art and clean water

[from today’s grad speech at brown]


I was recently at a conference called Borders and Boundaries in Northern Ireland, and not 200 yards from where I was writing my little play about terrorism, two masked men dropped a box off in front of a bank, yelled “IRA” and ran. The area was evacuated, the bomb went off causing extensive damage; thank God no one was hurt. The bombers were later discovered to be members of an IRA splinter group, and in an evolution from years past, the event was condemned on all sides; the community has moved on; the history is written in living ink. Our articulation of history is a kind of prophecy, meaning it is a description of where we are, a map of how to respond to who we are now… and where we are is: dynamic. In addition to their sins of contempt for life the bombers were practicing bad history and bad theater. There are acts of resistance that blow things open, and acts of resistance that blow things shut. The bombers in this case were offering an invitation to stare at a rolled-down door and beg for release, when in fact they were already outside and only had to turn around to find a community ready for public, plural growth.


A more extensive pattern: later in the conference I was sitting next to a public health worker from Belfast. We were once again trying to put words to the links between our fields, which both incline to healing; he arrived at a case history. There were the Omagh bombings in August ’98; 29 people died and over 200 were injured. The world sent flowers. Truckloads and truckloads of flowers. The mourning was deep; people threw beauty at remembrance without stint, bombing the bomb. Streets were choked. The flowers, as they grew old, became a public health risk; a bomb can be bad art… art can be a bad bomb. People were uncertain how to remove them with honor. An artist came in and initiated a process whereby the flowers were converted to paper – sheets large and small, impressed with designs celebrating peace and recovery, designed, made and given by people across ideological lines. This is the Petals of Hope project initiated by Carole Kane.


Overall this represents a natural arc you will encounter as arts workers. Culture, as the considered expression of our being, is grounded in our nature. Nature is inherently diverse; nature is awake; a wakeful thing survives by falling, rotoring into uncertainty; nature is the ultimate conversationalist, moving from “what’s this?” to “what’s this?” Sometimes, the answer offered is: “mine.” There is a tendency in the creation and preservation of kinds of ownership to harden difference-from rather than difference-with. It is not inevitable, but political impulses can attempt to clarify or solve the diversity of cultural difference with fixed borders. Change pushes against fixity and there is sometimes violent trauma. An artistic impulse, without discernment in it, can argue itself to a bomb. An artistic and ritual impulse surges forward, trying to order the chaos. This is a moment in need of great care. How often is your art used to repair a breach in the proprietary domination of Force – to settle things down, purge terror and restore to dominance the dominant order? How often is your work at or even for a community, rather than with it? An evolved artistic response is based in transformation, cooperation and on the symbolic, where the symbol is an open invitation to a range of interpretations; a sphere of affect is the space above boundaries. Medicine, fresh water, and even flowers – material remediation for suffering – must be integrated into the life of a community by considered, contemplative processes of natural, cultural embodiment. If public health provides fresh water, art provides the sacred charge of stewardship, and in the myths that charge water with character and drama, we become inculpated with our resources. Here is where art and public health meet… Art opens the hands for giving and receiving, providing concrete, tactical capacity for the reformation of the idea of the polis, the pressing of the pages on which are declaimed the enduring practical manifesto of the flowers… the home in the house, the courtesy of things.


In Belfast there is a mural painted by school children – around the edges are words like hate, and fear. In the center, the largest word, “School.” My initial reading – this represents the crises and their solution – education will keep paranoia and greed at bay. But the children had been asked only to list the words that they felt caused divisiveness. The number one source of conflict on which the children agreed was school. Schools, heavily segregated, were designed to produce a divided citizenry. If school is a place of indoctrination rather than questioning it is an instrument of oppression; schools are meant to teach learning above all; schools themselves must be learners. As graduates, continue to work out spaces that are generous and diverse, more than tolerant – are self-sacrificial and radiant. Don’t stop with impulse, with what you read at once or how you are first read. Beyond this there is policy: how you will teach and learn. As you are schools, be schools of charity. Fight doctrinaire certainty, not with doctrinaire uncertainty, but with the simplicity of your way.


The great pleasure we take in your time here is in the teaching you’ve done; learning is what keeps faculty and staff going; you have protected the ethical basis of Brown by guaranteeing our learning. To say we are alive is to say we are with each other. Brown in the happy cloud of the open curriculum is alive, is with you. May you be sites of discovery, may you keep us honest. We grow with each other, in rhythm and outrageous praise.


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