In this week’s commentary I argue that “Do They Even Know It’s Christmas?” is the worst Christmas song of all time.
Acton broadcast consultant, Paul Edwards, will guest host West Michigan Live on Tuesday, October 21 at 9:00 am EST on WOOD Radio in Grand Rapids. His guest at 9:30 a.m. is artist Makoto Fujimura, whose 2014 ArtPrize entry, Walking on Water, was exhibited at the Acton Building.
At his blog, Mako has written an engaging and thoughtful piece about his experience at ArtPrize which will be the focus of Paul’s conversation with him. In West Michigan, you can listen live on Tuesday, October 21 at 9:00 am EST on WOOD 1300/106.9. The interview will also be live streaming at www.woodradio.com for those listening elsewhere.
Fujimura’s thoughts on culture and the care of artists are summarized here on the Acton PowerBlog.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) is considered by many to be one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century. But you’d be hard-pressed to find him discussed in any public high school (or even most colleges or universities, for that matter.) A prolific writer (he penned everything from a popular mystery series to epic ballads), he thought himself mainly a journalist. While he never attended college, his knowledge had both depth and breadth:
Chesterton was equally at ease with literary and social criticism, history, politics, economics, philosophy, and theology. His style is unmistakable, always marked by humility, consistency, paradox, wit, and wonder. His writing remains as timely and as timeless today as when it first appeared, even though much of it was published in throw away papers.
Here in Grand Rapids, we are awaiting the beginning of ArtPrize (Sept. 24-Oct. 12.) For those of us who live or work in the city, we are seeing signs of it: posters hung in coffee shop windows, artists installing pieces, restaurants adding waitstaff, and venues getting spit-shined. It’s a big deal: in 2013, ArtPrize brought in 400,000+ visitors to this city, an estimated $22 million in net growth and hundreds of jobs. Not too shabby for an event that didn’t even exist a few short years ago.
The genesis of ArtPrize was the mind of Rick DeVos, a man focused on entrepreneurship and starting conversations. DeVos started ArtPrize not as a way to bring money to his hometown (“a happy accident“), but because:
…his forays into tech startups had made him love the democracy of the Internet and the possibilities afforded by crowdsourcing. Why not a contest with an open call for artists and an open vote? “I was always intrigued with the X-Prize model,” he said, referring to the $10 million prize offered for private-sector space flight. “This whole idea of putting a big prize out there and then putting as few rules around it as possible, not trying to dictate what the outcome should look like.” The idea expanded from there, and in 2009, five months after he first announced it, ArtPrize opened to the public.
I’m slowly working my way through James Atlas’ biography of Saul Bellow, and I came to the section where Saul Bellow returns to his birthplace in Lachine, Quebec, for the dedication of the municipal library in his name. At the dedication he gave a speech, which includes this section:
I am here as a kind of testimony to the fact that it’s possible for a child from Lachine to do some things which have been called—not by me but by others—extraordinary. It also fits very well with my own resistance to that deterministic philosophy that tells you that the place that you come from makes you absolutely; it does not. The human soul has its own way to declare its own freedom and to develop itself in its own way, and it is not true to say: “Show me where you came from and I’ll tell you what you are.” That’s not the way things really are; we are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom: I see the thing that way. It is not necessary to be fully determined by one’s surroundings. Your mind and your spirit have their own liberty, and each individual should be loyal to that.
Stirring stuff, that.
But lest anyone misunderstand and think that Bellow was advocating merely a libertine individualism, we might consult the conclusion of his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which as Myron Magnet writes, includes the connection between the freedom and the moral nature of the human soul. Thus, writes Magnet:
From page one of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow himself insists that, beyond the explanations we construct through Enlightenment reason, the soul has “its own natural knowledge.” We all have “a sense of the mystic potency of humankind” and “an inclination to believe in archetypes of goodness. A desire for virtue was no accident.” We all know that we must try “to live with a civil heart. With disinterested charity.” We must live a life “conditioned by other human beings.” We must try to meet the terms of the contract life sets us, as Sammler says in the astonishing affirmation with which Bellow ends his book. “The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. . . . As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”
This week on Radio Free Acton, Michael Matheson Miller takes the interviewer’s chair for a conversation with David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, to discuss the thought of Edmund Burke in the wake of the release of Bromwich’s first volume of what will be a two-volume intellectual biography of Burke. This week’s conversation touches on Burke’s view of the human person, his thoughts on progress in the arts and sciences, and his role in the modern conservative movement. And like Bromwich’s biography, this podcast will come in two parts: the remainder of the conversation will be yours to enjoy next week.
To listen to Part 1 of Miller’s interview with Bromwich, use the audio player below.
They are substantive and serious, and occasionally pithy. For instance, Bellow observes that “a degenerate negative romanticism is at the core of modern mass culture,” “Humankind is always involved in some kind of metaphysical enterprise,” and, “The descent into subhumanity begins with the thinning out of the imagination.”
In Businessweek late last year, Jason Zinoman noted the Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino as Levine. The play, says Zinoman, “speaks as directly to the economic anxieties of today as when it opened on Broadway in 1984, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Then, the play was widely seen by critics as a left-wing attack on a free-market system run amok.”
But as he also notes,
Glengarry Glen Ross is often compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but the fundamental difference is that Mamet shows us in concrete detail the value of work. He lets the audience see salesmen doing their job, and then distinguishes between those who do it well and those who don’t. In fact, as corrupt as the office may be, there is a meritocratic ethos at its core—the most impressive salesman, Roma, is also the most successful. Levene, by contrast, repeats himself, caves in negotiation, lies poorly. It’s easy to have sympathy for him, but hard to conclude that he doesn’t deserve to get paid less than Roma. Look closely enough at this play and you’ll find a belief in the market as well as a critique of it. Like most great dramas or novels, its ideas are far too complicated to fit into a slogan.
As another great work of fiction that likewise doesn’t fit neatly into a simple binary pattern, in between Death of a Salesman (1949) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), I’d like to also highlight a short novel I recently read, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956). Seize the Day follows the travails of hapless Tommy Wilhelm as he tries to scrape out a living in New York, or at least as he tries to appear to try to do so. There’s some serious engagement with the realities of internalized expectations, competition, envy, hucksterism, and the phenomena of commodity speculation.
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.