May 3, 2014
Let me use Holly Williams as a way to explain how I think about art.
Holly Williams is easily my favorite singer-songwriter to emerge in the last ten years. Her debut album was released in 2004, an album which held enormous promise, but it lacked a certain vividness that compels the listener to not only enter into her world but to re-enter one’s own world. This combination is basically my definition of a good singer-songwriter. Holly’s early promise was realized in her 2009 follow-up, Here With Me, with songs like “Mama” and “Without Jesus Here With Me.” At this point, introspection is in the service of life — something greater than us and something beautiful — not life in the service of introspection.
Holly’s joy is not cheap, much less contrived for the sake of eliciting a transitory emotional attachment. There is emotion to be sure, lots of it, but its origin — its wellspring or fountain, to be more poetic — is beyond oneself. It is in one’s family, a favorite theme for Holly, or the love of a spouse or in the bitter sorrows of a friend suffering from alcohol addiction. When the song’s theme is grief, it is never morose, never indulgent. In other words, Holly teaches us how to live. That is what a great artist does. That is what art does. Even though only a few of her songs will explicitly reference her Christian faith, grace is everywhere. This allows her to trust life.
The “promise” of which I have spoken about Holly Williams was fully realized in her 2013 release, The Highway. The accolades for this album have been appropriately enthusiastic, though mainstream country radio has predictably ignored it, with a few exceptions. Those of us who care about the dignifying importance of music, and art in general, should not ignore it. The lead track for the album, “Drinkin’,” was released as a music video, and most recently she did a video for the title track, “The Highway”:
This is a simple and lighthearted song, which is perfectly balanced while set beside the more “serious” songs like “Waiting on June,” the best song on the album.
April 24, 2014
I have begun to re-read the first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit, translated into English as The Glory of the Lord. Herrlichkeit means “glory” or “splendor.” It is the quality of “form” that radiates from being or existence. Balthasar chooses to begin his theological trilogy with this aesthetic quality (7 volumes), proceeded by goodness (5 volumes) and truth (3 volumes) — thereby reversing Kant’s ordering of his Critique series. I am excited to revisit Balthasar, who was a significant influence in my life during the mid-00’s when I first began to read theology, not counting my coursework in Religion/Philosophy as an undergraduate — a program with scarcely any theology at all. At that time, I was just beginning to read Barth on my own, beginning with Romans (which I rather disliked, exciting thought it was) and then Church Dogmatics I.1 (which “saved” Barth in my estimation, from his obvious beholdenness to existential obsessions with finitude). In the years since, I have read the majority of Barth’s CD, hopefully acquiring a pretty good facility with the material. I am certainly the most comfortable with expounding Barth than any other theologian.
Balthasar’s prose is magnificent but often a struggle, much more so than Barth. Newcomers will likely be astonished by me saying this, but I find that Barth is one of the clearest writers in the field. His mastery over prose is unparalleled, even if excessively prolix at times. I always get the sense that Barth says exactly what he wants to say, exactly how he wants to say it — with the greatest of ease. By contrast, I often get the sense that Balthasar is having a monologue with himself! He has so immersed himself within the whole breadth of Western metaphysics, alongside his mystical temperament, that he sometimes forgets he’s writing for an audience. But if you work your way through, the payoff is immeasurable. The awe with which Balthasar envisions reality will slowly but powerfully find its way into your own imagination.
It just so happens that I recently read Bultmann’s small volume, Jesus Christ and Mythology, marking the second work from Bultmann that I’ve read (the other being his NT theology). God willing, I will never read Bultmann again. I thoroughly dislike the man. I am afraid that if I were to express my thoughts, I would far exceed the boundaries of Christian charity. The contrast with Balthasar is like night and day — a rather apt image. At Bultmann’s best, he can attain a certain sublimity, but even that is rare. Beauty is wholly foreign to his theology. If that is the price of faithful authenticity, then I’ll pass.
In order to get a taste of Balthasar, here is one of my favorite passages toward the beginning of the volume:
Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray soon will no longer be able to love. The nineteenth century still held on with passionate frenzy to the fleeing garments of beauty, which are the contours of the ancient world as it dissolves: ‘Helena embraces Faust, her body vanishes, and only her robe and veil remain in his arms….Helena’s garments dissolve into clouds, enveloping Faust. He is raised on high and floats away with the cloud’ (Faust, II, Act 3). The world, formerly penetrated by God’s light, now becomes but an appearance and a dream — the Roman vision — and soon thereafter nothing but music. But where the cloud disperses, naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish. Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, twentieth-century man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.
In a world without beauty — even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it — in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out.
