(Delivered on March 1st, 2008, IAM Gathering at TriBeCa Performance Center)
I begin with a photo of an installation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Credit: Melanie Einzig 2006 Courtesy: Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust), over looking the Hudson River, only a mile a way. Scottish artist, Andy Goldsworthy installed "Garden of Stones" as part of this museum's mission to create a "living memorial to the holocaust." As you can see these boulder rocks have been hollowed out and hold sapling Dward Oak trees. As the trees mature, each will grow to become fused to the base, and eventually, possibly, cracking the stone open.
Art, a sapling planted today in hope, can break open a boulder of cynicism, despair and corruption that pervades the art world. But we need to learn from someone who is not an artist, a sapling who did end up breaking open a huge boulder.
It was the early 1960's at Hudson on Hastings, NY about 30 miles north. Fred Danback began to work for Anaconda, a major factory where copper and wire cable were created. Fred Danback returned from World War II to come home, and to work for a now booming enterprise. But soon after, Fred found himself troubled by what he saw at the factory.
"I seen all kinds of oil and sulfuric acid, copper filings; my gosh, they were coming out of that company like it was going out of style..." He continues in his interview with Bill Moyers, "(shad fisherman started to lose) their business because there was oil in the water that would cause the fish to be contaminated with it and the Fulton market refused to take their weekly catch...(Anaconda) and other businesses were polluting a river and hurting a second business, the shad fisherman. I didn't think they had the right to do that. It used to really infuriate me. I became obsessed with fighting pollution..."
So Fred complained to the managers about his shad fisherman friends' plight. Each time he did, it seemed, he got demoted. He ended up pushing a broom for the company. But Fred never gave up. He worked in a custodian role, literally pushing his broom into every room of the company, and he also took copious notes and made maps of the company. What was deemed a punishment ended up to be the best possible opportunity to spy on the company inside and out (he had all the keys!).
We have to remember that there were no pollution laws. Fred and a few other pioneers of the environmental movement decided to sue Anaconda by citing an archaic law called the Refuse Act of 1899, which Fred found cleaning the local library. In 1972, when the US attorney's Office found a way to prosecute Anaconda, the attorney also used Fred's maps and notes as evidence.
"The company was fined $200,000 under the Refuse Act of 1899, you know... Even today for a polluter to be fined $200,000 is a big event. Back in the early 1970s, it was a huge event. It was like a thunderclap."(Fred Cronin)
Today, 3 million striped bass goes up and down the Hudson, because of Fred's efforts that lead to a series of changes in laws of the land.
Three lessons from the Fred Danback parable:
1)We need to be willing to be demoted
2)We need to remember our first love
3)We need to take notes
a)Become a custodian
To hold the "keys" of culture we may have to endure demotions.
By being demoted, we may gain a humble authority (keys) to unlock doors of cultural "factories".
Stewardship of culture and stewardship of nature go side by side. The activities of the arts are, in themselves, acts of stewardship. Many have seen the arts and entertainment as the enemy, or at least view them with healthy suspicion. The expression of the arts have twisted "the good, the true and the beautiful" in the same way that we have polluted our rivers. The arts are always upstream of culture, and artists are the creators of culture. The question is, how do we enact change?
Are we willing to be demoted to be custodians of culture? Cultural stewardship comes with needed sacrifice. Our "keys" are humility, integrity, determination and hope for things to come. In the art world in which ego, selfishness and self-destructiveness abound, don't you think you will stand out, eventually, is you have an ounce of human decency?
What if we are willing serve even one person, rather than do art for self-expression? What if we collaborated in humility and gave ourselves to serve, not expecting the world, or our audience, to agree with us, or applaud us?
b) We need to remember our first love
Fred Danback was asked by Bill Moyers, "What kept you going?"
FRED DANBACK: "I love that river. It's a beautiful river. Look at it. It's your river, its my river, it belongs to everybody. Whose got a right to mess it up? That's the way I feel about it."
I still do, to this day.
It was his memory of the river, that beautiful river that kept him going. This beautiful painting by a Hudson River School master Jasper F. Cropsey (on the left) keeps me going. What keeps us going?
We need to remember our first love. Our first love as an artist may have come when you drew something on paper that came alive to you. Or perhaps you were playing a character in a school play, and you realized you had entered another person's world, a world you never knew existed. Or perhaps as a dancer, you made that single leap that seemed to defy gravity.
By contrast, what is now causing you to lose hope now? Because artists are gifted receptors, sensitive to the world's woes, and we may be the first internalize, and be in despair.
It is this "first love" that can recognize a world that is "not supposed to be." It's important to remember our first love, or we will end up swimming in the river that is polluted, and we will lose the vision for why we live, and why we do art.
But, furthermore, it is this "first love" that allows you to empathize.
Fred empathized with the shad fishermen. He stepped into their shoes and walked around in them a while.
"You never really understand a person, "Atticus Finch tells us in To Kill a Mockingbird, "until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, around the same time that Fred worked for Anaconda. If Fred Danback remembered the beautiful river, Harper Lee remembered her country lawyer father, and via the character of Atticus Finch translated the principles of justice and equality in to a great art form.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, we see little Scout running around in the streets of Maycomb, Alabama chasing her brother, Jem, and her friend, Dill. "Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself," recalls Scout. There is an eye-of-the-storm stillness in the streets; slow, ambling folks who "shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer." The Great Depression has gripped the county, and our country had been deeply wounded by World War I. There were more conflicts to come. Harper Lee's classic work brings the reader into the heart of that American struggle via an inquisitive, feisty, creative girl. The former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor called the book an impetus for her desire to become a lawyer. In the days when the world was tainted by common bigotry, Harper Lee set out to tell a good story, a "simple love story" she called it, but it turned into a powerful catalyst for transforming the mindset toward human dignity and equality. The book precedes Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech by three years, and it foreshadows that speech, becoming one of the great catalysts for wrestling with issues of humanity in the twentieth century. This book serves as a model for us to speak of empathic creativity, that transforms the cultural river.
Atticus Finch, a country lawyer, defends Tom Robinson, a man falsely accused of rape, who is being held in jail. Knowing that the town is conspiring to lynch him, Atticus "sits guard" in front of the jailhouse, having set up a chair and reading light outside Mr. Robinson's window. Atticus creates incarnationally, using a theatrical prop to make his case, if you will, bringing his living room right into the heart of the conflict. A mob gathers. Scout, Jem and Dill walk right into that circle, making Atticus quite nervous. Scout then recognizes a face in the crowd:
"Don't you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I'm Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?... I go to school with Walter...he is your boy, ain't he? Ain't he, Sir?"
Scout remembered that: "Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in." Atticus taught her empathy.
So she speaks to Mr. Cunningham using a big word that Atticus taught her: "Entailment." Mr. Cunningham brought hickory nuts to Atticus in thanks for work Atticus performed in the Cunningham family in the beginning of the story. Now Scout reminds Mr. Cunningham about entailment, or a swap of one work for another, a sort of a code to unlock Mr. Cunningham's humanity. The code worked to not only help Mr. Cunningham remember, but she taps into a greater conscience of how a human being should treat each other, with dignity and respect. And she defuses the situation, in her determined innocence.
If we are faced with an angry mob, ready to do the unthinkable horror of our days, what would be our response? To fight back with fire against fire, respond in hatred against hatred? I suggest we follow Scout's lead in calling people to remember. Scout did not confront the bigotry by arguing for justice. What she accomplished in her naiveté was to step into the mob, to remind people that they were her neighbors. Within a culture that is full of cynicism, apathy and anger, we must remind one another to remember. Our task as artists is to remind people that they are our neighbors. Our arts should lead others to recall who they are. And by doing so, we may remind them, and ourselves, who we are. Our responsibility is to re-humanize the divide, to speak a "third language" of generative creativity that defuses the cultural war language.
Scout defused the situation by being fully human, fully a child.
The "third language" of culture speaks like a child, like Scout, innocent, and yet full of determined hope. The "third language" re-humanizes the mob and speaks in a generative way. The third language incorporates an attitude of cultural stewardship. That is how we can transform the world. The arts present the most powerful way of "nonviolent resistance." Scout's actions, in Harper Lee's lense of creativity, was to anticipate thousands of peaceful marches to come, by willingness to step into a conflict, and taking a risk (although she would fail the non-violent test, because, earlier, she kicks a man in his shin as he tried to physically remove Jem from the scene.)
Just like the mob in front of Tom Robinson's jail cell, the culture has blinded itself to the dehumanized forces of debased solutions. Debasement is a result bad stewardship, to allow for corruption to take over in desperation of fear.
"The third language" is a language of empathy, and empathy is a fruit of love.
c) Taking Notes:
Just like Fred Danback, we need to be custodians of culture, be given keys to the rooms of cultural production and "take notes."
How do we take notes?
Fred was not an artist: we are. Our notebooks should be filled with... drawings. We are gifted with creativity and expression. Our notes should be beautiful, good, and true.
Artists are leaders: they may never inspire with a speech, preach from a pulpit, or own a company, but they are leaders by the sheer fact of their awareness and observation. Artists are leaders because people see their work and can be influenced by it.
Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University, the author of "Multiple Intelligences," who has identified creativity as one of the many multiple types of intelligences, writes:
"Indeed, creators and leaders are remarkably similar. Both groups seek to influence the thoughts and behaviors of other people. Both are, accordingly, engaged in the enterprise of persuasion. Moreover, each leader or creator has a story to tell: A creator is contributing to the story of a chosen domain; a leader is creating a story about his group. Finally, embodiment is important for both groups: A leader must embody her stories in her daily life; a creator must embody his story by carrying out work in his domain. "
Artists are leaders simply because we are in the "enterprise of persuasion." If we are leaders in that sense, then, comes with that influence, great responsibility. We have responsibility to use that persuasive influence to create the "world that ought to be." Or, we can use that responsibility for self-destruction. One sure way to use our influence to transform the world is by leading in the path of empathy.
Harper Lee embodied the story of oppression and injustice she saw in her small town in Alabama. She created a story which generate empathy. Let's take Atticus' advise to be polite and "talk about what people are interested in" before we begin to think about self-expression. We might just have to step into someone else's shoes and walk around in them, and take notes.
And, we take notes with tears.
We must realize that that culture of the "world that ought to be," must arrive via understanding of the "world that was not supposed to be." Our task, in the day forward is to identify with, and empathize with, the brokenness of the world, as much as to give a vision of the world that is right and beautiful. Artists need to lead the way in taking notes of the polluted substance and lamenting.
The shortest, but one of the most potent, verses in the Bible is in John 11.
Before this passage, Jesus learned that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary has died. He goes to Bethany to resurrect him. And when he got there, he walked right into a Jewish funeral. Upon seeing his friends grieving, he wept. Why?
If he had the power to resurrect, why did he not wave the "magic wand" and solve the problem right away. Why did he "waste time" and weep?
Before this passage, John writes that Jesus was also "deeply troubled," which reminds me of Fred Danback's response to the polluted river - the death of his friend Lazarus infuriated Jesus. Was he infuriated by people not understanding him? No, Jesus was troubled by, and infuriated by, death itself.
Then his heart was again "deeply troubled". He took a deep breath and pronounced and commanded Lazarus to rise. And he did.
While I was preparing for this talk, I realized something for the first time:
The cultural river is made up of the "tears of God."
Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Max Beckman, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Yasunari Kawabata...etc. etc. Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Calcutta, Maycolm, Darfur. What Irish poet Micheal O'Siadhail has called the "irreversable tragedies of our time." All of the 20th century was a century of lament, of angst, of anger. And Jesus wept. These expressions may look to some as if they are against God, but they are really not. They are not "pure" expressions of adoration, but they share in the same tears that Mother Teresa shed, and Martin Luther King Jr. shed.
Jesus wept, and he continues to weep today. Tears of God are powerful. They may evaporate, and soak the ground, but they never disappear. We breathe today Jesus' tears. And artists may be the first to recognize the invisible presence of divine tears. That's why the church needs artists. When we weep and join God, those are commingled with God's tears, and multiplied like fishes and the loaves that Jesus touched.
We take notes with our tears.
We also need to be moved, troubled deeply with the broken realities of the world around us. We need to stand in the pit of Ground Zero, and breathe in Jesus' tears. Then we can create. Do not let anger itself overtake you in despair. Let your tears lead to your small resurrections. If you find yourself perplexed, angry...take notes and imagine a polluting factory into an art factory of beauty, goodness and truth.
There's not a day that I do not think of Fred Danback. As I jog the promenade of the river, passing right by the Goldworthy installation, I thank God for him and pray that someday, the saplings will grow to crack open the rock, spilling dirt on to promenade. Fred's sacrifice was a sapling of sacrifice that cracked opened the rock of Anaconda. But there's more to the story.
On the day of 9/11, when the news began to unravel of the horrors of that day, the initial estimate of those who was thought to have perished was twelve to fifteen thousand. Then as the days went, the numbers kept on decreasing to, eventually, three thousand and some, still an unbearable amount, for sure.
I have a theory about why the initial estimate turned out to be so wrong.
9/11 was the first day of school. There are eight thousand students around the towers. The parents had just dropped off the kids, like my wife did that morning with my three children, and saw the sinister shadow of the first plane pass them in the schoolyard. Parents never made it to work. Or those who did, came down the steps right away, ignoring the famed announcement to "stay where you are."
You may not make the connection right away from Fred Danback to 9/11, but in my mind, there is a direct link. Here it is.
All of the schools around the towers were built after the late 1970's.
Because Fred Danback was willing to be demoted, the river became cleaner. Because the river became cleaner, the parks around the river became attractive. And the parents, instead of opting to escape to suburbia, decided to stay in their apartments in Battery Park designed for dual income no kid couples. Because there was tremendous increase in the population of children starting in the late 70's the city was to build all those schools, including P.S. 234, right here in front of us.
I am convinced Fred Danback made a difference on 9/11. One person's sacrifice, the ripple effects that caused because of that action, cannot be measured ultimately, but only be told in how we live our lives. Be a community of Fred Danbacks. Be willing to make your life count. And never forget the beauty of the river of your calling. One humble custodian changed the world. A sapling has cracked open a boulder, and the shalom dirt fills the empty spaces of our hearts. Psalm 46 is right, "there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God."