Monday, November 09, 2009


When I was an undergrad at Northwestern University in what was then the School of Speech, I kept worrying my advisor, a kind but conventional man who wanted to make sure I’d be able to earn a living, by signing up for courses in religion. It was bad enough that I was taking so many theatre courses, though I assured him I would be a dramatics teacher. When I signed up for Philosophy of Religion, the professor was Paul Schilpp. That has probably affected the course of my life as much as the concurrent acting classes from Alvina Krause, which have always been my point of entry into the understanding of human beings. Schilpp was a Methodist minister, the son of a minister, and yet a major humanist. If I had known that the Ethical Culture folks claimed him, I’d have joined up.

Schilpp ventured into aesthetics. He proposed that “art is the expression of a relationship between man and the universe.” He was pre-feminist but I’m sure he soon moved to being more inclusive. My quibble with his definition came from AK. I insisted that “expressing” a relationship -- no matter what it was with -- was not enough. That a real artist COMMUNICATES a relationship with the universe. I still insist on that. He was partly affronted (He was born in Germany, after all! He was Authority!) and partly amused at my stubbornness. I think it is about the difference between theory and practice, the difference between the philosopher and the actor.

But there is more. Schilpp was from an existentialist generation which soon led us into a therapeutic generation: “get it out, get it all out!” If it was a rank mess that no one could decipher, too bad. The middlemen “entre-preneurs” used the “Emperor’s New Clothes” strategy. “What? You don’t understand this? Surely you must see what the rest of us see!” And “everyone is buying it, so how can it be without value?”

And there’s still more. Art is a reaching out from the shell that traps so many. It is a way of seizing the world (okay, the universe -- all right, other people) and demanding that they pay attention. “Look! Look at this!” Which implies that maybe they ought to do something about it, which can lead to social reform or maybe social celebration or even, after all, a celebration of the universe.

Sometimes we get really confused. The crafters and ethnic skill celebraters insist that clever birdhouses and finger-woven Red River sashes are art and maybe they are, sort of. But they are not world-shaking expressions of a new relationship between humans and the universe. It’s a question of dimension. On the other hand, must experts always be urging us to listen to what they claim is sublime and penetrating? Why can’t we just look at art and SEE, FEEL, soak up all the amazing newness or overwhelming antiquity of it? Why does Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud have to be explained? Who can explain the Sphinx? And then there were the jokes like the upside-down urinal that gave everyone permission to claim “found art.” At the time it was a necessary harrowing of an over-conventional and boring status quo, but the point has been made.

Should we add that “art is an expression [communication] of the relationship of a man [person] to the universe” according to his or her own time and place? (Sorry about reducing to two genders, but I can never remember the GLBTG formula, and I don’t want to refer to people as “it.”) Or isn’t that already assumed when you consider what a person is? Alvina Krause would say so. And she’d make you spell out the time and place, to show that you had done more than a surface study. Not enough to study Cleopatra in order to stage “Caesar & Cleopatra” -- what about the time and place of GBS? Then you have the relationship between two times and places to consider.

Was Paul Schilpp trying to move art to the status of religion or religion into the realm of art? I suspect there was at least a little of that and the crossover is in my philosophy as well. What IS my relationship to the universe? May I simply feel it? Must I define it? And, once defined, should I express it in an art form (including words as an art form) and must I communicate it? (Testify.) Yes, I think you should follow that progression of obligations as far as it will go. (And it should probably not carry you into the ministry, though that might seem logical. At least that was a blind alley for me, leading to institutional bondage.)

What would Paul Schilpp make of Cinematheque and boys at-risk? (I know what AK would make of them -- actors.) First, he would never condemn or reject them. His stance was inclusion. Second, he would be interested in what they had to say and defend their right to say it. (He was a staunch member of the ACLU and consistently in hot water over his liberal ideas, sometimes barely surviving as a professor.) Third, if they told him there was no God, he would solemnly agree. Then he would begin to try to persuade them that there was something beyond themselves, not necessarily something requiring a name, but perhaps worthy of expression. Oh, all right, even communication to others.

It all sounds so theoretical and easy until the living dilemmas appear. And that’s where the ministry part comes in. Ministry, I would suggest, is the part of the communication equation that consists of listening and understanding. What I understand when I listen to Cinematheque is that they need to act out the New Being to which they aspire before they can step into it, clothing themselves in a new way while never abandoning pride in their naked bodies. It’s interesting that these boys are never fat or ugly. They are all desirable. It is the terms of desire that must be renegotiated.


Anonymous said...

I lack your erudition, but here's my own perception. Art is really verb, not noun. It is the method. It is the the artist's genius at conveying something arresting to other mortals. Art is what lives within the artist, and not what the artist produces.

Bonnie HW said...

I just want to drop a note and say thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking writings here.

I'm an artist living in Portland, OR (my "day job" is in theater, my media are metal, wood, bone and horn :), and I particularly appreciated this posting. It is synchronous with a renewed grappling match (groping match?) I'm having with the old art-craft-design argument/definition thing.

I've been reading here occasionally for a while, originally via Stephen Bodio, I think.

great stuff
thanks again!