7 Goals

As 2009 winds down and 2010 begins, I’m reflecting on how where I am now (studying Theology at Oxford while living in C.S. Lewis’ house) is so very different from where I thought I would be 3 years ago (finishing up a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology while writing a dissertation on religious OCD), which is very different from where I thought I would be 3 years before that (making a living as a freelance actor in either NYC or LA).

Where would I like to be 3 years from today? Working on my D.Phil. in Theology and the Arts while applying to join a religious order (either as a first-order or third-order member) or some other form of consecrated life.

As I seek to clarify where I go from here, listed below (in no particular order) are seven goals I have for my life:

1) Get a D.Phil. in Theology and the Arts

2) Graduate with a First from Oxford

3) Join a religious order/enter consecrated life

4) Teach at a Catholic (or “merely Christian”) college

5) Start a professional theatre company aimed at exploring spiritual themes in a way that is both Catholic (consistent with our understanding of good vs. evil in the context of a divine redemptive purpose for humanity) and catholic (examined in a way that is accessible to all Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no religious belief)

6) Publish a book on the moral responsibility of the Christian artist

7) Become a saint

By the last I don’t mean “become canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.” I mean that I hope and pray that, by the grace of God, I live my life in such a way that I allow God to make of me the saint He wishes to make. We are all of us – every human being – called to be saints in the end. Nothing less.

What are your goals for 2010, for your life, or even just for today? And how can we help each other reach them? Feel free to comment below if you’d like to share your thoughts.

Blessings to you, dear reader, in the New Year.

My desk at the Kilns

C.S. Lewis College & the Arts

I have just returned from a week-and-a-half’s vacation with my family in India. We went from Delhi to Jaipur to Corbett National Park to Nainital in the foothills of the Himalayas. (Let me just say that the sunsets up there are absolutely gorgeous, and I could happily live as a hermit for a summer in sight of those snowy peaks.) I returned to Oxford with family in tow on Sunday to the sight of snow covering the ground. It looks like we’ll be having a white Christmas here at the Kilns!

(Picture snapped yesterday morning)

I also arrived home to some news so good I’ve been sharing it with folks left and right:

Announcing the founding of C.S. LEWIS COLLEGE!

You heard that right, folks. After years of work, one of the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s two major physical projects – the other being the running of the Kilns and its programs – finally has a home, and a proposed start date. And I – and the other friends of the Foundation with whom I’ve spoken – couldn’t be happier.

On the website linked to above, you’ll find information on the Dec. 16th announcement, including videos from the press conference with the participating organizations, and an information video on the plan for the College. There are also press documents and FAQs, as well as links to the venture’s partners.

You want the details?

-C.S. Lewis College will be a Christian Great Books College with a School of Visual and Performing Arts. Denominationally, it will be “merely Christian,” open to all who hold the most basic tenets of the Christian Faith, including Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and others.

-The privately-owned Oklahoma-based arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby has made a generous $5 million commitment to buy and maintain the Northfield, Massachusetts campus of the Northfield Mt. Hermon School, a private co-ed boarding school which has consolidated its activities to another campus, for the purposes of establishing C.S. Lewis College. (Three cheers for Hobby Lobby and Northfield Mt. Hermon!)

-The College plans to enroll 400 students and maintain 40 faculty and 45 staff members when it opens. Subject to the accreditation process, the College plans to commence instruction in Fall 2012.

(Picture from new C.S. Lewis College campus. Photography by Sharon LaBella-Lindale. More pictures available here.)

C.S. Lewis College is exactly the kind of college I was looking for as a high school senior interested in both professional-level theatre training and a solid foundation in the liberal arts within a Christian academy. I didn’t find such an environment at the time (though I have since been informed of smaller Christian colleges that I have been told have excellent theatre programs, such as Benedictine College in Kansas), so I was split between my two top choices. One was Wheaton College, which my father, grandfather, and several other family members had attended and loved, and which impressed me with its commitment to a solidly intellectual Christian environment and the warmth and fellowship of its students and faculty. The other was New York University, which had an academic culture that was the polar opposite of Wheaton’s (just how much so I was to find out later), but which had one of the top undergraduate professional theatre training programs in the country. Wheaton did not even have a theatre major. So, on the advice of my father, I chose NYU. My father knew that I wanted top-level training, and I think he also knew that he did not have to worry about me losing my faith in NYU’s strongly secular environment.

