Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Performance Paradox: or, why I sometimes hate doing what I love

So it seems I've let this go delinquent a bit, sorry about that. But anyone who knows a performing artist personally should know about the Winter season and what it does to us.

The ironic thing I find is that so often, this season is so hectic that we artists can forget to enjoy what we're doing. It sound ridiculous, I know. Especially for those of us who dedicate our lives to the stuff, and even write blogs gushing about it's power and importance. Sometimes, when we ought to be really grateful and lively, people, we're just flustered and aggravated.

Now, there is at least one valid reason for all that.

An old teacher and now colleague of mine, Prof. Thomas Brooks once told us when we were in the college choir that, in a lot of ways, we were like the college's flagship sports team. We had to act like a team, we had to do it all despite our academic work load, some of us even took the activities of the choir to be the real focus of our time at college, etc. The parallels match up pretty evenly. (And anyone who has been on riser-crew knows that concerts can be as strenuous as a full-contact sport). But there was one exception, a sports team has a season of wins and losses. The college choir, he said, couldn't. We had to have a perfect season every time. If we didn't, there was no going back.

Now, it was a bit of an exaggeration, but I think the point holds true. In sports, you have a lot of plays and sometimes they go bad. It's expected to an extent. You're just an athlete. In the arts, if it goes bad, it is not expected. It's a serious failure. You're not competing in a zero-sum game against an opponent, you're competing against yourself and all the logistical challenges of doing the art.

Any of you who do the arts knows this is true. However incredibly romanticized the performance world is, we don't just go up there and emote and sing and dance and story-tell naturally. We practice, we wrestle against our own nerves, the humidity, the acoustics of the room, etc. Now, if you're far enough along, you know how to overcome that stuff. If you're still learning, it's a battle. But even when you're good, it's still a conscious effort.

So all that to say, sometimes when the dice roll against you, as an artist you have to go into "survival" mode. You go on stage, you smile, you spend every moment controlling all the different factors and you get it done... the audience will usually still be happy, and the outcome can even still be pretty good. But in the process, as an artist, you didn't really do your thing. You just got through it. Then there are the times when you went up there and made music, did your art, told your story. Those are the real wins.

Contrary to popular opinion, the audience cannot tell the difference most of the time. I've known degree-recitals which went horribly, and very intelligent audience members said "I could really tell you were getting into it there" etc. That's fine. This is a testimony to those of us on the stage. We cannot let the audience know. We just have to carry it within ourselves.

Ok, now this post is rapidly becoming a bit of a downer. That's not my intention. But I did want to talk a little bit about the paradox between the art, how much we love it, how we even dedicate all our time to it, and yet how hard it is to pull it off, and when you're there, sometimes you're just not all there. It's weird. But it's just part of the job, I suppose. You can't really ignore it. But you certainly get work over it. I've done that sometimes, other times not so much.

So, this season, I won't tell you what my real score is, because on the outside it's still 3-0. Another one coming up tonight. But I will tell you that I, for one, intend to do my thing rather than just survive.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Against dust-jackets: Or, the scent of a book

This afternoon, I sat down to read a book.

I'm actually really surprised to write that so definitively. You see, that's a pleasure I used to partake of very frequently, even up to a few months ago. But now I'm afraid that with the 'curse' of artistic success and an altered professional schedule, I'm finding it to be a much more rare occasion. (I must admit, the thinking and writing of these posts is equally under that burden at present.)

But back to my story...

I have my cup of tea, my recliner, and my book: a compilation of G.K. Chesterton's essays. As I'm reading I find very quickly that the dust-jacket is annoying me, (It's a hardcover, because I love such things...but more on that later.) it slips and slides around when I'm trying to grasp the book... so I take it off. And to my surprise, I had quite a specimen in my hands.

The book had a very smooth, cream-colored cardboard as its cover, with some kind of faux-leather binding, which was ornamented with gold filigree at it's edges. In a word, it was beautiful.

This made me look down to the dust-jacket, with its rather ugly green wallpaperish spread and a rather generic exhibit of clip art, as if its 'classic' status as literature demands some subtle but unobtrusive emblem of a featureless man reading at a candle... In a word, it was gaudy.

So now I'm left with my book, my very fine book with well thought out essays crafted on the inside, matched with its true exterior of simplicity and artful craftsmanship on the outside. And it makes me think.

What is all this? Why the dust-cover? Why so flashy? You might argue that if all books were simply leather or gray bound, with straight gold type, the bookstores would have a very difficult time grabbing your attention while you peruse the shelves... perhaps I'll grant you that. But in such a case, I would suggest that you treat such superficial packaging as the marketing trash it is and destroy it as you would the bright gold stickers saying "10% off this week only!" As they are no more than that, and deserve no better fate.

The other day I was listening to an interview from On Point, and it was discussing the beauty of architecture. In it there was one point I really enjoyed. It was asserted that architecture needs a balance between utility and beauty. Those fancy squiggly break-your-mind buildings often didn't work well when you lived in them, and if they were so out there as to not do their job, they failed. Likewise if you get purely utilitarian, as we tend to do these days with our boxy and mass-produced fare, there is something decidedly missing.

