Saturday, December 16, 2017

Jay Strommen - Bridgeport Art Potter

You can’t quite see in this picture how beautiful Jay Strommen’s ceramics are.  The picture shows color, shape and texture – even the contrast between clay and glass, earth and translucence with all its gradations and flaws might be visible in high resolution -- but depth is hard to show.

Strommen says these tablets were inspired by the view of the river from his studio window at the Bridgeport Arts Center.  So yes, that must be Bubbly Creek, an abused slip of muddy scenery, given some gravity here.  The watery surface is made from a ground glass powder called ‘frit,’ he collects it by the bucketful from an industrial user.  In the kiln it vitrifies, as it cools it crazes, so it’s crackled with light.  On the wall, its depth is changeable, depending on the light and where you’re standing.  If you hold it, it has weight.

Strommen studied fine art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He honed his craft at Shigaraki, one of the ancient kiln sites of Japan.  So his work embodies two major tendencies in post war pottery.  One is abstract expressionism, with its painterly concerns with the vision of the artist.  The other brought with it a different set of concerns – with tradition, humility and accident, the nature of the materials and how they react in fire and air.

Strommen points to a shelf of vessels on the wall.  “Someone familiar with pottery could look at those pots and tell you what period in Japanese ceramics they trace back to.  People have written dissertations about traditional techniques.”  But Strommen says he was brought up short during his studies in Japan. 

The kilns at Shigaraki were anagama kilns, wood fired chambers built on a slope into the hillside in the 16th century, using technology that dates back to the 3rd or 4th the century AD.  Firing them could take 2 to 12 days, stoking the fires was a collective endeavor.  The kilns were packed artfully, the pieces inside were unglazed, or else the glaze was spattered on in irregular patterns.  They would be painted with fire, with melted ash and volatile salts, depending on how the fire hit them as it roared up the kiln. 

The collective aspect of keeping those fires stoked seemed important, the results were beautiful in their unpredictability as much as their rustic forms.  But at some point it struck Strommen that he couldn’t expect to participate in all that as completely as the Japanese potters did.  “They’re burning wood that grew from the clay they’re firing in the kilns,” they were part of an ecological unit.

So he came back to Chicago and established the Chicago Ceramic Center, in an American setting. The studio has been built in an adapted warehouse, the gas fired kilns inhabit a giant elevator shaft for ventilation.  It’s art pottery, but also a small scale manufactory, a school for teaching students, and a gallery to show pottery as both craft and fine art.

The Dolni Vestonice Venus
Pottery has depths in pre-history – it counts among man’s earliest efforts to manipulate the elements into durable forms.  Clay figurines of voluptuous women like this one, dug from ash in the Czech Republic, are thought to be about 30,000 years old. That’s roughly the same age as the world’s oldest paintings, glazed in calcite over centuries, deep in Chauvet cave in France.  Though archaeologists count them in different industrial eras -- such periods don’t advance everywhere in the same way.  More recently they’ve evolved as different categories of art.

Paintings from Chauvet Cave

Pottery has long been as much a technology as an art.  The heat required to effect the ceramic change, where it can’t be softened back to clay anymore, is roughly equivalent to the heat you need to cast bronze; the heat for making stoneware could cast iron.

In Europe, potteries were among the first crafts to be industrialized.  The English potteries at Stoke on Trent employed some 20,000 workers by 1785.  Potteries were also part of the movement that arose against the industrial revolution’s impoverishing effects.  The arts and crafts movement wanted to restore a mode of labor where independent workers design what they make, and an appreciation of handmade objects, over fancy goods that could be cheaply mass produced.

In a 20th Century retrospective of British art pottery, curator Oliver Watson used the term ‘ethical pot’ to evoke the cult of the simple vessel, lovingly made by traditional method.  Both the labor of the potter and the pot itself embody a spiritual and moral dimension.

John Ruskin helped set the stage for the arts and craft movement in the 1850s, in his writings on architecture, and especially his romantic view of European Gothic.  He claimed that he saw a life in its decorative effects that was absent in the symmetry of Classical structures.  He thought it reflected the independence of the medieval craftsman to express the vitality of his imagination, where classical architecture had been built by slaves laboring to fulfill a more static vision.

But Ruskin was no champion of equality among men, or their labors.   He believed a healthy society was a hierarchical one, where each man applies his gifts according to his station in life. “My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others,” he’d once written.  He believed that fine art, especially painting, is the expression of the spirits of great men, and can only be fully appreciated by their peers.

The distinction between the humble honor of rustic crafts and the visionary authority of the painter has been persistent in the modern west.  Though the stature of the rustic, in pottery at least, would take nuance from encounters with Japan.

