Category Archives: Art

Beyond the Facade

Over the summer the New York Historical Society had an exhibit, now over, on Norman Rockwell, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms.  I think we may be down to one or two freedoms by now, but nevertheless.  One weekend my wife and I went to the exhibition.  She’d just read a biography of Rockwell, and although his Americana is my America, I suppose, his pluck is sometimes unnerving.  You see, an artist has to show emotions on people’s faces and in their gestures.  Long ago I learned that if you show what you’re feeling in real life, people will quickly take advantage of you.  I learned, even as a teen, to be subtle.  If you think you’ve got me figured out, here’s a hint—that subtlety continues even into my writing.  It’s often not what it appears to be.

Some months back I wrote a funny piece on this blog.  Some people who actually know me—or the part that I let be known—thought I was depressed.  Or angry.  Or both.  That’s a side effect of subtlety.  Episcopalians have it down to a science.  At least they used to.  The only place they showed emotion was in high mass, and that, if done right, packs a wallop.  One of my brothers comments that I seldom smile.  I might say too much about myself if I did.  What would you do with that knowledge?  In my earliest experience, you might use it to hurt me.  Walking through Manhattan to the exhibit, I noticed the stone facades.  Some buildings have solemn stonework, almost gothic is aspect.  Behind the windows, however, I can sense emotion left unshown.  It’s not very Rockwell.

I admire Rockwell’s outlook.  Indeed, I might share more of it than I want to reveal.  Rockwell, according to the exhibit, believed in America for all races and all creeds.  Strong women dominate his paintings and illustrations.  Equality was what America used to stand for.  And although I’m reluctant to admit it, when my writing’s most serious an element of humor enters in.  Like a Rockwell painting.  He wished to be taken for a serious artist, but had a difficult time suppressing the irony of life itself.  I get that.  It’s just that if other people see what’s beneath the surface—what goes on behind that stone facade?—they will find a means of extorting it.  Best to be subtle.  Words can mean the opposite of what they say or can be literally true.  The shades between the extremes are endless.

Riveting

The days of angry white men backlash are hopefully numbered.  One thing this strange phenomenon of privileged males feeling under threat has brought to the surface is the long struggle of women for the basic acknowledgment of human equality.  Ironically, it took a horrible war to move the cause forward.  Rosie the Riveter became a fixture during World War Two, blazing the message that women could do the tough jobs men had always done, now that males were off trying to kill one another overseas.  These images of Rosie have found new life in the era of Trumpism that has objectified women in the crudest possible ways, because it’s, well, monkey-see monkey-do in the world of politics.  Just consider Brett Kavanaugh and try to challenge the point.

One of the more famous portraits of Rosie, back when Fascism was an evil thing, is that painted by Norman Rockwell.  A pugnacious Rosie eats her lunch with her feet on Main Kampf and her riveting gun in her lap.  (These days she would need to have her feet on an elephant rampant.)  Something about this painting always bothered me.  I could never put my finger on it.  It certainly wasn’t the confident look on Rosie’s face—she’d earned that and deserved it long before it became a reality.  Even the patriotism at that time was tasteful.  No, it was her posture.  There was something uncanny about it.  Then I learned that Rockwell had consciously copied Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Isaiah, according to that famous rendition (Isaiah has never been a popular subject for paintings, for some reason), has his head turned at that peculiar angle because an angel is whispering in his ear.  Instead of a riveting gun, he’s packing a nascent Good Book, but he is receiving a direct message from on high.  I like to think it might be “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord,” but then I’ve always been a dreamer.  Rosie, in Rockwell’s rendition, is prophetic.  She is proclaiming an equality which, inexplicably, coming up on a century later, is still unrealized.  Why?  The angry white man only recognizes God made in his own image.

Museum Haven

At various points of my career I’ve applied for museum curator positions.  Since those who actually land those jobs have degrees in museum studies, I’ve never gotten as far as an interview.  Still, I like to think I’d be good at it.  I spend time in museums and I’ve been told I have an okay eye for design.  And I recently read that museums are educational institutions.  That makes sense since people tend to be visual learners.  (This is something I took into account in my classes as well, illustrating lectures to make a point.  The traditional academic feels that pictures are somehow “soft” learning as opposed to the harsh realities of text and word-based instruction, but I beg to differ.)  We see things and they stick with us.

On a visit to the New York Historical Society museum I once looked at their somewhat abbreviated sculpture collection.  This isn’t the Met, after all.  One of the tricks I’ve learned about museum displays is that some curators place subtle humor in their framing of objects.  For example, my gaze was drawn to a figure of a pilgrim.  A stern-looking fellow, he’s captured in full stride, massive Bible tucked under his arm, determined frown on his face.  This is a man trying to create Heaven on earth, dour though it may be.  Taking a step back, my camera found a smile in this image.  On either side of this angry Christian were two naked women: one was apparently Artemis with her bow, the other perhaps a Muse.  The lines of the display draw attention to this juxtaposition.  There’s some humor here, intentional or not.

This also takes me back to yesterday’s post about Heaven.  Perceptions of what it is differ.  There’s a mindset like the pilgrim that sees a life of suffering being rewarded in the hereafter with endless bliss.  I do have to wonder whether too much hardship down here might not make one forget how to enjoy oneself.   It’s difficult to picture a Puritan in rapture.  It’s as if the journey—the hard road—is the real source of enjoyment here.  Each of us, I suppose, has her or his own view of Heaven.  Mine’s kind of like a library with all the time in the world without end to read.  Others, I suspect, would find paradise as a garden.  Yet others would see Heaven as a kind of museum, but it would be one where laughing out loud was okay, for the Curator definitely has a sense of humor.

Cthulhu You Knew

Humans tend to be visually oriented.  Arresting images stop us cold, causing us to focus on what we’re seeing.  As a tween I could be transported by large, lavishly illustrated, full-color books of other worlds.  While these went the way of Bradbury, I still sometimes recollect scenes that stopped me in my young tracks, making my juvenile mind wonder, what if…?  As an adult I realize “coffee table” books are heavy and a pain when you’re moving.  Printed on specialized paper, they have more heft than your mass-market paperback, or even most academic tomes.  Nevertheless, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu was a book that carried me, like a time-machine, back to my younger years.  Unlike in those days, however, I read the text as well as lingered over the images.  And I wondered about Cthulhu.

You see, I didn’t know about Lovecraft as a child.  The only reading regularly done in my family was Bible-oriented.  I discovered science fiction and gothic literature as a tween and, living in a small town, had no one to guide me in my choices.  Rouseville (the town pictured in the background on this website) had no public library.  My reading was left to my own, uninformed devices.  I discovered Cthulhu through my long fascination with Dagon.  I’d pitched Dagon as my dissertation topic, but settled on Asherah instead.  While teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered Lovecraft, and Cthulhu, through Dagon.

Gordon Kerr, the author of Gothic Dreams Cthulhu, might be forgiven his hyperbole about H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was not a great writer—that’s not intended as any kind of slight, I hasten to add.  Classically, however, he didn’t have the level of literary finesse of Edgar Allan Poe, for example.  Still, Lovecraft created credible worlds.  His was a life of imagination—one might almost say divinity.  He was a creator.  Cthulhu has become a cultural icon.  With the magic of the internet bringing a writer still obscure to international attention, many people who never read horror fantasy nevertheless know who Cthulhu is.  Or they think they do.  As Kerr explains, the descriptions by Lovecraft himself are spare, thus the variety of ideas represented in the delicious artwork on every page of this book.  As Lovecraft earns more academic attention, surely others will notice the religious potential of the Great Old Ones that were, in their time, gods.  A guilty pleasure read, to be sure, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu fits well into this serious world of chaos we’ve created for ourselves.

