Innovation Engine and the Permanent Witness: The Necessity of Art (Part VI)

 

Did art start with illuminated manuscripts or Goya’s political satire? Was it in the eyes, as the ancient Sumerians perceived? The eyes lead us to the soul, the immortal part of identity. It must have started in the Garden, all that seeing. Then, of course, someone wanted to make it better or easier, more authentic, transparent or enduring. Another held up her hand to the world and said, “Leave me to my room.” In all this, necessity, the great mother of Art, gives birth again and again, each time prescribing the same ritual of painful elation, the same bloody mess. And, we make more. We see more. We see too much.

 

self-guru

 

In the same way that print and digital images in media are normal for us, in fact these images are especially expected by the modern viewer, the early experimenters of photography laid the foundation for an entire way of seeing and viewing.

During the mid 19th century, on the eve of that revolution, the nascent form of realism and idealism took form in paper photography. Charles Nègre and Henri Le Secq ran the streets of Paris taking pictures of the poor and desolate. Needing expediency and portability of the imagery they wanted to show the world, Nègre and Le Secq moved from Daguerreotyping to printing, for the first time, on paper, using salt. Such ingenuity could only be the product of constraints and demands: a new need for immediacy.

Today we cannot live without our cameras and devices to document our dinner salads and cats. Some of us are looking beyond our plates and pets to the timeless measures of humanity. It’s a cycle. Culture invents itself through our own narcissism and gets inverted the moment the container is too small for the masses. Without the Grand Narratives, exclusion is forbidden. We wish to see ourselves again and again, and preferably, forever. Don’t laugh! It’s in our nature.

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Inner Outsider: The Necessity of Art (Part V)

 

But what of imagination? When the completion of a thing, a work, a compulsion burned out in form from within into the world, made manifest for the world to see, a spell descends.

 

It is said that humans are the inventors of the animal world—the king of kings. Crows and ravens make objects of beauty, juxtaposing our discard with stolen and indigenous artifacts. It’s as if there is not enough art in nature for these black birds. We, no less than the crow, must also continue to integrate, overcome and pacify our environment. We do it with art. That is why we object to broken windows, discarded people—anything that reminds us that we are not in charge. Disorder corrupts the notion of control. We like our boxes neat. The first thing that is denied the poor is art, cut out like a vital organ, and grafted into the institutions of the affluent.

 

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Bouguereau: A Girl Defending Herself against Eros (The Getty)

But give us a song, a poem, a wall or a canvas, and in that opening we will pour our souls, in blood or colors, out as if we could pay our fare in creation. The great artists of our time and before have known this. They have not kowtowed to the influence of means, driven by the force within, the powerful Beast that must be silenced if the earth will continue to spin on her great axis. This can be said of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Michael Jackson, Vincent van Gogh, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sohei Nishino, Frida Kahlo, Marguerite Duras, Leo Tolstoy, Ai Weiwei, YSL, Nina Simone, Ingrid Bergman, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Misty Copeland, Alvin Ailey, …truly, there is no room in this essay to name them all. When we awaken to this reality, it is easy to see that art drives civilization forward. It is the fuel and the engine; the fire and the wood.

 

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Of course, I may be wrong.

Definitions: The Necessity of Art (Part I)

I have spent years looking at color and studying history through the lens of art, attempting to make the world around myself beautiful. Certainly, what we create is deeply influenced by what we see: the fragmentation or wholeness of life begins within. My walls burst with a vibrancy I believe reflects my deepest nature. The collective images around me emerge into a singular experience of my own story, retold.

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Writer Toni Morrison

In times of despair, art is no luxury. Essential to the healing of the psyche, beauty in her many forms is a conduit for soothing inflamed pathways, a distraction from our own external or internal whirls, a meditation on purpose. Through our eyes, the story of the extraordinary other, the Beloved, is transmuted into wordlessness, a state of suspended ego. Go there.

 

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”    ~ Toni Morrrison

Getting It Wrong to Get Things Right

 

Life has a way of giving us enough challenges to teach us to adapt quickly to situations by forcing us to pay attention to mistakes. Setbacks, missteps and shortfalls form the backdrop of our experience, shaping and contrasting the triumphs and achievements that are the peaks of a rich existence. Accepting mistakes, embracing them, even, is not only a life skill, it is resilience at its most optimal. Mistakes are our teachers—the bigger the error, the greater our potential for growth. I’m finally beginning to appreciate my own mistakes now more than ever, and I’m looking for ways to fall down with grace. If I scrape my knees often enough, I know I’m playing for keeps. Only benchwarmers escape scratches and lumps.

 

During office hours recently, a young lady came to see me to tell me about all the things that weren’t working in her life. Unable to produce work, she complained that she had no motivation and could make no effort. She was scared about failing her classes, rightly so. This particular young person has a great personality, a lot of energy and possesses a very chatty disposition. Even when she is completely unprepared to discuss the topic at hand, she still wants to contribute. Looking at her, I couldn’t help notice her need for guidance. Interrupting her rambling, I asked her to think about the advice she’d give a friend in her situation. Her mouth opened, but I didn’t want an answer—at least not at that moment. I wanted her to go home, reflect and stop by again. I could see that talking is too easy for her. She can talk all day and never get to the reflection and introspection she needs.

 

That’s a familiar response for many of us. We fill the silences with noise. We turn the volume up on the voices on the television or radio—anything so long as we don’t have to be alone with our thoughts. To her credit, she pulled out a battered notebook and a pencil stub and wrote down the assignment. I’m not sure I’ll see her again, however. She hasn’t been back, yet, despite her enthusiasm. But before she left my office, I looked her in the eye and told her she shouldn’t worry too much about making mistakes. They’re natural, I said, just make some new ones, too.

 

Contemplating her situation later, I couldn’t help but see myself. She’s been repeating the same errors for nine weeks, now, always returning to pick up where she left off, and I, too, have done the same things for years. It seems I easily get on the dreaded hamster wheel, naively expecting to step off in Paris, while merely circumnavigating the familiar perimeters of my comfort zone. I can’t grow if I’m not willing to be clumsy, to fall down a few times and keep trying. I’ve grown too careful; I don’t want to look foolish or risk too much, but security also has a price tag.

 

Reading the San Francisco Chronicle a few Sundays ago, I was so saddened by an article about the growing income gaps between blacks and everyone in San Francisco and California. It seems that every other group is making financial and economic gains, while African Americans are literally moving backwards. I walked around with the unsettling numbers on my mind for weeks. I searched my students’ faces for answers, but they don’t have any more answers than I do. I grieve as I look at the handful of African-American students out of the ninety in my sphere. I think about my part to play in keeping them from becoming the living statistics in the newspaper. I pray for them. I nudge them to stay vigilant so they can ride their star to victory.

 

A few days later, it hits me. An email about a full-time position in my department sent by our department chair is a historical first. It was the first time in my eight years as an instructor in the department that I learned about a position from an inside source. As my past telescoped through my mind, all the pain I’ve endured at the hands of my colleagues, of hiring committees predisposed to disqualify applicants who happen to be people of color, I suddenly recognized myself, the woman trapped by fear.

 

 

Despite being illegally disqualified from the applicant pool more than once, I repeatedly applied for a full-time post, steadfast and loyal daughter of the college that I am. Each time, my disappointment mounted heavily on my buoyant personality, weighing me down, etching away my confidence. It was only last year that I decided to stop applying, to stop torturing myself with the process. But there I was, once more drawn to the idea by an email even though I know I have try something different if I want to thrive.

 

I am the living statistic in the paper. This year I spent half the year unemployed, only to make up the deficit in a deafening whirl of activity as I unexpectedly accepted a temporary full-time position, while nursing a debilitating injury.

 

Noticing is my first step off the wheel.

 

For me, the task is to stay on course with my purpose and calling, to be willing to persevere and walk into the unknown. The temptation to stay comfortable is great. Even the squeak of the wheel is comforting—I know just where the bumps are, where to pause for a breath. Limping at high speed on the wheel to nowhere, I hurry to my stop, chasing a dream that has long since lost its opulence.

 

With these realizations, I am at last able to see that my student, the one justifying and stringing together excuses, the one who can do it all with her eyes closed like an expert beader, is me. I am my student. I keep making the same mistake. It’s safe and easy—predictably awkward, but not at all scary. Finally able to understand why the Chronicle article was so upsetting, I acknowledge that it is because the article is about me. I have to make a new mistake.

 

The decision to change is nothing new for me. I have been a transitional character all my life. This is my big chance to fall down while doing something I feel is critical for my own liberation. Ironically, it’s the best semester of my teaching career, because I am finally living from the very center of my heart. Releasing and opening to possibilities is more like disembarking in a strange land than it is like falling exhausted from a squeaky wheel. At least I know I’m heading toward the unfamiliar. When the alternative is to tighten up my laces, pop a few Advil, and keep spinning, I want all the more to take a chance. It can’t get any worse. I’m already at the bottom. Maybe I can kick off from here and make some of those mistakes I’ve been dreaming of, the ones that require faith, courage and support—the essence of what we must believe, ask for and risk to answer a calling.

 

Taking time to reflect on the last 15 years of my life, I notice some of my biggest failures have helped me to get quiet and reflect. In many ways, taking a risk to make a major change, such as a career shift, is an opportunity to be authentic. I can’t tell my students to follow their dreams and take risks if I live a safe existence, sanitized by fear. A life of meaning requires letting go and inviting transformation to happen; transitions require discernment and faith, a deep knowing that there is enough, that God will sustain us, and that we are meant to fall down and help each other up again.

 

Musings on Identity and Skin Color

 

Personally, I get a thrill when I see any of the fabulous Ogwumike sisters on TV playing basketball for Stanford, because I know they are as intelligent as they are powerful and graceful on the court. Likewise, I am dazzled by the emergence Lupita Nyong’o as she freshens up Hollywood with her poise, beauty and consciousness. Then there are the extraordinary and prominent women who all model life lessons for a society in need: Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey. I could go on, but the point is, we still need more everyday role models because, simply put, the media does not love our young people of color. We have to love them ourselves. We have to be close at hand, comfortable in our skins, strong in conviction and lovingly compassionate. While I’m happy that we have these ebony stars in the limelight, I know that’s not enough for our girls, because it was not enough for me. Our young people of color need to see real women—of all colors—neighbors, friends, aunts, and sibling keeping it real.

 

It’s very painful for me when people casually deprecate dark skin. For one, I have dark skin. For another, humans are diverse. We shouldn’t be judged on hue. That said we do live in a world dominated by racialized identities in which white-skin tones are highly privileged and prized. It’s a heartbreaking shame that an entire segment of the human race is made to feel inferior because of their skin color. For example, the recent Dencia media blitz has quite a few more people than usual thinking about skin color. That’s not a bad thing. For many conscious black women and our allies against oppression and discrimination, Dencia’s skin-whitening cream registers as the most current and blatant symptom of internalized racism. With the constant and continuous overt and covert messages about the inferiority of dark skin, it’s no wonder that even successful and wealthy people like Dencia and poor Michael Jackson went through such great lengths to erase the “stigma” of their birthrights. That’s why this post is so difficult to write; that’s why it’s so critical for me to write it.

(Here’s the link if perchance you are not aware of the story: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2586963/White-means-pure-African-singer-defends-Whitenicious-skin-bleaching-cream-accused-encouraging-people-change-skin-tone.html)

 

Over the years, I have personally received numerous messages about the undesirability of my dark skin—even from family members. Implicit and explicit messages such as, “Lighten your skin if you want to be more attractive,” have been delivered and received too many times to count. (I won’t even get started on hair!) Now I see just how insidious these outrageous messages really are. They undermine the peace, happiness and self-esteem of young girls and boys. American Black girls especially, because they are seldom regarded as beautiful even while they are hyper-sexualized in our media; black boys are too often criminalized and vilified for their dark skin though they are little innocents. It took me over three decades to deconstruct the bombardment of the harmful messages leveled against me and to learn to embrace the woman in the mirror. That’s too long for a young person to wait to feel accepted, loved and respected based on their individual merits.

 

I’m beginning to understand just how urgent it is to counteract these messages. When I teach, I’m entirely conscious that for most of my students, I am the one and only woman with dark skin who has ever stood in front of the room as an instructor. For others, I’m the first and only woman of color with whom they’ve come into close personal contact. That’s quite a bit of pressure, but it’s also a reality that I’m committed to disrupt. I’m conscious of the ways certain people feel uncomfortable with my limited authority and of the challenges to it stemming from the resistance to my presence as a woman and person of color in the academy. My answer is to name those places where identity and societal values intersect and to remain in that uncomfortable place until it is normalized in our classroom and the other spaces we collectively inhabit in society. It sounds audacious and ludicrous to admit it, but it’s one of my ambitions; it is one of the reasons why I teach—and it’s exhausting.

 

Clearly, however, holding space as the teacher in my classroom is not enough. I’m just one woman, and God knows I’m far from perfect. Yet, there are far too many people who will never enter that space with me or some other person of color, or experience me as a teacher or person. Too many jaws drop open on the first day of class. Why should that be the case when we live in the great USA?

 

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips said, “There’s nothing to you until someone sees something in you.” He’s right. In a way, redemption can be found in each other’s loving gaze. Therefore, we need to affirm the beauty of our young friends—no matter their skin color—but prioritize it for the ones who do not receive affirmations of their beauty and goodness from movies, magazines and television. The countless stereotypes about dark skin should not form the basis of individual identities. Positive reinforcements to counteract them are needed. Diverse populations are too often collapsed into the singular label of “blacks,” which is woefully lacking in the complexities of origin, personality and identity. We all need to take a stance in the situation. If people willingly relinquish their identities for the privileged mantle that whiteness provides, then it is essential to define the other in opposition. We are caught in a brutal binary.

 

I want to leave you with hope, because this is not a doomsday post. I have, after all, been accused of being an optimist. I do believe that I look for the fullness in situations, for while the pragmatist in me wants to shatter societal dysfunction, I also want to be soothed and jettison my own heavy cares. I find inspiration in poems, beauty in people and magic in books. For a dose of enchantment, you can watch (and share) this clip of White Teeth author Zadie Smith interview writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about her latest book, Americanah. It’s utterly refreshing to see the space created by women of color comfortable in their own skins:

http://shine.forharriet.com/2014/03/watch-zadie-smith-and-chimamanda.html or

http://colorlines.com/archives/2014/03/watch_zadie_smith_and_chimimanda_ngozi_adichie_talk_about_postcolonial_lit.html

Remembering My First Encounter with Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Some of you may have already been introduced to the great Buddhist master and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh because Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for a Noble Peace Prize in 1967 for of his non-violent work with the Vietnamese people during the Communist Revolution that led to years of war in Vietnam and Hanh’s eventual exile from his homeland. Reverend Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk and activist, has only ever stood for peace, a human beacon during the most difficult times for his people. Fortunately, he continues to work for peace all over the world. Unfortunately, peace is not easy to obtain because it is not simply the absence of war and military turmoil. It can also manifest as an ongoing unsettled self. Too often there is war in our hearts and souls, and Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how to relinquish the holds and perceptions that can prevent us from experiencing inner peace.

It was on just such a journey, while I searched for peace and quiet in myself, that I first encountered his message and his teachings touched my life. Twenty years ago, I was sitting in the lounge of a retreat center with the intention of eating a snack before going to bed. The front of the shop had chairs arranged for viewing films on a TV set. When the VHS tape was put into the player at the front of the row of chairs, a man with the softest voice you’ve ever heard began to speak. He was wrapped almost completely in a chocolate robe, a disembodied head floating on a cloud. Because of the softness of his voice, I had to sit very still and lean forward, abandoning my snack for his soul food. As he spoke, his words penetrated my heart, causing tears to roll down my cheeks, issuing from the wellspring of untouched emotion and pain in me. I understood that to change my life, to heal myself, I had to learn to love myself. I began the journey to know and love myself as my own precious mother, father, sister, brother and daughter right then and there. I didn’t have time to waste. I had to be present for myself so that I could love and forgive, especially myself. He was an answer to my prayers, the reason I had left my home for the ashram. Until this day, he continues to be a source of guidance and inspiration in my life.

Over the years, I have heard Thay, “Teacher” as many know him, speak and teach, and I’ve stopped being surprised by his soft-spoken stillness, knowing that it will be nearly impossible to hear him even when he uses a microphone. It’s a lesson in quietness. Maybe a few words will drift down over the air and into my heart, perhaps piercing my consciousness, and I can leave satisfied. I have walked with him in silent meditation during the predawn hours without a destination, looking at myself, following my breath, inching forward into the recesses of my psyche. It is in such moments of quiet, if we allow ourselves, that we can begin to hear our true selves. I have had to fight past the thick mesh of voices, riddled with doubts and judgments, to sit with my authentic self and accept her, unconditionally. I can say from experience that it is a hard and scary process to turn off the external noises that keep us insolated from ourselves, which is what draws me to Thay, again and again. The Edissa I don’t know and don’t understand yearns for a deep spiritual connection. When I touch that peace, I feel a profound connection to everything around me. So those many years ago, I wanted to find meaning in my life and to let go of the dangerous anger that I only had the courage to turn on myself. So it was his message, “to be my own mother” that touched me. He invited me to hold my mother and myself in compassion and explained exactly how to do both. In that way, Thich Nhat Hanh has been a constant and influential presence in my life as my spiritual leader and mentor, pushing me to start again when I fall short of my goals.

If you are hungry for peace, give Buddhist monk, learned man, doctor of comparative religions, author of over a hundred books, community organizer, leader and healer, Thich Nhat Hanh some consideration. You don’t have to abandon your faith or become a Buddhist to learn mindfulness, because he teaches practical ways to get quiet, repair relationships and look deeply at our interior and exterior environments and do something to repair what needs our attention—gently. As a teacher I have introduced various books and essays of his to my students; they always love his work. In particular, True Love: A Practice of Awakening the Heart is a constant favorite. It’s the kind of book that sons pass to fathers and mothers share with sisters. It’s a treasure for its simplicity and clarity of language as well as the clear, concise explanations of love. My guess is that you might also find some value in his life’s work.

If you don’t know his work, I urge you to read one of his books today. Attend a retreat with him if possible. He has several communities where he practices regularly: Plum Village in France; Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California; and Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. All, with the exception of Green Mountain, have activities throughout the year that are open to the public. Reverend Hanh is aging, but you can still see his luminous spirit for yourself.