The most famous proponent of the ethical pot was the Englishman Bernard Leach.  Though Leach didn’t coin the term, and he wasn’t born in England, he was born in Hong Kong in 1887.  He studied fine art at England’s Slade school, but he returned eastward in 1909 and lectured with the Shirakaba Group, which was trying to introduce western art to a Japan that was opening its doors to foreign influence after 250 years of isolation.

In Japan, Leach met Yanagi Soetsu, the father of the Japanese mingei movement that would emphasize the beauty of everyday objects, made by unknown craftsmen with traditional techniques. 
Soetsu’s mingei aesthetic was partly informed by a trip he made to Korea in 1916.  He described what he found there as a “beauty of sadness” that he traced to Korea’s long history of foreign invasions.  He thought the Korean potter expressed it naturally in the “sad and lonely lines” of his pots.  

In the 1920s, Leach returned to England.  He built the first anagama kiln in England and taught Japanese techniques, but he also expounded on pottery as a philosophy, a way of life. Decades later, some scholars would question Leach’s legacy as interpreter of eastern craft for the west.  Edmund de Waal would argue Leach’s encounters had been limited to a few educated Japanese, that they had created something hybrid, informed by western arts and crafts as much as Japanese tradition.  De Waal also saw nationalist sentiments in the mingei movement, like the nationalist ideals supported by folkish theories in Europe.

Aesthetically speaking though, mingei seems to echo an appreciation for the rustic, in pottery at least, that traced back for centuries, persisting as an alternative to the polish of porcelain, even after Japanese potters had mastered both.

The Japanese have had a long standing respect for the skill of Korean potters, and Koreans helped advance both aesthetics. It was Korean immigrants who brought anagama kiln technology to Japan in the 3rd or 4th century, and introduced Sue Ware, a high-fired stoneware, barely glazed with ash, that came out of them.  It was Korean potters brought back by Japanese invaders in the 16th century who found the first kaolin deposits in Japan, enabling a Japanese porcelain industry that would supply Europe when Chinese ports were closed.

Sixteenth century Japan was restless with internal warfare among competing strongmen and their samurai.  The mobilizations of war actually improved lines of transportation and communication across Japan during the period, they channeled patrons to new merchant and artisanal guilds.  They also coincided with a resurgence of Buddhism, with its understanding of impermanence and suffering, and its capacity for tranquil acceptance.

The 16th century was disruptive in Europe too, with the Protestant Reformation and the savage wars of religion that ensued. Enlightenment thinkers determined they needed more reliable sources for their beliefs about the world.  Descartes concluded that authority had to start with himself, as a thinking subject.  Some say the turn to European modernity started there, with a dramatic change in self understanding.  The modern subject gave up trying to orient himself in alignment with some divine or cosmic order, mediated by tradition, and became self-determining.  Or he believed he did.

His perspective on the world would become cooler, he’d become expert in objective observation and instrumental analysis.  But he’d also place great value on self expression, and the artist, as visionary, would climb to the top of that new self regard.

In Japan, Buddhists pushed cultural change a different way.  Their vision of impermanence and suffering inflected their vision toward emptiness, and the absence of self.  They used the term “wabi,” first to describe the loneliness of the isolated seeker, living in nature.  Over centuries, wabi came to connote simplicity, quietness, even an aesthetic of understated elegance.

Zen masters practicing the quiet, ritual intention of the tea ceremony preferred the humble Korean tea bowl to the sophistication of Chinese porcelain.  They found wabi in the roughness and asymmetry of pottery that came from the anagama kilns.

Japanese Sue Ware Bottle

Strommen says pottery took off in the United States after World War II, and that several leaders in the movement were U.S. servicemen, back from the war, who went to art school on the GI Bill.  The towering example of the returning GI turned art potter is Peter Voulkos.  He’s credited with starting the American “clay revolution.”

Voulkos went to art school in his native Montana and taught in California, except for the fateful summer of 1953, when he taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  He encountered some influential Abstract Expressionists there, and followed them back to New York in the fall.  Before that, his work was functional earthenware, “elegantly thrown,” according to a review of a 2016 exhibit of his “Breakthrough Years” – the exuberance was all in the brushwork and in decorative techniques borrowed from printmaking.

Afterwards, it transformed into something else.  His sculptures were reminiscent of vessels -- he’d start with a shape turned on a wheel, then break through the leather hard surface, slice, smash, crush them together.  This sculpture, called Sevillanas, is almost 5 feet tall, it’s one of his breakthrough pieces, finished in 1959.  The original was destroyed in a recent California earthquake, Voulkos remade it in bronze.  Collette Chattapadhyay calls it a “totemic mass of compacted and compounded pots” in Sculpture Magazine.

Peter Voulkos' Sevillanas

Voulkos said he was particularly impressed by Jackson Pollock, the action painter known for throwing paint on the canvas, for the way he challenged academic tradition.  “Voulkos’ bold handling of clay are provocative in a manner similar to Pollock’s handling of paint,” Chattapadhyay observes.  They were both interested in art as it embodies process, in accident that mirrors the role of chance in human life, in unconscious patterns expressed.

Though Chattapadhyay draws contrast in the course of their careers. Pollock might represent the terminal trajectory of the artist as visionary, pursuing self expression until it hits a wall.  His paintings generated lots of sound and fury in the 40s, but by 1952, the critic Clemente Greenberg thought he’d lost his stuff, and Chattapadhyay says he had few direct successors.

Jackson Pollock in the Act

Voulkos by contrast had a sizable student following, she names at least 8 of his students who became “significant” artists in their own right, and Voulkos’ own work stayed vital until months before his death in 2002.

She suggests the difference might be partly the artistic climates of the west coast relative to the east, and also qualities of the medium -- clay’s humble earthiness, its malleability and toughness, its inherent age.

She describes a 2001 exhibit of Voulkos’ work, including buckets, bowls and plates, encrusted with chalky pigmentations and soot from the firing process “like relics from some unknown prehistoric civilization.”

There are giant stacks of smashed pots, built from up to 50 pounds of clay, fired in industrial size kilns.  They only “allude” to vessel from a distance, up close you can see their interiors, “dusty, deserted,” daylight filters through the fractures like it might have entered cave dwellings from the distant past.

Jay Strommen Tea Bowl

Strommen says the number of kilns in the United States has multiplied a thousand fold since the 1970s.  He remembers accompanying his mother to her pottery class at St. Cloud college as a kid.  At the time, Japanese Raku was a hot technique.  Rakuware is heated rapidly, pulled from the kiln quickly when it’s still hot.  The exposure to air, and rapid cooling, changes the colors of the glaze.  Strommen still remembers the elemental impression of watching those pots pulled out from the fire with tongs.

Years later, he’d talk his way into a job at a pottery manufactory in Florida where he made useful objects by the thousand until his fingers “got very smart.” He made his way to Chicago through the School of the Art Institute, studying with Bill Farrell, and to the Bridgeport Art Center, partly through connections he’d made at school.

Today he’s interested in themes of community, inspired by the collective processes of wood fired kilns, and of transmitting the craft, but also with themes of mass production.  The anagama kilns had been designed for the mass production of objects for everyday use.

The Chicago Ceramic Center started as a school, with some interest in working as a pottery factory of some sort.  He opened the Gallery in 2016, after the Perimeter Gallery closed.  It had been known for crossing the unofficial divide between decorative and fine arts for 35 years.

Since opening, the gallery at the Chicago Ceramic Center has featured some of the major potters of the Midwest, including Bill Farrell and Warren Mackenzie.  In 2018 Strommen plans a new series of 3 exhibits featuring master and apprentice, pressing the boundaries of art as craft, and expression, as they explore ways to scale up.

Jay Strommen Bowls - photo from Strange Closets

Sunday, October 22, 2017

On The Point

If you are suspicious of the liberal elite, especially the intellectual variety that seems to pick apart everything that is good and valuable to people, reduce it to a lot of power dynamics and hidden agendas, then you might be glad to know there’s a gathering wave of young liberal intellectuals who aren’t satisfied with that project either.

Some of them publish a magazine right here in Chicago.  It’s called The Point, as in Promontory Point, the lakefront park at 55th Street.  Or as in ‘There is a point’ – to reading literature, to engaging earnestly in history, in politics, in life in general.  Six months ago they held a conference called ‘Reimagining the Sacred and the Cool’ to discuss what that might look like for literature scholars.

The ‘cool’ literature critics of the 1980s and 90s were skeptical that real meaning could ever be arrived at. They thought their job was to see through the polished surface of ‘the text’ to the latent dynamics the author wasn’t being honest about, even with himself.

It was invigorating when it first came out.  It was a sharper tool for dissecting tradition and prejudice, for prying open the canon of great books to let new voices in.  It seemed to re-activate the old liberal education, by really illuminating how values are socially constructed.  Not so students could toss them all out, necessarily, but so they could participate in a clear eyed way in the endless project of revising them.  At least, that’s what a traditional liberal education is for.

Except that once you set it rolling, it’s hard to put limits on skepticism as a method for reading, or for life.  ‘Deconstructionists,’ ‘poststructuralists,’ scholarly critique in general moved from taking apart the text, to taking apart the author, and the reader, to dismantling the very idea of the coherent individual, capable of independent judgment.  From that vantage, sincere expression, truth and morality aren’t just impossible to achieve, they become embarrassing to pursue.

