Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nasty Brilliant Old Wagner

I don't consider myself a Wagner fan, but I think this is pretty magnificent. It's the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. Yes, Hitler was an enthusiastic Wagner fan, but so were WH Auden and Thomas Mann.

I've known some enthusiastic Wagnerians in my time, and they were all Jewish. Incidentally, the conductor of this performance, Otto Klemperer, was Jewish. Perhaps there is some justice there.

Alas, moral goodness and aesthetic success are two completely separate and unrelated items. Ezra Pound was the greatest modern American poet. He was also a traitor, and in wartime. The greatness of his art does not pardon his crime, nor does his crime diminish his art.

Sorry about the sappy pictures on the YouTube post. These days, Wagner's music makes me think of the grand expansive work of an artist like Anselm Kiefer.

Gesamtkunstwerk; The Artist As Messiah

The world was broken, so many thoughtful people concluded by the middle of the 19th century. The new modern world was a brutal wretched realm of banks, factories, and slums, a world driven by greed, fear, and boredom. Worse still, it was a world where individuals were divided against themselves, their inner imaginative life having no relevance, no meaning in the universe of industrial capitalism and scientific rationalism. Work in the age of mass production no longer had any meaning or dignity. The products of the machine age were tawdry and soulless.
By the middle of the 19th century, some artists and thinkers decided that the task of art was no less than the spiritual reintegration of the individual and of the whole world. The brutality and ugliness of the modern world would be redeemed through the power of aesthetic experience. The work of art would be totally embracing. It would not just be limited to single pictures, sculptures, pieces of music, books, or buildings. It would be all of those things working in concert toward a common aim, a total work of art, Gesamtkunstwerk in a term coined by Richard Wagner to describe the new kind of opera he pioneered. The purpose of art would be nothing less than redemption. This idea would have a huge influence on the ambitions of all kinds of artists, designers, and architects down to the Second World War. It would inspire artists as widely varied as Vincent Van Gogh and Walter Gropius.
The idea begins simultaneously in Britain and Germany with 2 very great and sharply different geniuses. In Britain, it comes out of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood in the person of William Morris, a Gothic Revival architect who joined the movement in its later days at the invitation of Edward Burne Jones. Morris is mostly famous outside of Britain for his wallpaper (a sample appears above), and for being the husband of the beautiful Jane Burden who appears in many of Rosetti's works (and with whom Rosetti had a famously adulterous affair).
William Morris was a man of many talents and great ambition who accomplished much as an architect, a painter, a designer, as a poet and translator of Icelandic and Classical epics, as the virtual creator of the fantasy genre in fiction (his influence on JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis was profound), and as the founder of British Socialism together with Friedrich Engels. All of Morris' projects in art, design, literature, and politics were driven by a conviction that spiritual life had disintegrated for individuals and communities. He remained convinced all his life that mechanization and mass production were catastrophes for humankind, alienating people from their work, from each other, and from the world. His solution was some kind of revival of earlier craft traditions and the social organizations founded upon them. He took medievalizing nostalgia several steps further than either Pugin's Gothic Revival or the PreRaphaelite artists. He turned it into a program for both social reform and spiritual renewal. He founded a company for the production of household goods like furniture and textiles made entirely by hand by skilled craftsmen intended, very quixotically, to compete with mass produced items. Like all things created by skilled labor, they were far too pricey for the proletarian market Morris wanted to reach. He wanted to somehow revive the old medieval guild system, those trade organizations of craftsmen and shopkeepers, to replace the modern corporation and factory with its impersonal rational organization along the lines of mass production. Morris' enterprises were always a struggle to maintain, and arguably ended in failure. But his ideas would have an immense influence on a lot of later artists and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, the early German Expressionists, and the Bauhaus.
Though music is outside of my expertise, the composer Richard Wagner would have a similar influence on all kinds of composers, writers, poets, and on artists and architects. Wagner's influence would also be more directly political and much darker. In the mid 19th century, a romantic German nationalist movement sprang up around Wagner and his music. He formed the spiritual core of an even bigger Pan-German racial movement after German unification following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Wagner's proposed solution to the fragmentation and alienation of modern industrial capitalism was in the creation of great unifying myths that joined all classes together in a common national identity. It was the mythic identification of Blut und Boden, blood and soil, that the German people had a kind of spiritual bond with each other and with the German landscape. A very ugly central tenet of this nationalism was antisemitism. The Jews were the landless people, the ultimate parvenus; personifications of all the rootless cosmopolitanism of modernity that Wagner and his worshippers hated.
The advent of the expected redeeming art messiah ended in the coming of the Lord of the Flies, Adolph Hitler (who began his adult life as an artist).

Below is a small sample of Wagner's work, the opening of Das Rheingold (a musician friend of mine, who is no fan of Wagner, said of this opening prelude with its repetitive overlapping melodies, "Phillip Glass, eat your heart out!")

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Light of the World

Here it is, the most famous of all PreRaphaelite pictures, and one of the most famous in the English speaking world, William Holman Hunt's The Light of the World, painted originally for a small parish church, and now housed at Keble College in Oxford. He painted another larger version later in life that now hangs in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
It is based on Revelations 3: 19-21 where Christ declares that He will befriend whoever answers His knock on the door. It is an elaborate and complicated allegory where the door stands for the human conscience, and can only be opened from the inside. The door has not been opened in ages and is choked with weeds. The only light in this picture is from the lamp Christ carries, from His halo, and from the early dawn in the background. I'll let Holman-Hunt explain the whole thing himself:

The closed door was the obstinately shut mind, the weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrances of sloth; the orchard the garden of delectable fruit for the dainty feast of the soul. The music of the still small voice was the summons to the sluggard to awaken and become a zealous labourer under the Divine Master; the bat flitting about only in darkness was a natural symbol of ignorance; the kingly and priestly dress of Christ, the sign of His reign over the body and the soul, to them who could give their allegiance to Him and acknowledge God's overrule. In making it a night scene, lit mainly by the lantern carried by Christ, I had followed metaphorical explanation in the Psalms, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,' with also the accordant allusions by St. Paul to the sleeping soul, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." (I.350-51)

Forgive me everyone, but I am not fond of this picture. I have never been fond of pictures that the artist has to explain himself, and explain in detail. I agree with TS Eliot when he said that a successful work of art begins to communicate even before it's understood. I'm not sure that's the case with this one. Yes, I have a certain distaste for allegory (works of art are not puzzles, code language, or rebuses, contra The DaVinci Code).
Even worse for me is that nostalgic medievalism that is the fatal flaw in so much PreRaphaelite art. So much of that nostalgia was an effort to evade the brutality that any Victorian artist could see all around him in the London streets, or in the streets of New York.

