Art Matters

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Art and our response to it happens on a psychological level (and spiritual, for those inclined). Taking the time to see and think about a painting can provide ideas, impressions, and even truths about ourselves that can’t be delivered through more concrete fields such as science and math.

Consider the above painting by Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch. He painted and sketched numerous versions, sometimes calling it Madonna and sometimes, Loving Woman. Perform a search for the image and you’ll see how the versions vary in color, tone, and surrounding composition. One can imagine Munch trying to pinpoint a specific meaning, and then, having lost some of the painting’s appeal, backtracking in the next sketch before moving too far and having to correct it all over again.

Art critics are equally as varied in their interpretations. Most agree on the reference to the Virgin Mary, though, and that the subject is captured in the act of intercourse. In fact, the subject is situated so that we have the view of a lover lying beneath her. This is blasphemy in a reference to the Virgin Mary, but Munch has rendered his Madonna with as much quiet beauty and grace as a Fra Angelico or Botticelli.

The paradox is only magnified by examining the details of the painting. Rather than a saintly gold, her halo is a human red (passion and blood, love and pain). Her arms bent behind her back speak to submission, yet as she’s shown in a dominant love-making position, we might also see a pose of ecstasy. And finally her abdomen has been rendered with circular brush stokes, hinting at the womb within in. Therein lies the connection between our mid-coital subject and images of the Virgin Mary: the Annunciation. Munch’s Madonna is also captured in the moment of conception, and if it is achieved through natural means there is no less of a heavenly light descending upon her.

There is a beauty in the contrast of this work and the influences from which it sprang. Try to interpret it, or render it, too specifically and it’s lost. This isn’t a piece about eroticism or blasphemy. It’s a piece about redemption and holy beauty in the human experience. We can add religious or humanist sentiments, but the pure idea can’t be codified or preached with language. Such communication is the realm and responsibility of art. It expands the mind/spirit and increases our capacity to experience more. Each work of art is a chance to encounter something bigger than ourselves. We miss that chance, as individuals and a society, when we privilege the tangible and concrete.

Joker Appeal

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What makes the Joker the most recognizable and popular super villain in American folklore? Technically he’s not even a “super” villain, just a human with no powers or altered abilities. He became a mainstay in the comics because of the striking visuals of his character design, but a sinister grin isn’t enough to explain the character’s longevity.

The answer is in how perfectly he compliments Batman as an antagonist. Most Nolan fans can quote Alfred’s line: “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” from The Dark Knight. And careful viewers of the film will draw out themes of chaos versus order and anarchy versus justice. The Joker’s appeal, though, runs deeper than Nolan’s focus on the foe to a conflicted Bruce Wayne.

A good villain must never think he’s a villain. Joker has no heroic delusions, but he does believe in his nihilistic philosophy to the point that he thinks it’s funny how society tries to define things like law and crime, good and bad, and so forth. Then he meets Batman who believes just as passionately but in justice, self-control, and hope. Batman isn’t funny. He’s a threat to the Joker’s worldview and needs to be broken.

Batman is a threat because there is an element of Batman in the Joker. As much as the villain would like to give himself over to nihilistic chaos, he still has the capacity to reason, and that faculty grows stronger with every elaborate plan he orchestrates against Batman. In Arkham City, a Joker thug can be overheard commenting on how Joker is insane one moment and then all plans and logistics the next. This has to be infuriating to the Joker whose struggle against his foe is strengthening faculties that make him more like his foe.

Even more twisted is that the same can be said for the Joker’s effect on Batman. Each time he goes up against the Clown Prince of Crime, Batman must embrace a small amount of chaos, the chaos of violence, the chaos of thinking like the Joker to foresee his next move and so on. The Joker is interesting because of the Batman he demands in his stories. The Dark Knight fighting the Joker walks a tightrope more than any other hero. He can’t kill, not even one who has slain and wants to still slay so many. But it doesn’t stop there. While battling the Joker, Batman must remember that the darkness he battles is first and foremost inside himself, the darkness the Joker is trying to call out.

This interplay is why the Joker, and Batman, have gained in popularity over the last decades. Modern society is nihilistic. It seeks to deconstruct values, traditions, and then deconstruct the ones it replaces them with the very next moment. Anyone who dares believe in anything can see the Joker in our culture, laughing and trying to discredit whatever we attempt to hold on to. In this sense the villainy of the Joker is more recognizable than ever, and the unique heroism of Batman against the Joker is necessary for a soul to survive.

Active Reading

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Many people roll their eyes at the thought of analyzing a piece of writing. They say things like, “I just like the story.” But if they experience a good story while reading, they have good writing to thank for it. Story is important. Being able to imagine and structure a narrative is an admirable talent. Writing, though, is the delivery of that story. Effective communication through written words is its own unique craft. Too many readers feel that enjoying the writing as well as the story takes years of schooling or some innate ability. But it’s only a matter of practice and active reading, paying attention to the choice of words and the manner in which they’re written. Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s work, for example. Poe is known outside of scholarly circles for his fantastical tales. But look at the writing choices he’s made in the opening of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

TRUE! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

Start with big picture observations. The story is obviously in the first person (the narrator is telling us his own story). And he’s obviously “not all there” (hearing all things in heaven? earth? hell?). Knowing we’re inside the head of an insane man helps create a suspension of disbelief. We don’t have to make sense of the nature of the universe we’re in; we can just believe what the narrator says as 100% true to him, because he is insane.