This is also one point where scholarly critique starts to sound like a lot of fuss over issues that aren’t real problems for regular people.  When is the last time you worried if you had a coherent self or not?  Or whether you are capable of making real moral decisions?

It is possible to argue as if all human discernment, from our taste to our conscience, are just codes for striking a social posture, or internalized demands of the surveillance state.  As if reducing any human expression to something legible in utilitarian terms is really the most honest way to approach it.  If that is true, than opportunism really would be the best strategy for life.

But from experience, we know that’s not true.  Or we know that it’s part of it, but that it’s not all there is.  Intellectuals and artists are supposed to help us with this – that is help us to look at ourselves and our situation honestly, in its complexity and fullness.  Part of the job is to expose weakness and illusion, but the other is to appreciate the potential, even dignity, in our condition.

If they have painted themselves into a corner where they can’t see dignity in our condition, then they abandon that job to those who are willing to deal in less nuanced terms.

That’s what was cool about the conference: it suggested that young scholars are unsatisfied with the project of deconstruction alone, that they see the potential of literature to summon up something of value.  Not through Nancy Drew mysteries about ideal characters solving a world where the ugly facts of reality are suspended, or easily overcome.

But a literature that deals in ambiguities, one that recognizes a multitude of competing principles, all of them aspects of what is true and good in the world, but aspects that are not neatly reconciled with each other either.  Drawn in abstract terms, carried too far, they conflict with one another.  At which point, some inner voice that we still have protests.

The first speaker made the case for that inner voice, a seat of conscience that is “meaningfully autonomous”, even though it’s “socially informed.” She spoke of developing it through spiritual practice, carving new neural pathways through meditation and prayer. 

All the speakers argued for sources of critical discernment other than the voice of traditional authority or disengaged science.  One described an imagination activated through poetry to move back and forth between the landscape of the material world we know, and something that transcends it.

Another suggested that critics might model themselves on Biblical commentators, whose method is not to describe literature from a distance, but “to enter into its point of view, to think alongside it.”  Whose claim is not to settle questions decisively, but to illuminate the possibilities, to feed into the pool of collective imaginary that a reader may draw from, pulling out the commentary that resonates with his situation.

Articles in the magazine often argue for similar discernments in the real world.  They acknowledge ambiguity, and multiple points of view.  But just as important, they value the need to step out from a critical stance of endless equivocation, they believe in the reader’s capacity to engage in matters of meaning, and in the scholar’s ability to point him in promising directions.

They call for a history unembarrassed to explore deep themes, or describe a narrative road map for a general public.  For a politics willing to argue in terms of deep values (like whether it is true that all human beings deserve some measure of respect or not), rather than skate over them with centrist arguments about the best techniques to achieve economic growth.  And for a literature that is ‘conducive to a feeling of aliveness.’

In an early issue, editor Jon Baskin describes finding just such a literature in the novel Infinite Jest.  He knows it’s sometimes read like other “difficult” novels of its milieu, a cool study in ironic alienation, its characters exhausted by the impossibility of being a real person in a thoroughly commercialized United States.  Baskin says Infinite Jest is just meeting the reader where he is.  So its first character is creepily familiar, “the grieving white male of high education and questionable maturity,” he’s literally stuck in a self-conscious feedback loop that’s made his speech unintelligible, his head into a cage.

But another character has found escape through Alcoholics Anonymous.  Baskin says that’s what makes Infinite Jest different, it presents the insights of AA un-ironically, as a real antidote for the postmodern condition. “The addict seeks refuge in his substance,” he observes, but “his true addiction is not to his substance, but to a highly reflexive and indulgent way of thinking.”  It’s much the same for the reader, savvy in the tongues of “satire, theory and reflexive sophistication.”  What he craves is a literature that points a way out from that reflexive cage.

You can’t just switch from irony and alienation to na├»ve sincerity and embedded-ness.  Once you’ve seen the human capacity for bias, spite and self deception, you can’t un-see it. But you can turn your attention to the human capacity for other things. And there is no better place to start than here.  The urban neighborhood is the perfect scale for seeing how people are complex. It’s large enough to be diverse, close enough to see your neighbors face to face. 

I like to ask people about their work because a lot of times they find a lot of dignity in it.  I don’t think that diminishes large scale concerns about the widening gap between the rich and poor, the narrowing of economic opportunities, and the serious threat those dynamics pose to our national well-being.  Bridgeport is a neighborhood where you can see close up what good union jobs have done for people; it’s also got a significant population who will probably struggle hard for not very much their whole lives.  But among them, all kinds of people seem to want more than wages, they want their work to mean something.

Much has been written about how the art world produces meaningful work on the superstar scale – especially how the players work together to cultivate the authority of an artist and the market value of his work.  Of course art is supposed to have a non-commercial value too, but that gets obscured by fabulous prices.  It might actually be easier to see it on a local level among artists who are still feeling their way toward an audience.  How do they do that? In conversation with what?

