Saturday, October 31, 2009

Le style c'est l'homme meme

Quoted in Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession:

Style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also the vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values . . . . It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and the individuality of particular works may be measured.

From Meyer Schapiro (an art historian), "Style" in Anthropology Today, (Chicago, 1953).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Episcopalianism and A Sense of Style

This is following up on multiple conversations on the front of the Episcopal church, beauty, art and style with Jackie and Gale. Jackie would love to have hipsters at her church; Gale teaches her students (sometimes in vain) that a sense of style is important in the White House and the American identity. These are fruit for thoughts. Lots of blue-blooded Episcopalians have a profound sense of beauty and culture - though, curiously, this is not the same as being hip. Are English hymnals and William Morris hip? Probably not - it's probably considered old-fashioned. After all, IKEA made this rather vicious campaign against English "chintz," urging the English to throw out their Victorian furniture in return for Billy bookcases and Paong chairs. But what English hymnals and William Morris have is a sense of coherence: they are linked by tradition and a set of values.

Jeremy and Gale came to the conclusion long ago that one of things that make us and our group of friends not so "bobo" is that we went to church. Most church people are not exactly hip. (And what is the sociological makeup of hipsters anyway? Gale, any thoughts? Do they not come from Episcopalian families?) Being cultivated is not the same as looking glamorous - there aren't many dandys around in this country. But the value of hipsters is perhaps their youth and their glam. If everyone thought that it was so "cool" to help out at St. Paul's soup kitchen, then social justice might be advanced. So how do we make social justice hip? (Why isn't it? Eating organic surely is.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bread & Roses in Massachusetts

Jackie, is this organization anywhere near you? They have the right idea - and I think the Episcopal church is in the position to broaden this to the arts, because it's what the Episcopalians have more than any other Christians in this country.

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.

Episcopalians, know thyself!

I had a nice evening out with a colleague of mine, a young Latin Americanist in my department. She turned out to be a southern Californian and, unsurprisingly, episcopalian by upbringing. We had a conversation about Episcopalianism not as a religion but as a community, a culture, a tradition, and yes, as a set of weird ticks shared by a paradoxically privileged yet discrete group of Americans. My colleague was very amused by my observations and she said, "I've never thought of it like that, but now my entire life makes sense!" It amuses me too, that so many of the cradle Episcopalians I have met never looked at themselves as an "ethnic group," precisely because they are so "liberal." Race theorists might well be right to say that being "white" and "privilege" somehow makes you "normal" and "colorless," namely, cultural diversity includes you being surrounded by other colors that are not white.

The truth is that Episcopalians, when scrutinized closely with an anthropological lens, betray all the signs of being a very distinct community, with a basis in Anglo-American culture. They usually drive beat-up cars (Toyotas or Suburus) and spend lots of money on wine. They have dog-eared books at home on anything from Hannah Arendt to Baudelaire to Franz Boas (Jackie, your copy of "Primitive Art" is on my shelf!), but they haven't read them for a long, long time. Many of them are very progressive but have a bizarre idealization of history, which distinguishes them from the European left-wing. They might not advocate return to pre-Revolutionary time, but they can't give up their grandparents' Queen Anne furniture even if they don't manage getting them re-upholstered. Many of them also don't consider "Jingle Bell" a proper Christmas song. They support women's liberation and the use of contraceptives, but are often closeted papists who get very excited about visiting St. Peter's and getting a glimpse of the pope. Nature and culture in their unadulterated form are what Episcopalians love: so they either have a cabin in the mountains, a cottage by the lake, or spend that money on family vacations in Europe. (Italy is top on the list - I suspect that it's thanks to English Romanticism, Ruskin, Keats, etc.) Little reproductions or actual Byzantine/orthodox icons may be spotted in their living rooms. Episcopalian men are often one of the rare species of American males who can be both very macho and love Titian. Episcopalian women are often very good at writing "Thank You" notes and organizing potlucks and auctions; they apply such skills to areas as diverse as art history departmental social hours and Hyde Park Jazz Society fundraising. Aesthetically, they are contradictory: their personal manners are very restrained, but they love the exaltation of the arabesque (look at the legs of their furniture). Politically, they are both Republicans and Democrats (which is why they're interesting). And, as pointed out by Gale a long time ago, their are united by having cocktail hour at 5pm, no matter what name they might grant to the occasion.

These are quirky observations but I think that Episcopalians should realize more that they are a kind of ethnic-religious group much like the Jews. This might permit them to be more self-aware as a large constituency of the American elite. They should be more courageous in promoting a socially responsible and culturally intelligent form of Christianity in the US, and dare I say, in the world. I find it insidious that Episcopalians are so powerful and discrete about their identity - the American Jews at least have a very visible role in public life due to their strong identity. The advantage of coming to terms with your religio-ethnic identity is that you can better see what your contribution to the world can be.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Amira Hass, Guardian of Truth

The left-wing Israeli journalist Amira Hass won the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women in Media Foundation this week, and for days now I have been in a kind of elation. I was spellbound by her 2003 interview at UC Berkeley, where she spoke with the relentless energy, impatience and honesty of someone who loved truth and justice more than herself. (I admit I cried through half of it.)

In Amira Hass I saw the ghosts of Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil, two of my heroines. I think about what unite these three women: their gender, their Jewish background, but more importantly, their incorruptible search for truth, their tireless efforts to share that truth even when no one hears or believes it, and their willingness to expose themselves. Arendt went to Jerusalem to report on Eichmann's trial, subsequently exposing herself to the attacks of Jews and Germans alike. Weil went to work in the vineyards and the factories, exposing herself to harsh physical labor and dangerous working conditions. Hass went to live in Gaza as well as Romania under Ceausescu in order to report on oppression with lived experiences and observations. What strikes me about all of them was how little they seem to be concerned with themselves, their reputation, their career, even their influences. When Amira Hass spoke of her "lifelong achievement" as "lifelong failure," she is dismissing the opportunity to glorify herself and risking the favors of those who honored her. When she says that she has not made an impact (because Israeli colonization of Palestine continues to justify Palestinian self-destruction), she is not complaining that people are not listening to her; she is complaining that people do not listen to truth.

Once, Hannah Arendt was asked by a journalist what kind of influences she had hoped to have on others. Her response is perhaps the only feminist moment in Arendt: "But it's so masculine, to always want to be influential! I just want to understand, and if I can help other people understand along the way, then I am happy." I wonder if Arendt has touched on something that she, Weil and Hass all have in common, namely, a voluntarism animated by a love for the world, a love that does not ask for any returns. These women remind me of why women have a place in public life; more specifically, they show why some women are particularly suited to be guardian angels of truth. Perhaps part of the problem with patriarchy is that it was a system of pride and delusions of grandeur, which prevents people from seeing the truth. What blocks truth more powerfully than anything is the attachment of the self to illusions.

It gives me such satisfaction to know that, in the 20th century and perhaps the next, it is female geniuses like Arendt, Weil and Hass who reveal the true meaning of philosophy: the love of wisdom that overpowers the love that the rest of us give too much to ourselves.

America: Home for the Brave – and the Unfeeling?

I had a small dinner party last night at my house, gathering old and new friends. At one point during the evening, we touched upon a subject that came up often in my interactions with non-American friends: why (white) Americans (in their view) do not seem to valorize human relationships. One of my guests mentioned that Mexican restaurants and supermarkets are so much friendlier than the white American establishments. When she visited the Mexican deli shop in her neighborhood the second time, the people immediately recognized her and asked if she had enjoyed the guacamole that she bought the last time (her first visit). Any white American establishment, however, would never betray their recognition even if they did remember you from the fifty times that you had bought coffee there. Another of my guests used a stronger term: she said that the Americans seem de-eroticized (ent-erotisiert), since they almost never express sympathies (distinct from the friendliness) with strangers. She also told me that I am thus far her only social contact in Eugene whom she feels comfortable calling and inviting; the colleagues in her department kept saying that they ought to “do lunch” – but only in two weeks, because they are too busy now. Her comment reminded me of an Israeli friend who once said that Americans pencil friendship into their work schedule. “What do you mean you have to look at your calendar? If I am your friend, I’m calling you and knocking on your door all the time, and you’d do the same to me,” he said, completely baffled by what he perceived as the lack of spontaneity in American social mores.

As someone who has several great (white) American friends, I am slightly defensive of this perception of Americans as unfeeling, professional-minded robots, but this perception has been put to me so often that I feel like there has got to be some reason behind it all. It is true that friends in Paris handled social relationships in a different way, and people in the same neighborhood solidarized much more than in the United States. In Paris, the butcher flirts, the boutique owner tells the trouble with her business, the professional cook invites me to lunch in his workshop, and the bookseller stays until 1 o’clock in the morning in the shop because we spent three hours talking about religion and politics. This bookseller in particular, who owns Tschann Libraire in Montparnasse, remembered me from 2001 when I first spent four months in Paris; I was 22 then, and when I came back to Paris again I was 27. I told him that his hair had turned gray during those five years. Once, I got locked out of my apartment, and instead of paying 200 euros to get a locksmith, I had the owner of the brasserie across the street come up to save me: His trick involved a radiogram and 15 minutes of nonstop banging on the door.