Upstate Goddesses

Goddesses give you connections. Here in Ithaca, all kinds of specialty shops abound. University towns are like that. This one had lots of goddesses. Ever since writing my dissertation on Asherah I’ve been interested in female divinities. Part of the reason for this is that I fail to understand how many men don’t see the power of women in their lives and insist that men should rule. Goddesses remind us that women have as much to contribute as do men, and they should be honored and respected just the same. Deities, after all, are projections of humanity. In any case, I found myself in a shop with many goddesses. The proprietor noticed my interest and struck up a conversation. This was ironic because where I live no one asks about my academic background; I have to travel to find interested takers, I guess.

She told me of an upcoming conference that would like to hear my thoughts on the topic of Asherah. Since my book on the goddess has been plagued with high prices, it remains hidden down three or four pages on Amazon, while lower priced dissertations easily float above it. My conversation with this stranger brought out that I had planned to write on other goddesses. A friend had done his dissertation on Anat, so I began working on book on Shapshu, the Ugaritic goddess associated with the sun. Some cultures made the sun male, the people of Ugarit, however, knew the true nature of brightness. I was going to make an academic career of goddesses.

Every great once in a while an academic will ask me about Asherah. Chances are their book or article will fail to cite my work, but they do seem to know to make queries. In my hopes to get a job beyond Nashotah House I followed the advice of colleagues to write a biblical book before finishing another book on “pagan” deities. In the career vicissitudes that followed, goddesses had to fall by the wayside. Although there can be money in deities, as this shop in which I stood proved, they aren’t really a marketable commodity in the realm of making an academic living. Now that I’ve found my way back to writing books again, perhaps I’ll return to my goddesses. That brief encounter in an Ithaca store resurrected some of the fascination of learning about the inner lives of divine women. The need to remind the world, it appears, has only become greater since I first wrote about Asherah decades ago.

Addicted to Heaven

I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.

For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.

Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.

Let the Memory

One of the rare and long-anticipated treats of being near New York City is the prospect of a live show. For practical reasons we don’t go to shows very often—years separate the occurrences—but once in a great while we manage to afford such a boon. Yesterday we attended the penultimate performance of the Cats revival on Broadway. The experience was transcendent. I’ve seen the movie version a number of times, and over the years I’ve caught a few live performances here and there. For whatever reason, this musical speaks to me. Although it doesn’t really have much of a plot—it’s more a series of vignettes—it is about redemption and being comfortable in one’s own skin. T. S. Eliot was a poet who knew spirituality intimately. Andrew Lloyd Webber, no one needs me to say, writes stirring music.

Cats, unlike many shows I’ve seen, requires athleticism as well as vocal ability. The performers are in nearly constant motion as they play out their roles, often with acrobatic flourishes. Most of the parts are for the young, while those dwelling on the experience of older characters—Gus, Grizabella, and Old Deuteronomy—tend to be recollections of youth as a commodity that slips away leaving as residue the wisdom that comes with age. It’s quite biblical in that respect. Even the old can appreciate back flips and double cartwheels and the grace of ballet. For this particular production the lighting stood out as an integral part of the story. Illumination, I might add, is a powerful metaphor.

In our family discussions afterwards, comparison with other versions dominated. Although my wife and I saw a community theater production long ago (placing us, I reluctantly suppose, in the ranks of the older characters), our main introduction was through the filmed adaptation. Again, like the Bible, we tend to think of canonical versions. This is how it should go. Because of both its running time and its demands on the players, not all vignettes are included in each production. The character who narrates the story may change. Choreography is adjusted. Each show, as is the case with live theater, is a little different. Standing in the snow on a cold, New York City December afternoon awaiting the opening of the doors, we wondered what would be changed. The original Broadway run had ended while we lived in the Midwest, so this was both our first exposure but also our fourth rendition over the decades. None, it turns out, could be called canonical. That, however, took nothing away from the inspiration of the event unfolding before our very eyes.