Sunday, January 11, 2015

Killing The Artist

I recently facilitated an event organized to provide participants with a set of tools with which they more deeply access and engage the abundance that is around them.  As it happened, the event's launch coincided with the gruesome murders of aesthetic commentators in Paris and overlapped the violent end of the ensuing hostage taking.  While it is my custom to directly engage the events that were unfolding half a world away in an explicit fashion, the first day's experience with the group gave me an idea. 

One of the participants, a young woman, was note-taking in illuminated doodles and images which were quite elegant.  Rather than directly offering verbal commentary on the Paris events, I decided to conduct an experiment and conscripted the artist on the second evening.  "Would you," I asked, "be willing to open tomorrow's event by quietly going up to the board and drawing an image that represents whatever impulse you'd like to share?" She was delighted to do so.

At 9 am, the same time we'd started our sessions on the previous two days, we exchanged glances and she proceeded to begin her expression.  I sat conspicuously away from the front of the room deeply enthralled in her forming images.  She drew a man, then spectacles, then a woman veiled with a head-scarf enveloped by a globe prominently featuring the African, European and Asian continents, and then a string of people with interlocking arms standing next to the world - the person next to the globe placing a hand on the world and the person at the end of the line raising a hand as if to alert others to an idea.  The image creation took about 17 minutes.  During her drawing, there were a number of responses.  About 5 members of the group were deeply engaged in watching the art unfold.  A few more were glancing between the board and their fellow table-mates' conversations.  Most were engaged in small group conversations paying little attention to the art - some wondering "when we were going to start".  A few of the latter impulses would occasionally look my way as if to inquire if I was aware of the time. 

With the image complete, I went to the front of the room and expressed my frustration and anger for the insensitivity evidenced by most of the group while pointing out the deep honor and respect I had for those who were fully entering into the engagement.  For the next 45 minutes I sparred with several participants who were quite put out by the fact that I had not fairly alerted them to the sequence of events I'd orchestrated.  "I've completely turned you off," one participant bluntly stated as I explained the callousness evidenced by the majority of the group.  Suggesting that anyone exposed to a workshop aimed at expanding awareness and sensitivity to everything in the ecosystem had "failed the test" of expanded awareness and sensitivity was "unfair" on my part as I hadn't imposed the awareness of the exam.  When invited to offer her perspective on what she intended to convey in her drawing nearly 30 minutes after the deconstruction was underway, the artist smiled and stated that she was delighted to have contributed to such a dynamic process and learning activity and then went back to her drawing.

By the end of our critique of the morning's exercise, several people got pieces of the learning and several apologized to the artist for their callous neglect of her participation.  A few others were deeply moved by situations elsewhere in which they recalled their own neglect of awareness for artists sharing of themselves over the din of conversations and rudeness.  One or two were so absorbed in their sense of violation of decorum in my facility to access anger and frustration in a directional manner that they checked out entirely.  But ironically, I didn't hear anyone get the real point of the exercise.

While we were assembling, aesthetic commentators had been gunned down for expressing themselves with images that were deemed "offensive" reportedly by those who had no obligation to see them.  And there were, as we've been conditioned to do, marches and protests against violence and promoting free speech.  Yet when I invited an artist to open the event with an aesthetic expression in which she explicitly included a veiled woman suggesting a woman of Muslim engagement, no one in the room got the point.  She had demonstrated remarkable generosity in putting herself on the spot to create a performance piece and she was largely unseen.  She had rendered a beautiful image of a world in which diversity is celebrated and that insight was likely entirely unseen - certainly not rising to the level of being worthy of comment.  Why?  Because in a room full of would-be conscious people, there was a waiting for response rather than an awareness of and engage with presumption.  Was she too young?  Was her communication too abstract?  Was she not worth listening to?  Was she a she? 

No!  The problem was endemic to our modern expression of humanity and worse among those who delude themselves with "consciousness" and "sensitivity".  And, by the way, just because we don't shoot the artist - in this case - we kill the innovative, generative energy when we succumb to the illusions of credentialed power



  1. Interestingly, Dave, I didn't see the veiled woman in your friend's drawing until the latter part of your essay prompted me to go back and look for her. To my eyes, her figure disappears into the larger one of the globe. This, it seems, may be an apt metaphor itself ... those who suffer most in many high-visibility crises are themselves unnoticed by outsiders unless/until they (we) directly seek them out.

    I've certainly seen this play out in the Ebola crisis ...

  2. Notwithstanding the organization/ format of the event, I would assume that most of those gathered are participating in the role of students/learners, while your role was one of teacher/mentor; and given the pervasive, didactic nature of most teaching (this is not to say your event was structured in this way, rather the mindset of the participants was preset), is it surprising that as you stated they were “waiting for response rather than an awareness of and engage with presumption”, as a result “ no one in the room got the point”.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave