A relatively new show on cable called Portlandia is a sketch comedy series on the Independent Film Channel about "life in hipster enclaves and the self-consciousness that make hipsters desperately disavow the label" (Margaret Talbot, "Stumptown Girl," The New Yorker, 2/2/2012).
The lead actress/comedienne, Carrie Brownstein, came of age in the alternative music and feminist scene of Olympia Washington in the nineties, but later came to despise "the élitism that passes itself off as inclusiveness." In such hyper-niched existences, Brownstein explains, "the rules are so esoteric, so hard to follow, that no one else could fit in. And what you'll never admit to yourself is that you don't want other people to fit in."
Such is the target of Portlandia's satire; it could be called snobby anti-snobbiness.
There are lots of adjectives and appellations for such holier-than-thous today, including "geek" (as in, "I'm a beer geek"), snob ("I'm a coffee snob") or even "evangelists" (as in a Mac-evangelist"); also, there's "OCD" (the "D", in case you forgot, stands for "disorder"), "control freak" (no comment), and even (perhaps most tellingly) "addict." That such micro perfectionist mindsets are passed over with little more than a half-hearted apology shows how infected our every day lives are with what might well be termed the idolatry of the "particular." A revealing discovery, to be sure. But not a new one.
Thoreau, that old agnostic puritan sage, observed the beast he called a "hop goblin" that bedeviled little minds who adopt a "foolish consistency." He declined to articulate what would so constitute his brand of foolishness; likely, he would have said it was anything that didn't follow his pattern of non-conformity. Teenagers are easy targets for this kind of critique: in zeal to not "fit in" they follow one another's speech, dress, and taste habits lock step lemming-wise over the cliff (sometimes tragically). Teenagers, as well as artists.
The history of art is the history of one trend correcting another, as portrayed so well in the movie Midnight in Paris starring Owen Wilson. In the film, up for awards this year, we see a frustrated writer become unblocked through time travel (why didn't I try that?) as he witnesses one heroic generation of discontented artist, writer, and poet after another (perhaps we could say "before another" since the movie moves in reverse) decrying the ills and idiocy of the generation/movement/school it is about to supersede. Why this is so is a matter for philosophy, theology, and, in Portlandia, the stuff of cable TV.
Here's my take: the artist's impulse to improve and correct its parents (or hold on to them in some cases) is connected both to what is godlike in Man as well as what is human. Our heavenly "imago dei" yearns to make perfect art. And we will; but not yet. Now, our broken humanity can't lift itself out of its coffin, so to speak, in order to see with the clarity our souls crave. We thus always overcompensate in our diagnosing our elders' ills. As a result, the history of human art, and of culture, is like a pendulum that swings from one extreme to another. Craving-Decrying-Correcting-Enshrining. Repeat.
The Christian exit from this intellectual carnival ride is Jesus.
Not pictures OF him—which incidentally give a remarkable cultural snapshot of the place the pendulum is in its swing in any given epoch in the history of the modern world--not pictures, I say, but theologies of him. In Jesus, the Christian artist sees a line perfectly bisecting the pendulum's arc. The Christian teaching on the incarnation of Jesus anchors the believing artist with an additional waypoint besides surrounding cultural trends.
Artistic creator, culture, and Christ combine to make a kind of triangle, a stable base on which beauty can be built. In terms of navigation, such a triad enables the artist to triangulate, so to speak, on the God Man, Jesus. His two Natures are the philosophical key: full divinity ("Son of God") and full humanity ("Son of Man"). As such, Jesus is at one and the same time imbedded in the story of human history and over and above the story as Author and Artist. In him we are raised from the coffin, from the dead. In him we see.
Ruminate's effort to create an aesthetically pleasing printed biome that encourages individual artists as they geocache their way through our generation's cultural woodlands and mountainsides with this kind of "incarnational theology" is rare today. And worthy of support. But it is also potentially dangerous.
For, as a literary magazine, it is on the margins of culture, on the higher, more refined, and more sophisticated side. Ruminate's margin is the margin that includes the sophisticated, geeky, and OCDesque members of the cult of the particular who can identify with, and laugh at the characters and lifestyles lampooned in Portlandia. They remind us of ourselves.
So as we meditate on the intersection of life, faith, and art, we do so with fear and trembling lest in our cogitations we somehow fall short of the mark. As aesthetes, with refined tastes, we do well to confess (and not deny) that we may well be more than just committed to rejecting simplistic religion, overused clichés, and tired, spiritualized platitudes. We may, in fact, be addicted. As such, our sophistication may become our undoing.
After all, this Jesus, this philosophical anchor for the artist soul, didn't come for the sophisticated but for the simple; not the wise but for the foolish; not the strong, but for the weak, even the ugly. "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not." (the prophet Isaiah)
And those who will inherit this beautiful artistic earth are also those from whom "men hide their faces": the meek, the beggars, and the poor. They are from Bethlehem, the least of all the clans of Judah, where the Son of God first undertook his unlikely, new creational work on our behalf.
Good Lord, guide your artists, and this magazine dedicated to them, to this overlooked enclave.
Phil Henry is married and has six children. He currently lives in South Jersey where he is starting a new church community, Mercy Hill Presbyterian Church. Phil served on the Ruminate staff as an associate reader from 2009-2011.
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