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.   


Anonymous said...

Nice post and good reflections. I am reading Peter Hedges book "Death of the Liberal Class" and think it might be a good read for you as you search for ways to merge art, social justice, soul and spirit. Artists must regain their personal power, reject the powers that subvert and co-opt them, and stand up tall for a new vision beyond our shallow consumer modes. Battlesight gives us truth, and truth does set us free, but nobody said it was going to be easy.

Keep up the good work, Tim, John C.

Timothy Cahill said...

Hi John, Good to hear from you (and good to know I've solved the posting problem). I'll look for Hedges' book, thanks for the recommendation. The question for artists is no simple one. Working for money, appealing to some market, has to be part of it at some level; we all have to eat, after all, and somebody pays the bills. The change that wants to happen, and that's nascent, I believe, is a paradigm shift of personal and collective values, which artists can and will lead.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that is Chris Hedges, not Peter (who is also a fine writer... i.e. "What's Eating Gilbert Grape")

John C

Michael Murphy said...

Tim, thank you for these words. I like the idea about art depicting love in action as well as the many other variants about life as it is lived that is (or should be) the focus for art. However art, like most other things has been corrupted by greed and profit and has betrayed us. Truth and love are instruments for social and collective transformation. Edvard Munch changed my life through his many works (and absence of love) particularly the Scream. He had so many losses in early life, and always sought the love he needed from outside of himself, so the Scream of aloneness was there till he died in his 80s. He only needed to gaze at himself with the love and compassion that was deep within, and he would have been healed. Mona Lisa gazes with love and compassion as do many others, and we are drawn to her. Yes, love is what is in such short supply and is dying to become our life currency, and art could help us re-member. Love to you, Michael

Gayle said...

I'm so happy to see this discussion about the empathetic human being, bearing witness to joy and suffering to stimulate collective engagement. My writers' circle is in the midst of this very conversation as we grapple with how to convey meaningful social critique about breast cancer and pink culture that compassionately acknowledges the struggle and honors those who are trying to make a difference through writing, caring, researching, and advocating for change in the status quo.

david brickman said...

Referring to this post and the two or three that preceded it, I have a few comments:

Love compassion action, etc. As opposed to Art for art's sake, science for knowledge's sake. I'm a little uncomfortable with the religious components (implied or inherent) in some of what you are writing about. Too many negative associations for me there.

I've had trouble for decades with art that tries to be political - too
direct! I suppose exposure to higher levels of awareness will naturally feed the fire and lead to better actions. But the baddies outweigh the goodies in this world, or so it seems. Futility and frustration lead many who care to withdraw into their smaller worlds, where art and knowledge can thrive, and where at least it's possible to make a difference on the small scale.

That's sort of what I aim for. The big stage seems to lead to so much
trouble. Food for thought!

ps coincidentally, Chris Hedges and I were high-school classmates ... he eventually went to Harvard divinity school, but it seems he's mostly gotten over that! Nice guy ...

Ed said...

A nicely shot little movie about overcoming adversity. It has its uses I suppose. I wonder what the filmmaker set out to do. Whatever it was, he ended up stuck in the schmaltz.

Would you call this a documentary? To me the best documentary work is the most direct and expository.

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