There is no place in Art
For sunsets or flower vases
While this goes on.
Art must scream for those who cannot.
Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison
Memorial and Museum
Once you reconcile with the piles of skulls, a survivor's pastel renderings of hanging torture, black and white snapshots of the 20,000 prisoners (of whom 7 survived), you still have miles to go. You must ingest the documentary where you hear the eerily docile Khmer Rouge anthem, literally translated as: “Glorious, sublime red blood that covers the Democratic Kampuchea”. You are forced to accept the stories of people being skinned alive, of a crazed leader, of an attempt at agrarian communism by stripping Cambodians of every creative urge or thought that could be construed as “informed” and naked, forcing them to bear the torture of digging their own graves.
This is too much and you have to go to the bathroom.
It is a recently added portable stall built over the still blood-stained cement walls and the barbed/barred window. You notice that some one has taken a moment to provide you with entertainment. In blue ballpoint pen is a serene scene sketched two-by-two inches. It depicts a stick-figured couple holding hands, watching the sun over an island with a mountain scape draped in birds. You sympathize. You’d rather be sitting on the beach too. In fact, you’d rather be doing a great many things that facing the responsibility of being human.
You consider the reign of the Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot (his own derivative, short for Political Potential). You can’t comprehend his desire to push the country back to now-named “Year Zero” by brain-washing and brutally destroying human life (including a great deal of his own soldiers). It makes no sense, no matter how thoroughly you understand socialist or communist theory.
You wash your hands and splash a little water on your face. You are dirty; you've been traveling. Your eyebrows, once neatly manicured, are reminiscent of Jim Henson's Bert puppet, and, leaning your head to the left side of your shoulder, you become completely sure you should be washing your beat up V-neck T-shirt more carefully. As you stare at your reflection you come to terms with your last 30 seconds of thought: You are from a country that puts millions of dollars in advertising into the shape of your eyebrows, but you're also from a country that put millions of land mines in the one you're standing in.
You're a good (albeit boundlessly guilt-ridden) Lutheran, so the next thing your brain does is reference James and his claim that "every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights who does not change like shifting shadows". You're not sure that the big JC's brother had any right to these claims of flower vases when you are standing in the shadow of an old Phnom Penh high school turned mausoleum. You know that the bathroom stall artist made an admirable attempt with the sunset business, but you're pissed off about that too.
Is this world full of art to mask our sins? Do we craft beautiful garments and love songs that attempt to compensate for the marred desperation of ugliness? Do we praise a God with rainbows and butterflies and "Jesus, Jesus, you're so cool" merely to make ourselves feel better? Do we choose to see a Kate Hudson movie (one we've already seen with our sisters and girlfriends nine times already) over a BBC report on Darfur?
Is there a place for Art while this goes on?
Admittedly, I love Kate Hudson and I've seen "Raising Helen" more times than one person should be allotted. (It's just that Pastor Dan is so great.) The rainbow is a powerful sign of redemption and God's promise to never destroy the world again (although you wonder why he keeps getting closer). Maybe these are unfair ideas, but I say them because I need to say this:
Day by day, I am learning the cumbersome responsibility of being human.
Because some of us will fail in the ethical arena, others will have to be the rectifying power. There is yin and there is yang, a definite balance of black and white. We are responsible for attempting to correct horror and violence, and we do so in whatever way we find cathartic. This may result in more Miramax films with penguins, lots of bright pink Barbies, tons of Rascal Flatts' deliriously wonderful, whiny love songs and trans-fatted slices of cheesecake, but it may also result in Art that screams for those who cannot.
We are responsible for one another. But it isn't as scary or demanding as it sounds because you are staring at 20,000 black and white photos of humans denied an attempt at making Art, and you grasp that your responsibility as a human is all privilege.
You have the honor of crafting your life into an honest, raw piece of Art. Among the flower vases of falling in love and the sunsets of the music of laughter, you make a note: You must put faith in your singular ability to be a unique voice within a community. You must trust an inner voice, no matter whose reformation or revolutionary ideas they came from. Beyond any mere duty, you feel to a sense of moral ethics, you can (and will) shout for those who cannot.
This is Art.