Art and the Artist

By Jin-yeong Yi

HAL 9000

The naked eye

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

—Pablo Picasso

“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”

—Jackson Pollock

“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”

—Paul Klee

The Victorian Bedroom at DalgarvenVincent van Gogh - Bedroom in Arles

In my view, the point of art isn’t to perfectly replicate something. If it were, cameras and computers would be the best artists. As artists like Eugène Delacroix, Remembrandt van Rijn, Henri Matisse, and Vincent van Gogh demonstrated, the “point” of art, if there is one, is to express one’s unique perspective of something. It’s sort of like the difference between typing and writing by hand in that one’s personality comes through in the latter. That, for me, is the beauty of art: the subjective human eye sees something that the coldly objective camera eye does not…one might go so far as to say that all humans are artists simply by virtue of being human. One doesn’t need to be a virtuoso in order to capture something and make it one’s own. In this respect, the clumsiest scribble of a small child has more artistic value than a snapshot of the most powerful digital camera.

Theotokos of VladimirLeonardo da Vinci - Madonna Litta

Consider Frithjof Schuon’s discussion of art in The Transcendent Unity of Religions:

“The majority of moderns who claim to understand art are convinced that Byzantine or Romanesque art is in no way superior to modern art, and that a Byzantine or Romanesque Virgin resembles Mary no more than do her naturalistic images, in fact rather the contrary. The answer is, however, quite simple: the Byzantine Virgin—which traditionally goes back to St. Luke and the Angels—is infinitely closer to the truth of Mary than a naturalistic image, which of necessity is always that of another woman. Only one of two things is possible: either the artist presents an absolutely correct portrait of the Virgin from a physical point of view, in which case it will be necessary for the artist to have seen the Virgin, a condition that cannot easily be fulfilled—setting aside the fact that all purely naturalistic painting is illegitimate—or else the artist will present a perfectly adequate symbol of the Virgin, but in this case physical resemblance, without being absolutely excluded, is no longer at all in question. It is this second solution that is realized in icons; what they do not express by means of a physical resemblance they express by the abstract but immediate language of symbolism, a language that is built up of precision and imponderables both together. Thus the icon, in addition to the beatific power that is inherent in it by reason of its sacramental character, transmits the holiness or inner reality of the Virgin and hence the universal reality of which the Virgin herself is an expression; in suggesting both a contemplative experience and a metaphysical truth, the icon becomes a support of intellection, whereas a naturalistic image transmits—apart from its obvious and inevitable falsehood—only the fact that Mary was a woman. It is true that in the case of a particular icon, it may happen that the proportions and features are those of the living Virgin, but such a likeness, if it really came to pass, would be independent of the symbolism of the image and could only be the result of a special inspiration. Naturalistic art could moreover be legitimate up to a certain point if it were used exclusively to record the features of the saints, since the contemplation of saints (the Hindu darshan) can be a very precious help in the spiritual way, owing to the fact that their outward appearance conveys, as it were, the perfume of their spirituality; but the use in this limited manner of a partial and disciplined naturalism corresponds only to a very remote possibility.”[1]  

Vincent van Gogh - Paul Gauguin's ArmchairHenri Matisse - Fruit and Coffeepot

William Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Aldous Huxley spoke of how mescaline made even commonplace objects, such as chairs, vivid and enchanting.[2] Art is not so much about the subject itself, but the way in which it is rendered on canvas, because the way in which something is perceived and interpreted is more important than the thing itself. In this way, we can see how everyday objects or scenery, no matter how mundane, can be worth painting or drawing. Art, like dreams, is one of the means by which the ordinary can be made into the extraordinary.

Notes

[1] From Chapter 4 (“Concerning Forms in Art”)

[2] The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

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We All Live on The Rack

By Jin-yeong Yi

Torture of Cuthbert Simpson

“Life is algid, life is fulgid. Life is what the least of us make the most of us feel the least of us make the most of. Life is a burgeoning, a quickening of the dim primordial urge in the murky wastes of time.”

—W. V. Quine

“LIFE: To be born in imbecility, in the midst of pain and crisis to be the plaything of ignorance, error, need, sickness, wickedness, and passions; to return step by step to imbecility, from the time of lisping to that of doting; to live among knaves and charlatans of all kinds; to die between one man who takes your pulse and another who troubles your head; never to know where you come from, why you come and where you are going! That is what is called the most important gift of our parents and nature. Life.”

—Denis Diderot, L’Encyclopédie

I think a lot of people would agree that life is neither sweet nor bitter, but bittersweet. But just about everyone would agree that to live is to suffer.

Life is a great tornado, a maelstrom. It is a monster that chews on you until your last days. You have no way of knowing whether you’ll still be in one piece when it finally spits you out.

One of my favorite songs by Asphyx is “The Rack,” which is the final song on their debut album. The lyrics are about medieval Christian torture, but to me the song means much more: both the lyrics and the music describe the human condition itself. The world is a torture chamber. The world is The Rack.

Asphyx – “The Rack”

In the dungeon
Deep under ground
A morbid fear
Palpitations, unbearable pound
Footstep outside the stairway
Executioners’s arrival
A sinister procession
Grim macabre tribunal
Heretical pervert
Inexorable judge
The sentence is death
By the grace of the church
Inside the torture chamber
The smell of blood and pain
Iron is glowing in pits of fire
Instruments of the insane
The Rack: Altar of blood
The Rack: Altar of pain
Suffocate in blood
Bones pulverized
Mutilated tissue
Evisceration
Sawed off limbs
Emasculation
Human leftovers
A smouldering mess
Atrocious perfomance
Methods of madness
Inside the torture chamber
Instruments covered with stains
The rack has taken his victim
Beyond the boundaries of pain

The Other Artistic Contribution of Christianity

By Jin-yeong Yi

Inverted pentagram (black)

“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

“Rebellion is the salt of the earth.”

—Joseph McCabe

Who says that good things haven’t come out of Christianity? Many artistic geniuses have utilized its symbols to yield what are widely hailed as great achievements, such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, and Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, to name a few. But there is another, lesser known breed of art that this religion has produced: death metal and black metal. It hardly needs to be pointed out that these musical forms would never have existed if it weren’t for Christianity.

Writing in 1905, Christian philosopher and apologist G. K. Chesterton observed:

“Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.”[1]

Writing 102 years later, atheist conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple protested against the increasing hostility toward religion:

“The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.”[2]

In the same year, atheist feminist and cultural critic Camille Paglia argued that “only religion can save the arts”:

“Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.”[3]

When one listens to diabolical masterpieces[4] such as Morbid Angel’s The Altars of Madness, Incantation’s Onward to Golgotha, Necrophobic’s The Nocturnal Silence, Profanatica’s Profanatitas de Domonatia, Havohej’s Dethrone the Son of God, Cryptopsy’s None So Vile, Demoncy’s Joined in Darkness, or Immolation’s Close to a World Below, and imbibes and delights in their unholy glory day after day, one is tempted to agree.

Would the world have been better off without Christianity? Maybe, maybe not. Part of the answer depends on subjective values and the other part depends on whether it is possible to travel back in time and conduct historical control experiments. Either way, I, for one, am thankful for the art that has been made in rebellion against it. Along with classical music and cathedrals, death metal and black metal are part of the legacy of the most beloved and most hated religion that the world has ever known.

Ah, ’tis verily a good age to be a blasphemer.

Notes

[1] Heretics by G. K. Chesterton

[2] “What the New Atheists Don’t See” by Theodore Dalrymple

[3] “Religion and the Arts in America” by Camille Paglia

[4] See the deathmetal.org article, “The most blasphemous devil metal,” for more recommended listening.

The White Race: The Immortal Blemish of Human History?

By Jin-yeong Yi

In 1967, the late Susan Sontag wrote:

“Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.”

She later changed her mind about the last sentence, stating that it was an insult to cancer patients.

I’m not sure if she wasn’t just trolling, but seriously? Seriously? C’mon Ms. Sontag… You did mention some of their more recent contributions, but don’t you think you’re still selling them a bit short?

White art?

Raphael - The School of AthensVincent van Gogh - The Starry Night

White architecture?

ParthenonColosseum

White literature?

BeowulfChaucer as a pilgrim

White mathematics?

Desargues' theoremDifferential calculusIntegral calculus

White philosophy?

SocratesPlatoAristotleDemocritus

White science?

Leonardo da Vinci - Vitruvian ManCharles Darwin - The Descent of ManThomas Edison's original carbon-filament bulb

White religion?

AthenaHeinrich Fueger - Prometheus Brings Fire to MankindApollo

White classical music?

Johann Sebastian BachLudwig van BeethovenJohannes Brahms

White heavy metal?

Really, where exactly would humankind be without the “white race?”

Why I Listen to Heavy Metal

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Art, in its highest expression, explains our existence to us, both the particularities of the artist’s own time and the universals of all time, or at least of all human history. It transcends transience and therefore reconciles us to the most fundamental condition of our existence.”

—Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left Of It

People seem to think that fans of heavy metal listen to it mainly to look tough or to offend their parents. In other words, they seem to think that the fans listen to metal for other people, not themselves. While I definitely suspect that there is truth to this, I think the actual reasons for listening to metal are far more complex.

Then again, fans of heavy metal listen to it for different reasons, and different combinations thereof, so I can only really speak for myself (assuming that I have an accurate understanding of the neural activity going on in my brain).

For me, the shock value and the rest are a bonus. I would still listen to heavy metal, especially death metal and black metal, if I were to spend the rest of my life on a desert island. Even if there was nothing to be stressed or angry about, I’d still subject myself to the vicious onslaught of Cryptopsy, Suffocation, Immolation, and Dismember. Even if there was no one to frighten or disturb, I’d still enter the twisted worlds of Godflesh, Infester, Beherit, and Demoncy. Even if there was no one to shock or offend, I’d still revel in the blasphemous hymns of Profanatica, Deicide, Necrophobic, and Hypocrisy. Even if there was no one to confound, I’d still immerse myself in the abstract aural labyrinths of Atheist, Demilich, and Gorguts. Even if there was no one to dazzle, I’d still mesmerize myself with the majestic grandeur of Summoning, Enslaved, and Sacramentum.

I listen to metal primarily because of what it does for me. The buzz saw guitars, the machine gun percussion, and the demonic vocals are pleasing to my ears, perhaps in a semi-masochistic way. It gives me a kind of experience that no other musical genre–including classical music–can give me. It gives musical expression to the dark side of the experience of being human, namely fear, alienation, hatred, and emptiness, as well as to a desire and determination to not only endure these things, but also transcend them. Metal helps to keep me grounded in reality (or at least what I perceive to be reality), and gives expression to my view that “real” life is not a fairy tale, but rather a nightmare that I can either make the best of or escape altogether.

By tackling ugliness, darkness, and death head-on, metal for me simultaneously and paradoxically affirms the antitheses of those things with a unique language of sublime beauty and savage brutality. Perhaps that is why I feel most alive when listening to it.

Recommended Listening 

Cryptopsy – “Benedictine Convulsions” (None So Vile)

Suffocation – “Infecting the Crypts” (Human Waste)

Immolation – “Close to a World Below” (Close to a World Below)

Dismember – “Override of the Overture” (Like an Everflowing Stream)

Godflesh – “Streetcleaner” (Streetcleaner)

Infester – “Chamber of Reunion” (To the Depths… In Degradation)

Beherit – “Six Days with Lord Diabolus” (Beast of Beherit)

Demoncy – “Impure Blessings (Dark Angel of the Four Wings)” (Joined in Darkness)

Profanatica – “A Fallen God, Dethroned in Heaven” (Profanatitas de Domonatia)

Deicide – “Satan Spawn, the Caco-Daemon” (Legion)

Necrophobic – “Where Sinners Burn” (The Nocturnal Silence

Hypocrisy – “God is a…” (Penetralia)

Atheist – “Piece of Time” (Piece of Time)

Demilich – “When the Sun Drank the Weight of Water” (Nespithe)

Gorguts – “Clouded” (Obscura)

Summoning – “Nightshade Forests” (Dol Guldur)

Enslaved – “Vetrarnott” (Vikingligr Veldi)

Sacramentum – “When Night Surrounds Me” (Far Away from the Sun)

Giving the Devil His Due (or, The Case for Satan)

By Jin-yeong Yi

Inverted pentagram (white)

“There are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against another.”

—Edouard Manet

“Rebellion is the salt of the earth.”

—Joseph McCabe

“If God and the Devil were playing football, Manon would be the stadium that they played in, he would be the sun that shined down on them.”

—Nancy Downs, The Craft

Without Contraries is no progression.
Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy,
Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason.
Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven.
Evil is Hell.

—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

“I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me:

That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, and there is none else.

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

—The Bible, Isaiah 45:5-7 (King James Version)

Where would Star Wars be without Darth Vader? The Lord of the Rings without Sauron? The Matrix without Agent Smith? Where would the traditional Christian narrative be without Satan?

Now, I don’t believe that Father Satan actually exists, but I do tend to take Him seriously as a symbol. Where would God be without an antithesis, without something to provide juxtaposition and conflict? For me, Satan is a reminder that we can’t have light without darkness, purity without corruption, pleasure without pain, sweetness without bitterness, elation without disappointment, joy without sorrow, kindness without cruelty, love without hatred, nobleness without baseness, beauty without ugliness, life without death. Even as I try to avoid the hideous and horrible side of life, I can’t help but think that without it, or the knowledge of it, or at least the ability to imagine it, life would be lifeless.

Of course, Satan and His relationship with God can be perceived in different ways, in the same way that in Hinduism the various aspects of Brahman can be expressed in a plethora of different theologies. There are at least two ways of looking at the relationship: the orthodox perspective, according to which Satan is an independently operating antagonist of God (though not equal to God); and an unorthodox monistic perspective, according to which Satan and God are equal aspects of a single, unified Godhead.

Either way, by contradicting God, Satan complements God, intentionally or not. Satan conspires with God in painting upon the canvas of space-time the picture of all existence. Without Satan, Life would not be Life. For this reason, the more daring among Christian religious naturalists might consider dedicating a small altar to the Prince of Darkness in their churches, if only as a concrete reminder of the indispensable role He plays in the grand design and drama of the cosmos.

The Magic of Fiction

By Jin-yeong Yi

“A true story, or one taken as true, doesn’t need embellishment and it doesn’t need artistic interpretation. Its truth gives it an intrinsic interest, and that’s enough.
Fiction, on the other hand, is offered as an invention—a lie. The fiction writer’s task is not to tell the literal truth, but to lie artfully—to lie so well that the reader’s interest is engaged as if he were reading the truth.”

—Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction

“Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcends, his own limitations and flaws. Without art—or the arts—there is only flux.”

—Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left Of It

“Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination.”

—Bertrand Russell

“‘What is there?’ It can be answered, moreover, in a word—‘Everything’—and everyone will accept this answer as true.”

—W. V. Quine

The power of fiction continues to amaze me. While I’m aware of the brain’s propensity for misinterpreting data and generating illusions[1], I still can’t help but find it remarkable how one can have real emotions about imaginary people and events while being fully aware that they are not real. A fictional story is essentially one big lie from start to finish, and yet we often have no trouble swallowing one whole. Yes, there is a difference between facts and truths, and fiction can illustrate truths, but that’s beside the point. Again, what I find astonishing is that we treat imaginary people as if they are real, even when we know that they are not real. We can react to them in any number of ways. We can get angry with them. We can get annoyed by them. We can share their disappointments and elations, their joys and sorrows. We can fall in love with them. We can even envy them (yes, envy people who don’t exist!). And surely most of us can think of at least one fictional person that our world would be poorer without.

We treat the worlds of novels and movies as if they were parallel universes that actually exist. Of course, imaginary people can “exist” independently of novels and movies; they don’t need a world of their own in order for us to perceive them as “real.” (That’s why virtual pop singer Hatsune Miku has fans from around the world who go to her concerts when they get the chance.)

Also, I find that fiction makes the most sense when I view it as a dream. From this perspective, plotholes, as well as realism and plausibility in general, aren’t exactly of earth-shattering importance. It’s imaginative fiction. It’s a dream, not a documentary. Dreams are often logically inconsistent and are not infrequently downright absurd, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be enjoyable or edifying, or even enlightening and life-changing. Why must fantasy be brought down to the level of reality? Is not the fundamental goal of fiction to convey an experience, which is something that can be appreciated with or without the element of realism?

When it comes to objective reality, probabilities trump possibilities. But when it comes to subjective fantasy, possibilities far and away trump probabilities.

Notes

[1] See You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman