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…