I found a cheeky but thoughtful musing by Paul Griffiths on Christian kitsch in Duke’s Divinity Magazine, “A Defense of Christian Kitsch.” Griffiths argues that kitsch is the bread and butter of pious art for Christianity, “a religion of peasants and proles.” Therefore, he states, Christians should hesitate to look down on the gospel according to Thomas Kinkade.
I am not sure what to think. Griffiths is correct that most Christians have been from the unwashed masses; the good news is for all people, plumbers and MOMA curators alike, and there are always more of the former than the latter. However, I hesitate to agree with him—not (principally) because I am an insufferable snob whose stomach twists when I see sappy religious pictures and Jesus nightlights—but rather because art for the masses appears to have different characteristics in different regimes. In our contemporary democratic culture, mass tastes and consumption largely dictate what the entire society appreciates. Yes, we have art critics in the New York Times, and elite opinion trickles down (yes, yes, that cerulean speech in The Devil Wears Prada). Yet, our society’s master class appears generally content to fill the trough according to the swine’s appetite. In more hierarchical societies, the elite largely determines the aesthetics of the lower classes. Maybe, I just do not know enough about peasant art in ages past, but pre-modern religious art does not strike me as kitsch. Some of it crude, perhaps, but not kitsch (compare the paintings in the catacombs to the papal commissions of the Italian Renaissance—a striking difference in quality, but neither is kitsch). Consider traditional Christian iconography, the stained glass windows of Western Christendom, or the mosaics of antiquity. I do not even know whether we should call the governing force of such art “elite” taste—rather, artisans tended to work with canonical styles (hence, being determined by tradition, not any group’s fancy). The architectural progress of sacred buildings clearly involved the engineering elite, commissioned by the secular and ecclesiastical elite, but entire towns were involved in cathedrals’ construction and adornment. Would you call the windows of Chartres kitschy? Would the Most Reverend Maurice de Sully have found the aesthetic tastes in sacred art of his poor parents so different from that of the royal court? Griffiths even mentions the icons of Andrei Rublev, but surely this example provides a stumbling block for his position. Russian peasants and proles have always adored the transcendent beauty of Rublev’s iconography.
Christian kitsch may simply be yet another symptom of our decadent age.
That said, who doesn’t like angels and kittens, together, lightly hovering over little girls in Easter dresses having afternoon tea with their teddy bears in a peaceful meadow (with birds, chipmunks, and lots of unidentifiable flora in the background)?
Last spring, I read an interesting article about the Inklings in The Chronicle of Higher Education that may interest you: “Oxford’s Influential Inklings.” Philip and Carol Zaleski explore this famous bunch of dons and contrasts them to the Bloomsbury Group. It is a fascinating read.
The Inklings feature significantly in my intellectual and spiritual formation. I have made two Inkling-focused pilgrimages to Oxford (those stones on Beren and Lúthien’s grave—yeah, those are from me; they surely outlasted the flowers that I bought at the petrol station for the Lewis brothers’ tomb), and I delight to learn more about these veritable gifts to us English-speaking people living in the twilight of our civilization.
May all of you have a blessed summer!
Last year, I became a bit obsessed with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21, named “Waldstein” in honor of one of his patrons, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein. It is pure joy! Below are two renditions that will please you.
Claudio Arrau, Bonn, A.D. 1977:
Daniel Barenboim, Berlin, A.D. 2006:
Anthony Esolen continues to show why he has become one of my favorite contemporary writers: “The Subhumanities: The Reductive Violence of Race, Class, and Gender Theory,” in the current Intercollegiate Review. It is easy to ridicule the Left’s stupid obsessions, but Esolen excels in showing the real horror—and loss—in leftist reductionism. He is brilliant.
Merry Christmas to my fellow Orthodox who continue to celebrate the Nativity season! Also, I wish my nephew a happy birthday, and I wish him well in his studies.
Appropriate for such wishes, I offer an essay in Salvo Magazine by Robin Phillips, “School Deform: How Common Core Promotes Cultural Engineering by Killing the Imagination.” I am rather ignorant about the Common Core State Standards Initiative, but I mistrust pretty much any trend that gains traction in contemporary education. That field is full of confusion. It is therefore not surprising to read Phillips’ assessment of common core. In short, it is an educational program designed to mold minds to be useful pegs in the machine. What else could education be?
One example of the core’s folly is that it prescribes texts based on textual complexity—not complexity as profundity, but simply grammatical and terminological complexity. Hence, bureaucratic regulations and technical manuals are just as appropriate for students as the prose of Melville or Wilde. Phillips writes:
Moore also notes that Common Core elevates “informational texts” and articles by journalists above literary works through a computerized process for determining “text complexity.” Readings that are found to use technical jargon are rated higher in the complexity scale than works that use more simple language. Complexity thus becomes purely quantitative, without attention being paid to the quality of texts.
How could this happen? Imagine how many people had to have been involved in the crafting of common core—how many “educators,” school administrators, and civil servants. The rot is pervasive. And certainly well paid for.
To celebrate the birth of my first niece, I offer the following charming video in which Νicοle Ρesce renders the “Happy Birthday” tune according to various composers’ styles.
Χρόνια Πολλά, little one!
It is funny that just as one is seriously considering swerving off the bridge, Brandenburg Concerto 3 comes on the radio and reminds him that life can be pretty wonderful.
And to those who follow the old calendar, may you have a blessed feast of Saint George!
To celebrate, I would like to showcase a gorgeous piece by Scott Joplin: “Bethana.”
According to Wikipedia, “Bethena” was ignored until the Joplin revival forty years ago. How unfortunate. A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country—and the same seems to hold true for artists. Consider the initial reception of Swan Lake. People often behave as swine.
You may know of my fondness for Joplin from “Instant Maple Love,” “Saint Louis,” and “History in Saint Louis.”
My Albanian-yoked friend sent me the following Shqiptarët version of “O Pure Virgin.” The video visual is just a sideshow of Albianian Orthodoxy.
Have a safe weekend.
Yesterday, I received a link to “Pasha’s Lullaby” from Ella’s Song by Kurt Sander. Ella’s Song is about Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanova, a saint famous for her charitable work in Russia. Elizabeth was the last tsarina’s sister, and Elizabeth’s husband was the last tsar’s uncle; Nicholas and Alexandra met at Elizabeth’s wedding to Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Communists killed all of them—Sergei in A.D. 1905 and the others in A.D. 1918.
The message included the following quotation from the composer’s note’s:
The lullaby is a literary genre which plays a fascinating role in the culture of the Russian people. Often, the infant “listener” is actually symbolic of much larger idea, namely a culture or people in a given time or circumstance.
This movement, titled “Pasha’s Lullaby,” is named after one particular orphan, Paraskeva “Pasha” Korina, whom St. Elizabeth knew from her days as abbess at the convent of Martha and Mary. It was not uncommon for a mother housed at the convent ward to die from consumption or some other disease. So moved were these women by the love that St. Elizabeth showed to them that they would entrust their children to the care of the “Great Mother.” It was an annual custom for St. Elizabeth to bring two or three young orphans to the convent for Christmas to celebrate the feast with a small group of people. When she asked the girls what they would like for Christmas, one little orphan named Pasha pointed to the small bell at the top of the tree. Without pause, the Grand Duchess carried a ladder from the closet and climbed up to the top and brought down a little bell for the girl.
Today, Russian lullabies are still sung to babies according to traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. The lullaby in this particular song cycle serves two functions: first, it conveys on a surface level the depth of love and compassion St. Elizabeth had for the orphans who were placed in her care. Second, it speaks to the coming tragedy of Holy Russia amidst the persecution by the Communists. St. Elizabeth seemed to know that the days ahead would be tragic for all.
Emulating the Lord’s self-abasement on the earth,
You gave up royal mansions to serve the poor and disdained,
Overflowing with compassion for the suffering.
And taking up a martyr’s cross,
In your meekness
You perfected the Savior’s image within yourself,
Therefore, with Barbara, entreat Him to save us all, O wise Elizabeth.
In the midst of worldliness,
Your mournful heart dwelt in Heaven;
In barbaric godlessness,
Your valiant soul was not troubled;
You longed to meet your Bridegroom as a confessor,
And He found you worthy of your martyric purpose.
O Elizabeth, with Barbara,
Your brave companion,
Pray to your Bridegroom for us.