The show at the Walker Art Center is called This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, and I am struck.
It’s the work of the first generation of artists to grow up with televisions at home, and it’s angry and beautiful and profound. Mixed media and mixed voices and lots of old, clunky TVs spinning on loops.
A question on the introductory placard pulls me down hard like a magnet: “In a world increasingly filled with mass-media images, what is the role of visual arts?”
I was too young in the 80s to remember much of the political turmoil. I don’t really know the stories that the art here is retelling in broad, unconventional strokes. But I know about mass media. I know about the loud, brightness of it, that heady cocktail of color and content. Ad and information all mixed up together, shaken and poured.
Home-grown in the evangelical world, I am especially aware of the way mass media has permeated Christian culture. The spirituality that I learned to swim in was steeped in how-to books and t-shirts. Bible covers, teen magazines, hit songs, ads.
The deep questions about Jesus and culture and how Christians are to be in the world bounced like pinballs around the media, louder and bigger and more forceful with each telling.
At the Walker, I stand for a long time at Doris Salcedo’s untitled piece – two stiff columns of men’s scuffed work shirts, pierced with long, sharp poles. She created it as a response to the testimonies of 40 Columbian women who saw their husbands murdered for participating in organized labor struggles.
Just shirts. Just a little plaster and some dirt. Just everyday objects, placed one on top of the other, saying something wildly profound about grief and injustice and the emptiness of loss.
In mass media Christianity, you learn this: that your life only matters if it is blown-big with passion, large-text and bold, like a front-page headline. The purpose of your life should be quick and fluorescent, ten words…twelve tops. It should pulse and sparkle like a neon sign, a city-on-a-hill turned up to a hundred thousand watts, bright as Vegas.
In mass media Christianity, the questions we ask are What are you doing for God? and How are you changing the world? We measure success with words like “revival” and “revolution” and “how many souls were saved?”
And in a faith increasingly loud with revivals and mass media and conferences and speakers, you have to wonder how it matters, this sitting quietly by the window, waiting for words.
But I just keep coming back to those shirts at the Walker. They stay with me, sharp and lonely in my mind. They are prophetic and beautiful and more powerful than a thousand newspaper headlines.
I am not a visual artist in the way of Salcedo, but I feel a kinship to her because I write, primarily, within the genre of Creative Nonfiction. Which is, in many ways, a genre of found objects.
When you are a writer of essays, of memoir, of true, rooted-in-facts kinds of things, you have to get down on your hands and knees and dig through the sand of your life. You pull out average, unimpressive moments. Dirty work shirts. Empty folding chairs. That time in kindergarten when you wore a construction paper three-cornered hat and went on an imaginary trip to Holland.
Your work has to do with choosing to believe that these unimpressive things matter. That they have lodged in your heart because there is something wholly beautiful and uniquely true about them. That God speaks less through a bullhorn or billboard than through an ordinary bush, burning wild in the desert.
Your work is largely that of seeing, digging, putting ordinary things side by side to create something simply and strikingly true. It is more than telling it how it happened. More than facts lined up one after another. It is structure. Sound. Fact connected to the current of creativity. The electric shock of meaning.
It’s the work of individual white shirts, folded and stacked, pierced and forever piercing the heart of the one who stands awe-filled next to it.
In a world that is obsessed with creating something NEW! EXTRAORDINARY! BRIGHT!, your role is less about creating the next big thing than about recognizing what no one else sees: symbol, metaphor, beauty, art. Quiet work. Important work.
It’s like this: there are a hundred thousand images flashing by, and your job is to find the hidden thread of truth. The one that holds us all together. Pull it out, even if it tugs at your soul like stitches on a wound. Arrange it fresh and new.
Put it out there, small and strong, thin and unwavering. It is just waiting to quietly change the world.
Addie Zierman is a writer, mom, and Diet Coke enthusiast. She blogs twice a week at How to Talk Evangelical.addiezierman.com, where she’s working to redefine faith one clichè at a time.