The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together creative makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

11 June 2019

Coming full circle

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
William Carlos Williams, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower


I suspended this blog six years ago to take what I thought was temporary leave. The work I’d begun at the Center for Documentary Arts in 2008 had led me into deeper waters of art, ethics, and the ineffable than I’d foreseen. To pursue questions and answers I’d raised here, in 2013 I left for Yale Divinity School to weave my scattered metaphysical inclinations together into a single course of study. I imagined I would continue posting from New Haven, but as Robert Frost observed, “way leads on to way,” and my circumnavigations pulled me away from this space for much longer than I’d expected.

Travel far enough and you find yourself coming full circle, back to a home at once familiar and new: the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. A few weeks ago, I was thrown back to the origins of this project when I borrowed from the library a 2009 book called The Age of Empathy, by biologist Frans de Waal. De Waal has devoted his career to studying animal behavior, including acts of altruism, empathy, and emotion that science used to think were outside the capacity of non-human creatures. Just two paragraphs into his preface explaining the meaning of the title, the author wrote that the United States was on the threshold of a golden age of compassion.

American politics seems poised for a new epoch that stresses cooperation and social responsibility,” de Waal declared. “The emphasis is on what unites a society, what makes it worth living in, rather than what material wealth we can extract from it. Empathy is the grand theme of our time. . . .”

I snapped the book shut, struck by a sudden pang of recognition and mourning. It was too much to think of the nightmare we are trapped in now and recall how, not so very long ago, such an optimistic statement was not at all unreasonable. De Waal's quotation goes back to a sliver of time that corresponds with the first year of the Center for Documentary Art’s existence. The Age of Empathy was published in September, 2009, so de Waal would have been writing his preface (typically the last part of a book to be completed) sometime after Barack Obama’s historic election and inauguration as our 44th President. We had just survived an eight-year stretch of terrorism, war, government-approved torture, venality, and self-congratulatory lunacy when Obama soared into office on the most inspirational message of a generation. De Waal quotes Obama speaking to university students during his campaign: “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit,” the president-to-be says. “It’s only when you hitch your wagon to something 12ptr than yourself that you will realize your true potential.” The speaker of such words made it easy to be hopeful that we were entering a new age of decency in civic life.

Obama’s confident rhetoric was all the more impressive coming as the country was sinking into financial ruin. A decade of abuses by corporate banking and unregulated finance has resulted in institutions and businesses failing, people loosing their homes, mushrooming unemployment, and a lot of citizens justifiably afraid that the meltdown would create a crisis equal to that of the Great Depression. Throughout the 1930s, the arts had played a vital role in binding the country together in the midst of adversity. There was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford’s film of the novel; Woody Guthrie's dust bowl ballads; the W.P.A. photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and others; the stage and radio plays funded by the Federal Theatre Project; and the work of the Federal Art Project, which commissioned some ten thousand painters, sculptors, and others to produce a vast body of public artworks, including the heroic murals that decorated post offices across the U.S.

Though largely populist, American art of that era was nothing like the lock-step propaganda being created under totalitarian regimes elsewhere in the world. In this country, no two artists could be said to have quite the same ideology, yet for all the freedom of expression, much of the art exhibited a shared morality of equality, dignity, and charity born of common need. The work shared other traits as well. In general it was pictorial and naturalistic, concerned as much with depiction as self-expression, produced to tell a story and bring viewers closer to the lives of others. Some of it was brilliant, some of it banal, but it all aimed to give people a common language and a common hope at a time of inconceivable hardship.

I was thinking a lot about Depression-era art when I launched the Center for Documentary Arts in partnership with the Sage Colleges. The project was an experiment and an invitation. I wanted to see if, amidst the anxiety and misfortune at the end of 2008, the arts could carry the new empathy de Waal wrote about. I had been an art critic for more than twenty years, and was struck by how little contemporary art seemed to notice the lives of others. Most of the art I saw, read about, and reviewed was immensely intelligent but emotionally cold, with little or no sensitivity toward human pain, privation, aspiration, or triumph. Visual artists seemed to think fellow-feeling was outside their job description. Even when addressing injustice, the work was more ideological than emotional, more analytic than intimate.

From abstract expressionism, free jazz, and experimental cinema to postmodern architecture, gaming, and social media, for sixty years creative freedom had been defined in terms of individuality, rebellion, subversion, satire, and escape. I had grown up in this stream, knew my way around it, but at some point had come to admit that it wasn’t feeding me as it claimed to. I had an idea I was not alone in my hunger, and through the Center for Documentary Arts, sought out work by artists comfortable and conversant with compassion, suffering, and sacredness. A quick look through the archives of this blog will reveal who and what I found, a rich trove of art resulting in exhibitions, films, and readings of uncommon depth and humanity. In serving this agenda, the Center attracted a loyal following of people who responded with interest, affection, and enthusiasm.

The source of nourishment we found together can be summed up in a single word, heart. The term covers a lot of territory. It describes a mode of being—and art-making— motivated by caritas, the selfless love of others. “Heart” describes the centeredness of someone secure in his or her own convictions, and captures the vulnerability we must acknowledge in ourself before we can respond to it in another. For all its intrinsic tenderness, though, the word “heart” also signifies a firm and fortified courage—the strength to stand resolute in the face of doubt, grief, injustice, evil. A heart-centered art is at once independent and interdependent, equally informed by what philosopher Jacques Maritain called the “liberty of art” and the “demands of moral life.”

We are still waiting for an Age of Empathy, and by the looks of things will be for some time. Ten years on from the book, we live in a wilderness of violence, faithlessness, and flagrant upheaval. In lieu of de Waal there is David Brooks, whose book The Second Mountain is a cri de coeur for a better world. Brooks laments our culture’s “catastrophe” of “radical individualism,” a condition of corrosive self-interest the author says can only be cured by committing to things bigger our ourselves. The book, with its subtitle The Quest for a Moral Life, replaces empathy, which de Waal regards as an instinct hard-wired within each of us, with a system of ethics ordered by a code of right and wrong.

Liberals, progressives, artists, seekers, poets, hipsters, intellectuals, humanists, and aging hippies—i.e., most of the people who make up my Facebook feed—bristle at the concept of “morality,” which smacks of a top-down system of rules and control. Just as the term “religion” sets their teeth on edge but “spirituality” is okay, most of my crowd will not speak of “moral standards” but are comfortable discussing “ethics.” The term does seem to allow for more personal agency, but in truth, both ethics and morals define the same thing, the individual’s duty to the greater good, governed by a protocol of principles and conduct. To speak of moral or ethical duty is not to impinge on our free will, but to give it meaning. The compassion and courage essential for an ethical life imbue freedom with a texture and satisfaction it cannot otherwise achieve.

Art that ignites moral imagination and reconnects us to our collective conscience is a source and expression of such freedom. We are living now through a great depression of decency, virtue, and social justice, and need as much as ever what I call the “documentary arts.” These are, broadly defined, narrative and lyric forms of photography, film, oral history, visual art, textile art, poetry, etc. that bear witness to the human condition, address social themes, and add to the world's supply of beauty and mercy. The Center for Documentary Arts exists to promote and present artists of the highest accomplishment who seek through their work to penetrate the heart, awaken compassion, and foster justice. As I return to this project begun a decade ago, I feel an even greater commitment and urgency to continue its work of education and advocacy, renewal and healing. I invite you to come along. 

30 April 2013

Something beyond the void


In his book Pictures and Tears, James Elkins describes the charged silence that fills the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The space holds fourteen "black" paintings created for the chapel by the artist that feel by turns funereal, reverent, mystical. "People have always cried at [Rothko's] paintings," Elkins reports, a phenomenon the artist regarded as quite reasonable. "The people who weep before my pictures," Rothko said, "are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them." There was a spiritual element to much of modernist abstraction, a sacredness that chafed constantly against the movement's existential doubt and postwar formalism. Most of the juicy metaphysical tension was drained out of modern painting by the Sixties, though there remains activity among artists from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Pacific to revive it—even some in this country, on the fringes. The essay appeared in the Playbill for the production of Red, the John Logan play about Mark Rothko, at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, New York, 19 April to 19 May, 2013.  

A Communication About the World
The Art of Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko may be the last great artist of passion any of us will see in our lifetimes. The brooding Abstract Expressionist stands in the lineage of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Turner, and van Gogh, artists for whom our most powerful human emotions—ardor, ecstasy, suffering, despair—were both the subject and motive of their work.  Whether Rothko’s shimmering and somber rectangles of color will achieve the immortality of the masters before him, time will tell. Like those earlier artists, he sought the essence of what it means to be human, and expressed it with a sublime and awesome presence unimaginable in our current age of irony.

There is a moment in Red in which Rothko rages after seeing an exhibition of the artists who followed him, including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. “They’re trying to kill me!” he declares. “Superficial, meaningless sewage!” The scene is not literally accurate—Andy Warhol did not produce the paintings for which he is famous until a few years after the time frame of the play—but it is emotionally true nonetheless. Warhol and the rest of the innovators of Pop Art (it was called the “New Realism” when it first appeared) were indeed out to discredit, dethrone, and ultimately dismantle what Rothko stood for. And they succeeded, openly mocking their elders’ claims of existential and spiritual purity with an aloof, acidic irreverence and jaded cynicism that embraced the materialism, consumerism, celebrity, flash, and trash of modern culture, an ethos we have inherited. In real life, Rothko was introduced to Warhol on a Greenwich Village sidewalk; he turned and walked away without a word. If we were filming the scene today, where would we point the camera? On the expression of the older master as he composed himself in the throes of contempt, or on the young upstart, watching the old man disappear?

Rothko struggled for his success, experimenting through more than twenty years of successive genres and forms, from grim social narrative to mythic surrealism, before finding his mature style in 1949. His best paintings are triumphs of beauty and intensity, two or three blocks of glowing, soft-edged color stacked in a vertical field. He was widely considered America’s greatest living painter at the time he accepted the commission to paint the Four Seasons murals in 1958. He turned the canvas sideways, creating haunting friezes that seem at once shrouds, portals, and free-floating auras. 

The painter once, only half ironically, offered a “recipe” for his art. The ingredients included “intimations of mortality,” “sensuality,” “tension,” “wit and play,” and “the ephemeral and chance.” Rothko often denied his paintings were “abstract,” by which he meant they were neither purely intellectual nor non-representational. Indeed, he most likely viewed his works as utterly literal renderings of the non-material but entirely real psychological awareness he depicted. Painting a picture, he once said, “is a communication about the world.” The last item in his recipe was hope. “Ten percent to make the tragic more endurable.”

Ultimately, the tragic became unendurable for the artist himself. “One day the black will swallow the red,” Rothko laments in the play. Despair, decline, and death overtook the chromatic splendor of life, and Rothko committed suicide in 1970 at age 66. The next year saw the opening of what the artist considered his greatest creation, the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The chapel holds fourteen paintings in an octagonal museum-cum-mediation center, each of them black, though to say so is somewhat misleading. Embedded in the darkness is an immanence of other hues—brick red, chestnut-brown, plum. mauve—that give the works depth, movement, mystery. Even as the color drained out, Rothko sensed something beyond the void.

Albany has its own Rothko, one of the gems of the Empire State Plaza Art Collection. The untitled 1967 work, on display in the concourse level of the Corning Tower, features a bright blue ground with a large, teal-green square floating above a charcoal rectangle. Like the blacks in the Rothko Chapel, the grey of the Albany Rothko is hardly static. Study it slowly. As your eyes grow used to the dark, the lower rectangle sheds its gloom and feels lit from within. There is no irony in the passionate eloquence of this effect. 





Romano Cagnoni, Rothko Chapel, Houston, 1967
Henry Elkan, Mark Rothko in his 53rd Street studio, c 1953


15 February 2013

Everywhere, a mood of change

Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn and make an end of you. — Charles Dickens, Hard Times

In 1997, as staff art critic for an upstate New York newspaper, I went to a museum exhibition of works from the 1970s through the 1990s called "Is It Art?"—a coyly provocative question with the clear answer, "Yes, whether you like it or not." The exhibit was an adjunct to a book (not the other way around) titled Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art's Meaning in Contemporary Society, that sought to explain and endorse the work of thirty-seven of our age's most highly regarded artists, including Joseph Beuys, Sophie Calle, Gilbert and George, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, and Gerhard Richter. In the book, each artist was chosen for his or her explorations of a culturally relevant concept or theme; hence, the idea of "Data Collecting" was illustrated by the pixelated pointillism of painter Chuck Close; of "A Chicano Woman" with the icon-crowded installations of Amalia Mesa-Bains; of "Self-Sanctification" by the multiple videotaped plastic surgeries and phials of fat tissue of French artist Orlan; and so on in this manner. The subject "Urine" was personified by Andres Serrano, who in the early 1990s became a lightning rod of the "culture wars" for his photograph Piss Christ, which, with the work of other politically, sexually, and religiously controversial artists, had been assailed by right-wing politicians in a scorched-earth campaign against contemporary art and government funding. For much of the '90s, detractors from Sen. Jesse Helms to the television journalist Morley Safer prosecuted a case against the very same aesthetic that "Is It Art?" was mounted to defend.

Although my job at the paper was to act somewhat as an expert, I was at the time largely self-taught, with limited exposure to the postmodern avant-garde or its controlling philosophy, expressed by Linda Weintraub, author-curator of the book-exhibit, as "deviation." Today, a decade and a half later, the fashionable word is "transgression," but the project is the same: to challenge cultural norms and dispute accepted ideas of order.  I was stymied and shaken by the exhibit's mood of perpetual indignation, belligerent irony, and zealous embrace of chaos. Its implications bewildered me, to say nothing of my own half-recognized responses. Despite my confusion, the exhibit had its intended effect, setting in motion an engagement with contemporary art that continues to this day, though one, I allow, generally closer to an interrogation than a love-in. Indeed, the show was a turning point of my thought-process and my career. But that's another story. 

I recalled all this while listening to Edi Rama speak about the ways beauty improved the civic life of Tirana, Albania, where he was mayor from 2000 to 2011. I should put the term in the uppercase—Beauty—for as Mr. Rama's TED talk reveals, it was not simply the presence of pleasing color that enhanced his city, but the ideal of order and integrity that beauty represented. Beauty was conspicuous in its absence in Ms. Weintraub's book and exhibit (in truth, in the book it was not at all absent, but explicitly nullified in an afterword by postmodern apologist Thomas McEvilley)—one could not help but observe that the art on display was starkly un-beautiful, as each artist adopted a stance, from banality to shock to sheer ugliness, to undermine all hope of visual pleasure. The effect was quite obviously purposeful, like there was a movement afoot. How long had this been going on? In fact, since the 1960s an anti-aesthetic ideology had grown up in artist studios and art departments that rejected beauty as a humanist virtue and considered it, far from Keatsean truth, an insidious lie. Toiling far from urban galleries and academia, I had not connected the dots on the new paradigm. Till then, I had regarded beauty more or less like oxygen, something we could all agree on. The fact that certain works were not beautiful had never struck me as an assault on the idea of beauty, any more than a rhombus negates a sphere. In the exhibit in question, though, the lack of all elegance, grace, proportion, balance, fineness, or any other quality appealing to the senses, was plainly a call to arms.

This call brought me face to face with my own unexamined assumptions about beauty. I've never been a push-over on the subject. I don't swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of "Is It Art?" was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but it was and remains self-evident to me that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision.  Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.


Once sensitized to the subject, I quickly learned a backlash reconsideration of beauty was in full swing by critics and philosophers. This counter-reformation reached a height in Elaine Scary's 1999 book, On Beauty and Being Just. "Beauty assists us in our attention to justice," Scarry wrote, a truth Edi Rama learned from experience. Upon being elected mayor of Tirana, Rama embarked on a project of beautifying his city, by clearing rubble, tearing down illegal buildings, and constructing green public spaces. He set in motion an initiative to paint public buildings, including housing projects, in bright primary colors, and otherwise improved the aesthetic atmosphere of the neighborhoods. "It was a force of political action," declares Rama. "When colors came out everywhere, a mood of change started."

That change, Rama asserts in his talk, manifested itself in increased civic pride and social cohesion, and in a reduction of crime. "Beauty was acting as a guardsman," Rama told his TED audience in Thessaloniki, Greece. "Beauty was giving people a feeling of being protected." He tells the story of a shopkeeper he met in the act of replacing the metal grate on her storefront with a large display window. "How is it—?" he asked. Look around, the merchant returned; since the neighborhood was painted there have been fewer thefts, fewer crimes, the people feel more secure. "It's beautiful. It's safe."

This is slight anecdotal evidence, but it points the way. Cosmetic upgrades obviously could not solve all of Tirana's ills (they had no effect on the city's decrepit water and sewage system, for instance). Beauty cannot redeem the world on its own . But we are wired to adapt to our surroundings and take our cues from the unspoken values the environment imposes and fosters. A view that supports beauty's emotional and ethical necessity can conceive of humane solutions to a myriad of challenges. Dickens' entreaties for the aesthetic needs of the poor applies to us all. As a value, Beauty has been freighted with numerous and not entirely unreasonable doubts for so long it will not be restored to some former, unambiguous glory. And yet, without it we are lost. This era we are in, this time of post-postmodernism, metamodernism, neoclassical romantic baroque modernism, call it what you will, urges us to seek latent energies in the old virtues, to go back and look again for overlooked possibilities. Is it beyond reason to expect artists, as a kind of minimal job description, to grasp these imperatives? Before becoming a politician, Edi Rama was a painter.




15 December 2012

After Sandy Hook, our Hour of Lead



After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—

This is the hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—the Stupor—then the letting go—

Emily Dickinson


I learned of yesterday's terrible attack in Connecticut on Facebook, where I had gone to hide out from a piece of writing I was making no progress on. Every post was an anguished response to the massacre; within a short time I knew something dreadful had happened, but not exactly what. Google's newsfeed supplied the headlines, and then the video on the evening news, bringing the numb, sickening sadness in like the tide. I let loose a cry of uncomprehending grief and listened to the darkness.


I didn't go back to Facebook. In the process of absorbing the first rough contours of the tragedy there, I had had to hurdle several posts whose first thought was a call for gun control. I endorse this position, but was not prepared to leap over our hour of lead to indulge social commentary or political outrage. This was a moment for horror, for sorrow, for weeping, for compassion. Our ancient viper brain seeks something to strike at, but aggression, even in the form of righteous outrage, denies us the full measure of our pain. Only by fully allowing our own sense of shock and suffering can we share the suffering of those who lost loved ones, and perhaps even experience a flicker of mercy for whatever distress drove a tormented young man to brutally murder twenty children and seven teachers.

President Obama exemplified the compassion of pain fully felt in his brief address Friday afternoon. "[O]ur hearts are broken today, for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost," he said. "Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain." With bowed head and barely staunched tears, the President expressed genuinely moving sadness for those directly touched by the shooting, and for the country as a whole, which groans under a madness of rage, hatred, and pitiless violence.

President Obama made a passing allusion to the political action required to address the ever-more frequent incidence of firearms violence, but let us not fool ourselves into believing gun control is the curative we seek. Few countries have stricter gun laws than Norway, where a similar attack on young people took place last year.  That attack reminded us no place is immune, but Norway showed us something to hold up as well—a national character that healed its trauma through charity and collective reflection. As one Norwegian girl expressed it, "If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together."

"This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do,'' the President said, "which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another." We must endure our hour of pain, listen to it, then outlive it and transmute it into love. 

I do not believe in a homeopathy of outrage, where like cures like. Love alone heals the pain that feeds our violence.



Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.


Adam Zagajewski
Translated by Clare Cavanagh



Photo by Evan Vucci/AP, edited

05 December 2012

Dangerous empathy



Gonna forget about myself for a while, 
gonna go out and see what others need
   ∼Bob Dylan

One of the convictions this site was founded on is the cultural imperative for art that allows us to compassionately experience the lives of others. Earlier this week, RSA Animate, that “invariably excellent”* series that melds the public lecture with the graphic novel, posted this video in which cultural historian Roman Krznaric argues for exactly this level of engaged receptivity, via a process of “radical empathy he calls outrospection.

If the 20th century spawned a “therapy culture” that encouraged us “to look inside of ourselves, to gaze at our own navels,” the needs of the 21st century demand something different. “Instead of the age of introspection, we need to shift to the age of outrospection,” insists Krznaric, “the idea of discovering who you are and what to do with your life by stepping outside of yourself, discovering the lives of other people and other civilizations.”

The “ultimate artform” of the new age, he says, is empathy. Expanding “empathic potential” is good for us personally and good for the world:

“Empathy can be part of the art of living, a philosophy of life. Empathy isn’t something that just expands your moral universe. Empathy is something that can make you a more creative thinker, improve your relationships, can create the human bonds that make life worth living. But more than that, empathy is about social change, radical social change. A lot of people think of empathy as a nice, soft, fluffy concept. I think it’s anything but that; it’s actually quite dangerous. Empathy can create revolution . . . a revolution of human relationships.”

I'd have highlighted this vid simply for that robust stand on the power of empathy, but in its ten minutes Krznaric introduces several compelling ideas. He describes two related but distinct forms of empathy, “affected empathy,” when one individual mirrors another's pain, joy, etc., and “cognitive empathy,” the perspective shifting that Native Americans describe as walking a mile in another man's moccasins. As inspiration for expanding our empathic potential, Krznaric cites the work of George Orwell, not as chronicler of distopian futures, but as the immersive author of Down and Out in Paris and London. He could as well have mentioned the peasant paintings of Van Gogh, the New Deal photographs of Russell Lee, or the documentaries of Agnès Varda, among countless examples. He also reminds us that empathy can powerfully transform society, as it did in the English anti-slavery campaigns of the 1820s and U.S. Abolitionist movement forty years later.

