Originally written for Image Journal: Twentieth Anniversary Issue, Issue 60
In 1992, Jeffery Deitch, an influential Soho Gallery owner, curated an exhibit called “Post-Human.” In the catalogue he wrote:
What we do know is that we will soon be forced by technological advances to develop a new morality. We will need to build a new moral structure that will give people a framework of how to deal with the enormous choices they will have to make in terms of genetic alteration and computerized brain enhancement. We will have to face decisions not only about what looks good, but what IS good or is bad about the restructuring of the mind and body. The limits of life will no longer be something that can be taken for granted. We will have to create a new moral vision to cope with them. In the future, artists may no longer be involved in just redefining art. In the post-human future artists may also be involved in redefining life. Jeffery Deitch, Post-Human catalogue. https://www.artic.edu/~pcarroll/PostHuman.html)
We need to consider what it means to be “fully human” from the context of Jeffery Deitch’s provocative and alert observation. An artists’ role, if Deitch is correct, has radically shifted from “redefining art” to “redefining life.” Thus, the arts must begin to synthesize with ethics, the sciences and philosophy; artists are confronted with both the terrors of that reality and the responsibility of that calling.
This call will require a paradigm shift in how we think about our arts, and as we face the Chimera that future will bring us, I fear we are not equipped for the complexity and explosive realities. But it is, as Deitch reminds us, a road we have embarked on already, with a point of no return.
We cannot begin to “redefine life” without invoking the questions of the Creator and creation. We must begin with the ontological quest of the Creator’s role in speaking life into existence, and the sustaining power of creation. And the arts did not fully reject this ontology until recently, because up to the end of the 20th century, we could rest on the memory of the Judeo Christian heritage. Now as the memory is fading, we may need a radical strategy.
Contemporary art has sought to expand the borders of expression, claiming unlimited expansion for the sake of freedom of expression, often using shock as a means to draw attention to herself, and blatantly challenging boundary making. In a recent catalogue accompanying the Guggenheim exhibit of Matthew Barney, curator Nancy Spector notes how Barney intends, in his installations, to blur the distinctions created in Genesis passages one by one. She acknowledges, in the catalogue essay, for the artist to “contest the laws of differentiation is thus to challenge the very word of God.”1
Freedom of expression, then, became an overriding goal, and any boundary making, especially to respect the Genesis distinctions or any other Biblical categories would be seen as anti-freedom, and anti-art. But I contend that such an approach has impoverished the artistic language of our day, rather than enriched it. We have shrunk into ideological knots, full of surfeit trickery, rather than true exploration of expressive borders. And as a result, we have dehumanized ourselves in our obsessive focus on self-expression.
What if we considered limitations as the beginning of our creative acts, to see the boundaries of life (and death) as the starting point of our discussion? If we are to honor such a reality, then, paradoxically, we may see beyond them. Limitations can be a catalyst to find freedom. That is what the Incarnation of Christ teaches us. Jesus “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.” (Phil. 2:6,7) By humbling Himself, he lifted all of us broken human beings with Him. Following Christ is also to recognize and honor the limits and boundaries of being human; less is more.
In William Blake’s Jerusalem, he coined the word “Withoutside.” We vacillate between needing the boundaries of “with/outside” and needing the freedom of “without/side.” As we do, perhaps it is possible to expand the borders of art in both ends of the spectrum of human potential and brokenness. But our call at first is to deal with the excess of our past, to turn towards humble, normative human acts. Then, paradoxically, we must also seek excellence, to reach for the stars of artistic promise, to seek generative solution to cure the impoverishment of the language of art.
The first part of this journey, “with/outside,” will involve a willingness to volunteer restrictions on choice, such as honoring traditions and communities, to allow for the roots of our expressions take deeply in the soil of culture. We may need to pause and give birth (perhaps literally) in order to be human now. Even raising children, and other such self-discipline of not making art can be the “art form” of our new century. This could be the most transgressive art of our times. For if our starting point is no longer in our capacity to make (an Aristotelian definition of art), but also in our capacity to destroy (as in the Manhattan project), our Ground Zero lives should begin anew with the basics. In such a time as this, our songs may sound more like lamentation than celebration. In facing the sinister, active forces at work in culture, our strategy may seem invisible to the powerful, and powerless as a newborn, our focus localized to the minute particulars of our daily lives. And at such times, rebellion may look like ordinary human activities simply done in faith. We are, after all, attempting to draw life unto death by scratching our lines in the ashes of ground zeros all around us. Perhaps we need to start with loving each other.
The contaminated ashes of Ground Zero do threaten our imaginative journeys, threatening to sap us of hope for that future, and fill us with revenge and fear. The prophet Jeremiah knew that in such exilic times of uncertainty, he can still proclaim with deep, resounding hope:
…my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:20-23)
So can we. Let the truth, though, dwell deeply in us that in order for this hope to reign some Other must be “pierced” first. And this Other became the “laughing stock of all my people” and become filled with “bitter herbs.” (Lamentations 13-15) Jesus, the Other of our souls, is the only one who can draw mystery into the ashes of our lament and breathe life into our dry bones. Jesus is the only true Artist and true Human yet.
On the other hand, the second part of the “without/side” journey requires passionate and compassionate breaking of boundaries, like the extravagant aroma of Mary’s nard poured upon Jesus. Christ raised her brother Lazarus from the grave. The resurrection Life touched her, and she had to respond. She rushed to bring the expensive bottle of nard that she, and her family, had probably saved for her own wedding. She was not supposed to come into a room full of male disciples. But she did. She intuited that the costly suffering would await her Lord, and thus had to anoint the future King. She, fearfully and wonderfully, broke the jar in thanksgiving. What she could not have expected was Christ’s response. The impermanent gesture would become part of an imperishable story. Christ commends her act to the disgruntled disciples: “Leave her alone…Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6, 9) Our effort to convey the gospel, too, must be filled with the same type of beautiful devotional transgression. Mary’s intuition, triggered by her brother’s temporary resurrection, anticipated the cross, but also opened a new chapter of creativity in a post-resurrection reality.
Bishop N.T Wright calls this reality of post-resurrection “Life after Life after Death.” We are to bank on the future, storing our treasures in Heaven. But that is only the beginning. Heaven comes then to fill the earth, transforming the old earth into the New Earth. In describing “Life after Life after Death,” Wright notes that God will use our earthly effort, done in faith, as a conduit for that transformation to come. In this post-resurrection reality, apparently, we can learn to create backwards, not out of our wretched humanity, but out of our full humanity to come.
We create from the outside in, with/outside and without/side. Instead of focusing on self-expression as our culture teaches us, we allow God’s Life, both here and not yet, to invade ours, to mold our expressive hearts, so that we can be released from the bondage of decay (Romans 8). Our future humanity can flow through our art now. Celebrity culture will tempt us to be the center of our creative acts. But the center shall be “the still point of the turning world.” (T.S. Eliot) where true creativity is to be birthed, unleashing the future grace into the eye of the storm. This takes the shedding of egos, but then, with prayer, God will quietly impregnate our imagination as the storm rages all around us.
That child of “withoutside” could only be conceived in the ashes of Post-Humanity— that is our lot. We are princes and princesses born in the pit of Ground Zero. But we are heirs nevertheless (Romans 8) waiting to be revealed. Every fairytale points to it. A celebration is coming.
So rather than “redefining life,” as Deitch would have it, we let the Life (after Life after Death) define us. In our studios, in our rehearsal halls, in our libraries, and research facilities, we wrestle with the Chimera waiting to be named in our new century. We need to remind each other that we are co-heirs with Christ, and have been given author-ity to write and create our future Reality into being, thereby ruling over the new creation. If the world transgressed in “selfism”2 to create the monster, then we need to transgress in love to tame it. We are embarking on a generational journey that requires more than our singular, individual success. What we built in faith upon the old earth, like the Sacramental wine and bread, should be familiar but extraordinary. We need to live our lives artfully, and create our art humanly. Our sacrifice to anoint the great Artist will be remembered and the aroma spread in the New Earth. Artists are the stewards of the old earth, but the imaginative conduit of the New. And we do not need to even make art to be part of that glorious picture.
- The Cremaster Cycle, Matthew Barney, Page 23 (Guggenheim)
- Paul Vitz