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lunes, 4 de enero de 2010

Peter Sellars - Cultural Activism in the New Century

Peter Sellars - Cultural Activism in the New CenturyABC TV,August 19, 1999

Peter Sellars:
The main thing of course is this question of how do we deal with people, things, aspects of life that do object to us, people who actually want to kill you, people who have a very different idea of what the right next thing to do in life would be, people who in short are not like us. People who you know we tell ourselves they're terrorists, they're this, they're that, we have our names for why we won't deal with them. But here they are, they're not going anywhere, and maybe we're the ones that need to go somewhere. This question of how it is we take in that thing which is most opposed to us and who we are, who we think we might be, and that who we might be, who we think we might be part is maybe a conclusion we reached prematurely, maybe there is more to come in our lives, and maybe too early on we accepted a certain identity, and maybe life has something larger in store.
Are we open to that, or are we closed to that? Every day the entire world is knocking trying to change your life and say wait a minute, you have no clue yet. And if you're living well the challenges get more and more frightening.
What I'm really interested in is theatre and artistic practice as a way forward in a period where shall we say the major international issue is security, where the banking system was set up on the basis of security, where a whole series of things were told national security requirement, and of course the surprise is there is no security. The Bank of Australia has demonstrated that very profoundly. Life isn't about security at all, something else has been prepared for us.
I attended this last week here in Adelaide a very powerful show about the working class and whether we're afraid of it or not. And of course I took that very personally because coming to direct the Adelaide Festival where it says on every number-plate, 'South Australia the Festival State', and you say ok we have a cultural obligation to participate in the lives of everyone with a bumper. What role are we playing in the lives of working class people? What role are we playing in the lives of working class people who are for example out of work? Human productivity is a cultural question before it's an economic one. What does it mean that people are motivated and empowered to create, to shape their environment, to shape their destiny instead of simply respond to conditions that are imposed?
At what point does one engage at the root of a problem what it means when we say depression? Depression is an economic term, it's a very powerful term at the end of this century. I come from a country that has the best economy it has ever had in its history. The American economy dominates 50 per cent of the world economy, and these are the good times. Now how is it that in the good times just about once a week there is a massacre in an American city. Just about once a week now. Your kids are trying to kill each other. And you can drop bombs anywhere you like all over the world because you have no official enemies left who can tell you to stop except your own kids, except the person next door who takes out a sawn-off shotgun. A culture of violence, it is so deep.
And I accepted this job in Australia because Australia is at this beautiful moment, shall we say it's a little behind and that's a plus! And I'm here to say don't go there! The results are in. These are no longer ideological questions and can no longer be treated as an ideological battlefield.
The issues of multiculturalism, the issues of reconciliation, the issues of the cultural faces whereby we don't kill each other are not ideological, they are human. And we are talking about the function of the humanities in building a society where there might actually be safety, where security is based on an understanding among peoples not who has the biggest army for the moment. Where security is based on the ability to talk, to share and to be honest across very painful hugely controversial ugly questions. And instead of just skirting around them and acting like they'll go away because they won't, how you address them directly with the people concerned. Not make policy on behalf of those people because you know what's good for them. We've had a terrifying period of that which is now I hope thankfully drawing to a close. Very good intentions based on profound, profound uninformed cultural viewpoints.
What one generation thinks is the way to help turns out to be viewed by a later generation as an atrocious gesture. How could you take children from their parents systemically for generations? How could you think that would be helpful? People genuinely did. Proudly. Proudly. Fine people, proudly did something that a later generation regards as an atrocity and for which we are paying the price over and over and over and over and over. Now we all think of ourselves as fine people, we're good we know that. How is that we can begin to interact with people in a way that's not cultural destructive. Getting past the ideological barriers into a place where actual communication's possible.
