Death is at the center of everything that has ever been profound. This statement transcends the obvious examples such as martyrdom, assassination, suicide, or revolution. Death is often associated with the end of life, but it is actually the beginning of living.
By saying this I don’t mean some esoteric idea about life after death in some evacuated beyond human sci-fi experience. I mean living and creating right now. In my context there are numerous insulators and systems of propaganda that are specifically designed to prevent crossing the threshold of death and ultimately creativity.
Just today I was listening to NPR and some psychiatrists want to diagnose certain stages of grief (like after someone dies) as a disorder. I would need to know far more about this particular discussion to comment, but what is interesting is the assumption that the ideal state of a human being is stagnant happiness. If you are not inoculated and insulated enough and something traumatic happens and you find yourself grieving, or experiencing any emotion arbitrarily decided upon as “negative”…then there’s something wrong…
One can live as though personal security is the goal. One can buy a big SUV to protect themselves, a gated community to be insulated, insurance to protect, invest for tomorrow, and make friends that will benefit, and you can buy into slogans like, “a penny saved is a penny earned,” “I better save for a rainy day,” “make friends and influence people,” or, “it’s the little things that count” (an aside: I take particular issue with this last phrase. Its phrases like this that I worry inoculate people from believing that they can actually do great things. Sure little things are important, but I often here this phrase used by people that have WAY too much, and are justifying no doing more. 1 billion people don’t have clean water, half the world’s children live in poverty, thousands of children died deaths today that could have been easily prevented…if we can stop this, which we can, let’s not hide behind phrases like, “it’s the little things that count”).
BUT one has to ask…is this really living? Is this really what it means to be a human being? Is this really a recipe for a more creative world?
What if this whole system is wrong?
Perhaps this is why whole cultures rebel against so-called “westernization,” because they know that there is more…
And this raises the question: if “life” isn’t working for you why not try death?
At the heart of the personal insulation scheme is fear, and if you push that envelope the root is the fear of death.
BUT what if you faced that fear head on instead of living in denial?
To create you have to die. You have to die to the personal insulation scheme.
Artists are the people that step out of the systems of security and lay themselves and their work bare for the world. They die to self-preservation and pray that there is life on the other side.
The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat speaks to this. On the surface his paintings seem chaotic or too esoteric to mean anything to anyone other than the uppity art collectors. To say this, however, is to miss the true brilliance of his work.
Here is one of his paintings:
It looks deconstructed and broken down, and even dark.
If you know in the background of this image, informing Basquiat, is this painting:
All of a sudden, it begins to make more sense.
What makes Basquiat profound, for me, is that his art is not painting, it’s himself. What he is doing in this painting is synthesizing the world around him: New York, the art world, his perception of himself, the language of his culture in his time and he is bringing it to bear in a painting, but the real art is the human being doing the synthesizing of all of that input.
Perhaps this painting is designed to ask the world: if you could really see me, see my thoughts, my dreams, my despair, my world…what would you think? How would you react? Does this challenge you? Your categories?
In an act of total self exploitation this painting asks profound questions of both the artist that painted it and everyone who sees it.
Think about every revolutionary. Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Luther, Che, Michael Collins, William Wilberforce, Malcolm X, the Dhali Lama, Nelson Mandela, to name a few. Every single one of them has given up the path laid out for them. They have died, so that they can really live. They have deeply impacted the world but the first step was to give up personal security and dare to imagine a bigger life on the other side.
All of this makes me thing of crucifixion. Perhaps Jesus is deeply aware that changing the world will take everything. In order to enact enormous change, there will be an enormous cost. The cross is the ultimate in both death and vulnerability.
The cross, and the resurrection are no guarantee that anything will happen. Jesus has laid everything out there, quite literally painting with his own blood on the world’s canvas, with no guarantee that anyone will change. History has shown that people, even “Christians” can look at Jesus and not be moved.
However, Jesus is revealing the most beautiful painting, picture, sculpture, song, and poem about God.
Jesus, God incarnate according to the Christian tradition, steps in to human history and preaches, teaches, heals, and transforms and then allows himself to be killed. Jesus understands that the kind of world transforming kingdom he is preaching will only be able to be realized if the old kingdom dies. In stark juxtaposition to any kingdom of personal insulation Jesus is stripped naked, beaten, and crucified.
What if Jesus, just like Basquiat, is saying: look at this. This is what God is really like, and if you saw God naked and bleeding, non-violent and loving to the end, would you love him? If you saw this would you change, would you believe that God really loves, would you believe that the world is bigger and more mysterious than the little kingdoms that lay claim to it? What if the cross is God’s ultimate work of art?
Jesus risks it all for his art, the art of love and restoration. Jesus resurrection announces in vibrant color that the only way to truly live is to die. Let go of insulation and embrace the possibility that on the other end of death is true life.