02 April 2010
Ekphrasis Report #5
Last week, we began our meeting with a slide show of paintings by Bruce Herman. His work is very, very good: I introduced it by saying, "This is REAL art." It is profound, and technically proficient. It is worthy to stand with the works of the great masters of the past. We were riveted by the sheer virtuosity and spiritual vision. We all commented on how the boundaries between the subjects and their environments are open, allowing the surroundings to invade the person, or the person's passion to flow out and influence the environment. We discussed how beautifully these works express an emotional or spiritual state by means of color, shape, and something hard to describe: speed? movement? motion? We considered the Medieval and postmodern elements of these pieces, how they fuse the timeless and the up-to-date. We talked about the subtle revelations of the human body: how those who are unclothed seem swathed in glory, and those who are clothed do not have their beauty hidden by their garments. We lamented the necessity of viewing these huge works of art on a little screen, for we could tell what an overwhelming impact they must have "live," full size, in their intended contexts. But even thus, they dazzle and amaze!
Present at this meeting were SMB, TM (a new and valuable member), DM, ES, and CG. SMB began with showing us a whole slew of her photographs. She’s got a great vision for gladness: her works are delightful, light in spirit without being light of value, showing (mostly) nature or members of her family through unique perspectives. The colors are vivid, the atmosphere delightful. She’s got a great eye. There’s one of her little sister standing on top of a snowbank with just snowy ground and snow-filled sky behind her: and both ground and sky are totally white, bright, without markings. So the little girl looks like she’s cut out on a white page. Totally Harold and the Purple Crayon, as DM observed to my delight. There was a picture of her little brother draped in Christmas lights, looking like a mischievous godling wreathed in the Milky Way. There was one of somber winter trees in parallel verticality. There were a few, of a different tone, recording President Obama’s visit to Lehigh Carbon Community College, where SMB is a student. There were fluorescent lights in the dark, bubbles, flowers, and grass. One we discussed longer than any other was a mysterious narrative fragment. Two people, shown just from their torsos downwards, crouched on a sun-baked ground in the barren summer light. There was little color in the picture, but it was burning with light. There were a few dark leaves in the foreground, and touches of red on the two character’s clothes. They conversed over a stainless steel sink, wrenched from context, tipped out on the bare earth. The picture was expressive and suggestive and felt like it was cut out of a Flannery O’Connor story.
Then TM shared a prose piece. It reads like a short story, but is clearly drawn from both real life experiences and imaginative extension. It’s called “The Dinner” and recounts the narrators thoughts as three down-and-out dinner guests pour out their heart-wrenching stories: a girl tempted into prostitution, an elderly man out of work, a teenage boy run away from home. After each tale of woe, the narrator wants to help these sorry souls, but cannot. At the end, he resolves to do better tomorrow, to go out and change the world. We appreciated the powerful, natural dialogue used to bring the characters to life. We suggested a more subtle ending, in which the tone makes clear that the narrator will fail again—otherwise the piece sounds too glib, too facile, too false. TM obviously has a huge heart for helping people, and his deep and open vision influences all of his work.
Then CG shared a poem fragment, which sparked a lively debate. The poem set out to tell about four characters. The narrator, who watches in awe as love is expressed around the bed of a dying man. The dying man, slipping away as a victim of HIV/AIDS. The dying man’s partner, who expresses his last love and grief. And then there’s Jesus, pouring love out over these two hurting people. And the narrator adores Jesus because of His love. So the debate was over how to show Christ in representative writing. CG is just head-over-heels in love with Christ, her heart to His, her person to His. So she just naturally pours out this love in her writing. I said that in literature, though, we can’t show Jesus as a character in the action. Asked why not, I said it’s cheesy. Asked why it’s cheesy, I said that it’s because Jesus already came incarnate and spent 30 or so years in the flesh on this earth, and four books were written about that: the Gospels. So for us to put Jesus as an enfleshed character in our writing is derivative, unoriginal, and just not good theology. The ways that we experience Christ now are through other people, through providential events, and through nature. I suggested that CG think of her favorite books—the Narnia chronicles, for instance, or Lewis’s Space Trilogy. There, Christ appears either in a symbolic character (who is yet a valid character on his own) or through mythology, atmosphere, and the actions of characters who do His will. When I got home and recounted this to G, he said that also we know Christ now through the Holy Spirit, not through His incarnate self. What do you think?
And of course I’ve been thinking about it since. There’s one other aspect that I’d like to mention. That is that we are living in the nighttime, the dark night of the soul between Christ’s ascension and His return. He talked a lot, while He was on earth, about how hard it would be for His disciples during the time He was gone. He compared it to the longing a bride-to-be feels when she’s waiting for her groom to come and make her his wife. He said He’d sent us a Comforter while He was gone. We wouldn’t need a Comforter unless there was need of comfort. And there is great need of comfort. This is the dark night, a period of suffering (even the Tribulation according to some theologians), the dry and dreary loneliness when we long for union with our Lord. We are not yet united with Him. And I feel that downplaying the sufferings of this time is first of all unrealistic and secondly unsympathetic to the pain of this time.
Then I shared a poem fragment, too. It turned out to be really bad. It doesn’t need revision: it needs to be scrapped and started over. Then most folks left, and DM and CG very kindly listened to a series of narrative scraps I wrote about my recent trip into NYC for a conference. On each subway trip, I was blessed with the observation of some extreme case of human eccentricity. They had lots of excellent suggestions about how to use these scraps: to turn them into some coherent article or story. But now I have another idea all together, guys, so I think it’s going to turn out totally different! Thanks for all of your suggestions; sorry I put you through that!
The really great feast of the day (besides the work that was shared) was the excellent talk. And that I just can’t reconstruct. The longest conversation was one I’ve had before, and about which I’ve posted. About how far is too far in art, especially visual art: about nudity and objectification. I won’t recount it here: suffice it to say it was a fantastic conversation and one that needs to happen over and over: probably at least as many times as there are young Christians finding their way into the arts.