Monday, August 27, 2007

the blogging of cultural criticism as displacement

Sometimes I wonder if there's something to be said for blogs critical of the evils of society as a form of displacement. As a pastor I've met once put it, you can hear a lot of fat Baptist preachers complaining about the intemperence others have in the use of alcohol or sex. Perhaps this is just as indicative of a tendency to have an extravorted approach to blogging.

Not necessarily, of course, but every once in a while I come across blogs and on-line journals where enough time is spent looking out at the world and finding it wanting that I wonder what people are doing in their own lives to make their lot better, or if they can. Not that we can't all appreciate a bad review, as Anton Ego puts it in Ratatouille, because bad reviews are often easy to write and just as often fun to read. In fact the staple of criticism would not be what it is, we would not recognize the word "criticism" to even signify what, colloquially, we all understand it to mean if we all thought criticism was about liking every new restaurant in town.

But to defend the new, well, that's tough, and not half so tough as defending the old and demonstrating how the best of the new preserves what is good in the old. As a musician I know that nothing is going to replace the ability to (and inevitable need for!) committing a score to paper the old fashioned way. But this doesn't mean we can't use every technological tool at our disposal to make the job easier. The technology of making music is never necessarily the enemy of creativity, our own minds are all the enemy we ever need! Our own lack of committment to the craft of being an artist and actually working on what we think we're into is our greatest obstacle.

To some degree the reason I don't blog much now is because I have enough to do in my own life I have other things to do. It's not that I don't have an interest in blogging about Jude and non-canonical literature but personal commitments can't be ignored. But personal commitments can also be the way to forsake the artistic vocation, the thing I can use to postpone working on a project I could have finished a year ago if I had the mind to. Personal loyalties can be the facade we embrace because our heart is not really in being an artist at all. At times like this it could have been tempting in the past to listen to the radio and hear something I didn't like and think to myself that it doesn't make sense why so and so is on the radio writing that crap and getting it published. I don't listen to the radio.

Withdrawing from popular culture doesn't have to be complete and it doesn't have to signify a lack of artistic relevance. Withdrawing from an engagement of the world of the arts can be selective. If Atanas Ourkouzounov has a new CD coming out or someone plays Nikita Koshkin's guitar concerto (please, SOMEONE do it and put it on CD) then I'll get those discs. I'm still pining for Shin-ichi Fukuda's next CD of Takemitsu and I have it on fairly accurate authority the d'Amore Duo has a CD coming down the pike eventually. But as to bands on the radio, meh, whatever. An artist has to engage in the arts that will help him or her continue in his own craft and the rest can go hang. This means that I can subsist on old Stevie Wonder without having to get his latest album. It means Vespertine will suffice until two or three friends tell me I "should" get Volta or anything Bjork has done more recently.

As the Preacher puts it in Ecclesiastes, there is really nothing new under the sun so keeping up with the latest fads in the arts hardly means you're artistically relevant. Artistic and cultural relevance, in a way, is irrelevant. If there is such a thing as truth and it also is relatively unchanging and steady from generation to generation (which I, obviously, do believe) then I don't need to keep up with what the various Joneses are doing. As a fellow once told me in my college days, you have to be careful not to use your own reading as a validation for or a rationale for your writing. You can't make your own work as an artist contingent on your own consumption of cultural artifacts. I hardly ever write poetry any more but as a composer I think I've managed to learn this lesson. The artist will keep working regardless of the direction of the creative tide. I'm trusting that Aimee Mann knows what she's talking about when she says that you need to keep working on your art as though no one were ever going to listen, or is listening, because if you're actually any good eventually someone WILL listen.

Which is why, in case it hasn't been apparent, the few times I use this blog I try to focus almost entirely on what I WANT people to read or see or hear or engage. If few people join me that's just the nature of blogging.

If I were to settle into complaining about all the things that I don't like or don't interest me it would feel like a betrayal of such artistic vocation as I have. It would be like Peter turning to Jesus and pointing to the beloved disciple and saying, "What about him?" Well, so what about him? He's going to write the fourth Gospel, a few epistles, and an apocalypse. Peter gets to write a couple of epistles (or at least have his name attached to him, an excurses I will merely allude to) and be a major source of information for another gospel, according to church tradition.

Which is to say that Peter gets stuck wondering what others will do when the opportunity to follow Christ himself is freely given. I could make bitching my mistress or my artistic muse and I even know of whole genres of literature and music devoted to such things. It's too tempting already!

Seeing how Christians sometimes (no, often) engage "culture war" issues it seems as though we too often lament in others what is finally a weakness in ourselves that we would rather not confront. Sure, public schools can be lame but is it also possible Christian parents have so abdicated their own role in education they don't realize that six hours in a public school can't really compete in the end with filial bonds, regardless of what Christians like to quote from secular pundits in the past? Sometimes what Christians consider realism can be a lack of faith and I don't merely speak hypothetically on this subject, even if I'm not going to belabor the point with a personal illustration. If you've read this blog for any length of time you know I'm not prone to using personal illustrations like that very often.

Soemtimes I think secular liberals may have had a point in proposing that a lot of conservative Christians 20 years ago felt disenfranchised and that they lacked the pathways to power. I'm not sure any secular liberals are complaining about that now! But it's possible conservative Christians of the theological and cultural persuasion (as opposed to those who are merely in the former camp) still feel that they do not have the cultural weight or respect in society they ought to have. Biblically speaking, should they, ever?

It seems the answer is basically 'no'. We've done enough damage to the cause of the actual Gospel by using the good news of the culture war. I don't want revival in America so that America can be a great nation again. If the United States collapses in the next fifty years that would really suck, don't get me wrong, but faith in Christ means that if that happens I can write my own personal jeremiad about the fall of a great nation if I feel like it. Sometimes I feel as though Christians can be obsessed with coveting things they don't need and spiritualizing it by invoking something like a culture war. Did the apostles need society on their side in the culture war to transform the world? Last I heard they didn't.

It can certainly seem as though things are worse now than they were in the past but the Preacher doesn't merely warn against us buying into the idea that something that is on the radio now is new, but also warns us that nostalgia is foolish. There's no point in wishing for long-gone days that were better than what we have now because it is not from wisdom we ask where those old days were. I don't want to go back to a time when America was great because when America was great the kind of interracial marriage that brought me into the world wouldn't have happened much even where I live. The musical past I would have grown up into would not have had the richness of the musical past I can see now, and I would have died at birth, more to the point. Sometimes it seems that the single greatest challenge a Christian can face is simply to display some gratitude.

Well, withstanding my own many problems of character and circumstance I'm glad to live in the time in which I live. I don't begrudge the existence of TV or computers or things that Christians seem to think will rot the brain because none of those things rot the brain better than one's own sinful thought life. You don't have to watch South Park to have evil thoughts. You don't have to listen to secular music. You don't have to read works by atheists. All you need are the sinful desires of your own heart and the religious gloss you put on them is more damning than any use of four letter words.

It can be tempting for a guy to sit down and find fault with the rest of the world when his own life has its problems caused by his own frailty, vanity, and weakness. This is why it seems most helpful to point to what is good and beautiful in the world, as Sam puts it in those movies (never could finish the books so I'll try to accentuate the positive here). Bemoaning the loss of what is beautiful is not the same as affirming their value even as they merely seem lost. Even when the psalmist bewails the loss of any good things in society he comforts himself with this knowledge, that the greatest good can never be lost and that this is the basis of singing new songs to the Lord.

Of course the song doesn't have to be new in the sense of keeping up with the times or being in the latest style and it won't be new in terms of its theme but that, too, is not especially important. Especially for an artist living today there is quite literally nothing truly new you can contribute to the great big world of the arts that spans millenia and the entire globe. If I can find and purchase a CD of Chinese folk music in Seattle and I do it then I have access to cultural artifacts that were literally inconceivable to a person in my place in society a century ago, let alone two centuries ago.

We live in interesting times but we have fun complaining about how interesting those times are. As an old song puts it, these are the days of miracles and wonders, but Christians seem uninterested in this too much of the time. As a comic book geek I find it funny and fascinating that the technology to make an actual Doctor Octopus apparatus work in real life may be a generation away. Scientific research is finding possibilities for treating Alzheimer's disease. I just can't help but wonder if some cranky Christians getting into wars against political correctness or the culture war against traditional values are not so much bemoaning the death of a society that has been post-Christian for even longer than Francis Schaeffer said it was may really just be bemoaning their own death without realizing it.

Are we complaining that the godless culture is not letting us engage issues or are we complaining that our lives have no hope and no direction because we have not come to a point in our lives where we have become all the things we dreamed we would be? I'm in my early 30s and I think about how many people I know are married and having kids and think about the college dreams of becoming an artist or a writer or a politician or a professor or an athlete or a businessman. All these dreams we embraced in our teens and twenties can evaporate in the midst of our actual lives and we can secretly become immensely bitter without even realizing it. We can blame the flow of life for these things but in a way it seems useless because if we want to do something, even if there are obstacles in the way and prices to be paid, we live in a society in which it is possible.

But if we make our goal as, say, an artist, to write a hit single and live off those earnings for the rest of our days is the goal in that to be an artist or to get the hit single? I'd like to have it both ways, obviously, but the artist part has to come first. We live in a media culture that covers the silver bullet fired from the gun of someone who, as the culture might retroactively put it, got lucky. Or the person firing the shot had so many connections as to have a path laid out for them, in which case we can ask if that lucky shot was really all that they wanted. The number of celebrities bemoaning the price of their fame suggests it's often not what they really wanted and we non-celebs, no matter how much we persuade ourselves otherwise, can easily find ourselves coveting that which was not asked for by anyone.

Whoever loves money never has money enough, whoever loves power never has enough of it. This is why unbelievers have some justifiable fear of politically activist Christians. They understand a biblical truth much better than we usually do, and they have millenia of history to appeal to as to why they should fear what so many Christians think would be a sign of a great blessing from Jesus. It might seem like that but it might actually be a judgment from the Lord for seeking to make His kingdom of this world and not the age to come.

I think about this often because I'm an amateur composer and an amateur guitarist who would one day like my music to be performed, recorded, and published. Am I doing all this stuff because I want "success" or whatever passes for that? Sure, but if I don't love the simple process of creating things day in and day out and set aside time for it then do I deserve any success? It just seems as though if the work of being an artist is not at some fundamental level its own reward then you're just not embarking into the arts to be an artist. After half my life so far has come and gone (i.e. I've been playing guitar and making music for sixteen or seventeen years) I don't think that I'm in a place where I'm some teenager who thinks that because he picked up a guitar two months ago and has written a song that he's going to be the next big rock star who can use that celebrity as a bully pulpit to plug whatever causes seem to need winning that day.

I have heard about great artists who got screwed over by management in days of yore. Ellington got ripped off a few times. A lot of blues players were paid in booze and not money. What did these great musicians do? They kept writing their music even after they got ripped off time and again. Why? Well, because if you keep writing it doesn't matter how many times you get ripped off by someone if you can keep cranking out the music faster than they can rip you off. Ideally I don't ever want to be ripped off but it also feels like, on the flip side, there's something sad to be said about a guy defending the integrity of his work so much no one listens to it. Sometimes artistic integrity comes at the price of artistic death. Who outside the esoteric circles of classical music nerds knows who Pierre Boulez is? And, seriously, who cares? He's a great conductor but at his highest level of acclaim average joe doesn't care.

But that's obviously not what Pierre Boulez gets out of bed every morning and it isn't why any of us should, either.

Now I have let it be known here that I like Japanese cartoons. I've named a few of the ones I really like and something that has been on my mind lately is that even though a lot of Japanese cartoons are steeped in pantheism and other views I frankly don't subscribe to there is something beautiful about Japanese cartoons and the best stories I've come across in them. I sometimes feel I have learned more through Miyazaki's love of nature and willingness to see good things in people than I have from preachers on Christian radio warning about this or that over the years. It hardly means I endorse the spiritual world espoused by the film My Neighbor Totoro, and that Miyazaki has to imagine a hypothetical world in which world war 2 didn't happen speaks to severe problems in his ideas.

And yet, and yet there is a sense of wonder at the beauty of the world we live in, as broken and destructive as it so often is, that I can pick up in some of the anime I've seen that reminds me that without the help of the Holy Spirit every man, woman, and child on earth is liable to take one true observation and take it so far as to have it stop being anything like truth because it is not held in the context of the whole. The world Christ has created is both uglier and more beautiful than we can appreciate. Sometimes I feel like we Christians are all secret Ivan Karamazovs who talk about how we have no problem with God but cannot accept His world. We are grateful to God for all the things we think God should get credit for and then find things that God has included in our world that aren't what we like and then decide to not be thankful, even though Scripture says that we should be thankful in, um, everything. This isn't necessarily a call to thank God for really awful stuff like getting stabbed or raped or robbed, obviously, but a call to recognize that the world, as steeped as it is in our sin, still reflects on the goodness of Christ. We are Jewish law experts who are constantly needing the reminder of who our neighbor is.