By Paul

In case you haven’t seen the wonderful Judith Dench/Steven Coogan film entitled “Philomena,” let me start off with a brief summary (hopefully without giving too much away).  A young Irish woman conceives a child out-of-wedlock in 1960’s Ireland.  In those days, the sin and shame of such a birth were tremendous, and girls who did so (who “took their nickers down,” in the scolding and remonstrative words of one of the nuns) were outcasts of society.  The girl, Philomena, was packed off to a convent that specialized in these things, and there under the care of the nuns she had her baby.  Forced to sign an agreement to give the child up for adoption, she was not even afforded an opportunity to say goodbye to her baby, when a wealthy couple from America comes to adopt the boy.  The pain of the separation was almost unbearable for the young girl, but her troubles were not over. As were all of the girls, Philomena was forced to work afterwards for 4 more years, doing backbreaking menial labor in order to “pay the nuns back” for all they had supposedly done for her.  Fast-forward 50 years, and the now almost 70 old Philomena still longs to find her son.  The main events of the movie, in fact, revolve around that search, facilitated by a reporter, who eventually took Philomena to the United States to find him.  I hesitate to say much more, for those of you who have not seen the movie (and I hope you will), except to report that, in the end, there was skullduggery enough on the part of the “good nuns” at the abbey to make the reporter justifiably very angry.  Philomena herself, however, in this reenactment of a true story, is somehow able to reach within and find forgiveness for those who had hurt her, and her son, so profoundly.

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church – and to be fair, I suppose, most churches and much of organized religion – has a lot to answer for.  From the Church’s sometimes ambivalent historical stance on slavery (at one point, bishops preached that there were “just” and “unjust” forms of slavery), to the giving of “cover” for the conquest of the Americas by the European powers (the pagan “savage” Indians after all had to be taught the “true religion”), to the crimes supported and even committed by the Church against the Jews over the ages, to the terrible things the last pope said about gay people and the Church’s continuing disparaging of gay relationships, to its forbidding of all forms of birth control (in spite of run-away world overpopulation), to the subjugation of women and their exclusion from the priesthood, to the hiding of sexual predation by priests on the part of local bishops, and on and on.  It is not too strong a statement to say that some of these at least could be thought of as crimes against humanity.

Having spent a number of years in a Catholic monastery in my own early life (I went willingly, however), I saw some of this up close.  The scolding, reprimanding, and reproachful orientation to life we witness on the part of the nuns in “Philomena” did not come from nowhere.  With Vatican II and the papacy of the more human John XXIII, it looked at first as though the Church was finally making a shift and entering more fully into the modern era.  Much of this ascendant promise, however, was soon rescinded during the reigns of various popes that followed, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI.

But what of the Church nowadays?  Is it still mired in the rhetoric and rigidity of post-reformation thinking?  It could be argued that most members of the hierarchy are indeed bogged down in such a doctrinal quagmire.  And whether the new pope, who at least has a more tolerant affect, will in the end bring about real change is yet to be seen.  To be sure, there seems to be something of a split between Catholics who live in the United States and Europe, and those living in Africa and Asia, with the faithful in South America falling somewhere in between, depending on the question.  Here is just a sampling of a recent poll taken among Catholics in these areas.  On the question, “Do you think women should be allowed to become priests?” 64% of Europeans and 59% of Catholics in the US agreed they should be given that opportunity.  However, the split was almost even in South America, 49% for and 47% against, while 76% in the Philippines and 80% of Africans said women should not have the right.  As far as the use of contraceptives is concerned, 86% of Europeans, 79% of US Catholics, and 91% of those in South America say it should be allowed, whereas only 44% of Africans and 31% of Philippinos agree.  Finally, in regard to gay marriage, 38% of Europeans and 37% of South American Catholics favor allowing it, while 54% of the US faithful are in favor; a mere 14% of those in the Philippines say they are for allowing gays to marry, and amazingly in Africa those in favor barely register at 1% of Catholics.

All this amounts to a church in transition, with many push-pull factors splitting congregations in various parts of the world.  Perhaps, who knows, at some point it might even lead to a new division in the Catholic Church, just as the Anglican community risks these days?  Interestingly, too, much of this mirrors the larger political rift we see in the United States now between progressive Democrats and ultra-conservative Tea Party Republicans.  How many are there left anymore in the middle?

Toward the end of the movie, Philomena and the reporter, played by Steve Coogan, are back at the abbey in Ireland.  Some of the same sisters who were in charge when Philomena was a young, pregnant teenager there are still alive.  In a wrenching scene, the reporter reprimands and lambasts these nuns for what they had done.  But Philomena, who has remained a faithful Catholic all these years in spite of everything, stops him.  She feels as much compassion for him as she does for the nuns, it would seem, these same nuns who had traumatized her so, and says to the reporter, “it must be exhausting carrying around so much anger.”

