on why you’re an art lover

You like art. You do. You like poetry as well.

I’ve known hundreds of people who claim not to like art. I’ve met even more who say they hate poetry (I was one of them for years). But I’ve never met anyone who, after often complaining about contemporary art and claiming that it’s pointless and weird, has never been faced with a particular piece (never contemporary) that has illumined some facet of life, that has with beauty and truth reflected something, often something quite ordinary of the world with particular insight, that’s caused them to say – ‘I like this. This is art.’

I am convinced and becoming more so that people like art and poetry and more, want to like art and poetry, and that art and poetry, like song, have tremendous power to resonate deeply with people and cause them to slow down and reflect and contemplate the world and themselves. Yet faced with an arts culture that has become disconnected from the realities of everyday life and so disconnected from most people who don’t find themselves in a somewhat fringe subculture, art has become to most people the weird and irrelevant pastime of society’s oddballs and poetry is no more than a rather pathetic and soft relic of a thankfully bygone era. Thankfully this never happened with music (although something must’ve gone wrong to bring us to the point where we have One Direction). Music remains a fundamental part of any culture, and of deep importance to anyone I’ve ever met. But once art and poetry were no different.

A number of things have caused me to be thinking about this stuff and move in this direction, and you should read the posts by Glen on this: Art on Fire: a Naples Tantrum and Definitely not for Burning…

See art is sick. It’s not dead, but the West is killing it. And I don’t mean all the haters are killing it – the ‘Art World’ is. What we think of as Art is not what art has been for centuries and across cultures. I’m realising the same is true of poetry.

Before the Age of Reason there was no separate discipline called ‘Art’. There were no movements, individual styles, progressive ideas; no ‘geniuses’, self-expression or avant-garde. Across ancient and medieval societies art was inscribed on the daily and ritual life of the people, was often religious and sought to connect the ordinary life of people with what they saw as the spiritual reality of their world. I have to say as a Christian I’m pretty wary of how this has often been done, even in the history of the Church, where the created object becomes the object of worship rather than the living God, or God is recast and denigrated in the image of the artist. But I don’t think idolatry must necessarily be the outcome of visual art. I’m interested in thinking that question through more.

The same, it seems, is true of poetry. I didn’t realise that poetry had been a major element of the Church’s life and worship for most of the past 2,000 years. I did know, however, that much of the Old Testament is written in poetry and have had the joy recently of being able to sink my teeth into it (check out Robert Alter’s translations). Poetry causes us to think deeply. Its rhythmic cadence and structural play, acheived through differing cultural conventions, give language a power that for that ancient society enabled them to slow down, contemplate and understand the profound spirituality that pervaded their world and ours – that the creation in which they lived and were a part, with its ordered movements and cycles,  that every moment of their lives rooted in the dust and the salt air and turning of the seasons was and is in the hands of a soveriegn and providential God. In an age gorged on instant gratification and an insatiable lust for faster and faster download speed this is a great need.

Sadly most of us have had our view of poetry shaped by those fluffy, willowy Romantics with their clouds for brains into something of a caricature. I mean, why would I do something productive when I could sit under a tree and wax lyrical about how I feel about a flower? Because it’s stupid.

Seems it was the ascendancy of Rationalism that spelled the doom of poetry as it had existed for centuries across cultures. Faced with the sterilisation of a world viewed only through the lens of reason yet no longer believing in a spiritual dimension the Romantics of the 19th century looked to the arts for something ‘more’ (this is what happened to art as well). But here art and poetry became ends in themselves and concerned with something higher than the everyday world which was seen as purely rational. Here began the ‘high arts’, now the pastimes of the bougeious elite who could afford to sit around feeling ‘arty’ rather than disciplines, which like music was and has remained,were inextricably intertwined with everyday life which was itself closely connected with spirituality.

In a fragmented and dislocated society which has lost any notion of a central axis, this wouldn’t be a bad thing to rediscover.

a life less ordinary

Ah Caravaggio. Here’s another old master painter I’d love to read up on more. Revolutionary, he was, as well as, it seems, deeply troubled by his circumstances. Whereas for something like a century artists had idealised the religious experience, Caravaggio painted scenes of Christ and his disciples so, well…ordinarily.

