Feuilleton 1: After the apocalypse; the ethical element; Christmas; reading.
Well! It’s been nigh upon two months since I last wrote in this blog. I’ll get around to what I’ve been doing, but first I want to sort out a few things. I had a plan in my head about what to do with my time while I wasn’t writing, and I’d say I was about 60% successful in sticking to that plan. The other 40% . . . well . . . life happens, doesn’t it? I am very thankful for all of you who have decided to keep with me across my long break, and I’m also thankful to the new subscribers who have signed up since then. Let’s get to business, shall we?
IN THE REALM OF THE APOCALYPTIC
David Mitchell’s 2012 novel Cloud Atlas is one of the best post-apocalyptic stories that I know of, despite only one section of the book (“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”) taking place in a post-catastrophe future where civilization has been largely destroyed. Nearly every other section includes relics from past ages—the illuminated manuscripts that Robert Frobisher steals; Yoona~939’s children’s book; Rufus Sixsmith’s letters which Luisa Rey reads. The novel is heavy with a sense of the persistence of the past. In a sense, every period of time is like a post-apocalypse for whatever period came before; and we are all just poking around in the ruins, overturning old boards and digging through rubble piles, looking for what’s interesting. Some aspects of culture remain in a modified version of their former selves, and we inhabit them on our own and make them ours, such as the British Royalty. Other things get buried in the rubble only to be discovered long ages later, like Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which was almost entirely forgotten for more than 250 years.
The entire novel has as one of its main themes the idea of truth that must be revealed. The Greek word “apokálupsis (ᾰ̓ποκᾰ́λῠψῐς)” actually means “revealing,” as in pulling the lid off something, and as Alissa Wilkinson says in How to Survive the Apocalypse, “Apocalyptic stories expose hidden truths, wipe away the veneer, push past the superficial and simulacra, and get to the reality of things.” The reality revealed in the best apocalyptic narratives is the truth system and value structure of the stories’ protagonists. In times of apocalypse, the past is revealed for what it is worth to us; we will discard it, learn from it, or revere it, and that choice reveals much about ourselves. What does it mean that the people of the Renaissance venerated the sculptures and ruins of ancient Rome? And does it mean anything different that the monks of Ireland cherished and preserved the writings of the Greek and Roman authors?
I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural preservation, and how the role of the critic is also, is some senses, a curatorial role; the critic functions almost like an advance curator, pointing out what will be preserved before that preservation needs to occur. What counts as worth preserving, anyway?
What would survive, if there was an apocalypse right now? If you were the survivor of an apocalyptic event, what would you try to preserve? What should you try to preserve? That “should” introduces the ethical element, and reveals the truth system and value structure of this blog. RUINS is a journal of Christian art criticism, and as such is concerned at least partly with ethical considerations—with what ought to be celebrated, encouraged, and held up for commendation. Here, in this space, I hope to make the kind of aesthetic and critical judgments which a future post-apocalypse might find worthwhile. But I can’t do that unless I understand what is being said by these artworks, and how they are saying it; to do so, I have to engage with art and art theories that some Christians might find distasteful or not worthy of serious attention. But I’m not positioning myself as some kind of apostle of good taste, or even as a representative of “high” culture. I’m just looking around, considering the ruins, and commenting on what I think is, for whatever reason, worth noticing.
Longtime readers of this blog will be aware of my deep and abiding interest in ruins. Someday, I would like to write the definitive work on the subject (I touched on the theme at length here, here, and here, and it pops up in passing in several additional essays of mine). The idea that the past does not get completely wiped away, and that what remains is decided largely by the vagaries of fate, is profoundly fascinating and unsettling to me. Who can say what the future of anything will be? What will last beyond our civilization’s time? Thoughts like these should give artists in particular a somber, humble thoughtfulness and sense of mission and purpose as they go about their work. There is, right now, an artist working on a piece of art which will be studied by future archaeologists who will otherwise be only dimly aware of the general shape of our culture and society—and that artist does not know that their art will be so studied. If you were that artist, how would you approach your craft?
But even more than that . . . here is the Apostle Paul, discussing what will last and what won’t:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor. 3:10-15)
Paul is speaking of the work of teaching the truths of the faith, but the principle applies to the artistic disciplines as well. Our artist, working unawares at something which will survive the apocalypse, is also working in the spiritual dimension. The artwork that the artist is producing will exhibit qualities of goodness and beauty, or it won’t; it will convey the eternal truths of the human condition, or it won’t; it will point people to God, or it won’t. It will do those things, or it won’t, for centuries, perhaps millennia.
Again I ask: if you were that artist, how should you approach your craft?