In the end, I wondered, which one does any of us wish to be more like, Philomena or the reporter? Of course, to be sure who among us has not experienced denigration and disparagement aplenty in life?  But does it do any good to hold on to old wounds and deep grudges from the past? No doubt, it’s easy enough to say that it doesn’t, but it is a far more difficult thing to let go of pain, especially pain we feel has been unjustly inflicted.  We hold it like a wounded child, injured and trembling in our arms.  We hope that, by holding it so, we may somehow soothe its fears, its grief, its despair.  Then, feeling the injustice of the child’s undeserved pain, it is all too easy for heartbreak to turn to rage, and to lash out at a cold and unfeeling world for what it has done.

What makes Philomena able to forgive so profound an injury, but the reporter, who feels for Philomena, seemingly unable to do so?  This may be the key question the movie poses: how and whom to forgive, and under what circumstances.  The film does not answer this larger question, but it does give us examples of how two individuals react to injustice, one with justified anger, and the other with compassion and forgiveness.  That said, the film is also not suggesting that it is all right for people to inflict pain on others, or that there should be no consequences to such actions.  The one nun who had played such a pivotal and damaging role in Philomena’s early life, now 50 years later, comes across as a bitter, morose, dispirited, and deeply unhappy old woman.    In this sense, then, consequences may well have come of their own accord, without anyone else having to hasten or enhance them.

So, what lessons may we draw from all this?  Speaking for myself alone, I know I often vacillate between forbearance and wrath, between mercy and outrage, between compassion and blame.   In theoretical physics, or so I have learned from reading about the topic, mathematical calculations can sometimes be so enormously complicated and vexing that reasonable approximations may be the best we can ever expect.  As Brian Greene, author of “The Hidden Reality” puts it, “the art of physics lies in deciding what to ignore.”  Maybe the same could be said about life in general.  Sometimes we have to learn what to ignore, what not to concentrate on, and what ultimately to let go of.

As much as I may fail at it time and time again, I think my preference always would be to try to act more like Philomena than her angry companion.  To be sure, it’s nice to be right, to fell as though we are correct in our judgments, and even our condemnations, but in the end it may just be nicer to live a life of compassion and forgiveness.  After all, as Philomena says, why exhaust ourselves?  And who knows?  Maybe someday we’ll be the ones in need of reprieve, and it is we who will be glad for those who give us a pass and ignore our weaknesses, our imperfections, and what are surely our own unfortunate shortcomings.


By Paul

I have to admit up front that I haven’t actually seen the show, but I was struck recently when I read a review by Deborah Vankin in the Los Angeles Times’ Arts and Books section (Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014) of an exhibit at LA’s Hammer Museum.  According to curator Anne Ellegood, the show, entitled Take It or Leave It, “explor(es) the intersection of art appropriation and institutional critique.”   In case you are unfamiliar with the term “art appropriation,” as I was, it appears to describe either a kind of repurposing of an object, or a referencing, either directly or indirectly, of another piece of art by an artist who is creating something new.  Some examples of pieces in the show include a giant, unadorned gingerbread house, looking (at least in the photo) a little like a kind of forlorn fairytale log cabin, and another, a towering artwork consisting entirely of text, which states: “You are here to get cultured.  To get smarter, richer, younger, angrier, funnier, skinnier, hipper, hotter, wiser, cuter, and kinder.”

In part, the exhibit and the review both attempt to explore the age-old question of what art is.  And while there can probably be no definitive answer to that question, the query is big enough to allow for lots of musing on the parts of artists, museum curators, art critics, and I suppose the general public, too.  For example, do we consider to be art an installation that consists of “jars of seafood, which he (the artist – Mark Dion) bought in a New York fish market and preserved in alcohol.  They’re meticulously lined on a shelf in a scientific fashion, as if on display at a natural history museum.”  The gist of this, and other pieces in the exhibit, appears to be an attempt to create a kind of dialog between the quotidian and the world of the creative imagination, between artist and public, including the museum itself, about what is meant by art and how and by whom it is created.  Andrew Freeman, a professor from CalArts who is quoted in the article, sees merit in appropriation, but admits too that “(i)t’s easily misunderstood.  An appropriation is putting ideas in front of skill.”

Now, that is interesting, I thought.  Can the idea behind the art be more important than its execution and presentation?  Or is art more about thinking (i.e. ideas), and perhaps less about doing?   All this led me to my own musing about art.  I have done so before, but the notions presented in this particular review (and presumably in the show itself) were provocative enough to get me going once again.  So what, I thought, does it take for something to be considered art?  What raises it above the everyday and puts it into this higher, more rarefied category of human endeavor?

