Tuesday, November 23, 2010, 9:00 AM
The founding principles of New York’s Museum of Modern Art are not unclear:
Our ultimate purpose is to establish a permanent public museum in this city which will acquire… collections of the best modern works of art… We solicit the support of those who are interested in the progress of art…. The Museum galleries will display carefully chosen permanent collections of the most important living masters…
I’m having a hard time reconciling such principles with the fact that MoMA screened the film Jackass 3D last month.
How tempting it is to end this post right there. Contrasting MoMA’s founding ideals with an isolated event might generate some eye rolls, and were any of us sensitive enough, perhaps even a tear. But such a jab would lend a false impression. The Van Goghs haven’t quite been bubble-wrapped. MoMA still has much to offer, even if it resorts, on occasion, to Abramovician stunts to draw crowds. If antics can foot the bill for what is more enduring, then all the better. The current list of exhibitions (take a look) is nothing less than substantial, with nary a mention of crazy glue removing chest hair. As the Wall Street Journal’s Eric Gibson has pointed out, lowbrow subsidizing highbrow may not be the best scenario, but nor is it the worst of arrangements.
Criticism, to be sure, has its place. Frankly, it’s also more fun. But why not fast, for a season, from strictly negative cultural critique? Western civilization may be in rapid decline, but most of us have gotten the message, and grumbling about it does little to slow the rate of deterioration. The appetite for gloom need not always be fed. A different strategy is called for: Seek and celebrate the good (and if you haven’t found good, you haven’t looked hard enough). Call it the cultural version of Jim Neuchterlein’s inspiriting reflections this month On the Square, entitled Apocalyspe No. “Conservatives need no instruction in the dangers of inordinate optimism, but they might need some help with its opposite.”
Wednesday, November 3, 2010, 5:25 PM
Artist Enrique Martínez Celaya is lecturing tomorrow night regarding Biblical themes in the show that Rusty reviewed here very positively. So consider strolling right past the upturned noses of the irreligious art world into the Museum of Biblical Art to hear something interesting.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010, 9:30 AM
So they’ve done it. Andrew and Sarah Wilson, tracing Luther’s 1510 journey from Erfurt to Rome, have finally crossed the Tiber. And I mean that literally. They reached their destination.
Ecumenism can be the lightheaded pursuit of the touchy-feely crowd who don’t like to think hard about doctrine, but not in this case. Andrew’s posts were historically loaded and forthright. He admits that Luther’s mission from Erfurt to Rome was actually meant to prevent unity, lending an ironic twist to their journey. Sarah’s winsome writing encapsulated what everyone’s attitude towards ecumenism should be: “Nothing but the sharpest and clearest truth will do. Nothing but the greatest and most generous love will do.” The walk now completed, both pilgrims have challenged Catholics to make it a round trip.
When in Rome, Sarah and Andrew appropriately commemorated Reformation Day by celebrating both Luther and the signing of the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration. They’ve educated their readers, reminding us how much progress has been made, from the Princeton proposal to the Global Christian Forum, and many other advances as well. One stated goal of Here I Walk was to publicize such spiritual advances. Just try to imagine the current Pope doing what Julius II was doing when Luther arrived.
We might also mention that the mutual excommunication between East and West of 1054 has been officially “in oblivion” since 1965. Capitalizing on this rapprochement, Dawn LaValle—a young Catholic—reflected on worshipping in a hospitable Orthodox monastery this summer, and her thoughts are very similar in tone to Here I Walk. But despite all kinds of progress, Christian fractures remain. Henry Chadwick’s saddening quip comes to mind: “The principal reason for Christian disunity, it seems, is disunity itself.”
Thursday, October 7, 2010, 1:24 PM
Joe reports that most teenagers aren’t sexually active in America today. In his Bancroft Prize-winning biography of Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden provides some historical contrast. Here is the skinny on pre-marital sex in eighteenth century Puritan New England:
“Bundling,” which was supposed to be a way of getting acquainted without sexual intercourse, did not always work as advertised. Pregnancies before marriage were rising dramatically in New England… Premarital sex was commonplace. Even when it resulted in pregnancy, so long as the couple married, there was no longer much stigma involved. Alluding to that new attitude, Jonathan [Edwards] perceived another alarming decline. “And there is not that discountenance of such things as there formerly used to be…. Formerly, things were accounted such a wound as a person never could get over as long as he lived…. Now they are so bold and impudent, that they are not ashamed to hold up their heads.”
Edwards’ preaching may have been ineffectual in his day. But times have changed. The National Survey results can only mean that finally, after centuries of struggle, we have burst the shackles of oppressive Puritan sexual morality.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010, 9:00 AM
In her explosively intelligent book Empress and Handmaid, Sarah Jane Boss contrasts medieval images of the Virgin with contemporary pornography:
Whereas the worshipper before the Virgin in Majesty is the servant of the Lord and Lady whose presence the statue conveys, the actors in the pornographic film or photograph are servants of the pornographer and viewer who summon and pay for their presence.
The pornographic image is degrading to its maker and user; but the Virgin in Majesty ennobles her devotee. You may prostrate yourself before her and proclaim yourself her servant, or pour out your sins to her; but in return she will fill you with that dignity and sense of worth by which she first commanded your attention. The pornographer perpetrates the lie that the human condition and physical world are naturally vile and degraded; but the Mother of God and her Son say truthfully that the whole creation is destined for the highest honour.
Some parallel insights can be found in Jason Byassee’s fine article, “Not Your Father’s Pornography.”
Thursday, September 9, 2010, 3:37 PM
As an undergraduate years ago, those of us in the Wheaton College art crowd piled into a fifteen passenger van for an unusual studio visit. We drove into Chicago to the home/studio of artist Tim Lowly whose work—we were told—is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which in fact it is). When we got inside, we noticed Tim’s profoundly disabled daughter, Temma, lying silently on the couch. This made some of us uncomfortable at first; but Tim and Temma were not, and they quickly transferred their ease.
An entire show of Lowly’s work devoted to his daughter Temma, entitled Without Moving, is opening this Saturday night at Chicago’s Fill in the Blank Gallery. You can learn more about Lowly’s work from this Image article, or by listening to this more recent interview with the effervescent Christy Tennant. In the latter, Lowly does a fine job of diffusing nearly all misconceptions one might have about his work. His daughter is not in endless “suffering,” his paintings do not “exploit” her, nor is his role as a parent a horrific cross to bear. It’s worth a listen, and if you’re in the Chicago area, worth a visit.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010, 9:00 AM
The Gray Lady appears to agree with Micah about Stephen Hawking being something of a bore this time around:
The real news about “The Grand Design,” however, isn’t Mr. Hawking’s supposed jettisoning of God… The real news about “The Grand Design” is how disappointingly tinny and inelegant it is. The spare and earnest voice that Mr. Hawking employed with such appeal in “A Brief History of Time” has been replaced here by one that is alternately condescending, as if he were Mr. Rogers explaining rain clouds to toddlers, and impenetrable.
Terry Eagleton has given us a convenient signifier for the willful (read: profitable) ignorance of basic religious concepts: “Ditchkins” (a conflation of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). It would be a shame, not to mention linguistically awkward, to have to include Hawking in the mix; but the pre-K manner by which he invokes the term “God” in his latest press releases urges this regrettably necessary conflation. So here’s everyone’s favorite Marxist on why religious believers might not find themselves trembling at Ditchkinsing’s latest pronouncements:
Monday, September 6, 2010, 8:00 AM
“Mary Immaculate precedes all others, including obviously Peter himself and the Apostles.” - John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem
“Thou goest to a woman? Do not forget thy whip!” - Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Friday, August 27, 2010, 11:51 AM
Rusty Reno asked me why we can’t build like Ralph Adams Cram envisioned. The answer to that question, I think, is the architectural equivalent to what Reno himself said about education: “Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment.” Hence today, the Cram passage I quoted would likely horrify the same institution at which it was first delivered. It would be defused in a classroom (using critical theory), as quickly as someone would extinguish a fire in the wastepaper basket.
