Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: art (page 2 of 4)

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The Cosmati Pavement in Westminster Abbey: “In the year of Christ one thousand two hundred and twelve plus sixty minus four, the third King Henry, the city, Odoricus and the abbot put these porphyry stones together. If the reader wisely considers all that is laid down, he will find here the end of the primum mobile.” From a story in the Guardian: “Only a handful of brass letters remains of the original long inscription, but it was transcribed centuries ago. It names the king, the chief craftsman as Odoricus, gives the date in a tortuous riddle, and then mysteriously suggests that the world will last for 19,683 years, by adding together the life spans of different animals: “add dogs and horses and men, stags and ravens, eagles, enormous whales….” 

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two quotations on age

Orson Welles:

It’s only in your twenties and in your seventies and eighties that you do the greatest work. The enemy of society is the middle class, and the enemy of life is middle age. Youth and old age are great times — and we must treasure old age and give genius the capacity to function in old age — and not send them away. 

M. John Harrison

The idea you have when you’re young, to reach the edge of what can be done with your abilities and find out what might happen if you went past it? You promise yourself you’ll try but then wake up fifty years later to discover that you were in fact always too sensible to push things until they fell over, in case people thought less of you. In your seventies, though, it doesn’t seem to matter any more what other people think. That’s probably the first phase of your life in which you can actually do what you want. And certainly the last.

A fantastic point by my friend Noah Millman in response to the question of whether Pulp Fiction could be made today:

The answer is of course not. You couldn’t make Pulp Fiction today. You also couldn’t make Dumbo, a film I adore far more. But you also couldn’t make Blazing Saddles. Indeed, you couldn’t make The Wizard of Oz or The Philadelphia Story or Ghostbusters or whatever other movies you love from the past, because they are rooted in the past. The reason not to bowdlerize these films is precisely that we can’t make them anymore. To “fix” them we’d have to be able to make them from scratch, as wonderfully as they did then, and we can’t. The best proof is that we do keep trying to remake them, and the results are usually terrible. 

Read on for further wisdom from Noah. 

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Tolkien’s own drawing of Sauron’s fortress Barad-dûr, with Mount Doom in the distance. 

drawing a narcissus

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Ruskin’s instructions to his students

Suppose you have to paint the Narcissus of the Alps. First, you must outline its six petals, its central cup, and its bulbed stalk, accurately, in the position you desire. Then you must paint the cup of the yellow which is its yellow, and the stalk of the green which is its green, and the white petals of creamy white, not milky white. Lastly, you must modify these colours so as to make the cup look hollow and the petals bent; but, whatever shade you add must never destroy the impression, which is the first a child would receive from the flower, of its being a yellow, white and green thing, with scarcely any shade in it. And I wish you for some time to aim exclusively at getting the power of seeing every object as a coloured space. Thus for instance, I am sitting, as I write, opposite the fireplace of the old room which I have written much in, and in which, as it chances, after this is finished, I shall write no more. Its worn paper is pale green; the chimney-piece is of white marble; the poker is gray; the grate black; the footstool beside the fender of a deep green. A chair stands in front of it, of brown mahogany, and above that is Turner’s Lake of Geneva, mostly blue. Now these pale green, deep green, white, black, gray, brown and blue spaces, are all just as distinct as the pattern on an inlaid Florentine table. I want you to see everything first so, and represent it so. The shading is quite a subsequent and secondary business. If you never shaded at all, but could outline perfectly, and paint things of their real colours, you would be able to convey a great deal of precious knowledge to any one looking at your drawing; but, with false outline and colour, the finest shading is of no use.


In his great essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Kenneth Burke argues that proverbs may be described as a kind of purposeful realism (my phrase, not his):

Here there is no “realism for its own sake.” There is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare.

Then Burke suggests: What happens if we think of all literature that way? “Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations” – maybe all works of literary art do the same, just in different and more complex ways. If so, you need sociological categories for thinking about literature:

What would such sociological categories be like? They would consider works of art, I think, as strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification, propitiation, and desanctification, consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another. Art forms like “tragedy” or “comedy” or “satire” would be treated as equipment for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes. The typical ingredients of such forms would be sought. Their relation to typical situations would be stressed. Their comparative values would be considered, with the intention of formulating a “strategy of strategies,” the “over-all” strategy obtained by inspection of the lot.

What Burke calls “the ‘over-all’ strategy” might be a synonym for the “general theory” I described, with reservations, in a recent post. But let’s set that aside for now, and think about equipment.

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes,

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

This is an astonishingly rich passage, but let’s begin exploring it by looking at one phrase: “to equip the saints.” The relevant word there, katartismon (καταρτισμὸν), appears in this one biblical location only, but it’s related to a whole complex of words that are dispersed throughout the letters of the New Testament. You’ll probably recognize the two parts: kat (down) and artisimon (shaped, formed, adjusted). The meaning is “adjusted just so” or “shaped just right” – which is why you sometimes see it translated “perfected,” though I don’t prefer that meaning. Throughout ancient Greek you see versions of this concept:

  • ἐναραρίσκω (to fit or fasten in, to be fitted in)
  • ἐπαραρίσκω (to fit to or upon, fasten to, to fit tight or exactly)
  • προσαραρίσκω (to fit to, to be fitted to, firmly fitted)
  • συναραρίσκω (to join together, to hang together)

The core idea is that of good workmanship, of something well-crafted. Closely related (thematically though not etymologically) is a passage from earlier in the letter to the Ephesians in which Paul says that we are the craftwork of God – esmen poiēma ktisthentes en Christō lēsou epi ergois agathoispoems made in Christ Jesus for good works.

The particular craft that seems to be contextually lurking behind all these terms is carpentry, and more specifically joinery – making the joints snug and tight and the surfaces smooth, so that the work thus crafted will hold together when it’s stressed or buffeted. That said, in the long passage quoted above Paul moves easily from the image of a well-made case to the image of a well-knitted body – because a body, being organic, will be not just soundly made but also capable of increasingly varied and challenging actions. A healthy body is more capable and adaptable than a well-crafted case because it can grow in size and strength, and improve in dexterity. (A body as old and decrepit as mine can still learn a new trick or two; even now I can through exercise increase not just my muscular power but even the density and strength of my bones.)

Still, it’s impossible not to remember that the art or craft in which the young Jesus was trained was that of a builder, a tekton.

To be equipped, then, in Paul’s sense, is not a matter of “the things we carry” but rather the formation we have undergone. (The German word Bildung doesn’t refer to building, rather to imaging — Bild means image — but the correspondence of the two words is a lovely accident.) Christian formation is equipment not in the sense of having the right tools but rather of being properly built, which means, chiefly, having the right habits – but no: the right habitus. The whole panoply of customary actions and perceptions located in one’s body, and one’s mind, and one’s social surround. (My brothers and sisters in Christ are part of my habitus.)

To return to Kenneth Burke: What if we were to think of literature and the other arts as a kind of repository of habitus, a motley collection of practices and strategies? “Motley” because we can never adopt them simply and straightforwardly – we have to accept the inevitability of bricolage. But still: experiences not just to admire or appreciate but to use. Edward Mendelson’s idea of “literature as a special form of intimacy” seems relevant here – literature, and the other arts, as equipment for living, equipment shared by fallen mortals, thinking reeds, puzzled people in the process of being formed. An improvised sociology for wayfarers.


Ferdinand Mount on the new Hogarth exhibition at the Tate Britain:

Here we need, I think, to notice two large absences from Hogarth and Europe. These absences are not unique to the treatment of Hogarth – I have seen similar curatorial treatment in other recent exhibitions – but they are certainly conspicuous here. The first is the virtual absence of any aesthetic discussion. The emphasis instead is on the social background, the changing nature of the cities where the artists worked, the systems of patronage, the commercial networks. The sole mention of [Hogarth’s book] The Analysis of Beauty comes en passant, to explain the inscription of “the serpentine line of beauty” in the margin of the self-portrait with the pug. Yet the argument in The Analysis is highly relevant to any discussion of Hogarth’s Europeannness. As Joseph Burke points out, it is “in part, a sustained and at times brilliant rationalization of observed rococo principles”, the same principles which animated Watteau and Boucher. The serpentine line is intended not as another mechanical principle, such as the Golden Section, but rather as a means of imbuing art with life and movement. […] 

A second and no less conspicuous absentee from these walls and these pages is religion. There is no mention at all of Hogarth’s huge early paintings, “The Pool of Bethesda” (1736) and “The Good Samaritan” (1736–7), on the staircase at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, or of the even more gigantic triptych of “The Ascension” (1755–6) at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. Most striking of all these absences perhaps is that of the Foundling Hospital’s “Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s daughter” (1746). In the catalogue the only reference to the Foundling Hospital, to which Hogarth devoted so much of his time and energy, is an illustration of the elaborate plaster ceiling in the Court Room there.

Interesting that this critique touches on the same general points as my essay on the Tate’s Blake exhibition of two years ago. There is a kind of nervous narrowness to so many exhibitions and catalogues these days, an ongoing fear that the curators will speak of artistry or religious belief and fail to be sufficiently rigorous in focusing on the purely social and political. 


My friend Matt Milliner:

Christians have long credited the pagan poet Virgil, in his fourth eclogue, with prophesying Christ. In Chesterton’s day that view was becoming unfashionable, but he defended the interpretation. “Virgil… stand[s] for all that saner heathenism that had overthrown the insane heathenism of human sacrifice.” But whereas the case that Virgil anticipated Christ is disputable, and still looked upon with skepticism, the case that North American Indians anticipated Christianity is on much firmer ground. Nicholas Black Elk, whose Lakota wisdom is this continent’s analogue to Platonism, did not find that wisdom to be sufficient. He famously converted to Catholicism, brought hundreds to the same faith in his role as Catechist, and is up for sainthood. But that is only the most famous example. Chief Joseph River Wind claims that the entire Sundance ritual is itself a prophecy of the crucifixion, which — it turns out — is a rather common observation in Indigenous Christian communities. Indigenous encounters with Christ during the ecstatic ritual of the Ghost Dance, well documented in Louis Warren’s God’s Red Son, were common enough to frustrate white Christian missionaries who wanted natives to come to faith on their own terms. 

A wonderful essay on Chesterton, cave art, America and Americans, the varieties of paganism, and … well, all the stuff you see in the remarkable paragraph just quoted. 

Duty Boat

1940 Duty Boat watercolour

Duty Boat (1940); © The Estate of Eric Ravilious. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York – DACS, London

Betjeman & Burnham

You probably don’t expect to see an essay that links John Betjeman and Bo Burnham. I certainly didn’t expect to write one, but I did.

When I first came across Bo Burnham’s videos, several years ago now, I didn’t care for them at all. I thought he was childishly eager to pluck all the lowest-hanging comic-satirical fruit, and was all too eager to flatter the sensibilities of his audience. So I stopped paying attention to what he was doing. But people were praising his new Netflix special so extravagantly that I had to check it out, if only so I could say how wrong everyone is.

Instead, I loved it. I think it is a tremendously successful and genuinely significant work of art. I keep thinking: I’m having this reaction to a Bo Burnham show?? And yeah, I am.

Gorey as designer

Rosemary Hill on Edward Gorey:

Gorey’s first book, The Unstrung Harp, was published in 1953, the year he moved to New York. He was working for Anchor Books, a new imprint of Doubleday, set up for the production of ‘quality literature … in mass-market paperback format’. Despite his own literary ambitions and the fact that he was trying and failing to write a novel, Gorey wasn’t employed on the editorial side but in the art department, where he worked variously as a cover artist and book designer. It was here that he hit on the form and order that [his former teacher John] Ciardi saw he needed. Having no training in typographic design, he found marking up layouts for the printer difficult. In an early example of what Dery calls his avant-retroism, Gorey decided that rather than look up all the fonts and calculate the point sizes it was ‘simply easier to hand-letter the whole thing’. The use of manual processes to imitate technical ones became an essential feature of his work. The delicate cross-hatching that gives his monochrome illustrations the velvety depth of 19th-century engravings was all done by hand with a crow quill dip pen. Having worked out his modus operandi, Gorey became ‘fast and competent’ at his job and used the rest of his time at the office to produce his own books.