The animated lecture condenses a longer talk delivered at the RSA in February, titled  “The Six Habits of Empathic People. (The singularly British RSA, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, is an  “enlightenment organization founded in 1754 in a coffee shop in Covent Garden.Krznaric concludes by urging us to cultivate empathy not just around the globe, as when a natural disaster ravages a far-off country, but across time as well: We are failing to empathize through time, with future generations. We need to learn to expand our empathic imaginations forward through time, as well as across space.

Here again, his words echo Native American ethics, which insist that all collective decisions contribute to the welfare of the seventh generation to come. The Great Binding Law, the constitution of the Iroquois Nation, which scholars say may date back to 1100 or earlier, expresses the idea unflinchingly:

“In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground—the unborn of the future Nation.”



* In the words of Maria Popova (herself "invariably excellent"), who posted this video on her must-read daily omnibus Brain Pickings


29 November 2012

Into quiet and light: The photographs of Robert Adams



Photography is inherently fragmentary,
and I find I base my faith on perfect moments.  
  –Robert Adams

In 2001, Robert Adams published Bodhisattva, an artist's book containing thirteen images of a Buddhist prayer statue from the second or third century CE. The sculpture, depicting a “wisdom being” or bodhisattava, was from the Gandhara region of eastern Afghanistan, the farthest point Alexander the Great penetrated into Asia. There are Chinese and Hellenistic influences in the figure's tranquil countenance and ringlet hair, which Adams photographed in a series of intimate close-ups. It seems appropriate to call the results portraits as much as studies; Adams clearly regards the deity not merely as an artwork to be observed, but as an entity with a distinct life force. 

In Adams’s book, each photograph floats in the center of the right-hand page, opposite a blank white leaf. The eye reads the spread as a single entity, left to right, and the whiteness affects each image's tranquil presence. The blankness is not blank at all; it is, indeed, an atmosphere the bodhisattva inhabits, part silence, part radiance. The thin book takes only minutes to page through, but like any proper revelation, multiplies its meaning over time. Bohdisattva is the slightest and most obscure of the more than thirty monographs Adams has produced since 1970, an outlier and an anomaly, and yet it reveals an underlying spiritual agenda to his work that goes largely uncommented on. 


The subject of spirituality has never been foremost in the critical literature about Adams, widely considered among the most influential landscape photographers of the late twentieth century. He is best known for his stark black-and-white images of housing tracts and suburban sprawl in the American West, photographs that Ken Johnson described in the New York Times as “dispassionately objective, as if made by an insurance adjuster.” The aggressive detachment of Adams’s aesthetic was startling and subversive when he emerged in the mid-1970s as one of a group of anti-Romantics who revolutionized our view of the American landscape. Robert Adams was a kind of anti-Ansel Adams, the widely popular photographer of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. Where the older Adams (the two men are not related) portrayed the Western wilderness as an heroic paradise, his younger namesake exposed the destruction of the West’s open spaces by rapacious, unregulated development.


I'd first seen Adams's photographs when I was a young photographer in the 1980s. His work produced a frisson of admiration and uncertainty in me. I could never quite emulate it, but could also never quite forget it. I was intimidated by its courage and its coldness, its searing commentary and its eye for the resonant banality. More than any other early influence, Adams taught me to look to the commonplace as subject matter. So I thought I understood him when I made it to New Haven last month for the closing weekend of Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a forty-year retrospective at the Yale University Art Gallery. But there I encountered a far more nuanced artist than I had known, with a broader range and far different artistic program. Included in the exhibition were selected images from Bodhisattva, and it was these photographs that clarified and confirmed what I take to be Adams’s larger project and helped me see his landscapes anew.

Adams was nearly 40, and had been photographing less than ten years, when he came to prominence in the 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York. The exhibit title revealed the new aesthetic it championed. In contrast to the vision of reigning masters Ansel Adams and Edward Weston—whose sweeping vistas and dramatic light were inherited from the Hudson River School and European Romantic painting —the artists in Rochester affected the dry, analytic stance suggested by the geographic term “topography.” Curator William Jenkins summed up the new philosophy thus: “The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion.” Overnight, New Topographics rewrote the playbook and rendered the old style passé. One of the exhibitors, the German husband-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, birthed a school of postmodern photography that produced the likes of Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth. Other exhibitors, among them Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Nicholas Nixon, have enjoyed equally influential careers as artists and educators.


