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A theological aesthetic of the ugly: hip-hop, race, and the city.

As I write, urban concrete continues to be filled with youthful feet, hands held up, chanting "I can't breathe" slogans. They are a sign of the times. Militarized police acting like gendarmeries. A prison-industrial complex for years now, incubator of jobs, and dividends for those positioned to benefit. Bodies black and brown the preferred "grist." Jim Crow is again yielding green, now dressed in orange. While dark skin on the streets stays cheap. As target practice. As sanctioned outlet. The national sickness is once again seeking its sick "therapy." And one more time, the racial ghost of the polity rages out loud. The supremacy this country has never yet failed to believe and institutionalize--there in faces and on blogs, as recognizable as a rope and a robe. But there is also movement, and there are movements. New energy, channeling old.

It is but three years since Occupy was maced out of the park. A defeat yet successful in its losses: air cleared, anger flared sky-ward-like burn-off, political discourse pared open to a heretical confession. All is not well with Wall Street. And Main Street pays the price. The heartland of empire had finally yielded "autumn fruit" seeded by an Arab Spring, since gone fallow. In the face of our current despair, it is worth remembering how that fare grew on the streets of Tunisia. An African seller of such fruit there, pushed to certainty of his own coming demise at the hands of the globalized economy, had decided to make that certainty a flaming witness before the governor's office of his hometown by setting himself on fire. Even a little one can make a difference. The Arab Opening was born from Mohamed Bouazizi's self-offering, refusing to let it--and a million other untimely disappearances--go into the dust of history, un-declaimed. Since that late-blooming flowering across the African north, city centers across the globe have been made the sites of similar "summers" and "falls," whether Spanish "indignado-ed" or Brazilian-echo-ed, student-led in Greece or union-muscled in Wisconsin--the places and palettes of a new human beauty, grass roots gathered, socially mediated, consensually decided and bearing many colors, under the sign of sharing and art, truth-telling and violence-refusing, risking batons and bullets for the sake of bombast, fragile bodies as ferocious beacons, auguring the time like an apocalypse arrived, but not ending. No matter that they have thus far failed. They have blazed. And so it still remains thinkable. It is under the sign of such that this piece labors its question in the mix.

And that question is of a piece with those movements. How keep the feet walking? Whence hope and inspiration? Yes, spirit and color need to co-mingle; religion and aesthetics give to politics a courage refusing silence. But they are not the same. And in this hour, it is art that has greater freedom to augur possibilities otherwise. Theology is no longer positioned to lead; its hour is now to learn, and learn from precisely both art and politics. But the one does not serve the other simply as "purpose." Art cannot put relevance and clarity on its altar and still worship. It must attend the ghost of the past yet writhing under the skin of the present. It has a covenant with pain as well as beauty. And here is our subject: art that paints with blood. The art of the ugly. Its home is the city. I could not introduce such with more than a cipher or I would betray in the very act of making plain. The sense will come with the following of flow. My hope here is a briefly monstrous theology, a word adequate to the shock of the wound. Judge its course only at the end.

Theology and the City

The city, in the tradition I ride in, is a monstrosity. (1) The biblical witness arcs its vision of justice across a 5,000-year compass of developments. Life in the ancient ecology of Eden, says Genesis, was "good." It encompassed a subsistence-level symbiosis of plants and animals (including human ones) organized in reciprocal metabolisms and the slow wisdom of a world privileging no one species over others. The "fall" was patently a fall into settled agriculture, yielding a cursed lifestyle of sweat and hard-bitten effort. The primordial murder--archetypical in its violence--involved farmer Cain killing herder Abel. In consequence, Cain was launched toward fame as the first city builder and his slain brother's blood was marked out as the ground-swelling cry that would give rise to the entire tradition of an alternative YHWH-Elohim social vision. This Genesis logic of expansionist agriculture plays out in a crescendo of perversity ending in the Great Tower of Babel, where divinely mandated babble breaks up the monolingual dream of imperial control. And all of this as ecological relief for the great ancestral story of father Abe, beginning his calling, in Genesis 12, by going feral from urban Ur, wandering nomadic through a land not his own.