Here’s an example, from a copy I bought at a used book store in, I think, 1976:

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a kind of parable

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In yesterday’s post I mentioned the upsurge in the British public’s interest in art during the Second World War. Exhibitions like the one advertised above were all over London — you see several of them in Out of Chaos — and the National Gallery could show the work of living artists because it had empty walls: all of the works of the dead ones had been packed up —

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— and moved to an unused mine, called the Manod Caves, in north Wales:  

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For certain staff members this was not the worst thing that could have happened. The two chief restorers, W.A. Holder and Helmut Ruhemann, now had the opportunity to attend to damaged or merely age-worn paintings in solitude and with all the time they needed. Here’s Holder with Sir Kenneth Clark — later to become world-famous thanks to Civilisation, but then the director of the National Gallery: 

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The windows in the background suggest that this photo was not taken in the Manod Caves but rather in one of above-ground locations in Wales where the pictures had originally been moved before Clark decided that they weren’t safe enough. (Many more excellent photos of the Great Removal may be found here.) 

Ruhemann didn’t stay in Wales long — he took other jobs during the war, though eventually he returned to the National Gallery — but Holder worked in the caves for the duration. I like to think of him there, laboring patiently, quietly, persistently to repair and restore beautiful objects — works born of insight, imagination, and craft but damaged by neglect and the relentless passage of time. Outside the world is convulsed, and God bless those who fight for all they’re worth against its evils, but some of us are called to protect and preserve and restore our inheritance, waiting and hoping for better days, days when we emerge bearing what we have repaired to announce our heartfelt invitation. 

Out of Chaos

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Jill Craigie (1911-1999) was an extraordinary and (in my country anyway) insufficiently well-known figure. Born in London to a Scottish father and Russian mother, she became an actress, a filmmaker, a feminist and historian of feminism, and spouse to the Labour Party giant Michael Foot. Marrying an exceptionally famous man eclipsed the rest of her varied career, alas.

In the midst of World War II she wrote, directed, and narrated a fascinating short documentary called Out of Chaos (1944). If you’re in the U.K. you can follow that link to watch the whole film, but elsewhere you’ll need a VPN. The topic of the film is the dramatic upsurge in the British public’s interest in art during the war, and the film covers a remarkable array of people and activities in its 27 minutes. Here’s a picture, taken during the making of the film, of Craigie and the great Stanley Spencer:

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That’s Spencer in the foreground (I don’t know who that is standing next to Craigie). Here they are again:

Stanley Spencer and Craigie

Craigie’s camera follows Spencer as he makes the first sketches for his magnificent  Shipbuilding on the Clyde paintings — and shows those sketches to the shipbuilders.

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The elfin quickness of Spencer contrasts wonderfully with the calm solidity of Henry Moore, whom we see making sketches for his later-to-be-famous drawings of Londoners during the Blitz sheltering in the Underground. (I think the image below, and most of the scenes of Moore in the film, are re-enactments. In later years he explained that he and his wife had seen these sleepers in the Tube and had been greatly struck by them — the long lines of sleepers reminded him of Africans crowded into slave ships — but out of respect he waited until he was well out of their presence before beginning his sketches.)


Perhaps the most extraordinary scene in the film shows Moore, first with a wax pencil and then with paint, making one of his drawings:


this one:

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There’s so much in this film — even with all this I have only scratched the surface. It’s a miracle of narrative complexity and compression.

Not long ago a film about Craigie’s life was made — I hope to see it. And to get to know more of her work.


All Saints Chapel

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John Piper, All Saints Chapel, Bath (1942); Tate Britain: “Piper already had a reputation as a painter of historic architecture, in particular of ruined buildings, when he was commissioned to record war damage. He had painted in Bristol and the Houses of Parliament when Bath was bombed on the nights of 25, 26 and 27 April 1942 in some of the first ‘Baedeker raids’, so called because the targets were cultural rather than strategic and said to be selected from the pre-war Baedeker guide books. Piper went quickly to Bath when, he recorded, the ‘ruins were still smouldering and bodies being dug out.’” 

as essential as bread

People often talk about the death of the humanities, or hard times for the humanities, but when they do what they really mean is the death of or hard times for humanities departments in universities. But humanities departments in universities are not the humanities. There’s a really interesting passage in Leszek Kołakowski’s book Metaphysical Horror in which he discusses the many times that philosophers have made a “farewell to philosophy,” have declared philosophy dead or finished. Kołakowski says that when all of the “issues that once formed the kernel of philosophical reflection” have been dismissed by professional philosophers, that doesn’t actually silence the ancient questions that once defined philosophy.

