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24 November 2009

Ekphrasis report #1

As the natural real-life extension of both my teaching and the kind of ruminative writing I do here, just about once a month I host an artsy workshop. It is a gathering of Christians who do art—any kind of art. We have writers (poetry and prose), painters, musicians, composers, and at least one actor[ess]. Many of them are students and former students; several are teachers. We come together to share our original work and/or performances, and to critique what is shared. These meetings are always very lively, full of fantastic conversation and good, solid advice for revision and improvement. I have a high standard of quality, and attempt to impart that to the participants. If you live in Eastern PA and would like to participate, you may request an invitation. Meanwhile, I thought it would be a good idea to post a kind of report about the meetings here, especially about any cultural conversations that come up, as an extension of its influence. I’ll keep the participants anonymous unless they request otherwise. Enjoy, and please write your thoughts to me as a comment.


This past meeting was rather small, but inversely intense. It was more heavily focused on the visual arts than on the written word, which is unusual—and nice! I had a couple of poems, which the group kindly took to bits so that I may put them back together. They were both “Persona” poems, in which I take on the first person perspective of some character, usually mythological, and explore what that personality has to say as metaphor about myself or someone I know—or even, though more rarely, just a universal human characteristic. I find this to be a rich vein, and I intend to keep on mining it. It connects up, of course, to the true myth idea that I frequently reference.

Then S. shared an original painting. She had created it for an art class, and the assignment was to copy a famous masterpiece, attempting to imitate the technique as closely as possible, but with the liberty to adapt it. She chose Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” replacing the Cyprus tree in the foreground with a cross and painting a verse from Psalm 8 over the wind-curls in the sky. She also modified a bit of the landscape to present an open tomb. In addition to talking about technique, we also discussed various ways to integrate a message into a work of art so that it is intelligible and persuasive while also being subtle. In literature, I said, one of the reasons I write “complicated” stuff with big words and mythological or natural topoi is to try to season the truth to make it palatable. That, by the way, is one reason that cheesy gift-shop Christianity is not art—in addition, of course, to its lack of technical prowess.

Next, D., a high school art teacher, shared two portraits he painted of students. They were what I might call, in my non-technical visual art vocabulary, fantastical-realist, perhaps with a touch of the surrealist. In other words, they were perfectly recognizable as representations of their subjects (I knew one of the boys, but not the other), but not in a photo-realist way. In fact, the luminous, extra-natural colors they use (vibrant yellows and violets highlighting the African-American’s face, greens and greys the image of a philosopher) go further in expressing personality and character than pedantically “realistic” colors could. He had also given a texture to the canvas before painting, bringing out certain areas in touchable 3-D, adding to the surrealistic lifelike impression these works conveyed.

L. was also there, providing excellent comments and critiques, especially of my poetry. She is a good writer (as well as an actress and visual artist), and has a good eye for the tones, connotations, and interactions of words, pointing out tiny details and large movements that need alteration.

Now, I don’t remember how we got into it, but somehow the five works we considered (two poems and three paintings) and the discussions surrounding them catapulted us into a discussion about just exactly what the current philosophy is. Oh, I remember. We asked S., who attends a community college, how her classmates and professor received her overtly religious painting. While she said they received it with equanimity, which is encouraging, that somehow led us on to this final topic.

I am taking Literary Theory this semester at a local university that is part of the Penn. State system. I love it; I’m learning just for fun, without any grade or career pressure at this particular point (although, of course, I intend for it to further my career at some stage). Our professor is very, very good. She has many strengths, which I could gladly praise with gusto, one of which is that she’s totally up-to-date. She’s very young (not too many years older than myself, which is actually pretty depressing) and chic in an academic way and totally current. She chooses to stand in the longest line at the supermarket so she can read Vogue; she knows all the latest popular films as well as indie and other marginal movies. She’s fluent in contemporary pop novels and high-brow poetry and theory. Amazing. Inspired by her and several other influences in my life, I’m reading a lot more poetry written by living people. Maybe more on that in another post, we’ll see.

