A Couple Of Observations About The Culture

I’ve been working my way through Mario Vargas Llosa’s intriguing little book Notes On The Death Of Culture, which intends to be a general critique on the state of high culture and the impact its enervation has had on the world at large.  Reading that and watching the election campaigns is a strange thing.

One of Llosa’s main themes here is that we have demoted “high” culture through a process of democratization of self-brutalization via social media and a mistaken acceptance of the idea that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight.  That we no longer value wisdom, quality, or know how to appreciate it as distinct from middle or lowbrow culture, so-called “popular” culture.

There’s something to this, certainly, but I hesitate to call it a death.  A tumultuous sorting maybe. Because side by side, cheek by jowl, as it were, with undeniable banality, dross, and effluence that passes for æsthetic content—no, that’s not quite fair, is it? Garbage has an æsthetic quality, even if it can only be apprehended as a negative—that presents itself as of equal value and merit to works of genuine worth, we do see works of superior quality, intent, and impact. In fact, work being done now in all the arts offers examples equal to if not better than any masterpiece of the past.  Even television, that vast wasteland, offers amazing work. If one looks for it one may find music, painting, photography, sculpture, literature both fictive and nonfiction, drama both on stage and recorded, that compares with the finest humanity has ever offered.

And with it, audiences.  You might question their level of appreciation, but that has two aspects which negate the attempt.  Firstly, how do you gauge “appreciation?” How can anyone determine the extent of comprehension, of response, of, finally, “takeaway” experienced by another human being?  You can’t really, certainly not in any way that might be revealed in a poll or a survey.  Certainly not as some prognostic assessment about the Culture.  Secondly, those creating these works have not come from another planet.  They emerge from among us.  We, in some way, “produce” them.  They are us, they are not alien, so if in fact what they do cannot be understood or appreciated or even recognized, how then do they appear? The fact is, they have an audience.  And not, judging by the availability and public knowledge of the work, small, dying audiences.

Which means we are, irritatingly, forced to take on faith that the culture, whatever we might mean by that, is not dying.  Transforming, sure, as culture always does.  Isolation is harder to achieve, if in fact it is even desirable.  We live in each others’ living rooms.  At best, Llosa’s fears—which may be too strong a word—may have more to do with nostalgia than actual diagnosis.

But then there is this huge, gawping thing in our midst, this political circus, and it might be reasonable to wonder how much we may have lost in terms of “culture” that something like Trump can aspire as successfully as he has to the presidency.  It is perhaps a handicap for many that the answers may be culture-based and insulting to a large group of people.  But I think, for myself at least, that there is nothing wrong with affirming that some things are better than others and that all aspects of culture are not equal.  When you see placards with gross misspellings and bad diction in service to poor logic and spiteful ignorance, it offends and perhaps causes one to hold back rather than indulge in the obvious assessments.  But like the doofus who shows up at a formal-attire wedding in plaid shorts and tennis shoes with an emblazoned t-shirt and a product-placement ball cap, the initial conclusion may not be wrong.

Suggestions have been made that the GOP might intervene and force Trump to step down or even do something with the rules to make him ineligible.  Hiding the blemish won’t cure it.  Trump’s success, if not he himself, is an expression of a popular sentiment, an æsthetic, if you will, that has embraced the thing Llosa is, in part, talking about.  He has brought them together, the subliterates, the banal, the velvet-paintings-of-Elvis crowd, those whose most trenchant popular icon should be Archie Bunker.

And they voted for him.  Should the GOP try to remove Trump, understandable as the impulse may be, it will be a repudiation of the very people they have relied on and nurtured and groomed for over three decades.  They have been largely unseen all this time because they have been salted throughout the larger culture, an aberration perhaps.  But Trump has caused them to step forward as a group.  We, the rest of us, can see them now.  They’ve been there all along, but we have rarely encountered them in numbers so large we could not pretend they weren’t just fringe kooks, loonies, or family embarrassments.

Forgive my crudeness, but I’m  engaging this problem the way they do.  Name-calling, pigeon-holing,  because it makes the unknown manageable.  It is a practice we rightly abhor but is the obverse of recognizing a form of self-selection and commitment to a set of protocols.  If it makes us uncomfortable to be confronted with a reality that has grown up in our midst, then perhaps we share some of the responsibility.  We have as a culture been driven more by the shiny, the thalamic and hippocampic  reactiveness that draws us to the bright thing at the expense, sometimes, of the good thing.

But then, what do you do with someone who has decided that truth and beauty are the same as a red dot sale at WalMart?

It’s perhaps one reason WalMart has been so successful.

Trump, finally, has caused nothing.  He is playing to an audience.  What he says is less important than the fact that there are people who like it.  When he is long gone from the political stage, they will remain.

It’s a cultural problem.

A Moment of Stepping Back and Considering Something Else

Politics is generally like that old joke about wrasslin’ pigs.  More, it’s like walking into the middle of a bar fight and asking “Who started this?” and expecting a useful answer.  One may be available, but not from the participants.  At least, not likely.

The only viable stance to take is to ask yourself, What is it you hope to gain from who you back?  And then, how likely is it you’ll get it from the one you’re backing?  Detailed analysis of outcomes are problematic while the punches and beer bottles are being thrown. Conclusions from that must wait till after the fight is over and the cleaning up begins.  They will be useful, just not right now.

With that in mind, I have a lot of other things to do this week, so I’m stepping back and doing them.  I leave you therefore with a new photograph.  Or rather an old photograph redone in my new photoshop, etc etc, for something (one hopes) more on the noncontroversial side of life.

Redwood Nook, 2013 Redwood Paradise, 2013Okay, two images.  I lied.  Enjoy ’em anyway.

A Couple of Scenes From Dallas, On the Occasion of Our Recent Visit

I may talk about the tragedy later.  I had a couple of conversations, saw a few things, felt a great deal, but I need to process it.  In the meantime, since we went there for something entirely joyful, let me stick with that for now.

Daniel Kost is Donna’s nephew, the youngest of two brothers.  He’s an engineer, an artist, a good guy and a fine human.  He’s been living in Dallas practically since he got his degree, so we don’t get to see him much.  So when it transpired that he was getting married, naturally we had to attend.

The ceremony, though modified because of a sudden rainstorm, was beautiful.

Here they are, Dan and Ana:

Dan & Ana dance, 2016 Oh, and yes, Dan is tall. Six eleven and a skosh.  Which makes Ana…well, taller than me.

The wedding was held in the Texas Discovery Gardens, which boasts a marvelous butterfly house.  Of course I had to take a walk through it, and…

Butterfly, Dallas, 2016No, it’s not the only picture I shot, but give me time.  (I have no idea what kind of winged beauty that is, but…)

Earlier in the day, we went to the Dallas Museum of Art, which is in (wait for it!) the Art District.  They had an Irving Penn retrospective on.  I’d never seen any of Penn’s work “in the flesh” before and it did not disappoint.  While going through it, we came on a class. The instructor was giving the kids a primer in photography and she was very good.  “When was the last time you took a picture? What did you take it with?” (Unsurprisingly, most of them had taken one with their phones.) She then showed them a range of different cameras.

Class at Museum, Dallas 2016The day after we arrived in Dallas, which was Thursday evening, we took a trip to Garland and the Stetson outlet store.  So I am newly be-hatted as well.

IMG_20160708_120953064IMG_20160708_120353058

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, to end with where I began, another photograph of the newly-wed couple.  Clearly they seem merely tolerant of each other and who knows how long this will last.

Dan & Ana, July 2016

New Toy

A pause in the somewhat draining labor of watching the global political landscape turn itself into a Cubist exercise in sharp lines the never quite match up.  I bit the bullet and got the new Photoshop.  I have a lot of learning to do, but as is my wont I dove right in.  Sample of first efforts.

Classic Blue (1)

Embracing Stupid

I’m hearing from some folks about Brexit and by and large what I’m hearing says this is a calamity.  The idiots “broke the U.K.”

There were plenty of people explaining what would likely happen if they did this, but hey, what do experts know?

Well, quite a lot, actually, but that fact alone makes them unpalatable to the voters who actually cast a Leave vote.  We see precisely that kind of—what would we call it?—“learning fatigue” here.  Who do you think supports Trump?  People who know little or all the most useless things when it comes to politics and economics and quite adamantly do not want to know, because knowing would contradict the fantasy world in which they stand forth at weekend keggers loudly proclaiming positions that might hold some value in a Game of Thrones episode, but since the folks they’re holding forth to know just as little or less, no one challenges them and they feel justified in clinging to their ignorance.

This is the same crowd whose collective eyes glaze over when you start talking about the mechanisms of trade deals, the dynamics of boom-and-bust cycles, or the pathology of bigotry.  People who can’t seem to think outside of very broad categories (i.e. Radical Islamists are Muslims therefore all Muslims want to kill us) and feel empowered whenever someone gets up on a podium and tells them they’re right to be terrified of boogeymen.

So a lot of people, and by the demographics a majority of older British voters, decided that leaving the EU is the same as getting rid of the immigration problem (and somehow they’ll be safer, even though they ought to know better because of past history, namely the IRA, but they at least were white) and that all their money, which will now disappear at an even greater rate because of the catch-up homegrown institutions will have to do to replace EU systems (either that or just let people die, which may happen anyway), will magically reappear in their private bank accounts, and anyway they didn’t understand a lot about what was going in Greece much less down in the Levant and they’d rather not know, as if removing themselves from a source of information somehow eliminates the problem.

Look, knowing things is hard.  Not only is it a bit of work to find out in the first place, but it can be difficult to know what to do with what you’ve learned, and often enough knowledge has the consequence of making you feel responsible.

And that, I think, is where much of the problem is.  People are past exhausted being told to give a damn.  And the less they know, the easier it is to be confident in dismissing problems that don’t seem to have anything to do with them.

But of course, problems always have something to do with you.  Maybe not directly or even tomorrow, but somewhat and eventually, and left ignored will grow.

Isolation is a guarantee of eventual extinction.

I’ll let that sit out there for a while.  More later.  But think about it.

Isolation is a guarantee of eventual extinction.

Phobic Identity

Here’s a the thing.  If you need someone to be in some way “less” than you in order for you to feel good—or even adequate—about yourself, you have a problem.  It’s not their problem, it’s yours.

This “pastor” who spewed all over Twitter that we shouldn’t feel bad about the Orlando killings because they were “perverts” is a prime example.  If he’s really a pastor, a religious leader, there is no reason for him to say any of that unless he’s just trying to assert superiority.  Which is entirely not the point of Christianity, as I understand it.  The point is to embrace the commonalities among people, not sort them out into boxes labeled “Preferred Types” and “Types To Be Condemned.”  No, he’s just indulging in bolstering a shaky self-image by dumping his own head full of crap on a group he finds personally—

What?  Offensive? Incomprehensible? Or simply indifferent to his beliefs.

But, then, how would he know?

People who try to make themselves feel better by denigrating others have always been among us but they have never been so able to broadcast their inadequacies so loudly and regularly and they have found each other and formed support groups. I can’t imagine a gloomier or, frankly, duller forum.

I have found that prejudice rarely survives real knowledge.  Actually knowing someone makes it very difficult to shove them into a category and hate “just because” they are a particular “type.”  Oh, it’s possible.  I have heard all manner of tortured rationalization to continue hating a group while embracing individuals from that group as friends.  But that requires, I think, a profound myopia. (And I have to wonder how much of a “friend” they can be.)  Generally, once you know someone, I believe it becomes harder and harder to categorically judge and hate them and those like them.

Which is why much of this hatred is based on ignorance.

But a particular kind of ignorance, one based on identity.

After 9/11 we saw people who suggested we learn more about Islam condemned as some species of traitor.  How dare you suggest we learn something about this group that just hurt us so badly!  How dare you suggest that we can’t programmatically cast all of them into the same box and deal with our pain by blaming them all and hating them!  How dare you suggest that more knowledge will benefit us!

It was a spasm of national smallness.  “I know who the enemy is, don’t tell me more about him or I might stop hating him.”

Reality is always more complicated.

People who feel squeezed by circumstance, unable often by virtue of their own ignorance to make the decisions necessary to get themselves out of their own cesspools of anger and frustration, seem to contract into themselves and put up a wall to keep out any ideas or facts that might tell them they are in error.  They end up hating, many of them, and you see it all over, with signs that are not only wrong-headed but in too many cases suggestive of poor education, illiteracy, and parochialisms that reinforce a siege mentality that grows daily more dense and difficult to penetrate.

No, sir or madam, “they” are not the problem.  There are conditions and circumstances that make for a toxic situation and someone has told you that “they” are the cause, the consequence, and the catalyst, all rolled into one, and if we can just be rid of “them” then you will stop being afraid.  Whoever told you that lied to you, probably because in so doing they have made themselves feel (falsely) more in control of their situation or they have a power agenda that depends on you buying into the lie.  It certainly depends on you never asking deeper questions.  Easier to just target and hate.  There, the shots have been fired, the bodies are on the floor, “they” have been dealt a blow.

Then why don’t you feel any safer?  Why can’t you get past the hate?

Why must we now shift aim to yet another group you know nothing about except that they don’t look or sound or act like you?

Too many people in this country harbor and nurture identity hatreds—we know who we are because we hate those people over there, who are different.

While you’re feeding on that, someone has been stealing your soul to use for purposes you’re too busy hating gays or Muslims or socialists or single parents or blacks or Latinos or Asians or Liberals or Democrats or anyone who knows something you don’t know or has an education or a vocabulary or anyone who reads or supports birth control or feminists or accepts evolution or advocates tolerance or the group of the day to notice.

On some level, along the way, inside, you are one or more of these very things. Hate them, you hate yourself.  And if by so doing you define who you are, then you have created for yourself a prison, with bars on the inside, through which to look and resent a world of which you have little understanding.  Because you refuse to.

And that pastor?  He’s one of the wardens.

The Anxiety of Innocence

I have too many reactions to what has occurred in Orlando. They clamor for attention, shove each other aside, roil and ripple. Fifty dead, and why?

Because a man decided, on his own, to “do something” about homosexuals.

Why?

I don’t think anyone will ever have an satisfactory answer to that, but it would seem to stem from the same impulse that drives certain men to beat their wives, to terrorize their children, to post hate-filled screeds on social media, and then, once they have done all these terrible things, go arm themselves in anticipation of the inevitable storm troopers they expect to come silence them.

And when those storm troopers do not show up?

They have the weapons, they might as well carry the fight to the enemy.

An enemy they have created, for themselves, to give shape to the loathing inside that dominates all their waking hours.

It must.  Everyone has a bad day, gets up with an antisocial cloud around them, from time to time. Snapping and snarling, nothing working right, stumbling through interactions that do nothing but abrade.

But we don’t kill people as a result. We solve the problem, get some sleep, be with friends, and the mood or whatever passes.  To get anywhere close to this kind of insane reaction, you’d have to live with the brooding ugliness day in and day out, for months or years, until you can’t even see other people anymore, only the threat they represent.  Until you can’t carry it anymore and you have to Do Something.

But where does that come from?

That someone can get to this point does not dismay me.  It saddens me.

That others goad him on, cheer him, then in cowardly support behind the anonymity of a faceless mod fistpump the air when the bodies have dropped—that enrages me.

One post I saw applauding his actions was glad that he’d “taken out” the perverts.

It’s that question of innocence that seems to underlay so much of this.  Protecting the innocent, dealing with the guilty.  Somewhere back in the 1980s Reagan dropped a remark, late in his presidency, about AIDS victims after visiting a hospital ward with infants and children:  he didn’t know “innocent” people could die from this disease.

Innocent.

We hear this in so much.  Innocent people.

Who are they?  Why aren’t we all?

More to the point: who the hell are you to say who is or is not?

We feed on hatred, vampirically. It drips, intravenously, daily. Most of us seem immune to the worst effects, but some embrace it.

Omar Mateen thought They were out to get him. They must have been, he hated them, it only makes sense that they hate him back.  And we helped him do the hating, every microcerebral homophobic lapel-pin patriot goading him on, ranting about the state of the country, posturing and pissing in the ocean, venting frustration as if it were a holy cause, listening to professional demagogues who peddle bigotry to meet their bottom-line who delight in the slaughter because it makes their irrational squeelings seem somehow prophetic, and then the rest of us who are polite or incapable of separating common sense from ideology or want to believe we do not enable the broken and malign, who are so terrified of losing a presumed right that we hand over our humanity in exchange for a safety we refuse to believe can be had by better means.

Because when our bitter uncle or our next-door neighbor starts ranting about how They are ruining the country, we demure, we don’t want to make a scene, we don’t want to wreck the day. Worse, we may not be so certain they’re wrong, because who, after all, among us is innocent? Maybe…maybe…it might be…well, I don’t know…everyone is entitled to their opinion…who am I…?

And then one day we wake to the news that the monster has fed.  We’re shocked.  We condemn.  But maybe we helped.  Not directly. No, we didn’t give him the gun or send him to the address or—

We just never challenged the sickness.

April Morning

I went outside this morning and found one of those scintillant ‘scapes after a rain that seem to just glow.  So, since it’s time for new images anyway…

Whiote Iris and Raindrops, April 2016Violet Iris, april 2016White Iris, morning, april 2016