From 2008 to 2013, Art & Document was the voice of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit project founded by Timothy Cahill at the Sage Colleges of upstate New York. Situated at the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and conscience, the blog continues the Center's mission to present artists, writers, and thinkers who, in their lives and works, partake of the sacred, bear witness to suffering, and manifest beauty, dignity, and charity.

28 August 2023

The response to tyranny

And the response 

to tyranny of every sort,

if it is to work,

must always be this:

dismantle it.

Take it apart.

Scatter its defenders

and its proponents,

like a flock of starlings

fed to a hurricane.

—Barry Lopez

Composite mugshots of the nineteen co-conspirators indicted for attempted election interference in the state of Georgia.

Photo via Fulton County (GA) Sheriff's Office.
Quotation from "Apocalypse," in Resistance (Alfred A. Knopf 2004).

13 July 2022

"Remember that fear devours the soul"

In 2021, Alla Gutnikova and three other editors of the Moscow student journal DOXA were arrested for inciting minors to take part in illegal opposition protests.” The pretext for the arrest was a video of the editors condemning the persecution of other students for supporting opposition politician Alexey Navalny. The Latvian journal Meduza reported the editors spent the following year under [house arrest], prohibited from leaving their apartments for more than two hours a day and from using the Internet.” On April 12, 2022, the student journalists were sentenced by Moscow’s Dorogomilovo District Court to two years of corrective labor. “Such a confusing sentence,Gutnikova  told Meduza. It seems to me that they just weren’t quite sure what to do with us, because there’s no evidence at all. And they can’t release us because we live in Russia—they don’t acquit people here.” At her sentencing, Alla Gutnikova delivered this beautiful, defiant declaration for freedom of thought and individual integrity.

I won’t talk about the case, the searches, the interrogations, the tomes, the trials. It’s boring and pointless. Recently I’ve joined the school of tiredness and frustration. But even before the arrest, I managed to join the school of being able to talk about truly important things.

I would like to talk about philosophy and literature. About Benjamin, Derrida, Kafka, Arendt, Sontag, Barthes, Foucault, Agamben, about Audre Lorde and bell hooks. About Timofeeva, Tlostanova and Rakhmaninova.

I would like to speak about poetry. About how to read contemporary poetry. About Gronas, Dashevsky and Borodin.

But now is not the time or place. I will hide my little tender words on the tip of my tongue, at the bottom of my larynx, between my stomach and heart. And I’ll just say a little.

I often feel like a little fish, a little bird, a schoolboy, a baby girl. But recently I found out with amazement, that Brodsky was also put on trial at 23. And in that I am also part of the human race, I will say the following:

In the Kabbalah there is the concept of Tikkun Olam—the repairing of the world. I see that the world is not perfect. I believe that, as Yehuda Amichai wrote, the world was created beautiful, for the good and for peace, like a bench in a garden (in a garden, not in a courtroom!) I believe that the world was created for tenderness, hope, love, solidarity, passion, joy.

But in the world there is a terrible, unbearable amount of violence. And I don’t want violence. Not in any form. Not teacher’s hands in schoolgirls’ knickers, not the fists of a drunken father on the bodies of his wife and children. If I decided to list all the violence around, not a day, not a week, not a year would be enough time. In order to see the violence around, you just need to open your eyes. My eyes are open. I see violence and I don’t want violence. The more violence there is, the more I don’t want it. And the greatest and most terrible violence is the one I don’t want most of all.

I love to study. And so now I will speak with the voices of others.

At school, in history lessons, I learned the phrases: ‘You may crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no chains’ and ‘For freedom, yours and ours.’

In secondary school, I read ‘Requiem’ by Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova, ‘Journey into the Whirlwind’ by Yevgenia Solomonovna Ginzburg, ‘The Vacated Theater’ by Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava, ‘Children of the Arbat’ by Anatoly Naumovich Rybakov. From Okudzhava, most of all I loved the poem:

Conscience, nobility and dignity
Here it is, our sacred army.
Hold out your palm to it.
No fear for him, even in the fire. 
His countenance is imposing and wondrous.
Dedicate to him your humble age:
Maybe you won’t become a victor,
But you will die like a man! [from Sacred Army – Святое воинство]

I studied French at MGIMO and learned a line from Edith Piaf: ‘Ça ne pouvait pas durer toujours’ (‘It couldn’t last forever’). And from Marc Robin: ‘Ça ne peut pas durer comme ça’ (‘It can’t go on like this’).

At nineteen, I went to Majdanek and Treblinka and learned how to say ‘never again’ in seven languages: never again, jamais plus, nie wieder, קיינמאל מער, nigdy więcej, לא עוד.

I studied the Jewish wise men and most of all fell in love with two bits of wisdom. Rabbi Hillel said: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’ And Rabbi Nachman said: ‘The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.’

Then I entered the School of Cultural Studies and learned a few more important lessons. Firstly, words have meaning. Secondly, you need to call a spade a spade. And finally: sapere aude, that is, have the courage to use your own mind.

It is ridiculous and absurd that our case has been associated with schoolchildren. I taught children the humanities in English, worked as a nanny, dreamed of being a part of the ‘Teacher for Russia’ programme and going to a small town for two years to sow seeds of reason, kindness, and the eternal. But Russia – through the mouth of state public prosecutor Tryakin – considers that I involved minors in life-threatening acts. If I ever have children (and I will, because I remember the central commandment), I will hang a portrait of the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, on their wall so that the children grow up to be decent people. The Procurator Pontius Pilate standing up and washing his hands – that’s the kind of portrait it will be. Yes, it is now life-threatening to not be indifferent in one’s thoughts and way of life. I don’t know what to say about the essence of the charge. I am washing my hands.

But now it is the moment of truth. The time when the books are interpreted. Neither I nor my male and female friends can find a place that is away from horror and pain, but when I go down into the metro, I do not see tear-stained faces. I do not see tear-stained faces.

None of my favourite books – neither children’s book nor books for adults – taught indifference, disinterest, or cowardice. Nowhere have I been taught these phrases:

We are insignificant
I’m a simple person, everything is not so clear, no one can be trusted, I’m not really interested in all this
I’m not into politics, this does not concern me, nothing depends on me, competent authorities will sort it out what could I do on my own 

On the contrary, I know and love completely different words.

John Donne, via Hemingway, says:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man’s death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

Mahmoud Darwish says:

As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you wage your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).
As you pay your water bill, think of others
(those who are nursed by clouds).
As you return home, to your home, think of others
(do not forget the people of the camps).
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others
(those who have nowhere to sleep).
As you express yourself in metaphor, think of others
(those who have lost the right to speak).
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: If only I were a candle in the dark).

Gennadii Golovaty says:

The blind cannot stare in anger, the dumb cannot cry out furiously. Those without arms cannot hold weapons, those without legs cannot take a step forward. But—the dumb can stare in anger, But—the blind can cry out furiously. But—those without legs can carry weapons. But—those without arms can take a step forward. 

Some people, I know, are scared. They choose silence.

But Audre Lorde says: 

Your silence will not protect you. 

In the Moscow metro they say: Passengers are forbidden to travel on trains going to dead ends. And St. Petersburg’s ‘Aquarium’ add: this train is on fire. Lao Tzu says via Tarkovsky: the main thing is that they believe in themselves and become helpless, like children. Because weakness is great, and strength is nothing. When a person is born, he is weak and flexible, and when he dies, he is strong and hard. When a tree grows, it is tender and elastic, and when it is dry and hard, it dies. Brittleness and strength are the companions of death. Weakness and flexibility express the freshness of existence. Therefore, what has become hard will not be victorious.

Remember that fear devours the soul. Remember the character in Kafka, who saw ‘how they set up a gallows in the prison yard, mistakenly thought it was for him, escaped from his cell in the night and hanged himself.’

Be like children. Don’t be afraid to ask (yourself and others) what is good and what is bad. Don’t be afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. Do not be afraid to scream, to burst into tears. 

Repeat (to yourself and others): 2+2=4. Black is black. White is white. I am a man, I am strong and brave. I am a strong and brave woman. We are strong and brave people.

Freedom is a process, in the course of which you develop the habit of being insusceptible to enslavement.

Translated from the Russian
by Clem Cecil for Modern Poetry in Translation. An audio transcript of Alla and her original text are here:

Photography by Yevgeny Feldman for Meduza.

15 July 2021

Iris Murdoch, on her birthday


We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world. Our states of consciousness differ in quality, our fantasies and reveries are not trivial or unimportant, they are profoundly connected with our energies and our abilities to choose and act. And if quality of consciousness matters, then anything that alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity, and realism is to be connected to virtue. 

29 November 2020

The brimming cup

One of the lost pleasures of life with a daily newspaper is the serendipity of encountering the random article, item, or photograph that offered something you'd never thought of or knew anything about, but which, encountering it, gave you a sudden moment of insight, compassion, even wisdom into human suffering or triumph. Paging through a metro paper fifty years ago, such small epiphanies would wash up like sea glass from the vast ocean of life, little treasures in the tidal pools of the day's noise and news. 

The great strewn beach of today is social media, bringer of dross and detritus, fake quotes and fake news, political extremism and animal videos. Occasionally, though, scrolling through the cacophony of friends and "friends," advertisers and trolls, something unexpected will pop up and stop you in your tracks.

This is what happened with the photograph above. It scrolled into view on Facebook late on Thanksgiving evening, posted by one a circle of friends that grows more scattered by the year. It appeared with this message, in its entirety: 'At the National Portrait Gallery.' Having been offered, apparently, apropos of nothing, the photo attracted only one comment, asking if the image was by the famous African-American photographer Gordon Parks. 'No idea. No information,' came the reply.

This perfunctory disengagement with reality is the essence of Facebook. More, even, than digital technology, it strikes me as the biggest shift in communications since I started as a reporter in the late 1970s. Then, everything that ended up in the newspaper had first to pass through a door marked Of Use.  There were many variables that made information "fit to print," as many as there were constituencies with skin in the game, but in the halls of the old school these variables moved in one general direction, toward a common understanding of public discourse. Then, as now, it was a discourse heavily mediated by the palaces of power and towers of corporate money. But the newspaper bundles also landed on the sidewalk, where we, the working masses in our harlequin garb of consumers and citizens, went about our daily lives. 

In fact, a great many interests could all be served, more or less, because newspapers and magazines had lots of white space between their copious advertisements, and plenty of money to hire workers to fill it. Between the main reports on American empire and capitalist hegemony, there was room in those thick publications for voices that were quirky or edgy, that occupied the fringes of relevance, that were good for a dose of whimsey, subversion, even the occasional quotidian revelation. 

Such voices have disappeared from mainstream journalism today. Instead, they are found, often in weirdly altered form, in the cosmos of social media. Each Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok account exists as a separate galaxy, obeying the imperatives of its private gravitational forces. Facebook alone has approximately two-and-a-half billion accounts, and every one is a law unto itself.

In such a world, things exist in a state of perpetual randomness, no more fit to the common purpose than decency or honesty is to Donald Trump. Social media is the perfect manifestation of Camus' existential absurdity, a world with no inherent value or purpose in which each individual makes his or her own meaning. Here, the suicide Camus wrote of  is a matter of canceling your account. 

Till that day comes, we're all gleaners on the garbage dump of the online world. Knowing we are up to our necks in trash does not keep us from coming here to dive for pearls. We come out of hope and out of faith, believing there are treasures to be found. Perhaps it will be a pearl of great price; failing that, the rewards are just enough to keep things interesting. 

Which brings me back to the photograph. To post, as my FB friend did, an image with neither  explanation or context is to sing the praises for a wholly secret significance. Such praise feels no urge to understand itself, or to be understood. It takes its enthusiasms for granted and offers them as gifts to others. Such 
free-range offerings have a beauty all their own, a generosity as open as the sky. I knew a woman who liked to say, "The sky is always beautiful." The question depended entirely on what you brought to your perception. How many times can a man look up before he sees the sky?

This was the ideal image to cap a day devoted to the ennobling work of giving thanks. Plucked from its own history, the photograph cannot tell us anything about the universe of experience it records. 
Its form and content offer no narrative. It wants only to hold our gaze with its strength, defiance, dignity and capacious possibility. It drinks from the large, embracing well of being, and offers the brimming cup to us.

The year is 1948. The man holding the sign is labor unionist and civil rights activist Asa Philip Randolph. In 1925, Randolph organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African-American labor union. Here, he is leading a civil disobedience campaign to desegregate the nation's armed forces. In 1963, Randolph led the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. The quotation is adapted from a sonnet by Jamaican poet Claude McKay (1889-1948), in answer to lynchings associated with the 1919 "Red Summer" of terrorist attacks on black communities across the U.S. The photographer is Sy Kattleson, about whom it was said, "[his] weakness—if it can be called that—is his respect for the strangers he photographs."  

Sy Kattleson, Henry Wallace Rally, 1948


12 November 2019


A ruler who oppresses the poor
is a beating rain that leaves no food.
Those who forsake the law praise the wicked,
but those who keep the law struggle against them.
The evil do not understand justice,
but those who seek the Good understand it completely.
—Proverbs 28

Cultivate virtue in yourself,
And it will be true.
Cultivate virtue in the family,
And it will be overflowing.
Cultivate virtue in the town,
And it will be lasting.
Cultivate virtue in the country,
And it will be abundant.
Cultivate virtue in the world,
And it will be universal.
—Tao Te Ching 54

Posted as public hearings on impeachment begin in the House of Representatives

Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake (大はしあたけの夕立 Ōhashi atake no yūdachi) is a woodblock print in the ukiyo-e genre by the Japanese artist Hiroshige. It was published in 1857 as part of the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo and is one of the best known of Hiroshige's prints. (Wikipedia)

04 November 2019

Ethics, Gratitude, Relationship: An Interview with Mona Siddiqui

Throughout her career, scholar Mona Siddiqui has studied how cultural relationships shape our public discourse, particularly on issues of religion and ethics.

Siddiqui’s work has long concentrated on Islamic jurisprudence and Sharia law. She has also written on religious concepts of hospitality and delivered a series of Gifford Lectures on suffering and struggle.

A recurring theme is the intersection of Islam and Christianity, which is the topic of her four-volume collected work, Muslim-Christian Encounters, and a frequent subject of her commentaries on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

Most recently, she has turned her attention to how religious traditions interpret practices of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Siddiqui is assistant principal for religion and society at the University of Edinburgh, where she also holds the post of dean international for the Middle East. She joined the faculty of Edinburgh’s Divinity School in 2011 as the first Muslim to hold a chair in Islamic and interreligious studies.

. . .

At the core of Siddiqui’s work stand questions of ethics and moral choices — fundamentally, the study of our relationships with individuals, groups and God.

“When someone stands in front of me, how I decide to be with that person is a moral decision,” Siddiqui said. Most matters of conduct, whether laws, commandments, doctrines or codes, have roots in ethical practice.

While at Yale [Divinity School, where she was heading a conference on gratitude], Siddiqui spoke with Faith & Leadership contributor Timothy Cahill about gratitude, ethics and the importance of relationship.

continue reading . . .

 Photo: Faith & Leadership, courtesy Mona Siddiqui.

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 in 2008, through what was then called the Center for Documentary Arts, had led me into deeper waters of art, ethics, and the ineffable than I’d foreseen. To pursue questions and answers the Center had raised, 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 called 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. Reborn now as the Center for Ethics and Culture, the intention remains unchanged: to promote a more just and ethical world; to present art that penetrates the heart, awakens compassion, and inspires action; and to support artists who embody these principles. 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, Albania, 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 first learned of yesterday's attack at Sandy Hook from Facebook, where I had gone to hide from a piece of writing I was making no progress on. Every post on every wall was an anguished response to the killing; very quickly 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 in the numb, sickening sadness. I let loose a cry of uncomprehending grief and listened to the darkness.

I didn't go back to Facebook. While 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 hate cures hate. Love alone can heal 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

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