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.

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. 

Testimony

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...