Is now the time to make art?

What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?

Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?

Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.

In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.

Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.

In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:

Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,

My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.

That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

Love, Nick x

Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.

But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.

That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.

Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Circle Drawing

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The last time I drew circle drawings in this way I was in the midst of the worst period of my life; the separation and eventual divorce from my now ex-husband. That the divorce happened was a huge surprise, and then very quickly, quite inevitably, I became quite unwell for some time. The stress of this period exasperated my already-significant fibromyalgia. Circle drawing is something I had done a bit of before and developed into one of the very few things I could do for a while outside of simply survive. Eventually, circle drawing led to other drawings and creative engagement and the divorce had to become something that I became used to. But for a long while, the focus and intensity of the small circles was one of the very few things that allowed my brain to rest within this terribly encompassing experience from which I could not escape or change no matter what I did.

Recently, I have begun circle drawing again. In fact, I have somewhat ambitiously begun the largest one I’ve ever attempted. Never fear though; I am, kind of surprisingly, doing very well and not at all in the depths of despair. Nothing terrible is happening in my life but I have come to recognize that the pull back to the practice of circles this time is a practice in reassurance.

Although I’m not experiencing any great turmoil, there are a number of things in my life that do require great deliberation and that I feel I must get ‘just right’. The most significant of these being that I have a short while left in which to develop and define the PhD question which I will be researching for the next three years.

And I think this is why I decided to resume circle drawing. Circle drawing provides a creative practice that is restful and that is unrushed. Lots of creativity is about constant decision-making – something I do often find enjoyable and enlivening. But at the moment, this large decision is constantly, and at times subconsciously, being wrestled with and circle drawing provides containment. It confines the creative decisions through paper size, type of pen, even the choice of pattern. It also provides a, perhaps lengthy but foreseeable, conclusion. It is finished when the paper is full.

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The process is also one that insists on me being present and moving slowly. I sometimes draw while listening to the TV or a podcast, but never something that I need to pay attention to – something that washes over me. Circle drawing requires I move slowly and peacefully in order to create neat circles. Even though I’ve been very conscious of this, I still often end up rushing and some of the circles aren’t quite what I would prefer. But they are also part of the larger whole and so I’ve accepted it and so I either stop and come back when I am able to settle myself, or I take the time to settle myself, reminding myself not to rush and to lean into the practice of taking it slowly.

I must also hold the pen very loosely, not grip it tightly, or my hand quickly becomes very sore, something I must pay attention to given the amount of typing and computer work I also do – repetitive work requires healthy practices. So I sit and deliberately release the tension in my hand.

Circle drawing has provided an ongoing creative project that seems to compliment the deep thinking I do during the day. At the same time, it provides an ongoing creative project. And I am conscious that this time around, this is a ‘large’ project. The paper chosen this time doesn’t allow for this piece to be done on my knees sitting on the couch or bed the way the previous ones were. For a long time, I only did anything I could do in bed or on the couch. But this is different, it requires being seated at the table. This tells me that this round of circle drawing is actually quite different to the last – it is more ambitious, more considered, and will take longer – both in the amount of time but also in proportionally, I am simply not spending as much of my day on it. But there are also great similarities in what the practice of creativity offers: the opportunity for focus and flow, for moments of rest, and a space to consider what is happening in work, study, and life, as well as being a creative outlet. At various times it allows me to focus and at other times to allow my mind to wander and sometimes even pray and maybe, just maybe, to help me create a lifestyle in which I can do what needs to be done and make some decisions.

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Karly Michelle is a mixed media artist currently doing a PhD researching biography in palliative care. She is interested in stories of life and faith and her creative work often focuses on rest and repetition. Her current ‘One A Week Psalm Project’ explores creativity as spiritual practice. Karly lives with fibromyalgia, which affects life in varying degrees at different times. Karly lives on Wurundjeri land. Find more about her arts practice at http://www.karlymichelle.com.

Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus

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Queenie McKenzie, People talking to Jesus in the Bough Shed, 1995. Christof Collection of the Diocese of Broome. This painting was the theme image for Catholic celebrations of NAIDOC Week 2019.

HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, a South African-based open-access journal, has just published a little piece that I wrote:

‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 75, no. 4 (2019), e1–e10. (HTMLEPUBPDF)

Abstract

From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.

The article can be accessed here.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND folk festival tragic WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

 

One a Week Psalms Project

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I have an odd relationship with my body. It doesn’t have the stamina I would like and I feel like it lies to me quite regularly. But it doesn’t lie. Rather, it whispers in a way that requires an intense listening. Slowly I feel that I might be learning the full-bodied type of listening required that creativity has been helping me learn and that I have been trying to be intentional about this year. It has come as the result of a reluctant road I’ve followed due to ill health. Late in 2005, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by unexplained pain, insomnia, and what is commonly referred to as fibro fog – a deep, grey and constant unclearness, or fogginess, of mind. It has become an underlying pillar of my life, providing an unsteady platform on which to construct my thoughts about life and faith.

While my health is somewhat improved presently is still requires management. This life has thrust to the forefront the importance and necessity of a slower paced approach, steering me in the direction of contemplative spirituality and a deep appreciation of ritual. I have a deepening and growing appreciation for the sacramentality of creativity, as in the past few years just about any moments of grace have been felt through some creative engagement.

I feel like I have to constantly fight against my body to not feel uncomfortable. And by fight I mean carefully and deliberately care for it in a way that I was not taught would be necessary. I must consciously and deliberately spend time at the end of the day encouraging my body to let go. An evening is sometimes the very least amount of time it takes for me to ‘come down’ from the day. Many days I can physically feel and hear the ‘buzzing’ of my blood as it races around my body and into my brain as though hyped up on a constant new influx of fizzy drink by direct injection.

Ritual has become a path to follow and a direction to face myself towards. One of the most recent for me is ‘The One A Week Psalms Project’. The premise is to reflect on one Psalm a week and engage creatively as a spiritual discipline. At the moment I have an A4 journal that serves as the basis of the creative practice along with a writing journal and I do any combination of read, pray, write, sit, become distracted, draw, scribble, make, glue, and stare at the page.

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At the moment, only just six months in, I think I am learning to practice a type of listening I now realize I tentatively began a few years ago. I spend a lot of the Psalm Project time listening to, and with, my body. And in this process I have discovered some of those grace-filled, sacramental moments. I sit and read, and think, and feel, and then decide with my whole body what I might like to try ‘doing’. The gestures that feel drawn from me, or to me. What marks do I want to make and what process do I want to engage with: Precise circle drawings? Free repetitive lines? Random scribbles? Colour? Black ink? Cursive letter drawing?

It can be difficult for me to realize how it is that I actually feel underneath my fizzy blood and what I am thinking in my buzzed up brain. This process encourages me to wait, with a small blank page, and small expectations. It is becoming a spiritual discipline that is surprising built around a growing awareness of my longings – not frivolous wants or desires – but deep physical and feeling longings to sit in the quiet and desire to learn to listen to God’s words through, around, above, beneath, and within me. It is teaching me to be integrative, incarnational, to not divorce aspects within myself, and instead to try and be as honest as I can.

It is in these moments that I am learning to wait. Waiting is difficult; I have plans and ideas and things to do. But that is not how my life can be lived. It is not wrong, rather it is different to my expectation of how I would live my life. It is also not a waiting for everything to just fall into my lap without participation. It is an active waiting; a waiting until waiting can be done no longer. This creative and spiritual practice bleeds into the rest of my life and I find that I am slowly, and with many failures, learning to be active and still with an ear more tuned towards God. I am learning also that God is there in the waiting, life is not passing me by in the waiting but is the actual life. We live and do and be and all while we wait upon God.

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In this space of engagement with the Psalms I am continually invited to reflect on who I am, and who God is. I’m not any more certain of anything, but I think I am learning to sit within the uncertainty. All I can do is hope that I am able to continue the practicing. We both practice and live life simultaneously in this weird, public, performance art rehearsal space.

The Psalm Project is not meant to be the entirety of either my art or spiritual practice. It is simply a way of practicing. It is a place to begin that builds on what has come before. It allows me to sit within the pains, the busy mind, the uncertain thoughts, and sometimes to simply stare at the page and the psalm and wonder yet again, why these psalms are so upbeat and joyful, why they are so violent and bloodthirsty, why they are so depressing and lamenting? How do they depict what I am feeing, and also what I am not? Whatever life is at the moment, it is something I am learning will be enough so long as I am facing towards God, often with a pen, or pencil or pastel in my hand but always trying for some stillness.

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Karly Michelle Edgar is a mixed media artist, trained in theatre, with an MA in Church Practice. She was formally the Lecturer in Art at Tabor (Vic) and is currently working as a lifestyle assistant in an aged care facility. She also lives with fibromyalgia, which effects life in varying degrees at different times. Karly’s creative work focuses on the need for rest, repetition, the search for beauty, and creativity as spiritual practice. This is a version of a paper originally presented at Vessels: Art & Theology Symposium, Woy Woy, 2019, titled ‘The Space Between Breathing: One a Week Psalms Project’. Karly LIVES ON WURUNDJERI LAND.