Public Art – Humanity at the Crossroads, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Artprize 2009 by Daan Hoekstra. Underwritten by Allan and Claudia Carlson, Anne Copps, Tom and Mickie Fox, Barbara Mayo-Johnson, Linn Keller, and Hank and Liesel Meijer.

Humanity at the Crossroads (2009)

A Janusian Analysis of Daan Hoekstra’s Humanity at the Crossroads

Daan Hoekstra’s mural Humanity at the Crossroads was commissioned by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2009.

Artistic Intentions:

The theme for Humanity at the Crossroads was presented to the community foundation and approved prior to the commencement of painting.

From the beginning Hoekstra saw the mural as protest art, and a means of expressing a number of interlocking themes that disturbed him. When he proposed the  mural in 2009, he had for a year been immersed in a project about investigating links between biological and cultural diversity in the small rural town in Mexico where he lives, and had noted the rate at which traditional and indigenous culture in his area are being eroded by global economic forces and consumerism. His research drew uponthe work of Luisa Maffi, who, among other researchers, has shown that a decline in the number of living languages in the world is paralleled by a loss in biodiversity as well.1The rate of decline in both areas is shocking.

jeffrey hopp credit

(Photo credits: David Lubbers, Jeff Hill, Jeffrey Hopp, Daan Hoekstra)

When asked to clarify the intention of the mural while it was being painted, Hoekstra wrote:

One thing is certain. Humanity is in fact at a crossroads. I ask you to put yourself in my shoes and think of what it is like to live in another country and witness firsthand the homogenizing influence of globalization, a force that destroys traditional cultures wherever they may be encountered. Cultural diversity took thousands of years to evolve, but cultures can be erased in a year, or a decade. Once a culture is gone, it is gone forever. With the loss of diversity, we become less human: our sense of possibilities is diminished, as is our range of input and our ability for self-criticism.

The same is true of endangered species. The extraordinary inventiveness of nature is apparent in biodiversity. In fact, nature can be seen as a model for creativity and invention. When a species is lost, it is lost forever, and our imagination is diminished proportionally. We become less human.2

Hoekstra was concerned with the irreversibility of processes he believes are related to globalization and neoliberal economics, both referred to in Latin America as neocolonialismo, a new conquest. This is a strong term in a region well aware of a history of military and economic exploitation.

Hoekstra sees these issues in terms of violence. The impact of the processes can be seen as violence against nature and violence against traditional cultures. This violence can be better understood against a larger panorama of military violence. The artist was appalled by the rush to war against Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002-3. Hoekstra was living with a Mexican family at the time in an adobe home. He asked himself:

Why is it always impoverished people in shawls living in adobe huts who are getting bombed?

Hoekstra identified with the people with whom he lived and saw them reflected in images of war. He began to see a global war on the poor and defenseless, from Vietnam in the 1960s to Cambodia and Indonesia in the 1970s, Central America in the 1980s to Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan today.3 He wanted Humanity at the Crossroads to deliver a powerful anti-war message.

 The Image of Woman

Women in nature are a recurring theme in Hoekstra’s work, and it is through this genre that the artist tries to work out the interconnections and relationships between humanity, nature and the sacred. Hoekstra chose woman to be a symbol of humanity in Humanity at the Crossroads, because he felt it would allow him to better express empathyIn his original proposal for the mural, he wrote:

One theme in my work has repeated itself over and over throughout the past 30 years. I see a woman with a landscape behind—full of dazzling light and the beauty of nature. It is a simple yet all-encompassing theme: humanity, nature and the divine–all that is- how they interrelate. I’m attracted to the theme because it is the first thing we all see as babies when our mothers first carry us outside to greet the world and know natural light.

The Meaning of Humanity at the Crossroads

Prompted by the question about why impoverished people in shawls are always getting bombed, the artist chose to dress the symbol of humanity in a shawl because to him the shawl speaks of universality. Traditional peoples around the world wear shawls. His original proposal sums up the intentions, though it was written in haste:

The world is changing so rapidly–change both exhilarating and terrifying. Humanity is at a crossroads, able to choose from many possible futures. It may continue on the path of violence, towards one another and towards nature, or choose the path of beauty.

The woman central to the design wears a Mexican rebozo. Shawls are worn by indigenous people around the world. The origin of the rebozo may be in the Islamic world, where it is called hijab, via Spain, though it may be pre-Columbian in origin. In Mexico the rebozo is worn as a symbol of pride and dignity. In the Muslim world it signifies modesty, though it also alludes to repression, from which much of humanity suffers. The shawl, worn by so many of the world’s people, also refers to femininity, the mystery of woman and the universality of human experience.

In the mural, humanity, symbolized by the woman, looks back at the recent past, and forward to one possible future.

Intended Ambiguity

The artist’s use of shawl as symbol is very ambiguous. In his statement Hoekstra recognizes that the symbol might refer to pride, dignity, modesty or repression—quite a diverse range of meanings. The artist felt it would be false to depict woman or humanity as completely free of repression.

The mural was intended to have a hopeful message. The woman looks back on the recent past with regret and into the future with hope.

Nonetheless, there are many levels of meaning at play. The artist’s worldview contrasts technology with traditional culture, often seeing technology as a dehumanizing influence. The plight of traditional peoples is a central theme in the mural. These people might as easily look upon the past with reverence and into the future with trepidation.

Since ArtPrize was accompanied by a media frenzy, Hoekstra was repeatedly asked about the meaning of the mural and was adamant about it being open to many different interpretations:

Humanity is represented in the mural. The works of humanity are represented. Nature is represented. I would like to think the viewer could see something transcendent in the mural. It is not forced upon the viewer with the usual devices: the old man with the beard and the outstretched hand of God. It is just there, to be noticed by those who care to notice it. So….humanity, the works of humanity, nature, and something transcendent… all  that exists could fall into one of those four categories. So everybody who views the mural can identify with 3 or 4 of the categories in the mural, and brings his or her own associations. Since the elements of the mural are simple and broad categories, an almost limitless number of interpretations are possible, all of them necessarily meaningful because the elements of the mural are so basic and universal.

 The Artist’s Intentions in the Context of Theory

Humanity at the Crossroads expresses a worldview born out of numerous strains of thought. Hoekstra is a pacifist. He is an avid reader with a lifelong interest in environmentalism and indigenous peoples. He has long been aware of the history of exploitation in Latin America, and is sympathetic with the resistance.

Hoekstra identifies with the postmodern critique of science and progress, as well as some neo-Luddite tendencies, but does not identify with postmodernism as a whole, especially in its rejection of depth and its complete embrace of the relativity of meaning. He considers himself more anti-modernist or pre-modern than postmodern.

Humanity at the Crossroads draws heavily upon mimetic theories, as can be seen in the faithful representation of landscape and the central figure. An outspoken proponent of mimesis in an age in which fashionable views see the process as shallow imitation, the artist wrote:

Creating an aesthetic object is impossible without working with the very same elements with which the Creator (whether Aborigine, Hopi, Navajo, Polynesian, Judeo-Christian, or the modern scientific Creator—Nature creating herself) necessarily used: line, color, shape, value, space, form, texture, balance, emphasis, movement, harmony, unity, pattern, rhythm, proportion, and variety—the stuff of the Cosmos. There is nothing superficial about it.

Mimesis is about imitating the Creator, or the balance of the Cosmos, or “Nature in her mode of operation.” 4

Humanity at the Crossroads also is closely related to instrumental theories which hold that art should contribute something worthwhile to the community.5 The mural was intended as protest art and a work which would convey a message of peace and hope to the community. Hoekstra is something of an anachronism in his belief in outdated notions of Beauty, and beauty as a positive ethical value. He thinks art brings something new into the world. If it is created with beautiful intentions and in a beautiful way, beauty will give birth to more beauty. If the creation is ugly, it will give rise to more ugliness. His ideas stem from observation of the contemporary art scene in the 1970s and 1980s, when much art seemed to be about decay, disintegration and hopelessness.

