(7 Jan 2010)
I wrote in the last Ekphrasis report that “I’m going to talk later about how far one can go and still be a creator of ‘Christian’ art—or even a Christian making art. Surely there must be a line, beyond which too much profanity, or heresy, or pornography, disqualifies one from membership in the roll of ‘Christian artists’?” Interestingly, the next Ekphrasis meeting brought that topic to my mind with even greater force. I’ll get to that in its proper place.
This was an interesting meeting, for two reasons. First, we held it in my new house, which we’ve finally just finished building, and into which we moved on New Year’s Eve. Surrounded by boxes, scrambling for anything to sit on, trying to find batteries for a keyboard so we could have some music, giving people the “Now try to imagine that this room is painted and that there are carpets on the floor” tour—all this made the day very interesting. The other was that we had two phases of the meeting. Due to some scheduling complications, I indicated a long range of hours, so some people came at the beginning and some came at the end and only two stayed the whole time (because they had traveled long distance). So here’s what was shared.
JA traveled up from Doylestown. I had never met him before, but we were published in Windhover magazine together, and I saw he was local. I always cull the “Contributor bios” sections of literary magazines to see if there’s anyone around here who might like to come. He’s been trying to make it for months, and finally did. He was very gracious about the surroundings and the company. It was just myself, my sister, and LH (a friend from Massachusetts who was on her way from Florida back up North and stopped by!) at that point. Anyway, JA read a poem to us, and we workshopped it. We had a delightful time pretending that he wasn’t there and trying to decode the poem, as it were. Since I want us to create classic, canonical poetry, we try to read poems as they’ll be read when the author is not longer accessible, to see if the poem stands on its own. This one did. It took some figuring, but it finally came to light as a short, emotionally descriptive, spare, almost Hemingway-esque tale of a fight between a husband and wife. After JA talked about it a bit and confirmed and clarified our reading, I congratulated him on how little critique we had. “We usually shred the poems to bits,” I told him. “Well, I know,” he responded. “In our email exchange, you really shredded my last poem!” That’s proof of how good his poem was; it survived our critique, intact!
He had another poem, unintentionally printed on the back of the one he meant to share. We read it and talked about it only briefly. I also really liked this one: a tale of dockworkers looking for jobs. But “tale” is the wrong word, because it was not narrative. More reflective. I look forward to reading more of JA’s work, and hope he has success in publishing more of it. We need more thoughtful, non-cheesy Christian poets.
Then NK, my sister, shared her work with us. She’s getting her Master’s in Vocal Performance at one of the SUNY campuses, and is pursuing some independent research. As she explained to DS later, “Every singer needs a niche of some sort, some specialization on which to focus. I’ve found my niche.” Her niche, then, is Greek vocal music. She’s studying Greek traditional and composed forms: opera, art song, folk song-and-dance. She gave us a wonderful little lecture about the musical techniques and dance style of Zeibekiko, the most popular of these dance forms. She intends to travel to Greece and do scholarly work on Greek song; specifically, on the diction of the Greek language as performed by singers of both popular music and opera. So, after a very lively description of the bizarre and delightful conventions of this dance (which was traditionally sung, as well as danced), she sang one of these songs, while we kept time in the crazy 9/8 meter! Jumping ahead in my narrative: in the second half of the afternoon, she also danced for us! It is a powerful dance, strong and moving. Fantastic!
In the second half of this Ekphrasis meeting, LH and I collaborated (I use that term very loosely) on a musical-poetic presentation. Way back when, I had begun a poem about a profound mountain-climbing experience, but had given up after three of four sections. Well, L called me on her way from Florida, said that someone had given her a keyboard, and that she wanted to play some background music while I read a poem. I didn’t have anything new that would be suitable for this meeting, so I sat down that morning, rewrote section three, and wrote section four. I’ll post these tomorrow and the next day, with links back to the previous sections. When she arrived, just at the time the meeting began, we had no time to practice together, nor even to choose suitable music. She had a film score with her, somewhat “atmospheric” music, so she chose that and played away while I read. The resulting synthesis, while not what we would have developed if we had had time to discuss and rehearse, was a fascinating combination of verbal and musical sounds. I do like reading over music, although that can be distracting. I once read a similar poem, about diving underwater, accompanied by Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan. The other members of the group said that they enjoyed the experience of music and poetry, but that they listened only to the sounds of the poem, not the sense (or the “meaning,” if you will). That’s what I often encourage listeners to do; one can hardly grasp the meaning of a complex poem on a first hearing, and most readers need to see it on the page to get it; I do. So this was a different sort of experience. Then I went back and reread the last section out loud in order to be able have some discussion. But as a performance technique (rather than one for a workshop), I like the musical accompaniment.
