Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On art, artists, and Bergman

German poster for The Silence (1963)
Art by Dorothea Fischer-Nobisch
I want very much to tell, to talk about, the wholeness inside every human being. It's a strange thing that every human being has a sort of dignity or wholeness in him, and out of that develops relationships to other human beings, tensions, misunderstandings, tenderness, coming in contact, touching and being touched, the cutting off of a contact and what happens then. --from Ingmar Bergman Directs (1972) by John Simon
Isn't that simple and lovely? Long ago, I was obsessed with Ingmar Bergman, and when I bump into his words, I sometimes feel a little melancholy.  How strange it is to think in this tender way of human wholeness in a world that projects a public image that rages for entertainment and dislikes reflection and what Melville called "deep diving."

I took a course on Bergman with poet R. H. W. Dillard when I was in college, and one of the texts was Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman. In it, there's a passage where Bergman talks about Chartres, and how wonderfully satisfying it must have been to be an anonymous artist who felt that his gift was from God and so had both confidence and a natural humility. For that artist, being lauded as better than others does not even register as a thought. Bergman expresses longing for a time when an artist might make, say, a portrait head for the cathedral and be pleased with knowing what he had made, and with knowing that it was a piece of a more complex work created by many people for a great purpose. (Perhaps there's a link to the image of Christians as lively stones that make up the church, all part of something much larger--"like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house" NRSV 1 Peter 2:5.) In his own time, Bergman sees the modern artist as bringing all things out of himself, an effort that is lonely, over-obsessed with the individual, and leads to a state where artists "bleat" news of ourselves constantly but are unable to see one another. Artists are not built up into a cathedral in his view but are caught in a miserable pen sheep. In that image from Bergman, each artist appears isolated within what should be a flock. No shepherd appears.

How comic we will appear in a hundred years, with our heavy use of The Ministry of Sanctioned Words (latest installment being the chiding of professors for using "triggering words"--I wrote a piece about it yesterday but decided that one was entirely too satiric for posting!), our ruling passion for celebrities (red-carpet gods of the day in designer suits and gowns), our jettisoning of literature in the academy in favor of theory and an obsession with judging art through various -isms. To be an artist with these sorts of things held in mind means to de-nature one's work, to run after things that don't matter, and to be always self-conscious about political stance--all things that destroy the natural flow of art. How much lovelier it is to grow like a tree among trees by a stream, rooted and flourishing, sending out fresh leaves and blossoms--and all the while, those little green factories in the leaves go on transforming the air so that others may breathe.

14 comments:

  1. Hmmm. Your elegantly expressed posting has me thinking about the relationship between art and teaching. As an aside, though, I will tell you that I was cautioned about trigger words. I had the impression from the caution that students had feelings but teachers did not. Ah, the 21st century! As another aside, I remember "studying" Bergman in a film theory and criticism class. I am left with the impression that it is the rare undergraduate who appreciates Bergman. Undergraduates are too often too young for his films. I think if I saw his films now that I would be a better audience. Sometimes art has to wait for its "audience."

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    1. Yes, I think there is definitely an odor of self-righteous chiding about the whole "trigger word" idea. And really the term "trigger word" ought to be a trigger than reminds us that self-righteous people can take away our freedoms. Self-righteous rules lead to unintended consequences.

      It's probably the ones who dive down into the dark and bleak seas of melancholy who are eager for Bergman at an early age. I was absolutely mad for "The Seventh Seal" and "The Silence" and many more. Probably I could have used some bubbles and rainbows and happy-face emoticons.

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  2. Marly, I think your point about the perspective of someone wrapped up in youthful melancholy says it better than my attempt. I suspect my perspectives at nearly half-a-century later would be more complex (and -- I hope -- more sophisticated) than my perspectives as a naive undergraduate.

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    1. I hope we all deepen in the course of a half century!

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  3. I was also in that class Marly, and the one about Fellini too (we were both in those classes, I think). And so, RT, I must say that we were not too young for Bergman then, and probably today's students aren't either. I would gladly teach such a class.
    But your point about teachers not having feelings is well taken. Teachers today are not supposed to have feelings, or if they do, these don't matter.
    It's ironic that you're posting this on FB Marly, where we all bleat constantly about our latest artistic accomplishments.

