Art and Hermeneutics Part 2

Hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism. Plus a journey into the style of “fusion” music which took shape in the 1970s, including a video interview with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

In Part 1, I began discussing hermeneutics as a theory of art — not a dry theory, but something helpful and practical. I hope you had fun watching the different videos; and while the emphasis was on fun, the point is that hermeneutics is concerned with helping us understand art, finding ways to overcome the historical and cultural boundaries we may face when trying to comprehend art from another time or culture, or art partaking of such far-flung influences.

To summarize from Part 1: Hermeneutics looks on art as something that we like because it’s a part of our lives and a part of human civilization. We understand it by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Or are we standing coldly aloof from it, and does this create a barrier to understanding?

The word “hermeneutics” also comes up in discussions of performance art, and performance artists are sometimes called “hermeneutists.” This might seem puzzling until we learn that in Greek mythology, Hermes was the son of Zeus and the messenger of the gods. The gods don’t speak directly to human beings, so Hermes acts as their interpreter. This makes Hermes the patron saint of hermeneutics (notwithstanding his lack of quaint parades in third world countries).

According to this line of thought, performance artists are interpreters of the culture in which they live, or perhaps all of human civilization. They’re seen as living messengers (though of what, it’s not always exactly clear).

So how does shamanism enter the picture? (“By the back door,” would be one clever retort.) From a modern secular point of view (which I don’t happen to embrace), shamans might be said to perform incomprehensible rituals which have a theatrical component (like performance artists), and which are intended to transform them and their audience (or participants in the shamanic ritual). Continue reading

Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 (with Fun Video Clips)

Everything from Sri Chinmoy to Doctor Who, Star Trek, Suzuki Beane, The Thin Man, Carry On Teacher, and Herman’s Hermits

Today I’ll be musing about art and hermeneutics, hopefully in a fun way that’s not too dry. I’ve been working on Part 3 of my Put a Bird on It! series, about the art of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy. (See Part 1 and Part 2.)

In one sense, Sri Chinmoy’s art is the essence of simplicity; but the arts community (and especially art critics) sometimes prefer it when art is analyzed intellectually and placed in historical context.

By the same token, Sri Chinmoy is in one sense completely unique. Yet, people who have a hard time understanding his art may benefit from viewing his bird drawings in relation to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and his abstract paintings in relation to the New York School (which got underway in the 1940s, but continued to evolve through the 70s and 80s).

The late Paul Jenkins studied meditation and spiritual philosophy with Sri Chinmoy. Jenkins’s style of painting combining meditation and movement was certainly influenced by Sri Chinmoy. This is broadly characteristic of those New York School painters, poets, and composers who studied Eastern philosophy and incorporated it into their work.

In beavering away at Part 3, I collided with the topic of hermeneutics — much as a bull collides with crockery (not to mix animal metaphors). When I hear the word “hermeneutics” I think “egghead,” “Ph.D.,” and “above my pay grade.”

Hermeneutics, simply defined, is “the art and discipline of interpretation.” In art criticism, hermeneutics is not so much a single theory as a way of approaching art. This approach stresses entering into dialogue, striving to understand a work rather than standing coldly aloof from it and making iconoclastic pronouncements. See “Gadamer’s Aesthetics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — an article which I find challenging but informative. (“You see, the phenomenological reconstruction is connected to the cognitive dimension, and the cognitive dimension is connected to the hermeneutical aesthetics. Now hear the word of the Lord.”) Continue reading

Are transcripts of Trump speeches accurate?

Beware the cleanup of politicians’ speeches, as vital clues may be lost in translation.

I’m not so compulsive as to keep a notebook on the subject, but I’ve often heard a politician make a speech and later checked the transcript only to find that their remarks had been cleaned up after the fact.

Why should this matter? As a student of literature (and an amateur playwright), I know full well that the manner in which a character uses language (including any corruptions or malapropisms) tells us a lot about their background and influences. Those of us who spend years learning the craft of writing (and thinking) are keenly aware when someone mispronounces “nuclear” as “nucular,” or says “phenomena” (plural) when the case is singular. We cringe when we hear “squash” (which you might do to a bug) when what is really meant is “quash” (which you might do to a subpoena). We are not ideally snobs about it, but we tend to view how someone uses language as a vital clue about how they think. Continue reading

What Donald Trump could learn from the Blues Brothers

(UPDATED!) Recent events in Charlottesville raise the old question of whether life should be taken seriously. Sometimes it’s so painful and sad that it has to be taken seriously; but paradoxically, this calls forth the opposite thesis: that life is cosmically funny and can’t be taken seriously. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein, writing about his character Jubal Harshaw, said:

He had long ago made a pact with himself to postulate a Created Universe on even-numbered days, a tail-swallowing eternal-and-uncreated Universe on odd-numbered days — since each hypothesis, while equally paradoxical, neatly avoided the paradoxes of the other — with, of course, a day off each leap year for sheer solipsist debauchery.

The debauchery might not be such a good idea, but there’s something to be said for taking life as seriously as you can, with occasional time out to laugh at its absurdities. As I’ve noted elsewhere, humour is helpful for relieving outrage fatigue. Continue reading

Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge

Boning up on essential skills for coping with nuclear Armageddon

With the recent dramatic lack of brinksmanship by the Donald, people of Guam have needed a refresher course on what to do in case of nuclear attack. But have government brochures really provided adequate information?

The following video offers a quick drill on essential aspects of civil defense, with multiple choice questions designed to test your knowledge. Example:

How do you protect yourself from fallout?

A. Hide in the basement until it goes away.
B. Wear protective rubber underwear, and simply brush yourself off at the end of the day.
C. Run naked through a field of sorghum.

After viewing the video, you should at least be able to answer this question: What is the most practical thing you can do in the event of a total thermonuclear war?

Sidebar: Guam facts

Guam is not a state, but a U.S. protectorate. As such, it sends one delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. The current delegate is Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, but according to tourists she’s not the only Bordallo in Guam. More Guam facts from The Colbert Report: Better Know a Protectorate. More Mystery Science Theater 3000: Rocket Attack U.S.A. on YouTube.

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