The PreRaphaelites

While the Nazarenes remain primarily of interest to art historians, the PreRaphaelites are widely beloved. Their popularity in recent times mushroomed in the late 1960s and into the '70s with a revival of interest in 19th century art beyond Impressionism. Their critical reception from the very beginning was very mixed, and remains mixed to this day.
The PreRaphaelites were the last Romantic movement. They began in the very year that most historians date the end, or the beginning of the end, of Romanticism, the momentous year 1848, when, as Karl Marx pointed out, a specter haunted Europe. A wave of revolutionary uprisings swept the whole continent of Europe in 1848 with youth movements, nationalist movements, and labor uprisings. By 1849, almost all of it would end in defeat and failure.
The PreRaphaelite Brotherhood, the PRB, began with 3 young malcontents at the Royal Academy in London, chafing under the very classical instruction that was the rule then. All three were between 19 and 20 years old. They were Dante Gabriel Rosetti, son of an Italian poet and nationalist who fled to England, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt.
In many ways, they resemble the much earlier German Nazarenes in their belief that the conventional art of their day was hopelessly corrupt and decadent. Like the Nazarenes, they believed that the decadence began with the later work of Raphael and Titian and the creation of the Maniera Magnifica or The Grand Manner which dominated the national academies more or less since the 17th century. Also like the Nazarenes, they believed in the superior honesty and fidelity of the art of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. They wanted to revive art by going back to painting from the time before Raphael, hence their moniker, the PreRaphaelites. The PreRaphaelites' artists of choice from the early Renaissance were Hans Memling and Botticelli.
The PreRaphaelites never withdrew from society into a quasi-monastic community like the Nazarenes. Instead, they took on the form of a kind of revolutionary secret society, signing their paintings with the once mysterious initials "PRB."  That  got the attention of the very nervous police forces of an English Establishment anxious to prevent the passions of the Continent from crossing the Channel.

Above are 2 paintings which helped to launch the public career of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood. Both were roundly trashed by the critics of the day. The painting at the top is Rosetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini , and the painting at the bottom is Millais' The Carpenter's Shop. Both are religious paintings.
Millais' Carpenter Shop from 1850 went even further than the Nazarenes in its attempt to recapture something of that perceived honesty and innocence of early Renaissance painting, especially Flemmish painting from the 15th century. Officially titled Christ in the House of His Parents, the painting is a complex allegory of Christian salvation based on Zechariah 13:6. Gone are the large plays of chiaroscuro (light and dark), the tightly composed and rhythmic monumental compositions of the Grand Manner. Gone too is that editorial sense that privileged attention of parts of the composition at the expense of other parts. Gone as well is that virtuoso painterly brushwork that began with Titian and was epitomized by Rubens, that used the play of paintstrokes to suggest as well as describe. Like the Flemmish painters of old, Millais began with a plain white ground instead of the usual toned ground of classical practice. Like the Flemmings, he built his colors up like watercolors, transparent layers of oil glaze one on top of the other.
Unlike the great Flemmish masters, Millais and all the other PreRaphaelites had tremmendous difficulty seeing both the forest and the trees together and keeping the spatial coherence and unity of their pictures. Everything in The Carpenter's Shop is examined with a microscope, from the veins on the arms of St. Joseph to the wood shavings on the floor, to the wool on the sheep in the far distance outside. This intense unedited obsessive attention to everything has the strange effect of flattening the picture space by bringing everything in the background forward. There is a large measure of that modern literal-mindedness in this picture. Millais studied carpenter's shops, and used the arms of an actual carpenter for the arms of Joseph (the head is Millais' own father). He used sheep's heads purchased from a local butcher for the flock outside.
The critics pounced on this picture. It's most famous and ferocious detractor was Charles Dickens (of all people) who attacked the quotidian appearance of the Holy Family. He wrote that Mary in the picture was "so hideous in her ugliness that...she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England..."
Rosetti's painting was exhibited in the same year, 1850, and met with a similar reception. He was obliged to change the title to The Annunciation after the authorities complained of creeping popery in his original title. It shows a wingless Angel Gabriel bringing the News to the young Virgin Mary in her very small and narrow bedchamber. The Virgin Mary in this picture is the first appearance of the pale thin waif girl with long straight red hair that would become so identified with PreRaphaelite pictures, and would have such a huge influence on later fashion. In fact, she is Rosetti's sister, the famous poet Christina Rosetti posing as the startled and anxious looking Virgin Mary. The painting has the sharply up-tilted perspective of early Renaissance pictures, and the gilded haloes and overall chalky colors that Rosetti so admired in early Italian fresco painting, especially Fra Angelico. Unlike Fra Angelico's work, this is a very personal and deliberately unconventional version of this subject, especially the depiction of Gabriel as wingless and walking on gilded flames about 3 inched off the floor.

The PreRaphaelites, like the Nazarenes, tried to renew sacred subject matter through contact with the distant past seen through the eyes of nostalgia. Like the Gothic Revival movement led by Pugin, they saw the Medieval past as a kind of lost paradise of humane ecclesiastical government in a worldview pervaded with symbolic meaning and poetry. They wanted to make nothing less than a renewal of Christian art to redeem an industrial society of great brutality, to reinvest meaning in a world dominated by commerce where the most compelling meaning is what's written on a price tag.
The PreRaphaelites, even more strikingly than the Nazarenes, are moderns. Their pictures are deeply personal and idiosyncratic in a way that none of their early Renaissance heroes were. They are not guided by any inherited traditions or conventions like the Renaissance painters.   A 15th century painter had a whole matrix of conventions and traditions which he could work with or against, but always within. None of that was there for the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood in post-Reformation Industrial Britain. It is that very personal quality of their work that betrays strong subliminal passions that sometimes work at cross-purposes to the stated intentions of their work. One of the things that makes their work so popular still is a strong undercurrent of sensuality.  A past professor of mine described the PreRaphaelites as "turned on in the name of the Lord." That sensuality would come strongly to the surface in later Victorian artists deeply influenced by the PreRaphaelites like Burne-Jones, Waterhouse, and Lord Leighton. The original 3 would definitely not appreciate this.
At the very same time that Rosetti and Holman-Hunt were researching Medieval armor for their pictures based on Medieval romances, a brand new piece of technology emerged that would forever take painting into uncharted waters; photography.

Dallas at the Rapture

Here is an anonymous painting from the 1970s of my home town at The Rapture. I love all the cars crashing on Stemmons Freeway as the Elect are whisked away to Jesus. Check out the plane crashing into One Main Place.
Dear old Dallas, the city that welcomed the moneychangers back into the Temple and made them priests; it's where apocalyptic fundamentalism and base greed rose up and kissed each other. A huge bank account was a sign of Divine favor, while the poor agonized over what they had done to offend God and over how to redeem themselves in His eyes.

Ah memories!

Enough bad religious art for the day.

Prosperity Gospel Icon

An anonymous painting from the Prosperity Gospel. It would be a mistake to assume that this is satire. It's deadly serious. God speaks through the Chamber of Commerce. Who knew?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Kick the Bishop Up the Arse

Here is my fond salute to the Anglican Bishops assembled at Lambeth

Good work, boys and girls!

The Nazarenes

In Vienna in 1809, two restless and disaffected young art students formed the Lucasbund, or Brotherhood of St. Luke (traditional patron saint of artists), deliberately recalling the guilds, the trade organizations of the late Middle Ages. They were Franz Pforr and Friedrich Overbeck. They were both barely 20 at the time they formed the Bund. In 1810, with a small group of like-minded students, they went to Rome and set up shop and living quarters in the former Monastery of Sant' Isidoro. They began to wear their hair long, and to wear anachronistic medieval looking garb. They took vows of poverty and chastity (very unguildlike), imagining their community of artists to be a kind of religious order with a seriousness of purpose. While they called themselves the Brotherhood of Saint Luke, most everyone else called them the "Nazarenes" and the name stuck.
They rejected the whole legacy of Baroque and NeoClassical art that dominated conventional painting of the day. For them, Raphael and Durer represented not a beginning, but an end. They wanted to go back to what they considered the more honest, truthful, and sincere art of the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, especially the early Flemmish painters. They lived at a time of awakening German nationalism in the aftermath of Napoleon's conquest of the German states. They believed, mistakenly, that the Gothic style of the great medieval cathedrals was a German creation (in fact, it was a French invention, beginning in the Monastery of Saint Denis in the mid 12th century).
Above are 2 pictures meant to celebrate the close friendship between Pforr and Overbeck. At the top is Overbeck's Italia and Germania, and below it is Pforr's more complex allegory, Shulamit and Maria, left unfinished at Pforr's untimely death at the age of 23. Pforr made an allegorical picture in a deliberately archaic style rejecting the chiaroscuro and linear perspective of the conventional painting of his day. Shulamit is the bride from the Song of Songs representing the sensual delights of the world, the Italian aesthetic, and Overbeck. Maria is the life of faithful dedication, the German aesthetic (represented by Durer whose print St. Jerome in His Study is quoted in the setting), and Pforr. It is presented in the form of a medieval altarpiece. Overbeck's more Italianate picture (the early Raphael) is more straightforward proclaiming a kind of natural affinity between the "sensual" Italian aesthetic and the "spiritual" German aesthetic.
And yet, though they tried so hard to make an art that pretended in all innocence that the High Renaissance and Baroque never happened, their work is unmistakably Nineteenth century. There is an air of art historical erudition in these pictures. They studied the earlier styles and techniques very carefully. They come across as very consciously anachronistic in a way that Fra Angelico never does. There is always an undercurrent of unacknowleged passions working at cross purposes to their stated intentions that makes their vision anything but innocent. The sensuality in Overbeck's picture, and the barely concealed passionate affection underneath all the tangled allegory and archaism of Pforr's picture undercut the stated purpose in these pictures. When we compare both of their pictures to their beloved prototypes of Fra Angelico or Durer, we see something entirely absent in the work of the 15th century artists, nostalgia. There is a profound dissatisfaction with the early 19th century present, and a fond and idealized vision of a remote past that is very modern and largely unknown in the 15th century.
In this, the German Nazarenes anticipate the experiences of the English PreRaphaelites almost 40 years later.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

It's Dangerous Being Liberal Sometimes.

Take a look at what happened in a Unitarian Church in Tennessee today.

Prayers for all who were affected.

Sunday High Church

While the rest of the Anglican world may be coming unhinged over gays and women in holy orders, the big divisive issue in my parish is Anglican Chant. Here is Anglican Chant done by the experts, the Choir of King's College Cambridge.

We do Anglican Chant for part of the church year, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and most of Pentecost. We go back to plain chant for Advent, Lent, and when the choir is on vacation in the summer. There are some like me and our rector, who love Anglican Chant, and others who are bitterly opposed. So far, this does not seem to be a church-splitting issue.

I wonder what will happen if we ever start doing "praise music?"

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"The Issue" Himself

This is Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, and the first openly (and honestly) gay man to be elected and consecrated a bishop (there have been legions of gay men in miters for centuries, including scores who've sat on the Throne of St. Peter; none of them were open or honest about it). He is the one at the heart of all the ruckus in the Anglican Communion. The Lambeth Conference, the gathering of all the Anglican bishops that takes place every 10 years at Canterbury and London is going on now, and Bishop Robinson was the only legitimately elected bishop to be pointedly told not to come. He is there as a kind of shadow presence. He is scrupulously obeying the prohibitions against preaching and celebrating the Eucharist placed on him by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has made no attempt to crash the bishops' conference and has no plans to do so.

He is keeping a blog of his experiences on the edges of the Lambeth Conference, and it's very much worth reading. While he continues to be treated very shabbily by Lambeth officialdom (sometimes astonishingly so), he is enjoying a very warm welcome and great hospitality by others on the periphery of the Conference such as a small Franciscan monastery at Canterbury whose monks have treated him with great kindness, by young "stewards" and interns employed at the Conference, and in London by groups involved with the care of AIDS sufferers. Bishop Robinson is a man of great patience and generosity, far more than I would have if I were in his situation. He is also a fine writer.

Most of my readers (all 5 of you out there) are Episcopalian/Anglican Christians like myself.  But just in case there may be others who read this who are neither Episcopalian nor Christian, welcome; I'm delighted you're here and hope there is enough of interest to you to keep you coming back. I don't intend this to be a religious blog site or another blog fighting the Anglican Civil War.  There are many others like Fr. Mark Harris and Madpriest who are far more qualified and ready for that struggle than I am.  However, as an Episcopalian, and a gay Christian, I have a lot at stake in this fight, and I do follow it with interest. 
You might be interested to know that not all Christians are right-wingers; either fat jowelly guys who look like lawyers/salesmen goading megachurch mobs into frenzies with apocalyptic hysteria, or scary-looking old priests concealing criminal rapsheets under their Extremely Clear and Strict catechisms. There is (and always was) a Christian Left fighting hard and suffering a lot to reclaim the Gospel from right-wing supremacist agendas.
Gene Robinson is our advance guard and our canary in the coal mine, almost against his will.

This blog will continue to be about what's going through my muddled mind these days, and not necessarily  about church politics. But inevitably, I will have the occasional thing to say about these struggles.

From Changing Attitude UK

This arrived in my email this morning.


