Why did Kristen Jones and Andrew Ginzel create Oculus?
March 11, 2012
Many of you have asked me to preach a sermon about how to survive the day job. You are artists and activists and “creatives.” You also, if lucky, have day jobs. Today I try. Meeting Joseph is a way to to survive a day job. You also might want to know Kristen Jones. First Kristen, then Joseph.
Kristen Jones is the artist who created a team to do the mosaic eyes at the World Trade Center. I was at a party. I said I really liked her mosaics. After I said that I liked her multitude of eyes in mosaic forms, someone said, “Oh, Kristen Jones just did that for the money. She used to be a good artist.” Lesson One on the Day Job: Be Careful of Success. It bites.
Now meet Joseph. Joseph is the 11th son of Jacob, the first born to Rachel. His brothers sold him into slavery and sent him to a land where he had no people, no money, no history and no job. He had serious gaps in his resume. He was a real slave, owned by an other. If Kristin Jones was being accused of selling herself, Joseph was living with being sold.
Joseph’s story in slavery is useful. Joseph used the heroic approach. He did good work. He actually did exceptional work and made his owner, Potiphar, look good, until Potiphar’s wife tried to make him look bad. Even when sexually tempted, he refused. Because Potiphar’s wife abused the power she had in her role, even Joseph’s heroism and fidelity to his boss failed him. She says come, he says no, in his rush, he leaves his coat in her room. She, jilted, shows others that he has been there and gets him fired. If the boss doesn’t trick you, his wife might. Joseph is thrown off his ersatz plantation and thrown into jail. There again, like the good artist that he is, he does good work and wins favor back from the prison warden. Joseph’s strategy is to do good work and he finds his way to the money, despite obstacles, inside slavery. He is heroic. He goes on to develop a very valuable skill, that of reading dreams, after he learns excellent property and jail management. Joseph had the skills to survive. Joseph’s strategy is to do good work inside. Lesson Two on the Day Job: You may as well do good work. Why not?
Making art and making art work involves heroism, charisma, talent, luck – and it involves something more. It involves having the down low on the up high. It involves expertise on a fundamental spiritual problem, that of keeping body and soul together. It involves active non stop linking of the soul to the body and the body to the soul. It involves being a kind of spiritual animal no body yet has become. It involves a tutored non chalance with both wealth and with poverty. We have to learn to care about neither of them. That is the place beyond the heroic and the anti heroic. It involves reflected experience with how deadening security is as well as how much we need and want it. We now say to each other “Be Safe” so often that I personally l want to go have an adventure, any adventure, just to make sure I don’t get too safe. Those of you who have had too many adventures lately are not amused. Making art In honor of Joseph’s expensive adventure with his coat, I want to suggest a third way for the soul to stay linked to the body, for art to emerge, for us to even get paid for it. It has a little heroism, a little self-blame but goes on to do work for the sake of the work. It is a more deeply aesthetic approach to the terrible conflict that souls have as they try to stay in bodies. It is that good old fashioned virtue that Joseph had , which is to work for the sake of the work. He managed Potiphar’s farm so well that Potiphar stopped even supervising him. He then managed the warden’s jail so well that the warden stopped supervising him. Lesson Three: good art joins good day jobs in getting to the place beyond supervision. There we supervise ourselves.
Before I go utterly pragmatic on how we link body and soul while not caring if we do, I have to clear a little rubbish out of the room. The notion that somebody “just did it for the money” is plain old mean. Most people do most things for the money. Money says approval, it provides security, it’s not wrong to have money. The starving artist is overdone. What my acquaintance was saying about Jones is that it would be better for her to do great art for no money. Then she would get my friend’s approval. Why would we have to be poor to get approval? Are artists all souls and no bodies? If you want to be all soul, all the time, go ahead and die. Heaven is made for you. But if you want to live on earth, with other earthlings, imagine instead a link of body and soul, without elevating one or diminishing the other.
