Holy Murals: how a new WPA could save the church

We don’t really make murals anymore. Not like we used to, at least. Lots of old post offices or fancy lobbies from a certain era have sweeping wall art, mosaic or hand painted, depicting industrious Americans or verdant farms or, sometimes, nothing specific at all. Most of these are a creation of artists employed by the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, where artists unemployed by the Great Depression were hired by the federal government to beautify public spaces and enrich American culture.

San Pedro, CA post office

These WPA murals are from the 30s, but if you’re like me you almost think of them in a similar class to the ubiquitous murals behind altars in churches. These reredos or apse walls tend to date more to the 60s, when there was a huge boom in contemporary church architecture. They tend to be gold.

Cabrini Shrine, NYC

Although the WPA had branches funding all the major arts, the murals are the most striking example of that cultural infusion today. There are, of course, the many important buildings created under the auspices of the WPA, but we now consider those remaining structures simply part of the fabric of our cities. The music and theater and writing have been relegated to libraries as trends changed. The murals, though, seem trapped in amber, a relic of a different time; stylized with distinctive Deco details, they remind us of an inter-war America that seems like a story told by our grandparents. There are so many of these murals in part because so much of the WPA budget was allocated for their creation.

Nearly 90 years later, we are, once again, facing wide-spread unemployment amongst artists. The ongoing shutdown has put many out of business entirely, while others survive only on enhanced unemployment opportunities. Additionally, churches have been unable to meet regularly, which has caused communities of faith to struggle both financially and spiritually.

We can look to the past for an answer to this problem. We can create a New WPA.

Georgette Seabrooke working On Her WPA Federal Art Project mural,  Recreation In Harlem, for the Nurses’ Recreation Room in Harlem Hospital.

The WPA appropriation in 1935 was 6.7% of GDP. A similar amount in today would be less than $1.5 trillion. The CARES act, passed in the infancy of this emergency, was well over $2 trillion, and we didn’t get a SINGLE mural out of it. A new WPA could be funded with a fraction of the amount we’re already freely willing to give to mega-corporations who have plenty of money in the bank. Funding artists instead not only stimulates the economy and provides for struggling Americans, but also enriches our culture, furthers artistic development, and beautifies our public spaces.

Of course, the current challenges make music and theater productions difficult, but visual art, construction, and writing can largely be done independently. As we understand more about the risk involved with gathering for performance art, we can fund new and innovative ways in which people in those disciplines create. In the meantime, artists can pass along the technique of their trades by teaching (remotely), and a large scale arts education initiative would both save artists and enrich schools. Other countries are already doing this.

If this New WPA is also allowed to install public art in churches, this could be a way to save our struggling houses of worship. Doesn’t your church need some refurbishment? Maybe a renewed exterior, complete with outside art for everyone to enjoy? Or perhaps there is a large blank wall, waiting for some benefactor to fund a fantastic mural on it. Of course, there are problems in using secular funding for sacred art, and people would probably be more amenable to funding church art publicly if churches paid their fair share in taxes (a discussion for a different time). Still, this could be a productive, creative way to support churches, artists, and communities in a way that doesn’t simply throw money at an ever-increasing problem.

The one type of presidential candidate everyone hates

Many glass ceilings are being smashed with the announcement of the democratic party’s vice-presidential nominee. It is rare to have a woman as a national party’s candidate, and even more unusual to have a person of color. There’s one barrier that hasn’t been crossed, though. There hasn’t been an openly atheist presidential or vice-presidential candidate, and there won’t be anytime soon.

Research continually demonstrates that nearly half of voters will not support an atheist. Also, although trends show quick and increasing acceptance for other diverse voices including people from the LGBTQ community or people with non-white racial heritage, the needle is barely budging on atheist acceptance. It simply is politically unfeasible to self-identify as an atheist when such a broad swath of voters will disqualify you on this merit alone. A candidate is more likely to identify as a socialist than an atheist, even when they’re probably both.

It is past time for an atheist president. Getting past this hurdle of public opinion, though, will take some time.

Do Biblical contradictions make homosexuality ethical?