Friday, 25 July 2008

by Colin Coward

Davis MacIyalla, Director of Changing Attitude Nigeria, has been granted asylum in the UK.
MacIyalla fled Nigeria in 2006 following a series of death threats. After settling in Togo a brief period of calm was followed by further intimidation, culminating in a violent assault in April of this year. In the same week a fellow gay Anglican activist was severely beaten while representing Davis at his sister’s funeral in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
Following his arrival in the UK, to help contribute to the Listening Process ahead of the Lambeth Conference, MacIyalla and the Director of Changing Attitude England, Colin Coward, both received more death threats. British police established that the threats originated outside the UK and MacIyalla decided that he had no option but to seek asylum in Britain.

This afternoon MacIyalla said 'This is a huge relief. This morning I wasn't a free man – now I'm safe. My great sadness is for all my brother and sister LGBT Christians back in Nigeria whose lives are still limited and sometimes endangered, just because of who they are.'
The Revd Colin Coward, Changing Attitude's Director in England said 'We're very grateful that the Government has taken seriously the threat to Davis’ life were he to return to Africa. Thanks to his refugee status he can continue to work for LGBT Nigerian Anglicans, along with friends and colleagues from many parts of Africa, from the safety of a base in London.'
The UK Government's recognition that Nigeria can be a dangerous place for gay Anglicans sits in stark contrast to the view of Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) leaders who until recently denied that that homosexuality existed within their church. They still refuse to condemn violence against LGBT people and continue to deny them a place within the body of the Church.
For further information contact:
The Reverend Colin Coward
Director of Changing Attitude England

Thursday, July 24, 2008

More Thoughts While Walking Through Foley Square

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges." --Anatole France

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A New York Minute

Here is a little scandal on 23rd Street in 1901 filmed by Thomas Edison. I wonder what became of that brazen hussy who walked over the air vent, exposing her limbs so shamelessly?

The good old days in New York! At the time this was filmed, drug addiction and child prostitution were at the highest levels ever in the city's history. On the bright side, by this time the State of New York no longer regularly put the city under martial law because of gang violence. Slumlords were now required to build new tenements with at least 2 windows in every apartment, and one air shaft in every building. There were still a lot of people living in dark windowless "old law" tenement houses though.
In 1901, the Lower East Side (starting at 14th street, downtown from this spot) was the most densely populated place on earth, and the only neighborhood in the USA where synagogues outnumbered churches.

Orpheus, a Better View

Here is a cropped version of the Orpheus picture, thanks to David (Dah-veed). I'm glad y'all liked the glimpse into my untidy studio, but I've got a picture to show.

Enjoy it now without the distractions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Some Details From Orpheus

My Latest Picture

Here it is fresh from the easel. It's a painting of Orpheus. My friend David Kaplan wonders if there's anyone around who knows who Orpheus is.

Sorry about the clutter. Apparently Mac Preview does not have a cropping function.

Click on the image for a larger view.

East Meets West, and Gets Confused

You don't need any translation to enjoy this scene from the Japanese movie Tampopo. Here is a cross-cultural misunderstanding over the proper way to eat spaghetti. We begin with a very proper instructor in etiquette with her class of aspiring young ladies.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Heron Maiden

The great Kabuki actor Tamasaburo performs the finale of Sagi Musume, Heron Maiden.
This is a Kabuki dramatic dance from about 5 centuries after the time Unkei worked   However, it is deeply influenced by Japanese Buddhism in its plot and dramatic form.
(Don't worry, there is a very good English narration to help you follow the story).

That's the last of the rarified and refined Japanese aesthetic for now.
 Be warned that I love this stuff.  

The PreRaphaelites are going to look very maudlin after all this.

Buddhism and Sainthood

Above is a sculpture that certainly surprised me when I first saw pictures of it, and caused me to take a second look at the art of Japan.
It is a sculpture in wood by another celebrated busshi, Unkei from the beginning of the 13th century. It is a statue of an Arhat or Buddhist saint. This one is the Indian patriarch Asanga, known as Muchaku in Japan. Unkei almost certainly used a Japanese monk as the model, since he had no images or descriptions of Asanga/Muchaku to work with.
The realism and drama in this sculpture is very striking, and to my eye, could give Donatello a run for his money. While that realism and drama make me want to say "Western," there's not a smidgen of anything Western in this work. Its origins are in the Buddhist Hindu figurative traditions of India as they were reinterpreted in China and Korea. The realism is purely Japanese. The tragic nobility of this arhat is entirely the work of Unkei.
Unkei witnessed the fall of the Fujiwaras from power and the outbreak of the Gempei War, a very bloody war for power between the Taira and Minamoto clans that devastated Japan. Buddhist monks and their temples felt the wrath of the soldiers for siding with one side or the other. The Taira soldiers put the great Todaiji temple at Nara to the torch and massacred the monks for siding with the Minamoto. They sawed the head off the giant bronze Daibutsu housed within its great hall. Ordinary Japanese, farmers and townsmen, fared even worse at the hands of the soldiers. Unkei witnessed, and may have experienced, profound suffering during the war that ended with the Minamoto victory and the establishment of the long military dictatorship of the Shogunate.
Confrontation with suffering and death was the great strength of Buddhism in Japan, and popular forms of Buddhism flourished in the aftermath of the Gempei War. Indeed, Unkei shows us just such a saint who looked death in the face, and remains unafraid.

This sculpture remains relatively little known in the West, and that may be in part because it is relatively inaccessible.  It forms part of a splendid sculpture group with another arhat, and Buddha (Miroku Butsu or Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future) all made by Unkei in his last years.  All three are housed in the Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara, Japan, a temple with many buildings and a large deer park that is usually wide open to tourists.  However, these sculptures are housed in a hall (the Hokuendo) that is only open to the public on occasion.

The Pure Land; A Buddhist Digression

I promise I'll get to the Pre-Raphaelites, and I'll try to go easy on them, but in the meantime, here's something completely different (sorta).

