Assigning Value?

I was so struck by this discussion when I read it this evening that I think it warrants a second post this week. The students, artists, and theologians over at Transpositions opened this discussion on the importance of art in culture, based on the current controversy in the UK over cutting government funds for the arts. The question is, is art essential to society? That is, when things become critical, should the arts be cut before (to use the specific example used in their discussion) healthcare? What should come before art, and what should come after art, when funding is cut?

Unfortunately, we exist in a world that requires these pieces of paper with arbitrarily assigned values to make anything happen. Since at least the Renaissance, artists have frequently functioned by having wealthy patrons fund their work. Or, they do what I and many others do, and have the bittersweet “day job” that pays the rent while pursuing what we love (a poet once said that the only thing worse than having a job is not having a job).

I have an inherent dislike for assigning monetary values to works of art, or, even worse, to an art form in general. I think the value of good art is inherent. Of course, as humans don’t create ex nihilo, artists must have supplies, and thus receive money from somewhere. Having recently experienced funding cuts for the arts in Virginia, I know how critical some public sustenance is to the art community at large. Yet, as much as any artist will insist on the necessity of good art for a healthy culture, I think the conversation on Transpositions asks an important question: is art absolutely critical for the survival of a culture? When the worst happens, and humanity enters “survival mode” (as in times of war), how critical does art become in Maslow’s Hierarchy? Dare we reduce it to make sure people are fed? Dare we not reduce it to make sure people are fed?

I think good art is indispensable to the emotional, spiritual, and psychological health of any society, as well as for influencing the positive movement of a society (L’Engle once said that only writers with something to say are censored). In both the UK and the U.S., there is an entire industry for creative professionals that will be heavily impacted when funding for the projects that employ them is reduced. During the Hollywood writer’s strike of 2007, many freelance support professionals were out of work for an extended period of time. I understand that a similar situation recently occurred in New York City when a CSI series stopped production. Many similar instances could occur when theatres, symphonies, and other venues are unable to maintain their volume of seasonal offerings.

Another question posed in the original post (for my readers of faith) is: what are the ecclesiological implications of this? In the West, I cringe at the idea of the Church influencing the arts until it becomes better educated about them, lest we end up with more Thomas Kincaid. Yet, historically, the Church has held an important role in the arts that it should reclaim.

Head over to Transpositions and read the post. There are many questions posited there that I haven’t even mentioned. Let them know your thoughts. And I’d love to hear them, here, as well.

Revelations in Cardboard

I took Karen to a nearby museum to celebrate our anniversary this weekend…the museum has only opened in the last two or three years, and it was one of those excursions that we had been planning to take and never quite gotten to. Being a relatively new museum, there weren’t a great deal of exhibits. One installation, however, was really fascinating. It was a sculpture of Poseidon and several sea nymphs and dolphins charging forward, entitled the Corrugated Fountain. What was striking was that the installation nearly filled an entire room, such that you could walk through it, and was sculpted from cardboard. I learned about the sculptor that the piece was modeled after, an artist with which I was previously unfamiliar. I also refreshed my European history a bit during an exhibit of paintings commissioned by the Medici  family. One of the reasons I love museums is because you learn. They are a place where art (or science, or whatever the medium to which that particular museum might be dedicated) and history meet. There are even museums of history, of course. The point is that it is an interactive learning experience, from which I always walk away richer.

