Art

States of Being

I’VE RECENTLY spent time researching the vision of the U.S. through the lens of one film for every state, following the intuition that, as most movies are set in Southern California or New York (and there’s a lot more America where those didn’t come from), we need to examine Fight Club and On the Waterfront, Brokeback Mountain and Nashville no less than The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind to begin to capture the American dream life. It seems obvious, but it’s often dismissed: Contrasts between the states are mighty and rich. A Wyoming plain and a Sonoma vineyard, Hoboken and Harlem and Hot Springs, the Florida Keys and the Swannanoa Valley are all magnificent intersections of dreams and mistakes, which in honest art allows them to be places where the past can be faced.

And on that note, here’s my list of the 10 best U.S. films released in 2013:

The new Criterion Blu-ray John Cassavetes box set includes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the best entry to his work: A grimy thriller about one man trying to make art against the odds.

Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez show us something more of how to be human in Fearless (newly available on Blu-ray), about a man who needs to die before he can live (and love).

Captain Phillips tries to take seriously both the reasons why poor Somali men might hijack a container ship, and the trauma that resulted.

Fruitvale Station is a necessary, humane film that makes visible a version of young black male life that is almost never portrayed: ordinary.

The most underrated film of the year is The Lone Ranger, with better history than Dances with Wolves.

Before Midnight is the continued unfolding of a relationship between our vicarious selves.

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New & Noteworthy

Still Shining
David Hilfiker is a retired inner-city physician and writer on poverty and politics who has Alzheimer’s. He writes about his experience, with the hope of helping “dispel some of the fear and embarrassment” that surrounds this disease, on his blog “Watching the Lights Go Out.” www.davidhilfiker.blogspot.com

Transported
Laura Mvula is a British, classically trained musician, songwriter, and former choir director whose debut album,Sing to the Moon,is a lush fusion of soul, jazz, gospel, and pop. While not overtly “about” faith, her arrangements are imbued with spiritual longing and visions of beauty. Columbia

Engineered Grief
High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing, compiled and edited by Audrey Petty, is the latest oral history collection from the Voice of Witness imprint of McSweeney’s Books. Those most affected tell of the toll exacted by poverty and misguided housing policies. voiceofwitness.org

Stages of Change
Just out on digital release, the documentary Walk with Me follows three women artists and activists who take theater to prisons, community centers, and schools. It is a celebration of art as a means of creative social change and lifting human dignity. www.walkwithmethemovie.com

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Gun Victims, Erased from Our Memory

Photo courtesy of Charles Honey
The gun mural at Fountain Street Church, before erasure. Photo courtesy of Charles Honey

It didn’t take long to erase the gun.

Greg Bokor’s ArtPrize drawing of an assault rifle at Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church was rubbed out Sept. 21 after the public was invited to wield erasers imprinted with sorrow.

Normally festive art lovers obliterated the killing machine with erasers bearing the names of 83 massacred children and adults. They included Jesse Lewis, age 6, one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December; Veronica Moser-Sullivan, also 6, youngest of 12 people killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colo. movie-theater slaughter; and the 45 victims of the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech shootings.

Within hours, the public had rendered the AR-15 just a faintly visible image. It was a powerful symbol of what many of us would like to see happen to these weapons of death so easily available to mentally deranged people seeking sick revenge.

Tragically, in real life, it is the children and other victims who have been so easily erased from our consciousness.

‘Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion’ Exhibit Probes the Spirituality of Everyday Chaos

“Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion” by Cynthia Farrell Johnson, mixed media (2012). Photo via RNS/Wesley Theological Seminary

Meet “Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion,” a saint everyone probably can relate to.

The chaos of everyday life and the methods we use to overcome it are on display at the “Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion” exhibit in two D.C. galleries.

“We all have coping mechanisms,” said Cynthia Farrell Johnson, creator of the exhibit’s theme. “And for most of us, part of our coping mechanism is our spiritual life.”

God Loves a Holy Mess

 Potter's hands on a wheel, bluelake / Shutterstock.com
Potter's hands on a wheel, bluelake / Shutterstock.com

Biblical writers suggest that God loves a holy mess. They compare God’s creative spirit to a strong wind, and we all know what happens when a powerful wind blows through our windows or through our lives — everything gets upended! One image in Genesis has God scooping up a bit of earth to create us. Yes, God had to get some dirt under the fingernails in order to bring us about.

