DETROIT — You know, I didn’t really want to be at “Art as Ritual: A Conference on Lamentation in Contemporary Performance and Practice,” organized by writer Taylor Aldridge, rector William Danaher from Christ Church of Cranbrook, and filmmaker Oren Goldenberg, in collaboration with the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and University of Michigan’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design. The conference fell on a Monday, September 12, following an action-packed arts weekend, and despite it featuring some of the Detroit’s leading thinkers and most innovative practitioners discussing a compelling topic — the intersection of art and ritual — I felt deeply ambivalent about attending. It sounded exhausting.
“Critics have limits,” writes Jennifer Doyle in the opening chapter of Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. “Our faculties break down when an artwork reminds us of something so painful, or makes us mad, or is something we like so much we struggle to write about it. Or when we are tired and having a bad day.” Sitting in the auditorium during Danaher’s opening remarks, I felt the incipient experience of being dragged through some kind of emotional obstacle course, and it made me furious. He was followed by science fiction author adrienne maree brown, who spoke movingly about a shift in her consciousness that seems to correlate with the globalized view afforded by technology.
“The amount of grief we are expected to hold is increasing,” said brown. “Every day now, I learn the name of someone [to grieve], and I feel distraught.” I didn’t want to feel distraught. I thought: It’s Monday morning; what I want is to have another cup of coffee and meet this week on my own terms. I sure as hell didn’t want to stand and participate in a guided activity, led by brown, involving intense eye contact with the person sitting next to me, followed by a physical demonstration of where I felt the pain of my grief. It seemed like a lot to ask of a basically introverted and intimacy-resistant writer first thing on Monday morning. But I did it, because, as brown asserted, “Moving forward together may depend upon our ability to grieve together.” Certainly, there is no lack of sources for grief in my life, or in the lives of anyone around me.