Ethan Anthony, an author and architect who is perpetuating Cram’s legacy today, put it this way: “Cram’s career, like that of his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, was a constant search for architectural absolutes.” Cram, a Gothicist, thought big: “We are handicapped by the deeds of our fathers, but the restoration must be accomplished, however arduous the effort!” Wright, a Modernist, did as well: He hoped to build a mile high structure that, had it been constructed, would have nearly doubled anything in present day Dubai.
But the Modernist ideology failed (see Glazer), and we are disillusioned. As Michael J. Lewis explains, architecture now (pockets of resistance notwithstanding) is All Sail, No Anchor. All Wasabi, No Sushi. A delicious Wittgenstein quote (sent to me by Steven Good) says it best: “Architecture immortalizes and glorifies something. Hence there can be no architecture where there is nothing to glorify” (Culture and Value, 69e).
It’s not, of course, that we shouldn’t sometimes be frightened by full-throated architectural rhetoric. Far from it. It’s just that I can think of those more deserving of our fears than Cram. In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand created the architect Howard Roark (modeled after Wright), whose Wynard Building was to be “a gesture against the whole world . . . the last achievement of man on earth before mankind destroys itself.” In comparison to that, Cram was a kitten.
Thursday, August 26, 2010, 3:21 PM
I recently came across the following passage from the architect Ralph Adams Cram’s commencement address at the Yale School of Fine Arts (as it was then called), published in The Ministry of Art (1914):
The artist is bound and controlled by the laws of his art, but doubly is he bound by his duty to society. If he is prohibited — as he is under penalty of aesthetic damnation — from denying beauty or contenting himself with expedients, or sacrificing any jot or tittle of the integrity of his art to fashion, or vulgarity, or the lust of evil things, still more is he bound to mankind by the law of noblesse oblige, and by the fear of God, to use his art only for the highest ends, to proclaim only the vision of perfection, to cleave only to the revelation of heavenly things.
The architect who abandons himself to the creation of ugliness, however academic may be its cachet; the painter who “paints what he sees” or makes his art the ministry of lust; the sculptor who regards the form and sees nothing of the substance; the poet who glorifies the hideous shape of atheism, or the grossness of the accidents of life; the musician who exalts the morbid and the horrible; the maker of ceremonials who assembles depraved arts in a vain simulacrum of ancient and noble liturgies, — these are but traitors to man and God, and however competent their craft, they are enemies of the people, and to them should be meted the condemnation of their kind.
Those unfamiliar with Cram (whose polemics, he tells us, were delivered with a twinkle in his eye) might consult Matthew Alderman’s fine reflection, or better yet, walk into St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York and gaze at what the exacting standards expressed above could actually accomplish.
He was America’s John Ruskin. But our Ruskin could build.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009, 12:50 PM
In his not-to-be-overlooked recent web essay, Rusty Reno reports that critical theory “remains an academic growth industry.” Berkeley’s Martin Jay, a scholar who has spent his career steeped in critical theory, see things differently.
In his review of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (History and Theory, Feb. 2009), Jay describes an endless flow of freshly published religion books, such as Religion: Beyond a Concept, a tome which exceeds 1000 pages and is only the first of five projected volumes in a series entitled “The Future of the Religious Past.” After listing similar projects, Jay confesses exasperation with academia’s religious growth industry:
Clearly, whether or not religion can be said to have “returned”–did it ever really go away?–in an age that is no longer fully secular, it has generated a tsunami of scholarly commentary in many different fields sweeping over the nascent twenty-first century in the way that reinvigorated religious practice promises to do as well. The cultured despisers of yore–a few well-publicized exceptions like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins aside–have been replaced by a new gaggle of no-less cultured admirers. In the most advanced theoretical circles, it is now possible to speak, in the words of the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, of “the breakdown of the philosophical prohibition of religion.” Making one’s way through this thicket of new interpretation and appreciation is not, however, easy, especially for those of us who remain religiously “unmusical,” to borrow Max Weber’s still felicitous phrase.
Reno and Jay are, I think, both right. The questions is whether the burgeoning academic interest in religion will tame religion with critical theory, or let religion do some of the taming.
