The best art (no matter what form it takes) can shatter outmoded, unconscious, internalized ways of perceiving and believing.
So why is it so many of us would rather listen to celebrity gossip than prophetic voices of art?
I’d like to think it’s because we’re terrified — not of The Other, in whatever form they come — but of who we’d be without our well-polished and purchased identities. (Alternative options: we’re insane or imbecilic.)
A highlight from this past week was seeing a collaborative performance by two extraordinary artists — Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Bill Talen, better known as Reverend Billy, the spiritual leader of the New York-based Church of Life After Shopping and the subject of the perfect-for-this-holiday-season documentary What Would Jesus Buy?
It was a powerfully wacky combination, as you might imagine if you’ve spent a few minutes with the above links, the multiple-tattooed MacArthur Genius wearing a feathered headdress along with a black-motorcycle-leather-silver-studded loincloth and cowboy boots, and the evangelical post-consumerist in his starched and spotless white suit, black shirt and collar, with his trademark platinum rockabilly do.
Watching Guillermo onstage for the first time in about a decade, I saw a whole generation of performance artists — that category for the incategorizable, the border crossers and crashers. In many ways, he embodies the archetypal Artist, using his role as a generator of metaphors, stories, sound and images to create experiential, alternative universes which critique the ones we (think we) live in. What places Guillermo in the league of the wondrous is that his work doesn’t stop at intellectually-thrilling-but-ultimately-vacuous critiquing. His pieces feel closer to shamanistic, illuminating the constructs many of us don’t see, and yet feel imprisoned by. By speaking truthfully, by excavating language, by wearing ridiculous get-ups that exaggerate gender and cultural stereotypes, Guillermo creates public rituals which helps audience members let go of some of their more narrowly defined identities, and perhaps see themselves as creators, if only for an evening.
And being creators instead of just consumers is perhaps the most radical and healing identity we can take on, as I used to say when asked why I helped start the now-defunct Sol & Soul, a nonprofit which nurtured and promoted emerging and seasoned artists of conscience.
Kinda sounds like how Reverend Billy preaches his Gospel.
The closest way we imitate divine intelligence is not Best Buy but creative surprise.
When Guillermo proclaims “my only nation is my imagination,” he’s walking the same path as visionaries such as Albert Einstein who said “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
For us to get to this level of intelligence requires a radical revisioning, as Marcel Proust alluded to when he wrote that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
The creative process has often gifted me with new eyes. Since Rosh Hashana, I’ve been reflecting on how infrequently I seem to muster political discussions, despite the fact that I see myself as an intensely political being. Debating politics was my birth family’s bread and butter. (Literally. Wish you could have been at the dining room table with us during holidays.) And I studied political science, which brought me to live here in the heart of the empire more than 20 years ago. Guillermo’s pledge of allegiance to imagination, for one thing, made me acutely aware of how much I’ve been longing for more whimsical conversations in which activists, academics, and politicians could envision a world beyond the sacred nation state. Endless arguments about one- or two-state solutions? Can’t get that worked up about it.
An aside (or not): when I was in fifth grade, our class read Night, Elie Wiesel’s painfully beautiful memoir. Not sure how appropriate it would be considered for elementary school kids nowadays, but in the orthodox yeshiva I attended, there was two of us in my class alone whose parents survived the camps. Plus, we certainly had already studied harsher examples of human actions in the Torah. (Think of Dinah and the murder of the men of Shechem, for one. That was fourth grade.) Unfortunately, the school used what we learned about man’s capacity for cruelty not to teach us to question oppressive regimes — but to help us support “our” regime versus that of others. “We made the sacrifices we did in the Holocaust so that the state of Israel could exist,” my teacher explained one day. At ten, my Auschwitz-surviving mother in the hospital for months because of yet another nervous breakdown, I didn’t give a shit about the state of Israel. I would have gladly traded it in for a less-battered family with more members whole, or even alive.
And so the deep wisdom of my ten-year old insightful self came back to me — this time on stage, through the bodies of two men who couldn’t be more different than me in many of their apparent identities. But both Guillermo and Billy, Priests of the Holy of Holies which lives inside all of us, reminded me which of my selves I need to be true to.
This sparkly season, practice acting as though you were creative, in your kitchen or on your computer, when you’re walking on the street or debating the party line.
You can do it with me this Friday night at the last yoga and writing workshop of 2010!
But please take a wee bit more time to create, and give the consumption grip a rest. I’d love to hear/see/experience what you come up with!
With holiday cheer, Yael