Daniel Siedell on 'Great Culture?'

I have been following the work of Dan Siedell since first seeing his writing appear on the church and postmodern culture blog but especially since the publication of his book - God in the Gallery. In many ways, he is leading a resurgence of Christian engagement with contemporary art. In his efforts, he is setting a remarkable tone for others with regard to reflection upon new art works and consideration of the prominent critical voices in the artworld discourses.

Follow Dan Siedell's blog

Read Dan's report on the CIVA conference.

Dan gave an extraordinary presentation to the CIVA conference on the question of sacrifice as it relates to leaving a legacy in the arts. His was an extremely sobering word about the true aspirations of Christians in the arts and the reasons why such folk cannot settle for anything less than excellence. I found his talk illuminating and at the same time humbling. I'm elated to report that he has posted the text of his talk on his blog, and I have pasted it here for your consideration. Perhaps, his word about 'great culture?' can spark some quality discussion in the comments here.

Great Culture?

I just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable experience at the CIVA conference hosted by Bethel University. Among my responsibilities was to offer some remarks on the theme of the conference, which was Culture? What follows are the remarks I read.

Most Christian commentary on culture reminds me of the scene in Moliére's Tartuffe when Monsieur Jourdain discovers, much to his delight, that he has been speaking prose all his life and didn't even know it. Yes, we North American Christians have indeed been making culture all along. But is it great culture? What follows are three very short vignettes that may serve as icons for us to contemplate as we reflect on art and culture at this conference.

It was Aleksandr Tvardovsky's habit to lounge about his apartment in his bathrobe while he read from some of the piles of manuscripts that littered his living quarters. As editor of the liberal magazine Novy Mir in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, Tvardovsky was well known as a poet as well as a staunch defender of his literary magazine's independence. One morning he came upon a manuscript. After reading the first few lines he stopped, put it down, took a shower, shaved, put on his best clothes, and drove to his office, where he finished reading it. What was the manuscript? It was, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote it in secret in the late 1950s.Tvardovsky was so moved by it that he convinced Khrushchev to publish it and it appeared in Novy Mir in serial form in 1962. Due in part to Tvardovsky's support, Solzhenitsyn a few years later will win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It is easy to see how Solzhenitsyn is the hero of the story. He risked his life, not only by committing his words to paper but sending them out into public. But we must not forget the editor. Tvardovsky recognized the greatness of the manuscript and, at significant personal risk, fought with the State and its censors for its publication. He lived surrounded by culture, by manuscripts written by intelligent and creative writers. Yet it took him just a few minutes to realize that in Solzhenitsyn he was reading something great. We need Solzhenitsyns who will have the courage not merely to write for the dresser drawer, as the Russians called it, but for the public. But we also need Tvardovskys who can recognize great artistic and cultural achievements amidst the clutter of cultured mediocrity that saturates our lives. Are we capable even of recognizing great art, great culture?

Through a particular poem, which has been called a “sixteen line death sentence,” Osip Mandelstam caught the attention of Stalin in the early 1930s, which, on the whole, was never a good thing. As Mandelstam himself once said, the Russians alone take their poets seriously. They kill them. Mandelstam’s devoted wife memorized all of her husband’s poetry in order to preserve it from the death and destruction she feared would be immanent. She would be proved right only a few years later. Her experience and interpretation of the events surrounding her husband’s life and death are recounted in two moving memoirs, Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned.

Do we have the courage, when we do recognize great culture, and great art, to sacrifice our own careers, our comforts, our own positions of authority and power, much less our very lives to preserve it? As we reflect on art and culture these next few days, we must remind ourselves that there is a cost to producing great art and great culture. Are we, as members of CIVA, content to make “good enough” culture, “fashionable” art in order to further our careers and comfort, content simply to be known as "culture makers," happy to know that we have been producing "culture" all along?"

The production of great culture, great art, cannot be separated from the risk of failure. Most writers, musicians, poets, and artists do not produce great art, great culture, even if they enjoy successful careers. And even those poets, artists, and musicians who have, do not produce it very often. Do we have the courage to fail, to push ourselves to the point of failure, to assume we probably will fail to produce great art, great culture and still try? Or, are we content to publish essays and give talks on beauty and transcendence, yet produce art and culture only good enough to get tenure, only good enough to get published or get work exhibited, only good enough to be invited to speak at conferences like this? In other words, produce culture only good enough to affirm the status quo. Do we have the courage to produce culture that transcends those rules, which perhaps even changes the rules of the game, or render conventions irrelevant?

