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.

Virgil’s Vigil

IMG_2798I can never keep Virgil and Beatrice straight. I blame Dante. Allegories can be so tiring. So, sitting under a tree in Princeton, enjoying a root beer float prepared at The Bent Spoon, I ponder the empty bottle before me. Virgil’s root beer. So good, it states, that I’ll swear it was made in Heaven. It is good, I must say, but didn’t Virgil lead Dante through the other place? You see, I’ve just spent a pleasant morning at Grounds for Sculpture, the outdoor museum set up by Seward Johnson, a sculptor that some accuse of kitsch. Others come by the busload to see what it’s all about. Johnson’s cast sculptures of people are so lifelike that it isn’t unusual to find yourself staring at an actual person sitting on a bench, wondering if they’re real or not. I spend a lot of time pondering reality, and this place makes that question explicit.

Descartes said “I think therefore I am,” but what if I am really the thought of another? How would I ever know? As I wonder around among the sculptures, a different face of reality shows itself. Many of Johnson’s pieces are sculptures based on paintings. To get behind the surface you have to imagine what the unshown side must’ve looked like. That which the original artist left out. Any art is a matter of perspective. Unseen realities—isn’t there something Dantesque about all this? Is Virgil the guide through Heaven, or is that Beatrice?

These statues, in quotidian poses, are so real. If they’re cast from actual persons, maybe they are. After all, this camera I carry is capable of capturing souls. And if you don’t make it through the first time around, there’s always Purgatory as a safety net. This bottle in my hand causes me confusion. Is my tipple divine or diabolical? How much difference is there between them, really? Princeton is a place that needs no one, after all, except those who have already made a success out of life. A place with expensive root beer on offer. A vice for which I’m willing to pay. Maybe life is a divine comedy after all.

The Lost Forest

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Asherah has, from lack of new material, fallen into a quiet retirement among the gods. For a while there no shortage of new books appeared, including my first, which explored many aspects of this shy goddess. While academia has pushed her to her logical limits, she has thrived in the world of popular imagination. I was reminded of this during a recent visit to Grounds for Sculpture, a whimsical park in Hamilton, New Jersey featuring the work of many artists. The appreciation of art works on many levels. A piece of sculpture can take on new meanings when viewed from different angles, and a piece that seems to make no sense can become imbued with meaning when new perspective is added. Sometimes it is the title of the sculpture. A friend had pointed out to me last year that one of the artworks was entitled, Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera, by Tova Beck-Friedman. Ironically the sculpture is from the same year as my finished dissertation on Asherah, a continent away. I must have seen this sculpture many times, but without knowing what it was, had paid no attention.

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Asherah is often considered a goddess of trees. My research indicated, however, that such an association was premature. Of course, any discourse that has the Harvard University stamp of approval is decidedly fact, despite contrary evidence. Nevertheless, the dendrite nature of the goddess has persisted into popular culture and even into the world of abstract sculpture. The loss of a forest is, no matter whether goddesses are involved or not, tragic. Asherah has become the protectoress of trees.

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The nature of this particular lost forest isn’t clear. At first it might appear that a fire has gone through, claiming the vitality that once thrived in green leaves and mottled bark. I sense that something more is happening here. Asherah is, above all, the divine female. Here single-most constant role in antiquity was as the spouse to the high god. The loss of the forest still speaks to the on-going repression of women. We like to think that our society is headed toward equality, but progress is painfully slow. As usual with lack of momentum, religious institutions lead the way in conservatism. In the largest Christian body in the world, and in some of the fastest growing religions on an international scale, women are kept from leadership roles on the basis of gender alone. Monotheism declares there’s one god for two sexes. Those who experience life from the other side are like trees falling in the forest. We still don’t know if anybody hears.

To a Fallen Goddess

One of my favorite places to visit in New Jersey is Grounds for Sculpture. Over the past several years that we’ve domiciled here, we’ve had the opportunity to take several friends and family members to see the whimsical, creative, and inspirational park over in Hamilton. When my daughter graduated from high school, she requested a visit to Grounds for Sculpture, and, since family were near at hand, we took the opportunity to see it again.

I’ve always been aware of the religious aspect of creativity. Perhaps it is because I like to flatter myself into thinking that I’m the creative sort, despite my years of academic training, or perhaps it is the kind of pipe dream for which the liberal-minded are easily accused. In either case, I have always found that the best art evokes something similar to a religious experience. There is an element of wonder, emotion, and awe here. Not every piece of art conjures it, just as a single god isn’t sufficient for the whole of humanity. As I wander the grounds, I grow convinced that this or that sculpture had a vision akin to what I’d call religion, that led to the creation of such a trenchant piece. I always leave feeling blessed.