[The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, T&T Clark / Ignatius Press: 1982, pp. 18-19]
Wow! You could spend an hour discussing the richness, the penetration, the magnificence of these sentences.
April 5, 2014
The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”
William F. Buckley, Jr, Boston Globe, Sep 13, 1964
Ah, you gotta love Buckley. Okay, admittedly this was the early Beatles, not the critically acclaimed later material (1967-69), of which I am not fond either. Buckley was not alone in his criticisms of this British invasion, some of which were hilarious:
Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments….
Newsweek, Feb 24, 1964
The Liverpool lunacy is merely the 1964 version of a mild disease which periodically sweeps across the country as the plagues of the Middle Ages once did. In its current manifestation it is characterized by an excessive hair growth, an inability to recognize melody, a highly emotional state with severe body twitches and a strange accent that is more American Southwest than Mersey dockside…. So now it’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “yeah, yeah, yeah.” The disease is at the height of its virulence, but the fever will subside and the victims may receive immunity for life from fads.
Boston Globe, Feb 16, 1964
You can read more at the Los Angeles Times, which complied the quotes for an op-ed a couple months ago. The real British invasion should have happened five years later:
Led Zeppelin (1969)
April 2, 2014
A couple years ago, I offered some meager reflections on the debates surrounding Mumford & Sons. I sided with the negative critics. I still do, even more now than then. I revisited Jordan Bloom’s article. Their “sincerity” is really what drives me crazy — the need to really “feel” a thought before you express it. This is a plague in our day, and it is why our “art” sucks. You have artists interrogating their emotional landscape, projecting it onto the world, and calling it authentic. It then gets marketed to benighted consumers, eager to identify with the same authenticity and to parade it to their peers. And then there’s the music — as if the Beatles didn’t do enough to destroy American folk music.
In Jordan Bloom’s criticisms, he rightly parallels this phenomenon with the trajectory of church music toward therapeutic kitsch. They’re both cheap, easy, and disposable, which is what the consumer wants — whether in the church or at a concert, as if there is any difference anymore.
If you really want to know what a bearded troubadour of love should sound like, here is one of America’s greatest songwriters:
If you do not find this as “inspiring’ or “uplifting” as a Mumford song, then I should pray for your soul.
January 5, 2014
It’s time for a little respite from Simone Weil. So, let’s talk about cowboys! Why not.
In a previous post from last year, we looked at the creativity of early country music, as discussed in Richard Peterson’s fascinating study, Creating Country Music (University of Chicago Press, 1997). In short, the leading producers, talent scouts, promoters, and record executives — at the dawn of country music in the 1920’s and 30’s — hated country music! As Peterson put it, “In most instances they didn’t like the music, didn’t understand it, and had no respect for its audience.” So they did not interfere, and pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff could develop their sound as they saw fit.
At the risk of over-romanticizing, it can indeed be said that this was the music of the rural Southern worker, who had migrated to cotton mills and other factories that sprouted across the South. Away from home, they longed for the music of their upbringing. A few upstart businessmen in Atlanta and elsewhere discovered that the ragtime, jazz, and blues from Tin Pan Alley (NYC) was not really what these workers wanted to hear. So they began recording some of the fiddlers and pickers that were popular within these communities, and — to their surprise — the records sold briskly! Country music, as a commercial enterprise, was born.
The other significant contribution came from AM radio stations, namely those with a clear-channel signal that would reach beyond the cities and far into the rural country. The most important and most famous is WSM in Nashville, which is still going strong. WSM had a little show called, The Grand Ole Opry, which was based upon a “hillbilly” comedy-and-song format that had become popular at a few other AM stations. In 1942, Roy Acuff created his own label in Nashville, which attracted other country artists who were being exploited elsewhere, many having traveled to NYC to get recorded. Acuff signed Hank Williams in 1946, who would take country music to new heights of success. At this time, Nashville was not the “hub” of country music. There was none. It could have just as easily been Atlanta or New Orleans, if not Chicago or New York! It was the combined success of the Opry and Acuff’s record label that attracted other labels. Nashville quickly became synonymous with country music.
So, how do cowboys come into the picture?
In the early days, if you wanted to perform in a public venue, you would dress-up in your Sunday best. And, that is naturally what the earliest country performers did. Suit and tie — usually the only nice set of clothes they owned. However, the “hillbilly” image became popular, and most artists began to play the role — regardless of whether they were actually from the mountains or not! This dominated the country music image well into the 30’s, and “hillbilly music” (not “country music”) was the most common name for the genre.
