Practice resurrection, friends.
A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on October 5, 2014.
One afternoon last week I spent a little time at the Durham Arts Council, walking through the galleries, looking at the exhibitions of work by local artists. The great thing about the Arts Council galleries is that I never know what I’m going to get. It’s completely unpredictable. It could be photography or landscape painting, but it could be abstract sculpture or “fiber architecture” or (as it once was) hats. And it’s all completely new. There’s nothing familiar about any of it — no artist whose biography I recall from some class I took back in the late twentieth century, no named period whose history I can mentally outline. I don’t have any easy context for the art, no prefab intellectual framework into which I can place it. I’m always surprised. And so I just have to stand there awhile and… look at it.
Unless… I make the mistake of reading the artists’ statements. For those of you who don’t frequent art galleries, an artist’s statement is what an artist writes to explain and to justify his or her work, generally as a requirement for getting a grant or arranging a show. They have a reputation for being pretentious, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Ideally they function as a kind of introduction to the art, making it more easily accessible — but in a way, that might be worse. Because if you read it, then suddenly, without any effort at all, you know what the art is supposed to be about. You’re absolved of the necessity of looking at the art, and this fascinating mystery the artist has created for you has been turned instead into a mere puzzle — to which you, now, have the solution!
And for me… The entire experience of looking at the art has been spoiled.
It isn’t that I don’t care what the artist had in mind… It’s rather that I’m inclined to think that whatever I gain from simply being with the art, from truly looking for a little while, even if I walk away with no understanding I could articulate to anyone, outweighs any answers I might be given for free, and that the possibility of that experience vanishes the moment I turn the mystery of a work of art into a puzzle and start looking for solutions.
If you’re wondering why I’m taking this opportunity to confess my antipathy toward artists’ statements, bear with me.
You see, I find myself drawn to the very first thing Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading: “Listen to another parable.” That’s all. It doesn’t seem like much. But as far as I can tell, nobody in the story actually does listen — either in Matthew’s story or in the parable itself! In the parable, of course, the landowner sends servants to collect fruit from his tenants, and then he sends his own son, and every time the tenants pretty much literally shoot the messenger. (Or, well, stone him, anyway.) Not much listening going on there. The Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking, meanwhile, seem intent mainly on figuring out who he’s pointing his finger at. When they “perceive that he was speaking about them,” as Matthew says, they decide to have him arrested — though not immediately, because the crowd, having just seen Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey is too busy shouting Hosanna and proclaiming him king to listen long enough to know just what sort of king they’re welcoming. Nobody’s just listening. Everybody, on both levels of the story, is trying to figure out what this guy’s angle is. What are you up to? What do you want from me? or— What’s in it for me?
Via io9 this week, a collection of 1920s posters advertising the London Underground. The images are worth a browse; they’re all entertaining in their own way, but I was drawn, of course, to the few promoting access to the delights of the country.
I will admit that despite my suspicion of everything institutional I love the posters of that era — the World War I propaganda, the gleefully innocent embrace of modernity, the WPA style of the 1930s. The best of them were so stylized as to evoke a kind of magical reality divorced from the real one: lovely to behold, useful in advertising, dangerous in the real world. In this collection the Underground promises access to the wonders of the city. There’s a five senses series about seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting the riches of London; there are invitations to go shopping and a pair of dreamy images of summer days and summer nights.
Others make clear not all is well within the city limits. Here the Underground is “the open gate that leads from work to play,” a passage away from a blocky, smoky, smoggy city to a sweeping dance of playful children:
The children are nearly faceless, cloud-white with golden outlines as one might draw angels. A vision of heaven, perhaps, in a park.
Go further and the city disappears.
Allison Meier shares a look at Johann Elert Bode’s 1801 “Uranographia,” which shows constellations representing, among other things, a printing press and a sculptor’s stand with a partially sculpted head. Until the twentieth century, she notes, “space was a celestial free-for-fall,” with constellations imagined and named and charted willy-nilly. Then the International Astronomical Union, the same body that declared Pluto no longer a planet, designated 88 official constellations, and all the rest are now obsolete.
“It’s fascinating,” Meier concludes, “to gaze back at how our visual culture has long shaped how we perceive those distant luminosities.” Not many of us today, I think, would be likely to see a printing press in the sky, though I’m tempted to look for that sea monster. But the idea that a constellation can be obsolete seems at first blush a bit silly to me; none of them was ever real in the first place, and you either see it or you don’t. But then not many of us in the West see anything in the sky any longer. Now that astrological theories of human health have been thoroughly discredited we have less reason to care. In an era of red shifts and black holes we may lack the imagination. More important, for most of us the sky is too bright. Tonight I should be able to spot Orion, the Pleiades, and… that’s about it. The rest are too dim. Maybe all the constellations are obsolete.
With so few stars to work with, we can’t very easily invent our own constellations any longer, either, even if we were so inclined. I’ve always thought of the constellations as the sum of darkness and idleness. Imagining a bear or a crab, let alone a printing press, in the chaotic infinitude of stars takes time. You have to look at those random points of light, really look, not scanning or searching, without prejudice or purpose, until — delightfully — an image appears. But how many of us are willing to spend an hour or two just looking at anything, let alone a random smattering of light? Or even fifteen minutes? We live too fast, now, to see what isn’t there. That takes time we don’t think we have. Instead we have an international body to tell us what is there, and we Google it and move on. Even the idea of constellations may be obsolete, a relic of a past age — just like that printing press. We have other, faster things now.
Another cold morning, though not as cold as yesterday. The duck pond is free of ice, but barely; the surface ripples thickly as if it had thought to freeze but hadn’t quite made up its mind before the dawn broke. Now the sun filters weakly golden through the leafless crags of trees like a bit of tarnished jewelry, diffusing around the broken lines of branches, emphasizing their nakedness without clarifying their geometry. At least the world survived another long night. It usually does.
I have often felt that I could tell the difference between sunrise and sunset only by the light, but I have never been able to convince myself rationally that this is so. If I were stuck down in some unknown spot on the globe at one or the other time of day with no compass or geographic bearings and had to guess in an instant whether the sun was coming or going, could I? I think I could, but perhaps that’s only a conceit. The sun would appear the same distance above the horizon, its light falling at the same shallow angle, filtered through the same branches. I can’t think of any physical evidence of its movement without simply waiting to see what happened next.
Then again, a few of the Dutch masters seem to have been able to capture the difference without resorting even to painting the sky, so maybe there is a difference too subtle and complex for words. I’ve always thought that even in this interior scene Vermeer perfectly captured the light of early morning:
It couldn’t be any other time of day, could it? But maybe I only sense that because she’s a milkmaid and she’s just finished milking. Or maybe I’m full of crap and Vermeer had in mind something else entirely.
This morning, in ay case, gives the lie to all that. The orange light filtering through bare trees makes me think of sunset. Too orange, perhaps, or too wistful seeming for dawn. For a moment I can’t be sure. It could be morning with the day still to come and a bit of warming but clouds over the horizon; it could be evening before a long frigid night but stars ready to shine brilliantly and dinner waiting inside. For a moment time hangs in the balance. Then I dump the food in the chickens’ bowl and get on with the day.
I promised myself I wouldn’t buy a painting at Centerfest. I would just stroll through for a couple of hours, enjoy the art, maybe get a funnel cake. But I wasn’t going to spend any real money. Nope, no sir. Saving that money.
So, of course, I bought a painting. Watercolor and ink in a traditional Chinese style, two birds perched in a scarlet-blossoming tree while snow falls softly around them. Minimalist and very elegant, but there is something in the birds’ expressions that suggests that the one is enjoying the lovely snowfall while the other is pointedly irritated by the whole mess. I can ignore this and just enjoy the peaceful elegance of the piece, or I can wonder what the birds are thinking, and it’s a different story every time.
Last Monday was my daughter’s birthday, and the Birthday Troll came again this year, in the night, to steal her presents, hide them in the woods, and leave riddles as clues to their whereabouts. He’s like Santa Claus for curmudgeons, and considerably more entertaining, not to mention one isn’t bound by the Byzantine mythology of popular culture and corporate marketing. The riddles are after the fashion of old English rhyming riddles, like the ones Bilbo Baggins traded with Gollum in the slimy dark under the Misty Mountains, and so I spend half of August looking at the stuff in my yard and woods through the eyes of a grumpy itinerant poet with a twisted sense of humor1 and trying to find metaphor, simile, pun, any sort of literary device to obfuscate the quotidian.2
A glorious day, warm and bright. Having time to spend, and wanting to feel hopeful for the changing of a season, I sat where I could see the first full blooms of spring — but found myself distracted by the leavings of winter. Unloved and unnoticed, these masses of grays and browns, bare rock and tree and mud and crumbling leaf. But examine them closely in the dusky light of a fading afternoon, and the tattered monochrome resolves itself into a deep-textured symphony of shape and line shaded from the palette of a master.
Looking for World War I propaganda posters for to build a slideshow for students I came across this visually stunning and unintentionally hilarious morsel (click for a closer look):