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bored with Michelangelo, but not Taylor Swift: June 2023 Essay Recommendations
James K.A. Smith wrestles with not feeling the way he should about art, and Liz Bruenig on serving God and humanity with her talents...
Sometimes I think I haven’t read very well or very widely within a certain timeframe. Other times, I think I’ve read almost too well. The end of this month comes with the latter feeling. I’ve had a pretty good reading season and, with the recommendations below, I’m resisting the urge to center everything around the theme that seems to be reoccurring.
inveterate hicks, unite!
James K.A. Smith’s article in Image Journal, Something Other than Devotion: Bored with the Renaissance, Surprised by the Contemporary, spoke to something I’ve often felt but had a hard time articulating: believing I should feel a certain way about a certain thing but not feeling that way and thinking, because of that, I’m a fraud. I’ve felt that way when it comes to religious traditions and more often when it comes to some of the celebrated art of yesterday. The thing that is supposed to move me is simply not moving.
Yes, imagine being “bored by Michelangelo”! This is the feeling Smith is bold, or perhaps frustrated, enough to admit.
…when the Duomo isn’t doing it for you, when the treasures of the Uffizi fall flat, those self-doubts inch toward a crisis of faith. Not only am I wondering if I’m an inveterate hick, I’m also wondering: Am I a terrible pilgrim? A bad Christian? Is this a failure of devotion?
When you don’t feel the way everyone else says they feel about a thing—some of them are lying probably—it makes you doubt your own sanity, your own capability.
Smith finds something of a salve in his exploration of contemporary art. Not that contemporary art is better; it is often seen as lesser than that created by history’s Botticellis. But the legendary works of the past were the “contemporary art” of their day. In summary, Smith learns
…the joy of disruption, a learned ignorance, a willingness to let go of the penchant to master the masters and instead commune with an artist who is as perplexed and dazzled by the world as I am.
Perhaps I’ll write something more on this issue in the future because, like Smith, I’m still asking questions and “coming up with different answers.” But for now read. this. piece. Its only flaw is that it’s not accompanied by any images of the art that moved Smith to write it.
speaking of contemporary art…
I really enjoyed The New Yorker’s big piece on a Finnish multimodal artist: Pilvi Takala and the Art of Awkwardness. I’m riveted by ideas and constructs we accept unquestioningly, things that shape our contexts without us actually considering them. And Pilvi Takala has made a career out of questioning these ties that bind.
“What interests me,” she says, “is: What are norms: how are they upheld or undone, changed, and negotiated?”
Her most powerful tool is awkwardness. Excruciating silences and cringeworthy conversations act as magnifying glasses on the social contract, inviting us to pore over its fine print.
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it’s Swiftie season
My ongoing obsession with the ties binding art, performance, and reality—and whether it’s all the same thing anyway—led me to read a potentially embarrassing amount of Taylor Swift-related content in a short amount of time. She’s the biggest act in town (and the dozens of towns she’s visiting on her Eras Tour), and I can’t resist the pull of a real life and an art project being rafted out so consistently and on such a large scale. I’ve said before that Swift’s power (and the power of any artist to bind audiences to themselves the way she has) is in how she’s crafted a mythology about herself—casting her life to the public as story, as a succession of ahem eras, coming one after the other, building a narrative that others invest in, for better or worse.
Here’s three pieces that really grapple with the intricacies and significance of this.
Look What Taylor Made Us Do, Tyler Foggatt
Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concert felt a lot like going to Mass, Kevin Christopher Robles
The Startling Intimacy of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, Amanda Petrusich
Anyway, I’m gonna start referring to parts of my life as “eras” now.
how do you serve?
I’m a huge admirer of Elizabeth Bruenig’s consistent, fearless witness as a writer and Christian in public cultural spaces. In thisinterview, How to Write Beautiful Stories About Hideous Things, she shares a perspective on using her skills to serve God and his humans that I think is inspiring for any of us trying to work out how our gifts and talents fulfill larger purposes in the world.
…writing is what I can do. God makes butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. And I was minted out as a writer… It’s how I try to do good in the world. It’s the tool I have. I think every Christian has their vocation, the skill they have to offer, so the question becomes how they can offer it up for God’s purposes. For me, in my reporting, I’ve placed this unwavering focus on human life. I try to be a partisan of this whole human species we’ve got going here, to argue for its value even in the most extreme cases. For me, that’s how I’ve been able to serve, or try to serve, God. I use my writing.
I’m recommending this episode (“How to Live in a Circle”) of thepodcast because I did not expect it to go all the places it went when talking about the aliens-come-to-earth movie Arrival. The nature of language, the nature of time, Calvinism, Mormon theology, temporal responsibility—it’s got it all! Apparently, Arrival’s got it all too. I’ve never properly watched the film, but based on the discussion it prompted in this episode, I’m giving it a recommendation as well. Shortly after this is in your inboxes, I’ll be watching it for sure.
Okay, have fun! (Remember, if you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong.)
Also, shoutout to Katy, grand overseer of UK Moot. She introduced me to the Notion app and showed me how to use it, and it’s made it so much easier to keep track of what I’m reading and what I think about what I’m reading. ✍️