Identity as Conflict

University of CA, Irvine
Using Art to Redirect People's Sense of Belonging
Remote Control: Conflict and Mediation in Contemporary Art, University of California Irvine, Spring 2009

You cannot be for one thing, without being against something else. As the great 13th century Sufi saint, Jalluludin Rumi stated: “There is nothing in this world that is not a blessing for one person and a curse for somebody else.”


The central aspect shared by all conflicts is the sense of shared identity that brings one side together, and sets them off against the “other.” Whether brought together by race, ethnicity, national boundaries, religion or the myth of a shared history, the “we” in a conflict is generally defined in the basest, easiest to see manner. As Rumi, again, averred:

“The differences among creatures comes from the outward form. When one penetrates into the inner meaning there is peace. O! Marrow of existence! It is because of the point of view in question that there has come into being differences among Muslim, Zoroastria and Jew.”ii

Being a literal species, “we” come together under the banner of skin color or shared religious signifier much easier than for more general, subtler reasons, such as shared moral core, or devotion to the betterment of humankind in general. Humanity can never overcome hatreds based on division until a majority of our species view ourselves as “human” first, and other connotations secondly. Even to attach oneself to a gender identity is to exercise a mistake, and submerge oneself in a narrow and all-too-human worldview.

The desire to separate groups into tribal distinctions is simply a holdover from our own animal past, an evolutionary tick that is sewn into our genetic code. While we, as nominally “conscious” human beings, have been granted a degree of free will, to exercise this will, and climb out of the sump of our pre-conscious drivers, takes a tremendous amount of energy and awareness. Our “natural” state, sadly, is to view the world through the scrim of our ethnic and cultural traditions, a surreal manner of ordering the world that underpins all conflicts and might, in the end, cause a fatal end to the human experiment.

Rumi, the sage who thought much about these concerns, stated:

“Man is a mixture of animality and rationality, and his animality is as inseparable a part of his being as his rationality. He is like a torrent in which mud is mixed. The clear water is his rational speech, and the mud his animality.”iii

The man was no fool. After all, there is a biological basis for him saying just this. So many of the reactions that drive our conscious thoughts – that is to say, which cause our “consciousness” to be little more than a reaction to some interior, misunderstood emotional driver – well up from the ancient aspects of our brain, which were evolutionarily present long before we developed a neo-cortex, and the mixed-blessing of so-called “consciousness.”

For instance, the limbic system, part of our brain buried deep beneath the areas producing conscious thought, supports a variety of functions including emotion, behavior and long term memory. Embryologically older than other parts of the brain, it originally developed to manage 'fight' or 'flight' chemicals and is an evolutionary necessity for reptiles, rats and elephants, as well as humans.iv However, the limbic system still pumps fear, flight and other signals up into the subconscious and conscious areas of our brain, forcing us to “rationalize” the feelings that we don’t ourselves understand. While it might have made good sense to feel terror and know when to skedaddle eons ago, when “we” were but some small, pre-human reptilian being, these same feelings, when triggered by a social or political situation and then “interpreted” into our consciousness with the help of the news media and politicians, can easily lead to destructive and reactive impulses, which are anything but conscious decisions.

To become truly conscious would mean to subjugate the pre-conscious drivers that thrum fear, flight and hatred signals into our neo-cortex. After all, when simply reacted to, they are viewed through the scrim of tribal associations, fueled by the pseudo-religious language of political leaders from all flavors of religion. Becoming truly conscious – the only option if we hope to continue for much longer as a species on this earth – means actually exercising control from the neo-cortex, and the highest, most spiritual aspects of this brain part, in interpreting the ancient survival mechanisms that, when translated into our contemporary milieu, lead to ever more horrific wars, and larger and greater slaughters of human souls.

The only true hope is to expunge the cancer of tribal aggressions at its core. War is a symptom; the illness is the manner in which people look into the world and see differences before they see sameness. We cannot remove our limbic system – this would lead to the immediate destruction of the individual. What we must do, instead, is to find a way to become truly conscious, to take control of ourselves, so that the subconscious messages thrummed into our neo-cortex from our own animal wiring lead not to fear, hatred and aggression, but are re-routed by the conscious understanding of how, at the core, all humans are the same thing: a message from God to God.

