Mississippi is young. The thousands of years of Native American civilization that predate statehood amount to little more than a commercial break in the saga of geologic time. The state’s colonial history, begun in earnest in 1817, and the modernity that followed, are but the echoes of a handclap.
The nation is fledgling still. The vaulted "castles" of the United States were made oh-so-recently by 19th century industrialists and Vanderbilts. For a human race that measures time in violent conflict, the U.S. has had but one Civil War, capitalized accordingly. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s hasn’t really ended. It hasn't been very long.
The chronological gaps between our own and elder brother and sister civilizations – Rome and Britain and Mesopotamia and aboriginal Australia the Mongol dynasties – are not so great in the grand scheme. There is untold history here, and everywhere, to be sure. Where Egypt has incomprehensible pyramids, the American South has the Mississippian mound system, excavated and catalogued but still not fully understood.
The global cycle of conquering and being conquered is devastating in its historic reach and toll, yet myopic in the view of the cosmos, like laps of a toy train around a fixed circuit. Our species is still trying to figure out how to exist with one another on the planet.
Today, our words and ideas are at war again, waged in the streets and at our dinner tables but most often in our pockets – on our devices. We hold the entirety of recorded history in our hands, but it is largely packaged and consumed in reductive pastiche.
“How to attend to suffering and injustice? There is so much of it,” writes Adam Haslett in an introductory passage to James Agee’s long-lost 1936 manuscript, Cotton Tenants.
“… We need filters to prevent ourselves from being swamped, classifications to remove our experiences of the pain of others to a level of endurable abstraction… There are friends and family, whose suffering is ineluctable… And then there is the pain of distant others, people who live in places we’ve never been, news of whose suffering arrives through the media, if it arrives at all… This we either attempt to ignore or treat as an ‘issue,’ an altogether more tractable entity.”
In this new world, we clash over facts in an effort to bring order and make sense. The validity of numbers. The relative “fakeness” of any given piece of news. But pursuit of Truth, with a capital “T”, is not the same as pursuit of fact. Statistics give context to truth. Data supports or challenges our theories and discoveries. Facts tell of the story, but they are not in and of themselves the truth. Fact and truth exist on separate, intersecting planes. Facts can be shorthand. Facts can be clean. Facts can be easy. Truth is unsettled and mercurial. Truth is messy. Truth is hard. In our time, truths are not in fact self-evident. Truth, and the process of courting it, is endlessly and beautifully problematic.
Take modern bluesman Taj Mahal, an innovator of the form who, in the 1970s, saw globe-trotting white bands like the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane draw on and show deference to Southern black musicians like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf. He realized that the genre, and the world, was bigger than it had been for the early blues pioneers.
“This is not a monolith,” says Taj Mahal. “It ain't, ‘I came over on a boat and I picked cotton and now I play guitar.’ No! That's a little bit too limiting.”
I speak of personal, vulnerable, guttural truth, beyond stereotype and dichotomy. Experiential testimony, un-sublimated feelings of love and fear and belonging, unique to any given soul. Truth, as we define it at the Center for Art & Public Exchange, emerges in relation to things and people around us, through firsthand seeing and speaking and listening. In this way, rhetoric is replaced by dialogue. Data points are given flesh, united with the people that the numbers attempt to represent.
Museum professionals talk often of the "original object.” The idea that the real thing, rather than a reproduction, carries some untallied weight and significance. At CAPE, we believe that artists and their ideas can lead viewers to greater understandings about the world. Art allows us to see and challenge things with fresh eyes, and through the eyes of another. But artworks mean nothing without viewers, who bring the necessary agency to make meaning of the material. These viewers - the people - are also “original” and authentic and have much to teach their neighbors and fellow humans. The purpose of CAPE is to use art objects to ignite honest conversation about contemporary social challenges. What one person sees and shares, all who are present can observe. Individuals all have different stories. Taken in their totality, these stories compose more universal truths, with quantifiable benefits for communities – and one hopes, for us all.
Managing Director, Center for Art & Public Exchange