“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”
— Toni Morrison, The Nation, 23.3.2015
I work in an art form that eats itself up as it goes. And yes my work exists as words, but it’s also performers and audience and light and objects and other kinds of magic that get layered and created in rehearsals over time and disappear at the end, leaving sticky little traces of itself in people’s minds.
Just carving words into the relative permanence of the interwebs, all on my own, is disconcerting.
And normally I don’t.
But right now, I’m one of a dozen artists and scientists sponsored by theDjerassi Resident Artist Program and Leonardo: The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology . We get to take part in a cool thing called Scientific Delirium Madness in which we all get a month in the glorious hills south of San Francisco to work on projects that somehow shout over the imaginary ravine between art and science. And they’ve asked us to post things periodically during this month we’re here.
I was also recently awarded this other cool thing called the 2016–2017 Marion International Fellowship. And they, too, have asked me to post things periodically during the year of the fellowship.
So this is the first of these periodic posts…
For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Lise Meitner, the physicist who first recognized and explained the phenomenon of nuclear fission (along with her nephew, Otto Frisch). She was brilliant and insecure; cowardly and intrepid; despairing and persistent; ascetic in her devotion to physics and a loving friend to those around her; ostracized then finally honored. Jewish in 1930’s Germany, and yet privileged by her scientific position and Austrian citizenship, she (like so many in Europe and beyond) was slow to see the depth of the government’s depravity. She waited longer than she should have in part because she was afraid to give up everything she’d established. Finally forced to leave and horrified by what Germany had become, she refused to join the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos even though it would have meant both helping the allies and practicing her beloved physics with every resource she lacked in exile. She could not bring herself to help create a bomb.
All the complex and difficult things that I’m reading: about those days in Germany, about the Manhattan Project, about the horrors in Europe and in the Pacific, about Hiroshima, about collaborators and people of conscience… It’s all echoing in my brain along with every piece of news I see about the continued and targeted violence of all kinds directed against African Americans in our country; about refugees fleeing one kind of hell and landing in another; about our politicians’ unwillingness to take action on gun control; about the ugliness seeping out of the cesspool of what the Republican Party has become.
How the hell are we to respond to all the complexities of our world? War in other countries, corporate kleptocracy, persecution of our most vulnerable citizens, that person sitting across from us at the dinner table…
Despair seems like a logical response.
Then I read the words of Toni Morrison:
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.
So today I’m thinking about what it means to refuse to succumb to the world’s malevolence.