As the Hasidic Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak said: “When you get to the point of understanding the very core of what you yourself are saying, you will understand the language of all creatures.”v It this goal – a spiritual rung represented by individuals becoming truly conscious, and not beholden to the little-understood pre-human drivers that guide our behavior in all the wrong directions – for which we must struggle. Human and economic rights, justice, a foreign policy based on love – all of these things represent the tangible expression of true human awareness, a cultural and spiritual level of emotional development that we must soon achieve if we humans are to continue on this Earth.

To attempt to excise this cancer of the sense of belonging to a small subgroup of people, which leads to an easy identification with a particular group and a binary view of the world (“us” vs. “them”), I have developed various art series that force viewers to question ideas of belonging – and to see broader, subtler similarities between people, based on shared values and positive actions. In this way, “us” and “them” can be re-imagined, with viewers re-conceiving themselves to be part of a group of actors devoted to the common good, instead of just to the goals of leaders from a particular social or religious group, bound together not by a deeply shared set of morals and beliefs, but simply by shared cultural and ethnic signifiers.

In creating these projects, I have had to honestly consider the general irrelevance of the static visual arts to our society. Only poetry has less resonance to the general culture and the shaping of objective reality than does painting. Though this presents a serious hurdle to overcome as an activist artist, I have accepted this challenge, and devised various methods of infiltrating my art and message into the more general society, outside of the marginalized “high” art world.

In a very broad sense, I view the visual art aspect of my projects as the initial impetus for inspiring a different view of the world within the audience. Built around the visual work, emanating like ripples from a pebble thrown into a quiet pond, are a series of other vectors and activities, ranging across a wide range of media, which are all built around the visual output, and attempt to infiltrate a different way of seeing into the public at large.

I have worked on three different projects which use a variety of strategies to cause audience members to reconsider who is “us” and who “them.” For instance, my Human Rights Painting Project, in conjunction with the human rights organization Amnesty International, uses portraits of human rights heroes, both well and little known, to subtly demand that the audience identify with the group of oppressed human rights defenders, or the authorities against whom they tirelessly worked. The statement of the project, which is always exhibited along with the paintings, provides the moral scrim through which the portraits will be viewed:

“Tom Block's Human Rights Painting Project highlights the struggle for human rights the world over - and the important work that Amnesty International does in working towards this goal. Mr. Block interprets different aspects of the struggle for human rights, emphasizing the stories that bring it to life. Biographies of each person featured accompany the paintings.

The works themselves capture the range of emotions experienced in this battle. Fear, destitution and pain, as well as hope, joy and even sanguinity form themselves in these faces. Ultimately, the paintings bring together man's best and worst impulses — the heroes of the images are a counterpoint to the regimes and authorities that forced them into that role. We are left with the uncomfortable question of which group is more typical of our human race - and which the exception.”

Events in our own country over the past several years – when a majority of our citizens were generally for the war in Iraq at its onset, and have even at times voted in the majority for such human rights abuses as torture, extraordinary renditions, suspension of habeas corpus and the imprisonment of untried suspects for extended period of times without charges levied or indictments handed up, has made these questions salient and even central to the self-image of the United States as a country and historic supporter of human rights.

If an audience member is sympathetic to the stories and struggles of the men and women highlighted in the project – many of whom sacrificed their lives in service to human rights, democracy and other justice causes – then the conclusion implicit in this identification is that the actions of our own country must be called into question. Making the audience even more uncomfortable, perhaps, is that a majority of our fellow citizens polled in favor of the Iraq War just before its onset (56% in early March 2003) and during the bellicosity (74% in April 2003)vi and then voted for George W. Bush well after the Iraq War supposedly finished. Additionally, 69% of Americansvii are in favor of imposing the death penalty on convicted murderers, and a strong majority of Americans think that torture in many or some instances is justifiedviiieven though information garnered under such extreme conditions has been shown time and again throughout history to be unreliable and often useless.

At the very least, the hope is to make the audience strongly identify with those – of whatever race, religion, creed or lack thereof – who are against these egregious rights abuses that today, in the United States of America, a majority of fellow citizens have supported. In this small way, perhaps the audience members will be forced to reconsider their own exterior allegiances – for instance, identifying with those who are risking everything for the common good, instead of their fellow Americans, who can see good reasons for torture, war and the imposition of a highly suspect death penalty.

Of course, raising these issues in the context of an art exhibit, hanging mutely on the wall of some gallery and viewed only by people who are already in agreement with the propositions offered, seems and is highly irrelevant. After all, objective reality is shaped by politicians and mythmakers, and amplified by the supine mass media. George W. Bush, as president, can twist information and perceptions in such a way as to guarantee him a majority of faithful Christians willing to favor torture, a war of choice and the death penalty, turning their backs on the most basic precepts of their own religion, to fall in with the twisted worldview of a psychotic world leader. To think that a few paintings, no matter how successful, can make inroads in such an environment is hopelessly wishful.

As such, I have devised a series of injection methods, to attempt to use the sublime and disturbing beauty of these works to find various avenues into the mainstream of society. One manner has been to partner with a large, multi-national NGO working on these issues, which immediately brings the work and message to a far larger audience. However, this still represents a case of “preaching to the choir,” and while it is certainly appreciated by those who work in this field, it does little to expand the rolls of human rights defenders, or challenge Americans who think that the phrase “God Bless America” is consistent with torture, war and capitalistic anarchy.

By using the Amnesty International name to give the art exhibit greater cultural gravitas, the show inevitably attracts media attention when it travels to university and museum venues. In this manner, the message does resonate into the general population, as it is ingested by the public not in a gallery venue, which is deemed “non-serious” as a setting for gathering information, but within the mainstream press, thereby slathering the project with a patina of cultural respectability and importance. When people open their newspapers and read of this work, along with the inevitable (and usually positive) editorializing by the journalist, they will be forced to view the subject matter as “newsworthy,” and therefore relevant.

Another manner of raising the profile of the project within the mainstream culture has been by accruing political and cultural leaders as “honorary co-sponsors,” thereby signifying, again, for the general public the importance of the art exhibit, and the issues that it raises. Such names as Senator John Kerry, President of the AFL-CIO John Sweeney and even the Dalai Lama, plus almost a dozen other national and international leaders, have helped to raise the profile of this project immensely within populations that might otherwise discount the message of an art show.

Additionally, I have chosen to exhibit this work in non-traditional spaces, thereby reaching a far wider audience than would normally enter the high art sepulcher of the gallery/museum world. The AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington DC, the City Library in Galway, Ireland, the Columbia University Human Rights Institute in New York and almost two dozen other universities, seminaries and non-profit spaces have hosted the work, most of which brought the message to a wide range of people outside of the normal gallery going public. An example of the pro-active manner in which the art can be used just took place this winter, as the Washington Theological Union, a Catholic Seminary in Washington D.C. hosted the show during the “Right to Life” march on Washington D.C., against abortion rights. The student life coordinator of that institution wanted to use the work to help expand the conception of the “right to life” for the seminary students – he even hung a large painting in the chapel!

Lastly, by devoting a share of the proceeds of sales directly to Amnesty International, the specific cause of fighting for human rights has been strengthened, as this money is put directly into specific actions. Nothing in our culture speaks louder than Big Green, and by donating many thousands of dollars thus far to the coiffers of Amnesty International, there has been a specific and quantifiable impetus for human rights provided by this project.

I have two other projects that utilize art and other cultural strategies to challenge audience members to move beyond tribal conceptions of “us” and “them.” Shalom/Salaam: The Untold Story of a Mystical Entanglement is an interdisciplinary project that highlights the strong Sufi, or Islamic mystical influence on the development of Jewish mysticism, following this unfamiliar tale from 11th century Spain and Egypt, through the Kabbalah and into the Baal Shem Tov’s Hasidism in the 18th century. It is my belief that the popularization of this positive story can help facilitate the peace dialogue between Jews and Arabs, becoming part of the healing process of that fractured relationship.

Based in my own original research about Jewish and Muslim mystics that studied together, read each other’s texts and openly borrowed ideas from the other religion’s mystical masters, Shalom/Salaam is a unique mixture of art, writing, scholarship and activism. Through a series of art shows, written pieces, symposiums and other activities, the Shalom/Salaam project introduces this tale of spiritual entanglement to diverse audiences.

In addition to painting four different art series highlighting various aspects of this tale, I have taught a course on this subject at the Jewish Study Center in Washington D.C. Additionally, I have had eight academic articles on the subject published, as well as given numerous talks to Jewish, Muslim and more general audiences. I continue to expand the spectators for this important work; recently, I have introduced this subject to members of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, the International Peace Research Association, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Federation, Islamic Society of North America and numerous other groups through an ongoing series of art exhibits, talks and other injection methods.