In panoramic mode, it is possible to read the entire Hebrew testament then as code for a continuing struggle of anti-imperial breakout artists, who seek to exit the reigning metropolitan powers of their times, by going wild in the hills of Canaan. There they set up tribes, refuse Icings, parcel out land holdings to every least clan, articulate Sabbath and Jubilee (Lev. 25; Dt. 15) as safeguards against the tide of city-dwelling exploitation and pride, and enshrine memory of Abel's bloody cry in their case law, alongside the groan of even the smallest orphan or poorest widow, as the plumb line of the fate of the whole project (Exod. 2:23-25; 3:7; 22:21-27). Israel's own brief experiment with monarchy, beginning with Saul, is labeled "betrayal" from the beginning. The experiment settles into Canaanite Jerusalem with uneasy re-visioning of its own Egypt-exiting traditions and galvanizes a prophetic resistance movement, slinging rhyme and street theater against the walls of urban excess (Is 20:1-6; Ezek 4:1-17; 12:1-7), until it all crashes down in a self-imploding mess of deceit and foreign-policy collapse in 586 BCE. On exilic return 50 years later from its second great sojourn in "wilderness" (40 years in the Sinai wilds marking its first spiritual formation), Israel exists only as a colonized margin of conquest. For the next 500 years, it will labor in duress under empires Persian, then Greek, and finally Roman.

Jesus thus emerges on the scene of what is a virtual police state (2) ruled by petty king Herod in the Galilean north and Roman Pilate in the south. He recruits among the uncouth peasant majority and quickly mobilizes prophetic intensity--naming Jewish elite complicity with Roman imperial rapacity as abomination, putting the Jewish poor in early graves (Lk 6:20-26; Mk 12:40). Of course, cracking open the ideological duplicity means early death for Jesus as well. But his movement will carefully mark out his anti-urban bias in gospel text, recalling how he spit ironic parody against Jerusalem corruption and its Temple-centered predation. Climatic (to the passion) in gospel narration is the scene of his occupation of that national shrine--simultaneously liturgical forum and banking emporium--with a day-long sit-in. There, the Nazareth prophet clears out low-level collusion, names its operation "thug central," and calls out its destruction-to-come (Mk 11:1-19; Mk 13:1-6). In the peasant arts of the day, the Jubilee-enacting Jesus again and again crafts parabolic send-ups and proverbial epithets, exposing metropolitan control of the countryside through debt schemes and land grabs as fraud and curse (Lie 4:18-21; Mk 12:38-41; Perkinson 2013, 70-84; Herzog 1994, 2000, 79-97; 128-129; Myers 2001, 38-45).

But a gear shift accompanies the mid-lst century Roman suppression of restive Palestine after the death of Jesus. In gospel and epistle alike, we witness the outlaw sect of his missionary followers, trained in the outback of Galilee (or the Syrian desert in the case of Paul), now going renegade in city quarters throughout the Mediterranean basin, imprisoned often, dead before retirement, but refusing capitulation to urban business-as-usual. Gradually, the Jubilee vision is accommodated to urbane revision, but remembers its origin in the Galilean wilderness, by naming its new urban way as "sojourn," alien to the metropolitan cult of powers (I Pet 1:17, 2:12).

All that changes in 313 CE, however, when Constantine upends the tradition in service of Roman aggression. Subsequent emperors criminalize pagan outliers and re-boot the tradition in a direction hospitable to Augustine's City of God and the 1,700 of imperial Christianity that follows. Yet we would have to remember even within the great cipher text of Revelation, the ultimate unveiling of the heavenly Jerusalem-to-come waxes wildly grandiloquent in imagining a city impossible to conceive as such. The eschatological urbs-to-be in John's megavision is not only flowing with rivers and growing with trees of healing. It shows up as an ever-greening cube from outer space, 1,500 miles long, wide and high (Rev.21:16)! (A Treky would instantly flash on the Borg mothership!) It is also worth noting the anti-Babylon polemic of its secrets: The great archetypal city of Apocalyptic infamy was found to harbor the blood of the prophets and saints, indeed, "of all of those slain upon earth" (Rev. 18:24). Here is the real repository of Abel's agony, ciying for justice for five millennia--like that of every other "disappeared" indigenous culture--once spilled out by urban-organized agriculture. And thus Abel emerges within this millennial tradition as the figure of native erasure by urban enclosure. His "vaporous disappearance" (the significance of his name in Hebrew) marks (among other things) all the genocidal elimination of Amerindian peoples and the hordes of African folk chained into service as replacement labor to split Western world turf and make it yield cotton or minerals, granting new-found hegemony to Euro-heritage societies on the planet's surface for five centuries hence. And that brings us to today.

Theodicy and the City

We live on a globe of interconnected cities, whose reach is virtually all encompassing. Appropriating carrying capacity (3) from the furthest corners of the planet, this ever-reifying and tightening net of technocratic control is backed-up by "robo-soldiering" militaries, imperial and private, whose prime directive is securing elite property. This vast nodal sprawl metastasizes now as a great consuming maw, metabolizing the last remaining hunter-gatherer clans as we speak, defecating continuously, turning ever-growing sections of ocean into floating islands of plastic--dead zones where even plankton cannot cope--while heaping up garbage in ever-growing artificial mountains. In its sky-scraping shadows, the poorest of the poor are relegated to lifestyles of homeless "hunting and gathering" through the middle-class refuse, even as the globally gathered plunder is gated behind high-tech security walls (or national borders) and policed by increasingly ruthless and renegade forces, who are now quite capable of executing even subdued citizens, much less illegal aliens, in bus terminals in broad daylight as we witnessed in Oakland, CA, in January of 2009 or New York City last August. (4)

Do not mistake my pessimism here. I am utterly committed to the city, have lived in its core areas continuously for more than a quarter century, and love its creativity, but am just as vigorously committed to honesty about its history and reality. My own two-decade-long immersion into ghetto existence in east side Detroit is integral to everything I say here--a veritable baptism in the off-timed jism of a strange dialectic: A 20-year rite of initiation into a blues sensibility in which the capacity to go down into the ugly to push its agony to the very edge where it reverses into delirious beauty is a primary skill for survival, as I have elsewhere detailed. (5) But the city is, so far, in its 5000-year-old blip of time on the planet, effectively a glorified den of robbery, a structure of relentless pillage. In its very ability to leverage a lifestyle of excess, while hiding its constituting savagery under layer after layer of ideological "civility" and self-congratulatory "bling," it must be judged as "travesty."

So let me be even more clearly insistent. Our situation today is actually a tale of two cities, unequal, invisible in linkage, a blaze of glittering trinkets and Gucci suits marketed as the ultimate meaning of human destiny, hiding under their glaze, the cesspools of productive coercion and entropic abandonment necessary to the consumptive delirium. To function in proud self-congratulation, the space of accumulation, with all its glorious architecture, must ruthlessly erase the spaces (urban and outback, both) that make its affluence possible. These other spaces are "legion"--in the full biblical sense of the term. They are the unseen places of extraction--of the wood for glitterati porches and tables, steel for metropolitan buildings and mass transit, oil for urban motion, coffee for its denizens' waking, rubber for its tires and shoes, and wine for its forgetting, the places of processing such by way of sweat-shop labor and unrestricted emissions, the places of packaging the products in plastic wrap and cardboard, of transport, of storage, and of disposal of the toxins and garbage, when the consumption orgy is over. Today, the circuitry of stuff is global, literally interlinking the fates and life circumstances and ecologies of everyone on the globe. Suburban sheen and downtown gleam are made possible only because Manila hondos and Kinshasa hovels are made necessary. Michael Davis of Quartz City fame details the growing ensemble--a planet of slums, housing 2 billion by 2030, but where already, in Delhi, India, for instance, 480,000 families share 160 latrines, living literally in a niche of defecation and flies (Davis 2006, 40). The metropole of achievement has always had as its necessary underbelly a slum of sewage. The two are one, across the divide of race and class erected to police the boundary and rationalize the take. (I happen to live where the transformation from the one to the other is talcing place before my eyes --a Detroit urban core rapidly reincarnating as emblem of the growing global phenomenon, bleeding assets, and value to the suburb and the globe historically, now under assault in a new wave of "re-conquering" gentrification.) And the question of the hour is then: How shall we do an art that simultaneously honors the intensity of the beauty thus gerrymandered into existence and reveals its subtext of monstrosity?