I was very interested to see this show about the working class two nights ago. It's amazing the word 'working-class', who is everyone else and I'm just still trying to figure that out. And it was interesting seeing actors trying to deal with the troubles of young homeless teenagers on a theatre stage. In fact in Los Angeles where I come from we've been engaging in a form of theatre that is slightly more direct and I know there are some examples in Australia but I just want to give some examples I'm familiar with. There's one important theatre company called 'Los Angeles Poverty Department - LAPD and it's a theatre of and by homeless people on skid row in Los Angeles. Those of you who have visited skid row in Los Angeles know it's not a very pretty sight, mostly only visited because you got lost downtown where every two blocks turns into a fresh nightmare. Downtown Los Angeles is shocking because the giant world headquarters of the company that is responsible for our fabulous economic success stands next to a row of refrigerator boxes which are filled every night. Every morning at five am city workers come with hoses and hose the boxes down to get the people who are sleeping in them off the street and throw the boxes away. So one of the tasks of a homeless person in Los Angeles is to find a new box every day. So they work hard. And we've solved the homeless problem in some way and the city of San Francisco, the new mayor, Willie Brown has decided to give them ticket citations fining them, fining a homeless person 75 dollars for remaining in the same place longer than five minutes, that is the solution to homelessness. And I wish I could say it's a crackpot proposal, it is law, and it is currently being enforced.
Now I come from a country that in the late 20's and early 30's took people who were out of work and asked them to build new roads, new hospitals, new schools, new libraries, new post offices and build a country, and build the infrastructure of a great country. And all of those people out of work in the Depression built the America that could enter World War 2 heroically. And right now in city after city, town after town the finest architecture is the school that was built by the WPA, Works Progress Administration workers. Homeless and jobless people who are given a home and a job and a purpose and said let's build the society together.
What's being built in America in the next five years is 13-billion dollars of new prisons. We now have the largest prison population in the world, and we're defunding the schools at the same time. The three strikes rule and if you ever hear anybody here say the word zero tolerance please show them zero tolerance. Three strikes means the third time you're arrested and convicted for anything no matter what you are put in prison for the rest of your life. This is happening to young 19-20 year old individuals who you know get caught with small drug doses or something and of course right now in the last year in California we've had cases of someone getting their third strike for stealing chocolate chip cookies, for stealing a slice of pizza, a young man goes to prison for the rest of his life. The same bill that introduced this removed all educational programs from the prisons, so you can spend your life there but not get an education. This law is applied 17 times more frequently to people of colour than to other people.
I'm saying these things because again the statistics, the results are in.
Please don't think this is some wild idea being proposed, this has been on the law books and has been enforced and we have the results. So you're talking about images of success and images of failure, and you're talking about a city you'd like to live in, a society you want your children to grow up in, and you're talking about who's safe and why and what will it take to make everyone safe. You're talking about security.
Los Angeles Poverty Department did an amazing thing. It made shows with homeless people in which a lot of the things that came out in the show that's right now at the festival centre, came out but they were not spoken by actors, they were actually spoken by homeless people who themselves had experienced the things they were talking about. Now two things are very important. One is you know if you've talked to a homeless person much, homeless people tend to be loners and to tend talk in monologue or not talk at all, and it's a rather asocial gesture and when you learn where people came from, what happened that made them decide to leave everything, or the violence with which everything left them, it's pretty shocking. It's an extreme human state, and yet in other societies say old Russia, India, these are holy people. You look into the eyes of the homeless wandering person and you see the face of God. And in society after society this is a divine presence entering your life. The traditional Russia is how you take care of the holy fool.
LAPD's performances are wild events because you don't know from night to night who's going to show up to perform. You don't know how long they're going to decide to go tonight, crazy. The performances themselves put everyone in the room at risk, and yet the main risk has been in your whole life that you're too scared to go up to a homeless person, and when you see a homeless person you walk by them without looking, and act like you didn't see them. And a Los Angeles Poverty Department performance you find yourself for a couple of hour in the room with the very people you were trying not to see or deal with. And of course in this age of exploitation politics people like homeless people are used by certain politicians as a way to whip up a public storm, and so we have a giant debate about what to do about all those people on welfare. The debate which of course is held among people who are not on welfare, and we never actually hear from the people who are on welfare at all. The shocking thing in America was for the homeless debate to be taken up by homeless people where for the first time actually you're talking to somebody who is homeless about the reality rather than a series of judgments that have been passed by a series of other people who are paid to deal with them.
