that it seemed mysterious. Hence people say that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. The modern artistic temperament cannot understand how a man who could write such lyrics as Shakespeare wrote, could be as keen as Shakespeare was on business transactions in a little town in Warwickshire. The explanation is simple enough; it is that Shakespeare had a real lyrical impulse, wrote a real lyric, and so got rid of the impulse and went about his business. Being an artist did not prevent him from being an ordinary man, any more than being a sleeper at night or being a diner at dinner prevented him from being an ordinary man.

Perhaps it is over-bold of me to challenge such an esteemed man of letters as Chesterton, but I must take issue with the above.

Assuming that Chesterton is using a standard definition of "artist", his over-broad strokes leave no place for accepted masters such as
Dürer, da Vinci, Cellini, or Michelangelo. Albrecht Dürer was subject to depression, Leonardo da Vinci struggled to complete any of his brilliant concepts, and Benvenuto Cellini, da Vinci, and Michelangelo were all almost certainly homosexual. Geniuses all, but not untroubled.

I suspect Mr. Matsui included this quote not because he is ignorant of art history or because, like Chesterton, he is over-fond of bold generalizations, but because he does not accept the aforementioned masters as such. I know that Mr. Matsui feels that art took a decidedly downward turn at time of the Renaissance*, and here I would agree with him. If, however, he agrees with Chesterton that true artists are untroubled, there I part company, for there is no doubt in my mind that Dürer, da Vinci, et al. were masters of their media, and that even the deeply psychologically troubled Van Gogh from our godless age was unparalleled in his genius.

It seems to me that what we call the "artistic temperament" is nothing more than a soul cracking under inner stresses, stresses formed by the challenge of the human psyche facing the divine - communicating beauty being one of the holiest of acts. It seems to me that without a way to understand the divine (ie. through traditional iconography, Eastern or Western), these stresses are inevitable in all but the most hardy souls. And artists, true artists, are by definition sensitive to their environments.

Perhaps the reason why we see so many shipwrecked artists from the time of the Renaissance to this is that humanism, under which delusional philosophy we still continue to labour, is manifestly a system without codified ways to appropriate and understand the divine.

- V.

* Unfortunately, a cursory search of Mr. Matsui's site was insufficient to provide me with sourcing at this time.

Rejoice with us

Our son, the sick boy for whom so many prayed last summer, was baptized into the Holy Orthodox Church Saturday. Thus, during the feast of the Nativity, two days before we remembered Christ's circumcision, we took the child given us and brought him into the embrace of the Church to be spiritually circumcised. Having been duly chrismated and communed, our newly-illumined one has now come into the fullness of the Church.

Praise be to God! Slava Bohu!

Remember him, us, and his godparents in your prayers.

- V.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Recipe for Despotism

If I had aspirations for dictatorship and possessed a few powerful friends, or if I wished to reduce the free peoples of the greatest nation on the planet to an abject serfdom, here is what I would do:

Taking as my raw medium two parties or philosophies that we will call, for the sake of argument, "liberal" and "conservative" or "asinine" and "elephantine", I would start by refocusing attention on the differences between the parties, highlighting them and making them larger than life. The important thing would be to draw attention away from the similarities between the parties, namely, 1) a singular inability on the part of either to accomplish anything significant for the family or the individual, 2) a singular ability to promote increasing regulation and to consolidate power, and 3) a common philosophy concerning global domination and empire-building. And lest any clear-thinking individual penetrate this obfuscation, I would encourage each party to create a climate of fear within the ranks of those who identify themselves with the distinctives of that party (remembering that there is little real difference between the parties). For the liberal, I would create the bogeyman of climate catastrophe, of an angered Gaia wreaking vengeance upon iniquitous man. And for conservative, I would invoke the spectres of the alien in our midst, whether it be the barbarian hordes creeping across the border or the omnipresent and civilization-destroying worshiper of a foreign deity. Clear thinking would be muddied by emotion and reason co-opted by the effort to convince the other half of the population of the need to fear.

When everyone was good and frightened, I (or someone equally unscrupulous) would step in with the antidote to fear: "protection" by a strong right arm.

Of course, if I had the luxury of time, I would first dull the wits of the masses with mind-numbing entertainments like television, and if possible I would ensure that education was everywhere bastardized (perhaps by focusing on teaching techniques instead of the resultant citizens). Naturally I would be opposed to academies, to home-schooling, and to rebellion against the black box in the corner, and I would try to discourage these by speaking of the need to "socialize" the child.


Of course, this was a poorly-disguised allegory for our time.

I don't know that there is an one person or any cabal out there that is using my recipe for despotism. I don't know that a conspiracy theory is necessary to explain the fact that we have been marching inexorably into serfdom, either. The fact remains that this recipe will work independent of active cooks.

In the crucible of civilizational collapse a tyrant will rise.

- V.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A New Year

... but not really.

The division is an arbitrary one, as all year divisions are; moreover, it is a division without meaning, hallowed by tradition alone.

Better divisions would be in February, when I celebrate how many years I have been Orthodox, or May, when I celebrate how many years I have been married to E., or August, when I celebrate how many years I have been alive, or September, when the rest of the Church marks year divisions. All of these have abundantly richer meaning than two-headed Janus' bacchanal.

As for New Year's Resolutions? Many years ago I resolved not to make New Year's resolutions. And I am delighted to declare that I haven't faltered in that resolve.

- V.