The Photographer as Dissident


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 25, 2022

“I’m still a PHOTOGRAPHER.” I open my sermon reflecting on our exhibition for FotoFest with this quote from the diary of the Czech photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková. It is reflective of her insistence to define herself. She grew up under an oppressive political regime and refused to let it define her.

We will return to Libuše and her photographs shortly. Before we do, I would like to pause to remind you that our theme for this month is seeds. Last week, I spoke with you about how the origins of Unitarian congregations in England lay in their dissent from the creeds of the established church. The early English Unitarians were people who refused to follow the official doctrine of the Church of England. Instead, they helped to create a tradition that objects to theocracy–government in the name of the divine by priests or through laws supposed to be divinely inspired–and calls for the separation of church and state.

We live at a time when the state of Texas has incorporated religious doctrine about the nature of abortion into its laws. We live in a place where the dominant political party has placed anti-LGBTQ positions drawn from evangelical Christian theology into its platform. It has passed legislation targeting families with transgender children. At such a time, it is important to recall Unitarian Universalism’s seeds in dissent.

Last week, we considered the institutional nature of those seeds. This week, I would like us to contemplate them on a more spiritual level. The word spirit, I have said before, comes from the Latin spiritus–breath. To speak of spirit is, in some sense, to speak of the breath of life–the sweet inhale, the soft exhale, that continues us from one moment to the next. The word spiritual, in this manner, can be thought of those things relating to the breath of life. So, when we speak of a spiritual practice we are essentially talking about a method of breathing.

Such a practice is something that we have whether we are conscious of it or not. We can be intentional about our breathing–pay attention to it while we meditate or do yoga or pray. Or can merely let it happen. But as long as we are alive we are all spiritual–which is to breathing–beings.

The hymn we sang right before today’s sermon, by the Czech Unitarian Norbert Capek, speaks, or better invites us to sing to, this dynamic. Song is a spiritual practice. It is a way of breathing together.

When we sing we bring breath into the body. We use our vocal cords to shape sounds. We exhale. We do all this, at least we hope we do, in unison–keeping time as a group making music.

Capek’s hymn revolves around the mystery of spirit. “Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, where are you?” Where does the breath of life come from? Where is it going? Capek finds it in nature, “[i]n the sky song, in the forest.” He discovers it among his human fellows, writing of “our breath.” And he discovers it in “our art.”

Nature, human fellowship, art, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition we know that each of these can help us to grow in what the nineteenth century Unitarian theologian, William Ellery Channing, called the “likeness of God.” Alternatively, we might understand our relationships with nature, each other, and art each as a way to come to know our authentic selves.

“[W]ho am I?,” we sang, just as Libuse asked in her diary. It is a query we each seek to answer over the course of our lives. You are a different person than I am. Your answer to question will be other than mine. And yet, it is a question that we will each have to answer.

One mark of a free society is how free each of us is to answer the question, “[W]ho am I?” We call Unitarian Universalism a free faith because rather prescribe a religious answer to this question, we come together explore it and try to find the answer that is truest to each of us.

Channing encouraged us to cultivate our authentic selves through something he named “self-culture.” This was, in his words, the labor of “the unfolding and perfecting of … [our] nature” and the ongoing “work of self-improvement.”

On a personal level, the seeds of our faith lie in this effort. While the seeds of institutional Unitarianism can be discovered in our rejection of theocracy, the seeds of what it means for us to be a religious community are located within the acknowledgement that we each having a unique and uniquely human experience. There will never be another you. There will never be another I. And we reject religious creeds because we understand that whatever it means to be truly me or authentically you cannot be put into doctrine developed by another.

“I’m still a PHOTOGRAPHER.” If you are here with us in person this morning, I suspect that you have noticed that our sanctuary looks a little bit different. We have an art show along the walls titled “Libuše Jarcovjáková: The Photographer as Dissident.” The show, co-curated by father and myself, is being held in conjunction with FotoFest, Houston’s biennial photography festival. It is one of the largest and most influential such festivals in the world. Every two years it brings thousands of artists, curators, and collectors to the city.

We were invited to participate in it shortly after I arrived in Houston by Steven Evans, FotoFest’s Executive Director. In 2020, we attempted to hold a show sponsored in part by Michigan State University featuring the work of Leonard Freed. How many of you remember it? I say attempted because while we installed and opened the exhibition it was cut short, as far too many things were, by the outbreak of the pandemic. Nonetheless, in the week or so that it was open we had some four hundred people through our campus to see it.

It is my hope that this year’s exhibition will bring significantly more people through our doors. We are certainly on good track to meet that expectation. “Libuše Jarcovjáková: The Photographer as Dissident” has been selected for the FotoFest bus tour. This means that later this week some hundred or so of the world’s most influential photographers and art critics will be brought to our building for a tour. With a bit of luck, we might get a good bit of press.

I think it is important for us to participate in things like FotoFest. I have spent a considerable amount of time studying what makes a center city urban Unitarian Universalist congregation strong. For a community like First Houston to be healthy it needs to more than just a social justice or religious practice. It also has to be a site that nurtures arts and culture. Run through the list of the most enduring urban Unitarian Universalist congregations and this will quickly become apparent. Channing’s church in Boston nurtured the literary movement known as Transcendentalism. All Souls in Washington, DC has long been the site of notable jazz concerts. It has provided a religious home for one of the principals of African American ensemble Sweet Honey and the Rock. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright was inspired by his Chicago family’s Unitarianism. All Souls in Tulsa has hosted Salman Rushdie. And so it goes.

I suspect that this is because we understand that art offers a path to uncovering the authentic self, finding the spark of the divine within, and attempting to answer Capek and Libuše’s question, “[W]ho am I?” Perhaps you have had an experience of either creating or engaging with art that has brought you closer to knowing who you are.

I have certainly found the art of preaching as a gateway to getting to know myself better. Each week when I come before you to offer you a word, I find myself in the process of unfolding that Channing so eloquently described as a root cause for our gathering. It is not easy. I want to give something of myself that will stir you, inspire you, and help you uncover a portion of who you truly are through a celebration of our shared humanity and shared tradition. Deep calls to deep.

And I know that the art of preaching I offer does not resonate with all of you. It cannot. My authentic self is other than yours. And the words that come from my spirit will not always spark yours.

The same is true with visual art. The visual art of an artist will inspire some and not others. I have spoken with people who have seen the Mona Lisa and described Da Vinci’s masterpiece as one of the most exquisite things they have ever encountered. The mystery of the smile, the mischievous eyes, the well painted hands, takes them and leaves them in awe of art’s power. And I have discussed the painting with others who have found little within the painting.

“I’m still a PHOTOGRAPHER.” We return now to that line from Libuše Jarcovjáková’s diary. She is a photographer who has long pushed the question of the nature of art. She grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia. Born the year before Stalin died in Prague to two parents who were artists, she was long limited by the state in pursuit of her craft. Rather than being allowed to attend college, when she was a young adult, she was forced to undergo what used to be called proletarianization. This is the process that the regime deployed to try and force people like Libuše who had been born into the middle class to become part of the working class. Rather than creating a society where all people could enjoy the good things in life, the Stalinists denied individuals with cultural backgrounds such as Libuše the opportunities they afforded the rest of the members of their society.

A true socialist society is a true free society. It is a society where everyone is provided the resources, they need to define themselves. But under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia Libuše was not allowed to define herself. She was long denied the opportunity to go to college to study art because her parents had been branded enemies of the regime. And when she finally did get there, she was told that she could only make a certain kind of art. It had to portray how good life was under the regime.

The Czech dissident, writer, and, ultimately, politician, Václav Havel wrote about the necessity for the human spirit of “living within the truth,” of uncovering and celebrating the authentic self of each of us. He objected to Communism because it prevented people from living what was true to them. Rather than acknowledging that many working people were miserable under the rulership of the Communist Party, artists and intellectuals were told to constantly uplift the regime’s successes.

In such a situation, the artist’s act of portraying life as it is becomes an act of dissent. Rather than taking photographs of workers joyously toiling in factories, Libuše resisted the regime’s narrative and made pictures of them goofing on the job, taking unauthorized breaks, even finding spots to sleep when they were supposed to be toiling.

Her art became a way for her to define herself rather than let the regime define her. Dissidents are typically thought of as people who are openly in resistance to or publicly speak out against a regime. In Texas, I am a dissident because I speak out in opposition to the state’s theocratic regulation of abortion and dangerous gun laws. The same statement is probably true for many of you.

But Libuše was a different kind of dissident. While she was often watched by the secret police and targeted by the regime, she did not generally speak out. Instead, she used her photography, alongside her diary, to cultivate a sense of self in opposition to society’s strictures. She sought to record her life as it was. She did not idealize things.

Now, for some this might make for uncomfortable art. Life is a far more messy affair than we often like to admit that it is. We humans like to force things into neat orders and patterns. Many of us want cram the mystical experience of being spiritual into the confines of creeds which clearly delineate what it means to be human and to have a relationship with the divine. But life is not like this. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church has described religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” Each of our responses to that reality is different.

For Libuše recording her authentic life meant photographing and writing realities that other artists might implicitly or explicitly deny. “[T]hirty two-years old … divorced and … not emotionally attached…” Through her art she engaged with her sexuality, the violence of a failed and abusive marriage, an abortion she had, heavy drug and alcohol use, the final illness and death of her mother, and other subjects that can be upsetting or painful to face. Yet, in Havel’s words, this did not prevent her from attempting live “within the truth.”

I will be honest that some of the art that she created through her pursuit of “living within the truth” is not fit for our sanctuary. As open minded as we Unitarian Universalists like to be, there are topics or images about human life that can make many of us squirm if faced honestly.

But there are plenty of other authentic images that we can show. Here, in our sanctuary, we have selected photographs of the T-Club, one of Prague’s only LGBTQ clubs under the Communist regime. They show life to be what it is, messy and complicated. Look at the images and see joy, love, exuberance, and, also, something of difficulty.

The images themselves can be disorderly and imperfect. They are filled with accidents–a hand blots out part of what there is to see, a mismatch between shutter and flash leaves a frame half developed, light blurs. That is how it goes, life is filled with accidents and mistakes. To live authentically is to be open to what they bring rather than they deny that chance exists.

The photographs are also a reminder that even under the harshest of regimes dissent and dissidence are sometimes possible. It was very difficult to live and love openly as a member of the LGBTQ community in Prague in the 1980s. While sex between people of the same gender was technically legal, it was also quite legal to discriminate against community members. Yet Libuše’s work depicts far more joy than fear, much more love than hate. It is a reminder that whatever the reactionary members of her society or ours might try to teach, the LGBTQ community has always been around and its members have always found to have places to love and celebrate each other.

In Texas, it feels like an important act, at this time, for us, as a religious community, to place such a testimony upon our walls. It is a reminder that no matter what the dominant political party might say, there are many ways to live and love authentically as a human being. And it is a reminder that art offers us one path, one gateway to the spiritual. Libuše’s art is a reflection of her authentic self, with all her struggles and difficulties. What is yours? How would you uncover your authentic self, your spark within, and let who are unfold as best you can?

The beauty of our community is that we need not seek to answer such questions alone. We answer them together. For the seeds our tradition might be found in our individual spiritual experiences, but flourishing is something we celebrate in community–through art, through word, through music, through song.

That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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