Herman Melville died convinced that Moby-Dick was a failure. And most of the literary critics of his time agreed with him. As we curry the favor of contemporary critics and book reviewers, bristle at negative reviews or fawn over those who praise us, it would be a useful exercise to read those initial reviews of Moby-Dick. And what should strike us is how profoundly irrelevant and dated they now seem yet how relevant and contemporary Moby-Dick remains. Do we have the courage to try and produce great art, great culture that becomes more powerful in the future, something that might last, something that might increase in value? Do we really want to produce art and culture that twenty years from now will seem so dated, so small, so inconsequential, so "of the period?" The storage rooms of art museums are full of such works. Is that what we should teach our artists to aspire to, having their own corner of a crowded art museum storage room, happy to have been included in this or that museum's permanent collection?

It is the ambition to produce something that will transcend the moment in the face of its improbability that brings great culture, great art. Do we have the courage to die believing we have failed? Melville sacrificed his life for the service of producing a great work of art. And we are the beneficiaries of his sacrifice. Perhaps we have lost the ability to recognize great art and lost the nerve to preserve great culture because, ultimately, we have lost the nerve to risk failure. We have certainly not heeded Samuel Beckett’s advice: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.” Perhaps we no longer believe that producing great art, great culture is worth the sacrifice and the risk. And perhaps, even more terrifying, we no longer believe that great art, great culture actually exist. And so we become content with merely getting our bit of notoriety now while we can enjoy it. But Melville certainly was a believer in great art and he believed it was worth the risk, which might be why Christ haunts his novel at every turn, making Moby-Dick one of the most powerfully Christian novels ever written.

This should be of grave concern for those who claim to be a disciple of Christ, for whom the powers of this world and its seductions are to be resisted, not embraced. Let me suggest that neither “Christianity” nor “culture" per se make modern society uncomfortable. It is the self-sacrificial and uncompromising pursuit of greatness and quality in these practices, a life singularly devoted to them, which condemns the virtues of contemporary professional and personal life: compromise, mediocrity, and personal comfort that makes modern society uncomfortable. Be a Christian, but don't take it too seriously or your fellow church members might take you for a narrow-minded fundamentalist, legalist, or "liberal." (The stories of the saints we venerate share a common trait: they seem perpetually in conflict and tension with their contemporary Church.) Be an artist, but don't take it too seriously or your faculty colleagues will chide you for being arrogant, delusional, or not a "team player." (Do we really think that a Solzhenitsyn, a Mandelstam, a Melville could get tenure today in any English department?)

Our Protestant heritage in North America has conditioned us to fear and thus condemn monasticism and asceticism as hopelessly unrealistic in the "real world." Yet such criticism reveals a failure of nerve. We use Luther's slogan, "simultaneously sanctified and sinner," in order to absolve us of the responsibility to be better than a mediocre Christian. Has our pathological fear of being accused of being an anti-intellectual fundamentalist and thus risk being denied a seat at the table of contemporary cultural discourse blinded us to the simple fact that if we take the Gospels seriously at all, we have to admit that we cannot have both Christ and the world? Are we now too sophisticated, too enlightened, too iconoclastic to believe in the myths of great art, great culture, even the possibility of a great life devoted to Christ? We're not humble. We're cowards.

Are we willing to risk our lives, our careers, our reputations within CIVA and outside in the secular world of culture, to be a great disciple of Christ? Are we willing to risk our lives to make great art and culture, even at the expense of our standing in our Christian and secular communities? Let CIVA be the only place in culture where our self-sacrificial devotion to Christ will be the engine that drives our self-sacrificial devotion to produce great art, great culture even if it puts us at odds with the Christian and cultural establishments, with our local churches, art departments, and the like. And it surely will.

Yet we will fail. And fail again. But let us fail here, at CIVA, together. For it is our failures that will be of more use to God than our self-serving “successes” and our self-defined attempts to “redeem culture,” which often amount to little more than professional opportunism. For as the Desert Fathers knew well enough, the greatest work of culture that we can produce, the greatest masterpiece we can make, is our own self as an icon of the living God.

Let me close with a story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'

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