Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
Depicting Christ Anew
Encouragement From the Past
Sunday, May 27, 2007 1:54 am
How am I to say anything anew? For two thousand years, artists have been depicting Christ and what He was and is. Even if I am inclined — even if I am impelled — to express, in my fiction, an image of Christ, what fresh manner can I take? I am not clever enough; and my civilization is in its decadence: it offers no help; it has spent itself. At the end of our culture, all has been done and done. 

Or perhaps I am just not trying hard enough. You might think all has been done — and then you discover something. I discovered something. To be sure, this thing exists, is known, and, indeed, is more than three hundred years old and therefore rather far from fresh; but it has struck me nonetheless and made me hope, at least a little.

First, not the thing itself, but something else. Here is a detail from Rembrandt's 1646 Adoration of the Shepherds:
Consider how conventional it is. I am not disparaging it. I like it. The lighting, and especially the kneeling man in the foreground, give a great sense of people
around the Christ Child. But again, it is conventional: Child on display, lit by His own holiness, all but formally presented by His Mother.

Now, here is the thing I discovered, also by Rembrandt, also an Adoration of the Shepherds, but an etching from ca. 1652:
This doesn't have a spatial depth like the other work. You don't quite feel anyone moving towards and around the Christ Child. But there are other sorts of depth, and in this work the narrative depth is greater.
Look closely at Mary and the baby. They are bundled and lying beside each other. Joseph, off to the right, is wearing a hat. It is cold. Of course, having just given birth, Mary is tired. The baby is tired. Mother and newborn are wrapped in the same thick blankets, trying to sleep, while Father, reading a book, keeps watch. And now they are being disturbed. Look: Mary has raised her hand against the shepherd's light! There is no formality; no presentation. Even the holy light of the Child is subtle: It's not His light but the light of a flame that Joseph is reading by.

What so struck me about this work is how well Rembrandt depicted the humility of the Incarnation. The shepherds may have come at the prodding of some angel, and they may be primed to adore the Savior of Mankind, but what they have found, at least initially, is only a cold and tired little family. The fact that Rembrandt swaddled Mary... That, I think, is the most wonderful touch.

So there it is. It's been a while since I saw a fresh depiction of the Nativity. Sure, maybe I don't get out enough, and sure, this depiction is 355 years old, and surely at least 355 other people have noticed the aspects I have noticed. Still, the wonder and pleasure are there. An artistic depiction of Christ has surprised me. Whenever I wonder, "How shall I depict Him anew," I will remind myself of Rembrandt's etching and try a little harder.

A Bee Contemplates Buzzing
The Definition of High Art
Sunday, January 8, 2006 8:46 pm
Despite having been a writer for decades now and having had the unsurprising and frequent inclination, as a producer of art, to contemplate the nature of art, it was many years until I realized something that I think is very true.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: All works are not substantially equal. However much the academics might want to de-privilege the canon, there remains a qualitative difference between high art and low art. This, to be sure, is not news. If you think I am merely about to scoff at academics who overpraise hip-hop or graffiti, you would be wrong. Such academics, however much they perdure, have been adequately ridiculed already. My question is only this: Given the obvious fact that some art is high and some low, what is it, in the end, that distinguishes high from low? And my answer is this: Depth of information. 

This is not entirely my idea. I heard a man use "information content" to explain, in passing, why concert music is higher than popular music. But I believe "information content" — or, as I prefer to put it, "depth of information" — applies to all art and is, indeed, sufficient to distinguish high from low. Notice I am not saying "distinguish good from bad." "Good" is an aesthetic judgment, valid enough but not enough to make a work high. And "bad" does not mean a work is not high. "Information" applies, obviously, to content, but perhaps not as obviously to form. That is, a work of high art is presented in a form that itself invites contemplation and rational elucidation. A work of high art is elaborate in content and form. Its information is deep.

That may seem to be a truism, but what I am trying to get across is that "deeply informed" is the complete definition of high art. Yes, of course, we would argue about what constitutes "deep." But by defining high art as "deeply informed" we don't become sunk in questions of aesthetics or culture — or origins. Thus even masters can produce low art — art that is well-made, enjoyable, memorable; yet for all that, lacking depth and therefore not high. Just because it's Mozart doesn't mean it's higher than Metallica.

And, as an added bonus, my succinct definition finally makes it clear to me why so much art that is supposedly high has always struck me as anything but. With my definition in hand, one can finally banish the freeloaders from the house of high art. For example, like him or not, value him or not, Pollock is not high art, because there is nothing elaborate or deeply informed about his work. Nothing intrinsic, that is. You can read all you want into Pollock's paint spills; they're still just spills. Deep information cannot be imputed to the work but must subsist in the work for the work to be truly high.

Let Her Love His Gift
But...
Sunday, April 25, 2004 11:04 pm
Sometimes I say outrageous things. One such thing is: Art doesn't matter. Now, I say this out of petulance. I get annoyed by the overwrought sacralization of art. The sacralization of art is just a high-minded species of material attachment, and is only slightly less awful than the sacralization of, say, Jaguar XJ8s. 

But I am not one of those who think that humans should, properly, disdain material things (art included). That's the other, equally wrong extreme. God made the world — He materialized it — for reasons we may not know, but we know they were His reasons and therefore they were good. The material world is not a trap. Our body is not a restrictive vessel but a constituent part of us; it is entirely co-equal with our reason, soul, and will.

The problem with material attachment is that one has forgotten the source of material things. Listen to St. Augustine:
Suppose brethren, a man should make a ring for his betrothed, and she should love the ring more wholeheartedly than the betrothed who made it for her... Certainly, let her love his gift; but, if she should say, "The ring is enough, I do not want to see his face again," what would we say of her... The pledge is given her by the betrothed just that, in his pledge, he himself may be loved. God, then, had given you all these things. Love Him who made them.
Art itself is a gift of God. It is a product of the creative capabilities He gave us; it is an echo of His Creation. When, however, one asserts an almost supernatural and seemingly independent excellence about art, one has begun to love the ring and forget the face of one's Betrothed.

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