So, this is something I’ve been thinking about for, well, nine years.
Zack Bent, Burning Bush, 30” x 24” Archival inkjet print 2009
It began one day while hard at work as a GA (Gallery Attendant) at the Henry in 2000. (I had a brief stint in Seattle for that one year before my more permanent move here in 2006.) My fellow GA and I were talking as we paced a temporarily empty gallery, and the conversation turned to religion. She was planning her wedding, and I asked if there would be a religious component. I could imagine what her answer would be, based on her appearance and what I knew of her so far. She had a kind of post-punk, pointy shoe, skinny jeans, indie aesthetic, and was rather quiet, save the odd solemn reply to random banter. I enjoy talking about religion and God and spirituality and the way people make them their own within cultural norms, so I was eager for what I expected would be a hearty philosophical discussion about the alternative traditions she might use in her wedding. She told me she was Christian and that her wedding would be in a church. My ears pricked in surprise and I asked more questions.
Really? What kind of Christian? Each answer bringing me fearfully close to the task of asking, “So, What’s your view on homosexuality?” To which she calmly replied, “Well, I think it’s a sin. One that people will suffer in eternity for.”
After the whiplash eased and I recovered my dropped walkie-talkie, I stared at her with mouth gaping. She was a nice girl who knew I was gay, so I think it was in an effort to ease my obvious discomfort that she offered, “But only if someone’s a practicing homosexual. There’s nothing wrong with being gay, it’s what you do with it. My church welcomes everyone. And really, we’re all sinners. We all have to pray to be forgiven for our sins, and then try to stop sinning. And we have to pray for each other.”
Thoughts were running a mile a minute. This was the most she’d ever talked! She might be praying for me right now! But her shoes are so pointy! Oh my god my coworker thinks I’m going to Hell! But she’s an artist! Working in a contemporary art gallery! I suddenly feel kind of shitty! And really dorky in my GA sweater! Do I look dorkier in my GA sweater because I’m gay? Did I really just ask myself that? Oh my god my coworker thinks I’m going to Hell! If this hipster with pointy shoes (the fashion group wherein city-dwelling gays like me would tend to find allies!) working at the Henry (the cultural group I would tend to identify as my own!) on a university campus (the level of education which generally fosters enlightened recovery from backwards thinking!) thinks this way, there must be more closet Christians everywhere!!!! Lurking under every wooden gallery bench! (Oh my god they’re in this world too!)
Later that week I subtly uncovered two (!) more Christians in GA sweaters. I wasn’t up for the self-esteem blow to ask them if they thought I was going to Hell.
Did Seattle have some kind of underground Christian-artist community? Were they flocking to the Henry?
In 2001 I began the MFA program in Painting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Early on in my three-year program, gossip emerged that a good percentage of our faculty and fellow students were all a specific denomination of Christianity, all hailing from the same town (which is known for its high population of these Christians), all attending the same church in our college town. There were suggestions of enrollment conspiracies as each year hosted a new incoming Christian from the Christian town with its Christian college. No one talked about it out in the open. Some of the non-Christian students were more bothered than others by the rumors and assumptions. And Me? Sure, I wondered if there was validity to the claims whispered in the dimmed critique room.
Yet more than anything, I was utterly fascinated by it.
I found it amazing that these very members of our art community that (in addition to being the ones with the most fashionable footwear!) were producing the most intellectually-driven, cool-tempered, wry, ironic art work were also the ones that got all spiritually hot and bothered for Jesus and church and bloody symbolism dripping off a cross into earnest wine goblets. While, if I looked around at the non-Christian students and faculty, I would find more emotional, chunky, personally revealing work.
