No driving today as we spent the day exploring Chicago and visiting with family: Yohanna’s cousin and her husband. We took the train downtown from their home and after walking around Millennium Park, we made our way to our main destination of the day, The Art Institute of Chicago.
It is such an impressive and important museum. I had been there years ago when a work trip took me briefly to Chicago and I had a window of opportunity to visit. Yohanna had actually been here just a few weeks earlier when she went to Chicago to attend her cousin’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. But we wanted to go because while the thrust of our trip is justice and civil rights, we do want to do things as a family that both involve the outdoors and cultural activities. Yesterday we visited the beautiful gorges at Starved Rock State Park. Today the art museum.
There are pieces in this museum that I definitely wanted to see. After my grandparents died I claimed for myself their framed copy of a print of
Chagall’s The Praying Jew. I had seen it all my years growing up, and found its color and form so striking: I felt it belonged in a rabbi’s office. Now I had the chance to see the original. And I had a chance to see the original Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, a ubiquitous image, yes, but one that still strikes a chord. I love how the ambiguity of narrative in the image makes this almost a Rorschach Test for an individual’s experience.
Two other works of art brought up new ideas and thoughts for me today. One was another Chagall in the same exhibit space as The Praying Jew—an image called White Crucifixion. In it a figure of Jesus in the center is surrounded by other images of Jewish persecution. My 11-year-old son and I had a deep and intense conversation about it, about the imagery and meaning. Here Chagall is emphasizing the Jewishness of Jesus—through the image of his garment, which looks like a tallit (prayer shawl), and his name in Hebrew on the top of the cross—as a means of connecting the suffering of Jesus with the suffering of Jews throughout history. It struck me that Chagall is not making a theological statement, but rather seems to be calling out and admonishing those who would watch this persecution of the Jews happen. Chagall was a refugee from Europe; someone who experienced such persecution first-hand. You can not uphold the suffering of a mythic Jew, he seems to be saying, if you are unwilling to combat the suffering of actual Jews. One can not profess one set of values and live another.
The other was an exhibit was a series of photographs of the African-American experience in Chicago from 1950-1980. It was a collection of different photographers capturing different aspects of life. Two things stood out to me from these photos. One was simply the portrayal and documentation of an experience unlike my own, and the necessity of both witnessing it and honoring it. The second was how much religion was a part of this experience. Photographs captured both church life and the Nation of Islam. And to see photos on the wall in close proximity to one another of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King addressing a crowd and Malcolm X leading worship was a reminder that the movement for justice and civil rights in this country had a religious foundation. A spiritual life gives one a rootedness in the past and tradition, a means for organizing and mobilizing community, and a vision of the future and what could be. Justice requires spirituality, and spirituality requires justice.
Throughout our time at the museum my mind went back to a conversation we had over breakfast that morning with our relatives. The conversation drifted to politics, of course, and we talked about the notion of a “bubble.” Both we, in our blue western Washington, and they, in their urban Chicago, live in what is usually referred to as a “bubble”—local communities sustained in their mutually-affirming liberalness. Challenging that notion, we asked, what if it is reversed—that it wasn’t us living in a “bubble,” but everyone else?
We are fed this common rhetoric that liberalness exists in a bubble out of touch with “real” America. But why is that the case? (Remember, our current president did not win a majority of the votes cast in the last election.) It seemed to us that it is those who do not experience a diverse community, who fail to appreciate and celebrate different cultural experiences, who are unable to understand alternative historical experiences, are the ones who are living in a bubble.
Art is one way to break down these barriers, portray diverse ideas and experiences, and pop the bubble. Because of this, art is spiritual, art is necessary, and art is revolutionary.