Aesthetics

the struggles of the artist

I’m absolutely loving the stuff Mark Sayers is coming out with at the moment. Like his recent post that contained this nugget:

One of the struggles of the artist is to hold together the awe inspiring and the transcendent elements of life, those moments which remind us of God’s glory, with the painful and broken elements of life. Christians tend to do okay at the first part, Christian bookstores are filled with prints of glorious mountain ranges, we love the transcendent apex of the worship song. But we tend to struggle with the broken elements of life, with integrating suffering, lament and loss into our creativity. On the Cross, God intervenes in history with such staggering alacrity and originality we can only marvel at his creativity. In one moment, God’s glory is revealed, Jesus takes sin upon his shoulders and defeats death and evil, yet at the same time, we are confronted with the image of a dying God, a man whose painful screams speak of his isolation from God. The crucifixion is one of those rare moments, where the transcendent and the immanent, the glorious and the earthly, the human and the divine are held together. It is the ultimate template for Christian creatives. Hold those extremes together and you will produce work that no longer is mimicry but which is truly creative.

I was at a Christian conference recently where the speaker urged us (in light of the resurrection) to paint in the colours of hope, bringing the light and joy of the promised new creation into our dark and brutal world.

Now I’m all for hope. And never run out of stuff to say about the resurrection — so massive are its implications not just for art but also for how we engage with the material and ‘secular’ in general!

But what Sayers says is worth pondering. Because Christian hope, grounded in the Crucified who’s now risen, must not to hide from the nastiness and brokenness in our experience of life.

In fact, Christian hope should enable us to look reality square in the eye. Shouldn’t it?

for the kingdom belongs to such as these

People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18.15-17)

I’m aware this may cut across what I said earlier this week. But I’ve been struck by the way my infant son engages with his environment. I think I have a lot to learn from him about Christian living — and theological inquiry in particular.

When he’s at his best, my son displays a kind of relaxed relentlessness.

He’s relentless in his curiosity. About everything. (This is typically expressed, at this stage, by him putting everything into his mouth. I’m told he’ll grow out of this.)

Yet there’s also a gentleness to his curiosity. He’s relaxed in his explorations. Not an obsessive Captain Ahab.

Perhaps the difference is that in pressing to understand and discover, my son doesn’t seem all that interested in gaining mastery or control. Rather, the goal of his explorations is either wide-eyed wonder or a delighted chuckle.

And whatever else Jesus means us to understand in saying that the kingdom belongs the like of infants, surely it means that we should take our cue from my son’s relaxed relentlessness. Pressing to know God and his world — in the quest not for mastery but for wonder and delight…

drawing out of our Christian hope

I don’t think I could tell you much about the houses or gardens on my street. I tend to use it almost exclusively to get from my home to the tram (for which I always seem to be running late). And so I rarely ever notice things about it — let alone enjoy them.

I’m sure that the Nineteenth Century English intellectual John Ruskin would rebuke me for this. Ruskin was keen that everyone learn to draw — not so much to flood the world with bad art as to restore to us the habits of curiosity and attention:

Now, remember … that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see. Two men are walking through Clare Market, one of them comes out at the other end not a bit wiser than when he went in; the other notices a bit of parsley hanging over the edge of a butter-woman’s basket, and carries away with him images of beauty which in the course of his daily work he incorporates with it for many a day. I want you to see things like these.

The issue isn’t how such curiosity and attention gets expressed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s drawing, painting, poetry, music … even science.

The issue is that it’s incredibly difficult to stoke the fires of curiosity and attention when you’re at home, surrounded by the familiar (as I am when I hurry down my street).

Yet I’m sure you’ve noticed how, in an unfamiliar environment (such as when you’re travelling), even the most mundane things can invite the kind of attention Ruskin wants us to display.

Which brings me to our Christian hope. Because, as 1 Peter puts it, the ‘living hope’ secured for us by the risen Jesus makes us ‘aliens and strangers’ — wherever we are. It puts us out of joint with our culture and society, rendering them oddly unfamiliar.

As a result, curiosity and attention should be second nature for us. Shouldn’t it?

Surely we should be those who draw — or paint or compose or study — out of our Christian hope…

why I’m yet to be convinced about 3D movies

I don’t know about you, but I’m yet to be convinced about 3D movies.

I mean I like all the pyrotechnics. I suck in my breath along with everyone else when they do something visually gob-smacking with the new technology.

I guess I even appreciate the realism of seeing characters that look like I could reach out and touch and interact with them.

I recognise the power of its immersive effect. I can see how it might help me suspend my disbelief when I’m watching a romance unfold between giant blue warriors (or whatever).

So … yeah, it’s a great storytelling advice. It can help absorb and entertain me for two or three hours (although Ethan and Joel Coen’s True Grit is a resolutely 2D experience that thoroughly absorbed and entertained me).

But I’m yet to be convinced that it can really help a film move me — whether to tears or laughter or seat-clenching anticipation or fist-pumping exultation.

In the end, I feel that the ‘reality’ promised by 3D technology is overrated. What I want from my movies is not reality but life.

I want movies to live. Rather than being things I simply watch, I want them to be things that get a grip on me: lifting me, shaking me, dropping me, cracking open the world in whole new (and even uncomfortable) ways.

What I want is something a little bit like what the literary critic Eric Auerbach famously says biblical narrative offers (Mimesis, page 15):

Far from seeking … merely to make us forget our reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

That’s why I’m yet to be convinced about 3D movies.

a Christmas meditation on beauty

On Sunday, Natalie and I had the privilege of listening to Andrew Katay preach what was quite possibly the best Christmas sermon we’ve ever heard. We’ll post a link to it as soon as it becomes available.

Andrew warned us against sleeping through Christmas because it’s too familiar. And he woke us up to out how God’s incarnation as a human changes everything.

At one point, we paused to dwell on what ‘getting’ the incarnation does to our view of justice and peace in the here and now — and to the significance we attach to ordinary, bodily, material life.

Rather than emptying the present world of significance, Andrew pointed out, the incarnation affirms the reality and goodness of the world Jesus came to redeem — fleeting, messy and broken as it inevitably is.

Ours is a God who takes on flesh! This is what makes pursuing justice and peace worthwhile and not ultimately futile.

I think the same point could perhaps be made about beauty.

So, in the interests of affirming the beautiful this Christmas, I’d like to share this poem (h/t The Cedar Room):

Human Beauty
by Albert Goldbarth

If you write a poem about love …
the love is a bird,

the poem is an origami bird.
If you write a poem about death …

the death is a terrible fire,
the poem is an offering of paper cutout flames

you feed to the fire.
We can see, in these, the space between

our gestures and the power they address
—an insufficiency. And yet a kind of beauty,

a distinctly human beauty. When a winter storm
from out of nowhere hit New York one night

in 1892, the crew at a theater was caught
unloading props: a box

of paper snow for the Christmas scene got dropped
and broken open, and that flash of white

confetti was lost
inside what it was a praise of.

why I think Cezanne would have been a blogger

Rodin's Eve

Chris and I went to see the European Masters exhibition at the NGV on Sunday. It’s a fabulous, and diverse, collection of work from European painters of the late 19th and early 20th Century well worth going to see if you get the chance.

The exhibition charts the transition from works you might describe as Neo-Classical, through the Romantic movement, Impressionism and towards Modernism.

I was fascinated by the way the curators described the ethic of Impressionism.

Rodin’s Eve was described as being a pivotal moment for the sculptor — his model became pregnant before he’d finished, so he just stopped and exhibited it in (what would have been considered) its incomplete state. Similarly, early Impressionist painters were exhibiting work that resembled plein air studies — the types of thing artists might previously have taken back to the studio to assist with a more detailed and time-intesive work. They were quick, emotional responses to landscape. And it was a revolution dependent on technology; it was only in the late 19th century that they put paint into tubes freeing artists to work outside the studio.

So, compared to more classical art forms, Impressionism is quick, it’s emotional, it’s ‘unfinished’ by the standards of the time, and it’s driven by new innovations in technology. Sounds a lot like blogging to me!

single takes are mighty impressive

I love dance movies. So I’m really looking forward to seeing Step Up 3D. I’m pretty sure it’ll be sensory overload — with lots of jaw-dropping feats of physical skill.

But have you noticed how rarely today’s dance (or martial arts) movies embrace the single take? While I’m conscious of the fact that some of the contemporary fascination with scene-cutting is a matter of aesthetics, it does have the added benefit of allowing film-makers to draw from multiple takes to create a ‘montage’ of impressive moves even if mistakes have been made in the process.

One of the things I find most impressive about old school song and dance movies is the skill required to pull off a perfect dance routine in a single take. Fred Astaire was a stickler for the single take, apparently declaring “either the camera will dance, or I will”.

This appreciation of the single take was one of the reasons I was so taken with this video clip we saw on the weekend.

the ethics of worship

You’ve probably bumped up against this classic Hauerwas moment (from The Truth About God) around the blogosphere:

One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.

Oliver O’Donovan draws a similar connection between worship and ethics when he nominates the Lord’s Day as the third of his four sacraments in Desire of the Nations (that’s right, four sacraments — count ’em!). For O’Donovan the resurrection of Jesus enables both the drawing out our hearts to God in joyful worship and our full-blown moral transformation.

His 2007 New College Lectures made much the same point as he reconstructed the trajectory of a right response to reality — from it germination in a sense of wonder to its flowering in rational deliberation and moral action.

What I find so compelling about this is how close it comes to traditional accounts of our aesthetic response to beauty.

Got to love the view from our balcony!

Got to love the view from our balcony!

This sense of connection between awed adoration and moral action strikes me as endlessly suggestive. Especially in raising questions about the place of art and beauty in the Christian life. Consider the vice lists and household codes in Scripture. The list that one commentator dubs ‘the five habits of highly destructive people’ in 1 Peter 2.1, for example, doesn’t just tell us what kind of behaviour displeases God; the words it piles up paint a vivid picture how ugly this lifestyle is.

I guess the challenge before us is to mine this rich imaginative vein so that we don’t just see what is right but are gripped by its goodness and thrilled by its beauty…

high and low culture

At our wedding, our delightful friend Sam reflected that we curiously exhibit a love for both high and low culture. So, perhaps it ought to come as no surprise that after going to see Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play Travesties, which discusses the very nature of art, we followed up by going to see Fast and Furious, which doesn’t have anything much to say at all. But it was awesome. I like fast cars. And cheesy dialogue. And things that explode. All of which it had in spades.

On a related matter, going supermarket shopping has become much more entertaining since I’ve realised you can (kind of) ‘drift’ shopping trolleys.

the beauty of the gospel?

fannybaydarwin

Is the gospel beautiful? Can we seriously say the message about Jesus — a wandering preacher of Middle Eastern appearance, executed humiliatingly by the authorities, and reputedly returned from the dead after three days — is attractive, appealing, aesthetically pleasing, compelling even? I mean, it’s pretty outrageous, isn’t it, that we could even think that something so strange, brutal and seemingly impossible might be in the same category as a Rembrandt?

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