You can repeat [the] lies of others without hesitation because you don’t have to give justification. But saying truth you have to be fearless and courageous because you have to defend your views. You cannot say truth without hurting [the] sentiments of many people.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
―Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven
Reality is shaped by human constructs of which nature never dreamed. Art exposes and reevaluates these things, creating necessary discomfort.
Let’s talk about money, once labeled the “root of all evil” in the Hebrew Bible. Our modern social system runs on it, and yet what is money? A promise that vouches that we are worthy of the things we need and want, a watermark of our usefulness. If you have more of it, you are thus a better person, right? Something in many of us seems to fidget at this, to recognize that there is error here, an error that has been multiplied many times over, creating cracks that reach to the bottom of our society and threaten the planet which cradles us. Mark Wagner reveals and exploits those cracks to create art.
This ingenious video presented by The Avant/Garde Diaries plays up sociopathological overtones, even putting Mark into an orange shirt and shooting in such a minimalistic way that he seems to be some sort of prisoner speaking from his jail cell, or, worse, some sort of serial killer of dollar bills hard at work in his dark attic, stabbing and slicing his victims into pieces for his brilliant, grisly collages. All this from a guy who might ride next to you in the subway-a hidden, dangerous subversive.
Despite their immense cleverness, intricacy and beauty, which make me smile in spite of myself, I’m not completely sure how I feel about Mark’s collages. The destruction of hundreds of bills that could possibly help people in need reveals a certain privilege, an artistic hubris that smacks of a large ego. And yet, I appreciate the boldness of striking at a taboo that has sanctified our currency. Many people believe it is illegal to destroy or deface the American Dollar, but that assertion lies in a gray area. It is illegal to alter or destroy a bill for the purpose of defrauding someone, but the government itself destroys bills or coins when they become too disfigured for use. Doing so for artistic purposes, or even for simple low-tech mischief, is not typically construed as a crime.
The message here cuts deeper. The very word currency refers not only to money, but to “the quality of being generally accepted or in use”. If we accept the system money creates without acknowledging that it has a dark side-the extra pressure and amplified greed which it adds to the common goal of survival-we fail to safeguard our souls and our world against the resulting injustices. And yet, if we suddenly reject a system that underlies our entire civilization, we will destroy that civilization. We have to establish some sort of compromise, recognizing that money is only material, a necessary evil, at least until humanity thinks of something different. And what of all that “digital” money, the disembodied credit that floats through our modern cities like a soul or a ghost animating our desires? Will that ephemeral nature make it even more powerful and more cruel?
I think the world needs iconoclastic art such as this to call out the conflict between morality and the system we have built to sustain our society. What do you think?
“Well, let’s argue this out, Mr Blank. You, who represent Society, have the right to pay me four hundred francs a month. That’s my market value, for I am an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray, there’s no denying it. So you have the right to pay me four hundred francs a month, to lodge me in a small, dark room, to clothe me shabbily, to harass me with worry and monotony and unsatisfied longings till you get me to the point when I blush at a look, cry at a word. We can’t all be happy, we can’t all be rich, we can’t all be lucky – and it would be so much less fun if we were. Isn’t it so, Mr Blank? There must be the dark background to show up the bright colours. Some must cry so that the others may be able to laugh the more heartily.”
All I insist on, and nothing else, is that you should show the whole world that you are not afraid. Be silent, if you choose; but when it is necessary, speak—and speak in such a way that people will remember it.
Not enough youths fighting windmills. And the old are fearful, jaded or dead. Do not ask me what to do. I am just as cowardly as you. And do not tell me it is enough to speak the truth; that it is bravery enough. Every mountain leveled to the ground, every forest burned, every man, woman, and child who lost their shanties to arsonist fires were defended to the heavens—with words.
How do we deal with things that scare and anger us? Art can help us work through fear toward hope.
