Wyatt Mason discusses how Leonard Cohen, Beck, Kendrick Lamar, and Tom Waits view creativity as connecting to something larger than the individual self. Mason recalls a striking moment in an interview with Cohen before his death, when a Japanese reporter asked Cohen about the line “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” from his recent release “You Want It Darker.” “I don’t really know the genesis, the origin,” Cohen began. “That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”
Mason writes: “Hineni — הנני : ‘Here I am’ — is said by Moses, Abraham, and Isaiah when God appears to ask something of each of them. It’s a declaration not of location but of disposition, of willingness.” He views Cohen’s explanation as a beautiful tribute to the creative power of self-transcendence: “At critical moments, from our depths, out of an impulse not for glory, not for wealth, not for fame, not for power, but out of an appetite to serve — serve something larger than ourselves, however one might define it — the emergency inside us finally speaks.”
The article appears in the Style Magazine section, and Mason’s subjects are artfully photographed wearing Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Ermenegildo Zegna, Vince, AG, Joseph, Falke, Novesta, Sandro, Lanvin, Tod, Saint Laurent, Sunspel. Tom Waits wore his own clothes. Singer Kendrick Lamar speaks to Mason about feeling his audience connecting with music about being trapped by gang culture, and how one man explained to him: “‘I connect through your music not because I know about the gang culture; it’s the sense of wanting to be set free.’ Simple as that. He said, ‘That’s the message that you get across in this album. You’re dealing with that, but I’m dealing with drug abuse; you’re talking about the gang culture and you want to escape that and I want to escape my own self-afflictions and addictions. That’s where the connection comes from.’”
Mason quotes Beck speaking about a similar sense that songs can reveal transcendent connections that exist and have long existed between all of us: “I’ve wondered sometimes — since there isn’t really much record of music past the last few thousand years — if there is some deep memory of music, melodies in there that maybe somehow re-emerge or relate to something that we know already. There must be forgotten melodies.”
Tom Waits talks to Mason about the expression “We went out to the meadow,” as a way of illustrating the feeling musicians have when they have a self-transcendent experience making music. “‘It’s for those evenings that can only be described in that way: There were no walls, there were no music stands, there weren’t even any instruments. There was no ceiling, there was no floor, we all went out to the meadow. It describes a feeling. Usually someone will say it, but they’re probably reluctant to say it — you might be afraid that only you went out to the meadow last night. But it’s one of those things where you go as a group. It’s not like: ‘Last night was a really great show for me and it sucked for you.’ No. We all went out to the meadow. There’s something magical about it. And you can never plan on it.’”
Mason concludes with a meditation on his own sense of music connecting us through self-transcendence: “Although the expression wasn’t known to me, of course the feeling was, at least as a listener: that elemental feeling, a door swinging open in the self.”
This post was written after a visit to ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago, at the Alphawood Gallery, 2014 North Halsted Street, Chicago. The show runs through April 2, 2017.
It is hard to enter the space of the ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago exhibit without experiencing outrage. The massive human tragedy caused by years of governmental and mainstream social indifference toward a disease that wiped out an entire generation of young men here and abroad, as well as women and children, and that still rages on today, draws comparison to the callous use of soldiers as machine gun fodder by the decrepit British generals of the First World War, or the stubborn insistence by the Johnson and Nixon administrations that teenaged boys by the truckload be shipped off to die in Vietnam. In 1980, 31 people had died of what would later come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Ten years later, the death toll in the U.S. alone was 18,447, and continued to rise throughout the 1990s. People living with and dying of AIDS included all sorts of people–gay men, male and female IV needle users, straight and gay women, hemophiliacs, and children born to HIV-positive mothers. Still, the disease was perceived as particular to gay men, and as a result of the stigma associated with them, the U.S. government failed to respond quickly to the crisis.
Artists responded to the crisis by making overtly activist and political art. Many works in this show foreground issues of exclusion, stigma, and injustice. Entering the exhibit, one is immediately confronted by Nayland Black’s 1991 “Every 12 Minutes,” a clock on the wall with STOP IT! written in the middle, its face divided into 5 equal sections by the words “ONE AIDS DEATH.” The clock exhorts us to stop these deaths, but it also commands us to stop all the other behaviors contributing to the crisis, from spreading misinformation to having unsafe sex to stigmatizing people with the disease.
Turning from the clock, visitors can see a shimmering bluish beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Water), 1995, that stretches across a wide entryway, separating the entryway from the room beyond. Yet through the clear and bluish beads this next room is also gauzily visible, glowing and beckoning from beyond a veil.
In a small, adjacent room Native American symbols speak to both stigma and loss. David Wojnarowicz’s gelatin silver print “Untitled” (Buffalo), 1988-89 is a photograph of a diorama of the Native American hunting practice of herding buffalo off a cliff, suggesting the intentional killing of people with AIDS not only through indifference, but through active hostility and homophobia. Ronald Lockett’s “Facing Extinction,” 1994, made of chalk, metal, and wood, shows a ghostly buffalo, a recurring symbol for Lockett of hunted creatures. It stands on a too-solid three-dimensional cliff, gazing into our space as its body begins to disappear into the background. “More Time Expected,” 2002, by Sicangu Lakota artist Thomas Haukaas, shows figures riding singly and in pairs surrounding a riderless horse, symbolizing those felled by the disease.
“More Time Expected,” 2002. Thomas Haukaas. Photo by Jaime Hovey.
