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.

Riza Cages

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Alfonse Borysewicz, ‘Full of Grace’ (2017–18), 84 x 34″. Oil & Wax on Linen with Riza Cage.

Two years ago, a friend asked me to make a sculptural piece for her dance company. All of us involved in New York City had limited means and space, as artists are pushed out of this-once art capital. As such, I began to create these shapes out of chicken wire mesh with tomato wire stakes as its armature (the garden), wrapped with electrical/lamp/cable wire (offering a gold leaf like light and hue). Eventually, I filled these voids with paintings of mine and/or crumbled up pages from discarded icon books, thinking of the “throw away culture” so poignantly revealed in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si and of my own attempts to rescue and to recycle these images.

Icons have traditionally employed metal coverings with stones and emeralds, Rizas, to protect the sacred image. Same here. Recently, I met a Ukrainian woman at my art opening who didn’t appreciate what I was doing with her tradition of sacred icons. Slowly, I walked her through my creative process and offered her the possibility that I was not only rescuing these images but liberating them from discarded books, bringing them out into the open. She nodded and had a change of view. As evidenced in Star, a light for us to follow in this Advent season.

Also brought to my attention by various strangers (this is why the viewer is so important in the visual arts) was the realization that these Riza sculptures which to me reveal the sacred icon image outside of book form, as well as my own renderings, were in the shadows – literally, cages – that echo the tragedy unfolding in my own USA, the dystopia of incarcerating immigrant adults, families and children.

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Alfonse Borysewicz, ‘Star’ (2018), 30 x 12″. Collage with Riza Cage.

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Alfonse Borysewicz is a Brooklyn-based painter.

Jesus Dreaming: A Theological Reaction to Michael Galovic’s Creation of Lights in the Heavens

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Michael Galovic, ‘Creation of Lights in the Heavens’ (nd)

The religious historian Mircea Eliade wrote of the ‘eternal return’; the religious belief that liturgy and prayer can put the believer in touch with the ‘mythical age’, the time when the foundational events of their faith occurred. In the words of institution in the eucharist, we do not merely remember what Jesus said and did, we make his saving death and resurrection present to us now. We live in the mundane world where ordinary time passes, but there is another time – the ‘Great Time’ or Eternity that existed before the world began, that will exist after it ends and, moreover, that surrounds us now.

For Christians, our access to eternity is the person of Jesus Christ. He is our connection with God the Father. It is through Jesus that the Holy Spirit is sent to us. Our recurring prayer is ‘the Lord be with you’. Moreover, through Jesus we access all of Salvation History. Since he is the second person of the Trinity, he is present wherever the Holy Trinity is acting.

The first theologian to write of this was the Apologist, Justin Martyr, who died in 165CE. St Justin wrote in his Dialogue with Trypho of what we now call ‘Christophanies’ – manifestations of Christ in the Old Testament. He wrote:

Permit me, further, to show you from the book [sic] of Exodus how this same One, who is both Angel, and God, and Lord, and man, and who appeared in human form to Abraham and Isaac, appeared in a flame of fire from the bush, and conversed with Moses.

‘Angel’, which means ‘messenger’, is no longer a term we use with reference to the Lord Jesus, but Justin, with his understanding of Jesus as the visible manifestation of the godhead and the Word of the Father, reads the Exodus stories of messengers and voices as referring to Jesus.

Hence, when the Hebrew Scriptures refer to God creating through his word – ‘He spoke and they were made’ (Ps 33:9) – Christian commentators on the scriptures saw this as the Logos-Christos, the second person of the Trinity, in action. For the fourth day of creation, the Genesis text reads:

Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth’; and it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth. (Gen 1:14–17)

For the strictly monotheistic Hebrews, it is the one God who set the lights of heaven. But the Church Fathers, reading the sacred text through the lenses of their Trinitarian faith, see the Word of God at work.

Christian artists charged with depicting eternity, creation, and heavenly things wanted to make it abundantly clear that their subject matter was in no way mundane, or earthly. The artistic convention that the icon tradition developed was to set their figures against a golden background. Unlike the earthly realm, the holy figures appeared amidst an even gleaming light.

Mosaicists achieved the effect by making glass tesserae with gold foil on one side. It was an expensive and complicated process, and it is amazing to see the huge extent to which it was employed in some of the great cathedrals of the world.

One such cathedral is that at Monreale, Cefalù, Sicily, Italy. It is one of the great masterpieces of the twelfth century. The ceiling, walls, and apse are ablaze with Byzantine icon-style images set in a field of gold. Still photographs do not do justice to the way the background changes as you move and as the light source alters.

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Monreale Cathedral, ‘Creation of Moon, Sun, etc.’. (12th Century) Source: Wikipedia Commons

Monreale is the obvious influence on Michael Galovic. Icons influenced the mosaic of creation in the Cathedral, and now Galovic’s icon is a homage to that masterpiece. Given that he is working in a different medium, Galovic is remarkably faithful to his model. The circle of the heavens, the concentric shades of blue, even the placement of the stars is exact; though note that Galovic has omitted one particular star above the arm of the Christ. This could be a gesture of humility on the part of the artist – the disciple is less than the master – as well as an aesthetic choice to focus the interaction between the face of Christ and the light of the Sun.

The precision of the imitation adds impact to Galovic’s innovation. He, an expert at icon gilding, has taken away the gold of eternity and replaced it with something thoroughly Australian.

A common subject in Australian Aboriginal art is the Dreamtime, the time [sic] of the origins. A lizard may be depicted as the totemic ancestor figure who shaped the landscape. Dots, curves, and circles represent the Dreamtime before [sic] the mundane world came to be.

In Galovic’s icon, it is as if the Australian Dreamtime has replaced the Byzantine gold of eternity. His backdrop is more confused and chaotic than the gleaming tesserae of Monreale. There are dots, curves, the beginning of patterns, jumbled in an inchoate mass.

Galovic has not merely juxtaposed two artistic conventions, he has chosen a subject familiar to them both and he gives an authentically-Australian reading and re-writing of the Monreale mosaic. The ellipse that represents the moon in the mosaic is subtly dotted, alerting the viewer to how much this shape belongs to the ancient Australian artistic tradition as much as it does to the Byzantine culture.

Literally standing out from the background and distinct from creation is the figure of the Logos-Christos, seated on the cosmos (again outlined in subtle dots). Galovic has carved this figure in light relief from the same piece of wood which is the base of this icon. The halo is the only remaining gold and it is as if the newly-created sun is shining on the folds of the fabric of the over-garment. It is Jesus at work in creation, placing the sun in the circle of the heavens, and drawing us into the ‘eternal return’.

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Merv Duffy is Acting Principal at Good Shepherd College in Auckland.