Some New Thoughts on Old Art

When it comes to art I have far more opinions than expertise, but I do have an interest in art as a reflection of social values. In a word, I view art from the standpoint of a social critic rather than an art critic.

Like most art novices, I know what I like and what I don’t like, but would be hard pressed to defend any particular piece as good art or bad art. For instance, we have two Bilson Key sand paintings. Art critics tell us they are quite valuable because Key is one of the finest practitioners of the discipline. I simply have to take their word for it; I like them because they’re beautiful.

I have recently discovered “The Hudson River School” of art. Actually, I’m acquainted with many of the paintings and have had the privilege of seeing several of the originals at various art museums, but have only recently become acquainted with these artists as a school. Previously I’ve looked at their various works individually, but just recently have considered them together as expressing a particular historical point of view.

I am somewhat ambivalent about these various paintings. On the one hand, they are beautiful – and sometimes stunning – landscapes full of light and life. But they have been cast with a personality. As Arthur Danto says, It is “impossible not to be struck by their status as furniture – as objects of interior decoration that summon up the other components of domestic embellishment with which they converse in the plush language of comfort.”

In contrast to the Hudson River School, I will confess that I have a deep and abiding dislike for the art of contemporary artist Thomas Kinkaid. I confess this with some trepidation because I know that several, possibly many, of my readers are big fans of his work. There are certain similarities between Kinkaid and the Hudson River School, but there is also an important difference, and that difference is at the heart of this essay.

Both Kincaid and the Hudson River School are lush and realistic (although not photographically realistic – they maintain their sensibility as painters). Both emphasize nature as their primary environment. In other words, even though they are a century apart, both reflect high American romanticism in the visual arts. And as is typical of American Romanticism, both emphasize light. Kinkaid famously calls himself “the painter of light.” Paintings within the Hudson River tradition are similarly imbued with light (for instance, Albert Bierstadt’s “Looking Up the Yosemite Valley”). Their style is sometimes referred to as “Luminescence.” In other words, they were the original painters of light while Kincaid is the derivative.

But at this point the similarity ends. Kincaid’s paintings are privatized and internalized. Typically the main focus of light is from within the house (although he occasionally works with sunlight in a manner reminiscent of the Hudson River School).

A second difference is that the Hudson River School celebrates the real world with specificity. Bierstadt’s most famous paintings are of actual scenes in the Yosemite Valley. Similarly, Thomas Cole painted “The Oxbow” which is specifically identified as “The Connecticut River near Northampton.” One of John Frederick Kensett’s most famous paintings is “Mount Washington” (that is, the Mt. Washington in New Hampshire that is so famous for its weather). George Caleb Bingham even managed to bring that luminescent background light into his painting called “Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap.” All of these paintings depict real places, and in the last case, real people. Yet the emphasis of all these paintings is less on the specific place or people and more on the light which fills the painting. (Which is why this school of painting is sometimes called “Luminescence.”)

In contrast, Kincaid’s world is idealized. Rather than an historical figure (Daniel Boone) standing in a real place (Cumberland Gap), Kincaid paints villages that are so idealized that they could be anyplace in tree groves or clearings that are so generic they could be anywhere, but certainly would never be confused with somewhere specific like the Yosemite Valley. In short, his idealization is taken to such an extreme that the “anywhere” becomes “nowhere.” His realism becomes a caricature of the real, a place that is so idealized that it never existed at all, except in the wishful thinking of the beholder.

The third difference (which is a direct result of the first two) is that while the paintings of the Hudson River School are expansive and inclusive, Kincaid’s paintings, taken as a whole, tend to reject the outside world and are pensive rather than expansive, exclusive rather than inclusive. For instance, in his painting “Christmas Evening,” the house is sealed up and closed off from the outside world, but with an inviting warm light flowing through the closed windows.

To be fair many of Kincaid’s newest paintings are of public scenes, such as Yankee Stadium or the Indianapolis 500 as well as fantasy, such as Pinocchio and Peter Pan. But all of these paintings have the same idealized, slightly unreal sense of his more famous paintings of houses with an internal light burning.

