Art is both agrarian and urban. It is both the farm and the city. Every artist is or should be attempting to integrate earthy, bodily humanity with communal urban constructs: the blending of Nature with City. As I work in my studio in New York City, the agrarian vision for simplicity and the harmonized stewardship of nature are disclosed as I stretch Japanese hand-made paper for the surface of my paintings. The result of more than a millennium of Japanese stewardship is reflected in the layers of fibre of the “Cloud Skin” paper that I use. But at the same time, as I layer gold leaf on the paper, the urban, Mondrian-like grid is created, like windows into the divine soul. The grid is a symbol of The City of God descending into our cities.
In Chelsea, now the Mecca of the contemporary art scene, I just ended a major exhibit called Water Flames at Sara Tecchia Roma Gallery. My art seeks the soul, using medieval Japanese materials while taking inspiration from T. S. Eliot and Dante. And I seek to recover the spiritual, and exhilic language of hope. The collection is a visual depiction of The City of God using the language of abstraction developed by modern masters like Arschile Gorky and Mark Rothko. Both artists integrated, sometimes literally, the sublime, organic shapes of nature with the urban interiors of New York City. Their compelling vision for a dying world of lost souls, via abstraction, grappled honestly with an invisible reality. I consciously link the abstract expressionists and 16th-century Japanese works, such as Tohaku Hasegawa‘s Shorinzu Byobu, a profound painting of pine forests that depicts the “sound of silence.”
In every museum, actually, this city-nature integration is carried out. If you are fortunate enough to go to the Metropolitan Museum this winter where there are currently two “once-in-a-lifetime” exhibits of Fra Angelico and drawings of Vincent van Gogh, you can witness the careful stewardship of their craft. This exhibit traces an extraordinary melding of the birth of urbanity (“the Renaissance”) and the translation of agrarian visual landscape into a complex set of calligraphic swirls and twirls (mostly drawn in the last three years of van Gogh’s life). Fra Angelico looked for the Heavenly City in Florence, a place where medieval trees and plants filled the streets and her inhabitants danced toward Paradise. Van Gogh, exiled from both the church and the cities, tried to invent an echo of that Paradise in agrarian scenes, in cypress trees, in farmers’ sowing seeds, in stars that heralded hope and faith, for a vision of restoration. It’s not just in “the Met” that this vision can be seen. This kind of integration can be discovered in every concert hall, in every dance recital, in the details of architecture, and in every art form.
At the same time, disintegration is also unfolding. In the corrupted, human condition that hijacks the process of creativity, that blindly forges a new world of engrossment, we disrupt the process of integration. The main cause of this corruption, or the pollution in the aesthetic river of culture, is self-aggrandizement, and a type of embezzlement made in the name of advancing the creative arts. As a culture, we do not know how best to address and to speak about this problem. We tend to think that any type of progress is good, just like the Anaconda factory in Hastings-on-Hudson in the fifties, dumping gallons and gallons of chemicals into the beautiful Hudson, calling the blackened river a sign of “progress.” We pollute the cultural landscape with irresponsible expressions in the name of progress, and call them freedom of speech. Thus, our cultural landscape is increasingly uninhabitable. If we cannot dwell inside the imaginative landscape of what is offered, then what is the purpose of creativity?
“The suburb of hell”
One symptom of the cultural disconnection between the art produced in cities and the cultural realities of regional America is evident in the media. Media feed upon the fragmentation and fear between the urban and the agrarian. Journalism, today, seems content to operate only in sensationalism, echoing the same systemic ills of the art world. This disconnect affects us all, contributing to a greater cultural disengagement, and in distrust and cynicism. But the fine arts do serve as “up stream” sources of cultural expression, for good or for ill. Therefore, we need to begin to address the source—if we are to effect positive change.
