A Glass of Chianti

Saturday, December 31, 2005

So what's the downside? (or, why I'm still up at 1:30 a.m.)

I spend a lot of time here lauding my home city. There are many things I like about living here: the barbeque, the lack of a state income tax, the overall wholesome atmosphere, the fact that I don't have to make a billion dollars a year to live comfortably... all of these things are just great. Now, go read this article about the Anselm Kiefer exhibit now showing at the local modern art museum. (I promise I'll still be here when you come back!)

OK. So, ummmmm... there's no delicate way to ask this but, well, how far did you get? It was painful, right? Note a couple of things:
  1. The author is not some college kid doing her internship.
  2. The article is not in a niche/"outsider"/mimeographed/etc. publication - it's our real, honest-to-goodness professional newspaper.
  3. Amon Carter would surely have a heart attack if he were alive today.
  4. I'm fairly sure some money changed hands at some point for that.
I'm not complaining about bad writing (I have a high tolerance for that - I read my own blog, you know!) or lack of analysis (I just wish it were a little better camouflaged than "Kiefer is considered an excellent painter") or even nonsensical descriptions ("...two lumps of lead are attached to the foreground as if waiting for the secret password"). I'm just saying that is what passes for real thought around here. It's a big, important show and that is the best the newspaper has to offer. Before you get all snippy - no, the Dallas paper isn't much different (better mechanics, same "in-depth" analysis).

It's not just art, of course. There's not a culture of reading. People read, of course, they just tend not to read things that aren't written by the new pastor of whatever megachurch recently expanded. The books are great; they teach people how to be more involved with their families and churches and communities and how to make God the center of their life... all of the things that really matter. People go to church on Sunday here. Ask any teacher and he will tell you that there is a lot of pressure not to assign homework that's due on Thursday (as Wednesday is "church night" for most youth groups here).

Now, all of this isn't to say that there's nothing to see here. There's a ton, but there isn't anyone with whom to talk about it. On the one hand, an empty gallery makes viewing art much easier but on the other, you kind of start wondering what's wrong with you that you're all alone yet again. So, if it's not a cultural wasteland, but people aren't really engaged in the "high culture" why might this be? I think there are two main things working together to produce this result.

The first is the problem with the art itself; something that was fairly accurately addressed in the quite wonderful King of the Hill episode "Ceci N'est Pas Une King of the Hill." Hank Hill and Bobby (his son) are at the local art gallery (my favorite piece - a painting with the words "Close your eyes and think of Freud"). While there, the gallery owner shows them one of those cool holograms where viewed from one angle it is an image of George Washington and from a second, Hitler. Another piece (unveiled off-screen) is a several-feet high penis sculpture. This is good TV, you know. Anyway, some of the reasons that people find it difficult to even be bothered to see modern art are adressed here, in a Camille Paglia interview from earlier this summer ( it's long, so start about a third of the way through with "CP: I'm on a crusade— it'’s to say to the poets and the artists, 'Stop talking to each other'").

The second reason it's difficult to find people who are thinking about things like art and literature and philosophy is, I think, because the culture is a distinctly Evangelical Protestant one. The churches are real communities and there is great care in welcoming people into them. There is a focus on sharing the Good News through words, yes, but mainly through actions. The down side to all of this is, ultimately, that hard work is greatly valued over hard thinking (because what good is thinking about the Word when you could be working to share it?). There's a culture of education and scholarship that we have in the Catholic Church that just isn't present in the Evangelical Protestant tradition.

A very wise man (who probably doesn't even remember saying this to me, but is welcome to take credit for it if he wants) once said to me that he
ha[s] no doubt that Red America is fundamentally right about the things that matter most, but that doesn't help when you want to see a French movie...
He's exactly right and captures precisely why it's hard for a certain type of person, and perhaps especially a certain type of Catholic, to fit in comfortably. You look at the places where a wholesome, family-centered culture thrives, but you feel like an outsider because you think that watching Rashomon is a good way to spend a Thursday evening. Then you look at the places where "high culture" does flourish, and you see an environment actively hostile to your faith. It seems as if it's hard enough to just live in either place, and I'm trying to figure out how it's going to be to (eventually, God-willing) raise a family in either. Am I being irrational? Tell me that I'm just making this a ton more complicated than it really is and that I'm not dooming my children to live lives of lonely misfits no matter where I go. I dislike that (though, you do get to drink lots more wine than the non-misfits...)

*I've seen the show twice. (Well, one and a half times, as the first time I was a terrible viewer and had my head not involved in the art so much as how really great a certain Yankee is). It's a good show, not that you would know from the article.