New Topographics was part of a movement in the 1960s and '70s that transformed photography’s conception of itself—and eventually changed how we all think of the medium, right up to our iPhones. The Big Bang moment of the new ethos was the 1959 publication of Robert Frank's The Americans, the book that did for photography what Leaves of Grass did for American poetry, finding a door in what had seemed a solid wall. The Americans disregarded photography’s assumptions of narrative and composition, borrowed from traditional genre painting, and flouted notions of craft. The Swiss-born artist’s blurred, grainy, seemingly off-handed images of juke joints and drive-in theaters, elevator girls and open roads, possessed a mordant melancholy and distilled vision of American aggression, alienation, and spiritual debasement. 

Frank’s anarchy made the old guard howl, but younger artists, more tuned to modernism and rock 'n' roll than American exceptionalism, quickly took up the cause. The work of serious photographic artists became increasingly deadpan, random, brooding, aloof, sardonic, irreverent, and anti-sentimental.

When Robert Adams took up the camera in the 1960s, this was the zeitgeist at large, fed by assassinations, Vietnam, Dylan, the Pill, pot, and a few years later, Watergate. That the “establishment” was an empty shell seemed not a stance but irrefutable fact. Exposing the perfidy of the status quo was an act of conscience. It's not hard to imagine Adams, who spent his boyhood amid the pre-sprawl grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, looking with grief and contempt at its degradation. Depicting the rampant development was a way of condemning it. J'accuse! The act alone did not make Adams an iconoclast—in fact, it was squarely in the tradition of Lewis Hine’s photographic campaign against child labor—but his inclusion in New Topographics put him squarely among the insurrection. And his pictures did appear to share a similar ethos. Not only were they openly critical of the notion of "progress," they also looked starkly anti-aesthetic. So often seemed to be of, well ... of nothing, really.

As with the bodhisattva book, that apparent nothingness was shot through with meaning. “The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy,” Adams wrote in 1995, reflecting on his work of the ’70s. “They document a separation from ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love.” For all the affinities Adams shared with the other Topographic artists, he is far from typical of the new paradigm. Like the Gandharan sculpture, Adams shows influences of divergent, even opposing, cultures. If his pictures do often seem, as William Jenkins put it, “stripped of . . . artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state,” they can hardly be said to eschew “beauty, emotion and opinion."

Indeed, regarding beauty, Adams turns out to be something of a latter-day romantic. On this point he has been especially eloquent. Far from “eschewing” beauty, he has pursued it throughout his career, as he explained in the title essay of his book, Beauty in Photography:


“[T]he word beauty is in practice unavoidable. Its very centrality accounts, in fact, for my decision to photograph. There appeared a quality—Beauty seemed the only appropriate word for it—in certain photographs and paintings that opened my eyes, and I was compelled to learn to live with the vocabulary of this new sight, though for many years I still found it embarrassing to use the word Beauty, even while believing in it.

“If the proper goal of art is, as I now believe, Beauty, the Beauty that concerns me is that of Form. Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life. . . . Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life might be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”

Adams goes on in the essay to explore beauty’s relationship to metaphysics and the divine.  

“Art’s beauty . . . does not lead to theology or a system of ethics (though it reminds me of the wisdom of humility and generosity). William Carlos Williams said that poets write for a single reason—to give witness to splendor (a word also used by Thomas Aquinas in defining the beautiful). It is a useful word, especially for a photographer, because it implies light—light of overwhelming intensity. The Form toward which art points is of an incontrovertible brilliance, but it is also far too intense to examine directly. We are compelled to understand Form by its fragmentary reflection in the daily objects around us.”


Adams is an elegist, a poet of loss. This reference to poetry is not merely figurative; Adams has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Southern California and taught literature for several years before devoting himself entirely to photography. He has a scholar’s appreciation and command of poetics. Traditionally, an elegy is constructed in three parts—lament, praise, and consolation—and all these elements are in Adams's work. He raises a cry against destruction, a celebrating evocation of what has been lost, and a final redemption in the rigorous, stark, beauty left behind. In 2010, Adams wrote about returning to revisit “a number of marginal landscapes I had taken for granted when I was a boy.” There, he fell into a dialectic between despair and gratitude:

"As I walked through them I sometimes asked myself whether in coming years they would survive overpopulation, corporate capitalism, and new technology. On those days when I was lucky, however, my questions fell away into the quiet and the light. 

"It has been many years now since I left Colorado, and occasionally friends there tell me of what has been lost. We share our griefs, but not infrequently the conversation turns to recollecting scarcely believable glories—near miracles—and we pledge to look again."

An elegist interrogates death, seeking whatever meaning can be found in destruction. To compose elegies is to believe in meaning and imply purpose. “If we come upon innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in the lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?” he asks. What is the corrosive irony Adams evokes here but the nihilist's hedge against the pain of being human? Over the course of nearly fifty years behind the lens, Adams’s solution to the pain of life has been to expand the capacity of his heart, to employ his work as much for praise as lament.



Since the 1980s, his photographs have pointed increasingly toward Aquinas' and Williams’ sense of splendor. In Beauty in Photography, Adams invokes William Carlos Williams’ edict, “no ideas but in things,” which has led legions of poets into labyrinths of banality, but takes the photographer to the specificity of light—especially natural light—and the flux and surge of daily life. As the decades have passed for Adams and he has lived fully into this mission, light and life have converged in stunning fragments of transcendence. These emerge in sequences from the 1980s of families in Colorado parking lots; in his landscapes in eastern Colorado's Pawnee National Grassland; in his meditations on waves along the Oregon coast from the 1990s; in studies in a friend's garden in eastern Oregon in 2003; and in his recent seascapes from 2008.

In the progression of his vision, Adams has revealed himself to be not a topographical photographer, not a documentary witness, not a commentator on environmental destruction—though he is all three of these—but in essence as a seeker, a soul in search of the sacred. Read again his comments on beauty above. Is the Form Adams describes not another name for the Divine, whether we call it God, Providence, Creator, Source, Atman, anima mundi, or the Ideal? In his later photographs, Adams seems bent on capturing nothing less a mystical “light of overwhelming intensity,” the “incontrovertible brilliance” that is “far too intense to examine directly.”

In his volume on the Buddhist deity, Adams notes in his introduction that a
 bodhissatva is, “a person who understands but who has chosen to remain involved in life on behalf of others.” Robert Adams has made much the same commitment.


All images via Yale University Art Gallery/ Robert Adams: The Place We Live 
All photographs by Robert Adams
Page spread from Bodhisattva, Nazraeli Press, 2001
New tracts, west edge of Denver, Colorado, 1973–74
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968
Denver, Colorado, 1973
New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California, 1983
Palmer Creek, El Paso County, Colorado, 1984–87
Pawnee National Grassland, Weld County, Colorado, 1984
Looking into Pine Valley, Baker County, Oregon, 2003
From the South Jetty, Clatsop County, Oregon, 1991
Nehalem Spit, Tillamook County, Oregon, ca. 2008



19 July 2012

That imaginative sympathy



In the wake of a post about Alain de Botton's mediations on the humanitarian lessons of Christian art, I came on Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, his long letter from Reading gaol, written in 1897 while imprisoned for public indecency. The full letter is a remarkable document, extravagant and deeply stirring in that inimitable manner of the Victorians. It is impossible to speak of Christianity without immediately rousing powerful emotions, for and against, few of which I share. My engagement is more or less the same as German philosopher Karl Jaspers', who placed "Jesus the man"  besides Plato, Buddha, and Confucius as the four great minds to have most influenced modern thought. I was led to Jesus' teaching through the sermons of Martin Luther King, who expands on Dostoevsky's concept of "love in action" in his book Strength to Love. De Botton's claim that "images are important partly because they generate compassion,"  is here expressed by Wilde with force and eloquence.

"I see a far more intimate and immediate connexion between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist; and I take a keen pleasure in the reflexion that long before sorrow had made my days her own and bound me to her wheel I had written in The Soul of Man that he who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely absolutely himself, and had taken as my types not merely the shepherd on the hillside and the prisoner in his cell, but also the painter to whom the world is a pageant and the poet for whom the world is a song. I remember once saying to André Gide, as we sat together in some Paris café, that while metaphysics had but little real interest for me, and morality absolutely none, there was nothing that either Plato or Christ had said that could not be transferred immediately into the sphere of Art and find its complete fulfillment.


"Nor is it merely that we can discern in Christ that close union of personality with perfection which forms the real distinction between the classical and romantic movement in life, but the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist—an intense and flamelike imagination. He realized in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation. He understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich."

—Oscar Wilde
De Profundis


Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, The Healing of the Blind Man of Jerico, 1659, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Paul Strand, Blind Woman, New York, 1916 ©Estate of Paul Strand


Coming full circle

It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. — William Carlos Wil...