Last week I decided to turn another one of my paintings into a good cause. Based on a composition by Vincent VanGogh, my image re-examines the parable of the Good Samaritan and recontextualizes its message for today’s tribal world. It encourages people to ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” My answer to that question was to help the refugee crisis by sharing half of the proceeds of print sales with two different organizations.
However, these good intentions quickly got the attention of Homeland Security regulations. That’s right. My distinctively “Christian” art was censored by the government.
You see, I intentionally named the painting “The Good Syrian” to reimagine the Jesus parable for today. Enter government sanctions. Within an hour of the project being posted, all transactions were frozen due to the regulations that flag “words from countries that are sanctioned by the US Government to insure the safety of our country.” (This vague PayPal policy is informed by the DHS Office for Assets and Control.) Apparently creating art about helping people threatens the safety of our country.
After communicating with PayPal "compliance-transactions" department and working for days with PayPal customer service to remove the hold on the transactions, we finally encountered a Supervisor in the "Limitations" Department who saw the folly of it all and set in motion corrective measures to fix the problem. It looks like we will be back in business soon.
While I understand where some of these policies come from, it leaves me with some serious questions. What does this tell us about freedom of speech (creativity for artists)? About freedom of religion? About government overreach?
So, if you aren’t sure what to do in this complex world of diversity and division we currently find ourselves in, here are some things you can do:
- Read Luke 10:25-37 and wrestle deeply with what Jesus has to say about how we treat people who are different than ourselves and in need of help.
- Visit http://www.eyekons.com/joel_tanis/the_good_syrian and then consider joining the cause by purchasing a print of the painting.
- Share this freely with anyone and everyone.
- Download the #FreeTheArt image for your profile or other social media. Here's the link: http://bit.ly/2l80IOj
When talking about art I sometimes find it is useful to make a distinction between “craft” and “art”. A current project of mine for New Holland Brewing (whose slogan has been “Art in Fermented Form” since their inception) helps illuminate this.
We used to call them microbrews. Now it is Craft Beer. What would make it ART Beer?
I consider “craft” the skills it takes to make something. I appreciate good craft. Sometimes I don’t even like a piece of art, but I admire the skills (the craft) behind it. I appreciate that NHB bothered to learn their craft way back when as struggling craftsmen in a tiny place on Fairbanks.
Art, however, elevates craft. It takes those skills and adds something more. It helps us make connections. It adds to the craft. I think NHB has done that with their beer (I am a fan, can you tell?), but more recently they have done it with their new space.
The new space is in Grand Rapids, Michigan and is called the Knickerbocker, and I’m currently creating all sorts of art for them. One of the paintings is based on the name, so I did a little research. I learned that knickerbockers are what we now may call knickers and that the early Dutch in New York wore them (hence, the Knicks basketball team). I learned that Washington Irving, who wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (Ichabod beer!), also wrote “Rip VanWinkle” under the name Deitrich Knickerbocker. THEN I read some of “Rip VanWinkle” and found the passage where he sneaks a drink of these dwarves’ beer and finds it to be in the style of a “good Hollande” and can’t stop drinking it! I have worked for years on the craft of applying paint, but I hope this illustrates a little of my mind as I attempted to make connections and create art.
Here’s another thing about art – it invites others to participate. So if you can make it to Grand Rapids, check out the Knickerbocker and enjoy some Art in Fermented Form as well as Art About Art in Fermented Form.
For Artprize, the enormous art competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan this year I decided to create a warm and fuzzy piece that that touches on the very safe arenas of religion and politics. Why would I spend my time and money and risk getting punched in the face creating T-Rump? Because art communicates. Because art allows entry points into tough conversations. Because artists are called to be prophetic (truth tellers). Because T-Rump is a funny word play and I like the funny.
But what am I trying to communicate here? As T-Rump warns of an asteroid sent from Mexico that is going to destroy America (words have impact) while almost unconsciously knocking some women over (perhaps casually objectifying?) there is something that I hope will be the focus of this painting. No, not the small hands or the orange skin. What I hope people will see is my homage to Vincent Vangogh’s “The Good Samaritan” in the background.
“Who is my neighbor?” is the question of Jesus’ parable. In this case I changed the Samaritan to a Syrian as he helps an injured man, in a white tank top with a Confederate flag tattoo, onto his donkey. I needed to add my voice to this year’s chaos and ask that question. I hope we can have a good conversation about the marginalized and avoid punches in the face.
I also hope that those of you in West Michigan will check it out. In the window of 24 Sheldon Blvd (a half block from Veterans Park). Maybe you’d like to vote for me too: VOTE CODE 63835.
Making good art means taking risks.
Most of the time when I make a statement like that I mean that you need to try new things – experiment and the like. Last week for me it meant standing on a ledge, on a ladder, twenty-some feet off the pavement, leaning against the Separation Wall in Palestine.
This leads me to the other sort of risk an artist has to make from time to time: creating out of one’s convictions. I was once having dinner with international artist and theologian Mako Fujimura and he spoke of “Artist as Prophetic Voice”. That is, that artists need to be truth tellers. Artists need to be agents for engagement with issues.
This issue is personal for me. It’s personal because my brother-in-law is Palestinian (his family is part of the ever shrinking Christian population there). It’s personal because for the last two years I have helped lead Art Camps for Palestinian youth and have been confronted by their reality. It’s a complicated part of the world, and while I can understand some of the reasons the wall was built (separating Israel and Palestine), mainly it just seems like a maximum security prison wall that cuts off people I love from resources and enflames the underlying conflict. I don’t have the space to unpack it all here but that’s the bonus of being an artist – I can let the art speak for itself.
This is called “Balancing the Peaceful Kingdom”, based on Isaiah 11. You may read into it as you like. I’d love for you to share this and to comment on what you see. (Try to “balance” your comments please – we could all use a little more balance these days.)
They say you are six degrees from anyone in the world - or Kevin Bacon. I seem to lead a Forrest Gump kind of life that makes that number a little inflated. Case in point is this picture of the Pope (THE POPE!) having a conversation about a piece of my art. What?!
Here’s the story: my international brother lives in Hannover, Germany and is the Executive Secretary of Communications for the World Communion of Reformed Churches (whew…mouthful). His organization, a year before the 500th anniversary of Luther doing that Luther thing, had the opportunity to have an audience with the Pope (THE POPE!) in the Vatican where they affirmed common ground – loving the poor, the refugees, the marginalized (and other cool stuff like that). Earlier this year they commissioned me to do a piece of art (in anticipation of the 500th) that they have replicated and present when they visit places. They gave it to the Pope (THE POPE!)!
Now, I dream BIG, but this one wasn’t even on my Bucket List because who gets their art presented to the Pope (THE POPE!)? I won’t lie – my eyes may have gotten a little misty when I saw this picture. But here’s what I want to say about this: who cares about 6 degrees? Yep, it’s cool to be in the collections of famous people, and it is an absolute honor to have my art brought to the Vatican, but the bottom line is that the reason I do art is to share it with Anyone and Everyone. The painting I created was one of people nurturing fruit and then sharing it with the world. That’s a message I’d like to share with Kevin Bacon, the Pope and Everyone-in-Between because I am called to share Good News with Kevin Bacon, the Pope and Everyone-in-Between. I’d like to think that this incredible man (THE POPE) appreciated the sentiment.