An Ethic for Aesthetics: The Fourth Covenant (Part 5 of 6)

The Fourth Covenant: The covenant with my community at large.

As an officer of the law is a functional citizen in his community, whether he deals with ten people or with ten thousand, so am I an active citizen of mine, even though no more than ten people may have read what I’ve written.  But (1) because my work can’t help from reflecting my context and my community, and (2) because that work goes far beyond the community itself, and (3) because my attitude regarding my artistic profession affects the way I affect friends and citizens around me—it is right to acknowledge a covenant of honor between me, my work, and the people among whom I live and write.

Too often, and too easily, artists have seen themselves as creators not unlike the first Creating Deity.  Or, if they do not rise to divinity themselves, they worship their “muse,” their talent, the transcendent experience of inspiration, their profession as if it were divine.  Everything else pales before the supreme act of artistic creation.  And because all the life around them may be material for their art, they can feel justified in sacrificing any tender part of it on the altar of this exalted profession (or else they may not even notice how they cut and burn living things for the sake of this obsession).  Their art, then, feeds upon their community.  It can consume friendships and families and spouses ever before it—the artistic project—is complete and available to a broader public.

Communities, too, are at fault, often elevating the more famous artists among them to celebrity status: actors, movie directors, best-selling authors, dancers, singers, song-writers.  And if such a treatment is at least a potential for the more minor artist, he may take on airs before airs are granted him—in which case the damage is perhaps solely his own.

For my sake, then, as well as the sake of the communion in which I live as a busy citizen not different from the cop on the corner, I keep covenant with my family, my people, my church, my town, my commonwealth:  I honor what they in good faith honor.  I honor what is honorable among them.  At every level, both as an artist and a member of the communal body, I participate.

Or, to put this another way, I do not objectify them, divorcing my own accountable self from them in order to study, scrutinize, criticize, examine, analyze them, as if they were a smear on the scientist’s microscopic slide.

Here is what careless, uncovenanting art can do:

I know a woman who lives in a large house in a small town in Michigan.  To the delight of everyone, a movie crew arrived to film the village, its streets and shops and houses, as the setting for a full-length feature.  This woman’s house received more camera attention than any other in town.  My friend was flattered—until the movie itself was released to theaters nationwide.  She went to see it.  And she returned home ashamed.  For her house had become the home of vile, ruinous people.  It stigmatized the building for a little while, which caused her some local distress.  But worse than that, she believed that her dear place had become in the imagination of the nation a place of wickedness and horror.

I myself became intensely aware of the need for this fourth covenant while I was doing research for a novel about the Lakota Indians, The Crying of a Vision.  Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo, and Indian herself and a friend of mine, invited me to spend time with her on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, specifically to attend the Sun Dance there of a holy man named Elmer Running.  She had said, “If you are serious about this, I will invite you to our religious ceremony.”  I accepted, never doubting that this would be the best sort of research I could accomplish.

“Research,” I say—until I drove between two tall poles marking Elmer Running’s ranch, and down a dirt road to a wooden hut, where three very large Indian men approached and motioned me to stop.

I rolled down my window.

They wore their black hair long and braided.  I saw thick, hypertrophic scars on their breasts and their backs.  They gazed at me a while.

Why was I there, they asked.

I told them that Marlene had invited me.

“Do you have a camera?”


“Do you have a tape recorder?”


I was telling the truth.  It hadn’t occurred to me to bring either one.

“Do you draw?”

That was a different sort of question.  And though in their minds it had a similar purpose, in mine it had ceased to consider mechanical devices and had begun to consider me, and my purpose for coming among them.

“No,” I said.  “I can’t draw.”  But I can, I did not say, take notes.

They let me pass.

And I readjusted completely my relationship to them and to the experience I was about to enter.

I had intended to scrutinize, to examine these people, to make them the objects of my researches rather than to seek in them subjects of a fully human relationship with me.  But they themselves had already experienced the faintly insulting experience of anthropologists working among them.  No, not “among” them, but “upon” them.  With a twinkling contempt, they call such human ciphers “Anthroes.”  Merely to study the sacred rituals of a people, you see, is to demean them, to deny the genuinely holy quality of the ceremony.  What the Lakota know was a sacred way to dance with the eternal and to join the limitless, the anthroes reduce to a particularized, limited, definable practice of primitive people.  The scientist might truly admire what the Lakota do; might acknowledge a complexity in the act and a pragmatic consequence; but they would never subject themselves to it, body, heart and spirit; and the absence of faith in them makes them, the anthroes, seem like dissociated and foreign spirits in this place.

I took no notes.  I dismissed the book from my mind.  I subjected myself completely to them and their community; subject myself, I must confess, in some fear—but fear is the poor man’s humility for it does, after all, make him alert to all things around him, visible and invisible.

In other words, I became intensely conscious of the covenant which I as an artist must keep with all those who may enter my writing and thereby enter communities not confined to this place and this time.

The lack of a complete, complex human relationship between the artist and the communities that enter his art—the lack of covenant of mutual obligations—can be cruel.  Those who are only scrutinized may feel as if they’ve suffered a theft.  Something significant to their identities has been taken and handled, hand-dled, man-handled.  Now, that significant thing many never have known its name before.  The artist might have brought it to surface, allowing a community to see in itself what it had not noticed before (for this is the artist’s skill, to name the hidden things).  But unless this has been accomplished for the sake of the community’s precious things as well.  A shared ownership need not to be baneful, unless one of the two owners owns coldly, without a devotion to the thing he takes in his hands to sell away.  If it was something beautiful, its beauty is compromised by having been plucked from the ground that nourished it.  If it was a secret grief or concealed sin, well, the god to which it has been sacrificed is a god that doesn’t redeem.  This public god can only accuse.

This, then, is the core of my covenant with my community:  that my writing must serve them rather than being served by them.  Why should my profession be considered of any greater importance than theirs?

Ovid boasts:

Est, Deus in nobis; agitante calescimus illo:

Sedibus aethereis spiritus ille venit.

“There is a god in us,” he writes to writers.  “We grow hot at his urging: that spirit comes from thrones ethereal.”  Such an attitude has existed in Western societies for ages, that there is a divinity about the artist; that art is his worship; that such worship carries all before it.

But in other societies—African, American Indian, Inuit—the tale-teller is a griot, a servant of persons and of people, comforting them through long nights, acting as the memory of all, whose tales therefore are memorials.

I like this latter much better.

Next week I will tell of the last covenant:  the covenant with my faith.  Until then…..

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