“but sir that image”

What is art?

Art is a huge part of my life. Writing is a form of art, of course. But I’m also a highly visual person. I like pretty things. I like to surround myself with things make me feel happy, feed my soul, and uplift my attitude.

art

What is both so frustrating and so appealing about art is how subjective it is. We all have an idea that there is something that makes “good” art and something that makes “bad” art. The trouble is, we don’t all agree on it. Even things that I think are obviously marks of good art don’t go unchallenged. And struggling to find the balance between saying “It’s okay, we just have different taste” and “Okay, you just have bad taste” is a difficult task. Especially in this age of “judge not-” if there’s nothing objective morally, how can there possibly be anything objective artistically? (Ironically I think this is one of the most judgmental social environments to ever exist, thanks to the internet where anyone halfway around the world can evaluate not only your art, but your parenting, faith, relationships, clothing, and every other decision of your personal life)

Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase, Jan Davidsz. de Heem - Google Search
“Still Life With Flowers in a Glass Vase” by Jan Davidsz de Heem– one of my favorites.

I remember in my freshman year of college, the professor in my art appreciation class tackled the concept of “bad” art briefly. Mainly, she was talking about Sentimentalism and Victorian art and how it was Not Good. The only problem? The painting she used as an example was one I, well, liked decently well, or at least one that was a million times more appealing than the majority of the paintings after 1935 that we were forced to view. It was this one:

Les prunes-William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1825–1905, French ✿⊱╮

The painting  was “bad” because it was idealized and saccharine. The child should really be dirty and sad. Poor Victorian children didn’t look like that. It was just ridiculous Victorian sentimentality, and an example of their habit of whitewashing social problems with propaganda. (Normally I probably wouldn’t have had much of an opinion about the painting at all, to be honest. But after dozens of Jackson Pollock-like splatters, it was a welcome relief, so to hear that somehow Pollock’s artwork was objectively “better” than Bouguereau’s child here grated a little.)

The funny thing is, lack of realism is exactly what is praised in paintings like Picasso’s. Perhaps it’s “real” to how he sees the world, but what makes his perspective any more valid than Bouguereau’s? Plus, in my opinion, Picasso’s stuff is just…ugly. And if that’s the way he saw the world, it’s not a view I’d care to share. What’s wrong with a little idealism every once in a while…a glimpse of how we want the world to be rather than what it is? Not-appealing art serves purpose, but often I wonder how often we excuse ugliness out of pretentiousness. It’s not hard; you can look at a pile of garbage someone has dumped onto the sidewalk and rationalize why it is, in fact, meaningful art. Meanwhile, you could also look at Michelangelo’s Pieta and explain in great detail why it’s nothing special. We humans can spin our words to convince ourselves of anything.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed that art appreciation class. I was exposed to a lot of art I’d never seen before, many which became favorites. And I even learned to appreciate types of art I never thought I would–even if I didn’t like them, I was able to see why other people might. And that’s a lesson I think it’s good to learn.

As a book reviewer, one concept I’ve tried my best to grasp is differentiating between what is bad writing and what is just antithetical to my own personal preference. Sometimes a book is truly poorly written; other times, it just centers around characters, a topic, or even written in a way that I subjectively don’t like. For instance, I don’t really like novels written entirely in the present tense. I find it annoying and distracting. But that doesn’t mean a writer who does so is doing something wrong; it’s just something I don’t like. But sometimes trying to define what makes art–of all kinds–objectively good in the first place is just a puzzling and never-ending challenge.

Sometimes, it’s best just to let people enjoy things. We all have our reasons for liking stuff that is, for lack of a better word, kind of lame. I’m guilty of it just as much as anybody. I’ve watched plenty of bad TV shows (and by “bad” I don’t mean morally corrupt, but simply poorly written or executed) and enjoyed them because they contain something that I needed at that time. I guess it’s the reason Hallmark movies have so many fans–for as much as I’ve rarely been able to sit through one, I do understand that they have an appeal. They’re sweet and innocent and always have a happy ending. Even if I won’t deny I have major problems with their storytelling, some people eat them up with a spoon because they give a little hope and happiness. And I’m certainly not going to judge anyone for that, although I certainly would have only a couple years ago. Sometimes, it’s okay to like something just because you like it, without having to rationalize or explain why you do. Art doesn’t have to be intellectual, political, or cutting edge for you to like it.

Claude Monet - Poplars on the Epte, 1891 at the National Gallery of Scotland Edinburgh Scotland by mbell1975, via Flickr
“Poplars on the Epte” by Claude Monet

I don’t think that’s an excuse to make “bad” art, but rather an understanding that everyone’s own perception colors what they think is good or not. And sometimes we don’t want a masterpiece, just something a little silly and comforting and predictable that makes us feel good inside. A lot of people knock superhero (or action films in general) for being predictable and mindless, but I love them. While I certainly think there are several action and superhero films that are a lot deeper than most people give them credit for, I also have to admit that for me nothing is more therapeutic than watching good guys punch bad guys in the face for an hour and a half.

My mom, for instance, loves disaster movies. And disaster is exactly why she likes them. She fully admits the plot is secondary; she’s not watching the film for an intelligent plot (although that’s always a plus). She’s watching it to see tornadoes and earthquakes.

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Sometimes, you just want to watch monsters wreak havoc!

Because we are, in fact, allowed to like silly things. I certainly do. Wholeheartedly.

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But sometimes I don’t care that other people have “different” taste and I don’t want to be nice about it.

Sometimes, I want to say that I don’t get it. That everybody is lost in pretentious snobbery and won’t admit that a piece is just worthless.

Sometimes, I want to look at that painting and blurt, with honest brutality like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”:

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via poetryforplebs.tumblr.com

 

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On Wonder In Film

When I was a kid, wonder was everywhere.

We often talk about the curiosity of children, as if its something we grow out of. But is that a strictly natural progression? Or is it something that’s also trained out of us? We learn to laugh at naivete, to play it cool and find it unfashionable to show genuine amazement at things that are new to us or that we don’t yet understand. Maybe because wonder is connected in our minds with ignorance: the ancient man who stands amazed at the eruption of the volcano, so awed by its power and destruction that he names it after his god of fire, must not know that it is simply a naturally-occurring rupture of the earth from its movement of tectonic plates, in which hot lava is able to escape from its magma chamber below the surface.

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Which is ridiculous, because that “natural process” is in itself, amazing.Image result for wonder definitionIn the Christian life, I think we should feel wonder. Looking around at this world that God has created: it is good. For all its problems, it’s an incredible place with creatures like the mantis shrimp which, among it’s other fascinating features, can move so quickly that the water around it boils. But are lightning bugs, with their ability to emit light, any less amazing? Yet we’re so used to them–or the idea of them–that they fade into the everyday mundaneness of everything else.  It’s not amazing: it’s just science. As knowing how something works makes the fact that it does work any less incredible! And too often we embrace that sort of cynicism in all aspects of our lives, even down to the type of entertainment we consume, and especially how we view humans and humanity themselves.

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But often, the media that surrounds tricks us into thinking that innocence and joy are things that we grow out of too, things that are immature and cheesy. We have to have violence and swearing and sex in our fiction and films, because without it they are unrealistic and–what I’ve even heard it said–shallow. But is it really realistic to show only the darker, dirtier sides of life? Even shows and movies that are relatively tame in regards to content often lack the enthusiastic optimism that a person like myself needs sometimes. I know that when it comes to television and movies, I’m usually in the sci-fi and thriller camp. I like things that make me think, that twist my mind and maybe even creep me out a little bit. That’s not cynicism- after all, it takes a specific kind of lack of it to accept some of the more imaginative science fiction out there- but generally I like more “serious” movies, ones with murder and mayhem and political conspiracy. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that…so long as it’s not all the art intake that I consume.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of being a dull, pessimistic person. I’ve been reviewing books since I was about sixteen years old, and as time has passed, it’s become increasingly difficult for me to turn off my “critic” brain. I think we should think about what we watch and read, but sometimes we can go too far, picking to pieces every little thing about every little thing. Sometimes I wish I could go back to being that five year old who liked watching The Swan Princess over and over again simply because I liked it, without analyzing every moment.

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Maybe that’s why I loved The Greatest Showman so much. For the duration of the movie, my critic brain was dormant. For the first time in a long time, I simply enjoyed a movie, without finding plot holes or assessing if the character development was realistic. While I was watching, it didn’t even cross my mind to think about those things, because I was simply there.

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While there have been many complaints about the historical accuracy of the film, for me it’s almost a non-sequiter: everything about the movie screams fantasy, not historical fiction. And for a story following a man who sells the “fake” to create a spectacle for other’s enjoyment, it’s strangely fitting. As we watch the movie, just like Barnum’s audience, we’re lost in the wonder and amazement of the strange and the beautiful, the two often being one and the same. The movie is unabashedly enthusiastic- something I don’t see often on the big screen. Films have a way to amaze us visually that is almost impossible to re-create in any other format. Filmmakers have the ability to dazzle us with color, music, dancing, and cinematic magic tricks and when they do it right, the result is mesmerizing.

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The last movie that made me feel this way was Cinderella (2015). Cinderella was beautiful. There was a sweetness and a purity of character in that movie that drained all the cynicism I was holding inside right out. Were parts of it a bit cheesy, maybe even too syrupy sweet? Perhaps. But I didn’t care, because I was that little girl again. It was refreshing to watch a movie about two good-hearted people who gain happiness and extend forgiveness, even if it meant defying our own culture’s expectation of what it is to be “strong.” And while this isn’t a post to convince you that these movies are flawless pieces of art (because they do have their flaws, indeed) it is a post celebrating those pieces of art, literature, and film that recapture a sense of childlike wonder in us. The movies that act like Giselle pulling Robert into a full-on musical number in the middle of New York. The movies that celebrate the best in us, the created-in-the-image-of-God part of us that is capable of courage and kindness, of a joy that makes us dance in the streets, and of a love that brings us back to our family.

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The Giselles of the world need the Roberts to keep them grounded, but that doesn’t mean the Roberts don’t need the Giselles, either.

If we are created in the image of God, and God has created such wonderful things, isn’t there something inside of us that yearns to create beauty–to see beauty–as well? Sometimes we need a little bit of that wonderment in our lives, and I’m thankful for the people who manage to bring it to us in little ways. That’s just a bit of my rambling and realizing that, however much I may love a meaty, philosophically-driven film, sometimes, I just want to see something beautiful, with loads of heart and goodness.

What are some of your favorite wonder-filled films?