Tag Archives: art

Secular Sainthood

10 Jun

If the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, then our spiritual icons must appear in ad space. In an America where people are less spiritual, and more ignorant of their own history, something has to take its place–therefore we have secular saints.

This is nothing new–in fact, there’s a term for it–“civil religion.” In a young country such as ourselves (and 300 years is pretty young), America had to invent a whole mythology and founding fathers to lionize and exalt. Since the best example of a working republic was Rome’s, our national buildings emulate Roman design consciously. Without a state church, we had to take away most of the direct religious connections, and appealed to unifying concepts (such as the Ten Commandments).

The recent change in our civil religion has been who we choose to venerate. Since we learned that our founding fathers were just flawed white men whose beliefs do not match our modern sensibilities, there has been a push to eliminate the old gods in favor of the new. In this case, Valley Metro in Phoenix has pushed to have a local artist create these beautiful pictures of 19 historical women to honor Women’s History Month.

Okay, let me get off my soapbox briefly to say, “These pictures are really good.” We should celebrate the founding mothers as well as the fathers. It was a little harder to be a big splash as a woman two hundred years ago, so our examples are far more recent. Now I’m going to take my fairness hat back off and ask, “Don’t these pictures look a LOT like Orthodox Christian icons?”

There’s a flower around their head (cough, cough… halo), one of them is holding an paint wheel like a cross or a book, and they all stare down at you like they owe you something. Like saints, these women are to be venerated; their lives are examples of how we should behave. Rosa Parks, Sally Ride, Harriet Tubman… women who broke traditional standards and succeeded. We made sure to throw in as many ethnicities as possible, regardless of how much it makes sense. For example, Jumko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Seriously? Or take Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American to graduate from an American school of nursing. Who cares! You could have used Elizabeth Blackwell, first female American doctor, but we already hit our limit of pale skinned women.

What I wonder is how long these new secular saints will last before they are replaced. How long will Madam C. J. Walker last as “the first Black woman millionaire in America” before her belief in self-reliance and her relationship with the wealthy overwhelm her ethnic status? How long will Judy Garland’s role as a gay icon last when people stop watching The Wizard of Oz? The problem with creating new gods is that they don’t have a tradition to support them when the next generation comes along. But maybe that’s the point–new gods for a new generation, nothing stable, everything politically correct? Maybe I’m being hyper-critical about a bunch of urban art. Let me know in the comments below! Then if you want some more ephemeral art, check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too expensive to support the arts, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

We Are The Vandals

5 Apr

Where is the borderline between profound and pedantic? The answer: your mileage may vary. Some books hit you at the right time and change your life. A piece of music might bring one person to tears and leave another person dry. If you have to explain the joke, is it funny?

I keep thinking back to Type O Negative–I loved that band, bought most of their albums, and they had a very tongue-in-cheek approach to their heavy metal/goth music they produced. Anyway, on their third album cover (yes, kids, bands used to put out physical albums!), they wrote, “Functionless Art Is Simply Tolerated Vandalism. . .We Are The Vandals.” When someone asked the guitarist (Kenny Hickey) about that, he said,  “That’s the truth, that wasn’t a joke. Our art is completely functionless. There is no use for it except for listening pleasure or killing time. The rest of the album is a joke!”

A lot of literature is like that. I know the Tanakh (Old Testament) pretty well; I’ve read the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and I’ve picked at a variety of religious texts. If you’re a believer, the lessons are profound. If you’re not… it’s hard to find meaning. Take the Bhavagad-Gita; the seminal work for everyday Hindus, which teaches the lesson of the Gods to men. There’s a lot more holy books in that religion, but that’s the one that gets studied. My grade school knowledge is limited, so all I know is when Robert Oppenheimer quoted it when he saw the atomic bomb test, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one… I have become death, destroyer of worlds.”

Wow. That’s pretty cool… but it’s out of context. It’s not what the god meant–in context, he was telling Arjuna, “You’re here to fight. It’s your dharma. You’ve become death at this moment, so do it.” Let’s take a random verse from the same text:

O son of Kuntī, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.

Bhavagad-Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 14

If you can get past the rather stilted translation, you might get out of it, “Don’t get too upset if you’re not happy–it comes and goes–don’t let it get in the way.” Which is an important lesson to learn and pretty valuable. But you might get lost in the verbiage, and since I’m not a Hindu, I don’t find it terribly profound.

One of the books that literally changed my life was After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield. He’s an American Buddhist teacher who interviewed fellow clerics from different faiths to ask the question, “What does a spiritual person do when they get burned out?” There are moments in one’s life where you feel close to the infinite–what I call a “spiritual high.” The problem with any high is that you crash from it. So what do you do when you beat yourself up because you don’t feel enlightened when your delicates have to go through the dryer?

This book hit me at a time when I was spiritually burned out–where I fell far short of the Glory of God. This made me realize that I wasn’t alone and I could proceed on in my spiritual journey. For other people, who weren’t in that situation, they might think, “Oh, that’s nice,” and move on to the next book. For me, that was gospel; for others, good advice.

