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July 20, 2017

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"Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship" published in HowlRound

My second in the series of three posts about applying specific mystical ideas to the theatre was just published in HowlRound.  This series explores the ideas of three mystical thinkers (Chuang Tzu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Farid ad-Din Attar), and looks at how their philosophies can be applicable to theatrical work.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident. After returning to Germany from the United States on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic, he joined the anti-Hitler underground and was arrested in April 1943. He was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945.

Bonhoeffer argued that individuals should not retreat from the world but act within it. His struggle offers a parallel to and guidance for how we should act, as American politics take a difficult and dark turn.

One of his more beautiful and timely ideas was his conception of “costly grace,” in The Cost of Discipleship:

We are fighting today for costly grace. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace without price! Grace without cost . . . the world finds a cheap covering for its sins.

While the idea of any sort of spiritual “grace” might seem antithetical to the wry, “realistic” worldview so often proposed in contemporary theatrical productions, it nonetheless resonates deeply with the world around us. A quick perusal of the morning news highlights how many elected leaders, sports figures, social mentors, and religious officials are indeed claiming the easy “grace” of words, while not working for the more difficult goal of genuine contrition and redemption.

Social leader after social leader behaves in a spiritually and often socially negative manner, says a few words of prayer, and accepts “grace” at no cost.

These plays demand costly grace through implicating the audience at the end of the play.

 So, how can the idea of “costly grace” based in deeply felt contrition, self-awareness, and painful personal change affect a theatrical production? Often, theatre pieces look for a “button”—a strong finish defined by a character’s redemption or realization, or simple closure at the end the play. In this case, the audience leaves the theatre with a sigh and a smile, experiencing the easy grace of having been entertained, but not challenged to question or ponder.

One manner of implementing a costlier grace would be to make the idea of closure come at a much higher price. That is to say, have an ending which implicates the audience in the creative process, forcing them to think out beyond the end of the play. For instance, the Broadway production Hand to God ended with just such a moment, the last line being: “The thing about a savior is you never know where to look. Might just be the place you saw the devil before.” Each individual in the audience is left to ponder where they look for the “devil,” where a “savior,” and how much distance they put between the two in their own lives.

Numerous other plays opt for the more difficult “costly grace” over the easy “button” of evil downfallen or love ascendant. Steven Karam’s The Humans leaves us with a question mark, as it follows the disintegration (and not reintegration) of a family; and even a historical play such as Skin of Our Teeth (Thornton Wilder, most recently seen at Theater for a New Audience in 2017) ends where it began, with Sabina addressing the audience and turning over the responsibility of continuing the action, or life, to them.

These plays demand costly grace through implicating the audience at the end of the play. Another manner is to thematically counterbalance a “costly grace” against “easy grace,” by showing two characters or situations which evince both ideas. One of the great mysteries of life is why bad things happen to good people, and vice versa.

This would be a beautiful, confusing, and thought provoking dynamic—setting up someone who utilizes “easy” grace to get ahead, against another person who yearns for “costly” grace, only to find spiritual victory and social and perhaps emotional defeat.

This plot twist might affect many aspects of a production. For instance, a costume designer might dress the anti-hero in beautiful or light colored clothing, while the protagonist—in terms of holding out for costly grace—might be in ill-fitting, dark, or frayed garb. A lighting designer might use lighter yellow and rose hues for “easy” character, while darker or more ominous lighting might indicate our genuine protagonist. And language might be reversed, as well, with the more spiritually yearning character using a degraded, or perhaps even vile language, while the one going for easy grace might be articulate, mellifluous, and convincing.

These confusing elements would not only highlight the difference between the social acceptability of an “easy” grace, but would add an element of “cost” for the audience, as they attempted to unpack all of the confusion and figure out how they reacted to the obvious messaging, and to the underlying, hidden themes.

Another beautiful statement from The Cost of Discipleship might influence the creation of a theatre piece: “The disciples are strangers in the world, unwelcome guests, and disturbers of the peace. No wonder the world rejects them!”

This is a challenging sentiment, which immediately separates a protagonist from the other characters in a play, and perhaps from the world presented. It’s not easy, as it is important in a production that the characters have a kernel of something sympathetic, so the audience remains engaged with their struggles. But when the main character is by necessity a “stranger in the world,” a risk of presenting a black and white tableau emerges.

But what true artist retreats from such a challenge? The idea of setting off a character against the rest of the personages, as well as (perhaps) the central belief system of the play offers fodder for much conflict, thought-provoking dialogue, and action. For instance, in my play Sub-Basement, the wise men were homeless, while the “respectable” figures held important jobs in law enforcement, yet weren’t able to help the main character find her true purpose.

Other devices than character flipping might be utilized. Different soundscapes underscoring the idea of being in the “right,” yet unacknowledged; lighting which highlights the difference between characters in the majority, and the one alone representing morality, or costume choices nodding at this distinction could help drive the designers’ ideas. You can see in the photo above that the repositories of knowledge were dressed in tatters.

Additionally, dialogue might be tweaked, with the “moral” character having a different speech pattern—accent, tone of voice, tempo, or vocabulary—perhaps more grounded than the other figures, offering an anchor in a world of airy, heightened language. This would denote they were “grounded” in a spiritual reality, while generally-accepted social norms were simply poetry, signifying nothing more than a person’s cleverness, not wisdom or intelligence.

Through studying the ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, learning a bit about his courage and, at times, contradictions in his life and thought, many specific ideas for a theatrical production might emerge which can offer novel, thought-provoking, and spiritually nourishing impetus for writing, designing, and producing a play.

Suggested reading:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being

 

June 1, 2017

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My article "Ramming Morality Into Our Economic System the John Ruskin Way" published

Ramming Morality Into Our Economic System the John Ruskin Way

Let’s forget about Trump for a moment.

After all, as fun and exciting and different as his presidency is proving to be, he will not – in the end – change the course of human events.  Even less so, of the economic pressures that aggrieve and threaten to crush us.  Where Trump is a pimple on the butt of American history, our ongoing economic anarchy is a blistering, cancerous abscess affecting the fate of all of people.

I picked up a book the other day which threw the greed, inequality, lawlessness, and inhumanity of our Western capitalist system into stark relief.  And given that this series of essays was written more than 150 years ago, at the infancy of the Industrial Revolution, I found it both prescient and deeply disturbing.

It diagnosed the creeping illness of the economic system of mid-19th century England, which so closely parallels our own, in 21st-century America.  The only difference being that the ability for “economical science” (as the author called it) to wreak havoc on society and individuals has grown exponentially, keeping time with our frantic technological progress.

More than that, however, the slim pamphlet provides a potential palliative for this social illness.

I’m talking about an 1860 series of four essays, “Unto this Last,” by writer and philosopher John Ruskin.  Ruskin set out to show how economic health concerns far more than the acquisition of “all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value” (Ruskin quoting John Stuart Mill).  He laid out quite clearly that true economical well-being involves evaluating the totality of society, not just the amount of gold distributed among the fewest number of people (as seemed to define – and continues to delineate – the true state of “wealthy” nations).  In his view, “just or economical exchange…is simply [that wherein there is] advantage on both sides [and] whatever advantage there is on either side…should be thoroughly known to all concerned. All attempt at concealment implies some practice of the opposite.”  He also chafed at the idea that people with different interests (for instance, labor versus capital, or client versus producer, etc.) must “necessarily regard each other with hostility, and use violence or cunning to obtain the advantage.”

Obviously, this kind of transparency and fairness runs directly contrary to what is considered “sound” business practice.  As many current chairmen of publicly held corporations would surely note, their obligation is to their shareholders, not to consumers, to the health of the environment or nation, or even their own workers.  Isn’t the idea of having an economic exchange which is of “advantage on both sides” not only absurd, but antithetical to good business practice?

It’s a zero sum game, man!  There are winners and losers in life – and we want to be on the side of the winners!

This dynamic of greed and self-justification stretches back to the beginnings of capitalism, often dated by historians to fourteenth-century England.  As Ruskin argued, those in power “never professed, nor profess, to take advantages of a general nature into consideration.”  Instead, they believe they are simply experts at “the science of getting rich…Every man of business knows by experience how money is made, and how it is lost,” they’d argue.

Ruskin has an easy reply to this line of reasoning – one that all progressives should keep handy when arguing economic theory with the smarmy and self-certain advocates of economic anarchy (“deregulate the banks!” “deregulate the corporations!” “eviscerate environmental protections!” “never, ever raise the minimum wage!,” etc.):

The circulation of wealth in a nation resembles that of the blood in the natural body. There is one quickness of the current which comes of cheerful emotion or wholesome exercise; and another which comes of shame or of fever. There is a flush of the body which is full of warmth and life; and another which will pass into putrefaction.

As diseased local determination of the blood involves depression of the general health of the system, all morbid local action of riches will be found ultimately to involve a weakening of the resources of the body politic.

And so it is: as the inequality of wealth accretes (as it certainly has since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, he whose name graces an airport, a federal building and perhaps, some day, the dime), the health of the nation, as well as the environment upon which the nation sits and depends, weakens.  And so too, if we can judge by the growing anti-science, anti-truth legions collecting in our public square, does the mental acumen of the polis.

So what is one to do?

One of the hallmarks of my belief in activist social theories is that they be applicable, and lead to quantifiable, positive social change.  We must move beyond simply expressing opposition to current political and social energies, to devising specific manners of combatting them.  We must develop, as Hannah Arendt called them, “clumsy theories” – theories which can actually be implemented.

Ruskin’s ideas show a way forward in the realm of the 21st-century global economy.  And although I believe he would support a universal basic income, universal health care and access to housing for all, he states no such thing, and certainly is no proponent of communism or socialism.

I feel it is his acceptance of capitalism as the economic structure which makes his ideas more powerful.  He is not going against what most people in our society (and certainly the older monied class, though not always today’s youth) accept as the “best” way for the economy to work.  Rather, he is tweaking, infiltrating and massaging it to make it work for a far greater portion of the population.  And in the best of cases, for the entire society.

Ruskin reconsidered the manner in which we think about the most basic aspects of a healthy society.  For instance, he noted: “The vital question, for individual and for nation, is, never ‘how much do they make?’ but ‘to what purpose do they spend?’”  Today, 21st-century “educated consumers” – all of those purchasing organic and fair-trade goods, buying local and at farmer’s markets, examining labels to make certain they weren’t made in far-away sweatshops, staying away from Walmart, Target and other multi-national corporations while paying a little bit extra to support the locally owned store or individual market – are living by Ruskin’s code.

Doing so does cost a little bit more, and given that reality and many workers’ low pay, we also need to think in terms of another movement gathering steam, one that Ruskin would heartily endorse: the Fight for $15.  For Ruskin made it very clear that the price of labor should not be set by the anarchy of the marketplace and desperation of the worker.  A fair and living wage should be paid to all, he argued:

The abstract idea, then, of just or due wages, as respects the laborer, is that they will consist in a sum of money which will at any time procure for him at least as much labor as he has given, rather more than less. And this equity or justice of payment is, observe, wholly independent of any reference to the number of men who are willing to do the work.

This idea of “procuring at least as much labor as he has given” translates into an equitable exchange in which workers are paid what they’re truly worth, not what business owners say they are.  We definitely see this idea in force now, as over the past couple of years, the ideal of a $15/hour minimum wage has been gathering steam.  Low-wage earners in many cities and states can now take home pay more in line with their time expenditure, and thus have greater purchasing power.

Finally, we need to follow Ruskin’s lead and center honesty in our economic thinking.  Currently, the idea of “honesty” in commerce runs contrary to our economic model.  Our economy is built on lying to consumers, usually obliquely through advertising messaging, but sometimes through overbilling, frank misstating of a product’s benefits, and outright fraud, such as Wells Fargo Bank’s practice of opening expensive bank accounts without informing people of their fees.  But it doesn’t have to be that way; as Ruskin said:

The acquisition of [true] wealth is finally possible only under certain moral conditions of society, of which quite the first was a belief in the existence and even, for practical purposes, in the attainability of honesty…There is no Wealth but Life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

Ruskin’s ideas are hardly revolutionary.  He does not advocate for the cessation of wealth accrual, or the destruction of the capitalist system.  He only advocates for ramming a moral lodestar into the center of the system.  There would still be labor and capital – but capital would treat labor with humanity, kindness, fairness and honesty.  Money could still be won, but it would no longer be the “god” it has risen to in our pagan economic system; it would be simply a byproduct of hard work and good ideas, not malfeasance, cleverness and trickery.  And when gobs of money were won, the “winner” would treat all the laborers in their orbit with fairness and honesty, as well as do their best to protect the values of respect, health and morality.

Unto this Last thus holds much wisdom for today’s progressive economic and social thinker.  The kind of tweaks, infiltrations, and moral compass Ruskin proposes – if advocated by enough people through specific legislative, legal and economic proposals – might actually begin to create the kind of practical utopia he envisioned.  Many such ideas – a universal basic income, access to higher education for all, health care as a human right, etc. – are already percolating in our society.  In some cases, like a living wage, social pressure has driven legislative action and these ideas are actually beginning to be implemented through legislation.

Now we just need more of that!

 

May 15, 2017

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International Human Rights Art Festival comes to the Wild Project (NY) in '18!

Announcing the 2018 International Human Rights Art Festival: December 10-16, 2018 at Wild Project, coincinding with International Human Rights Day.  In the meantime, we'll be running a series of events throughout this year and next.  

May 11, 2017

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Chuang Tzu: Mysticism of the Absurd published in HowlRound

Chuang Tzu: Mysticism of the Absurd

This series explores the ideas of three mystical thinkers, and looks at how their philosophies can be applicable to theatrical work.

New theatrical works can take their inspiration from many arenas. Recently, much theatre has been based in specific contemporary events, using the stage to raise awareness of social and political issues. Plays such as Exonerated (Culture Project, 2003, dealing with the death penalty); Next Fall (Helen Hayes Theater, 2010, exploring faith in contemporary America); The Gabriels, Election Year in the Life of One Family(Public Theater, 2016, about electoral politics), The Humans (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 2016, a slice of life of a “normal” American family) and many others treat the poetry of the present, often exhibiting a specific political point of view.

But the energies explored in these performances, though situated in the present, are timeless. We may not like to admit it, but we humans haven’t really changed that much in temperament or spiritual yearning in the past five millennia or so. The most positive of these eternal energies is represented by the human mystical impulse: the drive to empty oneself of personal desire, to be replaced with a total appreciation for the unity of all seemingly disparate aspects of our universe. As Chuang Tzu (d. 287 B.C.E.) noted: “Great knowledge sees all in one;
 small knowledge breaks down one into the many.”

Within theatrical performances, timeless mystical thought can be utilized to expand contemporary narratives, deepen the meaning of current concerns, and connect them to the enduring issues that humanity has been struggling with since the beginning of our shared journey.

In this and later posts, I will explore the ideas of three mystical thinkers from different eras and cultures, and look at how they might be translated onto the living stage. Through using their concepts to inspire language, theatrical space, time passage, set design, and even costumes, a new dimension can be added to productions.

