Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Chagall's Literal Truth

Chagall's White Crucifixion is as relevant to last week's tragedies as it was to those of 1938. Here's my talk on the subject (along with Magritte & Dalí) at Chicago's 4th Pres through CIVA's God in the Modern Wing series.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

One more for Brett Foster (1973-2015)

There have been some beautiful reflections on the passing of Brett Foster this week. I have been asked to share the remarks I made at his funeral on Saturday. Here they are:


When I first came to Wheaton as a professor, I found myself in Chicago at a Poetry Foundation event. As the snow gently fell outside the postmodern architecture, a poet took the stage and recited beautiful, nearly hypnotic verses about his loss of Christian faith. If there were Christian students in the room (and there were), they might have concluded that there was no place for serious faith in the world of high poetry.

And then the next reader took the stage. Brett gave an equally sophisticated, equally beautiful reading of his own work, poems that of course were not about the loss of Christian faith, but which were gently and subtly infused with it. Whereas the first poet had described how a romantic escapade had drawn him away from Jesus, Brett concluded his reading by proudly gesturing to his wife Anise, son Gus and daughter Avery who had come into town to support him. The upshot is that if those same Christian  students stuck around (and they did), they could conclude that the world of high poetry was exactly the place where a Christian needed to be.

I had thought the contrast of the two readings might be due to some kind of rivalry, but I quickly learned that Brett was friends with the poet who had read before. This is not surprising as Brett was friends with everyone, and was just then beginning to weave me into his ever-expanding circle. I bought his book that afternoon, and he inscribed it:

"Lander" is Brett's code for anyone who would join him on countless ventures to go to land at a coffee shop to get some work done (which never got done). There were lots of those trips, and I don't regret a one of them. But the word that strikes me most now is fratello. As ever with Brett, it was the perfect choice. Italian for brother, it conveys that notion, but also evokes a brother in a religious order. It can feel that Wheaton professors - men and women both - are in something of a bizarre religious order; and if so, it feels this week like we lost our Abbot.


At any rate, that's what I said, and there is so much more to say. Who could adequately describe the extraordinary celebration of his poetry that occurred in Arena Theatre the very hour that he died? Suffice it to say here I've never wept so much, but also have never been so filled with the hope of the resurrection in the wake of these events - including the death of Roger Lundin within the same week. For the first time (in my life at least), it feels more, not less rational, to believe in the resurrection hope so wonderfully expressed in Scott Cairns' poem read at the funeral (cited by Alan here), and also in the word play at the end of Jeffrey Galbraith's elegy for Brett, which astutely expresses both the loss of an expired body and the hope of a new one at once:
and rise to circle the fields leaping,

every muscle growing still.
Photo taken by Heidi Long on the occasion of one of our last get-togethers. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

From Envy to Admiration

From Timothy Perrine and Kevin Timpe's essay "Envy and Its Discontents" in Virtues and Their Vices (Oxford University Press, 2014):
If the envier is envious of the public standing or good name of another, then the envier may attempt to reduce that good name. For example, the envier may attempt to reduce that good name. For example, he may publicly detract from the importance or impressiveness of the other's accomplishments (the vice of detraction or slander). Alternatively, the envier may not publicy detract another, but secretly go about spreading rumors regarding the other or his accomplishments (the vice of tale bearing or gossip). Regarding how the envier attempts to reduce the good name of the another, there are two chief ways. First, the envier can diminish the actual importance or impressiveness of the other's accomplishments that are the objectsof comparison fore the envier ('Sure, if headquarters gave me those many resources, I could have easily secured that contract!); second, the envier can draw attention to other (real or imaginary) faults of the envied ('Anyone who spend that much time at the office could accomplish that, but I prefer to not neglect my children's well-being'). The ultimate goal of these actions is to lessen the good name of the other, so that the envious person's comparative position is increased. The envier may attempt to reduce that good name.The ultimate goal of these actions is to lessen the good name of the other, so that the envious person's comparative position is increased.
After all, as one author puts it, "we [humans] are comparison machines."  However,
Charity and humility are correcting virtues, not because they work around envy, but because they remove the source and results of envy. ...Envy is opposed to charity, which is the virtue to love another and tend towards that which is good for her. Whereas charity requires wishing others well, expressing joy when good things happen to them, loving them, and loving one's self, envy leads to wishing ill of others, expressing sorrow over their good, and ultimately hating them. The development of charity will naturally drive out envy, since one cannot both rejoice and sorrow over another's particular good. Charity will naturally manifest itself in ways that discourage envy. Earlier we approvingly quoted Van Hooft as saying that 'a further self-referring attitude lying at a deeper level within envy is a form of dissatisfaction with oneself. When one feels envy, one is dissatisfied with one's own possessions and situation.' Such dissatisfaction may arise from a lack of self-love, which shows that envy may partially be the result of a lack of love for one's own person. This is why charity is a corrective virtue to envy, for charity requires self-love. Beyond this, charity also helps one see that one's own good and the good of the other are not necessarily competitive or exclusive. As evidenced by some of the work by social-psychologists, when we see our own good as connected with the good of others, we are less likely to suffer the vice of envy. Particularly if one takes a view such as Aquinas' in which all creatures' ultimate good is found in union with God, charity will unify rather than divide individuals. Even Bertrand Russell saw that envy could be overcome by seeing the good of the other as cooperative rather than competitive: 'merely to realize the causes of one's own envious feelings is to take a long step towards curing them. The habit of thinking in terms of comparison is a fatal one.' Replacing such comparisons with admiration both diminishes envy and increases happiness.
So well put I'm envious!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

First Peaceful Counterstrike to the Islamic State

It was visual, it was ecumenical, and it relates to the Oregon school shooting as well. I report on it at the end of this iTunes lecture through the amazing William Penn Honors Program at Oregon's George Fox University (please click lecture 5 here).

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Black Elk (Actually) Speaks

Just as the names "Mt. McKinley" & "Harney Peak" conceal Denali & Hinhan Kaga, so did John Neihardt, a white universalist writer, conceal a famous Native American's vision of Christ. And if that wasn't enough,
[W]hen the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry—Custer’s old regiment—massacred nearly 300 Indians associated with the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee Creek (more than half of whom were women and children), they used precisely the methods that Black Elk, in the name of Jesus, had renounced. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Art History & Prayer

Before the humanities, mad with science envy, gave up on point of view, one could get away with a lot. Here's Henry Adams describing the windows of Chartres Cathedral in 1904:
You had better stop here, once for all, unless you are willing to feel that Chartres was made what it is, not by artist, but by the Virgin.  If this imperial presence is stamped on the architecture and the sculpture with an energy not to be mistaken, it radiates through the glass with a light and colour that actually blind the true servant of Mary. One becomes, sometimes, a little incoherent in talking about it; one is ashamed to be as extravagant as one wants to be; one has no business to labour painfully to explain and prove to one's self what is as clear as the sun in the sky; one loses temper in reasoning about what can only be felt, and what ought to be felt instantly, as it was in the twelfth century, even by the truie qui file and the ane qui vielle. Any one should feel it that wishes; any one who does not wish to feel it can let it alone. Still, it may be that not one tourist in a hundred--perhaps not one in a thousand of the English-speaking race--does feel it, or can feel it even when explained to him, for we have lost many senses. 
Interestingly, Henri Nouwen gets at the same idea when describing not the Virgin at Chartres, but prayer to God in a common room:
The "first and final" movement is so central to our spiritual life that it is very hard to come in touch with it, to get a grasp on it, to get hold of it, or even - to put a finger on it. Not because this movement is vague or unreal, but because it is so close that it hardly allows the distance needed for articulation and understanding. Maybe this is the reason why the most profound realities of life are the most easiest victims of trivialization.  
Newspaper interview with monks who have given their life to prayer in silence and solitude out of burning love for God, usually boil down to silly stories about changes in regulations and seemingly strange customs. Questions about the "why" of love, marriage, the priesthood or any basic life decision usually lead to meaningless platitudes, a lot of stuttering and shaking of shoulders. Not that these questions are unimportant, but their answers are too deep and too close to our innermost being to be caught in human words.
Wonderfully, both Henries continued to articulate themselves despite the difficulties, to similar result. No wonder the Italian scholar Paolo Prodi recently remarked, in a high profile art history publication, that “there exists a relation between prayer and art that has not yet been explored. This is a task for future research."

Such research, which is well underway, might even have a point of view. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Friday, May 01, 2015

Some New Writing

It only took me twenty years to write this. But here's an academic book review, and here's how Barth's doctrine of election is anticipated in twelfth-century Byzantine painting if you prefer that kind of thing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Between ISIS and Cover Girl

Videos from the recent image conference are now available. Mine (below) features Katy Perry, ISIS, Jacques Ellul, James K.A. Smith, Fernand Léger, Christopher Williams, Hito Steyerl, Paola Pivi, Marina Abramović, Jeff Koons, Clement of Alexandria, Theodore of Studion, Alexander Nagel, Amy Knight Powell, Natalie Carnes, James Elkins, Sarah Thornton, Willie Jennings, All Souls Church, and the avant-garde micro-art world of Adams Hall
Incidentally, I conclude with a headline and a series of images not shown in the video... but this is the keeper.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

It's at Wheaton College, but Venice Biennale was all booked up

Certainly among the clearest and most straightforward diagnoses of contemporary art is Nick Mirzoeff's appropriately entitled article, "'That’s All Folks': Contemporary Art and Popular Culture."
For all the power of Fosso or Sherman’s work, it must be said that photography in particular and art in general have not been transformed by what was then called ‘the pictures generation.’ At a political level, the utopian idealism of pan-African decolonization gave way to the realpolitik of individual nation-states, caught up in the global game of the cold war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, global capital has been able to reassert itself in very forceful fashion under the political leadership of the United States. In the case of visual cuture, the consequences has been the emergence of a globalized ‘art world.’ Composed of a series of annual or biennial exhibitions and a number of international art magazines, featuring a broadly similar cast of global artists, the art world has its own vocabulary, structures, and finances. Anchored by such institutions as the Venice Biennale, Documenta (held every five years in Kassel, Germany), the Whitney Biennial in New York, and magazines such as Flash Art, Artforum, and Parkett, the art world is exhaustive and exhausting.  It perceives itself as a space of contestation of global capital, while being almost completely an expression of that capital and its free flow into immaterial labor.  For it was the project of the avant-gardes to find a way of moving from the inside of bourgeois society to an outside vantage poing from which a critique against the value of this society could be mounted, there is, in Hardt and Negri’s view, no longer such an ‘outside’ view to be had. The aesthetic project of modernism to act as a moral counterpoint to mass culture – has collapsed, for better or for worse, such that art works are now promoted through this globalized niche market as luxury commodities (in this sense, as a kind of specialized mass culture). It is surely the task of those making art, writing  about it and going to experience it to come up with ta better way to rekindle the emancipatory potential of the work of art (507-509).
Of course, mammon and momentum ensure that everything will hum along just fine. But if one is convicted by Mirzoeff's remarks to the point of hoping for a solution to the intractable dilemma he poses, get out of the art world and venture to a small evangelical college for the Image of God in an Image Driven Age conference (with web videos to come and a book as well).  There you'll see that my Art Department colleagues, among other fine speakers, may - and I am not kidding here - afford the very emancipatory potential Mirzoeff calls for above.

