Friday, December 08, 2017

a difference of opinion on an Mbird piece called "Love the Art, Hate the Artist?" , I think Abby Farson Pratt has misread Claire Dederer at a couple of levels

As someone who regards Twitter with loathing as a medium that most people shouldn't be using because they probably don't know how to responsibly wield mass broadcast media I was already not on board with the opening for this piece that ran recently at Mockingbird. 

Now maybe people who use Twitter are prone to smirking, finger-pointing and handing down fatwas but I hate Twitter.  I despise it and would advise people to not use it if they can write down their thoughts in some longer-form format, like, you know, a blog post.   But maybe, okay, maybe people who tweet are as described in the first few sentences. 


http://www.mbird.com/2017/11/love-the-art-hate-the-artist/

We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves these days. We are doing a lot of smirking, a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of handing down of fatwas on Twitter.

When we cut someone off in traffic or lie to protect ourselves, we say, “Well, at least I’m not Harvey Weinstein. Or Louis C.K. Or Kevin Spacey. I’m not that bad.”

We enjoy this; we always have. It’s pleasant to publicly denounce others. Lately, we’ve been having a really good time. It seems like every other famous man has been exposed as a creep, or worse, a legitimate sexual predator. We look at our phones with anticipation every morning. What fresh hell we can heap on another dirty celebrity?

These days, it’s a common refrain: “I can’t read that book. Haven’t you heard what the author did?” or “Don’t watch that movie. Don’t you know the director believed X about Y?” It’s soothing, with art or pop culture, to draw lines around people and put ourselves on the other side. He is evil, and because I can say so, I must be good. I have the moral clarity to name and define his badness, and thus I am not counted in his number.

Sure, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but some have fallen more than others, am I right?

This is a nice worldview. I like it. It makes me feel comfortable and secure. Give me my self-approving weltanschaaung, and I will give you a scathing social media rebuke. It works for me, this philosophy that I’m not as bad as some, up to a point. That point, for me, is art and the artists who make it. What do we do with them? How do I reckon with the fact that most of my beloved artists were or are despicable human beings?

...

As incredible as it may seem to ... some folks, denouncing people is not really the base line of amusement for everyone.  Sure, we've had so many decades of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that there's a reboot of that show.  Sure, a lot of humor in shows these days ranges from The Simpsons through Family Guy into South Park and Archer and Rick & Morty for vitriol and that's only discussing animation. . But that trajectory goes all the way back to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd as it is, so it would be difficult to say there's something unique about our moment there.

What may be different is that after half a century of cartoonish vitriol there's a level of brinksmanship that has arrived.  We've arrived at an era where it's not just a wise sidelong remark about Trump that tries to speak to the way we live now, we also live in an era in which comedians who rant on television are considered prophetic pundits.  But perhaps Ted Koppel wasn't so far wrong when he warned Jon Stewart that what he was doing would ultimately debase public discourse a few years back. 

So the Mbird piece goes for a while more or less in the tone and substance quoted above, but the linked article that inspired the piece was written by Claire Dederer.


https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/20/art-monstrous-men/

See, back when I read the alt-weeklies in Seattle I tended to read The Stranger for Chris Delaurenti's classical music writings and I tended to read The Seattle Weekly for Claire Dederer's pieces.  So I have, well, not a strong knowledge of her work since she stopped writing for the weekly but I have some idea how she writes and thinks. 

Dederer leads with ambivalence, in fact ambivalence is pretty much the point of the reflection.  She knows she's supposed to find Polanski appalling as a human being and finds him appalling but still admires the films. 

Now because Pratt's piece is a piece published at Mockingbird it's not too suprising the most Dederer-ish explication of her ambivalent relationship to the life and work of Woody Allen might not have made it into a piece published by a Christian pop cultural journal.  But, having some adult-life-long familiarity with the kind of stuff Dederer has written over the years, the Mbird piece should have quoted this part:
...
I know Polanski is worse, whatever that means, and Cosby is more current. But for me the ur-monster is Woody Allen.