Part Gonzalez-Torres’s beaded glass curtain and enter a large open space with soaring ceilings. On one wall, a recreation of ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury’s 1987 video and neon installation “Let the Record Show” shines like a dark window, dominating the room. At the top a neon pink triangle glows steadily over white letters spelling out the famous ACT-UP logo, “Silence = Death.” The projection of an arched crescent and decorative columns around the outside of the logo gives it an architectural quality, like a temple or a church nave, beneath which long panels stretch down like stained-glass. Here photographs of six people from the Reagan era are superimposed on an old photograph of the Nuremburg Trials depicting Nazi war criminals seated in a courtroom guarded by Allied soldiers. An electronic panel with running titles in red shows AIDS statistics and epidemic facts. The superimposed photographs light up and go dark, alternately revealing the faces of Senator Jessie Helms, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., Cory Servaas of the Presidential AIDS Commission, an anonymous surgeon, and President Ronald Reagan. These are the war criminals of the AIDS crisis. Underneath each face is an offensive quote made by each one about disease victims, such as Buckley’s infamous assertion that people with AIDS should be “tattooed on the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals,” or the surgeon’s quip that AIDS provided a better reason to “hate faggots.” To underscore the work’s declaration that silence equals death, there is no quote from Reagan, who famously said nothing even as the worst health epidemic in centuries raged around him.
Other mixed-media and video works include a bank of screens with headphones and seating for projects such as T. Kim Trang Tran’s “kore,” 1994, which swoops in and away from grainy black and white moving images of Asian men relaxing at the beach or walking through cities, zooming out every so often to show these figures, distanced from us by time, being watched by other men and boys on hand-held screens and scrolls. The gaze created here suggests that cruising after AIDS cannot be dispassionate; the look of curiosity, appreciation, and desire for Asian men created in and by these images is now tinged with melancholy, memory, and loss.
Still from “kore,” 1994. T. Kim Trang Tran. Photo by Jaime Hovey
In what is thought to be the first AIDS painting, Izhar Patkin creates in his “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” a surface of erupting skin lesions fashioned out of rubber paste, latex, and ink. Moved by the symptoms he saw in patients at his dermatology office, he documented their wounds a year before there was any public announcement about the disease or its victims. Here the sores break open the skin of the painting to ooze and glisten in the light, pushing through from underneath as if something monstrous is housed inside. The painting is shocking, but it also forces the viewer to confront the disease at the level of skin, pain, and the body.
The cumulative effect of these works is to move viewers from outrage at homophobic and indifferent responses to the epidemic to admiration at the courage and resilience of AIDS artists, activists, allies, and survivors. In these works we see creative, political, and deeply moral reactions to the absence of justice, to the withholding of compassion, and to the celebration of love in America at a time when huge numbers of people were suffering and dying.
Religious imagery shapes many of the works, speaking to the gulf between the moral response of the queer community–which involved projects such as public safe sex education and meals on wheels for the homebound–and the judgmental condemnation and indifference of government officials and mainstream religious groups, which shuttered bathhouses and gay clubs in a misguided effort to stop gay sex from happening. In “AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” Ann P. Meredith documents a set of billboards she saw in Louisiana as she traveled to photograph women living with AIDS. Her print shows the harsh messages of the billboards as undercut by a graffiti tagger who writes “Love” and “Peace,” and slyly quotes from Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” a verse that when it appears in the Bible is followed by the words, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.”
Keith Haring’s gleaming silver “Altar Piece,” the last work he completed before he died, shows a weeping Mary with a shining heart and multiple arms holding the infant Jesus under a cross in the center panel of a triptych. Here the Trinity is reimagined to include her, and below her crowds raise their hands in anger and supplication as angels fly and fall.
Echoing the theme of Icarian angels, Daniel Goldstein’s “Icarian I Incline,” fashions a Shroud of Turin from the leather cover of a weight bench that once belonged to the Castro gym Muscle System, nicknamed Muscle Sisters by patrons. Stained with the sweat of a thousand gay men, many of whom have since died, the cover bears the ghostly image of their bodies, framed here as a relic memorializing the exuberant communities that flew too close to the sun, flourished before AIDS, and came together to support each other during and after the crisis.
Martin Wong’s 1988 “I.C.U.” shows an eye in a triangle floating over a brick building. Echoing the pink triangle in the nearby “Let the Record Show,” the eye above the building here resembles the eye on a dollar bill, but appears amidst constellations, like the eye of God. A pun on “I see you,” the letters are also the common abbreviation for Intensive Care Unit, the place in hospitals where so many gay men lay dying during the epidemic. In this work, most of the brick building is dark, and only the wing with fire escapes is lit and accessible. The eye of providence seems not to know or care about what is inside; in any case, here God is only potentially available upon exit.
This is not to suggest that the show is tragic; indeed, the entire exhibit is a triumph of creativity, defiance, and love. Artists pay tribute to the fallen in painting, video, textiles, and sculpture, remember those who were there, and call out those who refused to be present. Charles LeDrey’s teddy bear in a box from 1991 suggests both mourning and the end of innocence. In Rosalind Solomon’s gelatin silver print “Silence Equals Death, Washington, DC,” 1987-90, a young man covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions confronts the camera wearing full protest regalia, including ACT-UP buttons, a straw hat, and a paper Star of David. Frank Moore’s “Patient,” 1997-1998, shows an empty hospital bed painted with leaves and snowflakes, where environmental devastation and AIDS are emergencies that require equally urgent care.
Kia LaBeija’s glossy technicolor photographs, such as “Eleven, October 2015,” and “Kia and Mommy” (below) document her dignity living with hospitals and doctor visits, and celebrate fashion and makeup as creative gestures that make everyday life beautiful.
The pieces gathered here span three-and-a-half decades and include work by people still living, as well as cataloging the talent of too many who died too soon. Their project is a deeply moral one: to remind viewers that sick people are human, that no one deserves to suffer, that death comes for all of us, and that the proper response to tragedy is always—must be—art, compassion, and action.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
This post marks the first of a new occasional series, “Last Week in Virtue.”
“But what is scandal? Scandal is saying one thing and doing another; it is a double life, a double life. A totally double life: ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this association and that one; but my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my workers a just wage, I exploit people, I am dirty in my business, I launder money…’ A double life. And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others. How many times have we heard – all of us, around the neighbourhood and elsewhere – ‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’ It is that, scandal. You destroy. You beat down. And this happens every day, it’s enough to see the news on TV, or to read the papers. In the papers there are so many scandals, and there is also the great publicity of the scandals. And with the scandals there is destruction.” –Pope Francis homily, February 23, 2017 (Link)
On February 23 Pope Francis gave a homily that received widespread media attention, not so much for its message—a fairly traditional one about the sin of hypocrisy—but because the media seized on the Pope’s assertion that even an atheist was better than an observant Catholic leading a “double,” or hypocritical, life. Daniel Burke’s headline, at CNN, promptly declared, “Pope suggests it’s better to be an atheist than a bad Christian.” Burke discussed the Pope’s idea of scandal, noting that scandal is a particularly sensitive word for the Catholic Church. But the headline to his article shows the Pope’s notion of scandal eclipsed here by what the news media saw as a shout out to virtuous atheists.
In emphasizing the atheism story, the media in many ways replicated the very sense of scandal that the Pope decried in his homily, with headlines repeating over and over that the Pope would rather have a world full of good atheists than vicious Catholics. Looking closely at the Pope’s words shows that his concern in this case is as much on the shame of the public spectacle of Catholic hypocrisy as it is on celebrating virtuous nonbelievers: “How many times have we heard—all of us, around the neighborhood and elsewhere—‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’”
The news clearly liked the second part of his sentence better than the first part, but the emphasis in his speech is not on the virtue of atheism, but the terrible destructiveness of the scandal of hypocrisy, and how this kind of publicity, this kind of circulation of these images of Christians as vile hypocrites, destroys trust and faith. “You destroy. You beat down.”
We all know whenever one of these stories about Christian hypocrisy circulates, he says, that everybody looks at it and says, Better to be an atheist than one of “those” hypocritical Christians. We all understand, he is saying, that hypocrisy is a terrible sin, and we all would agree that an atheist without hypocrisy is better than a so-called believer who claims to believe in Christian charity while acting in a way that harms and exploits vulnerable people. The stress here is on the harm caused by the hypocrite, and on the news stories that emphasize that these kinds of so-called Christians—powerful Catholics who pretend to have generosity while actually treating others with great cruelty– are everywhere.
In one sense, then, the Pope wants to remind the hypocrite to return to a virtuous life by pointing out that their salvation is anything but assured. He wants to confront the sinner squarely with the sin—the fault of scandal lies with the hypocrite, not the news. He expands on the dishonesty of hypocrisy to show that it also includes the destructiveness of bad example and public scandal. At the same time, he uses the example of the atheist to remind listeners that good actions matter more than identity. A virtuous life might make a good person—even an earnest atheist—more fit for salvation than a person who goes to church regularly but steals wages from their employees.
Why is this notion of the virtuous atheist so attractive?
The virtuous atheist here seems a lot like the old trope of the virtuous pagan, whose fate preoccupied medieval scholars concerned with the salvation of those outside the Church, especially the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish writers they admired. Traditionally virtuous pagans fell roughly into two categories: those who had been offered Christian salvation and turned it down, and those who never had the opportunity to convert because of factors like chronology or geography.  To medieval scholars, it seemed patently unfair that the eminent philosophers, poets, and Old Testament scholars and patriarchs they studied should be automatically damned. They dreamed up various solutions, such as Christ descending to hell to baptize good people who had somehow ended up there, Limbos that resembled Paradise where good pagans might be housed until the Last Judgment, and the idea, championed by Thomas Aquinas and others, that following a virtuous life might lead a good person—even an atheist—to faith and salvation.
It may be that some journalists mistakenly believed that the Pope was acknowledging that a good life and afterlife could be had completely and forever outside the Church, which he wasn’t. The virtuous pagan doesn’t get to remain outside the Church forever, but at some point is expected to be led by virtue to Catholic conversion. This belief was seen last week in Vatican news sources that stressed this aspect of the Pope’s homily, such as Vatican Radio’s “Pope: Don’t put off conversion, give up a double life.”
However, it is not a stretch to say the Pope remains more concerned with doing good in the world than he is with the particulars of Church affiliation. According to Catholic Online, Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
In this diverse and secular age, there is something particularly appealing about the idea that it is the virtuous life that matters most, that it reveals its own truth regardless of religious faith. The Pope’s example of the virtuous atheist as better than the sinful Catholic appealed to the media last week because it emphasized that cultivating virtue is more important than membership, association, or influence. Not all of us can be powerful, rich, or politically well-connected, but each of us can try to be good. The stamp of religious membership might indicate that a good person stands before you, but it also might be true that the person who sets themselves up as a Christian paragon is a liar. By suggesting that virtuous action matters more than religious affiliation, wealth, or political power, the Pope appealed to a public weary of moral posturing and hungry for more discussion of how we all might cultivate genuine character, real compassion, and true moral direction by striving to be good in the world.
 Cindy L. Vitto, The Virtuous Pagan In Middle English Literature, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 79, No. 5 (1989), pp. 1-100; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1006545
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
At least, that was the impression given by the 45th President of the United States when he praised Douglass at a recent Black History Month event, saying: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” TheAtlantic, Feb 1 2017.
Douglass, one of the most important figures in the anti-slavery movement and one of the greatest orators America has ever produced, died February 20, 1895, and the widespread public amusement at Donald Trump’s remarks about him came from a sense that the President had almost no idea who Douglass was. However, if Mr. Trump read one of Douglass’s Reconstruction-era speeches on virtue and political change, he might almost be forgiven for believing that the greatest Black American leader of the 19th century still walks among us.
April 16, 1885 was the 23rd anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. President Grover Cleveland reviewed a parade of over 5,000 people marching near the White House, and that evening, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “We are Confronted by a New Administration,” at the Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church.
The occasion of Douglass’s speech was ominous. The Republican party had lost power after 25 years of running a post-Civil War government the emancipated slaves had come to rely on. Faced with the prospect of diminished freedoms and the great work of Reconstruction left undone, Douglass spoke of the election as a bitter defeat: “We do not stand where we stood one year ago. We are confronted by a new administration. The term of steady, unbroken successful Republican rule, is ended. The great Republican party that carried the country safely through the late war against the rebellion, emancipated the slave, saved the Union, reconstructed the government of the southern states, enfranchised the freedmen, raised the national credit, improved the currency, decreased the national debt, and did more for the honor, prosperity and glory of the American people, than was ever done before in the same length of time by any party in any country, under similar circumstances, has been defeated, humiliated, and driven from place and power.”
For Douglass, this election is not just the defeat of a good cause, but the triumph of those opposed to justice: “For the first time since the chains fell from the limbs of the slaves of the District of Columbia; for the first time since slaves were raised from chattels to men; for the first time since they were clothed with the dignity of American citizenship, they find themselves under the rule of a political party which steadily opposed their every step from bondage to freedom; and this may well give a peculiar coloring to the thoughts and feelings with which this anniversary of emancipation is celebrated.”
He acknowledges that slavery and racial oppression do not exist apart from the social structures that justify and maintain them, “Like any other embodiment of social and material interest peculiar to a given community, slavery generated its own sentiments, its own morals, manners, and religion, and begot a character in all around it in favor of its own existence.”
Such attitudes are not those of a morally strong and healthy nation; Douglass praises the wisdom in the rejection of a two-nation system, one slave and one free, “hostile civilizations side by side, with a chafing bloody border between them,” in favor of “one country, one citizenship, and one liberty for all the people.”
Insisting that the divisions that led to the Civil War were moral, he suggests the solution to the unfinished business of Reconstruction lies in the cultivation of virtue: “There never was any physical reason for the dissolution of the Union. The geographical and topographical conditions of the country all serve to unite rather than to divide the two sections. It was moral, not physical dynamite that blew the two sections asunder.”
Douglass explains that: “Twelve hundred more colored votes in the state of New York would have saved that party from defeat,” and suspects these votes were lost because the campaign did not address moral issues: “Little was said, thought, or felt, about national integrity, the importance of maintaining good faith with the freedman or the Indian, or the protection of the Constitutional rights of American citizens, except where such rights were in no danger . . . No nation, no party, no man, can live long and flourish, on falsehood, deceit, injustice, and broken pledges.”
“On the other hand,” he notes, “where good faith is maintained, where justice is upheld, where truth and right prevail, the government will be like the wise man’s house, in scripture: the winds may blow, the rains may descend, the flood may come and beat upon it, but it will stand, because it is founded upon the solid rock of principle. I speak this, not only for the Republican party, but for all parties.”
Attempting to find common ground with Democrats, he appeals to democratic ideals of citizenship, “We boast of our riches, power, and glory, as a nation, and we have reason to do so. But what is prosperity, what is power, what is national glory, when national honor, national good faith, and national protection to the rights of our citizens are denied?”
Warning that the social unrest of the European under classes could just as easily happen in American, Douglass urges politicians not to abandon oppressed peoples, writing: “Who could blame the negro if, when he is driven from the ballot box, the jury box, and from the school house, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators, compelled to live in rags and wretchedness, and his wages kept back by fraud, he shall imitate the example of other oppressed classes, and invoke some terrible explosive power as a means of bringing his oppressors to their senses, and making them respect the claims of justice.” To this typed passage Douglass has added, in script, “denied a fair trial when accused of crime,” and, “This would be madness, but oppression will make even wise men mad.” Although he hastens to assure his audience that he does not hope for or approve violent means, his edits suggest he believes that repeated injustices inevitably produce violent outcomes.
Yet Douglass seems to sense that he is standing on the eve of a terrible era. One of the speech’s most chilling passages concerns the “recent” Supreme Court decision that Douglass says “came upon the country like a clap of thunder from a clear sky . . . a surprise to enemies, and a bitter disappointment to friends.” Douglass is referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in The Civil Rights cases of 1883, a decision that would usher in 80 years of Jim Crow racial segregation and pave the way for the infamous “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Fergusen (1896), as well as widespread lynching and other forms of racist terrorism. TheCivil Rights cases of 1883 laid the groundwork for Plessy by ruling that public accommodations were not reached by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that Congress and the courts could not stop hotels, clubs, and restaurants from discriminating on the basis of race. Justice John M. Harlan was the sole dissenting voice, and Douglass praises him for being a “grand representative of American Justice standing alone.” Harlan’s famous dissent in the Civil Rights cases would someday serve as the basis for civil rights jurisprudence—but not until after World War II.
Despite his sense that the lives of Black Americans were about to get much worse, Douglass speaks to the “soul of the nation” and its virtues, the “spiritual side of Humanity” that cannot be burnt or drowned so long as it holds fast to its moral ideals, declaring: “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous, for upon these conditions depends the life [o]f its life.” He talks about the great Chicago fire as one that left the city in ashes, yet could not eradicate the ideals of its inhabitants because they were possessed of civic virtue: “[T]here remained the invisible soul of a great people, full of energy, enterprise, and faith, and hence, out of the ashes and hollow desolation, a grander Chicago than the one destroyed, arose as if by magic.”
Douglass’s speech concludes with an appeal to civic virtue and civic involvement as crucial to surviving political change, not just as because civic virtue cultivates the self, but because it helps form a democratic community of brave and just citizens. As we celebrate Black History Month, we might take to heart his sense that a morally virtuous citizenry is the bedrock of a flourishing democracy. Quoting a poem by Sir William Jones that asks, “What constitutes a state?” Douglass answers with lines emphasizing courage and justice as virtues that carry the nation even in its most turbulent eras: “Men who their duties know,/ But know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain.”
For the full text of Douglass’ speech, visit “Speech on the 23rd Anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia,” also known as “We are Confronted by a New Administration” here.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
This week marks the birthday of St. Joan of Arc, a devout farm girl born more than 600 years ago whose virtues of faith, chastity, and courage helped make her one of the patron saints of France, and of soldiers in the trenches of World War One. We know her birthday—January 6—more accurately than we do the exact year of her birth, which was somewhere around 1412. (Joan testified at her trial that she believed herself to be 19 years old.) People from her village who knew her remembered her being born on Epiphany, the holiday that celebrates the moment when the Magi finally find the Christ Child they have been seeking.
Joan would have been an extraordinary person in any era, but in 15th century France, she was nothing short of mythic. Three years after she was born, Henry V achieved his decisive victory at Agincourt, and from then on England occupied France in earnest. The effect on the country was devastating, with some sources saying that this occupation reduced France’s population by as much as half. A story foretold that France would be lost by a woman and saved by a woman, or in other versions, that France would be lost by a fallen woman and saved by a virgin from the forests of Lorraine. Many of Joan’s contemporaries thought the Dauphin’s mother, reputed to have gotten her son from her husband the King’s brother, was the fallen woman who had lost France by signing away her son’s kingdom. Sometime in her teens, Joan came to believe that she was the Maid who would get it back.
Joan began hearing the voices of three particular saints when she was 13. They belonged to Michael the Archangel, Catharine of Alexandria, and Margaret of Antioch, and according to Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (UC Press 1981), they express her mission perfectly. St. Michael, leader of the armies of heaven, was the emblem of French resistance to English rule, whose image was painted on the standards of the Dauphin’s soldiers. St. Catharine confounded the scholars of the Emperor Maximus with her wisdom, spurned his marriage proposal, and was beheaded for her faith, becoming the protector of unmarried women and philosophers, as well as the patron saint of Maxey, the village nearest Joan’s own Domremy. St. Margaret, the patron saint of mothers and childbirth, also refused to marry, entered a monastery disguised in men’s clothes, and once leapt off a high building to preserve her chastity. She was later eaten by a dragon and disgorged miraculously unharmed (though she was eventually beheaded). All three saints carry swords; all three also prefigure things Joan would do before her death (though the dragon story ends differently for her, alas).
By the time Joan turned 16, she was badgering the local garrison commander for an escort to take her to the court of the disinherited Dauphin of France, the future Charles VII, whose claim to the throne had been invalidated by his mother’s treaty with the English. At the garrison and later at court, Joan’s persistence, prophetic abilities, and courage convinced everyone she met that she was sent by God. Charles believed her–reportedly because she told him the contents of a prayer he had once made in private–and granted her an army. Joan dressed as a man for the remaining years of her short life, and never married or took a lover. The soldiers who fought and slept by her side considered her a holy being, beyond earthly forms of love or sexual attraction, and claimed to lose all desire around her. They respected her devotion and insistence that they confess and hear Mass daily, and her piety helped further convince them of the justness of their holy cause.
As proof of this, and although she had no prior military experience, Joan defeated the English at Orleans and crowned Charles King. At one point she was even shot in the chest with an arrow, yet bravely fought on. Charles became more interested in treaties than battles, however, and when an impatient Joan led troops into Compiegne without his support, she was captured by the Burgundians. Like her beloved St. Margaret, Joan is said to have leapt from a tower in an attempt to escape her captors, in this case the 70-foot tower of Beaurevoir Castle, but she was recaptured. Unwilling to pay her ransom, Charles allowed her to be sold to the English, who desired her execution and thus immediately put her on trial for heresy.
The record of Joan’s trial is one of the most detailed trial records of the Middle Ages, providing a rare example of a genuine voice from the era. While most trials exist in one copy, if at all, there are dozens of copies of Joan’s (The Trial of Joan of Arc, Trans. Daniel Hobbins, Harvard UP 2005). Joan was already a celebrity by the time she was captured, and it is thought that the many copies of the transcripts were intended for widespread distribution after the trial in order to justify its unjust outcome. These efforts indicate a great deal of anxiety, stemming no doubt from certain knowledge that these proceedings were largely political rather than spiritual in nature.
As a result, we have a record in multiple copies of a brave, belligerent, and surprisingly canny voice. At one point, when asked for information about the voices of her saints, Joan blatantly refuses to answer her inquisitors: “I’ll answer you no further about that. I’ll gladly answer where I have leave to speak.” Another time, plainly impatient at being asked the same questions over and over about how she knows her voices are from God, she answers: “I’ve told you often enough that they are Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret; believe me if you wish.”
Imagine a 19 year-old young woman, captured in battle, exhausted from the hardships of prison and going days without food, standing before military and church authorities, all men, who question her relentlessly over and over, day after day. Marvel at her poised and self-contained answers. She doesn’t care what they think. She feels no urgency to defend herself, or explain her motivations. In one famous instance, she startles her Inquisitors when they demand to know whether she is in God’s grace, a trick question meant to have her fall into heresy: “If I am not, may God put me there; if I am, may God so keep me.” It was a brilliant answer, since Church doctrine held that no one could be sure of God’s grace, and Joan neatly sidesteps it, convincing many then and later that her inspiration was Divine. Its tone is sure of itself, unrattled, almost nonchalant. This is a person possessed of great faith in herself and her cause, and well as in the guiding forces that brought her to this place.
Although the Church had approved her crossdressing while she fought for Charles in battle, after her capture the English settled on Joan’s masculine dress as the crime they would use to execute her. At one point she signed a confession and was spared the stake, but in a final act of courage, she recanted, unwilling to repudiate her voices and spend her life in prison, where she feared sexual assault. Burned alive in 1431, she was celebrated publicly in France within two years of her death, and the religious plays that sprung up in her honor quickly became official sites of pilgrimage. 22 years after her martyrdom the English were expelled from most of France, and in 25, she was completely exonerated, well within what might have been her lifetime.
Joan had become a popular romantic figure by the nineteenth century, and a symbol of French nationalism by the twentieth. Her beatification in 1909, on the eve of the Great War, made her even more accessible as a personification of French courage when that war began, and by 1916, she had become a symbol of both the French and English soldiers fighting together in the trenches against Germany. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1916 film Joan the Woman, she is a knight whose self-transcendence makes her a great warrior, a figure of both sacrifice and brave aggression. In 1920 she was canonized a saint, and 100,000 British subjects celebrated at Westminster Cathedral. In his 1924 play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw sees her as very like the young soldiers treated as cannon fodder by the military commanders of the Great War, a figure of forthright goodness crushed by the corrupt institutional and political machinations of old men.
In her speculative biography Saint Joan of Arc (Doubleday 1991 ), Vita Sackville-West writes of Joan’s mother, “It was by no fault of Isabelle Romee, if, instead of a chicken, she had hatched an eagle.” Sackville-West seems pleased that unlike some other saints, Joan never used expressions like “my heavenly Spouse,” or “my Betrothed.” She writes: “I think that possibly she had no need thus to sublimate her earthly desires in this pseudo-sexual fashion, since she found her outlet in her ardent devotion to the Dauphin and to the cause of France. She is the least sentimental of saints, and the most practical . . .She is too heroic and bracing to appeal intimately to the average mind. She makes the mistake of being always something over life-size; something which, however much she may command admiration and respect, can never be loved in quite the same personal way as the more human saints.”
Here Sackville-West humorously inverts virtue to change our perspective on the nature of saints. Instead of beginning with Joan’s superhuman qualities, Sackville-West accuses her of missing the mark, of “making a mistake” in being too heroic and not small and human enough to love in a “personal way.” But of course, as this makes us realize, saints are not about the personal at all, but about magnificently impersonal things like justice and the greater good. Saints are little girls who strive to be more than human, who cultivate the will to defy convention, the courage to accost powerful men, and the vision to oppose crushing political orders. In the end Joan fascinates us because she decides to be something more than merely human, choosing to be burnt alive rather than spend her life in prison, or betray her faith and go against her moral principles. It may be that the job of saints is to model something greater than human frailty. It may be that the job of saints is to make us marvel at, and emulate, the courage of eagles.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from new generations.”
So wrote Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in his monumental The Gulag Archipelago, detailing the history and horrors of the Soviet labor camps, published 43 years ago this week. The book was met with instant international acclaim; one review in the New York Timescalled its subject “the other great holocaust of our century.” In the wake of its publication Solzhenitsyn became something of a pop-culture cold war hero in the U.S., where interest in militarism and interventionist policies had been fading in the aftermath of Vietnam. Solzenitsyn’s belief that Russia should turn away from international military involvement and embrace the Church and its own rich cultural history was favorably received by conservatives, as was his view that the U.S. had capitulated too quickly in Vietnam. Liberals embraced him as a dissident and rebel, though he was criticized for his insistence that Lenin was as culpable as Stalin for the monstrous atrocities of Soviet totalitarianism, and that the political state is often its own end regardless of its founding ideology.
Solzhenitsyn’s unstinting criticism of Western materialism often made him a difficult figure. He spent nearly two decades in the U.S., yet never stopped railing against what he saw as its moral complacency and spiritual emptiness. In 1978 he shocked many with his commencement address at Harvard University, where he was given an honorary doctorate in literature. In it, he urged his audience to look beyond the material satisfactions of U.S. culture:
“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.” Link
Critics often shrugged off Solzhenitsyn’s social commentary while acknowledging the truth of the horrors he wrote about; one anecdote in his New York Times obituary recounts Susan Sontag’s conversation with Russian poet Joseph Brodsky:
“We were laughing and agreeing about how we thought Solzhenitsyn’s views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest were deeply wrong, and on and on,” she said. “And then Joseph said: But you know, Susan, everything Solzhenitsyn says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers—60 million victims—it’s all true.”
Also included in the Times obituary is the story of how Solzhenitsyn managed to smuggle out writing under the harshest conditions of Soviet internment. Banished under Stalin to Ekibastuz, a camp where writing was routinely confiscated and which would become the source of his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Solzhenistyn used a special rosary fashioned for him by Lithuanian Catholic prisoners to commit 12,000 lines of prose to memory, using one bead for each passage.
Such conditions are almost impossible to fathom for Americans living today in a world of relative material comforts and freedom of the press. Yet his critique of our shallow moral standards and sense of entitlement is at least as relevant now as it was in 1978. Should we elect political leaders based on our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with our salaries, or the price of gas? Or should we also have a higher purpose in mind, a vision of somehow making the world a better place?
Solzhenitsyn was prescient about the effect materialism would have on the political landscape, seeming to forecast the yearning for what Ronald Reagan would articulate a couple years later as “morning in America,” the vision that rejected the economic and political uncertainty of the Carter years in favor of a nation characterized by plentiful goods, free enterprise, and military might. Now it appears we are in another 1978 moment, a moment characterized much as it was then, by economic fear, fear of international terrorism, and lack of faith in political leadership. In The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House, Douglas Brinkley describes the moment of Carter’s loss as one that seems on the surface very unlike our own, yet at bottom contains the same underlying fear and malaise. Carter’s era culminated in “inflation in the double digits, oil prices triple what they had been, unemployment above 7 percent, interest rates topping 20 percent, fifty-two American hostages still held captive in Iran, and unsettling memories of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Link
In contrast, the U.S. economy this October, just before the 2016 election, saw the biggest economic growth in two years, increased exports, and a shrinking unemployment rate, yet the economic insecurity of 2008 continues to linger eight years later, much as the effects of recession lingered throughout the 1970s. U.S. growth in October of this year was historically slow compared to historic measures, and our “gig economy,” where people drive their own cars for companies like Uber and Lyft, means that millions of workers are filling temp jobs because they can’t find stable, well-paying work. Link
Thus while we are not nearly as precarious economically as we were in 1980, we feel as precarious as we did in 1980. On the one hand, it is right to take note of economic conditions that leave too many people living in poverty, whether from the unavailability of any work or the availability of only the lowest-paying kind of work, and as a result choose to vote for better opportunities for everyone. On the other hand, faced with having too little, or thinking we have less than we should, or fearing we will lose what we have, some of us vote to have more, no matter the cost.
We find it hard to ask, whether in asking for more than we have, or more than we think we can get, if we are in fact asking for the right things. In the wake of a 2016 election defined for many by the fear of “falling behind,” of losing the material security promised by the American Dream, we need to think about how we define the contents of that dream and examine the entitlement behind the notion of “falling behind.” We now know that many more voters were galvanized this year by appeals to fear and entitlement than were moved by visions of social justice and equality. We need to address the appeal of fear and entitlement before we can go on to articulate a larger vision of a just society where there is opportunity for everyone.
Appeals to morality rarely win elections. We now know that “the unlimited availability of gasoline,” for example, while making certain economic sense, is not the best thing to ask for when electing public officials, especially given the devastating effects of carbon emissions on the global environment. Yet the virtue of self-restraint—temperance, really—called for by Solzhenitsyn in his Harvard commencement address is no more popular now than it was in 1978, when many Americans rejected it in favor of a 1950s-style domestic prosperity characterized by plenty of cheap gas and consumer goods.
President Carter, a famously moral person who spoke openly against violence and advocated daily prayer, was unable to effectively sell his vision that U.S. voters should cultivate temperate, self-transcendent characters. Solzhenitsyn’s warning in this era that human life must consist of more than “the search for the best ways to obtain material goods” vanished in a country weary of recession and fearful of international terrorism, and is similarly lost today in a nation where people fear slipping into poverty at home as a result of stagnant wages and vanishing jobs, and see only an unstable and violent world abroad. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s warning that Americans—humans—are prone to self-interest and self-indulgence is one we should still heed. His insistence that the human tendency to keep one’s head down in the presence of injustice proliferates injustice is especially urgent in our moment, when the temptation to retreat into private life can seem so seductive. In this dangerous world, getting involved is a necessary self-transcendence, “the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty,” a call to witness, and a call to action.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Can looking at art make us better people? Can art teach us to recognize in others and ourselves a humanity all too often constrained by narrow cultural definitions of beauty and social worth?
Painter Kerry James Marshall has long believed that art has an important social function, and that as a black artist, he should focus on black representation rather than abstraction. In his current retrospective exhibition MASTRY, here in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art through September 25, his decision to engage with European “Old Masters” provokes in viewers recognition that the absence of black figures from Western art history is a moral loss as well as an aesthetic one. By insisting upon black representation and putting figures in dialogue with the great works of European art that exclude them, he also challenges viewers—as the best artists do—to see art, and each other, differently.
In his paintings, black figures challenge viewers to see them. In stark contrast to the Old Masters, who rarely use black in their palettes, Marshall paints his figures with pure black paint, mostly unmixed with other colors except for some highlights where light softly contours foreheads, noses, and lips. Eyes and teeth are sometimes rendered in dazzling whites, or muted greys. Marshall’s engagement with seeing and being seen was sparked, he says in a video accompanying his show at MCA Chicago, by his reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Indeed, the painting that begins the exhibit is the aptly-named Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), where white eyes and jack-o-lantern teeth gleam in the black field of an indiscernible face.
Marshall’s project of revising what we think we see or know reminds viewers who experience America from outside mainstream culture what it feels like to read symbols of beauty and freedom from the vantage point of struggle and invisibility, and schools viewers used to seeing only from one vantage point what it might be like to see differently. Viewers are forced to acknowledge the subjects of the paintings, and such acknowledgment requires a regard for another that intrudes on the closed world of the individual viewer, in an event not unlike the substitution in the work of Emmanuel Levinas, where “In substitution my being that belongs to me and not to another is undone, and it is through substitution that I am not ‘another,’ but me.” (Levinas, Otherwise than Being). Marshall asks viewers to enter a scene and reflect on the people there. His perspective, while flattened, opens out to viewers, who feel as if they are standing at the edge of the room or the side of the yard. Viewers must look closely to make out the details of his figures, often set against dark or dimly-lit backgrounds. It is necessary to stop, look, and engage with these subjects, many of whom look back, confronting viewers with a direct gaze. This confrontation demands a response, and in this proximity there is the possibility of ethics. “We see you,” the figures seem to say. “Can you see us?”
Marshall likes to complicate our collective sense of what we know by taking familiar holidays such as the Fourth of July and opening up a different way of looking at them by referencing art history. In Bang (1994), a picture that seems particularly timely now, as athletes supporting Black Lives Matter refrain from saluting the flag, and force many to consider the function of public displays of patriotism, a black girl stands in a backyard with her hand placed reverently across her chest, holding up an American flag in front of two boys who also salute with their hands on their hearts. Pink clouds in the foreground are strung together by a banner carrying words from the Great Seal of the United States, “We Are One.” The words on the clouds form the phrase “Happy July 4th Bang,” and overhead another banner carried by doves forcefully declares, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to god.” Here the promise of American prosperity suggested by these slogans seems realized in the gentle suburban landscape, one where black children safely play amid neat houses and trimmed lawns while their holiday dinner cooks on the grill.
But the painting also references medieval and renaissance religious paintings, lending the patriotic tableau both a holy and an ominous cast. The gentle curve of the girl’s neck as she holds out the flag—the symbol of her faith— is achingly vulnerable. Behind her, a patch of yellow on a garage door makes a halo over her head, and beams of light issue from her brow. She is a martyred saint, or the Virgin Mary, her head at the center of the painting, as it would be in a religious icon. The word “Bang” on the pink cloud just as easily suggests the sound of guns as it does fireworks. The boys look away in different directions, their faces innocent, as the barbeque grill issues a coil of smoke and a garden hose circles the girl like a snake. In the background large sunbeams echo the rays in the girl’s halo, but the sun appears to be setting, and the children are standing on a patch of darkness the shape of a grave. In the foreground, shadows enter the frame and angle towards them.
In another work, School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), Marshall “schools” viewers to see and understand how the beauty of black women is often haunted and constrained by mainstream culture’s white beauty standards. The scene seems to be a bustling celebration of black women’s beauty, where heart-shaped mirrors on the walls of a thriving black hair salon reflect the words “School of Beauty School of Culture” in backwards letters, and the words “Dark” and “Lovely” are repeated on posters dotting the walls. “It’s Your Hair!” emphasizes one, an encouragement to patrons to claim their style and resist acquiescing to dominant notions about how black hair should be worn. Black women with many different hairstyles move through the space; one looks directly out at us and strikes a classic pinup pose, as if to say, “I am beautiful.” A signed copy of the 1998 landmark album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, with its cover image of a black woman with snaky hair, hangs over a doorway in the center of the painting, echoing the painting’s emphasis on black women’s beauty, lives and experiences, as well as the theme of education.
But something floats in the space between two young children in the foreground: an anamorphic image attenuated to resemble the similarly floating image in the foreground of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). In Holbein, two richly dressed men stand amidst their musical instruments, maps, books, and globes, symbols of their worldly accomplishments, while an anamorphic skull, stretched to the point of being nearly
unrecognizable, floats between them in the foreground. The skull foreshortens if the viewer moves to the far right of the painting and looks sideways at it, revealing the classic vanitas theme: death waits for all men, regardless of wealth, stature, or skill. In Marshall’s School of Beauty, the image that haunts the scene is Sleeping Beauty, and she also takes shape if the viewer moves to one side of the painting—the left side, in this case, in a mirror-like reversal of Holbein, hinted at by the reversed letters in the mirrors above the salon. Although the adult women in the picture seem unaware of Sleeping Beauty, the child at the center of the picture sees her clearly, and actually stoops to see past her to the little girl on the other side. Unlike Holbein’s skull, Sleeping Beauty casts a shadow in the picture, and her blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin shadow this scene celebrating black women’s beauty. School of Beauty, School of Culture teaches viewers to make the effort to look differently at the painting, much as Holbein teaches his viewers to move to one side, making the effort to look differently at his painting. In Marshall’s case, he is asking us to reverse the look we have learned from “Old Master,” to recognize that Sleeping Beauty haunts this scene, but to make the effort to see her, and look past her white beauty ideal, as the little child does, and see all the beautiful black women searching for their own reflections.
Kerry James Marshall asks viewers to recognize the ways in which Anglo-European culture has limited artistic representation and ideals of beauty to the images and experiences of white subjects. As a remedy to this, he offers ways of seeing that expand the notion of which bodies get to be represented as beautiful and inspiring. By insisting that black subjects belong in museums, galleries, and high art, he enlarges cultural assumptions of what constitutes the beautiful, the human, and the divine, and this is a supremely wonderful thing.
This video accompanies the exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Kerry James Marshall: Mastry is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, April 23–September 25, 2016, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 25, 2016–January 29, 2017, and at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, March 12–July 2, 2017.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.