Hello dear reader, the point of departure for today’s post is two quotes. The first comes from Paul Klee, ‘Art does not reproduce the visible, it renders visible.’ The second is from Marxist art critic Max Berger, which can be more or less paraphrased as art is anything that raises our consciousness. As a Marxist his definition of consciousness is more systematic and unrelated to my unforgivably vague definition. That gap between me and Berger is not worthy of comment because it is so natural. It is normal. But I often forget it. We live in the fragmentation of definitions, and consciousness neither has the associations of Marxism Berger used nor the Freudian, bourgiesie definitions he sought to overturn. Instead it’s just a pleasant mix of post-modern clutter. A bit of psychology, maybe a bit of sociology but generally consciousness exists in my mind as word. I know its definition in the abstract but practically, as here, it means just about anything. It is a symbol that points to a gap. It’s sad, in a sense. Who is Oediphus, now, but a fragment pointing to Freud?
Ah well, such is life.
This lack of substance reminds me of the other day. I was standing in the house of a partner at a respectably large and well-fed Southern man, partner at a local law firm. He had a desperate look in his eye I’ve seen in dozens of other Southern men. They will soon be unelectably and ineluctably fat. I blame it on the food. “His house should be bigger.” I nodded absentmindedly. It was time for the guests, myself included, to chat amicably, stare into the fire and miss each other’s points. “The television,” as if it needed no modifiers. Its existence served as an indictment. My eyes betrayed me with an elaborate roll. The betrayal went unnoticed. The conversation turned inexorably to a few other perceived slights. Some slights were unrelated to us, others were. I yawned. A few of the slights were based on that twenty-something, affable liberalism that can’t stand too much scrutiny.
Some in my generation and only some, perhaps many, too many seem not so much in rebellion against society as much as they are ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts; wealth gap, education, rape culture, Too Big to Fail and the American Dream. The capitalization is all but seen in these words while the emptiness of the phrases heightens rather than obscures the absurdity. The faith of self-improvement is the only one they have left, and when self-improvement fails, as it so inevitably does when the only goal is self-improvement for its own sake, then they point to a conflicting mix of weak analysis to justify the lack of meaning.
I remember asking a friend what she liked about the house, what she disliked. Apart from the television, of course. She worked it around in her mind awhile and finally she remembered a couple of words from somewhere. There was a quip about feminism and his wife. Something about the South being backwards. Quite a bit was about nothing. It was a response that substituted for a dartboard of bumper stickers. His life was clearly not as successful as it should have been but, in the same breath, he was a lawyer, so evidently his life was also too materialistic. It is and was a weak calculus to my ears. The “issues” that were brought up are safe to reflect on. Nothing stopped me in my tracks, eyebrows raised. It was an odd mix of nonsense and irrelevance.
The conversation was too sufficiently dispiriting, if not dangerous, to occupy what small attention I can force myself to give to other’s opinions about things they have no knowledge about. But in a sense it was art. Too many have created a culture which makes “living standard” the final norm of the good life and which regards the perfection of techniques as the guarantor of every cultural as well as of every social-moral value. The lack of a good living standard, for whomever, must mean an imperfection. In the past that imperfection was often identified by being a hippie, a communist or something droll. Now it is associated with another collection of impermissible moral qualities. Was he a racist? Maybe. Sexist? Probably. He was definitely something who was a conservative. But less than that. He was unclean, somehow, and that is the best definition I can provide for her thoughts. It acted as a justification and mechanism for his house. It is the same fabric, but it is cut a little differently than those who would have accused him as one of those types who grew a beard. In the sense of art the conversation was a great piece. The conversation made visible what was invisible and in doing so raised my consciousness. I would be thankful, almost, if it was just slightly less depressing.
I want you to look around, dear reader, at some recent journalism. See if there is a quip about an ‘absence of imagination,’ a ‘sloppiness of mind’ or ‘style.’ Look for something that is carefully crafted, like the two comments above, to imply something morally or ethically deficient. Then see if everything about the article is both carefully watered down by a curious but unpleasant mix of comfortable feedback from the audience, who do not know better, and encouraged by a few people who do know better. I do not have anything in particular, but I am sure you will not have to look far. Perhaps something from Jezebel or HotAir. I do not mind what you look at but I leave it up to you to find it.
I do want to leave you with a bit of advice from one of my new, favorite essayists Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thine whine of hysteria is heard and then is when we are in bad trouble. I suspect there is already here.