Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Right to Beauty (In Response to Jackie)

I had to post because my comment got too long.

I am preparing for my spring course on the *History of Design* and have been relatively unmotivated because I know little about the subject or how it's important to students. But this exchange between us is very inspiring. You're absolutely right to fight for the right of Ralph Adams Cram's church; I incidentally looked him up and found out that he's totally the arch-gay Anglo-Catholic aesthete that our friend Eric would surely appreciate. (Yes, Eric's music program in such a church would indeed bring a glimpse of beauty and love into the mills.)

Too often, Episcopalians don't connect their own love for the arts with social justice, you are the exception, and the other is a lay parishioner at St. Paul in Hyde Park who gave this ravishing sermon one year on Good Friday. She asked us to reflect on the true meaning of beauty: is it just for us to consume and feel good about ourselves as privileged Christians who could afford fresh flowers and professional musicians at our services? No, she said, it's so that we could feel the miseries of the world in a even more profound way.

I remember watching a Chicago elementary school teacher receive the Golden Apple Award last year, a young Hispanic woman who took her Hispanic students to have high tea at the Four Season's, with the reason that "I want them to know that they are good enough for this, that they have the right to this." The Dominican priest Alain-Marie Couturier also told the workers of Vance that they deserve the Matisse chapel that they helped build: "Don't ever resort to the false humility that you are too simple to understand this art, because it's below your dignity as Christian, nothing is too high for you..."

Idealism of the fool? No - I was in Gary, Indiana last November canvassing for the Obama campaign, and it was a spiritual illumination to listen to the steel workers, who told us how dejected they feel because their city lacks beauty. No one cleans the sidewalk, there's trash and weed everywhere. How can you not become depressed, how can you not gradually lose pride (pronounced "prad" which means in African-American idiom a kind of dignity, strength, resilience) in yourself, how can you resist from slowly identifying with your own unhappiness, if everything in your immediate physical environment spells "misery"?

The poor and the miserable need beauty more than any of us. We've been in it for so long that we have the power of the imagination, but they depend on beauty's physical, earthly manifestations, in the lovely chapel, in the music, in people who believe that "they are good enough for this." I am very sensitive to food not only because I like to eat, but because it is often food that divides the rich and the poor. Any mystery why Christ used the bread, the wine and the table to unite his people? At least once a day, people need to be reminded that EVERYONE, the poor above all, deserves to eat and drink, and not only that, at a table covered in white table cloth.

As Episcopalians, we need to turn our love for the arts and beauty into a form of productive outrage: we cannot morally acquiesce to a world where some people are led to believe that they don't deserve the white table cloth. To think that we've done Christ's work just by feeding the poor - as if they were just animals, as if they should be grateful to us just because we gave them soup in plastic cups in some dim, fluorescent-lit church basement - is simply bourgeois false consciousness and un-Christian.

A lot of people criticized the Arts & Crafts movement and the likes of Morris, Mackintosh and Ruskin because their socialist ideals did not prevent their decor and furniture from becoming commodities for the rich. But your case about Ralph Adams Cram's church proves that this is not entirely true. The poor too can enjoy the legacies of the Aesthetic Movement in interior design - no one has to pay to come to this chapel. Culture is there to be shared, because it is like bread, it is organic and vital. It provides a sense of wholeness without which no human being can live a meaningful life. This sense of wholeness should not be the privilege of the rich, unfortunately, it is increasingly the case in our capitalist society, where the poor are deprived of even spiritual resources to create their own culture. When we lose our sense of connected-ness, we become vulnerable and we fall prey to fanatic ideologies and political demagogy. This is what happened to the poor Muslims in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is also what happens to the American working class and farmers.

Very few of us can really go be with the poor the way Mother Theresa or Simone Weil did. But the very least we can do as elite Christians is to fight for the preservation and sharing of beauty, which is nothing other than the material manifestation of God's hope for us.

4 comments:

Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Yes. That is it.

Do read more about Cram - we have what we think is Cram's water color sketch of his plans for the church.

Another person who has contributed to my plans is Majora Carter, who started "Sustainable South Bronx." This urban aesthetic movement must also include the landscape -- local food, local flowers.

Last year's Trinity Institute included her, and a theologian from England, Timothy Gorringe, on the idea of sustainability.

I'll keep you posted as I make my case for church & art for the poor.

Joyce Cheng said...

Thanks, Gale, I looked up the article. Jackie, would it be feasible to sell organic vegetables at your church to the middle-class liberals, to raise money for the church? And why not rock bands for social justice? You'll have to convince the powers that be that Arts & Crafts were actually meant to improve the life of workers and not the middle class. One more story concerning art for the poor that I found out last night: a certain branch of Arts & Crafts wanted to produce more simplistic design as to lower production cost, but apparently the English upper-class would buy these furniture for the servants' quarters in order to reinforce class distinction. In short, arabesque=rich, geometric=poor. The interesting thing is that it's all an upper-class scheme. Meanwhile, there's nothing more offensive than this: you have just to take a walk in any rural area, be it in Taiwanese fishing villages or Swiss mountains, to see that peasants and workers love flowers, colors and ornaments.

Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Yes, I've thought of the food thing -- we have a board-of-health certified kitchen, and one of our board members makes goat cheese out of organic milk from a farm in Plymouth County (we are in Ply. Co.). I've thought of how we can get apprenticeships for catering and baking, and sell the muffins in a used book store -- there are none in Brockton. I've visited commercial/coop farms in blighted North Philly, and thought about selling herbs, since our space is really kind of small.

I've got to cultivate the rock band thing - I love it. The north shore mill towns get all the edge stuff - there isn't much fringe art in this part of New England - maybe getting spillover from RISD would be easier; we are close to RI.

Have you read about Gustav Stickley? He was quite adamant about the aesthetics of his furniture, which Tim calls "prison furniture" and which was in every church basement in Syracuse when I was growing up. He insisted on colors for the walls of homes, based on what direction the room faced. It was definitely the geometric plainness for all.

What about the Roycrofters? In East Aurora, NY? We had prints up in the kitchen or dining room when you were at NU, from the Roycroft workshop: "Boredom is a matter of choice, not circumstance;" and "Shirkers get paid what they are worth." The leading light of Roycroft was Elbert Hubbard, another Morris-esque intellectual designer and manufacturer of beauty for the masses.

Joyce Cheng said...

Obviously I am just the university academic who's coming up with ideas in her office/living room, but I keep thinking that I would love to start a program teaching the working class to cook healthy, tasty and cheap food for themselves. One day, in Village Foods in Hyde Park, I was asked by a cashier what it was that I had in my bag (a pack of Italian-imported pasta) - she doesn't even know what it is. When I tutored in Chicago, I remember getting a girl who wrote a composition about being hungry and alone at home. Her crisis ended when her mother came up with frozen pizzas and other industrial foods that I can't even name. The American working class is being slowly killed by bad industrial food. Jackie, apprenticeship in cooking is an awesome idea. Maybe those who eat at the soup kitchen could help prepare the food (thereby learning to cook). When I was in college, I was always offended by soup kitchens that served food that the volunteers themselves wouldn't eat. I had often dreamed of a soup kitchen where food was simple but good: olive oil, pasta, tomato and garlic; soup made of potatoes and leeks; curry; these are all such cheap things that I make too much for myself. We don't have to feed fois gras everyday, but something totally feasible, like homemade Bolognese sauce with spaghetti. Then the hipsters would be attracted! Oh Jackie, you can put out a sign on the sidewalk like the French brasserie, with today's menu. Homeless people eat for free; hipsters pay $5. How's that for Pleasant Green?