Posts tagged with: art and culture

In his magnificent reflection on the nature of art, Real Presences, polymath George Steiner invites us to make a thought experiment: What if we lived in a city where all talk about art, mere talk about art, was prohibited? In other words, what would follow if we did away with artistic criticism qua criticism, an activity derivative by nature and one Steiner calls “high gossip”? In this posited city, what Steiner calls the Answerable City, the only permitted response to a work of art would be another work of art. Thus participation in the “art scene” could never launch itself from the risk-free loft of criticism, but it must be real participation, a participation that demands that the viewer invest something of his own imaginative capacities. In this city, the word “interpretation” denotes not something exegetical, but something performative; an activity not of professional academics or theater critics, but of actors and directors — as in an actor “interprets a role.” Here, art means incarnation, not judgment.

But such a city is only a thought experiment, and since judgment requires the participant to invest less of himself, it will always be easier to be a critic than to be an artist. And therefore the artist will always be tempted first to pass judgment rather than to respond with his own creativity.

After a decade of trying to walk the slippery ridge between “he who does” and “he who discusses” art, I have tried to avoid criticism these last couple of years to focus only on doing. But I feel the need to again jump into the critical ring, thanks to a recent article in GQ Magazine (it was sent to me by a friend), an article on my own town, Grand Rapids, and its increasingly famous festival, ArtPrize. (more…)

At the Mackinac Center blog, I look at a really shabby piece of reportage in GQ Magazine on ArtPrize, the annual public art competition in Grand Rapids, Mich. Grand Rapids is also where the Acton Institute is based and it’s a terrific Midwestern city doing a lot of things right. But when East Coast writer Matthew Power visited GR he saw only “flyover country,” a “provincial” mindset, “G.R.-usalem” (lots of churches) and “ordinary” local inhabitants.

You know where this is going. I say:

Ultimately, Power gets to his main point, which readers could easily anticipate as leveling a charge of what is perceived as the only sin known to Western Civilization by East Coast writers of a particular persuasion: hypocrisy. For it seems Rick DeVos’ parents fund free-market (including the Mackinac Center) and conservative Christian causes, and young Rick’s motivations are judged negatively by Power’s perceived “sins” of DeVos’ mere et pere and the causes they fund.

“To some of the [DeVos] family’s detractors, the millions in soft money and the funding of conservative Christian organizations suggest more ambitious goals: an end to nearly all government control and regulation, media, education … and the arts,” Power cavils. “Whatever their motives, it seemed odd that a family with such an agenda would let its heir apparent throw open the gates to its city in an open call to any and all artists, not matter how starving or unwashed.”

Power notes that the Acton Institute, a beneficiary of DeVos monies, “has advocated for the abolition of public funding for contemporary art” when, in fact, Acton has no official position whatsoever on the matter. True, some Acton articles and blog posts (several written by your author) take issue with public funding for art, arguing along with Jacques Barzun that the practice results in a “surfeit of fine art” (and I would argue strenuously against DeVos applying for and accepting a $100,00 National Endowment for the Arts grant for ArtPrize, as the businesses benefitting most from the competition could easily pony up the relatively insignificant amount) but, again, my opinions and for that matter the free-market ideology of Mr. DeVos’ parents hardly are germane to a story that merely aims to discredit ArtPrize by any means necessary.

Power winds up his Grand Rapids’ hit piece with interviews with the losers, apparently cheesed off that the public judging was insufficient to their superior aesthetic concepts and artistic execution. But, of course, that’s to be expected.

Read “GQ Hit Piece on GR ArtPrize” at the Mackinac Center.

Comparing artists is about as helpful as comparing beer or theologians; it often simply comes down to a matter of taste. However, just as with theologians, there are new insights to be gained from artists, even if they don’t turn out to be our favorite (I suppose the same holds with beer, as well.)

Robert Royal, in an article for the Catholic Education Resource Center, poses the question of whether or not French poet Paul Claudel might be the best modern Catholic poet ever.

I believe the greatest modern Catholic poet, and the most unknown, even to Catholics, is Paul Claudel (1868-1955). His family was modest, his father a local government official. A strong creative streak was hidden somewhere because his sister Camille was a gifted sculptor and student, then mistress, of Rodin — but that’s a story for another day. Claudel studied for a diplomatic career, but was also attracted to poetry. He succeeded spectacularly in both realms.

Some of his predecessors — Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud — were poetes maudits (“cursed poets”), who more than dabbled in sin and occultism. Yet all finished as Catholics. Rimbaud in particular — who stopped writing in his teens and is today sometime a patron saint of self-indulgent rock musicians — helped bring Claudel to belief.

Partly because of the marvelous realm beyond smug modern materialism that Claudel discovered in Rimbaud, he found himself in Notre Dame of Paris on Christmas Day 1886 during Vespers: “The children in the choir were singing what I later learned was the Magnificat. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed.”

Royal points out that Claudel was not a starving artist, but had a thriving diplomatic career, and frankly, didn’t write that much while he was still actively working. Claudel has a great sense of humor, especially about himself, and while his work is rooted in French culture, most Christians will find themes with which they can identify. His poem, ‘The Day of Gifts’, particularly showcases his self-deprecation and knowledge of his sinfulness before God:

But if by chance You should have need of a lazy and imbecilic bore,
If a prideful coward could prove useful to You, or perhaps a soiled ingrate,
Or the sort of man whose hard heart shows up in a hard face—
Well, anyway, You didn’t come to save the just but that other type that abounds,
And if, miraculously, You run out of them elsewhere . . . Lord, I’m still around.
As with beer and theologians, you may not find Claudel to your taste. But then again, you may find a new favorite.