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Hindsight blog

Muse on participatory democracy and the roles of all citizens including students, artists, the media, and of course, politicians. Presented by the Weisman Art Museum with the exhibition "Hindsight is Always 20/20".

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January 7, 2009

Now, bring me that horizon

Well, this is it, my final post. I’d like to thank the staff at the Weisman Art Museum for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with the net-surfing public.

As the only artist on the museum’s inaugural blog team, I’m sure the folks at the Weisman were hoping I’d write a bit more about art. However, my allotted blog-time encompassed the ground-breaking 2008 election, the national economic melt-down, the Franken-Coleman senate recount, and the annual bitter-sweetness of the holiday season. My heart was in the street, not the studio.

What’s happening now in our country and communities is a paradigm shift of monumental proportions. This shift will bring changes and challenges that require our care and attention. No armchair quarterbacking. We’ve got to get in the game. Which underscores the premise I’d planned to make when I accepted this blogging gig last summer: that the personal is political, and that life – the personal – can be a work of art when approached with intention and creativity.

Though I am primarily an interdisciplinary and public artist, I also paint. Painting in the studio is, for me, a form of visual journaling and highly meditative. For ten years I have worked on various bodies of work but most of my paintings share one thing in common: the ongoing study of the horizon line as visual metaphor.

NightSeeds.JPG
Night Seeds, Camille J. Gage, 2003

Readers of my earlier posts know that I lost my mother unexpectedly 27 years ago. This early loss inspired an ongoing interest in the dualities that form the core of our existence: life and death, day and night, good and evil, darkness and light. It is the tension, the shimmering place where these realities intersect, that compels me. Such sweet mystery!

The Uruguayan writer and social philosopher, Eduardo Galeano, once commented that art-making is our attempt to make sense of the inevitability of death and that its pursuit must never be reduced to a specialized practice exercised only by a handful of ‘experts.’ Like Thoreau, Galeano believed that we all have the ability – and perhaps even the responsibility – to make art of our very lives. It’s a utopian vision, but then what IS so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?

“Utopia lies at the horizon.
When I draw nearer by two steps,
it retreats two steps.
If I proceed ten steps forward, it
swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.
What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
It is to cause us to advance.?

Eduardo Galeano

Happy new year to all,
Camille

December 27, 2008

The Highest of Arts

Last Sunday was the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. There were 8 hours and 46 minutes of sun. It was the first official day of winter, but here in the upper Midwest winter has already made itself known. I’ve shoveled the snow off my sidewalk 3 times in the past 36 hours and its 6 degrees below zero as I write.

Its midnight, the house is silent, and I’m thinking about that weightless place between joy and melancholy. The holidays always do this to me.

I’ll admit I cried three times in the last 24 hours. Once for close friends who are struggling; once for my mom, who died 27 years ago and who I still miss every day; and once at the Pantages Theater during the musical play, All is Calm, about the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914.

All is Calm chronicles an event which took place on the battlefield in Germany on Christmas Eve, 1914. In the dark of night, under a star-filled sky, a German soldier laid down his arms, walked out of his trench and sang Silent Night in the so-called No Man’s Land between the British and German encampments. Following his soulful lead soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons for the night, sang together, exchanged modest gifts and helped to bury each other’s dead. It was this last that brought on the tears. I instantly thought of the U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though their in-country experience bears little resemblance to the trench warfare of the past, they still suffer the sight of wounded comrades and mourn their dead. Their sacrifice is enormous.

War Redacted Single Casket CROPPED.jpg
Untitled, 2007, from the series, War, Redacted, by Camille J. Gage

Loss occurs every day and everywhere, not just on the battlefield. Over the past year I’ve watched friends and family struggle to cope with life’s challenges: serious health problems, a child’s debilitating drug addiction, financial insecurity, job loss, and the death of partners and aging parents – of heart disease, cancer and suicide.

Why do we so often feel stranded in our sorrow and alone in our grief? The presence of loss and experience of pain, while intensely personal, is also extraordinarily common. It’s the tie that binds us but is often buried beneath a silent and soul-stifling stoicism.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 brought to mind a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden. Thoreau wrote, “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look…To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.?