For something to be considered art (as opposed to the ordinary or the accidental), I thought, we must have some kind of an infusion of the artist’s thinking or emoting, some personal vision that the artist uses, while manipulating the chosen medium, such that the medium then allows others a glimpse of that artistic vision (whatever it may be) in the product so created.  If that at least gets somewhat at the notion of what art is, I thought, then could it include jars of fish in alcohol lined up on a shelf (so long as the thing was done with artistic intent)?

Of course, this very general statement about art also immediately gives rise to the question of whether art that is not seen by others (or heard or otherwise experienced using any of the human senses) is art at all.  Put another way, can the artist create solely for him or herself alone, absent any desire or intention to share it with the other?  And while the answer, at least in the abstract, is probably “yes,” my belief is that, for the most part, indeed in almost all cases, artists create SO THAT others may in some way experience both the artist him/herself and his or her creation in a way that is both special and unique, indeed in such a way as cannot be experienced except in and through the interaction with that art.  I think this is true even if the artist says he or she does not care if anyone ever sees the piece created, or if he or she claims not to care a whit what others may think or feel or say about their art.  Otherwise, why create a perceivable product in the first place?  Why not simply think about what might be made in the total privacy of one’s own mind, and never “give it birth,” as it were, in the physical world?  It seems to me that the very act of putting something out there in the physical and perceivable universe presupposes a desire (even if that desire is deeply hidden or held largely unconsciously) to communicate to others the artist’s personal and uniquely idiosyncratic vision contained within the piece.  And if it doesn’t communicate this, then it is legitimate for us to ask how successful a piece of art it is (surely, there is “good art” and “bad art,” no?).

Another way of putting all this is that art cannot be art UNLESS it is put into some physically perceivable form.  Therefore, the artist cannot truly, or at least not fully, create except in the actual process of rendering his or her vision in a perceivable form.  Art, in other words, is not art UNTIL it is somehow presented in the material world.  Otherwise, it is just thinking about art, and not the thing itself.  Therefore, some may say, the artist has no choice but to render it “visible” (or auditory etc.), if he or she wishes to make art at all.  Does this then render mute the argument above, that artists who do not care if their work is ever experienced by others could simply “think their art” and never give it form?  The counter-argument would be that one who wishes to make art, which I claim must in some form be perceivable, would not go to the trouble of doing so unless he or she wanted it perceived.  Perceived only by him/herself?  Again, I think the likelihood is no, and for the same reasons as I list above.  Why create art at all except to in some way communicate a vision to the world of the artist’s absolutely individual and distinctive vision of the world, or some part thereof.  All art is sui generis, of its own kind, and if not, if it is only a pale replica of someone else’s personal and ultimately unrepeatable creativity, then it hardly seems worth doing at all (except perhaps by way of learning the foundations of a how to manipulate a given medium, after which the emerging artist goes on to create in his or her own special style).

Getting back to the subject of the LA Times art review, I thought it interesting that the exhibit was entitled “Take It or Leave It.”  It’s a provocative title, to be sure, and perhaps an ambiguous one, as well.  On the one hand, it could refer to an almost cynical attitude on the part of the artist regarding what people “out there” think or feel about his or her creation.  The sort of notion that seems to say, well, if you don’t get it, so much the worse for you.  On the other hand, it could also reference the very materials of the art exhibited, the gingerbread, the jars of fish in alcohol, or stuffed animals on a table (sock puppets and knitted sea creatures) etc.  To quote Andrew Freeman once again, the professor from CalArts, “You could look at the work and say, ‘He put a bunch of stuffed animals on a table’ – they don’t see evidence of his artistic hand.  But it looks like he’s talking about childhood and sexuality and projection.  It’s not meant to be a toy but psychoactive.”

Do most of us, unschooled as we may be, really consider sock puppets on a table to be a work of art, psychoactive or otherwise?  I guess it depends on what you mean by art.  Which is more or less where I started.  I’m not sure I’m any clearer now than I was before, and I will not revert to saying that I can’t describe what it is, but I know it when I see it.  Sometimes, to be honest, it takes me time to really recognize what art is, to understand not just the idea behind it, but the medium, as well.  The first modern dance piece I ever saw was a complete mystery to me, but I have since over the years been privileged to witness what I can only consider to be great masterpieces of the craft. In other words, I’ve come to know the medium a little better.  So, there is something to be said for “schooling,” even if it is of the informal type, that is, just over and over going and looking and listening.

But in the meantime, I find myself a little turned off by artists (and museums) that appear to dismiss me as naïve, if I don’t “get” it immediately. I don’t know if, by going to this exhibit, I’d be any hipper, or smarter, or wiser; definitely not richer, or cuter, or (God help us) skinnier!  But take it or leave it?  Maybe I will, but not until I’ve thought about it, and made an honest attempt to reach my own conclusions.