Thursday, February 22, 2007

Confessions… Now with full, frontal nudity!

I heard a really good definition for obscenity a while ago in an interview on the Mars Hill Audio journal. Unfortunately I was listening to the entire archive going back over 10 years, so I can't find the exact tape the interview was on or the exact quote, or even who said it. (How's that for scholarly research?) But it went something like this: Obscenity is the display of any physical human function divorced from its spiritual side. In other words, when you focus on something like sex, chewing food, bleeding, excreting, etc. without any regard for the soul that is inhabiting the body that is carrying out the activity, it will always appear obscene. This is perennial because humans intuitively know that there is more to life then the physical processes that are playing out before us. And to exclude that hidden dimension is to reduce humanity to meat, to ignore God, and to devalue all moral or ethical considerations. If you know anything about modern art you may have noticed that such exercises are seen as virtues and get described as "brave", "unflinching", "gritty", etc. It's sad to me that the current trend in sculpture is to push this boundary through hyper-realism. Yet, the irony is that the more realistic and "gritty" a figure is made, the less realistically they are portrayed as they lose all semblance of humanity. The clear message is like having a mirror shoved up your nose and being told you are nothing but a gross hunk of meat.

I can see a better path available to the artist. A more noble use of our talents. And that is to unify, balance, and portray the complexities of the human condition. To ignore our soul is myopic. To ignore our bodies is myopic. To find and reveal the fusion of the two is the perennial challenge of creating great art.

Speaking of great art, I'm not a great artist. I've been told by many great artists that an indispensable exercise for becoming better is figure drawing. I managed to get through art school without ever doing it. I guess because my degree was Industrial Design. I had a few opportunities to try it, but my wife-at-the-time was uncomfortable with the idea of me staring at another naked woman. This is a valid feeling, and something I've always wondered about. Men have chemicals that automatically start pumping when exposed to visual stimulus. They don't need to feel an emotional connection with a woman before they start thinking sexual thoughts. So how does an artist render a nude without thoughts of lust. (Assuming the model is not horrifically ugly.)

I've always recognized that I'm not a great artist, and don't really have aspirations of becoming one. But I've always wanted to improve. So when an opportunity for figure drawing arose recently I began to seriously reconsider it. A friend at work started a weekly class right here in the building. But how does a morally conservative Christian approach this issue? Well, I think the best approach is to acknowledge all the dimensions of it. The physical, spiritual and emotional. I've usually heard these sides of the issue pooh-poohed as silly. As though there could not be any sort of illicit problems inherent with a naked person in the room when something as lofty as art is being performed.

Something I've noticed in life is that people are too quick to dismiss the ancillary effects of many things. One example of this is the medical profession. They are finally starting to recognize that a doctor can not simply operate as a mechanic. The body/mind/soul is integrated and excluding two-thirds of the equation is not good medicine. It is fine to focus on one aspect, but wrong to completely ignore the others. So it should be with art. And thus I am being very introspective when it comes to the process of drawing a nude figure.

The surface event is this: a group of artists pay a model to disrobe and pose for them while they practice their skills. But beyond that, we have a group of spiritual beings engaged in more than a monetary exchange. Nakedness has deep spiritual significance. Something Moses notes over and over again when he speaks of Eden is the fact that Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. That state is held in clear contrast with our current, post-fallen state where the natural reaction to nakedness is shame and vulnerability. I think an artist needs to understand that in order to capture the humanity of a model. A model must have the rare ability to suppress the natural feelings of shame and vulnerability in order to do what they do, but that does not mean those feelings don't exist. Yes, I am aware of the rare exceptions: the people who actually enjoy exposing themselves. But it doesn't make sense to operate by the exception rather than the rule. My point is that I find it important to think about what's going on in a holistic fashion, rather than just the surface.

So for me personally, I spent some time praying about it, and thinking about how figure drawing enters into my wedding vows and relationship with God. First of all, I promised that my body would belong to Heather, and no one else. Besides the obvious physical manifestation of that idea is the deeper, emotional and spiritual aspect. My eyes and my mind are a part of my body that actually require daily upkeep in order to honor my vows. I've never had a problem with being tempted to have an affair, but as a man, my body and mind is designed to react sexually to certain stimuli. I wish it wasn't, but those are the facts that half the planet has to live with. So how can I consider looking at another naked woman while still maintaining a holistic fidelity to my wonderful wife? Context certainly plays a large role. There is a big difference between looking at a naked woman alone in a hotel room or in a magazine, and looking at a naked woman with a group of 15 other artists with a job to do. BUT. Context does not necessarily overpower a man's normal internal workings.

