Torn

Spring is here. The trees are turning green. The bush outside the kitchen window bloomed today with delicate pink flowers. I want to be out and about. I want to take long walks and spend the morning in the park. I want to soak up the sunshine and take pictures of all the springy newness. I feel lazy sitting in this chair for hours. I’m getting cabin fever.

I have plenty of energy. Well rested since Sophia tends to sleep five or six hours in a row most nights. I feel great. Mostly. And yet I can’t do it. Today I pulled something again while bending down to wipe up a few of the more egregious splotches on the kitchen floor. That’s all, just a little bending in the wrong way and suddenly: ouch! Every time I think I can do just a little more than the bare minimum, I start to feel pain, start bleeding again. Recovery is taking much longer than I expected. And so it feels like life is on hold. All the projects I want to start, the trips I want to take. I’m trying to go to the store as little as possible, to conserve my energy, let myself heal. The nurse says recovery can take 8-10 weeks.

I know in a few more weeks I should be stronger, able to get out with the stroller and push the girls to the park. But I’m impatient I want it now. In a few weeks the freshness of first spring will have faded a little bit. The gold will be gone. Leaf will have subsided to leaf.

God, grant me the patience to accept this season of recovery, to live in the moment and enjoy the rest and not complain.

12 Responses to Torn

  1. GB April 24, 2008 at 5:27 am #

    Melanie, just two quick things:
    Your post made me think of this article I read in First Things (December 07): http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=6086&var_recherche=the+art+of+transgression (The Art of Transgression, by MJ Milliner). It’s about the place of religion in today’s art, and it makes a depressing reading…
    But the story you write about also reminded me of an “experiment” that took place in a Washington, DC metro station a year ago: the famous violinist Joshua Bell played his Stradivari during morning rush hour, just like any other street musician. I can’t find the story online, but I still have in paper the piece the Washington Post wrote about this (Pearls Before Breakfast, by Gene Weingarten, April 08, 2007 – if you want to dig it online) To be short, the reactions from commuters were not impressive…
    I really don’t have time to elaborate (as an aside, I always wonder how all these blogging mothers find the time to do it!! I never seem to have more than 10 minutes every now and then for myself!), but I thought it’s interesting that, while it’s certainly true that so much “art” doesn’t speak the language of beauty and truth anymore, it is also true that our ears and eyes are becoming less and less “sensitive” to what art is and should be. Or maybe the two things are connected, and it’s all the trash that passes for art that has made so many people deaf and blind to true beauty. Ok, the children are going crazy in the living room, so I really can’t make my point any clearer for now! grin

  2. Melanie Bettinelli April 25, 2008 at 8:09 am #

    lc,

    Good call on the Duchamp. Should have thought of that. Once art was redefined as that which is in a museum or gallery, then the experts, the critics and curators become the arbitrators of what is “art” and what is not. It started drifting and became more and more disconnected from the traditional definition of art, more disconnected from the common man on the street. Which the curators and critics love because it makes them indispensable. And yet they are surprised then when taken out of context no one recognizes their treasures as art. The answer: the rest of us need to be educated because clearly we are deficient not their “art” which has failed in what they consider to be art’s primary purpose: communication with the audience. Of course one reason the whole thing went adrift in the first place is the deficiency of that definition. the first goal of art, I contend, is praise of God and his creation. Once it became about the ego of the artist who cares. Like you said, it mocks the audience rather than connecting with them.

    Though I would argue that there is something qualitatively different with Bell. his music is objectively beautiful . I think the problem there is that good music is so ubiquitous, used for advertising and soundtracks and on-hold noise, that we have become trained to ignore the beautiful, to take it for granted, to treat it as background noise. And so why should we be surprised that people don’t hear it unless they are prepared and it is in its proper context.

  3. GB April 25, 2008 at 10:45 am #

    Melanie, what do you mean when you write that “the first goal of art, I contend, is praise of God and his creation”? I agree if you’re talking about sacred art, of course, but I’m not sure the first goal of any kind of art is always praise of God and his creation. Certainly, I’d say that art should be linked to morality, or that good art arises from God-given gifts in the artist, or that art is intimately connected with our being human creatures with a longing for God and His grace (btw, I loved what Jen had to say in the post you linked to), but I’not quite sure the direct goal of a piece of art is always praise of God. Were Jane Austen or Dostoevsky thinking about praising God when writing their books? And what about art from the ancient world? Art being the way the artist expresses his humanity, isn’t it always a bit about his ego? A work of art is hardly a selfless enterprise grin I don’t mean to be critical, I’m just not sure what you mean, and I’d love if Sophia and Bella gave you the time to explain grin

  4. Domenico Bettinelli April 25, 2008 at 12:23 pm #

    I won’t speak for Melanie, but in my opinion all art that is true and good and beautiful inherently praises God because He is Truth and Beauty and Goodness.

    Incidentally, great point about the elevation of curators and art “experts” into a priestly class who become the sole intercessors between us and their “god” whose name is Art.

  5. Literacy-chic April 25, 2008 at 12:41 pm #

    My first thought would probably be, “What are they trying to advertise?”  After all, as the Joshua Bell example shows, art is sometimes a matter of installation—like Duchamp’s urinal, which was art because it was installed in a museum and called art.  These examples disregard Duchamp’s insight in a way, and so are surprised when confronted by the fact that he exploited—art is where you display it, not where you find it!  And like Duchamp, the examples you mention (even Bell, in a way) mock the audience.  And really, having lost all possibility of connection with a real audience, isn’t that all that’s left for art to accomplish?  At least, this institutionalized art.  Because that’s what it is.  I suppose someone was using the project for tenure—like Miss Yale and her senior project.

    Excellent analogy, I must say!

  6. Melanie Bettinelli April 24, 2008 at 7:11 am #

    Thanks, GB,

    I’ll have to check out the Milliner piece when I have a moment.

    I actually saw the Joshua Bell piece (here’s the link) a while ago when it first ran (my husband Dom blogged on it, I think) and it was rather in the back of my mind as I wrote this response (and another blog reader emailed me the link after reading this post, so obviously the two pieces resonate with each other.)

    I had in mind to write a whole other section about exactly the issue you raise: how our eyes and ears have become so saturated with noise that we can’t hear or see the truly beautiful. Or perhaps its more like the way a steady diet of refined sugars can deaden the palette to the more subtle sweetness of fruits and vegetables? in any case there seems to be a reciprocal relationship. Bad art deadens our souls and makes it harder to respond to good art. And the deadening of our souls leads to soulless art. A never-ending cycle? ( I had in mind to write about that, but it got late and I got tired and went to bed and by the morning I’d forgotten and so I just posted the piece as it was.)

    I could also have tied it in to several recent discussions on p0rnography and the way it deadens the senses to true femininity.

    I might come back to it later, but now my baby is screaming. I think she needs to be fed. smile

  7. GB April 26, 2008 at 8:54 am #

    Beautiful, Melanie, thank you, and sorry you had to stay up late grin We’re on the same page: I knew I was misreading you grin Now I also understand your use of the word “ego”, and I totally agree with you. I always laugh when I read of artists saying they wanted to “make a statement” – usually that just means they don’t have much talent, but they’re ready to shock.
    I think the problem with so much modern “art” is that it’s just another by-product of relativism, which is the desease you get when you abandon the Truth and the path laid out in Philippians 4.8 (Whatever is true… honorable…). I feel sorry for all these artists thinking of themselves as provocative and free-thinking, and they don’t even realize how tired and stale their ideas are…
    For me, the most depressing thing in the modern art landscape is how much ugly sacred art there is (and note the oxymoron: we even succeeded in making something sacred ugly!), I’m especially thinking of church architecture and music: I am so happy Pope Benedict has so much to teach us about the importance of beauty and how it’s tied to truth and goodness.
    As far as all art being religious, I think everything that is truly human is religious, because God lives in every heart, but in each heart He plants different talents: in this respect, you might say that educating your children and painting something beautiful are both religious acts.
    But I better stop myself grin It’s such an interesting topic, thank you for bringing it up Melanie.

  8. Melanie Bettinelli April 25, 2008 at 10:54 am #

    GB,

    That’s a good question. I spoke quickly and in shorthand what is worth at least a blog post if not a book-length treatment to tease out. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, a Catholic definition of art, really. But I’ll try to elaborate as best I can in the time I have and with the attention span I have.

    First, I was quite deliberate in adding “and his creation” because in my mind that broadens the focus from specifically sacred art, which intends to say something about God, to any art that says anything true about that which God has made. To paint a flower in the way Georgia O’Keefe did, for example, seems to me to be an act of praise for the creator of the flower so depicted. O’keefe clearly recognizes the beauty, the goodness of that which she paints, she shows her audience how to see the subject in a new way and to appreciate it. To admire God’s work in creation is to praise him as the author of created things just as to admire O’Keefe’s work is to pay tribute to her as an artist. Even if the artist does not acknowledge the work of the creator, any artist who accurately depicts the beauty of the natural world is paying tribute to the creator whose work he is imitating. Likewise any depiction of human society and human endeavor is still

    Second, I would agree that the direct goal of any given work of art may not be to praise God. My concern, however, is not direct authorial intent but the deeper meaning behind the meaning, so to speak. As Dom suggests, any art worth its salt partakes of the good the beautiful and the true. Even art which depicts that which is ugly (as Dostoevsky’s depiction of Raskolnikov’s murder of the pawnbroker), does so on behalf of the search for that which is true: a true depiction of murder shows that it is evil and shows what it does to the murderer (Dostoevsky also shows the beauty that can come when the sinner repents from doing evil; but that’s a whole other post). “Art” which revels in ugliness rather than deploring it is not art but obscenity, “art” that revels in beauty without truth is pornography. And I would argue that “art” that shows evil as good is not art but a lie and is no good as art.

    And I’m not so sure Austen and Dostoyevsky would argue that their work didn’t praise God, however. Both were devout Christians and although their primary subject is not God—theyre novelists not theologians—both are concerned in their own ways of exploring what it means be human, to live a good life. Austen’s exploration of marriage show both good and bad marriages, she makes distinctions, draws moral lessons: Why is Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage good and Lydia’s seduction bad? Austen pushes toward a deeper understanding of human relationships. And while she doesn’t dwell on God, I don’t think he’s entirely absent from the equation either. Especially not in Persuasion in which the love interest is a minister and much is made of his calling. In any case, even if she were entirely secular, in depicting that which is human and pushing readers to deeper contemplation of marriage, I would argue that Austen’s work does give praise to God who is after all the creator of humanity and the founder of marriage.

    It is not so much that the artist is thinking about praising God as that the act of making art is in and of itself an act of praise in as much as any attempt to create is an imitation of creation’s Creator. Whether the artist is Christian or atheist, still the talent which he employs is God-given and to the extent which he uses it for good and does not waste it or deform it in creating obscenity, it praises God. In the same way that the bible talks about mountains and hills praising God, their beauty and goodness being a form of praise, the goodness of the artist using his talent in the way God meant it to be used gives glory to God. 

    As far as art from the ancient world goes, I think that is even more supportive of my argument, almost all ancient art is religious in nature or at least does not separate the divine from the human in the way that we moderns try to do. In fact a purely secular, materialist art is I would argue an aberration from what has been the case for most of human history. Now do the ancient artists understand the fullness of God as revealed in the Bible and especially as revealed in the incarnation? No, clearly not. But to the extent that what they created is art, to the extent that is that it is beautiful and good and true, to that extent it gives glory to God. Of course, you can argue with me about the definition of art. Indeed, that is precisely what is at stake here. My contention is that much of what passes for art is not art by any standards that would have been recognized through most of human history. it is only today in the era of experts that suddenly objects exist which a group of people want to label as art that no one outside that privileged group could identify as art. if the only reason something is art is because an expert tells you it is, is it really art?