The neighborhood is also an ideal scale for talking politics, especially a neighborhood like Bridgeport, which has Bernie Sanders supporters and Oath Keepers, voters for Obama and for Trump in near equal parts. We see each other face to face, though we don’t necessarily get into one another’s point of view.

In fact, that’s exactly the topic of one of my favorite recent articles from The Point magazine.  David Alm knew white nationalist Richard Spencer in graduate school, before Spencer became a major figure on the national stage. Back then, Spencer’s views weren’t fully expressed, but they still made his fellow students uncomfortable.  In his article, I See a Darkness, Alm recalls that he and his friends mainly avoided engaging Spencer when they got a glimpse of his illiberal views. Now he wonders if they should have engaged.

To do it, they would have had to have been willing to consider a worldview they found deeply wrong alongside their own tacit assumptions. Do you really believe that all human beings are worthy of some measure of respect, for instance? And if you do, how is that best expressed in matters of public concern?

It’s hard to argue in those terms without shutting down, or walking away indignant.  But if there’s a place to try it, that place is here.  And the more intractable national politics becomes, the more that conversation, held face to face, may turn out to be fundamental to everything else.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

An Other Worldly Production

Photo by Daniel Belli, credit 1 below

Last year, I spent a lot of time wondering what to make of an otherworldly performance that’s hit all three of Bridgeport’s art centers -- scenes from a non-conventional opera called Thunder, Perfect Mind staged by NON:Op Open Opera Works.

I first saw a scene from it at the Zhou B. Arts Center performed by 6 young women, all delicate in white.  Three of them were seated on chairs mounted high on the walls, playing stringed instruments.  Underneath, on the floor, the other 3 women seemed to play another set of strings, strung from the ground to the ceiling like a great terrestrial harp.

The performance was beautiful, but hard to grasp, like something spoken in a language being invented while you watched, just past the limits of your intuition.

Photo by Ron Wachholz, credit 2 below

Which is why I’d come to see it, really, at the suggestion of Deirdre Harrison, who’s had a long career in musical theater.  She’d just stepped in to help the composer, Christopher Preissing, orchestrate the players, to help them spin a way to think their performance.  For the scene at the Zhou B., she knew the young instrumentalists perched on the walls would need some point of mental reference, so she’d given each of them a scrap of paper with a line from the text on it to repeat to themselves during the silences.

For I am the first and the last…
the whore and the holy one…

Photo by Brittany Tepper, credit 3 below

Thunder, Perfect Mind is titled from an ancient Gnostic text that had been dug up from the Egyptian desert in the 1940s.  It was part of a whole lost library that had been buried in giant clay jars for some 1,800 years.  Even after the jars were found, the Nag Hammadi texts were jammed up in intrigues over ownership for decades before they started to filter out into the world.  They were just becoming available to Coptic language scholars in the 1970s, and then to the public in English translation in the 1980s. That’s when Christopher Preissing first read some of them, when he was still in school.

Preissing was a graduate music composition student, writing a dissertation on the history of opera.  He was studying its conventions so he could test them later.  He would step outside the traditions of composition, explore expressive notations, subvert the way social hierarchies had been worked into the seating arrangements and the theater itself.

The Gnostic scriptures also held a counter cultural appeal.  For almost 2 thousand years, the Gnostics were known mostly from the wild accounts early Christian Church Fathers gave of their beliefs.  
Those accounts were always suspect, the Fathers were using them to establish an orthodox church by defining it against degenerate heresies.  Though as the Nag Hammadi texts became available, some of the Fathers’ most outrageous accounts, of Bible stories turned on their heads, of the Biblical God willfully blasphemed, turned out to be pretty accurate.

The library is also diverse, it presents a whole range of lost possibilities, of paths not taken, rediscovered in an age when people are suspicious orthodox authorities and how they assert the truth.  Preissing found himself drawn to the hymn called Thunder, Perfect Mind in particular because it evoked a feminine voice, and it read like a riddle.  The divine speaker describes herself in impossibilities and paradox.

I am the mother of my father and the sister of my husband -- he is my offspring.

Photo by Scott Johnson, credit 4 below

In 1992, he got a grant to make an opera from it.  Even after the first performances, he has never entirely stopped working on it.  It has continued to grow in scope and dimension as scenes are elaborated in public practice sessions around town.  Today, Thunder, Perfect Mind, the opera, is a site specific immersive performance for a 12 member chorus, percussionists, street performers, orchestral musicians and 2 sopranos, one of whom is an aerialist who will descend through the heavenly spheres to earth, and re-ascend into the divine fullness in the end.

In the shock of more recent history, ancient squabbles over divine metaphysics and the esoterica of avant-garde opera may sound beside the point.