As I said, I prayed about it, and asked Heather about it. She didn't seem to have a problem with it, so I decided to try it out. I had every intention on finding a problem and walking out as soon as class started, but that was not the case. I was determined to evaluate my mind and emotions, looking specifically for any trace of lust or related infidelity. And while the model was not ugly, I found that there truly was a different mode, or frame of mind that I was in while drawing her. I don't think a human can every truly be stripped of their sexuality. God made us this way. But as my opening paragraph described, there is a way of incorporating multiple aspects of a human into art that keeps it from being obscene simply by avoiding a leering or over-sexualized focus on the physical. The care required to faithfully depict a human – sexuality and the other, more important aspects – is what makes art resonate with people. I'm certainly not saying that I'm anywhere near that goal, but I see it as one. And I'm still struggling with the mechanical aspects of art, so what do I know?

Anyway, I was stressed out the entire time as I struggled to translate an organic three dimensional form to a two dimensional image. They started out with 2 minute poses and I felt like I was trying to decipher a complicated algebra equation. Eventually the pose-times were increased to 20 minutes… and I still felt rushed. I think that's because I always want to precisely illustrate rather than interpret through gesture. But the exercise of attempting to turn reality into a drawing forced me to drop some habits that I hadn't realized I had formed over the years. I had to rethink how I approached anatomy, lighting and probably several other things I'm not aware of yet. So all-in-all I'd say it was a great experience that helped me quite a bit, and I can see how doing more of it would really grow me as an artist. I've got a couple drawings here just as a lark since it was my first attempt. They are quite bad, but that's ok… I don't have much of an art ego.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Open letter to Bellevue School District

Hello. I am Josh Foreman, Justin Foreman’s dad. You sent out a letter informing me that my 5th grader will be instructed on HIV/AIDS and human sexuality. The letter noted that, “We want our students to realize that we consider you to be the most important source of information for these topics…” As my son’s father I would like to be the ONLY source of information about sexuality for him. Can we please set up a time to meet so I can jump through the bureaucratic hoops in order to be a parent to my child regarding one of the most sensitive issues in a person’s life? I find it appalling that any government institution finds it appropriate to be the mechanism by which a child should learn about sexuality. So I would appreciate it if I was informed before any other similar information is presented to my son. I understand the public school system’s desire to fill a responsibility that has been abdicated by some parents. However I am not one of those parents. As you know, children develop emotionally and physically at different rates. I believe it is immoral to subject an entire group to the same information by those who can not evaluate when each child is ready for that information. Such evaluation can only be adequately performed by a parent. I understand that you are not responsible for the school district’s policy on this matter, I’m just letting you know how I feel about the policy for the record. It is abhorrent and obscene. Not because human sexuality is obscene. But because when it is presented – as it must be in this public forum – as divorced from it’s psychological and spiritual components it is reduced to mere animal abstractions. It teaches “facts” without being true, just as teaching only the brain’s chemical reactions to love would reduce love’s significance, meaning, ramifications, and truth. Sexuality is not merely a series of facts that are placed in the empty receptacle of children’s heads. It includes facts that are important to impart to children when they are at the appropriate stage of development. Please allow me, as the parent to make that call.


Josh Foreman

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Radical Christian Right: "Most Dangerous Mass Movement in American History!!!"

Someone posted this article on a forum. It amused me so I responded as follows, quoting the author, Chris Hedges.

The engine that drives the radical Christian Right in the United States, the most dangerous mass movement in American history, is not religiosity, but despair.

Ok. How has he ascertained this?

It is a movement built on the growing personal and economic despair of tens of millions of Americans, who watched helplessly as their communities were plunged into poverty by…

So a bad economy = religious revival? Like the ones we saw in Russia, Cuba, China? Hmmm… Maybe he needs to rethink his equation.

This despair crosses economic boundaries, of course, enveloping many in the middle class who live trapped in huge, soulless exurbs where, lacking any form of community rituals or centers, they also feel deeply isolated, vulnerable and lonely.

So even those who don't financially struggle are driven to religion because of pot holes and big houses? What makes "exurbs" soulless exactly? Are apartments and downtown areas soul-ful? On what does he base this judgment besides urban snobbery? How does he know they feel isolated, vulnerably and lonely? Did they tell him this? Or is it because he watched American Beauty and decided it was true?

Those in despair are the most easily manipulated by demagogues

This might be true. But he never made a case for showing that the Christian right is in despair other than pointing out that many come from the suburbs, and assuming that suburbs create despair.