Timing is everything. Maybe you’ll find a moment of perfect clarity in one of my books. Or if $1.99 is too much to pay for revelation, you might find it in one of my free stories. Or maybe you’ll just enjoy them as good stories, either way, let me know in the comments below! Or any other thought about profound literature… I won’t judge. 🙂

Stupendous or Just Stupid?

2 Apr

Today’s post is brought to you by Editor Ed, frequent correspondent, small press publisher, author, and a great friend. He’s recently published the Sorcery Against Caesar, by Richard S. Tierney; Cthuhlu set in Roman times, it’s a great read. Check out more of his projects at Pickman’s Press!

Is modern art stupendous, or just stupid?  Certainly it’s a polarizing question: some people love it, some people hate it.  I’m somewhere in the middle; I don’t really understand it, but I can’t really dismiss it either.  That goes back to a moment in junior high, and a powerful lesson from an art teacher.

This question’s on my mind these days because I run a teeny tiny digital publishing company, and one of my current projects is a volume of collected poetry from an old pulp magazine.  I noticed that between the end of its first run in 1954 and its next incarnation in 1973, the poetry switched from almost exclusively traditional verse to almost entirely free verse (which I consider the literary equivalent of modern art).

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t really like free verse. I don’t particularly enjoy it, and certainly don’t understand it.  I’ve recently been researching it on the internet and buying and reading books about poetry, but still haven’t yet figured out the appeal of free verse.  How can I pick the “best” of something when I can’t even tell what makes it good or bad?  For that matter, does the general population actually like it, or is it something that only literary critics and college professors appreciate?  Would the average person in the street even bother buying a book of free verse?

I was explaining this frustrating conundrum to my sister Genevieve over dinner recently, and she was growing increasingly exasperated with me.  “Who cares?” she finally said.  “If you don’t like it, don’t read it, and don’t publish it!”

“I can’t,” I protested.  “I have to figure this out.”

“But why?” Gen asked.  “I guess I just don’t understand why you care so much about this.”

I struggled for a few moments in silence, trying to find a way to explain it to her, and finally settled on an anecdote.  “Do you remember Ms. Haussermann back at Holy Cross?  Every now and then she’d—”

“Come in and teach art classes, yeah,” Gen said.

“Do you remember when she took us on that field trip to the art museum in Chicago?”  Gen gave me a blank look and shook her head.  “Okay, then maybe it was just my class.  I think it was sixth grade, Ms. Johnson’s class, maybe 1987 or 88.  Anyway, we went to this art museum and looked at all these paintings.  Even the impressionist stuff at least made sense—you know, Monet, Van Gogh, all those guys?  Even Picasso was kind of cool in a weird way.

“Do you remember when she took us on that field trip to the art museum in Chicago?”  Gen gave me a blank look and shook her head.  “Okay, then maybe it was just my class.  I think it was sixth grade, Ms. Johnson’s class, maybe 1987 or 88.  Anyway, we went to this art museum and looked at all these paintings.  Even the impressionist stuff at least made sense—you know, Monet, Van Gogh, all those guys?  Even Picasso was kind of cool in a weird way.

“But then we went into the Modern Art wing, and that stuff was just… bizarre.  I mean, simple squares and rectangles of color.  A chain hanging from the ceiling.  Some plaster sculpture of a guy and girl in bed.  And there was this one big painting—I mean it was HUGE, the size of a billboard, it covered almost an entire wall—and it was painted entirely black.

“And I remember standing in front of it, looking at it, and I said aloud, to no one in particular, ‘Well, that’s just stupid.’

“ ‘You think so?’

“I looked up to see Ms. Haussermann standing beside and behind me.

“ ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘It’s just black.  That’s dumb.’

“Ms. Haussermann said, ‘Try looking at from over…’  She took me by the shoulders and moved where I stood, all the while looking to the painting to the lights overhead and back again, even bending over a bit so she could see it from my point of view.  ‘… here. Now what do you see?’

“My voice trailed off because suddenly I did see. The paint was just black on black, but the brush strokes were in this huge, complicated, swirling pattern.  It was really cool, kind of like Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, or like a paisley design, or… something, I don’t know.  I think I just stood staring at it for a while.  When I finally looked around again, Ms. Haussermann was gone—talking to another student or something, I guess.

“Anyway, ever since then, whenever I see artwork that seems dumb and pointless, I can’t help wondering if there’s something that I’m missing, that if I just look closer I’ll see something really cool, something that isn’t obvious.

“So that’s why I can’t just dismiss free verse poetry as bad and not read it, not publish it,” I explained to my sister.  “I mean, if so many people like it, there’s got to be something to it, right?  So what am I missing?  Is there some sort of ‘hidden brush stroke’ I’m not seeing?  Or is it really just bad?  I don’t know.  I don’t know enough to know.  Not yet.  That’s why I’m researching it.  I’ll tell you this, though…”  I leaned back and took a sip of soda. “I sure wish there was some kind of poetry expert ‘Ms. Haussermann’ to explain free verse to me.”

So what do you think? Is modern art pointless? Or does it mean something to someone, even if it’s not particularly profound? Let me know in the comments below! And after you type that, check our my books, and you can tell me if my art is pointless or not. 🙂 However, if $1.99 is too much to pay for a comment, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

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