And herein lies my real beef with Kincaid. Just as the Hudson River School was only vaguely Christian, and in fact far more Transcendalist than orthodox Christian, so Kincaid’s works are only vaguely Christian and far more gnostic than orthodox. What do I mean by that?

Gnosticism is a twofold movement rooted in a specific attitude toward the world. The first movement is inward; it is away from the world toward the inmost self. The gnostic seeks the inner light (or private illumination) for comfort. The second movement is away from the world, as it actually is, toward something other-worldly. Classic Gnosticism (big “G” Gnosticism) rejected the physical world in favor of a spirit world. Kincaid’s style of gnosticism rejects the world as it is for a world cleansed of its imperfections and imbued with a light flowing from within. In his more recent paintings, the people are idealized and perfected. One can’t even imagine a drunk fan puking in the infield of his Indianapolis 500. In contrast, after going to the Brickyard, it’s hard to imagine that Kincaid is painting the same place. The real Brickyard is completely antithetical to the idealized (or “spiritual vs. physical) world that he has fabricated for this painting.

This twofold movement is rooted in despair. When the world-as-it-is seems unredeemable, a world-as-it-could-have-been is imagined. More than anything else, I find Thomas Kincaid’s paintings to be depressing. I was enthralled with the writings of Francis Schaeffer as a kid. He carefully delineated the development of despair in modern thinking. Not until his final book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, did he identify the roots of despair in contemporary Evangelicalism and its expression as a latter-day gnosticism clothed in Christian garments. That book was an angry screed that was far more accusatory than scholarly, but Philip J. Lee’s, Against the Protestant Gnostics, said the same thing in a lengthy (!) and thoroughly documented manner. Kincaid paints in spades precisely what Lee warns against and Schaeffer mourns … and I find his beautiful little scenes terribly sad precisely because they’ve turned Christianity inside out and against itself.

Transcendentalism, narrowly defined, is a literary movement, Emerson and Thoreau being its most famous practitioners. The Hudson River School, following the spirit of Transcendentalism, may not be precisely Christian, but neither is it anti-Christian in the manner of gnosticism. Transcendentalism is both life-affirming and world-affirming; one can’t understand America without appreciating the Transcendentalists. Neither can one be Christian without being life-affirming and world-affirming. Thus Transcendentalism is a necessary tool in the arsenal of Christianity seeking to express itself in North America. God is light and in him is no darkness at all! Transcendentalism is a door into that truth for those of us born and bred to the expansive and optimistic culture of North America.

Gnosticism, on the other hand, rather than a means of connecting Christian truth to culture, is a means of perverting Christian truth with the culture of death (Pope John Paul II’s term) all dressed up as a secret light seeping out from a cottage tightly shut against the world outside.

Sanford Robinson Gifford’s world of “Hunter Mountain, Twilight” is far from perfect. The scene is no longer Edenic because the trees are felled leaving a blood-red sense of human destruction, but the overwhelming beauty of the Catskills at sunset remains the dominant theme. It is rooted in reality, it views the world as it is, but it also imbues that same imperfect world with the golden hope of God who is the light that ultimately can neither be defeated nor privatized. That is the view of reality that I wish to embrace rather than the ultimately depressing and privatized view of Thomas Kincaid.

Julian of Norwich link

The Anonymous God Blogger has just posted two great posts about Julian of Norwich. I have a particular affinity for Julian going back to my seminary days. Julian is the patron of saint of Protestant-feminists-who-practice-the-theology-of-one-liners-and-sound-bites. You see, she referred to Christ as Mother. Can you give a Protestant-feminist-who-practices-the-theology-of-one-liners-and-sound-bites a better gift?

Ah, but the things is, there is real substance to Julian, and in two instances, my classmates, under the spell of feminist extrodinaire, Prof. Johanna Bos, actually started to read and comprehend Julian of Norwich and abandoned Protestant-style feminism because after viewing it through the eyes of Julian, they recognized it for the selfish claptrap it was.

Thank you St. Julian.

For a great introduction to Julian of Norwich I commend to you two posts here and here from the Anonymous God Blogger.

