Like so many others, I awoke one Saturday in November to news of the Paris attacks
. Awash in waves of anger and worry I checked Facebook and email to see if my friends there were alright. They were, thank God, but I couldn’t stop watching CNN. This attack seemed different than previous attacks — it hadn’t targeted the pillars of the financial, military or governmental complexes, but ordinary people going about their lives, watching soccer, enjoying a concert, eating at a restaurant. A day that had promised to be unspectacular was now freighted with a sense of the irrevocable.
How could this happen? How could a religion that equates the killing of one innocent with the killing of the whole world be used to justify such carnage? Outrage overflowed social media and the news: Russia is to blame! The invasion of Iraq is to blame! Islam is to blame!
The grasping for explanations was relentless and entirely unsatisfying.
How to respond? I believe this is when art is the most useful.
In many ways, art has come to be seen as an indulgence or a luxury for the super rich. When the art news is dominated by $170 million auctions
and celebrity gossip one can see why. If the great artworks of today and yesterday teach us anything, however, it is that artists are indispensable and irreplaceable, the conscience of society.
I, myself, am an artist (Artistic Director of Odyssey Works
), born to Jewish parents whose parents’ generation was decimated by Hitler’s genocide. I trace my artistic beginnings, however, back to Islam.
In my early twenties, I had the opportunity to witness the Whirling Dervishes
perform their incredible dance at the cathedral of St. John in New York. It was a transformative moment; in witnessing their practice one could see an entirely different world view unfolding. It was as if the movements of the dancers constituted a language of possibility within which one might question one’s whole way of understanding the world. Further research revealed that they were Sufis — the mystical branch of Islam — and that at the center of their way were practices based on art: dance, poetry, music.
I spent the better part of the next two years involved with these Sufis — both in Turkey and in the United States — studying the whirling and learning from their teachings, which demanded that adherents live an examined life. This latter quality was what struck me most: that theirs is a community that demands a continuous self-examination rather than a blind adherence to a set of rules. To be sure, I met others at that time who did the latter, others who preferred an ideology over an examined life — one man even invited me to celebrate Hitler’s birthday with him at El Aleman in Egypt.
Ultimately, I left the Dervishes because I could not honestly convert to Islam, but I found, in artmaking, the same powerful mode of self-inquiry. Art is a continuous challenge to the habitual and the unexamined. Art makes a space for us to do that most difficult of things—to turn away from the flow of general opinion and look inward, to use both our mental and emotional intelligences and ask, what is right?
Art is an exercise of conscience, without which we have only the relentless forces of fear and self-importance, or, even worse, of blind ideology, to guide us.
Of course, big political art can bring down tyrants and speak truth to power — think Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Ai Wei Wei in China — but there’s a great power in art that asks questions in a more personal way as well. I think of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present
, which consisted of her simply looking each of the hundreds of audience members in the eye, one after another, over the course of three months. It was such a simple act, yet some visitors broke down in tears when they sat there. Abramovic’s performance shone a light on a basic question of our lives: what is it to be with another person?
A few months ago I moved to Baltimore, a very troubled city with a complex past and a complex present. I arrived just before the events of this past April
— the demonstrations, the riots, the media frenzy and the subsequent quiet. The situation was baffling, and it was tempting to join the common discourse and pin the blame on simple, one-word causes, unsatisfying efforts to say the least.
It was at this time that I first encountered the walking tours of Graham Coreil-Allen
. These tours deviated from the ordinary informational city tour, taking participants on poetic-political-historical-surreal journeys through forgotten corners of the city, under unfinished highways and along “desire lines” — those worn down paths people create in the grass when there ought to be walkways. His work didn’t answer any questions about poverty and police violence, rather it challenged my own way of seeing the landscape and my role in the dynamics of how a city’s design helps some and harms others.
Picasso, John Cage, Frank Lloyd Wright, Kara Walker, George Oppen. All these artists challenge us to re-examine how we see, hear, relate to each other. They challenge us to try to see from another point of view, to step out of our own subjectivity and into that of our neighbor, to ask questions we may not have answers to. All these are actions antithetical to violence, to terror, to ideology.
Perhaps this is why Hitler felt so threatened by art.
This is not to say that art has the answers for us, or that it necessarily even leads us toward what is good, but it is the best means I’ve found of exploring that for which we have no words.
Great art — art that touches on the beautiful or the horrible, the nonsensical or the absurd, the shameful or the inspirational — leads, ultimately, to the question of what we are living our lives for. We turn on the television and images of ambulances and soldiers, of carnage and anger, flash relentlessly at us, and the question takes on an incredible urgency: What are we living our lives for
It is the question of conscience, the question at the source of our horror, the question, in the end, that we need to be asking in the face of the incomprehensible actions of a handful of angry men in the City of Lights.