Aesthetics & American Idol

OK, OK, I know I was bad-mouthing “American Idol” this season when it first started, but nevertheless I have been watching and it has gotten interesting. The certain winner will be David Archuleta, who has all of the teeny-bopper votes of last season’s Sanjaya with the added advantage that he can actually sing well. The two best singers, however, in my opinion, are the Irish waitress with the unfortunate tattoos Carly Smithson and the rocker with Tulsa connections David Cook.

That doesn’t mean I LIKE them the best. In this ongoing seminar on aesthetics that we have been conducting, it is important to realize that there is a huge difference between saying “that is good” and “I like that.” The former is an objective statement. The latter is a subjective response. Most confusions about aesthetic matters come from mixing up the two kinds of judgments. Indeed, ignoring the first one, considering the objective merits, and thinking that LIKING something is that same as recognizing its beauty. We can LIKE all kinds of things–things that make us feel gooey inside, nostalgic associations, easy jolts of hedonism, things we agree with, appeals to our sinful nature (which is why Hollywood goes the way it does)–whereas discerning beauty requires knowledge of the art form and careful attention and reflection. Growing in taste involves learning to subjectively “like” what is objectively “good.”

Anyway, the two performers on Idol that I LIKE, though I’m not saying they are necessarily as good as the others, are Brook White, who sends forth such a positive and joyful vibe, and Michael Johns, the bloke from Australia, who sings with soul but who does not overdo the special effects like the others tend to.

Remember the aesthetic lesson of the day: DON’T GO BY WHAT YOU LIKE. GO BY WHAT IS GOOD.

Why seek ye the living among the dead?

Grunewald's Resurrection

Grunewald’s “Resurrection”

(By the same artist who painted the Crucifixion, above. From the deadest Jesus to the most alive Jesus.)

Another Christian artist

We’ve been bragging about Lucas Cranach as an artist, but what about a contemporary artist from our very own Cranach community, Sarah Hempel Irani, a.k.a. Sarah from Maryland? She too is a very gifted artist who expresses her faith in her vocation. Check out her website, which includes information on how you or your church could have or even commission some of her portraits or sacred art: hempelstudios.com

Consider this example of her work, a sculpture of Mary at the Annunciation. Note how expressive Sarah has made this block of marble!

Sarah from Maryland's sculpture of Mary

Princess Sybille

Thanks–again–to Paul McCain at Cyberbrethren for keeping up with the Lucas Cranach boom. This achingly lovely portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleves is on sale for $4-$6 million.

Princess Sybille, by Cranach

And Paul quotes from the catalog description. Here is just a sampling of what it says about this young woman, a true saint of the Reformation:

This portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleves (1512-1554) was painted when she was fourteen years old and newly betrothed to Johann Friedrich I (1503-1554), the future Elector of Saxony. The oldest daughter of Johann III, Duke of Cleves, and Maria of Jülich-Berg, Sybille grew up at court in Düsseldorf with her sister Anne, one of the future wives of Henry VIII. Her marriage into the House of Saxony placed Sybille in the middle of the greatest ideological struggle of the sixteenth century, a reformation not only of the church but also of the state. A committed friend and supporter of Martin Luther, Johann Friedrich was actively engaged in the Reformation and took dramatic political and military risks to protect the reformatory movement. Sybille conducted a correspondence of her own with Martin Luther and actively supported her husband’s many campaigns, defending Wittenberg in his absence during Emperor Charles V’s siege of the city in 1546.

The Emperor’s siege of Wittenberg after Luther’s death was a huge conflict. Luther’s son Hans is said to have fought on the walls. That this woman led the defense is incredible. The Emperor eventually won, thinking he crushed the Reformation. Little did he know.

Anyway, that Cranach’s art speaks so strongly to people today should be an opening for us to explain the faith and the worldview that underlies his greatness.

Consider the range of his work and notice how free Cranach is. Notice how he appreciates individual human beings. Notice how he appreciates the beauty of nature and of ordinary life. Notice his edge in ridiculing vice and condemning corruption in both individuals and in the church. Notice how he experiences no contradiction between creativity and order, Biblical reality and his own reality. Notice his sense of vocation, of loving and serving his neighbor through his God-given gifts as an artist, a businessman, the mayor of Wittenberg, a lay leader in his congregation. How can we get this Christian sensibility back in our own times?

Lucas Cranach, our contemporary

Paul McCain points to even more critical acclaim for our man Lucas Cranach, whose art is being featured in a major exhibit at the Royal Academy in London. Listen to Laura Cumming marvel at how modern, how new, how relevant Cranach seems. She even says he is “our contemporary”:

It is hard to believe there could be any great masters of the past still waiting to be rediscovered, in this country at least, but so it is with German painter Lucas Cranach. Apart from a tiny glimpse of him at the Courtauld last year, this is the first show ever mounted in Britain. Exhilarating, dramatic, humorous and harrowing by turns, Cranach turns out to be an artist for our times, despite being 500 years old, and with 70 works representing his amazing range, this is an almost perfect exhibition. . . .

It is easy to make a modern figure out of Cranach, about whom an unusual amount is known. Thrice mayor of Wittenberg as well as its richest citizen, property developer and founder of the first licensed pharmacy, in his considerable career – he died in 1553 at 81 – he worked for three successive Electors of Saxony. He introduced colour to printmaking, printed Luther’s version of the New Testament and depicted all of the major public intellectuals of the day, often many times over with the help of assistants, leading to the crass misconception that his studio was something like Warhol’s Factory.

But Cranach’s is a singular imagination, shining clearly even in works begun by other hands. It is in his sympathy for women, children and peasants, in his narrative elan, his penetrating empathy and his uncommon use of humour to emphasise horror. . . .

The overwhelming revelation of this show is of an artist who believed that nothing – no emotion, no experience, no vision – was beyond figurative depiction, from the most primitive instinct to the most numinous ideal. And the whole spectrum is there, above all, in his paintings of Christ. On the one hand, he is all warmth, not just blessing but kissing the little children. On the other, in an image as direct as a photograph, he stares straight back at you, devastatingly close but worlds away: God made Man, yet forever unknowable.

Unknowable? It sounds like Cranach knows Christ very well. The critic also says that he is religiously complex because he painted also for Catholic patrons, but she doesn’t understand that there were not “two churches” in the early days of the Reformation, but that the expectation is that the true gospel would spread all the way to Rome.

But this is what these critic’s response to Cranach’s art tells me: If Cranach’s art resonates today, I maintain that his theology would resonate today. His freedom and the exuberant life the critic senses comes from Cranach’s grasp of the gospel of that Christ he portrays so powerfully.

Cranach’s faith, grounded as it is in doctrine and expressed in his vocation, is what the emerging church is looking for. His is the true ancient-future worship.

I think that we stodgy and out-of-touch Lutherans–though I’m not talking just about Lutherans–can amaze the postmodernists just like Cranach does this art critic.

Born-again conservative

David Mamet is one of the few contemporary playwrights and screenwriters whose work, in my experience, is always worth taking in. He has announced, in an essay in the Village Voice, no less, that he has experienced a change of heart and is now a conservative. The piece is entitled Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’.

Caution: some bad language, always a Mamet weakness.


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