ARTISTS AS CHALLENGERS OF BELIEF SYSTEMS

OR

WHY ARTISTS ARE OFTEN UNPOPULAR UNTIL THEY'RE GOOD AND DEAD

David Lance Goines [1]

 

 

"Censorship represents society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime." (Justice Potter Stewart, Ginzberg v U.S., March 21, 1966)

I had lunch on June 2 with Marion Syrek. He taught me printing in the early 1960s. He's the last real Trotskyist or close to it. More Catholic than the Pope, he splinters off and splinters off always convinced that he's righter than right. He never finds any true comrades. Somebody always lets him down. He has the true faith, the genuine shining article, but can't get enough people to listen and all he can do is stand helplessly on the sidelines knowing like Cassandra how it's all going to come out, but helpless because nobody will listen to him. He doesn't even have the consolation that my exactly similar Fundamentalist Christian mother has that at least if you keep the Faith and profess Christ and lead a Godly life even if nobody at all or only a few see the truth, the one true Path of Righteousness, at least you will spend eternity in the Bosom of Christ. I actually think he was trying to recruit me into one of those dreary, pointless, wrangling splinter groups.

Probably there are the same number of people now involved in heavy-duty left-wing political organizations as there were in the 1950s and 1960s, and in some cases they're the same people. There's only one way to hang onto your faith, and that's not to let it be questioned. You huddle together for warmth and protection and exchange truisms with one another and keep a sharp ear out for the unorthodox, because faith is a soap-bubble and cannot tolerate even a pin-prick. Disagreement is diminishment. So the unorthodox is expelled, or as is the case with powerfully egocentric people like my mother or Marion, the unorthodox does the expelling.

The strongest system is the one which can tolerate the most criticism and non-conformity. The weakest is the one which tolerates nothing. Totalitarian systems are necessarily weak to the degree that they are totalitarian. To keep a belief system or political entity healthy and strong, a constant, bitter background noise of vicious criticism and outright revolt is absolutely necessary. If it can't take it, it isn't any good to begin with.

This nation was founded in dissent by Protestants, whose very name contains the idea of dissent. This is basically still a Protestant nation, and though everyone agrees that he's right and you're wrong, everyone also basically agrees to disagree, splintering off eternally.

The real job of the artist or philosopher is to challenge belief systems. This makes them unpopular. Among the charges which brought Socrates to his sentence of death was that he corrupted the youth of Athens by impiety, and by making the weaker argument appear the stronger. The artist's lack of belief is a real danger to your own belief. Most people are not like my Mom who draws strength from within the midst of her adversaries. Daniel in the lion's den, the three men in the fiery furnace, they had it easy. It's not hard standing up for your principles to unbelievers and scoffers, even if they threaten you with disgrace, torture and death. What's hard is to listen to a Doubting Thomas, who is within the fold and yet questions the dogma. He doesn't reject it, he just questions it. "I'll believe that Christ is alive when I can touch him with my own hands, and not until then." "Maybe if the masses aren't flocking to our cause, we should examine our party line and see if there might be something that could use some improvement."

"And I suppose that you're the one to do it, huh Mister Smarty Pants?"

It's interesting. I'm studying martial arts at a first-class school and have made quite a commitment of time and energy to it. One of the courses is in firearms, and it's taught in a rather old-fashioned and awkward way. There is a lot of room for improvement, but I don't think much is going to happen because in the tradition of the martial arts you don't ask questions and you don't presume to instruct your teachers. This is an effective way of preserving knowledge in times of repression, but when things are out in the open it is less so. But, the good outweighs the awkward, and since I value the general body of knowledge, I don't criticize the parts that I think are less well conceived. I gave up struggling with the way we were taught to shoot, and bent myself to learn it cheerfully and as well as I could. Something might happen to change the teaching in this area, but it will have to come from the top down. That's the way it is and I accept it.

Though a martial arts school may be best run within an rigid framework, political organizations are at their least effective when they are run this way. Orthodoxy is weakness, and the most orthodox is the least likely to make converts or survive. For one thing, it's easy once you've set down the path of righteousness to get more and more and more righteous until you're all alone: "All men are sinners except me and thee, and sometimes I am in doubt about thee." Should anyone be in any doubt about this point, I suggest that they consult the origins and consequences of the Cultural Revolution in China.

Marion and my mother share one thing in common: their belief system is their life. Without it, there is nothing, and in consequence they defend it to an irrational degree. My mother is an intelligent, well-educated woman who can entertain mutually contradictory ideas with no trouble at all. Her extreme Protestantism makes sense only to her, since nobody else can follow the train of logic that led her to it. A lot of it is fixating on trivial issues and making them into a big deal. Whether you should serve Communion with wine or grape juice, whether people should be baptized as infants or as comprehending adults, whether you should "mar the corners of your beard," or eat milk and meat at the same time. All are important if you just do that sleight-of-hand thing of fixating on the trivial; forgetting that there is a difference between ends and means; and that there just might be more than one way of skinning a cat. But, when your differences define you, the investment is just too large. I don't know if they understand their isolation, and they understand it if it is more important to them to keep their faith system intact rather than be content, healthy or even have any friends. I even think that the more the true believer suffers for his faith the happier he is.

When you go to a move that you like, you feel an urge to tell other people, "Got to see this movie. It's good." You want them to reinforce your opinion, and to validate your belief that the movie is good by going to see it too, and then agreeing that it was good. It makes you feel personally rejected when somebody says, "That movie? It's garbage!" because what they're really saying is, "You like garbage, and I reject your opinions and you, too."

Belief systems are robust as they are accepted, and weak as they are rejected. But, to reject a belief system is to reject the believer.

Challenging belief systems is what artists actually do. They therefore become society's immediate enemies and future saviors.

3/17/99

[1] Reproduced with the permission of the author from the Writings section of the author's  website http://www.goines.net.

BIODATA:

From a childhood in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, David Lance Goines' life pivoted on his entrance to the University of California at Berkeley where he was witness to the beginning of the social upheavals of the sixties. Trading an academic career for a that of a skilled graphic artist of fine arts posters, his life has become forever linked to his work and his writings.