Ultimately, this project combines visual art, writing and scholarship to answer the call of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Weisel, who said, “I still believe human bridges can be built between Jews and Arabs, through reciprocal visits between students, teachers, musicians, writers, artists, business leaders and journalists.” By popularizing this untold tale of mutual respect, perhaps a story of peace – so unusual in these difficult times in the Middle East – can begin to resonate as loudly, or even louder, than the sound of gun ships and bombs that currently command the stage between these two historic cousins.

A final project of mine is more general in nature, and reaches a far greater public than the other two. The Cousins Public Art Project has been conceived to echo the highest aspects of the American community, combining an elegant, Eastern-inspired visual language with the sayings of wisdom masters from a variety of ethnicities, religions, geographic regions and time periods. Fusing words representing the highest aspirations of humankind – aspirations that are at the core of all religious traditions (taken from great humanists such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, the Buddha, the Sufis, Hasids etc.) with specially created paintings – Cousins places art and text panels in public spaces, transforming them into wisdom galleries, available to local citizens everyday.

The panels provide quiet, surprising moments to be discovered by people from all cultures while going through the motions of their normal day. This project uses our country's diversity as an asset, by emphasizing not only the different cultures in our community, but also how they positively interrelate.

In thinking more deeply on how to infiltrate these ideas into the general public, and try and make people re-conceive the “us” and the “them,” I realized that one of the most important manners in which people ingest information and order their reality is through advertising. Sad and pathetic as this is, the fact remains that advertising is one of the three heads of the “reality Cerberus” that indoctrinates us all into the narrow worldview proposes by and for the guardians of the status quo, the other two heads being politicians and the media. Instead of attempting to hopelessly rail against this horrible fact, Cousins co-opts the presentation of advertising, with the panels often appearing to audience members first as typical advertisements found splayed across the American public square, before resolving themselves as “just art.” "Cousins" subverts this media to present timeless sayings from the world's greatest traditions, "selling" wisdom instead of toothpaste or a newfangled kind of undergarment.

By showing how the most sublime thinkers from all cultures and geographic areas, including Muslims, Jews, Christians, Greek Stoics, Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus and others, express virtually the same message of peace and acceptance, coming though they might be from a very specific cultural point of view, Cousins introduces local communities to another way of seeing, one that reaches beyond the "us" and "them" of the current political climate into the enduring similarities that define a Truth beyond hatred and division.

One final aspect of this project has been a workshop that I have run at two colleges, American University in Washington D.C. and Hanover College, in Indiana. Entitled the “Bathroom Project,” the endeavor has students combine sayings from wisdom masters with paintings of their own creation. They then photocopy the works and infiltrate them into bathroom spaces, where other students, professors and the general public will discover these messages, oddly relevant moments during a truly banal activity.

All three of these art projects, plus the widening manners of infiltrating the art and ideas into the general public, cause the audience to re-examine their own allegiances, and how they define “us,” “them” and belonging. Ultimately, the hope is to have people judge the world and its actors by their own set of most important held principles – and not simply think, for instance, that torture is O.K. because George W. Bush said so, as both he and I “identify” as Americans and Christians.



i Quoted in Discourse on Tawhid, Sheikh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi, pg. 4

ii Quoted in Sufi Essays, Dr. S. H. Nasr, pg. 123

iii Rumi, pg. 79-80

v Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber, pg. 229

vi Polling data from Gallup Polling, as reported in The Iraq War 2003 in Western Media and Public Opinion: Case Study of the Effects of Military (Non-) Involvement on Conflict Perception, Kai Hafez, University of Erfurt, Germany, Annex Table 1

viii “According to this Pew poll, Americans favor torturing detainees in some circumstances by a wide margin.” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Oct. 12-24, 2005 “Most disturbing to me are the high numbers of self-decribed Christians favoring torture: only 26 percent of Catholics oppose it in all circumstances, while only 31 percent of white Protestants rule it out entirely. If you combine those Christians who think torture is either never or only rarely acceptable, you have 42 percent of Catholics and 49 percent of white Protestants. The comparable statistic of those who are decribed as "secular," which I presume means agnostic or atheist, is 57 percent opposition. In other words, if you are an American Christian, you are more likely to support torture than if you are an atheist or agnostic. Christians for torture: it's a new constituency.” Pew Research Center for the