On The Beauty Of Useless Things

Last evening I caught up with an old friend, who has been busy having a bit of a clear-out. Old books long since read and never reopened, knick-knacks which seem to come from nowhere, and even a diploma frame emblazoned with the school logo were being tossed out. The experience was described as freeing, and of course that’s to be taken both literally and figuratively: as living space becomes less cluttered, the mind feels less cluttered also.

It’s a feeling I know well, having to go through the de-hoarding process regularly. Despite public perceptions of what living in Georgetown must be like, one thing that all village residents know well is that homes built a century (or quite a bit more) ago, while very quaint, often present significant storage problems for their residents. Closet space is at such a premium that, at least twice a year, I end up hauling great sacks full of worn, but still wearable clothes out of the house to give to the poor.

Yet the guilt we may sometimes feel for having useless “stuff” must be tempered by an acknowledgement that utility is not a virtue, in and of itself. Employing a spirit of utility in the imitation of Christ’s poverty is virtuous, whether you are a Capuchin friar who has renounced all earthly possessions, or a successful entrepreneur giving away your substantial resources in order to aid those in need. The application of utility as the sine qua non of human existence however, can just as easily lead to evil (see, inter alia, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, Margaret Sanger.)

In Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan”, textbook college leftist Tom Townsend criticizes the Christmas parties he’s been attending, which he finds wasteful when there are people less fortunate than himself in the world. Nick Smith points out that there’s something rather arrogant about not enjoying yourself at a party that you’ve been invited to, because you’d rather stay at home and think about others whom *you* consider to be less fortunate. It’s a scene that, in a way reminds me of one of those moments in the Bible when consumption and utilitarianism come head to head, in an unexpected way.

In each of the four Gospels, we read the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ head with costly perfume, washed His feet with her tears, and wiped them clean with her hair. In their respective versions of the event, Saints Matthew, Mark, and John also recall the words of Judas during this scene. He criticizes the “waste” of the perfume, which could have been sold to help the poor. Judas is trying to make himself appear more virtuous, but he’s also embracing a utilitarian attitude toward what is taking place in front of him.

Christ not only rebukes Simon the Pharisee, in whose home this scene is taking place, since he failed to even offer the basic material comforts which were due to a guest, but He also rebukes Judas’ utilitarianism. As to the former, a host who fails to provide for the needs of his guest is not acting with the generosity with which God acts toward us. As to the latter, Jesus notes that we will always be able to help the poor, but that this woman was doing something very special to honor Him: an act which He predicted would be remembered throughout the world. And of course, He was right.

During His time on earth, Christ may not have owned anything, but He certainly enjoyed things that were lacking in utility. He liked to sing with His friends, sail on the Sea of Galilee, and even barbecue. Perhaps you are being called to give up all that you own, in imitation of Christ, and that is a special calling indeed. For most of us however, I think we’re called to remember that moderation is what we’re after, not a wholesale rejection of Creation – for Creation was, after all, a gift that was made for and given to us.

Christ In The House Of Simon The Pharisee by Jean Beraud (1891)

The Courtier In The Federalist: Discover What 3 Classic Paintings Secretly Say About The Meaning Of Christmas

Check out my latest for The Federalist, in which I discuss 3 beautiful Old Master paintings depicting scenes from the Bible about the birth of Jesus, and the importance of the actual text contained within these works of art. You may be surprised at not only the presence, but of the significance of these painted words. My thanks to The Federalist for letting me share my thoughts with their readers and with all of you, yet again.


 

Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

One of the problems with looking at art, let alone writing art criticism, is that it can be easy to forget the meaning of what it is that we are looking at. Perhaps because we live in an age in which we are taught that meaning is subjective, this mindset not only taints the viewer but the reviewer as well. I must confess that I can easily get wrapped up in the finer points of technique, or in recounting the history of a particular work, and overlook the spirituality of the art I am thinking about when I write a blog post or review an exhibition.

Last week for example, I wrote a summary of some interesting summer art exhibitions that I recommended to my readers. I mentioned a show about 1930’s American painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and suggested that visitors should also stop and check out the museum’s latest addition to its collection of Old Masters, a painting of Christ carrying the Cross by Sebastiano del Piombo. I pointed out that there are several versions of this piece, since it was one of the artist’s most popular compositions at the time he painted it, but that nevertheless it was a good buy for the Art Institute and worth seeing.

Reaction to the Art Institute’s acquisition of this painting could not have been more different across the spectrum of art media. Over on Apollo for example, contributor Louise Nicholson pronounced the piece “superb”, praised its condition and composition, and noted its blending of the monumentalism of Michelangelo with the “mystical twilight” landscape of the Venetians. Meanwhile, at-large critic Blake Gopnik over on ArtNet described the painting as “important, but flawed”, explained that del Piombo rarely managed to emerge from the shadows of his contemporaries, and opined that this is another instance among many in del Piombo’s career in which this was the case.

Yet none of us who wrote about this piece, myself included, wrote a single sentence regarding the spirituality of this painting. Intrigued by its provenance, lighting, and angles, and in the rush to give an opinion on the significance of the piece, we forgot that this was more than just a work of art: it was created as a means for spiritually connecting the viewer to Christ. In other words, all of us failed to actually *see* the picture.

If you have a tablet or laptop computer, or you can kneel down on the floor for a moment, take a look at the accompanying photograph of this painting from below, and consider its impact from that angle. Here is Jesus falling on the Via Dolorosa, His face grimacing in pain as the road to Calvary unwinds before Him. If you happen to position yourself to the right of this image, as you look up at it you get the impression that He is looking at you. This painting is a direct, in-your-face reminder that God is doing this for YOU, as you kneel in prayer before it.

Meanwhile the figure of St. Simon of Cyrene, who has just been roped in by the soldier shown in the shadows to help Christ carry His Cross, may cause us to reflect on different aspects of the Way of the Cross. There is a practical determination in his expression, as he figures out how best to help pick up the Cross that Jesus has fallen under. However there is also an illumination of St. Simon’s face, as he is caught up in the same light that illuminates the features of Christ. Is he getting an inkling of something else at work here? Is he realizing that this is going to turn out to be an even more extraordinary event in his life, than the already extraordinary event of his being forced by the Romans into helping a condemned prisoner whom he does not know?

Look also at the depiction of Jerusalem in the background of the painting. Although we know from the Bible that Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus around Noon, and that He died around 3pm, notice that the red skies over the city already look more like sunset than midday. Perhaps del Piombo is artistically anticipating the darkness that we are told fell over the city, when a powerful storm came up, and an earthquake rent the veil of the Temple in two. The artist may be telling us that, even before Christ arrived at Golgotha, the world was already darkening in anticipation of what was about to happen.

Perhaps because so much Christian art has been created over the last two millennia, and so much of it is crowded into our art museums, we have become indifferent to works like this. But consider what a great weight an artist like del Piombo bore on his shoulders, in painting this image of Christ carrying the Cross on His. This was not a work of art that was intended to flatter a wealthy patron, or decorate that empty space over the sideboard. It was intended to make the viewer pray, and in particular to meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus.

What a tremendous challenge it must be, for any artist to really try to get that right. And what a pity that both the public and critics so often miss the forest for the trees, when we look at such spiritually significant works of art. We can only hope to remember, and try to do better by it.

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