Above is one of the most famous and celebrated Buddhist temples in Japan, the Byodoin Temple in the Kyoto suburb of Uji. It was built in the 11th century on land donated by the then powerful Fujiwara family. Housed inside is a major masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture that set the standards for later Buddhist art in Japan, an image of the Buddha carved in wood by the great busshi, or Buddhist image maker, Jocho (seen at the top of this post).
This is a side of Japanese art that may be unfamiliar to most of us Westerners. It is something very different from the tea house aesthetic of wabi and sabi created by Sen-no-Rikyu, or the sandgardens of Zen Buddhist temples such as the Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. The Byodoin and Jocho's sculptures are part of the liturgical art of early Japanese Buddhism. We are not in the realm of koans and silent meditation with Zen masters on tatami mats in bare rooms looking at bare gardens. We are in the florid realm of high church bells-and-smells Buddhism; Buddhism the religion, and not Buddhism the philosophy.
The Buddha carved by Jocho housed in the center of the temple is not the Buddha of history. He is not Siddhartha Gautama, the historical prince who found Enlightenment under a tree in a deer park near Banaras 2500 years ago. This Buddha is the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise (or as it's known in Japan, the Pure Land), one of the 5 Buddhas that form the center of Mahayana Buddhism. Like all forms of Buddhism, it had its origins in India and found its way gradually into Japan through China and Korea. Pure Land Buddhism teaches that whoever says the name of the Amida Buddha in all sincerity will go straight to the Pure Land, a paradise, after death. It is Salvation-by-Grace Buddhism. Because of this similarity to Christianity, Westerners tend to see this type of devotion to Amida Buddha (and Mahayana Buddhism in general with all its mystical cosmologies) as a corruption of original Buddhist teaching. We generally prefer the plainer more demanding forms of Buddhism like Zen (Ch'an in China), or the more esoteric forms of Tantric Buddhism. This is not entirely just. Pure Land Buddhism comes right out of something central to Buddha's teaching that the other more demanding forms sometimes forget, compassion.  This school of Buddhism emerged out of compassion for the poor, the suffering, and the dying; for the least of people.  This form of Buddhism was always popular with the poor and outcast classes of China and Japan. It was made specifically for those who could not hope to attain Enlightenment even with a thousand lifetimes. It remains the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan today.
Pure Land Buddhism has a heaven and a hell, as well as salvation by grace, but beyond that, the similarities to Christianity end. Pure Land Buddhism is Buddhist. The ultimate goal is not paradise, but Nirvana, release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The punishments of hell (which are as grisly as anything dreamed up by Christians) are not the result of some final judgment, but of the mechanical workings of karma where good and evil are rewarded or punished as part of the order of the cosmos. Hell is not forever. It can last millions of years, but its torments are finite. Likewise, heaven is not forever either. It is the place where the faithful departed go, not for rest, but to finish their salvation in peace, to finally reach Nirvana.
The whole Byodoin Temple was built to be an image of the Pure Land, the Western Paradise, promised by the Amida Buddha to the faithful. Jocho's image sits in the center of a temple built to look like a palace. That palace is set in the middle of a beautiful garden full of trees, flowers, and lakes just as the Sutras describe paradise. A visit to the temple was meant to be a foretaste of the rewards of paradise, a paradise that was easily accessible simply by chanting over and over again while looking at the image of the Buddha, Namu Amida Butsu (All praise to the Amida Buddha).

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday High Church

Here is the famous Botafumeiro of Santiago Compostela in Spain.   Imagine what your parish youth group could do with this!

In my parish, all the thurfier persons are either smokers or asthmatics. I belong to the asthma inhaler club. Even so, I always tell the celebrant that if I can still see her/him 2 feet away, then it's not enough smoke.
The smoke never bothered me, but some of those hymns will send me scrambling for the inhaler.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Aesthetic Madonna

Delacroix's longtime antagonist (whom Delacroix respected greatly) Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres set himself up as the champion of tradition in the face of threats from anarchist young Romantic upstarts like Delacroix. Ingres announced the availability of his services to the Bourbon Restoration with this painting that he exhibited in the Salon of 1824, the same Salon that saw the public exhibition of Delacroix's Massacre at Chios and Constable's Haywain from across the Channel. This is The Vow of King Louis XIII. The Father of the Sun King placed France under the protection of the Blessed Virgin of the Assumption, and Ingres made this very impressive, if not very lovable, monument to the union of Church and State.
Ingres had even less sympathy for the Christian religion than Delacroix, and it shows in this painting. The rather haughty Virgin and Child revealed by the angels who pull back the curtains is a revelation of what Ingres truly revered, not God, but Raphael. This painting is based on Raphael's famous Sistine Madonna in Dresden. Ingres forbade his students and studio assistants to pronounce Raphael's name in his presence. He felt so unworthy of the comparison. Raphael's work was for Ingres the perfect and harmonious synthesis of the best of the ancient classical past and of the "modern" (i.e. The Italian Renaissance). Raphael was the paragon of confidence and exactitude of form that Ingres felt very deeply was necessary for the art of any civilized society. And yet, for all his traditionalism, Ingres was as indifferent to the original meanings of Raphael's religious imagery as Delacroix. In his own very conservative way, he was as much a creature of the disillusionment of his era as the great Romantic.

The Murdering Madonna

France went through a series of ordeals and disillusionments after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1814.  First, there was the Bourbon restoration with a determined political and cultural reaction under King Charles X who banned the Tricolor and attempted to restore the old privileges of the nobility and the church.  Charles was toppled in the July Revolution of 1830 which would place another despot on the French throne, King Louis Phillipe, the "Bourgeois King."
Above is Delacroix's Medea, a disturbing painting on many levels.  The choice of subject is disturbing enough.  Medea, who aided Jason in finding and taking the Golden Fleece, murders the two sons she had by Jason after he abandons her.  Instead of reassuring motherhood, we have a murdering mother driven mad with the desire to revenge herself on the man who abandoned her.  Delacroix compounds the horror by showing Medea in a composition that recalls traditional allegorical personifications of Charity.  Even more disturbing, Delacroix's tightly composed pyramid of figures recalls the Madonnas of Raphael, especially the one in the Louvre known as La Belle Jardiniere.  Delacroix's Medea is as cruel as Raphael's Madonnas are tender.  The healthy happy relationship between mother and children is completely inverted.  The original religious meaning of this composition is turned inside out.
This is a painting that comes out of disillusion.  The effort to stop or turn back the clock by the Bourbon restoration ended in failure.  Too much had changed, and was not going to change back.  Likewise, the effort to rekindle the passions and expectations of the French Revolution in the July Revolution of 1830 also ended in failure and disappointment.  Symbols and images lost their meaning and their credibility.  A brilliant radical like Delacroix in 1838 could take an image that usually would be associated with all sorts of positive civilizing values from domesticity to charity, and turn it into an image of "Nature red in tooth and claw," an image of savage vitality.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Gothic Revival, Industry, and Social Conscience