THE YEARLY MICROCOSM
So of course, it’s the Christmas season, the time of year with more traditions, assumptions, expectations, and baggage than any other. I love Christmas—every bit of it, except for “Christmas Shoes”—but I am keenly aware of the pressure to “do Christmas well,” to have a “Good Christmas.” Here at my house, decorating a tree for Christmas is a big deal, and is fraught with peril. (My seven-year-old daughter was actually born on Christmas day in the morning, and is very aware of the special position she has vis-à-vis the holiday; she calls herself “The Christmas Queen” and insists that she gets unheard-of privileges and prerogatives thereunto, such as the high honor of placing the shimmering star atop the Christmas tree.) Every year, I pause to think about why I am doing all of this. I like decorating, going to parties, singing in my church’s choir, eating cookies, and all that—but why am I doing it? And why, specifically, in this particular way? Why did I decide to use only gold and red ornaments on our tree, instead of doing one of these ideas? Popcorn was, at one time, a traditional tree ornament—why am I not doing that? Why am I putting up our family’s fake plastic tree, and not a real one? Am I wrong to have instituted a moratorium on tinsel on my house?
The question of Christmas decorating cuts straight to my heart as a Christian art critic. What should be praised, and what should be dismissed? What is in good taste and possessed of beauty, and what is crass, ugly, vulgar? Are certain kinds of ornaments, like certain kinds of art, beneath my notice? If my kids make a crazy-looking snowflake out of pipe cleaners and insist I put it on the tree, should I praise their effort, or should I encourage them to keep honing their skills before publicly displaying their work? (Spoiler: it’s on the tree.)
Christmas is, in a sense, a microcosm of all human artistic activity. The physical manifestations of Christmas are a close analogy to the actions of artists, who take the given world and tease out its potentialities, and make it beautiful. At times, critics can be fierce and hard to artists. But I don’t want to be that kind of critic.
WHAT I’VE BEEN READING
My intention, in the past few months, was to spend some time exploring writings by Christians on what it means to be a Christian involved in the arts. Here is the reading list I gave myself:
The Faithful Artist by Cameron Anderson
Voicing Creation’s Praise by Jeremy Begbie
Art and Faith by Makato Fujimura
Art in Action by Nicholas Wolsterstorff
Seeing Beyond the Word ed. by Paul Corbey Finney
It turned out to be a much busier season than I’d expected, and I only read the first two of these books (but I did read the Anderson book twice). I also read the aforementioned Cloud Atlas, as well as Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which stirred some thoughts in me to be shared here soon enough. Do I now have a better perspective on what my attitude should be regarding how to proceed with this blog? Nah. Was the break good for me? Yes. My biggest takeaway from the past two months is that I need to write less. I don’t want to monopolize your attention and cram your inbox full of essays—you already get too many of those, average Substack reader; I’m going to scale back to one or two posts per month.
I’m still going to feature a wide assortment of reviews here, and theoretical pieces, but there will also be feuilletons like this one. “What is a feuilleton?” you ask. Well, it’s a kind of journalistic format involving, basically, a lot of disconnected thoughts and musings, sometimes revolving around a central theme and sometimes not. Feuilletons were written by Fyodor Dostoevsky when he was editor of the magazine The Citizen and also in his own journal, The Diary of a Writer; George Orwell also used the format in his “As I please” column for the Tribune newspaper. Imagine a chatty letter from a relative or friend which remains lighthearted yet teeters on the brink of being “serious” and deals, if only tangentially, with “weighty themes”: that’s a feuilleton. How do you pronounce it? Like this.
Thanks, everyone, again, for reading my scattered thoughts. This feuilleton is my Christmas gift to you; I will be back writing after the new year, with the aforementioned schedule changes. If this essay was in any way interesting to you, please consider sharing it with a friend. And for behind-the-scenes chat, RUINS has an official Discord server; it might be worth your time to check it out and lurk around.
Chris Marchand shares some thoughts on the value of Christmas songs which have a vein of melancholy in them.
Grace Hamman discusses the “Tree of Jesse” theme in medieval art and makes connections between the very physical reality of Jesus’ incarnation and the connections we share with our relatives. A quote: “Christ is a shoot from a human family. He needs his mother, receives affection from his grandparents, deals with uncomfortable family history at holidays, and carries the unseen bodily inheritance of generations. He is truly God-with-us, Emmanuel.”
Sam Kriss blasts OpenAI’s new ChatGPT AI text generator. “It gives you exactly what you ask for: text that’s perfectly lucid and sensical, and dull, dull, dull.” Michael Sacasas also takes a dismissive tone, in this instance directed toward AI image generators; his view is the same as mine and that of Erik Hoel, who argued that what we see when we look at an AI image is not the product of a mind at all. I have some ponderances on the whole AI-art situation as it has unfolded so far which I will be sharing next month. New readers might be interested in my previous thoughts on the matter.
Victoria Emily Jones is continuing her splendidly eclectic roundup of Advent-themed visual art, poems, and music again this year; if you aren’t signed up for her daily emails, you can at least scroll through what she’s showcased so far. She started the series with this deeply enigmatic painting by Yuri Yuan. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you her interpretation, which you can read here.
A good quote from Cloud Atlas.
The Ghost of Sir Felix Finch whines, “But it’s been done a hundred times before!”—as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!