The shock of these performances is the information you get has nothing to do with the information you've read about or have seen on the made-for-tv movie of the person in a raincoat lurching through the street. In fact none of the stereotypes are true. In fact as you start to learn about who people are and what is moving through their lives, you change completely your attitude to how to deal with the homeless question, and what that question is in your life. And you will vote differently next time.
What's it about? Well if I may use the term in investigative lecture or as I like to think of it, the instigator address, it's about primary research. It's about most everything in our lives we have learned at a distance, twice removed, we're busy judging somebody that we saw for ten seconds on television, we say oh that person. What do you know about that person - nothing - does that stop you from making your judgment? No. If you stop and ask yourself how much you actually know from personal experience of most opinions you have, you would find that most of your opinions are utterly worthless. And yet they're the basis for voting, for social policy, for deciding what's good for other people, etc., etc., etc.
The arts are about primary experience. The arts are not about a move, the arts are about eclipsing the distance, the arts are about saying you're now in that person's shoes, the arts are about understanding that someone else's problem is your problem, and that probably your own problems which you're not telling anyone about are way closer to that person in the street than you're willing to admit. And the fact that you won't admit that means that you can't deal with your own problems either.

So the question in the arts is how you break through this wall that we all have, this mediatised wall that prevents most of us from engaging in our real environment and changing it, entering it directly, experiencing it totally, not through a membrane but actually touching. Actually saying we're all here for each other, and whatever needs to be changed or fixed or adjusted in the world is the same thing that always needed to be adjusted. You know that actually the problem of being human hasn't changed at all. I mean yes we have computers but so what? Because that's not the real issue. And yes society goes fast supposedly. I think I may have mentioned I did a concert last year with a great Indian Dhrupad player, profound man who sings on a single tone for an hour. And when I met him I said well you know you practice this very very slow artform, what is that like in this very fast society? And he said to me life is always slow, it's just your brain that's fast. And I think you know when you talk to people who are trying to deal on an Aboriginal issue with Aboriginal people and say oh it's taking forever. Yes, yes, correct, hopefully, because God knows future generations are not going to be proud of our quick fixes, they're nothing to brag about. The question is what will it take to allow ourselves to do something slowly, to spend the time that it takes to make a friend, to spend the time that it takes to establish trust, to spend the time that it actually takes to learn and the process be transformed before we're so intent on transforming everything else.
So these performances at Los Angeles Poverty Department are shocking and crazy theatre and unprofessional. The Los Angeles Times refuses to review them, and for me it's the only interesting theatre in Los Angeles, but they say oh they're unprofessional. I want to say thank God! We have seen the professionals. What I try and tell my students is my generation was told you had to have a career, so we all got one quickly, and the problem is about 50 years later where did our lives go? Fortunately the next generation doesn't have that problem, there are no careers. Therefore find something you care about and do it! And use the arts as an act of practice, poetry is about the root is to make or to do, not to react but to make or to do. And I was thrilled by this Steven Sondheim performance that began the evening. This whole question of having a vision is not enough, you have to have the execution. Well in the society that started to execute people I could use a little more vision, and frankly that's what's of interest because anything worth doing in life we will not accomplish in our lifetimes. Something valuable is defined by the fact that it is unattainable, but you don't know how to get there. The things you understand and the things that are within reach are therefore by definition of less value. And it's when we're trying to do the things that are beyond our reach that are going to have to be handed on to the next generation because we can't complete them at all that something important is touched.
And we live in a period where we have these horrifying consultancies that are based on outcomes - define in the next two and a half minutes what will the outcome be? Aboriginal outcomes have been coming for a long time and are just getting underway, because what we're learning in the speedy society is people need something slow. We're learning in fact that there's a hunger for something that doesn't just have profit but that actually has value and they're not the same. How do you add value in the life of a city? You don't build the giant hotel and tell the artist you have this little corner over there and then you have this giant monstrosity in the middle of a city built by people with a heart of ice right in the heart of a city. They're the coldest buildings ever seen, frigid, unbelievably cold. You can't believe the coldness of what this generation is building. What will it take to create the sense of beauty, surprise, shock, splendour, mystery and fun of the botanical gardens again, something fabulous, you'd just love to be there, you go there and you feel profound well-being. What would it be like for us to invest our public spaces not with another stupid illiterate corporate geometry, but profound well-being, a place where people want to be, and where just to be there is to be different. You're another person when you go in there because the space itself invites you to be human, invites you into a world of mystery, invites you into a world of surprise, invites you into an imaginary world that you would love to live in, keeps fantasy alive in the heart of the city, says ok we know what the facts are but now can we do something more interesting than the facts. Because as we all know the facts will be discredited in about another 25 minutes, there'll be another set of facts. So if you're pinning what you're doing on the facts, sorry for you.
And the question is how can we now put back at the centre of our artistic practice what has formed the power of artistic practice through history but has been missing hugely in the last generation, which is very simply social justice. You have without social justice no Sophocles, no Shakespeare, no Maurier - these are the people who put the issue of social justice at the centre not at that margin. Shakespeare called his theatre the globe, not the corner. Shakespeare was about thinking globally about finding your place in the world creatively, not making something like they have in Chicago and say now we'll bring it to Adelaide, but to find what it is here that is a real future. The reason I came to Australia was the no vote for Pauline Hanson, because in the last five years every other major industrialised nation has voted yes to the 'attack the immigrants platform and to shut the borders platform'.
Australia said after huge debate let's stay open, so I came, I said I really want to be with people like that who are resisting the pressure of xenophobia, of hatred, of mistrust, of closed doors, of privileged zones. And say yes, let us open ourselves to refugees because of course we're all refugees, and until you notice how you yourself are a refugee, you are clueless about your own life, what are you running from, what were you rejected from, how has that formed you. And then how many ways have you had to reimagine home across your life, for yourself and for people you care about.
So this question of cutting the budget for the arts which is what I come from in America, I just want you to know that the results are clear. Now in Australia you're dealing with a very crucial issues, this report has just come out - the Nugent Report - and it's about funding excellence. I am outraged at the cupidity of this approach. My attitude is the only good footy teams are Essendon and Kangaroos and everyone else should be eliminated because they don't win often enough. The crows may have been good once but sorry, they've got to go based on this seasons' record! Only feed your children on the days they do well in school! What are we talking about? We're talking about culture, culture is cultivation, culture is you've got to cultivate everything around you because you don't know where the next excellence or surprise will ever come from, and therefore is impartial, generous and a continuous activity where actually the very thing that you didn't have any hope for at all turns out to be the very thing that we're all eating dinner off of ten years from now. And what we're talking about is generating energy in a society where people are feeling stagnant and powerless, and we're talking about how you move beyond this state of social paralysis into a mode of activism which is about a movement. Any movement is not about this or that individually brilliant person, a movement is a movement, and right now we're all suffering from the nightmare of this highly individualised approach to everything, right? You have a problem, it's your problem because nobody else has that problem. What?
And you're successful, that's your personal success, you fought for it and please kick everyone else who's coming behind you on the ladder back. And you want to say none of us has a success unless that success is a success that is shared through the whole society.
And you want to say that probably some of the most awesome and beautiful and powerful things we can do will fail. Martin Luther King failed. I would rather be Martin Luther King than a lot more successful people. No, he didn't eradicate racism, no, it didn't work, and yes, his life was glorious and people will always tell about it. With Romeo and Juliet it didn't work out. Hamlet is not a success story! Oedipus Rex not quite! Why is it that the myths are about the people for whom it didn't work out, because we're on this earth to do something more than succeed. If all you can do is succeed, sorry about that. The question is how do we go to a zone where failure is certain and where that is the only effort that is worth handing on to the next generation who will pick up wherever we leave off and move forward? I'm very impressed with this generation, one of the reasons I teach is because I am thrilled to be around young people who are not slackers and are not apathetic, but are so much smarter and more energised than I was at their age, I am very impressed.
My students in America are stunning. No they're not marching down the street with a banner, they're just in an AIDS hospice four days a week, they're teaching maths to students in a part of the city where they have no textbooks. You find something that needs to be done and you do it, it's a two-step process, and it is what you'd owed your life to, because what we're talking about is not a career, but lifework. If you succeed at it after two years, sorry. It's like in rehearsal when a scene is really great in the first week of rehearsal I think oh well, it's too bad, there it goes. Opening night it will be horrible! Meanwhile the scene in the show that you're trying to cut that everybody says this just doesn't work, this is bad, we can't, you're trying everything on earth, it's a disaster - opening night everyone says how did you do that? I'll never forget it. It was our nightmare.
So this idea of learning to live with your nightmare as opposed to learning to run from it, is this task of culture. If I could put it more possibly, also in terms of the festival, because I'm very proud to work on this festival in Adelaide, because I think of a festival as something that's not imposed upon indigenous culture but indeed is a form of indigenous culture. Indigenous peoples all over the world never had subscription seasons. You did something when it was necessary, you were responding to a need, you were marking a moment in peoples' lives that needed to be marked, somebody is born, somebody's married, somebody dies, somebody's business has a crisis and so you create around it a ritual space. The image I have and I will use with apologies because I'm from American still, although that's changing every day, is from native American tradition - but in order to live one more day you need to kill a buffalo. Now most of these human beings were in denial about where the resources come for us to live another day, we don't actually want to think about who made the t-shirt that's touching you right now, or you know my nike shoes which are worn in memory of my fabulous trip with the Australian String Quarter on the Strezlecki last week - were in fact made in China by Chinese prisoners so you could say, no you couldn't say it it's a true statement, that the fingers of Chinese prisoners are touching my feet right now. If you actually trace out what you're touching and what's touching you, there's a fair amount of history that we're all implicated in. And as the part of the world the ten per cent of the world that consumes 85 per cent of the worlds' resources, it's important to be able to trace out what kind of sacrifices had to be made for us to be here. In native American tradition, if a buffalo has to die to feed you you create a ritual whereby first you contact the spirit of that buffalo and you offer thanks. You recognise that every day living beings are making sacrifices for us to be here. Now if you think about that, you commit to your life differently, you can't waste a day, you can't not respond to that sacrifice of a being died for you to be here, every day.
So there's a ceremony. There's also a ceremony because hunting the buffalo is a complicated thing. A buffalo hunt is a very elaborate thing that requires that our skills are at an extreme hype of preparation. Athletic skills, mental skills and courage, perception, insight - all of these skills need to be honed so there needs to be a ceremony where the community together hones those skills that will be required to survive tomorrow. In the process of the ceremony on the wall of the cave people paint a buffalo. It's not that somebody walked into that cave and said, gee it could use a buffalo over there, very nice. The first artwork was not a decorator impulse, it was a gesture towards survival, it was what is the most essential thing to survival - how do we put this at the front of our minds and consciousness into our bodies as practice, acknowledging what it means to take a life and therefore what our life has to offer the world in return. And the next day you hunt a buffalo and the village eats.
Art is about drawing that buffalo and creating that ceremony. The question for the next generation is what is the buffalo look like? And can we create a ceremony that is inclusive enough, that lifts all of our consciousness and all of our skills to the level that they need to be at? Survivability in Australia is not about discovering the next coal mine, it's about ecologically sustainable futures which Australia's the first place on the planet that is both industrialised enough and ecologically sensitive enough to pioneer. Our future here is ecologically sustainable future. The power of Adelaide is the beautiful quality of life, the beautiful quality of life is a moral scientific and social justice issue is what South Australia has to offer the rest of the world. Our task is to image the next sustainable survivable society.
So I'm in a period now where I'm no longer doing shows that have unhappy endings. I used to do shows that were angry, that said oh, everything's wrong, everything's messed up, this is corrupt, that's corrupt. I stopped doing that. First of all because if that really qualifies as news then we're in trouble, but more than that it's exactly the crisis of what does qualify as news. Is the only thing that's news is something that's negative? Somebody gets hurt, it's news. We now need an alternative information system for the actual news, and the actual news is when somebody's able to accomplish something. The actual news is not the next gesture of violence. The actual breakthroughs are not violent from now on at all. But they take living through some violence to get to. At the end of Hamlet it's not a pretty picture, everyone who you followed all night long is lying there dead and dying. The message is please don't do this, you will poison yourself and kill your friends. And then miraculously at the end all these dead people stand up and take a bow. No-one actually had to die for us to learn not to do that, please don't poison yourself and kill your friends. The arts can be used as the way in which you create the new paradigm and nobody has to die, nobody has to lose their home, and yet we can create the hypothetical example of how else could we do this. What are the alternatives? Can we experiment? What are human beings like under the following conditions? We need to know, because there's a whole lot about what human beings are like that we truly don't know.
And at a period where traditional religious practice is not engaged in across the society the question is what are the moral yardsticks. How do we say to each other this would be right, that would be wrong. Sophocles made a play about how you treated the prisoners in the last war, about teenagers killing their parents, and it's not an exploitation issue for tabloid journalism, it's about the deepest human question that could be asked. It's about how deeply we want to look at anything that's happening to us, or do we want to look away. So we're coming through a period of what could be called 'distraction culture', where most things most people go to is just to let the time go by and to not have to focus. I'm now proposing the new period is the culture of focus, is the culture of now let's just stop all this, and let's focus on what requires our attention.
We're going to use the Adelaide Festival as a point of focus for this country and that is going to attract the world's attention, because the issues that need to be discussed need to be discussed everywhere. I would like to think here in Australia and this next generation we have an amazing opportunity to take a leadership role and to face the issues that are urgent all around the planet. And to face them here with courage, invention, skill - the hard part, and generosity. This is the moment where Australia moves into a leadership role, not following, because we've seen enough examples, we need new ones. Cultural life will be our laboratory, the research and development wing needs to be supported and let's build the next society. Thank you.
And let me add one more thing, I know I'm not supposed to and probably this is violating the television program, the point of all this is that the members of Los Angeles Poverty Department, the theatre company of homeless people are no longer homeless. Thank you.

Reason may help some to navigate the path to faith. Can art do that as well?
For acclaimed theater, opera and television director Peter Sellars the answer is an unambiguous yes. In fact, the two cannot exist without each other, he argues, since art needs to touch the transcendent to be meaningful and theology needs art to unlock its mysteries. Sellars has been on the cutting edge of cultural activism for the past 20 years, using performance art to explore challenging moral issues such as war, poverty, and the international refugee crisis. A professor of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, Sellars has been artistic director of the Los Angeles Festival, the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center, the Boston Shakespeare Company, and the Elitch Theater for Children in Denver. Here, Sellars reflects on the role of spirituality in contemporary life, and posits art as a bridge between the human and the divine — an antidote to the self-centered inner world that Freud constructed. What follows is an edited transcript of an interview conducted for the making of The Question of God.

An Interview with Peter Sellars

You've said that opera has always been about the gods. What exactly did you mean by that?
PETER SELLARS: Well ... human beings need permission, and usually that's metaphor, to recognize that there are many layers of reality moving at any given moment, and that every small gesture has very large consequences. So opera is this amazing form, which takes a gesture, and understands it through music, poetry, dance, visual art, all at the same time.
"The artNegritaist's work is to lift people out of their usual sense of their own cosmos into a higher vision of what's going on up there."
A whole galaxy is in place around these four actions. You thought you were just writing a letter to someone, but in fact, there was a whole symphony orchestra playing. In fact there was a chorus singing. In fact, it's like a bigger deal. Opera constantly gives you that perspective shift; that glimpse of spiritual activity inside of the simplest and quietest moments.
For me, one of the hardest things to deal with about the 20th century — and I'm very relieved that it's finished — is that it was so absorbed in psychology and the self. Psychology is probably the least interesting thing going on in your life. At the end of the day, reducing your life to your own psychological problems is to devalue your place in history, is to devalue your political commitments, is to devalue what we're all doing here for each other. It is to devalue what overwhelming waves of spiritual energy or insight are breaking upon us, in the midst of these catastrophes, and not to get that life is difficult for a reason. It's not to get that we are actually being pushed, and pulled, and drawn out of ourselves.
This obsession with the self is of course exactly the opposite of centuries of spiritual seeking, which were all about how to escape the self. How can we finally annihilate this thing called the self, and literally transcend it?
That's what's so liberating about opera, because nobody can do it alone. The soprano is dependent on the oboe player, who is dependent on the person whose finger is on the switch on the light board, who is dependent on the person who raised the curtain, who is dependent on the person who tore the ticket, who is dependent on the person who served you your drink at intermission.
Hello! You're having this total experience. No part of it could ever be isolated — it's only possible because the whole cosmology comes into play. And human beings are doing this astounding thing, which is working together to make something that is way beyond their individual selves, or capacities, and that lifts everybody to a new place.
In order to do what you say, one needs a kind of openness to the real spirit. As an artist, how do you take that notion to your work, and then give it out?
SELLARS: One of the things that artists can do is liberate theology from doctrine. You know, one of the things that I've been working on for the last dozen years is staging the sacred work in a secular context. I've been staging the life of St. Francis, a Buddhist sutra, and now the life of Mary. But not in a church, not in a synagogue, not in a mosque. In a theater — in a secular society.
You can go into the Sistine Chapel, and believer or nonbeliever, you get the picture. Michelangelo sees to that. And at some point, the place at which we all believe is illuminated and opened, in a genuinely breathtaking way.
Start with the fact that Michelangelo is very insistent that there's only one direction you can look, which is up. You've spent your whole life looking at your feet, and now, guess what? Look up. That's very beautiful. That sense of lifting people out of their usual sense of their own cosmos, into a higher vision of what's going on up there, is an artist's strategy.
You feel it physically, in the back of your neck, as you stand in the Sistine Chapel. It's exhausting. You can't look that way for a long period of time, and suddenly you realize how out of practice you are, in terms of living in that stratum of experience. It's a strain.
What's marvelous is that church teachings are embedded in this experience. But also, the experience itself goes beyond the letter of the law and moves into the realm of the spirit. And, I think, over the course of history, theology has always had to be liberated through poetry, through music, and through images.

So now that we're in the 21st century, where do you see us going?
SELLARS: Well, for me, two of the things that are so liberating right now are that women are artists, and we know their names for the first time. You can't read Freud again the same way after Alice Miller. Alice Miller just says — Wait a minute, we're not going to swallow this Freud stuff. He needed women to be a certain thing to prove his theories, but in fact women aren't that.
As you know, in World War I, 90 percent of the casualties were soldiers. And in our current wars, 90 percent of the casualties are civilians. Women and children are now the targets. And maybe they're hysterical for a reason; maybe that hysteria is not out of control. Maybe they see something that everyone else is denying.
And actually, let's talk to those abused women and children, and begin to recognize some things that we're sensitized to in a way perhaps Freud wasn't. So to me, it's the idea that the hysterical woman now has a voice.
So often, theological writings by men are primarily concerned with the mind. C.S. Lewis does it magnificently, but it's an imaginative universe. It's all in the mind. Women's spirituality tends to be quite the opposite. It's in the body. It's in the flesh. You are mother Mary. You are carrying God's child. It's not an idea. It is in your flesh, and bones, and blood. And this incarnated spirituality, this spirituality that is in a woman's body, that is connected to the earth, and connected to the sky, and connected to the miracle of birth, is very different.
For me the 20th century was most profoundly witnessed by Simone Weil in the heart of France, during the Nazi occupation. And in the tradition of the women mystics — whether it's Hildegard of Bingen, or Theresa, right through our own period with Weil, women are the ones asking the question of — What are we really doing? Who is starving? What are the conditions of the workers all over the world? These are the proper questions for theology. These are the proper questions about how we are doing, as humanity.
And it took a woman like Weil to say — I'm not just going to correspond with my colleagues in the philosophy department. I'm going out to this Renault factory, and I'm going to work on the assembly line. — Simone Weil trying to teach Plato in the Renault factories, in 1930s France. And it took a woman intellectual to say in 1943 — Yes, I'm living here in London. It's comfortable. There's enough food. But I will not eat one more bit of food than my fellow citizens are eating in the camps at this moment. — Recognizing that our fates are that intertwined. Recognizing there's no backstage and forestage. We're all one picture.
That penetration, that courage, and that willingness to put the suffering of others into your own body, and experience it in your own body — that is a particularly feminine spirituality. And a spirituality that comes from cooking for people, caring for people. Being with the helpless, and helping. So the 21st century is about that — community building at the grassroots, setting aside our institutional thinking, and just starting to take care of each other much more attentively.
You're very much an optimist. In the 21st century, what is going to cause a shift away from self-absorption?
SELLARS: Despair. When people search and search, and feel empty and betrayed and hopeless, through their own vulnerability and desperation, they finally are broken.
God is fond of a contrite spirit. And sometimes the only way to get past the ego is when it's finally, horribly, violently crushed. And you feel like nothing. And you can take your first honest steps. So, "optimism" is not the word I would use. I would say "hope."
It's no accident that societies that have the most material advantage have the least hope. If you spend your life in parts of the world like Bangladesh, or central Africa, where people should not still be alive, how can they be alive one more day? It can't be possible. And yet, they're alive, again, today. That's about hope.
You've dealt a lot in your work with love, as it's expressed in great works of art. What have you learned about the connection between spirituality and love?
SELLARS: It's one of the longest and deepest traditions, particularly in Sufism and Islam, that we spend our lives in longing. And that the deeper this longing, the more sense of the beloved. God is known to us through his absence — Simone Weil is also beautiful on this point. Because love is measured in how in love you are with somebody even when you're not near them — especially when you're not near them. Do you still keep them in your heart? Or, is it out of sight, out of mind?
So, absence is the demonstration of this love, this longing for the distant beloved, this devotion to what your eyes can't see. And offering everything you can offer to what your eyes can't see is the most beautiful gesture, of focusing all your attention outside of yourself and overcoming the nightmare of selfishness. And finally just living for others — living for larger community — living for your love.

The history of art is mostly about that kind of devotion. I only have to say the words "Romeo and Juliet" and right away you go to a very special, amazing, beautiful place that feels so warm inside. They defied every convention — the racism and bigotry of their parents, the divisions of their society, the political and social barriers. And as two young people, they chose to live for their love. That they also died for it doesn't make the story less compelling, but more compelling.
So love is about understanding things don't work out the way you had in mind. In the process, you're almost destroyed. Or maybe you are destroyed, as Romeo and Juliet were destroyed. But that destruction is the threshold to a love that echoes across centuries.
So, with all that you believe, how do you deal with the loss of someone that you love? Or the pain, the grief, and the suffering of seeing friends ill. How do you deal with that pain?
SELLARS: The great Muslim philosopher, al-Ghazzali, has a beautiful sentence in his book, The Alchemy of Happiness, where he describes pain and sickness as a chord of love by which God draws those closer to himself that he wants to be with.
Sickness takes you out of the affairs of the world, out of all these petty things that you think are so important every day. And the pain itself sharpens your focus. I mean, it's very moving, because I think a lot of physicians in terminal wards are recognizing the limits of science. And that actually science, technology can't help you with a good death. What does it mean to die well? It's the science of the heart. And in the long view, the absence is as important as the presence. Who's still with us, really, and how we live for them still.

You know, in most cultures, theater, dance, and music were never intended for the living. They were always for the dead. In Korea, in Africa, in aboriginal Australia, you danced for the spirits of the dead. To let them know you're still thinking of them, you still care about them, you still cherish them. And if they died in pain, if they died in unhappiness, if they died with something incomplete, or in the midst of injustice, you spend those years making it up to them. And letting them know that your life won't be in balance either, until it's made up for them.
Most of the history of art, over and over again, is about death. We're a society that can't really deal with it, but most of Bach's music is about dying and how to die, and the meaning of death. The culture in Tibet is all around dying well. The science of the heart, in Central Asia, is totally understanding every day of your life in terms of death, because it's your meditation on death that empowers your life. As soon as you acknowledge that you may not be here five minutes from now, or five days from now, you ask yourself, "What is important to do?" Death is the best guarantee against wasting time.

Copyright © 2004 WGBH Educational Foundation

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