Category Archives: Art

Creative Religion

If you ignore common sense and read this blog, you know that I try to be creative in my approach to the world. It’s bold, in my way of thinking, to claim the mantle of creativity since there are so many people out there that the world has already decided are creative enough, thank you. Who has time to visit all the world’s museums, read all the world’s novels, or watch all the world’s films? Why contribute to the clutter? The answer—in as far as there is an answer—is that creativity is a way of being. My wife sent me a piece by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings. It is about the creative life. I’m reluctant to claim the title for myself, but the essay does match the description of what I’d like life to be.

Writing about religion daily requires a certain amount of creativity. If you think about it, it does make sense. Religion deals with intangibles. “Things not seen.” It also delves into that deep place called meaning and wrestles with issues we all have to face in our lives. It’s really a shame when religion becomes ossified into a system with no creativity or humor. One might make the case that it ceases to be religion then. The other day I was recalling just how powerful a high mass can be. Even now, if the mood is right, the memory of my first experience of it can bring tears to my eyes. It is a pageant of mystery and power. And creativity. The colors, the sounds, the scent of incense, the pressure of the kneeler on your knees, the sharp bite of flame tokay. It may not be the worship the way the disciples did it, but it sure has a creative genius.

When, however, worship became a daily requirement—when the majesty became mandatory—something was lost. Creativity means being willing to try something different. As much as we creative types cherish our friends, we need time alone with our Muses. And when we come back together with those friends, it is all the more pleasant for having been away. Creative people do not control their creativity. It clearly works the other way around. We can’t stop being creative, even if—and I can’t imagine why—we’d ever want not to be. Religion, on the other hand, tends to get stuck in some awkward places. If only it could be brought together with an open creativity without becoming trite it might find a place in a world too busy to take time simply to be.

Sweet Tooth

I don’t have a sweet tooth. I count that as a personal flaw, but the fact is I don’t seek out sugary snacks. Still, who doesn’t enjoy a nice chocolate once in a while? My wife and I attended a local chocolate tasting event recently. This was a new experience for me. Being of working class vintage, I tend to look at comestibles in a purely pragmatic way—food is for eating. It shouldn’t taste too bad, and ideally it should be healthy. Between meals I seldom think about eating unless the time stretches too long and hunger kicks in. I’ve read a couple books about chocolate, however, and I was curious what I might learn.

Apart from learning the disturbing fact that much American chocolate isn’t really technically chocolate, it was an enjoyable evening. The proprietors of Carol’s Creative Chocolatez know their stuff. The event began with a history of cacao beans. Native to the Americas in the equatorial regions, it was only after Columbus’s fourth voyage that Europeans discovered chocolate. Indigenous peoples used cacao beans as currency, and chocolate was the food of the gods. Its technical name, Theobroma, means just that. When Columbus appeared, a white man with European garb, and horses (as well as exotic diseases), he was ironically thought to be the returning god of chocolate. Instead, he took the previously unknown delicacy to Europe where various means of preparing it began. Eventually we ended up with the sweet, sugary variety that is considered standard today.

Theobroma plants contain a compound that creates feelings of euphoria. Chocolate, in other words, rewards you for eating it. It’s easy to see why indigenous peoples assigned chocolate its own deity. It’s also perhaps not surprising that what was mistaken for a god became a deadly plague. While Europeans were mostly interested in gold during the early period of exploration, they eventually realized that exotic foods and spices could be almost as good as gold. Chocolate, the food of the gods, could be mass produced and degraded and sold as an addictive treat to children. Such we do with our divinities. If only obesity were the same as obeisance! Instead, we are presented with a treat that tastes good and makes us feel happy. Like most gifts of the gods, it’s best enjoyed in small quantities. Even a little gold will go a long way. And after this evening, I think theology may help to explain the fascination with Theobroma.

Photographic Evidence

All photographs are lies. That moment preserved, formerly on celluloid but now with electrons, is gone for good as soon as the shutter is snapped. The camera doesn’t see as the eye sees. I was reminded of this during a mountain thunderstorm. I awoke early, coated with jet lag and the residue of my regular early morning schedule. It was still dark, but the reddish sunlight soon wrestled through a valley fed by a creek across the lake. The color was impressive, but my camera washed it out to a diluted Creamsicle orange. In reality the clouds were roiling overhead and lightning was streaking through a thunderhead like synapses firing violently in a massive brain. Thunder in the mountains can’t be photographed. Nor can it be forgot.

My work used to require quite a bit of travel. Before I would visit a campus I would spend some time on faculty pages, trying to put faces together with names. Impressed with how young these professors were, I’d knock on doors armed with foreknowledge of who might greet me. I wondered who these older people were when the door actually opened. It’s disconcerting to see someone age before your eyes. I would think back to the photographs online that had assured me this person would be much younger. The picture was a fossil. A moment frozen in time. The very next second after the photo capture that smiling face had changed. The best that we can hope for is a gross approximation.

Perceptions of reality, as all religions teach us, contain a healthy dose of illusion. While it contains ethereal beauty, this vision I’ve captured in my lens is only part of the picture. There is something deeper, more meaningful behind it. Photographs enhance memory. In the days before Photoshop they could be submitted as proof of an occurrence. They are a form of art. Whatever else they may be, they are also lies. Lies need not be of evil intent. Religions try to explain what some privileged individual realized was the truth. These who found a way of looking behind the photograph. The streaking lightning outside evades the slowness of my finger on the button. The thunder rolling and re-echoing through these valleys will remain in my head long after the sound waves cease to reverberate. Reality is more than it seems. Even my experience of this mountain thunderstorm is that of a single individual seeking enlightenment. Elsewhere others are up early, observing it too. What they experience may be something very different from me indeed. I have a photograph to prove it.

Bull

Bulls have long been symbols. If I write “that’s bull” your mind will likely fill in the missing implied word. In ancient times the king of the gods, El, was known as “bull El”—probably for a very different reason than the veiled scatological reference above. Bulls were powerful and, to those in settled, agrarian societies, necessary for life. Of course, they can turn on you and kill you with little thought. Even in our high-tech, urbanite world, we keep our bulls at hand. “Charging Bull,” a golden calf if there ever was one, is a famous Wall Street statue erected to the glory of mammon and greed. On May 7, to celebrate International Women’s Day, a statue called “Fearless Girl” was placed in front of “Charging Bull.” Our symbols require some reevaluation. In a kind of Trump-up, another artist placed a statue of a dog lifting its leg on the girl, according to the Washington Post.

We creative types can be sensitive about our work. Apart from writing I’ve dabbled in drawing, painting, and sculpting, although few have seen the results. I know that the space around an artwork is part of the art. I’ve posted before about Grounds for Sculpture, one of my favorite places in New Jersey. The idea of a sculpture park is that the context of the image is important. Statues show up fairly frequently in New York City. The ever-changing art along the pedestrianized part of Broadway in Midtown keeps the walk to work interesting. Interacting with art is performance. At the same time, the respectful viewer knows, artists are making a statement. Placing a girl before a charging bull says so very much.

“Fearless Girl,” unlike the great lummox she faces, is temporary. Nevertheless, the statement she makes is loud and clear. Wall Street might more aptly be named Ball Street for the amount of testosterone that surges through the place. Men erected a system to keep women out of positions of power. And even when a small symbol of female resistance is placed, some man has to have a pug pee on her. I wonder what our society’s become. We’re hardly agrarian any more, yet we still feel “bullish” about things. When’s the last time anyone used “girlish” as a compliment in a business context? “Fearless Girl” will be allowed to stand until February. The pug is temporarily gone, but will be back. When the girl goes the pug will follow. All that will be left in Bowling Green Park will be bull.

