Dear Refraction readers:
During time spent with my family over Thanksgiving, I had an engaged conversation with my second son C.J. about the current Occupy Wall Street movement. As I’ve been writing a “Letter to” series on my website, I decided to add this letter to the collection.
A Letter to the Occupy Wall Street Movement
As an artist, I have a love/hate relationship with movements. No artist desires to get lost in a movement, but all artists know they need to be a part of one. Although I founded International Arts Movement over 20 years ago, to help people create in love and fight against the broken art system (and their “movements” of greed), I always felt that I did not bring it into being, but instead that a greater Movement (one that existed from the beginning of time) found me. Perhaps we have that in common. I’ve since spent many years trying to learn what a true movement ought to be. You are a true movement, OWS, fragile and full of unanswered questions; I want to encourage and implore you to stay fragile and full of unanswered questions.
In your cries against corporate greed and broken governmental systems, your longing for agrarian ethics and your desire to honor the environment, I hear an echo from a writer I have long admired, Wendell Berry. There’s much to be learned from this prophet of land ethics and agrarian vision. Here’s a quote from his book The Art of the Common Place:
We can understand a great deal of our history - from Cortes’ destruction of Tenochtitlan in 1521 to the bulldozer attack on the coalfields four-and-a-half centuries later - by thinking of ourselves as divided into conquerors and victims. In order to understand our own time and predicament and the work that is to be done, we would do well to shift the terms and say that we are divided between exploitation and nurture.
Wendell Berry has been writing for over 50 years on the very themes you are protesting about, developing his view on this division “between exploitation and nurture.” You are fighting against exploitation. The systems at large are dehumanized, sometimes even designed to exploit. Yet every movement eventually gains a gravitational force to exploit in return, despite the good intentions of its founders. It is a temptation to institutionalize and be dependent on power holders. We need to remember that every political system, every “greedy” corporation, first began as someone’s local vision. The moment we institutionalize, the local movement dies a slow death as it consumes the very resources we are trying to release.
We need to stay humble, stay compact and nimble, to intentionally re-release resources for the greater good. Wendell Berry implores us to “think small” and that requires love. We need to stay small to move into the “nurture” sphere. Love requires a greater sacrifice and ample time. Movements need not to seek immediate gratification but instead to ask a question that will last 500-years; to seek a deeper way of life that affects multiple generations. At the same time, I have come to believe that a true movement cannot be fully planned but should be like spontaneous jazz, always improvising to respond to the now while keeping hope alive for the future. Movements are a miracle of life, a historical threshold.
The value of your movement is in spontaneity, diversity, and flexibility. Do not let extreme ideologies hijack your movement. Do not let the media define who you are. Avoid every temptation to name a spokesperson or a leader, no matter how charismatic that person is. Keep pressing into raising questions more than giving answers. Be generous, mysterious, and enigmatic. A movement is organic and generative, and your passion must be carried into the conversation for the next generation, from Wall Street to dining room table discussions. Above all, do all things out of love.
Out of diversity will come many fresh, renewed perspectives. We have a chance to bring together conservatives and liberals as thoughtful witnesses of protest to the present dangers of our broken economic system and governance. I pray your vision will be sustained in the days to come, so that our culture can move from exploitation to nurture for generations to come.