Trees and Temples

Thoreau idles among trees by the pond, losing money, and hints as he closes down Walden that he might be a monkish artist carving a stick – but for what?  At what cost?  

Getting my note from Yafo, Catlin Lowe thinks à deux, thinking with Thoreau (it might as well be) of trees, temples, art, time, and the sea. 

“Yafo/Jaffa: I recently spent a long late morning with Charles Ray’s 2007 “Hanoki,” a massive floor sculpture of Japanese Cypress hand-carved to match in scale and form (down to the flaking bark and worm-driven root structure) a fallen tree of unknown species happened upon on the central Californian coast. It put me in mind of the Cedars of Lebanon–brought in by that port city for the building of both First and Second Temple. Ray’s piece, more even than Lichtenstein, Johns, or Rauschenberg I think (but perhaps only by accident of associated heft, labor, and cost), begs the questions ‘Is it art?’ ‘Is it worth it?’

Is it art? Is it worth it? A husk of a tree, but not even a tree, a replica of a tree, indiscernible as such save close up, impossible to take in in full, hollowed out, chopped up, driven to LA, cast in silicone, remolded in fiberglass, shipped to Osaka, meticulously re-inscribed quarter inch by quarter inch in an ancient, almost invaluable, tree, which lost its own life, to what end, to what end, to what end . . . ?

My sister, Emory, upon seeing an image of a thousand Buddhist monks gathered together in silent meditation, said, “That is an activity of infinite worth.” Shortly thereafter she quit her lucrative job in finance and went to live with a Catholic community in the tall woods within walking distance of the sea.

Why build the First Temple? Why build the Second? Why ship those cedars from Lebanon to Yafo at so great a cost? So that God should have a place to dwell with us . . .
So then the question becomes: Is the art museum where we now meet God?”


From Distinctively Praise the Years, see blogroll


16 comments on “Trees and Temples

  1. dmf says:

    “Is the art museum where we now meet God?”
    sounds like an empirical question, no?

    • efmooney says:

      Thanks, dmf. The link is on target.

      To ask “Is the art museum where we now meet God?” sounds like, has the form of, “Is the AAR where we now meet David Miller? or Is it in the archives of ARC that we now meet him?” So you could mistake it for an empirical question. You could take it as empirical and send out a search party to look for God there, disguised as a docent, or apply for an NSF grant for researching an answer. Come to think of it, Wallace Stevens writing “The search for reality is as momentous as the search for god” sounds like a statement of fact, and so an empirical statement. But where is his data? But . . . but if Catlin’s question is not empirical, what can it be? And what could we answer?

      Well, what sorts of questions tickle the imagination? What sorts of questions touch the heart, or pierce the soul? What questions help us step into the dark? An age that has lost Steven’s search for god, or his search for reality, will scoff at both sorts of search. It thinks that the only search is research. That age will be forced to hear every question resembling Catlin’s as empirical. What alternative is there?

      That age will be an age of nothing, not even of Zen nothingness. It will think that when Johannes de silentio writes “He who has faith gives birth to his father” Johannes would better have been silent. For if that’s an empirical claim it’s false or absurd and better unsaid – utter trash.

      But with a sure instinct in the matter, dmf, you sensed the alternative — let’s hope there are some with ears to hear. You immediately travel to a site for the fine art of theopoetics — and you invited me along. I had a wonderful visit. Thanks again.

  2. Makes me think of Cavell’s suggestion that artists now exist in the categories of the apostle, and no longer of the genuis…

  3. Catlin Lowe says:

    Is the art museum where we now meet God? It’s the wrong question, I think. (Dirk, perhaps this is what you’re getting at?) The temple was built, not as a meeting place, but as the private dwelling of a hidden God, that the name G-d, at least, should have a home among us. Building the temple, attending the temple, maintaining the temple, offering ourselves there, we hold space for we-know-not-Whom (the othermost Other, the strangest Stranger). Just now, back late from church, I want to say that what we meet there is just the silence and the mystery. The art museum, with its many profligacies, its possible wantonness and probable waste, is, if nothing else, a holding space, a hope held out. When questioned about his work (and he is always questioned about his work), my love–an artist–will say, “It’s about reverence. I am trying to invite people to stop and to see. What happens after that, I don’t know.” Call reverence a condition of the possibility of redemption . . .
    And Kelly, yes, that would be an apostolic office . . .

    • Paul: “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” He kept inviting the Corinthians to stop and to see, to stop and to hear. Indeed, an apostolic office. (Foolishness for Christ as a kind of artistry.)

      • Catlin Lowe says:

        So then what to make of that artist Christ? Jesus to Simon: “Do you see this woman?” What’s the relationship between reverence and redemption, apostleship and genius, the one who broadcasts invitation, and the one who hosts the party?

      • dmf says:

        CL, is being inspired the same as being redeemed?

      • Catlin Lowe says:

        You know, Dirk, I don’t think it can be. Think of all that is conceived but stillborn in us.

      • C, I don’t know what to say, except to point to Erasmus’ willingness in praising folly to flirt with Christ himself as a fool, the cross as folly. Condescension as itself a form of artistry. Hamann sometimes talks that way…

      • Catlin Lowe says:

        Kelly, you’ve got me fishing for my books. The Hamann I don’t know, but the Erasmus I have some dim memory of. We may have reached that point in the thread when I, at least, am murmuring to myself in a sort of poeticized shorthand: totem words in new arrangements. It’s not (and I’m sorry for this) a very giving or listening mode. But foolishness, folly, condescension: I’ll try to welcome these into the mix. (Thought as a bag shook hard.) More soon, I’m sure– C.

  4. efmooney says:

    Perhaps the apostle speaks and teaches reverence (among other things) with artistry as a witness to hope (at least) among the ruins. Let’s say that ‘making empirical claims’ just doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to understanding what the artistry of the apostle amounts to. Is it any help to put a new category, poetics, or theopoetics, into play?

    Catlin points elsewhere, I think — away from a taxonomy of sorts of claims and toward a subtle mode of receptivity. “It’s about reverence. I am trying to invite people to stop and see.” What shall we call this apparently hybrid stance, “seeing (aesthetically?) with reverence (religiously)” ? Why do we seek a taxonomy?

    • dmf says:

      I come late and unprepared to reading Wittgenstein but I take this to be behind (beyond?) the gestures of familial resemblances, perspicuous presentations, and his critiques of reductions/analysis by Frazier and Freud and on behalf of the human soul or at least those expressions that we have long associated with psyche.

  5. efmooney says:

    Wittgenstein was steeped in Kierkegaard and Tolstoy and afflicted by a sense of the desolation of the times — and in search of soul, and of whatever a religious way of life would be, whether he could fully embrace it or not. And, as I see it, approaching that way of life meant attention to micro-exchanges among persons that were embedded in ways of life best brought to life by engaging in conversations with others who (partially, tentatively) inhabited them. So if Catlin says “Perhaps we find God in the museum” that is a philosophical (and poetic? and religious?) remark. At least for some Wittgensteinians it begins a dialogue, a conversational probing, with oneself and with others, of the sort I hear played out in these responses we’re following now on this page.

    The conversation is exposing, and embodies the hope that exposures of speakers to each other in something like the mode of confession (rather than assertion) is the way, is even the ceremony of the way, philosophy, and life, must proceed — even, despite, and desperately because of, the ruins, wherein redemption is so urgent and precarious. The path is (we could say) anti-foundational, tentative, and suspicious of any rush to a final taxonomy or, as Rorty would say, final vocabulary.

    When Cavell suggests that the artist now works under the aspect of the apostle — and thanks so much Kelly, for that telling reminder — I’m sure there’s a characteristic Cavellian “I want to say that . . . I feel that . . . could we hazard that . . . surrounding his venturous utterance. Those who want philosophy to be assertive and demonstrative hate that in him, in his ‘style’ — they call it ‘mannerism’. They don’t want his troubled soul, and think self-exposures are self-indulgent and irrelevant to the proper tasks of rigorous thinking.

    My hesitancy about joining a parade with a banner like “theopoetics” (though I am tempted) is that there is no theoretical, programmatic high road (say through something called theopoetics), no matter how interesting such writing can be to the ear, here and now. We are not, for instance, seeking a new myth to save dark times but seeking redemptions one by one that may well be marked by moments of silence and peace, even prayer — nothing more to say — moments achieved not by new theory but by grace and something like confession (exposure) — and a little help from our friends.

    • dmf says:

      “theopoetics” like archetypal is best understood as a quality of an experience, a being grabbed/called by an ekstasis or pathos (in the grips of the python) and not as a kind of guaranteed quality of some icon or genre or such (as psych(e)ology and not ontology, here Hopper was mistaken but what leap of faith he made to teach the arts as places of serious encounters with powers and angelos in a protestant seminary), as Emerson said either the sacrament delivers or not and if not move on, but not I think a connection the literally Transcendent but a minority all too human capacity for aspect attunement, those with eyes to see and all.
      When I was a young psychotherapist head full of existentialism and psychoanalysis I thought that some kinds/classes of events/experiences would be naturally deep/charged but they can all be as mundane, flat, and as badly scripted/cliched soap-operas as most of human interactions/living. As for churches or art displays and all they no doubt largely serve the kinds of functions that social scientists imagine and to the degree that they serve as vehicles for more those who are transported could likely be so by almost anything just as how thru the blind-impresses of childhood our erotic bonds/desires can be attached to almost anyone or any thing.
      So yes to to paying attention and to bearing witness and even trying to manufacture art-ifically heightened experiences, with sharper contrast effects and such, which I think brings us back to full circle to our bench conversations.

  6. zjb says:

    Really nice post, Ed! Catlin makes an excellent point above that reminds me of Benjamin’s distinction between cult value and exhibition value. But it’s not always so clear, because the gods or other items from inside the Temple are exhbited to the general public assembled in the courtyard once a year. And at night, the musuem space gets shut down, closed up, and left in the dark. There’s a beautiful piece you might like by Rosalind Nashishibi at

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