I’m going to narrate out of order here, for my own purposes. NJ, NJ, NJ, and TJ attended: three siblings and their mother. Only NJ the first had something prepared to share; he brought a poem that he wrote about his college, where he has spent one semester, and which he loves. The poem was tons of fun. It was written in rhyming quatrains, but with such strong enjambments that the rhymes were subtle. It described the narrator walking around the campus and enjoying each of the buildings in turn. But he hinted that there was some kind of, I don’t know, hidden code? That’s too strong a term; there was something allusive that I would find if I searched. Then and there, during the discussion, I couldn’t find it. Later on I spent more time rereading it and discovered what he meant; each stanza smuggled in words and images that alluded to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, thereby praising his college’s architecture and academics even more. Nice work, N!
Right after my little duo with LH, DS shared two of his paintings that are intended for a triptych of sorts. Again, we talked about one of the paintings for a while without allowing him to say a word, to see if we could decipher them. Although we had lots to say, we could not decode them. We were fascinated by the images: a dismembered Cubist head down in a blood-filled ditch, a dead-white arm thrown off to one side, a corpse- or mummy-like figure caught up in a circle, entangled in or hanging from a brambled tree. The whole surface was completely flat—no perspective—and employed startlingly different styles. The Cubist head and the thorn bush/hanged man sections looked as if they had been done by two different artist at different times. While we had lots of theories, we couldn’t agree on who the two people were; we generally thought they were two impressions or expressions of The Artist himself (especially since his name was signed across the decapitated head in the bloody ditch). Finally, D spoke to us. We were all wrong. It depicted Cain and Abel; the first murder. We suggested a title to that effect to get viewers on the right track sooner. He explained that the circle around Cain signified Sacred Space, and that Abel’s blood crying out from the ground might very well be crying for mercy towards his brother rather than revenge. He pondered whether even a fratricide like Cain could enter into sacred space.
Then DS showed us his second painting. This one was much more abstract, I would say even surrealistic, although I’m not an expert on style labels in the visual arts. TJ, who was there, is an art teacher; T, if you’re reading, maybe you can let me know if I’m right? Anyway, this one also had a circle, green red and black with three blue spots, in the middle of a golden keyhole shape. Outside the keyhole stood two unidentifiable figures, with flower blossoms scattered over them. One figure was much larger than the other and had three flowers directly over it. D explained that this was Eve; the smaller figure was Adam. He proceeded to expound his pondering the beauty and intuitive power of women (perhaps I should say Woman) and whether Eve’s act of eating the fruit were not at all the beginning of all our woes, but rather was the ultimate act of human courage; she dared to step in to where God was and to where God had forbidden; she pierced the sacred space. Rather than condemning this act, D thought that perhaps Eve should be commended for the greatest human creativity. So I, naturally, asked him if he were joining with Philip Pullman in affirming The Fall as humanity’s first step into creative autonomy and that we should all fornicate in order to express our independence and then end by murdering God. OK, I didn’t phrase it quite that strongly (there were children present), but I did ask him if he were on Pullman’s side, the Devil’s side. He didn’t answer.
So this is why I asked that question at the beginning: Surely there must be a line, beyond which too much profanity, or heresy, or pornography, disqualifies one from membership in the roll of ‘Christian artists’? Affirming The Fall as a positive event is heretical. Well, let me qualify that. I’m not sure it is a heresy, if by a heresy I mean some unorthodox suggestion within the Christian religion. It’s just flat-out not Christianity. The basis of the Gospel is that the Fall was a bad thing from which people need to be redeemed. I guess taking the Fall as a good thing is a rather Rousseau-esque humanism. I’m not sure about that.
Now, I don’t think that artists should be forbidden from expressing Rousseau-esque humanism; I love Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, both as Art and as a great chance for me to debate with him in my head and get young people to ponder the reality he proposes. And I don’t think that asking the question necessarily excludes one from being considered a “Christian” artist (or a Christian, but that’s not for me to judge). But I do believe that answering the question in favor of Eve’s act does put one outside the pale of public Christianity. So that’s a problem.