Friday, September 30, 2011

I'll use Rocks

The other day a friend told me that the governor of Kansas was shutting down all arts programing for the entire state. You would have thought – from the tone of the statement – that the arts were dying or dead in the Jayhawk state. This kind of thing is not the only time I’ve heard of this happening – for the last four years since our “Great Recession” started in 2007 arts funding seems to have been a victim of scarce finances. I remember having discussions with some of my art friends at the start of the recession lamenting the fact that art programs would be the first to go. It appears we were right.

In 2005 I accompanied my friend, painter Makoto Fujimura to Washington DC to an event specifically designed to connect high income business people with artists in order to stimulate a culture of patronage. Simply put we were inviting the money holders to invest in beauty by supporting artists. During the day-long event, Mako was part of a panel discussion. At one point, a question was posed, “What would an artist do with $10,000 and what would they do with $1,000,000?” I will never forget his answer – to this day it still haunts me and I quote it often where appropriate. After a nervous laugh he said, “In many ways, for an artist $10,000 is too much, and $1,000,000 is not enough.” Frankly, I don’t remember anything else he said at the point and I certainly couldn’t come close to recalling what the other panel participants stated – nothing else needed to be said.

We have to remember at times that there is a difference between art and beauty, between the created thing and creativity itself. These pairs are tied very closely together, but they are not identical. We must remember that art and the created thing are not as important as beauty and creativity.

Our current economic climate is a case in point. All the governments of the world, every corporation and school district could decide tomorrow to defund their arts programs; every penny could be removed from artistic programs everywhere but beauty would not be touched – creativity would remain unmoved.


Beauty and creativity transcend the paltry functions of cultural structures. They are not dependent on the temporal or the fleeting. If they were, then all of us who are artists or involved in the arts ought to find a favorite seat in our nearest pubs and pickle our livers until we die.

Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica wrote that beauty must include three qualities: “…integrity or completeness – since things that lack something are thereby ugly; right proportion or harmony; and brightness – we call things bright in colour beautiful.[1] Many have used Thomas’ three characteristics not only as a way to think about beauty but also as a defense of the importance of beauty for a human being and society in general. Afterall, one doesn’t want to be an incomplete human being. A person wouldn’t want to be out of proportion in their personal life and in the warp and woof of existing cultural institutions. As for brightness – Robert Barron – in his book The Strangest Way – writes of how we need to escape our “taupe existence” – human beings need to avoid a dull life. But some have forgotten the context of Thomas’ characteristics of beauty.

Comeliness or beauty bears a resemblance to the properties of the Son. Beauty must include three qualities; integrity or completeness – since things that lack something are thereby ugly; right proportion or harmony; and brightness – we call things bright in colour beautiful. Integrity is like the Son’s property, because he is a Son who in himself has the Father’s nature truly and fully…Right proportion is consonant with what is proper to the Son inasmuch as he is the express Image of the Father; thus we notice that any image is called beautiful if it represents a thing, even an ugly thing, faithfully…Brightness coincides with what is proper to the Son as he is the Word, the light and splendour of the mind (my emphasis).[2]

Is it surprising that Thomas’ context was the carpenter from Nazareth, the Son of God, Jesus?

This analysis of beauty is why Mako can answer the money question the way he did. Monetary amounts matter little when beauty and creativity endure transcendently – and for him they are embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Elaine Scarry once wrote, “What is beautiful is in league with what is true because truth abides in the immortal sphere.”[3] Therefore, according to Scarry’s logic, beauty is also immortal – it will last forever. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is now immortal after his resurrection from the dead – that is both true and beautiful.

You may not agree with me – that beauty and creativity are embodied and sourced in Jesus of Nazareth – you would not be alone in that belief, and I respect that. However, the issue still remains for you regarding the transcendence of beauty and creativity. Where does it reside for you? How you answer will affect how you respond to the increase or decrease of monetary resources in arts programs in national and local levels. If beauty and creativity are not transcendent, then the money would be the only thing that matters and losing $10,000 would be just as unsettling as gaining $1,000,000.

CS Lewis addressed a similar issue in his sermon on “Learning in Wartime”. At the time the issue was martial, not monetary. Should one even bother with learning and education when a war rages and people are dying? The defunding of arts programs falls far short of the death of a human being but the tension is the same. What is the point of pursuing beauty when no one seems to care – and their lack of regard is exhibited by the removal of money? Lewis opened his talk and summarized brilliantly:

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, in to what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we -- indeed how can we -- continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?[4]

We are in a similar situation, and we should learn from Lewis’ reasoning. Why should we still pursue good and beautiful things in times of difficulty? Lewis answers:

If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing…if you don't read good books you will read bad ones. If you don't go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

Difficulty does not give society permission to pursue bad art or no art at all; in fact hard times demand more beauty – whether in life or art.

With the loss of financial support from public institutions we ought to approach these times as an opportunity to strive for beauty and it’s objects – poems, screenplays, sculptures, paintings, etc – to thrive in the hands of both gifted and (as most of us are) common creators. Whether we participate in this or not makes no difference. If we ceased creating due to hopelessness it would matter little. In this visible world our lives would diminish in beauty a bit but the unalterable transcendence of Beauty would remain and eventually rear its head like a phoenix from the ashes.

Von Balthasar described Beauty as being closely united to her two sisters Truth and Goodness. He warned that Beauty would not be long separated from her siblings. In fact, she in her exile would take both Truth and Goodness with her in an act of what he called “mysterious vengeance”. A world that scorns Beauty eventually does the same to the True and the Good. Von Balthasar later states that those who lose Beauty are not only unable to pray, but also unable to love.

If Beauty is dependent on an institution’s resources then it is easily lost. But if it is dependent on some transcendent principle, or as I argue here – God, then no amount of an institutions resources matter. They certainly can help – as we have seen over the last several decades – but they ultimately aren’t needed by an eternal Beauty because by definition an eternal Beauty is infinitely resourced.

So I say to you artists, and supporters of the arts to pursue Beauty. When they take away your money – paint! When they tell you it’s useless – sculpt! Use whatever is at hand to create beauty because it IS worth the effort.

As I wrote this essay I am reminded of that passage in the Christian Bible where Jesus in his last days was entering Jerusalem and greeted by throngs of admirers chanting his name and yelling “Glory to God in the Highest!!!” – everyone seemed to favor him. Yet there was a group of leaders there who reprimanded him for the ostentatious display of praise directed at him. It was too much, they said. They wanted the admiration taken away and they told him so.

His reply? “I’ll use rocks.”

Kirk & Sarah

[1] Aquinas, Thomas. transl, O’Brien, T.C, Summa Theologiae, New York, NY, 1976, p133

[2] Aquinas, Thomas. transl, O’Brien, T.C, Summa Theologiae, New York, NY, 1976, p133

[3] In her book On Beauty and Being Just

[4] CS Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime” can be found in any copy The Weight of Glory.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 years ago...

I had always thought I’d get to the top of them…but it could wait, after all they would always be there.

The morning started like I it normally did for me – reluctant to leave sleep but looking forward to seeing the students. Knowing that I was meeting Paul to collect materials to hand out at Pace University resonated in my mind as I slipped on my shoes and made my way to the subway.

The books, music CDs, info postcards, and special toys were all safely deposited in a self-storage building west of Times Square. Our plan was to meet at the storage, load everything we needed in a taxi and take it down to Pace located three blocks from the World Trade Center. We would hand these materials out to incoming and returning students as we did every year before looking for ways to help students during their years in college…and to remind them also that there is a Jewish carpenter who loved them. So Paul and I met at 9AM.

The first sign for me of anything unusual that morning was the sound of emergency vehicles echoing off the buildings. Normally there isn’t anything strange about this sound in Manhattan, after all there are a lot of people with needs in the City. But what was strange was seeing eleven vehicles pass hurriedly down 11th Ave, a brief red blur. I remember making a remark like, “Must be something big” or “You don’t see that everyday” to a fellow pedestrian as we both paused to watch the passing vehicles taking the firemen downtown…some for the final time.

“A plane flew into one of the Trade Center towers,” was the reply I got from my brief friend. My initial thought was “Seems like a lot of fire trucks for a small plane” and I walked into the storage center – seems like such a ridiculous thought now, but not at that moment.

Images of old footage of the aftermath of the B-25 bomber that flew into the Empire State Building at the end of World War II entered my mind as Paul and I grabbed a cart and took the elevator to the 4th floor. Fog was blamed for that accident in 1945 but this September day, as all remember, was crisp and clear.

When Paul and I arrived at our small storage space we began the process of sorting the materials and stacking the desired items onto our cart. I remember being frustrated with the time it was taking to collect a small amount of materials – I think we ended up loading and unloading that cart a half dozen times. When we finally finished we took the cart down the elevator and I waited on the loading platform while Paul went to hail a cab – there was little thought in my mind of that “small” plane that went into one of the Trade Center towers.

That changed when Paul came back 45 minutes later, cabless – that’s too long to not hail a cab on a beautiful, clear Fall day in Manhattan. He said that the authorities weren’t letting any cabs below 14th Street. That small plane I had in mind? It got much bigger.

We decided we’d head back to our offices in the basement of the Empire State Building and determine from there what to do. So after heading back upstairs and “RE-storing” what we had not taken, we grabbed a crosstown bus on 42nd Street to take a subway from Times Square. As we approached the Square the “small plane” that became a “much larger plane” exploded into a serious international incident when I read this line march across the Times Square ticker:

“President Bush says plane crashes are terrorist attacks!”

When we exited the bus and went down the stairs to the subway we walked up to the subway booth attendant who said in exasperation, “I have no idea WHAT is running and what ISN’T running, but if I were you I would not go in there.” I was on foot most of the rest of the day. From that point on the whole day took on an “apocalyptic movie” tone.

Paul and I decided to walk to the Empire State Building to see if our friends and teammates were still there or had at least evacuated. Walking down Broadway I wondered if all the activity around me was some sort of movie shoot. There were people gathered around cars, doors open, with radios blaring the local news channel. People gathered in front of “Mom and Pop” electronics stores watching the TVs as they broadcast the immediate scene happening downtown. People were on cell phones yelling to be heard over the antagonized buzz of the moment. People lined up at pay phones waiting their turn to call friends or loved ones because cell phone availability was sporadic. It was surreal, it was unusual – sadly historic.

As we passed one of the cars emanating the blaring news – I think it was a cab – I overheard the words “the tower had collapsed” over the din of noise. The severity of the moment punched my heart and I turned to Paul and said, “We need to pray.” So there we were two friends in Manhattan with little knowledge of what had just occurred a mere three miles away praying out loud for the people at the Trade Center, the City, and the Nation as we made our way down the crowded sidewalks of Broadway.

At the Empire State Building we were relieved to hear that everyone had been evacuated. But lacking information we decided to head to Paul’s place on 13th Street because my place, even though closer lacked a TV. Our prayers for the City and Country continued as we walked to 13th Street still wondering yet dreading the true depth and breadth of what had just occurred. We rushed to the roof of Paul’s building to look down 6th Avenue to see what was there.

It was an astonishing thing expecting the two monolithic buildings to be there, but instead to see merely smoke and ash left me speechless. I still wondered when the movie was going to be over. We returned to the roof several more times that day with still the same sense of disbelief – was this just a nightmare?

The other thing that hit us was the stench. It’s hard to describe, not the natural smells of wood burning but an almost burnt manufactured smell. It lingered for weeks afterwards especially when the wind shifted from north to south – something I won’t forget.

From our vantage point most pedestrians were walking north, it seemed only emergency vehicles were on the roads moving both up and down town, sirens blaring.

We watched on the TV what all Americans pretty much saw, and we are different for it. I attempted to make calls to my parents and friends throughout that day with no success. I wouldn’t be able to reach anyone until later that night.

Two other things strike me about that day, one was around lunch time. Paul and I ventured out to see if we could find food. When we exited his building there was a line of people across the street that extended around the corner and down the block. At first I was a cynical New Yorker and thought people were in line to get food from the supermarket around the corner but when we walked by that corner I noticed that the line went past the supermarket and around the next corner. Apparently, it was a line of people who wanted to give blood at the local hospital, St Vincent’s, for any victims in need. I knew in my heart we were going to be alright from that moment, to see that line and New Yorkers wanting to pitch in and help reminded me that even in the midst of something so dark God’s generous spirit can move anyone.

The other moment I remember that was so poignant was later that afternoon. I didn’t even make an attempt to take the subway knowing they might not be running so I walked. It was about 5 o’clock, the time that is supposed to be the height of rush hour the streets full of life – and there was no one. Just another strange moment in a surreal day.

My day ended when a friend of mine asked me if I would come up and sleep on her couch because she didn’t want to be alone in her apartment that night. In the days after September 11th all New Yorkers felt closer – or at least the desire to be closer.

In the ten years that have passed since that day I can honestly say I have become more emotional about the tragedy. I think the “surrealness” of it all created a sense of detachment on the 11th. Since that day we have had time to hear and reflect on all the stories, both tragic and heroic, and allow them to touch the part of our humanity that Lincoln called the “better angels” of ourselves.

The things that I continue to reflect to this day are:

· The moment I saw the emergency vehicles pass – how many of those firefighters lost their lives?

· How Paul and I took so long to get our materials almost as if we were being delayed – a similar story heard from others in the days, weeks and even now years later.

· Walking down the busiest street in Manhattan, Broadway, the noise and mayhem surrounding us praying out loud to God for mercy and strength for the city and the nation.

· The line to give blood.

· The smell when the wind shifted.

· The desire for community in the days after.

· The regret I will always feel for never having been to the top of the towers because I thought they would always be there

May God Bless America,
Kirk and Sarah

(below are two pictures, one of Freedom Tower at Ground Zero being built, and the second a pic of us in front of Freedom Tower)