hir | the chaos of sin

The curtain rises to reveal a stage strung with chaos. My body tenses slightly, and I glance apprehensively at the friend who invited me. He glances back. Neither of us know what to expect from a slice-of-life drama featuring Issac, a war-traumatized vet home from Afghanistan; Max, his gender-fluid younger sibling; Arnold, their stroke-disabled father who abused them all for years; and Paige, their manic-depressive mother.

The show is Hir (pronounced ‘here’; the play takes its name from the gender-neutral possessive pronoun), produced at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Written by Taylor Mac, the play tips its hand from the first glimpses of the stage and the performers: you are about to enter a world where things are desperately wrong. The author specifies the play’s genre as ‘absurd realism’, and the absurdity of the situation is darkly comic as the characters of the play struggle in increasingly erratic ways to come to terms with the chaos that marks their lives.

The story opens when Issac comes home from the war to find his childhood home in shambles. His mother, Paige, has stopped cleaning anything as a reaction against the abuse and strict perfectionism of her husband, Arnold, prior to his stroke. Issac soon finds out that his mother has been hiding everything significant from him in his absence: their home is a pigsty, his father’s supposedly ‘minor’ stroke has in fact left him unable to speak or care for himself, and the family is destitute.  Soon Issac’s younger sibling Max appears on the scene. When Issac left, Max was his sister Maxine. Now Max is gender-fluid. This, too, was a secret kept from Issac. On the day that Issac arrives home, Paige and Max have already made plans to see a local art exhibit. Issac declines to go, and Paige and Max leave him at home with Arnold, on the condition that Issac resist the temptation to clean. Issac agrees, but does not keep his word. Everything else that happens arises from that broken promise.

It seems wrong to say that I enjoyed the play. How can I claim to enjoy the dramatization of that much pain? I learned from the play. I was grieved by the play. It mesmerized me because it was a finely acted, brilliantly written, expertly produced play. But I did not enjoy it. I saw sin and its consequences acted with crystalline artistry. It caused me to wonder: how can this writer, who likely does not believe that there is such a thing as sin, do a better job of portraying sin than any Christian production I have seen?

Because, believe me, all the pain and death of sin, and the immense brokenness of the world, were fully present in Hir. Issac suffers from PTSD. Arnold abused his family for years and the rage still boils below the fog of his new-found disability. Paige, bitter and exhausted from the years of abuse, has turned Arnold’s abuse back on him and now refuses him basic cleanliness and dignity. Max, lonely, hurt, and confused, shoulders the awful task of diplomacy between all members of a family torn apart when the sin of the father is visited on the children.

What response is appropriate? I sat and joined in the uncomfortable laughter of the audience at times, but I wept by the end of the show. I watched one couple get up and walk out, but I could not tear my eyes away from the wreckage before me. I disagreed with practically every philosophy presented in this production, but I found my presuppositions challenged by it.

Great art should change us in some way. When you encounter a truly exceptional creation, you have interacted in some way with the deepest parts of someone’s soul, and that should affect you in some way. Hir was great art, and it did move me. It made me view gender-fluid persons with much more compassion (that it took a secular production to make me feel that, and not the church, is a discussion for another day). It made me wonder why Christians, who more than any other group of artists should understand the wages of sin, are so very bad at portraying it.

It’s hard to see the glory of the cross and beauty of redemption unless we see the heinousness of our sin. The question, for me, is no longer, ‘Should we portray darkness’, but rather, ‘How dark should we allow our art to be in our attempt to highlight the depravity of the human condition’? It takes a grace-healed eye to see glory and mercy, but almost any person can see how sin can destroy. What if Christian artists, instead of being afraid that showing sin would glamorize it, realized that accurate depictions of sin and it consequences strip themselves of their own glamour? How will we ever feel our need of a Savior unless we feel the sickness of our souls?

Because, oh how Hir longed for, but was denied, redemption. How it longed for grace, but got only unforgiveness. How it ached for wholeness and health, but found only fractures and disease. Each of these characters (and their real-life, in-our-communities counterparts) were dying slow and agonizing deaths as the bill for their sin came due.

No Christian production has ever made me feel the weight of sin the way Hir did. If we dared to strip away the masks of decency and decorum we place on sin, and expose it for the hideous death it is, how might a similar weight be used in the hands of artists who know both the cost, and the payment, of our sin?

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discovering Murakami

For me, as an artist who is also a mother, I am often on the lookout for ways to invite my kids to join me in interacting with art of all types. More and more, I am learning the value of experiencing something as a family that is brand new to all of us, not just the kids. I find that my kids – each of whom have wildly different attention spans and artistic interest levels (ages 13, 10, 8 and 5) – will engage more with me when they don’t feel like I’m coming at them as an expert on something (life lesson, anyone??). Modern art is an ideal medium to engage with kids.  We can pop over to the Art Institute and marvel at Seurat in the Impressionist wing, or stand like ants beneath the Renaissance masters, but inevitably the contemporary stuff immediately engages my 21st century (iGen, is it?) babies.

Housed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Murakami (b. 1962) exhibit, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg*, opened surprisingly simply:  a blue velvet curtain with a single star gave way to a series of three small square panels in solid red, yellow and blue. Immediately, my oldest son chimed in with, “Wait a minute. What is this stuff? I could paint that! This stuff is in a museum!” My daughter offered, “this curtain is like in a play before it starts.” Aha. Yes. Good! They asked me what I thought, and I offered that I wasn’t exactly sure, but if I had to guess, I would say he is bringing us to a simple starting point — building expectation, excitement. I was learning/guessing/processing right alongside them.

Those primary colors and curtain were a genesis to the exhibit and indeed, Murakami’s whole career. Powerful opening, really.

As we wandered through the rooms, Murakami brought us from those simple elements to masterful and complex intersections of modern and ancient, Eastern and Western, high + low art. What he does is nothing short of masterful.

The exhibit continued to open up into room after room of what Murakami is really known for; his “superflat” style, noisily intersecting traditional high art with flashy commercialism. This can be seen in his collaborations with Kanye West (“Graduation” cover), Louis Vitton, Pharrell Williams (“It Girl” video).

The earlier works show genesis and development of recognizable characters like Mr. DOB, the trippy Kaikai Kiki flowers (my daughter’s favorite), into a mid-career phase of abstraction.

These were my favorite pieces. Incredible color, scale and development. The piece we hung out the longest on together was 727 (1996). Mimicking Japanese screen paintings, the piece shows Murakami’s beloved Mr. DOB as a time traveler traversing Asian art history. The kids didn’t need any help from me to see what it was trying to do.

Murakami’s later works come away from the playful characters of earlier works and instead explore topics of death and spirituality; particularly the legend of the arhats — a band of Buddhist monks who roamed the land in an effort to heal and comfort people. My most empathetic 10 year old was particularly taken with the pieces in this series, lingering and studying each one closely. They spoke to him.

Perhaps the thing that stood out the most to me about the aptly-named The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg exhibit was this relentless sense of self-discovery and reinvention. Murakami shows us his process—one that isn’t afraid to ask questions, to learn and reevaluate direction and to change. His looking forward never loses sense of what came before. If only the same could be said of each of us!

*”The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg comes from a Japanese folk saying that hints at this process of regeneration and reflects a biological fact: an octopus in distress will chew off a damaged leg to insure survival, knowing that a new one will grow in its place. Similarly, Murakami often feeds off his own work and Japanese history in order to explore our contemporary world.” – from the exhibit

these violent delights | consuming too much violence and not nearly enough

Violence is one of the most ubiquitous motifs across the entire history of human storytelling, and it’s no real surprise. An act of violence is the purest form of drama, conflict refined to its simplest expression. It’s easily implemented and easily understood, making it both the perfect catalyst and perfect climax for imparting some form of emotional resonance upon an audience.

While violence has been a part of our stories for millennia, the rise of cinema and television has changed our experiences with it and certainly warrants a reconsideration of our ethics of violence in arts and entertainment. That reconsideration thus far has shown itself in a couple of curiously juxtaposed ways: simply judging violence at its face value (where blood and gore are considered a “more inappropriate” expression) and an insatiable lust for violence as a form of amusement.

The aversion to violence in cinema, a phenomenon I’ve noticed amongst American evangelical Christians in particular, is curiously fickle, generally abiding by hard guidelines along the same lines as the MPAA’s rating system while sometimes affording exceptions to both war films (modern and medieval) and films depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (I’m sure you can guess which one I’m thinking of in particular). This is admittedly an oversimplification to some degree, as many individuals will have convictions that err in either direction, but for the most part, outside of the aforementioned genres, if there’s blood, gore, or anything grisly involved, then a film is almost automatically classified as “inappropriate.”

The issue I have with this concept of adjudicating the “appropriateness” of violent content is it fails to consider the context of the violence or the nature of what the director is trying to communicate by including it in his or her film (while also severely underestimating the viewer’s ability to separate fantasy from reality). It’s a haphazard attempt to use an objective measuring stick to draw conclusions about a subjective matter, a symptom not of good Christian discernment but of the artistic illiteracy plaguing the evangelical church and the cult of positivity that rejects things that are unpleasant without first asking why they are unpleasant.

