|Jack Delano, Vermont State Fair, 1941. |
Library of Congress / Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI collection
The lesson that struck deepest had nothing to do with me or my skills, though, and everything to do with how deeply people reacted to the photographs by Cheryl, Balazs, and Teru. Much of that response was expressed in the notebook available in the gallery, a cathartic vehicle into which viewers expressed pain, frustration, pride, admiration, hope. What most heartened me and confirmed my judgment was the way the exhibit equally touched people with anti-war convictions and those with military connections. One man, a combat veteran and peace activist, told me the show captured the ambiguities of valor and horror he experienced in the war zone. I can't think of a more gratifying affirmation than that.
|Page from Battlesight gallery book|
When the Center launched in 2009, my emphasis was most firmly on the art aspect of the endeavor, on the production and presentation of aesthetically interesting work that addressed social themes. My thinking has become more complex, though I'm not sure where it's taking me. The powerful response to Battlesight among people from all walks of life hints at a hunger for art that speaks with immediacy and accessibility to the human condition, art that serves something bigger than itself. There have been times in the past month when I have wondered if what I am building is fundamentally an arts organization at all. Maybe the Center is closer to a humanitarian mission, in which art serves the cause much the same way public-service announcements do other initiatives.
I've even thought of changing the name of the Center, to something that more plainly states the social goals of raising awareness and fostering compassion. Among the names I've considered were, "The Center for Art and Humanity," "Empatheia: The Project for Art and Humanity," and "Eleos: Culture of Compassion" (somehow, Greek seems to fit the need in ways English alone doesn't). No sooner do I come up with a name, though, then I feel the weight of it dragging its chains. They all seem, for their high nobility, limiting. Humane, humanitarian, humanity--these words speak to that part of us that goes beyond mortal need to capacities of the heart and soul, to equality, fairness, justice, mercy, all the products of an intrinsic empathy that is as much in our nature as aggression and competition. In other words, to be fully human is to possess loving kindness, and the purpose of culture is to cultivate those creative aspects that forge human(e) connections.
If that's true, though, then can't all art be considered essentially humanitarian, since it all feeds the culture? Once upon a time I might have argued yes, but as I look around the contemporary art world, I cannot escape the fact that much of it is driven by conceptual, market, and personality concerns that no more serve humanity than social Darwinism feeds the poor. As I interrogate my thinking--and present it here, still raw and provisional--I find myself slouching steadily away from art that doesn't in some way--through protest, praise, prayer, witness, or wonder--aid the well-being of the personal soul or spiritus mundi. I'm not equipped to be the arbiter in all this, except to the extent that I have a small NPO with a mission and a world-view. As things are progressing, though, it seems that part of the mission is to engage in this discussion.