the way up is down

In blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha

Today is something different.

In fact, this week has been something different, owing to my unannounced silence. I didn’t announce because I didn’t know about it in advance, but I found it advisable to take a week away for my health. But now I am returned to plague you further, my readers, with arcane pedantry and whimsical digressions about writing and fairy tale.

That brings us back to today, and how it’s different.

In her post on Monday, Jenna asks:

So what are we to do with this concept of Beauty—that strange thing that makes us smile and weep and yearn and laugh and tremble and relax in turn? Beauty, which we cannot objectively quantify, but can recognize with all confidence? Beauty, which I find in Harry Potter, Masha finds in Hemingway, and Mr. Pond finds in grim old fairy tales, though we may occasionally look askance at each others’ choices?

Jenna’s own response is to return to the discussion of art, where and if there is a needful distinction between Art and Entertainment. She suggests the distinction between Art and Entertainment appears to some extent arbitrary and unhelpful. Masha responds by asking for clarification: why does the distinction seem, in fact, unhelpful and arbitrary?

It’s a courteous and thoughtful exchange that includes an invitation for us to come to hers for coffee (next time I’m in that hemisphere, I accept!). And it would be, to some extent, impolite for me to engage with the matter before Jenna’s had a chance to reply.

So let me instead return to her initial question: what are we to do with this concept of Beauty?

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mediocrity, n.

A blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha.

Today we’re going to have a bit of fun.

This week, the blogalectic is discussing, as Jenna put it:

[I]f the artist’s vocation demands talent, study, discipline, and the wisdom to survive the ‘perilous shade’, what happens when the result is mediocre? Every artist, no matter how great, has created mediocre work at one time or another. No one reaches greatness without it. Is mediocrity good, or evil, or indifferent?

And what is mediocrity, exactly?

Now that’s a question. After a few anecdotes of songs she wrote and loved but now considered mediocre, Jenna explains:

Sometimes, mediocrity happens simply because we artists have not yet delved deeply into the experiences of our world. I remember that time in my life. The idea of mediocrity didn’t trouble me much; I simply thought of doing my best and doing well. I’d advise any young artist to think likewise. Let perfectionism always encourage you to outdo yourself, but don’t let it bully you into suffocating comparisons. Polish your talent, feed your devotion, hold to your commitment.

Masha, however, finds this conclusion untenable:

I am certain we are working from different understandings with regard to mediocrity.  I checked to be certain that my definition is a legitimate one, not merely my own reactions and responses to Kierkegaard and Christ in their united disgust with the mediocre, and my little dictionary confirmed me when it provided synonyms such as "indifferent," "mean," and "non-person." […]

Mediocrity in my understanding is the failure of the person to be a person, to be an active participant in his own life. It is the pursuit of the "good enough" and not the Good – attempting Purgatory, not Heaven, and in doing so, failing to reach either. Mediocrity fails to create Art because it is indifferent to Beauty, and uninterested in effort – it lacks not only talent but desire.

So we are left with the question of What Mediocrity Is. Is it simply, as Jenna implies, doing not-quite-the-best, an inevitable phase of the creative process? Is it, as Masha suggests, a forfeiture of one’s humanness for the damning mundane?

Since we’re talking dictionaries, let us put the question to the Learned Clerks of Oxenford. I’ve cheerfully raided, and what treasures I’ve found appear below the jump.

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othering beauty

A blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha

We’ve been talking about Beauty, what it is and what it isn’t. That leads us to some very strange places, and long words like kataphasis, apophasis, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagate. Apophatic thinker that I am, I see this simply as a human predicament: the less we’re comfortable with something, the harder it is to understand, the more we take refuge in
very long words.* So there is something startling, something radical in its simplicity, when Jenna find the chutzpah to write this:

All I can say is that beauty can be found anywhere on this earth, and in wildly different things, if one only troubles themselves to search it out.

This underlies, I think, the core disagreement between Jenna and Masha. Whereas Masha directs us to the Good, the universal, Jenna directs us to the immediate, the particular. This is the distinction that divides Western thought between itself. The line may be a fine one, but it seems my compatriots are on opposite sides. (For myself, if you’re interested, I explore the particular and the apophatic, and I think that probably tells you more about me than either of us think.)

Masha draws from Jenna’s subsequent, and eloquent, discussion of beauty to reemphasise the role of the individual artist:

In so many ways, the role of the artist is similar to the role of the prophet, a "necessary other" existing and creating, not in "untrammeled freedom" but in an "exacting form of discipline" (Kathleen Norris) that submits the Artist to the demands of his vocation and demands from him not only talent, but devotion and commitment as well. It is a communal role, a social role – creating the "lie that tells the truth" (Picasso) and presenting the world as it really is, in all it’s intimacy, passion, failure, and ultimate, glorious beauty. That is why, when the artist fails to call forth the riches of his world, when he calls his world poor, empty, and uninspiring, he fails to create art.

I don’t know the source of the Picasso quotation, but I’m not sure I like it. A lie can’t tell the truth. A lie is just a lie. The truth may look like a lie if we’re not ready to perceive it, but a lie is a lie. My difficulty may be semantic but it’s there.

More important to me is this idea of the artist as a sort of prophet. This is a concept that’s intrigued me for some time, owing partly to how it was put forward by Novalis, and its subsequent influence on George MacDonald. But there’s another parallel I’m exploring, which I’ll explain, somewhat, below the jump.

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In Which There is a Hiccup

A conversation with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha.

You’ll be interested to know that the blogalectic has temporarily hiccupped. Jenna St. Hilaire is on holiday, and has kindly left the conversation on hiatus, with nothing more complex to worry about that this:

I’ll leave you all—and Mr. Pond and Masha, if they wish to engage it—with this question: If beauty is necessary to good art (or all art, if you prefer Masha’s terminology), what, objectively speaking, is beauty?

Nothing too heady…

Masha, with her commendable clarity and precision, has put forward this striking and, I must say, captivating definition:

Simply speaking, Beauty is the visible form of the Good.

I suspect Masha may be right. She has clearly thought her definition through more than I have mine, and any definition I would give would be rushed and harried at the moment. This definition is one I like and admire. I haven’t fully embraced it in my own thinking, though I do share a conviction that Beauty and the True are irrevocably linked, and the True inevitably coincides with the Good.

I did read with some amazement, however, Masha’s corollary:

Mr. Pond, who seems to be under some illusions about my philosophical ideals, will be somewhat surprised to learn that this definition is not essentially Platonic, but Catholic (in both senses of the word). While there are aspects of Plato in Catholic thought, Plato is not the essential, he is absorbed or dismissed according to his ability to fall in with what is understood to be True. Plato has lovely ideas, but he’s been eclipsed. The tendency to say, this is Platonic thought, and respond to it as such makes true discussion impossible, it is a response to an impression from the writing, not what is actually written.

I agree fully that Plato has been eclipsed per se; the footnote has become, like Frazer’s Golden Bough, a good deal longer than the original text. But I feel I ought to make clear that when I said these ideas were Platonic, I wasn’t restricting myself to meaning ‘derived exclusively from Plato’, but rather indicating one of two great Schools of Western Thought. If we want to get more technical, and I will in a moment, I should have said Neoplatonic.

And, despite my cheerful avoidance of disagreement last week, I have to face one now. I do not agree that identifying this line of thought as ‘(Neo)Platonic’ therefore ‘makes true discussion impossible’, and that it is not a response to ‘what is actually written’. With that I beg to disagree. So bear with me while I attempt an exercise which I’ve found quite fun (and hope, not too enthusiastically, that you will too). If all disagreements proved this enjoyable, I’d look for a lot more! But alas…

It begins below the jump.

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words, words—what?

A blogalectic with Jenna St Hilaire and Masha

George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton famously confronted each other in a singular debate. Their subject was the reasonable question ‘Do We Agree?’ Shaw argued yes; Chesterton argued no. The particulars on which they may or may not have agreed (broadly, social structure and the distribution of wealth) is beyond the limits of the present blogalectic. But as I’ve read and engaged in the comments this week, I find myself return to Shaw’s eloquent and poised repartee:

I cannot say that Mr Chesterton has succeeded
in forcing a difference of opinion on me.

We appear this week to have unearthed a difference of opinion between my two lovely compatriots in this blogalectic. The question at hand is whether there is a threshold below which Art does not cross; is there, in other words, an objective breaking point between novel and dreadful, emotion and sentiment, edginess and smut, poetry and verse? Jenna answers thus:

Because I believe that the objective baseline for art is communication. Wherever we communicate, the creative principle is there. God may not be, of course. But our inherited ability to put available words to the expression of our ideas is present in everything from the illiterate troll comments on YouTube to Shakespeare, just as the refrigerator-framed drawings by a child come from the same source that gave us Raphael.

Are those troll comments and mighty works of crayon, then, art? Yes, in the most basic sense. Are they good art? Do I even have to ask? There is great art, and there is good art, and there is weak or flawed art, and there is plain old bad art, and I think we can agree to some extent on those definitions. But I don’t draw a line on my bookshelf between Jane Austen and John Grisham and say of the latter, with a shake of my head, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Masha responds swiftly and strongly:

Can there be a created thing that fails to be art? Can there be a thing that has so completely lost it’s beauty, it’s truth, it’s goodness that it is in no way Art, that it crumbles and will not endure? As I understand her, Jenna is saying that there is no such thing – all our communications, banal to beautiful, blessings to curses – all are art.  I can’t agree.

I’d like to be mistaken, I’d like her to mean that all of life has the potential to call forth Art, that for the artist, the smallest thing has riches that can brought to light. I would agree. It is the way in which we fling ourselves into experience, into the light and darkness of life that makes the experience artistic, the ability to “say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of existing” that turns the Thing to art: absorbing, nourishing, growing, and then making the experience anew – so that it touches beauty and endures- which makes Art.

The debate explores more detail in the comments and Jenna’s blog, and they both agree they have a disagreement.

But I disagree. Ladies and Gentleman, I cannot say that either of them have succeeded in forcing a difference of opinion on me.

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