Monday, November 23, 2009

The "Suffering Artist" Idea Points to a Truth About Persons

Some artists, it seems, perhaps especially those who are young, have a tendency to wish for some sort of suffering to accompany their life as an artist. The idea of the "starving artist," enduring some sort of pain or inner turmoil (misunderstood, before his time, etc.) is a figure that holds a sort of romantic attraction. And perhaps it is not so much true suffering, but to be seen as suffering (for one's art), that holds an attraction for some artists.

Isolation of a sort goes along with this. The gifted artist lives in his own special world enduring a unique pain for the sake of his art. Or, at least, so goes this romanticized idea.

To the extent that some artists have a yearning for something like this (and I don't claim that many artists do; but, there is at least an image of the young artist in pop culture music and movies that inclines in this direction), their yearning is misguided. But is it completely so? Is the notion of the tormented artist (the more gifted, the more tormented) rooted in some sort of authentic truth about the human condition? I would say, yes.

Before expanding on this answer, first, I want to acknowledge that seeking after suffering for suffering's sake is wrong. Artificially bringing pain into one's life does not enhance one's humanity, but degrades it (and I am not referring here to the Christian understanding of voluntary penance, which is not the same as what I am referring to here). And this is where an artist who sabotages his life, somehow artificially adding to or bringing new sufferings into his life, goes seriously wrong. Nonetheless, his instinct is not entirely out of whack.

How so? The answer lies in a particularly Christian understanding of human suffering. Specifically, an understanding of suffering as found in the works of Max Scheler and John Paul II [and here I thank Peter Colosi and his article "John Paul II and Max Scheler on the Meaning of Suffering," published in the journal Logos, 12:3, summer 2009, for enlightening me about this.] In the experience of real suffering (note: not artificially enhanced suffering, but genuine suffering that comes into one's life independent from one's yearning), there is a potential (not necessarily always realized) for the heart to become bigger--for the spiritual center of the human person to become better able to enter into the heart of others who also suffer. In other words, the suffering person can, through his pain, become in turn a more compassionate human being in the way that he loves others. Peter Colosi put it this way, "the link between suffering and love is not merely that they can occur simultaneously, but that to an extent they depend on each other." (p. 21)

For a fuller explanation, please see Dr. Colosi's article. But for my purposes here I simply want to point out that there could be some glimmer of truth about persons hidden behind the twisted yearning that an artist might have for a life touched by suffering to the extent that he would go so far as to bring about circumstances that promise to enhance his suffering. Though he goes about it in a misguided way (i.e. by seeking suffering so that his suffering is in a sense artificial), such an artist intuits something true--that suffering (authentic suffering) has a mysterious potential to increase and enhance the powers of love in the human soul.

Why would an artist want this? Artists are about seeking a communion, a melding of hearts. They want their audience to be able to enter into their vision--to experience the world if only for a moment through their interior, spiritual eyes. They want to communicate something meaningful, something stirring, something worthwhile. And they know through a kind of intuition that somehow, suffering holds at least a mysterious potential to make them, as artists, better able to enter into what they seek to find and to communicate to other human hearts. A heart tempered by the flame of suffering is a heart that might have gained a greater vision into the the most gripping and poignant realities of life. And such a heart might then more effectively communicate and interpret these things to others through art.

Please note, I am in no way implying in this post that the greater the suffering, the greater the artist. It is not a quantitative, direct correlation. Every soul is unique. And again, I would stress that artificially creating suffering in one's life is not the way to achieve an enhanced spiritual vision. But, I do want to make an observation that perhaps the somewhat hidden desire for strife that some artists may have is connected to the truth observed by JPII and Scheler and brought to my awareness by Dr. Colosi, that unsought-for, genuine suffering, handled rightly and with the transforming balm of divine grace alive in the soul, can open up the heart to a deeper capacity to see, understand, and love other persons in all their human splendor. And this in turn can help artistically gifted persons become better artists as they become truer seers and deeper lovers of fellow human souls.

