Historic preservation for modernism

The modernist architecture of the first half of the 20th century rejected ornamentation, tradition, and history itself.   In the age of reason, science, and progress, “form follows function.”  Buildings were bare structures of concrete, glass, and steel.  If they were beautiful–and some were–that is a byproduct of their pragmatic purpose.  Today, though, modernist architecture–like modernist art, literature, philosophy,and theology–has become dated, culturally-irrelevant, and old-fashioned.  But now the historic preservation movement is adding relics of modernist architecture to the buildings it is trying to save. [Read more...]

Dave Brubeck and the arts

E. J. Dionne’s tribute to the late, great Dave Brubeck contains some important insights into the arts in general:

Too often in the arts, the fact that someone is accessible is taken to mean that he isn’t truly creative. This is a very wrong idea, and it’s especially mistaken in the case of Brubeck, an extraordinary innovator in rhythm and meter. His music is now so familiar that we forget how daring he was as a composer.

He also defied the romantic image of the troubled and distant artist. It’s almost as if his being a generous soul, a loyal family guy, and a quietly and thoughtfully religious man — “Forty Days,” one of his best pieces, was inspired by Jesus’ wanderings in the desert — were held against him. Yet over the years, earthly redemption came his way. It turned out you could be both good and great.

“Art may not have the power to change the course of history, but it can provide a perspective on historical events that needs to be heard, even if it’s seldom heeded,” Brubeck said in a 2009 interview with Commonweal. “After all the temporary influences that once directed the course of history have vanished, great art survives and continues to speak to each generation.”

via E.J. Dionne Jr.: Dave Brubeck — a love affair – The Washington Post.

Great art can be accessible (contra the purposeful obscurity of much art and literature today).  Great artists can be normal human beings and solid citizens (contra the myth of the bohemian, that artists are unbound by bourgeois conventions).  Great art lasts; indeed, great art is pretty much the only thing that lasts from past civilizations and historical eras.

Communist official wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Two years ago, Chinese author Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was not allowed to leave the country to receive it and is currently in jail for opposing the Communist government.  This year another Chinese author won the prize, Mo Yan, who is no dissident.  From Indian journalist Preetam Kauschik:

In 2010 the Chinese Dragon virtually breathed fire when the Nobel Prize for Literature was given to dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence for his pro-democracy views. Officials in China went into a fit of rage. They summoned the Swedish ambassador in Beijing for a dressing down. China issued a statement that the award could jeopardize relations between the two countries.

However, 2012 saw a more cheerful face of the Dragon when the Swedish Academy gave the Nobel Prize for Literature to Mo Yan, who is an important member of the ruling Communist Party of China. Official networks went viral with the news to celebrate Mo’s triumph. This time the liberal world stomped its feet in anger and anguish. . . .

Liao Yiwu, a close friend of Liu and a celebrated Chinese writer living in exile in Germany, was stunned by the Swedish Academy’s decision to honour Mo. He was upset with having to see Liu and Mo on the same page. He told Der Spiegel, “Mo Yan… is a state poet. I am utterly bewildered. Do these universal values not exist after all? Are they so arbitrary that a Nobel Prize can be awarded to someone behind bars and stripped of their rights one year and another year to someone in the service of the very people who put people behind bars and strip them of their rights?”

Liao is not alone in attacking the Swedish Academy for picking Mo for the literary honor. Almost the entire liberal establishment was as stunned as Liao. But the Academy stuck to its guns.

A Swedish Academy member defended Nobel Prize in Literature-winner Mo Yan, saying the Chinese novelist’s win “has nothing to do with politics, friendship or luck.” Goran Malmqvist, a sinologist and one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, told Xinhua that he felt irritated at media accusations against Mo.

The critics, however, insisted that the decision was flawed. They said that as a member of the Communist Party of China and vice president of the China Writers Association Mo did not qualify for the award. . . .

But the most astounding fact is that since 2000 the prestigious award has gone to three Chinese writers. Gao Xingjian, a Chinese dissident living in exile in France, was the first to receive the Nobel for Literature in 2000. A decade later Liu became the second Chinese to receive this award. And now Mo.

via Preetam Kaushik: The Dragon Goes Gangnam: China Celebrates the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Another winner of the prize, Herta Mueller, who survived communism in Romania, is protesting this year’s award, saying that Mo Ya is a defender of censorship.

I haven’t read any of this writer’s works, but I have no problem with the possibility that one of the greatest writers in the world is a Communist, an enemy of the freedom of the press, or otherwise someone who possesses a twisted ideology oris a bad person.   Mo Ya would hardly be the first good author–or Nobel Prize winner–with noxious ideas.  In fact, having noxious ideas may be an occupational hazard of the profession.   It is Romanticism that assumed that good writing is not just a craft but an expression of a noble soul.  Thus we have the cult of the artist.  In the world of the fine arts, art is sometimes defined as whatever an artist does.  (One exhibition consisted of displays of the artist’s bowel movements.)  Such idolatry of the artist trivializes art.

And yet, some ideologies are intrinsically harmful to good art and good literature.  Marxism is one of them.  The insistence that individual uniqueness is a bourgeois trait and that people exist only as members of a social class inevitably results in characters that are stereotypes.  Not only that, authors who create highly-individualized characters–a mark of good fiction–are generally condemned and even persecuted for their anti-revolutionary bourgeois tendencies, something enforced by the “writers’ unions,” of the sort that Mo Ya leads.  This is why, in the former Soviet Union, artists who were original, who tried to achieve aesthetic rather than political effects, who wanted to try something different than the one officially required style of “socialist realism,”  or showed other signs of being good artists nearly all found themselves in opposition to the Communist regime.

What most bothers me about this award is that the world’s literary establishment has evidently lost its distaste for totalitarianism.  As the world is more and more attracted to the “China Model”–economic dynamism + authoritarian government–the allure of democracy and freedom may be waning.  The assumption has been that free markets will beget free societies and democratic governments, but we now know that is not the case.  Money is the opiate of the people.  And that bodes ill, and not just for literature.

Connected TV dramas as the new novel

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, a dramatic production seldom lasts much more than two hours, about the limit of human endurance sitting in one place.  Thus, plays, movies, and TV shows tend to be relatively short.  Novels, though, can take weeks to read.  That means that novels can take up stories of greater length, complexity, and depth than the typical play or film.  (Not that those forms don’t have their own complexity and depth–I mean, think of Shakespeare–but there can’t be as much story as in a novel.)  When a novel is made into a film, we generally say, “The book is better than the movie,” but that’s to be expected.   How can you compress the incidents in a 350 page book into the two hours of a movie?

But now it’s possible to develop a filmed story that can go on for hours, days, weeks, even years.  Dramatic series on television are no longer self-contained one-hour tales.  Rather, the episodes are connected with each other to tell a bigger and bigger and longer and longer story.  Now filmed versions of novels can be quite faithful to the original.  And now TV series can constitute creative long-form fiction in the same way that a novel does.

Film scholar Thomas Doherty comments, proposing to call the new series “Arc TV”:

Long top dog in the media hierarchy, the Hollywood feature film—the star-studded best in show that garnered the respectful monographs, the critical cachet, and a secure place on the university curriculum—is being challenged by the lure of long-form, episodic television. Let’s call the breed Arc TV, a moniker that underscores the dramatic curvature of the finely crafted, adult-minded serials built around arcs of interconnected action unfolding over the life span of the series. Shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Homeland, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones—the highest-profile entrees in a gourmet menu of premium programming—are where the talent, the prestige, and the cultural buzz now swirl. Fess up: Are you more jazzed about the release of the new Abraham Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg or the season premiere of Homeland (September 30, 10 p.m., on Showtime)? The lineup hasn’t quite yet dethroned the theatrical feature film as the preferred canvas for moving-image artistry, but Hollywood moviemakers are watching their backs.

This being from the medium that inspired the wisecrack “Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” Arc TV has antecedents aplenty. The format owes obvious debts to a swath of small-screen influences—the mid-70s explosion in quality TV, the BBC’s Masterpiece Theater imports on PBS, Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87) and L.A. Law (NBC, 1986-94), and especially Stephen J. Cannell’s Wiseguy (CBS, 1987-90), the show usually credited with bringing the multi-episode arc to serial American television.

Yet its real kinship is literary, not televisual. Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.Traditionally, even late into the age of cable, television thrived on two durable genres, the weekly 30-minute sitcom and the hourlong drama. Play the theme song, rack up the signature montage, and a virgin viewer has no trouble following along. Each episode was discrete and self-contained, wrapped up on schedule, with no overarching Ur-plot, designed to be digested full at one sitting, and meant to spiral autonomously ever after in syndication: Gilligan stranded forever on his island, Columbo freeze-framed in his trench coat.

The dramatis personae existed in a realm that was picaresque, a pre-novel mode in which a one-dimensional protagonist is hit by one damn thing after another. A viewer could spend years, maybe decades, with the likes of Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke or Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O and not know a whit about the hero’s psychic interior or personal history. Many of the surviving remnants of network television follow that time-worn template. The repetition compulsion of Homer Simpson—always the same, never learning from experience—is an ironic homage to the picaresque legacy: “D’oh! D’oh! D’oh!”

By contrast, Arc TV is all about back story and evolution. Again like the novel, the aesthetic payoff comes from prolonged, deep involvement in the fictional universe and, like a serious play or film, the stagecraft demands close attention. For the show to cast its magic, the viewer must leap full body into the video slipstream. Watch, hour by hour, the slow-burn descent into the home-cooked hell of the high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White in Breaking Bad, or the unraveling by degrees of the bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, falling off her meds and cracking to pieces in Homeland.

At its best, the world of Arc TV is as exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel.

via Cable Is the New Novel – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I would argue that the novel still has advantages over what can be portrayed visually on television.  A novel can present a character’s thoughts and feelings and experiences directly and completely, right into the reader’s imagination. Some of that can be hinted by good acting and clever filmmaking, but it isn’t the same, just watching everything on a screen.  Reading has huge advantages over watching.  (I agree with Charles Lamb that it’s better to read Shakespeare than to watch a production of Shakespeare, that his plays work best performed in the “theatre of the mind.”)

Still, we don’t always want to give our imaginations a workout, so it can be pleasant and relaxing to let  someone else imagine the stories for us.  So I pay tribute to the fictional possibilities of this new artform.

An art critic discovers Luther

Daniel Siedell is a Christian art critic and curator, the author of God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.  In a recent post on his Patheos blog Cultivare, he describes how frustrated he became with evangelical and Reformed scholarship on the arts, leading him to turn to Catholic and Orthodox theologians.  But then he discovered Luther and Lutheranism, who were not at all the way he had assumed:

 The outlier in my aesthetic evangelical resourcement was Luther, whom I had simply lumped into the Protestant tradition as a “pre-Calvinist” and a “post-Catholic,” shaped as I was by the biases of Catholic and Reformed interpreters, and art historians like Joseph Leo Koerner, who blamed the Reformer for a privatized, relativized, and disenchanted Protestant faith. But things changed when my family and I became members of a confessional Lutheran Church (LCMS), and I discovered through the weekly practice of the preached Word and Sacrament, that Philip Cary is right: Luther is not quite Protestant. And for the sake of enriching evangelical cultural thought, that is a very good thing, as even Reformed historian Mark Noll observed in his classic essay, “The Lutheran Difference,” published in 1992 in First Things. But, unfortunately, as Kevin DeYoung admitted last summer, Luther and the Lutheran tradition remain virtually unknown to conference-circuit evangelicalism.

Although I practiced the Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition for almost eight years, it was not until I encountered Luther, liberated from a confessional tradition that had domesticated it and non-Lutheran thinkers who had distorted it, and interpreted through sensitive readers like the Hamann scholar Oswald Bayer, Steve Paulson, Gerhard Ebeling, and Gerhard Forde, that he came alive for me, presenting to me a Luther I never knew. And a Luther evangelicalism desperately needs.

What I discovered is a Luther whose thought offers fertile ground for a desperately needed re-evaluation of evangelical approaches to art and culture, from his understanding of the distinctions between the letter and the spirit; law and gospel; theology of the cross and theology of glory; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world; the human being as simultaneously sinner and saint; God hidden and revealed; and nature and grace. In addition, in his revolutionary understanding of vocation and through his emphasis on the sacramental nature of the preached Word, Luther opens up space to think freely and creatively about modern art, without expectations for what art should look like. For Luther, it is not what we see, but what we hear from paintings, when the bullets are flying, when push comes to shove, as we live and feel the pressure of life and the strained relationship between God and neighbor.

And so I find Luther a welcome and helpful companion when I go to art museums and art galleries, when I am confronted by work that looks different, that frustrates my expectations, and distracts me by its strangeness. Luther is teaching me to wait in faith, and listen, with love.

via Luther, Evangelicals, and Modern Art.

A stolen Cranach painting has been recovered

Lucas Cranach’s painting “Madonna under the Fir Tree” is one of his loveliest works.  It hung in the Cathedral of St. John in what was then Breslau, Bohemia, which later became Wroclaw, Poland.  During World War II, what with allied bombing and the predations of the Red Army, which essentially destroyed the city and razed the Cathedral–just two days before the armistice ended the war!–the population went to great efforts to protect the painting.  But after the war a priest who was also an art expert hired to restore the painting switched it with a forgery and made off with the original painting!   It eventually fell into the hands of an anonymous  Swiss collector who recently died, bequeathing it to his local church.  Anyway, this was all uncovered just last March and the painting has been given back to Poland and installed in the rebuilt Cathedral.   The whole tale reads like a novel and it’s summarized here:    The History Blog » Blog Archive » Cranach Madonna stolen by priest returned to Poland.

Thanks to Paul McCain at Cyberbrethren for alerting me to all of this.

But just look at this painting:

http://cyberbrethren.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Screen-Shot-2012-08-23-at-10.16.29-AM.png

And just look at this detail of the face of the Mother of Our Lord gazing down at her Son:

http://cyberbrethren.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Screen-Shot-2012-08-17-at-7.29.50-AM.png

 

 


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