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Monday, May 31, 2010

Living Art

I've been reading a new column in the New York Times Opinionator blogs called, the Stone. It's a forum for contemporary philosophers to do what most contemporary philosophers now do exclusively: examine culture. Culture here usually refers to current music or reality shows, but in this particular post: Columbia professor, Arthur C. Danto, examines the work of a performance artist, Marina.

Performance art is not for the faint of heart; the acts themselves usually involve, among other things, nudity, public defecation, and various forms of humiliation, all in a semi-public setting. What all of these rituals are supposed to prove is a matter of great debate among advocates. At any rate, the experience is seen as a great deal more dynamic than looking at a painting. The subtleties of the Flemish painters may wain next to the conceit of a woman urinating in a cup in front of you.

Marina's act involves her sitting in a chair across from an empty seat in which you are invited to sit and observe. That's all. She is fully clothed, so this is a relatively modest act as far as performance art goes. Nothing is said, though you are free to throw some dialog her way. Some reportedly have sat across from Marina for hours. Professor Danto reports that his experience bordered on the spiritual.

He describes Marina as becoming "incandescent," a work of art undergoing a change at the hands of the sculptor. This, he counters, is a delicate experience made all the more precious because we are invited to participate in it. We may become part of Marina's piece, so to speak.

Danto has written extensively on the interface of philosophy and art. Though I cannot here hope to elaborate on the subtleties of his work (I haven't read most of it), he has concentrated on the loss of "beauty" as a standard criteria of modern art. This paradigm shift was largely ushered in by the Modernist movement. What really seems to be missing in this scenario--and I think Danto would agree--is a sense of transcendence in the pieces themselves. An "ontic-referent" is a term in currency among theologians. It simply means something of our world, like a painting or a book, which points to something greater, or divine. Modernism sought to divest art of this kind of thing. Here is the world in all its wretchedness, and no religious sentiment is left upon which to lean. This is a purer expression of reality, and beauty is something for which we are now too mature.

Perhaps this is how people see Marina's act. In a world of such austere criteria, a woman sitting across from you in a chair may well be a religious experience. I can't help but think that we've lost something vital...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I Still Exist

I apologize for the long absence. I've been working on an article for Just Thinking magazine, a periodical published by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries on a triannual basis. The article concerns my analysis of James Cameron's most recent film, Avatar. It is slated to hit the press at some point in July, I believe. I'll post a link for those of you who are interested when it's released.

My ostensible plan for this blog is to post some of my thoughts on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I'll have to finish the book first, and though this is my second reading, it may still take a few days after I've concluded the piece before I can form a coherent thought about it.

In the meantime, here's a video of Duke University Professor Stanley Hauerwas discussing the subject of a good death. It's a very moving interview, and I've found much to cherish in this man's words as of late.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

He's back and yes, he's that bad! (Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

A Nightmare on Elm Street remake was inevitable. If you've seen the original, you'll remember some of the memorably dated special-effects and outfits. For all its failings, Wes Craven's film remains a deeply disturbing, and surreal look at fear at its most intimate and primal. Fred Kruegger is not just a horror icon; he is a modern archetype of evil, and part of the American mythological landscape just as much as John Wayne, or James Dean.

The remake is a film propelled entirely by its storyline. This is a surprising fact, given our recent cinematic horror shows which refuse to do little more than disclose obscene acts of torture for our fevered perusal. A Nightmare on Elm Street continues to demand the audience's attention. This is not to say that there isn't a copious amount of bloodshed, there is, but the film does sacrifice some carnage for the plot. Critics are already railing against the acting, but then again, there weren't any Oscar-worthy performances in the original, so this seems a mute point. The film is still "stylish," which seems to me to be a stock compliment bestowed by badgering critics these days upon films about which they have very little to say. For my part, I found the film's cinematic techniques to be functionalist at best. Everything is subordinated to the story, even the effects, and the inevitable blurring between dreams and reality.

The marketing strategy of the film was creative. Freddy's guilt is brought into question, which would have been a fairly radical change to introduce. We've yet to see the slasher vindicated for his crimes. Well, you won't see it here. As it turns out, Freddy really is that bad. His crimes are given a more wicked distinction because of the story's focus on pedophilia. Fred remains a portrayal of senseless wickedness in the face of child-like innocence. So, he's still that bad.

Though the film's story is altered slightly, it doesn't deviate much from Wes Craven's vision. The film's exploration of the collapsing wall between dreams and reality, as well as its near Freudian preoccupation with guilt set within the context of the child/parent relationship all remain. One memorable addition to this film is its focus on the consequences of revenge; the parents are held to a higher standard for their vigilantism, and the film joins the growing list of stories exploring the perils of taking the law into your own hands.

But, I'll say it again: Kruegger is still a bad guy, and in a world of multiplying Dexters I find that somewhat comforting.