Art & Document (formerly the journal of the Center for Documentary Arts) is a project at the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice. Created by Timothy Cahill, Art & Document presents artists, writers, and thinkers whose work promotes the common good, bears witness to suffering, and manifests qualities of beauty, compassion, dignity, justice, and mercy.

30 September 2011

Helen Benedict to read

The press release for the reading Helen Benedict will give from her new novel Sand Queen, October 23 at 4 pm, at the Opalka Gallery, Sage College of Albany. Helen was the subject of a blog post on these pages a few weeks ago, which included an interview and excerpt; to learn more, follow the links to that earlier post, to the interview with the author, and an excerpt of the novel.

Author Helen Benedict to read from Sand Queen, her new novel about women soldiers in Iraq, at Opalka Gallery October 23
Author and journalist Helen Benedict will read from her new novel Sand Queen on Sunday, October 23 at 4 p.m. at the Opalka Gallery on the Sage College of Albany campus. The reading, hosted by The Sage Colleges in collaboration with the Creative Arts Therapy Program, the Center for Documentary Arts, and Women Against War, is held in conjunction with the exhibit Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan. The reading is free and open to the public.

Benedict will conduct a seminar on women in war the following day, October 24, at 11 a.m. in Bush Memorial, on the Russell Sage College campus in Troy. The seminar is also opened to the public. 

Sand Queen follows two women whose lives intersect at the beginning of the Iraq War. Kate Brady is a 19-year-old US soldier stationed at a make-shift prison in the Iraqi desert, and Naema Jassim is an Iraqi medical student fighting to keep her family intact. Kate, the book’s heroine, joined the Army to bring honor to her family, but instead finds herself threatened both by the prisoners she guards and the men she serves with. Sand Queen exposes the brutality, hardship, and humiliation faced by women in the US military, while also revealing the humor and courage women on both sides of the battlefield use to endure war’s violence and destruction.

Pulitzer Prize novelist Robert Olen Butler praised Sand Queen as, “an important book by one our finest literary artists.”

“Every war eventually yields works of art which transcend politics and history and illuminate our shared humanity,” wrote Butler. “Helen Benedict’s brilliant new novel has done just that with this century’s American war in Iraq.” Kirkus Reviews called the novel “[an] unforgettable testament,” and the Boston Globe proclaimed, “This is The Things They Carried for women in Iraq ... feels right and true.”

Benedict is author of five previous novels and five books of nonfiction, and is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her 2009 nonfiction book The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, roused alarm in the Pentagon and Congress with its descriptions of the physical and emotional distress women face the military. Following the book’s publication, Benedict testified twice before Congress on behalf of women soldiers.

What Benedict learned writing Lonely Soldier became the foundation for Sand Queen. “I came to realize,” Benedict said, “even after interviewing more than 40 women who served in the Iraq War and doing a lot of other research too, that there was more to say—an internal, private story of war that lay in the soldiers’ silences, jokes, and tears. Those moments are closed to the journalist, but they are exactly where fiction can go.”

The reading is hosted by The Sage Colleges’ Creative Arts Therapy Program, in conjunction with Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan, a traveling exhibit of 25 murals depicting the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of artists around the world. The exhibit was created and is being toured nationally by the American Friends Service Committee. Showings at both the Sage College of Albany and Russell Sage College are coordinated by Women Against War, a Capital District organization dedicated to peace. The exhibit will be on display at the Opalka Gallery, on Sage’s Albany campus, October 22-23, and at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the Troy campus, October 24-28.

Benedict’s appearance was arranged through the Center for Documentary Arts as part of its ongoing series of film screenings, readings, and artist appearances. The Center for Documentary Arts, which is hosted by The Sage Colleges, is a not-for-profit cultural organization founded to raise humanitarian awareness and support compassion-in-action.

25 September 2011

Film Screening: An Encounter with Simone Weil

The following is a press release for the Center's upcoming screening of Julia Haslett's exquisite documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil. For more about Simone Weil and Julia Haslett, see my post here.

