I remember years ago, a rabbi – my cousin – in a sermon before his congregation speculated on the soul of the artist.
By opposing the common notion of heightened senses, this rabbi presented the image of sensory filter malfunctions flooding perception like a torrent, like a burst dam penetrating, permeating, percolating through the senses, filling the artist with insight and imagination, revelation and prophecy, desire and passion and yes, obsession and compulsion.
The true artist – and I extend this to include the truly committed social activist – expresses, narrates, conveys, while purging and cleansing from an inner core to achieve stasis until the torrent washes over once again.
The artist and the committed social activist transform this perception derived from defective sensory and social filters into lenses as if implanted into the eyes of the soul through which they screen the world by observing, noticing, recognizing, fully and completely sensing the tiniest detail, the nuances, all the smallest microparts of the much larger and expansive whole.
They discern the entire glass, those levels filling the space and possibly even more importantly, the emptiness, the spaces that by their sheer bareness, blankness, hollowness implore the artist activist to complete and make whole as their soul seeks stasis.
Unlike most others, the artist activist explores environments around and in the development of the glass as well, the circumstances and creators of this container and the ecological conditions impacting the relationship between the glass and the factors around and through it.
And if we all are sent here to fulfill a purpose in our lives, therefore, artists and activists (full time, who constitutionally are incapable of turning off perception even for a moment, those who perpetually remain aware of their privileged statuses) live among us to do their best to achieve their purpose. Though they (we) are constant and perennial “pains in the royal butt” and others often dismiss us as “humorless” “Debbie Downers,” societies could never progress, truly progress without us in the work that needs to be done in our quest of tikkun olam – to repair and to make our world more perfect.
We live in a paradoxical society in which love of difference makes us the same but love of sameness makes us different.
The writer, a former associate professor at Iowa State University, is the author of numerous articles, books and commentaries on issues of social justice, Holocaust studies and LGBT studies.