The Buck Stops Here - Breakthrough We Must

After he graduated from Harvard (and before he became a poet), E. E. Cummings applied for a job at Reader's Digest. He was told that any article written for the magazine had to meet three conditions: six to sixty; anyone can do it; it makes you feel good.

Anyone between the ages of six and sixty, Cummings was told, should be able to read and understand any Reader's Digest article. He must feel, furthermore, that he can do what he reads if he put his mind to it, no matter how heroic, brave or difficult it might be. That if you write about Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic by plane for the first time, you mention he put a ham sandwich in his jacket before he got in the plane, just as his reader does before he goes to work.

What if you are writing about a flood in China that has killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese? Cummings asked. How does that make you feel good? Easy, his interviewer replied. You just say that because of our superior technology and planning in America, it would never happen here. Thank you, Cummings said and shook the man's hand. Good-bye.

Americans care only about publicity, the independent film-maker Jack Smith says. They are not curious about what is underneath or behind it, what is real, true. Of course, in our age of talking heads talking, of the logo, brand name, slogan, tv commercial, news ad, sound bite, chat room, web page, t-shirt, video game, and billboards, there is so much to wade through to get at what is, if that is at all possible, and how we do we know we've arrived when we have? It's not information or date in any sense, but there is too much of it. We can no longer say there is a clear boundary between ignorance and knowledge, even if we acknowledge there is one.

Most of us settle for publicity, except each of us finds the publicity that supports his views. Nowhere is this more true than in art. More than half of Americans dislike modern art of any kind. In art, they prefer realism, talent, an upbeat, half-glass full outlook. Today we might add political correctness. Above all, Americans do not want art to offend.

Art, which does not follow public prescriptions or expectations, becomes the whipping boy for sins of all kinds. "When regionalist painter John Seurat Curry submitted a sketch in 1937 for a mural in the Kansas state capitol in Topeka," Peter Plagens writes, "his Hereford bull was deemed too red and not 'natural-like,' the cows' legs were too long, the skirt on the farm mother was too short and the pigs' tails too curly for his efforts to qualify as art."

In 1949, Representative George Dondero of Michigan put into the Congressional Record that artists were sissy anarchists, Communists, whatever. More recently, Senator Jesse Helms railed against Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley and others whose art threatened the Republic. 1300 office workers signed a petition protesting the installation of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc in lower Manhattan. It deprived them of lunchtime views they argued, provided cover for muggers and "had been thrust into their daily lives without consultation."

Art is part of the society of the spectacle, to use Guy Debord's term, and depends on publicity as much, if not more, than anything else in our consumer society. Think of Andy Warhol. But if art is to be art, to be what it is, a disturbance, hunger or call, it must lift the shroud of publicity and return us to ourselves. "Under the paving stones, the beach," went a slogan of Guy Debord's.

The role of the writer, Marguerite Duras writes, "was to give silence a voice, to imagine what silence would say if it were able to break through the paralysing wall." Breakthrough we must.
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Volume 2, Issue 24, Posted 1:01 PM, 10.31.06