Of my Christian colleagues, I wanted to ask how this Christian belief system related to the relentlessly self-examining belief system of art school. At times, the rigors of conceptual art seemed ruthlessly tight and unyielding. Did my teachers (whom I admired very much) hang the mechanics of critical theory at the door when they went to church? (Why? What would happen if they didn’t?) Did they hang their perceptions of sin and the afterlife at the door when they critiqued student work that attempted to address those very issues? –Or, for that matter– seemingly unrelated issues? If we’re talking about world-view, isn’t the point that it covers everything? I had recently come to the realization that my life as an artist had become me, had claimed my mind and soul. I could never see anything – not a billboard or an album cover or a sculpture or a cabbage dropped in the street – the same way again. I would always see the world as an artist who had gone to grad school. Is that not the same kind of fervor with which a Christian views the world? If so, how does a Christian artist see the world? Which worldview dominates the other?
The only time I attempted to bring this up with one of my teachers was when we were all out for drinks one evening. I really like him, as a person and as an artist, and I took pains to ask him about this issue in a way that wouldn’t be misinterpreted as condemning or presumptuous. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I basically asked how he thought his religion related to his art practice– if he would feel comfortable talking about it. He seemed a little taken aback, but not offended, I think. He said that he would be open to having that conversation, but not right there while we were all out for drinks. I worried that I’d asked something too personal or inappropriate, so I never brought it up again.
As the three years played out, I came to decide that these (Christian) professors of mine were great artists, thinkers, teachers, and people. Perhaps they were, as the rumors had suggested, recruiting new MFA candidates from the Christian college in the Christian town over the state border. But did that really matter? Regardless of what brought the new Christian students, they, too, were undeniably good artists and people that I would want as friends. In the end, I didn’t find their religious persuasion to be of any consequence, professionally speaking. Yet I can’t think of them or their work without wondering how their Christianity relates. And whether or not they think I’m going to Hell.
When we first moved out here, before we even had a place to live, I emailed faculty at all of the art departments in all of the colleges within a 90 mile radius of Seattle. I wanted (still want) to teach art, and (probably naively) thought I’d start the job search by introducing myself and inquiring if there were any adjunct openings. Surprisingly, many wrote back. The most promising response I got was from a professor at a private Christian university in Seattle. He was friendly and interested in me, and said that he would keep me in mind when they were hiring. He kept his word and emailed me several months later to say that they were beginning the search process, and that I should submit an application as soon as possible.
While readying my application by thoroughly reading the department and university’s mission statements, I found this:
“The University exists to promote a distinctively Christian world view in a context of spiritual nurture and academic excellence. Our pursuit of all truth is centered in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and our resources include the Holy Scriptures, the best of human reason, humanity’s common experience, and the long wisdom of the people of God. The University is dedicated to helping its students attain an integrated Christian personality and life that is characterized by competence, character and wisdom. . . [The] University is thoroughly committed to evangelical Christian doctrine and standards of conduct. In and out of the classroom the University endeavors to present these principles to the students and to foster their application in daily life. Thus, the administration and faculty maintain a personal interest in the spiritual growth of all students as well as a concern for their intellectual development, social awareness and competence, physical well-being and preparation for their life work. [The] University reserves the right to employ teaching personnel who are in agreement with the above statement of its educational and religious goals.”
I’d known all along that this university was a private Christian one, but I really thought that it was the inherited variety, with more concern for history and tradition than with evangelism. Also, I thought surely the art department would be different.
Before investing any more time in my application, I emailed the faculty member and told him I had read the mission statement and was trying to figure out if I had any chance of employment there, being gay and all. He sent a polite, sparse reply, No. He said they do want their teachers to be Christian, but they are flexible with the denomination. No, it was not different in the art department. I did not sound like a good match.
February 2006: After much torment, I decide I’ll let myself love Sufjan Stevens’ album Illinois even though he is a raging Christian.
November 2008: Proposition 8 passes in California. My own relatives vote for it, after congratulating Anna and I on our marriage four years earlier. Apparently it’s OK with them if we do it in Canada, but not in our own country. It’s OK that we’re gay, and it’s OK if we’re together, but we can’t get married. We can drink water but we have to use a different water fountain. Why are you making a fuss? It’s still water! Don’t take it so personally!
So, here is something you will only relate to if you yourself have been discriminated against: It sucks. It wears on you insidiously, creating pockets of shame and doubt where you least expect them. You don’t realize you’re doing it, but you constantly look for cues in friends and acquaintances and musicians and artists that might indicate whether they are on your side or whether they think you should be drinking from a different water fountain. It is heartbreaking when someone who you thought was on your side has actually always been on the other side. It is disorienting when these issues and feelings seep into one’s professional world.
Thinking about all of this for the past day has been depressing. Like, the heart-sinking kind.
It is personal.
Early this year, one of my former (Christian) professors at the University of Illinois updated his art website. On his “About” page he states that he is a member of This Denomination of Christianity Church.
Until I read that, I was unsure how Christian my former professors really were; it was kind of like “don’t ask don’t tell.” As with the Private Christian University in Seattle, I had incorrectly assumed theirs was the inherited type of Christianity, not so much an active part of their identities. Now my former teacher was declaring to the world, “This is me.”
Before I “jumped to conclusions,” I thought I’d Google “This Denomination of Christianity + homosexuality.” On the first click I landed on This Denomination’s official website, which states:
“Homosexuality is a condition of disordered sexuality that reflects the brokenness of our sinful world. Persons of same-sex attraction should not be denied community acceptance solely because of their sexual orientation and should be wholeheartedly received by the church and given loving support and encouragement. Homosexualism (that is, explicit homosexual practice), however, is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. The church affirms that it must exercise the same compassion for homosexuals in their sins as it exercises for all other sinners. The church should do everything in its power to help persons with homosexual orientation and give them support toward healing and wholeness.”
I was crushed. Whereas, I don’t think my straight friends from grad school were at all phased by the proclamation.
Regina Hackett’s critique of Zack Bent’s work rather shook my world. Several people have already written thoughtfully about the ways she was a bit off-base with some of her arguments. I agree with them, though I also have to commend Regina for venturing into such uncomfortable territory. And I have to thank her for raising the issue of personal accountability concerning possibly discriminatory imagery. In reply to one of her commenters, she gets refreshingly specific by saying, “It’s our job as adults to jeer at all the institutions that make [gay teens growing up in a homophobic country] feel terrible about themselves on the off chance a couple of them might read our catcalls and know better things await on the other side of the adult divide.”
Regina has since written another post about Zack’s show, and revises some of her position, while also explaining more of where she is coming from. This, too, is refreshing. She is brave enough to make uncomfortable claims about a popular artist’s work, brave enough to change her mind and make concessions (such as, “Raised Catholic and unable to separate myself completely from a church whose social agenda I find reprehensible, I should have been more sympathetic [to Zack].”), and brave enough to make this point: “It’s not my job to review anybody’s politics, but it would be disingenuous to pretend politics don’t matter to me, that I can separate out the aesthetics and focus on them exclusively.”
As is pretty darn clear from my last post, I think very highly of Zack (and Gala’s) work. I’ve assumed that they’re Christians (perhaps wrongly?) and I fondly plop both of them in the same “Pass” category I created for Sufjan Stevens. (Which isn’t too much of a leap considering Gala’s connection with Asthmatic Kitty, Sufjan’s label). Looking at Zack’s photographs, I hear Sufjan’s campfire-esque song “Casimir Pulaski Day” (a brilliant song about the death of a friend):
Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens
Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window
Oh the glory when he took your place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes
The intricacies of sentiment are what make the folks I’ve placed in this imaginary category such good artists. It’s not as simple as “praying over your body,” because, well, “nothing ever happens.” It’s not as simple as Zack dressing his family romantically in scout uniforms, because he’s not entirely sure that the uniforms fit. He might be demonstrating to his family how to climb a fake mountain, but he might also be trying to flee the scene.
I see Buffalo Trace as Zack Bent’s examination of his option to make his family a (Boy) Scouting one. Straight, blond, strong, and malleable, they really couldn’t be better contenders.
My family, on the other hand? We don’t have the option.