I was pulling up the old Biblical gem about rabbits chewing cud the other day and my search resulted in several pages defending Biblical literalism and “disproving” the error. The argument broadly goes that, although the Bible says unequivocally that rabbits chew cud, and although rabbits are not ruminants, that rabbits do re-digest their food through a process called cecotrophy. The word which we translate as “chew the cud” today would, when the document was written, have been meant to encompass a larger group of activities, and so although the rabbit doesn’t chew cud by our classification today, rabbits can be said to fall under the qualifications of the original term used.

GAY RABBIT

This is obviously quite a stretch, but it is this statement, shared by many pages making a similar argument, which really jumps out at me:

Simply stated, it is not reasonable to accuse a 3500-year-old document of error because it does not adhere to a modern man-made classification system.

Tommy Mitchell

We can extrapolate further; the condemnations against same-sex relationships and gender fluidity rely on a classification system 3,500 years old. Our current understanding of these things is significantly removed from the way the words are used in the Bible. Thus, just as the Bible is not in error regarding rabbits, the Bible also cannot be understood to make any statement about our modern conception of LGBTQIA rights.

You’d all agree, right fundamentalists and literalists?

The hopeful hegemony of Personal Identity

One of the really fascinating insights from Don Cupitt’s book After God is a very short, late book discussion on the nature of organizing cultural principles. He notes that humans have organized themselves first around tribes, later around nation-states, and in the 20th century around religious ideologies and ethno-nationalist sects. There is more complexity to this, of course: people living in a country with a state religion will both simultaneously be organized around a religious structure as well as a political one, and America (and the increasingly democratized world) has parties organized around both religious and nationalist tribalism.

Most importantly, he notes that the progress of globalization has moved people away from these geographical or historical structures to ones which are multi-national and inclusive: brands. By their global nature, international mega-brands need to alienate as few as possible while garnering support from people in far-flung geographical locations with wide-ranging philosophical beliefs. He says:

Interestingly, our great multinational corporations and systems of communication and exchange already practice a kind of global political correctness. They rather deliberately bracket out, set aside, any consideration of gender, nationality, race, color, creed. A worker is a worker and a customer is a customer, regardless. It is conventional to criticize the multinationals for being mobile, rootless, anonymous, and interested only in profit, but I’m pointing out that it is precisely these features that make them morally superior to our old locally based national and religious identities. Being mobile and global, they cannot afford to operate by generating and excluding an Other, and they therefore had to find a new basis for communal loyalty.

After God pg. 98, italics in original

Cupitt then goes on to mention the growing trend to “other-ize” Islam, but that this effort is a death throe of the old order. This was written before 1997! He both predicted the war which was triggered by the events of September 11th, 2001, and also, in a sense, predicted how public opinion would turn away from that war with our increasing sense of globalization.

What I find interesting about brand loyalty as a culturally unifying concept is both how notable this rise was and how quickly it seems to have burnt out. The extreme ethno-centrism and nationalism that was the reaction to 9/11 hasn’t faded, of course. Creating an enemy is a time-honed and effective method of galvanizing a tribe. But Cupitt’s observation that globalization has created an allegiance to, an organization around multinational brands was certainly a verifiable trend leading up to 2001 and several years after. It seems crass to us today, but people really did identify strongly with, say, Starbucks and their ability to get their favorite latte in any port. Fanatics for Apple products could be located the world over. People began to value their employer over their parents’ church, to protect their company’s interest over their country’s.

This is a moral alternative to Other-ness, one which encourages world-wide unity over adversarlism. It is objectively better than warring tribes. But it is hard to maintain- all it takes is one “big bad” to scare people back into polarization, which is why we are constantly fighting a cultural battle of globalization against ethno-centrism.

More than that, we quickly realized how brands are exploitative and don’t have our interests at heart. These multinational corporations turned out, it seems, to be just as destructive as warring tribes. Worse, a geographical or religious tribe is made up of the interests of its members so it has their well-being at its core. Brands and corporations have at their core the interest of their owners, stock-holders, and board members, meaning that people who willfully pledge themselves in service to a brand are working against their own interest (so long as they don’t have an ownership stake).

We also know that brands have lost this globalist clout because of the way brands now must act in the marketplace of ideas; brands assert a sort of identity with which people can find an affinity as opposed to gaining loyalty by virtue of their equanimity. This is best exemplified by something like a brand of frozen meat products positioning itself as a political radical, or a burger chain becoming irreverent and edgy. These brands are demonstrating the new ideal around which we organize ourselves, which is no longer the brands themselves.

We pivoted to a new organizing principle: personal identity.

In the past few years we’re seeing an increasing trend towards personal identity as an answer to tribalism. By this I mean any signifier which you choose for yourself independent of an institution, although your self-identification may qualify you for membership in some groups. We now believe that we have ultimate autonomy over our identification in a way we never have before: Your gender identity used to be assumed by your sex organs, now we understand that gender is a personal identity. Your sexual orientation was assumed by your gender, now we understand that orientation is a personal identity. Race used to be assumed by the appearance of your skin, now we understand that race is a constructed identity. Religion used to be dictated by your parents or cultural heritage, now we understand that religion is a personal identity.

This has manifested itself in many ways: The “me too” movement, for instance, relies on a fundamental personal identification as a victim of sexual violence and harassment. That’s why when we say we “believe women,” we’re not just unequivocally accepting their recounting of events as objective truth; we’re acknowledging that they personally self-identify as a survivor, which is an identification we cannot take away from them. The objective truth of the situation in question doesn’t change someone’s personal identification.

This idea, that personal identity isn’t contingent on objective reality, means that identity is inviolate. Identity is a subjective, unverifiable quality. An individual has only to claim a specific identity and no one can argue against it. You can’t tell someone else their chosen identity is wrong, whether it involves gender or sexual orientation or sexual assault victimhood. Of course, who would want to anyway? The only reason why someone would choose to invalidate someone else’s personal identity is as a way to gain their fidelity to another tribe. In this way, invalidating someone else’s identity becomes an act of aggression.

I wonder how we will look back on certain moments of self-identification as we evolve this inviolate sense of identity. For instance, viewed in this light the race-swapping Rachel Dolezal isn’t necessarily the shocking story it seems: she simply is identifying with a race to which she lacks genetic relation, but it doesn’t invalidate the affinity she feels towards that identification. We already know that race is a construct and certainly isn’t based in genetics, so why shouldn’t this apply to her? Of course there is the question of appropriation, but where does identification begin and appropriation end? Are drag queens appropriating feminine identity? Are sexually adventurous straight people appropriating homosexuality? I don’t know the answer to these questions other than to say that one’s own personal identity must be treated as valid.

This emerging sense of organizing around identity has the added benefit of being truly ecumenical in a way that brand-identification never was. We can gather in tribes related to our identities, but we can’t fight about which should reign supreme, because we recognize that identity is subjective and inviolate. We might form groups around one identity, but they stop from becoming monolithic because of the vast diversity and intersectionality within each group. And each group can’t demand homogenization, because we can’t dictate other’s personal identities! I find this extremely hopeful, but a little counter-intuitive: it is actually by our acceptance of labels that we transcend division. We’re more peacefully connected because of the ways we describe ourselves and others, not in spite of them.

Existentialism and inaction

I was reminded of this Peter Watson piece from an old Time Magazine about atheism and existentialism. One of his conclusions after studying existentialist writers is:

 “If there is no afterlife, which they accept cannot be, we must attempt to make our lives on Earth as intense as possible: this is the only meaning we can have.”

Certainly when we stop relying on a spiritual reward in heaven there’s a lot more incentive to carpe the diem in real life. Lots of existentialists are very inspiring in this regard, and they have to be. That much freedom, with so little direction or predesigned structure, can be very frightening!

The current pandemic shutdown has really thrown things into sharp relief. When you’re stuck at home with nothing to do but ponder your existence, what is really the point of your life? A lot of people spend most of their energy in professional pursuits, either for the sake of the job itself or for the money they make. But many of us are rendered useless professionally, lots of people have lost jobs and even those that can work from home are naturally questioning the worth of their contribution. Maybe we get to spend time with our families, and lots of people place their home life as their primary motivation. But that’s hard to cultivate too, not just because you’re trapped with your household but because you can’t help them develop: if you have kids, you can’t watch them make their way in the world, if you have a romantic partner you can’t go on dates, if you take care of parents you can’t get them out and about with friends. Of course lots of people prize their relationships with friends highly, but those friendships will be distant for the time being. You can stay home and make things, but depending on what you’re creating it may not make its way into the world anytime soon. And all this is constantly overshadowed by the spectre of death and illness.

Perhaps that’s why quarantine has me feeling a little lethargic lately. It is kinda draining to think so seriously about existence. That’s probably why people hate philosophy.