Sunday, December 30, 2007

Contemporary Gothic

(For grad school twice a year all students congregate in Rockport to present work and be involved in a number of academic meetings. One such meeting involves an article or paper given to us in advance that we meet together and discuss. Then we are supposed to write a response to the paper and subsequent discussion. For the November '07 retreat we discussed an article about contemporary gothic. We also spent a lot of time rehashing the previous discussion about Baudrillard. This response is more in line with our discussion about Baudrillard and only touching upon contemporary gothic. Here is my response.)

I only wrote down one sentence from our group discussion about the Contemporary Gothic paper. Ironically the sentence was given in reference to understanding Baudrillard as we discussed the previous retreat group discussion not directly in reference to the Contemporary Gothic paper. I thought I had thoroughly exhausted what I had to say on the subject but this quote opened up a new perspective relative to one of my current photographic projects.

Paraphrased the quote went something like this–Simulation supplants our definition of reality, to the point that the simulation becomes our definition. I then scribbled in this little addition—Our definition of Christ is a simulation, a definition that supersedes what he really is. Obviously my addition was a little off topic but where I am currently trying to create Christian based photographs I am constantly trying to relate ideas to my project.

I went to a lecture entitled "Depicting Jesus at the Dawn of Christian Art" given by Josh Probert. This lecture was part of a series of lectures given in conjunction with an exhibit called “Beholding Salvation – Images of Christ” held at Brigham Young Universities Museum of Art. This lecture was held earlier this year on May 10th and it has given me plenty of food for thought since then.

I will paraphrase some of the highlights for benefit of discussion. Ancient Jerusalem was a melting pot of ideas and cultures. It had no natural resource of any great consequence. When Moses was promised that he would be led to the land of milk and honey he didn’t realize that was all they were getting. One humorous observer noted that Moses wandered forty years in the desert and finally settled in the only place in the Middle East that doesn’t have any oil.

The one thing Jerusalem did have was a great deal of interaction with cultures, religions and ideas. It was a major crossroads where the inhabitants were able to interact with Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians and others as traders passed through and as they were integrated through captivity and conquest. These factors play an important role in how Christ was portrayed in early Christian art.

Some wonder if early Christians who had been raised under Mosaic Law would be tolerant of the use of images. One of the ten commandments found in Deuteronomy 5:8 states, Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth. This commandment is often interpreted as a ban on worshiping statues, idols or anything but God as God.

It was actually quite common to use symbols and images in the Jewish culture as can be seen in their currency but they were quite averse to any attempt to try and portray deity fearing this would break the aforementioned commandment. There was also the other extreme where this commandment was taken quite literally through early persecution and the iconclasm. As a result much of the early Christian art was destroyed.

One way around this prejudice was in the use of symbols instead of literal depictions such as the chi-rho, weighted anchor, fish, or Good Shepherd. It was the Jewish Christians who were averse to portraying deity literally but there were more Gentile Christians than Jewish due to the early missionary work of the apostles. These Gentile Christians were fine with showing literal depictions of deity.

The manner in how Christ was portrayed evolved through formed enculturation. Instead of tearing down a peoples culture and starting from scratch you instead use their language and their knowledge to build upon. When preaching in Athens the apostle Paul referenced the temple of the Unknown God and declared that this was the God he was preaching about. The title of the Good Shepherd was not a new Christian title; it was a kingly phrase that people were familiar with. By calling himself the Good Shepherd Christ was claiming to be a king that watched over and protected his people. By using language and symbols that were readily known that gave his role context that people could easily comprehend.

Symbols that we readily accept as Christian today, were often a regurgitation of what other cultures were already using in their depiction of God. The early Christians were more concerned with the characteristics of Christ than they were with the actual Christ. The Good Shepherd is not the only example of this enculturation. Christ was often portrayed with a wand to demonstrate his trait as a miracle worker. The circle of light shown behind the heads of Christ and his saints arose from representation of the Greek god Helios (The God of Light) as a way to teach – “I am the light.” During the 4th and 5th century Christ grew a beard and long hair to invoke comparisons in the mind of the people to the Roman God Jupiter. Use of the mandorla (Body halo) was of Buddhist descent to demonstrate divinity. Use of the crucifix did not materialize until the 5th century even though the sign of the cross was in use as early as the 2nd century.

Even the Christian holidays we celebrate today were replacements to celebrations already in practice by the people, Christmas being the prime example. In Rome there were three holidays celebrated at the end of the year: Saturnalia (a celebration of Saturn the God of agriculture), Juvenalia (a feast honoring the children of Rome), and celebrating the birth of Mithra the God of the unconquerable sun on December 25th. In the 4th Century the church decided to begin celebrating the birth of Christ and Pope Julius I chose December 25th as the day to celebrate, even though there is more evidence that he was born in the spring.

By choosing a date that coincided with the traditional pagan celebrations of winter solstice the church was able to destroy these old traditions. By providing an alternative it increased the likelihood that the new celebration would be embraced by the masses. More importantly to the church, it gave them a way to almost completely supplant pagan religion by Christianity.

While serving my mission in Florida I remember the initial shock of seeing paintings of a black Christ and apostles complete with dread locks. I had the same trepidation when I first encountered versions of the bible such as the Ebonics Bible, or the Rap Bible. I remember thinking that it was ignorant and border line blasphemy to create an alternate Christ simply to ease conscience or make it socially or politically correct to worship him.

