Aug 13, 2019
My parents have been friends with the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova since shortly after my father first started teaching in the United Kingdom. They met her when she was a young single mother living in exile. It was the early 1980s and she was a political dissident who had fled the Communist East for the relative freedom of the West. While she was not a fan of the Marxist-Leninist Stalinist regime in her own country, she was no advocate for Thatcher’s Britain either. She spent most of her time making photographs of working-class people who were on the edge of British society and threatened by neoliberalism.
Her most famous photography from the 1970s and 1980s is her series on the performers, hustlers, street people, and vendors who made up the community of Spitalfields Market. Her photography of them earned her praise from, and friendship with, John Berger. It also provided an important document, an artifact of historical memory, that attested to the diversity of human culture under threat from the neoliberal vision—musicians who made their own eccentric instruments, cobblers who handmade quality shoes in their shops not as luxury goods but as necessities for workers, and people regularly creating, rather than consuming, their own culture around rubbish can fires and wooden crates.
It was fitting, then, that we met Marketa for dinner at St. John Bread and Wine opposite Spitalfields. St. John’s might be my favorite restaurant anywhere. I will write about our meal in my London restaurant round-up. For now, I’ll focus on the conversation. Marketa is always illuminating. She is always thinking, feeling, trying to understand her own aesthetic, considering what it means to be an artist, how her medium enables her to see the world, always seeking the spiritual dimension—which for her always has a deeply political element to it, even if the politics are never explicitly stated. They’re there in her subject matter and her framing.
Marketa brought perhaps a fifty test prints from her ongoing series on a Czech carnival that she’s been shooting for nineteen years. Here was her first insight, there is much to be gained by returning to a subject and community year after year—depth of relationship, sensitivity to change over time, and not a bit of self-discovery. And that’s where she offered a second insight, there’s often an emotional disconnect between when she does her strongest work and how she’s feeling. She confessed that she didn’t particularly enjoy this year’s carnival. Over the last two decades it has grown from perhaps eighty people to over five thousand. Going this year was, for her, kind of a miserable experience—too many people observing, not participating, not wearing masks, making a spectacle of the whole thing. And yet, when she started to review her test prints, she realized that she had taken some of the strongest photographs of the carnival yet. Conversely, she confessed, that when she is feeling euphoric, carried away by the joyous feeling of the crowd, she often takes photographs that are not particularly good. Her own internal euphoria often causes her to misjudge what she’s doing—to think it is better than it is.
I can relate. I usually hate my sermons before I preach them. Often, it is the texts that turn out to be my best work—texts that get anthologized, republished in magazines, or assigned in college courses—that I have most negative reactions to prior to preaching. I suspect that is because that when I do my best work, I am deeply emotionally connected to it and this makes me aware of its flaws rather than its strengths just as I am about to put it out in the world.
I know that I am not alone in this. Not only does Marketa’s experience resonate with mine, but I have had a few conversations with my friend Titonton Duvante over the years on the subject. Titonton has been a techno innovator for almost thirty years. When he is really on, really connected with what he is doing, he is amongst the best electronic musicians out there. I have listened to a few thousand DJ and live sets over the last twenty-five plus years and some of Titonton’s are among the most memorable. But here’s the thing, he’s told me that there’s an exact relation between how nervous he feels, how anxious he is, and how good his performance ends up being. If he’s really nervous, on the verge of losing it nervous, then almost he inevitably offers a masterful performance. If not, then not.
Clearly there’s something about the emotional investment an artist has in their art—and preachers are, amongst other things, artists—that is closely correlated to their artistic production.
Back to Marketa... While we were together, she talked a bit about her recent show at the Tate and her upcoming show at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. She and my parents had an extended conversation, which I won’t relate, about the various economic challenges artists face. And she shared that last year she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal from the Czech government. Of course, Marketa had a story about Jan Masaryk.
Her grandmother loved Jan Masaryk, thought he was a humane, sensible, and cultured leader. When the Stalinists seized power, they threw Jan Masaryk out of a window. He died. Marketa was four and she remembers her grandmother being completely distraught, sobbing, over and over again, “They’ve killed Masaryk. They’ve killed Masaryk.”
She told me that when she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal she thought of her grandmother. She imagined her smiling down from heaven on that day, proud of her granddaughter who had resisted the Stalinists and was now being honored with a medal named for a political leader who she had admired.
Spitalfields has changed. The street culture that Marketa photograph is entirely gone—washed away by upmarket shops and good. The cobblers who handmade shoes for the working poor have been replaced by boutique stores that sell fancy shoes, still handmade, to the affluent. Neoliberalism has succeeded in destroying so much of the vibrancy and power of the working-class throughout not just Britain, but the world. And yet, there’s something about Marketa’s story of her grandmother and the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal. It isn’t about anything as quaint as triumph of good over evil or the inevitable collapse of totalitarian regimes or anything else that I might find truly comforting. It has more to do with the power of perseverance and the truth that the future is always unwritten and that resistance, in some for another, continues. And that there is great power to be found in preserving, through stories, through photographs, in all the forms we can. We create records of resistance, memories and stories, so that, even after its defeat—for Jan Masaryk was certainly defeated—our resistance might continue to inspire future resistance to tyranny.
Apr 10, 2016
My friend and former seminary classmate, Bob Janis-Dillion, Partnership Minister of the Merseyside Unitarian Ministerial Partnership in Northwest England, serving congregations in Warrington, Bryn, and Chester. He recently attended the annual meeting of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. I asked about to reflect upon how the British Unitarians' annual meeting compares to the Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly. He was generous enough to put together this guest blog post:
Colin asked me if I might compare and contrast the UK Unitarian General Assembly and the UUA General Assembly in the US, as one of a number of people who has attended both. It's a good question, and I'm happy to do so, with apologies to all my non-Unitarian/UU friends for who this will surely be boring shop talk. To spice it up, you might try randomly substituting words like “Donald Trump”, “The X Factor” and “enthusiastic bouts of uninterrupted joy” for words like “lead workshop” “Executive Committee” and “plenary”. But I'm not sure even that will work.
So the short answer is that the two General Assemblies are pretty similar. It's the same mix of earnestness, ideas, grumbling, wondering, and coffee. It features the same rather disheartening revelation that you haven't been outside in about three days, and the same thrill of seeing old friends that you only see...well, to be honest a few of them you see quite a bit, but it's always a pleasure. The structure of the week is much the same: a banner parade and opening celebration, assorted worships and workshops, hours and hours of plenary-palooza, and mostly mingling. The ministry day before the main conference was almost identical in form to its American counterpart. Also, as someone remarked to me, it's roughly the same cast of characters at both General Assemblies. Once you've been there a while, you pretty much know what the person walking up to the yes-, no-, or non-sequitor microphones is going to say.
Differences? Well, there is the fairly obvious difference in size, as the English version boasts hundreds, rather than thousands, of attenders. UK Unitarianism is small enough that many are audibly wondering whether – and how long – it will survive. So from this dicey predicament, there's a tendency to look at the UUA as a bastion of strength and organisational power. Which feels rather odd, after attending so many UUA General Assemblies where people voice their own concerns about the future of the movement. I get a lot of, “your congregations out there in the US are quite large, aren't they?” and those sorts of invitations to boasting (note to Americans: you're supposed to politely demur at this stage, of course, but if you want to have fun go ahead and say, “you bet they are, they're huuuuuge.”) There are advantages to the small size: you get to know everyone fairly quickly, and conversely you get known fairly quickly. Unlike the US, there are relatively few complaints about someone being “left aside by the powers that be” because pretty much everyone gets chosen for leadership sooner or later – in fact, it's hard to avoid getting signed up for some role or another. It's close to the feel of a UU District, in that regard. The GA is small enough that everyone eats together in the same room for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner, by the way, is three courses and lasts well over an hour. This whole American concept of scarfing down your food in five minutes, then rushing off to answer a few emails? Not so much. England is much more European in that regard. I hear the yearly Greek Unitarian General Assembly is just one four-days-long meal. And yes, I just made that up, and no, I don't mind being a founding member of the Greek Unitarian General Assembly on that basis.
Before I crossed the pond, I was warned that the Unitarian GA could be a bit doom and gloom, and yet also lacking in solutions. But I've found there has been quite a bit of energy and enthusiasm, both this year and last. There are a lot of amazing people in this movement. Some have been Unitarian for seventy or eighty years and are not only open to new ideas, they're actively empowering others to lead them. Stalwarts and renegades share a pint at the bar, and decide that the future of the world is what's really important. Amongst my beloved colleagues in the ministry (for whom I pledge my admiration for their support, continued inspiration, rather bizarre career choice), there is a good crop of some really talented folks who have qualified in the last few years. I really do feel providence's hand that I get to be here at such a time, and consider myself much luckier than I deserve.
Other random observations: the British, supposedly so reserved, will get up and dance in the middle of a worship service, if prompted (and it was a big group, so they can't have ALL been the Welsh). There also is a relatively light-hearted streak; it's the first time I've heard someone boo one of the hymns (we hadn't sung it well, to be fair). The conversations around God-language, our Christian heritage and identity, and our theological core are very familiar from a UU standpoint, yet also made very different by a very different history and context – give me a year or two, and maybe I'll try to delve into this further. Finally, the Brits drink slightly more tea, and slightly less coffee. I'm not sure how important this one is, but the Department of Transatlantic Tropes would surely haul me in for questioning if I didn't mention it.