Through culture we express our basic need to represent our experiences and perceptions of life, using any means available. All of the arts, although I am especially interested in the visual and plastic arts, reflect people’s values, edge of growth, collective struggles and vision. Participating in culture with creativity and imagination is our personal and communal contribution to and reflection of our society. A symptom that the art world does not belong to society is when the balance of gender and full spectrum of diversity is not reflected.
The stunning quilts of the Afro-American women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, after generations of working in isolation, were acknowledge as art by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in a show in 2006. Small groups of neighborhood women after the work day ended would sing and sew late into the evening, inviting and encouraging younger members to each find their unique expression in fabric. These large colorful abstract designs told a story of innovation through used clothes. There have been others; graffiti artists, self taught artists and those from various institutions who have been accepted by the art world, stimulating the discussion about the definition of art, which has remained controlled by the curators, collectors and art critics.
There is a critical distinction between the art of the established art world and art of personal and collective involvement with meaning-making, around the activities of generating and participating in art as culture. Those of you who have created from your life experience or appreciate others with creative interaction are aware of the general social attitude, that art is self indulgent unless you are a super star. The same authority which decides quilts can be art, also determines the value in the market place. Children in elementary school experiencing bamboo brush calligraphy query me, “If it is good, does that mean I can sell it ?” We all want to experience more meaningful and creative expression in life, not by getting into the MOMA, but by opening a dialogue about a vision of involvement and relationship to our diverse and shared experience through acts of creativity and imagination.
There has been, however, in post modern art a widening gulf between viewer and viewed which leaves out the person on the street. Although historically art tells cultural stories reflecting our inner and outer worlds, much of the contemporary art in museums and galleries is outside the context of meaning for many people. It is an interesting symptom of our times that modern art has become a form of elite entertainment, owned by an industry that does not attend to the function of culture for the greater populace.
With all this talk about moving into new economical, educational and governing paradigms, what might a shift in of authentic culture look like? It is truly staggering to attempt to perceive a paradigm outside the ones we are emerged in. One needs to experience getting out of the embedded social standard to even entertain the possibility. There are accounts of people in life threatening situations or with severe disabilities that nurture and express a depth of being that is breath taking to the rest of us. There is the heart opening story of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl who found methods for finding meaning, in even the most intolerable forms of existence, in order to find reasons to continue living. These are the people who have given life to possibilities that most of us can not imagine and yet we may find ourselves in untenable situations if we do not create a greater vision of participatory culture.
I sometimes use the metaphor of living on another planet with reference to my life in Japan because it was so completely out of my box. The longer I was there, the more deeply I was emerged in language and therefore relationship, the more foreign I perceived it. It forced me to challenge unconscious values and perspectives. There is a occurrence among foreigners in Japan, where; even though we are speaking in our native language together we find ourselves using Japanese words, because there is no way to articulate the concepts we want to express in our mother tongue.
There are many worlds side by side within complex societies, which is why I could choose to avoid modern Japan. Japanese friends did not want to plant rice by hand and laughingly said I was living in the feudal age. My life style in Zen temples and in the country outside of Kyoto connected me to traditional Japan which people in the industrial cities rejected. But even with the Western influence there was incredible coherence, because of a belief system that holds a vision of a greater whole beyond the seeming contradictions. Suzi Gablik’s comment that our soulfulness is blocked by “modern traditions of mechanism, positivism, empiricism, rationalism, materialism, secularism and scientism---” is not foundational in Japan. There is an undercurrent of knowing in that society that daily life is merely a game played out in a greater field of life; this is a paradigm that can hold, so far, the incredible transformations we have witnessed in that society.
With the medieval paradigm shift from the concept of a flat world at the center of the universe to a spherical world rotating around the sun, a ceiling in cosmological belief was lifted that did not change the average person’s life, at first. With time, however, the underlying fear, literally and metaphorically, of falling off the edge of the earth was released. I project that with our paradigm shift we will lift the fear based paradigm of heaven and hell, symbolic of duality like the above mentioned paradigm shift there is an entire change in language which had to occur. Because our Western languages are rooted in duality reinforcing our ego-centric world view, it is extremely difficult to perceive a cosmological shift from duality to wholeness.
As a painter I use contrast of color, value, shapes, lines and textures to develop the pictorial frame. With my painting circle participants I make the distinction between contrast and polarity in an effort to the hold duality in a context of wholeness. We do not have to choose sides, elements that appear initially to be opposing become complementary or perform a service for greater coherence. The trick is to let go of the qualitative scale, which is easier in painting than in daily life. It is, however, a practice which influences everyday life.
The canvas is an apt metaphor for life when the engagement is in process, not product. We can easily become so identified with the outcome that it defines our self worth. I am reminded of an ex-gang member who loved art class but was thrown out for violence when he reacted to being ‘dissed’ by another classmate. He saw no choice. When we identify with one part to the exclusion of others we go into separation, which threatens the whole. Separation keeps dualism in place. Manifesting struggle and suffering in life is mirrored in creative process. I ask myself and my painters to hold the process in a unity beyond good/bad or liked/not liked. It is not easy; we have to develop the muscles for it, but it is a safe place to practice participating in the vision of a new cultural relationship.