Maybe that sounds a bit forceful, and I certainly don’t mean to disregard people who genuinely just can’t stomach it. By all means, much as I said in my previous article regarding the horror genre, stick to your convictions and don’t engage with violent content if it’s not something you can bear. But I implore you to respect it and refuse to denounce it without first giving it the proper consideration. Explaining what that consideration entails would take up far too much space in an already overlong blog post, but for an entirely too simple illustration, just start by contemplating the difference in presentations of graphic violence between this scene from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and this scene from Thir13en Ghosts (just reiterating, both scenes contain contain graphic violence and the latter some nudity). Consider not just what but why. What is the motivation for each of these scenes? What do they hope to accomplish using violence?

As you dig deeper into film, you’ll notice the “why” of violence can get increasingly more complex, which is the beauty of it as a storytelling device. It’s malleable and able to spark virtually the entire spectrum of human emotion. The truth is that violence is an immense and unwieldy tool that has the equivalent capacity for profundity in the hands of a master storyteller and bawdiness in the hands of someone more juvenile.

However, I find that it’s that more juvenile understanding that drives our culture as a whole, resulting in a bizarre sort of bloodlust in entertainment. Sure, we’ve long since moved away from things like gladiator deathmatches where human lives were sacrificed for the enjoyment of others, but there remains this sort of vicarious engagement with that form of entertainment that exists in the cinema, on television, and especially in video games. Of the top ten highest-grossing films so far in 2017, six are action/adventure films, and another is a (brilliant) horror film with a violent climax. TV dramas are in a fairly similar position, while the bestselling video games are usually first-person shooters, with the vast majority of games involving killing/maiming of some sort or another. And that doesn’t even include other forms of entertainment like sports, of which in the US American football is the most popular thanks in part to explosive plays involving big hits and brutal tackles.

It’s not that I think any of this is wrong on the outset. There’s an innocence to our desire for action; I believe the motivation behind watching Terminator 2 or The Avengers is similar to the thrillseeking that leads to something like riding roller coasters. There’s some primal piece of us that longs for excitement, and what better way to get that than the one that provides zero risk of bodily harm to ourselves?

But then there’s the whole matter of just how dismissive of human life some films seem to be. When watching films like Transformers, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, The Avengers, etc., it feels like the director is instructing us to take pleasure in the utter destruction of humanity and the world around us. And not to make any immediate moral judgments about that, but it’s hard for me to understand how each of those PG-13 films where millions (if not billions) of people die with minimal consequence and horribly emotionally immature thematic elements attached develop a healthier understanding of violence than notoriously grisly films like No Country for Old Men and Taxi Driver. Visceral violence of some sort seems to be an essential ingredient in a blockbuster, and it’s something that Americans not only tolerate but seem to encourage. Someone taking a bullet to the face on screen is more readily accepted than showing a woman’s nipple – admit it, you were more perturbed by the half-naked woman in the clip from Thir13en Ghosts I linked earlier than you were about the man being sliced in half by a door. Surely it must say something about us if we’re more willing to tolerate the destruction of the human body than admire its beauty.

I’m not really sure what to say beyond that, because honestly I have no answers for this puzzle, only the question. I love gritty action films like Die Hard, The Raid, John Wick, and Hard Boiled, and I love blowing enemies up in Battlefield or smashing people to bits with my giant robot in Titanfall 2. I’m just as “guilty” of this bloodlust as everybody else, and I’m not even sure whether or not it’s something I ought to feel guilty about. I’m aware of the differences between reality and the screen, and my belief in the sanctity of human life is as strong as ever. But if I believe human life is sacred, is it right for me to derive laughter and joy from murder and death of any sort, even if it’s pure fantasy?

I don’t know where that line is or how far we’ve crossed over it. I’m not even sure that there’s a “line” at all. I know there are films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Unforgiven which handle violence with a brilliant grace and gravity, and there are other films like The Belko Experiment and Hostel that have such an abhorrent attitude toward human life that it makes me genuinely sick to watch them. And then there’s the entire spectrum of film in between. Maybe that’s the thing, though, that violence is far too complex to be discussed in such black-and-white terms as “right and wrong” or “appropriate and inappropriate.” And maybe that’s what makes it such an essential and engaging piece of human stories.

I guess what I want is for us to change our way of thinking, whichever side of the spectrum we approach entertainment from. I want us to stop considering art from a strictly moralistic viewpoint and start diving into its murky waters. I want us to stop asking the irrelevant questions we’ve asked before, and I want us to stop asking no questions at all. Then we can begin to engage this critical aspect of the human experience with a level of nuance that is sorely lacking.

the difficulty of ideas

The single smallest creative act is to have an idea.

