Finding God in the Gallery (Or, Some Notes on a Visit to LACMA)

godingallery1This last weekend I took my wife to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as part of a date. We went in part because my wife is a fan of modern art, the main focus of LACMA, and because I myself have finally taken an interest in it. Up until a month or so ago, while I understood that there was something going on in modern works, having a modest background in sketching, I’ve been likely to favor Medieval, Reformational (especially the Dutch Masters), or Neo-Classical periods. I’ll be honest, Campbell’s soup just wasn’t doing it for me.

After reading Daniel Siedell’s theological exploration of contemporary art, God in the Gallery, a couple weeks ago I’ve been motivated to try to engage it once more—or really, for the first time. Given that I could not help but experience LACMA as anybody other than myself, I wanted to write down a few notes, a couple of them, unsurprisingly theological in nature.

meidner1. Hey, Some of this Stuff is Good – To begin with the most basic point: it turns out modern and contemporary art is fascinating. Once you get over the fact that some of it does not look like anything you can recognize, or that the artist is not trying and failing to color inside the lines, you can begin to appreciate it for it is actually doing. Of course, not all of modern art is abstract expressionism.

For instance, there was a fabulous exhibit on productions connected to The Golem that McKenna and I loved. Also, I found myself drawn into the section on German Expressionism and the Bauhaus movement. Ludwig Meidner’s “Apocalyptic Landscape” could have easily held my attention for hours. The atrocity of anybody calling this “degenerate” art finally began to sink in.

Beyond that, easily the most “fun” piece in the whole exhibit, along with the dozens of other viewers, especially children, McKenna and I were drawn into Chris Burden’s Metropolis II:

All in all, I’m excited to continue exploring modern and contemporary art.

2. How Did He Create So Many Unique Pieces? – LACMA houses what seems to be to be a good number of Picasso’s. Probably ten or twelve. While Picasso has never been my favorite, even of the moderns, I found myself marveling at the variety and number of them, knowing that these were probably only a fraction of his total work. While distinctively Picasso’s, bearing his unique mark and style, all of them were unique, keenly differentiated by color, subject matter, and even materials used.

picassoOf course, in the middle of all of this, I realized that while I was looking at the art, I was disturbingly distracted by all the museum visitors. In room after room, I found myself unable to fully devote my attention to the pieces on display because of all the other people walking around.  There they were: the defiant tourist with the camera, determined to snap shots no matter what the security said; mothers hustling little ones about wanting them to gain culture without getting their fingerprints on it; older art connoisseurs, ex-hippies who’d since become wealthy in the market, but still cherished their avante-garde youth; young couples like McKenna and I, out for a nice day at the museum. Hair, clothes, eyes, words uttered, and accompanying gestures that spoke other, sometimes contradictory words.

It’s at that moment I realized I was distracted from the Picassos by the work of another artist: the one who made Picasso himself. And I was struck then at the thought, what is greater? A Picasso, or the Picasso? This isn’t meant as a sort of anti-Picasso Jesus-juke. I just couldn’t help but wonder at the stunning vision and power of a God who could fashion such creative creatures. God is the artist behind the artists.

3. We Are Bits of Performance Art – A final thought struck me in the same vein later on. Given the dazzling assortment of people at the gallery, inevitably I was drawn to a few in particular. There was one couple that looked the quintessential LA art couple. I don’t remember exactly what the girl was wearing bit it was hip. She had multi-colored hair, thrown up seemingly carelessly in a pony-tail. The guy had greasy, disheveled student hair and was rockin’ an older black sports-coat over a jean button-up shirt, darker pants, and to top it off, some boots. These weren’t just regular boots, though. Actually, they weren’t even boots—they were work-shoes—and you could tell. They were dirty and hacked up, with paint stains, and God only knows what else. The whole effect said, “I don’t care what you think. I’m here for the art. Not to preen or impress the rest of you.”

Of course, that took effort to say.

performance artIt’s at this point that I was reminded of one of the more illuminating sections in Siedell’s account: the care taken by contemporary artists to cultivate the proper environment for viewing their works. In a manner that can only be described as ‘religious’, installations are arranged so that the aesthetic effect is all-encompassing down to the last detail of the way the light fails on the viewer when they encounter the work. Even in those pieces that seem most inaccessible, the encounter with the piece and the viewer is carefully cultivated.

Much in the same way, this couple had carefully cultivated the experience of viewing them. Despite the initial impression of haphazardness, upon inspection, it begin to seem all-too-carefully selected for use. And this is where I began to realize that in many ways we’re walking pieces of performance art. We think and we craft ourselves, our movements, and words in relation to our respective audiences and the spaces and times we inhabit; there are layers and resonances to our movements. Some elements are carefully scripted, while others are more akin to spontaneous improvisations.

All of this raises the question: what are we performing? What image are we cultivating? Or, rather, whose image? Are we set on mirroring the idols (money, sex, power, freedom, & so forth) on offer in the culture around us? Or we take into account that we are God’s workmanship (poema; cf. Eph. 2:10), intended to be eikons of the Son in our mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:11)?

Soli Deo Gloria

C.S. Lewis and Pascal on the Problem of “Being Original”

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

I’ll admit, I suffer from creative constipation from time to time. You know what I’m talking about: feeling like you want to write, you have to write, but you simply can’t. I had a severe bout of it for a few years between my last blog, back in the Myspace days, and starting this one. I had a lot of fun with my old blog until I started reading good writers and deep thinkers. At that point I realized most of what I had to say had already been said by someone smarter, funnier, wiser, and generally in every way better than I ever could. (90% of the time it was C.S. Lewis.) With that, I kind of lost my will to write. It’s not so much that I didn’t like writing, but that I had trouble seeing the point–I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I’d be surprised if I’m the only one who’s been troubled by that thought.

Two of my intellectual and literary heroes have some wisdom for those of us struggling with the problem of “being original”:

Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better. –Blaise Pascal, Pensees

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. –C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

Pascal was writing an apologetic for the Christian faith. He readily acknowledged that the content, the point, the truth of what he was speaking was nothing new. In fact, that was the point–he was trying to convince his skeptical, intellectual friends to re-engage, to accept the very old truth of Christianity. At the same time his apologetic method, his style, the questions he asked, were different, and “original” in that sense. He had produced a new “arrangement” of the material.

Lewis makes the same point with even less of an emphasis on being consciously original. He simply advises that we ought to “try and tell the truth” as best we know how and the odds are, given our unique wiring and design, it will end up being original. In fact, that’s one of the interesting things I’ve come to see about Lewis himself.

The first time I read Mere Christianity I thought it was amazing simply because it was so new–Lewis was pointing me to insights and truths I had never encountered, in ways I couldn’t have imagined for myself. As the years past, though, the more theology I read I came to recognize a great deal of other authors, thinkers, theologians, and presentations peeking through the edges of what Lewis was doing. Lewis’ originality lay not so much in the newness of his ideas–he would have denied any originality for himself at that point–but, like Pascal, in his peculiar talent at making the old seem new and the difficult, accessible to the men and women of his own day. He didn’t do it by changing anything for them, but rather by both listening and speaking to them.

If you’re having trouble “being original”, take a lesson from Pascal and Lewis: find something you believe in, a truth you’re passionate about and strive to communicate it as best you can to those around you. If you do that, originality will take care of itself.

Soli Deo Gloria