Category — Questions
Question: How should a Christian assess Mr. Brainwash’s “art” and rise to fame?
I was in the process of writing a post on this when I stumbled across an article that answers the question far more brilliantly than I could: Kitsch and the Modern Predicament, written over a decade ago by philosopher Roger Scruton. I do think that the work displayed at MBW’s show was “kitsch;” and in this article, Scruton describes the rise and meaning of kitsch, and what kitsch reflects about the state of humanity. An excerpt (emphases added):
Kitsch is omnipresent, part of the language, and a seemingly inevitable aspect of cultural democracy. It is the debased coinage of the emotions. Kitsch is advertising, just as most advertising is kitsch. It is an attempt to turn value into price, the problem being that its subject matter has a value only when it is not pretended and a price only when it is. Hence the market in emotion must deal in simulated goods.
This is why the loss of religious certainty facilitated the birth of kitsch. Faith exalts the human heart, removing it from the marketplace, making it sacred and unexchangeable. Under the jurisdiction of religion, our deeper feelings are sacralized, so as to become raw material for the ethical life, the life lived in judgment. When faith declines, however, the sacred loses one of its most important forms of protection from marauders; the heart can now more easily be captured and put on sale. Some things—the human heart is one of them—can be bought and sold only if they are first denatured. . .
. . . The sentiments conveyed by this “art” . . . are elaborate fakes, as remote from real emotion as the kitsch that the “art” pretends to satirize. The advertising techniques this “art” employs automatically turn emotional expression into kitsch. Hence the quotation marks neutralize and discard the only effect that postmodernist “art” could ever accomplish. Preemptive kitsch offers fake emotion and at the same time a fake satire of the thing it offers. The artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretend to judge his product, and the avant-garde establishment pretends to promote it. At the end of all this pretense, someone who cannot perceive the difference between advertisement and art decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretense come to an end and the real value of postmodernist art reveal itself—namely, its value in exchange. Even at this point, however, the pretense is important. For the purchaser must believe that what he buys is real art and therefore intrinsically valuable, a bargain at any price. Otherwise, the price would reflect the obvious fact that anybody—even the purchaser—could have faked such a product.
Of note: Scruton identifies himself as a “skeptical Anglican.” I believe he describes himself as having faith in faith. From what I’ve read so far, his ideas on art and beauty are generally sympathetic with traditional Christian views; and he possesses the rare gift of describing complex issues with simplicity and elegance.
February 17, 2011 No Comments
Question: Is Mr. Brainwash an artist even though he obviously had little to do with the actual creation of the pieces in his show? How do we qualify who is and isn’t an artist?
Defining the term “artist” is a fuzzy, complicated business.
Nowadays everyone seems to hold a personal view of what qualifies someone as an artist. Some base it on economics — how many works a person produces or how much money s/he earns “doing art.” Others bestow the term on anyone who reaches a certain (again, often personally defined) skill level. And still others throw up their hands and say, “Whoever says he is an artist is an artist!”
Internet dictionary queries turned up conflicting definitions that were too vague to satisfy:
A person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.
One who professes and practices an imaginative art.
A person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.
So, for the purpose of this discussion, I decided to write my own working definition:
An artist is someone who, based on his experience and interpretation of the world, works to produce something that can be experienced and interpreted by others.
Let me unpack this briefly.
An artist is someone who…
Artists are first of all human beings. Creating art is a uniquely human activity and ability.
…based on his experience and interpretation of the world…
A person’s actions are shaped by his life and worldview; these will come through in his work regardless of his intentions. Art is not created in a vacuum.
…works to produce…
The essence of what an artist does — create — involves pure labor.
…something that can be experienced and interpreted by others.
An artist’s work should lead to a tangible result. By my definition, this means that someone can write a song in his head; but he doesn’t become an artist until he sings it or commits the notes to paper.
Two additional points: First, I deliberately left out medium, economic results, and skill level. This means that my term encompasses work that is not within the realm of “fine art.” A person can never earn a penny from his art, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an artists. I also believe that a person’s “art” is subject to criticism. But that’s an entirely different discussion.
Second, I do believe that all humans have the capacity to act as artists. I don’t believe in the cult of the artist — that only certain people are born artists and that passes through their fingers is art.
So according to my definition, does Mr. Brainwash qualify as an artist?
Yes, but not in the way one might expect. I don’t believe he was the real artist of his big show. A conceptual artist, maybe — he was responsible for getting the idea of the show together. It wouldn’t have existed without him. But when the members of his team started taking everything into their own hands, they were the ones acting as artists.
I think Mr. Brainwash’s artistry was best displayed not in the pieces hanging on the walls but in the creation of his new persona. He envisioned it and created it, and people responded to it.
What do you think? Is my definition valid? Would you call Mr. Brainwash an artist?
February 8, 2011 2 Comments
This is the first of a series of follow-up posts on yesterday’s film recommendation. Spoilers below; you’ve been warned.
“I think the joke’s on…I don’t know who the joke’s on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.”
This line, uttered by Banksy’s one-time agent Steve Lazarides on the phenomenon of Thierry Guetta’s shocking rise as a “street artist,” also sums up the feeling after watching Exit Through the Gift Shop.
This movie, while thoroughly entertaining, is also so full of paradoxes and head-scratching moments that at the end we’re laughing . . . but also feeling blind-sided. Hey, we were supposed to be entertained — not smacked upside the head with philosophical questions about art and meaning! What are we supposed to do now?
Two initial observations on what I think are unhelpful ways to discuss this film: first, I know there’s a lot of speculation as to whether or not Exit is really a “mockumentary” — a long con masterminded by Banksy. (I won’t go into the details; that’s what Wikipedia is for.) While it’s fun to speculate, ultimately we waste our time if the conversation ends there. At this point we can’t really know; and even if it is, the fundamental questions the film raises still remain.
(Personally, I’m willing to believe it’s generally true. Enough similar situations exist that the story isn’t as far-fetched as some seem to think.)
Second, we can get hung up on endlessly asking and discussing questions but ultimately failing to articulate real answers or at least well-thought-out opinions. By staying at the “asking” phase, we implicitly communicate that the answer is either unknowable or that we’re too lazy to try figuring it out. Most of the time, I think it’s the latter. If the question is worth asking, we should commit to searching for an answer. Otherwise, we’ve again wasted our time and we’re more confused than ever. The joke really is on us.
Exit Through the Gift Shop raises many worthy questions, particularly for those of us interested in how to apply faith to art and culture. I’d like to explore a couple of them through a series of posts:
1. Is Mr. Brainwash an artist even though he obviously had little to do with the actual creation of the pieces in his show? How do we qualify who is and isn’t an artist?
2. How should a Christian assess Mr. Brainwash’s art and rise to fame?
If you have other questions you’d rather see answered, leave them in the comments . . . as long as you’re willing to help me find an answer.
February 2, 2011 3 Comments
This was the first I’d heard of Exit; though apparently it has quite the following and recently scored an Oscar nomination for best feature documentary.
An indie film on street art isn’t fare I’d normally gravitate towards, but the trailer hinted at an intriguing story:
There’s plenty of internet buzz/commentary/speculation on Exit Through the Gift Shop, but until you’ve watched it — SKIP IT. It’ll have its biggest impact that way. (It’s streaming for free on Hulu through February 4th.) I’ll save my thoughts for a later post because I don’t want to say too much before you have a chance to watch it.
Suffice it to say — Exit may be billed as “street art’s first disaster movie” (in Banksy’s words) but it goes far beyond that. It raises fundamental questions about art and commerce, the nature of the artist, and the nature of art itself. It’s entertaining and often hilarious, but also one of the more thought-provoking movies I’ve seen in awhile. Highly recommended. (Warning: contains some coarse language.)
February 1, 2011 7 Comments
Today I’m excited to share about the last book I read: Living Color, by Graham Burnette.
The novel incorporates a couple subjects of personal interest: art and Chinese culture. (Brief synopsis: the protagonist, Jess Anderson, is a painter who experiences a life-changing week when she’s hired to paint the house of Mrs. Au, an elderly Chinese immigrant. Hearing the stories of Mrs. Au’s life in China causes Jess to reexamine her own life and choices.)
But there’s another reason for interest: my uncle is the author.
My parents surprised me a couple weeks ago when they mentioned receiving an Amazon link to a book by Graham Burnette. Sure enough, it turns out that my uncle had not only published his first book, but that he had written it in a month!
I asked my uncle about the inspiration behind and experience writing this novel:
You’re now a published author, but that’s not your day job. Could you tell me a little about what you do?
