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On the News, Emotions, and Art

I had an emotionally painful time at the one-day Zen retreat yesterday—all day long, just me and pain, no distractions. So at the end of the day, when we were no longer silent and the Zen teacher started a discussion about what to do with the distress created these days by the news, I didn’t really want to talk at all. But then someone said something that struck me as a wrong-headedly intellectualizing approach. Thinking work isn’t emotion work, and I really hate the narrative that emotional distress means you’re not sincere enough in your practice of religion: #tooblessedtobedepressed and similar bullshit. So I said something about art, and how the artists are working overtime to make sense of this moment—literally to make sense, meaning, and story out of meaningless meanness and hopeless facts. But I said it all jumbled and garbled and without visual aids, and I didn’t even articulate the main thing, which is that thinking can’t transform feeling, that the only way to do emotion work is to do emotion work, and that imagination has a role to play in all of this.

I was in Chicago last month and visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. Usually I snap a photo of the most striking pieces of art I see whenever I go to a museum, but I didn’t take a picture of the piece that has haunted me ever since, Adrian Piper’s “Imagine [Trayvon Martin]” (2013):


Here is a story in the second person. The bright red crosshairs encourage “[you]”—the bracketed “you” that a grammarian would include as the implied subject of the imperative verb—to imagine that moment of looking down the barrel of a gun, but the soft-focused, faded version of the same photo that accompanies Martin’s Wikipedia page [] is a gentle reminder that the story of his life was bigger than the story of his death. Imagine that, too.

Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact” (2015) was making the rounds on social media last week:

“A Small Needful Fact”

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue

to do what such plants do, like house

and feed small and necessary creatures,

like being pleasant to touch and smell,

like converting sunlight

into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.

Here, too, there is a reminder: the story of Eric Garner’s life was bigger than the story of his death. He lived and did things and cared about things and made things happen that may perhaps still be happening. What I love about this poem is the speculation, the invitation to imagine that Gay emphasizes by the repetitions of “perhaps” and “in all likelihood.” Gay doesn’t know—he’s just spinning out a train of speculations to imagine the meaning of a life that meant more than the death that ended it. He’s creating a story that is fiction, but true in the way that fiction can be true. It’s hard for us to imagine the lives of other people—we are born narcissists who grow into empaths, if we do, through training, the love of others, and speculation . . . and much of that speculation is nourished and guided by artists and storytellers.

Journalists are bound to nonfiction, and capturing, say, what is happening at our border involves creating a sense of the massiveness of the human suffering currently being sadistically perpetrated by our government, with our money, in our names. There are of course individual vignettes, little snippets within the news about individual human beings with names, but the impression I get of the news coverage of what is happening at the border is a sense of the scale, not a sense of the individuals. This is appropriate, because the scale is an abomination.

Politically engaged art is not enough to fix the world—as Anne-Marie Grey of the UN Refugee Agency reminds us, social change requires more than storytelling. But this is not about fixing the world—it’s about how to work with the emotional distress caused by the news. Over and over again in the past three years, I’ve read and heard people talking about the strong emotions they feel when they engage with the news: anger, fear, anxiety, hatred, despair. Art won’t transform those emotions; I’m suspicious of anything that professes to transform emotions, because I think most of people’s words on this topic are about intellectualizing or repressing.  Politically engaged art elicits different emotions, and maybe the best we can hope for is a wider emotional palette in response to what is happening in the world, rather than to magically and impossibly turn anger into joy or the dispassionate calm that people wrongly think is what the word “Zen” means. Reading news coverage of police brutality against black people makes me feel anger and despair and guilt. Engaging with the works of Piper and Gay that I’ve written about here makes me feel love and grief and perhaps especially wonder, as I imagine the years and years of ordinary minutes and ordinary days that added up to daily lives that had meaning for these two men I never met and never will—only when all meaning ended for them did their lives become meaningful to the whole world, and that diminishes them. The art that moves me the most overwhelms me with a sense of the bigness of what I don’t see and can’t see, the rich mysteries that hover at the edges of what I can perceive, think, know. So there is another emotion: humility.


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