Paganism: Arts, Ads, and Aesthetics

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Today I’m going to take a break from my inevitable contribution to the ongoing debate about Christian Dominionism, and instead look at some arts and design-related news that might be of interest.

Dionysus is The Blood: First off, filmmaker Brielle Simone Greenberg’s paeon to the god Dionysus has been making the rounds of the Pagan ‘net. Sannion at The House of Vines says that “this short film comes closer to depicting the god I worship than anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“The Greek God Dionysus does not only stand for revelry. He stands for the oppressed in an uncanny world. This film is dedicated to all those who are oppressed and who are affected by patriarchal society.”

Interestingly, the song used in the film, “You Are the Blood,” is by sung by singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, a protestant Christian known for his poetic and emotionally intense explorations of his own faith. The song itself was written by the Castanets (who are on Steven’s excellent Asthmatic Kitty label).

Polytheism and Levis: Also catching attention is a new Levis commerical that uses Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” as its backdrop, part of their larger “Go Forth” campaign.

I do have to admit that hearing lines like “the gods will offer you chances” and “the gods wait to delight in you” did produce a certain thrill, even if it was in the service of selling jeans.

Fine Arts and the Tarot: Calvin Tomkins at The New Yorker covers a new exhibit by Naples/New York artist Francesco Clemente at the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence. His latest body of work is a set of tarot card paintings featuring a variety of his famous friends and fellow artists appearing as different cards.

Seven of Disks

“Clemente’s portraits all tend to look alike at first glance—huge eyes, full lips, serious expression—but then you see something that, if you’ve met the person, is exactly right. The playwright Edward Albee, sitting for the Emperor, clasps his haunted-looking face in both hands as he gazes out from beneath a sixteen-pointed star. Fran Lebowitz, as Justice, holding scales in one hand and a sword in the other, regards the viewer with that dour look that sets up the punch line. Salman Rushdie (the King of Swords), Colm Tóibín (the Hermit), Philip Glass (the Judgment), Kiki Smith (the Queen of Disks), Diane von Furstenberg (the Force), Paz de la Huerta (the Wheel of Fortune), Sara Mearns (the World), and numerous others maintain their singularity while assuming new and mythic identities. The portraits were all done in Clemente’s studio, and they took about two hours apiece—he had drawn in the bodies and the backgrounds earlier.”

You can view a slideshow of some of the paintings, here. As someone who has engaged in using the tarot as artistic inspiration, it should be noted that Clemente is part of a long lineage of fine artists creating their own tarot cards. This includes Andy WarholVictor Brauner, and Salvador Dali, among many others. Above is his “Seven of Discs,” which doesn’t feature a famous face, but is one I particularly liked.

Aesthetically Challenged Pagans? Chas Clifton points me to a post by Unitarian-Universalist minister Victoria Weinstein, perhaps better known in the UU blogosphere as “PeaceBang”. In this post Weinstein covers the oft-covered ground of how UU ritual is “so deadly awful, drab, and painfully unbeautiful.” Truly, as someone who used to be quite invested in the UU world (I was once a member of a UU church and worked at a UU community center) these complaints are nothing new, and I quickly learned to avoid most services like the plague. You know what’s worse than having a Pagan sing dull Christian hymns? Having them sing sanitized dull formerly-Christian hymns. But I digress.  In any event, the thing that caught Chas’ attention is in the comments where she takes a swipe at the aesthetics of UU Pagans.

“And not to dismiss the contribution made by the Pagan contingent but when I think “aesthetics” the pagan community is most decidedly NOT what comes to mind. In fact, I believe that the neo-pagan community has done more harm than good by inflicting too many embarrassingly bad rituals, dances and music on our worshiping communities.”

I find it interesting when someone says they don’t want to dismiss someone’s contribution and then proceeds to dismiss it. Not to get into this too deeply, but I question the depth of Ms. Weinstein’s knowledge of modern Pagan ritual, dance, or music. I don’t remember seeing her at any of our big national festivals or indeed, remember any history of engagements on her part with modern Paganism in general. Perhaps all the Pagan rituals, songs, and dances she has encountered in her limited experience have been “embarrassingly bad” but I would also wager that her sample-size is quite small and not representative of our larger movement. There’s no accounting for taste they say, but I hasten to point out that it isn’t modern Paganism that is having a growth and retention problem. So we must be doing something right in the aesthetics department. One wonders how many UU congregations would collapse if they were to remove all traces of the harmful Pagan influence.

A Witch Trials Rock Opera: Finally, I’d like to leave you with a review of “Abigail: The Salem Witch Trials Rock Opera” by Scott Schulz from The Juggler (also reprinted at the Patheos Pantheon blog).

“Abigail The Salem Witch Trials A Rock Opera is a balls-to-the-wall hard rock exploration of the roots of Christian theocracy in America. While last year’s production was a somewhat muddled mess saddled with an awkward venue and abysmal sound system, this year’s production is far more clear and clean. A strong effort has been made to clarify the motivations of the characters, and the multimedia elements have been vastly improved in way that enhances the experience rather than providing a constant distraction. The cast has uniformly embraced the swagger of the music, and so what was once a substantially lopsided confrontation between the Christian Patriarchs of Salem Village and the people that they oppress is now far more equal (at least on a raw, emotional level – the men still have all the political power in the setting). The young Abigail (played this year by CASEY CASTILLE) now stands toe to toe with DANIEL KNOP’s Reverend Parris in a rock and roll confrontation which, in no small way, shaped our nation.”

It’s currently playing in San Francisco, so if you’re in the area, and a fan of rock operas, you should check it out.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!