A friend of mine posted the quote below, one that I have long admired, online this morning and it set me off thinking how our indifference to so many things affects us in many ways. For example, in the blogpost below from a couple of years back I wrote of how I was spurred on by the unknowing indifference of others to my work. But we are also sometimes intellectually lax and this allows us to build up an indifference to things that we know in our cores are wrong and unacceptable.
Take for example the words and actions of Donald Trump. He often says and does things that deserve loud condemnation yet we have come to have an indifference, a tolerance, to his constant stream of untruth and divisive rhetoric. It seems easier to accept something that should appall us, especially when his supporters are so loud and angry, than to step up and say that this is wrong. So we let his many and well documented lies, his unfounded boasts and his vitriolic appeals to our darker angels slide. In our indifference we don’t look any further into his words or past.
We begin to accept him at face value.
This sort of indifference is always a dangerous thing. Elie Wiesel knew that from firsthand experience in the Germany of the 1930’s when Hitler’s appeal to nationalism and the indifference of those who saw him as a fool and not a threat allowed the rise of Nazism which led to Auschwitz and to the many other horrors of WW II.
Don’t go crazy here– I am not making that jump in saying that Trump will lead us to anything like Nazi Germany. But to let disinterest and indifference creep into how we view our civic responsibility in voting is a dangerous thing. Our indifference may have us thinking that this election doesn’t have much to do with our day to day life. But ask the vets who fight our wars or the families who are left to bury them.
The point here is to fight indifference, to stop and be curious when faced with anything. The world is too complicated for us to be careless and indifferent. Especially now.
“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 Nobel Prize winner 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.