 

Within theatrical performances, timeless mystical thought can be utilized to expand contemporary narratives, deepen the meaning of current concerns, and connect them to the enduring issues that humanity has been struggling with since the beginning of our shared journey.  

 

Chuang Tzu was a Taoist philosopher who lived during the fourth century B.C.E. He developed a philosophy of skepticism generously ladled with humor and absurdity. His ideas can provide inspiration for theatrical interpretation, including spiritual depth, subtle humor, and strange linguistic and performative juxtapositions.

One recurring theme in Chuang Tzu’s work is the importance of uselessness: that sometimes just being is more important than being useful for something else. This story illustrates the idea:

There were three friends discussing life.

One said:
 "Can men live together and know nothing of it?
Work together and produce nothing?

Can they fly around in space 
and forget to exist?

World without end?"

The three friends looked at each other and burst out laughing.

They had no explanation.
Thus they were better friends than before.

In our culture, these men would be called lazy good-for-nothings (or worse), have all state aid cut off, and be forced to live by begging in the streets, treated as outcasts. However, perhaps there is a wisdom to their madness—and something which might stretch a theatrical exploration of contemporary issues.

First of all, language construction or situational staging could show two people sharing a moment—absurd, incomprehensible, or even just plain contradictory (“Can they fly around in space
and forget to exist”)—yet which brings them together. This could help define a relationship without explaining it.

Additionally, taking the cues from this idea (the majesty of uselessness), a circular conception of time and activities might replace the linear. In Chuang Tzu’s ideal, going in circles is no different than taking a linear path from point “A” to point “B.” In fact, it might even have more merit. This idea could be translated into a timescape for the play’s action: the production might begin at a specific point in time, meander about into the future, back into the past, and then terminate in the present, where it began.

It might also influence set design, where any setting from a few black-box cubes to an elaborate visual-scape could be staged in such a manner as to represent the labyrinth of uselessness, the circular nature of yearning, the pointlessness of desire. How could “acceptance” and “the purposefulness of uselessness” translate onto the stage? In as many manners as there are stage designers, each bringing their personal vision to this novel and bizarre mystical idea.

Another short passage from Chuang Tzu’s thought offers further impetus for creative theatremaking:

What is meant by a "true person"?

The true people of old were not afraid
When they stood alone in their views.

No great exploits. No plans.

If they failed, no sorrow.

No self-congratulation in success.

Here, Chuang Tzu touches on a central mystical idea: equanimity. In this concept, a person is completely unfazed by either praise or condemnation. Their internal sense of self is unchanged in either case.

Again, this ideal runs contrary to our contemporary cult of celebrity, media, and putative fame. The idea of being completely untouched by what other people think is not just contrary, it’s anathema. But it is a central spiritual ideal, and by using it to inspire theatrical presentations, an important dynamic between contemporary culture and spiritual history can be established. This view might influence costume design, for instance, by having the hero or protagonist of the piece represented in shabby clothing, or by a person in homeless garb.

Dialogue might take its cue here, making the spiritually or morally stronger character far less verbose, and perhaps even linguistically weaker, though in actions stronger than other, more malicious (and verbally mellifluous) characters. Set design, props—the weaker having the more beautiful pocket watch, for instance—even soundscape could help to elucidate the sense of a character’s rectitude, as one who “if they failed, [feels] no sorrow and [experiences] no self-congratulation in success” (Chaung Tzu: above). A soundscape for a single hero which veered from the beautiful to the grating, for instance, or consisted only of street sounds or might simply be represented by the buzz of a fluorescent light. Something which represents the timeless, the unadorned, the uncaring—but the deeply Real.

Mystical ideas have much to teach us about contemporary stagecraft. And Chuang Tzu, dead now for more than 2300 years, can inform, inspire, and add depth to a theatrical performance. A playwright, director, and production team might use the ancient sage’s wisdom to expand the meaning of their piece, as well as subtly tie it into more than five thousand years of human creative yearning.

 

 

 

March 28, 2017

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Theater is Easy review of Sub Basement

The theatre review site Theater is Easy wrote a beautiful review of Sub-Basement, including the following:

Sub-Basement is a quirky, comedic odyssey that expands from the streets of New York to the inner workings of its characters’ minds.

 

Sub-Basement is great for anyone looking for something a little less linear and a lot more off-beat than the more common theatrical fare. Tom Block engages with some lofty themes and mind-bending questions in this comedic epic set in a slightly more surreal version of today’s New York City. 

 

 Sub-Basement is a play that will not only make you think, but give you something beautiful to see as you do. It is, among many other things, an intriguing step into the surreal.

Check out the full review in the review section of my website!

March 13, 2017

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Mysticism in the Theatre: What’s Needed Right Now published in HowlRound

My first article on mysticism in the theater -- how to apply mystical ideas and language to the stage -- was published in HowlRound just after the Festival.  This piece will be followed by three more, concentrating on specific thinkers (Chuang Tzu, 4th century B.C.E.; Attar, 13th century C.E. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer 20th century C.E.) and how to apply their ideas and language to a specific theatrical production.  Here is the first, oveview piece:

Mysticism in the Theatre: What’s Needed Right Now

Mysticism represents the energy which drives, as well as unites all traditional spiritual paths. Mysticism characterizes the singular spiritual yearning at the heart of being. More importantly, mysticism represents the place where all sacred paths are in agreement: it denotes the human religion, shared by all.

As the great thirteenth century Sufi (Islamic) saint Rumi noted:

Though the words of the great saints appear in a hundred different forms, since God is one and the Way is one, how can their words be different? Though their teachings appear to contradict, their meaning is one. Separation exists in their outward form only; in inner purpose they all agree.

British philosopher Walter Stace proposed two aspects of mysticism that were shared across all cultures, religions, time periods, and social conditions. One defined an experience that “looks outward through the senses” to apprehend the Oneness of all through the multiplicity of the world, comprehending this unity as the consciousness of the world.

A second facet comprised an inward looking experience in which an “emptying out” by a person of all experiential content and phenomenological qualities, including concepts, thoughts, sense perception and sensuous images, leads to a “pure” wakeful consciousness, through meditation or other mental exercises.

As we head into a more difficult and divisive period in American political and social history, a reinvigoration of these ideas represents a much-needed remedy. The energy, ideas, and impetuses provided by mysticism can inspire theatre artists and inform theatrical productions in specific ways, offering a timeless healing energy to the social illness that has burst like an abscess into American culture.

Historically, playwrights have utilized mystical ideals to underpin their narratives, as well as stretch the meaning and intent of their work. Of course, a play like Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett), immediately comes to mind, as it takes place in the liminal space of mystical time (where eternity and the temporal meet).

We also find specific mystical references. One example comes from Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the bard presents a world where Purgatory exists, but not the hereafter. Purgatory is here and now. “I am bound/ Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/ Do scald like molten lead . . .” This tracks the mystical concept that physical life is the greatest veil between humanity and the Real—an idea that appears in all three Abrahamic faiths, as well as Buddhism, Hinduism and other religious paths.

Mystical thought is not currently an important aspect of our social, political, or even artistic conversations. It is often considered irrelevant and even anachronistic in our era: something contrary to the cult of the individual, the yearning after fame and fortune, and the capitalistic anarchy that defines contemporary society. But by reinvigorating mystical ideas through their insertion into living theatre, both mysticism and theatre can become central to a desperately needed social renewal—healing wounds, crossing social divides and helping to suture the American society back together.

 

Most, if not all, theatre artists feel a strong spiritual impetus to create their work. They feel instinctually drawn to use their craft to raise awareness of social and political issues, to influence the culture around them with their art and to better society through their plays.  