The revival of serious interest in medieval art began in the same country where the Industrial Revolution started, and that is not accidental. In the reaction against the anticlericalism of the now defeated French Revolution, the English Parliament passed the Church Building Act of 1818. Over 600 churches were built, most of them in London, at that time, a city of 2 million people, the largest city in the world, and the largest in all history up to that moment. Some of those churches were built in what was called Commissioner's Gothic; an expedient use of the skeletal Gothic structure to save money on carved stone ornament, and to use prefabricated cast iron framework.
In England, the Romantic movement brought a serious interest in medieval art. We've already seen how William Blake used a very idealized and personal interpretation of Gothic art in his work. By the 1830s, there were now serious archaeological studies of medieval art as ambitious and thorough as the studies published about Greek and Roman art a few decades before. Scholars now poured over the crumbling monuments of medieval England, long neglected since the Reformation. The Gothic revival in architecture was closely bound up with the Catholic revival in the Anglican Church through the Oxford Movement and the Cambridge Camden Society. The Catholic Emancipation Act, and the Anglican Catholic revival bought a new urgency to this medieval archaeology and a dramatic transformation in the construction of new churches.
The revival of Gothic architecture as a proper liturgical style was lead by an architect and Catholic convert named Augustus Welby Pugin. His sometimes fiery condemnations of modern architecture and church design were so effective that English bishops, Catholic and Anglican, refused to consecrate churches built in any material other than cut stone. It was through his influence that the altar once again became the focal point of Anglican churches, and that clergy began to insist on "correct" and historically accurate Gothic design.
There was another larger dimension to the Gothic revival, and Pugin's role in it, beyond liturgical revival. In 1841, Pugin published a book of engraved illustrations titled Contrasts. In it, he compares, not just the look, but the design and governance of modern industrial England with its late medieval past. The industrial present is always found wanting. The most revealing of the illustrations is the one I reproduce up at the top. He compares the treatment of the poor in the industrial present with the medieval past. The modern poorhouse is a brutal symmetrical (and NeoClassical) structure where the poor are cruelly treated and even denied the dignity of a decent burial. The medieval poorhouse is a monastery with gardens and cloisters, where the wards are treated as brothers, and prayer and charity prevail. This is the beginning of a sustained religious protest against the brutality and dehumanization of the new world of industry. On a deeper level, it is a protest against the "alienation of labor," the alienation the worker feels from his work brought about by mechanization and mass production. Consequently, there is a corresponding alienation from this new world of disposable and cheaply produced things. It is the beginning of that protest against the "reduction of all values to values of use and exchange" brought about by industrial capitalism, at the very same time that Marx was beginning to write about these things.
In England, this religious protest against dehumanizing industrial capitalism will culminate in Christian Socialism and in William Morris' Arts and Crafts movement.

The Gothic Revival in its beginnings was a very English and specifically Anglican phenomenon (Pugin had far more influence on the Anglican Church than on his own Roman Catholic Church in England). When the Anglican Catholic revival came to America, so did the Gothic revival. In fact, some of the finest architecture of the Gothic revival is here in the United States. One of the finest of all Gothic revival churches from the 19th century is Trinity Church on Wall Street (1839-1846) in New York City designed by Richard Upjohn (an English immigrant) and seen in the lower picture at the top of this post. He brought not only the Gothic Revival, but something of the Catholic revival to the American Episcopal Church a little before the Episcopal clergy were ready for it. The clergy and vestry of Trinity stubbornly opposed Upjohn's original intention to have a permanent altar as the focus of the church design. The present altar is a later addition. Upjohn would later design a number of Gothic revival Episcopal churches in New York and throughout the Northeastern USA.

"I never used to like Turner"

And I never cared much for Renoir; too much sugar.
There's a reason why the Frick Collection doesn't allow small children:

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Another New York Minute

Then there were those weekends when Anne Marie got tired of being an adorable ditz and tired of Donald. In 1967, she'd head down to the East Village, order a beer, light up a joint, and watch The Velvet Underground.

A New York Minute

Let's get all girly!

Anyone remember this pioneering and brutally honest look at the life of a struggling young actress in New York?

I understand that there was a much later incarnation of this show called "Friends."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"The Painted Veil...Called Life"

This painting was not in the show, but I saw it in London last year at the National Gallery.  It is Turner's The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838.  It shows one of the great naval ships of the Napoleonic Wars, ships that Turner loved since boyhood, being towed to drydock by a steamship to be scrapped.  This painting includes one of the greatest sunsets in all of art.  I've never in my life seen a sunset that looks like this (and at 50, I've seen a lot of them).  It is Turner's great power as an artist that makes me believe in it even though I know better.
Hugh Honour, in his great book on Romantic art, includes these lines from PB Shelley's The Daemon of The World in his discussion of Turner:

If solitude hath ever led thy steps
To the shore of the immeasurable sea,
And thou hast lingered there
Until the sun's broad orb
Seemed resting on the fiery line of ocean,
Thou must have marked the braided webs of gold
That without motion hang
Over the sinking sphere:
Thou must have marked the billowy mountain clouds,
Edged with intolerable radiancy,
Towering like rocks of jet
Above the burning deep:
And yet there is a moment
When the sun's highest point
Peers like a star o'er ocean's western edge,
When those far clouds of feathery purple gleam
Like faery lands girt by some heavenly sea:
Then has thy rapt imagination soared
Where in the midst of all exciting things
The temple of mightiest Daemon stands.

Turner: Nature and Power

Turner was the great poet of natural power.  I always think of him in connection with the Industrial Revolution, even though industry shows up very rarely in his work.  What made industry possible was the harnessing of natural forces -- steam, lightning, waterfalls, fire, etc. --to processes of manufacturing.  This idea of natural power seized a lot of imaginations in the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic.  Its best and most eloquent poet in art was Joseph Mallord William Turner.  Above is his painting from 1812, Hannibal Crossing the Alps.  It is based on Livy's account of the Punic Wars, and shows a skirmish with local tribesmen in the foreground.  It was intended to be an oblique commentary on Napoleon's invasions of Italy.  While Jacques Louis David painted a heroic Napoleon on a rearing white horse, Hannibal in Turner's painting is a tiny figure on the back of an elephant in the distance.
This classical erudition and political commentary is ultimately all beside the point.  The real drama in this painting is the storm coming in behind the invading army, blocking out the sun from the light filled mountain valley in the distance.  The real dramatic center of this picture is not tiny little Hannibal on his elephant, but that great cyclopean eye of the sun as it is eclipsed by the storm.  
On the one hand, Turner constantly insisted that his paintings were based on actual experience.  He traveled extensively throughout Britain and the European continent always making sketches and taking notes. There's an old story about this painting.  Turner was riding in a carriage in the English countryside with his 14 year old nephew when a snowstorm suddenly blew up.  Turner immediately went to work making sketches and taking notes.  "There Hawkey!" he said to his nephew, "In two years time you will see this storm again, and you will call it 'Hannibal Crossing the Alps.'"
On the other hand, what makes Turner's work so memorable is his refusal to be literal.  About this he was also clear.  When a visitor complained that a particular painting did not really look like a storm at sea, Turner replied that he was painting what it felt like to be at sea in a storm.
There is a lot of very subtle abstract composition in this picture.  It is made up of a series of spiraling forms and diagonals turning upon the center of that great sun at the top of the picture.
He comes up with a striking metaphor for the forces of wind and rain suddenly invading the sunny calm of the valley below.
Turner saw nature as a series of vast mysterious forces ultimately indifferent to the people who live amongst them.  He was captivated by this whole idea of natural power opened up by industry.  He wanted his pictures to somehow show those natural forces in all their power, even if he had to resort to more oblique metaphors and almost abstract form.

