MLK, OBL, and a piece called “Night and Dark”

I painting this diptic over ten years ago when I was just out of undergrad. I had had a hidden life as an oil painter during my science studies, and these were two of the only four I completed after school. Eventually, I got around to showing these as a grad student in a show called “Scholarship Denied” with a few of my graduate school friends. The title of the show is a long story, but it was an excuse to show these old works. I ended up writing a companion text to go along with the paintings. It had never occurred to me to write anything before the show, but I realized that I needed to write this in order to finish the work. Here is that text:

When you come to the realization that everything you have done in your life, and seemingly everything that you will ever do, has only contributed to the world’s suffering and deterioration, how will you choose to live out the rest of your life?




Western society, includina an increasingly globalized East, is entering an era where we will collectively and individually be forced to answer this question. The last several decades have provided us a resource surplus that has let us live in a delusional state. Our delussions have obscured the approaching dark age that will be caused by the mutually amplifying factors of resource exploitation and over population. While in this state of delusion, our societies have dissolved any sense of forward-thought, or inter-generational planning. We have maintained an antiquated and ineffective infrastructure, shed tranditions of stewardship, and unlearned our writen history.

Seeing what is, and what will be may let us predict our fate, but in each passing night, an impending darkness increasingly envelops us.

The paintings and writing pose a question about which path to travel when the light fails. The paintings were made just prior to September 11, 2001, and the writing after. I now find it eery how this question has played itself out in so many other ways since I painted them.

On September 11, OBL, in his view, struck back at an empire who had its dirty hands all over the Middle East, and one that was all too complacent in its wealth and entertainment. He gave us a choice about the future we would make for ourselves in the face of our own vulnerability. We had a choice between a reeling darkness, or one of a painful, yet passing night. Our country’s extreme ignorance of our own involvement in the Arab world, coupled with an over-confidence in our vengeful strength, made us choose a violent darkness, which still over-shadows us now.

On this day, we celebrate another visionary, MLK, who gave us another choice over 40 years ago to move out of darkness and through a passing night. I wonder about the paths we have traveled since I painted “Dark and Night.” As we lashed out at the world after September 11, 2001, we turned on ourselves, eroding our civil liberties, relinquishing parts of our democracy, and turning over immense executive power to the president. As we sought to battle this shadowy “evil” in the world, we stepped into the darkness our selves. Once there, it spread over us.

Ten years later, the middle east has moved closer to democracy, and we have moved further away from it. We have witnessed the rise of anger as our unifying thread in this country. This anger has manifest itself on the political right, as the Tea party, and the political left as the Occupy movement. In the waning years of the Lost Decade we have seen protests on our streets that haven’t been as large since the days of MLK. But those protests have not been about a rise out of racist darkness, though. Ironically, they have been about just stopping the free fall into the darkness of oppression and fear.

From Wisconsin to Tar Sands, to Occupy, these protests have been about stopping a further slide toward domination and exploitation. Where the civil rights movements were about the advancement of people, and progressive ideals, our protests have been about anger over lost control.

MLK had a dream that we would all be treated equally, and live with dignity and respect. It seems, sadly, that we chased after the first by giving up the later. Finally, ending up with neither. Yes, we, US Americans, are all equal in some ways. We are all equal under an increasingly less democratic and more authoritarian state. We are all on the verge of losing our homes, our livelihoods, and our public safety net. We are all equally threatened by pollution, global warming and natural disasters. We all can equally expect to live less healthy and shorter lives. We have become the huddled masses that we called out for all those 200 years ago, except we aren’t huddled now. We are angry, resentful, overstimulated, distracted, consumers who are moving too fast to know we are in the dark.

The last decade has shown us that we do indeed sink together. When a night was all that approached, we chose a fire in the darkness. It has shown us that we aren’t individuals enough to avoid our collective fate. (Unless, of course, we have become uber-rich, but that may just be an illusion in the end.) In ten years, we have become a mass of small chirping creatures in the shadows, fighting over scraps.

We need to close our eyes to feel a dawn, but when we choose to build a fire, a twilight always burns.

And on that note, have a great holiday.

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