An Uncle and A Cousin

Henri Degas and His Niece Lucie Degas / Edgar Degas / Oil on canvas / 1876

Unfortunately the subtleties of this piece aren’t obvious on a screen, but each surface in the picture has its own texture. Also, a reminder that you can see this and every other painting in the Art Institute for free if you are an Illinois resident on Thursday evenings. Or you can tag along with me since, thanks to my parents, I have a membership.

To Organize Delirium

Be an outlaw. Be a hero.
Be an outlaw. Be a hero.

Yesterday I visited the recently opened Hélio Oiticica retrospective. Oiticica was a Brazilian multimedia artist and “the most influential Latin American artist of the post–World War II period,” as the introduction to the exhibit puts it. Most of his work was political and much of the exhibit has an explicitly political message. Che’s familiar face greeted us in the second gallery; the image at left hung on the adjacent wall. 

Not all of it is so serious, though. One section of the exhibit is a recreated beach, complete with sand, birds, and reconstructions of some of the box-like penetrables. Bouncing in the foam pit and trudging barefoot across the installation I felt as if I was transgressing all that I knew about museums. Can I do this? I asked the guard several times. Each time he nodded. Twice he added suggestions: “Feel free to go in there,” he said. 

a penetrable
a penetrable

The most effective piece was one which combined play and politics, one of Oiticica’s signature penetrables. It is built like a maze, but with one path. Every few feet the path is broken by a semi-transparent curtain which one must move through to continue. Each section formed by the curtains in front and behind has its own multicolored light-source and a television blaring contemporary advertisements. The curtains block both light and sound, so the transition between sections is as complete as stepping across the threshold of one store to enter another in a mall. The total effect is disorienting. At the end of the maze is one final surprise, engaging one of the remaining senses. But I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to taste for yourself.

Another Crucifixion

I spent half a day in Cleveland recently and I’m very glad part of the time was spent at the (free) Cleveland Museum of Art. The Italian Renaissance room, in particular, was wonderful. On one side were paintings in which the human form appeared bright and idealized. On the opposing were more naturalistic paintings and in the center was this one by Caravaggio.

It’s readily apparent that this is not a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion–the rope on the subject’s arms and his age suggest another crucifixion. I wasn’t familiar enough with Church tradition to identify this as St. Andrew but the description remedied my ignorance. Perhaps because I’m much more familiar with scenes of Christ’s crucifixion, as I looked at this painting I kept comparing it to those I’d seen before. Similarities and dissimilarities are evident at once. St. Andrew, like Christ, is the focus of the piece, and yet one senses that the true center lies outside the frame, as his eyes and the light on the right suggest. In both there is contorted flesh but blood is notably absent from this picture. One’s eyes are drawn immediately to St. Andrew’s right side–the spot where Christ was pierced–only to see that it is unharmed. 

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” As Lent begins I hope to carry this image with me as a reminder that discipleship is loving imitation, and not a replacement, of what Jesus did for us. 

How To See A Painting

Cestello Annunciation / Sandro Boticelli / 1489 / Tempera on Panel

First, go to a museum. Enter a gallery. There should be paintings on the walls; look them over. Are there any that draw your feet closer? Surely there must be at least one. Do not resist — go to it. 

Now look. Look at it like you looked at your brother: your unblinking eyes fixed on his, determined not to be the first to look away. The painting is your opponent: treat it accordingly. Document every detail. Note its frame, its size, and its colors. Ask questions of it. Entertain answers to those questions long enough to realize their inadequacy. Look at the painting as though it conceals a secret. Your only weapon is your obstinate attention. Wield it well. 

Soon you will realize that you can’t possibly win. The painting has beaten every would-be opponent since its first day in a gallery. And before that it bested the artist, who had stared until she could bear it no more. Prolong your defeat a little longer and look at the painting now as if you were the artist. A single detail hides hours spent painting and scrutinizing and re-painting this portion of the canvas. The painting itself hides a room, where an artist went, day after day, to make what you now see before you. Look with this in mind. As with the artist at the end of a day painting, you will reach a point where your fondness fades and you want to be free from your work. 

Look away. Wander around the gallery. The other paintings are worthy of your attention too; give them some. But do not give yourself to them. Flirt, but chastely: they are not yours and you are not theirs. Notice the red in that painting, the way that one looks like a photograph, how the light falls in the gallery. Soon you will be back before your painting. Prolong the separation a bit longer and read the description of your piece. 

Now look again. Don’t content yourself with a single vantage point. Like a precious stone, a painting only reveals its full glory when seen from every angle. Move around. Find a point in the gallery where the painting shines its particular light. Stay there. People will start to notice you. Good. Then people will start to notice what you’re looking at. Even better. Stay past when people apologize for walking between you and your painting; stay until they don’t see you anymore, until you become part of the furniture of the gallery, like the guard ropes around the paintings or the guards themselves, unseen until a visitor brushes up against a rope. 

You are invisible. Only now can you know what it feels like to be passed over by the hordes, or pointed at and then forgotten. As you stand with your painting, as its fellow, you are now privvy to what was a mystery before. Attention is no longer a weapon to wield, but the hand you extend in friendship. And as with a friend, nothing needs to be done. You can be content to stand in its presence. Before you believed the painting held a secret; now you know that the painting itself is the secret. 

Look just a little more. In a few moments you will begin to wonder whether it is you or the painting who is looking. Then, flee!

Bad Movies and Bad Religion

Over Christmas break, my brother, father, and I went to see “Creed”. My brother, who recently has picked up an interest in boxing, was thrilled to see the film. But I — for reasons somewhere between snobbery and suspicion of films involving Sylvester Stallone — was hesitant. My father wanted me to go, though. It may take some suspension of disbelief, he said, but it will be fun. I went. It was fun. And it turned out the film involved very little suspension of disbelief. Without some of the wilder improbabilities of the previous Rocky films, and with enough playful jabs at the melodrama of those films, “Creed” worked. All of us enjoyed it. 

There are films, though, that work only if you suspend disbelief. Take Pixar’s films, for example. Nearly all of their films are fantastic, in both senses of the word. Each is premised on taking a childhood fantasy seriously — What if our toys came alive when we weren’t around? What if there really are monsters in our closets? — and the result is usually, well, fantastic. Each film asks us to accept the initial premise in order for the world they create to work. And work they do: Pixar’s writers ensure that all the eventualities of their premise work themselves out, in comic and dramatic fashion.

There are other films, though, that only function if an initial suspension of disbelief is prolonged throughout the film. Unlike “Toy Story” or “Monsters Inc.” these films only work if their plot points aren’t examined too closely. “High School Musical” comes to mind. During my own high school career it was all the rage. It featured a dashing cast, catchy songs, and a vision of high school that transcended the banality of the one we went to every day. It was fun. But even in high school, I could see that once you began reflecting on the film, instead of being absorbed in it, the movie fell apart. The plot is predictable, the dialogue clichéd, and the premise absurd. 

Of course, there’s a place for watching movies with one’s critical faculties in abeyance. They can deliver us — temporarily — from our world and into one in which evil is routed and true love rewarded. Sports movies, romances, and action flicks give us a chance to escape. But the pleasures of these films tend to dissipate after a few viewings. It becomes difficult to suppress the feeling that something crudely transactional is taking place, as if happiness can only be purchased at the cost of reflection. 

The job of a critic, writes A.O. Scott, a film critic with the New York Times, is “to refuse to look at anything simply as what it is, to insist on subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny.” This is not, he adds elsewhere, “in order to ruin everyone else’s fun” by pooh-poohing films that are plebeian, but in order to respect the fact that we, as humans, are both emotive and intellective creatures (to borrow from Alyssa Wilkinson’s wonderful review of A.O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism). Good films bear a little scrutiny. Rather than taking away from the pleasures of film, criticism can provide more enduring pleasures. 

Now, I rarely go to the movies. My income and location in Chicago don’t encourage it. But I do go to church. An aside from a recent lecture by Rowan Williams got me thinking that a similar dynamic is at work in religious experience. He says, “In being invited to confess Christ as divine and human we are not being invited to suspend our intellectual faculties and accept a contradiction, in the good cause of obedient piety. We are being invited to do some hard work.” Faith, in other words, shouldn’t ask us to stop thinking (as if willful ignorance could constitute obedience to God) but to begin thinking inside the realm entered through faith. 

Just as bad movies demand that we suspend our critical faculties in order to enjoy them, bad religion requires something similar of us — that we don’t ask questions, don’t examine the words we confess, don’t have doubts — since that will ruin the experience. And it really will: anyone who has sung some of less artful contemporary Christian worship songs knows that they fall apart under a little inspection. Bad religion fears reflection, since a little critical distance can see cliché, cheap sentimentalism, and predictability for what they are. Like a movie that tries to orchestrate our emotional response, bad religion leaves us feeling like we’ve been manipulated. 

But if poorly made films and poorly done liturgy ask that we leave our intellects at the door, good art and the best of the Christian tradition invite our intellects inside, to explore the world made possible by trust. Let me illustrate with an example. Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is an extraordinarily ambitious film. During its 138 minutes of run time, the camera roams from the creation of the universe, to dinosaurs doing battle, to a group of small boys frolicking in the wake of a truck spraying pesticides. Unlike most films, “The Tree of Life”, does not tell a protaganist’s story, but the whole narrative of life itself. Where most films are driven by dialogue, “The Tree of Life” is impelled by the force of its images. For many, it was a frustrating film: critics lamented the hubris of trying to tell a story about all of life; viewers found it boring. They weren’t willing to accept Malick’s premise and so they didn’t trust the film. Others, like A.O. Scott, did trust the film. And because of that trust they were able to appreciate the beauty of the strange world that Malick renders. Scott writes that the film “stak[es] out well-traveled territory and excavat[es] primal, eternal meanings.” “The Tree of Life,” he says, “ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them.” 

Like “The Tree of Life,” Christianity requires trust. We can’t enter without some faith in the story it tells. But once we cross the threshold we are rewarded by the world we are given. We begin to see the beautiful coherence of this world and the rewards that come from trying to understand it. Those who make a habit of thinking about God can understand the extraordinary architecture of the world of God, just as a film critic can find rich themes in details the casual viewer would miss. 

And yet, there comes a time when even the critic is at a loss for words, if only temporarily. That moment came for me when the credits of “The Tree of Life” rolled. I stayed in my seat. Someone began to applaud to my left, but I was silent. I didn’t know what to say or do. What had I just seen? I knew I would need to watch the film again to know. Pure worship of God does something like that. It presents us with a bewildering excess of meaning, before which we can only fall silent.