Monday, February 26, 2007

A Few Last Words on Asher Lev

I have finished reading My Name is Asher Lev and a few things have struck me. First of all, is it wrong to focus so much on one talent that we lose sight of other gifts we have been given? Second, should our art (what ever it may be) be all consuming regardless of the barriers it puts up between us and others (Asher and his father)? Last of all, the portion of the book that stood out most to me is where Asher paints a "fasle painting" and is told by his mentor, "it reeks of cowardice and indecision. In art, cowardice and indecision can be seen in every stroke of a brush. If you hate him [Asher's classmate], paint your hatred or do not paint him at all. One must not paint everything one feels. But once you decide to paint something, you must paint the truth or you will paint green rot."

I found this to be true just last saturday when I was asked to sing a song that in my oppinion is not good music and should not ever be sung. I had to sing it a dozen times before I could get through it without laughing. Would it have been better for me to be snooty and refuse to sing the song once I found out who the composer was or should we allow ourselves to deliberately paint green rot when others ask us to so we aren't seen as being elitist?

In art, I don't immagine that I will ever own a Thomas Kinkade (or any of the hundreds of knockoffs), because to me (I know this may be quite controversial as his prints are in every other house in America) he paints green rot. I don't believe he started out that way, perhaps it was his popularity that pushed him there, in any case, it is when an artist stops painting what is important to him, and paints only what is appealing to the consumer that he creates a "false painting."
To me Van Gough is a true artist. He is able to convey emotion in a way few other artists have been able to capture.
One of my favorite artists is Mary Cassatt. Most of her paintings depict mothers with their children in every day life--no glammor, no forced emotion, no improving on God's work and yet to me her paintings are far more moving than Kinkade will ever be.

My father-in-law who is also a very gifted artist did a painting of his wife holding their son Zach as a child that I absolutely love for the same reasons I love Cassatt. Some day, you'll be able to buy his prints online, but for now only a select few are privey to his art work.


older singer said...

I have been in a position where I was asked to read a truly terrible poem. I have offered a substitute in as courteous a way as possible. (But then, my father recently accused me of being elitist because I said "none of us IS" rather than "none of us ARE.")
As for art work--well, mostly I check to see that the matting and framing match my decor. Does the picture itself really matter? I also hang paintings if my in-laws have painted them and given them to me for Christmas. (Fortunately, my brother-in-law is quite good.)
Kidding aside, if I could have ANY original I wanted in my house, I would choose either a Renoir or a Monet. I love water lilies. However, I would have to redecorate completely if I had a Monet, because it would clash with my couch. Would I go THAT far for water lilies?

Factotum said...

So are you going to read the terrible poem?

Bruce Young said...

Profound thought, Kaila (and of course "older singer" too).

I made a comment yesterday about artists ("great" at least in their own eyes) justifying breaking moral rules in the name of beauty, truth, or a higher morality. Later in the day it occurred to me that there's another prime reason: self-expression. I haven't read My Name Is Asher Lev in a long time, but your post reminded me of this idea that artists supposedly need to put into their art whatever they are feeling and be totally honest about it, even if what they are feeling is evil or ugly.

Honestly, that sounds to me more like therapy than art. C. S. Lewis was critical of "self-expression" as a justification. He said (in effect), a Christian artist must ask of his work, not "Is it mine?" but "Is it good?"

On the other hand, I think artists do need to be honest. Falseness is jarring, both aesthetically and morally. And there is a lot of pseudo-good or superficial art that may make people think they are experiencing something of quality but that is really lulling them into a stupor of self-satisfaction and mediocrity.

So, yes, when it comes down to it, I really want art and literature that is truly, truly excellent. But I'm pretty sure work that damages relationships and nurtures pride is not really excellent. (I personally think there's a lot of pseudo-great art and literature out there, including a certain amount of the output of James Joyce. And I wonder how truly great Asher Lev's stuff is--pretending it actually exists.)

St. Augustine talked about the "rule of charity." No interpretation of scripture could be valid if it violated the rule of charity, since charity is the greatest virtue and since God is love. I would apply that rule to art and literature, on the understanding that charity is something greater than mere niceness or pleasantness. It has to include genuine (and charitable) efforts to help people understand more deeply and grow into greater goodness, in every sense of that word.

older singer said...

The invitation to read the terrible poem happened long ago, and I read the substitute. I am usually able to let someone know COURTEOUSLY that I have a poem I'd rather read than the one they've suggested, and it goes over okay.
As to Bruce Young's typically brilliant comment, he I were talking about some interesting dilemmas. You know, _An Inconvenient Truth_ won an oscar. I've seen it, and in fact we as a family were so persuaded by it that we did replace many of our light bulbs with more environmentally friendly ones. But it is not a high quality piece. It's basically a power point. It's clear to me that it won the award for political reasons, that Hollywood supported the SUBSTANCE more than the art. So Bruce Young asked this really compelling question:
Which should win, a magnificently filmed documentary which, at its core, was an endorsement of Naziism, or a much less aesthetically appealing film about a non-political subject? In fact, we don't even need to invoke the specter of Naziism. What if a marvelous filmmaker made a gorgeous film about pornography. Should it get a big award because it was so well done? Or should a much less aesthetically perfect piece get it? What do you think would really happen? It's not all that far-fetched.

ML said...

In this imperfect world, selfishness seems to accompany artistic success more often than not. Maybe it is necessary for focus, but it is sad.
These gifts come with agency and the Final Judgement will be interesting since, according to Revelations 3:15-16, "lukewarm" is not acceptable. "Green rot" sounds pretty lukewarm to me.

Factotum said...

Personally, I'm glad _An Inconvenient Truth_ got the Oscar, simply because I don't want to see San Fransisco bay completely submerged in water and perhaps more people will see the film and take whatever steps necessary so that won't ever happen because this mediocre documentary got the award and not some brilliant pro-nazi or pornographic film.

On that note, perhaps some people can be truly touched by a really lousy piece of music or a poem that it causes them to change the course of their life. On the other hand, there are some incredible pieces of music or entire operas based on material that is perhaps uninspiring, including my very favorite opera, Carmen--which could cause an individual to want to enter the art of seduction and ruin the lives of countless men. However, I'd much rather attend Carmen than listen to 1 minute of someone singing a Michael McClain song--is that wrong?

older singer said...

Well, Factotum, Wagner is perhaps the big example. He WAS a great inspiration for Nazis, including Hitler, and his music is often targeted for being "sentimental." I like some of his pieces, however. But give me Bach's St. Matthew's Passion or Brahms's Requiem any day.
I don't know that we could say that Wagner inspired genocide, but it is interesting what people listen to while their souls degenerate.
And I don't care how well-crafted Oliver Stone's _Natural Born Killers_ is, the fact that two teenagers used it as inspiration to go on their own very real murder spree is enough to suggest that there was something morally WRONG with the movie.
McClain would not make anyone commit murder (suicide, maybe), but it might make them content with Mcdonalds rather than Olive Garden.

Bruce Young said...

Wow. What an interesting conversation. On Wagner, I have very mixed feelings--some of his stuff is almost scary in how weirdly amoral it feels; but some seems to me both genuinely beautiful AND spiritual ("The Pilgrim's Chorus" for instance). And remember that Robert Blair loves Wagner.

An Inconvenient Truth, by the way, is NOT mediocre. It's very well made, very inspiring in fact. If it were too aesthetically stunning or fascinatingly crafted, I'm afraid the craft or aesthetic wowing would get in the way of the message. So, for what it is, I think it's just right. But I agree that the award was given more for the message than for the craft.

Bruce Young said...

Nobody's commented for a while, so I thought I'd add a couple of things before My Name Is Asher Lev is entirely forgotten.

(1) There are a bunch of novels, including some really good ones, about artists or writers "coming of age." Goethe wrote one. The most famous one (certainly an influence on Potok) is James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book with which I have a love-hate relationship.

(2) Kaila has laid out the important issues wonderfully. Here's how I would restate some of them: (a) What truly constitutes excellence or value? How can something be of value if it damages relationships? Yet . . . (b) To what exent should SELF be our guiding principle or ultimate value? (Self-expression, being "true" to oneself, etc.) Can focus on SELF be self-destructive? (Obviously, yes--The Great Divorce has lots on this.) (c) Do artists/writers serve an important moral/social role by challenging, provoking, troubling people (as well as inspiring, illuminating, instructing, moving, delighting)? Can that role sometimes get tangled, distorted, go bad? (Leading to pride, contention, confusion, darkness, etc.) (d) With all these complications, how do we forge ahead--and with what ultimate goal?