 

There are many specific manners in which these ideas can play an important role in theatrical productions. I will outline three of them below. Just as important, at the end of the article, I will include a number of mystical texts from all time periods and many paths, which might offer language, methods, and concepts to influence theatrical writing, lighting, stagecraft, acting, and productions in general.

Inspiration

Most, if not all, theatre artists feel a strong spiritual impetus to create their work. They feel instinctually drawn to use their craft to raise awareness of social and political issues, to influence the culture around them with their art and to better society through their plays.

However, many of these same socially-driven artists do not consider themselves "religious" per se—they do not draw their inspiration from a particular path or set of religious prescriptions. Therefore, at times, they must draw from the well of social contact, of working with like-minded people or of simply “knowing” they are doing the right thing, though unsure from where this power within them arises.

Mystical thinking can offer a spiritual foundation for these creators, outside of the narrow halls of the religious edifice. Far from demanding, cajoling, asserting, and threatening—as it sometimes seems that religions do—mystical energy is as soft and yielding as water. Yet, as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu noted: “For dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.”

For theatre artists, who feel driven to create for the purpose of inspiring positive social change, the gentle wisdom of great and open-minded thinkers can offer a strong foundation from which to work, while not demanding, exhorting or punishing if certain metrics are not met. What’s more, as Lao Tzu assures, this quiet energy is the exact thing needed to dissolve nagging spiritual questions within the theatre artist, and social walls between people without.

To center one’s work in these ideas, I suggest reading mystical texts, sharing the ideas, gathering with like-minded friends and colleagues to discuss their relevance to the theatre and to society, and generally making the mystical point of view present in one’s life and worldview.

Infiltration
Mystics have been thinking about, dealing with and proposing solutions for the very same social problems (greed, will to power, charity/lack of charity, the demonization of the “other,” etc.) for at least 5,000 years. Their ideas can provide a wealth of material, strategies and even specific language which can influence the creation of theatrical work. These ideas might be woven into plays, dropped into the mouths of characters, illuminating contemporary concerns with timeless wisdom.

The precedence for this infiltration into theatrical productions lies in the history of mysticism itself. In medieval times, liturgical language was embedded into Sufi (Islamic) and Kabbalistic (Jewish) poetry, as a manner of providing little turbines of mystical power. This was called shibbutz, or “inlay,” and originated with medieval Sufi poets using Qu’ranic lines as their spiritual ornament. Later, Jewish mystics borrowed the idea, utilizing Biblical quotes to enliven their mystical poetry.

Theatre artists might borrow from these great thinkers, reading and then inserting the words or point of view of anyone from Lao Tzu to Nelson Mandela, to Gandhi, to theBaghavad Gita into their plays, thereby reinvigorating the mystical concepts in a contemporary milieu. These “inlays” might also add a timeless quality to contemporary social and political problems, situating them more clearly in the stream of human history, instead of treating them as concerns unique to our era. It is important to remember that Donald J. Trump (for instance) is hardly a novel social concern. He represents a political energy as old as bread or beer.

For instance, in my play Sub-Basement (IRT Theater, March 24–April 15, 2017), I lace specific mystical quotes through the text, to highlight the spiritual search of the main character as she struggles, halfway between poetry and the law. For instance, Arnaud, a homeless man, states, concerning his fate as an older gentleman with no means, that he is not afraid of dying: “Death isn’t the end, after all. Just the doorway by which the lover rejoins the beloved,” a direct Rumi quote. His friend responds: “I told you not to read that stuff!” And a bit further along, as the “teaching” of the main character Adrienne devolves into the chaos of her internal state, Arnaud (the designated mystical adept) quotes Rumi again: “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment,” to which our beleaguered hero asks why, if he is claiming to offer answers, he just keeps confusing things? He responds with the one of the most important mystical kernels: “It means that sometimes answers lie buried in confusion. In fact, sometimes confusion is the answer.”

These “inlays” also help theatre artists build their projects into spiritual engines, providing impetus for the audience to think in unusual ways as they work to positively influence the world around us. The infiltration into the general public takes place as the words and ideas are woven into the plays, and the ideas are disseminated to audiences.

Specification
Going beyond inspiration and “inlay,” numerous other manners of relating mystical concepts to building theatrical pieces can be explored. Mystical impetus for underlying narrative themes or points of view; for considering set building or sound scores; for acting choices; for discovering novel creative motivations, and numerous other ideas emerge from a consideration of mystical writings and views.

At this point, however, it is vital to point out that I am not proposing a clear and direct expression of these concepts. I do not envision having an actor move downstage and, in a direct address, implore: “As the great Sufi Saint Rumi so presciently queried, ‘can’t we all just get along?!’”

Far from this literal presentation, shibbutz involves subtlety, dexterity, and gentleness in presentation. The audience, in my opinion, should not be able to flag when they are being approached with mystical energy or even quotes. These should be woven seamlessly into the theatrical presentation, leaving their residue in the memory and subconscious of the audience, as opposed to pounding them over the head with a (metaphorical) two-by-four.

Given this, however, there are numerous approaches by which this mystical inlay might be pursued. As noted, the clearest method is in language use. For instance, in a play of mine (La Bestia: Sweet Mother), I use many mystical quotes, borrowed verbatim from the sources. However, far from being delivered directly and with earnest intent, I twist them in such a way as to cause the audience to consider them more deeply.

These words are put into the mouth of a CIA agent to justify her work in killing what we know to be an innocent woman, a Syrian freedom fighter. By putting quotes from theBaghavad Gita, Rumi, and others into her mouth as justifications for her “vital” work, it shows not only how language can be twisted, but also how these ideals can become subsumed in negative, divisive energy. The implicit message is that these ideals must be considered and implemented in the manner in which they were intended: as doorways into the spirit and toward the appreciation of sameness.

Mystical ideals might also influence set design. Although we’ve all sat in a theatre and seen, as the curtain rises, a perfect representation of the inside of a Starbucks Coffee Shop (down to the little red straws!), mystical impetus would ask us to think a bit more deeply about issues of metaphor, the subconscious, and the quiet messages of the spirit emanating from within.

There is much rich visual symbolism threaded through mystical writings, which might inspire set design to move toward the liminal or interior spiritual spaces, as opposed to a twenty-first century coffee shop. A set designer might consider using the softness of materials to create a welcoming space; a water-theme to echo Lao Tzu’s admonition that “for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it” or unusual colors (all red, gold, or white for instance) to bring the audience out of the banal and into the world of essence.

I create liminal spaces through the use of my paintings on set. As a longtime visual artist (and playwright), I am able to pair paintings with subject matter to add psychological and spiritual depth to the set design, as well as expand the subtext of the characters. This is another option: to work with a visual artist to help build a novel, world-bending vision of the tableau of the play. These various and strange visual presentations can remove the audience from the banal world of a Starbucks or perfectly rendered hotel room, and indicate that the messaging involved takes place on a different, and deeper plane.

The same can be said of the soundscape, of course. While I certainly appreciate hearing the exact sounds of the street, a period streetcar, or the interior of a bar (“I know which one that is!”), I feel that sound—like the set, language, and all aspects of the play—should help remove the audience from the banal to consider deeper issues, and how they can affect our interactions.

Mystical and spiritual ideals…offer a vital and fresh manner of reconceiving possibility, approaching the audience beyond their conscious thought.  

Every playwright and design team will define their own manner of doing this. Personally, I like to work with live music, and specifically the cello. A good cellist can not only interpret and interact with the language and actors, but also deepen the tone of the piece’s meaning.

Mystical and spiritual ideals are “timeless” because they relate in a very specific, though different manner to every time and place in human history. Although they are not much considered in today’s theatre world, or any other facet of society (not even religion!), they offer a vital and fresh manner of reconceiving possibility, approaching the audience beyond their conscious thought.