But, the hillbilly image had limited appeal to a broader range of listeners. Even in the South, “hillbilly” was not necessarily a beloved epithet and could denote lazy or ignorant. Meanwhile in cinemas across the country, a string of “western” flicks were depicting the adventures and excitement of the cowboy’s life. And long before this, in the 19th century, the folk stories of frontiersmen like Davy Crockett had captured the imagination of the people. The cowboy was a ready image for country artists looking for a new way to express themselves. In the 30’s and 40’s, Gene Autry became famous as “the singing cowboy” in a series of popular western films. The cowboy image quickly took off, with Hank Williams being a notable example.
The “cowboy” signifies courage and strength, combined with passion and self-sacrifice. It was very much a chivalrous image. It also signifies a free spirit, on the open range. Interestingly, this aspect of the cowboy image would be taken-up by the “trucker” image in the 1970’s. Truckers became the “cowboys” on the open highways and “outlaws” if the situation demanded it! (See the movie, Convoy, for example, and most famously, the Bandit!)
So, there you have it. That is how the cowboy became the dominant image in country music and frequently a motif in the music’s storytelling. Real cowboys, let it be known, were not known for writing songs or carrying a guitar on their saddle! But it has become ingrained in the imagination of Southern folkways, even if you live east of the Mississippi River (as I do) among cotton fields and tobacco farms, not open ranges for steering cattle. As someone who values imagination and folkways, I am fine with that.
And here is my favorite cowboy-themed song, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” from George Strait:
This is just a perfectly crafted song. No frills. Just perfect.
December 31, 2013
Simone Weil is most known for her writings on suffering, namely the capacity of affliction to dehumanize and make a person a thing (“If anyone wants to make himself invisible, there is no surer way than to become poor.”) Thus, our attention toward the unseen, as the Good Samaritan saw a human in the beaten thing on the side of the road, is the surest path toward rejecting the illusory imagination through which we secure ourselves in the world.
Yet, there is another path — the apprehension of beauty — and this is just as important for Weil’s philosophy. Like affliction, genuine beauty draws us outside of ourselves (the false, illusory self) toward something which we cannot consume, cannot eat, to use Weil’s favorite illustration. We must remain hungry in the face of beauty, or else the beauty is corrupted in our compulsive desire to possess. We must allow the beautiful to remain as it is, apart from us. This is also Weil’s way of expressing pure friendship. We want to absorb the other into ourselves, destroying the other as such; friendship allows the other to exist fully, regardless of whether “I” exist — indeed, as if “I” do not exist.
None of this is actually possible — humanly possible. We are not actually able to love the poor, the despised, the ugly, the stupid. It is a miracle from beyond human possibility. It is grace. On this, both Weil and Barth are in agreement: love is not a possibility, love is a miracle.
The bad artist asserts herself in her art. Art is a means of self-expression. It exhibits the pathos of the individual. Good art — beautiful art — is a forgetting of oneself. In this forgetting, we find ourselves anew, but this cannot be our object — it is unknown, because it is given by grace. We cannot manufacture beauty. We do not create it; it creates us. The artist expresses beauty, not directly but indirectly. It is not possible for the artist to pursue beauty; she must be attentive in the void and let beauty find her. In this way, beauty is not personal expression but impersonal expression.
Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Lucian Stone, in their wonderfully clear survey of Weil’s philosophical theology, illuminate this point further:
To understand how a beautiful thing is impersonal, we must consider Weil’s identification of five sub-traits of impersonality in aesthetics. First, there is duration. “One does not grow tired of beauty,” whereas “one does grow tired of what is pleasing, of what only flatters the senses,” Weil claims. The beautiful is something one can attend to for hours; anything that falls short of this (such as the statues in the Luxembourg, for her) is unendurable and demands either that we look away, or that we eliminate the offense. Second, there is purity: beauty does give a “pure pleasure,” a pleasure absolutely distinct from the one that arises from and encourages consumption. This is why real beauty ‘captivates the flesh” and stills the child in us “in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.” So while the beautiful is a “carnal attraction,” it “keeps us at a distance” and demands that we renounce our falsifying imaginations. Third, there is the element of infinity. That is, there can be no comparisons in the realm of absolute beauty; to think in terms of “better” or “worse” or any matter of degree suggests that the work is not truly beautiful, for the beautiful is the incarnation of God in matter. Fourth, there must be no element of flattery, for there can be no elevation of the ego in attending to the beautiful. Finally, as we have seen already, impersonality implies universality. …for Weil, the Gregorian chant epitomizes the beautiful, perhaps surprisingly because of its “share of monotony.” This beautiful monotony, as opposed to a mechanical monotony of factory work or of the clock, finds its model in the “perfect regularity of the sky’s revolutions that permits the rhythm of agricultural work, the only work that puts us directly in contact with the universe.”