In my free time, I’ve been reading back over some history of theology to get my brain back in gear for PhD research proposals (go ahead…yawn). I look back over the four or so years since finishing grad school, and think about the things I’ve learned, and it’s surprising how many new discoveries have occurred since I finished…that is, while I wasn’t in school. On our first real date, I loved how challenged I was by Karen’s intellect. She has forced me outside of my own perspectives, and pushed me into new areas of discovery. 
Call it being enrolled in the school of life, or the university of hard knocks, or whatever you like. I just find it ironic that both grad school and my undergrad were more catalysts than complete and self-contained educations: they forced me to think and explore, and those thoughts and explorations solidified once I had finished and was back in “the real world.” 
Now, its no secret that I have enjoyed being a student much more than I have enjoyed the “real world” to date. However, I think I needed to be free of the stress of assignment deadlines and research paper edits to let things process through my brain. After a certain point, any student knows that you reach critical mass, and nothing else is going to  make it in for a while. Similar to eating a delicious meal,  you have to give it some time to digest before taking in anything else. 
Karen is the educational theorist of the two of us, and she tells me that this is how education works: that you are presented with and work through the subject matter, and then you must give it time to “sink in.” This is apparently not a short process, or at least it has not been for me. I’ve only recently arrived at some idea of how my myriad interests connect, and even still the ideas are in the process of solidifying rather than being a finished product. This is a journey that I have been on for years, and continue to travel. 
Even from a purely “book smart” perspective, though, I find that only now can I truly connect many of the concepts that I crammed in for exams or projects while in school. Now, those ideas and theories meld and make sense. Then, they were more information that I needed to be able to reproduce mechanically or write about with some coherency. This is not unlike the way a technical education (which I had studying theatre technology) requires some time after learning for one to become proficient.
I made a comment a few weeks ago that I had to go back and learn the things I should have learned when I was in school. I don’t think that’s really accurate, though. I think that I’m just experiencing the full digestion of the meals I’ve eaten, and am beginning to be ready for the next. 
So, tell me: what have you learned after years of letting something percolate? I don’t believe for a second that this is confined to the classroom. “Real life” lessons are a long time in the learning, as well.  

If It Isn’t Broken…

Shhhh. Be vewy, vewy qwiet. We’re hunting the wabbit of normalcy.

I guess that’s easy for me to say because I would be, by some standards, sort of deviant. After all, I’m riddled with angst, most especially every time I schedule myself to write. I had serious anger outbursts as a freshman while practicing piano (imagine flying sheet music). I have unprofessional moments of expressing intense verbal displeasure with obvious stupidity that  fits in just fine backstage, but tends to not be received all that well in most office environments. Thus, try as I might to meet enough societal expectations to keep my day job, I am emotionally unbalanced, I question authority, I am a proud nonconformist, and, by our culture’s definition of the word, not entirely normal.

Of course, as my wife’s end of the family is fond of pointing out, “normal” is merely a setting on one’s dryer.

Here’s my defense: the very personality characteristics that  brand me as not normal, different, and outside of the status quo, are what make me creative. They are what make me an independent thinker. If an industrialized society has taught us anything, its that a sanitized culture of balance and recognition of the need for treatment of such…dysfunctions…is necessary for a productive society. We tolerate an eccentric few that serve us in the “entertainment industry,” along with the occasional absent-minded professor or scientist, and the rest of us are expected to conform. Dress codes, codes of conduct…resistance is futile. Welcome to the Borg.

I had an immediately harsh knee-jerk reaction to this article when I read it last week. Moscow’s new metro rail station has been named in memory of the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Artwork on display in the station portray scenes of Dostvoesky’s novels, which were frequently dark in their subject matter (the article cites specifically a grisly murder scene from Crime and Punishment). According to the CNN article, mental health experts are questioning whether or not this is dangerous, in essence, to the public health, because it will encourage actions such as suicide. Essentially, psychological experts desire to censor the art in the station in order to encourage good emotional health among the general population, and we are once again thrown backward into the “life imitating art” controversy. 

I’m not even going to get started on the censorship argument against this, nor the point that quality art is critical for a society’s emotional health. I sincerely hope that goes without saying. I want to trace a line of thought that I’ve followed through two science fiction works over the last few weeks. I recently finished reading The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks. Hawks sets his story in a surveillance society only slightly more drastic than our current culture, controlled by a secret brotherhood that demand compliance with expectations of normalcy from citizens, and systematically track down and kill those who cross to other realms and return with divergent perspectives. All in the name of order.