Quest for a compassionate life is subject of film to be screened
at Opalka Gallery October 16

Dialogue with director Julia Haslett follows exclusive presentation of her 
acclaimed documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil

Acclaimed director Julia Haslett will lead a discussion following the screening of her new documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil on Sunday, October 16 at 4 p.m. at the Opalka Gallery at the Sage College of Albany. The exclusive Capital Region screening and discussion is organized by the Center for Documentary Arts at The Sage Colleges and the Opalka Gallery. The event is opened to the public.

An Encounter with Simone Weil is a moving portrait of French philosopher, educator, and activist Simone Weil (1909-1943), who spent most of her too-short life advocating for the socially and politically disadvantaged. Using Weil’s writings and teachings, Haslett tells the dramatic story of an extraordinary young woman whose decision to act on her convictions led her into hardship and spiritual revelation. In her quest to understand Weil (pronounced “veigh”), filmmaker Julia Haslett confronts profound personal questions about her own moral responsibility toward society at large and her family.

Haslett begins with Weil’s belief that, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” With this quotation as the film’s moral center, Weil’s extraordinary biography is revealed through archival film shot during her lifetime, previously unseen family photos, and modern footage of places she lived and worked, as well as interviews with key people connected to Weil. Haslett then uses Weil’s experience as a framework for her own life, including intimate vérité footage of the filmmaker’s family and personal hardships. Drawing on current news and observational footage, Haslett’s narration draws provocative comparisons between Weil’s insight and the world today. The result: a deeply moving and unique film that questions what it means to bear witness to suffering, and plumbs the quest to live a compassionate life.

Filmmaker Michael Moore chose An Encounter with Simone Weil for a Special Founders Prize at the 2011 Traverse City Film Festival. The documentary was also an official selection at the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Festival earlier this year.

In her brief life, Simone Weil (1909-1943) fought in the Spanish Civil War, worked as a machine operator and farm laborer, debated Trotsky, and was part of the French Resistance. The daughter of affluent Jewish parents, she spent her life advocating for the poor and disenfranchised in France and for colonized people around the world, bravely organizing and writing on their behalf. A consummate outsider, who distrusted ideologies of any kind, Weil left behind a body of work that fills fifteen volumes and established her as a brilliant political, social, and spiritual thinker.

In her writings, she analyzed power and its dehumanizing effects, outlined a doctrine of empathy for human suffering, and critiqued Stalinism long before most of the French left-wing. She believed intellectual work should be combined with physical work, and that theories should evolve from close observation and direct experience. And, after three Christian mystical experiences, she began grappling with religious faith, its role in human history, and the shortcomings of organized religion. Her ideas have influenced countless people, including Susan Sontag, Graham Greene, and T.S. Eliot. The New York Times described her as “one of the most brilliant and original minds of twentieth-century France.” But by far her biggest advocate was the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who played a major role in getting her work published after her death.

“I made this film for personal and political reasons,” says director Haslett. “The questions it poses are fundamental and the stakes it raises are quite literally life or death. The film can take a while to sink in, but my idealistic hope is that once it does, it will bring a little more compassion into the world.”

Haslett will discuss the making of the film, and answer audience questions, immediately following the screening. The one-time-only showing will be in the theater of the Opalka Gallery on the campus of the Sage College of Albany, 140 New Scotland Road. Parking is free on campus. Admission is $5, free for Sage students with a valid ID.

The screening and discussion are a presentation of the Opalka Gallery and the Center for Documentary Arts, as part of the 2011 MoHu Festival of Arts. The event inaugurates the Center’s ongoing series of film screenings, readings, and artist appearances featuring narratives of hope, dignity, and compassion that can transform individual lives and impact collective experience.

“I am extremely pleased to host Julia Haslett,” said Timothy Cahill, director of the Center for Documentary Arts. “Simone Weil, and Julia’s film about her, embody the values of ethical engagement and artistic excellence the Center for Documentary Arts stands for.”

The Center for Documentary Arts, hosted by The Sage Colleges, is a not-for-profit cultural organization founded in 2009 to raise humanitarian awareness and foster compassion. Last year, the Center mounted the photography exhibit Battlesight: Dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan by International Photographers at the Arts Center of the Capital Region.

11 September 2011

Ten Years On

I have been staying away from the television news this week, knowing as we approached the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that to watch TV would be to subject myself to repeated images of that airliner flying into the World Trade Center. Even as I write this, that horrifying vision revives itself and brings me back to that crystalline Tuesday morning in 2001. It had started so sweetly, taking my nine-year-old son to school, then turned suddenly bizarre when, just before 9, BBC radio reported an aircraft had hit one of the Twin Towers. This made me turn on the television, just in time to witness the second plane slice onto the screen and vanish in an orange fireball.

In the next ninety minutes, the first act of our decade-long tragedy unfolded: the Pentagon, the Pennsylvania field, the unimaginable collapse of the towers. The scale of the catastrophe was fathomless. The uncertainty of what was happening, dismaying. Around 9:30, I went to my newspaper job, where I was way past deadline with the lead feature for that Sunday's arts section.  One had to feed the beast, so as the world disintegrated around me (literally; I could see a television screen in every direction from my newsroom desk), I dutifully struggled to complete a story about the opening of the new wing of a local museum. The disconnect was prodigious.

I wonder, though, how much more fully present I would have been had I not been distracted by my suddenly superfluous task. It was a morning of numbing shock and awe for everyone, beyond processing.  And while I lived through it and paid attention, I'm not sure I've yet woken up from the nightmare of all that has followed, never fully demarcated the facts and their significance. I doubt that I or anyone of my generation will. The chain of events set in motion by the attacks carry meanings that will only reveal themselves over decades, perhaps even centuries. We who are still steadying ourselves in their wake cannot completely understand them, and it is this impossibility of comprehension that makes what occurred on September 11 so fraught with peril and potential.

Since we place significance on anniversaries of the same measure as our money (ten, fifty, one hundred, etc.), this year—this day—is our first opportunity for deep, collective reflection on the meaning of 9/11. Of necessity, that reflection must be elegiac. Not only is our memory of that day too fresh; the wound remains open. America still bleeds, in Afghanistan and Iraq, as do peoples of other nations in battle zones and drone attacks, Guantanamo cells and dark holes we know nothing of.

Since 9/11, we have done little to heal our nation or the world.  Ten years ago, after a pitifully brief period of collective mourning, the US set out to salve its grief with vengeance. Anger at such an attack is natural and appropriate, and the human mind is wired for retribution. Ideals of justice were devised long ago by men who understood the need for trial and punishment. America has from time to time attempted to emulate such ideals, but our bloody legacy of revenge and reprisal, from the burning of Atlanta to the firebombing of Dresden to the assassination of bin Laden, overpowers our better angels. Only in Nuremberg, when the US insisted on trying Nazi war criminals rather than summarily executing them (as the British wished), have we, in extremis, shown a prejudice toward law over wrath.

America is a country built as much on force and the will to power as tolerance and freedom. We are not, as our politicians occasionally warble at us, a peace-loving people. We groove on exerting strength. President Bush, in his address to the world on 9/11, was most himself when speaking of revenge. The Pentagon was still smoldering as Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, tasked aides to find a connection to Saddam Hussein that would justify military action in Iraq. The impulse to war was swift and sadly natural. As was, internally, the transition to lock-down and control. How quickly we accepted heightened surveillance and the intimidation of authority on our lives.

A vision of the US as a quasi-police state emerged in our language. At some point early in the aftermath of 9/11, the President began to refer to America as "the homeland," unconcerned that the term was rank with echoes of Nazi Germany and totalitarianism generally. The German word vaterland, which means much the same thing as "homeland," was used to stoke German nationalism during World War I, and adopted by Hitler's propaganda machine in the years preceding the Holocaust. It calls upon messianic patriotism über alles, over reason, over human rights, over liberty, over mercy. Fatherland, motherland, homeland—these are terms abhorrent to any notion of individual dignity or freedom, but ones perfectly fitted to a mentality of authoritarianism. We now live under the vigilant gaze of Homeland Security which, like the mythical Argus,  never sleeps. Indeed, the exponential use of security cameras in every realm of our existence makes the hundred-eyed Greek giant seem ill-equipped. When we pass through the airport, surveillance is conducted by the hardened agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; to paraphrase Robert Frost, some say freedom will end in fire, some say in ICE. We can't board an airplane without being X-rayed or patted down, and to get into the US, friends from other countries must agree to being treated like criminal suspects and submit to fingerprinting and retinal scans.

Such coercive authority, like all forms of absolutism, grows out of self-deception and enlarges it. We as a nation have yet to collectively explore why we were attacked, as if the answer doesn't matter, or simply raising the query is an affront to decency. So much easier to label what happened on 9/11 evil—a malevolence beyond our ken or control to which the only response is counterattack. But our enemies are nothing so simple as mere "evil-doers"; they are zealous, cunning men with grievances and hatreds. To understand their motives is not to shift responsibility away from their crimes, but simply to exert wisdom. Sages have long taught us that our nemesis has much to teach us about ourself.  The mightier the foe, the greater the opportunity for enlightenment.

What does the past expect from us?

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the world came together in grief, mourning, hope. There were murmurs of a new beginning in the US, of the end of an era of cynicism and self-interest and the dawning of greater thoughtfulness and compassion. Seven years later, after that optimistic vision was dashed by hapless war and delusional wealth, it rose again with the election of Barack Obama. He has yet to prove he is equal to the dream, but the world remains weary for change. It is pent up with anguish and aspiration. There are those who believe humanity is in the midst of an evolutionary transformation as momentous as our shift from Neanderthal to homo sapiens; who sense, in everything from quantum physics to neuroscience to astrology, the emergence of a global awakening. This intimation of limitless change—not progress but metamorphosis—has been steadily increasing since the 1960s, and we are by now in the third or fourth generation of people who feel it imminent.

If I did not believe this myself, I would not have started the organization that supports this blog. I do not expect anything magical to happen tomorrow, don't think our fate is controlled by the Mayan calendar, am not waiting for the 2012 arrival of Quetzalcoatl, and have doubts that Next Age global "summits" will in themselves affect great change. And yet all such energy moves us toward an awakening around the world, one stirred as much by the awareness that we share a tiny planet with finite resources as by metaphysical epiphany. We must reform ourselves or perish. If indeed we are part of an evolution of consciousness, the fact that this notion has been around fifty years is not cause for cynicism or proof we're waiting for Godot. Quite the opposite. It means we stand at the beginning of something we may not achieve in our lifetime, just as the great grandfather who plants the tree never sees it in its mighty, shade-giving splendor.

What has this to do with the anniversary of 9/11? Everything, I insist. Because after the cruel destruction of that day and the bloodshed and devastation that followed, the one incontrovertible truth these events have demonstrated is that aggression never works. Not in the long run. It will not affect the change you imagine and cannot set you free. Aggression is slavery, and if we are not to destroy ourselves as a race we must, must, must reject it. We must rise above our baser instincts for viciousness and violence and accept our human capacity to cooperate, to collaborate, to experience empathy and feel compassion. Love—only love—is the hope at the bottom of Pandora's box.

So I will not subject myself to pictures of airplanes flying into buildings today, because that is a history we must purge ourselves of. I don't mean we should forget what happened ten years ago. But the past can gain no meaning when we simply replay it for dramatic effect. There is a residual light from the what-has-been that shines for our eyes. It illuminates a new narrative, which lies ahead.

Jean Alaux, Pandora Descending to Earth with Mercury, public domain
German WWI recruitment poster, public domain
Théodore Géricault, Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute 


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 th...