In addition to Gregorian chant, Weil points to J. S. Bach, Romanesque architecture, Byzantine iconography, Sophocles’ Antigone, Homer’s Iliad, among other examples.
When she speaks of “impersonal” beauty, Weil can give the impression of something mundane or boring. It is almost as if the peculiar is lost amidst the universal. But in fact, according to Weil, the peculiar is lost when it is isolated from the universal. Evil isolates the particular from the universals of goodness, beauty, and truth. As such, it becomes mundane and boring, exhaustible as are all finite things. Here are the Stones once again, in one of my favorite passages:
Real goodness…is “an unfathomable marvel” that is too often desecrated at the hands of novelists and artists who render it cliché and portray evil as sensational and mysterious. We “envelop [the truth of the Good] in a fog in which, as in all fiction, values are reversed, so that evil is attractive and good is tedious,” when in fact, “nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good.” This is because the forms and manifestations of baseness are finite, for they issue from the finite (i.e., from us). We cannot, as Weil has said, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. So, the artist, if she is to create something that can be called “beautiful” or “good,” must take on “the transparency of a window pane” to allow the light of the divine to shine through.
Hopefully that should entice you to read more of Simone Weil. To be sure, I wrestle with Weil. She is not for everyone. She is probably a Gnostic. Her intensity is extreme. She is also the purest philosophical mind that I have ever read.
December 23, 2013
An alternative title to this post could be, “Why existentialism and postmodernism ruined everything,” but that’s a bit grandiose. This is from Frederick Beiser, an authority on German Idealism, talking about his book, Diotima’s Children: German Aesthetic Rationalism from Leibniz to Lessing (Oxford, 2009):
The aporias of the present is that there really is no aesthetic criticism anymore, and that there are really no standards about art. Anything goes, and anything is good or excellent “in its own kind”. We got here because some aestheticians and philosophers took the avant-garde too seriously, and held that even snow shovels, urinals and soup cans can be works of art. I think that the avant-garde was making all kinds of interesting and valid points; but one it was not making is that these kinds of things are works of art. They were not intended to be works of art but, for all kinds of complicated philosophical social and political reasons, works of anti-art. There really are standards of criticism, and there really are rules of art, even though people shudder at the very thought of them. You only have to listen to film critics and book critics to see that they apply all kinds of standards, like the need for verisimilitude, the need for unity in variety, for coherence, for capturing the interest of the reader. You only have to talk to artists to see that they work according to rules, and that they know all too well that they can employ only certain means to achieve the ends they want. The question is to spell out these standards, and to make clear these rules, and that means first knowing what an aesthetic standard and an aesthetic rule means. The whole issue has to be re-thought, and to re-think we have to go back more to the past, when there was a lot more thinking about these issues.
One of the reasons standards and rules have been so undermined is because of the doctrine, common since Kant, that taste is only a matter of subjective pleasure, and that it has nothing to do with the object itself. This Kantian doctrine, which appears perfectly explicitly in the first paragraph of the Kritik der Urteilskraft, has been decisive in turning people away from criticism because there is no need to look at the object itself, to look at its qualities, to determine what is good or bad. Kant wanted universal aesthetic judgments, of course, but he could hardly guarantee them because there was no reason one could give for them. There was nothing about the object itself that made it pleasant or unpleasant to look at. We might as well look at snow shovels and urinals.
The reason why I like Diotima’s children — the aesthetic rationalists of the eighteenth century — is because they stress the importance about something in the object itself that makes it good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant to look at. They all defined aesthetic pleasure in terms of the perception of perfection, intuitio perfectionis, where perfection meant something like unity-in-multiplicity, a formal structural feature of an object, what we also call harmony or beauty. They did not deny that there is a subjective component to aesthetic experience in the feeling of pleasure; but they believed that there is also an objective component, that they judgment rests on a perception of this perfection in the object.
I think that there is something to this doctrine, and that we do well to revive it. Oddly, one of its tacit proponents, though explicit opponents, is Hume himself. When Hume insists that taste is a matter of delicacy, that it is a matter of having a sensitivity to features of an object itself, he is very close to the rationalist doctrine. Hume was really a covert objectivist (or partial one) about aesthetic pleasure because that pleasure had to be based on the sensitivity to features in the object. It was only having that sensitivity that allowed some people to be good critics. As soon as we explain what is involved in that sensitivity we get something along the lines of the rationalist’s intuitio perfectionis.