These memories are now particularly poignant to me because I find that the “friendly Oregonians” can sometimes be so cold to strangers. This morning, the bus driver turned away a whole station full of students, carrying heavy backpacks in the chilly fog, on the basis that the bus was full. It was not true at all: by the standards of Chicago or Paris, we could have easily fit 15 passengers more into the bus. (In India, perhaps another 50.) But that would require strangers to stand shoulder to shoulder, which is perhaps too much contact for them. Later, on the same bus, an old lady struggles to get up from her seat in order to get off the bus, and the student standing in front of her did not have bother to lend her a hand. Instead, she simply moved her body slightly to be out of the old lady’s way. Everything is so calculated and utterly absent of spontaneity.

I don’t know why civic life in Oregon here seems cold, but I do think that professional life in America forces people to turn off a large part of their affective needs in order to be perceived as self-sufficient and invulnerable. I noticed that almost all of my American friends were made during college, with one or two exceptions. College was the romantic time of our lives: we stayed up all night listening to jazz records and had useless intellectual debates about literature, existentialism and other such things. I am not nostalgic about college, but I do wonder what happened to that spontaneity after we became professionals. I strongly suspect that American professionals are often circumspect in their approach to friendship because the risk of exposing one’s humanity (that is, weaknesses and imperfections) in a professional context is too great. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that anyone would not want friends. Wasn’t there a theory that TV shows such as “Friends” and “Sex in the City” owe their success to the yuppies’ unfulfilled longing for close friendships, which were out of reach for them in real lives?

What disturbs me about the foreigner’s perception of American social relationships is its oblique but real link to our attitude toward social welfare and above all healthcare. David Brooks has long pointed out that the Republican party is especially successful in reinforcing a false version of American optimism, which has little tolerance for discourses about failure and needs. But what about the liberals? I don’t find them personally warmer than the selfish, unfeeling Republicans who deprive us of healthcare. Is it because they also don’t like weakness, and the need for human contact is considered a weakness in professional America?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Youth Springs Eternal, for good or for ill.

In reading last week's New Yorker (the one with the books on the cover), I was surprised and fascinated by the review of picture books, and Rebecca Mead's article on the YA-lit factory, Alloy Entertainment. It's also interesting to think about these things in relation to the success of the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are.

The picture books article shows how contemporary parenting styles trickle into children's books, and how children in today's picture books run all over their passive and bedraggled parents who insist that their children "use their nice words" and get played by their tyrannical three-year-olds. I'm not sure what this says about my personality, but when I was little, I liked orderly books - these disorderly and disobedient children would have made me anxious. I distinctly remember getting stressed out reading the Cat in the Hat. I completely supported the fish, urging the Cat to stop making such a mess. I was better with Dr. Seuss's other books - the Lorax. Speaking of autocratic books, my family also read a lot of Bernstein Bears - it's all about order, decorum, and self-control. Maybe this stifled my rebellious streak early on, but I think that it was already embedded in my personality, even as a six-year-old.

The Alloy Entertainment article ("The Gossip Mill") is very interesting for other reasons. The translation of news, political scandals, and adult novels into young adult novels, and the mode of presentation is fascinating. I rarely read these sorts of books when I was a young adult - the Christopher Pike horror/thrillers, VC Andrews' romance novels, Sweet Valley High (the Gossip Girl of the 80s?) - and so on some level, I don't understand the appeal. I've just gotten to the part in the article when Twilight enters into the picture - and I wonder if the unexpected and surprising popularity of the series throws a kink into the YA factory. I feel like teenagers' likes and dislikes seem easy to decipher, but they can also turn on a dime and embrace the least expected trend. They're also quick to sniff out when they're the targets of marketing campaigns, and I wonder what this means for Alloy's future success.

Along those lines, I also just read this Times article on Sherman Alexie whose long career took off when he published an autobiographical young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I want to read it and see how it compares to written-for-adults coming-of-age fiction (Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, Lev Grossman's The Magicians), and if there is a distinction. Is it all in the marketing? Probably. And I also wonder if teenagers drove the sales of Alexie's book (I do know that it's a popular summer reading assignment), or if adults are behind its success?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Open

I am reporting back to the common fire after months (years?) of silence, this time from Eugene, Oregon, a small university town with a very visible aging hippie population and, as I am slowly discovering, real money hidden in discrete quarters. Having come from Chicago and Hyde Park, I am used to the company of Democrats. A long-time member of American liberal academia, I am used to things like feminism, post-colonial studies, race theories, Marxism, Frankfurt School, etc and etc. None of these things seems to suffice in describing the climate in Eugene, however.