Glory Be To God in All Things

In the previous essay I spoke of miracles in the small, ordinary sense. The cynic might say that reducing a miracle to the finding of one’s keys is to reject the miraculous altogether. Even though no one actually made that accusation, it’s a point worth noting. Since writing that essay something rather more dramatic has happened.

My cousin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer several months ago. He’s been in and out of the hospital to help relieve the pain. (There is no cure.) There was also no question of a misdiagnosis. My cousin’s wife is an oncology nurse. She was pretty sure what it was before the diagnosis and saw to it that the cancer was diagnosed correctly by multiple specialists.

Last week she took him to the hospital so they could load him up with meds unavailable to hospice so that he could die comfortably. Everyone knew he wasn’t coming home.

A week later he came home cancer free.

There has been a concerted prayer effort on his behalf. Some have prayed for healing. Some have prayed that he might have a good death. For some inscrutable reason, God chose to demonstrate his mercy in this particular manner in this particular instance.

Why? It’s as foolish to try to figure why God healed him as it is to speculate why he got cancer in the first place. It’s a question that misleads us from the point.

How? The really smart guys at the hospital have no idea. His oncology nurse wife has no idea. I won’t speculate because again, it’s a question that misleads us from the point.

What is the point? That God may be glorified in all things: in suffering, in the face of death, in victory over death, and (maybe most importantly) even in the ordinary and uneventful lives of those of us looking on from the sidelines.

Glory be to God in all things: finding the keys, facing death, experiencing healing, having an uneventful day. Glory be to God in all things.

Fog, Phanourius, and Faith

Fog, fog, fog. In the years we’ve lived in Siouxland I’ve never experienced fog quite like this. It’s lasted, on and off, for nearly a week. That much fog gets a person thinking.

We live in a river valley, which means high humidity. Since this isn’t an arid climate, the humidity is always present, even when it’s low. In other words, there’s always significant water in the air. The difference is sometimes it’s invisible and sometimes it’s visible in the form of fog.

The other day my brain was as foggy as the air, and I left my church keys in the church. I called the priest so we could meet and he could let me in. When I went up to where the Treasurer’s desk is, I didn’t immediately find the keys. The treasurer’s desk is in a public room, so things get shuffled around in there. I started re-shuffling things to see if the keys were underneath anything. Eventually I spotted them hanging from the locking file cabinet (right where I had left them). After announcing I had found them, the priest in turn announced he had just offered up a prayer to St. Phanourius. It had never occurred to me to ask St. Phanourius, but on the way home I thanked him for his help.

Since most of my readers aren’t Orthodox, a word of explanation is in order.

St. Phanourius, in the Orthodox tradition, is the go-to guy in this situation. As the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website (which has an excellent “saints” section) describes it, “The faithful pray to Saint Phanourius especially to help them recover things that have been lost, and because he has answered their prayers so often, the custom has arisen of baking a Phaneropita (“Phanourius-Cake”) as a thanks-offering.”

Since most of my readers aren’t Orthodox, that no doubt sounds weird and … well … magical, I suppose, so a word about American Christianity is in order.

I grew up in the Bible Church. The sociologists that study and categorize the seemingly infinite variety of American Christian experience classify that tradition as either “Rationalist Evangelicalism” or “Rationalist Fundamentalism.” What that means on a practical level is as follows:

We believed in the Bible; we believed in every word of the Bible. (I still do, by the way. Don’t let the past tense fool you. I am formerly a member of the Bible Church, thus the past tense.) Therefore, we believed in miracles, angels, the spirit world, and the reality that Christians who die don’t poof out of existence, but continue to live (ie, saints).

On the other hand, we were children of the Enlightenment, so all of these things (miracles, angels, the spirit world, etc.) were tempered with various interesting explanations. The way this worked out in the Bible Church is that miracles were okay as long as they were quiet, unobtrusive, and polite. (Television-style faith healing antics that might embarrass our sensibilities were not allowed.) Angels were affirmed in a vague and somewhat non-specific way, and saints were carefully packed away in heaven when their bodies were packed away under the earth. Both (the saints and the bodies) were expected to stay where they belong until the day of resurrection (that being, the Rapture, if you were a Pre-tribulational Premillenialist, or the general resurrection if you were a post-tribulational Premillenialist or an Amillenialist.

