News, directions, and a mini link roundup
Welcome, everyone, to our little corner of the blogosphere. Today’s missive goes out as sort of an end-of-year wrap-up and sets the tone for the year to come.
But first, though, I’d like to talk about an event I attended this past weekend. It was a sort of meet-and-greet with editors from three small magazines—Mockingbird, Plough, and Christianity Today. I’ve been reading Plough for about a year now; in the sea of rage and hysteria that can sometimes characterize contemporary discourse, the calm and measured tone of Plough is welcome indeed. The event was formatted around these questions: “What role can small magazines play in the public square? Can they provide a space for fruitful dialogue and healthy debate?”
Many insightful points were made by the people who spoke at the event. Some examples: Todd Brewer, web editor of Mockingbird, suggested that humor is a necessary element of any small publication’s approach to serious engagement with the thorny issues of the day. He quoted Oscar Wilde, who said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” Readers will note that I aim for a rather lighthearted tone at RUINS—my model for cultural commentary is more Tom Wolfe than George Orwell. Brewer mentioned that magazines have a unique opportunity to define themselves by what they are for, not what they are against; and this is where the discussion at the meet-and-greet began to mesh with my philosophy here at RUINS. As you may have noticed, I rarely take an outright dismissive or hostile stance toward any aspect of contemporary art or art criticism;1 this is deliberate. I don’t want to promote art criticism as something antagonistic towards new art and artists, and certainly not as some sort of high priestly pronouncements of the absolute standards of truth and goodness vis-à-vis the various styles and forms of art making. I want criticism to be something more akin to coaching or cheerleading—something which artists themselves could see as an ally in their practice. As such, I don’t want RUINS to turn into the sort of art criticism that is so easily found on social media these days—the kind that presents itself as “against” any particular aesthetic theory or art movement. I do have my own personal dislikes, but if I bring them up here at RUINS, I will try to phrase them in more of a Socratic type of questioning discussion and not as a “this is the absolute truth about this art” dogmatism., one of the editors of Plough, made a very good point during the event. She delineated a theory of how magazines can shape the posture of their readers toward the world at large; magazines can deliberately promote a particular attitude toward the conversations that pop up in the discourse by modeling a specific approach. In the case of Plough, the attitude or posture being modelled is one of slow, deliberate, and deep engagement with the conversations of the day.
This aligns with the heart of what I’m tying to do with RUINS; a slow, deliberate, and deep approach toward the arts, and especially towards Christian engagement with the arts. I want RUINS to be a place where whatever polemicism and shouting is going on in the art world (and artists do love to scream at each other every now and then) can be put aside; a place where thoughtful, charitable contemplation is the rule of the day. I hope I can succeed in that task, and I am very, very glad for everyone who has allowed me into their inbox; your continued reading of my writing indicates to me that my approach is, indeed, of value to you, and that is a great honor; thank you, readers, most sincerely.
As I was chatting with some people at the event, a theme came up about local engagement. Mockingbird, Plough, and Christianity Today all have readers spread across the country and even across the globe. But how can local community be fostered by small magazines? Are we doomed to a world of, in Melvin Webber’s famous phrase, “community without propinquity”? Or can there indeed be a gathering of people at a specific place for a specific purpose defined and modeled by a national magazine, however small it might be?2 A RUINS meetup is something I would very much like to achieve at some point; if you are interested in this idea, please let me know and we’ll think about it together.
As usual, I’ll be taking the rest of the year off. Holidays and that . . . but coming up in the new year there will be some big changes. The first and most important is that I’m going to make a concerted effort to pitch new pieces to magazines and periodicals; this is the next step in my plan for global domination. Additionally, I will operate RUINS on the principle of absolutely no schedule at all. This will give me the time to be more deliberate and careful in my own writing; there are actually several essays I’m holding back on publishing because they aren’t perfect, and being tied to a rigorous, yet self-imposed, schedule seems to be making less and less sense to me. That being said, if I do get something published in a magazine somewhere, you can be sure I will cross-post it, with commentary, here at RUINS. A number of Substack writers whom I admire have done this in the past to great effect.
The second announcement is that RUINS is going to unveil a paid tier starting at the first of the year. I’ve gone back and forth about this decision for a long time now; the deciding factor is that I had a lot of fun supporting various writers with some gift money I had earlier this year, and I’d like people to be able to do the same for me. If you’ve ever wanted to support a writer (I’m not starving in a garret, but I do have hungry children and an old, drafty house that needs repairs), your chance will come soon. You will be able to style yourself “Patron of Belles Lettres” or whatever.
All the essays, links, and other con . . . sorry, I can’t type that word. Everything on RUINS will still be free and available to all. Paid, subscribers, however, will get the option to receive RUINS in physical form; every quarter I will print out the best essays and mail them the the address of your choice.
Do you like poetry? There seems to be a definite movement towards poetry here on Substack; I’ve been consistently impressed by the level of talent evidenced in the work of poets such as, , and the team at , to name only a few shining stars in a well-lit firmament. Are we seeing a poetry renaissance? Is the modernist aesthetic of Eliot, Pound, etc. getting cast aside for a more organic, “this is what I like” understanding of what poetry ought to be? One of the most important details in The Lord of The Rings is the amount of poetry in the book: characters—elves, men, and hobbits alike—are regularly breaking out into poetic recitation. What would it be like to have poetry integrated into our daily lives in that fashion?
In my own little way I’d like to take part in the fun, so I’m happy to announce, a home for my own poetic effusions. If you’re interested, signing up is only a few clicks away. I would also encourage you to read Nathan Woods’ Substack Poetry Manifesto, which details a comprehensive plan for bringing poetry back into a position of importance among readers—and which sees this platform as being uniquely positioned to do just that.
A FEW LINKSwrites in Ecstatic about the role of the Christian artist, contrasting the “estuary” metaphor as developed by Makato Fujimura in Culture Care with the “Art Monster” idea which has its roots in the romantic poets such as Shelley and Byron, who were indeed monsters and who ought not to be held up as a positive example for anyone.
In Engelsberg Ideas,examines how visual tropes can carry meaning across cultures and time. Although he does not directly address this particular facet of his theme, I see an application of his ideas within the context of Christian art, which, for most of its existence, was designed to communicate theological meanings to illiterate churchgoers. Now that everyone can read, though, what is the significance of the kind of iconography which is still manufactured for use in churches? Should Christians’ approach to art and imagery be different now that the written word is the primary carrier of theological meaning?
In this fascinating—and lavishly illustrated—overview,considers the careers of six of the twentieth century’s masters of abstract painting, and wonders if there is any truth to the assertion that abstract art is a low-skill endeavor since “my kid could have painted that.” Spoiler: there isn’t. As he says: “to reach the pure, almost abstract form [. . .] you first need to draw all the intermediary stages. Draw all the lines to learn which lines are the most important.” Of course, there is the possibility that the time period he examines is simply a unique concatenation of circumstances and is not normative: “All my examples are from the 1900 to 1950 period, a time of great change in art due in part to great technological and social progress. So maybe it’s expected that the pioneers of abstract art had to start from classic painting. Maybe the figurative-to-abstract pipeline is specific to that time, and doesn’t really apply now—and artists can do whatever they want, including being untalented yet well-connected, drawing a black line on a black canvas, and selling that for 5 million dollars if they can get away with it.” I hope that’s not the case. The modern crop of abstract artists seem rather dull to me in contrast to Rothko, Mondrian, et al; here is where I come closest to breaking my earlier promise to not engage in rancorous debate. Okay I’d better stop or else I’ll start casting aspersions on Damien Hirst’s draftsmanship skills.