I would say the same can hold true in all manner of little things. I'm not planning on building a house anytime soon, but when I look at my hardcover book, I really like it as an object in itself, not just the content. Actually, I find the content and its cover to be satisfyingly complimentary. I derive just as much pleasure in reading it as I do holding it. I even had one friend who would go through a particular ritual every time she sat down to read. She'd plop down, rapidly flip the entire contents like a deck of cards, then stick her nose in the binding and sniff deeply. We laughed at each other anytime I caught her doing it, but we both agreed it was a good thing.

So I leave you with these possibly random, maybe superficial thoughts. Buy hardcovers, pretty ones. Rip off your dust jackets. Stop and smell the pages. You'll get a lot more out of it. At least, I certainly do.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A good article for Halloween, sorta

I found this link posted on Facebook through a fellow actor's page, and I think it's a really good follow-up after my (very) brief references to monsters in my last post.

The author is basically saying that monsters serve an important and permanent feature within our social imagination and moral framework. I especially liked his references about "imaginative rehearsal..."

It's like Frederica Matthewes-Green once quoted as the curse of the writer, once you get a good idea you always end up finding someone who said it better than you possibly could, before you had a chance to try. ;-)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The two levels of being in Art

Editorial note: This post is no-holds barred, it's not a sythesized argument, it's just letting my mind go loose, and what streams out is what is being processed, realized, corrected as I type it. The end will likely be sudden, and I may even contradict myself halfway. That's how I roll sometimes...

In the past few years, the strongest theme in my aesthetic of narrative Art has been one of reality. I would strongly make an argument that Art, when properly done, is ontologically true on a very deep level, despite being a "fantastic" story. The choices made by characters need to be real, otherwise we wouldn't go along with them. The themes they address need to be real, otherwise we'd have no reason to watch them. And on the deepest level, our witnessing them has direct implications and consequences on our lives. Therefore, a story is not "just a story." The story is real.

Now, you can quibble with that plenty, that's really a very condensed summary of pages and pages of old essays I've written and wrestled with. I posted them on my old blog, and I still have them archived, though it's been a while since I've dragged them up and revisited them. My main point is that this view of Art as real has two major consequences. One, it elevates its significance to more than just passing entertainment. Two, it requires more ethical responsibility in the telling. If a story is real, then creating evil within it has an intrinsically ethical challenge that needs to be addressed.

Again, this is all prefatory. But I think that gives you enough of a starting point to hear where I want to go next. Recently, I've started considering a second level to this scheme. Art exists on an primary ontological level, yes. But I'm starting to think it also exists on a second-order level as well, one which is more symbolic or representational.

When you see a young boy playing make-believe, he is engaging with forces bigger than himself. He is killing monsters. We laugh at this if we're cynical. But many would argue that the child is doing something very real here. He's living in a world which has evil in it. Where things go wrong. Where there are scary things he knows are bad, but cannot prevent. When we make monsters, we are physicalizing those abstract ideas into a single thing. An entity we can fight and kill. Or, maybe like Jim Henson, we make them comic, and so we no longer fear them, we laugh at them, and gain master that way.

The jump between that child's play and our theatrical works is not a large one, I don't think. The secret, I think, lies in the fictitious element. We create a kind of "unreal" space, wherein we can change the rules to do a kind of otherwise "real" thing. Where the bad guys are completely bad. Where evil has a form. Where the hero can get hurt, but can still stand up. This also lets us do things that mean bigger things. To "kill a monster" is on the primary level an act of violence against a creature, something we would identify as bad and seek to avoid. But on the second-order, it's the act of eliminating the evil which ought to be destroyed.

This leaves a lot of questions regarding where the line is between the first and second order of things. I don't really have the answer to that, this is all something of a new realization to me. This paradigm seems to have something essential in it... but I haven't figured it out.

One of the big caveats which I think definitely needs to be said in this mode of thinking, is an intelligent and self-aware audience. If the audience does not see the second-order, then something has gone wrong. It is in these deplorable cases where we make an ultra-gratuitous film and pass it off as art, using the pretense of an unengaged second order to simply give us the excuse to enjoy the violence and sensual content. But this is a failure in the artist and/or the audience, not a wholesale failure of the work itself.

Another theory I might put forth. (...this one really undeveloped as yet) It seems the biggest thing this symbolic view of Art affords is a certain license to do things on stage which one wouldn't do in real life, only since it is universally understood by the actors and the audience that it is in an "unreal" space... precisely because the actor who gets killed will get up at the end. But the question always comes back to the same bottom line, how far is too far? What is that line?

I'm beginning to suspect that it may have to do with that other trend thrown around a lot lately: realism. In the older comics, the heroes didn't bleed. Not even the badguys. They just got beat up. In Elizabethan drama, if a horrible act of violence happened, it was offstage and referred to... today, we see blood and guts and everything. Now, if the message is to say "violence means people get hurt, and that's bad" okay. But if the message is more second-order, then I think that violence does more to pull the audience out of that higher frame, and more into just seeing violence plain and simple.

Here's an illustration of what I mean. It used to be that cartoons and such were "fake" and we liked action and adventure. We got our virtuous encouragement, but we weren't exposed to all the blood and guts. Then, someday came along that a real fight had to happen. And we saw blood. And we were rightly horrified. Then we made the connection that sometimes fights have to happen, but they have bad consequences and real risks. These days however, it seems that we see so much violence all over the place, we don't mind it so much anymore. "Oh, the other guy gets brutally maimed? That's not too bad, he deserved it anyway..."