It is one of the great ironies of history that the 19th century was the great century of landscape painting in the West.  Artists like Turner, Constable, Friedrich, Corot, and many others come along at the very moment when the relationship between humanity and nature changes radically.  For centuries, human settlements were tiny islands in a sea of wilderness.  Now, it is wilderness that survives protected in preserves like fine china in a glass cabinet, in a sea of human artifice.  Turner lived and worked at the very moment of this transition.

Turner at the Met

I went to see the big Turner show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art today. I missed the Tate Gallery when I was in London last year (I was there barely 3 days, hardly enough time to see the British Museum and the National Gallery on top of other sights). One of the nice things about living in New York is that so much great art comes to town to visit. A sizable portion of the Tate's collection of Turners made up the bulk of the show.

I've known Turner's work most of my life, but until now, I've seen little of it in the original. The originals can be very revealing. Turner did not paint for mass reproduction, and the tonal nuances in his work frequently get lost in the Panatone printing processes. As a result, his paintings tend to reproduce flatter and more abstract than they really are. A case in point is the painting reproduced above, Staffa, Fingal's Cave.
I've known this painting for over 30 years, but only saw it in the original for the first time today. It is so very different in the original. For all these years, I never "got" this picture. In all the reproductions (including the above), it looks like a small steamboat in the distance crossing the sea during a gloomy sunset. The left side appeared so vague that I always thought the picture unfinished or deliberately abstracted; until today. In the original, it is quite clear and finished.
This is a painting about a trip Turner made off the coast of Scotland to what was then and now a very popular tourist spot, Fingal's Cave. The boat in the picture is a small tourist boat steaming in to pick up visitors and take them back at the end of the day. Fingal's cave and surrounding cliffs are very brightly lit by the last light of the setting sun, which is partially veiled by a distant rain squall; a brilliant theatrical lighting effect that Turner uses in a few other paintings.  The boat is viewed, not from the side, but from the stern as it steams toward the cave and cliffs.  The spatial composition of this picture turned out to be a lot more successful and sophisticated than I had imagined all this time.  As the great art historian Erwin Panofsky once said, "Goddam those originals!"

I absolutely worshipped Turner back in my teen and art student years.  It isn't hard to see why he would appeal to an adolescent imagination, especially with spectacular paintings with spectacular titles like Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Inundation.  I went through a period in my 30s when I ignored, and even turned against Turner.  I much preferred the landscapes of artists such as Brueghel or even the great Chinese Song Dynasty painters such as Guo Xi.  Those were landscapes about the cosmos, and as the Flemmish painter and the Chinese painter both understood, the cosmos is full of stuff, lots of stuff, happening everywhere at the same time.  Turner's work seems very reductive in comparison.  In some ways, I still feel that way about his work.
Turner at his worst can be such a shameless schlockmeister.  A bad Turner is like a bad clam; there are few things worse.  He painted a lot of big spectacular stinkers.  Seeing some of them in the original did not improve them.
Since I'm now a middle-aged schlub, I've acquired a new respect for the old Cockney artist.  A good Turner is very good, and very great sometimes.  What I most respect about him these days is that quality that got him into so much trouble with the critics in his lifetime; his refusal to be literal.  Instead of literally recording a particular sunset, he wanted the paint itself to recreate the dying glow of the setting sun, through everything from the subtlest color gradations, to veils of scumble and glaze, to thick impastos troweled on with a palette knife.  His best paintings appear to shine with their own light and to glow off the walls of the gallery.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Be Nice

As the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops approaches in the next few days, here are some shining examples of civility.  A tip of the beret to Atrios at Eschaton for bringing this wonderfully instructive clip to my attention.

Speaking of William Blake...

There are times when I've walked through Foley Square here in New York City with all of its courthouses and government buildings, with St. Andrew's Church and its inscription "Beati Qui Ambulant in Lege Domini," and with Police Headquarters peeking through behind the church, and I've thought of these lines from Blake:

Prisons are built with stones of Law,
And brothels with bricks of Religion.

Happy Bastille Day!

Here she comes, Mademoiselle Liberte with guns blazin', flag flyin', and tits to the wind!  It must be Bastille Day!

Join me, Grandmere Mimi, and President Sarkozy for Champagne and Cigars, and let's all sing along with Placido Domingo.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Blake the Artist

William Blake the poet is very well known, but how about Blake the artist? I knew Blake's art long before I knew his poetry, but I think that says more about me than about Blake. I always think of England as a land of the word rather than the image. It's best accomplishments are literary (you should hear how the French envy the English in this regard; they would happily trade Moliere and Racine for Shakespeare and Milton). In general, the English speaking world privileges the word over the image as a bearer of meaning, a legacy of the Reformation. Usually I consider most English art after the Reformation to be earnest and provincial imitations of French, Flemmish, and Italian art. All the pedantry that the English brought to art (especially to Classical art) concealed their profound discomfort with it. The Italians and the French drink in a whole language of form with their mother's milk. They feel at home and conversant with imagery in a way that the post-Reformation English don't (curiously this was never a problem for the Calvinist Dutch who had the largest single art market in 17th century Europe and cranked out legions of their own artists; among them, Rembrandt).
Most of the best English artists before the 20th century are all outsiders; artists beyond the pale of convention and respectability in one way or another. And no one was more beyond the pale than Blake. His work is like absolutely nothing else produced in England at the time. It is hard to believe that Blake's art comes from the same country whose respectable conventional art was dominated by Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West (an American).
I've loved his art since I was a boy, but it does have the obsessive quality of an isolated imagination. It is highly mannered and stylized with a resort to pattern sometimes betraying more of an uncertain drawing hand than a real command of form.
What impresses me most about Blake's art these days is its grandeur. Looking at the 2 examples above, it is hard to remember that most of Blake's art is very small in size. He made his living as an engraver, and most of his work is book-size. Most of it was made to be held in our hands. Despite that small size, they have a true grandeur of form and conception that might as well be a hundred feet high. These are majestic images, both from toward the end of Blake's life and from 2 of his finest projects; engraved illustrations to the Book of Job, and a series of watercolors illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy. I cannot imagine 2 more unsympathetic works for Blake to illustrate: God telling Job, "If you don't understand Me, then it's too damn bad!"; or Dante's rationalizing hierarchical heaven and hell. Yet Blake makes both of them his own.
The watercolor at top shows an episode from the Inferno where Dante and Virgil encounter the doomed young lovers Paolo and Francesca in the whirlwind of the lustful. Blake imagines the whirlwind as a huge abstract spiral throwing the lovers out of the picture to the left.
The image on the bottom is one of the engravings from his illustrations to Job. It shows Job praying on behalf of his friends, the triangular sacrificial flame of his altar penetrating to the top of the illustration and into the center of God imagined as a huge sun that spreads beyond the frame into the decorative margins.
Works like these meant a lot to the teenaged budding artist me. My attempts to share Blake's art with friends, family, and even teachers in dear old Texas of that time were met with incomprehension and occasional ridicule. I can only imagine what late 18th and early 19th century London must have been like for Blake.
Blake claimed to be a visionary, that he could see angels and spirits. He even drew spirits "from life" for visitors, anticipating the antics of early 19th century Spiritualism. But these were only theatrics.
Blake wanted to make a timeless art that was about the spiritual reality that he believed lay beneath the surface of perceived reality. In that ambition, he anticipates a lot of later art. His art is less seances and trances, and more a very original creation out of a very personal and romanticized conception of Medieval Art, out of Asian art (he was one of the first artists to use non-Western art for inspiration), and Italian Mannerist art from the 16th century. His art was not about transcendental escape, but about somehow reimagining the history he witnessed in terms of timeless mythological form (Goya is doing something similar at the same time, but in secret).

