Miscellany 5: Fall '23
What them fellers does
Radix magazine interviews Betty Spackman, author of A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch (which I reviewed for Artway last year). Their conversation is full of depth and richness; Spackman speaks from the wisdom that comes with prolonged contemplation wedded to sustained and practiced application. She discusses her hopes for a renewed and humbler understanding between the sometimes antagonistic camps of artists and the Christian community; she pushes against the view that art is merely a frivolous luxury; she gives advice on how people who don’t identify as artists can still get in touch with their creative side; and she discusses much, much more besides. This is a profound and valuable conversation. Spackman’s inherent kindness and nurturing spirit shine through superbly.
George Bothamely’sblog continues to showcase an impressive variety of art from across time and space. Recently, Bothamely featured two contemporary artists whose work I had not been aware of before. Here are two of the paintings he discusses.
These paintings seem to verge on the brink of abstraction; they suggest forms which we feel should be familiar to us, yet which we can’t quite identify. Are those flowers and leaves in Milhazes’ work? Is Salahi painting animals or maybe masks? The resonances to some of the great painters of the twentieth century are very strong—Milhazes echoes Kandinsky, and Salahi reminds me of some of the surrealists, such as Max Ernst or maybe Miro (if Miro were channeling his nightmares instead of his daydreams). Good stuff! Follow these links to see more artworks by Milhazes and El-Salahi. And if you would like to sign up for George Bothamely’s daily art blog, you can do so here.
In Millions, Jianan Guian has an interesting conversation with Min Jin Lee. Lee—who in other places makes no secret of her Christian faith—talks, here, about the importance of objective truth. Although she doesn’t say it explicitly, I can’t help but wonder about how a belief in truth informs Lee’s decision to use omniscient narration in her novels instead of the currently fashionable close third person. She also says this about how her art comes from a place of humility and service:
Engaging art doesn’t come from a space of self-righteousness and anger. I had to start again. I think my career is this series of humiliations where I feel so stupid all the time. Even though when I’m really angry, I think I’m so clever. So it’s an on-going dialogue between self-righteousness and utter humiliation. Somewhere in between is the truth. I told myself to put down the sword of vengeance and instead tell the truth and somehow find love. The latter is what the reader really wants.
4. was interviewed by on the subject of why Christian denominations which focus on a liturgy (a strict, predictable, and formal worship service) seem to outpace the less liturgy-minded denominations in the creative fields. Their conversation is not to be missed; it provides an immense amount of valuable insights worthy of sustained reflection. I’ve been puzzling about these and similar issues throughout my adult life, and especially since I started getting serious about my own writing a few years ago. I especially enjoyed their discussion of music; Woods mentions the “joyful sadness” he hears in the hymns of the Orthodox Church (and which I’ve heard in the music of John Tavener), and he notes Augustine’s cautions against music in the worship service, cautions which bear striking similarity to some concerns Evangelical Christians have about contemporary art in the same context. You can read the interview here.
Nathan also recently published his Substack Poetry Manifesto; anyone working in the poetry scene really ought to read this right away. We are seeing a true resurgence of the poetic craft on the site with the short orange bookmark. Next after manifestos will be public demonstrations, I assume? . . .
It has not escaped my attention that there are quite a lot of interviews in this link post. That’s a good and very encouraging sign. For a very long time, the Evangelical tribe of Christianity has regarded the arts with suspicion (this is something Spackman discusses in her Radix interview) but I see a slow thaw happening. And seeing Evangelicals willing to discuss the arts with their brethren from the Orthodox camp (as in the Nathan Woods interview) fills me with encouragement.
The whole point of my writing this blog is to connect with Christians who are thinking about the arts in a serious, positive, respectful, and humble way. If that’s not who you are, that’s fine! I hope to make everyone welcome here. If you would rather have a more behind-the-scenes discussion, the official RUINS Discord is here.
This is utterly astounding. Catalin Rotaro is the bass teacher at Arizona State university, and he is, quite possibly, the most technically proficient bass player in the world. Here he is performing the theme-and-variations section from Paganini’s caprices—yes, you read that right. Prepare to be amazed.
Those double stops! All I can say is, no one gets that good at an instrument unless they have a deep love and respect for it. What does it take to love an instrument—to love one’s art—that much?
Several interesting new books were published this summer. The first is Redeeming Vision: A Christian Guide to Looking at and Learning from Art by Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt. I first heard about this book via Victoria Emily Jones’ review of it on her Art and Theology blog.