I’m a general partner in several venture capital investment funds. SBV Venture Partners is a private fund, with investments from banks, insurance companies, etc – mostly in Europe – that was created in 2000 and has invested in early-stage technology and health-care companies. SBV will complete operations in June of this year and return the profits to our investors. Red Planet Capital is a fund that was created in 2006 in partnership with NASA for the purpose of finding technologies being developed with private venture capital financing, but which can have a secondary application in the nation’s space program. We continue to find technologies and introduce them to NASA on a regular basis.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’d really never thought about writing a novel. But on November 6 , I was listening to a technology podcast while driving my two daughters to their music theory classes in San Fancisco. I listen to many tech podcasts regularly to keep up on new products and technologies. The hosts were talking about National Novel Writing Month and its web site, NaNoWriMo.org. The organization encourages people to write a novel during the month of November each year. Their definition of completing a novel is writing 50,000 words. So, a novel can be completed in one month by writing about 1,667 words per day – and starting as late as Nov. 6 I could still complete a novel by the end of the month by averaging 2,000 words per day. I thought that it might be fun to try writing a novel, and the concept of a person that used colors to communicate emotions in much the same way that a musician uses sounds popped into my head. With that, I started writing and the story took on a life of its own.
How much of the book is based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
My wife’s mother and father both came to the United States from China. My father-in-law especially lives deeply in the Chinese-American community in Sacramento. He has been very generous through the years in telling me stories about his life in China, coming to the United States, and raising a family in the US. Only one story in the book is a direct retelling of something that he told me – the rest are my own fictional tales within the general framework of the stories that I have heard in the family.
You wrote this book in a month. How did you do it? What was the hardest part of writing this book?
When I was in my 20s, I ran three marathons. I learned from training for them that great accomplishments are generally not achieved in a short span, but rather by building up a large amount of small accomplishments over a long period. In that way, I knew that I could write a book as long as I forced myself to write a small amount every single day. Some days, the story flowed more easily and other days it was hard work – but I had written 50,000 words by Thanksgiving weekend. The hardest part was when the story began to diverge from what I thought I was going to write. I had a general plan of what I thought the plot would be, but then many days what I actually wrote was quite different than I had planned. My natural inclination was to throw out what I wrote and go back to the plan, but then I realized that what I had written was a better story than the plan. I mentioned this to a friend who has written many books (both fiction and non-fiction). He told me that his best fiction was always the result of his characters taking over the book. I think that is what happened to me with Living Color. The characters – especially Mrs. Au – took over the story and I just wrote down what they told me.
Did you write this book with a specific audience in mind?
I think my primary audience was myself. Every day, I was really interested in learning what was going to happen next. In addition, each night my daughters read what I had written that day – so I guess I was also writing with them in mind. They are 13 and 15 years old, so perhaps Living Color is written for the “early teen” reader.
Do you have any other books in the works?
I’ve just started working on the next book. It will be another novel, but won’t just come out of my head the way that Living Color did. The new book is set in a particular place and time, and I need to do a good bit of research to get it right – so it will be believable. I’m doing that research now, and hope to start seriously writing this summer.
- Preview and purchase Living Color at amazon.com.
- A Kindle edition is also available.
- For more information about Living Color, visit the official book website.
January 25, 2011 1 Comment
Punctuality is important to me. I hate keeping people waiting; and few things invoke more personal stress than arriving late.
But when it comes to music and TV shows, I’ve a habit of “discovering” things about five years after the rest of the world.
For example, the show Lost. I didn’t start watching until, oh, maybe 2 episodes into Season 6. The most logical explanation I can come up with for this lapse is that the show started when I was in college and had a TV with exactly two channels. (Hulu wasn’t around then.)
(I’m usually a little more timely with music, if you ignore this next example.)
My latest “discovery” is the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, which apparently I’ve stumbled upon only 17 years after they started (and a year after they’ve gone on hiatus). I’m thinking it’s the foreign name that kept me in the dark . . .
Anyways, if you’re the one other person in the world that hasn’t heard of Sigur Ros, you should check them out. They’re kind of amazing. This video is what hooked me:
Have you ever been “late to the party”? What’s your favorite “after-the-fact” discovery?
January 20, 2011 5 Comments
An ongoing goal of mine is to expand my classical listening library. School made this practically a matter of osmosis thanks to listening exams, seminars, ensembles, and student recitals.
Nowadays, I have to work more intentionally to regularly discover new music. (By “new” I mean music I haven’t heard before, not strictly contemporary fare.) I’ve tried several methods, with varying success:
I regularly use sites like Pandora and Last.fm while at the office. Every once in awhile something will catch my ear; though most of the time regular work interruptions make serious listening unrealistic. I suppose I could try using this more at home, though I tend to want to control my playlist a bit more.