Here's the schedule (I'm on Thursday at 4:15pm). Please consider registering to join us.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Contemplative Art of T.S. Eliot

In my February column for First Things I try to approach T.S. Eliot from the land of art history and visual culture.  Other thoughts on the matter here, at Books & Culture with Brett Foster, or in my article in the QU4RTETS catalog.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Princess Indeed

My January column for First Things has something to frustrate the Left and the Right: Enjoy!  Thanks to art history student Stephen Westich for the wonderful photograph of the girl referred to as the Downs Syndrome Awareness Princess from the Busse Woods Powwow we attended:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Success Secrets

Now that has officially outlasted The Dish, people have asked me if I have a formula for success over the long haul.  If only it were so simple!  But come to think of it, there is one thing I've have carefully avoided, which may be part of this website's enduring resilience:  I never self-promote.  Why deprive others of the thrill of discovering my genius on their own? Consequently, I spend most of my time pointing out the merits of others.  Consider, for example, Professor Matthew Williner, who (see image below) recently gave a lecture at Duke Divinity School, co-sponsored by Duke's art history department.  It is available at the DITA iTunes page (filled with lots of other good stuff) under the title, "Toward a Visual Ecumenism" (here's a permalink).

Whoever this Williner guy is, he has the answers, and the problem of Christian fragmentation may very well have been resolved in our time.

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Epiphany Curve

This holiday The Atlantic's readers (The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis) breathed sighs of yuletide relief, assuring themselves that the mid-life crisis they have had, are having, or look forward to having would inevitably result in a biologically determined sextogenerian rebound. "The U-curve," writes the author, "offers an opportunity for society to tell a different and better story about life in middle age and beyond: a story that is more accurate and more forgiving and much less embarrassing and lonely." In sum: U complete me.

Not one to waste time, I aim to apply the insights. Wisdom, said article relates, is (merely?) neurological. Hitherto known as the three wise men, I will henceforth refer to them as the three "older people [who] compensate for deterioration in specific regions of the brain by recruiting additional neural networks in other regions—an increase in so-called neuroplasticity that compensates for cognitive decline and perhaps brings other benefits."

Spoken with the sarcastic disdain of someone yet to gain lasting wisdom, I know; but that is a direct quote from what would have been a far more fulfilling article were it not fortified with neurological reductivism like so much Viagara in a dissolute quinquagenarian. It's not that the findings are inaccurate (I'm unqualified to say), or that neurology is unhelpful (it availeth much), or that it's a bad article (I admit I appreciated much of it).  Nor is it that the findings, as the article at one point concedes, are anything new.  But what they are is upside down.

Indeed, the history of art has long asserted that the arc of life is indeed curved: Beginning with youthful, relatively clueless ambition, cresting with arrogant self-reliance, and followed by the humility that comes with age, when, that is, age submits to Divine reality, adoring - as one gorgeous Epiphany collect puts it - "the fruition of thy Glorious Godhead."  The Epiphany curve, furthermore, can take its course at any stage of life, and indeed occurs many times within it.  Here is the curve at the heart of the Psalter, the one that infuses the writings of the saints, or modern spiritual guides such as William Barry (really worthwhile!), Ken Shigematsu (quite good!) or Jacques Philippe (spiritual classic!).

But above all, whereas all The Atlantic has to offer is images of Middle Aged guys looking mopey (how I felt, at points, when I read the article), the Epiphany Curve has centuries of unparalleled beauty behind it, and some impressive names as well:

Don't question my elegantly-placed yellow curves - I didn't get my Ph.D. in art history for nothing.  More importantly, happy Epiphany millinerd reader(s), as you revel in the "mystery that the Gentiles are fellow heirs" (Ephesians 3:6).  And remember, it too is a season, not a day.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The View from Nipple Fountain

The strategy recommended in my December First Things column is to call blasphemy's bluff. 
Robert Gober's MoMA Jesus and the newly refurbished Church of St. Brigid-St. Emeric compared.