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    1. Social media tends toward irony, particularly the unwitting kind! XD

      I expect it depends on the person. A lot of young people are not accustomed to watching something serious and sustained. I suppose it has been that way for a long time, but it seems particularly a problem now. Technology is quick and hops here and there...

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  4. "I hope we all deepen in the course of a half century!" Of course, some people as they get older are convinced that they are wiser than those who are younger. Sometimes it is true. But . . .

    As for Bergman, I think I will wander over to NexFlix and look for his films. My crystal ball, though, tells me it might be a fool's errand. I could easily find the latest Hangover, Jackass, and comic-book hero movies, but Bergman might be AWOL.

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    1. Hope is always good!

      I bet there is some Bergman, though maybe not on instawatch.

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  5. Correction! I just discovered that Netflix has plenty of Bergman films! Perhaps I will view some soon. However, my wife might wonder about what she would regard as a new preference for very strange movies. I have nothing more to say about either my movie preferences (new or old) or her wonderment. I choose not to criticize the anticipated spousal criticism. I am a diplomat.

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    1. Good. Maybe she will surprise you by being a fan!

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  6. In 1853 or so, John Ruskin made the same complaint about the art of the Renaissance, that they had stopped looking without and had raised themselves and their own concerns upon a pedestal, and could now only make lesser art than their Gothic forebears. Kids these days.

    My guess is that it's always like this, where there are really just a few creative people at any one time (as a percentage, maybe) who are not making art primarily to talk about themselves, or to draw attention to themselves. I know a writer who says, "My art is primarily myself, of course." This sort of art doesn't excite me. Even with my truly immense ego, I don't want to be what a reader sees when reading my work.

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  7. "Truly immense?" Scott, very amusing!

    I should reread Ruskin. I should read something! People are always asking me to read particular things, but I'm so bogged down in things to do... (And of course, Bailey is on my list!) Though I am reading along in Leithart's "Deep Exegesis" still. It's not a fast read, and I have a deadline to read it for a meeting. That and poems, this week.

    I expect what you say--"always like this"--is primarily a post-Medieval condition, don't you? I agree that the belly-button lint sort of art is not so exciting. For that matter, the novel that intends to dutifully hit all the requirements for the large social novel can bore me to tears as well. Writers seem to be so self-conscious about what they set out to do now. One hopes the good novel will rise above the author's intentions and so be more than the original intentions.

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    1. Ruskin was my thought too. I don't know enough about pre-Medieval life to know whether "this" is primarily a post-Medieval condition or not, but I've never had the impression that those old bards were shy about self-promotion. Taleisin:

      "I am a harmonious one; I am a clear singer.
      I am steel; I am a druid.
      I am an artificer; I am a scientific one.
      I am a serpent; I am love; I will indulge in feasting.
      I am not a confused bard drivelling."

      (from The Fold of the Bards, translated by W.F. Skene.)

      He sets himself above other bards ("I will cause to loquacious bards a hindrance") and he is prepared to threaten anyone who disagrees with his assessment of himself ("He that speaks ill of the skilful shall not possess mead"). Nor is he alone. There's that assumed self-portrait of Homer in Book Eight of the Odyssey, which comes with instructions telling the listener exactly how the poet should be given a good chair ("up against | a central column") and a nice amount of bread and wine and a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones picked out. "God has given the man the gift of song, | to him beyond all others, the power to please." (Fagles)

      "I sing," says Virgil, first off.

      As for the visual arts, we don't know that the people who carved those heads didn't spend the rest of their lives dragging their friends over to the cathedral and pointing out the features. "See that one up there? That's me! I did that! Check out the nose! Better than the one to the right, isn't it? Oh gees, that guy was terrible."

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    2. Oh, those are good reminders! Like them all.

      And I definitely think they did point out those heads--and so did their families and pals, so long as they were alive to remember.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.