Anyway, one day we were talking about generations, and how each generation in America for the last half century anyway has had a name and a collective personality, if you will. My parents are the Baby Boomers; their parents were the Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best generation. I am Generation X; current high school students are Generation Y. Those born after 9-11 (when the world changed forever) are—get this--Homelanders. They were born into a world of Homeland Security, of increased surveillance, of (some would say) a growing Socialism and/or collective consciousness of insecurity and need for group conformity. Sounds like dystopic novel to me.

Along with everything changing at 9-11, apparently, postmodernism ended that day. Seriously. That’s what she said. There have been ripples for years, discussions of how we’re no longer a post-Christian society, we’re a post-post-Christian society, and how we’re not in post-modernism anymore, we’re in whatever come after it. And what comes after it?

THE POST HUMAN ERA. That’s where we are now, so “they” say. So, I brought this up at the Ekphrasis meeting, and we talked about what it might mean. We came up with some possibilities in the social and ethical realms, although we didn’t know what it meant in the metaphysical and epistemological realms. In the social, it means radical environmentalism. It means that human beings are—of course—not only not the center of the universe (we ceased to be that in 1555 or so with the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo), but are now viewed as invaders, even infestations, on this planet. We not only aren’t essential to the planet earth, we are bad for it. Earth will be better off when we are gone. In the ethical realms, it is the natural extension of the worst forms of atheistic Evolution (there are other brands, that I will not discuss here) , which postulates the worthlessness of human life and/or the equality, or even subordination, of human life with/to animal life. One of the worst results is the acceptance of bestiality, which is already prevalent in some circles. Watch, one day soon, somebody is going to have a court case because he wants to marry his dog.

But before you despair: as with all world movements of the mind, no matter how apparently bleak, this attitude (1) will pass and (2) meanwhile has a positive side on which we ought to capitalize. Here are some of the positives and/or opportunities that I see. First, it can cultivate humility. We are not the center of the universe; God is! Humanity, while fantastically creative and amazing, is fallen and needs redemption. Maybe this will encourage some to get out of their own faces and see their needs. Also, while the radical environmentalism describe above is an extreme, the Church as a whole should get on board with an awful lot of stewardship of the earth that is being proposed. We need to take care of this gorgeous, verdant planet! We need to consider the condition of the other species that are under our care—not to mention of our own descendants, too. So, keep your eyes open for posthuman sentiments, and look for the opportunities to turn it to good.

4 comments:

David said...

I wish I could've gone. I've missed what, three meetings? Four? Depressing. Still, maybe next one.

Iambic Admonit said...

David: I know, it's terrible that you haven't been able to come for such a long time. And I wrote you a poem right after the last meeting you attended, and have been carrying it around since, waiting to share it. So, maybe next one!

Teresa said...

Regarding the "Homelander" generation...living in Israel has made me appreciate that as an American phenomenon. Many nations have never had a period of stability, security, and economic strength as the U.S. has since the 1950s. But if insecurity is supposed to bring conformity, then it's failed miserably so far in the U.S., where opinions if anything seem to be more widely divided than they were since the Civil War. - The lit crit class sounds fantastic. Guess I'll have to wait to finally "get" Foucault and friends.

Rosie Perera said...

Regarding Christian stewardship of the earth, I highly recommend the work of A Rocha, an international organization of Christians in conservation. I've had the blessing to be involved with some of their work here in British Columbia, and they are a wonderful example of how to be biblically faithful environmentalists.

Here is more about them from their website:

A Rocha is a Christian nature conservation organisation, our name coming from the Portuguese for "the Rock," as the first initiative was a field study centre in Portugal. A Rocha projects are frequently cross-cultural in character, and share a community emphasis, with a focus on science and research, practical conservation and environmental education.

A Rocha is identified by five core commitments and to a practical outworking of each:

CHRISTIAN - Underlying all we do is our biblical faith in the living God, who made the world, loves it and entrusts it to the care of human society.
CONSERVATION - We carry out research for the conservation and restoration of the natural world and run environmental education programmes for people of all ages.
COMMUNITY - Through our commitment to God, each other and the wider creation, we aim to develop good relationships both within the A Rocha family and in our local communities.
CROSS-CULTURAL - We draw on the insights and skills of people from diverse cultures, both locally and around the world.
COOPERATION - We work in partnership with a wide variety of organisations and individuals who share our concerns for a sustainable world.