Browsing Concert Programs
One of my most memorable college assignments was to pick 10 concert programs from two orchestras anywhere in the world, find the music, listen to them straight through, and journal the experience. Yes, it was as time-consuming as it sounds; but it was also the most effective way, outside attending live concerts, that I discovered new music in college. (Plus, it was a great lesson in concert programming.) I haven’t had the discipline to repeat the process exactly, but buying music I see featured by world-famous ensembles has yielded some new favorites. (This is how I first came across Golijov and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.)
This is extremely effective — when I actually do it. My first experiences with some of my favorite composers — Josquin des Prez and Gabriel Faure come to mind — were in live concerts. You would think I would do a better job at attending concerts regularly, but I’m ashamed to say I’m terrible at it — lack of planning, more than anything else. Yep, definitely need some improvement here…
I’m curious — how do you discover new music? Do you have any recommendations? (Self-promotion is perfectly acceptable!)
January 6, 2011 No Comments
Christmas is easily my favorite time of the year; but often I don’t pause to consider what I appreciate about this season until after it has passed. So, in the interest of savoring these last few days before the holiday, here are 25 reasons I’m grateful for the Christmas season.
- Watching cities transform overnight after the trees are lit and the window displays change.
- Witnessing audience sing-a-longs at Christmas concerts. (Yes, I know that the orchestra and audience rarely match up tempo-wise. But it doesn’t matter — it’s cool seeing people of all ages singing together without caring what people think about them.)
- Seeing my students get excited about learning their favorite Christmas carol or song.
- Watching The Muppet Christmas Carol.
- Playing Christmas party gigs (the food is usually the best at these…).
- Preparing for and playing the Christmas Eve candlelight service at Living Hope Bible Church.
- Choosing a Christmas vacation book to read and not moving until I finish it.
- Having the whole family home and trying to take a decent picture together (difficult these days).
- Playing Britten’s “Interlude” from A Ceremony of Carols, preferably in a dimly lit church (hear a clip here — it’s at the end).
- Trading Christmas gig stories with fellow musicians in the green room.
- Enjoying the creative new ways people share the Christmas story, such as this:
- Eating gingerbread and candy canes.
- Singing my favorite Christmas carols…
- And learning some new ones.
- Driving through Crown Hill in Seattle (traditionally some of the prettiest home light displays in the area).
- Turning off the alarm and sleeping in the morning after the last Christmas gig.
- Baking delicious things with friends.
- Reading Christmas letters and cards from old friends and relatives.
- Shopping in downtown Seattle with my mom.
- Meeting up with old friends back in town.
- Cooking Christmas breakfast for the family.
- Taking a requisite sip of eggnog (actually don’t really like it, but I always think, “Maybe I will this year…”).
- Walking through the Bellevue Botanical Gardens light display (invariably we seem to choose the coldest day of the year to do this).
- Trying to sightread through my mom’s vast Christmas music piano collection.
- Marveling again, but still not nearly enough, over God’s immense love for us in the giving of His Son.
What are you grateful for this Christmas?
December 20, 2010 No Comments
I’m what you’d call a fair-weather morning person — literally. I naturally get up with the sun. This means that in the summertime, waking up early is easy and even enjoyable. But for the other nine months of the year — and particularly at this time of the year, mornings pose a challenge.
Fact: short of a miracle, early mornings will never be easy year-round. But I’m grateful for small things that make them more bearable, namely the morning routine.
The key for me is front-load the first 90 minutes of the day (my brain needs that much time to defog) with several simple, enjoyable things to distract myself from thinking, “Waking up is hard to do.”
For me, the perfect morning routine includes the following:
- Some semi-strenuous aerobic exercise, accompanied by the news
- Two cups of strong and fully-caffeinated coffee
- Substantial breakfast, accompanied by some devotional reading and the NY Times crossword
- A hot shower
Do you have a morning routine? If so, what must it include?
December 16, 2010 No Comments
My love for audiobooks began around age 10 with The Pushcart War.
A book that I had enjoyed well enough in written form took on a whole new level of awesomeness when read by a guy with an addictive New York accent and impeccable timing. I liked it so much I listened to it three times.
Nowadays, audiobooks are still welcome companions. Now, they transform long commutes from soporific to stimulating. Through audiobooks, I’ve traveled to the Middle East, explored the life of a comedian, puzzled over murder mysteries, and gone on countless other adventures — all while driving mostly in straight lines. Once I got so engrossed in a story that I drove past my exit (I think it was Jeffery Archer’s fault).
Do you have any audiobooks to recommend?
December 8, 2010 No Comments