For several months now, I’ve been ending every talk I give with the same message to artists and activists: This moment of seismic shifts and insecurity in economies, governments and communities challenges us to make our work equally valid and powerful as art, as spiritual practice and as political speech or action.
The first time this thought rocketed through my brain, I felt a thrilling rush of recognition. They say the truth has a certain ring to it: I heard the bell. I hear it echoing still.
The Challenge arrived in my mind encrusted with all sorts of associations: my irritation at people who think any tossed-off gesture suffices as political speech or action, who think we can build the good society with bad art. My disappointment with people who believe that politics has nothing to do with spirit or beauty or love—indeed, who are able to believe that anything concerning humans has nothing to do with spirit or beauty or love. My discouragement with people who see themselves as spiritual and disdain the political as somehow less worthy, as if what we value and how we relate to each other as members of a common society were not intrinsically, deeply spiritual.
But really, all that’s just static, a reminder of how easily irritated (delighted, saddened and generally labile) I am at this point in my personal journey. In truth, I keep talking about The Challenge because I understand that in some root place where collective meanings repose, the highest aims of art, spirituality and politics are all the same, and all of them can be summed up in a single statement: They cultivate a transformative awareness. These days, we must all be farmers, husbanding multiple crops of skill and capacity. But the bumper crop we most need is an abundant harvest of the awareness that infuses action.
The underlying truth of virtually all spiritual practice is mindfulness of the One in the Many. Each spiritual tradition blesses even the ordinary things of life—a loaf of bread, a bowl of rice—to create a moment of awareness that, for the existence of hunger and the means to satisfy it, we must acknowledge the mysterious forces and many hands that bring food from the earth to our stomachs. Each spiritual tradition asks us to see that through eyes larger than any individual body can contain, all of us appear as blades of grass, distinct and yet the same, alone and yet one.
The essence of all authentically democratic politics is to cultivate dual awareness, noticing the rights and possibilities as well as the limitations and suffering of ourselves and others, such that even as we perceive and pursue our own interests, we hold others in our awareness, allowing that awareness to shape our response.
The grain of sand that enables that enormous baroque pearl we call art is disrupting the stream of conditioned impulses and reactions forming ordinary consciousness, to stop and notice. Art shows us how our own perspective is only one among an infinite variety. It enables us to imagine what our own bodies have not yet experienced. Art juxtaposes our accustomed ways of seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling with a powerful reminder that so long as life continues, there is more to take from the moment than the sum of whatever we have brought into it.
Why is The Challenge so clear right now, why does this moment demand so much?
Because fear and hope wage a battle just above our heads, trailing our habituated arguments like streamers from a kite. The prospect of peace requires putting our weight on the side of possibility.
This week, I started a mental list of moments that make this point. To show you a glimpse of the need, I was going to point you to my new article on on public service jobs for artists, to how the first and only question inside-the-beltway folks asked when I mentioned a new WPA was where in the structure of federal government the program would be situated. To show you a glimpse of possibility, I was going to point you to this video clip a friend sent me in which Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, demonstrates how awareness of art’s real role and nature in engaging human possibility transforms both those who make or perform the work and those who experience the result.
Just to show you some of the ways it can be done, I was going to point you to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (you have to skip an ad and ignore others, but it’s worth it). Or Cesar Viveros’ beautiful mural, “Healing Walls: Inmates Journey, Victims Journey,” the product of a collaboration between Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, inmates and victims of crime, the subject of Tony Heriza’s and Cindy Burstein’s wonderful film, Concrete, Steel & Paint: A Film About Crime, Restoration and Healing. Or Playing for Change’s remarkable clip of Bob Marley’s “One Love” performed as a global statement. Or even this talk on olfactory art by Chandler Burr, in which you will learn something about globalization, gender and agriculture along with a great deal about scent.
But I don’t know if any of that is necessary when The Challenge is made clear every day in countless ordinary words. When the word “recovery” makes the headlines, it usually refers to something specific to the economy, and the conversation is about banking regulations and stimulus funds, undeniably important subjects. But in truth, the sum total of human culture is in recovery right now, awakening from the trance induced by a limited view of the human subject that not only thinks it’s absolute, but has tricked far too many of us into believing the same thing. Recovery means enlarging our sense of possibility to incorporate the moral grandeur, the healing action, the spiritual connection, the astonishing beauty of which we are capable. I’m guessing you already knew that, didn’t you?
The Challenge now is to make our work equally valid and powerful as art, as spiritual practice and as political speech or action. Every attempt may not succeed, but every attempt will further the transformative awareness we need.