Geez, the Winnipeg based ad-free magazine devotes its spring 2008 issue to the theme Art in an Age of Brutality. The articles are woven around a quote from Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions. The style of the magazine is such that the articles are brief, engaging and thought provoking if not just provocative. The range of issues addressed is impressive and there is much to learn and much to disagree with. It has been said that learning takes place best in “conflict situations” that is in situations where there is a dissonance between what you think and what you are reading or hearing. It is in that place that reflection is engaged and critical thought does its work. Geez provides such a place.
Co-editor Aiden Enns writes about the art of compassion. Here he advocates for a public role for art – a role which invites the artist to speak to prevailing concerns in the culture. But he also sees art as having a capacity for consolation and so affirms both the prophetic voice in art and the hopeful presence of creativity.
Nicolas Klassen is clear in his claim that art will not save the world. Despite strong and eloquent statements like Picasso’s Guernica – human behaviour seems to show little sign of change. Miriam Meinders the other co-editor, in her Notes toward a moral beauty, reveals a particular take on truth and beauty when she asks “… what then of ugliness?” suggesting that it doesn’t fit with truth and beauty. But surely it does – as art is able to capture the dark and difficult side of human existence and not leave us trapped there enabling us to see beyond – which she suggests is something we all wish to do.
Two other articles I will mention one raised some questions about theological concerns the other offered an implicit challenge to the approach the magazine employs in its engagement with social, cultural and religious themes. The first Not Creator, Creativity by Jesse Nathan offers a take on our understanding of God which counters traditional Christian accounts of God.
“In an age of concentration camps and atomic bombs, religious and artistic sincerity will certainly exclude all “prettiness” or shallow sentimentality. Beauty for us, cannot be a mere appeal to conventional pleasures of the imagination and senses. Nor can it be found in cold, academic perfectionism. The art of our time, sacred art included, will necessarily be characterized by a certain poverty grimness and roughness which correspond to the violent realities of a cruel age. Sacred art cannot be cruel, but it must know how to be compassionate with the victims of cruelty and one does not offer lollipops to a starving man in a totalitarian death-camp. Nor does one offer him the message of a pitifully inadequate optimism. Our Christian hope is the purest of all lights that shine in darkness, but it shines in darkness, and one must enter the darkness to see it shining.” -Thomas Merton
The author writes about the theology of his great uncle Gordon Kaufmann – who taught for may years at Harvard Divinity School. No space here to engage the argument in detail but in a nutshell, the claim is that “creativity is God, not part of God or an attribute of God or a product of God but simply God.”
Granted this has a certain appeal, not least for those for whom creativity is a central theme and activity. A telling line at the end of the essay says “By freeing us from the strictures of an out-of-date, no longer intelligible kind of religious thinking, Kaufmann’s theology permits us to construct the sort of world we long for.”
There is a familiar ring here, is it Babel or just 18th century enlightenment’s wish for autonomy and belief in progress? What is lost here is the tradition’s understanding of God as triune – personal and engaging in history not least through incarnation. The underlying argument is the affirmation of mystery – but surely that is not incompatible with the received theological tradition.The second article was by Calvin Seerveld which he titles; Better to reform than to subvert, also with art. In this brief and insightful article Seerveld explores the difference between subversion and reform. He writes “The root biblical mandate does not promote subversion but asks for a converted peoplehood who are prepared to do good for Babylon, where some are exiled (Jeremiah 29:7) and overcome evil by doing good (Romans 12: 9-21) at the cost of one’s lifetime.” Subversion is on the agenda of those at Geez magazine but it is the kind of magazine that opens the door to critical reflection on the issues and Seerveld has served up good grist for the mill on this subject.
Geez is not a magazine for everyone. It follows well its byline – “..holy mischief in an age of fast faith”. I picked up a copy at a magazine stand in the Queen Street West area of Toronto – a place where popular culture, its practicionaires and consumers, and all its attendant features loom large. But I think that many will find it a refreshing and instructive journal and I for one am glad it has taken up the subject of art.