The Magicians

The Christmas Nativity story is marked by visits from wise men [Matt 2:1], or Magi [plural for Magus Latin, or Magos Greek] from the East.

It is commonly believed to be wise men to be Zoroastrians from Persia.  The Prophet Zoroaster [c. 1500 BC]  was the founder of the Magi and “inventor” of both astrology and magic and the word, magi still survives in the modern-day words “magic ” and “magician”.

Harry Potter eat your heart out.

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Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic faith that developed in Persia from 1500 BC while Abrahamic monotheism can be dated to 2000BC. Zoroastrians, while astrologers and alchemists, were opposed to sorcery and their beliefs were marked by strong polarities between good and evil, dark and light and Messianism – a belief that a king will rise to reconcile the cosmic battle between light and dark.

The wise men of the East feature in biblical accounts of Daniel. Daniel served under two Chaldean-Babylonian kings, Nebuchadnezzar and his son Belteshazzar, and one Medo-Persian Darius. Daniel predicted the rise of a kingdom which would be greater than other kingdoms and take over the world.

 

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Old Testament scripture that dates after the exile is noted to be affected by Zoroastrianism as it takes on strong imagery of dark and light, motifs of angels and demons, heaven and hell. These polarities of Second Temple Judaism can be contrasted to the strong monotheism of traditional Judaism. In the Torah, the first five books, the Book of Job and other earlier writings,  God was ONE and held polarities of justice and mercy together. God [not an evil force] was to be feared as judge, Satan was more “accuser” than demon, bringing cases before YHWH for his judgement.  Death was a grey waste called Sheol, and the afterlife was a form of reincarnation.

Zoroastrians used their astrology to follow the signs to where the infant Christ lived with his parents. Their arrival signified the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the nations coming to see the light of Israel, bringing their tribute and fealty [Ps 72:11, Isa 60:11]. The arrival of the Magi to honour the birth of Christ is perhaps thus a look back to how Judaism was nuanced by the monotheism and messianism of the Zoroastrians. Or perhaps it is a look forward to the Age to come when all those who seek God in spirit and in truth, acknowledged the Messiah, the whole point of and culmination of scripture.

 

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Be An Artist Now

This wonderful TEDxSeoul talk [yes it’s got subtitles] reminds us of how we can over-complicate and overthink creativity.

Every child is born an artist and does not think to create for payment or accolade. We never lose this creativity but we learn to listen to the devils of doubt who would question “why” or “what for?”

But art is not for anything. Art is the ultimate goal. It saves our souls and makes us live happily. It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs.

 

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[Transcript]: The theme of my talk today is, “Be an artist, right now.” Most people, when this subject is brought up, get tense and resist it: “Art doesn’t feed me, and right now I’m busy. I have to go to school, get a job, send my kids to lessons … “ You think, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time for art.” There are hundreds of reasons why we can’t be artists right now. Don’t they just pop into your head?

00:39 There are so many reasons why we can’t be, indeed, we’re not sure why we should be. We don’t know why we should be artists, but we have many reasons why we can’t be. Why do people instantly resist the idea of associating themselves with art? Perhaps you think art is for the greatly gifted or for the thoroughly and professionally trained. And some of you may think you’ve strayed too far from art. Well you might have, but I don’t think so. This is the theme of my talk today. We are all born artists.

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01:16 If you have kids, you know what I mean. Almost everything kids do is art. They draw with crayons on the wall. They dance to Son Dam Bi’s dance on TV, but you can’t even call it Son Dam Bi’s dance — it becomes the kids’ own dance. So they dance a strange dance and inflict their singing on everyone. Perhaps their art is something only their parents can bear, and because they practice such art all day long, people honestly get a little tired around kids.

01:51 Kids will sometimes perform monodramas — playing house is indeed a monodrama or a play. And some kids, when they get a bit older, start to lie. Usually parents remember the very first time their kid lies. They’re shocked. “Now you’re showing your true colors,” Mom says. She thinks, “Why does he take after his dad?” She questions him, “What kind of a person are you going to be?”

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02:16 But you shouldn’t worry. The moment kids start to lie is the moment storytelling begins. They are talking about things they didn’t see. It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful moment. Parents should celebrate. “Hurray! My boy finally started to lie!” All right! It calls for celebration. For example, a kid says, “Mom, guess what? I met an alien on my way home.” Then a typical mom responds, “Stop that nonsense.” Now, an ideal parent is someone who responds like this: “Really? An alien, huh? What did it look like? Did it say anything? Where did you meet it?” “Um, in front of the supermarket.”

02:52 When you have a conversation like this, the kid has to come up with the next thing to say to be responsible for what he started. Soon, a story develops. Of course this is an infantile story, but thinking up one sentence after the next is the same thing a professional writer like me does. In essence, they are not different. Roland Barthes once said of Flaubert’s novels, “Flaubert did not write a novel. He merely connected one sentence after another. The eros between sentences, that is the essence of Flaubert’s novel.” That’s right — a novel, basically, is writing one sentence, then, without violating the scope of the first one, writing the next sentence. And you continue to make connections.

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03:40 Take a look at this sentence: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” Yes, it’s the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Writing such an unjustifiable sentence and continuing in order to justify it, Kafka’s work became the masterpiece of contemporary literature. Kafka did not show his work to his father. He was not on good terms with his father. On his own, he wrote these sentences. Had he shown his father, “My boy has finally lost it,” he would’ve thought.

04:10 And that’s right. Art is about going a little nuts and justifying the next sentence, which is not much different from what a kid does. A kid who has just started to lie is taking the first step as a storyteller. Kids do art. They don’t get tired and they have fun doing it. I was in Jeju Island a few days ago. When kids are on the beach, most of them love playing in the water. But some of them spend a lot of time in the sand, making mountains and seas — well, not seas, but different things — people and dogs, etc. But parents tell them, “It will all be washed away by the waves.” In other words, it’s useless. There’s no need. But kids don’t mind. They have fun in the moment and they keep playing in the sand. Kids don’t do it because someone told them to. They aren’t told by their boss or anyone, they just do it.

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05:00 When you were little, I bet you spent time enjoying the pleasure of primitive art. When I ask my students to write about their happiest moment, many write about an early artistic experience they had as a kid. Learning to play piano for the first time and playing four hands with a friend, or performing a ridiculous skit with friends looking like idiots — things like that. Or the moment you developed the first film you shot with an old camera. They talk about these kinds of experiences. You must have had such a moment. In that moment, art makes you happy because it’s not work. Work doesn’t make you happy, does it? Mostly it’s tough.

05:37 The French writer Michel Tournier has a famous saying. It’s a bit mischievous, actually. “Work is against human nature. The proof is that it makes us tired.” Right? Why would work tire us if it’s in our nature? Playing doesn’t tire us. We can play all night long. If we work overnight, we should be paid for overtime. Why? Because it’s tiring and we feel fatigue. But kids, usually they do art for fun. It’s playing. They don’t draw to sell the work to a client or play the piano to earn money for the family. Of course, there were kids who had to. You know this gentleman, right? He had to tour around Europe to support his family — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — but that was centuries ago, so we can make him an exception. Unfortunately, at some point our art — such a joyful pastime — ends. Kids have to go to lessons, to school, do homework and of course they take piano or ballet lessons, but they aren’t fun anymore. You’re told to do it and there’s competition. How can it be fun? If you’re in elementary school and you still draw on the wall, you’ll surely get in trouble with your mom. Besides, if you continue to act like an artist as you get older, you’ll increasingly feel pressure — people will question your actions and ask you to act properly.

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07:02 Here’s my story: I was an eighth grader and I entered a drawing contest at school in Gyeongbokgung. I was trying my best, and my teacher came around and asked me, “What are you doing?” “I’m drawing diligently,” I said. “Why are you using only black?” Indeed, I was eagerly coloring the sketchbook in black. And I explained, “It’s a dark night and a crow is perching on a branch.” Then my teacher said, “Really? Well, Young-ha, you may not be good at drawing but you have a talent for storytelling.” Or so I wished. “Now you’ll get it, you rascal!” was the response. (Laughter) “You’ll get it!” he said. You were supposed to draw the palace, the Gyeonghoeru, etc., but I was coloring everything in black, so he dragged me out of the group. There were a lot of girls there as well, so I was utterly mortified.

07:51 None of my explanations or excuses were heard, and I really got it big time. If he was an ideal teacher, he would have responded like I said before, “Young-ha may not have a talent for drawing, but he has a gift for making up stories,” and he would have encouraged me. But such a teacher is seldom found. Later, I grew up and went to Europe’s galleries — I was a university student — and I thought this was really unfair. Look what I found. (Laughter)

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08:23 Works like this were hung in Basel while I was punished and stood in front of the palace with my drawing in my mouth. Look at this. Doesn’t it look just like wallpaper? Contemporary art, I later discovered, isn’t explained by a lame story like mine. No crows are brought up. Most of the works have no title, Untitled. Anyways, contemporary art in the 20th century is about doing something weird and filling the void with explanation and interpretation — essentially the same as I did. Of course, my work was very amateur, but let’s turn to more famous examples.

09:01 This is Picasso’s. He stuck handlebars into a bike seat and called it “Bull’s Head.” Sounds convincing, right? Next, a urinal was placed on its side and called “Fountain”. That was Duchamp. So filling the gap between explanation and a weird act with stories — that’s indeed what contemporary art is all about. Picasso even made the statement, “I draw not what I see but what I think.” Yes, it means I didn’t have to draw Gyeonghoeru. I wish I knew what Picasso said back then. I could have argued better with my teacher. Unfortunately, the little artists within us are choked to death before we get to fight against the oppressors of art. They get locked in. That’s our tragedy.

Circles-and-Squares--Modern-Art_art

09:48 So what happens when little artists get locked in, banished or even killed? Our artistic desire doesn’t go away. We want to express, to reveal ourselves, but with the artist dead, the artistic desire reveals itself in dark form. In karaoke bars, there are always people who sing “She’s Gone” or “Hotel California,” miming the guitar riffs. Usually they sound awful. Awful indeed. Some people turn into rockers like this. Or some people dance in clubs. People who would have enjoyed telling stories end up trolling on the Internet all night long. That’s how a writing talent reveals itself on the dark side.

10:27 Sometimes we see dads get more excited than their kids playing with Legos or putting together plastic robots. They go, “Don’t touch it. Daddy will do it for you.” The kid has already lost interest and is doing something else, but the dad alone builds castles. This shows the artistic impulses inside us are suppressed, not gone. But they can often reveal themselves negatively, in the form of jealousy. You know the song “I would love to be on TV”? Why would we love it? TV is full of people who do what we wished to do, but never got to. They dance, they act — and the more they do, they are praised. So we start to envy them. We become dictators with a remote and start to criticize the people on TV. “He just can’t act.” “You call that singing? She can’t hit the notes.” We easily say these sorts of things. We get jealous, not because we’re evil, but because we have little artists pent up inside us. That’s what I think.

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11:34 What should we do then? Yes, that’s right. Right now, we need to start our own art. Right this minute, we can turn off TV, log off the Internet, get up and start to do something. Where I teach students in drama school, there’s a course called Dramatics. In this course, all students must put on a play. However, acting majors are not supposed to act. They can write the play, for example, and the writers may work on stage art. Likewise, stage art majors may become actors, and in this way you put on a show. Students at first wonder whether they can actually do it, but later they have so much fun. I rarely see anyone who is miserable doing a play. In school, the military or even in a mental institution, once you make people do it, they enjoy it. I saw this happen in the army — many people had fun doing plays.

12:23 I have another experience: In my writing class, I give students a special assignment. I have students like you in the class — many who don’t major in writing. Some major in art or music and think they can’t write. So I give them blank sheets of paper and a theme. It can be a simple theme: Write about the most unfortunate experience in your childhood. There’s one condition: You must write like crazy. Like crazy! I walk around and encourage them, “Come on, come on!” They have to write like crazy for an hour or two. They only get to think for the first five minutes.

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13:01 The reason I make them write like crazy is because when you write slowly and lots of thoughts cross your mind, the artistic devil creeps in. This devil will tell you hundreds of reasons why you can’t write: “People will laugh at you. This is not good writing! What kind of sentence is this? Look at your handwriting!” It will say a lot of things. You have to run fast so the devil can’t catch up. The really good writing I’ve seen in my class was not from the assignments with a long deadline, but from the 40- to 60-minute crazy writing students did in front of me with a pencil. The students go into a kind of trance. After 30 or 40 minutes, they write without knowing what they’re writing. And in this moment, the nagging devil disappears.

13:48 So I can say this: It’s not the hundreds of reasons why one can’t be an artist, but rather, the one reason one must be that makes us artists. Why we cannot be something is not important. Most artists became artists because of the one reason. When we put the devil in our heart to sleep and start our own art, enemies appear on the outside. Mostly, they have the faces of our parents. (Laughter) Sometimes they look like our spouses, but they are not your parents or spouses. They are devils. Devils. They came to Earth briefly transformed to stop you from being artistic, from becoming artists. And they have a magic question. When we say, “I think I’ll try acting. There’s a drama school in the community center,” or “I’d like to learn Italian songs,” they ask, “Oh, yeah? A play? What for?” The magic question is, “What for?” But art is not for anything. Art is the ultimate goal. It saves our souls and makes us live happily. It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs. So in response to such a pragmatic question, we need to be bold. “Well, just for the fun of it. Sorry for having fun without you,” is what you should say. “I’ll just go ahead and do it anyway.” The ideal future I imagine is where we all have multiple identities, at least one of which is an artist.