Gene Robinson in London Today.

Well, it looks like Bishop Robinson had a rough time at St. Mary's, Putney today.  He appears to have handled it with his usual grace, and finished his sermon.  It appears to me that St. Mary's congregation also acted admirably under the circumstances.  We do live in interesting times, unfortunately.

I haven't had a teevee on all day, so I'm wondering if the American networks dropped the campaign coverage and the A-Rod/ Madonna saga long enough to notice that 9 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan today.

The Flag and History

I can't think of another country where the flag plays so central a role in history as it does in the United States.  Above are 2 historical events that make conspicuous use of the flag.  They are both about the central question of American history;  just who exactly is included in the opening 3 words of the Constitution, "We the People..."  The bottom photo is a Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington DC in the 1920s held at the height of their power.  The flag to them was the emblem of America as a white Christian republic.  At the top is the Selma to Montgomery March of 1964, also making conspicuous use of the American flag.  For those marchers, the flag meant a legitimate, and long frustrated, claim to full citizenship in the country of their birth.
As with any symbol, the American flag has many levels of meaning, and means very different, and sometimes contradictory things, to different people.  This may help explain why the flag has a kind of sacramental mystique about it for a lot of Americans.  

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Flag

What is it about us Yanks and our flag?  So far as I know, we are alone in the world in treating our flag as a sacramental object.  I was a Boy Scout thousands of years ago (I was drafted by my father).  I remember the lengthy instruction we received in all the elaborate protocol around the flag, and I still remember much of it.  I still find it mildly irritating when I see people neglect to take their flags down after sunset, or leave them in the rain, or never take them down.  I doubt many people know that when lowering the flag to half mast, the flag should be raised to the top of the pole first, then lowered.  I would imagine that it might surprise most people to know that the American flag, when carried in procession, is NEVER dipped in salute under any circumstances; never ever!  I used to know how to ceremonially fold the flag into that neat little military triangle.  Bereaved families of fallen soldiers keep those folded flags in triangular wood and glass box frames and display them with the photos and medals of the deceased.  Lately, this practice includes a lot of families from, and in, Mexico.  A lot of young Mexican immigrants (as well as other immigrants) sign up for the military as a path to citizenship.  There is a very large number of Spanish names on the casualty lists from the current Iraq War.  The folding of the flag over the coffin of a fallen soldier before burial remains a deeply moving spectacle, even to those who resist nationalist sentiments.
It would be a big mistake to underestimate the passions associated with the proper treatment of the flag.  I remember seeing a newsreel from 1936 where a French athlete at the Berlin Olympics dipped the Tricolor in salute and let the banner trail conspicuously on the ground.  It was breathtaking.  Similar treatment of the American flag would spark rioting.  These passions cross the political spectrum and are not confined to the right.  In the 1930s, both parties of the extreme right and extreme left waved lots of American flags.  The German American Bund on the very far right massed American flags the way Nazi flags were massed at the Nuremberg rallies.   The American Communist Party on the very far left also made conspicuous and copious use of the American flag and familiar patriotic images.  They even dragged in "Mother Bloor," one of their members who was also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution; very red-blooded Americans indeed.  In the upheavals of the 1960s, some members of the "New Left" made a point of attacking the flag and other national symbols.  I doubt the American left will ever do that again if it wants to play anything other than a marginal role in national politics.
So far as I know, we are the only country in the world that has a Pledge of Allegiance to our flag.  That Pledge was written and published in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist.   Around that time, treatment of the flag was rather lax, and it appeared very infrequently in public.  He wrote it as part of a campaign to put a flag in every public school classroom.
"The true reason for  allegiance to the Flag," he wrote, "is the 'republic for which it stands'... and what does that vast thing, the Republic mean? It is the concise political word for the Nation-- the One Nation the Civil War was fought to prove.  To make that One Nation idea clear, we must specify that it is indivisible as Webster and Lincoln used to repeat in their great speeches."    
The Civil War was still a fresh memory when Bellamy wrote the Pledge.  He refers to Daniel Webster.  There was a long debate between Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun before the war over whether or not Americans were citizens of their states first, or of the whole nation first.  Like many white Southerners at the time, Calhoun considered himself a citizen of South Carolina first, and then an American.  That American identity was only provisional and disposable.  Webster argued for loyalty to the whole nation first, that all Americans have a common identity forged in the experience of the Revolution and in the Constitution.  It was Webster's view that won the Civil War.  One of the most tireless campaigners for enlisting popular support in Britain for the American cause in the Civil War was a journalist working for American newspapers by the name of Karl Marx.  When it comes to American national symbols and popular patriotism, the left-right divide is very blurred.
There is a widespread sense among Americans that the flag is us.  This feeling grows ever more acute as the term "Sovereign People" becomes quaintly obsolete as the United States is transformed into an imperial corporate oligarchy.   The late George Carlin  insisted that the only real choice Americans have left is between paper and plastic.  As our powers, rights, and dignities as citizens are repealed one by one, the flag is all we have left.  Perhaps Mark Twain (certainly no jingoist) said it best when he said, "Loyalty to country always; loyalty to the government only when they deserve it."

The image at the top is NOT the American flag.  It is a painting by Jasper Johns first displayed in 1955 just a few years after Jackson Pollock dripped his last drip.  It is painted on a wood panel in encaustic, a mixture of pigment and beeswax.  This is a painting technique that is very ancient and goes back to Roman times.  He also mixed in bits of newspaper to make the paint surface even richer.  It is definitely a painting.  It was, and remains, one of the most controversial paintings in American art.  Would this painting be as powerful and resonant if Johns made it of the flag of Denmark?  Is this an act of satire, or of reverence?  And if it is satire, then what is being satirized? the flag?  America?  patriotism? or painting? maybe art itself?