In Hyde Park, being liberal means supporting Barak and pledging to the Hyde Park Jazz Society. In Eugene, it seems to imply buying locally grown heirloom tomatoes and organic tampons. This town has no shortage of fancy organic grocery stores, cooking boutiques and bike shops. All things are ecological and green. The most peculiar thing is that everyone disappears into the mountains at the end of the day. Every upper middle-class professional seems to own a house somewhere on the hills in south Eugene. When the sun goes down, they retreat from civilization into their private garden and palace, often spectacular. In their private kingdom, they need not deal with the ugliness of the American society.

A colleague told me that this town went mad last November during the presidential campaign. People had 20 Obama signs in their yard and entered into fierce fights with their neighbors across the Williamette River, Springfield, which is a predominantly working class town of Republican persuasion. (A colleague at the university whom I met at a reception referred to my town Covina in Los Angeles County as a place for "rednecks"; I corrected her by saying that it was inhabited by the working-class and immigrants.) Springfield is far from being a charming town; it looks just like the kind of town for the Simpsons' and has lots of strip malls and large retail shops. At the same time, I felt indignant as I started to discover that liberal Eugenians speak of the "redneck" Springfielders with contempt. I realized that they are liberal but not exactly Marxist. The boys at the Social Theory workshop at the University of Chicago might wear nice shirts (some of them), but at least they make a point of drinking beer and eating Doritos. The liberal Eugenians don't even pretend to solidarize with the workers, who are white, overweight and anti-Obama.

Religion is not exactly popular here, especially the ones that involve Jesus. (My colleague who teaches colonial Latin American art got hostile student evaluations expressing anger that she was trying to convert them to Catholicism by teaching them about Catholic art.) However, they do have three Episcopal parishes. I went to two: one was smug and had an ugly chapel, the other was low church and does folk mass once a month, but it has an interesting female priest who is visibly concerned with social justice. I decided to stay in the second one for now (while avoiding the guitars on the third Sunday of the month). The congregation is still very white; they don't lift every voice and sing either. (Interlude: I know that I will forever miss Sunday mornings in Hyde Park, when Hispanic and black families all come out in their best clothes for church. The black grandmas at St. Paul the Redeemer would sit in the pews with their fantastic hats, with little lace trims and flowers on top; sometimes they wore white gloves like my own grandmother used to do. I would pretend to follow along the hymnal while checking out my professors amongst the faithful: Rob Nelson the Byzantinst from my department who is always at the front, David Wellbery the Germanist who is always at the back, and my friend the Islamicist Fred Donner who sings in the choir.) But at least here, in the Church of Resurrection, I can see elite white people being open. Here, they are quiet and listening, instead of complacently advertising themselves as they do at receptions and potlucks. They have a very interesting priest, a younger woman who reminds them that being well-t0-do and content is not enough, that the world is filled with people who are treated as non-persons, and the obligation for every Christian is to not be content with what is but to imagine what may be. Here, they confront their own frailty and finitude, and for that reason, I can share their company. More importantly on a social level, they are taking responsibility for their own spiritual tradition, not becoming consumers of exotic occultism (there are many shops here where they could purchase paraphernalia of various kinds) or aggrandizing their ego with popular forms of atheism.

As time goes on, I hope to find other people in Eugene to whom I can talk about the plight of the American working class, and who will not speak of the religious right as if they were the devil. Maybe I will even find one or two people who could understand why I put U2's *Rattle and Hum* on the same level as Bach's kantatas, Latin plain songs and Negro spirituals. But before then, I think the progressive Episcopal church here in Eugene is my best bet in finding the intermediary ground of openness without which I would suffocate.

In many worlds, including the world of the English gentry in Evelyn Waugh's novels or of the French noblesse in Proust, church-going was the sign of respectability. In Eugene, respectability is marked by shopping at the right stores, eating at the right restaurants, etc. This makes the church-goers somewhat non-conformists. After all, they didn't have to go. (Many of them are also old and very frail.) If they did go, it must mean that they, too, understand that eating organic vegetables alone does not suffice in making one a good person. At least I have that in common with them.