Contorting the World Beautiful—this is the work of artists
“My favorite two words are these: LOVE, and NOW!”
I sat in the Lucas Theatre, located in the historic district of Savannah, Georgia. I gathered with colleagues from around the world to think together about how to best train young artists in the 21st century. On stage, captivating our attention stood Tim Rollins—one of the most humorous and passionate artists I’ve encountered in a long time. He described his own journey as a visual artist, and how his story became woven together with the narratives of several young artists from the Bronx. Beginning in the early 1980’s, they began a collaboration that skyrocketed onto the main stage of the art world. Known as the Kids of Survival (K.O.S), they made fresh, direct, thoughtful, authentic, unpretentious work—and used that art to both interpret and share their stories with communities who took the time to listen. In a very tangible way, through periods of phenomenal success and tragic losses of peers murdered by gun violence, this band of friends and the art they created had a tangible, transformational impact on the world. As I left the theatre, I thought, “that’s it—that’s what it means to inspire.” Art that is true, and that flows from the concrete realities of the life we are experiencing—this is the type of art that brings breath to the people who encounter it.
A week later I was surrounded by 18 of my students in the Indianapolis Art Museum’s recent installation of Ai Weiwei’s work. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ai Weiwei, he is an internationally known Chinese artist who is often thought of as primarily as a political dissident. Some of his work is incredibly direct in its message, such as a Han Dynasty vase painted over with the Coca-Cola logo. But I saw my students paying far more attention to the piece entitled “Straight.”
Created from 38 tons of steel rebar over a period of 4 years, this piece is the result of a community investigation. A group of Chinese citizens wanted to bring awareness to the poor schoolhouse construction that resulted in the deaths of thousands of school students during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. The rebar from the collapsed structures was collected, hammered straight, and then piled in front of a list of 5,000 names, all children of differing ages who perished in the rubble. A simple recording plays in the room: different voices speaking out the name of each student victim of the earthquake. Not only a powerful memorial, this work gives voice to the families and community members—both in their grief and outrage over such unnecessary loss of life.
On the wall next to the video documenting the development of this work, Ai Weiwei is quoted:
“Extending a hand to those in trouble, rescuing the dying, and helping the injured is a form of humanitarianism, unrelated to love of country or people. Do not demean the value of life; it commands a broader, more equal dignity.”
Elsewhere in the galleries, his words emerge from the wall once again:
“Everything is ART. Everything is POLITICS.”
Again, I had the sense that this work was an act of co-creating something powerful—enacting the type of encounter that could rattle viewers into being more fully awake, more fully alive, and perhaps more fully attentive and responsive to their own communities.
The works I saw by both K.O.S. and Ai Weiwei were visually interesting. Many were subtle, requiring time and attention from the viewer. They were not loaded with shock value. Some are even extremely playful. And yet the cumulative impact of seeing them is profound; I walked away with the desire to become a better citizen, a more active neighbor, and a more authentic collaborator in forming the world in which I live, crafting it into something that reflects a peaceable kingdom.
They are works worth seeing. And these artists are worth emulating—especially in the midst of infrastructures that encourage competition more than collaboration. I encourage you to check them out.
In light of the themes I find so compelling in K.O.S. and Ai Weiwei’s work, I cannot help but ask us, as an artistic community that weaves words and crafts images, to respond to the many events over the last year that have marked a spike in mass acts of violence—the most recent today in Boston.
As a people charged with the work of co-creating with the God of Shalom, and as people of faith commanded to seek the kingdom of God:
May we find the courage to let delight and wonder become contagious through our work and through our lives,
And may we have the ability to confront the unlovely, to cry out with a unified voice against atrocity—both near and far.
In solidarity with those trying to use their voices for what is true, beautiful, right, just, and merciful,