In The Culture of Hope Frederick Turner wrote about beauty:

“Aesthetic perception is not a vague thing relative to ordinary perception; quite the reverse. This is why, given an infinite number of theories that will explain the facts, scientists will sensibly always choose the most beautiful theory. For good reason: this is the way the world works. Beauty in this view is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe.”6

In this sense Hoekstra feels an affinity for the Navaho idea of the outcome of art: “Conditions of beauty have been restored,” as well as the Aztec aesthetic: ““Creative activity and its products are aesthetically valuable if and only if they contribute positively to the existing store of balance-and-purity in the cosmos.”8

Hoekstra’s aesthetics are not divided between Western and non-Western, but traditional and nontraditional. In his view, the Pre-Socratics have much in common with the Aztec and Navaho aesthetics:

“The Pythagoreans, whose sentiment Plato often adopts, therefore define music as a perfect union of contrary things: unity in multiplicity, accord in discord. For music does not only coordinate rhythm and modulation, but puts order into the whole system; its end is to unite and coordinate, and God is also the orderer of discordant things, and His greatest work is to conciliate among themselves, by the laws of music and medicine, things which are hostile to one another.”9

Note that the quote above refers to ideas that are as mimetic as they are instrumental. Hoekstra sees a nearly universal pre-modern aesthetics which equated artistic creation with bringing the balance and order of the cosmos from the celestial level down to earth. He would have been most content to say, after painting Humanity at the Crossroads, “Conditions of beauty have been restored.”

Since Humanity at the Crossroads is protest art that addresses some ugly realities, being able to say “Conditions of beauty have been restored” results in a “cathartic purge”10 for the artist and the audience alike. Viewers have been known to cry in the presence of the mural. The psychological impact brings up emotionalist theories of aesthetics. To some extent the intentions of the artist were psychological and aimed at personal and community healing. Just as the instrumental cannot be separated from the mimetic, the emotionalist element cannot be separated from the instrumental. Restoring conditions of beauty leads comes out of a mimetic bringing of the cosmic order to Earth, leading to catharsis.

Another psychological aspect of Humanity at the Crossroads is Hoekstra’s use of the “large woman with landscape in background” theme. The artist says he has returned to this theme repeated during his life. When he became a father the noted the sense of wonder and awe when his son was first carried outside to see nature, and thinks the view of a large person with a landscape in the background must be the common denominator, as much as any possible, for the first thing babies see. In this sense it is quite a universal pan-human experience, and to Hoekstra, it fit the intentions of the mural by speaking of our common humanity.

In aiming for a kind of pan-human universality of experience, Hoekstra feels an affinity for a cross-cultural definition of art as culturally significant meaning skillfully encoded in an affecting sensuous medium.11 Hoekstra sees skill as essential to art, an attitude rising out of his strict atelier training. Humanity at the Crossroads was painted with 100% natural transparent mineral earth pigments, sensual in themselves, which allowed the beauty of the fired-clay brick to show through, imparting a certain “aura.” (Benjamin)

Being a public muralHumanity at the Crossroads is “art for the masses” and can be viewed freely by all, with no admission fee or purchase price. In creating art for the people and a protest mural, the artist was to some degree encouraged and propelled by Siqueiros and the Mexican mural movement. This work, more than any, signals Hoekstra’s rejection of the market for easel painting, a rejection born out of a distaste for consumerism in complex societies. The artist sees consumerism as driving the forces of corporate capitalism that are causing the problems the mural addresses. He walked away from easel painting after beginning to see it as the mere creation of “stuff,” commodities to be bought, sold, and hung as trophies in businesses and the homes of the wealthy as a means to prop up their status. Hoekstra began to see the creation of murals as essentially different. Murals can be accomplished with a microscopic film on an existing wall, instead of the wood stretcher bars and frame required for a canvas. “Art for the masses” became the obvious direction for Hoekstra, and he is currently preoccupied with ephemeral art, further de-materializing his art, and making it more accessible.

Humanity at the Crossroads is too optimistic to be considered postmodern art, though it is concerned with some postmodern themes. Speaking of Odd Nerdrum, an artist Hoekstra admires, critic Richard Vine sums up the postmodern dilemma:

“Disturbingly, in all he represents of historic alternatives forgone, of humanistic values contested and lost, Nerdrum is the postmodern question.”12

In contrast, in Humanity at the Crossroads, historic alternatives are not yet forgone and humanistic values are contested, but not yet lost. Hoekstra still wants to believe in the value of “conditions of beauty have been restored” and sees no instrumental value in despair. Nonetheless, Humanity at the Crossroads is entirely in tune with the zeitgeist, the spirit-of-the-times, and reflects the deep understanding in the collective unconsciousness that humanity is on the threshold of changes and an uncertain future that will call for important decisions in order to protect our planet, our humanity and our future. Hoekstra grew up steeped in cultural history and from an early age understood the role of artists as recorders of the zeitgeist. Artists record the spirit of the times like a seismograph records an earthquake.13 Speaking of the decadent art of the 1970s, cultural historian William Irwin Thompson wrote:

“Each culture gets the art it deserves, and so the artist, like a boil on the skin, simply tells us we are sick. But art not only records the present, it helps to create the future. Art is also the agent of transformation.” 14

McLuhan called artists the “distant early warning system” of cultural change, “that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” 15 Artists not only express the zeitgeist but anticipate where it is going. Foucault’s concept of episteme meshes well with an analysis of Humanity at the Crossroads. The mural describes the zeitgeist, and, given Hoekstra’s conscious attempt to fulfill the role of “distant early warning system,” and the ambiguity he intended, it even contains meanings that the artist did not intend consciously.

Wandering between Two Worlds, One Dead, the Other Powerless to be Born

Matthew Arnold’s words above from his poem Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse were intended to refer to this life and the afterlife, but they apply quite well to any transition from one historic age to another. We are told we live in a postindustrial age, but we still see industry. We are told we live in a postmodern age, but still are mostly surrounded by modern architecture. Our economy depends on unlimited growth, but the planet cannot sustain unlimited growth. We are in the midst of a transition from one age to another, and the outcome is far from certain.

Humanity at the Crossroads expresses this uncertainty felt in the spirit-of-the-times. About a year after completing the mural, the editor of Janus Head Journal asked Hoekstra if he could use an image of the mural for the cover of the journal. Hoekstra was amazed at how fast the editor moved with the image. Only then did he consider the obvious. Janus “is the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. He is usually a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past.”16 Hoekstra painted a female Janus without realizing it, but it only adds to the multilevel meaning of the mural. The meaning of the god Janus is about holism and the reconciliation of opposites, echoing the Pythagorean ideas about creativity that Hoekstra had long adopted, rather than duplicity implied by the current termJanus-faced.”

 Janusian Thinking

Ancient Greece offered a definition of the creative process, then, that continued to rearticulate itself throughout the history of Western civilization: creativity involves the reconciliation of pairs of opposites, for example, order and chaos; unity and diversity, repetition and variety, etc. In the 20thcentury this tradition reemerged with the concept of Janusian thinking, also called Janusian process, described as a kind of non-linear thinking. These ideas were developed by psychologists both to explain the creative process based on psychological processes (rather than muses or divine intervention in previous theory) and apply the principles to therapies. Since then it has been applied to a number of fields, even military strategy. 17

Janusian thinking “implies the creative capacity to synthesize two opposite or contradictory ideas or forms. Two oppositional forms are not merely seen together, side by side, but they are simultaneously conceived.”18

Humanity at the Crossroads becomes very interesting when viewed through the lens of Janusian thinking. Hoekstra did not intentionally paint the two-headed Roman god Janus, but it emerged naturally from his subconscious since he had been steeped for 30 years in the Pythagorean idea of reconciliation of opposites, not to be understood as dualism, but rather the resolution of dualism. He saw the relationship to modern science and the natural world. He consciously left ambiguity in the mural so it would carry multiple meanings. The central figure in the mural might be looking back at the past in remorse and into the future with hope; or vice versa: to the past with reverence and into the future with fear. Only this simultaneous consideration of multiple meanings keeps the mural from expressing dualism.

Albert Rothenberg, one of the principle investigators of the concept of Janusian thinking says it “consists of actively conceiving two or more opposite or antithetical concepts, ideas or images simultaneously, both as existing side by side and/or as equally operative or equally true,” Rothenberg explains. “In apparent defiance of logic or matters of physical impossibility, the creative person formulates two or more opposites or antitheses coexisting and simultaneously operating, a formulation that leads to integrated concepts, images and creations.” Rothenberg goes on to explain that this Janusian thinking was meticulously described by Albert Einstein when he tried to document the process by which he conceived the theory of relativity: he conceived an object being at motion and at rest simultaneously. 19

This reveals that Pythagorean ideas about the interplay of opposites actually refer to realities in the physical world. Light is simultaneously made of waves and particles. Because Pythagorean and Janusian thinking are parallel to the structure of the universe and how it works, they allow us to partake in creation, reconcile opposites, and actively be part of the glue that hold the universe together. From reconciliation, duality is resolved and peace is born.


1.Maffi L. 2005.  “Linguistic, Cultural and Biological Diversity” Annual Review of Anthropology  34:599-617.

2. Hoekstra, D. 2009. Email to Grand Rapids Community Foundation.

3. See Not a scholarly source, but it carries endorsements by Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Helen Caldecott.

4. Panofsky, E. Idea: a Concept in Art Theory, (New York: Harper and Row, 1968). Panofsky quotes Plotinus: “When someone looks down upon the arts because they are concerned with imitating nature, it must first be replied that also the things of nature, too, imitate other things; then you must know that artists do not simply reproduce the visible, but they go back to the principles in which nature itself had found its origin,” p 26. Panofsky reiterates the same concept on page 42: “Art…does not imitate what nature creates, but it works in the same way as nature creates.” Panofsky points out that in 1607, in L’idea de’ pittori, scultori ed architetti, Federico Zuc­cari referred to a concept identical to that of Plotinus: “And if we wish to know why Nature can be imitated, it is because Nature is guided toward its own goal and towards its own procedures by an intellective principle. Therefore her work is the work of unerring intelligence, as the philosophers say; for she reaches her goal by orderly and infallible means. And since art observes precisely the same method in its procedure, therefore Nature can be imitated by art.” p 90.

5. Anderson, R.J. Calliope’s Sisters: A Comparative Study of Philosophies of Art, second edition. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2004).

6. Turner, F. The Culture of Hope: the birth of a new classical spirit (Free Press, NY 1995).

7. Anderson, p130.

8. Maffie J.  “Aesthetics” from the entry “Aztec Philosophy” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy April 4, 2012).

9. Theon of Smyrna, 1st century AD, quoted in The Lindisfarne Letter 14, Homage to Pythagoras, Lindisfarne Press.

10. Anderson.

11. Ibid.

12. Vine, R. “Nordic Anxieties,” Art in America, No. 8, 1990.

13. Thompson, W.I. Darkness and Scattered Light: Speculations on the Future, (Anchor Press 1978).

14. Ibid.



17. Thayer-Bacon, B., (2003), Relational “(e)pistemologies,” New York, Peter Lang.

18. Ibid

19. Greenberg, J. “Einstein: The Gourmet of Creativity, Science News, 3/31/1979, Vol. 115 Issue 13, p216-217, 2p.