I don’t mean ordinary in that his skill or style were ordinary, but look at those disciples there, as Thomas puts his finger into Jesus’ side post-resurrection. Far from depicted as the ideals of masculinity and indeed humanity as others would’ve done at the time, they’re just a bunch of ordinary, balding, wrinkly and somewhat befuddled looking blokes. I don’t know Caravaggio’s motivations in painting them in this way, but he hit the nail on the head. I was wandering through a park in my city, which sloped down a hill, and as I looked over the trees and rooftops into a dusty haze towards apartment buildings, an old church spire, and off over streets of old terrace houses towards the distance, I felt very small. And that just in this city, much more this planet and whole universe. One ordinary life amongst so many. Not powerful, not noble, not influential. Just a guy. one story lived in the midst of millions of stories carrying on around me, and one that doesn’t feel particularly a dent in the great scheme of things.

But that’s exactly how God likes it, it seems. The way some churches bang  on (not all though) with their fancy robes or their slick concert style light/laser shows, you’d think following following Jesus was all about getting BIG and rich and powerful and impressive…just like any other social group. I guess I just wanna put it out there that I’ve been finding it comforting to know that God, although powerful himself, does what he does through what looks weak and lowly and pathetic. Nothing impressive about a naked man gasping for breath on a cross, as the life leaks out of him. Nothing in the ancient world more embarrassing, shameful, pathetic, even disgusting as that. But by it God rescues and restores us and makes us his children, if we just trust in Jesus. Nothing particularly hyped up or impressive about me, no flashy supernatural experiences, trumpets blasting from the heavens or anything – an ordinary guy, but an ordinary guy for whom death has lost its fearsomeness, whose future has hope, whose guilt’s been forgiven, and who was living all about himself and whose life has changed direction. And that’s not actually ordinary at all.

confessions of a wannabe writer

Let’s face facts. I’m a pretty terrible writer. And no, that’s no false humility donned as a thin veneer to score compliments or look very noble because, let’s face it, you don’t actually know who I am and so it wouldn’t benefit me anyway. I only mean that I’m terrible because I never practice.

I do want very much to be a writer. I was encouraged the other day when a friend of mine asked me if I was, thinking that I would be. She said I had the thoughtfulness for it, which was very kind and has encouraged me to come back on here and keep on having a go. This isn’t my first blog. I’m a hopeless blogger because the medium requires a  high turnover of new material, and I just can’t think stuff up that fast. Writing for me carries the potential, the desire within it for something wonderful, something profound, and I just need to…to ponder I guess.

I’ve hoped to blog to help me practice my writing. Unfortunately, perhaps as a hangover of a long history of depression never properly dealt with, perhaps just because of bone idleness, I go about my life cloaked in a horrible inertia in which I’ve put off fully involving myself in doing the things I’d love to do. With a deep sadness I see people who love involving themselves in this or that, and I think of the past decade of my life in which I’ve squandered my gifts, my loves. Only me to blame of course.

And really, I’m not depressed about this, and I don’t mean this post to be a self-pitying, self-indulgent round of  ‘poor me’  because, of course, I have the rest of my life, however long that is, to pursue what I love. The world is ripe and full of possibility. And that gives me joy. Really, I’ve been horribly impatient and perfectionist when it comes to creativity – the journey of growth had somehow become a pain rather than a joy. That’s the ugliness of pride. So, here’s to stepping back into glorious creative living.

Because a great myth out there is that a spiritual view of the world somehow should denigrate this real, messy, beautiful world we live in. Certainly a lot of so-called spiritualities seek to transcend the ‘lowly’ physical world for the ‘higher’ spiritual one, through mystical meditations or harsh treatments of the body. But spirituality and the created world aren’t divorced from one another. The chaotic splash of physicality and history is the stage on which the divine drama plays itself out. A drama we’re all a part of. A lecturer of mine spoke last week of the gulf between time and eternity, popularised by Plato, and how the worldview presented in the Bible is quite different. God isn’t ‘somewhere out there’, but intimately involved with creation and history from beginning to end. Our bodies aren’t cages we need to break free from. They’re a part of the whole us.

My rambling, shambolic point is that seeking to live for God will not drag me out of the world into some kind of monastery, but joyfully into it. Instead I think it’s been a misguided attempt at protecting myself that has kept me passive about my art. The great plan of God is to redeem this broken and painful world, to restore it to all its intended beauty and joy. And I’m thankful to him that I’m being included in that.

a fave poem

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins