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 makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

31 January 2011

Beyond mortal need

I ruminated all month about next steps for the Center for Documentary Arts, in the quiet that followed the close of Battlesight and the six months of daily effort behind it. By every measure the exhibit was a success, for which I'll thank again all who helped make that possible, and just as much an education. I've been learning how to direct this organization as I've gone along, and embarked on the exhibition a year ago with little more than a notion in my head and a date on the calendar. I'd never managed the logistics of printing, framing, designing, hanging, promoting, and representing an exhibit of that scale, nor had I ever raised a nickel's worth of donations for myself or any cause. I'm hardly seasoned at either of those things after one rodeo, but at least I now know something about what goes on in the arena and am eager to do it again.

Jack Delano, Vermont State Fair, 1941.
Library of Congress / Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI collection

The lesson that struck deepest had nothing to do with me or my skills, though, and everything to do with how deeply people reacted to the photographs by Cheryl, Balazs, and Teru. Much of that response was expressed in the notebook available in the gallery, a cathartic vehicle into which viewers expressed pain, frustration, pride, admiration, hope. What most heartened me and confirmed my judgment was the way the exhibit equally touched people with anti-war convictions and those with military connections. One man, a combat veteran and peace activist, told me the show captured the ambiguities of valor and horror he experienced in the war zone. I can't think of a more gratifying affirmation than that.

Page from Battlesight gallery book

When the Center launched in 2009, my emphasis was most firmly on the art aspect of the endeavor, on the production and presentation of aesthetically interesting work that addressed social themes. My thinking has become more complex, though I'm not sure where it's taking me. The powerful response to Battlesight among people from all walks of life hints at a hunger for art that speaks with immediacy and accessibility to the human condition, art that serves something bigger than itself. There have been times in the past month when I have wondered if what I am building is fundamentally an arts organization at all. Maybe the Center is closer to a humanitarian mission, in which art serves the cause much the same way public-service announcements do other initiatives.

I've even thought of changing the name of the Center, to something that more plainly states the social goals of raising awareness and fostering compassion. Among the names I've considered were, "The Center for Art and Humanity," "Empatheia: The Project for Art and Humanity," and "Eleos: Culture of Compassion" (somehow, Greek seems to fit the need in ways English alone doesn't). No sooner do I come up with a name, though, then I feel the weight of it dragging its chains. They all seem, for their high nobility, limiting. Humane, humanitarian, humanity--these words speak to that part of us that goes beyond mortal need to capacities of the heart and soul, to equality, fairness, justice, mercy, all the products of an intrinsic empathy that is as much in our nature as aggression and competition. In other words, to be fully human is to possess loving kindness, and the purpose of culture is to cultivate those creative aspects that forge human(e) connections.

If that's true, though, then can't all art be considered essentially humanitarian, since it all feeds the culture? Once upon a time I might have argued yes, but as I look around the contemporary art world, I cannot escape the fact that much of it is driven by conceptual, market, and personality concerns that no more serve humanity than social Darwinism feeds the poor. As I interrogate my thinking--and present it here, still raw and provisional--I find myself slouching steadily away from art that doesn't in some way--through protest, praise, prayer, witness, or wonder--aid the well-being of the personal soul or spiritus mundi. I'm not equipped to be the arbiter in all this, except to the extent that I have a small NPO with a mission and a world-view. As things are progressing, though, it seems that part of the mission is to engage in this discussion.   

21 January 2011

"Love in Action"

Other work prevented me from commenting on the observance of Martin Luther King's birthday earlier this week, one of those rare American holidays that, like Thanksgiving and, I don't know, maybe Arbor Day, hasn't been utterly co-opted by commerce. Once a year, then, we are each reminded of Dr. King's power as a leader of the Civil Rights movement, power to both change policy and stir the soul, all within a framework of non-violence. Before his assassination in 1968, King  had begun to speak out forcefully not just against racial inequity per se, but also the evils of the Vietnam War and economic inequality. As he told his supporters at the time, he'd reached the only logical ethical conclusion that injustice in one arena is lack of justice in all.

The foundation of King's philosophy was described with swift clarity by sociologist Gayle Sulik earlier this week in her website blog. I am just getting to know Dr. Sulik via email, and she has become a stimulating and inspiring new ally. Her new book Pink Ribbon Blues examines how activities of breast cancer awareness groups, while well-intentioned, often undermine efforts to improve cancer treatment. Her work has given her stark insights into questions of suffering, compassion, and hope, common ground we have begun to explore. Her recent posting, "The Heart of Social Reform: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." begins with a brief explanation of how King came to his ethic of non-violence through the work of Gandhi and Hindu philosophy:

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a reverend and scholar committed to social justice and nonviolent action that, above all, emphasized the power of love as a potent social force. King wrote six books and numerous articles on the subject, stressing the rational and moral necessity of “Love in Action.” How often do we hear those words in public debate these days? Yet, the most influential leader of civil rights in this country lived by, and led with, an ethic of love that went beyond his religious upbringing or his pastoral career. In fact, King’s philosophy of love and nonviolent resistance reflect a long contemplative journey.

In his book Stride Toward Freedom (1958), King wrote:

“The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi.”

As I think about the direction I'd like to take the Center for Documentary Arts, I am increasingly drawn to the power of "love in action." The idea, as Gayle explains, is grounded in the Hindu concept of satyagraha, which designates a force "that originates in truth and love and is an instrument for social and collective transformation." The ways this applies to art become more and more obvious to me, but in fully embracing them I find I come up against decades of inculcation in modernist theories and notions of "art for art's sake." These ideas insist on the artist's essential autonomy and rail against expectations that art might, can, or even should serve a cause higher than itself. I am not at all prepared to reject these ideas, nor am I sure I even need to. My aim is to more completely articulate the intellectual foundation of the Documentary Center. I am aware, however, of how much the theories still define the mainstream of artistic thought. 

Certain strains of post-modernism incorporate aspects of protest, activism, and critical commentary, though often at conceptual heights that elude the attention and comprehension of most of the population. So another part of my inquiry involves the familiar question of accessibility. I was moved by the quote Gayle chose from Stride Toward Freedom, in which King explains that the "moral and intellectual satisfaction" he sought to ground his instincts did not come from the western intellectual tradition, but from a love-based philosophy from India (which combined, of course, with his Christianity). My conclusions are far from complete on this issue, but more and more I suspect the truth I'm working toward does not so much resemble that of modernist thinkers or post-modern theorists, but rather is closer to King and others influenced by love in action.           

13 January 2011

Golden Rule

Karen Armstrong is a scholar of comparative religion whose study of the world's sacred traditions has led her to identify the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do to you--as the essential message of all scripture. This philosophy, first articulated by Confucius centuries before Jesus, is at the heart of what Armstrong calls the ideal of compassion, and as such, humanity's search for the divine. In 2008, Armstrong established the Charter for Compassion, a declaration of "absolute justice, equality, and respect" prepared by a council of multi-faith religious thinkers and leaders. (A Charter for Compassion button is in the sidebar of this page.)  She was interviewed by Bill Moyers, on the much-missed "Bill Moyer's Journal," on March 13, 2009.

Bill Moyers:  What is it that evokes the empathy--and the commitment, which you’re calling for--[in] people to put themselves in other’s shoes. What is it that evokes that in people?

Karen Armstrong: Basically, a sense of urgent need. If we don’t manage to do better than this, both in our own communities, our own nations, and as regards other nations far away, then I think we are in for a very troublesome ride. We’re not doing well at the moment.

Let us remember the primal duty of compassion.

Which is?

The words com-passio mean "to feel with the other," "to experience with the other"— do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you. . . .  As Confucius said, who was the first to propound the Golden Rule five hundred years before Christ,  "You seek to establish yourself? Then seek to establish others"  . . .  seek to practice the Golden Rule "all day and every day." You constantly have to dethrone your ideas from the center of your world and put another there, and realize that even in the most unlikely person there is a trace of the divine.”


The human race has never embraced compassion. Why did we create this compassionate ideal, when all the world’s great religions were created? Because societies had reached a point of violence and the religious people said – people like the Buddha, Confucius, the sages of the Upanishads, the prophets of Israel, Socrates – they all said, this aggression, even in a good cause, is not the way to go. And people found that when they did it, all day and every day, it worked, because when you get rid of ego, it does bring you a sense of enlightenment. But it’s not just a question of holding hands in church, or embracing when you make the peace . . . it is a discipline you have to practice all day and every day. 

     I used, you know, to be a really spiteful human being. I learned a vicious form of rhetoric from my religious superiors and also from my teachers at Oxford. People used to say to me, "I’d really hate to be your enemy," because I had a really sharp tongue and I knew how to use it. I’d get in there first before someone put me down, that sort of thing. I found that in my studies, I had to practice what I found called in a footnote "the science of compassion." It was a phrase coined by a great Islamist Louis Massignon. Science not in the sense of physics or chemistry, but science in the sense of knowledge, sceintia, the Latin word for knowledge. The knowledge acquired by compassion. Feeling with the other; putting yourself in the position of the other. 
    This footnote said that a religious historian, like myself, must not approach the spiritualities of the past from the vantage point of post-Enlightenment rationalism. You mustn’t look on this in a superior way, and look at the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century text, as "poor soul." You had to recreate in a scholarly way all the circumstances that had resulted in this spirituality or this teaching, and not leave it, or certainly not write about it, until you can imagine yourself . . . feeling the same. So when I wrote about Mohammed, for example, I had to put myself in the position of a man living in the hell of 7th-century Arabia who sincerely believed he had been touched by God. Unless I did that I would miss Mohammed. I had to put clever Karen, edgy Oxford-educated Karen, on the back burner, and go out of myself and enter into the mind of the other. And I found, much to my astonishment, it started changing me. I couldn’t any longer be quite as vicious as I was, or dismissive as I was, in clever conversation. 

10 January 2011

"What makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful"

Here's a brilliant TED talk by Brene Brownresearch professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame, and is now using that work to explore wholeheartedness.  

Dr. Brown's findings go to the heart of compassion. I was sent her talk in preparation for a two-day workshop on Love, Loss, and Forgiveness, founded and facilitated by Michael Murphy. The workshop was an exhilarating and occasionally harrowing excursion into vulnerability and bearing witness, which Dr. Murphy, an early leader in the hospice movement in America, identifies as an act of love. "We need witnesses to heal," he observed. "Our secrets are what kill us." To wholeheartedly bear witness to another's distress is difficult but intimately life-affirming and has implications far beyond the individual. As Brown and Murphy reveal, we cannot feel true compassion for others if we do not have it for ourselves. 

05 January 2011


Saratoga poet Marilyn McCabe has sent, via a friend, her poem inspired by Balazs Gardi's 2007 image of a man holding a wounded boy in the Korengal Valley in East Afghanistan. Nearly everyone who commented on this image compared it to some masterpiece of painting or sculpture, by Michelangelo, by Caravaggio, by Rembrandt, by El Greco, or just generally from the grand tradition of western art. Photojournalists and documentary photographers have long winced at the suggestion their work "looks like a painting," because the essence of documentary photography is that it decidedly is not a painting, meaning it is not manufactured, arranged, distilled, or otherwise interpreted to create or enhance dramatic effect. Traditionally, the first authority of a documentary photograph is precisely its literal truth, the spontaneous representation of reality it certifies and thereby honors.

El Greco, Pieta, 1587-97
More than once, I was asked if Balazs had "set up" his image; if, like a film director or one of the cadre of postmodern artists who create photographs from fictional tableaux, he had somehow staged the scene to heighten its impact. Though I have never spoken to Balazs about this, I am certain the answer is an unequivocal no. The verity of Balazs's work is its most obvious strength and virtue. (One does not endure, as Balazs Gardi does, the difficulty and sometime danger of documentary photography to create false images and present them as real.) Balazs does not call his photograph Pieta. He did not set out to create a pieta. Yet life, in its horror and beauty, offered him one and he accepted. And thus did he join a long tradition of images of suffering and pity.

Eos Lifting the Body of Her Son Memnon, Attic red-figure cup, 490-480 BCE

And yet, if a documentary photographer does not create like the masters of old, this does not mean his eye and soul are not moved to similar depths of recognition and compassion. This, I think, is a more agreeable and profound sense in which a great photograph can resemble a painting -- or symphony or any other sublime human creation. In her poem, Marilyn captures this affinity with eloquence, and mirrors it by concluding with a quotation from a master of her own medium, W. H. Auden, writing on Brueghel. The result is a richly-faceted meditation on how art reflects and magnifies our common humanity.

Afghan Pieta  
  Eyes of the one holding the limp body,
  the grainy surface as of stone,
  or pigment made of rough powder.
  The triolet: help sought
  from the less of it, bonds
  broken, things cut down.

  There’s a body.
  There’s a body
  and there’s life

  left, it’s seeping,
  wounds we must look for
  in tell-tale places.

  There’s the cradle:
  the holder’s arms,
  chest to body.

  The ache the eyes
  are always turned toward:
  the third figure obscure.

  The matter is always
  man. The suffering
  old masters always knew.

                                             --Marilyn McCabe

Balazs Gardi, Afghan man and wounded boy, 
Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, East Afghanistan,  2007

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 ...