I've been hearing a lot of conversations these days about whether an atheist can produce art that is beautiful. Of course, we can start with Keats' famous quote from "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is...all ye need to know" Of course, Keats was no Christian, but rather, "love is my religion...my creed is love."
I think most of us will argue that the poetry of John Keats is among the most poignant and beautiful in the English language. His ponderings on life, nature and loss are deeply felt and speak to the heart, which is exactly what he wanted to do. He wrote in a letter, "O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!" Then again, the man was dying at a young age, and what's more, he was fully aware of his fate. Keats lost everything because of his illness, and indeed, he admitted in his sonnet, "When I Have Fears," that because of his condition, he will "never live to trace [romance's] shadows." It makes sense that he was likely angry about his situation, and rightly so. And of course, living in the Romantic Era, when all the traditional institutions of society were routinely challenged and denigrated, that only fed into his frustrations.
But let's fast forward to something more modern, for balance. In the postwar 1950s, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett wrote one of the most influential works of the nihilist era, Waiting for Godot, in which two men, Vladimir and Estragon, spend two acts talking in circles as they wait for the elusive Godot. The audience is left in the dark as to Godot's identity--some theorize that Godot is a play on the word God, though Beckett always disputed that. Considering that he wrote the play in French, I'm led to believe that he's correct. But that adds a layer of meaning to the play, or rather, a layer of meaninglessness. Godot means nothing. Vladimir and Estragon waste their time. Lucky and Pozzo live a vicious cycle of nihilistic misery. And the play ends where it began. Nowhere. With nothing. As Pozzo laments, "we are born astride of a grave."
Godot is a great play, in that it contains humor and engages the audience, who tend to share the characters' frustrations. But is it beautiful? Is there a beauty in nothingness, or is nothingness just an empty vacuum? Considering that Beckett believed Christianity to be "mythology," I think the Catholic viewer can pretty easily write him off as a writer who speaks for his time and who possess wit and intelligence, but whose stance on faith is so remarkably absent that there's little threat to the faithful. Beckett, along with other modern artists such as Karlheinz Stockhausen are academic, to be sure. They both give credence to the spiritual and religious as inspirational, but not in the way that a deep believer is inspired. I don't pretend to know the heart and soul of either man, but I suspect that their use of religious themes or inspirations are quite different from those of Dante or Handel.
While nihilist works have a place in the artistic continuum, I don't know that I would classify them as "beautiful." They might speak a certain truth, but they also deny a greater truth, and while they might reflect a modernist frustration and postwar trauma, they don't rise to the heights of a Dante Aligheri. Dante might not have lived in the era of genocides or total war, as Stockhausen and Beckett did, though Dante's times were tumultuous enough. Dante was even thrown into exile, where he lost nearly everything. He wrote in the Paradiso, "You are to know the bitter taste of others' bread, how salty it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes ... ascending and descending others' stairs." His world was rocked in terrible ways in the chaotic battles of Medieval Italy.
Yet while his poetry reflects the same kinds of feelings of betrayal as the nihilists felt, there is also the element of the transcendent present in Dante that the nihilists lack, and which even Keats lacks. Keats' poems are intimate and intensely personal, but his unbelief places limits on how far his works can go. Similarly is William Wordsworth's claim in "The World is Too Much With Us" that if given a choice between a connection to nature and losing that connection, "I'd rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn." In other words, nature trumps the creator of nature for Wordsworth. Now one could say that at least the Romantics believed in something, which is very true. Neither Keats nor Wordsworth nor even Shelley were nihilists, to be sure, and perhaps it is that different sort of belief that rescues their works and lends them a higher beauty than what the nihilists could ever have.
Could it be that beauty comes in degrees?
Take music, for example. There's great modern music--jazz, blues, rock, country, rap, Big Band, even Karlheinz Stockhausen. As wonderful as the viewer might feel as they listen and experience that music, can that compare to Handel's "Messiah," or Mozart's famous Requiem Mass, or the supernatural subtleties of Gregorian Chant? Of course, everyone's tastes run in different areas, but the deep believer knows that these works lift the soul in ways that other music can't, just as the poetry of St. John of the Cross takes the reader to places that even Shakespeare can't--and Shakespeare was a strong believer.
The question remains: can the godless create works of beauty? To some degree, yes, but I believe that a work achieves its deepest level of beauty when it is grounded in theological truths, works that cause the viewer to experience the mystery of God in speakable ways. If God is, according to the Summa Theogolica of St. Thomas Aquinas, "impossible for any created intellect to comprehend," then one must conclude that an artistic work grounded in a profound connection with the One True God must necessarily lead the viewer to spiritual places that anything else simply cannot. That doesn't mean that every work a believer produces reaches that level, of course. At the same time, when an artist has the desire to lift up their audience, and fills themselves with prayer and contemplation, and if they possess the artistic skill, then they stand a greater chance of achieving a work that resonates with the soul in its pure state.
