Incarnate Artists Incarnate Art

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Why do we make art? Why do we make it when sparrows, ravens, dogs, monkeys, elephants, do not make it? People have unique experiences which are so transporting and sometimes overwhelming, sometimes revelatory of such new or significant things, that spending an entire life to record this material can be time well spent.

It is paradoxical that sometimes great creators isolate themselves from others; perhaps they like to create small “universes”. Nonetheless, usually they are at least deeply immersed in the traditions of their medium. They tend too to have interdisciplinary interests. The painter is an amateur historian; the sculptor is very serious about poetry; the musician enters analysis and reads psychology; the actor studies politics and sociology; the poet ties himself to an orthodox religion. For my brother’s travail discloses secrets to me, and my art breathes through conversation with those finished products. While I, Asher, personally long for the meat of this intellectual inquiry, I am still nursing on the child’s milk of sentiment and expression. But this is most necessary for song.

Though the richest vein of art I imagine must of necessity glorify God with high purpose, the vast array of human concerns is still our travail and remains our private glory as creatures made in His image. Though monkishness is most essential, other themes like romance still belong to the deepest places of our heart. Do we not even speak of Christ as the Bridegroom, the Church as the Bride?

The way we revolve around culture can be greatly therapeutic. Could our roving through culture be ever indicative of the real state of our hearts, and reflect the intentions of our free will, though we may think of it as entertainment, education, or culture? When we are at home, do we stay in our room sleeping? Are we spending time cleaning the outdoor areas? Are we planted on the couch? Is it not true that if all things we do have an ethical aspect, then each action (at home or as culture consumers) has an ethical nature? This is to say the ethical manner of the way we listen to music, or the way we watch TV on the couch for that matter, is reflected in the specific turn of our dialogue with the media, and moreover this ethical nature of our relation to art is present even when when our humanity takes center stage of the relation.

This is all said in a kind of appreciation of what is set forth in this video of an orchestra in rehearsal for a performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Mahler, who denied his Jewishness and claimed he was a Catholic because of professional pressure, is nonetheless in an almost world-historical relation to German music. At least, according to conductor Leonard Bernstein, speaking German to this German orchestra, Mahler is the end of the German classical tradition, and was aware of it. Mahler also saw himself as a musical visionary of an apocalyptic future. So if this is true, and Mahler’s imaginative incorporation and reworking of so many German musical cliches was due to his position as the one who makes the summary for the defense, then even if he is in terms of organized religion a non-participant, in terms of Adamic Man, he is an anointed king in the realm of the human heart both regarding raw passion and the desire for aesthetic order.

Mahler is like a high priest in conducting forces that speak of human civilization in early 20th century Germany. And Bernstein takes very seriously his role in bringing out Mahler’s witness, looking both backward and forward. For both men, this artistic path meant bringing mind and body to serve in the work, to bring the self to the alter and lay bare the message contained inside of themselves.

But can we say after all that human art, and human civilization, is religious? Can we say the unbelieving heart, striving in the world, is religious, even when Christ contrasts what is Godly with what is worldly? It is not that art is always beautiful, or that art should always be defended. Obviously civilization, and the world likewise, cannot always be defended and are not at all always godly.

Nonetheless, all our travail, all our history, is part of the drama of our interaction with the Lord, whether we cling to Him and become saved, or fall away. And because we are always in the Lord’s story, and always have some relation to Him, even if only as sinners with darkened hearts, our art and our civilization is in that sense always religious. That term is very controversial, but in any event, we always live as the people of Christ, betraying Him or serving Him. We are the people He came to save, and the people He has made in His own image. So I just want to honor the extreme service and sacrifice of people like Bernstein and Mahler who give their lives exploring the depths of human meaning.

 

 

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Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads

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Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads helped launch the revolution of Romantic poetry, but today it manages to boldly advocate traditional notions of linguistic reference. This it does by supporting the notion that words are properly rooted in real things, and that writers can evoke experience through natural expression.

There is curvy; there is straight; and all in between.
There is base; there is noble; and the even mean.

That itself is stunning, but what is more is that there is language for all of that, indeed, one would suspect, for everything. And why should that be so, in a world merely naturally evolved? The issue of innate power in language, and man’s central place in the world, by eye, by ear, by mind, heart, and mouth, are what Wordsworth helps us tackle through this essay.

Asher Blake’s Statement of Purpose

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I want to thank God for comforting me tonight by giving me some insight into my portion, the still half-wild poetry. My poems tend to come easily, though so far they have value it seems only for me. I would like to mention a word of encouragement again to all writers who aspire to fame, plaudits, a large readership (and plus-strokes of all kinds). We are true artists ultimately only to the extent we really labor at the art. Let’s try to separate our sincere purpose from professional ambition. If success comes that is great, but as this Mission Statement tries to make clear, the creative work itself is a different enterprise and has great profundity even if it does not touch others.

