Monday, September 28, 2015

Is Self-Expression Catholic?—or: How to Act Hipster without Really Trying

source: the self
"There are four steps to small talk as a graduate student at a small university. What was your name, again?"


"Listen up, Phil," I continued. "There are four steps to making small talk at these clique-ish grad student parties."

Phil, all five and a half stout feet of him—clad in some ghastly kind of plaid, stared eagerly through his horn rimmed spectacles, awaiting what kernels of wisdom I might impart to him. Phil, as is often the case when I meet people, remembered my name, my alma mater, and my profession from our previous encounter whereas I remembered as much about him as I do my breakfast on December 3, 1998. I am not indifferent to other people, just bad with names and faces.

"They are as follows. First, 'So, how's the thesis going?' Second, 'Who is your adviser, again?' Third, 'Ah, I see. What are you writing about?' And last, 'Good luck. Let's drink some absinthe.'"

"Wow! You're right! You're making me feel bad, like I'm wasting my time here."

"Well, I am wasting my time inside, here, listening to these four steps relentlessly. They march through them like the Red Army, only more aptly."

We moved the conservation out to the terrace, where we met some familiars and some strangers capable of discussing new things. In the middle of a discussion about medieval liturgical drama and the withdrawal of curtains in the churches at the Exsultet on Holy Saturday, we were acosted by a lanky hipster clothed in black and crowned by a wool fedora, which covered his long and unkempt hair.

"Oh, hey Marshall," one person essayed to greet him. "Whatcha doing these days?"

"Ooooooooh uh, just working on the thesis, ya know?"

"How's the thesis going?"

More Cointreau! I thought.

"Oooooooh uh, it's, uh, good, ya know? I'm, uh mmmmmmhm, concentrating in Modern Art."

No. No, no, no.

"Really?" 'Marshall' had intrigued one devotee. "What are you studying in Modern Art?"

"I'm studying, uh mmmmmmmhm, the origins of abstract art.... Why did it come about when it did.... Why did it these artists feel that this was the only way they could express themselves.... And, uh mmmmmmhm....."

The man they called Marshall went on to explain the reflections of a critique whose work occupied much of his reading. "Whenever you become too comfortable with a style or a medium you have to move on. It means that you're holding back, that you're no longer really creating."

Finally, I interjected: "Good thing Bernini and da Vinci never thought that way. Isn't artistic creativity something of a novel idea?"

The coterie stared at me as though I had insulted Putin in an Orthodox cathedral.

"Well, it is, isn't it? Isn't the idea of the artist as someone who expresses himself new, too?"

"Oooooooh, uh, what?"

"Art forms—painting, sculpture, writing—were trades, forms of work in previous times, not their own past times. There is certainly more soul in art than in money lending or racking grain, but these people were eventually trying to make a living, weren't they? They learned and nurtured a skill set, then worked according to a commission they received from a patron. Right?"

"Oooooooh, uh, well, that's all true, but they were creative. Their patrons were people who saw the value—oooooooh, capitalist word—in their artists' creativity and paid for it."

"Paul III didn't think so when he hired Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. I'm not denying that there is some creativity in art, historically, but it was an accretion for each artist, wasn't it? Each had his own version of the Crucifixion or Annunciation. Each had his own way of doing a portrait. In literature, the Tudor era plays were all based on contemporary histories and ancient tragedies. No one was revered for creating something new, and certainly not for 'expressing himself.' He was revered and people paid to see his plays performed if he could weave a fresh interpretation of the existing cultural texts. He was adding, not creating ex nihilo."

"Well, mmmmmmmhm, what about the Romantics and abstract art?"

"What about it? The Romantics were reactionaries who were looking for meaning in a de-Christianizing world. They took methods and styles from the Christian age and used them to capture nature. Some people bought it, some didn't. The industrialists won out in the end. The sun went down on the Romantics and we were left with abstruse, or 'abstract,' art. It's really tells us quite a bit about abstruse artists that they see their job as creativity and self-expression. The most beautiful art depicted holy things, human things, historical things, or dreamed of things. What does the abstruse artist express?"

"His soul," retorted Marshall. "The abstract artist expresses his soul and the complex nuances within."

"Complex? No. The former idea of art conceded that God created everything; we were only allowed to add to it. Modern art demands new creativity; lo and behold, we aren't quite as good at it as God is. Instead of looking at God's working, the modern artist looks at his own soul and finds it isn't very interesting."

I went inside for a much needed refill and returned to the terrace only to find it taken over by suspender wearing pipe smokers. Would it be avant guarde to leave early?

"How goes the party?" a man next to me asked.

"I'm thinking of leaving. What was the host's name?"



  1. In paintings and sculptures and architecture, yes, the great artists were doing it for profit but found ways to insert their creativity given theer set of parameters. Writing stories has always been done for a variety of reasons, some of which had nothing to do with profit. There were writers who made up a story for fun and then sold it later, sometimes for a pittance (Mary Shelley and Frankenstein). There was the royal-paid Shakespeare who took existing stories from real life and legend and then added his spin on them. There was Tolkein who borrowed a template from Norse mythology and Wagner's Ring Cycle and built a masterpiece; profit for him was an afterthought. There are the myths themselves from ancient times that contain elements that had to be built in a human mind (e.g. the pegasus and the chimera... unless someone want to contest that they actually existed).

    At the root, though, the best storytellers combine many preexisting elements into something that has never been done quite that way. Occasionally, there is something that is genuinely the author's creation and it gets worked into the story, but the vast majority of the rest comes from elsewhere (at least the abstract concept does).

    A story that comes only "from the mind" would hardly be a story at all. It would read like the sort of arthouse film that Andy Warhol parodied for years.

  2. Suspenders and pipe smoking both have noble traditions, thank you very much.