Happy New Year, everyone. May this be a year of good and beautiful dreams come true.
The other night at a Christmas party I had an interesting conversation with my friend Joe and a couple of young men who are students at the Art Institute of Chicago. We spoke about the relationship between art and politics. One of the students was very interested in this connection, and felt that “justice” was a category that could be applied to how we understand pretty much any kind of artwork. Does any given work of art emerge out of the struggle for justice? Does it testify for justice, or cry out against injustice? Is it borne of social privilege, and does it seek to reinforce that privilege rather than pointing toward a better or more just way?
As an integral thinker, I believe this student is chipping away at what Ken Wilber calls “the big three” — the beautiful, the good, and the true, which in our alienated/dissociated society are understood as art, morals and science. Wilber suggests that the dignity of modernity lies in the recognition of the distinction between art, morals and science; but the disaster of modernity lies in how science became privileged while art and morals became marginalized in our public and intellectual life. Thus, religion and art have become little more than hobbies, consumer choices that individuals are free to take or leave as they see fit, while the only thing that really matters is what is true — the province of science — and its mini-me, technology, which is concerned with instrumentality, or what “works.”
So to see these young artists in training be concerned about the relationship between art and justice is a good thing, even though I would prefer the broader term “goodness” to the more politically charged term of “justice.” Still, what is truly good is just and what is truly just is good, so no real quibble there. Joe noted that “anyone who claims art is not political is simply making a political statement about art.” Integrally speaking, that is to say, “to declare that art exists independently of morals is to make a moral judgment.” The more artists consider how qualities such as justice or goodness are essential to their work, the more hope we have for trying to find a way out of the stranglehold that scientific/technological instrumentality has on our common life.
This is not an art blog but rather a spiritual blog, and so I am more in the business of writing about what is good than what is beautiful. But I think this kind of necessary integral thinking is just as important coming from the other direction. Artists ponder the relationship between art and goodness; contemplatives need to be pondering the relationship between mysticism and beauty. Truth is not only good, it is beautiful. A true mysticism will necessarily be a beautiful mysticism. The practice of contemplative prayer is not only a search to dispose ourselves that what is good and what is true, but also — and just as importantly — to what is beautiful. This is not news to the contemplative tradition; indeed, from the Orthodox liturgy to the visions of Hildegarde of Bingen to the lyrical writing of Evelyn Underhill, beauty has long been recognized as central to true and good spirituality. Those of us who seek to foster a deeper contemplative practice would do well to ponder this in our lives today. How do we cultivate greater beauty in our lives? How do we support one another in our quest to embody, and receive, beauty? Not glamor, mind you, but beauty (and there is a difference).
The Lakota have a saying, Mitakuye Oyasin which means “All my relations” or “We are all related.” This is generally understood in a web-of-life sense: I am related to the trees, and the wildlife, and all that can be found in the great circle of my environment. And of course this is true. But I think we also need to be remembering how “all my relations” works on a spiritual or philosophical level as well. My art is related to questions of goodness and truth, of justice and politics. When I sit down to pray, am I resting on the privilege of my race and class, or am I silent in solidarity with those who suffer and those who struggle? And if so, then how is it making a difference in my life? For if there is any truth to Mitakuye Oyasin, then I am related to those who hunger and thirst, who are the victims of oppression (or the perpetrators of injustice). My contemplation, my prayer, my meditation, is only “real” insofar as it emerges out of a conscious recognition of this interrelatedness. For my prayer to be beautiful, my life must be true and my actions must be good. And all my relations will help me to see if these things are so.
To repeat how I began this post: Happy New Year, everyone. May this be a year of good and beautiful dreams come true.