These images represent both the positive and negative instruments of our art.

Dorothy Dehner Drawing

famliy silhouette

 

Robert Hass On Poetic Form

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On YouTube, former poet laureate Robert Hass can be found delivering a really mind blowing lecture on poetic form. His talk is very abstract, brimming with connections between evolutionary theory, psychology, the connection between stanza length, and Greek maths. He links haiku and the blues, and gives a fascinating brief on how the power of theater lies in its resemblance to a grammatically complete sentence. Totally anti-texting. There are good things in the video not included, but I invite you to read through the link here, Robert Hass Lecture Highlights which also includes some comments of my own. To just see the video you can look up “Robert Hass Sewanee Craft 2010”.

Asher Blake’s Dominant City

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The Dominant City is a piece originally composed when Bush Jr. had been president two years, before the invasion of Iraq. It is a blend of two genres themselves mutations of mainstream genres, the faux essay, and prose poetry. Watching James Baldwin on youtube inspired me to revisit and revise it.

Man in Gutter

Books Unfit To Read (part 3)

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Like plants we cannot flourish without light. And though Christ has already brought the revelation of His superabundant light, our arts and sciences are not the harvest of a righteous world, but an exceedingly wicked one. If the light offered by unbelievers is darkness, for we are all darkness before we have Christ, then should Christians reject all non-Christian culture? Or going further, if the public culture made available by the world is even a deception meant to ensnare us, then how should we be separate or on guard?

For some like me, to reject certain authors is like abandoning family. True that sometimes we outgrow authors, or they lose their spell, while others stay relevant. The vital testimony of a whole generation, of a soul, or of our humanity, can make reading such witness holy even when the author puts forth bad fruit. At least that is what I argue as part of my conclusion in Part 1 of this series.

In this effort to see in darkness, (and we must maintain the effort even in church, and with Christian media), we should expect to detect both good and bad, beneficial and potentially harmful things. Some work is too unwholesome or dangerous and should be avoided, at least that is what I conclude with alarm when I confront the material of Part 2 of this series.

Ultimately we will create a new Christian culture based on higher Truth, and filled with Life, and greater loveliness. And this must come into full flowering in the Peaceable Kingdom of Christ. God willing we can begin laying the groundwork by His blessing now.

And I want to just offer this video as a kind of demonstration of these issues, because it shows the matter in several poignant dimensions. Here James Baldwin, the celebrated novelist, debates William F. Buckley, the conservative intellectual and wit, on the issue of race in America. The actual motion of the debate proves somewhat hard to tack down, but the evening essentially becomes a referendum on the significance of racism in America, what toll it takes, and/or whether whites can be held accountable, or even for Buckley, whether they should be thanked.

Baldwin’s father was a Pentecostal preacher, and he was a preacher himself as a youth, though he grew up to reject Christianity. He seems invested with a gifted preacher’s eloquence; even referring to himself as a Jeremiah figure. He asks us, ‘isn’t your position in life what determines your morality, and your motives, and your convictions?’ This is true a great extent, both economically, and in terms of election. Were we raised slaveholders we would see the world one way; but if we were black in Harlem in 1950, we would see the world another way. Then in contemplating the human heart and seeking to love our neighbor as ourselves, what position is our neighbor in? What abyss is stretched a shadow out beneath our neighbor? If we cannot truly know our neighbor then we cannot effectively love our neighbor. Perfect love does not smile at a burning man.

And this fact was played out so dramatically in the debate. Buckley took strong positions all the time on his show, matching himself against very brainy people with his arguments and humor. But here he cannot help arguing the position that white people have not achieved the American Dream at the expense of the black people whose labor they exploited for hundreds of years, and while you could say, no, they achieved a nightmare at the expense of black people, we (whites) have had the privilege of inequality at every step. Buckley is caught in his position and it is terrible and amazing to see him squirm so much.But this is the thing about Buckley that night: it is okay to love him too. He is human too, and he is lovable too.

This series is called, “books unfit to read”, and here in this debate we see what this really means, though it is oral and ex tempore. Engagement often makes it possible for Christian ministry to take place, and this does not only mean evangelism. However, for culture to be dominated by anti-Christian products does no good. That is, thinking of the debate, reason and language can get us touched with goodness, with repentance. Reason and language can also enable us to contemplate difficulties we endure like prejudice.

When we use our human gifts to the full regnant Christ engages, enters our kitchen, our little fright, our holy sacrifice. Then we can be reconciled to the Absolute Light, whether as a friend of the King for a minute, or forever. Were not Ahab, and Balaam, friends with God, when they repented, when they said, “my heart is with God, and I will bless?” Possible as this is by engaging a relatively godless work, friendship with God flourishes in a godly society.

Finally I just want to say that this debate shows the inner workings of reason, more specifically, logos; they way the Word works in human beings, both in conversation and when we consider rhetoric privately. How moved and transported these young men and women were! This was because they revered a man who used his hard won power to set others free, as if his tongue were a hard forged instrument of liberation. And God’s own reflections on the Word are mixed with the logos we bear. Listen for the moment (around the 21:50 mark) when Baldwin raises his voice to make a point, as he turned poetic in the second block of text here. Did the outdoor speakers echo with that word?

Baldwin said,

“Now, we are speaking about expense. I suppose there are several ways to address oneself to, some attempt to find what that word means here. Let me put it this way. That from a very literal point of view, the harbors, and the ports, and the railroads of the country; the economy, especially of the Southern states, could not conceivably be what it has become, if they had not had, and do not still have, indeed and for so long, for so many generations, cheap labor.”

“I am stating very seriously.
And this is not an overstatement.
That I picked the cotton,
and I carried it to market,
and I built the railroads.
Under someone else’s whip,
for nothing!
for nothing!”

“The Southern oligarchy which has today so much power
in Washington, and therefore some power in the world,
was created by my labor and my sweat,
and the violation of my women,
and the murder of my children.
This, in the land of the free
and the home of the brave.
And no one can challenge that statement.
It is a matter of historical record.”

God’s mind is a Supreme Glory. Because man can have a mind such as found in Baldwin’s oratory, it is like the prophets, and in that sense God-like, echoing, resonating with the Living God. We should have reverence for human culture, and our intellectual output, laboring to handle God’s scriptures rightly, but also handle the logos rightly in the world around us; rejecting some things, and embracing others.

 

 

 

Books Unfit To Read (part 2)

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This post began as a book review of a poetics manifesto written in the 1970s by counter-culture leader Ed Sanders. This short manifesto, Investigative Poetics, instructs poets to keep research files on the historical conspiracies of their time, on friends and enemies. This moral material he suggests is the stuff of poetry with a political vector. In certain ways this can work. Gulag Archipelago was a prose work of similar motivation and is a tremendous accomplishment. However Investigative Poetics struggles at just making sense and is more than a bit cracked. I was going to give it two stars out of ten.

Ed Sanders has had a complex career though and getting a file on him for the post was a bit involved. Of particular relevance here is his history of the Charles Manson murders. Sanders, who was a hippie who lived in New York, spent time camping with “the Family” (Manson’s followers) in Death Valley after some of the murderers were apprehended for their crimes.

In part 1 of this post I weighed the claims for reading poets who are sacrilegious or anti-Christian, concluding that to know, and truly love the lost, means to witness with them their pain, even the way they curse, without being moved to poor judgment. And I believe that view has validity. What else is hearing our children’s painful rejection of our own Lord? What else is it to understand our times, its dangers and darkness? A prayer ministry for the lost implies an understanding of their plight.

Nonetheless, we are also called to be separate. We are prohibited from fellowship with unbelievers, and we cannot walk with those with whom we do not agree.

“Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3)

“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ Therefore ‘come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.”
(2 Corinthians 6:14-17)

God instructs us to  be separate and not seek communion or fellowship with those outside of Christ. So a writer who is darkness ought not be our fellowship or communing friend, even if they seem innocent, like perhaps Rumi or Ginsberg or Bly. We may say “is this really necessary? I have known such nice people outside of Christ.” I am not advocating a view that makes all unbelievers devils. But most are; most never believe; most are devils just like Judas, and on the broad way. And they deserve love, and humane treatment and have tremendous value, and are the parents, spouses, children, of Christians. And they despise Christians from the deepest parts of their being, and are advancing an attack against our Lord, before they go to the place they are expecting to go.

The truth is not always what it seems. In the following interview with Kerouac and Ed Sanders on William Buckley’s show, all the men lined up, with their legs crossed, and such a big point being made about Kerouac’s drunkenness, the shot of the audience lapping it up, leads with such careful design to the Nazi greeting shouted by Kerouac, and echoed quietly by Sanders. These are “poets, beatniks, hippies”. So what country do we live in? And this puts everything in the right light because God warns us for a reason and there is a fourth beast coming.

The second video is Ginsberg’s subtle glamorization of this outburst, and that despite Kerouac’s rejection of Ginsberg on the show. Why does Ginsberg or anyone else need to be reminded that Hitler was one of the most evil men to ever live, an extremely worthless leader, and is responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people better than himself? Comments welcome.