Friday, December 30, 2016

A Call to Arts

Never before have the arts mattered so much. As hate crimes escalate across the country the need has never been greater for the artist’s sacred calling: to enlarge our imagination, enflame our empathy, awaken our compassion, and inspire us to action. If you are an artist, you are hereby summoned to ply your craft with renewed passion toward a specific aim: bringing light into a darkening world. 
            This is a call to arts.
            Ultimately this isn’t about politics. It isn’t about who won or lost an election. It’s about moral rectitude and the sacred obligation we have by virtue of our birth. We are human beings first, and members of political parties second, and we owe refuge and solace to one another. When the rightful order of the world is threatened, we must rise to defend it, and when the most vulnerable among us are under attack, we must dig deep and find the audacity to fight back.
            But the last thing we need is pedantic art – art that talks down to us and bosses us around. We don’t need art that scolds us about peace and harmony. No sermon’s please. What we need is art that opens our hearts, quickens our minds, and leads us to the courage of our own convictions. Dear artists: please trust your audience to reach its own conclusions and plot its own path. That is not for you to say. But what you can do is this – wake people up and draw them deeper into the unimpeachable authority of their own inner experience. Tell the little stories that connect us to the big truths. The heart knows what to do – it must simply be provoked out of its slumber.
            Those of us who make art must use every means at our disposal to hold the vision of what is possible. We must both illuminate the dark places as well as the way forward. It is not art’s place to craft legislation, draft policy positions, or establish institutions, but to incite the imagination, because without imagination we cannot have empathy, and without empathy we cannot have morality.
            In his 1821 essay “In Defense of Poetry,” British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the quintessential manifesto on the proper role of the poet:
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
For Shelley, poetry, and by extension all art, performs an essential function: by exercising and strengthening our imaginations, art increases our capacity to empathize – to feel the feelings of another – and this is the bedrock foundation of compassion and morality. We cannot be good, in other words, if we cannot imagine deeply and powerfully. Dull imaginations cannot empathize – they cannot imagine the suffering of the other. And if the suffering of others isn’t real for you, you are incapable of compassionate action. To those with extinguished imaginations all talk of morality is but the clanging of bells. This then is the importance of art – to heighten the awareness of our deep and unbreakable interrelationship with one another.
            Instead of instruction, the artist must offer pathos. The best art makes us feel more than think – it piques our dreams and floods the parched earth of our once fertile imaginations. Remember being four years old and playing for hours with dust motes suspended in sunbeams pouring through the window? You didn’t need a toy – the world was your toy. Imagination is its own truth.
            Poetry, and indeed all art, is inherently subversive because is slips through the cracks of our rational minds and leaks into the depths beyond thought. Art is an end-run around the official position, the norm, the narrative favored by the elite. That’s why the Nazi’s vilified intellectuals, artists, and the media, and it’s why they burned books and paintings as “degenerate art.” They rightly feared art’s transformative power and the fundamentally ungovernable spirit of free-thought. Tyranny requires order. Art defies order at every turn.
            Woody Guthrie, the archetypal folk singer, understood art’s seditious nature. He painted the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar, and he meant it. In 1950 Guthrie moved into the Beach Haven Apartments in Brooklyn, New York. They were owned by Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father, who had secured millions of dollars in federal funding to build post-war public housing. Trump, arrested at KKK rallies in his youth, displaced people of color from their neighborhoods and established racial codes that excluded non-whites. Then came the rent gouging. Guthrie moved out two years later and wrote a scathing song called “I Ain’t Got No Home/Old Man Trump.” Here are the last two verses:

Beach Haven ain't my home, I just can't pay the rent
My money's down the drain and my soul is badly spent
Beach Haven is a haven where only white folks roam
No no no old man Trump, Beach Haven ain't my home

As I look around it's mighty plain to see
This world is a wicked and a funny place to be
Gambling man is rich and the working man is poor
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

What art will you create in the coming months and years? More so than any other form of expression, art is a powerful way of responding to the absurdities in which we find ourselves. Facts, evidence, arguments, and rational discourse have failed. But we still have songs (and novels, short stories, plays, films, photographs, poetry, choreography, painting, sculpture, and mixed media). Art has the uncanny knack of loosening the ties of our despair, turning our attention away from hopelessness, and teaching us to trust ourselves again – that we are enough, and that we, together, can dig deep into our inherent goodness and bring that goodness to bear on a troubled world. Art encourages us, literally. It makes us brave again. No matter how daunting the struggle.

Friday, December 2, 2016

And So This is Christmas

To whom does Christmas belong? Is it a private event or a come-as-you-are potluck?
Although Andy Williams’s dulcet tenor claims that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” some of us wonder. Still, there’s something sweet and beautiful about Christmas flowing all around us. It would be a shame to get to January and find we’ve missed the whole thing.
But what is Christmas, really?
In mainstream, Christianized culture, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. But it’s really so much more than that. Over the last two millennia a flood of cultural appropriations have added their unique flavors to the stew. And it continues to evolve. Our modern Christmas is a family tree with roots in Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Norse mythologies, as well as Turkish, Greek, Jewish, Dutch, British, and American culture. Even capitalism and commercialism left their indelible mark on this mutt of a holiday. If it's purity you’re after, better look elsewhere.
We don’t know when Jesus was born, but it wasn’t December 25. Most scholars place it in summer because that’s when shepherds were “watching their flocks by night,” as the Gospel of Luke claims. When Christianity became Romanized in the fourth century, the celebration of Jesus’ birth was placed on December 25 to align with the birth of Mithra, another popular savior in the Roman mélange. Mithra was a Persian god who, like Jesus, was born miraculously, had twelve disciples, healed people, raised the dead, then died and resurrected. To the Romans, Jesus and Mithra were a perfect pair.
            Christianity had been illegal in the Roman Empire until 312 when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan legalizing it. For the first time, Christians could worship in the open. They made up for lost time. Within a hundred years the Bible was finalized, ritual and liturgy were codified, and a holiday calendar took shape. But Roman Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we do, if at all, even though many of the pieces of what would become Christmas were laying all around in plain sight.
            In honor of the god Saturn, Romans set aside the last seven days of the year for the Festival of Saturnalia. Norms and laws were suspended, the courts were closed, and ribald mayhem ensued. Everyday Romans decorated their homes with lanterns and evergreen boughs, held lavish drunken parties, increased charitable donations to the poor, went singing door to door, and closed out the week with a gift exchange. Sound familiar? Early Christians found these pagan practices so repugnant that they avoided them for years. But by the 6th century, they had adopted them all.  
            Then Christmas moved north.
            Many of the elements of our modern Christmas celebration come from Norse and Germanic paganism. The now ubiquitous Christmas tree was adopted from pre-Christian Germanic nature worship, then popularized in Victorian England. As the obelisks of ancient Egpyt (and the Washington Monument) represent the earth god Geb’s longing for his sky goddess wife Nut, the Yule tree represents Odin’s, um, shall we say, perpetual readiness. And Santa Claus with his flowing white beard seems a lot like the Norse god Odin who soared through the sky on his eight-legged horse. The eight reindeer would come later.
            In Dutch culture, an obscure Turkish or maybe Greek saint called Nicholas was raised into prominence as Sinterklass. Known for his love of children and his generosity to the poor, Sinterklass was a gift-giving god of sorts, dressed in red and accompanied by his Moorish attendant Zwarte Piet or Black Peter. As Sinterklass spread abroad to the UK as Father Christmas and America as Santa Claus, his black “attendant” was ditched. Um, awkward.
            But it was from the mind of an American poet that the rest of the Santa Claus legend took shape. Clement Clark Moore was the son of Benjamin Moore, the bishop who presided over the inauguration of George Washington. The younger Moore penned a poem in 1823 that would blend and concretize all of the details swirling around the story of Santa Claus. “T’was the Night Before Christmas” established a number of elements we now take for granted: the sleigh, the eight reindeer (complete with names), and the bit about Santa landing his sleigh on the roof and sliding down the chimney. This was new. And we loved it.
            In a 1931 ad campaign Coca Cola papered over America with its new corporate mascot – a jolly old Santa Claus with rosy cheeks, a generous smile, and an irrepressible twinkle in his eye. The image of the American Santa Claus was fixed forevermore.
            In 1939 ad writer Robert May was working on a coloring book insert for the Montgomery Ward catalog. Thinking back to the exclusion and bullying of his own lonely childhood May created a ninth reindeer named Rudolf whose oddity, an illumined red nose, would turn out to be a tremendous asset to the boss in a pinch. Then May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song called “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” When the singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it in 1949 it went to number one, and remained the best-selling record of all time until 1980. From bullied nerd to celebrated hero – an archetypal tale of the emergence of our latent excellence through the cracks of our imperfection. It is because of our uniqueness that we are best able to serve.
            From the very beginning, Christmas belonged to all of us. It is not the sole property of any one religion or culture. Christmas is a metaphor for the international diversity of our messy human family – bits and pieces from everywhere blended into one glorious celebration. Christmas is collaborative community theater and the world is our stage. We all make Christmas. It’s folk art and no one’s in charge. It’s an alchemy of high-brow and low-brow, sacred and profane, silly and sublime, elegant and tacky. In our modern Christmas celebration there is room at the table for everyone – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, pagans – anyone willing to wear an ugly sweater, lift a cup, break bread, and celebrate the coming of the light into the darkness. Santa Claus is the embodiment of the abundance of the universe, and every time you wrap a present you participate in the ritual of generosity and embody the truth that love is always hidden right beneath the surface of everything.
            Let’s make Christmas a holiday for everyone, not yet another opportunity to divide our human family into warring tribes. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were aliens in a strange city. There was no room at the inn. From the humblest of people, and in the humblest of places, the light still comes into this darkening world. That’s the real meaning of Christmas – that the Divine Light shows up as the most vulnerable of creatures, an infant, and draws us into the one love that emanates from every heart, heals every wound, and lifts all eyes to the brightening days ahead. At this darkest time of the year, may we be a light to one another.
            Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hang my Saturnalia lights and erect the Odin tree.