Art and Activism: An Engaged Aesthetics


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by Susan McCaslin

When I was first invited to write a series of blogs based on my Wood Lake book, Arousing the Spirit, I was reluctant to blog on my own writing. What I had to say is already there in the book, I thought, so what’s the point?

Yet reflecting on what I wrote has led me to a new understanding of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus’ famous aphorism, “You can’t step twice into the same stream.” Or as Plato puts it in The Timeaus, “Time is the moving image of eternity.”

The emphasis in both these sayings is in the energy of movement, change, constant newness within a substratum of rest. So I find myself neither regurgitating nor repudiating what I wrote, but following the further implications and nuances that arise as the stream flows on.

In Chapter 9 of Arousing the Spirit, entitled “Blessed,” I spent some time digging into Jesus’ paradoxical sayings in the Beatitudes, such as “blessed are the poor in spirit.”   The wisdom teachers of all religions confront us with paradox, or as poets like to say, oxymorons. Zen masters call them koans.

Today, I’m back to thinking about the word “blessed,” which has a wide range of meanings in the New Testament including “fortunate,” “happy,” “ripe,” and “awake with joy.” So as I was meditating, a new beatitude flowed in: “Supremely happy are the activists.”

Since grade seven, thanks to an encouraging teacher, I’ve self-identified as a poet. I believe everyone is creative in a variety of ways, but I was fortunate, even blessed, to have a sense of vocation from an early age. As a younger woman with a career as a college English instructor and as a mother, I managed to keep the writing process alive, thanks to supportive family members and friends and a lot of determination.

Much of my writing centred on “spiritual” themes and issues and I developed a lifelong engagement with the writings of the mystics, starting with the European Christian mystics and expanding to the mystical traditions of non-western religions and cultures.

What has this to do with activism? In my studies I discovered that many of the mystics I most admired were both contemplatives and activists. Jesus’ kingdom of heaven teaching was an attack on Roman occupation and collusion with abuses of power by the religious establishment of the day. Hildegard of Bingen struggled with the obduracy of bureaucracy. Blake got political during the American and French Revolutions. Thomas Merton wrote constantly about how the contemplative and the active lives are really one.

The more I studied the lives and writings of the mystics, the more I realized that our biggest challenge is moving out of dualistic thinking and being. We have to shut out the voice that says we must choose whether we are contemplatives or activists. Just by virtue of being alive we are both. We are grounded in silence as well as being creatures of the polis, the public realm.

For decades, occupied as I was with household, parenting, and work, I came to see my writing as my particular form of activism, but an activism that might transform a few people’s consciousness just as the process of writing had transformed my own. Since retirement, however, I have entered into another kind of blessedness, one that allows me not only to write, but to get involved with others who are raising public concerns more overtly.

Right now I’m responding to the Langley Township’s plan to sell off a parcel of remarkable forest near my rural home. The forest hosts three kinds of owls, a diverse ecosystem, and many old firs, cedars, pines and cottonwoods. To stand under the canopy is to occupy sacred space. Along with a visual artist friend (whose amazing art appears on the covers of several of my poetry books) I am organizing a day of art and activism by inviting local artists to come and witness the forest’s beauty, so that it may permeate their own art.

Others have been in the activist arena much longer than I, and such a small-scale event might seem like small potatoes to some. But for me, the act of both writing and being part of a community event that could change how people perceive the forest is a blessing whatever the outcome.

There are times in a person’s life when the activist side of the scale weighs heavier than the contemplative and vice versa. And some of us are more clearly contemplatives than activists as well as the other way around. But as we live into our common humanity, we may just find ourselves responding to a particular issue because of our depth of feeling about it.

I’m reminded of Blake’s proverb: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity…and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the [person] of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

The engaged artist can be part of an imaginative movement that sees the ancient trees in our local communities as national treasures. They can help others to see with new eyes. First tears of joy and sorrow. Then action.

Susan McCaslin is a prize-winning poet and author of eleven volumes of poetry. Susan is Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years. Her most recent volume of poetry, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011), has recently been named a finalist for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award). She lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Visit her website at

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Categories: Art and Music, Arts, Creativity, Ecology and Environmental Issues, Ethics, Featured, Nature, Spiritual Growth, Susan McCaslin

Author:Wood Lake Publishing

At Wood Lake Publishing we are passionate about supporting and encouraging an emerging form of Christianity, which is rooted in ancient wisdom and attentive to the movement of spirit in our day. Visit us online at


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3 Comments on “Art and Activism: An Engaged Aesthetics”

  1. October 17, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

    Love the term, Susan: engaged aesthetics… so nedessary and canny! And blesser means to wound en francais…

  2. October 18, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

    Always a difficult balance between activism and contemplation, but so powerful when it is in capable hands such as yours. Best of luck in saving the forest, the owls and all the other creatures. Lenore Rowntree

  3. October 18, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

    Thanks you two tree geniuses. And, Lenore, your comment get through. Thanks!

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