Almost immediately after finishing the book, Karen and I watched Equilibrium this weekend, a 2003 movie in which society has made feeling illegal in the name of preventing war, and thus art and pets are not only illegal, but destroyed on sight in order to prevent humans from viewing it and subsequently feeling emotion (ironically, this law is enforced by violence…thus nothing has been accomplished because what makes us human is sacrificed in the name of humanity). 

Good science fiction, while doing other things, presents a warning as to where we might go and what we might do with our powers of human innovation. I see the potential for us to travel the roads presented in these two pieces, and I see the discipline of psychology contributing progressively more to the problem. Everything outside of an arbitrarily defined societal norm becomes deviant. With this label, artists who express feelings and function in eccentric ways, also are labeled deviant. Professors who are so enamored with academic knowledge as to lose a bit of common sense, scientists who are absorbed in their discoveries at the expense of basic interpersonal functioning, risk being labeled as dysfunctional. Those who are too absorbed in their creativity to be bothered by the people around them provide us with some of the greatest discoveries and explorations of what it means to be human. Yet, we in our narcissism have decided that they are afflicted by a problem that needs to be “cured.” 

So, have we forgotten that all humanity is somehow dysfunctional? Do we lose sight of the joy of coloring outside of the lines that brings disorder to order? Don’t we understand that a certain amount of disorder is necessary to birth new creativity in the human spirit? 

I’m not arguing that all psychological ventures alienate the arts. To the contrary, very good integrations of the two exist. I think, however, that perhaps we’ve become too confident in our rudimentary understanding of the human mind. Creative personalities, passionate academics, and people of faith can all too easily be labeled as psychologically troubled people. In fact, statistically, we all can be labeled as such, as nearly all of us will experience some level of clinical depression at some point in our lives, for example. That will occur whether or not we view subway art in Moscow. 

Absorbing all of mankind into a definition of normalcy is not conducive to a healthy society. If anything, the constraints brought about by this, the expectations of constant self-control,  lead to even more of what psychology labels “antisocial behavior,” to say nothing of stifling a creative impulse or spiritual experience.

Not everything that falls outside of the realm of our perceived normalcy necessitates a cure. In short, not every clock that ticks differently needs to be fixed.  If we truly find individuality to be beautiful and something to be cherished, then perhaps we can stop concerning ourselves with how many negative implications might result from quality works of art in a metro rail station?  Perhaps there is an element of danger to it. There is an element of danger to all art, and to most of life that is worth living (ask any skydiver). We can’t be afraid of danger, or of walking outside the lines of what those around us do.

In fact, without taking these risks, we cannot move forward with what makes us beautifully human at all. 

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Cruise Control on Warp Factor 9

Something that’s fascinated me a lot in my explorations lately is the idea of a theology of technology. There’s been great stuff written about this subject… sort of Lewis‘ idea that we shouldn’t necessarily do something just because we can do it. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m far too much of a gadget lover to have an easy time with the idea of giving up my toys. With those toys, however, I think comes a certain illusion…a mistaken perception of how the world beyond our living room walls actually functions…if we use the web that our toys access as primary social contact instead of a tool to augment real social contact.

I listened to a discussion last week about another interesting topic: a theology of food. The panel discussed how America, unlike most other cultures around our world, has little to no connection to its food source. Food thus becomes utilitarian for us, one more thing that we consume with no respect. Similar to the way we consume art as mere entertainment instead of engaging with a medium, we eat because we’re hungry, with no appreciation for quality or new ideas, consuming processed garbage and forgetting what a carefully prepared meal tastes like.

It occurs to me that the two actually go together. One of the panelists in the discussion on food mentioned that he and his wife have a garden at their home. My family has always raised a portion of their own food, and still do. I’m really the first urban dweller in my family, the first to not do this. Karen and I are very accustomed to being able to run across the street to the grocery store and pick up what we need when we need it. Waiting is a foreign concept. I am friends with a local coffee shop owner who used to custom roast my coffee to order. I had to stop having him do so, and begin buying what he had already roasted and placed on his shelf, because I could not remember to order my coffee two days out. I ran out in the morning, and needed more by that afternoon. I have way too much happening in life to plan my coffee ordering.

The panelist who plants a garden said that doing so is a spiritual experience, because it accustoms you to waiting on something…to not having control over when something you’ve planted is ready to eat, but instead having to wait for it to come into its season of harvest. This creates a greater appreciation for the food once it is ready, leading one to eat and appreciate it instead of consuming it like a tool for life. In short, you respect that for which you’ve had to wait.

I can think of few aspects of my life that technology doesn’t permit me to conquer and to make happen on my schedule. I watch movies and television on my own schedule, not when they air. I will have two packages of books arriving this week that I have ordered online. I am listening to electronica music on my iPod as I type this. I imagine that all of us have flown to a part of the world that might have been completely inaccessible to us a century ago. In almost every area of life, I see this as progress, as our mastery over our environment. Yet, I wonder what we fail to appreciate because we have everything happening at our own schedule? I wonder what we have mastered that perhaps we shouldn’t have? I wonder how our domination of our world is causing that world to be cheapened in our own perspectives?

I’m not an organic person. I’m an urban-dweller who does absolutely everything possible online and am the person to whom most of my friends turn for “tech support.” I don’t like hiking, and I’m allergic to grass.  I don’t advocate purging ourselves of our technological advances.

I just sometimes wish we could balance our advances with a bit more efficacy to the rest of life.

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…May Appear Closer Than They Are…

Remember the old Meatloaf song? It was always one of my favorites. This weekend, Karen and I talked about the physiological difference between men and women in regards to depth perception. Apparently, women have poorer depth perception than men as a rule. She compared it to the rearview mirror of a car…that objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.

I thought immediately of the Meatloaf song. Likely because I’ve been thinking a lot about memories.

The first time I recall it happening was soon after I began grad school. I had returned to my parents’ home to celebrate Christmas. The memories were so intrusive at times I thought that I could see myself running through the rooms as a child. I heard conversations that I had had with my parents as a child. The memories were so real I could almost reach out and touch them.

Normally that would have been a really cool experience. Christmas, after all, tends to bring back those sorts of recollections for many people. Since then, however, it has happened over and over, basically every time I visit my end of the family. For the long weekend this weekend, Karen and I traveled to visit my parents. For various engagements and things we needed to do, I drove the surface streets of the town in which I grew up this weekend. Sometimes, I don’t realize that I have that many strong memories connected with that place. Certain streets, certain restaurants, certain buildings bring back such powerful remembrances of events that occurred, and the people with whom they occurred, that they must border on flashbacks. Even moreso does this occur around my parents’ home. As I wandered their property this weekend, my mother showing me all of her “curb appeal” projects, I sometimes had to stop to wander away and remember what that part of the lawn used to look like, and what I pretended it was in my imaginary super-hero worlds: sometimes in the summer, sometimes covered with snow.

I wonder why I’m having such strong returns to childhood and high school days? When Karen and I were first married, the strong memories were of college years. Of late, the recollections are more all-inclusive, hitting every formative period of my history. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not hallucinating. No, really, I’m not. I just think that, at some point, my blinders have fallen off and I have come to appreciate the importance of personal histories.

Ironically, until the last five years, I have never been that interested in personal histories. I have always been more focused on the present and future. The past happened. I was aware of its details, and knew what had preceded the present accurately. I just didn’t see the point in dwelling on it. I think, in fact, that this was my family mindset, due to various geneological reasons I won’t go into here. The past is past. Now is more important.

Since being married, I’ve discovered that being wholly present in the now is dependent upon an appreciation for the then. Knowing that I have a branch of the family that is all my own now is very important in that regard, I think. Providentially, this was the time that I needed to gain that appreciation the most, and it is the time that I have. There’s a reason for that. I just don’t buy into coincidence.

I see myself in the stories of my family’s past. I see my wife in the stories of her family’s past. Those pasts have converged, and it is now our family. There is a foundation for the present. Its not always the strongest, but its there, and it is what we stand on.

As for the future? I’ll just say that I’ve learned to not plan life that carefully.

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