Those in despair search desperately for a solution, the warm embrace of a community to replace the one they lost…

What community did they lose? Does Mr. Hedges forget that the in the vast majority of human history, the vast majority of people have lived in rural communities? Religion has always been a source of community. He makes it sound as though Religion has swooped in and stolen a group of people. Very strange.

a sense of purpose and meaning in life, the assurance they are protected, loved and worthwhile.

I may be wrong, but it sounds as though he is being condescending here. As though he was above such childish needs. I wonder if he recognizes that his books and articles are an attempt at bringing him all of these same things, only in a different community?

Jeniece Learned is typical of many in the movement.

I realize that this is a short article, and he doesn't have the space to provide too many examples. But his examination of this individual is clearly purported to represent a very large and diverse group. He never says it explicitly, nor does he point out examples that would blow his despair theory.

Her activism became atonement for her own abortion.

Thank you Dr. Freud.

The real world, the world of facts and dispassionate intellectual inquiry, the world where all events, news and information were not filtered through this comforting ideological prism…

It always cracks me up when an ideologue pretends that they are the dispassionate ones, relying only on facts, cold and bitter as they may be. Is Hedges truly blind to the prism strapped over his own face.

They hated this world. And they willingly walked out on this world for the mythical world offered by these radical preachers, a world of magic…

… the fear of being plunged back into a reality-based world where these magical props would no longer exist, where they would once again be adrift, abandoned and alone.

Here is where Hedges shows his cards. It's not the religious right he is afraid of. It's anyone who sees more to this life than what can be analyzed, cataloged, observed and repeated. He is secular humanist who truly thinks religion is for idiots. How he believes that he is dispassionate when he holds such a passionate view is a discredit to all of his opinions.

The danger of this theology of despair is that it says that nothing in the world is worth saving.

What an odd thing to say when half his article is spent profiling a person who is dedicated to saving babies. Since I don't buy his "theology of despair" theory due to it's completely inadequate basis, I'm not sure what theology he is commenting on here. Perhaps premillennialism? Even they find humans to be the thing worth saving. I would think as a humanist, Hedges would be able to pick up on that. But then again, he seems to be more of a caricature artist than a thinker.

It rejoices in cataclysmic destruction. It welcomes the frightening advance of global warming, the spiraling wars and violence in the Middle East and the poverty and neglect that have blighted American urban and rural landscapes as encouraging signs that the end of the world is close at hand.

Ha ha ha. I've known a lot of right-wing Christians with a lot of wacky views. I've NEVER heard anyone advocate these things. This paragraph is one of the worst cases of fear-mongering I've read in a long time.

Those who lead the movement give their followers a moral license to direct this rage and yearning for violence against all those who refuse to submit to the movement, from liberals, to “secular humanists,” to “nominal Christians,” to intellectuals, to gays and lesbians, to Muslims.

I've never heard any pastor, preacher, author, or other Christian encourage directing rage any people. I've always heard the old slogan, "Hate the sin, love the sinner." I am sure that if Hedges spent any serious amount of time with the Christian right he would have heard this. His failure to mention it, and his insistence on contradicting it show him to simply be another pamphleteer of the left. It's hard to take anything he says seriously.

These radicals, from James Dobson to Pat Robertson, call for a theocratic state that will, if it comes to pass, bear within it many of the traits of classical fascism.

I wonder how Hedges defines theocracy. I've never heard even Robertson calling for the state to enforce Christianity. Let's see, "radical", "theocracy", "fascism"… I wonder if he got all the liberal scare words in this article yet? Not freighted yet?

…these radicals, many of whom have achieved powerful positions in the Executive and legislative branches of government, as well as the military, will ask us only to surrender our rights, to pass them the unlimited power they need to battle the forces of darkness.
They will have behind them tens of millions of angry, disenfranchised Americans longing for revenge and yearning for a mythical utopia, Americans who embraced a theology of despair because we offered them nothing else.

I wonder who he thinks "We" are, and what exactly "We" are supposed to offer as a substitute for religion.

Look. I'm not a fan of the religious right either. But I'm also not a fear-monger. I don't feel a need to come up with some psychological theory that explains him and his ilk so that I feel better about myself. I think what Hedges fails to understand is that his philosophy is no more sure that that of a religious person. He feels superior because he has caricatured religion to be a fantasy for the weak. He plays psychiatrist in order to spin religion into a mental disorder. A fear-induced paranoid delusion. The irony is that he is the one living in, and selling fear.