Musee des Beaux Arts // W. H. Auden

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.




“stubborn tiny lights vs. clustering darkness forever ok?” // J.M.W. Turner


Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge. Really. You need to see this one up close.



“You have to carry the fire.”

I don’t know how to.”

Yes, you do.”

Is the fire real? The fire?”

Yes it is.”

Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”

– Cormac McCarthy, The Road





Turner is one of my favorite painters, so I was excited to discover that the Yale Center for British Art has a room dedicated to his work. The collection ranges from his early almost-crystalline paintings to his mature style. “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” is among these later paintings, and I was struck when I saw it hanging on the wall, having never come across it in books or online. At first glance, it looks typical of Turner: a nautical scene, a pending storm, wrapped in haze.




“Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Road




The steamer is leaving the light and seeming security of the island, heading into darkness. The sun is before it, but it is setting. Readers of this blog are largely on board with the idea of confronting the unknown. But here’s where Turner’s genius shines through: with the smallest gesture of his brush, he calls us deeper into darkness.





The absence of light is its own stubborn light –

no light is a light,

no light is the true light,

and there is no light so there is a light so there is no light so there is a light!

Though we’ve been denied too much hope in our lives

let tonight be the night when it ends.

-Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, There Is A Light




In the darkest part of the canvas, and with the slightest bit of  paint, Turner keeps the fire burning. Hot coals radiate from within the steamer. This is not the fire of optimism: many of Turner’s finest paintings prominently feature shipwrecks. But it is a fire, burning hidden, carried across the waves.






The clip below is a high-quality live performance of “There Is A Light”.

Hang on darlin’
Chant aloud
This boy’s lost his thunder
Amongst the dirty clouds

Dull white starlite,
pale as the morning falls away.

The devil each dawn,
and flat greys upon,
we’re torn asunder neath his gaze.

So c’mon ye children,
if there’s one thing we know,
it’s that them gathering clouds are swinging low.

So don’t you be precious,
man don’t you be meek,
there ain’t no damn glory in the long retreat.

Go call the fuzz,
they’ll shine their lights on us,
we’ve been building in the dark,
there’s so many of us.

Now blinking in the light,
there’s so many of us.

Illuminated and proud,
there’s so many of us.

But there ain’t no truth but the no truth but the not truth, yeah!
Ain’t no thing but the nothing but the nothing, yeah!
Ain’t no fall but the long fall is a long fall, yeah!
And there ain’t no light but the true light is a dim light, yeah!

But I’ve been waiting and longing for that light to fall all over me.

6 and 6 parsons and he doth proclaim that the best little bits of us misfits and strays
make a light in the night that needs to be shamed,
all for some none for all,
and all fallen the same.

And we surrender the stage to those pale horse riders.

Go forth, man
Get down,
With a mighty fist and a retarded crown,
do the one-step the two-step,
Sweet jubilee!
And show me the light, goddamn!

And lay me down in a bed full of rain.

Yeah shit is bleak – we’ve seen it and worried,
our timid leaps get knee-deep and buried,
entire weeks where I swear I can barely rise.

Electrical fits,
tantrums and prayers,
pride un-does what mercy repairs,
the pits of this,
toss a match to it and start again.

The absence of light is its own stubborn light – no light is a light,
no light is the true light,
and there is no light so there is a light so there is no light so there is a light!

Though we’ve been denied too much hope in our lives
let tonight be the night when it ends.

Tell me there is a light!
There is a light!


Night Song // Osip Mandelstam

Night Song

by Osip Mandelstam


The bread is blight and the air’s acetylene,

Wounds impossible to doctor.

Joseph, by his own blood bartered

Off to Egypt, grieved for home no harder.


Unslaked sky. Sleetlight of stars.

And the stallioned Bedouins, avatars

Of the day’s vagueness, and the pain

Of vagueness, close their eyes and improvise


Out of nothing more than the mist

Of events through which they’ve passed:

Coarse wind, a horse traded for grain, small wars

With sand in which an arrow was lost.