I'm interested in your comments on this issue, so feel free to leave any thoughtful reply.
Here's a typical conversation I have with my students, especially this year:
Me: You didn't turn in your essay.
Student: I didn't know where to post it online.
Me: We went over that in class. I showed you where to post it.
Student: I didn't know.
Me: But didn't you read the directions?
Student: Where are they?
Me: Under the assignment.
Student: Where's the assignment?
Me: In the folder labeled "Assignments."
And so on...
"I didn't know." "Well, I heard that..." "Where is that?"
These should be innocent questions from a student, and perhaps they are, but what I've noticed in recent months more than ever before is that bright, motivated students are increasingly incapable of following simple directions. Part of the problem is that they don't know where to find the directions, and second, they rely on word of mouth to explain the directions to them.
Mind you, the directions to any assignment I give is plainly stated, listed, numbered, accented with red print and capital letters, always in the same online folder as the assignment's explanation, due date and online folders where the students submit their work. Seems pretty easy, right? Go online to our school website, go to my class link, find the Assignments Tab, search for the current book we're studying, clicky click, and voila! Inside is the assignment!
In any year and any school, there will always be the unmotivated slacker kid who is only in class because their parents force them to go. I wish all students were bright and motivated, but that's just not realistic. And in truth, not everyone needs to be academically motivated. What I love about the classroom is the variety of students I encounter every day. Many of my students are conscientious students eager to learn and grow and have new experiences, but some of them are more motivated by sports or technology or some other pursuit. Sometimes those are my favorite students because they have to stretch to engage in the literature we study--oftentimes, they surprise themselves by how much they've taken from a work of literature. Recently, many of my less academically rigorous students, my "sweathogs," found a great personal connection to Prince Hal, the main character in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One. They connected to Hal's struggle to change his wanton ways and to become a mature man of honor.
Anyone can learn, but true learning takes time and energy. I commented in my article about our video culture that reading forces one to be patient and to exercise right judgment, and that when a person is a reader, they can grow in the virtues. How much harder that is these days when nobody has to wait for anything any more. Even watching TV shows has changed--as an Amazon Prime subscriber, I know that I can access their Instant Video feature and see nearly anything I want, commercial free. Isn't that awesome?
It is, but there's a consequence to that, too. Growing up not that long ago, we had to put up with the always annoying commercial break, some of which could drag on almost as long as the show itself! So what do you do during the commercial? Maybe get a snack, use the bathroom, maybe talk to each other, read a quick article in the newspaper, make a phone call. You had to be patient during the commercials. You had to wait. You didn't get everything you wanted right away. There was such a thing as delayed gratification.
What happened to that? When did we get so spoiled that we can't even wait for an internet page to load. I suppose one could argue that we lost our patience when we got the microwave. I use the microwave every day at work, and I find myself getting antsy after just two minutes! What's wrong with me? After all, I'm a child of the 80's! I'm supposed to be able to wait!
So think how hard it is for a kid now, someone raised on Netflix and supersonically fast internet. I even saw a commercial for some device you buy to make microwaving even faster. Can you imagine?
Don't get me wrong, I'm a fully tech savvy chick. I'm a Photoshop artist, extremely knowledgable about all sorts of computer programs, a huge fan of e-books (though I prefer the genuine article), a blogger, a Tweeter, a Facebooker, and the list goes on. The only thing I don't really do online is banking, mostly because I generally don't trust most people. And I seem to be incapable of using a coffee maker, but that's another story. To make a long story short, I'm more than friendly toward technology, but at the same time, I'm happy that I was raised without the conveniences of today. I'm OK with the fact that I used a word processor to write my Master's thesis and that I didn't even buy my own computer until 2006 (I'm now on my third). And I was 30 before I bought my first cell phone.
I'd like to invite you to do something. On this page, I included a poll, asking how old you were when you got your first smartphone--I specified a smartphone because of the obvious advantages they have over feature phones. How many of you have witnessed groups of friends sitting around a table, each person totally absorbed in their own phone, only occasionally looking up to say something quick before disappearing once again into their isolated little virtual world? I'm no scientist, but it's my contention that the younger a person does that, the less able they are to develop social skills and strong academic skills. This article on "digital dementia" goes so far as to say that teens are putting themselves at risk of early onset of dementia because they are so entirely reliant on their phones for everything. They can't remember simple details because their phone does all the thinking for them!
My mom keeps a little Moleskeine notebook in her purse so she can write down things like phone numbers, names, etc. Just the other day, that little notebook came in very handy when her car and her cell phone died on her. She whipped out that little book, borrowed a friend's phone and called me to the rescue. Educators say that when you have to take the time to write something down, using pen and paper, you are more likely to remember the information. In my mother's case, this "old school" way of doing things has benefitted her--when younger people are absent-minded and less capable of reasoning well, my mom is as sharp as anyone, sharper than most, probably. She exercises her mind with a daily dose of reading, crosswords, as well as a holy hour in our parish chapel. Pretty good recipe for mental and spiritual success, right?
Back to my students. One day in class, I told them we were going to have a tech-free day. I had everyone close their school-issued laptops and pull out their books. A few complained because they were using e-books. "Share with your partner," was my reply. No computers. Then, a very bright girl said something extraordinary: "I have all my notes in my computer. I can't remember anything without my notes." And she was serious. This girl is an A student, someone extremely motivated to succeed and learn, yet look at what she had done to her own brain! I made her share notes with a partner, but I'm sure she really struggled that day. The fact that a perfectly intelligent sixteen year old girl was nearly mentally paralyzed without technology shook me up, because I know she wasn't just making excuses.
Following directions takes the ability to observe, to think ahead, to strategize and to plan. You have to reason that the directions for an assignment would be in the Assignments tab, and that they would be connected to the particular work we are currently studying. You would assume that all information regarding due dates would be located in the same place. Therefore, when a bright student confesses that they are incapable of remembering anything independently, that they can't use their own powers of thought to find a simple set of directions, I worry. After all, these are the people that will be in charge of my health when I'm old. They'll be running the country one day, yet they can't even begin to reason through a simple task.
This is a chilling reality that we will have to face very soon as a culture, and as belief in God continues to decline, I have to wonder what needs to happen to reverse this dangerous situation. Lives are at stake, as are minds, and unless we are brave enough to make some serious decisions about how the younger generation relates with technology, we
As much as I want to deny it, I've come to the conclusion that (some) fashion is truly art.
My Catholic sensibilities tell me that this is wrong, that fashion represents money and privilege and possessions and everything materialistic. Of course, in many ways that's true. The fashion industry is notoriously elitist, capitalizing on the emaciated bodies of young women to sell overpriced clothes that only a few superrich women could possibly afford.
Today's "fashionistas" are indeed rich, illustrious, elitist, far removed from you and me: Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker, Victoria Beckham, Chloe Sevigny, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Katie Holmes, and the list of Hollywood celebs goes on and on. Surely, the fashion industry thrives on these few, and in fact may owe their continued existence to these few, pampered ladies.
But at the same time, look at the picture above, designed by the late Alexander McQueen. I don't know his religious affiliation, or if he even had one, but this photograph of his gowns reveals an ethereal beauty that speaks to greater thoughts. The movement of the fabric in soft waves brings to my mind the power of the sea, but the natural beauty of the female frame also speaks to vulnerability, but strength at the same time. There is almost a supernatural quality to the image, therefore, something that goes beyond ready-to-wear.
Perhaps not all works of fashion classify as great art, as this one does, but I think it has a language and symbolism of its own. Even the peasant lady dressed in big flowers and zebra stripes makes a statement of sorts. She cannot afford a McQueen of her own, but she sees, perhaps imperfectly, that color and shape have relevance to life, and that these elements communicate to the world.
But fashion can also be an equalizer, and not in a Maoist sense. A friend of mine who doesn't have much money always manages to look elegant and stylish, though she shops at Sears. Likewise, people manage to look great by shopping at Goodwill or Marshall's or Target. Similarly, I've seen people with plenty of money who have little sense of style whatsoever, even if their fashions are very expensive. Art knows no class--it comes from the soul and the heart. A fashion sense works the same way--the person wants to look good, classy, chic, appealing, so they use what God gave them in the absence of funding and, to quote Tim Gunn, "make it work."
As a Catholic with an interest in fashion, even on a small budget, I sometimes think about how what I wear can become a reflection of who I am. That sounds terribly shallow, and I'm sure that many saints would like to give me a THWACK upside the head at the mere mention of using fashion as a personal reflection. I am a child of God, they will remind me, not defined by clothing or accessories. And that's a fair point. I don't think we should become obsessed with fashion, but at the same time, I think it's important to look respectable.
I heard a story once about a former model who traveled to Vietnam because she wanted to help the poor. A priest told her to go out and find dying people under bridges and bring them back to the hospital. He pointed out to her that her physical beauty was a rare thing, and that she might be the only beautiful person those dying individuals might ever see in their lives. In other words, he didn't want her to shy away from or deny her beauty, but to celebrate it by offering it as a consolation to others. In my mind, that must have been a humbling moment for the woman.
Beauty brings joy to the world, so why shouldn't we include our personal fashion in that?
Witty; cunning; crafty
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