The men want to know why Woody Allen makes us so mad. Woody Allen slept with Soon-Yi Previn, the child of his life partner Mia Farrow. Soon-Yi was a teenager in his care the first time they slept together, and he the most famous film director in the world.

I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally. When I was young, I felt like Woody Allen. I intuited or believed he represented me on-screen. He was me. This is one of the peculiar aspects of his genius—this ability to stand in for the audience. The identification was exacerbated by the seeming powerlessness of his usual on-screen persona: skinny as a kid, short as a kid, confused by an uncaring, incomprehensible world. (Like Chaplin before him.) I felt closer to him than seems reasonable for a little girl to feel about a grown-up male filmmaker. In some mad way, I felt he belonged to me. I had always seen him as one of us, the powerless. Post-Soon-Yi, I saw him as a predator.

My response wasn’t logical; it was emotional.

One rainy afternoon, in the spring of 2017, I flopped down on the living-room couch and committed an act of transgression. No, not that one. What I did was, I on-demanded Annie Hall. It was easy. I just clicked the OK button on my massive universal remote and then rummaged around in a bag of cookies while the opening credits rolled. As acts of transgression go, it was pretty undramatic.
I had watched the movie at least a dozen times before, but even so, it charmed me all over again. Annie Hall is a jeu d’esprit, an Astaire soft shoe, a helium balloon straining at its ribbon. It’s a love story for people who don’t believe in love: Annie and Alvy come together, pull apart, come together, and then break up for good. Their relationship was pointless all along, and entirely worthwhile. Annie’s refrain of “la di da” is the governing spirit of the enterprise, the collection of nonsense syllables that give joyous expression to Allen’s dime-store existentialism. “La di da” means, Nothing matters. It means, Let’s have fun while we crash and burn. It means, Our hearts are going to break, isn’t it a lark?

Annie Hall is the greatest comic film of the twentieth century—better than Bringing Up Baby, better even than Caddyshack—because it acknowledges the irrepressible nihilism that lurks at the center of all comedy. Also, it’s really funny. To watch Annie Hall is to feel, for just a moment, that one belongs to humanity. Watching, you feel almost mugged by that sense of belonging. That fabricated connection can be more beautiful than love itself. And that’s what we call great art. In case you were wondering.

Look, I don’t get to go around feeling connected to humanity all the time. It’s a rare pleasure. And I’m supposed to give it up just because Woody Allen misbehaved? It hardly seems fair.

and while part of me wants so badly to throw in the part where Dederer jumps into Heidegger I won't do it.  I doubt I'd agree that Annie Hall is the greatest comic film of the twentieth century.  Though I'm a pessimist in all sorts of ways I'm not sure I'd say I find much to relate to in irrepressible nihilism or that it inherently lurks at the center of all comedy.  I mean, since I've been reading Adorno and Benjamin this year either of them might say that seems like the kind of comfortable luxuriating nihilism that can be afforded by those who are already in the culture industry among the ruling classes or something like that. 

Dederer even shifts from quoting Heidegger to Walter Benjamin about art as witness to barbarism and yet ... it seems that where Pratt wants to go is ...


Maybe, just maybe, we’re also not great. Dederer expresses that flicker of recognition when we denounce a bad artist. We expertly suppress this feeling, this lurking sense that we may also resemble monsters, and then return to the joys of “loudly denouncing the monster in question.”
But Dederer is reluctant to make a stand at the conclusion of her article. In fact, she closes the piece with a list of questions:
What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]
I loved her essay, but I felt a small wave of disappointment with this conclusion. I wanted more definition. But after a short pause, I realized that my theology compels me to take it a step further. I’m willing to say, in a large voice: [Yes, you’re a monster, and I’m a monster. We’re all monsters.]
...