And if the song’s in search of earth, and if the song’s

Ensouled, then everything vanishes

To void, and the stars by which it’s known,

And the voice that lets it all be and be gone.






Translated by Christian Wiman

Yeh I’ve Been Searchin’ // Bas Jan Ader


Fall II, 1970






Broken Fall (Geometric), 1971

It’s not uncommon for an artist to reflect on human fragility and vulnerability in her work.

What I see in Bas Jan Ader is an intense fragility, a deliberate fragility.

This isn’t a heroic pose, claiming acceptance of the human condition.

This is a move beyond acceptance to embrace.

The movement in Ader’s work deliberately increases his vulnerability.




















There is nothing more vulnerable than the search.

To seek is to bear witness to what we lack, and to our desire to find.

To search is to be open to failure, to loss, to getting lost, to being lost.

Seeking makes us vulnerable to not finding.

Seeking also makes us vulnerable to finding.

If our search is honest, we can’t predict what we’ll find, or lose.










Six months after he attempted to cross the Atlantic in a 12 1/2 ft. sailing boat, his boat was found off the coast of Ireland.


Bas Jan Ader went in search of the miraculous.












Prie-Dieu // Donald (Grady) Davidson


By Donald (Grady) Davidson


Of what sins have you made confession here,
Ardent Cecile? Not passion’s intimacy,
Or tangles of desire that mutineer
A bold way through your maiden ecstasy.
Those are not blamed…the penance not severe!


Pray rather, with cool-lidded conscious eyes
For warm juvescence of those ichored limbs,
For laughter checked by no repentant cries,
For lips unstained by pattering of hymns.
Men’s glances have embraced you. They are wise.


They have seen you, cumbent by the ruddy fire,
Lending your curves to cushioned wantonness,
Or leaping to the stroke of an earthy lyre
Twanged in the joy of throbbing noon’s excess
And cried no pause for love. You, they require.


Of what sins have you made confession here,
Ardent Cecile? The wood receives your knees;
The organ stirs your prayer. Now you revere
The God that made you beautiful among these,
The gnarled and ugly. Your book receives no tear.

Descending Theology: The Resurrection // Mary Karr

Descending Theology: The Resurrection

by Mary Karr


From the far star points of his pinned extremities,

cold inched back in – black ice and blood ink –

till the hung flesh was empty. Lonely in that void

even for pain, he missed his splintering feet,

the human stare buried in his face.

He ached for two hands made of meat

he could reach to the end of.

In the corpse’s core, the stone fist of his heart


began to bang on the stiff chest’s door,

and breath spilled back into that battered shape. Now

it’s your limbs he longs to flow into –

from the sunflower center of your chest

outward – as warm water

shatters at birth, rivering every way.


“Tomorrow We Believe, But Not Today” // Stephan Doitschinoff


This collection of Doitshchinoff’s work is a riff on the story of St. Expeditus, a Roman centurion and early Christian. When Expeditus decided to convert, the devil sent a crow, crying “Cras! Cras!”, Latin for “Tomorrow”. Expeditus responded by crushing the bird’s skull, declaring, “Hodie!”, “Today!”


Doitshchinoff, a Brazilian artist, is the son of an evangelical pastor. In his teens, he began branching out, exploring anarchism, shamanism, punk, entheogens, Freud, Jung, Russian mob tattoo codes. His concerns are political, ecological, cultural; a man stunned by our inability to confront ourselves and the worlds we’ve created. As a result, manifold symbol systems are at play in his work, calling for the decision (if not the religion) of St. Expeditus.



“Inside Out Outside In”, installation at Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo, Sao Paolo, Brazil, 2009. Click to enlarge.












To my eye, Doitschinoff’s work draws out the contradictions and tensions that define our days, pulling the poles apart, and cramming the space between with signs. Part of our struggle is the difficulty of decision in the absence of an absolute perspective. The skull of Adam resting at the foot of Doitschinoff’s crucifixion points to this. In Renaissance Christian art, the cross was often depicted as resting on the skull and bones of Adam: Christ overcoming death, which Adam brought into the world. In Doitschinoff’s engagement with this tradition, however, he makes a subtle move. The observer sees Adam’s skull inverted, its jaw broken. Death defeated. From the perspective of the cross, however, the skull is upright, undefeated. A parallax results, in which neither view captures reality. The status of death is in some way undecidable, and so calls for a response, a risky step into the void between. A step to be dared today, not “Tomorrow.”




Q: Science or Religion? A: Art

When people learn that I have a background in physics and am now studying theology, they are often surprised, seeing the two pursuits as divergent. I often stumble through some inadequate explanation that both fields ask “the big questions”, so really, I’ve just been doing one thing this whole time.

And there’s something to that, but that’s just a shorthand way of explaining my interests.

Of course, I’ve gone to grad school in both fields, so these aren’t just casual interests. Both pursuits stem from my insatiable curiosity coupled with my anxious, all-too-often desperate, need-to-know. To know what? Everything. And that just gets exhausting.

There’s a question certain music fans like to ask to sort out someone’s tastes, “Beatles or Stones?” My answer, invariably, is “Velvets”. There’s just too much that gets left out of the Lennon/McCartney vs Jagger/Richards dichotomy. Namely, Lou Reed. The underside, the dark side, the wild side, the truth.

That’s where I’ve come in my travels in science and religion. Both have helped me immensely (which is more than I can say for the Beatles). Yet neither has the corner on reality. Something more is needed that moves beyond the confines of each while simultaneously calling out something more from each. Art doesn’t trump science or religion, art stands as a reminder that there is no trump. That any claim of trump is bullshit.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to post works from some of my favorite visual artists. People who have called me out on my pretensions, and have opened me up to worlds I hadn’t imagined. I’m not going to say a whole lot about what I share. I might offer some context or share a little of why the artist or piece matters to me. Mainly, though, I just want to bear witness to a little of what I’ve seen that has helped me see better. I hope you find something good here.

Music, 2013

2013 was a strange year for me. I lived in two new cities. I experienced major changes I hadn’t been anticipating. And I didn’t listen to any new releases in free jazz or noise. I did discover some fantastic music, and the music made a huge difference in a year of huge differences. So here’s the new music I was listening to that was released (more or less) in 2013.

CHVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe

The beauty, the pain, and the synths combined on this album in a way that connected with something that had always been missing somehow.

Converge, All We Love We Leave Behind
2013 was the year I rediscovered hardcore and metal, and Converge has long been my favorite (maybe it’s because they pioneered the whole metalcore thing, maybe it’s the religious iconography, mostly it’s the relentlessness). This album floored me.

LCD Soundsystem, Discography
I’m late to this party, but LCD Soundsystem seem like the types to appreciate a good afterparty. And their discography matched my year to a T: age, loss, joy, friends, and dancing.

Beyonce, Beyonce
Just go watch the visual album. And then watch it again. And then watch it again and take notes. And then watch it again. Also recommended: watch it with someone you love.

White LungSorry
Punk. Full tilt.

LordePure Heroine
After CHVRCHES, Lorde confirmed my movement toward listening to pop. Have mercy.

Birds in RowYou, Me, & The Violence
“French hardcore” means different things to different people, I suppose…

The Naked and Famous, Discography
This is the kind of sharp pop I started to discover this year. A bit over the top. And that’s just perfect.

The Ex & Brass UnboundEnormous Door
One of my favorite bands returned with a subtle and dynamic record. So much bounce, so much roar. The Ex doing what they do best: collaborating with friends and inviting the rest of us to the party.

Hands down my favorite album, and the record that drew me back toward metal and hardcore. I love albums as total works, and this one ranks among my favorites. (Other favorites: The Roots,  Things Fall Apart, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, Radiohead, OK Computer, Sonic Youth Daydream Nation). YES. Sunbather is THAT good.