Many of you know the Jewish theory of the Shabbat. Shabbat is the one day a week that we go to heaven, that we live as souls, souls free of the time clock of the body. As the Ba’al Shem Tov says it, on the Shabbat, we are granted the resurrection, the bodily resurrection here on earth. As he also said, “If you don’t work before Shabbat, what will you eat on Monday?” Lesson Four: Good artists keep a good Shabbat. It doesn’t have to be on Saturday or Sunday or Friday so much as it has to be. There has to be a time when you forget the urgencies of the body on behalf of the urgencies of the soul. When there is, you can declare yourself an artist and do good work with both your soul and your body. On Monday you return with joy to a body, especially if you have left it on the weekend for a soul.
Lesson Five reverses lesson four and pays a lot of attention to what we do in time, during the week, as bodies. Lesson five is about doing real work and not just punching a time clock or acting as though we were working. Much art and activism involves token gestures, until they are infused with a non chalance and carelessness about the work itself. The very non chalance and carelessness allows us to be truly careful in what we actually do, even if it is waiting tables or filing paper or answering emails. Good work and good art involve extraordinary care but refuse anxiety about the performance of care. As Phil Rollins explains so well, “Token gestures aimed at changing a system are actually a vital part of how that system supports itself. Often when we are attacking the system, we assure that it will never change. Many artists and many activists feel like we are in “dead end jobs.” Note the language of death. A great example is the person who tells us “this time next year, I am going to leave this dead-end job and travel the world.” It probably won’t happen. But the dream keeps us remaining with the work. It is the lie that enbles us to cope with unhappiness. These pseudo transgressions enable people to attack a structure in ways that are actually sanctioned by the structure. We get to feel like rebels while actually being nothing other than supporters of the system. If we can disavow Kristen Jones’ art as just being in the system of money, then we don’t have to let our souls be lifted by it. We make a token gesture of antagonism, which actually says money and its death dealing ways are what I really worship. Worship – or Shabbatt – or anything that caresses the soul – like music or drumming – is usually so useless and so preposterous that it has a chance of being a genuine gesture. Worship, Shabbatts, even souls are useless. Money doesn’t need them at all. That’s why it is great to be able to do something at work which is careful but free of money. We work well in lesson five but not for the money. Like Joseph, we earn the respect of our owners and our wardens. We don’t work to get that respect so much as we earn it and then let it go. Kristen Jones didn’t just do it for the money. She did it for the art. It is good art. That she probably got paid well for it is inconsequential to a soul. Artists speak of this kind of work often. It always amazes me when they speak of what they do as work. “I worked today,” the painter will say. “I haven’t shown my work at Judson for a long time, “ Aileen Pasloff said to me. Is it still work if it is not shown or if it doesn’t sell? Of course it is.
Good art and good work, even on a day job, involve the kinds of eyes Jones and company did at the World Trade Center. These eyes are non chalant. They see. They don’t see. They care. They don’t’ care. Then they care again. They come from a different kind of animal than the normal human, who is often in token denial, which yields token gestures, not art or work. Good work and good art can be successful or unsuccessful, seen or unseen, noticed or not noticed. I want to conclude with an example of good work and good art, in this case, a comic strip.
This is work that is going to cost Gary Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, something. It is also going to win him something, which is minimally my respect. The cartoon I am going to read now has already been taken out of many Texas newspapers because it is so true. It is red hot angry, red hot right, and comes from a very successful artist who is able to still make trouble. It could be that all the lessons for the day job are summed up there: never be so secure that you can’t make trouble, never make so much trouble that you also can’t find security. Keep body and soul together but don’t over do either. When confused, take a Shabbatt. Call in Well if you have to.
Here is the cartoon, again by Gary Trudeau, again known as Doonsebury, again a success risking a truth.
This cartoon takes on the health care system, misogyny and more on behalf of real people. It does real work by using eyes to see. Why did Kristin Jones Make Oculus? To help us see. Why did Joseph learn to read dreams? To help us see. Let us see. Amen.