So, it's complicated. It seems to me that I do land in circles, since they all come back to "what is actually happening? "What is allowed?" and "Which is good, what is okay, and what is harmful?" To some extent, that always lands on the audience's self-awareness. But I also think the debate just got a lot bigger in scope in my own perceptions...

PS Comments on this one are definitely encouraged. I'm trying to figure this out as much as I'm trying to "share" it. So do you horribly disagree? Show me where. Think I'm on to something but missed it? Fire away...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Style shift

So I'm still getting used to the style of this blog. I like that it's not about me but about my ideas, and my writing (usually) has a pretty specific direction I want to get across... but I'm finding myself stuck on one point. See, now that I'm not just randomly spewing ideas, I find I have all these posts I want to write, but don't, because they lack conclusions.

In other words, many of my posts so far have been directly expository, saying "hey look at this! Here's an important point I want to affirm!" And I definitely have those moments. But there are plenty of subjects I don't have distinct clear-cut answers to. Sometimes I just want to verbally process... so I might throw some of those in every once and a while.

Stay tuned.


PS I could definitely use some comments so I know people are reading this or not. When I first jumped on this train, a lot of people left wall comments, but sometimes this page feels almost as barren as the Gobi desert. I can't know if I'm striking a chord in silence...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hello there stranger: Or, the unknowable essence of personhood

If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready, be ready to get confused

There's definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
But yet so, yet so irresistible

And there's no map
and a compass
wouldn't help at all...

When I was a young teen, and the Internet was just getting popular, one of the things I spent a lot of time on were e-mail personality surveys. My band of friends did dozens of them, and I kept in a file all the answers my friends ever put down. At first glance this may seem like an odd thing, to keep entire pages of superfluous questions and answers like "If you were a fast food item, what would you be" and "what is the last sentence you said out loud?" (One of those single-serving apple pies, and "nothing wrong with that!" by the way...)

But I did this because, on a very deep level, I was doing what all young adolescents do. I was trying in whatever way I could to connect with other people. To reach out and gain a sense of these other people I cared about. I wanted to know them.

It had taken me years before I learned my essential mistake. For all my paying attention, I knew things about them. I did not know them. That is a fundamentally different thing. It wasn't until my senior year of college that I learned the next step. That you cannot know another person completely. And often, even after years and years of shared space, companionship, cooperation, intimacy... we only catch the smallest glimpses.

I took a class under a professor in the psychology department (whom to this day I still think belongs in the philosophy department) who first put it best into words for me. He said that love was, at its deepest level, the realization and acknowledgment of an Other. That is to say, when we can actually see a person as a person, not as an extension of our ego, not as a means to an end, not as a stereotype of predictable behaviors, but as someone who sees differently, thinks differently, and is at a profound level exists outside of ourselves... there is the beginning of real love.

There is wisdom in that observation beyond my ability to rhapsodize at this keyboard. We can live alongside people for decades, remember all kinds of events and actions they've done, but when you look into their eyes, you can't see their essence. You can't classify them. You can't truly know what they are thinking, how they are feeling, what makes them tick. That's still a mysterious thing beyond our abilities.

But what an amazing thing to look at them, and see someone looking out at you. In those moments we get flashes of something, the evidence of that deeper mystery... And it's a powerful and precious thing that we don't appreciate nearly often enough.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Said better by another long before me...

Just as that puzzled savage who has picked up - a strange cast-up from the ocean? - something unearthed from the sands? - or an obscure object fallen down from the sky? - intricate in curves, it gleams first dully and then with a bright thrust of light. Just as he turns it this way and that, turns it over, trying to discover what to do with it, trying to discover some mundane function within his own grasp, never dreaming of its higher function.

So also we, holding Art in our hands, confidently consider ourselves to be its masters; boldly we direct it, we renew, reform and manifest it; we sell it for money, use it to please those in power; turn to it at one moment for amusement - right down to popular songs and night-clubs, and at another - grabbing the nearest weapon, cork or cudgel - for the passing needs of politics and for narrow-minded social ends. But art is not defiled by our efforts, neither does it thereby depart from its true nature, but on each occasion and in each application it gives to us a part of its secret inner light.

But shall we ever grasp the whole of that light? Who will dare to say that he has defined Art, enumerated all its facets? Perhaps once upon a time someone understood and told us, but we could not remain satisfied with that for long; we listened, and neglected, and threw it out there and then, hurrying as always to exchange even the very best - if only for something new! And when we are told again the old truth, we shall not even remember that we once possessed it.

One artist sees himself as the creator of an independent spiritual world; he hoists onto his shoulders the task of creating this world, of peopling it and of bearing the all-embracing responsibility for it; but he crumples beneath it, for a mortal genius is not capable of bearing such a burden. Just as man in general, having declared himself the centre of existence, has not succeeded in creating a balanced spiritual system. And if misfortune overtakes him, he casts the blame upon the age-long disharmony of the world, upon the complexity of today's ruptured soul, or upon the stupidity of the public.

Another artist, recognizing a higher power above, gladly works as a humble apprentice beneath God's heaven; then, however, his responsibility for everything that is written or drawn, for the souls which perceive his work, is more exacting than ever. But, in return, it is not he who has created this world, not he who directs it, there is no doubt as to its foundations; the artist has merely to be more keenly aware than others of the harmony of the world, of the beauty and ugliness of the human contribution to it, and to communicate this acutely to his fellow-men. And in misfortune, and even at the depths of existence - in destitution, in prison, in sickness - his sense of stable harmony never deserts him.

But all the irrationality of art, its dazzling turns, its unpredictable discoveries, its shattering influence on human beings - they are too full of magic to be exhausted by this artist's vision of the world, by his artistic conception or by the work of his unworthy fingers.

Archaeologists have not discovered stages of human existence so early that they were without art. Right back in the early morning twilights of mankind we received it from Hands which we were too slow to discern. And we were too slow to ask: for what purpose have we been given this gift? What are we to do with it?

And they were mistaken, and will always be mistaken, who prophesy that art will disintegrate, that it will outlive its forms and die. It is we who shall die - art will remain. And shall we comprehend, even on the day of our destruction, all its facets and all its possibilities?

Not everything assumes a name. Some things lead beyond words. Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited - dimly, briefly - by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.

Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see - not yourself - but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groan...

One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world". What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved?

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition - and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.

In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force - they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?

In that case Dostoevsky's remark, "Beauty will save the world", was not a careless phrase but a prophecy? After all he was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination.

And in that case art, literature might really be able to help the world today.

selected from "Beauty Will Save the World"
-Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1970

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The highlights of Character Assassination

In an entry a few months ago, I left a small footnote to a podcast featuring a great interview between film reviewers Bobby Maddox and Barbara Nicolosi. As its transcript has finally been posted online, I had a chance to peruse it again today, and I'm just so impressed with it that I have to put up a full and prominent link here:

Character Assassination: How Hollywood Kills Off the Movie Hero

Her thesis shouldn't be anything new to someone who has heard me talk for more than 5 minutes on the good of storytelling.

Here are a few of the best quotes I'd like to highlight.

we need extraordinary heroes in our stories and plays so that we can be good to the guy next door. A super individual shames us into good behavior in real life.

Today, there is a tremendous cynicism about the capacity of the individual to impact the broader world, and the truth is that you probably can’t make that big of a difference. But storytelling has always been the terrain where someone could.

What I have noticed in the Millennials—the people who are coming of age in this new millennium—is a sadness about the possibility of heroism. This sadness comes from their lack of discipline.

That pretty much captures it. But, in the words of LaVar, you don't have to take my word for it...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Firefly, Farscape, and Fellowship: Or, We All Live in a Yellow Submarine

I've recently found myself spending a lot of time thinking about and defending television as a medium of literature; or in my chosen vocabulary, as "story." I put this out there because I get the impression that a lot of people think TV is just mindless entertainment. They are correct in saying television programming has a lot of mindless entertainment on it (Game shows, sit-coms, celebrity gossip channels...), and you can even say people mis-use it for mindless entertainment, but that would be far from the entire truth of the situation.

The fact is, there are a lot of shows out there which are incredibly powerful mediums of exploring all the realms that good art and storytelling can touch. I think the most notoriously misunderstood genre out there is the Sci-Fi/Fantasy series. Because people are often either affronted or embarrassed by the "childlike" and "otherness" of the settings these shows take place in, they miss some seriously good writing. (C.f. for more on defending fantasy from the "mature adults" read JRR Tolkien's "On Fairie Stories")

That all said as introduction, I'd like to talk about my favorite kind of Sci-Fi show and what they're actually doing.

The basic ingredients are easy, you simply take
-one small group of misfits, outcasts, and colorful characters
-one vehicle
-a serious wanderlust
-a common goal, or badguy.

Mix well and you get the trope commonly referred to as "Walking the Earth." The variant possibilities of this set up are almost endless, you have the Drifter, the Flying Dutchman, the Knight Errant, etc.

Put it in space and you get "Tripping the Universe." Some of the best Sci-Fi shows have followed this pattern. The two best examples I can think of and enjoy are Firefly (probably the second most popular sci-fi show of the decade, second to Battlestar Galactica) and Farscape (possibly the weirdest of the previous decade, unless you count Babylon 5...)

Now, how does all this apply to us? Well, it's all in the story-telling. See, the biggest merit of this trope is that it cuts everything down to character development. When you stick a bunch of characters in a small ship together within a common journey, and you get the best possible vehicle for exploring themes of identity, belonging, and community. And these questions apply to us all the time. When you travel, it's all about who you're travel with.

Think about how often we use the "Journey" metaphor for our own lives. Christian eschatological discourse is full of it. St. Paul in the Bible as well as 1st/2nd century Christian writers constantly use language about being sojourners in search of our homeland.

Take it even one step further into our practical world. Ever been on a road-trip? Think about how formative they are. I've had the privilege and blessing to travel to Europe with friends on a few occasions now, and I can tell you from personal experience nothing makes you think more about the quality of your friendships, about personal loyalty, and questions of belonging than wandering in a strange land. Even on the most "superficial" level, when I'm giving rides back and forth to church, I'm think a lot about those I'm taking with me.

So maybe take a step back into the Sci-Fi again. What's the point of watching it? Partly, it's resonance. As in all stories, we want to see ourselves. And we're all on a journey of one kind or another. But in a larger context, it's the same as any story, we look to the hero. When all the details are simplified to a crisis on a space ship with a crew, what choices does he make?