I’ve often wondered if I made the right choice. I was greatly challenged by my teachers, made good friends, and gained a higher level of confidence in my abilities (and of course added a certain cachet to my resume), but the cultural atmosphere oppressed me greatly. The kind of theatre promoted at NYU – postmodern, experimental, and focused on Art for Art’s Sake instead of  Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – was not the kind of theatre I wanted to do. On the other hand, I would not have received the same level of training at Wheaton, even though my artistic ideas would have been given much more support.

I don’t want other young Christians following a vocation to a life as a professional artist to experience the same dilemma, and have to choose either a Christian academic environment or top-level professional training. Therefore, I hope that C.S. Lewis College will be able to provide both. I’m sure that it will provide a Christian academic environment that initiates the student in the life of the mind and the growth of the spirit, to the greater glory of God and for Christ and His Kingdom (to quote mottoes of the Society of Jesus and of Wheaton College, found carved in stone at their respective academic institutions). My hope is that the College will also be able to recruit top-level professors and instructors in the arts, that will not only be able to help their students grow artistically in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, but also gain the cutting-edge skills required to succeed in the top rung of the professional artistic world. It will be the job of these professors and these students, as it is my job and the job of all Christian artists, to blaze a path for traditional artistic values in today’s artistic culture of death. And we can only do that through unassailable excellence in our own work.

So, in the spirit of love for the Foundation and the College, and whole-hearted support of their mission, I humbly offer my thoughts on the formation of a School of Visual and Performing Arts at a Christian Great Books college, and what I myself would be looking for if I were once again a potential student:

1) A major in Theatre or Performing Arts (with a possible B.F.A. option). I would want to make sure I was receiving enough practical training to be competitive in the major professional markets of New York, L.A., Chicago, and the primary regional theatres around the country. I recognize, however, that a Great Books college usually requires the same curriculum of all its students, or at least a very similar one. (Thomas More College in New Hampshire, for example, allows for tailoring of its largely uniform curriculum through the Junior and Senior Tutorials, Junior Project, and Senior Thesis, in which the student focuses on a particular area of study of his own choice.) A Great Books curriculum might similarly allow arts students in their later years to tailor their instruction by taking specialized training courses (like Performing Shakespeare, Musical Theatre, Commedia dell’ Arte), either through classes or independent or small-group study, or undertake an artistic thesis (like writing or directing a full-length play). Alternatively, if there were a B.F.A. option, arts students could study the same core Great Books curriculum as all other students their first two years, and replace one or two areas of the Great Books curriculum with training courses their last two years. (Great Books curricula are generally divided into areas such as Literature, Sciences, Philosophy, Theology, History, etc. The Masters program at St. John’s College allows graduate students to choose four out of five areas in which to study.) I doubt this is the direction in which the Foundation is going with C.S. Lewis College, but it might be a good option for another institution. My biggest concern as a prospective student interested in acting professionally would be that I would spend all my time reading and discussing books and writing papers, but very little time actually learning and practicing the skills needed to pursue my craft. If I saw on a website a separate School for the Visual and Performing Arts, I would assume that as an arts student I would be carefully trained in my craft, as well as studying the Great Books.

2) Discussion of the Great Books of the arts (especially Christian), with participation by all students, but especially arts students. I would be looking for the Great Books of the arts, and not just literature, to be covered by the Great Books curriculum. For example, Aristotle’s Poetics would be a basic read for all students, as well as the experience of Shakespeare as drama, and not just as written literature. Students would be exposed to the Great (non-written) Texts of the arts, such as the paintings of Fra Angelico, the music of Palestrina, the medieval Mystery Plays (in performance), the architecture of the great Gothic cathedrals. The Way of Beauty program at Thomas More College does this well. It includes instruction in the singing of the psalmody in the Divine Office, for example, and it’s a core part of their curriculum. Arts students may spend more time on the Great Books of the arts, but all students should be exposed to them.

3) Development of an artistic worldview and discussion of the role of the Christian artist. I feel this focus is very much in line with the Foundation’s mission. In order to counter the prevailing artistic worldview of modern and postmodern art, in which all value is subjective and the purpose of art is the self-expression of the artist, we must provide students with an alternate way to view art, and their role in the world as artists. This means discussion of the role of the artist, especially the Christian artist, and an emphasis on the traditional artistic values of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. This means asking the arts students to think about what they want to stand for, and what they want to communicate through their art. A possible project might be the creating of a personal manifesto for each arts student. I know some college theatre programs that require their students to take a senior-year “business of acting” course, at the end of which they create a personalized career plan in consultation with the teacher. They leave the class knowing in which areas of the business they want to focus their efforts (Shakespeare, stand-up comedy, musical theatre, film) and how to best market themselves in that area. Arts students at a Christian Great Books college could take a course on the vocation of the artist, which might include regular spiritual reflections on their vocation (perhaps with the guidance of a spiritual director chosen by each student), and which would culminate in the writing of a manifesto describing the artistic mission to which each feels called. Reflecting on the meaning of art and the responsibility of the artist would go far toward helping arts students graduate with a strong sense of vocation and artistic purpose, and with increased spiritual growth as Christian artists and as human beings. You know, I wonder if writing such a “vocation statement,” as part of a senior-year retreat or period of spiritual direction, might be beneficial for all students.

4) A strong ensemble theatre company with a Christian mandate, but not limited to Christian productions. This would be one of the trickiest accomplishments to pull off, but it’s something I intend to try someday. (More on this theme later after I finish reading my current book, God Off-Broadway: The Blackfriars Theatre of New York by Matthew Powell, O.P., a history of the only professional theatre in the U.S. to have been run by a religious order.) Especially if there is minimal flexibility in the curriculum, I would like to see all performing arts students involved in regular practical production work with a theatre company that holds itself to professional standards. It may be entirely student-run, or it may be led or overseen by faculty, but the majority of the work would be done by the students, providing them with opportunities not only to perform, but also to direct, produce, design, write, stage manage, crew, etc. It would also reflect the artistic ethos of the college. I believe the most effective ethos would be one that both glorifies God and lovingly and manfully engages the non-Christian. The Lord of the Rings, in my opinion, is the ultimate example of the kind of art that we need more of. It’s accessible to and rings true for the non-believer, but despite not being explicitly Christian is at the same time deeply Christian. The Christian vision of the world is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, but it is presented in a way that does not alienate the non-Christian. Instead, it helps him to understand what Christianity means through his heart, instead of through his head. It can baptize the imagination. There is room for art that is explicitly Christian and is directed to other Christians. We need that art just as much. But the world also needs art created by Christians that is directed to the general public, otherwise we’re just talking to ourselves. I would also not want the members of a student ensemble to feel unable to take artistic risks for fear of offending someone. There’s a very fine line between making powerful and possibly uncomfortable artistic statements out of a love of truth and with compassion for one’s neighbor, and making such statements out of a desire to be bold or to shock, or worse, out of a conscious desire to offend. Scott Walters, in his important blog post “Offending the Audience” (which I’ve come back to repeatedly), quotes Wendell Berry, who distinguishes between an artist who has the “intention to offend” and one who has the “willingness to risk offending.” I would want all theatre students to know that the intention to offend is incompatible with the practice of Christian charity. But artistis must sometimes have the willingness to risk offending, if what they are saying must be said. If they can say it without offending, though, so much the better. I just wouldn’t want a student theatre company to be de-clawed and limited to doing Neil Simon or dramatizations of Bible stories, for fear of stronger, meatier, and more intellectual and possibly controversial work. This is always a risk in the wider Christian theatre, where we’d rather be safe than risk going over the line. I don’t want to cross that line, any more than any other Christian does, but we may have to get pretty close to it sometimes. But as long as the students have charity toward their audiences and their fellow artists, I think they’ll be able to handle any potential controversy with grace and compassion, and will be able to pull back if they have indeed gone too far. In any case, practice doing solid, thought-provoking work, while feeling out what it means in practice to be a Christian artist, would be an invaluable experience for any arts student.

5) General college-wide support for the arts, and an understanding of the artistic vocation as a means to glorify God. This would include an administration and professors who see the arts as a good thing, and a perfectly valid way to glorify God with integrity. It would also mean a campus ministry that appreciates the sacred arts and their liturgical use, as well as campus ministers and professors who can provide arts students with encouragement as they prepare to enter an often-hostile professional world. It would also mean a career services program that is familiar with the career paths of artists, and can provide help to students who are seeking to enter the professional world directly after graduation (and not just help with finding a day job, but help finding work in their artistic field). Fundamentally, the college would have a respect and love for the arts, and not a skepticism of their value or moral cleanliness. It would be perfectly acceptable to have a college code of conduct reminding students to be responsible in their entertainment choices (as Wheaton does) – in fact, I would probably expect it. But I would be uncomfortable about applying if I noticed a pattern of denunciations of the theatre, or of movies, or of rock music, or of dancing, without specifying the forms of each that are problematic for the Christian. I’m perfectly happy to avoid nihilistic theatre pieces, idiotically crass films, profane rock music, or practically pornographic dance venues, as detrimental to my moral and spiritual health. But, since I know good and fruitful forms of each of these areas of art, I would be disturbed if a college condemned any of them as bad in themselves. I don’t see this as a problem for C.S. Lewis College, since I know the Foundation to be committed to a renewal of Christian thought in the arts as part of their mission. But I thought I’d mention it in general, as I have come across Christians who are skeptical of whole forms of art, based on past abuses. (The relationship between the Church and the theatre in the past has been particularly rocky, not without reason.)

So, there are some thoughts that came to mind as I reflected on the exciting possibilities of having a Christian Great Books college with a School for Visual and Performing Arts. I hope that you’re as excited about the potential of C.S. Lewis College as I am. (And hey, if you are, the C.S. Lewis Foundation is at 93.4% of their fundraising goal for 2009. How about clicking here to help them out with that last 6.6% in the last week of the year? Get that extra deduction for your taxes.)

What are your thoughts about the possibilities for a Christian Great Books college with a School for Visual and Performing Arts? What would you like to see in such a program? I have nothing to do with the creation of the curriculum or the founding of the College – I’m just a cheerleader and a provider of small financial contributions when possible – but I am very excited, and interested in seeing the development of a new curriculum from a college’s inception. As someone who wants to teach at the college level in the area of theology and the arts (especially exploring the areas of #3 and #4 above), I’m interested in your thoughts on the teaching of theatre in a Christian environment. What would you like to see? I’ll make sure the Foundation is aware of the existence of this post and of your comments and support.

May you have a very merry Christmas, and a blessed New Year.

Performance Art & the Cruelty of the Artist as “Other”

Right now I’m watching a 2001 student recreation of the 1974 Chris Burden performance art piece “Velvet Water.” What strikes me is the futility and cruelty of such types of performance art.

In the piece, the performer attempts to breathe water. Both Burden and this student reenactor – Don Simmons of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design – prefaced the piece by saying that breathing water “is the exact opposite of [from] drowning, because when you breathe water, you believe [the] water to be a thicker, richer oxygen, capable of sustaining life” (the bracketed words are from Chris Burden’s original recording).

Nevertheless, as I’m watching, this student is drowning. Rather, he is waterboarding himself. Because, as one commenter on Simmons’ “Velvet Water” YouTube page succinctly points out, “You cannot breathe water.” No matter how much you believe that water is “a thicker, richer oxygen,” it is not, for human beings anyway. (Fish will experience it differently.)

The recording cuts back and forth between two cameras, one recording the performer, and the other recording the audience, which is composed of about a dozen people seated in a semicircle behind tables watching the performance (which is taking place in a small viewing room next to them) on T.V. monitors in front of them. They each also have a tub of water placed before them. They were warned by the artist at the beginning of the piece that “the following performance involves a non-rational act,” and were invited to “feel free to leave the room or to participate with me.”

No one participates, at least in terms of interacting with the tubs of water in front of them. They all stare at the screen. One woman pushes back in her chair, away from the table and the screen. This happens about halfway through the almost six minutes of self-drowning. Everyone else is fairly still, though there is some nervous movement.

Don Simmons reports on his YouTube page that “the audience reactions were much more extreme than I foresaw. Some upset individuals were mad at me, while some were mad at themselves and others cried.”

This description of audience reaction is reminiscent of the reaction described by Burden to the 1972 piece “Jaizu” in which he sat in a room next to a box of marijuana cigarettes and a couple cushions, wearing a pair of dark sunglasses as he faced each individual audience-visitor as they were alone in the room with him. He didn’t move or speak. He reported afterward that “many people tried to talk to me, one assaulted me, and one left sobbing hysterically.”