Photo credit: Grounds for Sculpture, postcard

Photo credit: Grounds for Sculpture, postcard

On this most recent visit, a very conscientious relative found, and later sent, a postcard of a sculpture I’d never seen. (It is possible that the sculpture is not currently on display, as the Grounds are continually evolving.) The piece is entitled “Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera,” by Tova Beck-Friedman. Several of my relatives have me to blame for their awareness of Asherah; she is, after all, a relatively obscure goddess in the Hebrew Bible. The sculpture, however, speaks to me of the continuing ability of even extinct gods to inspire artists. Just as Asherah occupied several years of my academic life, I suspect she also haunts the work of sculptors who’ve come to realize that not all gods must be male, and not all gods must be real to be important. Quite the contrary, the collective deities of our heritage may still be found where art thrives.

Living with Art

A day spent among art can be more spiritual than a month of Sundays. Few become rich by being artists—in fact the opposite is society’s expectation. The masterpieces artists leave behind then become among the most valuable of all human creations when their often tragic lives end and it is recognized that no more genius is forthcoming. As a lifelong dabbler in the arts, I know that nothing like a perturbed state of mind serves to bring about the pieces I like best. Seeing the art of others, however, is a deeply satisfying experience. In a pre-Mother’s Day celebration, we met friends yesterday to revisit Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. We’ve grown accustomed to gray skies this spring, so the fact that it was sunny and warm came almost as a divine sign that this was a day to spend outdoors among the artwork of both humans and nature.

As rational as we strive to be, emotion remains our main motive force. Psychologists and neuroscientists, approaching the human mind rationally, inevitably conclude that emotion and reason are hopelessly entangled in the psyche. Not only does this explain the persistent draw of art, but also of religion as well. If possible, pull back and try to listen to someone, anyone, describe their religion in rational terms. How quickly it breaks down! And yet, reactions against a purely scientific—and doubtlessly empirically correct—explanation of the origin and development of life on earth lead to very hostile reactions. For many such explanations are not emotionally satisfying. We need a little more magic in our imaginative diet. Art allows us to indulge without embarrassment in our need for emotional expression. In the art galleries I’ve seen, whether Edinburgh, London, Paris, New York, Milwaukee, Corning, or Hamilton, there have always been hundreds of others seeking something there as well.

What we are seeking can’t be purchased with money, and it can’t be grasped by greedy hands. It can only be held in receptive and hungry internal places—the space pre-scientific individuals called the soul. And there it will remain. The first time I saw the Mona Lisa and the statue of winged Nike will never leave me. Yesterday, wandering the acres of art called Grounds for Sculpture, once again artistic expression claimed another willing victim. In our money-fevered world where “real life” is squandered chasing material goods to outstrip everyone else, art, the spiritual quest, lies quietly awaiting the weekend. The time people value most. And those who spend that time among art will be the most blessed of all.

Grounds for Sculpture

Few people would deny that religion and art share a common heritage. Some of the earliest human art was religiously motivated (I would contend that cave paintings and Paleolithic figurines were religious objects), and much of the contemporary art scene derives its inspiration from religious motifs and constructs. Not all art is religious, however, and not all religions are friendly toward art. Nevertheless, there is a tangible connection.

This weekend was uncharacteristically warm and sunny for a New Jersey March. This led us to take our visiting family to Grounds for Sculpture, one of New Jersey’s often overlooked treasures. Built on the remains of the old State Fair grounds in Hamilton, this park houses an impressive array of outdoor sculpture that is contemplative, innovative, puckishly funny, and even a little weird. It reflects the human experience. My family and I have been there multiple times, appreciating the sculpture from new angles, discovering new pieces, and seeing it all through the eyes of others.

Taste in art is highly personal and individualistic. Just like religious sensibilities. Both art and religion seek to make the human soul accessible to others through profound expression. Several of the sculptures in this unique garden bear biblical titles or suggestions, but they may be enjoyed as secular pieces of expression as well. Here is where art is superior to religion: it does not insist on any single way of expressing the truth. Sometimes, it seems, art may actually attain what religion only aspires toward.

Monet listens attentively to a dilettante