“Only a nation that is shockingly illiterate when it comes to basic matters of mental health (and the U.S. is pretty much a nuthouse) could ever tolerate such a person in the White House.” – Paul Street
“…none of what I can do is going to matter to Bolsonaro as he burns down the Amazon. For that is political. And he is a fascist. And when Bernie Sanders and Ocasio Cortez, or Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris sign off on the coup in Venezuela, this is not and cannot be separated from the occupation of Afghanistan or the slaughter in Yemen, or mass incarceration and a violent militarized domestic police. The deep colonial Orientalism of American culture is tied to how one must start to talk about the environment. They are not separate issues…” – John Steppling, Trust Nothing
“Coleridge concluded there must be a psychological “medium” between mere conviction and resolve, ”and “suitable action.” Since there was no medium in nature (sic), it must be found in the spiritual world. “This medium is found in… religious Intercommunion between Man & his Maker…hence the necessity of prayer (or art as prayer). “- Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections
“Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Art, Salvation & Revolution
The other evening an elderly woman artist whose work we were showing at our non-profit art gallery, and who, it happens had been a student of my father’s, asked me if I was a painter like my Dad. After I said no, she proceeded on to ask, did I practice another art? I stumbled, told her “I’m a writer, um, an essayist,” mumbled she could see my writing at the Counterpunch website, while my soul sank down into my shoes. The gulf between myself and those who appear comfortable with the art world and its arrangements widened, stranding me in abject misery.
Though I’m an ordained minister, as a writer I am “unordained.” In consequence, and because I was raised with the same “class structured” art world as everyone else, I struggle with my writer identity, as well as with claiming the time necessary to take my writing seriously. For years, I called it “useless activity,” a term that, for me, worked to turn the tables on the powerful “inner bourgeois” voice of condemnation, helping me find my resolve. I coined (as far as I knew) the term “divine selfishness,” to further “bless” my own inactive activity the worth of which was doubtful to anyone but myself. Furnishing the voice for my long-repressed creative soul, my writing gave me my first experience of knowing my intrinsic worth as a human being, independent of conventional standards of virtuous behavior or recognized ‘success.” Whatever else it might be good for, it was good for this. The value of such self-authorization I perhaps do not need to emphasize for readers co-existing with me in a time of such thorough and evil “demeanment” of human worth.
By means of my writing, I had managed to crawl out of Richard Wright’s “crab barrel,” that in-common identity of essential worthlessness available for free to everyone in the one total liberal bourgeois white reality. Wondrously, it allowed me do so by means of my own, free, creative endeavor, without relying indefinitely upon the services of psychotherapy or medications, self-help books or support groups (nothing wrong with all of these of course!), nor of authorization by institutions or career ladders. This important discovery, that my writing enabled me to have access to what in olden times was called “salvation” (i.e., of a wretch like me), was, I thought, a pretty astounding discovery.
At the same time, I continue to understand my condition as this unordained artist, in a very important way, as making me more like everybody else, that is, like the vast majority blocked at the gates from entering the Kingdom of Art by the very “rules” that sustain bourgeois reality. Air guitarists and the flourishing karaoke industry are popular expressions of the longing and of the resignation to the reality “I’ll never be great,” a way of making irony instead of art. The long apprenticeship period that art notoriously requires, the hours of practice, the solitude if one is painter or poet, etc., appear unimaginably difficult to people who first must consider how they are to make a living, a question becoming ever more pressing in an economy made for the 1 % and not the 99.
The fact that relatively few pass through the gates does not mean few are called, however. It means that the call of individual “genius,” in the post-religious, imaginatively reduced modern context, is not heard as a call having authority. Rather in the modern nihilist void, it appears as if, as the desire of one’s own heart to “be creative,” it can be postponed indefinitely, or dealt with ironically. But in fact the call is non-negotiable (i.e., it is an organic aspect of human being just as are hunger and thirst). When it is not met, the consequences are passivity and resignation, fatalism at all levels, among the rich as well as the poor, a great falling off in the levels of well-being and an upsurge in mental illness, addictions and other pathologies. That is, it leads to the “nuthouse” America that could tolerate a Donald Trump in the White House!
When the imaginative soul finds no outlet in positive expression, when people fail to understand the true nature of the call to their singular creative work, the result is the corruption of human will that is now general. Overt fascism and militarism are not the only consequences; perhaps worse is mass passive obedience and acceptance of the “goods” as defined by the liberal bourgeois matrix with its capitalism-supporting, barbaric aims. For these reasons, art-making (leaving the “art” broadly defined) is, then, perhaps the fundamental revolutionary activity, its business being to challenge the bourgeois assumptions that keep us imaginatively in chains, defenseless against enslavement in the one totality of neoliberal reality, incapable of the strength and vision necessary to act on behalf of the community and the community’s highest values, these being Love, Truth, Beauty, Justice.
(I flatter myself that Ursula Le Guin would not have disagreed with me, though she, being a better writer, would have avoided grand abstractions like Love and Truth and Justice, words my seminary background entitles me to use. As an unordained writer, I have nothing to lose in employing them!)
The Artist and the Local
As those who read mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces know, indigenous, wisdom (myths) teach that the artist’s shamanic, life-sustaining role as one who travels between spirit world and this one, is essentially social. The shaman/artist brings the gift that heals the wounded community. The egoistic ‘lone ranger’ would not succeed in the heroic quest because the hero qua hero exists only in relation to her/his community. In myth there is no such thing as absence of the communal context (until or unless the culture is destroyed by more powerful outside forces, as happened to native peoples). The great obstacle we face today, in making use of these indigenous understandings to use art-making for its truer and higher purpose is the disregard we have learned for the community. In a way, we have “Orientalized” our actual communities, learning, over generations, to regard them, and all things ‘local’ as a kind of “third world,” rather than as what they are.
With their eyes on the approaching omnicide our contemporary secular prophets increasingly and urgently call for people to choose to make adaptations to the changing planetal reality, to reinhabit more localized and communal living arrangements (even if it is too late!), as if they do not realize the full impossibility of what they are asking. Do they know how thoroughly we have lost this connection and no longer can imagine – economic questions aside – limiting our freedom in such a way that we could live in what seem to us now cell-like circumstances, as our ancestors did?
My older brother said to me the other day, as if he’d been reading my mind, “When I was growing up, anything local was no good.” How true! The disparagement of the local began with the fact that we lived in a suburban housing development; in effect, a no-place. With the exception of a few iconic local, mostly ethnic, bakeries and other food-related establishments, and local sports, somehow we learned our natal place “wasn’t it,” that the appropriate relationship to it was to separate from it. For us “college-bound,” (and TV spell-bound) brainwashed with the necessity of of upward and outward, the old westward expansionism translated into terms of upward mobility, the bonds of affection and community that sustained human life for millennia were made completely relative; the local was what we must rise above. Despite the real degradation of humanity that has been accomplished over time by these changes for “the better,” urgent contemporary prophetic calls to backward, “utopian-directed” change will not rally us when our imaginations are atrophied.
At the Cafe one day we were recalling a young man, once an integral and valued part of our “Cafe community,” who a decade ago left Utica with his family to live “off the grid” in Vermont. The customer at the counter, a retired classics professor and Cafe “regular,” fully supportive of what we do, responded with enthusiasm: “I have always wanted to live off the grid.” I looked for a sign of irony – there was none. This good, beloved woman puts on more flying miles in a year than anyone I have ever known! How well-defended is the ethical liberal mind from that “medium” between “conviction & resolve” and “suitable action!”
To turn around our disdain for the local and proximate at this so-late hour, and to bear the limitations of healing our disconnect with “the local” (a different call than that of living “off the grid!”) shamanic art-making and artistic expression are essential. The “official” art world and its traditions must be re-imagined, both loved and studied as an example of what we ourselves are called to, no matter if we cannot achieve the performance level of “greatness” as those we study in Humanities courses. This must be done without the reflexive disparagement of the canonized art of dead white males (or the puncturing of the greatness of the art of the “monstrously” selfish artists currently being called to account by the MeToo hysteria), divisive practices which injure the soul. For, if the “great ones” are rightly understood as examples of individuals responding to the common call of genius, each artist, in responding, likewise needs to concentrate on his/her own ongoing “salvation,” and worry less about the need to damn others. If the call to art cannot (or ought not) escape the call to “greatness,” ‘great’ must now be understood, non-egoically and mytho-religiously as “greatness in Goodness.”
Never has the “divine selfishness” of the artist been more called for and never have we so lacked collectively the means to imagine it or desire it. Neoliberalism has no place for the voice that inspires us to our humanity. In our world that treats the community and its mutuality of obligation, as not being real, the world stripped of imagination, the danger exists that the artist’s requirement of “selfishness” will be “too much self” and too little “other.” Therefore, artists need not only “communities of artists” but our real, shattered communities living in the catastrophe that’s befallen the “brotherhood of man.” That is, the artist must seek “downwardly” for her source of inspiration, not “horizontally” in the agreement of friends, the authority of her degree, or the approval from paycheck or sales, but in the deeper perspective of the soul. In our multiply-threatened world, in which the community has been dismembered, we need the artist to show how that “selfishness” is life-giving solitude, the means of remaining grounded in, and acting on behalf of, the invisible reality of community.