Wednesday, August 19, 2009

blasphemy! blasphemy! blasphemy!

the preamble
i've been reading 2 samuel (yes, i do read the bible, although perhaps more occasionally than i'd care to admit) and was struck by something i read. it was occasioned by the episode in the david story where he stayed home and played while everyone else went to war. while at home, wandering on his balcony, he spied a beautiful woman bathing on a roof somewhere with spying distance. and he desired her (idle hands and all that). and, being the king, he sent for her. and she came. to be honest, i'm not sure what choice she had. the bible says he lay with her. and then she purified herself from her uncleanness. i find that interesting. anyway, wouldn't you know it -- bathsheba (that was her name) became pregnant.

so david brought her husband back to the house from the battlefield, hoping he'd be happy to be back with his hot wife and that he'd lay with her as well and thereby create a skin for david's sin. of course, uriah (that was his name) was too honourable, and decided that he couldn't indulge himself when his fellow soldiers were going without and he refused. in fact, he avoided his wife altogether. which meant uriah wouldn't be providing david with an alibi to hide behind. bad enough that david coveted another man's wife, but then he schemed and conspired to have that man killed. once uriah was dead, and his wife had mourned him, david sent for her again, and made her his wife. and she bore him a son.

now, that's all preamble and context for the thing that struck me. see, this thing remained a secret (for the most part). some time later, nathan, a prophet, came to visit david and told him a story. in essence: a man had lots of lambs and yet he stole the only lamb another man had for his own purposes. david recognized the injustice of that and declared that the many-lambed man should pay for his selfishness, at which point natham lowered the boom, pulled off the veil and let david know that the selfish man was david (and bathsheba was the little lamb).

the amble
now here's the thing i want to discuss (and i will bring it around as a way to look at art or the art process or the calling/ responsibility of the artist): nathan says that this event has given people (okay, okay - he says the enemies of God) an opportunity to blaspheme. well! what does that mean? i think it means this: his actions, and the results of those actions, mis-represented God and the Truth of who he is. his character. his justice. the Truth.

i would like us to consider that idea in the context of art, its making and receiving. after all, there are numerous instances when art is accused of being blasphemous (andres serrano, chris ofili). and perhaps people mean that it misrepresents God. that it misrepresents the Truth. more often than not,however, i think people mean that it offends their image of God, what they understand to be true of him.

here is a tension. on the one hand, God is the Great Iconoclast. every time we think we have him solved he surprises and confounds us, and chips away at or outright destroys our image of him. that, despite the fact that we are inherently idolatrous (and, for that matter, theolatrous). we make idols of things, images, ideas, people without thinking. on the other hand, we are image-bearers of God - we carry the imago dei. like him, we are creative beings. and yet he gives artists the pleasure and the responsibility of working with images (or texts - which in turn create images in our minds), and using those images to communicate to people, to move them. the questions is: how deeply and closely do we consider the images we make? what do they reflect?

so let me say this: it is blasphemous when art misrepresents the Truth. yes - the Truth about God, but also the Truth about man. about relationships. about suffering. about injustice. about joy and hope and love. to quite the japanese director, akira kurosawa: the artist is the one who does not look away. the artists sees the truth. the artist must engage with the Truth.

of course, all of this is to say that i think, and will maintain for all my days, that art's purpose is, in fact, to communicate Truth, within and between communities, starting with the individual. it is an inherently communal enterprise. it is purposeful in its intent to connect. to commune, i.e. to make something 'common' or shared. i think it is counter to the purposes and, indeed, the character of God, who has made us in his image as creative beings - and even some of us with the calling of the artist - to present anything but Truth, on whatever level or about whatever subject. in fact, it is therefore blasphemous, a gross and perverse misrepresentation, to live anywhere or anyway else.

all i want is the Truth.

just give me the Truth.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

chicago, chicago, that happenin' town

we went to the art institute of chicago on our 10th anniversary road trip. unfortunately, we didn't make it to the contemporary art museum. next time. however, there were some beautiful pieces there. highlights (and revelations) for me were:

cy twombly - big splashy paintings. surprisingly colourful. like gigantic peonies mashed on the canvas. the surprise for me was the size of his minimal and elegant sculptures. of course, they will eventually be a conservator's nightmare...

gerhard richter - there was a room of his paintings, both the photo-based work (from the 60s and 80s - loved the candles) and the large abstract field (ice) paintings. his work is really about vision - seeing. the act of looking.

bruce nauman - i've always found him a polarizing, though important figure. i think he, warhol and duchamp are very much touchstones for a lot of contemporary work. there was a neon piece - human nature/life death; a text piece - in which he plays with possibility and permutations of a single line of text, exploring permanence and meaning; and some video pieces - the clown torture series, which were maddening. annoying. grating.

robert gober - i'd never seen his installations, and here i saw 2! sure, they're layered and multivalent and double-sided, but they're also quite elegant and open. i especially love the fact that all the objects are hand-made - plaster casts and glass casts - and hand-painted; not the industrially produced objects they seem to be at first glance.

philip guston (born in canada, btw) - couple in bed is a lovely painting, devotional even.

sol le witt - there was a great wall piece...

lastly, there was an astounding (and huge) caravaggio: the resurrection. what a strange painting. otherworldly. yes, he could paint - textures, skin, shadow and light. but it all seemed so surreal. a fascinating painting...

the medieval wing was closed, which was disappointing.

the real [chicago] highlights for me, however, were the public art installations.

1. anish kapoor's cloud gate - 110 tons of fun. i've loved his work for decades. i could speak about the sense of the sublime in his work, the ineffable, the 'spiritual' -- but instead i'll note how his work always disturbs my equilibrium - i always feel de-centered when i look at this work, and cloud gate is no exception. not only that, it's a tourist bonanza. it was pretty crowded outside it, but inside, in the swirling vortex at its center, it was even more packed. people filming themselves and each other. very communal. brilliant.

2. magdalena abakanowicz's installation agora (greek for meeting place). 100+ walking figures fill grant park. her work has always spoken to relationships, from her early performances (public sculptures) with her then partner ulay to more recent pieces. this piece is powerfully affective - as you walk through from the periphery to the center, where the figures are more densely grouped, you feel the press and presence of these sentinels, these faceless witnesses.

3. the crown fountain - a 230' pool is book-ended by two 50' fountains, glass block towers with LED projections of chicagoans' faces. fun. and absolutely astounding at night.

4. frank gehry's jay pritzker pavilion, a 120' high stainless steel spaceship of a concert stage. unbelievable.

i'm running out of superlatives. i will visit chicago again. definitely.