The nature of being a person includes this inescapable thing that everyone experiences: at a base level, we all imagine things that aren’t in existence yet.  We look ahead to a future we wish we had.  We play back conversations in our heads with better, wittier responses.  We read stories and our brains and hearts fill in myriads of details around the main characters, things that were never said but fit, so perfectly, into our mind’s eye of the protagonist.  We imagine the smell and taste and texture of bacon.  Because what else would you imagine?

The generative nature of all of our minds is surprising and wonderful and stunning all at once.  But the simple existential fact is that we all have ideas, good, bad, smart, stupid, define them as you will.

And that’s a serious problem, at least in my experience.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to narrow down the difficulty with ideas to two areas: large and small community experiences.

I work for a good-sized non-profit, with a lot of wonderful idea-makers in it.  I have friends in middle management who have a sharp understanding of what makes our company tick, and their ideas for improvement and optimization are nothing short of brilliant.  But most of those ideas won’t move beyond the idea phase to the actuality.

First, they’re telling me their ideas.  And regardless of how excited I am about them, if those ideas don’t trickle upward (a phenomenon that is remarkably hard to find, due to a thing called gravity) there is little to no chance that they will actually become reality.

Second, all my other middle management friends have great ideas too.  Unless there’s some kind of vetting process for ideas which would objectively push the best ones to the top, what usually happens is that the loudest idea-mongers get their ideas put into play.

Finally, little phenomena like pride, fear, and jealousy (let’s save time and call these things sin) get in the way of the best ideas.  These aren’t isolated to the people on high receiving the ideas, by any means.  In other words, while ideas in this circumstance can be tested thoroughly, the likelihood of activation is low.

The opposite environment (not surprisingly) breeds problems too.

Say I have an idea, but no accountability or community to test it in.  Or maybe I have a community, but I’ve been gifted with an obnoxious personality that runs over anyone in my way.

In this scenario, the potential for my idea to be terrible is statistically through the roof, because it can’t be tested. Given the limits of individual human knowledge, the likelihood of personal risk and/or forming a cult are high.  My idea may have merit, but without checks and balances I am, more than likely, toast.  Or worse, I put everyone I know in the toaster with me.

(A caveat: It can’t be discounted that certain ideas won’t actually affect a ton of people in a detrimental way.  Maybe I want to say something true about the nature of penguins. If I were to take a couple of hours and write something artsy and interesting about how penguins live, there’s not really… well, I can’t really think of any problem with doing that, unless it’s like this consistent thing where I’m abandoning my responsibilities as husband and father to write about penguins.  Maybe you get what I’m saying without further exposition.)

So how do we, as believing artists, harness ideas faithfully in any context?

For starters, like most things in life, our ideas are not automatically redeemed just because they’re creative.  Why does such and such an idea stick in my mind and convince me of it’s value?  Is it because it appeals to a base sense of pride?  Is it because it frees my lazy heart to take shortcuts around things I have no business trying to make more efficient? Unless we have a basic mistrust of ourselves, we can’t begin looking at our ideas objectively.

At the point when we’ve vetted a particular idea for sinful motivation, community comes into play.  Like everything in life, this is nuanced and messy. The very practice of vetting the ideas with other people brings other sinful natures into the equation.  How can we trust the human checks and balances around us unless we are learning to live in community and die to self on a daily basis with these folks?  For believing artists, this boils down to church at it’s core.

The people in my life are valuable sounding boards, for a simple reason – more than likely, they will see my motivations more clearly than I do. Here is the moment (ideally) that I trust them to call me out, and the moment they trust me enough to call me out, knowing that I would want just that.

In other words, community is a way to keep me and my ideas honest and humble (repetition is one of my strong suits). This is probably more vital than I realize, and definitely more difficult.

When an idea is revealed to a community, everyone in it naturally considers the reasons for it existing, and particularly how it benefits the community.  Yonder lies arguments, but these should be welcome to us. For example: in a believing church context, where Christ is supreme, our ideas for artistic creation necessarily fall under parameters – usage (what is this for?), aesthetic value (which culture are you in? will the aesthetics hinder other aspects of your creation?), communication (will your meaning get lost in translation? does that matter?), etc.  This is the moment when we ask ourselves and our God the right questions, and half of the artistic process is learning what those are.

As artists, we often act defensively when others challenge our ideas.  I have trouble keeping track of the amount of times I’ve heard the words “well, what I meant was actually…” come out of my mouth.  I don’t mean we should create things that only appeal to the lowest common denominator. I do mean that if there’s something not registering, we should investigate the reasons why and learn from them. This feels like putting fences around artistic creativity, and it should. Creativity without boundaries is ultimately dangerous.

So say we have an understanding of our weakness, a community around us, good questions, and natural boundaries for our creativity. The end game of any idea is activation, and in many cases there is nothing to do but try it out and see where it goes.

At this point, let ‘er rip.