But such things, although we may shunt them aside, ban them from acceptable discourse and declare them shameful, do not simply go away, for they are an ineradicable part of culture. Either they survive, temporarily silent, in the underground of civilization, or they find an outlet in distorted forms of expression.… Excommunications do not necessarily kill. Our sensibility to the traditional worries of philosophy has not weathered away; it survives subcutaneously, as it were, ready to reveal its presence at the slightest accidental provocation.

I believe this to be true, and therefore, while I am concerned by the likely fate of our universities and by the ways that so many professors in the humanities have been stupidly complicit in their own demise, I don’t worry about the death of the humanities. Though I don’t agree with Philip Larkin’s view that people will eventually stop worshipping in churches, I think he’s right when he says, near the end of “Church Going,” that ”someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious,” and when that happens such a person will gravitate towards all the great works of the past — and of the present too, though that will feel less necessary — even though the whole of society heaps scorn on all that our ancestors have done.

Here’s how we’ll know that things have gotten really bad in our society: People will start turning to Homer and Dante and Bach and Mozart. Czeslaw Milosz — like Kołakowski, a Pole, perhaps not a trivial correspondence — wrote that “when an entire community is struck by misfortune, for instance, the Nazi occupation of Poland, the ‘schism between the poet and the great human family’ disappears and poetry becomes as essential as bread.”

I think often, those days, of Emily St. John Mandel’s haunting novel Station Eleven, in which the great majority of human beings have been killed by a deadly plague, and those who remain live at a near-subsistence level. Even so, some musicians and actors have banded together to form an itinerant troupe, the Travelling Symphony.

The Symphony performed music — classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs — and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said.

why Blake is terrifying

The Vision of the Last Judgment

Last December, when I was in London, I spent a good deal of time at the Tate Britain’s big exhibition of Blake’s work, and found it frustrating. I ended up writing a long reflection on the exhibition, and on what it doesn’t tell us about Blake’s career, which has just been posted at the Harper’s website. (Why it took several months to be posted is a long and odd but not especially interesting story.)  

One point I didn’t pursue in the essay, but which I think is important, concerns why the curators of the exhibition might have worked so hard to downplay Blake’s religious sensibilities. In the catalogue for the exhibition, they emphasize that their goal was to display “a Blake for all,” and hint that their choices were constrained by the need to construct an exhibition that would attract corporate funding. A weirdo mystic who had visions of angels in trees and “the Ghost of a Flea” doesn’t fit the bill.

The Guardian’s review of the exhibition, by Jonathan Jones, enthusiastically echoes the exhibition’s view of Blake: 

The poster for Tate Britain’s exhibition of William Blake uses the three Rs to sell this icon of the Napoleonic age to the turbulent Britons of 2019: “Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary.” It may seem an over-eager attempt to contemporise him – but Blake was all these and more. You could add pacifist (albeit a militant one who once got arrested after a heated debate with a soldier) and anti-racist, for as Blake’s devastating portrayal of a hanged slave in this show illustrates, he passionately protested against Africa’s subjugation.

And how about feminist? There is even a book of children’s stories that he illustrated for Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This hackish kids’ book wasn’t the finest hour for either, but it shows their connection through the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, while Blake’s great frontispiece to his own original work Visions of the Daughters of Albion, done in about 1795, shows what he learned from Wollstonecraft: a man and woman are chained back to back, the woman’s head lowered in despair. “Enslaved, the Daughters of Albion weep …”

This is not an exhibition of some old master honoured by kings and collected by aristocrats. It is a raw encounter with a heretical artisan who was ignored and despised in his lifetime and whose self-taught genius comes out of the popular culture of 18th-century London.

Politically radical? Check. Pacifist? Check. Feminist? Check. Pop culture maven? Check. In short, Blake was basically a Guardian reader. And that’s the kind of “Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary” that the corporate world is happy to support. Meanwhile, the visionary imagination that drove Blake’s entire career, which he believed to be pursuing in response to a Divine command — all that is to be passed over in discreet and embarrassed silence. Rebels, radicals, and revolutionaries can be commoditized and can therefore be “for all”; but ecstatic visionaries? The less said the better. T. S. Eliot found Blake “terrifying,” for reasons which the Tate exhibition tried to obscure. Fortunately, the attempt was not wholly successful. 


A. O. Scott on Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life:

Franz is not an activist; he isn’t connected to any organized resistance to Hitler, and he expresses his opposition in the most general moral terms. Nazism itself is depicted a bit abstractly, a matter of symbols and attitudes and stock images rather than specifically mobilized hatreds. When the mayor rants about impure races, either he or the screenplay is too decorous to mention Jews.

And this, I suppose, is my own argument with this earnest, gorgeous, at times frustrating film. Or perhaps a confession of my intellectual biases, which at least sometimes give priority to historical and political insight over matters of art and spirit. Franz Jägerstätter’s defiance of evil is moving and inspiring, and I wish I understood it better. First of all, Scott’s humility here is admirable — his sense that A Hidden Life holds some meaning or insight that he can’t quite grasp, but that might be worth grasping. Let me try to illuminate these matters.

Scott is saying, in part, that he knows how to see and interpret a Holocaust film, but this isn’t one. There are no Jews in it. It therefore evades acknowledging what almost all of us now think of as the most central fact about Nazism: its genocide of Europe’s Jews.

There are no Jews in A Hidden Life because in the Hitler era there were no Jews in remote Austrian mountain villages. And yet the ultimate demand of Nazism — its demand for unconditional and unquestioning obedience, as manifested in a spoken oath of loyalty to the person of Adolf Hitler — reaches even there. The craving of the totalitarian system for power, its libido dominandi, has no terminus, and its administrative and technocratic resources are such that it can and will find you and order you to bend your knee. So if Scott wants “historical and political insight,” there it is. 


But that’s not where the story of A Hidden Life ends, that’s where it begins. What do you do when you are confronted with that absolute demand for absolute obedience? What do you do when the administrative extensions of Hitler’s will send you a letter that calls you to serve — when your Mortall God, as Hobbes named it, requires your obeisance? Maybe, if you’re a Christian, you’ll hear a voice in your head: “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” And then what? 

Behold, I tell you a great mystery: Some people heed that voice rather than the voice of their Mortall God. A. O. Scott doesn’t get it — “Franz Jägerstätter’s defiance of evil is moving and inspiring, and I wish I understood it better” — but then, who does? St. Paul famously speaks of the mystery of iniquity, but the mystery of courage and integrity may be greater still. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer — who died nearly two years after Franz Jägerstätter, at the hands of the same regime and for the same cause — famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” How is it that some answer that call, even when the death demanded is in no sense metaphorical? This is something that, I think, cannot be explained, though perhaps it can be portrayed. And that is what A Hidden Life seeks to do. 

There’s a good reason, then, why a scene early in the movie presents us with a lengthy meditation by an artist who is restoring the paintings on the walls of a local church. The temptation, he says, is to comfort — to give the people “a comfortable Christ.” Will he ever have the courage to show the people “the true Christ”? He thinks he might. Someday. I see this as a question Terrence Malick puts to himself: Can he, dare he, show us the Passion of a poor Christian who has taken up his cross and followed Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death? Can his imagination stretch from the staggering beauty of the Alpine valley where Franz and his wife Fani had hoped they would be high enough, distant enough, to be safe, to the horrors of Tegel prison and then the guillotine? Can he show us? Perhaps. Can he make us understand? No.  

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Again, this is a great mystery. But the film holds another one, and this may require still more courage to portray. “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” The film ends not with Franz’s death, but with Fani’s devastated grief for him; and as she weeps and rails — and tries to learn to face a life raising her children without her beloved husband in a village that has almost unremittingly scorned him and, because of him, has shunned her and her daughters — she takes desperate hold on her own faith. She receives, or by some inexplicable strength of will conjures up, a vision. And this is not merely the usual hope for being reunited with one’s departed loved ones, though it contains that: it is, rather, a vision of the New Creation, the καινὴ κτίσις, the restoration of all that has been defaced, all that has been shattered, by the evil of men. It is, in the closing moments of the film, a confession of trust in the promise of the scarred and wounded King who sits upon the throne he has gained and says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” 

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Despite its subtle and not-so-subtle ravishments, a Warhol canvas is expressively vacant. “There’s no place for our spiritual eye to penetrate it,” the art historian Neil Printz has said of the work. “We’re just thrown back on the surface.” That’s true, though the effect is more dreadful than that. What made Warhol so perishingly cold was the implication that the “spiritual eye” never existed in the first place. Warhol, one observer put it, “wanted to be Greta Garbo, he wanted to be Marilyn Monroe,” and to better convert himself into an icon, he withdrew behind an affect as lifeless as one of his Marilyn paintings. The deadpan rigmarole was total. It functioned as an anti-elegy. It said that nothing was lost, that nothing of depth or value had been surrendered to the image.

Stephen Metcalf. Is it Warhol who is “expressively vacant”? Or is it the world that he so faithfully represents? Imagine if Warhol, a faithful Ruthenian Catholic, had been born not in Pittsburgh but in the Carpathians two hundred years ago: Would you expect that an artist of his gifts, so culturally placed, would produce “expressively vacant” work?

the face-blind portrait artist

Our ability to recognize faces resides in the right fusiform gyrus of the inferior medial temporal lobe of the brain. People with damage to the front of that region are face-blind, like [Chuck] Close. People with damage to the back of that region cannot see a face at all. Close is probably the only person in the history of Western art to paint portraits without being able to recognize individual people. Why, then, did he focus on being a portrait artist? Close says his art was an attempt to make sense of a world he didn’t understand. For him, it’s not so strange that he makes portraits. He was driven to make portraits because he was trying to understand the faces of people he knows and loves and commit them to memory. For him a face has to be flattened out. Once he flattens it, he can commit it to memory in a way that he cannot if he’s looking at it head-on. If he looks at you and you move your head half an inch, it’s a new head for him that he has never seen before. But if he takes a photograph of the face and flattens it out, he now can effect the translation from one flat medium to another.

Eric R. Kandel

control and surrender, architecture and gardening


Tom Phillips, Brian Eno
oil on canvas
35.6 x 25.4 cm
collection: the artist

Tom Phillips writes:

I once devised a television project whose abbreviated ghost now forms, not inappropriately, an introduction to the film I worked on with Jake Auerbach (Artist’s Eye: Tom Phillips, BBC2 1989). The title was to be Raphael to Eno: it traced the lineage of pupil and teacher back through Frank Auerbach, Bomberg, Sickert etc. until, after an obscure group of French Peintres du Roy, it emerged via Primaticcio into the light of Raphael. Thus I find that at only twenty removes I am a pupil of Raphael. Brian Eno as a student of mine (initially at Ipswich in the early sixties) therefore continues that strange genealogy of influence as the twenty-first.

I cite that simply because it’s awesome.

The relationship between Phillips — one of whose most famous works is A Humument, an ongoing-for-decades collage/manipulation/adaptation of a Victorian book — and Eno is a fascinating one in the history of aleatory or, as I prefer, emergent art.

I’ve been talking about all this with Austin Kleon — whose newspaper blackout poems are descendants or cousins of A Humument — who not only knows way more about all this than I do but who also has been posting some great stuff lately on the themes of patience, waiting, and what I recently called “re-setting your mental clock.” See for instance this post on Dave Chappelle’s willingness to wait for the ideas to show up at his door.

And of course that post circles back to Eno — so many useful thoughts about being a maker of something circle back to Eno — quoting from this article:

“Control and surrender have to be kept in balance. That’s what surfers do – take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control. In the last few thousand years, we’ve become incredibly adept technically. We’ve treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part.” Eno considers all his recent art to be a rebuttal to this attitude. “I want to rethink surrender as an active verb,” he says. “It’s not just you being escapist; it’s an active choice. I’m not saying we’ve got to stop being such controlling beings. I’m not saying we’ve got to be back-to-the-earth hippies. I’m saying something more complex.”

In another talk, one in which he also spoke of control and surrender, he developed another contrast, between creativity-as-architecture and creativity-as-gardening:

And essentially the idea there is that one is making a kind of music in the way that one might make a garden.  One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life.  And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them.  It’s characteristic of the kind of work that I do that I’m really not aware of how the final result is going to look or sound.  So in fact, I’m deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same position as any other member of the audience.  I want to be surprised by it as well.  And indeed, I often am.

What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator.  You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together.  Gardener included.  So there’s something in the notes to this thing that says something about the difference between order and disorder.  It’s in the preface to the little catalog we have.  Which I take issue with, actually, because I think it isn’t the difference between order and disorder, it’s the difference between one understanding of order and how it comes into being, and a newer understanding of how order comes into being.

I was texting with Austin about all this earlier today:


This is all good for me to reflect on right now, in this season of heat and uncertainty.