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15:21 Once I was in New York and got in a cab. I took the backseat, and in front of me I saw something related to a play. So I asked the driver, “What is this?” He said it was his profile. “Then what are you?” I asked. “An actor,” he said. He was a cabby and an actor. I asked, “What roles do you usually play?” He proudly said he played King Lear. King Lear. “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” — a great line from King Lear. That’s the world I dream of. Someone is a golfer by day and writer by night. Or a cabby and an actor, a banker and a painter, secretly or publicly performing their own arts.

15:58 In 1990, Martha Graham, the legend of modern dance, came to Korea. The great artist, then in her 90s, arrived at Gimpo Airport and a reporter asked her a typical question: “What do you have to do to become a great dancer? Any advice for aspiring Korean dancers?” Now, she was the master. This photo was taken in 1948 and she was already a celebrated artist. In 1990, she was asked this question. And here’s what she answered: “Just do it.” Wow. I was touched. Only those three words and she left the airport. That’s it. So what should we do now? Let’s be artists, right now. Right away. How? Just do it!

16:44 Thank you.

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You can view the original TED talk here.

Spinning Straw into Gold

The Brother’s Grimm folk-story, Rumplestiltskin tells of a Miller who lies to the king, saying his daughter can spin straw into gold.

The miller, a foolish man, refers to his beautiful daughter’s blonde hair, which turns golden in the sunlight. However, the king is greedy and immediately summons the girl and locks her in a chamber to spin straw into gold on pain of death.

The poor girl sits weeping before the spinning wheel and pile of straw when suddenly a little man appears before her and asks her why she mourns. She explains her predicament and the little man offers to complete the challenge for her in exchange for a trinket – her necklace. Quick as can be, the little man begins spinning and sure enough turns the pile of straw into spools of fine gold strands.

spin straw into gold

The greedy king insists the woman repeat the challenge with more straw and more gold and again the little man appears mysteriously at midnight to help her. His request this time is for another trinket – her ring.

The third night, the king promises to marry the girl if she completes an even larger challenge. This night the little man appears and asks instead of a trinket – for the promise of her first born child. Rashly, she agrees.

In the morning the king marries her and the miller’s daughter forgets all about the little man and her wager with him. A little over a year later, the queen gives birth to a baby and one night when she is alone with the child the little man appears asking for his prize.

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Distraught at her rash promise, the Queen begs for leniency but he will not relent. Finally, the little man makes an offer – if she can guess his name, she can keep the child. If she cannot, the child is his.

For three nights the man returns to her chamber as she guesses all the names she can think of. Every night she is wrong. On the day of the final visit a woodsman reports to the King and Queen of seeing a strange little man dancing in the forest, chanting about taking the Kind’s child and his name is Rumplestiltskin.

Armed with this knowledge the Queen addresses the little man who in a rage, stamps a hole in the floor and disappears forever.

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What kind of magic the little imp had that he could turn raw materials like straw, into gold? It is not clear in the tale but the imp wields dark enough magic to require a human life in exchange for it.

What is straw but the raw materials of life and what is gold but the value attributed to anything of value – a tradeable substance worth purchasing?

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How does one turn the raw materials of life into great value? Well any craft or art does so.

A potter turns earth and clay into pots, vases and bowls which can retails for hundreds if not thousands. Carpenters can take offcuts of timber and craft beautiful pieces of furniture. Ironmongers turn ore from the rocks into swords and machinery.

How about wordsmiths, poets, story tellers, artists and musicians?

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The work of an artist is to take the raw materials of life – conflict, pain, doubt, sorrow, loss, heart break, fear, trials, growth and to spin these feelings into songs, stories, poems, plays, films and paintings. These works are worth gold – plentiful in value to the viewers, listeners, readers and collectors.

But often the cost of great fame and wealth for artists is the loss of some form of themselves, their integrity, their privacy, their soul. It is as though they sell their first born child for the wealth that art, the spinning of gold from straw, will bring them.

And the solution – to know the name of fame and glory – and to label it for what it is. This acknowledgement allows an artist to accept, their wealth did not come from self, but from a whimsical imp that would trade their soul for money. In knowing this, they redeem a part of themselves and can retain their sanity and soul.