We have become barren

Mark Steyn, connecting the birth of John the Baptist to the West’s current demographic and economic woes:

Of the four gospels, only two bother with the tale of Christ’s birth, and only Luke begins with the tale of two pregnancies. Zacharias is surprised by his impending paternity — “for I am an old man and my wife well stricken in years.” Nonetheless, an aged, barren woman conceives and, in the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy, the angel visits her cousin Mary and tells her that she, too, will conceive. If you read Luke, the virgin birth seems a logical extension of the earlier miracle — the pregnancy of an elderly lady. The physician-author had no difficulty accepting both. For Matthew, Jesus’s birth is the miracle; Luke leaves you with the impression that all birth — all life — is to a degree miraculous and God-given.

We now live in Elisabeth’s world — not just because technology has caught up with the Deity and enabled women in their 50s and 60s to become mothers, but in a more basic sense. The problem with the advanced West is not that it’s broke but that it’s old and barren. Which explains why it’s broke. Take Greece, which has now become the most convenient shorthand for sovereign insolvency — “America’s heading for the same fate as Greece if we don’t change course,” etc. So Greece has a spending problem, a revenue problem, something along those lines, right? At a superficial level, yes. But the underlying issue is more primal: It has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet. In Greece, 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren — i.e., the family tree is upside down. In a social-democratic state where workers in “hazardous” professions (such as, er, hairdressing) retire at 50, there aren’t enough young people around to pay for your three-decade retirement. And there are unlikely ever to be again.

Look at it another way: Banks are a mechanism by which old people with capital lend to young people with energy and ideas. The Western world has now inverted the concept. If 100 geezers run up a bazillion dollars’ worth of debt, is it likely that 42 youngsters will ever be able to pay it off? As Angela Merkel pointed out in 2009, for Germany an Obama-sized stimulus was out of the question simply because its foreign creditors know there are not enough young Germans around ever to repay it. The Continent’s economic “powerhouse” has the highest proportion of childless women in Europe: One in three fräulein have checked out of the motherhood business entirely. “Germany’s working-age population is likely to decrease 30 percent over the next few decades,” says Steffen Kröhnert of the Berlin Institute for Population Development. “Rural areas will see a massive population decline and some villages will simply disappear.”

If the problem with socialism is, as Mrs. Thatcher says, that eventually you run out of other people’s money, much of the West has advanced to the next stage: It’s run out of other people, period. Greece is a land of ever fewer customers and fewer workers but ever more retirees and more government. How do you grow your economy in an ever-shrinking market? The developed world, like Elisabeth, is barren. . . .

For most of human history, functioning societies have honored the long run: It’s why millions of people have children, build houses, plant trees, start businesses, make wills, put up beautiful churches in ordinary villages, fight and if necessary die for your country . . . A nation, a society, a community is a compact between past, present, and future, in which the citizens, in Tom Wolfe’s words at the dawn of the “Me Decade,” “conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream.”

Much of the developed world climbed out of the stream. You don’t need to make material sacrifices: The state takes care of all that. You don’t need to have children. And you certainly don’t need to die for king and country. But a society that has nothing to die for has nothing to live for: It’s no longer a stream, but a stagnant pool.

If you believe in God, the utilitarian argument for religion will seem insufficient and reductive: “These are useful narratives we tell ourselves,” as I once heard a wimpy Congregational pastor explain her position on the Bible. But, if Christianity is merely a “useful” story, it’s a perfectly constructed one, beginning with the decision to establish Christ’s divinity in the miracle of His birth. The hyper-rationalists ought at least to be able to understand that post-Christian “rationalism” has delivered much of Christendom to an utterly irrational business model: a pyramid scheme built on an upside-down pyramid. Luke, a man of faith and a man of science, could have seen where that leads.

via Elisabeth’s Barrenness and Ours – Mark Steyn – National Review Online.

I think barrenness is a profound metaphor for our contemporary condition in the West.  I would extend that to artistic barrenness; that is, a general lack of creativity in our art, literature, and music.  There is still interesting stuff going on, of course, but even the most radical-seeming is tired, as if we have seen it all before, and it doesn’t lead anywhere.  (The opposite of barrenness would be bringing forth new life.  One can “create”–making something new–without it being alive.)

For example, Hollywood has 3D and spectacular special effects technology.  But the movie industry keeps looking backwards–remaking old movies, re-releasing old movies, filming old comic books, rehashing old conventions.  There are few new stories to go along with the new technology.  So movie attendance has hit a 16-year low.  Barrenness.

HT:  James M. Kushiner

And now non-visible art

A major trend in the 20th and 21st century art world has to become ever more “minimalist.”  As artists have tried to achieve the least possible gesture that could be called art–going from representations to idealizations to reductions to basic forms to pure forms to color fields to lines to found objects–they arrived at “conceptual art,” in which there is no art at all, just the idea for the art.  Museums and art buyers can purchase and display the notes that record the idea for the work of art, which is never made.  Now we have “The Museum of Non-Visible Art,” in which there is nothing at all.   And it has recorded its first sale:  Woman Pays $10,000 For ‘Non-Visible’ Work Of Art » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

At the link, Joe Carter goes into all of this.  He then offers for sale his own line of non-existent art for a mere $19.95 apiece.   He specifies, however, that he only takes money that is real, not imaginary.

How bad theology yields bad Christian art

Tony Woodlief at Image (an important journal on Christianity & the Arts) argues for a connection between bad Christian art and bad theology. His points are usefully specific and pointed:

I’m convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it’s not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity.

Consider, for example, some common sins of the Christian writer:

Neat resolution: You can find it on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore: the wayward son comes to Christ, the villain is shamed, love (which deftly avoids pre-marital sex) blossoms, and the right people praise God in the end. Perhaps best of all, we learn Why This All Happened.

Many of us are familiar, likewise, with that tendency among some Christians to view life as a sitcom, with God steadily revealing how the troubles in our lives yield more good than ill.  . . .

Sometimes we suffer and often we fail, and there is no clear answer why, no cosmic math that redeems, in our broken hearts, this sadness. The worst Christian novels seem to forget Oswald Chambers’s insightful observation, which is that God promises deliverance in suffering, not deliverance from suffering. And so they lie about the world and about God and about the quiet, enduring faith of our brethren in anguish.

One-dimensional characters: In many Christian novels there are only three kinds of characters: the good, the evil, and the not-so-evil ones who are about to get themselves saved. And perhaps this saved/not saved dichotomy—more a product of American evangelicalism than Christian orthodoxy—accounts for the problem.

I think we might craft better characters if we accept that every one of us is journeying the path between heaven and hell, and losing his way, and rushing headlong one direction before abruptly changing course to dash in the other, and hearing rumors about what lies ahead, and hoping and dreading in his heart what lies each way, and grabbing hold of someone by the arm or by the hair and dragging, sometimes from love and sometimes from hate and sometimes from both.

Sentimentality: Like pornography, sentimentality corrupts the sight and the soul, because it is passion unearned. Whether it is Xerxes weeping at the morality of his unknown minions assembled at the Hellespont, or me being tempted to well up as the protagonist in Facing the Giants grips his Bible and whimpers in a glen, the rightful rejoinder is the same: you didn’t earn this emotion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning against cheap grace comes to mind, a recognition that our redemption was bought with a price, as redemption always is. The writer who gives us sentimentality is akin to the painter Thomas Kinkade, who explicitly aims to paint the world without the Fall, which is not really the world at all, but a cheap, maudlin, knock-off of the world, a world without suffering and desperate faith and Christ Himself, which is not really a world worth painting, or writing about, or redeeming.

Cleanliness: I confess that the best way to deter me from watching a movie is to tell me it’s “wholesome.” This is because that word applied to art is a lie on its face, because insofar as art is stripped of the world’s sin and suffering it is not really whole at all.

This seems to be a failing—on the part of artist and consumer alike—in what my Orthodox friends call theosis, or walk, as my evangelical friends say. In short, if Christian novels and movies and blogs and speeches must be stripped of profanity and sensuality and critical questions, all for the sake of sparing us scandal, then we have to wonder what has happened that such a wide swath of Christendom has failed to graduate from milk to meat.

And if we remember that theology is the knowing of God, we have to ask in turn why so many Christians know God so weakly that they need such wholesomeness in order for their faith to be preserved.

This, finally, is what especially worries me, that bad Christian art is a problem of demand rather than supply. What if a reinvigorated Church were to embed genuine faith in the artist’s psyche and soul, such that he need no longer wear it on his sleeve, such that he bear to see and tell the world in its brokenness and beauty? Would Christian audiences embrace or despise the result?

HT:  Stewart Lundy

Life as a sitcom!  Good guys vs. bad guys, and we are the good guys!  Tear-jerking sentimentality!  Positive messages!  Of course, these are also features of pop culture entertainment.  Could it be that pop culture is influencing contemporary Christianity, which, in turn, is trying to turn out its own versions of pop culture?