The hallmark of Burden’s art is aptly described by Peter Schjeldahl in his New Yorker article on Burden, “Chris Burden and the Limits of Art.” According to him, Burden’s performances had the effect of “creating a double bind, for viewers, between the citizenly injunction to intervene in crises and the institutional taboo against touching art works.” Many of Burden’s pieces involved him putting himself in danger, such as “Shoot” (1971, gets shot in the arm with a rifle), “Trans-Fixed” (1974, crucifies himself to Volkswagen Beetle), “Icarus” (1973, has gasoline poured onto plates of glass resting on his naked body and then has the gas lit on fire), and “Doomed” (1975, determines to lie under angled piece of glass until someone interferes with the piece, which a museum employee finally does almost two days later by putting some water next to him to save him from dehydration). There are many others, including “Deadman” (1972, lies down on La Cienega Boulevard at night under a dark tarp with only a couple 15-minute flares to protect him).

After the event in “Shoot,” he asked the audience why nobody stopped him. This is a fundamentally unfair question to ask, and Simmons put his audience in the same “double bind.” When audiences show up to these kinds of performances, they hear from the performer (expressed in the situation rather than through words) this basic statement :

“I’m an artist, doing an important art piece. You are the audience, here to observe. Hey, why did you only observe? You’re morally obliged to get involved!”

This type of performance art purposely puts its audience in a position where they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. It’s cruel. It places the audience in the position of feeling like they have a moral duty to stop the pain the artist is inflicting upon himself, while also desiring to respect his sovereignty as a free human being and a thinking artist. To place them in the schema of “audience,” and then suddenly switch the schema on them, is to confuse and hurt them.

Are such artists trying to break down the dichotomy of performer/audience? If so, do they mean to say that audience members should become performers, and share the creation of the performance with the instigating performer?

I think this must be what they mean, but if so, how about they give the audience a more valuable experience in which to perform? Simmons’ invitation to his audience to participate in “Velvet Water” with him is not worth much, because what sane individual is going to watch someone waterboarding himself and think, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, I think I’ll do that, too?” (Of course, this is exactly what Simmons himself did when he decided to replicate Burden’s piece. I leave you the reader to draw the resulting conclusion on the relative sanity of performance art.)

Of course, maybe Simmons didn’t mean for his audience to participate in the same way he was participating. Maybe, as the museum employee interfered in Burden’s “Doomed,” he would have allowed someone to burst through the room to pull his head out of the sink and keep him from ingesting any more water. But how is his audience supposed to know that? Is he wanting them to think for themselves, to come up with their own way to participate? But again, how are they supposed to know that? The invitation to the audience to participate in this type of performance art is again unkind, because the performer does not provide the audience with any help to understand what is going on. They’re left in a sea of novel experience, with no lifesaver tossed to them to help them make sense of it all. So, not having any tools with which to find their way to solid land, they’re left adrift, and implicitly chided for not swimming all the way to shore themselves.

The performer should not oppose themselves to the audience. If the performer wants the audience to be a partner, he should treat them as a partner, and that includes showing them respect and giving them the dignity of being initiated into the meaning of the piece. When you partner with someone, you don’t make demands of them without giving them the tools or information needed to fulfill those demands. Otherwise, you become a dictator, and instead of being the freeing iconoclast you see yourself as, you become worse than the creators of the traditional performance rubrics that you think you’re destroying. At least performers who use traditional forms give their audience the ability to participate in the art piece, because they use symbols and structures that they share with their audience as members of the same community. Performance artists like Burden and Simmons demand responses of their audiences that their audiences are in no way equipped to give, and therefore set themselves up as the powerful and secretive Other, cutting off all meaningful communication between themselves and their audiences. For if they refuse to use language that their audiences can understand, how can their audiences share in their secret? No wonder these artists evoke anger and suffering in their audiences.

P.S. – One fan of Chris Burden’s work asks, “To what extent, if any, and under what conditions, does morality have a higher claim on our actions and reactions than esthetics?” I would reply that morality always and without exception has a higher claim on our actions and reactions than aesthetics. The fact that a person would even consider that the creation of an artwork could justify immoral behavior shows how far modern art has become divorced from any framework that gives it true meaning. For if art can exist for art’s sake alone, then what does art provide, except just another meaningless experience?

I understand that modern performance artists may be trying to find, or create, meaning in a world that seems to have lost it. I sympathize. As human beings, we all need to make sense of our world, and artists do it through our art. However, the meaning is there to be found. It’s not gone. We don’t have to create it out of whole cloth, or find it only in our own idiosyncratic experience. Humanity through all time has found meaning in community, and found meaning in art shared as community. That’s where we’ll find it. Meaning is to be found in the beauty, truth, and goodness that is our common heritage as humans, and which finds its expression in our art, and has done since artists first created.