I am so thrilled to have my dear husband here today to talk about art, therapy, movies, and the importance of repentance over outrage. He has some good things to say. And he is the cutest. And the nicest. And the smartest. I married up, ya’ll. I couldn’t think of a good pseudonym for him, so feel free to give me your suggestions in the comments.
I have had a strong desire to express our family’s experiences these past few years; our continual encounter with the Kingdom of God, how it turned everything upside down. But as it turns out, it’s really hard to do so without seeming preachy. So, gathering from the likes of some of my favorite artists like Why?, Mewithoutyou, and Freud, I tend to write and see what comes out, hoping the adventures of my super-ego will meet yours along the way. Besides, metaphors work well as free-association techniques. Typically, rather than choosing a particular topic or theme, I write about my life in general to see what emerges. And hopefully, the Kingdom peeks through alongside lots of latent issues surround identity, vocation, etc.
I think that social justice is such a tricky subject to talk about; many musicians who engage the topic walk a fine line between something artistic and three-point Sunday sermon on the topic. However, my greatest concern about justice themes in art is that rather than prophetically pointing the way to justice, it can create a false imitation of it.
I watched a movie a few years ago where George Clooney takes on a corporation, and throughout the movie I felt the weight of oppression that corporations can wield. But as the movie resolved, my anger dissipated. And of course it did; a major film company isn’t going to release a movie that actually motivates people to action against the system and culture which it benefits from. Documentaries be better or worse than the typical box-office affair. They can also be overwhelming, with a notable absence of resolution (and if you’re my wife, this means you find yourself sitting horrified, paralyzed and grieved at the end of the five hours or so of The Corporation). But watching these documentaries produces an emotional, if not physical response to what we have seen, and we can tend to focus on that–as though adding something to my Netflix queue has helped change the world.
It’s way easier to consume in order to feel that I am producing change. We are a very aware society, aware of what is wrong (sweat shops, global military presence, the flaws in the political system, the educational system, genetically modified foods, etc.). And in response, I will quickly pay to feel that I am on the side of social justice (e.g. Toms, Charity Water, Warby Parker, short term mission trips). And we will pay our artists to give us the experience of taking part in social justice simply through reading a book, listening to a song or watching a movie, as though experiencing that media is the same as responding to it.
There is a gap between seeing the problems in the world and responding to them. I think that gap is our discomfort with facing our own brokenness that contributes to the these existing systems that. I can call for change of a particular system, but until I face my own greed, racism and disproportionate priority of convenience and low prices over the human value, my wishes are hollow.
I recently came across an old article by psychologist and author Robert Coles in which he reviewed a 1967 documentary titled Titicut Follies, about the mental hospital attached to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where the criminally insane were housed and treated.
The film received fierce heat from the local authorities, even the superintendent who initially authorized the documentary, in hopes of receiving improved facilities. Coles points out that this was hardly the first exposé on the low standards in mental health institutions of the day, nor was Bridgewater anywhere close to the worst he had personally seen, as a psychologist. But what differed about this documentary was not the physical setting, but the relationships and humanity the viewer came into contact with. And, Coles argues, the most impactful part of the film is not the patients or the fragile, unsettled air of insanity, but the doctors and the professionals. He suggests that the way the doctors failed to see humanity in the patients, the way they labeled and categorized and withdrew these men from society is recognizably familiar urge that we ourselves experience. Coles points out that the difference between this film and others like it is that instead of being forced to look at a broken system, we are forced to look at our broken selves.
And this is why the filmmaker, at the time Coles wrote, had multiple civil and legal suits charged against him. Coles writes, “Titicut Follies is a brilliant work of art, and as such it will not go unnoticed, despite the opposition to it. We are asked not to be outraged at others – a cheap and easily spent kind of emotion – but to look at ourselves, the rich and strong ones whose agents hurt the weak and maimed in the name of – what?” (p .25). Strangely, it was the implicit individual reflection rather than a systematic critique that really upset the powers that be.
Those of us who wish to share the stories of the oppressed often do so in order to encourage our audience to do justice and compassion in our world. But it is a thin line between kindling the desire for justice and satiating it. Does our audience leave with a feeling that they have already participated in social justice when they are simply enjoying a good, artful experience? Or are they challenged and empowered to make changes in their own lives — and their own hearts? As artists, I believe we need to ask: through the way we tell stories, is there a way to not only confront evil systems, but to identify and indict the parts of us that are complicit with these systems?
The fact that Titicut Follies upset the powers that be demonstrates that the empire knows, as Cole says, outrage is a “cheap and easily spent emotion,” but internal reflection and response has the power to make real change in the world.
After some time facilitating group therapy, I’ve learned that anger is a paper tiger next to mourning. Yelling begets yelling, yet tears pave the way for reconciliation and change. Walter Bruggeman says it this way: “Tears break barriers like no harshness or anger. . . when one addresses numbness clearly, anger, abrasiveness and indignation as forms of address will drive the hurt deeper, add to the numbness . . . this denying and deceiving kind of numbness is broken only by the embrace of negativity, by the public articulation that we are fearful and ashamed of the future we have chosen”. I love the communal terminology here, which is particularly appropriate in such a global climate; we, at least in some way, have chosen for the world to be as it is today. Thus, anger is somewhat impotent, as it is only useful against others; sadness is a response to our own actions, the fruit of internal reflection.
And perhaps this is why, out of all the ways to be wronged, God often chooses adultery as a metaphor for our broken relationship with him. In an affair, anger is just the tip of an iceberg of deep mourning. Likewise, Bruggeman suggests that “Jesus wept” is one of the most powerful verses in the cannon. God isn’t angry at us, but he’s really sad about the world we’ve chosen.
As good war photographers, it seems our goal is to not only bring us to tears over the injustice against the least of these, but also the potent experience of weeping over the choices we have made in our own lives that lead to such circumstances — and weeping over the ways in which our hearts still wish it so.
K Mayfield is married to D.L., and father to the cutest/most spirited child ever. He is a therapist with the heart of an artist (or is it the other way around?). You can find his music here. He is the best at growing beards.
For more posts in the War Photographer series, click here.