This holiday I will aim to channel the artistry of that German soldier, who walked on to the battlefield and sang Silent Night – who was willing to be shot at, to die – to bear witness to our shared humanity and yearning for connection.

For everyone who has lost a loved one – and that is most of us – the holidays are a bittersweet time. May we find the strength to abandon our trenches and sing together to the stars.

For Juliet


December 1, 2008

The Gift of Gratitude

Over Thanksgiving weekend I ruminated on gratitude, how it's a powerful state of mind and a touchstone in our lives, both individual and collective. How it appears to be inextricably linked to happiness.

Last week I read about a professor who is researching the healing power of thankfulness. In his study veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder are keeping gratitude journals, a list of the everyday things they are thankful for. So far the veterans report this exercise has allowed them to experience a greater sense of overall wellbeing.* It’s amazing such a modest act can help to antidote the nightmares of war.

I’ve kept such a journal for about five years. It’s a habit I adopted after learning of an earlier study wherein people who regularly recorded the things they were thankful for slept longer, exercised more frequently, and had fewer health complaints**. What a payoff! The study’s subjects were both healthier and happier for simply taking a few moments each week to be consciously grateful.

littlefeet.jpg
These little piggies made my gratitude journal this year.

Modest as my efforts are – usually just a few lines each week – I do believe it makes a difference. My micro-journaling creates a reflective moment, a meditation if you will, on the positive aspects of my life. Powerful stuff in a world where we tend toward the restless and acquisitive; toward a sense of never having enough; to wanting more, more, more.

Ironic, isn’t it, and painfully so, that the biggest shopping day of the year follows Thanksgiving.

As the winter holidays approach and 2008 winds to an end I plan to reflect and record thanks in my journal – and to spend some serious face time with the wonderful people who inhabit its pages and enliven my life.

* Research being conducted by Todd Kashdan, associate professor of psychology at George Mason University in Virginia. Information taken from the article, Give Thanks, in the December 2008 issue of Yoga Journal.

**Study conducted in 2003 by psychiatry professor Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis.

November 20, 2008

Minnesota Pro Bowl

MN Pro Bowl photoResized.jpg
My grandson, Jack, after visiting the polls in 2006. He won't trash talk you - but he may need a diaper change.

After the November 4 election I’d planned to turn my blog posts more towards art and its evolving role in public affairs. I’d hoped to focus less on electoral politics, but here in Minnesota the election isn’t over. The Coleman/Franken recount has brought out the good, the bad, and the ugly in constituents on both sides. OK, maybe just the bad and the ugly. And it’s putting the lie to Minnesota Nice.

I should admit up front I never really believed in Minnesota Nice. I’ve always thought it was a provincial fable, a way to put a positive spin on passive aggressiveness – and a free pass when it comes to avoiding direct discussion of tough topics. I’ve also thought that ‘nice’ is overrated. How about we try for generous and compassionate? Or courteous, intelligent, and welcoming? Nice? I’ve always felt confident Minnesotans at their best are a lot more than just nice. But these days even humble ‘nice’ is in short supply.

The reader posts I’ve read on local news sites are awe-inspiring in their pure negativity and, too often, completely baseless allegations. How can so many know so little about something so widely reported? Where do these people find the time to spew so much venom? What fuels their paranoia? How do they muster such righteous aversion to simple facts? It’s as if they inhabit some strange, parallel universe where they’ve yet to discover the virtues of trust, patience, and common sense, not to mention nice. Here’s an actual Nov. 18th reader comment posted to a StarTribune website article on the recount:

"Al Franken is a whining, loud-mouthed, woman-demeaning, rape-promoting, porn-spewing, abortion-embracing, sick excuse of a comedian. It is time for him to pack up his bags and get out of Minnesota. For good. For the good of the State and the good of the country. His very presence in Minnesota creates an odor worse than the largest swine farm. It is time for a change... of Al Franken's diapers. Go home, Al, to Hollywood or to a large east coast city where your kind are embraced. You are a loser, even if you happen to have your big buck allies insert enough illegal votes to eke out a "win" over Coleman."

Swine farm? Diapers? Illegal votes? And what exactly does s/he mean by, “your kind?? I’ve used an anti-Franken post to illustrate my point, but I’ve seen plenty of Coleman trashing, too.

As the recount rolls on, Minnesota Nice is for chumps. The partisan posters are hell bent on winning the world championship in mudslinging and a Guinness World Record for baseless vitriol. They’ve created a whole new meaning for the term “gutter ball.?

Yes, here in Minnesota the election isn’t over. On Day Two of the Coleman/Franken recount things are already getting ugly and, well, pretty weird. And as the journalist Hunter S. Thompson once famously observed, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.?

November 4, 2008

Plumbing the Possibilities

Today I’m pondering the historic nature of the 2008 election. If recent polling is any indication Senator Barack Obama is about to become the first African-American president-elect of the United States.

As the campaigning comes to an ugly end, Senator Obama is being called un-American. His patriotism and love of country are being called into question by many who oppose his election, including none other than Joe the Plumber. I mean really. Are there people out there who find JTP a credible resource for their voting information? And since when did we time travel back to the 1950’s with all this talk about who is and who’s not un-American? It’s interesting to note that just as the country is poised to take a giant leap forward there are those who’d like to send it stumbling back to some pretty dark days.

So, to shake the dirt off on the morning of this groundbreaking election, I’d like to consider a couple of my favorite American upstarts, starting with Mark Twain.

How many of us were taught about Mark Twain’s anti-war activism? He spoke out when the U.S. went to war with Spain in 1898 and also against the Philippine-American War. Twain became one of the leading protesters against the war, and soon his patriotism was called into question. Sound familiar? But Twain had strong ideas about the true meaning of patriotism, writing in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, “You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over and care for and be loyal to…? Twain felt no need to support Roosevelt and his wars; it was the United States and its people he felt loyal to.

JenWellstone.jpg
The late Senator Paul Wellstone with my daughter, Jen, on the right.

Another who would certainly be subject to scathing scrutiny in this current McCarthy-fueled flashback is our own homegrown, odds-buster, Paul Wellstone. I think about Wellstone and his original long-shot candidacy a lot these days. How his victory made change seem possible. Last night I got out my copy of Wellstone’s book, Conscience of a Liberal, and started skimming through it, re-visiting the parts I’d underlined when I read it just after the Paul’s death. I came upon a story he recalled about meeting a student from the University of Michigan who told him, “Senator, I want to be able to dream again – about a better country and a better world. And politics today doesn’t give me a chance to dream.?

The candidacy of Barack Obama has changed American forever, and for the better. We’ve glimpsed the future – and wherever that former student is, I’ll be s/he is dreaming now.

October 31, 2008

Join the Volunteers of America

In my inaugural post for the Hindsight 20/20 blog, I asked readers to share the art that has made a difference in their lives. I also promised to share the work that’s been inspirational to me. I’ve been massively distracted by that attention-chomping beast, Election 2008, but here goes:

Music lit the spark of social awareness in me when I was a teenager. This is largely due to growing up in a southern Wisconsin industrial town with no museum or theater. Music was my cultural lifeline and the radio waves were alive with possibility. I could listen to stations out of Milwaukee and Chicago and, on a night with good reception, even St. Louis. Whole worlds were dancing in my ears. Commercial radio was “free form? then, shaped by the tastes of real, live DJs – not anonymous corporations – and music fans followed their favorites faithfully.

This was the age of Vietnam and Watergate. The Summer of Love was over and the war continued. An anxious cynicism hovered over the country. Music was at the heart of many young people’s experience of these social realities, especially kids like me, living in small cities and rural towns with limited cultural opportunities.

Tetes Noires at First Avenue.jpg
Tetes Noires, First Avenue, circa mid 1980's. That's me on the far right.

I’ll never forget hearing Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s Ohio for the first time. A riveting response to the National Guard shooting of young anti-war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, the song captured the rage that was budding inside me:

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio?

I was also moved by the Jefferson Airplane song Volunteers, with its call to become one of the “volunteers of America? and save the country through a collective and joyful revolutionary zeal. I’d sing along at the top of my lungs, guileless, youthful exuberance buoyed by the bliss of innocence. Change seemed so sweetly possible.

Marvin Gaye was my late night companion. I’d sneak downstairs with my headphones in the wee hours to listen to him on the stereo when the rest of the house was dark. I cried when I first heard Gaye’s monumental LP What’s Going On. Soulful and musically sophisticated, the album is a brilliant examination of war, poverty, racism and the pressures of an urban life I could only imagine.

The score of my formative years was propelled by sensitive souls, topical lyrics, and hallucinogenic hopes. Looking back I still vividly remember the hours spent listening to songs like these, songs that brought the world into my room during troubled times. Songs that would soon lead me to make music of my own.

Next up: Joe the Plumber: Country Star? And a look back at that famous American anti-war protester, Mark Twain.

October 20, 2008

Speaking of plumbers...

I started my Weisman blogging with the Lionel Trilling observation that it is now life, not art, that requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Lately there is nothing that reinforces this more than the current presidential campaign. In recent weeks I’ve too-often rubbed my eyes in disbelief or gasped, “Did s/he really say that?!??

And so it was last Wednesday watching the Presidential debate. After about two dozen references to “Joe the Plumber? I wanted to know more about this mystery man who’d sidled up to Barack Obama with a YouTube-ready question about Obama’s tax plan. In case you’ve not heard the exact query, Joe the Plumber, a.k.a. Samuel “Joe? Wurzelbacher, asked Senator Obama, “I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes $250,000 to $280,000 a year; your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it??

Mr. Wurzelbacher hopes to purchase the plumbing business where he works. His comments gave me pause as I have a friend, Todd Landon, who owns a successful small plumbing business. In an amusing bit of synchronicity Landon calls his business ‘Todd the Plumber’.

ToddPlumberWedSmall.jpg

Landon’s business is nearly identical to the one Wurzelbacher hopes to purchase: small, usually two to three employees, including the owner. I asked Todd if his business’ net income usually exceeds $250,000+ per year and in his singular wry/dry style he informed me it does not. Indeed, the average Ohio plumber earns $47,930.* Landon, as a business owner, likely earns more than that, but he’s not clearing a quarter mil – not even close.

As news junkies know by now it’s been discovered that Mr. Wurzelbacher is not, unfortunately for his employer and his clients, a licensed plumber. (Toledo, where Wurzelbacher lives and works, requires a license of all plumbing contractors.)

Mr. Wurzelbacher’s exchange with Senator Obama, and Senator McCain’s decision to position Joe-the-not-really-a-plumber as the American everyman, has temporarily drained my reservoir of available disbelief. Everything about this episode felt awkward and stilted – and if life is a stage I’m giving this performance a really bad review.

You may be wondering why I’m writing about Joe the Plumber, and why I’m bothering to review bad political theater. It’s at least in part because I know a plumber and felt a swell of righteous indignation when hardworking plumbers everywhere were besmirched by this debacle.

However that’s not the only reason. The political season brings to mind another of my favorite quotes, this one from former President John F. Kennedy: “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.?**

I share President Kennedy’s sentiment. I believe that poets, writers, musicians and artists of all stripes do our country a great service by observing, recording, making art about and in all ways participating in our public life. Even when it means writing a blog post about a faux plumber who just enjoyed his 15 minutes of Warholian notoriety.

P.S. I’ll be back later this week to respond to comments re: my earlier post inquiring about the art that’s inspired you. A shout out to Mark, Sam, and Carol for their eloquent posts on the topic.

*According to the May 2007 occupational earnings report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics
**Kennedy address at Harvard University, 1956

October 6, 2008

Life, Art and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

“It is now life, and not art, that requires the willing suspension of disbelief.?

So wrote Lionel Trilling in a 1955 essay titled "The Novel Alive or Dead." Trilling uses the potential demise of the novel to explore the complexities of attempting creative work at a time when “the actuality of the world is so very intense and so very strange that the figments of the imagination cannot compete with it.? In 1955 Disneyland opened, the McDonald’s fast food chain was launched, Congress authorized all US currency and coins to say "In God We Trust", and the United States started down the path to war by sending over $200 million in aid (and covert military advisors) to Vietnam.

Looking at the world today one might say it’s déjà-vu all over again.

Continue reading "Life, Art and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief" »

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