Next is a new book by Jeremy Begbie: Abundantly More: The Theological Promise of the Arts in a Reductionist World. Begbie is a consistently thoughtful and thought-provoking voice at the intersection of theology and art; his specialty is music but he approaches the other arts as well. I found the latter parts of his earlier book Voicing Creation’s Praise: Toward a Theology of the Arts especially helpful in an abstract sense; it seems this new book will be a more practical application of Begbie’s principles, so I’m excited for it.
Finally, we have a new volume by Madeline Emerald Thiele and Sheona Beaumont. John Ruskin, The Pre-Raphaelites, and Religious Imagination is, according to its Goodreads listing, “a collection of essays by leading experts which examine nineteenth century ideas about Christian theology, art, architecture, restoration, and curatorial practice.” Sounds fun! The Pre-Raphaelites are fascinating to me, both for their artistic productions as well as their outlook and philosophy; this book is the only one I know of which considers them from a theological lens.
I’m not sure how I feel about this, so I’ll throw it in here and hope someone will share their perspective with me: in this essay for Lithub, Janet Manley argues that children’s picture books are really marketed towards adults, and that this is a problem. “People in publishing often talk about ‘child-friendly’ books, which suggests something consoling, sweet and kind of nostalgic. But that’s a smokescreen, because those qualities attract parents and teachers more than children.”
I can kind of see both sides of this issue. On one hand, I have encountered many, many children’s books which seem to be catering toward the tastes of parents and caregivers. On the other hand, some of those same books are the ones my own kids check out from the library or request to have read to them. What is going on here? I need more data points to be sure of what to think, so: readers, what’s your experience with this issue? Do you see children’s picture books as going one way or the other—as pandering to adult tastes, or giving kids what they want? Are these two even different categories at all?
One consequence of the gradual ebb of modernism and its associated thoughtforms is a renewed understanding and acknowledgement of the importance of religion to the artists of the twentieth century. Artists who were previously seen as only working in the secular realm are now being reevaluated, and a considerable debt to religion is being found in their creative practice. This series of blog posts from 2012 by Jonathan Evens is an instance of this critical reevaluation. I haven’t started reading the series yet (only got as far as the two-part introduction), but it looks extremely intriguing. As the world of contemporary art is seen, more and more, to owe a considerable debt to religion, will we perhaps also see a renewed interest in contemporary art from Christian artists?
Alan Jacobs writes about Resistance in the Arts for The New Atlantis. His thesis—that truly good art comes from the effort of overcoming constraints and obstacles—is well worth pondering, especially since we live in an age when it seems all barriers to the free flow of an artist’s vision are quickly being eroded. However, Jacobs indicates that there are still artists working today who deliberately impose resistances on themselves. His examples range all over, and explicate his theme in the realms of music, theater, film, architecture, and writing.
11. delivers a creator’s manifesto with as much flourish and bravado as Gerard Butler’s Phantom when he presents his opera Don Juan Triumphant. Putzke has much to say against the ego-driven pursuit of the “Masterpiece”, the “Great Artistic Statement”; instead, he advocates that we should be focusing on giving the public what it wants—and doing so with great care and skill. His points are directed towards writers but they are applicable to all kinds of artists, in all kinds of creative endeavors. What he is really asking is for artists to pursue craft instead of greatness—and that’s a point I’m fully ready to endorse.
Finally, here is an absolute jewel of a poem. It’s in Hazel Felleman’s anthology The Best Loved Poems of the American People; the author is unknown.
The hen remarked to the mooley cow,
As she cackled her daily lay,
(That is, the hen cackled) “It’s funny how
I’m good for an egg a day.
I’m a fool to do it, for what do I get?
My food and my lodging. My!
But the poodle gets that—he’s the household pet,
And he never has laid a single egg yet—
Not even when eggs are high.”
The mooley cow remarked to the hen,
As she masticated her cud,
(That is, the cow did) “Well, what then?
You quit, and your name is mud.
I’m good for eight gallons of milk each day,
And I’m given my stable and grub;
But the parrot gets that much, anyway,—
All she can gobble—and what does she pay?
Not a dribble of milk, the dub!”
But the hired man remarked to the pair,
“You get all that’s coming to you.
The poodle does tricks, and the parrot can swear,
Which is better than you can do.
You’re necessary, but what’s the use
Of bewailing your daily part?
You’re bourgeois—working’s your only excuse;
You can’t do nothing but just produce—
What them fellers does is ART!”