My newest painting came about while I was meditating on fear. I wanted to know what my mind would put on the canvas if I thought about things that scare me and visualized the colors of terror. The result is The Execution of Peace, hued not only in the expected oppressive greys and blacks, but in bright oranges, pinks, purples, blues, reds and whites. This piece explores the sharper side of fear, especially those horrors which become active and aggressive. At the end of the process I found that I had obliterated any traces of green, which for me connotes growth. So, what is going on in this busy picture?
There are three zones present: earth, a blasted heath that looks ill and charred; sky, which is blue but teeming with yellow and purple “clouds” and pollution; and a celestial region above the sky which features a storm cloud and an enormous, bloated sun. The two levels of sky are separated by a red stripe spotted with many colors, an umbilical cord which symbolizes life and its continuation.
The action of the piece is taking place in the regions above earth. The sun has grown to enormous size and deepened into orange, suggesting something apocalyptic. The upper atmosphere has taken on the hue of the dying sun, but the left hand corner contains a dense storm, from which emanate three bolts of lightning. There is a dove, with a distinct halo, standing protectively on the umbilical cord. His halo is echoed by a similar nimbus around the sun. Both seem to be barely holding off the onslaught of the stormy darkness.
For me, the dove, associated with peace by many traditions, is here a Christ figure, with arms outstretched in the manner of the crucifixion. Depending on your beliefs and heritage, you might prefer to associate it with the dying savior archetype, or just the concept of sacrifice in general. Regardless, the dove is being blown apart–if you look closely you can see what looks like fire or blood streaming from his body–yet he holds his position while the lightning force is directed into him. Shock waves ripple through the upper atmosphere.
One lightning bolt is stopped by the bird’s flesh, while the other two cross each other on their way into the lower sky, where they connect with two red robed figures on pedestals. My husband took them for monks of some sort, and perhaps they are, but they are of a twisted and bitter variety. Red is a symbol for blood, and these figures are covered in it. They both contain a stripe of yellow down the center of their bodies which mirrors the lightning itself. The same energy is also disseminated throughout the surrounding air. Yellow is the color of aggression in this particular painting. In contrast, the purplish clouds seem related to the umbilical cord, as if life was floating free from its source. That’s a source for hope, I think.
At this point I find it impossible to judge whether the lightning strikes are feeding the red figures with the energy of the raincloud or whether the rage of the red figures is feeding the ominous storm. It’s probably both.
The two red figures face each other at a distance, proudly erect, while a third figure lies between them, bowed and sliding down the face of a cliff. This shape didn’t have a face and hands until paint was removed by mistake during an accident in varnishing. I left it that way because to me, it now looks rather like Mother Mary or some facet of the grieving mother archetype. Can you see her hands raised to her face in weeping? I see this mother as wounded and dying, her body pierced by aggression that lies like yellow arrows embedded in her bloodied body (thus the red and yellow on her front side). Does she protect the body of a child there as well?
Below this battle, there lies a group of peach colored folk who appear to be observing the scene, almost like tourists. The first two on the left appear to be running, followed by a man wearing a cloak that billows in the wind, and a well dressed lady, standing with two children behind her. I wonder how they understand the situation above them… are they being compromised? I think they are. Take a look at the blood on the man’s heel. I don’t know if it is his own or that of another. All of these folks have the yellow fog of aggression about their eyes. To me, they represent the civilized and comfortable of the world, who, whether they acknowledge it or not, will be impacted by the slaughter of others and the shattering death of peace itself. The resulting cataclysm is as deadly as a sun gone supernova. I belong to this tribe and you probably do, too. How do we stand against the injustice around us?
Humankind’s aggression threatens reality and the continuation of life itself. The sacrifice of life represented by the dying savior and lived out by children, men and women everyday is required not to appease some wrath of God, but because human beings will it to be so.
As always, I invite you to tell me what you see. We don’t always understand the visions we are given and we certainly can’t control what they mean to others.