I'm reminded once again of the dramatic philosophy of Aristotle, who said we as a society need heroes. We watch them, as they are just a little higher-up than we are, a little more Romanticized... and by seeing them do great things, we are encouraged to at least accomplish the merely good.

We're left to ask, are you just a selfish loner, or are you part of a crew? Would you do the heroic thing and not leave your crew-member behind in the face of danger, or will you just fly away? What's the next adventure on the horizon?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Some best of

Vimeo, which is on my links on the side, is just an absolute gem of a web site. It is full of these videos which are just so wonderful. Now, you have to sort through some of the odd gothy animated stuff, or the cinematographic calligraphy essays... but I've found a good handful of really beautiful stories on there.

With my last post which very briefly scratched the surface of stories that just are, I thought I'd leave a few highlights of my favorites to express it a little better than my poor words.

World Builder from BranitVFX on Vimeo.

Charlotte's Red from Colin McIvor on Vimeo.

My Favourite Things from kidswithcrayons on Vimeo.

Cart - The Film from Jesse Rosten on Vimeo.

On Knowing it when you see it

There are stories, and then there are good stories. While it sure sounds obvious, sometimes I really think it's worth reasserting every once and a while.

And the real thing about it is that so often the best stories are the hardest to describe. OK, Transformers the movie. I loved it. Thought it was exciting, heroic and generally just an all-round good time to watch. I'd call it a good movie without reservation. But in comparison, this weekend I stumbled upon a free DVD at a yard-sale that is in a completely different class entirely. It's called The Snowalker.

That was a good story.

I could go on about the beautiful scenery shots, or the character development, or other technical aspects, but none of that would come close to explaining (really) why it was so good. Especially since doing so would point out all the ways it fell short of the popular standards of today's movies. This film would not make it in theaters today, which I think is a shame, because it still hit me like a brick wall. It's one of those stories where its genuineness and power are self-evident. And that's the trait I want to center in on for a just a few minutes of musing.

In the realm of art appreciation, there are two alternating schools. One is utilitarian and technical. You can see the craftsmanship of the brushwork, you can highlight how a story promotes awareness of a social cause, or you can champion the "Mozart Effect" of playing classical music to kids. These are all true and worthwhile things. And they're very useful in convincing the School Board or Principle in keeping your program when budgets are tight. But really, I've always held the opinion that these really miss the point when you get right down to it.

The other school is existential, often called the "Art for Art's Sake" movement. It basically says "there is beauty, why would you not want to promote it?" I think that comes much closer to the real essence of why we artistic types do what we do, why we seem to always be dreaming, and kinda burn inside. There's just something ineffable that is evident all over our world. It exists in the trees and the sunsets, on beaches and in people's eyes. It's captured in stories, on canvases, and in music.

And you simply can't describe it. Not really. And in that frame of mind, I think it's safe to say you can't explain it either. Nor should you. It's just there. And you know it when you see it.

It's my humble opinion that there are a lot of things in life like that. And that we should foster a sensitivity to them as much as we possibly can.

Friday, August 28, 2009

No more Reading Rainbow (NPRKJ)

Today marked a very sad day in the history of television. While typing away at work, I heard that today the very last episode of Reading Rainbow aired.

Yes, after 26 years of continuous running, LeVar Burton will no longer be sharing the amazing stories of Abyoyo, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Hot-Air Henry, or Miss Nelson Is Back.

I have to honestly say that I was deeply saddened by the news. I was even more frustrated by the content of the report. Apparently, PBS has decided that teaching the mechanics of reading (phonics, and the like) is a more important topic and will be more beneficial to children. I can't even begin to express how vehemently I disagree with this position.

It actually reminds me of two different lectures I've listened to lately, both talking about the Christian ideas of the humanities in education and homeschooling. Each reasserts an idea which C.S. Lewis brought up in his own work "The Abolition of Man," which is to say, (putting it harshly) modern school systems with their excessive standards, systems, and assembly-line attitudes do not produce real humans. They produce men without chests, without hearts. To be more diplomatic, it's not the methods of how you process information that make you intelligent, but rather it is the grappling with the question of "why" that will make you wise.

Or, to quote a line from a very obscure musical that I enjoyed, "Don't give me songs. Give me something to sing about."

I can honestly say that LeVar Burton was one of my heroes. I know nothing about his celebrity life outside of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow (I'm too young to know about the "Roots" phenomenon) and I don't feel the need to. Who knows, maybe he has a skeleton in his closet, or something. It doesn't matter. Mr. Burton was someone who for more than 20 years really cared about the education of the person. He actively shared the imagination, the wonder, and the joy of reading to generations of children. That is the stuff of heroes.

That is what it's all about. They will never succeed in designing the perfect television show that will effectively teach children to read. And I know for a fact that if you generate in a child the desire to read, they can even teach themselves. They already had succeeded in desiging a near-perfect television show that witnessed to the power of reading.

So this is partly, an NPRKJ to express my disapointment in the show's disappearance. But on a deeper level I posted this because it's almost impossible to stress too deeply or say too many times just how important the drive behind literature, art, and the Story is.

Who cares about decoding letters on a page. Give me a story.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

NPRKJ on Raising Kids

It's official. Raising your kids properly isn't just for off-beat Luddites anymore.

This program was an entertaining shock for me. Just imagine, a media talk show exploring the incomprehensible idea of not giving your 10-year old a cell phone, moderating the TV and Internet content they view, and discouraging dating 'till maybe late high school... and the people all said, "That's crazy talk!"

Washington Times columnist Marybeth Hicks, in very straightforward language says, "hey, let's teach our kids how to behave and say 'no' to the junk." She even deftly avoided the rhetorical traps set for her, suggesting she was being elitist or judgmental. It was like a breath of fresh air. (Ironically, not the other NPR program of the same name, which while very civil, rarely brings up anything challenging.)

But the best part of it had to be that the host, who so often does a great job at moderating and bringing in some opposing perspective to even the most out-there ideas, seemed incredulous. Don't get me wrong, he wasn't being harsh or sarcastic, but his tone just kept saying "do you really think you can accomplish that?" I almost laughed in my chair.

But then again, this episode was a nice contrast to the frustrating other stories flying around these days about how marriage is an outdated and pointless habit.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Not above the influence... or, How I live my life by Harry Potter and why I'm not ashamed of it

Did I ever tell you who taught me how to foster a mix of analytic curiosity and wonder at how the world works? His name was Atrus. You probably haven't heard of him, he doesn't live on this world...

Or, how about the time Hermione Granger taught me how to better understand my morning prayers? It was in the middle of book seven, when they were on the run in the woods...

I could even tell you the number of times that Edmund Pevensie or Eustace Scrubb confronted me about the power of selfishness and the joy of repentance...

...I'm not even going to bring up why I secretly wish choral conductors used batons when leading ensembles...

I probably haven't mentioned any of this because I'd imagine you'd probably look at me rather funny. If you didn't cast a stare that said straight-up "you're a weirdo," then you'd at least probably heave a sigh and think "how immature." At least, that certainly seems to be the mentality I get from the general world these days. But does that really make a lot of sense?

I'm hardly going out on a limb to say that stories (books, films, video games) are a mirror of our own societies. Nor is anyone shocked when some argue against them because they're too violent or dark (think Quentin Tarantino or Grand Theft Auto). But you rarely get discussion about how the good stuff does its job. At that point, we generally tend to stop at sentimentalism.

Now, I'm not trying to make a point about violent movies, or the negative influence of video games. Although it's perfectly worthy to talk about, and closely related, that's a different discussion for another day... For now I'm hoping to strike something more positive. However, the one point I do have to establish before moving on is that we are affected/effected by what stories we see. [editorial note: I hate that semantic spelling issue, so from this point on, don't read into the implications of my word choice on that one.] You just can't get around the fact.

Think about this for a moment. We don't like movies that fail to affect us. Have you ever gone to a suspense film that flopped? It's a frustrating and embarrassing ordeal to go through. When you go to a thriller, you want to be scared. Likewise, when you go to a romantic comedy, you want to believe at the end that storybook-happy-ending-discovery-of-love-in-the-rain really can happen. (Which, I also assume, is why people generally take their significant other with them as well, in hopes that they'll get the same feeling, too.) So really, it's there.

And if you do a little historical digging, you'll see we're really one of the first societies to ignore the fact. Plato had all kinds of things to say about what Art is good for a society in The Republic. Despite being a prominent humanist and Enlightenment scholar, Jean Jacques-Rousseau petitioned the Swiss government to keep theater illegal in Geneva. Remember the entire tradition of banned books?

Now my question is why do we then brush it off so superficially today? Moreover, why is it that when the occasional person really admits this, that they're labeled obsessed or a freak if they show it?

Well I for one will come right out and say it: I read a lot of fiction, much of it fantasy and sci-fi, and those books have taught me a lot about how to live. Really. All those examples above are true, and I could give dozens more. Sometimes, I'm downright exhausted after listening to a piece of music or watching a movie, because I didn't just watch and hear what happened, I personally experienced it. As in, those things were added to my experiences, which I will draw on in the future to decide how to act and feel.

I am quite convinced I'm not extraordinary in this fact. Though I'll readily admit that perhaps I'm more self-aware or sensitive to it than others. But I'm not so sure that makes me the odd one.

There are many aspects to this that I haven't touched yet, such as the danger of escapism, or the complexity of exactly what it is we "experience," but I'll leave it at this point before going further. I'll just throw in one final challenging question.

What ways have stories taught you? You just might be surprised if you really look into it... you don't have to be a bookworm either, we've all watched far too many movies, video-games, books, an television shows to be except by lack of stories...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Disapointing Fantasy

Here I'm going to introduce one type of regular entry I hope to regularly put onto this blog. I'm calling it the NPRKJ, or the "National Public Radio Knee-Jerk." Basically I'll present a story which I ran into while perusing the stories of the day, and share my knee-jerk reaction to it. It's not my fully formed and crafted position, it's just a quick (sometimes not so quick) response.


The story Morally Complex 'Magicians' Recasts Potter's World left me very frustrated and disappointed. It did so because it came so very close to addressing a fundamental aspect of good literature, but then went the exact opposite direction.

Here's a quick lowdown, the author Lev Grossman was heavily influenced by writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, particularly Lewis, but disliking the moral clarity of such stories, decides to rewrite the same story only with "believable" characters who are more gritty at match his worldview. This means the college students do drugs, have sex with each other, and generally act like rebellious and selfish kids.

Now, on a bad day, I'd tend to take this personally and get really riled up against Grossman, but really it's not him, and it's not the "gritty realism" either, though generally you need to convince me why I should be interested in reading something with that kind of content. You really do have a world like that here, let's be honest, the moral caliber of most U.S. Universities isn't exactly stellar... But we're not talking about real life here, we're talking about fantasy. And it's this bigger fact that I'm trying to make. Grossman, like a few other authors these days, don't use the genre for its highest purpose. (In fact, as we go farther along, we'll see he's doing something worse, but we're not there yet.)

Here's a telling quote:
Grossman: Voldemort and anyone like that in a fantasy novel, any big, bad villain, has a kind of powerful organizing presence on the universe. You know who's good, you know who's evil and you know what magic is for. It's for fighting evil. Well, when you take that away, suddenly the universe gets a whole lot more complicated...

There's that word "complicated." The NPR headline said "Morally Complex" story... but the truth is, it's not morally complex. It's just morally ambiguous. You can't even say it's "misguided" because at this point, it's not even trying to teach something. This is precisely the opposite of what fantasy is about.

Fantasy is a creative writer's dream of a literary form, because it basically let's you do anything and the reader tends to go along with it. The sky is purple? Ok. People can shoot magic beams from sticks? Ok. The adventure happens in a rip of alternate-reality? Sure. But here's where the line between cheap entertainment and real literature is drawn. Because that's not all there is to a book.

At its very core, fantasy is a genre of moral allegory meant to inspire, it offers a vessel to "Be all you cannot be," in order to come away with something. And this is where I become be disappointed, and sometimes frustrated, when I find these kinds of books. Without resorting to quote Spider-man, not every author who writes a fantasy book uses rises to their level of power and responsibility. Some don't even still believe you can inspire people. And worse, since we live in a pretty ugly nihilistic society, sometimes you get people who want to deliberately inspire the wrong things. It's not the author's fault per se, but it still causes a knee-jerk reaction in me. And once you get to this point, that's when I have to start drawing a line in the sand and saying "this is bad."

I hit that point when in the interview Grossman described what he did with his own heavy critical allusions to C.S. Lewis' Narnia series and his intentions of re-interpreting it. This is what he says:
Grossman: I remember being very angry as a child and as an adult at Aslan. I always felt that here is a world that had a, you know, a proper god in it, a god who you could see, who would come down and change the course of events, but he didn't do it very much, and he would often let battles go on and events really spin out of control, and people would die before Aslan would step in. Why would a God not help people in every possible way that he could?

So basically he's admitting that he doesn't like "god" and therefore he's going to re-write the story where his characters get a chance to confront him and accuse him of doing it all wrong. Does this sound familiar?

It's always just so annoying when you get an author who has a great imagination and plenty of craftsmanship in creating a world, but they do it to spite God instead of glorify Him... it's even more annoying because I've recently found myself more of the opinion that you really can't justify that kind of literature and say "but it's just so well written" and writ- off the anti-God message. That suggests you're not reading properly, either being ignorant of the power of themes in a book, or deliberately ignoring them. In each case, the book isn't being used properly.


Now, to close up, with all NPR KJs, I'd like to give a list of links to further consider some of the icebergs I smash into above. Here ya go:

Fortunately, this was not the only story out this week. For a great list of books to read that are wonderfully positive examples worth reading and celebrating, listen to author Leslie Blume's summer reading list.

If you ever feel like really getting into the Theodicy debate, where you really ask "What if God really did come and help us all the time like we ask," listen or read this essay by Frederica Matthewes-Green.

Also, I can't close this out without leaving a link and recommendation for a great interview discussing the purpose of stories and fantasy as moral tools. The second half of this podcast hits the nail right on the head summarizing why we need literature, and what it's good for. (Click here for the mp3 directly, otherwise here for a pop-up viewer.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Conviction and Authority

Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

This video is something I ran into on my way to setting up the links and logistics of this blog on day-one, its message lines up nicely with some of what I brought up earlier so I thought I'd bring it into the discussion.

When I was in high school, my good friend Ian and I had a rule. The phrase "but I dunno" was disallowed. While exceptions could be made for designating an uncertain level of precision if the question was on the level of "What time of day did you leave the house?", we realized that we would frequently expound for minutes (and occasionally hours) on deep matters of politics, philosophy, social commentary and belief only to shoot ourselves in the foot at the last moment by undermining the authority of our statements and give ourselves a cowardly loophole to not defend ourselves if proven wrong forced us to take a stand.

If you think about it, it's rather pathetic. It's not that we don't have opinions anymore. No, one only has to turn on the radio to hear a whole host of pundits and talk-show hosts, to go online and find thousands of blogs similar to this one, and even go to coffee shops or wait in line at a theater to hear how one person is convinced that they could run the word better if only everyone else understood what they did. But there's something else missing, too. As we can see, it's not that we don't have opinions. It's that our opinions don't really matter.

To quote one writer that I respect, "Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment..." Opinion in the dominant culture of public discourse is more an avenue of entertainment than it is of actual engagement. We have opinions for everything, but if were were to be honest with ourselves we'd have to admit that we so rarely act on them.

Talk, as they say, is cheap.

Now it's at this point I'd like to return to that video. I liked what the poem had to say at all points, except for the final couplet. This is a minor quibble, but I'd like to bring it up nonetheless. I would suggest that there is a difference between speaking with conviction and speaking with authority.

I am all for speaking with conviction as frequently as possible, but this does not make you authoritative. Remember, everyone has those opinions. The shame in it is not that we have them, it's that we don't hold ourselves to any standard in sharing them with consequences. It is therefore so easy to whine about how the system (any system) is broken, but we so rarely hold ourselves responsible for attempting to fix it. Authority, on the other hand, would be to correctly identify the problem and possibly to demonstrate the power to fix it, or at least address it.

Opinions are intrinsically selfish, limited in scope, and very subjective if not outright relative. Convictions are perhaps the elevation of those opinions to the point where we are willing to take a stand for them, and defend them as applying to more than just our own perceptions, but to something larger.
Authority is that circumstance where the conviction is proven true and is shown to be applicable to all of us, and most importantly, that we must face it and conform it in one way or another.

One final point. As one engages with these ideas, as one attempts to scale further along the spectrum from superficial opinion to appeal to authority, the public disdain and unpopularity of such a move is justly earned if they approached without humility. I do not think that it is the assertion that something is true that offends people so much, I think it's when people try to use that "truth" as a weapon to elevate themselves. However, the true appeal to authority should be one which is paradoxically self-less, as it ought to admit to ourselves and others that we have very little influence over the reality of the situation. We are admitting to something larger than ourselves. And that should humble us, not puff us up.

And so I would draw this conclusion: we all ought to speak with conviction, bravely and definitively to the best of our ability, but always do so humbly, realizing that by doing so we are also acknowledging an authority to which we will all be measured.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


As a way of introducing things, I thought I would take a few moments to offer some definitions, a few literary references, and explain what this blog ought to be, and hopefully won't become.

Why not begin with the title? Discipulus Artius. Latin for "Student of the Arts." Sounds pretentious? Probably. Odds are I will come off sounding pretentious a lot. That's more the fault of my love for formal language than it is my attitude (I sincerely hope). But I assure you that I actually mean quite the opposite. I chose those two words very intentionally, because there is some nuance to them. (Ok, and in the interest of full disclosure: It's also a fact that almost everything sounds more profound in Latin...)

Discipulus - student. But more than that, it has connotations of being a follower, or in the most direct translation "disciple," complete with religious overtones. I chose this more than anything else because in this blog I may explore a great deal of topics, but at no point will I presume to speak with authority except in the rarest instances. This is not because I won't have strongly held views, or that I won't make assertions about the Truth. But it is precisely to avoid the biggest danger of blogging, that is, the prideful assumption that we are the authority and are here to teach all your ignorant others how things really are. The day I do that, I will have failed myself and everyone else. In the words of St. James:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. (3:1)
Honestly, I love to speak of things greater than myself. However, it is because of that that I fear my own enthusiasm. And thus, I am merely a student. But, to be a student, you also must have a subject. Or, better yet, to be a disciple, you must have someone you are following. Which brings me to part two...

Artius - art-full. It is not a direct translation of the word "art" or "the Arts." It's actually an adjective meaning "complete" or "sound in mind and body." The implications of that definition means "skilled in the Arts." This too has very important significance to me. Firstly and superficially, I will most likely tackle subjects of the Arts in this blog. This is because I am very much a Romantic-minded person, a musician, an avid reader, and an actor. I will likely branch off onto many other subjects of general philosophy, and especially social commentary, but the Arts are generally where I'm coming from.

Secondly and more deeply, as an Orthodox Christian, everything I aim for and do ought to be towards repairing the broken state of my own soul. There is no line between the sacred and the secular. I am (slowly and with great difficulty) learning that I am a broken being, whose mind and heart are tragically out of synch, but have been given the means to become a true person again. Or, to quote St. Irenaeus of Lyons to become, by the Grace of God, "a man fully alive." And so I hope to engage in many ideas here, but I want to do so with the end goal of being a better and truer person for it. Which means, there may be topics I will not touch because not everything permissible is edifying (1 Cor. 10:23). It also means that nothing is too small nor too big to matter.

Alright, so the title is taken care of. Some of the subject matter is prefaced, at least to start. Expect lots of discussions of what is good and bad Art, theology, and social commentary. Now a few words about form and etiquette.
  1. While I may vary in the formality of my writing, this will not be a venue for simply documenting my own daily activities or feelings.
  2. Most of the entries I hope to be, more or less, expository essays or responses to the subjects at hand.
  3. I would love feedback at any time.
  4. I will gladly accept submissions for topics at any time.
  5. I will not be apologetic in my writing. Knowing that I (might end up with) a broad audience, I will not go out of my way to be polemical nor offensive, but I will be speaking honestly, which will mean that I likewise will not seek to couch my words in overly diplomatic terms. This is just how I process ideas. If this makes you uncomfortable, take this caveat: "Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today." -R. W. Emerson (1841)
  6. I will also likely fall into hyperbole. This is a literary device and occasionally a character flaw of mine. Get over it :-)
  7. I will hopefully cite my quotations and sources as best I can, in keeping with my title.
  8. All this serious prefaces aside, it doesn't mean I won't let my wit come into play...