This is part of a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Beiser. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. If you are interested in this subject, Beiser expresses thoughts similar to Roger Scruton in his documentary on art for the BBC.
December 21, 2013
I have thoroughly enjoyed Robin Waterfield’s translation of Plato’s Symposium (Oxford, 2009 ). He has also translated Republic, Timaeus, Gorgias, Phaedrus, and others, plus works from Euripides, Aristotle, Herodotus, Plutarch, Plotinus, et alia. He conveys a charm and wit that I have not found in other translators — though I’ll leave it to the experts in Attic Greek to judge — and his annotations are often humorous. His introductory essay to Symposium, which should be read only after reading the dialog itself, is a fine probing of the text: appropriately cautious yet confident in his vast knowledge of Plato’s corpus.
Socrates’ speech about ἔρως is a retelling of insights given to him by Diotima, a female philosopher and seer. The argument is full of twists and turns, not easy to reconstruct. Plato is figuring how ἔρως — érōs, trans. “love” — remains continuous throughout the person’s ascent to the highest form of love, which is love of absolute beauty, not merely particular instances here below. We begin with the ἔρως felt toward a particular object of our desires, as in our desire for sexual consummation with a beautiful person. There is a lack within ourselves, which is why Love cannot be identified with the absolute (or God) according to Plato — since God does not lack anything. The precise nature of this lack is a bit obscure. Love (ἔρως) is not pursuing beauty for the sake of beauty per se but for the sake of happiness, which Plato elsewhere (Republic most famously) connects with absolute Goodness. Yet, what makes us happy? In Symposium, Plato connects our ἔρως with our desire for immortality, which compels us to procreate and thereby extend ourselves. Likewise, we want to “possess” the objects of our desire because we want the true object — happiness — to endure forever. So, this is why philosophy is better than sex (!) because we can “procreate” that which never perishes: virtue or goodness. Thus, Socrates rejects the sexual advances of his attractive male students, because he wants to procreate wisdom with them, thereby bringing them to a higher stage of eternal beatitude.
The “erotic” is never denigrated. Sexual desire and its consummation participate in the beauty that leads us to absolute beauty or goodness. The erotic impulse is not to be rejected or repressed but transferred to a greater and more expansive apprehension of beauty. At least, that is how Waterfield interprets it:
The temptation to talk about the ascent in terms of sublimation of erotic impulses has proved too strong for some post-Freudian commentators, but it is entirely inappropriate. Diotima is not talking about the unconscious repression of instinctive energy, but the conscious transcendence of it. Whatever precisely Freud meant by the term ‘sublimation’ (he changed his mind a number of times about it), it seems to involve a blockage of the erotic impulse; in Diotima’s speech, on the other hand, érōs is never blocked, even though it may be transferred on to different objects. Even here there is a difference between Plato and Freud: the new objects of érōs in Freudian sublimation are less satisfactory than the objects the person really desires; for Diotima, however, the further up the ladder of love one ascends, the more fulfilling the objects are. Finally, although it is clear that the passion of érōs is preserved throughout the ascent, it is not clear that the sexual element is, except as a metaphor (as in Eryximachus’ speech); for Freud, however, sublimated desires remained essentially sexual. [p. xxxi]
So, the “sexual element” is important at the early stages of our apprehension of beauty and desire for happiness, though it is not clear whether this persists — once our “eros” is directed toward the purer and enduring beauty of absolute goodness. Given that Plato elsewhere conceives of material reality as a lower “impression” of the eternal “forms,” it seems that Plato’s ideal is a transcendence beyond all sexual desire, even if he does not denigrate its importance in one’s ascent. The problem with an “erotic impulse” that never matures, remaining at the lower level of particular goods, is that it wants to unite with transience, instead of using this impulse to lead beyond transience.
Image: A bust of Diotima at the University of Western Australia. Click to enlarge.
October 27, 2013
I am blessed to attend an evangelical church which still has an organ and professional organist — an increasing rarity in these barbaric days. For those who are not so fortunate, you should at least compensate by joyfully attuning your ears to this wonderful piece by Bach:
October 1, 2013
This is a delightful and wide-ranging discussion with Roger Scruton on the concept of human rights, tolerance, art/aesthetics, gender theory, and more:
Scruton is the foremost public intellectual within the Burkean school of conservatism. I have previously linked his documentary on art for the BBC, as well as Edward Feser’s summary of Scruton’s definition of sentimentality.
Also, you can watch Terry Eagleton in conversation with Roger Scruton. Needless to say, I am a bit incredulous about Eagleton’s rosy picture of leftist cultural values, but he’s an articulate defender of his cause, which has long won.