Art and Spirituality in Difficult Times

Being spring the rain comes every other day, encouraging the sugar ants to come into the house where they create long lines.

I’ve been watching a series of discussions among artists from around the world. The conversations focus on being an artist in this time of Coved19, and are sponsored by the Martin E. Segal Foundation in NYC, and shared via HowlRound. Today’s discussion took on a distinctly spiritual tone as the participants conversed about seeking to make a difference in the present moment. Listening to the conversation helped me to clarify some of my own thinking.

As we in the USA watch the present administration dismantle the social framework of our country, many of us are trying to figure out how to make meaningful art that is not propaganda.

I taught arts for social change courses for many years. It has long seemed to me that the ability to find a central, transcendent metaphor is at the core of most successful socially engaged art practice. Two of the most outstanding projects that have arisen in the art world over the past forty years or so have been the Act UP’s AIDS campaign using the slogan, “Silence+Death”, and the infamous uprising of the guerrilla costumed Guerrilla Girls. Both campaigns produced symbols that immediately conveyed the message at the heart of their work: the Pink Triangle and the Guerrilla mask actively challenging oppression.

Today I am thinking about Act Up and the moral force behind their work. In choosing the slogan, “Silence=Death”, Act Up shifted the conversation from one about the supposed moral decrepitude of homosexual lifestyles to one about the failure of a morally bankrupt government to aid people of all walks of life who were dying of AIDS. In so doing Act Up redefined the moral landscape.

Now, in the midst of the current health crisis, we find ourselves with a government condoning the death of elders, persons of color, persons with per-existing conditions and/or disabilities, and those with inadequate health insurance or access. The idea that grandparents should die for the sake of the economy has been met with shock in some quarters, but also by silence from the religious right. As the pandemic has continued we have learned that the virus kills marginalized people at a much higher rate, devastating Black, Hispanic, Native, and disabled communities, and the elderly. Even as the pandemic rages this government continues to undermine access to health care, including attacking safeguards for persons with per-exiting conditions.

I grew up with the clear message (from my father’s Native half of the family) that elders were a vital, cherished part of the family and community. There was an expectation that one would do whatever one could to safeguard and protect them. It was also true that elders might decide to take on dangerous tasks in order to protect folks younger than themselves. Such actions arose from a personal choice, a decision often based on a conviction that circumstances create moral imperative and the belief that one must act in accord with a larger moral vision, one that encompassed all life. These ideas were firmly anchored in the Christianity and traditional Native beliefs of the elders.

During my childhood the grownups often spoke together about the moral turpitude of local and national governments, and about the dangers inherent in political projects that lacked a moral compass. I was often confused when an adult, out of the proverbial blue, told me to never trust governments, period. Over a long lifetime I have come to appreciate their concern.

Right now, in this crisis time, I am finding it difficult to make art. Much of that reticence and struggle arises from a sense of outrage, and sometimes paralysis, in the face of immense moral failure resulting in evil. I am also silenced by the refusal of so many who identify as Christians to challenge the evil before them. I had hoped that at Easter, the most sacred time of the Christian calendar, there might be an awakening to the calamity at hand, and the Biblical and moral imperative to address the forces that created and continues it.

Of course, evil makes every attempt to obfuscate and distort. The president has repeatedly used a war metaphor when speaking about our collective response to the pandemic. He, and others, have also suggested that their assault on our collective health and values is a sort of holy war that is a continuation of the Civil War. They have used the “fog of war” to continue their attacks on anyone who is not cast in their image.

The irony of this is that there really are deep wounds left from the Union’s treatment of the South during and following the Civil War, along with its abandonment of the newly emancipated Blacks. That same lack of moral vision would soon lead to all out war against Native people, and the displacement of persons of Hispanic descent. I wonder what we might accomplish were we collectively to look at the historical and continuing harm done and make restitution. rather than furthering the racism and suffering that engulfs our nation.

Surely the wounds of our elders are indeed revisited upon the young, both in families and in the culture at large. The harm being done now in the name of economic necessity and colonial greed will form the ground for generations of violence and suffering to come. We know this road all to well.

16 thoughts on “Art and Spirituality in Difficult Times

  1. Great post. Over here in Australia we are experiencing many of the injustices you write of. I too am looking for visual metaphors to use in my art. Images suggesting liminality and the chrysalis come to mind. I am hoping to get up a post about liminality today but the words to express my thoughts are slow to form.

    • Hi Suzanne! I am finding words tricky so am writing less. Besides, how is one to say anything thoughtful in the midst of so much insanity. Anyway, slowly forming words and liminaity go together, don’t you think?

      • That’s a good point. I went for a walk (we are allowed for exercise here 🙂 ) in a very liminal place in the bush. While I was there I thought that maybe ideas of transgressive spaces might also work though I haven’t got much further than thinking of the phrase just yet.

      • Suzanne, I love this! I find the idea of transgressive spaces enthralling. They are, I think, a sort of liminal space in and of themselves. Often they are somehow sexual, with all the chaos and normative rupture that entails. But it occurs to me that most really interesting ideas for changing the current social norm are transgressive…..

  2. Your post touched my heart. All over the world people are suffering, not only the poor but so many in different ways. The whole world has turned upside down and I wonder what the coming months will be like. Many a time I feel that Nature has decided to put a brake to the destructions of human beings. Take care, Regards.

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