Look,, I have what could be called a "low anthropology" in terms of Mockingbird lingo.  I'm a Calvinist.  I'm not only a Calvinist I have been reading Theodor Adorno and get this vibe that my disagreement with the Frankfurt school authors is predicated in part on a belief that they were too optimistic about the human condition.  My literary loves ranged from Herman Melville to Franz Kafka to Dostoevsky to Joseph Conrad to T. S. Eliot to Solzhenitsyn and I have a moderate chunk of the horrifying account of the Nagasaki bombing Barefoot Gen.  In film I'm fond of films by Christopher Nolan, Satoshi Kon, Miyazaki, Kurosawa, Lang and a few others.  I love Nolan's filmography-long exploration of how men deceive themselves into thinking they're heroes when they're often villains.

All that said, what Dederer is struggling with seems relatively clear to me.  She shared a story about how someone told her she shouldn't have X or Y feelings about a Woody Allen film because those were the wrong feelings to have.  There's an idea lurking in that stuff if you haven't read it, but what Dederer gets at is an ambivalence about what I would call Western art religion, which includes a commandment that if the art work is sacred enough in academic and critical terms, you're just supposed to suck it up and forget that a film makes you feel "urpy". 

Dederer is not the kind of writer who could be outdone by an Mbird contributor in terms of breezy ambivalence, but there's the ambivalence that can be read within the breezy.  One of the points where Pratt stopped quoting Dederer was where she should have kept going.
...
The critic Walter Benjamin said: “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” My own work could hardly be called major, but I do wonder: at the base of every minor work of art, is there a, you know, smaller pile of barbarism? A lump of barbarism? A skosh?

There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.
...

Now, for me, that's pretty funny.  Dederer invokes Benjamin's comment about art and barbarism and then hopes that, you know, if you're a minor writer of no real consequence who's only done one or two books maybe that means that you're only just a little barbaric.


Possibly unlike Pratt I've managed to read Dederer off and on over the last ... twenty years ... so I'm willing to pull rank on the proposal I have that Dederer absolutely recognizes there's some kind of barbarity or monstrosity inside her since she went to the trouble of making that joke invoking Walter Benjamin.  What makes it read like, well, Claire Dederer is the knowingness of joking that she hoped that by being such a minor and unimportant writer compared to any writer you'd have to read for a college course that there's at least some sliding scale of atrocity.  Nobody's exempt from the barbarism pile but the less important your work is the less barbaric you are so, here's hoping for being completely negligible as a writer or artist! 

Dederer has been saying, in her own way, that she recognizes that she's a monster.  In fact ...

I have to wonder: maybe I’m not monstrous enough. I’m aware of my own failings as a writer—indeed I know the list to a fare-thee-well, and worse are the failures that I know I’m failing to know— but a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?

Every writer-mother I know has asked herself this question. I mean, none of them says it out loud. But I can hear them thinking it; it’s almost deafening. Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.
Jenny Offill gets at this idea in a passage from her novel Dept of Speculation—a passage much shared among the female writers and artists of my acquaintance: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. VĂ©ra licked his stamps for him.”

I mean, I hate licking stamps. An art monster, I thought when I read this. Yes, I’d like to be one of those. My friends felt the same way. Victoria, an artist, went around chanting “art monster” for a few days.

The female writers I know yearn to be more monstrous. They say it in off-hand, ha-ha-ha ways: “I wish I had a wife.” What does that mean, really? It means you wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist.

What if Im not monster enough?

So, I'd say that Pratt wildly misread Dederer.  How can someone joke "What if I'm not monster enough?" if they don't recognize a capacity for monstrosity?   Some people have bluntly suggested one of the reasons Joan Didion has been such a remarkable writer has had something to do with her not being very good (at all) as a mother.  Dederer's not exactly being abstract about this, it's hardly unknown that many a legendary writer is legendarily bad at something else.  Great virtue in one realm can often indicate a great vice in some other realm that's impossible to entirely separate from the virtue.  That's the crisis, there's a question as to whether or not the beauty of the art ultimately offsets the ugliness in the character of the men and women who make that beauty.  And in that sense every artist is a god against whom an Ivan Karamazov might say "I cannot accept their world."

In the longer-form case Dederer made that I'm not sure Pratt did justice to, no I'm sure Pratt didn't do justice to it, Dederer highlights all the ways in which being accomplished as a writer or artist involves abandoning the needs and interests and wants of children and lovers and that women are stuck always doing this calculus in a way that guys may possibly do but don't have to feel much guilt about.  That baby came out of a woman's womb in a significantly different way than semen came out of a man's penis, to put it even more bluntly than Dederer put it but which is unavoidably indicated in her essay.  So for you to knowingly carry that baby to term and then ignore that child to finish a writing project isn't the same as some guy who emits his seed and then goes on his artist way regardless of whether or not the child survives into childbirth or ever gets fed a hot meal the rest of his or her life.

On the whole I'd say that at two different levels Pratts zinger just fails to land for me.  On the one hand, Dederer clearly signaled all the ways in which any woman writer, but most especially a woman writer with a spouse and children, behaves in monstrous ways and how those small monstrosities are necessary to get anything done.  On the other hand, she lays out a dilemma that goes to the heart of what we might call Western liberal arts religion, the realization that at some level we have this creed that says that if the art is beautiful enough the evil stuff that artists do to people along the way toward making that beautiful art is somehow "worth it".  Why?  Because ...

I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally. When I was young, I felt like Woody Allen. I intuited or believed he represented me on-screen. He was me. This is one of the peculiar aspects of his genius—this ability to stand in for the audience.

As I've been using the phrase art religion, what I'm getting at is that Dederer has explicated a way in which art religion works in the West right now.  While for pulp film and fiction Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey is an audience surrogate, such brazen audience surrogacy tends to be scorned by film critics ... unless, as we've just seen, the film-maker can be an audience surrogate for a film critic.  If in the 19th century European avant gardists believed that some kind of transcendent unified art-religion could replace Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, in the later part of the 20th century everything went meta, and not necessarily in terms of postmodernism or people throwing around the term meta-narrative.  It wasn't even all that new in the sense that 19th century authors were capable of understanding the premise that art was the lie that told the truth about the human condition even though properly educated people still knew what a lie it all really was in the end. 

Artier films and art and literature are still surrogacy projects in interpretation, but they serve as critic surrogates rather than more generic audience surrogates.  This might go a long way to explain why plenty of film critics who admire Woody Allen films hate Christopher Nolan films, because Christopher Nolan films are unabashedly making a point, whatever the point may be, from movie to movie.  You're not invited to read yourself into a character or into the tabula rasa of a film like, oh, mother! Adorno wrote in Aesthetic Theory that the philistine insists on enjoying or not enjoying a work of art based on whether or not he can find himself in the art experience and "gets something out of it." The philistine needs to be able to find himself in the character that appears or it's no fun. 

Well, the next level up from that might be the film that isn't made for an audience but for the film critic.  In Allen's films Dederer reveals a film-maker whose work can be both, an audience surrogate but a critic surrogate.  Sure, all of that may still be narcissistic reading that has little to do with the art work itself but the thing is you have to be better educated to enjoy an art film character as your surrogate.  If a superhero is a power fantasy about a liberated and fully realized body that has power, arthouse power fantasies are about education and social influence.  They're still ultimately just as juvenile as power fantasies as superhero films in the end, but they seem better and less street because you have to know so much more to get how the power fantasies work ... or maybe not since we're still talking about Woody Allen films.  If a guy has enough education and verbal skill even teenage girls will want to date him. 

That may get closer to the kind of crisis Dederer's musings upon Allen's work really invites, a recognition that the liberal arts religion film critics and writers and artists and musicians and film-makers and dancers believe elevates the human condition may do nothing of the kind.  Dederer takes solace on the one hand on being so unimportant a writer that maybe that means she only has a small little pile of barbarism, but then if she's not a monster she's probably not a writer worth taking seriously at all and what writer who writes doesn't want to be taken at least sorta vaguely seriously? 

The crisis is that for Dederer Woody Allen's films are still funny enough and inspiring enough and he's still enough of an audience surrogate for her that she still likes all sorts of stuff about Allen's films despite knowing she regards the man as a very bad sort of guy.  The crisis is that sense that Tolstoy couldn't have been right, that it's impossible to really hope that a great artist can also be a great (as in morally admirable) human being.  There's always some trade off and the invocation of Hemingway's lover indicating that the guy became a great artist because he was such a bad person he had to offset that somehow drove the point home, that is to say Dederer's point.  So then the question at the end "Am I monster?" becomes an ironic worry that maybe she's NOT a monster and therefore NOT an artist, if artistry and art are inseparable from barbarism.  But is it worth it to be barbaric or is it worth to not be barbaric in exchange for being a decent human being who no one will read in a generation?

Because, as is tacit in Dederer's piece but is explicit in so many ways come Oscar season and awards times, there is part of the Western art religion that insists that artists are the better, more moral and truth-telling liars than those who peddle religion and its associated vices.  Except that ... on the whole it's hard to get the impression that this is plausible.  If Roy Moore is a punchline to liberals what did Roy Moore do that was so different from what Polanski or Allen did?  Hold a different set of ideals for public consideration? 

As I've gotten older I've thought that there's probably no way each person on earth can avoid being  a hypocrite about something.  Preaching a set of ideals you fail to live by is going to happen to us.  But what can rankle people about an ideological enemy, whatever the sort, is the sense that there's a double standard, that the monster condemns us for a moral failure that he or she exempts himself or herself from being judged by in advance of the judgment levied against us.  When Jesus condemned certain people he condemned them for putting heavy burdens on people that they would not lift a finger to move themselves.  He warned of some men that they sat in the seat of Moses and that you should do what they tell you to do but to not follow their examples. 

By and large I've never had any use for Woody Allen films. If I want to watch a film made by someone with New York connections and hyper-literary dialogue slewn back and forth by elitists debating the nature of the human condition I'll take Whit Stillman instead.  But then Stillman considered it a complement that the worst put-down Brett Easton Ellis could come up with to say about him was that he was a moralist.  That he called his most famous set of films the doomed bourgeois in love trilogy pretty well clears up that he understands he's come from an American aristocracy and has made films about a fading American aristocratic class that doesn't realize it's time is up and that they weren't quite as good as they thought they were and whoever takes up the role of the new American aristocracy could be even worse than them. 

As gloomy and pessimistic as I often am about the human condition I have to remind myself that one of the first DVDs I ever bought was Singin' in the Rain.  I also adore the music of Haydn.  Gene Kelly once summed up the themes that drove his life as an artist as finding ways to depict love and joy.  I can't blame him for that, I'll probably never be able to blame him for that even if Zanadu was a pretty bad movie.  Haydn's conviction that the world is so full of misery and trials that he wanted to serve God and neighbor by finding some way to bring beauty, joy and peace into the world through his music is another personal mission for an artist I can't really disagree with.  Like I said, Haydn has been one of my musical heroes pretty much my whole adult life.

Now Haydn was an awful philandering husband despite the fact that he pushed for free medical care for all the musicians he supervised and managed to successfully plead clemency against Napoleon's invading forces on behalf of the town where he lived in his final years.  Haydn was bad in a few ways but I don't think we can altogether give up on the idea that the personal ethic and integrity of the artist can be hoped to in some way be vaguely commensurate to the beauty of the art the artist makes.

I just don't agree with Pratt's premise or conclusion.  I don't think the crisis we're looking at is whether or not we're all monsters.  Even as a Calvinist I would say we all have the capacity for monstrous deeds but that's actually not the same thing.  Now maybe I had the unfair advantage of having read a few things by Dederer here and there over the last twenty years but I would say Pratt misunderstood where Dederer was going and what she was proposing.  She recognizes that men she admires as writers and artists were and are monsters and is not sure how to reconcile that with a belief that an artist should in some sense be a good, decent person as well as a good, decent artist.  We expect there to be some kind of proportional relationship, rather than an inversely proportional relationship between the virtue of the artist and the greatness we see in the resultant art. 

There are those who insist we should still separate the ethical practice from the artistic process in "some" way.  But given that Woody Allen's film got a release and Louis CK's film did not the question I'm mulling over is whether or not a lot of this "post Weinstein" moment is going through motions.  If Woody Allen is still "too big to fail", if critics berate the film that managed to get released anyway while the CK film has no release, it's possible that we still endorse something like an art religion where people who are known to be awful people get exemptions if the art they make is considered important enough to Western art religion.  The people who make those calls are film critics and film school instructors rather than the populace at large.  The crisis of faith in art religion and its calculus of personal ethics against artistic mojo is not necessarily shared by the people who took their kids to see the My Little Pony film this year.  People who watch superhero films like Spiderman: Homecoming or Wonder Woman aren't going to see films that highlight the irrepressible nihilism at the heart of all comedy. 

While I have my doubts that in the "post Weinstein" moment things will necessarily change, the most salient question, which takes up the nature of a moral crisis, is still able to be front and center--whether the beauty critics and arts educators find in art works are so great they offset the horrible things we learn have been perpetrated by the artists who made the canonical works.  If the result is amazing enough and beautiful enough then can we overlook bullying, self-aggrandizing and even thuggish behavior because of that? 

If it's hard for those who don't even profess any kind of Christian faith to square the monstrosities of art monster men with  the art they made; if the math doesn't seem satisfying enough to overlook how even famous artists treated people because of, hey, art; then don't Christians have potentially (or actually) even less wiggle room to consider character as something that can be fully extracted from legacy?  Watch your lives and doctrine closely, for instance?  Even the Greeks could have an axiom that character was destiny but the art religion of the contemporary West has, in many ways, rejected this and the priesthood of that Western art religion, critics and educators, has played a larger than average role in fomenting such a religion of art.  Bad people can make beautiful things, I get it.  Gesualdo was a nasty, nasty piece of work who wrote some beautiful choral music.  As I was saying earlier, I'm a Calvinist, I don't have really strong objections to any part of the basic TULIP although I can see how an Amyraldian position could kinda sorta work sometimes.  Despite that, the declaration that "we're all monsters" doesn't hold water for me.

There's a point at which an axiom to the effect that 'we're all monsters' could be translated into something like 'you deserve Hell. everything else is a gift.'  As I was writing earlier, to say that each human has a capacity for monstrosity isn't the same as saying that capacity is realized all the time.  To put it still another way, there's a danger in presuming a monstrosity endemic to "all" of us that even a Calvinist can avoid because there's this thing called common grace.  Maybe not everyone has heard of this doctrine ... but it can go some way to explaining why though everyone is a sinner in some way not everyone sins in precisely the same way as a Woody Allen. 

The question of whether the products or legacy of Western art religion more than compensate for the harm done to people along the way is not a question that is just for Western secularists or humanists into the liberal arts.  The question of whether or not the beautiful legacy is worth valuing more than the very bad behavior of ambitious men wanting to change the world is germane to other parts of life.  It's possible for someone to know that people are sinners who have flaws and still conclude that there has to be some point at which the beauty of the thing created, the art work or the legacy of a community is simply not worth overlooking or merely saying a "we're all monsters".  In light of the fact that Dederer brought up Polanski and the allegations against him, a person can't be un-raped, a person cant be un-murdered, a person can't be un-maimed.  

What makes our capacity for monstrous acts so terrifying is that the super-majority of the things we do or say that have monstrous effects don't seem that terrible at the time we say or do them.  They might even seem witty, funny, right or true and then we might be in a position to see the consequences of what seemed like the perfect thing to say or do at a given moment to highlight how smart or right we are.  A lot of the sinfulness of sin is that its true power to damage doesn't become clear until well past the point at which any of us could undo the damage.  What can seem like a bracing and inspiring idea, a call to authentic Christian community and engagement in the arts and sharing life together in a place like Puget Sound can turn into ... well ... how much of the history of the former Mars Hill Church do I really need to rehearse by now?

