Saturday, January 16, 2010

Creation Destruction Deconstruction Delight

Before I wrote the previous essay on this blog, The Space of Creation, I typed the title of this one. I thought I was going to write about the tense relationship between Creation and Destruction, and relate that to the literary technique of Deconstruction as well as to Mark Taylor’s writings on Delight.
As usual, best-laid plans. The other essay is what came out of that effort.

So here I am again, looking at the words “Creation” and “Destruction”, and trying to figure out what I want to say. Certainly one thought I want to put down is that these two notions, like Heaven//Earth, Light//Dark and others that I have written about, form an oppositional pair whose definitions are inextricably linked to and dependent on each other. And the evidence of that in the Bible runs throughout not only the stories of Genesis – in which God repeatedly creates and destroys and creates again and threatens destruction (think of the Creation, Cain and Abel, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the plagues of Egypt) but throughout the Biblical history that culminates, for Christians, in the Crucifixion//Resurrection.
Then there is the idea that in order to create, one inevitably destroys. This can be as prosaic a notion as that through the act of writing, one destroys the purity of the blank page, consumes graphite or ink and ultimately destroys the writing instrument (in the case of the computer, on which I am writing now, I see the evidence in keys with letters worn off. I know, too, that I have already had to replace a hard drive and mother board on this particular instrument of creation). On a more spiritual level, the expression of thought is a process of selection, of making choices that first privilege one thought over another and, possibly, destroy the outcast thoughts.

When I talked about this in church, my pastor responded with the concept of transformation as an alternative to destruction. And that makes sense. Certainly that is what is expressed in scientific terms in the First Law of Thermodynamics.

And yet, although energy and matter may be preserved when a person, a place or a thing is reduced to rubble and ash, a form is destroyed. In some real sense, the “creation” is destroyed even though the substance may be transformed at an elemental and energetic level.

That’s not terribly different from the destruction of the Earth through mining that provides minerals used to produce paint used by the artist, or the destruction of trees to produce wood used by the carpenter.
I don’t know that there’s anything terribly profound in those thoughts, but it is something I keep in mind.

In raising this subject to my class, I used two examples of works of contemporary art that caused controversy through their explorations of creation and destruction. The first, “Piss Christ,” is a photograph by the American artist Andres Serrano that depicts a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine. This photograph became the subject of congressional hearings in 1987 after it was awarded a prize funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

On its own, without description, "Piss Christ" can be viewed as a beautiful image: Christ on the cross bathed in a golden light. The controversy came because the artist chose to name and describe his technique, one that combined a symbol that many consider holy with the artist’s excreted bodily fluid. There are many ways to interpret the meaning of Serrano’s work, but I choose to look at it as an example of the creative//destructive tension. As such, I think it merits discussion, not the kind of mindless outrage heaved at it by Senators Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato. I don’t ask you to like “Piss Christ,” but I insist that it is a serious work that deserves serious appreciation.

The second work of art I showed was “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a painting by the Nigerian-born British artist Chris Ofili. This work also became the target of ignorant outrage when it was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the late 1990s. Then-Mary Rudy Giuliani unleashed a tirade of abuse based on the fact that one of the materials Ofili used in the composition was elephant dung. He also surrounded the portrait of the virgin with pictures of women’s derrieres and pudenda cut from pornographic magazines.

Again, I find the work beautiful, and one that merits serious consideration. Elephants and their detritus are considered holy in parts of Africa, a fact which may or may not have informed Ofili’s use of the material; I suspect it did. And the body images seem to be intended as a comment on the depiction of nudes in fine art throughout the ages (yes, even religious art). In Ofili’s work, those images appear to flutter around the Virgin like butterflies. Only their source gives offense.

Offense is an important part of the equation here. Both Serrano and Ofili courted, and generated, outrage by the choices of materials they made in creating their works. But I would argue that in both cases, they transformed the raw materials of detritus into things of beauty (proving my pastor’s point).

On to Deconstruction, a controversial technique of literary criticism that has been adapted to the study of architecture, art and other disciplines. I think of deconstruction as akin to taking apart an object, examining its pieces carefully and reassembling them in a different way. Creating a new thing through the destruction of an other thing. Because deconstruction posits that there is no authoritative center, that meaning is slippery and possibilities of interpretation are open-ended, the technique has generated outrage from conservative thinkers who want meaning to be fixed, immutable, eternal. Add to that that the language of deconstruction is necessarily difficult -- because it seeks explicitly not to fix meaning and limit interpretation – and you have, perhaps, a tempting recipe for controversy of the academic kind.

I find that deconstruction helps me to understand and value the Bible. By closely reading it, in multiple translations (I do not read either Hebrew or Greek, the primary languages in which it was written), taking it apart chapter by chapter, verse by verse, line by line, word by word, I find I can make personal sense of it in a way that is meaningful in my life. I have no idea whether the original writers intended me to be able to interpret it in the ways I do, but that is, frankly, beside the point. The enduring power of the Bible rests in the rich potential for interpretation that it provides, and the possibility of endlessly discovering new ways to look at these ancient texts.

And that fills me with Delight, which I try to share on this blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment