Frankenstein in High and Low Culture

I just read Frankenstein with my ninth grade students, and it was a big hit. Little did I realize, that 2018 is the 200th birthday of Mary Shelley’s novel. It was originally published in 1818, though most versions today are based on Shelley’s later revisions in 1831.

The Morgan Library Museum has an exhibition right now, It’s Alive!, that displays Frankenstein through the centuries–i.e., everything from its first publication, early illustrations, and (surprising to me) immediate stage adaptations.

If you want a good overview of the exhibition, check out Paul A. Cantor’s review. Here’s a snippet from the article–a section that speaks directly to one of my pet peeves about the artificial distinction between low and high art:

It’s Alive manages to be at once enjoyable and educational, as any good exhibition should be. Going through it is like rummaging through the attic of a weird uncle who is part art collector, part mad scientist, and part movie buff. In its total effect, It’s Alive can teach us an important lesson about the unexpectedly complex ways that culture operates. Most people tend to divide culture neatly into the high and the low. There are serious works of art that alone should be studied and can be appreciated only by an elite, well-educated audience. Then there are the works of popular culture, created for the ignorant masses and unworthy of being taken seriously. This understanding reflects an elitist contempt for commercial culture. High culture should exist in splendid isolation, cut off from the corrupting effects of low culture and market forces. In this view, there is only one direction to cultural development: DOWN. If high and low culture interact, it can only be a case of a serious work of art being vulgarized as it is popularized.

In praise of originals

At The New Republic, Josephine Livingston writes about her experience visiting the only four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry. And it knocked my socks off. I’m bias, of course–my graduate studies have focused primarily on Old and Middle English literature. But Livingston is right: not only is it a miracle that we still have these codices, but they remind us that the presence of a work of art is powerful–something we continue to lose as technology makes reproductions faster and more ubiquitous.

I struggled not to quote the whole thing. But here’s the heart of the article:

In his 1936 essay on the subject, Benjamin wrote, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

Our concept of authenticity is derived from the “presence of the original,” he writes, such as “proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century.” Without such proof, an original becomes a forgery. But when we reproduce a work (via a photocopy or an ebook, say), we create not a forgery but something new. We can “put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself”—the manuscript can leave the cathedral and enter our own homes.

Benjamin argued that this process of reproduction inevitably diminishes the artwork’s presence. He calls that quality an aura: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” That withering kills our connection to tradition, to the ineffable magic of the original, and—in short—to the entire history of how humans once related to art.

n 2018, we are in a much more elaborate and abstracted phase of Benjamin’s reproduction theory. We are accustomed to reading without reference to any physical object specific to the act of reading. We might have a romantic association with libraries, or prefer to turn real pages rather than electronic ones, but those are tastes borne of nostalgia. They have no real meaning for our experience of literature’s power.

Parenthood and Art

I’ve been following Austin Kleon’s blog this past year, and it’s been a bright spot in my internet meanderings.

I especially enjoy the way so many of his posts revolve around the interplay of parenting and art. For example:

  1. A day of zines
  2. Always drawing
  3. Diary of a 5-year-old
  4. Loveheart (a song his five-year-old son wrote and recorded for his mother on Mother’s Day)

As someone who is only weeks away from his first child’s due date, I love the idea of cultivating an environment where my kid is encouraged to create art–of any kind–throughout the day. Mr. Rogers says the best way to encourage a child to do anything is to let them see you enjoy your hobbies. If that’s the case, then my kid will hopefully experience a healthy amount of poetry reading and acoustic guitar playing around the house.

Visual art, however, is my weakness. For some reason, as a kid, I got it into my head that I don’t have a “talent” for drawing. So I never practiced. I took one art history class in elementary school, but that’s it. Not being able to draw has always felt like a limitation, and I hope to avoid handing down my own mental block to my son. I realize this means that I should probably start learning how to draw…at least a little bit.

Feast of the BVM

This morning I received a notification in my inbox that Malcolm Guite had published a new post that featured a collection of his own sonnets about the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). And I was reminded that today is the feast day of the BVM. Having grown up in a non-denominational Church, Mary was only an important character during the Christmas season. She was rarely, if ever, mentioned the rest of the year. My childhood memories of Mary are factual: she was very young when she was pregnant with Jesus, and her betrothal to Joseph was jeopardized because of her per-marital pregnancy. Not much else was said aside from the occasional reference to the courage she showed volunteering to be the human means for the incarnation.

It wasn’t until college, when I started to read more widely in Christian history, that I realized the strength of her influence on Christian theology and literature. As Guite points out, she has often been a source of bitter disagreement among Christians. See for example the “immaculate conception” and the “dormition of Mary.”

Personally, reading and reflecting on Mary’s role within the larger salvation narrative has been a spiritual comfort. It’s hard to explain in words, or in any rational way, why this has been the case. But I’m not alone. Guite also mentions that Mary has historically been “a sign of hope, an example of prayer, devotion and service, and an inspiration.” The BVM is so much more than a historical necessity or factoid. She maintains symbolic significance and an undeniable presence in the life of the Church–past, present, and future.

Her symbolic importance is especially prevalent in her title “Theotokos”–God-bearer. While the title itself is used predominately in Orthodox theology and liturgies, the idea runs throughout the Church catholic. The verb “bear” is rich in meaning. It can mean “to carry, convey, display, be called by, or conduct oneself.” Not only are all these meanings at play in the title Theotokos, they have both a literal and spiritual meaning as well. Mary physically bore God for us, and she continues to bear God to us as a witness and example of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christian iconography, Mary is usually depicted with Christ or in a way that demonstrates her relationship to him. Often she is either visibly or implicitly pointing (us) to Christ.

I’ve never read a decent or satisfying prose description of Mary’s importance to history,  to the life of the church, or to Christian individuals. Poetry and iconography seem to be the best mediums of representation. So here are a few of my favorite Marian poems and icons. (Click on the links for the full poems).

Theotokos, by Malcolm Guite

“You bore for me the One who came to bless

And bear for all and make the broken whole.

You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’

You spoke aloud for every living soul.”

mary 3

The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe, Gerard Manley Hopkins

“If I have understood,

She holds high motherhood

Towards all our ghostly good

And plays in grace her part

About man’s beating heart,

Laying, like air’s fine flood,

The deathdance in his blood;

Yet no part but what will

Be Christ our Saviour still.”

mary 1

The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-56

46 My soul doth magnify the Lord.

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

mary 4

The Art of Self-Knowledge

As someone who enjoys writing, I’m my own worst critic. I don’t see every flaw in my work. I only see the flaws. The difference is slight, but one results in the willingness to revise and the other in creative paralysis.

I remember having similar experiences as a kid when I took piano lessons. Some days I would practice a single scale until I could play it perfectly. The imperfections motivated me to keep practicing. But on other days, the imperfections were too much to handle. I wished I could push the piano out of a ten story building, light all of the copies of music on fire, and yell, “To hell with it!”

So when Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a class of high school students surfaced in my news feed, I was convicted of my all-too-often cynical attitude:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

He reminds me that the practice of art is more like exploration and less like decoration–it is about the soul of the artist. My worse criticism of my own writing stems from this confusion. Instead of asking myself, “What does this blog, poem, or essay say about my soul?” I ask whether it compares well to the writing of my peers or my favorite authors.

The same principle applies to the way I consume art. Instead of worrying whether I like the right movies or books, I could inquire about how my response to particular stories reveals some new aspect of my soul.

In an interview from 1968, Ray Bradbury describes human beings as “tension collecting animals.” We sometimes suppress violence, grief, and joy because those impulses are not always appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in. These tensions, however, accumulate over time and need to be exercised.

We usually don’t know what tensions we’ve accumulated. Sometimes we feel emotions without a clear understanding of where they’ve come from or why we’re feeling them. So, ray-bradburyas Bradbury says, the artist will come along and help us discover what they are and allow us to exercise them. It’s a form of catharsis—an often neglected avenue for self-knowledge.

Whether creating or consuming art, we should learn to posture ourselves for inquiry. We don’t always know what tensions we need to exercise on a particular day, so we need to go exploring. Because of my own propensity to care more about art as decoration instead of exploration, I’ve set up some guidelines to follow:

1. Follow Vonnegut’s advice: “…starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”  If Vonnegut’s advice were a rule, I think it would read, “Create first, edit later (but only if you want to).” I regularly stifle my own creativity by editing the first draft of a poem as I’m writing it. From here on out, I plan to write the poem and only edit once I’ve written everything I want to write.

2. Don’t overwhelm yourself with art. Instead, allow yourself the space to get to know one painting, sculpture, poem, or song. Inquire about your experience by asking “what tensions am I feeling? What tensions is the artist representing?”

3. Pay attention to your preferences and start there. If you’re wondering what counts as good art, then you’re thinking about this backwards. If you do not find Van Gogh intellectually or emotionally engaging, then don’t try to force yourself to like him just because everyone else does. Exploring art isn’t a competition, and it doesn’t require a refined taste. Like the things you like and ask yourself “why do I like this?” Only when you start reflecting on your own experience will you eventually begin to see what makes an artist like Van Gogh great.

4. Be aware of how much art you are consuming and how much you are creating. You’ll always consume more art than you create. It takes several years to create a movie but only an hour and half to watch it. If you find that you haven’t created anything in a long time (paintings, poems, music, mashed potatoes faces etc.), then consider making time for your own art. Creating art often has the effect of not only revealing something new about your soul to yourself but of helping you to better appreciate good art when you see it.

5. Finally, follow Vonnegut’s last instruction: don’t show your art to anyone because “you will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded…You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.” For a host of obviously bad reasons, this is a hard rule to follow. I like it when people like the things I create, and without fail, this desire eclipses the real rewards of making art. Art as self-expression is an act of exploration. Who knows what knew thing I’ll discover about myself or about the world through the crappy poem I wrote today? My job is only to be interested. The rest is not my business.