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Cultivating Your Voice: Artistic Practice

  • Is there a relationship between art and activism? If so, what is it?
  • How can art, in all its many forms, and artists serve to disseminate a message?
  • How do we effectively wield art as a tool for political purposes?
  • Explore the possibilities of museum and arts festival curation.
  • Ponder what it might mean to be a “religious artist,” “an artist of faith,” or artist intentionally grounded in one’s worldview.
  • Examine a variety of examples from different media demonstrating how artists have chosen to use their platforms for activism.
  • An excerpt from Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water, which discusses the intricacies involved in working as a Christian author.
  • Simran Jeet Singh’s book The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.
  • Interfaith Photovoice’s website.
  • Poetry from a Boston Youth Poet Laureate.
  • A podcast episode from the show Israel Story about how religious tensions between the state and the people lead to powerful performances.
  • An exploration of an Indian body art subculture called Godna.
John Lennon, “Imagine,” 1970

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

Elvis Costello, “The Other Side of Summer,” 1991

Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?

Homo Artisticus

In 1977, NASA sent two probes—Voyager 1 and Voyager 2—into interstellar space with this message from President Jimmy Carter, alongside a collection of cultural artifacts chosen to represent Planet Earth. Voyager 1, drifting into completely uncharted territory, is now the farthest traveled human-made item in space. The popular astronomer and atheist Carl Sagan of Cornell University was tasked with chairing a committee to select the contents for two phonograph records to be included on both probes. In the end, Sagan and company selected 27 songs from all corners of our planet. From Aborigine songs to Bach’s “Gavotte en Rondeaux,” the purpose was the same: to communicate that “this is something that represents the earth, and its creations,” as worded by ethnomusicologist Dr. Don Niles.

 

This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.

President Jimmy Carter, Voyager Plaque

Art can be so beautiful—and so human—that it has been deemed worthy of serving a key role in a potential “first contact” with extraterrestrial lifeforms.

In a video published by the United Nations, the television science communicator Bill Nye compares the Voyager mission with time capsule bottles thrown into the ocean. “When you write that message, you’re writing it for yourself. You’re really not writing it for the person or people who are going to find it. And so, the Voyager plaque and record was this opportunity for humankind to reflect on itself, for us to think about ourselves.”

Exercise: The Essence of Human Civilization

Simonetta Di Pippo, Italian astrophysicist and director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, comments in the video that one day “the Golden Records may be the only remaining evidence of humanity. So it was an important undertaking to prove not only that there was life on Earth but to capture the essence of human civilization and culture in all its forms.”

If you were to capture the essence of human civilization as reflected in culture, what would you include and why?

On Religious Artistic Practice

One way we might choose to reflect on humankind through art is through the production of religious art. What might it mean to be a religious artist or an artist intentionally grounded in one’s particular worldview? Read this excerpt from Christian author Madeleine L’engle’s book, Walking on Water.

“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you.

This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying and being, is behind the telling of stories around tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animals on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn. It is part of the deepest longing of the human psyche, a recurrent ache in the hearts of all of God’s creatures.

So when the two messages, “Listen to the silence. Stay open to the voice of the Spirit,” and “Slow me down, Lord,” came, I was forced to listen, and even to smile as I heard myself saying emphatically to Luci, “No, I most certainly do not want to write about being a Christian artist,” for I realized that the very vehemence of my reaction meant that perhaps I should, in fact, stop and listen. The Holy Spirit does not hesitate to use any method at hand to make a point to us reluctant creatures.

Why is it that I, who have spent my life writing, struggling to be a better artist, and struggling also to be a better Christian, should feel rebellious when I am called a Christian artist? Why should I feel reluctant to think or write about Christian creativity?”

—Madeleine L’engle, Walking on Water

Discuss the following questions based on the L’engle passage and your own personal experience:

  • Reread the last paragraph in L’Engle’s piece and replace the word “Christian” with the religion, worldview, or spiritual practice that you identify with. When you do this do you feel rebellious? Or are there other feelings, and questions that arise when you connect your creative process to your worldview?
  • If you make art, what compels you to make it?
  • In what ways can our worldview or religion be a source for the artistic urge? In what ways can art be a reflection and/or response to our worldview or religion?
  • What are the tensions between our own worldviews and artistic practices?
  • What are the tensions between our own worldview and artistic practices?

Artist as Activist

Simran Jeet Singh, the author of The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life and the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program, considers the value of creativity within his own tradition and what people of other worldviews might gain from it:

“My first reflection took me to the idea of contribution. Creativity is powerful because you are giving something to this world rather than taking something away…In a world marred by destruction and division, we all know how easy it can be to break things apart and cause chaos. Building and growing requires much more investment—love, concern, attention, care, patience. These ingredients bring us together and strengthen our cohesion.

In studying the teachings of Guru Nanak, I have also come to see creativity as a key element of justice. When we are dissatisfied and outraged with the injustices happening all around us, there is a more constructive way to deal with our frustrations…Guru Nanak’s life offers a fresh model for activism. While many biographers have softened his image to present him as a typical spiritual figure, … he was also a political activist who called out injustice unapologetically. To be spiritually connected is to care about the people around you, and to care about the people around you is to pursue justice. The two, Guru Nanak taught, are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing.”

Singh then recalls several accounts of Nanak being creative in his political criticisms and alternative social visions (see Chapter 40: “The Value of Creativity—Karta Purakh”).

As noted by Singh, creativity, which is often at its most visible in the arts, can be a resource to productively channel our frustrations. Our frustrations can be personal or social, local or global, individual or communal—and creative art, in many mediums, can use these frustrations for constructive outcomes.

One example of art being used to address social frustrations comes in the world of interreligious activism itself. The organization Interfaith Photovoice, for example, uses visual art in the form of photography to engage participants in religious and interreligious conversations. “Interfaith Photovoice invites people of different backgrounds to photograph and reflect on topics related to their faith in everyday life, the challenges they face, and what a better world looks like. Together they build understanding, empathy, and a shared sense of purpose through a series of facilitated conversations.” The use of the artistic medium democratizes the interreligious space—and rather than demonstrating their expertise in theological and religious matters often seen as a requirement for such conversations, participants are empowered to express their experience of faith through their photographs.

Let’s turn to three examples of how artists use their faiths and worldviews to inform their voices as activists. What do these artists have in common? How do they deliver their messages differently? How might their work be informed by social activism (and of what sort of activism)?

Watch “Hesed,” a performance by Boston’s first Youth Poet Laureate inspired by the language of the Psalms.

To what effect does Bobadilla use the language of the Psalms and the legacy of spoken word poetry to emphasize her message? How is she an artist-activist in this moment?

This episode from the podcast Israel Story, a podcast described as Israel’s “This American Life” details a growing rift between the secular and religious in the State of Israel–a state that has some forms of Jewish law informing what many consider civil law.

Listen to the podcast episode below from the 11:29 mark until 23:00.

How is the Batsheva Dance Company’s (Israel’s premier modern dance troupe) decision to perform the piece an act of protest? What does it mean to be “secular” while still using a religious song? How could one transpose this moment to a North American context, if at all?

Consider Godna art, a subaltern (a term in post-colonial studies for those unable to speak for themselves) art form widely used by Dalits in their activism against the caste system. Aditi Narayani puts the art form in context:

“Another important subaltern art form is that of Godna, or tattoo paintings. The evolution of this art can be traced back by studying the rituals and habits of the Nat community. Natins, the women folk of this community, have been master tattooers for generations. Dalit women from Bihar [a state in Eastern India] have used Godna as an idiom for Dalit emancipation, which they explain in terms of annihilation of caste and the restoration of manuski (dignity to themselves).

Godna patterns, particularly in Bihar and Bengal, were drawn as markers on bodies of prisoners as well as upper castes. Historian Claire Anderson researched and claimed that most of these tattoos were made by lower-caste illiterate women, who drew creative patterns and numbers upon the orders of the imperial authorities.

However, the history of Godna also lies in the discrimination suffered by Dalit women, who were forced to wear only ornaments of iron and other inferior material only, as prescribed by the Manu code. Tattooing was in a way a flouting of that prescription. Godna, thus, became for Dalit women not just the inversion of markers of identification, but also an attractive medium for forms of subaltern expression.”

How does the background of the person making the art affect how the art is understood? How are these Dalit women using the resources available to them—in this case their bodies—as a means for creative (and political) expression?

Exercise 1: Museums as Activism

Pick an art gallery or museum in your community. Brainstorm some event ideas that you could do in collaboration with these institutions that would highlight different aspects of interreligious activism or art. How can you mobilize different creative modes/mediums to center important conversations that need to happen or relationships that need to be built for a fuller version of pluralism to be cultivated in your community?

Make a list of resources you might need. Don’t forget to think about relationships: what communities should be involved? Think about who you know already in your network and how you might be able to work through those relationships to reach out more broadly. What relationships might you need to cultivate?

Exercise 2: Creating an Arts Festival

Divide into smaller groups and create a mock day-long music and arts festival á la South by Southwest or Bonnaroo with the title, “Arts & Activism: The First Twenty-Five Years of the 3rd Millennium in the USA.” Who will the headliner be? Who will be the supporting acts? What are the different tents and lectures? Dream big and as if you had an unlimited budget! Write up a one-page invitation accompanying your line-up to explain your choices. And feel free to come up with your own original festival name!