The path for Christian artists into this greater depth of vision and love is not by seeking pain as an end in itself, but through turning to the cross of Christ in the experience of whatever suffering comes into one's life, being open to and embracing grace in the midst of pain. Taking on the heart of Christ, uniting with Him on the cross, by His grace, in whatever crosses we are permitted to suffer--this is how our hearts are expanded and our spiritual vision deepened. And it is a mysterious intuition into this bittersweet reality which it seems to me lies behind any twisted desire of artists to artificially bring pain into their lives.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [5]

 Here is part 5 of a series [see part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here] drawing from Hilary Hahn's interviews with various conductors.

And continuing some exerpts from Hilary's very interesting interview with Grant Cooper:
HH: When you're working on a project, do you feel most connected to the orchestra, to the audience, or to the music?

GC: I think the most important thing for us as musicians is to remain focused on the music: if we're focused on the music, everything else flows. . . . Through music, one does feel really connected to people. But in the moment of performing, the best moments for me are when I'm connected to the music. The music connects me to the orchestra, and their sounds in turn connect to the audience.

A few comments:

1. Note, Cooper did not say that the important thing is to remain focused on oneself; the important thing is to remain focused on the music (the art). I point this out because I suspect it is a prevalent problem today that many artists immerse themselves in excessive self-absorption during the creative process.

2. Cooper, furthermore, by stressing that the artist place the focus on the artwork itself, is not implying that the audience should be ignored in the creative process. Indeed, he has the audience in mind. But the way in which he feels connected to the audience is through his personal immersion into the art itself. This, as well, suggests that Cooper is of the notion that there is something real in a great work of art that is under the surface, beneath the externally sensible form. There is some kind of hidden anchor tied to and leading from the music, fixed in the cosmos of meaning. If there were nothing more to a piece of music than what you hear in-the-moment, there would be nothing substantial enough to serve as a medium through which to experience a deep connection with other musicians and to the audience. Only something with some stable link to humanly significant truth about life and existence could be capable of grounding this connection among persons.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [4]

Continuing with the general theme of art and artistic creation, this is part 4 of a series [see part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here] drawing from Hilary Hahn's interviews with various conductors.

Here is another excerpt from Hilary's interview with Grant Cooper.

HH: What benefits did you glean from studying classical music?

GC: First of all, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the genius of the great masters of composition; for me, that is a window into a greater reverence for human capacity and spirituality. . . .

The most beneficial thing for me about what music taught me is that it's ok to abandon scientific methods, that science is not the only way to approach music and life in general.

When you play a wind instrument or sing, everything is covered up, all of your technique is hidden inside the body. You may think you understand what you're doing, but then, when you change one variable and that sets off a chain of reactions, you realize you're in a science experiment from hell. Music taught me to let my body find its own way, to allow Zen-like enlightenment and experience to take place - learning to "let" it happen, rather than "make" it happen. I should say that music itself didn't teach me that; the process of becoming a musician did.

It's revelatory to realize as a musician that, from the 20th century onwards, we've tended to become really ingrained in the scientific viewpoint, to lose sight of how the Mozarts and Beethovens viewed this world. We tend to be overly reverent of absolute notation as we see it in the score. When you consider it, each marking in a score can mean a whole range of things, depending on its musical context. Take the whole idea of music responding to the text of an opera: a Mozart opera is the most glorious example. His marking of a simple forte or piano could mean completely different things depending on the text being sung. Mozart's music demands that we think of a forte, for example, in many ways - a "yearning" forte, a "defiant" forte, a "loving" forte. Yet, to some modern musicians, those markings are scientific; forte means loud and piano means soft. One has to open one's mind to the realization that absolute, defined concepts are not the answer to musical problems.

A few points I would draw from the above:

1. Reverence for the masters of the past. One need not try to copy them, but it is appropriate and highly formative as an artist to learn all that you can from the greatest artists who have lived.

2. Great art provides a window into the human soul. It gives form to the spiritual dignity and nobility of the human person.

3. Artistry involves different powers of the human person than are involved with the empirical sciences (though I do not claim they are entirely different). While art can be studied in a scientific fashion, producing art is not a scientific (in the modern sense) endeavor. There are powers of understanding, of spiritual perception, of intuition, of empathy, that are somehow different from what is entailed in empirical scientific undertakings. [Although it should be said that some aspects of modern science--conceiving of possible new discoveries and intuitions leading to new theories--do have similarities to creating art.]

4. For persons with artistic talent there are aspects of developing their talent that they do not fully understand in the sense of being able to rationally explain in an exhaustive way how they create and perform as a musician. They are able to practice fruitfully and grow in the virtues of musicianship even though the rational part of their mind is not able to completely translate this process into a thorough explanation in words. They become better musicians primarily by engaging in the act of playing music and secondarily by thinking systematically about music. Thinking in an orderly fashion about one's art is certainly helpful and important to being a well-rounded artist, but there is no replacement for the human act of music-making. Without huge amounts of dedicated practice one might become a scholar of music (or, say, an art historian), but could never become an accomplished musician. For this you must practice your craft with a critical ear.

5. Music, as all art, is a deeply human endeavor. And as such, great art, while accessible and meaningful and not trying to be self-enclosed for its own sake, does have an element of mystery. This is because it is human. Poor art can be obscure because it is self-enclosed. Great art is not obscure, rather, it taps into a cosmos of meaning that is inexhaustible. Great art pulls at the heart with meanings too deep for words--a level of communication that is ineffable even as it is deeply real and human. It is full of meaning, understandable, and yet also touching mysteries just beyond the illuminating rays of the mind's eye. This has something to do with why, as Cooper says, "absolute, defined concepts are not the answer to musical problems." This is not to imply that art should be seen as completely irrational or enigmatic--no. Rather, it is something like recognizing that the deepest meaning of a poem cannot be found simply by knowing the rules of grammar (though this may be helpful). It is like realizing that the character of a living person cannot be captured completely by any created form, though one might capture various glimpses.

Manly sports: Timbersports

In the category of things masculine is competition timbersports. Each year (starting five years ago) Stihl (a company that makes chainsaws and other wood harvesting tools) sponsors a world championships of Timbersports. It features five events. My late uncle Donald was a logger, and my father (who grew up in NY City) spent time with him as a young man learning how to use a chainsaw, tractor, etc. in the woods of northern NY. There is something that seems authentically rural, as well as masculine, about being able to handle a chainsaw, ax, woodsplitter, etc. I am decent at handling a chainsaw myself, though am no where near as proficient as the men in the video below!

Here is an interesting intro video about Timbersports. There just seems to be something refreshingly wholesome about this sport in these days of political correctness and the seemingly increasing wimpification of men in general.

And here is a second video showing collegiate competition.

The Zombification of our Youth: TV and Kids

I just ran across this appalling information in a Washington Times article: American children ages 2 to 5 watch an average of 32 hours of television every week. Thirty two hours per week!!! That's preschoolers. Wow.
According to the report, television-watching is at an eight-year high with children ages 2 to 5 leading the way, closely followed by children ages 6 to 11, who watch an average of 28 hours a week. [See full article here]
We are turning our young children into mindless zombies. We are making them less human by stunting the development of one of the most noble and precious assets of the human person--the mind. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with flesh-and-blood human beings.

No wonder it seems to me that young Americans are less and less capable of comprehending and making a sustained argument about something. They have been habituated to have a sound-bite-only mode of mental operation. TV can be entertaining and informative. But this absurd amount of vegetation in front of the tube no doubt eventually establishes a pattern of thinking into a person that does not know how to go deeper than a typical 30 minute TV program, which is very shallow and superficial indeed. Lord help us.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Men and Faith

Dawn Eden, over at Headline Bistro, wrote an article, "Love and War," in which she interviews Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, FI, about the idea of Marian Chivalry.