Where Poe really shines, however, is in his use of repetition and rhythm. Always a poet, he ratchets up the tension and terror of the tale with the repetition of phrases and short sentence structures, relieved at greater and greater intervals by longer ones. Look for repeated words and the progression of sentence length in the following passage.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded – with what caution – with what foresight – with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it – oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly – very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha!

It’s impossible to read this prose and not hear the quick and slow, loud and soft ravings of a madman. The tension is in the writing, it evokes a visceral response from an engaged reader that serves the content, the experience of the story. Poe calls this the “unity of effect.” The next time you read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or any other story, do it with a highlighter and appreciate how careful writing can convey and add to a great story.

Second Coming

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One shortsighted critique of Superman Returns claims the film tries too hard for iconic imagery, neglecting the action of a hero fighting super villains. But this view misses the thematic significance of that iconic imagery and its deeper significance to Superman in general. Rather than bludgeon his characters with punches and his audience with empty Christ-figure symbolism, Singer utilizes Atlas imagery that encompasses Superman’s place as a Christ-figure.

Instead of playing super fists, Routh’s Superman is engaged in the more important task of saving people. He is shown over and over again lifting and carrying people both literally and symbolically. Kitty even sings “He’s got the whole world in his hands” as Lex first reads of Superman’s return. But it doesn’t stop there. The film asserts that along with saving people, inspiring them to save each other is Superman’s mission on Earth. His first act of heroism after he returns is to fly up and save an airplane full of people. He spends the film instilling hope, being the savior people are “crying out for,” and in the end, as he drifts in the water, dying from the Kryptonite shiv in his back, Jor-El’s voice-over tells him “Your leadership can stir others…” Cue Richard and Lois “flying” over in their own plane to, this time, save the savior.

What does it say about our concept of heroic behavior that so many need explicit conflict to be appeased? True heroism is in giving of our selves, lifting others up and being the example that inspires heroism in others.

The Trickster

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In his book Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde describes the wily archetype from mythology as one who blurs boundaries. This definition plays into my own analysis of the various divisions in the American Monomyth. In my Constructing American Heroes course, we explore the Frontiersman who expands boundaries, the war hero who defends them, the detective who restores them, and so on. But there is something other worldly about the trickster’s role of blurring boundaries. It’s as though through the static we can catch a glimpse of some truth on the other side of understanding. When we try to focus, though, we lose it and crash hard back into the practical concrete.

We encounter this principle when deeply moved by a song or piece of art, or maybe when we’re rapt in the escapism of a favorite vacation spot. If we return too often, the magic fades, giving way to familiarity. Hyde describes the phenomenon in terms of the view while traveling on a train, “Each thing seems all the more declarative for its swift arrival and departure. From a moving train I don’t see the opaque weave of the real, I see the more expansive view the shuttle gets as again and again the warp threads briefly rise.”

In mythology, we need charming tricksters to inhabit the in-between. Take Peter Pan, for example. The roguish adventure seeker at the cusp of, but refusing to enter into, puberty speaks to the like desire in the human experience. But add too much realism, and he becomes the worse kind of selfish villain. Make him a responsible role model for children, and he loses his fun. There is a truth that lies only in that intangible blurred boundary.

So how do we ever really experience the trickster then? By recognizing that he’s not the only archetype. We fully relish art, escapism, and so on, then throw ourselves equally into the other parts of our lives and being. We thrill at trickster’s blurred boundaries, then expand them, defend them, restore them, and start all over again.

Super Friends

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I love this Steve Rude piece that serves as a cover for the Gibbons/Rude World’s Finest. Superman, confident in the warm and safe sunlight, stands atop an eagle (justice) and sends forth doves (peace). Batman stands at night in front of the artificial rays of the Bat signal. It shines in the same manner as the sun that surrounds it on top and bottom. Batman as a hero is a subtle balance which many writers and artists fail to keep, plunging him into the darkness of an almost antihero.

With the composition of this painting, Rude shows Batman to be carrying on the same work as Superman, only at night and in nighttime forms. For Batman, the eagle of justice is a gargoyle, Gothic protector against “a superstitious lot.” His doves are bats, winged creatures able to move in the dark. Batman and Superman aren’t so different. Rude shows them to be unified by light. Superman radiates its warmth by example, and Batman shines it into the neglected corners of a dark city.

Some of us are more inclined toward Superman. We like the “sun” and feel led to share its warmth. But others, and even all of us at some time or another, have Batman moments in which we need to confront a darkness that simply won’t respond to warmth. In those moments, it’s important not to succumb to the darkness we’re battling in the absence of the sun. Remember that you’re still shining the light, even if sometimes it’s the bat signal.