Disturbing the Comfortable: The Corner of Piety and Desire


Dr. César A. Cruz, educator and activist, is credited with the statement  “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

It’s safe to conclude that I have almost exclusively appreciated art from the position of comfort, and paid little heed to what I might experience if art disturbed that comfort.

Then along came a 2016 visit to The Broad.

The Broad, which opened in late 2015, is named for philanthropist Eli Broad, who financed the $140 million building and houses the extensive Broad contemporary art collection. Admission is free to the public, but requires an online ticket.

Curiosity got me there.  I didn’t expect to be “knocked out” by the art itself. To be truthful, I was reasonably certain I wouldn’t understand most of it.

I walked around admiring colors and shapes, paintings, drawings, collages stitched together with bits and pieces of “found” objects, a familiar Warhol or Lichtenstein here and there, some photography–all a very pleasant experience. There were some disturbing images and I wasn’t sure how I felt about them. Maybe at best I’d say I was ambivalent.

And then I saw it.

At first it was just impressive in size. I responded to the visual impact, but didn’t know what I was seeing. I stared for quite a while. letting it speak to me, although I didn’t know what it was saying.

Then I read the accompanying signage.

Artist Mark Bradford’s Corner of Desire and Piety

“…deflects viewers from its impenetrable field; the text, however, creates an opening that reveals the work’s true magnitude. Each of the seventy-two panels announces the delivery of propane intended for FEMA trailers in New Orleans. The work reflects the conundrum many residents faced after Hurricane Katrina when such deliveries were often exploited for profit.  They had to make a choice: fulfill their own needs while making some extra cash or patiently suffer along with everyone else. Though the actual streets named Desire and Piety run parallel through the Lower Ninth Ward, the predominantly black neighborhood devastated by the flooding, Bradford forges a metaphorical intersection — a painful choice — stoked by the tragedy of Katrina.”


To read more about the artist, click HERE.

I haven’t shared from the Broad before although I’ve been back since that first visit and have tickets to return again next month. Many of the artists display their work on-line via the broad.org but any photos I would share won’t deliver the impact they create in their lovely new home. I feel protective of the artists’ work.

But I thought of this particular piece and the impact it made on me when I viewed footage last week of containers full of goods sitting undistributed at the ports in Puerto Rico.

I hear a lot of words, absent of solace and relief. And the death toll continues to rise.

I wonder what the artists, with NO words,  will say about this period in our history.

If you’re in town…I recommend a visit to The Broad.

Prepare to be disturbed.





35 thoughts on “Disturbing the Comfortable: The Corner of Piety and Desire

  1. You know how much I agree. I am weary of reading…. This wasn’t what I expected! One star!…….I felt bad/disturbed/angry. One star!……Art is supposed to make us feel and act. At its best, it alters us to our cores and penetrates every fissure of our souls.

    • Oh my goodness, Andra! I am so glad you made the connection to what I’m saying and could apply it to your personal experience, although it continues to confound me. There’s a laziness that has crept in that shuts down a healthy questioning. If something doesn’t “make sense” to us, what are the questions we need to ask to see if perhaps we have missed a point we would appreciate? If something disturbs us, what can that teach us? We don’t sit with discomfort at all. We lash out at others, condemn those with different perspectives, lob word bombs in place of discussion and I could go on and on…if I were an artist I wouldn’t have to be so wordy! LOL! Can’t wait to see you soon…we’ll have a LOT to talk about.

  2. I wonder what the artists will say too, Debra and am quite sure it will make some uncomfortable. At least it should. A metaphorical intersection indeed.

    • Thank you, Lisa, and for the RT, too. I really appreciate it. There are so many ways to artistically express very profound ideas, but I’m rather limited in that department. I do appreciate those with the talents and I feel connected to them, which is probably how it should work. Artists deserve and audience! 🙂

  3. So much of life is “disturbing” to me that I am reluctant to seek it out. My favorite art (as well as books and movies) is art that makes me feel good to be alive, happy, at peace. Art that reminds me of the beauty in the world, not its misery.

    That said, last weekend, we went to an exhibit of “National Geographic’s 50 Best Photos” ~ many of the shots were sad scenes of devastation and destruction. The images disturbed me and made me feel less hope for the future, rather than more. And that is not how I want to feel.

    Today I went for a walk on the beach . . . and felt all good things!

    • I don’t typically go out of my way seeking to be disturbed for much the same reason. If we have any awareness at all I would think that disturbance would come quite naturally! But I do enjoy it when I’m surprised by encountering an opportunity to think differently or broaden my tastes a little. I may occasionally take my temperature to see if I’m capable of piling a little on and still being ok! After this week’s disturbing start I have avoided news and enjoyed a week with music as my companion. And I didn’t choose brooding or pensive playlists! A day at the beach sounds fabulous! 😊

      • I know what you mean about “taking [your] temperature” ~> there are times that we can take on the weight of the world with barely a wince . . . other times, the lightest straw is “too much.”