But it is also a fundamental question of theodicy. Do we hope to perpetuate a world where affluence can continue to wall itself off from the very effluence and poverty it creates as its constituting condition? And do so while pretending, in its reigning ideology and mass-mediated "common sense," that it is the author of its own wealth and innocent of the war being made elsewhere to ensure the resources for its growth? Or will we finally wake up to the reality of the global commons that is now the horizon of everyone and everything? And recognize that the constituting condition for a Vancouver or Seattle is clearly grasped as a Lima barricada and a Lusaka slum? My own country, according to a simple energy calculus, is the equivalent of a nation of 21 billion people in terms of the number of "energy slaves" we command elsewhere to sustain our lifestyle of wanton excess.

The heart of my own spirituality is the ever-troubling demand to live and think in relationship to the desperate physicality faced by those forced to live at the raw end of existence. Nor it is different for my approach to art. The city whose arts of defiance I would want to entertain as emblem of the age is one or another urban "reservation of desperation," where the First World ghetto, "noosed" and policed in race like the core of Detroit or the banlieues of immigrant Islam outside Paris, begins to profile like a portent of things to come, the squatter camps, and shanty towns of apocalyptic proportions that Davis is tracking in his Planet of Slums. Thus, I offer my wonder not in appreciation of the figurings in a SoHo Galleiy or a Lincoln Center theater production-"beautiful" as these may be. But where the arts are a survival tactic holding insanity at a standoff, or at least making the absurdity yield vitality in spite of itself.

Art and spirituality

A theology of art must begin with what is emerging where its creators engage not a muse or angel, as Federico Garcia Lorca used to say, but the duende spirit of death. This demonic earth power, standing on the rim of the well that leads below, to the underworld, only accepts hand-to-hand combat. Here is a brief rehearsal of a Flamenco art he recounts, from his experience of pre-Franco Spain, in one of his texts, on the part of an ancient one, staring mortality straight in the eye, and taunting its claim with even just the slightest gesture of eloquent disdain.

Years ago, an eighty-year-old woman won first prize at a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera. She was competing against beautiful women and young girls with waists supple as water, but all she did was raise her arms, throw back her head, and stamp her foot on the floor. In that gathering of muses and angels--beautiful forms and beautiful smiles--who could have won but her moribund duende, sweeping the ground with its wings of rusty knives (Lorca 1998, 54).

Or, an example Lorca offers that is more akin to religion:

The Andalusian singer Pastora Pavon, La Nina de los Peines, dark Hispanic genius whose powers of fantasy are equal to those of Goya or Rafael el Gallo, was once singing in a little tavern in Cadiz. For a while she played with her voice of shadow, of beaten tin, her moss-covered voice, braiding it into her hair or soaking it in wine or letting it wander away to the farthest, darkest bramble patches. No use. Nothing. The audience remained silent ... until a tiny man, one of those dancing manikins that rise suddenly out of brandy bottles, sarcastically murmured, "Long live Paris!" As if to say: "Here we care nothing about ability, technique, skill. Here we are after something else."

As though crazy, torn like a medieval mourner, La Nina de los Peines leaped to her feet, tossed off a big glass of burning liquor, and began to sing with a scorched throat: without voice, without breath or color, but with duende. She was able to kill all the scaffolding of the song and leave way for a furious, enslaving duende, friend of sand winds, who made the listeners rip their clothes with the same rhythm as do the blacks of the Antilles when, in the "lucumi" rite, they huddle in heaps before the statue of Santa Barbara.

La Nina de los Peines had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music, with a body lean enough to stay in the air. She had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse, and become helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight her hand-to-hand. And how she sang! Her voice was no longer playing. It was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and her sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand around the nailed but stormy feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni (Lorca 1998, 52-53).

In the USA, for another instance, the blues tradition memorializes its scion with a legend of midnight transgression at the crossroads, Robert Johnson daring the devil, searching evil for its gift, trading his soul for the mud-ooze of a guitar-struck pain that would make women scream and men kill and bend the moon around a finger. Many traditions the world over know the extremity of such a possession, whether in the form of the Yoruban orisha Oya coming on like a hurricane trance or a South Indian tabla-playing quest for drum vision, beating the hands raw and eating forty nights with sound (Gleason 1992, 37-39; Hart and Stevens 1990, 151)). Frieda Kahlo is perhaps patroness of the passage, doing art on the bus accident that dismembered her spine, climbing her anguish like an axis mundi into the otherworld of shamanic vision. Closer to home in the Pacific Northwest might be noted the Haida transformation mask, splitting the male face at the height of confrontation with one's fears to reveal a female mask behind. Whatever the tradition, the condition is roughly the fusion of form with terror, with climax like a body tsunami, where the skull cracks and the spirit release is an eruption of swamp bottom. The possibility of such an art is not monopolized by suffering, but inevitably, where humans are being ground under, the vocation of form is no longer merely amusement but warfare.

Art and war

Such a comprehension of artistic vocation has a definite history of realization in modernity. In the arts of modern empire, on the Euro-dominant surface of the global system of piracy, the repressed begin a symbolic return back to the center in the year 1907, in the form of a mask on top of a brothel maiden in a painting by Pablo Picasso that marks, for all subsequent Western figuring, a turning point (Rubin 1983, 615; Read, 68).

Whatever we may think of Picasso's own tepid politics and warped gender relations, at the level of aesthetic grammar, something significant begins to happen with the 1907 painting Les Demoiselle D'Avignon. African and Oceanic fetish forms gain entry into the vocabulary of European imagery for the first time (Salmon 1982, 81-82). Picasso himself wrestles the eruption into a stark statement of contradiction: Here are women presenting themselves, for the viewing eye, as flesh-for-the-taking, as bordello women, advertising "wares." But what shows atop the shoulders are grenades of sight. Picasso's patron, Uhde, says it took him weeks to recover from his first viewing (Seclcel 1994, 255).

Picasso himself will describe the process of producing the piece as ripping open the real meaning of artistic vocation for him: It is not a matter of winsome aesthetics, but of exorcism--a ceaseless self-negotiation with terror (Seckel 1994, 219-221; McEvilley 2003, 338, 346). The job is one of crafting symbolic "weaponry," birthing amulets of eye and mind, "objectified uncanny-ness," giving sensible shape to demonic haunt. According to Picasso's friends, the process nearly killed him, pushing him, in solitude, over months of effort, to the edge of suicide. An epiphany, alone, in a dusty museum of ethnography before the sorcery masks of Guinea and the Pacific, had occasioned the lacerating revelation: the "shock and awe" of a terrible encounter, full of wild energy (Rubin 2003, 329; Bois 2001, 40; Steinberg 1972, 46).

Of course, Picasso will merely tame the upwelling terror in what becomes the immensely successful enterprise of Cubism. But Western art will never be the same, its bourgeois fascination with impressionistic celebrations of light, giving way to the nightmare uprisings of its own colonial "unconscious." Picasso's breakthrough will squander itself in evanescent play until the moment of his own vocational fulfillment in 1937 in the wake of fascist dictator Franco's bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, where the project of using the rest of the planet as test site for military strategies and weapon technologies comes home to the European mainland in brutal civil war. Picasso's dark canvas of broken bodies and screaming horses--folk symbols harshly haloed in an Almighty electric light-bulb-eye--emerges as stunning prophecy of what is to come in global capital's ceaseless quest to expand. Inconspicuous, but telling, is a minute detail, replicating Goya's insight: The supine victim at the bottom of the nightmare wrenching the sword from his side with one dying hand opens the other to reveal a pierced palm. Christ in war is incognito, perishing under the violent technologies, precisely, of those who, like Franco, claim his backing to do their damage! Picasso's painting does not change the event of "World War," but does carry enough uncanny weight through the next half-century that its facsimile, hanging on the wall of the UN chamber where Colin Powell in 2003 will try to make the case for US invasion of Iraq, is hastily shrouded in cloth before the speech begins. A silenced painting, augury of an age of unending agony for those positioned in the gun-sights of imperial technocracy. Woe to those who have resources under their feet! Or like Guernica then and a dozen new theaters of engagement since are convenient places for target practice!

Theology and the ugly

What is the vocation of art in such a circumstance? And whence and whither its theology? Patently, in modernity, it is artistic sensibility, rather than the church or spirituality writ large, that has taken up the mantle of prophecy, groping in the underbelly of the present to offer up handfuls of the ugly and the strange, that begin to divine the future. What happens through Picasso and crew in the early part of the 20th century arguably finds its aural equivalent at century's close in hip-hop corrosions and ribaldry: the insurrection of subjugated energy. Gangsta rap in the late 80s anticipated the explosion of South Central in 1992 even as Muslim cefron rhyme-spitting divined the banlieu eruptions of gai Paris in 2005. The throb of base-beat assault on the tinkly, twinkly surface of the Mall, codifying batons on backsides in the ghetto or bombs on craniums in the desert! Yes, bought off in the commercial, yielding big profits for the big label, but like an underground Esperanto around the globe, offering sonic testament to the fracturing of experience that increasing numbers of our species are undergoing. Young adults in multiple cultures have found in hip-hop's sharp-edged aesthetic an idiom adequate to their continuing experience of contradiction and conflict: a percussive structure that allows fractured feeling communal expression in a grammatical texture recognizable across the lines of racial or gender or linguistic difference. The idiom pulls at the body, de-sediments "impacted" emotion, and opens out a rhythmic echo chamber for the de-construction of confusion in a format pitting sound against sound, image against image, allowing re-construction of identity in a bricolage of staccato effects embraced by a community of belonging. Hip-hop is the post-industrial city run through a human body. Even as Picasso's fractured imagery was the colonial underbelly mounting the Western eye.

Do not mishear me, as saying these alone are the artistic sentinels of the age. For me they are rather a suggestive parenthesis of aesthetic effects--a cubism of the eye at the beginning of the century matched 100 years later by a cubism of the ear and the body. (6) Fractal arrangements of imagery and energy here juxtapose meanings in a menagerie of surfaces and a collision of structures that mimics the plurality and complexity of actual experience. And both channel a much older intuition, a groping for "instinctual things," rooted in peoples living close to the land, knowing other life forms not only as kin, but grammar, where plant shapes and animal bodies become the vocabulary by which to think beyond what is apparent, to probe the mystery of a living ecology organized in a rhythm of metabolism where everything, literally and really--including the machine-wrapped and marble-protected human being--is destined to become food for everything else. Why is life a matter of eating and being eaten, interminably, of teeth crunching bone in a terrible finality? Were I God, I doubt I would have arranged it such. But such it is, and irrecusably! The issue for art is how to represent it sensually? And for a theology of the arts, spiritually?

Here I find the thinking of historian of religions Charles Long especially compelling. Working off of the (in)famous phrase of Lutheran scholar Rudolph Otto, Long positions the Great Mystery that is simultaneously Terrible and Fascinating--the mysterium tremendum et fascinam--in history, as key to grasping the difference between a Western world experience of colonial triumph and an indigenous experience of being conquered and dismembered (Long, 123, 137-139). The cultures that have "undergone" the Western project of "taking and re-making" have been decimated by disease and gun, pulled apart in scientific analysis, ruptured in mythic structure and reduced to living as zombified laborers producing materials for an industry they could not see or imagine. In struggling to re-invent themselves outside the colonial calculus offered them where they end up as mere ciphers for wealth in the ledgers of a bank, they put their old myths together with shards of internalized Christian catechism and bits of "scientific" vision and created living explanatory idioms for themselves like voudou and cargo cult, ghost dance and peyote church, Filipino pasyon-powered revolution, and spirit possession Pentecostalism in the USA (Long, 166-167).

Inside the ritual vortices of each of these "religions of the oppressed" is a continuing negotiation with the Great Fascinating Power of the Universe necessarily faced as also Overwhelming and Terrible. The Huge Inscrutable, who sings in whale keen and paints the sunset, but also lets ordinary people perish for no reason they can make sense of in their indigenous systems of meaning. A Force Tremendous and Silent, or even grasped as sometimes Actively Negative, that cannot be deciphered and tamed in a creed. In these ritual theaters, the reality of human contingency and death, broken bodies and ruptured stories, of minds sent around the bend of breakdown and grief so large it explodes the respiratory system, was not given a text of explanation but a community negotiation. It could not be tamed in a logic of words but only channeled in a rhythm of animation, making terror yield truth in spite of itself. Here religion is a function of "funk"--of getting so deep into the ugly that communal sweat and fever becomes the recognized palaver, a lathered mode of beauty that is a beast.

By comparison, modernity is a mere suburb--antiseptic and domesticated, yielding religion as saccharine coating on a lifestyle of proliferating commodities. Western Christianity, in this vision, emerges increasingly as a text of triviality, encoding divinity as only an ever-alluring reverie, "God" as a sequence of commercials, sweet, loving, and tame as a fantasy on prime time. And Western culture becomes a decimated code, unable to hold the experience of the Terrible, unable to cope with aging and decay, or disability and delay, or anger and darkness and abuse--much less poverty and suicide bombers!--and thus is reduced to expelling such, one way or another, from public meaning. We stick the body that is beginning its descent into the mouth of the earth--and thus into the mouths of other bodies--into institutions of abandonment called nursing homes or, in this country, into a great warehouse of the South called Florida. But we do not want them mucking up our public imagination of ourselves. We do not want them interfering with the sound byte or reminding us that we live under the sign of demise and metabolism. God and the universe are a maw, and we are food. Hunter-gatherer folk knew that as the primary fact of being alive and ritualized that impossible mystery as the centerpiece of their dance around the fire. The Great Hunt. The ultimate reciprocity. The final exchange out of which all meaning arises and into which it feeds. What is an art adequate to such a contradiction? I can't teach it. But I know it when I see it or feel its strange vitality unleashed inside my bones.


Thus art is an encounter with the simultaneity of beauty and dismemberment (Long 1986, Read 1959). But where indigenous initiation rites often schooled their young in an intentionally orchestrated encounter with Terror--sometimes embodied in a masked adult threatening the neophytes with bodily rupture, requiring them to dare touch it and pull it away--and crafted adult liturgies as ritually memorialized communal encounters with big game and volcanic eruptions and tsunamis and earthquakes, urban choreographies of life too often show their character as futile attempts to exorcize the awful without embracing its pedagogy. Strikingly, the biblical tradition from Genesis to Revelation insists on much the same: an archetypal genealogy of the city as a structure of sanctuary from the Holy, a protection against divinity, a prophylactic walling God out. All while feverishly trying to absolutize the Good, totalize the Beautiful and render official and one, the True, in an imperial project using technocratic violence devoted to keeping the wildness of night and the underclass and indeed wilderness itself, at bay. But finally, even for the biblical witness, the beginning of wisdom is the fear, not the allure, of the Lord. Urban art worthy of its calling must somehow initiate against its very own presumptions and context. Otherwise it becomes, under the very name of the tame aesthetic it touts, a secret pedagogy of savagery.


(1.) See an earlier piece I wrote entitled "Theology and the City," both celebrating the city's raw energy and decrying its constitutive violence (Perkinson 2001, 95, 103-106).

(2.) Horsley and Hanson detail the degree to which the entire Palestinian countryside was "locked down" by surveillance reinforced by regular "disappearances" (Horsley and Hanson 1985, 30-33).

(3.) See Rasmussen for an evolutionary accounting of such (Rasmussen 1997, 120-121).

(4.) In the murder of black teenager, Oscar Grant, already subdued on the floor by one Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer with his knee while a partner stood over him and fired his pistol into Grant's back, in full view of dozens of horrified travelers. Black adult Eric Gamer was jumped by five officers, placed in a chokehold, and allowed to die while held down on the sidewalk, after moaning that he could not breathe eleven times.

(5.) See my two books listed in the bibliography (Perkinson 2004, 9-14; 2005, xviii-xxii).

(6.) Robert Farris Thompson traces the historical itinerary of electric boogie as mode of "corporeal cubism" (Thompson 1996, 219).

Works Cited

Bois, Yve-Alain, 2001, "Painting as Trauma," in Christopher Green, ed., Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 31-54.

Davis, Mike, 2006, Planet of Slums, London: Verso.

Gleason, Judith, 1992 (1987), Oya: In Praise of an African Goddess, New York: HarperCollins.

Hart, Mickey, and Jay Stevens, 1990, Drumming At the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion, New York: HarperCollins.

Herzog, William R. Ill, 1994. Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, Westminster: John Knox Press.

Herzog, William R. Ill, 2000, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation, Westminster: John Knox Press.

Horsley, Richard A., and John S. Hanson, 1985, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus, San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Long, Charles, 1986, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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Author:Perkinson, James W.
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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