Making Sense and Nonsense: A Conversation at Vermillion

Last night I was privileged to hang out with my friend and collage artist extraordinaire Marty Gordon.   We decided to take in a conversation of seeming epic proportion at a Capitol Hill art gallery gathering place called Vermillion, where a man named John Boylan was hosting a artist-dense conversation on the notion of making sense in a world of increasing craziness and “new norms.”    Boylan has been leading these kinds of conversations for well over a decade, and the back room of the Vermillion was packed with folks of all ages, most of whom were artists of some kind.  There were painters and teachers and non-practitioners, the common thread being the conviction that artists had a role to play in helping the world make sense of reality.

It began with politics and a bit of education on the history of art regarding surrealism and dadaism as attempts to forgo making sense in the cultural landscape that was WWI.   The conversation careened around the room with lots of folks willing to pitch in.   Machine noises (refrigeration units?) would kick on occasionally, making hearing difficult, but I supposed we kept trying to hear because we wanted so much to make sense of things.   There was the much-agreed-upon craziness of the right (they’re driving an anti-intellectual mood just now), the ongoing pitch of Eastern mysticism as a means to non-violence (think Ghandi and TM), and the very sane idea that artists should be working in the communities of which they are a part, embedded among the people they serve.    The artist as hero didn’t get much traction, but one articulate painter called into question the whole Modernist notion of the artist as solitary vision meister or revolutionary.  That’s over, he said.   Television is in some sense the Surrealism of today, and the politics we are living in is just “lies, lies, and more lies.”

I didn’t say much, save for a comment at the end about our increasing discomfort with the discovery that our romantic notions of peacefully coexisting “senses” (read “conclusions”) will only go so far.   People really do come to different narrative conclusions–they tell the story differently.   And different readings of reality really do matter when it comes to street-level living.   The narratives of human enterprise, human community, human consumption and production, human sexuality…the stories being told by differing groups can sometimes co-exist peacefully together, and sometimes not, depending on which story we’re talking about, and just where power lies.

Ghandi and Buddha both got nods as having good ideas.   No one spoke of the Christ, and the disdain for what seemed to be the only public face of Jesus in this discussion was evident and strong.

Marty and I left the meeting a bit unsure of what to make of it.  Passionate, intelligent conversation that left me more bewildered than inspired.   Artists are sensitive folks with huge hearts, with radars that instinctively lean in a Jesus-like direction: solidarity with the poor and the less privileged.  I kept thinking of Walter Brueggemann’s idea that the prophet has to make two moves: 1) bring the critical voice to the ruling falseness of the day, and 2) energize the community through a renewed vision of the real.   These artists really want to live as prophets.  But to do that, you have to first make sense of what reality is.

And the basic human problem is this, and we’ve been struggling with it since the beginning:  how do you make sense of what is obviously so much more than we can wrap our heads and hearts around?  We used to struggle with just a few narratives.  Now there are thousands.   “Sense” must be made even though our knowledge and understanding has limits, and eventually we must all turn to faith in something we cannot see.   For that is our design.   And since for so many, God is long dead and gone, where does our design for faith turn?

The leap to faith (even if not in God, but in something else) will always seem to be nonsense to many.

This is not an easy world we live in…

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  1. I figured you would write about this. Thanks for “making sense” of what we heard last night. Reading this makes more sense than anything I heard last night.
    The one thing I did write down though was after one of the guys talked about being in art school and that teachers never asked him, “Why do you want to be an artist? This thought immediately sprung into my brain; “I AM an artist.” I can’t become what I already am. School just (hopefully) trains us to be better at it.
    I don’t have much to add to the “making sense” argument. I struggle everyday to make sense of the world and it’s tougher now than it’s ever been. It definitely isn’t an easy world to live in.

  2. In some sense, it’s funny to me that Humans lack the language/narrative to explain the almost strictly humanistic world they now occupy. There are narratives that super cede the individual specie-wide whims/narratives of artists and non artists alike, but to see them one has to remove the gaze from the navel, and look at things from a perspective of magnitude and scale. A perspective that get’s lost in the acute measure of individual experience.

    In another sense, it’s sad. It’s pathetic, and people should be collectively and deeply ashamed. What does it say about the human species when, the only hope for them to get along seems to be when/if Aliens (Cowboys and Aliens, Alien/Aliens etc.) attack them. Otherwise it’s game on. Eat your neighbor, Gobble Gobble.

    The best thing religion offers the species is that it’s constant ambien background theme is: “The People Don’t Get It”. “They’re Too Stubborn, Dumb and Foolhardy to get along, admit as much or fix as much”.

    Yes, technology gives the illusion that there are “thousands” of narratives, that there is some sort of special magic to each individual narrative. And yes, in some small tiny individual way, there is. But this individual magic does not super cede the far larger species wide perceptive limitations. Put without tact, Humans are stupid, and collectively they’re too dumb to realize as much or admit as much. Because to admit as much, they have to take responsibility to then fix as much. But heaven forbid ANYONE come up with a narrative that super cedes a person’s acute individually experienced *Majesty of being*. Unless of course it’s Aliens attacking, yep again a narrative of scale and magnitude that would over-ride immediately a whole bunch of thousands of petty whims disguised as *narratives*.

  3. As a quick aside: Let me get this point across. Whether God exists, conceptually, f’real, or ideologically speaking, is not worth discussing and misses the point of what religion teaches about what the experience of that idea actually means: conceptually or For-Reeal. What is worth discussing is the fact that because of perceptive limitations, people ARE creatures of faith. It does not matter how much in a person’s own mind one is secular or IS NOT secular. Everyone lives in some kind of ambient *faith* or *doubt*. It’s ambient to every human experience. I wake up. I believe the sun will rise. Is that called *faith* in SUN. Nope. No one wakes up in the morning and empirically measures the strength of their car battery, or the efficacy of their car starter before hoping in their cars.

    It’s funny to me that by modern standards God has ALWAYS been dead. God has never *lived* as some sort of summatively measured scientific discovery. Never. Ever. Whether one *believes* that the sum of a life of decisions made in faith, secular or not, equals God, well, that’s the whole point. If you KNEW, what’s the point?

  4. *hopping

    Other typos included at no extra charge for your personal enjoyment.

  5. While *God* has never been dead, (nor alive) by modern standards, the human ability to experience, see, know or understand a God has always been dead to some extent. If there is a God, (one tangibly accessible to human senses), It’s only on the inner or outer most fringes of the human mind that God is *known*. Few humans have the courage to go to those cognitive fringes about anything, much less something as Real/UnReal as God may be. Ice Cream is generally experienced as a subjective experience and not an acute understanding of each systemic physiological level of the person consuming it and the myriad of minutiae that ice-cream actually consists of.

    End Insufferable Pedant. and To those of you that followed. Word of advice I don’t follow my own self. 😉

  6. (sorry the dead/alive mix-up/mashup)

  7. Speaking of Fringes, yes artist’s do go-there and when successful, in ways that speak clearly and powerfully to large groups of people. What if someone told a story of Jesus from a Sci-Fi P.O.V. Say…. the mechanic’s of A Jesus actually existing could easily be grasped from a sci-fi p.o.v. If humans can successfully explain how something as conceptually simple as Cylons can look like humans then… voila…. must be pretty easy to begin to flesh out the mechanics…. of how a God could en-flesh itself into human form.

  8. FME (for my entertainment) Aside 2.1: The whole Nietzsche/Modernist/Post-modernist, “God is Dead” argument is not valid, and doesn’t really mean any specific thing for either secular or non-secular p.o.v.’s. because religion has never espoused God to exist by modern or post-modern standards…and if religion is correct in explaining God to be a beyond-summative ultimate being–beyond the scope of human measure and construct, then big-whup…. the God is Dead argument never had validity of any sort. It’s the Golden Calf 3.0: Stupid humans, can’t even explain their own ignorance about themselves or much less *God*. (Don’t ask me how I could *possibly* know that…. 😉

    The only thing Nietzsche and the modernists/post-modernists accomplished was the (re-)discovery that God didn’t not exist by any human measure. And if something only exists that way then of course it never *lived* as humans might have thought. Well duuuuuuh. Go figure.

  9. God painted a gorgeous sunset this evening.

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