It raises the topic of men and how they can grow closer to Christ in a way that is appropriately suited to and harmonious with our natural, God-given inclinations as men to serve and protect others. There is a problem sometimes with how men perceive the Christian spiritual life. It can sometimes seem as though church is a place for women. How do men fit in? How can they pursue having a healthy masculinity while being a serious Christian at the same time? This is one of the challenges facing contemporary Catholic parish life. And, I think especially so in regard to single young adult men.

An excerpt from Dawn's article:
 “At the heart of anyone’s standing in the spiritual life is interior union with God,” Father Geiger told me. While the Church sees the bride’s union with the Heavenly Bridegroom as a key analogy for this union, Father Geiger stresses that “men must translate their interior life into a plan of action if they are to maintain their spiritual life.”

Such action is necessary because “men are hardwired to take risks. They must face their fears, confront evil and defend the weak. Otherwise, they either naturally lose interest in the spiritual life or unnaturally consent to be emasculated.”
And later, also quoting Fr. Geiger,
“It is the man’s fundamental role to protect and defend, to put himself between his bride and the serpent. Adam, the first man, failed in this regard. Christ, the New Man, succeeded. A man’s love for God and neighbor will always be defined in this way." [full article here]
Indeed, as men, we need to seek opportunities to put ourselves between our "bride" and the serpent, whether that bride be a human spouse or the Church. And we need to take (reasonable) risks sometimes as we do so. Without these things, as Fr. Geiger suggests, the flame of enthusiasm for the life of faith can grow cold in our hearts. I think, for men, this is as understandable as the knowing smile on our lips when we see a little boy energetically brandishing a play sword, eager for imaginary combat. May we learn more effectively how, as Catholic men, to live a life wherein we can grow both in authentic masculinity and in Christian faith. And grow in such a way that each augments and enhances the other without any discord between them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Vigil of All Saints at the Dominican House of Studies

On the evening of October 31, I had the pleasure of attending the 2009 Vigil of All Saints at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, with a few friends from the West Chester area. On this annual event the Dominican House chapel is packed to capacity with young adults and religious from other communities in the area. It is a special service derived from the ancient Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. It includes selected readings from, or about, several Saints, Dominican chant, a sermon preached by a student brother relating to the lives of the Saints, and closes with a candlelight procession inside the cloister hallways while chanting the Litany of the Saints. A light reception follows. [For more info, including an audio of the sermon preached by Br. Jordan Joseph Schmidt, O.P., see the Dominican vocation web site here]

Here is a short video giving some highlights of the evening, accompanied by the Dominican brothers chanting in the background. The Dominican friars web site includes this in its introduction to the video:
This year, the Vigil of All Saints was a beautiful celebration of the Church’s witness throughout the ages. Dominicans friars throughout the country hosted their own vigils from the Dominican Studentate of the Western Province in Oakland, CA (where the All Saints Vigil Originated) to the Aquinas Center at Dartmouth College to the Church of St. Mary in New Haven, CT right here to the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. Moreover, the All Saints Vigil has started to spread elsewhere. A[t] least two convents of the Little Sisters of the Poor are offering it for their residents. And even students in Gaming, Austria have started it this year.

Attending this Vigil is a wonderfully Catholic thing to do. I greatly appreciated, as well, the opportunity to spend a little time with several of my former classmates and brothers who are now outstanding young Dominican priests.

Isolation and Today's Culture

Here is an example of the sort of simply delivered wisdom for which Fr. Groeschel is known. He makes a point that I think is very relevant for the lives of many single adults.

Tribute to a Great Priest

Here is a nicely done video tribute to Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, for his 50th anniversary as a Catholic priest.

In a time when there are men who give in to temptations to use others for their own self-centered ambitions, it is inspiring to be reminded that there are also men who give of themselves selflessly for the sake of others.