1800 years ago, a Gnostic would say that is the point: that the so called real world isn’t actually real.  That the powers of this world aren’t just ignorant of reality, they’re constitutionally incapable of understanding it, they sense it vaguely when they spot a true spirit in other people, then they’re jealous of it, they persecute it.  But those rare souls who have that spark of the divine spirit can be restored to the divine wholeness by remembering where they came from.

Modern people are less interested in escape to transcendence in general, and the Gnostic answer in particular is elitist and radically anti-cosmic, dismissing the material world we live in as a disastrous mistake.

But Gnosticism arose in a world that had compelling parallels to the world we live in now.  The latter centuries of the Hellenistic-Roman era are sometimes called an age of anxiety, menaced by threats of barbarian invasions, plagues, even financial catastrophes.  But they were also an era of unprecedented cultural ferment and change.  Like in our own era, change was disorienting to navigate for the individual person, and the Gnostics expressed the crisis of dislocation in a startling way.  But they also show that human instinct for hope.

Photo from Hubble Space Telescope, credit 5 below

Gnosticism was a trend of thinking, not a church with clear boundaries, and the so called Gnostics were enthusiastic speculators about the origins of the world and the human condition in it.  Some of their accounts focus on the story of Sophia, or Divine Wisdom.

They start with the perfect divine Wholeness, or indescribable Depths, whose qualities begin to emanate outward in pairs, male and female.  Sophia is part of the last pair. She sins, she falls from grace, she launches a whole chain of catastrophe.

The exact nature of her sin is some form of willfulness.  She wants to create on her own, without her consort, or else she wants to contemplate the original Depths without permission.  She becomes pregnant, like the emanations before her, except she gives birth to a monstrosity, an abortion.  A divine Limit gets summoned up, and Sophia’s abortion is cast out to the other side of it.

Photo from Hubble Space Telescope, credit 6 below

It has various names, Sophia’s abortion, sometimes it’s just called the Demiurge.  But outside, in the dark, it’s scared, it’s alone, it doesn’t know where it came from.  It creates the material world to comfort itself.  It creates a whole host of celestial powers, to serve as its minions – they rule the spheres of the planets and stars, they make mischief in the sphere below the moon.  The Demiurge declares itself God and feels powerful.  But it’s never really confident in that feeling.

The Demiurge creates mankind out of filth, and breathes life into it, gives it a Soul.  But our souls are just an animating principle, our appetites, our lower passions, our perceptions of the material world.  We’d have no access to the divine realm at all except that Sophia, from some divine purgatory where she waits for her own redemption, scatters some of her light into humanity.

The human Spirit is a divine shard that’s embedded in us, it’s alien to our world, and we’re born in a condition of flesh-bound forgetfulness.  But when we hear the truth about where we really came from, our spirit responds, it remembers.  It knows.

The Gnostics didn’t believe that all people have that divine shard.  Or else we don’t have it in equal quantities. In some people, the spiritual principle is so weak or absent they are essentially just animate creatures, slaves to their material natures.  Some are in an intermediate condition, they’ve got enough spirit to be reasonable, to exert their will, they’re soulful creatures, but not truly spiritual.  The Gnostics are an elect minority of truly Spiritual beings.

These Gnostics were a great irritant to those Orthodox Fathers who were trying to build a church where everybody could participate just by faith in something they didn’t understand.  And that Gnostic Spirit is a strong rhetorical device.  Because if you don’t recognize the truth when you hear it, it’s probably not your fault, and you won’t be convinced by arguments, you’re just not equipped to know.

Meanwhile, down here in the cosmos, the Demiurge and his demons do have some vague perception of that spiritual element.  They recognize it in Eve and her daughters.  They know they don’t have it, and they’re jealous, they chase her, they rape her trying to get it, they persecute her wherever they catch a glimpse of it.

Preissing’s opera tells the story of Sophia and Eve like a double answer to the identity riddle posed by the hymn, Thunder, Perfect Mind.  The production starts with Sophia, setting out for redemption. She descends to earth, through the spheres of the planets, accumulating worldly qualities like heavy clothing.

Preissing’s Eve has wandered from the countryside into a big city, looking for adventure, but she’s quickly lost.  She wanders disoriented, she’s abused and assaulted, she sinks deeper and deeper into confusion, shame and fear.  When they meet, Sophia will relay her message, she’ll tell Eve of her true nature, remind her who she really is.  Sophia will re-ascend into heaven, restored.   Eve will stay behind.

In the opera, the results of their encounter, the nature of any transformation is left open ended, which is fitting for a terrestrial production.  So is the urban setting of Eve’s travails.  The urban condition has been one of the great themes of modern life; it is also a link into that ancient world where Gnosticism emerged.