You see, we may have been a bit uncomfortable with miracles, angels, the spirit world, the reality of life after death, etc., but being children of the Enlightenment, we had fabulous explanations (which were fabulously complicated) for why we believed exactly how we believed.

The Orthodox, on the other hand, have been amazingly resilient in the face of the Enlightenment. As a result they still have a lively and active belief in miracles, angels, the spirit world, the reality of life after death, etc. There are even reports of things like bi-location and other phenomenon that are pretty much off the chart of possibility for a child of the Enlightenment. The idea that humans (ie, the physical world) can have interaction with the spirit world is not only an interesting theory that is affirmed in some rational, Bible-believing way, it is a lively part of the Orthodox everyday life and experience.

So let my child-of-the-Enlightenment-rationalist self think critically about the incident with the keys. (Isn’t that what we children of the Enlightenment do so well, after all? Think critically?) Wasn’t the priest’s prayer and my noticing the keys just a coincidence? Maybe … in truth, I don’t know. But quickly explaining away the role of St. Phanourius is not an exercise in rational judgment so much as it is an exercise in unbelief. While the “coincidence” explanation is very tempting to my child-of-the-Enlightenment-rationalist self, my Orthodox self chooses to err on the side of belief if I err at all. So, I went ahead and thanked St. Phanourius.

Which brings me to the fog, fog, fog in Siouxland. Like moisture in the air, saints and angels are always there, and sometimes they’re visible (or maybe I’ll say “discernable”) when the conditions are correct. In fact, at times they are both visible and discernable. There are wonderful stories about angels taking on human form to perform certain tasks. One of my favorite “visible saints” stories is the priest-monk from Mt. Athos who’s been dead for many, many years, but still occasionally celebrates Divine Liturgy at parishes in southwestern Greece. Only after the fact do people figure out that it wasn’t the appointed circuit-priest but rather a mysterious and unknown priest who celebrated the Liturgy.

Not only, when conditions are right, are saints and angels discernable, but their presence changes our perception of the world around us. The spiritual realities, when they are discerned, have the ability to take a drab scene, and turn it into something glorious.

And as our vision is transformed, so are we transformed. To others it may seem that divine reality is clinging to us, spreading forth from us. In truth, that reality is springing forth from us, as we begin to integrate the two realities (physical and spiritual) together that were once bifurcated in the fall.

But most significant is that the spiritual realm needs the physical realm to seek its most perfect expression. Just as moisture in the air remains invisible or ethereal until it comes into contact with a branch or leaf, but then clings and transforms both itself and the tree into something glorious, so the spiritual by itself is rather uninspired (from a human perspective). It’s as the two come together and interact that glorious things happen, and the true beauty of creation redeemed and transformed is revealed.

What the Hell’s Hyssop?

Overheard in the YMCA locker room on Monday (which is the day after the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord on the western liturgical calendar):

Presbyterian elder: “I liked how you sprinkled everyone with water at the end of the service. Our former pastor did that too.”

Presbyterian pastor: “Sprinkling water on the congregation is getting more common. You’re supposed to use hyssop. The Orthodox always use a hyssop branch when they do this. But where do you find hyssop in Nebraska in the middle of the winter? So I just used a brush.”

Venerable and respected Greek Orthodox guy standing next to me in the back of the locker room (with a twinkle in his eye): “What the hell’s hyssop?”

I know, if you have to explain a joke it’s not funny. But I’ll explain it anyway.

A Protestant’s view of Eastern Orthodoxy is usually rather idealized. (I say this from experience, by the way.) Historical practices (which the modern Orthodox maintain) are typically presented in an idealized way to seminary students. Doing this is not an attempt to idealize either Orthodoxy or the past, rather, those practices are types and models for contemporary Protestant liturgical practice. It’s far more productive (from a practical educational standpoint) to present the ancient practices in an idealized form so that they can become understandable and unified models for liturgical practice.

Hyssop branches are highly symbolic and carry a lot of theological freight, so in an idealized world hyssop probably would be used to sprinkle water. (Psalm 51: “Sprinkle me with hyssop and I will be clean …” Words we Orthodox hear every Orthros service after the reading of the Gospel.)

At the Tuesday night Theophany service my priest used a Holy Water Sprinkler to do the sprinkling. The Greek Orthodox priest in town uses the same sort of sprinkler, as does every priest I’m aware of. The Orthodox version looks like this while Roman Catholics typically use one that looks like this. In both cases I can assure you that no hyssop was harmed in the making of the sprinklers.

Getting sprinkled with Holy Water is a pretty ordinary activity in the Orthodox Church (well, at least as ordinary as “brushes with the Divine” can get, but brushes with the Divine are actually pretty ordinary in Orthodox worship). But such practices are still out of the ordinary in Protestant worship and therefore carry a lot of mystery with them. As often happens with the new, mysterious, and unexpected, the associated stories get blown out of proportion.

I like the idea of hyssop. I’d recommend it to Fr Paul, but no doubt he’d roll his eyes and say, “Where am I going to find hyssop in the middle of the winter in Nebraska?” After all it’s a heck of lot easier to fork out the $120 – $250 for a Holy Water sprinkler than go to the Mediterranean or Central Asia to find a branch of hyssop.

p.s. There really was a venerable and respected Greek Orthodox guy standing next to me in the back of the locker room when the conversation took place. You just can’t make up material this good.

WordPress Update = New Look

WordPress (the blog software I use) recently had a major update and I just noticed that the theme I use isn’t compatible with the new WordPress. As a result, my right column disappeared (probably a week or so ago — that’s how observant I am!). As a result I had to install a new theme compatible with the new WordPress. That’s why I have a new look. Critiques are welcome. Is the header too busy? Is the text easy to read? etc.

Lonely?

Listening to this weekend’s Prairie Home Companion, it occurred to me just how lonely most of Garrison Keillor’s stories and sketches are. They feature people with no friends who are alienated from family and live in a cold and anonymous world. This week it was a sketch about a man at a party who almost met a girl who had ear buds in her ears because she was listening to opera on her iPod instead of engaging in conversation with her fellow party goers. I began to wonder if these stories were a reflection of Keillor’s own life.

But then it occurred to me that in another context I was accused of the same thing.

I used to post some of my photographs on an art web site. Someone told me that my collection was very lonely, which I initially found to be a strange comment. But after re-examining the collection, I understood exactly what she meant. Most of the images had no people and could be described as empty or desolate. My people – if there were people in the photo at all – were usually faceless. (There’s an example below.)

At the time I attributed it to growing up in eastern Montana, which most people hate when they first see it because it is so empty and desolate. But for many who stick around, they come to love it for its beauty. The trick is one has to learn how to look at eastern Montana (or an alley in downtown Sioux City for that matter) in order to find the beauty that is there.

This isn’t eastern Montana, by the way, but the parking lot of an apartment in which we used to live. Empty? Desolate? Yeah. Lonely? Maybe. But beautiful all the same.

After the sketch about the solitary man and the woman listening to opera on her iPod, a tenor began to sing a piece from Tosca, giving me more time to consider Keillor sketches and my photography. Maybe it was the melancholy strains of Puccini coming from the radio or maybe I’m really on to something, but an alternative theory sprang to mind.

Keillor’s lonely stories and my lonely photographs aren’t a reflection of our individual lives but rather a commentary on modern society. We Americans do indeed live disconnected lives. According to sociologists, few of us have friends while most of us have many casual acquaintances. Few of us belong to voluntary societies where true relationships can be built, and even activities designed to promote that (such as bowling and church attendance, according to Robert Putnam’s popular thesis) have been turned into solitary activities in our society. David W. Smith goes so far as to say, in The Friendless American Male, that our society has become so isolated that very few men have any friends at all.

In such an environment, people are unimportant unless they add some color to the scene, and even when present, their faces are certainly irrelevant.

Does the fact that I take lonely photographs make me lonely? I don’t think so, but maybe my friends (oh yeah, David Smith says I don’t have any, let’s make that “acquaintances”) would disagree. Problem is, I don’t know them well enough to ask.

Brrr!

Just for kicks I thought I’d reshoot the blog masthead photo as a winter scene.

Whether you’re in Bismarck, Berlin, Beijing, or Birmingham for that matter, this has been a brutal winter. But the frigid temperatures (by Siouxland standards) are precisely what has made the last couple of weeks so enjoyable for me in spite of the mountains of snow.

Of course it makes all the difference when you own the gear designed for this stuff. Having spent three years in interior Alaska, I have the correct gear … and still maintain an “interior” sensibility about cold.

The best time in winter in Alaska was when the temperature stayed in the -30˚ to -5˚ range. (This wasn’t just my opinion, this was the accepted truth in interior Alaska. Forget dog sledding, skijoring, or Cross Country skiing above 0˚ – both human and dog are miserable when it’s that warm.) That temperature range was pretty typical in Delta for much of the winter. (As those who know me have no doubt heard me say, they didn’t close the schools in Delta until it reached -50˚. At that point they figured it was too cold for the kids to stand outside and wait for the bus.)

If you’re not experienced with those sorts of temperatures, that sounds more than a bit insane. But the fact is, one can dress quite comfortably for those temps. When it starts getting down to the -35˚ to -40˚ range and lower, then the cold starts seeping through all the way to the bone unless you’re wearing the most expensive and high-tech gear. And I was told by the military guys in our church (Delta was the home of the Army’s “Cold Regions Testing” unit), that even with the best gear, testing equipment in those temperatures (which is the whole point of “Cold Regions Testing”) was just plain miserable.

On the other end of the spectrum, when the temperature gets to 0˚ and above, moisture starts working its way out of the ground. The roads get frosty, and as a result, slick and treacherous. Above 0˚ the air can begin to hold moisture (ie, humidity), and a 5˚ day with a slight breeze was usually much colder than a -20˚ day, because at -20˚ the air was bone-dry.

Here’s the weird part. I lost quite a bit of weight this summer and I’ve been hating the cold of late fall and early winter. Without my layer of fat I’ve been shivering and complaining. My dad doesn’t much like cold either and he keeps his apartment very warm. Last winter I would break out in a sweat and be totally uncomfortable. This winter I found his apartment oh so refreshing. Tropical is good for the new me. Given that change, I would have thought that this cold spell would be the death of me. But the pleasure of the -30˚ to -5˚ range held true even for the new skinny me. (By the way, it never got close to -30˚ here, only down to -20˚ or so.) It seems to be the sweet spot to which a human body can easily adjust when wearing the correct clothing.

(Which reminds me of Peggy Harry in college. She was from Alaska. One winter I was giving her a hard time about wearing her parka and mukluks on campus. I said since she was from Alaska she should be able to handle the Montana winter. Her response was that Alaskans weren’t any better at handling the cold, they were just smart enough to dress for it – and I would add, they had the clothing for it as well.)

So it is that I’ve been out taking pictures, shoveling snow whenever I get a chance, and being outside even if I didn’t need to be. This last week has been great, and as far as I’m concerned this could continue for another month or two.

Unfortunately, the temperature’s going to get up around freezing next week and stay there for the foreseeable future. That means there will be moisture in the air and it will feel cold, even when its +20˚. Worse, it means the roads will turn slushy and treacherous. Life will become generally annoying until all the snow melts (which won’t be for a long time, given the amount on the ground).

The worst time of year in Alaska is “break-up;” it’s that six to eight weeks between real winter and a very short spring. Break-up, as the name implies, is when most of the snow melts, the ground turns to mush, and the temperature is always such that if you dress warm and do some work you overheat, but if you take off a layer you get chilled to the bone. Break-up is also when the crazy people live up to (and beyond) their reputations, married couples cheat on each other, and all you hear are the proverbial “discouraging words” down at the café. (In other words, Cabin Fever is far worse when it’s starting to melt than when it’s -50˚ outside.)

A typical Siouxland winter is like three months of break-up without the benefits of a proper winter. Well this year we got our week of proper winter, but if the weather man is right, “break-up” starts on Monday, and it will be a long, long season before spring finally rolls around.