    Finally, I would agree that the act of creating a work of art is not exactly selfless, though it can be and perhaps in the best it is. In fact, I think the more an artist dies to self and lives to serve the art, the better the art is. Bad art is that which is too tied to the ego of the artist. While, I agree that the self of the artist is definitely in his work, in my experience art which is pure ego doesn’t tend to be very good. Good art goes beyond self-expression, beyond “me me me” to connect with both the subject and with the audience. Thus even when the ostensible subject is the artist himself, the true subject is, as you imply, humanity, which is bigger than any one human being. The artist always moves from the particular to the universal, that is precisely the power of art.  The artist whose work is unable to get beyond his own ego isn’t much of an artist. Yes, many great artists have also been great egotists, but to the extent that their works are any good, they move beyond the ego of the creator.

    Ok all this is long and rambly and I’m not sure how coherent it is. In the back of my mind as I write all this is an excellent book I read some years ago by Madeleine L’Engle called Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art in which she argues that all art is really religious art because all art is incarnational. I’ll have to dig out the book and find some quotes because it really is quite good.

  9. Erik Keilholtz April 28, 2008 at 5:38 am #

    I am sorry.

    I was going to watch the documentary and provide a pro-modern art opinion on it, but I failed. I have little tolerance for that sort of music that was building ever more dramatically, I have little tolerance for art documentaries that fail to show the art clearly, and I detest the New York art hipster talk.

    So, I clicked it off.

    The problem is that there is so little modern art anymore. After Richard Diebenkorn, the examples of good modern painting are few and far between. Instead of the glorious meditations of form and texture and light that we got from Motherwell and Rothko (on the rare good day), we get layer upon layer of bad politics, wrapped in bad philosophy, and served with a drizzling of piping-hot bad rhetoric.

    We have gone from modern painting to agitprop theater/agitprop poetry all paid for by massive foundation money and smugly delivered in the name of daringness.

  10. Melanie Bettinelli April 28, 2008 at 9:24 am #

    Erik,

    That’s a shame. I’d love to hear a pro-modern art opinion.
    I don’t tend to be a fan of modern art in any form, though I can occasionally catch a glimpse of what you mean by “glorious meditations of form and texture and light”. It seems to me though that once painting ceases to have a subject and becomes about form, texture and light the quick devolution to agitprop is inevitable.

    I think we’re in agreement about the documentary at least.

  11. Erik Keilholtz April 29, 2008 at 3:34 am #

    Being as how it is 1:30 in the morning and I have to work all day on a project, I will have to simply point out the Ocean Park series of paintings by Richard Diebenkorn. I would also mention Robert Ryman, but his stuff absolutely does not reproduce. You have to see it in person.

    What happens in the Ocean Park series is that the subject IS the form. Gilson discusses this quite well in “Painting and Reality”, a thoroughly Catholic view of art (and well-written – a rarity these days in the world of art).

    Agitprop, on the other hand, is nothing but subject, and usually overly-reaching subjects, like “oppression” and “racism” and all that. They fail to see that they are nothing more than cheerleaders for either very easy causes (the holocaust was bad) or to the already convinced of the liberal establishment.

    The strictest modernist painting by definition cannot touch agitprop with a ten foot pole. If it does, the whole thing is lost.

    And that brings us to the deplorable state of affairs today. Bad poetry and un-funny comedy shackled to poorly-thought-out politics, all posing as cutting edge art. Blech.

  12. tim lang May 8, 2008 at 12:26 pm #

    Thanks for an insightful post that I’ll recommend to my students.

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