Friday, April 24, 2009, 9:27 AM
It appears I need to diversify my Google Reader, subscribe to different journals, or make some new friends, as no one in my circle of electronic, print, or human communication alerted me to the cinematic horsepower of Doubt.
Granted the fault is largely my own, for I didn’t seek out any reviews. Seeing that anti-Catholicism holds its place as America’s last acceptable prejudice, I assumed that the film would be a well orchestrated demolition, where the Catholic Church played the role that the suburbs did in American Beauty: a caricature of a cartoon of a straw man wherein nothing good can be found. I could not have been more wrong.
Granted, Doubt is a well-orchestrated demolition, but what it demolishes is that venerable theological tradition, with a long life in American Protestant and Catholic circles, of liberal Christianity. The film deftly exposes what can actually lurk behind some of the impassioned cries within the church for tolerance and inclusion. The result is that a warm, welcoming, creed-crunching post-conciliar priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) emerges as the villain, and a conservative, rule-abiding, orthodox nun (Meryl Streep) as the hero. In case we might miss that point, one scene juxtaposes the orderly, restrained meals in the convent with the rowdy, gluttonous feasting of Monseigneur Merlot and company. Another scene has the traditional nun open the blinds to let the in the sunlight, to the great annoyance of the liberalizing priest who—despite the dried flowers gently pressed into his breviary—prefers the darkness.
[Spoiler alert] Wisely, the film is laced with just enough ambiguity to enable differing interpretations (how else would it have slipped past studio censors?). For example, what is one to make of the final scene where said nun breaks down in an agony of “doubt” herself? Surely many viewers interpreted this moment the way Christopher Hitchens interpreted the “doubts” of another famous nun. But this facile conclusion is as problematic in Doubt as it was with Mother Teresa.
Make no mistake, our nun’s final breakdown is quite far from the “I’m not sure my religion is true” perplexity that evidently afflicts the film’s liberalizing priest. In the nun’s case, her agony was much thicker, much more real. It even happens in a garden, which may sound familiar: Corruption of the religious hierarchy (who promotes an abusive priest) causes a dedicated reformer intense spiritual suffering, to the point where she desperately asks the assistance of her disciple as she agonizes in a garden? Call it surrendering to doubt, but it sure sounds like the imitatio Christi to me.
Monday, August 25, 2008, 8:32 AM
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I’ll admit I was perplexed at James Panero’s account of the Classical Realist painter Jacob Collins, back in September 2006. Do not renewal movements in art need as many friends as they can get?
But Panero’s assessment is now much clearer to me, for with his new review (in the current New Criterion) of Collins’s effort to revive the Hudson River School, Panero reveals—to me, at least—the root of his earlier complaint. After some effective contextualization, Panero expresses concern that Jacob Collins’s students, “with their small, scrupulous studies of rocks and stumps, may be missing the forest for the trees of genuine Hudson River School landscape.” Why?
The original Hudson River School artists did not go into the wilderness to paint illustrations of the natural world. They went to paint the God they saw manifest in the natural world. . . . Can there be a Hudson River School revival without the revival of God? This is the question that Collins and his students must confront. Their studies, no matter how precise, many never come together as a whole without an underlying philosophy that goes beyond mere proficiency.
Self-styled religious reviewers can unfortunately tend toward the Charlemagne-style forcible baptism of the secular efforts of contemporary art. Then along comes Panero: “To understand the Hudson River School today, Collins’s students must learn to see themselves as seminarians as well as painters.”
Philip Bess provided a similar critique of another positive development, the New Urbanism. In his book Till We Have Built Jerusalem, Bess writes,
something seems missing from the polemics and practices of the New Urbanists: viz., a recognition that a certain kind of social order is a prerequisite for traditional urbanism. . . . a social order that appreciates the centrality of the various moral virtues . . . The rationale for a new traditional urbanism . . . cannot be based upon the market appeal of an autonomous traditional aesthetic.
A new Hudson River School and a New Urbanism are admirable cultural turns. But to survive they need more than Christian cheerleading. They need the kind of religiously informed constructive criticism exemplified by Panero and Bess.