The Church is full of too many men and women, too, with power and influence for whom the legacy of what they aspire to is considered beautiful enough or important enough to overlook a few skeletons in a closet.  Someone I used to see every so often a decade and a half ago said, ten years ago, that there was a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and that by God's grace there'd be a mountain by the time they were done.  I get that people are sinners who need the mercy of Christ.  I'm a Calvinist, after all, but even a Calvinist can still propose that at some point the beauty of the legacy, real or anticipated, doesn't offset harm done to people whether the legacy is the films of Woody Allen or the former empire in Puget Sound of a guy like Mark Driscoll. 

There's a point at which a Christian (or any decent person) can look at the work or the legacy and then look at the conduct and character of the person putting the legacy together and conclude that, no, the beauty of what you're trying to build here does not really outweigh how badly you've treated people.  If that's true of the Church I don't see why it can't also be true about the arts.  I love the arts but the older I get the less I care to keep up the bromides of Western art religion and if we consider what the nature of the post-Weinstein crisis seems to be, the crisis is coming to an understanding of how many lives have been ruined in the name of an art religion that seems less and less beautiful enough to justify overlooking the ruined lives. 

2 comments:

Cal of Chelcice said...

One of the best, and most devastating critiques, was Augustine when he deconstructed Roman civilization, laying bear that the city was literally built upon a dead brother (Remus). And it's not surprising Augustine discovered this, he was well familiar with the Abel and Cain story, which became axiomatic for talking about all the ways civilization is corrupt, all the way down. It doesn't mean good things can't happen, as Augustine discusses how the early Roman committed noble sins (e.g. they were honest and valiant because they were vainglorious, jealous for their own reputations). But the foundation of civilization is built upon a slain corpse. I think Ellul discusses this whole phenomenon is his "The Meaning of the City".

And the question we have to reckon with is: was it worth it? And that's the hang-up, because the greater part of myth is, in a sense, stashing the body. Maybe Freud is right, in a vague, accidental and partial sense, to say how patricide was key to the foundation of religion, civilization, and culture.

And it's why I'm disgusted with the pop-Lutheran approach as opposed to Calvinist camp. The former seems to recognize the same phenomenon and, focusing on the dead Christ, seems to say that our dead god is better because he brings forgiveness. But at least the latter, in a group like the Puritans, recognized the resurrection was a shift towards a new way to live. Lutheran-style sarcasm is so highly elitist, liking to sneer at the Puritan project as misguided from the start. And as mistaken as some of them were, they actually believed both in the whole depravity of mankind and, yet, a new life in Christ. It's easy for Mbird to say they're all monsters, they don't live with any tangible consequences of it. It all seems like a psychological game, which is all there is in bourgeois post-industrial nihilistic global capitalism.

There's a certain kind of unbelief at work in such circles. The Apostles seemed pretty clear that grace, saving knowledge of the truth, union with Christ, all transformed individuals and communities, while at the same time not diminishing human capacity for self-deception, wickedness, betrayal, and general evil in both small and great ways. I still believe that the crucifixion become the axis upon how we understand the time between the times now, and that we ought to be oriented towards an eschatological perfection. But none of this means that we have to accept an ends-means paradigm. We ought to be more comfortable with a bonfire of vanities every now and then, throwing out polluted art, rather than just shrugging our shoulders and moving on. Such purging doesn't remove the problem or our culpability in it, but it remains like a scar, healed but remaining as a tangible wound.

Anyways, food for thought,
cal

PS. You should check out Ephraim Radner's "A Brutal Unity". It's a good work on ecclesiological problems you might like and appreciate. It's a slog but worth it.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

it's been a while since I read City of God (and I only got through the first few books) but I do dimly remember Augustine's criticism of Roman culture founded upon murder. I'm working through The Meaning of The City as I juggle a few other books (the most challenging being Adorno, though half the time I think he's ridiculous and the other half of the time I think he's got compelling ideas).

I've added Radner to the get-to list. I did spot his name mentioned at your blog and in conversation with Alistair.