The actual heritage of Christianity in the arts is in the realm of high culture; that is, the creation of serious, complex, creative-rather-than-conventional works of art.  Christianity has produced Dante, Spenser, Milton, Rembrandt, Bach, Donne; also wildly creative innovators such as Herbert, Hopkins, Eliot, and Rouault. Even the seemingly less-sophisticated  Christian author John Bunyan wrote a rich, complex masterpiece that falls into none of the above traps.  And these are just some explicitly theological writers.  Christianity has also profoundly shaped the works of authors and artists who specialized in seemingly “secular” works, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Coleridge, and on and on, including modern authors such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, and more.   There are even great Christian movies–have any of you seen the works of the Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer?–but they too are complicated, like Christianity and like life.  I suspect that there are indeed Christian artists trying to emulate these kinds of artists, but will other Christians support them and become their patrons?

The Museum of Broken Relationships

Art of our times, from the University of Houston:

For two weeks this May, Blaffer Art Museum presents an exhibition from the permanent collection of the Museum of Broken Relationships. In collaboration with the American Association of Museum’s 2011 Annual Meeting, which is being held in Houston May 22 – 25, 2011, the exhibition will feature detritus from failed relationships – be it a wedding dress, an “I Love You” teddy bear, or a set of fluffy handcuffs – donated to the museum by people from around the world. Objects from the permanent collection will be on view alongside ephemera offered by Houstonians looking to exhibit their own love legacy. Conceptualized in Zagreb, Croatia, by Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, after the couple ended their own romantic relationship in 2006, the Museum of Broken Relationships was established by the two to create a space of protected remembrance where the material and nonmaterial heritage of broken relationships can be witnessed, and where these experiences can move beyond the individual into a universal understanding.

via Blaffer Art Museum :: Exhibitions :: Museum of Broken Relationships.

Then follows a description of how people can donate their souvenirs from failed relationships–fluffy handcuffs?–to the museum.  This reminds me of T. S. Eliot and his poems on love in the wasteland.

Art vandalism as art

In a high culture that no longer believes in beauty or meaning, art becomes reduced to interesting gestures.  Consider this “work,” as described by art critic Blake Gopnik:

On Saturday evening, in the back room at Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea, veteran dealer Magdalena Sawon gave me an early glimpse of a work called “Stolen Pieces,” which she said has never been exhibited. Made by a young Italian couple, Eva and Franco Mattes, but kept secret since the mid-90s, it consists of a display case full of tiny chips from significant works of art, snatched or snapped off by the duo over a two-year crime spree. The artists did the deeds between July 28, 1995, and July 29, 1997, in museums all around the world.

The loot includes a manufacturer’s label peeled from the aquarium in which Jeff Koons floated his famous basketballs in 1985. There’s a short length of shoelace from a Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture. There’s a little blob of lead from an installation by Joseph Beuys, and a couple of threads from an Andy Warhol. Perhaps most significantly, there’s a tiny chip of porcelain from the urinal “Fountain” of Marcel Duchamp, taken from an unspecified exhibition.

The artists also claim to have lifted bits from works by Kandinsky and Rauschenberg. Sawon says the piece is being unveiled now because the statute of limitations has run out on its thefts.

Now the works that were damaged were arguably negligible themselves, though they are very valuable and belong to somebody.  But I’m thinking that what makes this sort of thing “art”  is its ability to provoke serious commentary from  art critics:

“Stolen Pieces” may not look that great, but like so much of the work made in the 20th century — like so much art, ever — “Stolen Pieces” gets its force from the questions it raises.

– Did these artists’ tiny thefts much affect the works they stole from? Does it really matter that one of Kienholz’s big junk piles is minus one bottle cap? How many of these museums’ visitors would have ever noticed or been touched by the alterations?

– Does “Stolen Pieces” finally deflate the old cliche that a true masterpiece is something “from which nothing can be taken and to which nothing can be added without harm”? There’s hardly a single work by an Old Master that doesn’t look substantially different than it did when it was fresh, and yet we still find plenty to admire in them. (In fact, people objected like crazy when Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was returned to some semblance of its original bright colors.)

– Originally, weren’t most of the targeted works themselves all about attacking old-fashioned notions of the precious work of art whose every detail deserves to be worshipped? Before he became famous, Oldenburg let his viewers touch and take away his ultra-sloppy works of art. I can’t imagine that César could have seen the speedometers on his crushed cars as equivalent to so many brushstrokes by Titian, to be preserved at any cost. Did Beuys really treasure every blob of metal scattered during one of his anti-object performances?

– By making almost imperceptible alterations to other works of art, Eva and Franco Mattes have created a significant new one. Does that leave the world of art a richer place or a poorer one? (So long as no other vandals follow in these artists’ footsteps, that is. But once the Matteses’ move has been made, there’s no reason for anyone else to repeat it.)

via Blake Gopnik – Couple stole more than other artists’ ideas.

Significant new art?


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