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.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Kind of Faith an Artist Had Better Not Lose

The New Republic has been bought out, Rolling Stone has been discredited, and has resorted to extended blockquotes. Really, really good Christian Wiman blockquotes.
"Grace fills empty spaces," writes Simone Weil, "but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it." 

Whatever one thinks of the religious implications of that sentence, there is a kind of faith that a poet had better not lose. It is a faith in the mind's ability to find meaning in a world that exists indepedently of itself, and a concomitant faith in language to serve as a means of doing so. In the absence of this, poetry can only be at best a diversion within life; at worst it is a complete evasion of it. Yet even for those poets who manage to retain such faith, who in their better moments believe in the value of poetry and in its capacity to formalize some fragment of living reality, the prospect of spending a life trying to articulate sweet sounds together ought to be fraught with doubt and uncertainty, some unshakable sense that, in the face of real suffering and chaos, poetry may be irrelevant.  It is this tension that keeps talent alive.  
It is also this tension that keeps form alive. The least satisfying forms are those that are the most satisfied with themselves...  Those who merely imitate the order they see around them are ornamentalists.  There are pleasures to be had from such work, but they are the pleasures of amenities. At the same time, formal distortion is interesting and meaningful only when it occurs in a poet for whom formal coherence seems a real possibility... It requires no great talent to imitate chaos, or to illustrate the inability of the mind and language to make meaning. Those who do, as Wallace Stevens suggested, are simply exacerbating our confusion.
This structure of ideas, these ghostly sequences
Of the mind, result only in disaster.  It follows,
Casual poet, that to add your own disorder to disaster

Makes more of it.
I have not intended this to be an argument in favor of a "return to traditional forms." Much of the self-satisfied metrical poetry I read makes me nostalgia for Dada.  I have focused on these forms for the sake of clarity and economy, and because they seem to provoke the strongest animus. I do feel that, whether one writes in traditional forms or free verse, it's probably time to get beyond this automatic resistance to finish and closure in poetry, that the idea of form as somehow more authentic if rough and unfinished has itself become something of a convention. If one's experience of life is truly confusing and chaotic, and if one's feeling for the inadequacy of language is something more than an academic idea, perhaps the proper response is either silence or coherence.  Not the kind of coherence that eliminates uncertainty, not the kind of closure that congratulate itself, but something sharper, some only momentary peace which, because it comes with a consciousness of loss, is also pain.
I owe this reference to the sage of Lincoln Marsh, Joel Sheesley, who has applied this creepily insightful passage to his own staggering paintings.   In the context in which he shared it, Sheesley explained how the supposed ban on traditional form is simply outflanked by Christian Wiman's wisdom, with which I now conclude:
A poorly cropped digital image of one of Joel Sheesley's amazing paintings
My friend thought that to write in traditional forms was to cleave to a vanished past, to insulate oneself and one's work against one's own time.  I have tried to make a case for them as bearers of contemporary consciousness, though I do admit that one can't use these forms without referring to the past. So long as it isn't merely a sentimental attachment to the antique, I think of this reference as a strength.  I also think that there is a sense in which to work toward some ideal order is to claim a connectedness with the future as well as the past, that a poem may foreshadow formally a time in which one's world and mind will - and I'm paraphrasing Marilynne Robinson here - be made whole.  To reach for is not to grasp.  ...I think perhaps the poems that I've been talking about in this essay were written by poets who believed utterly in an absolute formal coherence that - and this was part of their belief - did not [millinerd insertion: YET] exist. To experience such forms is to experience both consolation and provocation.  It is to come into a place of language that is easeful and unchanging and will not let you forget the fact that it is not a place. It is to be given an image of life that you have lost or long dreamed of, to hear as sound something of the farthest sorrows that you are, and to know in that moment that what you've been given is not enough.
On that seasonable note of waiting and expectation, I wish millinerd reader[s] a merry Advent!

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Blair Kamin in today's Chicago Tribune is generally pleased with the University of Chicago Economics Department's moving into the old Chicago Theological Seminary... with one exception:
The lone weak spot involves the repurposing of the seminary's chapel, where stained glass windows that were deemed overtly Christian (and therefore, potentially offensive to non-Christians) were removed.  The large chapel - once the site of religious services and now a comfortable, colorful gathering spot for grad students - is fine. But the small one, previously a dark meditative space where multicolored light filtered through stained glass, is now a chilly little conference room.
Chilly?  You decide. My guess is that most economics students at the University of Chicago would have been intelligent, and thick skinned enough, to fathom the history of their own institution.
Top photo Matt Frizelli, bottom today's Chicago Tribune

Monday, November 10, 2014

Upcoming Talk

If you find yourself in Durham, NC this week, please come on by. If not, I'll eventually post the video here.