  4. I love your thirst for adventure Debra and that you make room for an open mind and look what you discovered! If everyone could leave a little space in their minds for an adventure that might move them oh what a world this would be. Unfortunately being prepared to be disturbed is making some of us numb without changing the way we think, feel or do.

    • We are living in a time when we are just bombarded from every side, Cristina, and for those of us who want to remain engaged in social and political contexts we really do need to guard that we not become completely mired in cynicism. I think that’s a big concern for me. I do have to practice keeping an open mind. Sometimes it’s pretty tightly shut! 🙂

  5. As disasters become more frequent I worry that we will get jaded. From my limited perspective, PR seems to have suffered that fate. It takes more than a roll of paper towels to make a difference. Then again, I’m like Nancy in that I haven’t sought out depressing articles but you can’t help seeing the news. Also, I have a friend with family there. It took two weeks to find out whether her mother and brother survived. In this day and age, that’s a long time. I love looking back at the art of the 60s. It reminds me of another disturbing time. Artists capture it so well.

    • I would say that I don’t need (or want) to dwell on anything that is deeply disturbing or troubling, but I find it almost impossible to tune everything out, either. I do want to remain engaged. I’m currently a little burned out on “talk”–there are so many empty words used in a day! I’m intrigued with the way art can expand thinking. I think you’re right about the ’60s. There are a lot of parallels to today!

    • I’ve enjoyed the few times I’ve been to The Broad, Andrew, and quite pleased that there is so much to learn. I’m enjoying a new phase of art education!

  6. The first photo made me think about blind faith vs. critical thinking Debra. I’m always impressed when a person says or admits, “well I thought this (or that), 5 years ago, but now I think otherwise.”Also – powerful quote, work and poetry by Caesar Cruz (I followed the link to Illegal Aliens). Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comment on my recent St. Francis/solar oven post. Debra.

    • I feel similarly, Bruce, and often think if we can remain open to new insights, perhaps actively seeking information and input in order to expand our perspectives, we might even welcome the opportunity to change an opinion or point of view. Thank you for the taking the extra time to learn a little more about the scholarship and activism associated with Dr. Cruz. I do not know the man but I was drawn to much of what he has to say.

  7. Debra, thank you for sharing with us this FEMA art messages board from Hurricane Katrina. I would like to see The Broad.
    I do feel art shouldn’t always be clean and pretty. It may show emotions which could be fear, hate, death or . . . The period in which wars were prevalent had some gray paintings, storms, gas chambers. . .
    The same may be applied to slavery. . . pain and misery, whips, chains and division of family members. . .
    Art may be a measure of our time’s “pulse” but hopefully, it includes our “hearts,” too. 💞

  8. Hi Debra I Love Art I do see Art as an outlet for healing. Also it can be fun Light and Wonderful. But it can be dark sad and seems to make no sense as well. But to the Artist that did it it had a purpose. That is my take on it!

    • I love your comment, Deb, and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond! You said it best, actually. The art is meaningful to the artist, even if we don’t understand or interpret with the same sensibilities. Thank you for that!

  9. What fascinating art Debra – thank you for sharing a piece of it 🙂 I generally find something interesting in any art gallery. We visited the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona this summer and found a wonderful collection of medieval church art along with an excellent display of modern works. We also visited the Fundació Joan Miró – second time Epi and I have been to that gallery. I think it was beyond Alasdair’s attention span or understanding, or both 😉

    I hope you are keeping well. I see that wild fires are raging again so please keep safe. Best wishes,


    • Thank you for your thoughtful response to the piece I posted on contemporary art, Martin. I have been almost completely “absent” from my blog this last month and am just now getting caught up. I would LOVE to visit the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona and can only imagine the exhilaration of such a visit! I occasionally take my granddaughters to particular art exhibits or installations and just hope that a little exposure will “seep in” and make future encounters more meaningful as they mature. I am sure Alasdair will remember his summer in Barcelona and be grateful he had the opportunity! We sure do hope that for our children, don’t we! 🙂 So nice to hear from you and I appreciate your comment. We weren’t personally near those awful fires, but we were in Northern California during that period and the air quality was terrible. They were devastatingly destructive. Best to you, too!

  10. Having lived through it, I’m really not sure how much more I have left to say. But, I am glad I read through this post… Piety and Desire? Huh?

    This period in history? If I posted a black picture tomorrow that would pretty much do it. 😖

    • I’m sorry it took me so long to respond to your comment about “The Corner of Piety and Desire,” Ray. I actually thought of you when I posted my honest memory of the time I “encountered” the artist’s giant work. I also understand that a “black picture” would be representative of what you knew firsthand of the entire hurricane event and the dreadful aftermath and deadly flooding. I certainly don’t think a piece of art, large-scale or otherwise, is an adequate representation of a very emotional event, but when I saw the images from Puerto Rico and learned more about FEMA’s inadequate response (as I see it), I immediately flashed to the remainder propane plates. Maybe the art stands as a reminder, and that’s enough. I think I would have responded to a black painting actually, if I understood the intention.

  11. I agree on the first quote very much. Sometimes, believing is all it takes to rise above the occasion on times that seem hopeless or dire. We all have that voice in our heads telling us we can’t do certain things, but may be having an open mind and believing can change that.

    It’s almost crazy to have an art establishment that is free of charge for the public, especially with impressive exhibits. Then again, I come to think about it. Free art is essentially what street artists do. It’s all for the love of … art.

    • I apologize for such a long time between your very thoughtful comment and my response this evening, Rommel. I am always so pleased to hear from you. Your observations about the art world and the possibilities in artists’ contributions are very strong, and I agree with you. I feel that your thoughts about “free art,” as in street artists, encourages honesty in expression that isn’t bound by the obligations that come with more commercial projects. I fall into the category of art enthusiasts responsive to what I see, and although I may not always interpret the artists intention, if there is one, I appreciate the exposure to even controversial projects. Again, so nice to hear from you. I hope you are doing well.

  12. So much packed in this blog, Debra, and in your observations.

    Art SHOULD move us, sometimes in uncomfortable ways, not unlike a poem or song that brings us to tears or anger as well as joy. I think I would appreciate a visit to The Broad.

    I worry that I might become complacent in this world we live in with the constant drone of news. Like you, I am burned out on talk. I will endeavor to follow your lead, my friend, and seek out more art and music – and, perhaps one day visit The Broad. Thank you so much for this provocative post.

    • I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond to your thoughtful comment, Penny. I paid so little attention to my blog in October, I fear! But I’m glad you understood the basic premise of why the art at the Broad was meaningful to me. I think sometimes we should be still with our words and just absorb “feelings” through art in all forms. Maybe we would be more thoughtful and contemplative and some of the blasts of hot air wouldn’t be so wounding! I know you understand!

    • I’m glad you understood where I was coming from in my appreciation of the artwork that most would agree was somewhat disturbing, Frank. I don’t mind having my consciousness rattled a little bit from time to time. I don’t “live” in a state of un-ease, and that probably means I can afford to be shocked a bit from time to time. 🙂 I balance out pretty well with other forms of art, and I don’t think I’m too intense. LOL!

  13. That certainly is a huge work of art. I know some artists like to shock and provoke thought, but if I’m choosing something to go on my walls, I want something uplifting. There’s enough doom and gloom around to not have room for anything more disturbing in your own home xx

    • So nice to see you here in the blogging community, dear Charlie. It’s been awhile! And i’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner, but I’ve been “off-line” for a couple of weeks. I completely agree about wanting something peaceful and more in keeping with a calm we would want in our home, but I enjoy being provoked a bit, I guess, if I’m in a gallery. I think it’s fun to go with a friend and see how differently we may respond. The Broad is a new favorite. 🙂

  14. I’m a visual artist and, as every artist, I’m also an art viewer. Everything in this wonderful thread of posts rings true to my experience…the thousand, thousand facets of human art and the human attempts to understand the creative soul.
    I make art because that’s what I do to live, like breathing and eating. Each work I make is a contemplation and reflection of who I am. The real magic however is in every personal story and meaning attributed to my art by each viewer.
    Once made public, my art is no more mine than my two sons are mine.

    • I am sorry it took me so long to read your response, but I am so glad you shared your perspective on my small post. I think the thread of comments needed the thoughts of an artist. I don’t have a formal art education at all. I took a few “101” level classes in college, but I go to galleries and exhibitions to get lost in another world. As I expressed in my post, I don’t always feel I even know what I’m looking at, but I do respond, and I always hope that to the artist that’s the point. When it comes to contemporary art I almost always wish I had a private viewing accompanied by the artist. I always have questions! You’ve encouraged me, however, with the statement that your art is no longer “tied” to you once it is shared with the public. I’m headed to the Broad again late in November and I am so eager to see what will capture my imagination or move me this next time. Thank you, John, for adding an important perspective.

  15. That is when art is at its best, when it hits you like the work of Mark Bradford. Of course, we all lovely nice and comfortable art – to some extend. But I also find that we, at least I do, are quickly done with nice and comfortable art work. Take music for instance, it’s often the songs that are difficult to access in the beginning that are the ones staying with me. While easy songs may get noticed right away, but then I get bored with them. I do like the quote by Dr. César A. Cruz.

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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