I think Suzy Gablik was correct when she redefined the art world as “the suburb of hell.” Not the Inferno, itself, but a suburb of it. A suburb erects secure fences around the inhabitants to make sure that comforts and security are not violated. There are clear rules, there. Thus, the white boxes of clean Chelsea galleries shielded in their elitism from the outside world. Underneath the guise of authentic expression and the wild expressions of art, there are layers of implicit rules, and a twisted accord—or at least a détente—with her systemic ills. Artists end up competing against each other like contestants in a Survivor scene. The result is that the artist’s desire to fight and to expose the greed and darkness in large canvases ends up subdivided into manageable, but explosive bits: “small shocks” bought and sold like any other cheap trinket on Canal Street. Their idealistic ambitions to voice anti-authority and anti-corporate visions often become mired in their own greed and corruption. They crave authenticity, but end up stealing ideas from the vulnerable and the innocent, even to the detriment of friends and peers. And we can do all of this to justify such action in the name of freedom of expression. Artists hope to escape accountability, be their own Masters, but end up being enslaved by expensive addictions. Artists want the world to change, but end up in a narcissistic shell of their own creation. Those who play the game skilfully will end up with millions of dollars that is spent on creating expression for “shock,” that will be a background for the rich and the powerful who love to own their personal “biting the hands that feeds you” kind of imagery.
But on 9/11 we woke up to a nightmare in that “suburbia.” What artists considered shocking in the 1990s (remember the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum?) was mere child’s play within white-washed walls of pretence. The real hell that opened itself up was only a mile away, and was all too real. Like some grotesque gaping mouth of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, this Ground Zero swallowed up the superficialities of her surroundings. The real fire was full of fury, impossible to tame or contain.
So, today, we are re-examining the art of our times. What will the future tell people about our time? Would the most sensationalistic art of the late 20th century, such as Jeff Koons‘s and Matthew Barney‘s, seem merely facile in a world of international terrorism and Columbine mass murder? Would Fra Angelico’s and van Gogh’s works speak more boldly into the 21st century than the 20th century? The Shock of the New that Robert Hughes wrote about in the 1980s about 20th-century art seems trivial in a world too shocking by half even without shock art. And why is it that we seem determined to persist in the wanton debasement of ourselves, creating imaginative hells in our post-human times? Are there any signs of hope? Of recovery?
Carrying the dust of Eden
Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy recounts his experience as an art school student in a recent remarkable documentary, Rivers and Tides. In it he describes how he discovered that for him the “studio” was the beach on the way to the school, the ocean, and, consequently, to the world. By moving out of the confines of a typical classroom studio, he found that the world became the greater “studio,” where his environmental and documentary works thrive. Goldsworthy’s works symbolize how the fine arts can have a direct impact as an agent transforming the world.
Goldsworthy’s journey from his studio outward is a parable of the contemporary call to recover the arts’ role in mediating between nature and the city. City artists must re-connect with farmers—with their home regions and their agrarian vision. Like Goldsworthy, we must recover the language of nature, of the ephemeral, of the rhythm of shepherds and the cotton fields, of the river rock and boulders of tidal rivers teeming with salmon. But I also contend that this careful negotiation requires a more direct look at the cities of ashes, the void that exists in the Ground Zeroes of the world, because the hells of the artistic imagination, one might argue, is the only real point of departure today.
Theologically speaking, we are all living in the ashes of Ground Zero, in our Wasteland. But we carry the dust of Eden in our DNA. Now as we face a world of Katrinas and earthquakes, of atomic devastation and bullet holes in public schools, we need to understand that our imaginative capacities do carry a responsibility to heal, every bit as much as they do to depict angst. Instead of exerting the artistic imagination to destructive, exploitive ends, we need, as in van Gogh’s drawings, to sow the seeds of renewal and hope. This is the exhilic land of Babylon, where Jeremiah exhorted the people of God to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7, NIV). Cities are where, often, “craftsmen and the artisans” are taken into captivity (see Jeremiah 29:2). If we are to see art as an integrative force, then we must recover the language of hope in exile. Then art can lead in the reconciliation between the city and nature. This view borrows heavily from the vision of a New Jerusalem. The true City of God is a city full of shalom trees, through which runs a shining river of Life, the true fulfillment of our creative ambitions.
Recently, at a National Council on the Arts (U.S.) meeting, former Council member and philanthropist Philip Hanes exhorted us to be diligent in our work since, as he insisted, “The information age, for us, is over. China and India are well ahead of us already; we have entered the creative age.” If Hanes and Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat) are correct, and the only thing that cannot be outsourced is creativity, then isn’t this good news for artists?
A vision for dignity
The Creative Age will require, though, integration or the reconciliation of the heart of the city with the (rural) country’s open air and spaces. That means children living in the dilapidated ghettos of cities—the majority being immigrant children—need the strategy of engagement with the New World. Rafe Esquith, a teacher, demonstrated, with his Shakespeare program for children who do not yet speak English, at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, that it is possible to give prominence to the voices of civilization via voices of immigrant children. U.S. mayors (and, now, state governors) can look to Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston as an inspiration for helping to start the Mayors’ Institute on City Design with the National Endowment for the Arts. Mayor Riley stated, humbly, in a recent National Council for the Arts meeting, “We mayors exhaust ourselves with lots of decisions—political, personnel, and budget. But 100 years from now, there will be no real evidence of how we made those decisions. In contrast, a decision about the physical design of a city will influence the city and its people for generations.” Now we are able to rely on a twenty-year knowledge base to assist in the wake of Katrina. Council members just approved a grant to go toward a collaborative venture with Habitat for Humanity and the Mayors’ Institute, not only to rebuild houses, but also to rebuild beautiful, well-designed homes. We need to provide, in such restoration, not just temporary shelters, but a vision for dignity via the beauty of the buildings and cities we build.
The new Governors’ Institute on Community Design, which takes this significant design dialogue to the state level, is co-sponsored by the U.S. Government’s National Endowment for the Arts and its Environmental Protection Agency. Strange bedfellows? No, it’s smart to connect the two—again, it’s an issue of stewardship. The best design is most efficient and friendly to the environment. The best design considers what the community needs first, and the needs of even her voiceless inhabitants. The best design brings beauty into our lives. If only I could see the same design dialogue around the rebuilding of the Freedom Tower which will be built two blocks from my home. I am disappointed that the transcendental, original design of Libeskind has now been turned, via the dysfunctional meddling of many, into a Fortress Tower.
Agrarians see the city as the epitome of dysfunction: a dystopic vision of ideals gone awry. But when in their path of individualized self-reliance writers and artists write in opposition to the city, they are also contributing to this unnecessary divide as well. Do they not also, along with city artists, need the infrastructure of the city publishing worlds to communicate to a larger audience? The agrarian roots of Millet and van Gogh, and the expansive vision of the Hudson School Painters flow right through the heart of a city. Perhaps it is the recovery of these roots that will feed back into the renewal of culture.
As I jog the promenade of Hudson River Park, I am reminded of these things. I see the empty Ground Zero, now beckoning our imaginative engagement and healing. I see the Hudson, now closer to the beauty it once was thanks to a few courageous fishermen and a custodian at Anaconda factory named Fred Danback (see Bill Moyer’s PBS special on the Hudson), who fought the company in the 1960s with a ground-breaking suit, and won—thereby ushering in decades of environmental recovery. Now, with so many families’ inhabiting lower Manhattan, largely because of a cleaner New York City, I can see the promise of the New World with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, still being fulfilled here. And as I pass the Jewish Heritage (Holocaust) Museum, where I can see Andy Goldsworthy’s installation of oak trees planted in crevices of rocks, I pray. We need the creative, the faithful, who would together incarnate their creative gifts in the hearts of urban reality, of today’s Ground Zeros. We need those centred souls to find their identities in collaboration. We need, in short, a movement: not a movement of multiphrenic activities, but a movement of stillness. New York City needs to become a “still point of the turning world.” We need more creative visionaries who would dare even to plant seedlings in stone that will mature into trees whose roots will crack open the rock as if it were a mere egg, spilling its shalom dirt into the heart of a city.