A Sufi saying holds: “Words spoken from the mouth will never get past the ears. Words spoken from the heart, enter the heart.” Now more than ever, our task is clear: theatre artists must speak from the heart, so our audiences can “hear” with the most important sense organ we have: the heart.

Suggested Reading List:

Aurelius, Marcus: Meditations

Baghavad Gita

Berry, Wendell: Standing by Words

Black Elk: Black Elk Speaks

Buber, Martin: Tales of the Hasidim

Buddha: The Dhammapada

Chuang Tzu: Genius of the Absurd

Eckhart, Meister: Selected Writings

Gandhi: All Men are Brothers

Heschel, Abraham Joshua: God in Search of Man

Huxley, Aldous: The Perennial Philosophy

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

Mechthild of Magdeburg: The Flowing Light of Divinity

Merton, Thomas: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Rabi’a: Rabi'a the Female Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam

Rumi: Rumi and Me (William Chittick, translator)

Sheikh Sa’adi: The Rose Garden

Sogyal Rinpoche: Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Weil, Simone: Waiting on God

Yeshe Tsogyel: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel

 

December 3, 2016

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Prophetic Activist Art class at the School of Making Thinking

The School of Making Thinking (at the Abrons Art Center in the Lower East Side, NYC) will be hosting my Prophetic Activist Art class, running on Tuesday evenings from February 28 - March 2.    The Prophetic Activist Art class is a laboratory for activist artists and their projects.  The course will work with up to 12 activist artists who would like to build their projects during the semester-long seminar, basing their work Tom Block's manifesto/handbook of art activism: Prophetic Activist Art: Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution  (Centre for Human Ecology, Scotland, 2014).  Mr. Block (www.tomblock.com) will be running the seminar.

This model utilizes art to infiltrate and co-opt political, business and social structures to inspire specific and quantifiable social change.  Prophetic Activism is based on the idea that true social transformation must come from within societal pillars, and the best manner of implementing change is to influence these power centers.

The eight session seminar will introduce artists to the specific ideas of the model, including co-opting political, business and social energy; partnering with non-profit groups; making liaisons with other artists; utilizing unusual exhibition and outreach methods; "Machiavellian" activism; how to build a project from inception through completion; how to imagine and successfully attain quantifiable activist goals and other specific aspects of a Prophetic Activist Art intervention.

August 24, 2016

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My Essay published: "War in the Name of God: Christianity Is No Less Addicted Than Any Other Religion"

My latest essay on war, religion and statecracft was published in the 34Justice blog:

n a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Gary Gutting (a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame) argued concerning what some call “radical Islamic terrorism:”

Islam has not yet tamed, to the extent that Christianity has, the danger implicit in any religion that claims to be God’s own truth.  To put it bluntly, Islam as a whole has not made the concessions to secular values that Christianity has.

This Western-centric, racist and arrogant attitude from the spiritually “advanced” Christian religion toward the unreformed and medieval Islamic one is all too typical. As I write this, Christian nations (mostly our own) rain bombs down from drones onto weddings, schools and other secular places and events in Islamic lands.  The difference between our bombs and their bombs, however, is (according to the narrative) massive: we drop our payloads in the name of peace and with a great sadness that they force us to, while they joyfully blow themselves up in evil acts of anarchy and murder.

At least Christian killers value their own lives!

One needn’t dig too deeply into the American story, or psyche, to discover specific examples of our country’s Orwellian “war is peace” paradigm, all tightly supported by the loving vessel of American Christianity.

Christian language and imagery are explicit in the American call to arms.  America’s wars have almost always been – and continue to be – spiritual/religious affairs in which young men and women are called to sacrifice themselves for the Christian God.  As was noted in an article in Newsweek:

In America, God and war have a particular kinship: evoking God in the midst of mass killing is inspirational…Divine sanction has been used to give meaning to the Constitution’s promise of equality, as well as to license genocide…This impulse to blend God and war owes much to the American temperament: Americans have always feared one (today, nine out of ten call themselves believers) and loved the other (the United States has fought in dozens of armed conflicts in the nation’s two-and-a-third centuries).  Not a few old warriors have admitted to thrilling to the words of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

If you’re not convinced that this defines a current American attitude, consider the United States’ response to “Islamic terrorism” (the American existential threat du jour).  “In the weeks after the September [11, 2001] attacks,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges observed, “communities gathered for vigils and worship services.  The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura…The state, and the institutions of state, became for many, the center of worship.”

On the first anniversary of the attacks, seven months before the 2003 incursion into Iraq, President Bush said: “Our cause is even larger than our country.  Ours is the course of human dignity, freedom guided by conscience grounded by peace.  This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind.”  As the British newspaper The Guardianreported:

George Bush has claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nabil Shaath, Palestinian foreign minister said: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did. And then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.’”

Bush’s politics of war were always framed for the public in a religious manner.  As Anglican Priest Jeremy Young noted, for example, Bush suggested in his 2003 State of the Union address “that America is Christ and that its role is to save the world.”  However, it is true that Bush hasn’t been president for nearly a decade, so it might be argued that now, finally, America has moved past the conflation of Jesus’s will and our military incursions.

Would that it were so.  President Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, has continued the starry-eyed vision of an American Christ of the sword.  Professor Robert H. Nelson, writing for the mainstream PBS website, notes that Obama, too, has infused religious imagery into his speeches.  And Obama has buttressed this faith with bombs.  According to Politifact, by the spring of 2016, Obama had ordered 500 drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen (as opposed to 60 by President Bush); 1000 drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2014 alone; and a smattering of others in Syria, Libya, Iraq and other far-off, generally Muslim locales.  The Huffington Post noted that “nearly 90% of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target,” allowing Obama’s scattershot Christian murders to be assured of killing Muslims, though rarely the “correct” ones.  Far from shying away from these actions, our Christian leader has bragged about it: “There isn’t a president who’s taken more terrorists off the field than me, over the last seven and a half years,” he puffed in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace in April 2016.

None of that is to say that American Christians are in any way different or worse than contemporary practitioners of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, or even Buddhism.  It is simply the case that Christianity is no better, no more evolved, no more peaceful than any of the world’s religions – all of which (even Buddhism) are steeped within a tradition of sacred violence, and are currently involved in wars of choice in the name of God.  (While I am well aware that many will balk at the idea that Buddhism, too, is as bloodthirsty as the other world’s religions – gasp! – Buddhist practitioner Brian Daizen Victoria notes in his book Zen at War that “warfare and killing are described as manifestations of Buddhist compassion” and Buddhists are, in fact, committing violence today.)  All faiths utilize war-like language and imagery to describe matters of the spirit and exhort followers to religious catharsis through violence.  Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer stated in his bookIs Religion Killing Us: “Religiously justified violence is first and foremost a problem of ‘sacred’ texts and not a problem of misinterpretation of those texts.”  Since virtually all major religions have embedded within them violent images of God, people can selectively recall these texts and extract from them divine support for war, creating the foundation for what Nelson-Pallmeyer terms the “violence of God tradition.”

One central reason that contemporary leaders have such a willing audience when representing war as religiously sanctioned – and, in many cases, even a spiritual obligation – is the extensive history of uniting physical war and the spiritual pathwithin the sacred teachings of virtually all creeds.  Though much of the religious language was undoubtedly meant as metaphor, the human mind runs quickly downhill to the literal, leaving reams of imagery and injunctions for leaders to utilize when discussing military campaigns within the secular culture, and influencing the minds of potential warriors.

American politicians, the media and even mainstream entertainers – like those of all other cultures and religions – do everything in their power to play up the similarities between the religious path and war, all for the poorly obscured purpose of exploiting human pawns to protect their own earthly power or to just simply make a buck (e.g., Boeing, General Electric, Northrup Grumman et al.).  Perhaps, to some extent, they might even believe their own words, especially if they themselves have fought in a war and come out more or less whole.  In this case they will be forced to trust in the lie of a mystical war, if only to help justify the horrors they themselves witnessed and perpetrated.

We need only examine the words of a man considered an American hero, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), to understand how war language explicitly borrows from the religious and even mystical lexicon.  Here’s how he eulogized a soldier fallen in Afghanistan:

He loved his country, and the values that make us exceptional among nations, and good…Love and honor oblige us.  We are obliged to value our blessings, and to pay our debts to those who sacrificed to secure them for us.  They are blood debts…The loss of every fallen soldier should hurt us lest we ever forget the terrible costs of war, and the sublime love of those who sacrifice everything on our behalf.

Note how the very real horrors of war are euphemistically referred to in the language of mysticism: “sublime love,” “obligation,” “good causes,” “moral purpose, “save the innocent,” “peace” and “sacrifice.”  This presentation persuades the general population to bypass the intent of their religious teachings, concentrating instead on its sometimes-grisly content.

For those who waver, the dead soldier is held out as incontrovertible proof of the necessity and worth of the war.  After all, how could one “force” the soldier to have died in vain, by questioning the worth of his action?  The war becomes worthwhile because someone has died undertaking it, a reversal of the normal assignation of worth, which defines an action’s merit before the risk is actually taken.  In a horrifying example of the “sunk costs” theory, the more people that die for a cause, however mistaken, the more religiously valuable the action, no matter what the true human or economic price really is.  Through the sacrifice of human souls for political ends, war becomes enmeshed with a true God experience.

Perhaps as dangerous as the ongoing conflation of spirituality and war are assertions like those from Gutting, who declares that American Christianity has “moved past” religiously sanctioning state violence.  This blindness allows our country to engage in wars for our victims’ own good – in much the same way that 12th-century Crusaders (a term used by George W. Bush in describing America’s response to the attacks of 9/11/2001) or 15th-century Spanish Inquisitors did.

It’s time for a dose of honesty: Christianity is in no manner more mature or less war-like than Islam or any other religion. To heal the illness of state-sponsored murder, we must first admit that.

August 1, 2016

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"Truth or Politics" essay published

My article on Trump, Machiavelli, lies and the lyin' press was published on the Three-for-Justice blog:

One of the greatest dangers to our democracy is the insignificant role that “truth” plays within our political discourse. The 16th-century Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli first enshrined the importance of lying within the political realm in his seminal treatise The Prince.  As Diana Schaub (professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland) noted in “Machiavelli’s Realism:” “Machiavelli deployed words as a weapon . . . Machiavelli, the supposed champion of the force of arms, was in fact a practitioner of verbal fraud and distortion.”

Far from fading away over the ensuing centuries, Machiavelli’s strategy has expanded to overwhelm our contemporary political discourse.  And this dynamic, nurtured by the media and exploited by politicians, has helped lead in a direct line from the Florentine thinker to the viable presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

Publisher and Founding Father Ben Franklin stated: “It is a principle among printers that when truth has fair play, it will always prevail over falsehood.”  But as Jim Rutenberg noted recently in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s surrogates…regularly go on television to push the point of the day from a candidate who . . . has asserted more outright falsehoods than all the other candidates who ran for president this year combined.”

While truth may well overmatch falsehoods in a forum where each has equal play, as Rutenberg notes, that is simply not the case currently in our political discourse.  Truth is rarely utilized as the lodestar for public dialogue.  Our journalists and pundits opt instead for simply repeating outright lies, reporting them as “news,” or – in the best of cases – for a dubious objectivity, often representing little more than a midpoint between two opposing political or social opinions, regardless of these opinions’ relationship to the truth.  As was pointed out this July 18, 2016 in the New York Times, the press bears much responsibility for the unimportance of truth to our political discourse, and therefore the rise of Trump:

There’s still a real chance that [Trump] might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with “bothsidesism” — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.

Ben Franklin must be spinning in his eternal resting place (Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia).

The sad and frightening fact is that what is perceived by the public as “truth” often represents little more than a stew of popularly held (though often misinformed) attitudes. These arise as a reaction to polling data, Super PACfueled propaganda (the $3 billion in dark money sloshing around this election season), surrogates’ meaningless blather on cable news programs, a narrow reading of history (“remember the good old days!”), the weight of tradition, and a basket of other impressions, none of which are forced by the press to relate in any meaningful way with the actuality of the matter.

It is certainly not difficult to see how politicians gleefully exploit this Machiavellian dynamic to “play” the media, spewing any garbage they think will help their cause, while suffering little (if at all) when their mistruth is uncovered.  Since I started paying genuine attention to this gloomy aspect of American democracy, I have been astounded by the bald-faced lies used to win political elections, running from Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ads (Bush I v. Mike Dukakis in 1988) through Karl Rove’s “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” lies (Bush II v. John Kerry) and continuing through Mitt Romney, whose team falsely claimed, among many examples, that President Obama doubled the deficit (it was actually slightly down in his first four years) and that “up to 20 million people [would] lose their insurance as Obamacare [went] into effect” (almost the opposite of what’s actually happened).

Donald J. Trump has raised the bar of political falsehoods that perhaps all of us thought could go no higher.  None have exploited the media’s obsession with objectivity and false equivalency more successfully than the current Republican standard bearer.  His ability to lie, lie, and lie again, and not be called out once and for all(through references in every single citation as “Lyin’ Donald J. Trump,” for instance) allowed him to vault over 16 Republican candidates and stand at the precipice of taking the reins of the most powerful nation in today’s world.

As Machiavelli stated: “The great majority of humans are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”  The art of the lie is far more important to the leader than learning how to tell the truth.

Donald Trump follows Machiavelli’s dictum with the same passion that the devoted practice their religions. An astounding 70% of Donald Trump’s statements are mostly or completely false, according to PolitiFact, while only 15% are mostly or entirely true.  And though now, finally, there is a growing chorus of media members gingerly stepping in to call a lie a lie, they also dutifully repeat the lie over and over again before refuting it.  Through this repetition, the lie itself becomes embedded in the public consciousness, thus giving the many and absurdist propositions spewed from the latest Republican candidate for President a patina of reality.  Journalists should lead every article about Trump with this fact: he is, as Bernie Sanders averred, a pathological liar.  But unfortunately, despite the few truth-based journalists writing in alternative outlets like The Intercept or in the back pages of the Washington Post or New York Times, the media is central to the problem.

Journalists too often imagine their obligation to be simply reporting the “news” (whatever any partisan actor tells them), remaining indifferent to whether the statements have any relation to reality or truth.  In the journalistic code of ethics, this impartiality represents the highest code of honor.  As Sharon Bader noted in “The Media: Objectivity:”

Objectivity in journalism has nothing to do with seeking out the truth, except in so much as truth is a matter of accurately reporting what others have said. This contrasts with the concept of scientific objectivity where views are supposed to be verified with empirical evidence in a search for the truth. Ironically, journalistic objectivity discourages a search for evidence; the balancing of opinions often replaces journalistic investigation altogether.

Journalists such as Thom HartmannGlenn GreenwaldRania Khalek, and other lesser known (to your average American, at least) writers do point out this problem, though they are always in a very slim minority. We find little succor in the mainstream media. Even such alleged “truth tellers” as the website PolitiFact, the Washington Post’ssoothsayer Glenn Kessler, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman (now a New York Timescolumnist) have a dubious relationship with the facts.  As the editor of this blog has shown, all three of these sources have ignored evidence and/or gotten storylines completely wrong during this election cycle.

Without a genuine moral ombudsman to separate fact from fiction in our public square, all opinions – true or not – are simply viewed as offering differing “points of view.” Katrina vanden Heuvel (publisher and part-owner of the magazine The Nation)noted in the Washington Post:

For too many journalists, calling out a Republican for lying requires criticizing a Democrat too, making for a media age where false equivalence — what Eric Alterman has called the mainstream media’s “deepest ideological commitment” — is confused, again and again, with objectivity.

This quote comes from the last election (Romney v. Obama, 2012), though the situation has not gotten better, and perhaps has even worsened. As was noted in the aforementioned July 18, 2016 article from Krugman in the New York Times:

And in the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism in action: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also . . . attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.

Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!

Perhaps more frightening than these simple facts is that we’re not talking about a subterranean conspiracy of which only a privileged few are aware. This dynamic is embedded in the journalistic canon. Krugman has said, for example, that his editors at the New York Times did not allow him to use the word “lying” back in 2000 when debunking the George W. Bush campaign’s claims about tax cuts Bush proposed.  And in an editorial by the Los Angeles Times calling the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations against John Kerry fictitious, the editors stated:

[T]he canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis’ patriotism or Kerry’s service in Vietnam…And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions.

The most disturbing line in this editorial is: “The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  Why is this so?  That they can’t call a lie a lie?  Who wrote these “canons,” which seem to explicitly demand that journalists lie to their readers, in the name of “objectivity?”

Although I have seen many instances of this overt self-awareness by journalists, I am still left with the mouth-agape question: why not?  Why can’t truth be the central pillar of journalistic ethics, instead of a “canon” of false equivalency which allows Lee Atwater, Karl Christian Rove, Donald J. Trump, and others to use lies to great effect?

Matt Taibbi (a journalist reporting on politics, media and finance for Rolling Stone and other outlets) noted in On the Media:

Though we’re tempted to blame the politicians, it’s time to dig deeper. It’s time to blame the press corps that daily brings us this unrelenting symphony of horseshit and never comes within a thousand miles of an apology for any of it. And it’s time to blame the press not only as a class of people, but also as individuals.

This lack of accountability in the media presents one of the greatest threats to democracy and the American republic. Greater then climate change, greater than the terrorist menace, greater even than a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea, the media’s unwillingness to base their reporting in the truth, opting instead for a mushy and moving center point between whatever the members of the two major political parties are saying, reduces the public conversation on matters such as climate change, the terrorist menace, and a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea to a debate over points of view (one often factually inaccurate), instead of an exploration of the unassailable truth of any issue.

The unwillingness to base reporting in truth allows lies to fester, metastasizing from the corners of the Internet into a presidential campaign (Donald J. Trump’s) which fuses White supremacists, climate denial, fascist undertones, and an increasing series of lies into a viable candidacy.

Even worse is the level of awareness and even pride some journalists show concerning this “canon” of objectivity.  As Washington Post journalist Melinda Hennebergerobserved, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting: “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

This same mainstream columnist stated, concerning some media outlets which tagged as “flatly inconsistent with the facts” a number of points vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan made in his Republican National Convention speech in 2012: “of course, each of these pieces is analysis or opinion rather than a straight news story.”  And this “opinion” (i.e. the truth) has less impact on the shared reality of the public square than a “straight news story” (i.e., one that does not separate fact from fiction).

Political campaigns agree: facts can be presented as “spin” by partisans, and therefore fall under the rubric of “opinion.”  Consider, for example, this excerpt from an article in the Washington Post in 2012:

Jon Cassidy, writing on the website Human Events, said one fact-checking outfit declares conservatives inaccurate three times as often as it does liberals.  “You might reasonably conclude that PolitiFact is biased,” he wrote [as opposed to the fact that Republicans simply lie more often].

…Brooks Jackson, executive director of FactCheck.org, said he fears that the campaigns have come to see running afoul of fact checkers as something of a badge of honor.

Now, in Donald J. Trump’s America, even the lying spinmeisters are welcomed into the journalistic tent.  After Corey Lewandowski was fired as Trump’s campaign manager on June 21, 2016, he immediately resurfaced as a CNN political commentator – even though he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Donald J. Trump!  As Rutenberg noted in his New York Times article:

Mr. Lewandowski has frequently wandered past the bounds of truth…[though, when he was hired by CNN,] Mr. Lewandowski told [fellow CNN journalist] Erin Burnett that he’d call “balls and strikes” in spite of his agreement with Mr. Trump.  But when he weighed in on Mr. Trump’s big economic speech last Tuesday, all he saw was a home run (“Mr. Trump’s best speech of the presidential cycle,” he gushed).

For the sake of full disclosure (and the truth), it must be noted that, although the Democrats are certainly not immune from this particular political sport (see: “Hillary Clinton” + “emails,” for instance), the Republicans have perfected the Machiavellian art of conflating “truth” and “lie.”  Two longtime Washington insiders, Thomas Mann (Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), wrote a book that got at this idea and summarized it four years ago in an article entitled: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem:”

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . “Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias . . . But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomena distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we could change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth?

Finally! One true statement about the political situation in the United States.

However, those in the media did not appreciate the sentiment.  After publishing their book and then article in the Washington Post, these two writers were essentially ostracized for their bipartisan, honest point of view.  As the alternative news outletMedia Matters noted a couple of weeks after the publication of the piece, “their [Mann’s and Ornstein’s] recent conclusion that Republicans are responsible for political dysfunction has been largely ignored, with the top five national newspapers writing a total of zero news articles on their thesis.”  Media Matters also pointed out that, after years of being go-to voices on the various Sunday political programs, Mann and Ornstein saw those invitations dry up after the publication of their book.

Given all of this, the rise of Trump should come as no surprise.  He is simply better at using lies to shape reality than the other 16 candidates he bested.  And he is cognizant that the press – compliant concubine that it is – will mostly parrot whatever garbage he spews from his mouth.

Donald J. Trump has risen from the fetid fertilizer of years of Republican obfuscation, lies, false accusations and other pernicious verbiage, all of which have been dutifully reported as one “opinion” (countered by an equally-weighted “opinion” known as the truth).  And when respected journalists have attempted to point out the problem of false equivalence, they have been “ostracized” by their mainstream compatriots or even shut down by their editors.

Trump is not an outlier, surprise or anomaly. He is the natural outgrowth of years of terrible reporting, coupled with Republican exploitation of this dynamic.

In a sense, Trump is doing us a favor. He is exposing the undercurrent of American democracy which has been hidden beneath the surface of “civility” and “objectivity” provided by the supine press. However, we must learn from his rise, and demand – once and for all – that truth, and not false equivalence, becomes central to our political discourse and public square.

If not, we might well learn just how far America can go toward becoming a fascist government ourselves, instead of fighting against them as we have in Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other places around the world.  While all of us certainly want to “make America great,” the question becomes for whom, and at what cost?  A question that the mainstream media should – but never seems to – put at the exact center of the conversation about Donald J. Trump, and our public square in general.

 

June 30, 2016

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Arts and Humanities Council Grant to create artwork for Sub Basement

Just received the wonderful news that I was awarded a nice, four-figure grant to produce paintings for Sub Basement, the play I have been working on with Athena Theatre Company in NY.  Got a lot of pieces to pull together, but hoping to produce -- with new art -- this fall!  Stay tuned for further information!!

June 5, 2016

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La Bestia: Sweet Mother

Working with the producers Rose and Carmine Desena of Relationship Theater, and Jonathan Bruce King, of the Players Theater in Brooklyn, to build the full-length iteration of my multi-media exploration of the earliest creation myths, La Bestia: Sweet Mother.  After a few successful runs of the one-act version (Theater at the 14th Street Y, Theater for the New City and HERE Arts Center), I am working with recently hired director Suzanne Karpsinski (Theatre Uzume) to expand the piece into a full-length.  We'll be talking about all aspects of the work over the next couple of weeks, and I will be rewriting and preparing.  Then we'll cast from a series of invitation-only auditions.  We're looking to hold a staged, off-book reading of the piece (complete with my paintings) in late September at an art gallery in Chelsea, and then move toward a festival run this winter.  After that, if we pull all the elements together and garner some interest, we'll think about a full-run of the show.

This is a complete re-do -- working with new dancers, musicians and singer, so should provide a jolt to this long-term project.

June 5, 2016

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Institute of Prophetic Activist Art

I will be teaching my third semester of coursework under the Institute of Prophetic Activist Art umbrella.  I am expanding to two courses next semester, the Prophetic Activist Art seminar I have taught the last two sessions, plus a Great Books course, looking at spiritual wisdom thinkers from the past three thousand years.

Great Books: An exploration of mystical core of all religions

September 19; October 10, 17, 24November 7, 14, 21, 28;  December 5, 12 and 19.

Prophetic Activist Art (the class I have taught the last two sessions)

September 20, 27; October 11, 25; November 15, 29; December 6 and 20        

 

COURSE DESCRIPTIONS:

 

Great Books

Mystical Foundations

Artists and activists have a very strong sense of spirituality, yet often do not consider themselves “religious.”  So from where is the spiritual wellspring from which they draw?  This course will help expand and develop an understanding of spirituality outside of religion’s social, political and legal grasp.  For a full semester, we will explore many thinkers who have plumbed the depths of the human spirit, yet were not always in accord with religious precepts. They range in time period, religion and ethnicity to include the full breadth of humanity – from ancient China through Greece and Rome, into medieval Europe and then the modern world.  Taken together, they can provide an important foundational intellectual and spiritual structure upon which to build a prophetic activist career. 

This course will be reading-intensive, in the area of 150 pages every week.  All texts will be provided free, emailed in pdf format.  Please be aware that this reading will be mandatory – class conversations will revolve around what we read the previous week.  There will be no writing assignments.  The price of the course is $150, which includes all digital texts.

The course syllabus will be as follows:

 

Mondays, 2-5 pm @ Dixon Place

 

September 19: Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

September 26: Buddha: The Dhammapada

                            The Long Discourses of the Buddha

October 10: Chuang Tzu: The Essential Chuang Tzu

October 17: Wisdom of Ancient Seers (Hindu Vedas)

October 24: Tibetan Book of the Dead

November 14: Aurelius, Marcus: Meditations; Epictetus: Enchiridion;  

                            Plotinus: The Heart of Plotinus

November 21: Eckhart, Meister: Selected Writings

November 28: Rumi Fihi ma Fihi

December 5: Buber, Martin: Tales of the Hasidim

                        Imagining Holiness

December 12: Weil, Simone: Waiting on God

December 19: Merton, Thomas: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

 

Prophetic Activist Art        

Strategies for a Spiritual Revolution

 

The Institute offers an intensive workshop to build individual art-activist projects over the semester-long seminar. Classes include an introduction to the specific aspects of the Prophetic Activist Art model (developed by Tom Block out of his own work), and then an exploration about how these ideas can be applied to each artist and their endeavor.

The Institute will consist of 12 activist artists who would like to build their projects during the semester-long seminar, basing their work on Tom Block’s manifesto/handbook of art activism: Prophetic Activist Art: Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution  (Centre for Human Ecology, Scotland, 2014).  Mr. Block (www.tomblock.com) will be running the seminar.

Building out from the belief that it is – and always has been – the artist’s obligation to raise the human gaze to their highest spiritual possibility, this model utilizes art to infiltrate and co-opt political, business and social structures to inspire specific and quantifiable social change.  Prophetic Activism is based on the idea that true social transformation must come from within societal pillars, and the best manner of implementing change is to influence these power centers.

The eight session seminar will introduce artists to the specific ideas of the model, including co-opting political, business and social energy; partnering with non-profit groups; making liaisons with other artists; utilizing unusual exhibition and outreach methods; “Machiavellian” activism; how to build a project from inception through completion; how to imagine and successfully attain quantifiable activist goals and other specific aspects of a Prophetic Activist Art intervention.  We will explore the minutiae of writing cover letters, approaching political and social leaders for their support, finding non-traditional manners of reaching audiences, raising awareness through press releases, media outreach, advertising and manner of aspects of the theory.

 

May 25, 2016

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Two new videos of me doing blind contour drawings at Mezzrow, my favorite Greenwich Village listening room . . .

Check out the videos of me drawing at Mezzrow -- and make cure to turn up the sound!  That's the best drawing sound track you've heard in awhile . . .  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9V9AfP43yn8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpd-QNzA-C4

 

November 24, 2015

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Shetterly Prize for a Portrait of a Hero or Heroism

Announcing the First Winner of "The Shetterly Prize" for Socially Engaged Art

http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/news/announcing-the-first-winner-of-the-shetterly-prize-for-socially-engaged-art

This year, 2015, the MyHero Project and Americans Who Tell the Truth created "The Shetterly Prize". Entries were solicited from people of all ages and from anywhere. Entrants were asked to portray heroes, heroism, acts of kindness or courage by individuals or by groups. How, we asked, can art be used -- and artists inspired -- to promote the common good? This prize intended to push aspiring and established artists to think about the message in their work and how it might help create a more just society. 

This years winner is Tom Block, for his portrait of Sojourner Truth. 

 

Here is the statement from the MyHero Project on the winner and the prize. 

Tom Block, artist and human rights activist has won the 2015 Shetterly Art Award at The MY HERO Project's 20th Anniversary Celebration for his soulful portrait of Sojourner Truth. 

This is the first year that Robert Shetterly, founder of Americans Who Tell The Truth.org, has donated funds to celebrate an artist who has created a hero portrait that truly conveys the emotional power of hero art.

 

Tom Block is the founder of the Human Rights Painting Project in conjunction with Amnesty International and the newly formed Institute for Prophetic Activist Art in New York. His highly expressionist portraits of human rights activists include Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Sojourner Truth and individuals who are incarcerated around the world for their acts in the name of social justice.

 

Both Robert Shetterly and Tom Block have put their art- their talent, their imagination and their sense of outrage- to raise consciousness and to effect positive social change. These artists believe in the power of art and in the universality of art to shine a light on heroes and to do the right thing.

 

Here is Robert Shetterly's statement on selecting Tom Block's portrait of Sojourner Truth. 

I've decided to award the prize to one work: Tom Block's portrait of Sojourner Truth.

 

I think all his portraits are admirable -- especially because they honor courageous people little known to most of the world --- but I chose his portrait of Sojourner because it not only honors a courageous person but it succeeds  artistically by portraying her passion, dedication, courage and grief. That's what I'm looking for -- art that carries the emotional qualities of the subject. Tom Block has created a powerful portrait and the viewer cannot help but feel Sojourner's strength.

 

I thank all the other artists for their fine work. It's a noble goal for artists to celebrate our heroes of justice and conscience. Keep at it!

 

And, I was very impressed with the children's Art. Particularly the work of Rafael Augustin Villadiego Rios (he draws with a sophisticated wit), Vincent Gordon, and every Peace Pal artist. All of these works had finely developed compositions and were executed with imagination and artistry extraordinary for people their age. 

 

I feel very honored to have met all of these artists through their art. Together we can change the consciousness of the world.

 

Location: Brooksville, Maine

Date: December 7, 2015