agnostic (1)

If art is a faith then I am an agnostic

from: Marilyn Volkman
to: Steven Cottingham

I hate that I wake up re-inspired by art almost everyday. Sometimes I think it’s a trap. But maybe that’s just life.

It’s kind of funny, and I’m just rambling here, but I think it’s nice to have a name to put on it: that feeling of being inspired. It’s stupidly simple, but sometimes I just think that being inspired by art is being inspired by people, or being hopeful about art is the potential for people to do meaningful things, to approach life in a meaningful way. It’s this huge sensation of possibility with no particular goal and I wonder if people with other jobs, real jobs, with uses and applications and stuff; I wonder if they feel that way about their professions very often. Or if it just happens in normal life, unexpectedly, like with love, or kids, or profound moments of realization.

I just imagine that religious people feel that way a lot, soldiers and activists definitely, other faith-duty related professions—jobs where your actions are guided by some ambiguous cause, vague determination, an unpredictable force of some kind, a struggle against the odds. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about joining the military, and I keep wondering why artists don’t really do that kind of thing as art? Is it about not giving up freedom and participating in potentially in bad politics? Like, are artists really that averse to conflating research with bad systems? Because, honestly, they spend their time participating in capitalism and talking about atrocities against humanity. Maybe socially-conscious art is more about having the time and resources to give voice to people who have already found themselves in subjugated situations. Like, how can I give voice to the subjugated, if I myself am also subjugated?

I think artists have this similarly strange mental state, a lot like religious people or soldiers, or anyone following something like that, but artists’ dogma is this bizarre critical-meaningful-change-for-the-betterment-of-the-future kind of thing, but with a very sexy analytical platform. Like, the activists don’t have that. Art is potentially very sexy and very meaningful and very real, and it historically draws people in. I think all this talk might be frowned upon as pure narcissism—but maybe there’s something in that. What do people want from art? Maybe to feel meaningful things about their own life.

Sorry I didn’t get you that draft yet. The power steering in my truck went out and I’ve been working doubles all week.


from: Steven Cottingham
to: Marilyn Volkman

Yeah, totally. Here is series of things I wrote today in the notes folder of my phone while I waited for the bus:

  1. Maybe the best way I can articulate things is this: I don’t give a shit about art. I give a shit about people.
  2. Artists are not entrepreneurs, evangelicals, or economists. But nor are they social workers or saviors.
  3. Art should not be about making a living. It should be about living.
  4. Art cannot save the world. But it can change it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about art and faith. I’ve especially been thinking about how to reconcile my own religious upbringing: wondering if turning to art instead of God is just making use of that same energy within me, that same unconscious desire to believe in something else. Something greater, maybe. Abstracter, definitely. I really agree that soldiers, activists, and artists are probably at the mercy of something indescribable, and all feel similar emotions about it. Like, the exact same chemicals are being triggered but for vaguely different reasons. But I don’t think those are the only people… I wonder about those who devote themselves to capitalism or conservative ethos and the accumulation of wealth, whether or not this ‘faith’ is part of that striving. I wonder, especially when most money is digital, invisible, symbolic and constantly in flux. Do we have faith in capital?

Regarding art and religion, I think the biggest parallel for me is (aside from the proselytizing that evangelicals and administrators alike participate in, always searching for bigger audiences, more numbers) that feeling of finding someone who believes in something similar but not quite what you believe in, and the intensely jarring sensation that follows. Like, being raised as a non-denominational Christian, I always sort of felt like I had a kinship with those who practiced Catholicism, especially in circumstances surrounded by so many atheists or individuals of more disparate faiths, but the amount of seemingly-arbitrary rituals and extra rules present in Catholicism appeared to obscure the point of what I felt the New Testament was all about, and had more in common with later periods of history when religion was utilized as an oppressive political tool. And now, when I go to galleries and I find one that puts little red dots on the wall, willfully showing and selling work that fits into pre-existing economies and eagerly proliferates this consumerist approach, I feel something like sacrilege. I know I’m high-minded, but I want art to be a utopic space that proposes challenges to existing status quos, rather than reinforcing them. But it’s all done in the name of art. Or Jesus. Or Democracy. Faith. Whatever. We unite under these umbrella terms and then the most intense fights occur between two people who think that word or concept does not belong to a foreign interpretation. It becomes personal, and it hurts to see this thing you love manipulated and abused by someone else.

I’m sorry to hear about your truck. That really sucks. How are you?


from: Marilyn Volkman
to: Steven Cottingham

I don’t know if you feel this way, but I’ve always had this feeling that I’m training for something. Something really big, or just bigger than day-to-day life, and yeah, after religion didn’t really fill that space for me, art became the opening for me to fill with that need for something else. What the something else is changes form, from religion to art, to what we define as being art the more we learn about it, but the feeling, and it does feel chemical, the feeling is really similar. I went to church with my Grandmother a couple weeks back and it really felt like seeing or organizing good art, or a good artist talk.

Connecting the ritual part in Catholicism to oppressive political tools makes sense. And it makes me think of rituals of art criticism and art education at the graduate level… What kinds of churches did you go to? I was raised non-denominational Christian also, and my mom’s choice of religion always followed the needs of her life in different phases, so I went to Catholic schools before military or public ones, and we did a range of Protestant, Catholic, Universalist Unitarian and even Gospel Churches. My mom was attracted to Catholicism for the exact reasons you’re describing, but on the other hand she liked the arbitrary rules at more troubling and confusing points in her life because it gave her something controlling yet still romantic to help guide her morally when she wanted to go in other directions but didn’t know how not to. My Dad’s Protestant ethics were always super strong, and his Lutheran upbringing gave her a fall back denomination, and a place to go when we moved somewhere new.

I wonder why there is not much more real, non-ironic energy put into art like that. There’s room for it all, but some areas in art are really lacking. The idea of acquiring money in art is a taxing but exciting and troubling thing. The whole continual application process is such a shot in the dark, at least how I understand it at this point. It’s always about people who help and believe in me, because they’ve seen me work (not just talk or write about it) and I often find that institutions, the ones who even want to support innovative projects are also difficult to deal with because they themselves feel like they are the ones pushing the status quo, they are the ones taking the risks as an institution in just doing what they’re doing, so what they fund seems secondary in a way, not so important. I try to avoid doing this in my own projects, and it is hard to keep that straight when you start functioning more like an organizing body or entity with a greater cause. For me, the bigger goal of the project can feel paramount, and the ‘art’ that results secondary, but you can’t go into that way with participants giving their energies—and you choose who you work with for a reason. You see each person involved as their own project or institution pushing the status quo, even if they aren’t there yet, with the potential for another even bigger and more important goal within the project—and that, I always try to remember, is why I love working with people who have big and small visions they believe in, and powerful ideas, however preliminary or abstract about what they can do, or what art can do. This is one reason why generosity is at the core of my ‘practice’—although I don’t like that word much—but it’s not about giving things away, or saving or even supporting other people’s work, it’s about transmitting and opening up a ridiculous level of generosity in a really abstract way that allows people to push themselves into new territories, push their own status quos in ways they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise at that moment, or in that unexpected place with people they don’t already know.

I think there should be, and is space for all voices under the heading of art, but we should, and really get to, choose which voices we focus on. That’s the amazing things about ‘curating/organizing.’ I want to intuitively grab the most challenging, captivating and compelling voices and transmit their energies with everything I have access to. Art is such a great a place for changing and challenging things because it can be utterly abstract and bizarre without being ‘different’ for the sake of providing ‘something different.’ It’s not different for the sake of being different, it has direction of some kind, without providing a particular service. Without that clarity of service, people often get easily discouraged, suspicious, or embarrassed about that idea of art being a tool for change—people shrug at the inability to do things with art, and blame their financial woes, but I think it’s really important to remember that a lot of ‘good’ art is a big, huge, financial black hole. You shouldn’t financially ruin yourself over it, but I think you should be willing to change your relationship to money for it. And like you said earlier, if you can get larger numbers to participate, to be pulled in, people who can’t stay away from those kinds of gravitational pulls toward big things, then hopefully you’ll have people in that black hole with you, and it won’t be so hard and lonely and broke and desperate in there. And people get pulled in for all kinds of reasons. That’s the amazing thing—you can’t predict that.

In all, I’m okay, I’m thinking a lot, and enjoying the return of the warm sun after a couple of cold weeks, and working a lot, and feeling good about having the money to buy a flight to Cuba, and continue working on my projects with friends there, so yes, some days are hard, but I’m doing alright. How are you?



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  1. Dishes

    I think this is super interesting for it’s form. It looks and feels like a conversation, breaths like one, and evolves in the unpracticed build and critique of two people who aren’t quite good friends but realizing they might be. That excited inquisitiveness that fuels fledgling relationships carries the original email/few paragraphs through a series of perspectives where a restatement is superimposed over the original question and the muddley bits, where too many words are on top of one white space, are sifted through. They slowly start to work together to employ one voice, maybe smiling up from the keyboard or forgetting for a moment about the table in front of them. That original query, the little bud of vulnerability is taken and built upon, getting put outside of both of them to be looked at cooperatively, ownership left behind. They are agreeing with questions, not answering them. It’s a way to share a mood. And they glance away from it to look at each other and talk about their past in relation, or ask new questions. It leaves some of them unanswered. It grows and branches out from a stout trunk, pruned by what is chosen to be responded too; We do it too.
    Also those little lines at the end of each response that directly reference their physical lives may be seen to separate the physical and the intellectual as two different parts of how they operate. Which kind of brings us back to the form and how they’re representing themselves in email. The last line bit is given it’s own quotidian nook- maybe by association it’ll taint the intellectualism and expose some repressed domestic nature in it. Like the self pruning through responses it shows what they want to reserve and separate and also grows itself into a shared experience.

    I guess overall i like it because it doesn’t leave you with a conclusion but a process to be looked at, a relationship built easily/fluidly on genuine reaction. It’s a chain, and a statement isn’t needed. Jump off where you like.

    or maybe I just like being a voyeur and ripping out their context seeing them naked and disconnected.

    It’s so sweet throughout, though, that’s what struck me. Delicate. They are agreeing with questions, not answering them. It’s a way to share a mood.

  2. Joel Bresolin

    historically value is consensus driven, based on context as delineated by the dominant social group. Participation in art paradigms is participation in privlege (sp). I work as a medical provider in an emergency room and visual art. There is a difference, maybe someday both will connect? Or perhaps the connections are not always apparent. Sometimes I wonder about burdening art practice with theoretical frameworks of service and changing society, it seems when I embark on some imagined epic work it collapses from the weight of trying to fulfill these mandates and the sucessful work evolves from play, being in the moment, spontaneity, accident or unexpected outcomes. Not sayin there’s no connections, but I am just not looking to art to fulfill all dimensions of my life, (don’t think society is either at this point)

    • Dish hat

      About that last bit of your comment, that society isn’t looking to art for certain aspects of fulfillment: Where do you think they are looking, if they are even looking at all?

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