“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
I’ve been sitting here for quite some time now, staring at the quote above from Elie Wiesel. I had planned on writing about how my work evolved as a response to the indifference of others but now, looking at those words and putting them into the context of Wiesel’s experience, I feel a bit foolish. Wiesel, who had survived the Holocaust, was eyewitness to indifference on a grand scale, from those who were complicit or those who did not raise their voices in protest even though they knew what was happening to the personal indifference shown by his Nazi guards, as they turned a blind eye to the suffering and inhumanity directly before them on a daily basis, treating them as though they were nothing at all.
The indifference of which he speaks is that which looks past you without any regard for your humanity. Or your existence, for that matter. It is this failure to engage, this failure to allow our empathy to take hold and guide us, that grants permission for the great suffering that takes place throughout our world.
So you can see where writing about showing a picture as a symbolic battle against indifference might seem a bit trivial. It certainly does to me. But I do see in it a microcosm of the wider implications. We all want our humanity, our existence, recognized and for me this was a small way of raising my voice to be heard.
When I first started showing my work I was coming off of a period where I was at my lowest point for quite some time. I felt absolutely voiceless and barely visible in the world, dispossessed in many ways. In art I found a way to finally express an inner voice, my real humanity, that others could see and react to. So when my first opportunity to display my work came, at the West End Gallery in 1995, I went to the show with great trepidation. For some, it was just a show of some nice paintings by some nice folks. For me, it was a test of my existence.
It was interesting as I stood off to the side, watching as people walked about the space. It was elating when someone stopped and looked at my small pieces. But that feeling of momentary glee was overwhelmed by the indifference shown by those who walked by with hardly a glance. That crushed me. I would have rather they had stopped and spit at the wall than merely walk by dismissively. That, at least, would have made me feel heard.
Don’t get me wrong here– some people who are not moved by a painting walking by it without a glance are not Nazis. I held no ill will toward them, even at that moment. I knew that I was the one who had placed so much importance on this moment, not them. They had no idea that they were playing part to an existential crisis. Now, I am even a bit grateful for their indifference that night because it made me vow that I would paint bolder, that I would make my voice be heard. Without that indifference I might have settled and not continued forward on my path.
But in this case, I knew that it was up to me to overcome their indifference.
Again, please excuse my use of Mr. Wiesel’s quote here. We all want to be heard, to be recognized on the basic levels for our own existence, our own individual selves. But too often, we all show indifference that takes that away from others, including those that we love. We all need to listen and hear, to look and see, to express our empathy with those we encounter. Maybe in these small ways the greater effects of indifference of which Elie Wiesel spoke can be somehow avoided.
It’s a hope.
The painting at the top is a new piece that I call Memory of Night, inspired by Wiesel’s book, Night.
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