What does it mean to be human today, trudging into the 21st Century?
How can we act ethically in our hurried and bewildering world?
How did we get here, and where do we want to go?
Is there a Public Space? In fact, is there a Public?
What is our diagram of the known world, and how might things be otherwise?
What kind of society do we want to inhabit?
Who do we want to be as people? As a public?
The notable erosion of “the public” in US life has taken place in multiple ways. In language, the demonization of public escalated in the Reagan years and continues until this moment: public welfare, public health, public workers (remember the air traffic controllers?), public benefits, public parks, roads and bridges, public space, public schools. Are criminal courts open to the public when the family members are seated and patrolled behind bullet-proof plexi-glass and attempting to listen through the squawk and screech of voices transmitted by microphone?
In a more complex domain, the content of public representation is seized by corporate/military powers, to be observed by the public: the World Trade Center momument, the ubiquitous military men on horses across town centers, the tiny open spaces in front of skyscrapers or inside giant corporate lobbies with commissioned sculptures and enormous canvases.
Yet all is in contention as well. The lively public participants not only adopted and adore the Maya Linn Vietnam Memorial or the sculptures in Millenium Park, they embellish them daily and make the art their own.
Across the land, the valorization of the Confederacy vies with the stench of the slave market. As in the occupied land of Palestine/Israel, so too in the settler land of the US: street-signs, uprisings, and art in contention become markers of excavated history: Wounded Knee, Montgomery, John Brown Lives!, immigrant rights marches, Watts, the Ludlow Massacre, Occupy, Haymarket and Seneca Falls. Sometimes humor, wildly embraced by diverse publics: the Chicago cows, for example, or the Yes Men and Guerilla Girls. Rarely an artist and community in harmony: Theaster Gates, the Living Theater, Howling Wolf, Miriam Mkeba, Tom Morello, Diego Rivera.
What can we become?
What gives meaning to our lives?
What time is it on the clock of the world?
Plunging into the wreckage we see all around us, swimming as hard as we’re able toward a distant and indistinct shore with courage and hope and love, overcoming difficulties and re-imagining life’s possibilities along the way—this is the spirit these questions might unleash. Of course we all dwell within a tiny crack of light suspended between two infinities of darkness, and swifter than a weaver’s shuttle our brief moment in the sun flies past and is gone. Still, we might choose to grasp this moment with all our might, to squeeze it as hard as we’re able, to hang on for dear life as we swirl headlong into the vortex.
That’s often easier to say than to do. When we feel ourselves shackled, bound, and gagged or when we are badly beaten down, struggling simply to survive, living with dust in our mouths, the horizons of our hope are immediately lowered, sometimes fatally, and asking questions like these can seem idle and silly. What kind of world do we want to inhabit? When no alternatives are apparent or available, action becomes pointless. We all live immersed in what is, the world as such; imagining a landscape different from what’s immediately before us requires a combination of somethings: seeds, surely, desire, yes, necessity and desperation at times, a vision of possibility at other times, and occasionally just the willful enthusiasm to dance out on a limb.
Imagination, then, is indispensable. More process than product, more “stance” than “thing,” engaging the imagination involves the dynamic work of mapping the world as it really is, and then purposely stepping outside and leaning toward a world that could or should be, but is not yet. People may have accepted their lot-in-life as inevitable for decades, generations, even centuries, but when fresh and startling winds begin to blow and revolution is in the air, when a lovelier life heaves unexpectedly into view and a possible world becomes vaguely and then acutely visible, at that moment the status quo becomes shockingly unendurable. We reject the fixed and the stable, then, and begin to reach for alternatives. The imagination blows up.
Every human being is endowed with the powerful and unique capacity to imagine—each an artist of her or his own life. Imagination “ignites the slow fuse of possibility” for Emily Dickinson, and for Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Liberation and enlightenment are linked to the imagination.
The great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in the early 1950’s and later Poet Laureate of Illinois begins her “Dedication to Picasso,” an homage to the great man and the huge sculpture that he gave to the city, with a question: “Does man love art?”
Her answer: “Man visits art but cringes. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.”
The voyages art demands lie at the very heart of our humanness: journeys in search of new solutions to old problems, explorations of spirit spaces and emotional landscapes, trips into the hidden meanings and elaborate schemes we construct to make our lives understandable and endurable, flights hooked on metaphor and analogy, wobbly rambles away from the cold reality of the world we inhabit—the world as such—toward a possible world standing just beyond the next horizon. These are the voyages that foreground the capacities and features that mark us as creatures of the imaginary, uniquely human beings: invention, aspiration, self-consciousness, projection, desire, ingenuity, moral reflection and ethical action, courage and compassion and commitment—all of these and more are the vital harvests of our imaginations. And our imaginations are encouraged, nourished, and fired with art.
But it’s also true—art hurts. The capacity to see the world as if it could be otherwise creates yearning and liberates desire—we are freed (or condemned) to run riot. Art—necessarily subversive, unruly, and disruptive—challenges the status quo simply by opening us up to consider the alternatives; suddenly the taken-for-granted and the given world become choices and no longer habits or warrants or life (death) sentences.
“Art is not chaste,” said Pablo Picasso. “Those ill-prepared should be allowed no contact with art. Art is dangerous. If it is chaste it is not art.” He is distinguishing pretty decorations and castles-in-the-clouds from the grit and grind, rough and tumble of art. He simultaneously reminds us that the aesthetic is the opposite of the anesthetic: anesthesia is a drug that puts folks to sleep, while aesthetics is a treatment with the potential to wake us up and propel us out of bed again and again. It takes some courage to make or face strong art, life-saving art, or art that tells the unvarnished truth: the Beat Poet Diane DiPrima said, “I have just realized that the stakes are myself; I have no other ransom money.”
We are, in spite of the existential feel of things and our own natural narcissism, finite beings plunging through an infinite space and gazing toward an expanding heaven. We are in the middle of the muddle, and at the end of nothing—the unseen, the hidden, the mysterious, the invisible, the indefinite, the unfamiliar and the unknown, the unheard of and the forgotten are vast, while our various records of the known world are limited, paltry, and, if history can act as something of a guide here, mostly palaces-in-the-sky. Learning to question, to interrogate, to experiment, to wonder and to wander, to construct and create—this is where art lives, and it is the sturdiest foundation upon which to build lives of participation and purpose for free people.
In 1897, after months of illness and suicidal despair, the tormented French painter Paul Gauguin produced a sprawling panorama on a huge piece of jute sacking, an image of unfathomable figures amid scenery that might have been the twisted groves of a tropical island or a marvelously wild Garden of Eden; worshippers and gods; cats, birds, a quiet goat; a great idol with a peaceful expression and uplifted hands; a central figure plucking fruit; a depiction of Eve not as a voluptuous innocent like some other women in Gauguin’s gallery but as a shrunken hag with an intense eye.
Gauguin scrawled the title of the work in bold on top of the image; translated into English it reads: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
These questions, horrifying for Gauguin, are potentially useful for us.
How do we see ourselves and our problems/challenges/potentials? How can we connect our personal and spiritual seeking with the practical search for a better world for all? How can we live with one foot in the mud and muck of the world as it is while the other foot stretches toward a world that could be but is not yet? How can we transform ourselves to be worthy of the profound social transformations we desire and need? And how can we build within ourselves the thoughtfulness, compassion, and courage to dive into the wreckage on a mission of repair?
Art and Public Space
What does it mean to be human today, trudging into the 21st Century?