Jesus was creative in how he touched and healed people, often making himself ritually unclean in the process. He embraced his uncleanliness.

Sadly, many religious institutions discourage us from doing the same.

Vatican Revives its Ancient Patronage of the Arts

Uncreation photo courtesy Pontifical Council for Culture (http://bit.ly/10lOLTr)
Uncreation photo courtesy Pontifical Council for Culture (http://bit.ly/10lOLTr)

For centuries, popes sponsored the work of artists such as Michelangelo, Raffaello, or Bernini, who went on to create some of their masterpieces within the very walls of the Vatican.

Yet over time, the marriage between art and faith grew stale — the Vatican’s culture minister even called it a “divorce” — with the Roman Catholic Church finding itself estranged from the art world it did so much to create.

Now, in a bid to revive its ancient tradition of arts patronage, the Holy See will participate with its own pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, a leading international arts festival.

Owning the Future

Vernon Bowman speaks outside the Supreme Court following arguments against Monsanto.

IF THEY HAD met, Aaron Swartz and Vernon Bowman probably wouldn't have hit it off. The 26-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y. computer whiz and the 75-year-old Indiana grain farmer might have been from different planets. But they were brothers-in-arms in a historic struggle over the shape of the 21st century economy and culture. Each, in his own way, has challenged the iron, unyielding hegemony of copyright law that increasingly protects permanent, private, for-profit ownership of artistic creations, scholarly research, and the very processes of life itself.

Aaron Swartz won't be around to see the outcome of this struggle.

Swartz was a successful internet innovator who used his wealth and position to promote "free information." In 2008, he wrote a program that was used to liberate thousands of public-domain federal court records from a site that was charging 10 cents per page for their use. More recently he used his access to the M.I.T. computer network to execute a massive robo-download of millions of scholarly articles from the subscription database JSTOR. The idea was to make the scholarship available free.

After he was caught, JSTOR reached a civil settlement with Swartz that included his surrender of the hard drives containing the articles and then treated the case as closed. But federal prosecutors decided to throw the book at Swartz. He was under a felony indictment for computer fraud and facing a possible 35-year prison sentence. Finally, in January, Swartz, who had a history of depression, killed himself. His parents blamed overzealous prosecutors for his death.

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Art As An Act of Faith

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com
Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Almost two years ago, I took a titanic risk. If you look at things from an earthbound perspective, what I did is: I took my livelihood, and my children's provision, in my hands alone. I quit my job at The News & Observer, a major, Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper where I earned a decent salary and reached 150,000 to 200,000 readers on any given day. 

The decision was a long time coming — my whole adult life, really. Before I ever started my first newspaper job in 2000, I’d wanted to help people explore deeper things than just tax policy, or crime, or environmental regulation. These just skim the surface of who we are as humans: why we share or hoard, why we hurt or protect one another, what we owe to Mother Earth.

What I found as a newspaper reporter was that I had no choice but to skim the surface of things. There’s not enough space to go deeper, but, more importantly, deeper takes you into hypothesis, not fact — and hypothesis is a leap of faith. What you find when you go deeper depends a lot on the gear you’re wearing when you dive. I’m cloaked in Bible stories and Christian tradition, and therefore I live in hope that there’s a Creator and that this God is working quietly to heal the world.

I read recently in Psalm 27: 

“The Lord is my light and my salvation —
 whom shall I fear?
 The Lord is the stronghold of my life —
of whom shall I be afraid?”

The Naked Artist: Narcissism or Self-Giving Love?

Photo: Hands playing piano, © silver-john / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Hands playing piano, © silver-john / Shutterstock.com

How is it possible that the creative life can feel simultaneously self-giving and narcissistic? On the one hand, the artist, or musician, or writer has a gift that not everyone has. And because paintings and songs and books give other people great joy – and might even change their lives — those gifts must be shared. But that means the artist herself must be shared, and that’s the problem.

For the artist, self-expression is unavoidable – it is part of the job description. As a songwriter, my raw material is the world as I observe it. That’s all I’ve got. The most realistic painter or sculptor still has to rely on his own vision. Even as a journalist, I have to draw upon my five senses, my own mind and my own experiences. Even as I tell someone else’s story, it is in part my story. I can’t tell your story without filtering it through my story; it’s how we make sense of new information. I’m only human, after all.

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