I was later having a discussion with a colleague when she mentioned the term “Surfer Jesus” in reference to a painting we were reproducing. I was slightly offended by the term but upon hearing her definition and a few years casual reflection I realized the corollary between images in Mormon’s artistic circles to my disdain for the African-centric images I encountered in Florida. The Mormon Jesus was not Jewish either. Instead of being painted to look like a Jewish carpenter he was being represented as a Caucasian dreamboat with a Californian surfer twist.

The artists were guilty of doing what people have done since the dawn of time. I remember being taught that man was created in the image of God. In practice, if the God we are taught about disagrees with our own philosophy or wants then we recreate him (her) in our own image. We want a God that we can relate to or that can be used to accomplish our own ambitions. If you want the real answer to why there are so many churches in the world you need look no further than that. We are too busy making God live up to our expectations to allow ourselves to live up to his.

I have heard many assertions that the Mormon Church that I adhere to is not a Christian faith. This is a notion that had always flabbergasted me. The official name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Every Sunday School lesson and sermon in church I experienced had Christ as its central premise and meetings began and ended in his name. I was counseled to always remember him and to take his name upon me and that only through him and his atonement could I be saved. How could we not be Christian?

This discussion helped me find a possible resolution at best, an explanation at least. It’s not that we are not Christian in the literal definition as one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is simply that all professing Christian’s each have there own simulations, which have supplanted our definition of reality, to the point that the simulation has become our definition. Any differing interpretations are a threat since if someone else’s God is correct that would make our own God wrong and that is threatening since we have chosen the God that we like the best.

Some believe in the holy trinity as declared in the Nicene Creed. Some believe that God is female. Some believe that there is no God. Some believe in the jihad god of Islam. Some believe in the peaceful God of Islam. Some worship the devil. All of these definitions, mine included, become superfluous to this discussion. I am content to acknowledge that there is a possibility that a God may exist.

The details are not important; I’m just tired of looking at God from an individual’s perspective. There are two dominant theories to explain our existence, the big bang theory and evolution on one hand and then creationism on the other. I don’t even care if you use the big bang theory and evolution as the vehicles for how God created life. Anything is possible.

Using the assumption that there is a divine creator, logic stands that there can be only one accurate depiction of this being or force. In Harry Potter there is a creature called a Bogart that takes on a different appearance every time somebody else looks at it based on the worst fears of that individual. Unlikely that divinity would take this approach because that would make us the Gods and God the puppet. That means that the majority if not the entire population have created their own personal Jesus/fill in the blank. Our simulations have supplanted the actual being. Conversely, we can take the Atheist/Contemporary Gothic explanation that Christian imagery is simply a simulation of a simulation of a simulation of something that never really existed.

I notice this trend in so many aspects of our life. I think a number of divorces are a result of one partner not living up to a preconceived notion of what they should be by the other partner. How many times have you heard the rational for not liking a book, a movie, or a program in college simply because it was not what they expected? How many times have you heard someone say that a movie was not as good as the book and the only rational given for the dislike was that they changed things? Or maybe the characters were not portrayed how you pictured them.

One weird phenomenon that I have experienced is that when I complain about a movie this way, if I revisit the book the portrayals that I had, have been replaced by the movies interpretation. Seeing movie destroys your imagination and you cannot revisit the book without envisioning the movies descriptions instead of you own.

*(I have included the original creation by Jim Krantz on top and then also the offering by Richard Prince below)

I use a critique of photographers based on my definition of photography. An example of this would be the work of Richard Prince who re-photographs others photographs. I would not define him as a photographer. I would define him as a critic. His work shows none of the skills, vision or execution that I use to critique other photographers. True he does use a camera but other than that he cannot fit into my simulation.

As I have tried to research him I have found many critics that adore his work. I have also found many photographers that despise him. I think the explanation for this polar divide is that each group has a definition for how things should be done. He works along the mindset of the critic where he uses his images to make a statement about what photography is doing. He uses a camera like a critic uses a word processor. An analysis of his work is that it is a critique of the meanings we take for granted. Prince acknowledges this separation in his own words:

“There wasn’t really a plan. I’ve never been included in any photography-based survey, museum show, photo magazine. I’ve heard that Peter Galassi hates my work. That he would never acknowledge it in the photo department at MoMA. I think he’s wrong. I think my photo work is all about photography. But there was never an idea about where the work was going at the beginning when I started to re-photograph images. When you don’t have any training in a particular medium you can bring something to it that hasn’t been brung (sic). I “brung” the sheriff and I shot him. I killed photography. Maybe they hated that. I always look for my name in Photography mags but I never see it. Maybe I should have “rescued” photography.”

Richard Prince’s art is not one of photography; it is the art of spin. It is a critique not a creation. His work requires the creations of others for his work to have any validity. Even if Prince doesn’t acknowledge that commercial work has an author he needs the original artist far more than the artist needs him.

The problem I find with this train of logic is it doesn’t offer solutions it only makes observations. My not liking Richard Prince or seeing Christ portrayed in varying nationalities does not change their existence or their validity to other people. If anything it helps to understand other people. If we will stop and try to reverse engineer how other people ended up with their simulation before we reject it straightaway for differing with our own we may actually learn something.


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