Jericho

Those who think walls actually keep people out have never ridden the train through North Philadelphia. Or into Newark. I have to admit that I’ve always found rail-side graffiti aesthetically pleasing. Some of these vandals are real artists on a scale that is truly impressive. Speeding trains are, of course, dangerous. And in urban areas they are fenced off to keep people out. Thing is, walls don’t work. Riding to Washington DC for the Women’s March a couple weekends ago, I was watching the graffiti on the way into Philly. Vast, colorful, and with a flair for design, it makes the usual visual fare for railway riders much more interesting. Buildings, we know, have facades to be public facing. If you go around to the back of the strip mall, things look a lot more spartan indeed. I’ve spent my fair share of time in employee break rooms. Executive washrooms they’re not.

The thing about facades is that they’re fake. Like in those old westerns where we see them jutting up higher than the actual roof of the store or saloon, making them look bigger than they really are. Or even a small town boy who works in Manhattan can see it. Walk down the avenues of Midtown and the glitz is never-ending. Once you get to the minor cross-streets you see the service entrances and smelly trash bags stacked in the alleys. Would you want to enter that store if you knew what was coming out the back? We prefer our self-deception. We prefer to call our lies alternative facts. We can sleep better at night that way, knowing that our heads of state are so so brutally honest. Just don’t wander behind the cameraman. Things aren’t what they seem.

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To get to New York City from where I live, you have to change trains in Newark. The graffiti along the way is intense. Long ago I noticed a signal hidden in the noise. “Paint the Revolution” it reads. Or read. I don’t know if it’s still there. Graffiti’s often the bare truth. The thing is, it’s difficult to photograph. Trains move fast and phones focus slowly. Things look blurry and those in power can tell us the words of hoi polloi are ugly and defacement of property. Have they ever walked behind the building to where the workers come out? It’s easy to find. If you smell the piles of garbage you’re getting close. Executive washrooms they’re not. But the back door is far more honest than any facade.

Capital Carol

The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.

This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.

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We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.

So Long, Marianne

fullsizeoutput_122f“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen has died. But can you blame him? This seems to be a week for losses. I came to appreciate Cohen’s work long after his best-known songs had been and gone. The interviews with and news stories about him that I’ve read convince me that he was an extraordinary man. Spiritual and sensual, he was a true contemplative. He strove to experience what it means to be human. I sometimes fear we’ve lost that as a goal. I see headlines proclaiming that we can now have chips implanted in our brains—we can become part computer. “You held on to me like I was a crucifix,” he once sang. Who believes in crucifixes anymore? Salvation doesn’t come from above. It comes from self-interest. From business and bank accounts. And that chip in my head.

My wife taught me the value of music therapy. When the forces of darkness gather, listening to music can help you through. Many artists have covered Leonard Cohen’s songs. So much so that some have forgotten who it was that wrote them. A true artist, I suspect, doesn’t mind. Those of us who delve in creativity know that we are more like receivers than gods. It takes worshipers to make a deity. The songs that Cohen wrote were messages to the world. Poetic and deeply personal, they are reminders that being human is okay. In fact, it’s what we’ve evolved to be. I have a feeling we’re going to be needing more poets in the days to come. Someone has to shine the shoes of those who work in Trump Tower. My mind is singing “Chelsea Hotel.” Everybody knows.

Cohen was a reminder that sacred and secular are not so far apart. In fact, they are often difficult to distinguish. There may be a problem when you discover that in seminary, but if you can put it into a song perhaps people will listen. Eras, it seems to me, ought to have anthems. F.D.R., one of the truly great Presidents of the century past, proposed “Happy Days Are Here Again.” I wonder what songs we’ll be associating with the presidency over the next four long years. Will there be any music at all? Far be it from me to proclaim any man a prophet, but can you listen to “First We Take Manhattan” and come to any other conclusion? Go to iTunes, or that chip in your head, and listen. You might just end up singing “Who by Fire” as well.