longing for innocence
August 28, 2010, 1:53 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: ,

Everyone’s a racist, every color, class.  But there is a way out; we can make the critical choice between denial and admission.  Confessionalism is the essential act of admitting the lunacy of our beliefs — we are better than them — and the inevitable violence of the outcome.  Confession diffuses the intractability of the crazy belief system: it takes us out of orthodoxy and leaves us simmering in a more human state of unknowing.

To be alive is to be a murderer, says Harold Fromm in his article on vegan culture excerpted below.  We’re all racist; we’re all murderers.  We can’t have innocence, not in this world.  Even the production of vegetables kills organisms in the soil.  Vegan belief is a denial that we can’t be innocent, that to live is to kill.

Here is the excerpt:

Behind their beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence. Except that there is no innocence. However delicate our moral sensibilities, it still remains that to be alive is to be a murderer. Tiptoeing through the tulips (we might be killing the bees inside) won’t solve the problem. And since we are carnivores (“omnivores,” if that makes you feel better) from the moment of conception, we emerge from the womb already “guilty.” Even if our parents eschewed meat, to have been born at all we must have been eating our mother during gestation, and after birth we need her milk, which is just another dairy product from animals.

We’re compromised from the start. Evolution favored meat-eating primates, enlarging their brains and enabling them to live in more and more complex and survivalist societies that today extend our life spans, provide genteel habitats, and produce philosophers who have the wherewithal to object to the very components of their own existence. Death is the only form of purification. Alive, we have no choice but to accept our complicity, because life is a product of death. Do as much as you can to minimize the damage, because the “environment” is us. But as long as we are among the living, we should stop pretending to virtues possible only for the dead.

Vegans and the Quest for Purity, Harold Fromm, The Chronicle of Higher Education


deluded optimists
August 22, 2010, 8:38 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

We’re addicted to optimism and it’s causing crashes.  Name it and claim it and golden parachute out.  We haven’t always been this way:  early American culture was dour and strict.  The fantasy optimism evolved much later as a reaction to all the lack of fun.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s article How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy describes the endgame of the pursuit of happiness:  a fantasy of unbridled optimism that took over our banks and markets and led to delusion and failure.

Here is an excerpt from her article:

Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendents, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success. Calvinists thought “negatively” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh ethos that positive thinking arose– among mystics, lay healers, and transcendentalists – in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism – seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. Now, with our savings, our homes and our livelihoods on the line, we ought to give it a try.

— Barbara Ehrenreich, How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy, 2008

dr barnes
August 7, 2010, 3:59 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags:

I went to see the Barnes collection of modern paintings in the suburbs of Philadelphia yesterday.  Such a lot of controversy swirling around this small collection of 20th century masters.  I had heard it was that the doctor collector didn’t want his paintings moved from the mansion he built for them, even if it is to the obvious location architects are now preparing for it on the Philadelphia parkway. But while there, I also learned that he had a far curiouser relationship with his acquisitions than most collectors.  Barnes didn’t want his painting moved, but also insisted that they always- in perpetuity – be hung in exactly the same way that he spent his lifetime devising.

Curatorial is an important profession.  How art is presented to us can help us to appreciate and learn from the pieces we are looking at.  Line, surface, color and space, we were instructed by the Barnes Foundation tour guide, a retired doctor and presumably not an art historian or curator, were the elements of his paintings that Dr Barnes wanted us to see.  He wanted to teach us how to see in a new way, said our host.  And he spent the next 40 minutes patiently instructing us how his patron had devised the highly personal, rigidly contrived, salon style presentations.

Each wall symmetric, and constructed using endless conceits: pictures of doors on a gallery wall with an exit door, nude bums that sit on real chairs placed in the gallery in front of them, a bird which flew his (painted) coop and the canvas is shown as a tin cutout bird on the wall above.  Once you get the tricks it’s admittedly fun to try to find more.

But really, how instrumentalist and reductive!  Primer art history used by a well meaning, wealthy man to make his mark on a collection, and now a successive generation of docents and administrators to keep it that way.  If missed opportunities could be generational, this would be the king.  Line, surface, color and space are nice to talk about when looking at modern paintings, but the modern movement in art was about much more.  These artists were struggling with a lot more than mere representation in their work.  What about content?  Weren’t there enormous social upheavals during the time these works were being painted, and can we see them in the work?  The Spanish Civil War, ripples from the American, French and even the Industrial Revolutions.

A steady stream of other thoughts:  the nuance of European genius in the hands of an American provincial; artistic genius being manhandled by banking practicality; how easily money, the getting of it, can so readily substitute for knowledge hard won by education, talent and experience.

The real offence is not in whether the art can be moved from its suburban location, it is whether it can be released from the strangle hold that a well meaning but  novice curator has imposed on an important collection.