Photo by Takashi Hososhima, credit 7 below

When Alexander the Great conquered the Persians in 331 BC, he said he was after more than glory, he wanted to integrate the known world – East and West – into a single cosmopolitan culture.  And he achieved that, he laid the ground for a new kind of empire, one built from a network of cities whose residents would be citizens of the world.  That condition exerted a dramatic psychic change.

The world had seen big empires before.  The great empires of the Near East, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians all helped lay the ground for imperial rule that wouldn’t just exploit conquered territories, siphoning off tribute and slaves.  Over centuries, they’d begun to build the bonds of trade, establish roads and postal systems.

In the west, Greek traders had been settling in foreign ports for centuries.  After Alexander’s conquests, they emigrated in much larger numbers, forming a leadership class in cities across the empire.  The Greek language became a lingua franca spoken across the realm. The Greeks also brought a common currency and cultural institutions like the gymnasia, which acted as secondary schools, teaching Greek literature and philosophy.

Some speculate that the alphabet the Greeks had adapted from the Pheonecians was a more versatile way of writing that helped them to develop new ways of thinking, especially abstract thinking, that they now brought with them across the empire.  Others have ventured that it was the dislocations of conquest itself that nudged ancient peoples to develop a capacity for thinking in universal terms.

Traditional cults had worked to guarantee the safety and integrity of small societies.  But once the town walls were razed, the local king deposed, the people sent into exile, their gods were either discredited, or else they were set loose from their parochial roles.  Exiles, soldiers and traders brought their gods along on their travels, and picked up new ones along the way.  People from all walks of life, cut adrift from all variety of old traditions, would appeal to universal gods as personal saviors.

A host of religious philosophies pushed abstract thinking to its limits, imagining a sphere of divine perfection so entirely transcendent from the earthly realm it was virtually indescribable.  The rational man might perceive it through the logos (“the Word” in the Gospel of John), a rational principle that mediates between the two realms, penetrating the cosmos, giving it shape and coherence, and resonating through the human mind.

At any rate, travel, trade and communication were all a lot easier in the new era.  The results were stimulating, but profoundly disorienting.  Geo-political boundaries were opening up, the population was more mobile, ideas that had been floated among philosophers a few centuries earlier seemed to penetrate further and more deeply into the populace, including a whole new concept of the universe.

It’s said that ancient peoples saw Heaven fitting over the earthly plain like a dome, regal but not all that distant, and there were clear axes for communication with the gods who dwelled in it.  The Ptolemaic universe exploded the dome, replacing it with a much vaster construction of planetary spheres and a realm of stars much further away.  The divine powers they expressed seemed indifferent to the passion and strife of the terrestrial sphere, maybe even hostile.

In the 1950s, the historian Eric Dodds evoked the anxiety of the age in a record of questions posed to an oracle – he says oracles had surged as the world became more changeable.  “Am I to become a beggar?” one record reads.  “Will I be sold as a slave?”  “Am I under a spell?”  “Are you God?  Or is someone else God?”

Gustav Caillebot, Paris Street, Rainy Day

The great scholar Hans Jonas thought Gnosticism expressed a spiritual condition of profound pessimism.  It reminded him of the existential alienation current in his own era. In fact, here in Chicago while Jonas was studying the Gnostics, a whole school of sociology was writing lyrically about the experience of urban life, and the psychic changes it affects on modern people.

The Chicago scholars would observe that in the modern city, life takes on a certain superficial quality, as people brush shoulders with uncountable numbers of strangers on the street each day, they each size each other up, read each other in an instant based on hints of dress and demeanor.   That pageant itself becomes fascinating and invigorating, there are whole genres of painting and literature spent observing it.

Each person traveling it can realize potentials that would be suppressed or ignored in small town life, because tradition and social conventions are much weaker in the big city than they are in the small town.  Those potentials express in good ways and bad ones: there are more artists, realizing their creative potential, and more juvenile delinquents, unrestrained by disapproving elders.

“In a small community it is the normal man, the man without eccentricity or genius, who seems most likely to succeed,” Robert Parks wrote in the 1920s. “The small community often tolerates eccentricity.  The city, on the contrary, rewards it.”

So the urban world is larger, in a wonderful sense, but more dangerous.  It is much harder to pick a course through the infinite variety and find meaning in it, much easier to skate through life on that distracting surface, oblivious to things that really matter.  It is easier to get lost.  This is the landscape Eve wanders in the scenes from Thunder, Perfect Mind -- a maze of urban streets, flickering with images and false idols -- sinking deeper into distraction and despair.

Photo by Scott Johnson, credit 9 below

Jonas links Gnosticism to a crisis of purpose in the ancient world.  He says that in the classical polis, the independent city-state, the citizen knew he was an essential part of a larger social whole.  He might be bound by its limits, he might be just a small part.  But his being helped to constitute and maintain a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

As cities were overtaken by empire, the citizen becomes a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.  He is still part of the whole, but as it becomes more vast, he is reduced to insignificance.  He can still participate in it, sync up his rational capacities with that principle evident in the cosmic order.  But his actions matter only to himself, he is like an actor playing a part on a stage.  “A role played is substituted for a function performed,” Jonas writes.  He may play it well, or play it badly.  Either way, it makes no impact on the stars.

For Parks, the sociologist in Chicago, the modern city is also a whole, more than the sum of its parts, more than a meeting place of individuals.  It is a state of mind, he writes, a body of customs and traditions, and the sentiments that inhere in them.  Where Jonas ties the psychic change of the ancient city to the dislocations of empire, Parks attributes the effect of the modern one to the mechanisms of urban life itself.

He believes those mechanisms are organic, tied to “the vital processes of the people who compose it.”  But since the city is also a center of trade and industry, they include the rationalizing tendencies of industrial society, especially the division of labor, the tendency to specialize.  They make the urban person more dependent on other people in a sense – where he performs one part of a process, he relies on others to complete most things.

But the nature of the connection has changed.  In a village, people are bound together by complex emotional connections – ‘bonds of sympathy’ is Parks’ term.  In the city, these are replaced by simpler, rationalized relations based on common interest.  Bonds of interest are more volatile than the other, more complicated kind.  They can be adjusted more easily as situations change, but they also leave individuals more vulnerable to being dismissed if they are not particularly useful, or at all annoying.

Every small town has its oddballs, Parks observes.  The peculiar character, who might not command the highest respect, but who is tolerated, looked after, maybe even with some affection.  He’s an oddball, but he’s our oddball.  In the city he might find his way into the right circles and become an exceptional artist, or a billionaire entrepreneur.  Or he might just never find his function at all, and drop out from the bottom of the machine.

George Bellows, The Cliff Dwellers

Jonas believed that the material world the Gnostics wanted to escape was rational, in a demonic way.  It was a world defined by law and order, but it was “rigid and inimical order, tyrannical and evil law.”  It was “devoid of meaning and goodness,” it was “alien to the purposes of man and to his inner essence.”  Like existentialists in his own era, the Gnostics wanted to defy this tyranny, to be true to their inner essence, to live authentically.

Modern people seem to have more or less continued on the trajectory that extends the logical principle to further and further ends.  The rational, instrumental pursuit of interests reigns supreme.  It’s helped us accomplish amazing things.  It’s made our horizons much larger, but it’s made individuals smaller, it’s made the powers of this world, in government and in business, powerful to the extreme.

We still have a sense, like the Gnostics, that their powers don’t rule the whole of reality.  We know that there is some inner voice that we have, maybe not expressed in all people in the same way, but it is the link to some more authentic existence.  And when we hear it in music, for instance, or see it in art, we recognize it – or we hope we will.

I don’t think it’s accidental that when we’re talking about “authentic” experience we’re less likely to call on the spirit, we’re more likely to say something’s got soul.  We really mean that lower element.  Not the airy, the distant, the detached, but the embodied person, connected to passions, deeply embedded in the material world and its sympathies.

It’s as if that logical principle has become too ascendant.  We’ve pursued the good things it has to offer, we’ve learned to detach ourselves, to be objective, so we can see a bigger picture than what’s visible from where we stand embedded in our parochial lives.  We’ve learned to recognize that the kind of social judgment and outright bigotry that thrive in small societies ruled by sympathies are corruptions to root out.

But pursued to its ends, rational detachment becomes dangerous and proud, ignorant of that field of goods outside its reach.

I think that authentic reality is something we make up amongst ourselves.  It’s a kind of music, or a subtle language that is constantly being invented and elaborated among the people speaking it.  The process of making up the language is most obvious in art.  I think that’s what Preissing, and Deirdre Harrison and the young musicians in white were all doing that night at the Zhou B. Center.

But it is something that goes on all the time, whether we’re conversing easily with people who seem most like us, or whether we’ve got to stretch to understand how they can be so backward, or annoying, to recognize them as being essentially like us.  We have that capacity to know.

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Photo from Hubble Space Telescope, credit 11 below

Photo Credits:

1.  By Daniel Delli (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

2. By Ron Wachholz, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at the Ear Taxi Festival, Harold Washington Library, 2016

3. By Brittany Tepper, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at the Chicago Loop Alliance

4. By Scott Johnson, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at Feed Salon, 2016

5. By NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

6. ESA/Hubble [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

7. By Takashi Hososhima from Tokyo, Japan (Day 4: Stars #1) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

9. By Scott Johnson, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at Feed Salon

11. By NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons