Category Archives: Art

We Need To Talk About Romanticism

Satire on Romantic Suicide (1839) by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto (1807–1845)

Introduction

Why do we need to talk about Romanticism? What is Romanticism? And how does it affect us in the 21st century? The fact is that we are so immersed in Romanticism now that we cannot see the proverbial wood for the haunted-looking trees. Romanticism has so saturated our culture that we need to stand back and remind ourselves what it is, and examine how it has seeped into our thinking processes to the extent that we are not even aware of its presence anymore. Or why this is a problem. The Romanticist influence of intense emotion makes up a large part of modern culture, for example, in much pop music, cinema, TV and literature; e.g., genres such as Superheroes, Fantasy, Horror, Magical realism, Saga, Westerns. I will look at the origins of Romanticism, and its negative influence on culture and politics. I will show how Enlightenment ideas originally emerged in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Church and led to the formation of a working class ideology and culture of resistance.

Romanticism and the modern world

The whole exuberance, anarchy and violence of modern art … its unrestrained, unsparing exhibitionism, is derived from [Romanticism]. And this subjective, egocentric attitude has become so much a matter of course for us … that we find it impossible to reproduce even an abstract train of thought without talking about our own feelings.
— Arnold Hauser, (1892–1978), A Social History of Art, Vol. 3, p. 166

Romanticism arose out of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century as a reaction to what was perceived as a rationalisation of life to the point of being anti-nature. The Romantics were against the Industrial Revolution, universalism and empiricism, emphasising instead heroic individualists and artists, and the individual imagination as a critical authority rather than classical ideals.

The Enlightenment itself had developed from the earlier Renaissance with a renewed interest in the classical traditions and ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order based on reason and science. On a political level the Enlightenment promoted republicanism in opposition to monarchy which ultimately led to the French revolution.

The worried conservatives of the time reacted to the ideas of the Enlightenment and reason with a philosophy which was based on religious ideas and glorified the past (especially Medieval times and the ‘Golden Age’) — times when things were not so threatening to elites. This philosophy became known as Romanticism and emphasised medieval ideas and society over the new ideas of democracy, capitalism and science.

Romanticism originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1890. It was initially marked by innovations in both content and literary style and by a preoccupation with the subconscious, the mystical, and the supernatural. This period was followed by the development of cultural nationalism and a new attention to national origins, an interest in native folklore, folk ballads and poetry, folk dance and music, and even previously ignored medieval and Renaissance works.

The Romantic movement “emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature.” The importance of the medieval lay in the  pre-capitalist significance of its individual crafts and tradesmen, as well as its feudal peasants and serfs.

Thus Romanticism was a reaction to the birth of the modern world: urbanisation, secularisation, industrialisation, and consumerism. Romanticism emphasised intense emotion and feelings which over the centuries came to be seen as one of its most important characteristics, in opposition to ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’ Enlightenment rationalism.

Origins of Enlightenment emotion

Whence this secret Chain between each Person and Mankind? How is my Interest connected with the most distant Parts of it?
Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), Treatise II: An Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil, Sect. I.

However, this ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’ scenario is actually very far from the truth. In fact, the Enlightenment, itself, had its origins in emotion. Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century tried to create a philosophy of feeling that would allow them to solve the problem of the injustice in the unfeeling world they saw all around them.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) believed that all human beings had a ‘natural affection’ or natural sociability which bound them together.  Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) wrote that “All Men have the same Affections and Senses”, while David Hume (1711–1776) believed that human beings extend their “imaginative identification with the feelings of others” when it is required. Similarly, Adam Smith (1723–1790), the writer of Wealth of Nations, believed in the power of the imagination to inform us and help us understand the suffering of others.1

Portrait of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767

For the Enlightenment philosophers the relationship between feeling and reason was of absolute importance. To develop ideas that would progress society for the better, a sense of morality was essential. Denis Diderot (1713–1784) a prominent French philosopher of the Enlightenment in France, for example, had strong views on the importance of the passions. As Henry Martyn Lloyd writes:

Diderot did believe in the utility of reason in the pursuit of truth – but he had an acute enthusiasm for the passions, particularly when it came to morality and aesthetics. With many of the key figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume, he believed that morality was grounded in sense-experience. Ethical judgment was closely aligned with, even indistinguishable from, aesthetic judgments, he claimed. We judge the beauty of a painting, a landscape or our lover’s face just as we judge the morality of a character in a novel, a play or our own lives – that is, we judge the good and the beautiful directly and without the need of reason. For Diderot, then, eliminating the passions could produce only an abomination. A person without the ability to be affected, either because of the absence of passions or the absence of senses, would be morally monstrous.

Moreover, to remove the passions from science would lead to inhuman approaches and methods that would divert and alienate science from its ultimate goal of serving humanity, as Lloyd writes:

That the Enlightenment celebrated sensibility and feeling didn’t entail a rejection of science, however. Quite the opposite: the most sensitive individual – the person with the greatest sensibility – was considered to be the most acute observer of nature. The archetypical example here was a doctor, attuned to the bodily rhythms of patients and their particular symptoms. Instead, it was the speculative system-builder who was the enemy of scientific progress – the Cartesian physician who saw the body as a mere machine, or those who learned medicine by reading Aristotle but not by observing the ill. So the philosophical suspicion of reason was not a rejection of rationality per se; it was only a rejection of reason in isolation from the senses, and alienated from the impassioned body.

Michael L. Frazer describes the importance of Enlightenment justice and sympathy in his book The Enlightenment of Sympathy. He writes:

Reflective sentimentalists recognize our commitment to justice as an outgrowth of our sympathy for others. After our sympathetic sentiments undergo reflective self-correction, the sympathy that emerges for all those who suffer injustice poses no insult to those for whom it is felt. We do not see their suffering as mere pain to be soothed away when and if we happen to share it. Instead under Hume’s account, we condemn injustice as a violation of rules that are vitally important to us all. And under Smith’s account, we condemn the sufferings of the victims of injustice as injustice because we sympathetically share the resentment that they feel toward their oppressors, endorsing such feelings as warranted and acknowledging those who feel them deserve better treatment.2

Cooper, Hume and Smith were living in times, not only devoid of empathy, but also even of basic sympathy. Robert C. Solomon writes of society then in A Passion for Justice: “There have always been the very rich. And of course there have always been the very poor. But even as late as the civilized and sentimental eighteenth century, this disparity was not yet a cause for public embarrassment or a cry of injustice. […] Poverty was considered just one more “act of God,” impervious to any solution except mollification through individual charity and government poorhouses to keep the poor off the streets and away from crime.”3

Enlightenment emotion eventually gave rise to social trends that emphasised humanism and the heightened value of human life. These trends had their complement in art, creating what became known as the ‘sentimental novel’. While today sentimentalism evokes maudlin self-pity, in the eighteenth century it was revolutionary as sentimental literature

focused on weaker members of society, such as orphans and condemned criminals, and allowed readers to identify and sympathize with them. This translated to growing sentimentalism within society, and led to social movements calling for change, such as the abolition of the death penalty and of slavery. Instead of the death penalty, popular sentiment called for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than harsh punishment. Frederick Douglass himself was inspired to stand against his own bondage and slavery in general in his famous Narrative by the speech by the sentimentalist playwright Sheridan in The Columbian Orator detailing a fictional dialogue between a master and slave.

As Solomon notes: “What distinguishes us not just from animals but from machines are our passions, and foremost among them our passion for justice. Justice is, in a word, that set of passions, not mere theories, that bind us and make us part of the social world.”4

The Man of Feeling  (Henry Mackenzie)

Writers such as the Scottish author Henry Mackenzie tried to highlight many things that he perceived were wrong during his time and showed how many of the wrongs were ultimately caused by the established pillars of society. In his book, The Man of Feeling, he has no qualms about showing how these pillars of society had, for example, abused an intelligent woman causing her to become a prostitute (p. 44/45.), destroyed a school because it blocked the landowner’s view (p. 72), and hired assassins to remove a man who had refused to hand over his wife (p. 91.), etc.5 Mackenzie shows again and again the injustices of British military and colonial policy, and who is responsible. As Marilyn Butler writes:

Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), is pointedly topical when it criticizes the consequences of a war policy – press-ganging, conscription, the military punishment of flogging, and inadequate pensions – and when, like the same author’s Julia de Roubigné (1777), it attacks the principle of colonialism. An interest in such causes was the logical outcome of art’s frequently reiterated dedication to humanity. It was a period when the cast of villains was drawn from the proud men representing authority, downwards from the House of Lords, the bench of bishops, judges, local magistrates, attorneys, to the stern father; when readers were invited to empathize with life’s victims.6

It took a long time for the ideas of sentimentalism (emotions against injustice) to filter down to the Realism (using facts to depict ordinary everyday experiences) that Dickens used in the nineteenth century to finally evoke some kind of empathy for people impoverished by society. As Solomon notes: “It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Dickens shook the conscience of his compatriots with his riveting descriptions of poverty and cruelty in contemporary London, […] that the problem of poverty and resistance to its solutions [e.g. poorhouses] has become the central question of justice.”3

Buss, Robert William; Dickens’s Dream; Charles Dickens Museum, London;

European literary sentimentalism arose during the Enlightenment, and partly as a response to sentimentalism in philosophy. In England the period 1750–1798 became known as the Age of Sensibility as the sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility became popular.

Romanticist emotionalism: the opposite of Enlightenment sentimentalism

Classicism is health, romanticism is sickness.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832)

However, sensibility in an Enlightenment sense was very different from the Romanticist understanding, as Butler notes:

It is, in fact, in a key respect almost the opposite of Romanticism. Sensibility, like its near-synonym sentiment, echoes eighteenth-century philosophy and psychology in focusing upon the mental process by which impressions are received by the senses. But the sentimental writer’s interest in how the mind works and in how people behave is very different from the Romantic writer’s inwardness.7

She writes that ‘neither Neoclassical theory nor contemporary practice in various styles and genres put much emphasis on the individuality of the artist’ (p. 29). This is a far cry from the apolitical, inward-looking, self-centered Romantic artists who saw themselves outside of a society that they had little interest in participating in, let alone changing for the better. Butler again:

Romantic rebelliousness is more outrageous and total, the individual rejecting not just his own society but the very principle of living in society – which means that the Romantic and post Romantic often dismisses political activity of any kind, as external to the self, literal and commonplace. Since it is relatively uncommon for the eighteenth-century artist to complain directly on his own behalf, he seldom achieves such emotional force as his nineteenth-century successor. He is, on the other hand, much more inclined than the Romantic to express sympathy for certain, well-defined social groups. Humanitarian feeling for the real-life underdog is a strong vein from the 1760s to the 1790s, often echoing real-life campaigns for reform.8

This movement over time towards the Romanticist inward-looking conception of emotion and feelings has had knock-on negative effects on society’s ability to defend itself from elite oppression (through cultural styles of self-absorption, escapism and diversion rather than exposure, criticism and resistance), and retarded ‘art’s frequently reiterated dedication to humanity’. Solomon describes this process:

What has come about in the past two centuries or so is the dramatic rise of what Robert Stone has called “affective individualism,” this new celebration of the passions and other feelings of the autonomous individual. Yet, ironically, it is an attitude that has become even further removed from our sense of justice during that same period of time. We seem to have more inner feelings and pay more attention to them, but we seem to have fewer feelings about others and the state of the world and pay less attention to them.9

Thus while Enlightenment sentimentalism “depicted individuals as social beings whose sensibility was stimulated and defined by their interactions with others”, the Romantic movement that followed it “tended to privilege individual autonomy and subjectivity over sociability”.

Romanticism as a philosophical movement of the nineteenth century had a profound influence on culture which can still be seen right up to today. Its main characteristics are the emphasis on the personal, dramatic contrasts, emotional excess, a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly and the frightful, spontaneity, and extreme subjectivism. Romanticism in culture implies a turning inward and encourages introspection. Romantic literature put more emphasis on themes of isolation, loneliness, tragic events and the power of nature. A heroic view of history and myth became the basis of much Romantic literature.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier

It was in Germany that Romanticism took shape as a political ideology. The German Romanticists felt threatened by the French Revolution and were forced to move from inward-looking ideas to formulate conservative political answers needed to oppose Enlightenment and republican ideals. According to Eugene N. Anderson:

In the succeeding years the danger became acutely political, and the German Romanticists were compelled to subordinate their preoccupation with the widening of art and the enrichment of individual experience to social and political ideas and actions, particularly as formulated in nationalism and conservatism. These three cultural ideals, Romanticism, nationalism and conservatism, shared qualities evoked by the common situation of crisis. […] The Germans had to maintain against rationalism and the French a culture which in its institutional structure was that of the ancien régime. German Romanticism accepted it, wished to reform it somewhat, idealized it, and defended the idealization as the supreme culture of the world. This was the German counter-revolution. […] They endowed their culture with universal validity and asserted that it enjoyed the devotion of nature and God, that if it were destroyed humanity would be vitally wounded.10

The reactionary nature of German Romanticism was demonstrated in its hierarchical views of society, its chauvinist nationalism, and extreme conservatism which would have serious implications for future generations of the German populace. As Anderson writes:

The low estimate of rationalism and the exaltation of custom, tradition, and feeling, the conception of society as an alliance of the generations, the belief in the abiding character of ideas as contrasted with the ephemeral nature of concepts, these and many other romantic views bolstered up the existing culture. The concern with relations led the Romanticists to praise the hierarchical order of the Ständestaat and to regard everything and every-one as an intermediary. The acceptance of the fact of inequality harmonized with that of the ideals of service, duty, faithfulness, order, sacrifice – admirable traits for serf or subject or soldier.11

Anderson also believes that the Romanticists remained swinging “between individual freedom and initiative and group compulsion and authority” and as such could not have brought in fundamental reforms, because: “By reverencing tradition, they preserved the power of the backward-looking royalty and aristocracy.”12

Thus Romanticist self-centredness in philosophy translated into the most conservative forms for maintaining the status quo in politics. Individual freedoms were matched by authoritarianism for the masses. The individual was king all right, as long as you weren’t a ‘serf or subject or soldier’.

Beyond morality: Working Class perspectives on Reason and Sentiment

We have never intended to enlighten shoemakers and servants—this is up to apostles.
Voltaire (1694–1778)

Around the same time of the early period of Romanticism, Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) were born. They grew up in a very different Germany. Capitalism had become established and was creating an even more polarised society between extremely rich and extremely poor as factory owners pushed their workers to their physical limits. On his way to work at his father’s firm in Manchester, Engels called into the offices of a paper he wrote for in Cologne and met the editor, Marx, for the first time in 1842. They formed a friendship based on shared values and beliefs regarding the working class and socialist ideas. They saw a connection between the earlier Enlightenment ideas and socialism. For example, as Engels writes in Anti-Duhring:

in its theoretical form, modern socialism originally appears ostensibly as a more logical extension of the principles laid down by the great French philosophers of the eighteenth century. Like every new theory, modern socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in economic facts.13

However, once they had connected themselves to the Enlightenment they soon saw the limitations of both Enlightenment concepts of reason and sentiment. They realised that the new bourgeois rulers would be limited by their conceptions of property, justice, and equality, which basically meant they only applied universality to themselves and their own property. The new rulers were buoyed up by the victory of their ideological fight over the aristocracy but incapable of applying the same ideas to the masses who helped them to victory. Thus Marx and Engels viewed the struggle for reason as important but limited to the new ruling class’ world view, just like the aristocracy before them:

Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion was flung into the lumber room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on nature and the inalienable rights of man. We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realisation in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the eighteenth century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.14

As for sentiment, they were well aware of the Realist critical nature of modern writers (the Realist movement rejected Romanticism) and indeed praised them (e.g. G. Sand, E. Sue, and Boz [Dickens]), but limited themselves to offering some advice. While recognising that progressive literature had a mainly middle class audience (and were happy enough with these authors just ‘shaking the optimism’ of their audience), they knew that this was not by any means a socialist literature and were

I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instills doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.15

Sentimental literature focused on individual misfortune, and constant repetition of such themes certainly appeared to universalise such suffering, so that, as David Denby writes, “In this weeping mother, this suffering father, we are to read also the sufferings of humanity.” Thus, “individualism and universalism appear to be two sides of the same coin”. Sentimental literature gives the reader the ‘spectacle of misfortune’ and a representation of the reaction of a ‘sentient and sensible observer’ who tries to help with ‘alms, sympathy or indeed narrative intervention.’ Furthermore, the literature of sentiment “mirrors eighteenth-century theories of sympathy, in which a spontaneous reaction to the spectacle of suffering is gradually developed, by a process of generalisation and combination of ideas, into broader and more abstract notions of humanity, benevolence, justice.”16

Workers in the fuse factory, Woolwich Arsenal late 1800s

This brings us then to the problem of interpretation, as Denby suggests: “should the sentimental portrayal of the poor and of action in their favour be read as an attempt to give a voice to the voiceless, to include the hitherto excluded? Or, alternatively, is the sentimentalisation of the poor to be interpreted, more cynically, as a discursive strategy through which the enlightened bourgeoisie states its commitment to values of humanity and justice, and thereby seeks to strengthen its claims to universal domination?”17

While such ideas of giving a ‘voice to the voiceless’ was a far cry from monarchical times, and claims of commitment to humanity and justice were laudable, the concept of universality had a fundamental flaw: “The universal claims of the French Revolution are opposed to a [aristocratic] society based on distinctions of birth: it is in the name of humanity that the Revolution challenges the established order. But for Sartre this does not change the fact that the universal is a myth, an ideological construct, and an obfuscation, since it articulates a notion of man which eliminates social conflict and disguises the interests of a class behind a facade of universal reference.”18

Striking teamsters battling police on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 1934

Thus for Marx and Engels defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, that is, a universal moral theory, could not be achieved while society is divided into classes:

We maintain […] that all moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life.

Marx and Engels worked towards that morality through their activism with working class movements and culture. Their critical writing also formed an essential part of working class ideology and culture of resistance and has remained influential in resistance movements the world over.

The culture of resistance today still uses realism, documentary, and histories of oppression to show the harsh realities of globalisation. Like during the Enlightenment, empathy for those suffering injustice forms its foundation. And unlike Romanticism, reason and science are deemed to be important tools in its struggle for social emancipation and progress.

Conclusion: Enlightenment and Romanticism today

When we are asked now: are we now living into an enlightened age? Then the answer is: No, but in an age of Enlightenment.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

There is no doubt that the influence of Romanticism has become ever stronger in twentieth and twenty-first century culture. Romanticist-influenced TV shows on Netflix are watched world wide. Love songs dominate the pop industry and superheroes are now the mainstay of cinema. Even Romanticist nationalism is making a comeback. Now and then calls for a new Enlightenment are heard, but like the original advocates of the Enlightenment, they are limited to the conservative world view of those making the call and whose view of the Enlightenment could be compared to a form of Third Way politics, that is, they avoid the issue of class conflict.

  1. Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters (Oxford Uni Press, 2015) p. 72/73.
  2. Michael L Frazer, The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Oxford Uni Press, 2010) p. 126/127.
  3. Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p. 13.
  4. Ibid., p. 45.
  5. Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling (Oxford World’s Classics Oxford Uni Press, 2009.
  6. Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p. 31.
  7. Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p. 29/30.
  8. Ibid., pp. 30/31.
  9. Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p. 37.
  10. Eugene N. Anderson, German Romanticism as an Ideology of Cultural Crisis, p. 301-312. Journal of the History of Ideas, June, 1941, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 301-317. Published by University of Pennsylvania Press.
  11. Ibid., pp. 313-314.
  12. Ibid., p. 316.
  13. Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1978) p. 270.
  14. Ibid., p. 271.
  15. Ibid., p. 88.
  16. David J. Denby, Individual, universal, national: a French revolutionary trilogy? (Studies of Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 335, Voltaire Foundation, 1996) p. 28/29.
  17. Ibid., 117.
  18. Ibid., p. 27.

Down and Out in Portland: Retired in Style in Waldport, OR

The irony of this quote from the Dustin Hoffman movie, The Graduate, is not wasted on Duane Snider:

— One word: plastics.

That was Benjamin Braddock, just graduated from college, sitting in a swimming pool. Giving him advice on gaining the American dream, the neighbor’s statement says it all. Today? Hedge funds? Flipping houses? Coronavirus repossessions?

For Duane, that one word: artwork.

Duane as a child with his only sibling.

We’re sitting on the back porch of his brand-new Adair home on a third of an acre on the high land of Waldport. He and his wife Linda are proverbially happy, fat and sassy in this new iteration of their lives.

He went to Benson high school, when it was an all-male segregated school. It was during the Viet Nam, at the height of the draft.

Just a few weeks earlier, Duane and I ran into each other on the beach near the Alsea River emptying out into the Pacific. Loons and eaglets started the conversation, and quickly Duane recognized me by my by-line for this newspaper. He had purchased a piece of art from one of the people I have featured in a Deep Dive column for Oregon Coast Today – Anja Albosta, artist and environmental refugee from Yosemite  see Dec. 16, 2019, “Art in a changing climate”).

Duane’s 68,  and his wife — originally from Sonora, CA — is 67. Duane’s work life is quintessential drudgery millions of Americans called working stiffs have face. In his case, 39 years working at one place, grinding optics for an optical service in Portland. It was for Duane 20 years in a hostile work environment where his boss bullied him. There was no real upside to the job — a repetitive job tracing lenses and frames and low pay.

He conveys to me that for more than a decade was highly depressed, even suicidal.

I could see the Ross Island bridge. Daily, I would look out the window and fantasize jumping off it. Even planning out in my mind how I’d have to aim my fall just right as to hit the bike path just to be sure.

Alcohol and drug abuse were a big part of his life, but to his credit Duane’s been clean in sober going on three decades. His addiction to substances was eclipsed by another addiction – art collecting. He’s been a fixture in Portland’s art scene for decades —  a gallery gadfly, and someone who ended up with smart and strategic ways of appreciating art and purchasing it.

He’s a veritable encyclopedia of Who’s Who of the Oregon art world.

It’s not so unusual Duane would have gained this proclivity for art appreciation and deep regard for art’s role in society as something bigger than commerce, industry and day-to-day drudgery of commercialism.

When he was a youngster, he studied guitar. He was good enough to end up switching over to classical guitar in the style of Andres Segovia. He’s taken a master class from the best – Christopher Parkening. That was 1975.

I knew I was going to have to take a vow of poverty if I was going to try and pursue being a musician.

Duane’s father was a union baker and not very involved in the boy’s life. For the just-turned-18-year-old Duane, his cohorts were going to be drafted but he was talked into enlisting. “A friend said the Navy, since it wasn’t the Army. Anything but the Army. But that was nuclear submarine duty and I was claustrophobic. There was no way I was going on a submarine.” Instead, he ended up in the Air Force. He even tried the conscientious objector route.

Military life was short-lived when he was drummed out as a 4-f. They found traces of codeine in his drug test. “Ironically, I had done all sorts of party drugs.” It wasn’t the LSD he dropped they discovered, but the codeine the psychedelic from which it was titrated.

Music Out, Optics In

If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.

Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare.

― Baruch Spinoza

He was homeless for a few months. Coming back from Lackland AFB, Duane ended up working with the crippled children’s division of OHSU. He took a second master guitar class at Berkeley. “I knew poverty was going to be a regular part of my life. I wasn’t that good. I took classes with trust fund babies. Money wasn’t an issue for them.”

Here’s where things really get prescient – “I had a poster of Picasso’s Old Guitarist on my apartment wall in Portland. I was studying with extraordinary musicians. I wasn’t about to spend 10 or 15 years in poverty.”

The Old Guitarist was painted in 1903, just after the suicide death of Picasso’s close friend, Casagemas. Picasso was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the disenfranchised and downtrodden. He painted many canvases depicting the poor, sick, and outcasts of society. In fact, Picasso was penniless during 1902.

It’s an amazing painting in the style of El Greco. That moment for Duane Snider turned into a life passion – sacrificing part of his soul in that daily grind in order to enter another world: one that was rarefied, filled with the passions and creativity of artists just like Pablo Picasso. Except his art ersatz it was Portland based.

When he returned from Berkeley, he ended up in a friend’s parents’ house. He applied to Portland Community College, talked to a counselor, told her he wanted to find a steady job, one that was reliable. “I wanted something recession and depression proof. Optician fit the bill.” He ended up taking psychology and philosophy classes awaiting the term to start for his major.

He grabbed a job at a lab his second term. He parlayed that into a full-time gig at Columbian Bifocal. The first 20 years it was a family run place, and the last 19 years it ended up as one of 17 labs for Hoya, a Japanese investment group.

Good benefits, steady work, and a bully boss. “We hated each other. It’s amazing I survived.”

He hands me a DVD of an Oregon Public Broadcasting special featuring Portland art collectors. Duane is profiled. He laughs, recalling how he had read about the great philosopher Spinoza’s life as a lens grinder. What was good for the father of rationalist and deductive reasoning had to be fine for Duane Snider’s life.

Not so ironically, the dust from lens grinding led to Spinoza’s early death from tuberculosis.

The amazing number of artists Duane has met propelled him to write essays on art for a local art rag – NW Drizzle. Here’s what he penned in 2005, as he emphasizes he was “just coming out of a four-year bout of suicidal depression.”

When I gave up the guitar, I couldn’t give up my need for a place to put my passion. It seems natural that my passion migrated toward the visual arts. Giving up playing music meant letting go of a sizable part of what I thought was my identity. My search for a new sense of self played a major role in pushing me toward the idea of collecting.

That’s when I started learning that the real value of art is not determined by the price on the sticker, but by the strength of the connection between the viewer and the object of interest.

Deeper Dive in the Mind of a Collector

Early-20th-century philosopher Irwin Edman gives a remarkably simple bit of insight into what art offers us in everyday life:

Painters speak of dead spots in a painting: areas where the color is wan or uninteresting, or the forms irrelevant and cold. Life is full of dead spots. Art gives it life. A comprehensive art would render the whole of life alive.

Duane Snider is the embodiment of turning life into his own art project:

“Instead of using pigments and a canvas to make an artwork, I told myself that I would turn my life into a conceptual art piece to create a lifestyle that’s sustainable and comfortable,” tells me twice: once on the beach on our first meeting in Waldport and then up at his new 1,900 square foot single level home.

The beauty of my own life-force is I get to get under people’s layers, follow the act of serendipity, and then sculpt with words conceptualized, philosophized narrative. Story.

In the middle of a beach with harbor seals sunning along their haul out on Bay Shore, two very different guys run into each other and start a deep conversation. I am a radical social worker and revolutionary writer (some couldn’t tell that from my regular gigs as a newspaper and magazine) and educator. Marxism is more than just a conceptual point in economic history for me.

Here is Duane Snider, saying he too is a Marxist, but emphasizing he was dealt a hand of capitalism’s cards, so he successfully learned to play the game within those constraints. He tells me he feels guilty for getting he and his wife Linda down here on the coast with zero debts and a custom home that is paid off.

I reassure him that he is kosher with me, and no one should begrudge he or his wife this little slice of paradise.

The dream in Waldport was germinated 36 years ago. They purchased a home in Portland (Richmond District) for $48,000. That was 1984. Thirty-two years later they pulled up stakes in Portland with a $517,000 sale price. No permanent lines of credit needed. He even got their nest egg out of the market and put into cash two years ago. “I saw this coming.”

He didn’t predict the SARS-CV-2 virus outbreak, but he did see a faltering Stock Market.

“He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.”

His tutelage in art began at a most unlikely place – Menucha which was an estate created by the Meiers of the Portland department store fame. Near Corbet in the Columbia Gorge, Menucha (Hebrew for rebuilding, restoring and renewing) hosted camps for youth.

 

According to the website: “In 1950, First Presbyterian Church of Portland purchased the property from the Meier family, who were pleased to see it dedicated as an ecumenical center, a gift in perpetuity to communities of people from around the world.”

Duane began collecting art before he ended up  buying the Portland house. The art bug drilled into his consciousness when in 1967 he went to a high school arts camp at Menucha. His parents always took off for Reno and Vegas during summer vacations, and they opted to put the young Duane in a summer camp.

That was serendipitous.  He told me that he had never been to an art gallery until after high school. He met Jackie West who ran Graystone Gallery in the Hawthorne District. “I went inside and I was looking around the half gallery/half store. It was an old house. Actually, it became part of the Oregon Potters Association. My eyes landed on this water color. It was as if time stopped.”

He ended up purchasing his first piece, a hyper-realistic water color of an iris by Kirk Lybecker.

Duane emails me a couple of his essays in NW Drizzle – “Embarking on a journey of discovery: The life-affirming qualities of art” & “Art’s true value: Aesthetics vs. commerce.” In his essays he reiterates how art came to save him and how collecting became a true emotional and spiritual line to the artist, to the art. Here is one  passage:

The gallery from which I bought my first artwork made the sale because the gallery owner made an effort to make the pricing and sales process as transparent as possible. She gave me a short but thorough explanation on how galleries set prices. She explained that great art comes in all price ranges, as does mediocre art. That’s when I started learning that the real value of art is not determined by the price on the sticker, but by the strength of the connection between the viewer and the object of interest.

He launches into several iterations of how art —  the actual object — is more than what it is in your hand or on the wall; that it is something that “holds great value for us as individuals and for all cultures of the world.”

Red is the Color of Egalitarianism

Duane and I talk about the friction and dichotomy  between the high-highfalutin rich “patron of the arts” and the middle-class view of art – we need the rich folks to support the arts, but we also need to invest in regular people getting original artwork in their homes. “Conceptually, I am a Marxist working in a capitalist system.”

That means he wishes our society from top to bottom was more egalitarian.

Duane Snider has no angst when it comes to what a thinker like Michael Parenti might say about capitalism: “It’s the powerful who write the laws of the world– and the powerful who ignore these laws when expediency dictates.”

We met the first time during a voluntary social distancing because of the cornonavirus, and then shortly afterward when the state of Oregon pushed more draconian measures to shut down business, interactions, meetings, and public gatherings.

Then we shift to all the artists he knows, has known and will know. He has over 200 works of art in his home, most of them on display. I had to look through some of the windows from the outside to view many fine works on the couple’s walls.

His goal is to have the collection donated to a non-profit like Art in Oregon, whose motto is “building bridges between artists and communities.” The engine there is to get businesses to purchase and show art, and for there to be that bridge between the artist and the community.

Duane is less an enigma than he is kind of Every-man. He puts on several hats – he knows most of the gallery owners in Portland, is friends with the director of the Portland Art Museum, spent time with Dennis Hopper and Danny Glover, and finds solace watching a warbler feed from his new backyard.

“I connect with anyone who knows what arts is. We need to get young people into discovering our unique art. Unfortunately, unique objects are under threat in the digital age.”

He repeats how he played the hand that was dealt him. He came from a working-class family. He himself was poor and homeless for a time. He learned the value of art through “figuring out the game you have to play to survive, to be comfortable.”

No contradictions there, and Duane Snider would smile at one of Karl Marx’s doozies: “The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs.”

Q & A in a Nutshell

Paul: Why have the world’s super powers and despotic regimes always deployed the bombing of museums, cultural landmarks, and looting the arts and important symbols of a country’s artistic and historical (archaeological) output?

Duane: The easiest way to destroy a society or a culture is to destroy its art treasures.  When you take that away, you take away their history and sense of identity.  Also, historically, art has huge inherent value because of its ability to offer meaning to people beyond those of the culture that produced it. Also, unique and rare art objects that are considered beautiful and meaningful are valuable because they are rare or unique.

Paul: Riff with this — “So here we are in the 21st century. The forward march of labour ended some time ago. How do today’s artists portray poverty? Interesting question – for perhaps wealth has never been more raw and obvious in the art world. This is the age of the diamond skull. Compared with the compassion of a Caravaggio or Van Gogh, contemporary art really does seem to take the rich collector’s view on life. Where’s our Luke Fildes? For images of economic injustice in today’s art you probably have to look outside the gallery world.”

Duane: In general, most artist don’t even address the issue in today’s market.  Social commentary is more aligned with journalism and documentary efforts.  Much of the art market doesn’t want art that shines a light on social inequities of the darker side of our culture.  There are huge exceptions of course in museum installations and high-end art by big named artists, and there is a lot of art that is beautiful, but not pretty that skirts around the big issues but doesn’t show up in fine art galleries.  Photography is the most common place to find imagery of social injustice because of the connection to journalism.  The sad fact is that most art is a commodity and with that comes the necessity for broad acceptance of work for it to be marketable.  How many Diego Rivera’s do you see out there these days?

Paul:. If you could do your youth and high school years over again, would you? Yes, why and how? No, why?

Duane: When I was in my forties and fifties, I wished I could have changed a few things, but now, not so much.  I suffered some in getting here, but it turned out well enough that there is little I am not grateful for, on a personal level.  I am comfortable and largely free of any feelings of guilt.  What should I change? I don’t know.

Paul: Tell the average consumer and retail-loving American why art is valuable to them and to our society especially now in 2020?

Duane: Art is one of the last places we have where we can freely explore our identities and the meaning of the lives we inhabit, where we can express ourselves in simply possessing and object or identifying with a performance experience.  Art offers insight into who we are, how we are unique, and what we believe in.  Art gives us context for understanding the content of our lives.  How do you put a dollar value on that?  For way too many Americans, money is what they look to for those answers.   What a shallow existence that is.

End Notes — I talk with Duane a lot, and I have met him a few times on the beaches near Waldport. He and I have this sort of “out on our own Covid-19” relationship. We talk long and hard about the failure of capitalism. The failure of Western nations to move aside and not only give back what they’ve stolen but for complete reparations.

The quandary is I work three gigs. I lost $39K in a measly retirement account because of the perverted whims of the masters of finance on Wall Street. That chunk is a huge push back on my life.

My spouse is out of work because of despicable management in her job that laughed at the idea of washing hands and who constantly berated my spouse, who is a professional with 20 years in her field.

We have tried for more than 8 weeks to get her unemployment — she’s worked like since she was 14 years old, paying into this muck. The state of Oregon is a joke. Those Zoom motherfucking meet-ups by politicians at the state level and locally are what I can only characterize as infantile, disconnected to real struggle, and bizarre.

Duane Snider won’t disagree, and he repeats how he feels guilty for setting himself up with a paid-for-home and some money in the bank and his social security, along with his wife’s.

I assure him that his sacrifice in life — working 39 years hating the job, hating himself for some of that time, and his deep depression larger issues with substance abuse, well, man, he respects artists, and he wants art to be shared by the masses.

He is quick to deride the “business of the art world,” where the artists are literally screwed and art is a trading commodity. He loves each piece he has, and we go over each one. He knows the artist for each piece and for those he purchased at openings, he spent time talking with each artist.

Pieces he bought in group shows, he went ahead an hunted down the artist. He touches the images with his vision, his heart and his intellect.

Capitalism destroys people, and sometimes eat eats at the soul and sets a course of disengagement, resentment and a dog-eat-dog retribution. It creates people who say, “I have mine, and screw everybody else.” It is a violent system — just the act of sending in Sheriff deputies to homes, parading the evicted and foreclosed upon citizens to the squad car, well, what sort of violence does that breed? What sort of lived and relived trauma will that have not only on the parents but the children?

That mentality is seeped in all of them at the proverbial top — Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Trump, Obama, the entire lot of them.

Imagine how many presidents have failed to pardon Leonard Peltier? Thinks of the structural violence of bailing out banks and Wall Street while taking SNAP away from families. Imagine a society where people have no health care, and the shit coverage they have is so violently mean and expensive, they opt not to go to the for-profit hell that is modern US medicine.

Duane is all there, in the fight in heart and mind. I see his artwork addiction has both magnificent and something deep inside, where he is finding some landing pad for his emotions, and all those years where he was about to jump off the Ross Island bridge.

I wonder if he’ll ever get that image from Portland — maybe I’ll head out from the coast to my old stomping grounds and shoot it and mess around in Photoshop and give it to him before more evolution unfolds in each other’s lives.

That’s communism — no expectations for the things given, and no bullshit competition to trade up whether it is material things or ideas and discourse.

Duane’s learned the lexicon of Marxism and has played his cards in a mean as cuss Capitalist system. I repeat that good commie’s love their wine, their music, food and art. Not as a bourgeoisie thing, but as a tribute to the enduring nature of struggle and persistence, even in the most horrific gulags and dungeons.

 

Art in a changing climate

A refugee is someone who survived and who can create the future.

Amela Koluder

Climate change does not respect border; it does not respect who you are — rich and poor, small and big. Therefore, this is what we call ‘global challenges,’ which require global solidarity.

Ban Ki-moon

There are myriad reasons why people set down roots along the Oregon Coast: “the ocean,” “the air,” “the laid-back lifestyle,” “the small town feel of the towns,” “no rat race,” “the geological and ecological beauty.”

For others, like First Nations cultures (Coastal Salish), or Nehalem, their roots were set down thousands of years ago, tied to land, sky, forest and the power of place.

Now, enter the term “envirogee” — derived from both “environment” and “refugee” — a displaced individual who has been forced to migrate because of environmental devastation. Some call themselves “climate refugees.”

191220_oct_Anja Albosta IMG_6788.jpg

For Anja Albosta, and her spouse, Mark, relocating to Waldport is much more than a geographic upheaval.

In 2018 my husband and I left our home in the Yosemite area due to drought, the die-off of millions of ponderosa pines and fire evacuations three years running. The last year driving out through flames on both sides of the road. We then relocated to the beautiful coast of Oregon.

I’m in their nice home overlooking Alsea during the slack tide. Sand bars ripple under the big bridge joining two portions of the coastline over the precarious sand spits and intertidal zone that make this both a dramatic place to live, and precarious (think ocean surge vis-à-vis a tsunami).

They spent time researching places, using a climate change or global warming lens as part of their search. For them, the last time fires hit their neck of the woods, North Fork (31 miles from the south entrance to Yosemite National Park), they had all their important papers in containers as they evacuated.

The hardy Ponderosa pines in their former ecosystem were dropping like flies — creating a huge tinder box for tens of thousands of acres, putting home, roads and human and animal life in danger.

To be more specific — There are two and a half million dead trees within the 131,000-acre national park. Dead trees are a natural occurrence, but the higher number of dead ones now are attributed to warmer temperatures, drying periods, pine bark beetles. Climate has changed dramatically.

For Mark and Anja, after 20 years living in the area, they have the long view of how that ecosystem is degrading and at risk due to the results of climate change.

Enter the Beachhead of the Siuslaw National Forest

I met Anja a few months ago at Pacific Sourdough, where she had been working for around five months staffing the front counter and now also making some of those yeasty delicacies for which the Waldport bakery is known.

My SOP is learning about the various communities on the coast and digging deep into people’s lives quickly since I have been on the Central Oregon Coast barely one year. Big mouth, big heart, big ideas: I go head-first into this life with my background in radical politics, radical education, radical sustainability and journalism. I like people.

Not all my subjects are in line with my radical (rooted) politics or my deep systems thinking (the colluding negative forces of consumption/war/financialization/oppression/cultural genocide/environmental destruction/capitalism) approach to why things are a mess for not just the USA, but more importantly for the oppressed — second and third world (pejoratives by first worlders, but radically important descriptors to revolutionaries).

It was clear to me both the owner of the bakery, Katie, and the artist, Anja, were willing to riff about plastics in the ocean, acidification of the Pacific and the ragged state of American governance. In the end, though, Anja is a believer in America and Western Culture, whereas I know that America (North America) and Western Culture are pathogens against all sanity and sustainable cultures and lives and communities.

Note that this piece first appeared in the lifestyle rag, Oregon Coast Today, a gig for which I gain a few shekels for these feature columns — Deep Dive • Go beneath the surface with Paul Haeder

We swapped cards, and Anja’s piqued my interest — she’s an artist with a background in interior design. Artist-plus-envirogee- plus-world traveler makes for good fodder for my people profiles.

191220_oct_Sargassum by Anja Albost.jpg

Tranquility (sort of) in their hillside house overlooking the Pacific

I’m in the house Mark and Anja bought from the proceeds of selling their self-designed custom-built airy home with two-story view windows (eventually, a view made up of gray, brown charred trees) sited at the edge of the Yosemite National Park, which was made famous by photographer Ansel Adams, President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, father of the Sierra Club.

She tells me Mark’s carpentry skills and both of their sweat equity turned the outdated and dysfunctional home into a wide-open floor plan with amazing built-in shelves and classy handmade doors and frames, as well as a new kitchen.

Anja’s paintings not only adorn all the walls — even the laundry room has three large acrylics hanging next above the laundry items — but she has many leaning up on walls that serve as a dining area a-la-painting studio.

Art for Art’s Sake

Anja’s youthful years include growing up in Germany and Switzerland, then Santa Barbara. She ended up back in Switzerland as an interior designer. “I had a fancy job, money, two months off each year for a vacation. But I wasn’t being fulfilled.”

That life changed when she was in her early 30s, propelling her to Yosemite for some outdoor adventure. She met Mark, who was rock climbing and asked Anja if she wanted to try her hand at climbing escarpments and the famous Half Dome.

Most of the rock now exposed in the park is granitic, having been formed 210 to 80 million years ago as igneous diapirs six miles below the surface. “Tis-sa-ack,” an Ahwahnechee phrase for Cleft Rock, is Half Dome’s pre-white man name.

She tells me that “coming to Yosemite changed my life.” In more ways than just her marital status, that is clear. Mark was a mountaineering guide in the park, and Anja threw in hard and fast as a painter while working 40 miles away in Fresno as an interior designer for clients who demanded style, panache and quality craftsmanship.

Her art from the Yosemite years is up in their house — broad horizons, silhouetted landscapes, with those rock features that Yosemite is known for. She tells me that much of the oil and water color creations ran parallel with the work she did as an interior designer — paintings that “went well” with various home settings.

On her website, her work is categorized as such — design; commissions and commercial art; watercolors, oils; mixed media.

For people living on the Coast, and others in our “green” Cascadia-Pacific Northwest, her latest evolution in her work really puts tread to the pavement when it comes to “statement art”:

From 2016 to the present, her art “has revolved around ‘balance’ and ‘the passing of time.’” Her art cuts into new emotional and societal space, for both the viewer and artist herself, reflecting her 52-years on Earth as an artist in transition. Succinctly, we might say she is looking for deeper meaning, a sense of purpose and creative inspiration — “climate, politics, religion, my own life.”

Climate Fight Should be Fight Again Capitalism

I go way back to the 1970s fighting against Sonora desert razing and scraping, against the shrimp bottom trawlers in the Sea of Cortez and the reckless, cyanide-laced explosive bait for such vermin as coyotes, puma, kit foxes, coatimundi.

I understand the long-view of how decimated the environment has become, due to rapacious capitalism and consumerism addiction. I never had much hope for humanity.

Anja sees the world from several lenses — one is hopeful as she plumbs the ideas of someone like Steven Pinker (psychologist, author of The Better Angles of Our Nature). The other lens is tied to youth and purpose, possibly hope, in the form of Swedish activist Greta Thurnberg. That third eye, so to speak, is occluded with darkness and impending catastrophe as Anja holds close to the research and writing of Elizabeth Kolbert (author of The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes from a Catastrophe, as well as Cataclysm Has Arrived: Man’s Inhumanity to Nature).

Anja galvanizes herself into that rarefied arena of being obsessed with painting —

I am an artist. I think at some point in my life I got to a place where it isn’t a choice for me. It is what I am and do.

That obsession isn’t without pitfalls, of which Anja is completely aware — tough to make a living selling paintings without a huge marketing push, and possibly a huge West Coast (LA, SF) or East Coast (NY, Boston) presence.

“I have other degrees [she tells me she is a self-taught artist from way back, in her teens] but at the end of the day I would paint.” For her, there are a thousand paintings in her head. She’s always thinking about images and color.

“I believe things are better. Women have the vote all over the world. Religion is shrinking. People are up in arms about this new attack on women’s reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood. We have all this gender awareness.”

Mixing Oils with Politics

Many in my artistic field — fiction — believe story has to flow from the common dramas of human compunction. I have had arguments with some telling me it is verboten to insert politics or a spin of political positioning in fiction.

We all have these universal stories set as conflicts, a sort of heuristic that defines how stories have always been told: man (woman) against self; man (woman) against man (woman); man/woman against culture/society; man/woman against god/religion; man/woman against nature.

For me, I add man/woman against science; and then, this new one, man/woman against Artificial Intelligence.

Interestingly, the climate change debate is political, psychological, cultural, economic, environmental and spiritual. For many now, like Greta, a collective trauma has set in. Many in my camp, however, have always questioned the fascist aspects of Capitalism holding sway over our personal, cultural, environmental lives. My cadre are also worried about climate fascism on all sides — a white Swedish teen — Greta with her Hulu special, Time magazine person of the year award, and fawning — lecturing the world on her idea of what should and should not be done in regards to climate we rebuff.

Anja sees the world in a type of collective cognitive dissonance. Anja understands that she comes from that privileged global group — white middle class American. She says she constantly thinks about how much pain and suffering will unfold in countries with less resources, less wealth and who are positioned on the front lines of extreme climate change effects.

Truly, though, when I look at Anja’s art, I see that vision of one woman who has traveled the planet emotionally, philosophically, creatively and intellectually. The art is influenced by artists such as Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. The recent mixed media drive she is exploring is both passion and obsession, fear and darkness. She goes through hundreds of magazines like New Yorker, National Geographic, Scientific American and others — and then starts cutting out images. Her canvases can be part black and white sketches of her own, swirls of vibrant colors, dark silhouettes of trees and then this collage treatment rendering images or words not always recognizable.

We the viewer have to provide context to what she is doing in each work.

Collage, montage, mixed media, found materials and objects she incorporates, and Anja’s work is in the same league as Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch.

Putting my thumb on her work stylistically is challenging. California-based collage artist Eugenia Loli has some of the same techniques, but Anja is a true painter, whose canvases blend the collage with hyper evocative colors and transformed shapes from nature.

A fellow like Alexis Rockman, who has been imbuing climate change in his art since 1994, is also somewhat in the same vein as Anja. For Rockman, he uses his position as an artist “to visualize these things that were very abstract and remote in terms of people’s life span and comprehension.”

Again, Anja’s art is in its own league, tied to very specific issues of our current political, cultural and environmental zeitgeist, and when she shows me each of her works, her explication is as potent as the imagery by itself.

We talk about how to get her work “out there” — possibly in libraries, schools, restaurants, rather than this shoe-string, consignment sort of kitschy and retread art world for which she is competing.

Timelessness and Timeliness

There is a real urgency, real or perceived, in the climate change debate. My cadre is worried more about poverty, resource theft, subjugation of entire countries and areas of the globe to this thuggery of parasitic or disaster capitalism.

In any case, Anja’s art is of “the now,” emerging in tandem with the 24/7 news and attention span cycles of modern Western culture.

She’s 52, and we live in a time where her art once she has passed on will not be eliciting some miracle of resurgent interest . . . or that hidden gem producing millions in sales the art world still vaunts.

The culture she lives and works in is tied to planned and perceived obsolescence, and her work is actually beautiful, evocative and infused with those hidden or obvious images from magazine cutouts. He technique is to blend and then push a seamlessness into the entire canvas, where the viewer sometimes can’t figure out where her dense but light-filled vine-like shapes end and the National Geographic image of the giraffes begin.

Each art piece is also galvanized to “the telling” of the piece: how and why Anja conjures up the shapes and creates architectonics while also pointing out the subtle placement of magazine clips. Each piece is a story upon a story, relaying a complex overlay of where we are at now in this country’s and in the globe’s history.

Her most recent piece, “Sargassum,” reflects this globe as water planet, and while the cover of Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sixth Extinction is floating in the sea, with a tether like tentacle, this piece is vibrant, evocative and something any individual or business should consider for display.

We talk about getting those magnificent explanations she does so well down on paper, and then having a piece like Sargassum anchored by the text, giving this mixed media art-form yet another dimension — words. Or a poem . . . or song lyrics.

“Galapagos Monsters;” “Alice — Looking Through Time;” “Let Girls Learn;” “Acquiescent;” “Betrayed;” and other titles are just the tip of the melting iceberg in Anja Albosta’s work. Try her out by going to her website, and then place yourself in the story unfolding in a world that without any doubt is challenged more and more daily with those cascading issues of injustice toward child-man-woman-mountain-animal-sea-lake-jungle-air-soil.

Luckily, Anja’s spouse, Mark, was willing to cross that hallowed ground of personal space — husband-wife relationship — and that of the art observer-aficionado. Here’s his take on Anja’s artwork:

Paul Haeder: What do you like about Anja’s work?

Mark Albosta: Anja’s art operates on several levels simultaneously for me. On the surface, the visual impact (color choices, images, shapes etc.). Then it pulls me in deeper to understand what the message is she is conveying, and finally I have my own interpretation or lasting effect that stays with me.

PH:  What role do you think artists — both Anja and you, as a musician — have in their communities?

MA: I have observed and think artists shape communities by revealing and delivering concepts to people that are only arrived at by doing the work as an artist. Expressing from the inside outward instead of engaging in the world from the surface. That translates outward to the community.

PH: What surprises you about Anja’s work?

MA:  Her originality in every piece. She is never at a loss for new ideas.

PH:  Define her work — her style, her final products/creations.

MA: Question 1 answers much of this but I will try and elaborate. Her style to me is of a dichotomy. Elegance and chaos. It is always present, similar to the world around us. There is a tense correlation to society and nature in her art but it is still easy to appreciate/immerse myself into every piece. The end result is passion.

 

Time #9 ~ Do You Know What You Are? ~ 18x24 ~ 2019

Art in a Few Hundred Words

All’s fair in love and art when looking at the artwork and intellectual and creative ethos of Anja Albosta. Her goal is getting her artwork out there, so to speak, and we can see that at age 52, in terms of chronological time, Anja has many good and inspiring years left. For me as a writer, this story will be read in the newspaper (part one) and then some will pick it up in the ether, reading the full-length people profile on line.

Anja’s art, however, if placed into environments where people can contemplate it, look at it, and discuss the meta-cognitive value of what she is paining/saying, well, that might be ephemeral too, but many more could be inspired by her art to move into some place of understanding or healing.

I’ll let her words speak for her. Her website can lead interested people into an entire world of depth, whimsy, provocation and beauty.

Paul:  What would you say your life philosophy is in as many words as you care to express?

Anja:  Stay balanced in an ever-changing world. Express myself as myself as best I can with the awareness that we are all always influenced by the world around us.

Find enough down time in our busy world to integrate events within myself. Feel, see, be able to truly listen when needed, to nature around me, people, sift through news and events and be authentic.

PH: Postmodernism looks at busting out of grand theories and concepts of art. What would you call your art given many in and out of the art world seem to be interested in movements, styles, expressive ideology in the artist’s own words?

AA: My paintings at this time, perhaps since 2015/16 have become a ouroboros of sorts, events happen and I create, at the same time I create and see events differently because of it.

Not sure what to call my art; labels help put anything in context. Yet I am not trying to fit in nor trying to be especially innovative. My paintings are just that, my process, my expression at this moment of my life. “Process Painting” comes as close to a label as I can think of perhaps.

PH: This is a foundational question that maybe I didn’t ask in so many words: what does your art mean to you?

AA:  It helps me balance all the cognitive dissonance in my own life, the worlds, past childhood events. In some strange way my art is everything to me, and yet how can that be true, it is just paint and bits of paper on canvas.

If I had no artistic expression, I would be lost, but if I only had art, I would be very isolated and lonely.

PH: What role does the artist have in society?

AA: Many artists have been recorders of history. Otto Dix, Kandinsky, Toulouse- Lautrec, Kate Greenaway. Recording their emotions of an era as well as actual events.

Current art and so many artists bring people together, social gatherings, ideas, philosophizing over the human conundrum of our best and worst. Art, music, innovative food, creating depth for the heart and soul that corporate consumerism can’t.

PH: What do you like about your work?

AA: It always feels like my art is an adventure, brings me completely into the flow of the moment.

My art is interesting to me as I work on it, consumes me at times over the weeks or months the oils dry and the painting is ready for the next layer of depth and expression. My work is what I want to do with my time. But I struggle with it too, question myself, then I paint again, hours pass and time is lost.

PH:  Are you ever surprised by your work?

AA:  Yes. I am continually surprised by my paintings. Creativity is organic for me. I read books and articles, see images and process in the moment.

Integrating the cognitive dissonance in the world around me. Always I find I have brought together opposites. Life and death, beauty and destruction, now and the past, humans and animals. Light and dark. Politics, religion, human choices. Questions, always questions … not so many answers.

•••

Should We Trust Science?

Scientists working on the issue have often told me that, once upon a time, they assumed, if they did their jobs, politicians would act upon the information. That, of course, hasn’t happened. Anything but, across much of the planet. Worse yet, science failed to have the necessary impact in significant part because of disinformation promoted by the major fossil-fuel companies, which have succeeded in diverting attention from climate change and successfully blocking meaningful action.”

— Naomi Oreskes, author of Why Trust Science? and professor of the history of science at Harvard University

There were 60 of us with four facilitators asking us deep questions about the best ways to protest, preserve, rehabilitate and reimagine Oregon’s rocky intertidal habitat.

“What does make a community resistant and resilient?” Steven S. Rumrill, Department of Fish and Wildlife shellfish program leader, asked us all.

In a nutshell, this breakout session was a microcosm of Saturday’s conference, State of the Coast at Salishan Resort.

Three other leads to this afternoon session titled, “Complex and Connected: Holistic Approaches to Management in the Nearshore” — Sarah Gravem, OSU Marine Ecologist; Dom Kone, OSU graduate student in Marine Resource Management; and Deanna Caracciolo, Department of Land Conservation and Development – challenged us to think about issues near and dear to not only the scientists, but to us lay persons. We held onto the anchor question: “What makes the Oregon Coast vibrant, healthy and a visitor destination.”

Rumrill posed key brainstorming questions:

1. What are the primary drivers of variability in rocky habitats?

2. What are the key stressors and threats to them?

3. What proactive steps can resource managers take?

4. Think of five words associated with holistic management of rocky shores.

Coastal Confab Inspires Next Generation

This was the sixth year in a row for the State of the Coast, but this past Saturday’s was the first sold out gig, according to Shelby Walker with Oregon Sea Grant, main sponsor of the Gleneden Beach soirée.

The all-day session included the requisite keynote – Bonnie Henderson, author of several books, to include “Day Hiking: Oregon Coast,” “The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast” and “Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris.”

Even more compelling and intriguing — and dovetailed to the State of the Coast theme of looking into the future — 28 student researchers with their poster projects displayed in the Longhouse conference room, and the 10 student artists alongside their creative endeavors, with both groups being voted on by all the guests.

Projects tied to pollution, microplastics, the Pacific heat blob, hormone mimickers, ocean acidification and more are at the forefront of these highly motivated and interdisciplinary-steeped students from Oregon State University, University of Oregon, Portland State University.

 

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I spent time talking with Reyn Yoshioka from UO, as he explained the remarkable findings in his participation in Oregon Institute of Marine Biology’s BioBlitz in the Coos Bay area. We discussed how his team’s inventory of invertebrates would be ideal to present to city and county officials, as well as groups like Rotary clubs and chambers of commerce.

“The people with political and economic clout need to see not only the work you all do, but what really is at stake if anything threatens this incredible biodiversity,” I told many of the fledging scientists and artists.

Every single one agreed. Many asked me how they might connect to myriad other stakeholders and powerbrokers in their communities.

I introduced Reyn to OSU senior in arts Kenneth Koga, whose watercolors of various elements of a vibrant ecosystem bring the scientist’s eye in focus with a much broader scope beyond just the materialistic world and into the interpretation of nature through the artist’s lens. Reyn told me “it would have been cool” to have dancers, photographers, painters, sculptors and musicians as part of the biodiversity transect inventory.

The Arts Help Define and Contextualize Science

While we received quick teach-ins (one hour presentations of eight minutes each) from researchers looking at rocky habitats, the warm Pacific blob, Oregon’s five marine reserves, sea star wasting disease, threats to Gray, fin, blue and humpback whales on the West Coast, and the status of groundfish recovery, Marion O. Rossi, OSU Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, gave a quick snapshot of Republican Governor Tom McCall’s legacy in helping preserve our coastal habitats.

Author Studs Terkel asked McCall decades ago where the heroes of the political world are. “Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky,” McCall said. “ They are people who say, ‘This is my community, and it’s my responsibility to make it better.’”

Rossi and I talked about what better things might be done to bridge the divide between the sciences (and technology, engineering and math – STEM) and the arts.

Part of the conference included a rather telling – possibly debilitating – aspect of science and various stakeholders. I counted more than 21 agencies involved in just managing and setting plans for our rocky habitats. Unfortunately, there are many more agencies, bureaucracies, boards, quasi-legal, legislative, non-profit, industry groups with some sort of skin in the game tied to our coast.

Think of tide-pools, habitat for many juvenile species, kelp incubators, biodomes to invertebrates such as anemones and sea stars. One issue we tackled was the fact that we can love our coastlines to death; i.e., since we have so many visitors and local aficionados wanting to get into these areas, so many species are being trampled upon.

Ecological balance, keystone species and the entire web of life also were prominent discussion points for the speakers.

For instance, the wasting disease promulgated deeper response in coordinated research projects called STARS – Seastar Tragedy and Recovery Study. Sarah Gravem of OSU discussed the implications of this species’ decline most probably attributed to a virus as well as ocean conditions (warming) spurring the virus’ growth. In some areas along the Pacific Coast, there had been a 100 percent die-off of sea stars observed in 2018. Recovery has been slow.

The ecological consequences from this wasting disease hitting pisaster ochraceus that once was ubiquitous in our rocky shorelines (purple, orange, brown many-legged beauties) spurred a kind of domino effect.

• this predatory sea star feeds on the mussel Mytilus californianus and is responsible for maintaining much of the local diversity of species within certain communities

• compensatory predators come in when a die-off hits

• low sea star prey growth occurs upsetting the balance of the ecosystem

All these pieces to the marine puzzle make up the coast’s mosaic of life. With warming waters, the bull kelp die off, and then sea urchins populations explode and any sort of juvenile kelp that might attempt a foothold on rocky bottoms gets gobbled up by the armies of sea urchins.

Everything is connected in the coastal life in and around the sea.

Whose Oregon Is It?

The Oregon Coast Trail is a hiking trail along the Pacific Coast. The length depends on the use of ferries, and varies between 382 miles (615 km) and 428 miles (689 km). The trail is set out on the beach, paved roads and tracks.

– Traildino.com

“You know, the funny thing about aging is you can watch entire forests grow,” author Bonnie Henderson said. “Fifty years is a harvest rotation. I can say to the students here you will watch forests grow thanks to those with vision and persistence.”

The author made it clear that her love of the Oregon Coast Trail could have only been germinated through the auspices and hard work of forerunners like Governor Tom McCall who pushed the 1967 Oregon “beach bill,” making all beaches accessible to the public.

She went back farther, 1913, to Oswald West, the governor who made all Oregon’s public beaches highways for wagons, horses and cars. Fellows like state Parks chief Sam Boardman (retired 1950) increased the acreage for coastal parks almost 20-fold. Then Sam Dickens, a Kentuckian who ended up running the UO geology department, saw the value in knitting together all the trails in Oregon, along the coast.

The well-known Pacific Crest Trail is more than 2,600 miles long and takes five months to traverse in snow-free conditions. It’s a wild back-country affair, whereas the Oregon Coast Trail cuts through cities, highways towns and waysides. Henderson has traversed it many times.

She is fighting for more camping areas. She is also keen on her other position as communications director for the Northwest Land Conservancy, trying to get more land set aside for a reserve in Oswald Park near Cape Falcon. That’s a $10 million fund drive, of which the NWLD has procured half.

With the snow season hitting the Sierras and rampant fires in California and Oregon, many people had to forego their Pacific Coast Trail adventure and ended up on the Oregon Coast Trail in 2017 and 2018.

She rhetorically asked how long people have been hiking and walking along the trail. Jorie Clark, OSU Geology and Geophysics department, has looked at the shoreline changes dating back 18,000 years when the oceans along the Pacific were 450 feet lower than today. It was around 6,000 years ago when the ocean hit the current level.

There were glaciers along the coast dating back 14,000 years, but also evidence of people from Chile up to Oregon, before the land bridge, who went along the so-called “kelp highway” where they found enough refugia to survive, Henderson told the crowd.

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Rejecting Cornell University — Art for Art’s Sake

Ram Papish apologizes to the group in his breakout session for a jump drive failure. He is wearing self-designed blue jeans with a collection of tufted puffins painted all over.

He currently lives and works out of Toledo, and his artwork is not only of interest to collectors. More importantly, he has worked with Oregon State Parks on 63 panels of interpretative work tied to our wonderfully varied ecosystems.

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All along the Oregon Coast, at waysides and other locales, these illustrated panels are set throughout the tourists’ pathway. Here are just a few of the illustrated large panels:

• Salmon Life Cycle

• Tidepool Explorer

• Sea Bird Island

• Tidepool Life

• Shorebird Stopover

• Mixing Zone

He tells the mostly young students in the session that he had to fight hard to become successful, and he said it was just last year when he began to feel somewhat secure in his artistic profession.

He has illustrated field guides, and in his early life he spent half the year as a guide in Alaska and then the other half as an artist – 15 years straight undertaking that lifestyle. He’s an avid photographer and he has worked sculpting into his life – with works including the walrus that sticks out of the wall at Hatfield Marine Science Center.

When I went to college, I didn’t think I could make a living at it. I sent out dozens of portfolios to publishers and children’s book publishers. I was really naïve.

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The introduction to art class at Cornell was a turning point in his pursuit: “The professor was basically trying to teach us how to be a snobby artist. I wasn’t going to have any part of that.”

Ram’s drive is to connect people to nature. He works mostly on commission, gigs assigned by Oregon State Parks, other agencies and publishers. His drawing avocation started when he was very young, and by age 14 he was designing dolls.

Questions abounded at his talk; he stated his interpretative panels follow the Rule of Threes –

It’s better to have less text. Over the years we went from textbooks on a stick to art pieces with no more than 300 words.

• three seconds to get the headlines

• 30 seconds to glance over the panel

• three minutes to read everything, including the captions

I ask him who his inspirations were. He rattles off Lars Jonsson and Robert Bateman. His number-one inspirator was a guy who wrote a book, Birds in Art. That was Larry McQueen, who ironically turned out to be living in Eugene where the young Ram lived. Ram saw his photo in the newspaper. It turned out Ram had been his paperboy from age 12 to 14. Ram introduced himself to McQueen and ever since he has been Ram’s inspiration.

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Our Collective Potlatch

There are many challenges to our coast – to the livelihoods of the people who make money off our coast’s marine resources. There are challenges to scientists who have to spend more time stumping for grants. There are many silos of people who are gatekeepers of information but fail to abide by transparency. Tourism and sustainable economies are debated weekly in city council meetings.

Unfortunately, for many coastal people, the elephants in the room are global warming, ocean level rise and ocean acidification and hypoxia. I’ve written about researchers diving deep into those topics.

But the bandwidth of the American public, lawmakers and industry is taken up by the stumbling blocks to progress – profits at any cost and doing business as usual for the benefit of a few rich people and stockholders.

The state of the coast, as seen at the Salishan Resort, is one tied to vibrant thinkers and activists; scientists and researchers; explorers and dreamers.

On the surface, some things look hunky-dory, but when we peel back layers as both naturalists and scientists, we see a more varied and complicated picture. The State of the Coast is a multivariant symphony of sometimes syncopated and discordant arias.

Music is in the eye of the beholder, but for our coast, the people dedicated to learning and sharing are really the bedrock for the rest of us who find some niche or dream or hope in this place.

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Maybe we need this sort of potlatch — the name given to most Northwest Coast celebrations – every month.

Imagine, State of the Coast as our potlatch, from the Nuu-chah-nulth “pachitle”’ (potlatch), which means “to give.” How much does the reader have to give to this vibrant and vulnerable coast? How much do you have at stake in ensuring future generations have a healthy coast?

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Note: Article first appeared in Oregon Coast Today, author’s copyright.

Political Correctness Is Getting Out of Hand

On June 28, the New York Times published an article by Bari Weiss that wasn’t moronic.

Titled “San Francisco Will Spend $600,000 to Erase History,” it was about the school board’s unanimous decision to destroy a New Deal-era mural by the famous Communist painter Victor Arnautoff that’s painted on the walls of a local high school. Called “Life of Washington,” the mural depicts Washington’s slaves picking cotton at Mount Vernon as a group of colonizers walks past a dead Native American. The painting is clearly meant to oppose the sanitized versions of American history that are taught in most schools.

So you’d think “progressives” would support it. Instead, some of them, at least, find it so offensive they want it gone. “A grave mistake was made 80 years ago to paint a mural at a school without Native American or African-American input,” the school board’s vice president told Weiss. “For impressionable young people who attend school to have any representation that diminishes people, specifically students from communities that have already been diminished, it’s an aggressive thing. It’s hurtful and I don’t think our students need to bear that burden.”

It seems that most students object to the mural’s removal, though a number of community members support the board’s decision. “We know our history already,” a recent high school graduate and member of the Tohono O’odham tribe said. “Our students don’t need to see it every single time they walk into a public school.”

Predictably, Weiss’s article confines itself to admonishing liberals and leftists for being “un-American” snowflakes, failing to point out that conservatives are typically far more eager to censor than the left is. Bashing hyper-sensitive leftists seems to be Weiss’s favorite activity, aside from hyper-sensitively complaining about supposed instances of anti-Semitism that are usually nothing more than criticisms of Israel’s horrifying militarism and near-genocidal policies towards Palestinians. (I didn’t see her write a column bewailing what a “snowflake” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was for advocating the destruction of an “anti-Semitic” mural in L.A. that depicts Israel as the Grim Reaper.)

But leaving aside Weiss, who’s nothing but a vulgar propagandist, her column does raise an important issue. Censorship, the destruction of art, and the sanitizing of history are appropriate agendas for reactionaries and establishment-types like Weiss; progressives and radicals should certainly oppose them. And yet, in the age of “political correctness,” there’s a disturbing tendency for those on the left to adopt the repressive tactics of their enemies.

Whether on social media, on university campuses, or in cultural spaces of whatever sort, people are shunned, shamed, and silenced for not adhering wholeheartedly to a party line. A whiff of dissent brings down the wrath of the mob; a statement or an image that someone, somewhere, might find hurtful is enough to end your career or ruin your life. Magazine editors are fired for defending “cultural appropriation,” as in 2017 when an editor in Canada lost his job for the crime of defending the right of white authors to create characters from other backgrounds. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression reporting systems, call-out culture, and other such devices become ever more ubiquitous, threatening to neuter culture and intimidate even fellow leftists into silence.

In the end, all this excess reaches truly farcical extremes: political correctness eats itself, as a wonderful old mural that tells a people’s history of the United States is destroyed for being “degrading.” A paradigm of identity politics that celebrates and weaponizes victimhood brings forth practitioners who claim they’re being victimized by having to be reminded of their history as victims. In the name of “empowerment,” they want to whitewash a mural whose existence is a blow against whitewashed history, which is the very thing to which identity politics indignantly objects. Political correctness chokes on itself and coughs up self-refuting paradoxes.

In this grotesque autosarcophagy we see the reductio ad absurdum of this whole mode of aggressive liberalism: it becomes a kind of void, a black hole of infinitely dense inhumanity, the postmodern left’s version of cultural totalitarianism. It becomes kitsch, virtually without content except to prevent members of “vulnerable” groups from ever feeling the slightest pang of discomfort. That’s the universal standard, the standard of acceptable art, acceptable speech, acceptable politics, and acceptable thought. And if you stray outside the bounds of acceptable thought, we’ll “cancel” you, hopefully most aspects of your identity: career, social life, public life, especially internet life, since the beautiful anonymity and atomization of the internet are what allow us to besiege you and call out your transgressions against orthodoxy. Ultimately it isn’t permitted—or at least it’s testing our good will—even to state manifest truths, such as that men on average are taller and physically stronger than women, or that, e.g., women tend to be attracted to male dominance (e.g., men taller than they) and the dominant male. No such truths we consider insulting to “marginalized” people can be acknowledged.

Now, as I said, these totalitarian trends are only the reductio ad absurdum of political correctness, and do not invalidate the entire phenomenon known as PC culture. Historically, this multicultural politics that emerged from the radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s has had very constructive effects on society. It has been integrally tied to the collective recognition of real history, the history of Native Americans, African-Americans, immigrants, women, and European colonialism. In educational curricula, it has effectively challenged the supremacy of the Western canon of white male writers, such that students now encounter voices from many different cultures and traditions.

Feminism has raised consciousness to a far more civilized level than in the 1960s, when Betty Friedan could write about “the feminine mystique” that dehumanized women. The MeToo moment is just the latest front in a long war to advance women’s rights. Similarly, we have identity politics to thank for the historic victories of the gay rights movement, which have at long last made homophobia disreputable.

Even the much-derided concept of “microaggressions” denotes a real situation that minorities and women face. Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs gives examples. When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is repeatedly mistaken for a nurse, that surely gets irritating and can be seen as offensive. When a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Hispanic man approaches, that’s a racist microaggression. A particularly egregious example is the time when a black student asked her academic advisor for information about majoring in biology and, “without being asked about her academic record (which was excellent), was casually directed to ‘look up less-challenging courses in African American Studies instead.’” Whatever the Supreme Court thinks, the U.S. is still saturated with racism, and unconscious racism is constantly revealing itself in trivial interactions in every social context.

Identity politics and political correctness are far from being the unmitigated evils Donald Trump and Bill Maher apparently think they are. And it’s true that in popular movements, excess is inevitable. From the French Revolution to the New Left—and now to the new New Left—popular enthusiasm has been apt to get out of control and become absurd and even violent (as with Antifa). But that doesn’t mean the excess shouldn’t be fought when it becomes truly damaging. When a mode of politics starts to ruin the lives of innocent people, discourage independent and honest thinking, and advocate the destruction of valuable works of art, it’s time to rein it in.

One of the most striking features of the extreme fringe of political correctness—a fringe that seems to dominate culture more and more—is one of the least talked about: often, it is just a sublimation of the very conditions of neoliberal capitalism that leftists hate. Interpersonal atomization and alienation, gleeful cruelty, schadenfreude run amok, censorship and suppression of dissent, a universal leveling that valorizes groupthink as the highest virtue, and surveillance of daily life and every interaction: these tendencies of late capitalism are somehow refracted into left-wing forms and concerns. The mechanism, actually, of this ironic ‘refraction’ is probably quite simple: society has become so inhuman and depersonalized, so bureaucratized and anonymized, that people all across the political spectrum—not only leftists—are made pettier, more insecure, sensitive to perceived slights, and mean-spirited (especially online).

We see the “Other” as oppressing us—however each of us defines the Other—and we lash out to punish it or those who we think manifest it at any given moment. This punitive mentality at least gives us little malicious pleasures that partly compensate for the indignities we’re constantly suffering.

But while it might be understandable, it’s hardly appropriate for people on the left to be so corrupted by the anti-humanism of a fragmented and paranoid capitalist society. From Karl Marx to Eugene Debs, from A. J. Muste to Noam Chomsky, the left has devoted itself to far more elevated causes than vindictively shaming people for, e.g., using the word fútbol despite not being Hispanic, or quietly telling a “sexist” joke to a friend within earshot of a woman who doesn’t like such jokes, or in general policing the world so that every space is “safe” and people are never uncomfortable. Some such policing, within reason, can be productive and important: people should be educated, to the extent possible, out of their unconscious biases and prejudices. But those who identify with the left should also identify with the tradition’s compassion and self-critical inclinations. Perhaps a little less puritanism is called for, and a little more understanding that even good people are imperfect and have lapses. And that no one, including the most eager shamer, is perfect.

Indeed, I’m tempted to say that the hyper-moralistic mindset doesn’t belong to the left at all. Its demand for purity is uncomfortably close to the puritan obsessions of the religious right, so vigilantly attuned to the merest indication of atheism, sex, homosexuality, coarse language, and humanism. At best, leftist puritanism represents an attenuated, enervated, decadent left, a strain of the left that has lost its love of people and become thin and narrow as a reed. Brittle, misanthropic, crabbed, ungenerous, ultra-judgmental, whiny, sickly—these are the words that come to mind to describe such a “left.”

How different from the humanism, compassion, and spiritual capaciousness of a Debs or a Chomsky!

The destruction of a left-wing mural for being “hurtful” may seem like a pretty minor affair, and compared to the catastrophes occurring every day all over the world, it is. But if the cultural tendencies that have eventuated in this crime against art are not checked, we’ll continue to see more such crimes, and not only against art. Against people, too, people who don’t deserve to be publicly shamed or ruined. The left should take care lest it lose its humanity and adopt the censorship-fetish of the fascist right.

A World is Right When We Learn to Preserve and Embrace the Word Like a Poet

Special for Dissident Voice and LA Progressive, part of National Poetry Month, 2019

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I’m thinking a lot about creativity. About young people, 6 or 7 years of age, so ripe for learning and how we as mentors and teachers should not only respect how their inner voices count, but allow them that exploratory space.  Words as expressions of rebellion. Empathy. Rage. Regret. Laments.

Words, sold now as marketing tools, have less and less power as we have devolved into a country of business-speak, unheralded words of death-ray politicians, tweeting twats and Tweedledum’s and Tweedledee’s. Words even in creative writing programs are branded, marketed and sold as, hmm, a type of group think. MFA (masters of fine arts) programs are destructive to the outsider’s realm of seeing, hearing, touching and his or her own consciousness and subconsciousness.

Poetry, of all the practices, seems the least understood and many times destroyed the most by instructors and teachers attempting to over-analyze or over-classify what it is they think poetry – and a poet – is.

Here, early on, I’ll forward a big slash to the market of the MFA – creative writing programs, their in-house literary journals, and the bourgeoises siphoning off any remarkable revolutionary thought in creative writing.

Rebellion, and Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas fighting against the dirty and perverted capitalist dictator, Somoza. Here, first, revolutionary, Gioconda Belli.

What Are You, Nicaragua?

What are you—
a little triangle of earth
lost in the middle of the world?

What are you—
a flight of birds
guardabarrancos
cenzontles
hummingbirds?

What are you
a roar of rivers
bearing polished, shiny stones
leaving footprints of water in the mountains?

What are you—
A women’s breasts made of earth
Smooth, pointed and threatening?

What are you—
Singing of leaves in gigantic trees
Green, tangled and filled with doves?

What are you—
Pain and dust and screams in the afternoon
“screams like those of women giving birth”?

What are you—
Clenched fist and loaded gun?

What are you, Nicaragua
To cause me such pain?

Thinking like a kid is what the credo should be for adults, especially in this lobotomized world of consumption and endless war and digital dungeons. Dreaming like a child. Sketching worlds and fantastical dreams like a youth.

Instead, many MFA programs are like buttoned-down harbingers of the generalized professing: “Believe us professors and grad students as we are the key to creative writing, and do not stray, as we are the arbiters of fine arts, the word, poetry, life.”

John Steppling:

The practice of writing, the philosophy is, Firstly, a resistance to formulas and solutions. Writing and art pose questions, and if the mystery leaves the work, leaves the process, then usually, the work has died. Institutional forces demand standardized steps and conditions in their creative writing programs … because the institution knows, deep down, that art is there to destroy it. Even the word “creative” is probably suspect, but such are the conditions under which writing is taught. It is an intuitive and unconscious process, and even if done, for some film work, in partnership – it is still solitary.

One cannot write outlines and then follow them. This is what CPAs do, or insurance salesmen preparing their district conference sales quota speech. If one were to know where a narrative was going, one would have a stillborn project on one’s hands. The play or screenplay has within its narrative, an idea of itself. Narrative provides a space for character. The truth of a character is at once indelible and totally opaque. This idea is the reason, I suspect, we have art at all.

Art is not about communication, nor is it about moral instruction. It is about awakening. But it is also a discipline, and a practice. Those Neanderthal cave paintings, found in places where only one person might see them, at a time, is worth keeping in mind, at least when audience questions arise. You don’t write for an audience. Nor do you write for yourself. That is the paradox and the riddle.

Being able to recognize the truthful from kitsch is the basic foundation for starting on having a practice.

I’ve been a poet a long time, since, of course, virginal youth, and then into my teens, until death do me part. My journey has been, as Steppling states above (referencing story and play/screen writing), a series of awakenings.

The shadow of lamentations, too. Nothing heroic is happy and set upon a political or moral frame without first forcing us all to ask primal questions – questions about self in a world that’s insane. At least now, from pre-Industrial, or I imagine, starting with the ripping of tribal tides with so-called conquest societies, colonizers, we have to ask those age-old questions how to live through the mother and father haven been ripped up by superstitious and perverted religious and economic principles (sic). Insanity now, but our own relocation of the disconnected, by artists, is our sanity in an insane system, capitalism.

Words expressed – poetry – is the shaping of the amphora on the potter’s wheel. That wet healing clay, squished between fingers and synapses. The remarkable lifting of sediments from earth into the shape of creation, imagined first, then reimagined with each pump of the pedal of the wheel, each turning, each fingering and palming of clay into a work of art. Poetry.

National Poetry Month Poster 2019

This month, April, has been generally deemed as National Poetry Month. In the schools I’ve taught at. In some of the libraries I’ve perused, the posters and highlighted books are prominent. In many ways, pushing the word, and celebrating this form of creative expression is both herculean in the sense that almost everything in the USA has been co-opted by consumerism and blatant crass middling thinking and presentation; and it’s worthy of effort to have people leave the business world, the world of making money, into one of making stanzas. In addition, many slam poetry or spoken word events have been tied to the National Poetry Month, started almost a quarter of a century ago in the USA.

Here, National Academy of Poets has the month branded:

National Poetry Month each April is the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of readers, students, K-12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary events curators, publishers, bloggers, and, of course, poets marking poetry’s important place in our culture and our lives.

While we celebrate poets and poetry year-round, the Academy of American Poets was inspired by the successful celebrations of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March), and founded National Poetry Month in April 1996 with an aim to:

  • highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets,
  • encourage the reading of poems,
  • assist teachers in bringing poetry into their classrooms,
  • increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media,

I’ve had some good opportunities to be around poets and live with them and their words. Heck, just a few weeks ago, here I was, in the Central Oregon coast, with Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Kim Stafford, whose own skin is tattooed with the words of his famous poet father’s literary gravitas – William Stafford. Here, my piece in LA Progressive and elsewhere, including the literary journal, Cirque“A Poet, the Pacific Flyway, and a Sonora Flash Flood Memory.”  And my poem about reconnecting to Stafford’s son, Kim, here on the Oregon Coast, a new home for me: “Somewhere in a Writer’s Workshop He Learns the Lines from ‘Oregon Trail’

Over the years I have front and center cajoled with poets, seeing myself as one of their peers while living in precarity and calling forth lamentations as a poet. It started seriously when I was an 18-year-old in Tucson hanging out with poets and fiction writers, as part of the University of Arizona’s poets/writers series. I used to hang out at and take classes in rooms at the Poetry Center at the U of A. I’ve helped out poet Richard Shelton with his writer’s workshop at the Arizona State Prison, and he wrote a book about his big project that involved many different cohorts and writers with some tough-living inmates: Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer.

Here I was, still a youth in 1975, when Shelton taught me in poetry classes and started his trips up to death row at the Arizona State prison. I got to be a part of that, Richard’s prison workshops. Not so ironically, shortly after graduating and becoming a journalist and part-time college faculty, I started incorporating that “prison workshop” ethos in so many other of my writing gigs with my own students in a federal prison, La Tuna, NM. I’ve done writing workshops, including poetry, with gifted and talented students in Austin, TX, and with gang-influenced youth in Segundo Barrio, El Paso. I’ve carried through with writing workshops in a life-long learning program at the University of Texas—El Paso, where I had, as an example of some of my students’ histories,  survivors of Dachau write about their lives, and women who knew Pancho Villa, and other interesting older folk, write poems while we worked on their memoirs. Writing workshops for just-released inmates in a homeless program in Portland, and writing projects with homeless veterans and their families, and poetry workshops for fourth graders, and more, have cascaded into my life.

Poetry teaching was always the razor edge way to get people to open up that creative and deeply drawn area of their humanity that is more etched with meaning than their own epigenetics or more fluid of their self-worth than the corpuscles flowing inside– the embedded humanity and horror of being alone in this world. Poetry, as Sapphire shows, can be triumph, momentarily, over evil and the scars evil produce in us all.

Here, though, some quick turn of words to express what poetry is from poets themselves:

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. —Audre Lorde

I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests. —Pablo Neruda

Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness. —Alice Walker

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. –Rita Dove

As a direct line to human feeling, empathic experience, genuine language and detail, poetry is everything that headline news is not. It takes us inside situations, helps us imagine life from more than one perspective, honors imagery and metaphor – those great tools of thought – and deepens our confidence in a meaningful world. —Naomi Shihab Nye

Luckily, Angie with Dissident Voice and Dick with LA Progressive and Hollywood Progressive are opening up the digital venues for my limited standing column (in the month of April), as a format for some musings and personal and monumental ideas around the power of the word, poetry. Call it a cry out for something more real than the echo chambers of modern America.

More real than all the stuff I end up writing about in LA Progressive’s Terminal Velocity – Man Lost of Tribe or for Angie at DV which usually is tied to the politics of negotiating our own humanity and community and self inside the war that is killer capitalism. The most creative and psychologically real and satisfying things come to me as people I’ve touched and who have touched me, and, of course, learning to think like a mountain, as Aldo Leopold calls it in his Sand Country Almanac – imagine the poetry in this excerpt by Leopold, one of the fathers of conservation and environmental sanity:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.…I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

It’s not a quaint thing, this poetry. Actually, many people do write poems, and see themselves as poets. Really, not just MFA students or older ladies waxing religious rhymes, but plumbers, construction workers, nurses, bookkeepers, and every form of human life.

The poem is a distilled world, as Rita Dove says. Neruda also has it right – it’s where you are from, inside the body of the world, as in forests, oceans, inside rain: that’s the germination of a poem. And, poetry should be rebellious and about revolution as Alice Walker states, and lived, as she told me twice when I’ve been to her readings and workshops.  That poetry is a bridge over fears, as Lourde states, makes so much sense. Bridging humanity over the troubled waters of the inhumane.

The direct line to human feeling . . . . and making our lives deeper in confidence, so much so there is transformation, even for the oppressed and imprisoned, giving meaning in the world and life is meaningful, no matter the circumstance, as Shihab Nye states.

I remember talking with Czeslaw Milosz at a reading in Austin, Texas. I was trying to drill down what poetry was, how I could parachute into the lives of gang members, spooks (inhalers of volatile compounds like gasoline), homeless war vets, young adults with developmental disabilities, survivors of sexual assault and invoke some solid concepts on why the poem – no matter what form it takes – is what Naomi states: imaging life as it can or should be or is honoring the word and creative practice of language in the art of detailing.

He was near the end of his life when he told me, In reality, whatever the poet attempts to say, all words are a type of lamentation. Despair, maybe, colored by something else that pushes down the blackness of humanity in this age of destruction.  Something like that. He went deeper, though. As seen in this interview in the Paris Review:

Of course, it’s true that people talk too much and without restraint. But poetry imposes certain restraints. Nevertheless, there is always the feeling that you didn’t unveil yourself enough. A book is finished and appears and I feel, Well, next time I will unveil myself. And when the next book appears, I have the same feeling. And then your life ends, and that’s it.

Two poems by Czeslaw Milosz to start the month:

In Black Despair

In grayish doubt and black despair,
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air,
pretending to joy, although I lacked it.
The age had made lament redundant.

So here’s the question — who can answer it —
Was he a brave man or a hypocrite?

A Felicitous Life

His old age fell on years of abundant harvest.
There were no earthquakes, droughts or floods.
It seemed as if the turning of the seasons gained in constancy,
Stars waxed strong and the sun increased its might.
Even in remote provinces no war was waged.
Generations grew up friendly to fellow men.
The rational nature of man was not a subject of derision.
It was bitter to say farewell to the earth so renewed.
He was envious and ashamed of his doubt,
Content that his lacerated memory would vanish with him.

Two days after his death a hurricane razed the coasts.
Smoke came from volcanoes inactive for a hundred years.
Lava sprawled over forests, vineyards, and towns.
And war began with a battle on the islands.

Next: Poetry as environmental sanity and rebellion!

Flotsam Central Oregon

Simple communitarian spirit, tied to serendipitous moment listening to this artist a month ago talking about climate change, tide-pools and new earth emerging. His name is Bill Kucha, 74, originally from Cleveland. He was trained as a classic artist in Boston, BU, and he married at 18, had a child, and ended up on his walkabout single again. He ended up in Portland years later, new wife, Dorothy, two children, a grandchild, and more than 47 years later, Sitka roots and multi-variant artwork with creator, artist, struggling with the weight of climate like a storm over humanity, over all of nature and over his personal connection to mother earth.

He talks a lot about this new time of chaos, the opportunities for change, pushing the old — fossil fuel “economy,” dreaded Capitalism — into the dustbin of history with the energy of new minds, new ideas, new sense of identity. Where ego desiccates and a new giving gift society rises from the ashes of the Phoenix that once carried the tools of greed and war for the elite. Here, a piece I wrote about his talk along with a conservation biologist’s posted on several places on the Internet — Tidepools.

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[Paul K. Haeder, photographer]

I was invited by Bill and his wife Dorothy to their home overlooking the Pacific, South of Depoe Bay, near Newport. Their home in 1972 was once a broken-down old drafty ramshackle of a beach house, and then 47 years of TLC and a dramatic setting down of roots — spiritual, creative, and holistic. Bill has worked the land, the side of the hill sloping toward the Pacific, moving rocks and pilings and earth to make an amazingly healing place, terraced, gardens, swales for graywater and rainwater for consumption. The transformation of a man who has gained friends galore but who has worked in solitary brushing on paints and chipping into basalt and welding metal to stone, Bill has been intersecting with youth and old, playing his guitar and composing songs. He helped found 350.org Central Oregon Coast.

The talk we had Sunday February 17 was anchored in transference, a new or very old expansion of the universe talk about evolutionary principles tied to the noosphere, the creative connectivity of humanity in this time of crisis. I’ll be writing about Bill and Paul’s Lightness of Being Adventure, but yesterday, Dorothy opened up, first a teacher in Portland and then a social worker. Her parents fleeing Austria under the saber of Hitler. Her father has been featured in Portland historical news for his own migration to this new land.

Gentile and Jew, Bill and Dorothy live in balance, as the artist Bill is tied to his mistress: the land he has sculpted nail by nail, stone by stone, shadow by shadow. Their own relationship and lives in Mexico, the lightness of being now calm in a state of upheaval, great lessons passed forward to their family and friends. He is unsettled by the crisis in climate and politics and humanity.

We talked about story, about narratives, and then, bam, we headed in our separate vehicles to Newport to be with Kim Stafford, Oregon Poet Laureate, who talked with around 50 people crammed into the Newport library. Kim talked about story, too, and my interpretation of that two hours will be written about in another blog here soon. For now, read about his father and me here, at Cirque Journal: A Poet, the Pacific Flyway, and a Sonora Flash Flood here! Kim was kind enough to pair up some of his poems with my non-fiction piece a few years ago in the Cirque issue, which if you open up and read my piece from the hyperlink above, you’ll see it is largely about my own poetic rites of passage tied to his father, William Stafford, and my own life moving from point to point in my as of yet revealed journey back to some imagined place in my literary soul. Three poems, Kim Stafford, Cirque Journal. This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is imgp1325.jpg

[Paul K. Haeder, photographer]

Much of what Kim said in his Newport, Oregon, talk I have been practicing all my life — writing, thinking, inventing my perceptions of life, and the daily practice of writing, photographing, teaching, giving, struggling. I look to words as lamentation and personal narrative. The poem below is my spiritual word journey, after Bill and Dorothy shared their lives and home, and ruminating from that point where I listened to and talked with Kim among all these Central Oregon Coast writers and writer-wanna-be’s. I sent the poem to Bill and Dorothy. I also sent it to Kim, now on a busy schedule as Oregon’s poet of record, a two-year stint where he has to meet with people throughout Oregon; Kim still has his gig as professor at Lewis and Clark University.

I am now intersecting with much of my own scattershot history, unfolding narratives, collapsing beliefs, a new revised personal relationship, and I am about to be married, yet we’re looking for some solace in Mexico, maybe, but now, living and breathing in Otis, Oregon, near Cascade Head, the shape of life molded into the refracted light dancing in my cones and rods. I am teaching now, and working on a couple of book manuscripts. I am beach combing and photographing and just pushing out some terrible times as a social services professional in the Portland arena for more than a decade. Read at your own peril below!

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[Paul K. Haeder, photographer]

Insanity of Social Work as Human Control

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[Paul K. Haeder, photographer]

Related image
[Bill Kucha art]

Rodea Point, Broken Circle, A Nautilus Shaped from Basalt and Pig Iron

By Paul Haeder

words like slow trowel
wet alabaster, cupped hands
incantations of synesthesia
as loud as basalt
prodded by lichen
he comes to me with law of time
universal expansion, he feels
cosmogenesis transmuted
drawn into climate crisis
his sensuality cuts, chips, digs
stone, earth to loam, stone to bricks
patterns shaped into lamentations

the weight of geological time
expands, he expresses yin yang
Chinese character “crisis”
a point where things happen
or change
artist from Cleveland flays
canvas with acrylics
the ebb like spiritual
floe, trapped in vortex
this synchronicity, the calcifying
old world new world noosphere
emancipation for him

transmogrifying nature, he paints
biological fractals, polygons of betrayal
conjures up seeds as ghosts-
dances, perennials perma
culture as long as soil
finds impregnation, Gaia
increasing complexities
he culls crisis in triptych
weight of Egyptian prophecies
curses, earth flagellated for a new
creative evolution
he covets hope

he watches river burst
flammable memories, Cuyahoga
dreams, Cleveland boy
“jawbone” for Seneca
“crooked river” for Mohawk
white man’s trash heap
emblematic of a million
trails of tears, eviscerated river,
time
space entropy land of holy
benedictions as interlopers
condemn new rivers to oil slicks
dams slough off unholy
metals, fossil hunters’ distillates

now slower in his gait
overlook of Pacific more
than germination, gestation
new age ancient he holds
paint brush hammer trowel
welding stick
old hands pushing yanking flogging
weight of 4 billion years
earth lifts to 74-year-old touch,
he flavors temporary home
in poppy lilac cruciferae
abundance
bounty shared by wife
friends
air soil water soul

she comes from Diaspora
Austrian Aryans finding
Hebrew enemies
her parents fled in 1939
warnings of Crystal Night
broken glass Kristallnach
weight of futures
death camps

she parts words between teacher
social worker, life flowing from
Mexico, weight to his fanciful
ruminations Jew with Gentile
family prayer Shema Yisrael
inscribed on grave of a Jewish
infant in Halbturn 3rd century
Roman slavers tossed Jews
into all corners of empire
Austria, land remembered
now she finds father
recriminating her to
not marry artist
you’ll be working for his art
not a dime he’ll make

migration from Cleveland-Portland
New York-Depoe Bay
islands in the stream
couple’s migratory passage
monogamous galvanizing
I his poet one step away
into pure light of chaos
she asks me if pain
of bearing witness
of finding center in political
turmoil takes joy from
living . . . the smile on my face

a million light years back
my future written when
I was nine, earlier
vision quest long walkabout
dreamtime more than
weight of ions breathed in
the soiling people
are minor actors
this artist comes to me
fielding a new love
old passions

he calls me brother
we part for another beach town
as we hold another poet’s words
speak to all his relations
we share the amen
as laureate reshuffles our
game, moments trapped
between cerebral connectivity
and laws of co-evolution
harmonic convergences
sharing food, opening spaces
we stay as one
momentarily, Pacific high tide
receding for another passing:

“I want to thank all my relations
for this chance to be on Earth
in her time of flourishing; to thank
the First People of this place,
to honor their sovereignty in long
and continuing relation, still teaching us
how we might be here together; to thank
my mother and father, moon and sun,
for setting me forth before their own
passing on; to thank my grandmother
who listened to me so eloquently I learned
to listen to my own heart and mind, to find
stories and songs there; to thank my family
and friends, and all citizens and travelers
who study and work for deeper kinship
in this place, with one another, and with
all creatures, one Earth, visible, palpable,
fragile, intricate, resonant, in need of our
better stories. I want to thank you
who have gathered to receive what I have
carried here—in hope that something
I have may meet something you need,
so all our relations may be strengthened
for this life we live together.

Amen.”

– Kim Stafford, “All My Relations

 

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Bill Kucha artwork

What Are We Working For “At Eternity’s Gate”?

One also knows from his letters that nothing appeared more sacred to Van Gogh than work.

— John Berger, “Vincent Van Gogh,” Portraits

Ever since I was a young boy, I have wondered why people do the kinds of work they do.  I sensed early on that the economic system was a labyrinthine trap devised to imprison people in work they hated but needed for survival.  It seemed like common sense to a child when you simply looked and listened to the adults around you.  Karl Marx wasn’t necessary for understanding the nature of alienated labor; hearing adults declaim “Thank God It’s Friday” spoke volumes.

In my Bronx working class neighborhood I saw people streaming to the subway in the mornings for their rides “into the city” and their forlorn trundles home in the evenings.  It depressed me.  Yet I knew the goal was to “make it” and move away as one moved “up,” something that many did.  I wondered why, when some people had options, they rarely considered the moral nature of the jobs they pursued.  And why did they not also consider the cost in life (time) lost in their occupations?  Were money, status, and security the deciding factors in their choices?  Was living reserved for weekends and vacations?

I gradually realized that some people, by dint of family encouragement and schooling, had opportunities that others never received.  For the unlucky ones, work would remain a life of toil and woe in which the search for meaning in their jobs was often elusive.  Studs Terkel, in the introduction to his wonderful book of interviews, Working: People Talk About What They Do all Day and How They Feel About What They Do, puts it this way:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body.  It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around.  It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.  To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

Those words were confirmed for me when in the summer between high school and college I got a job through a relative’s auspices as a clerk for General Motors in Manhattan.  I dreaded taking it for the thought of being cooped up for the first time in an office building while a summer of my youth passed me by, but the money was too good to turn down (always the bait), and I wanted to save as much as possible for college spending money.  So I bought a summer suit and joined the long line of trudgers going to and fro, down and up and out of the underground, adjusting our eyes to the darkness and light.

It was a summer from hell.  My boredom was so intense it felt like solitary confinement.  How, I kept wondering, can people do this?  Yet for me it was temporary; for the others it was a life sentence.  But if this were life, I thought, it was a living death.  All my co-workers looked forward to the mid-morning coffee wagon and lunch with a desperation so intense it was palpable.  And then, as the minutes ticked away to 5 P.M., the agitated twitching that proceeded the mad rush to the elevators seemed to synchronize with the clock’s movements.  We’re out of here!

On my last day, I was eating my lunch on a park bench in Central Park when a bird shit on my suit jacket.  The stain was apt, for I felt I had spent my days defiling my true self, and so I resolved never to spend another day of my life working in an office building in a suit for a pernicious corporation, a resolution I have kept.

*****

“An angel is not far from someone who is sad,” says Vincent Van Gogh in the new film, At Eternity’s Gate. For some reason, recently hearing these words in the darkened theater where I was almost alone, brought me back to that summer and the sadness that hung around all the people that I worked with.  I hoped Van Gogh was right and an angel visited them from time to time.  Most of them had no options.

The painter Julian Schnabel’s moving picture (moving on many levels since the film shakes and moves with its hand-held camera work and draws you into the act of drawing and painting that was Van Gogh’s work) is a meditation on work.  It asks the questions: What is work?  What is work for?  What is life for?  Why paint?  What does it mean to live?  Why do you do what you do?  Are you living or are you dead?  What are you seeking through your work?

For Vincent the answer was simple: reality.  But reality is not given to us and is far from simple; we must create it in acts that penetrate the screens of clichés that wall us off from it.  As John Berger writes:

One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second, distant, far away.  This opposition is false.  Events are always to hand.  But the coherence of these events – which is what one means by reality – is an imaginative construction.  Reality always lies beyond – and this is as true for materialists as for idealists.  For Plato, for Marx.  Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés.

These screens serve to protect the interests of the ruling classes, who devise ways to trap regular people from seeing the reality of their condition.  Yet while working can be a trap, it can also be a means of escape.  For Vincent working was the way.  For him work was not a noun but a verb. He drew and he painted as he does in this film to “make people feel what it is to feel alive.”  To be alive is to act, to paint, to write.  He tells his friend Gauguin that there’s a reason it’s called the “act of painting, the “stroke of genius.”  For him painting is living and living is painting.

The actual paintings that he made are almost beside the point, as all creative artists know too well.  It is the doing wherein living is found.  The completed canvas, essay, or book are what is done.  They are nouns, still lifes, just as Van Gogh’s paintings have become commodities in the years since his death, dead things to be bought and sold by the rich in a culture of death where they can be hung in mausoleums isolated from the living.  It is appropriate that the film ends with Vincent very still in his coffin as “viewers” pass him by and avidly now desire his paintings that encircle the room that they once rejected.  The man has become a has-been and the funeral parlor the museum.

“Without painting I can’t live,” he says earlier.  He didn’t say without his paintings.

“God gave me the gift for painting,” he said.  “It’s the only gift he gave me.  I am a born painter.”  But his gift has begotten gifts that are still-births that do not circulate and live and breathe to encourage people to find work that will not, “by its very nature, [be] about violence,” as Terkel said. His works, like people, have become commodities, brands to be bought and sold in a world where the accumulation of wealth is accomplished by the infliction of pain, suffering, and death on untold numbers of victims, invisible victims that allow the wealthy to maintain their bad-faith innocence. This is often achieved in the veiled shadows of intermediaries such as stock brokers, tax consultants, and financial managers; in the liberal and conservative boardrooms of mega-corporations or law offices; and in the planning sessions of the world’s great museums. Like drone killings that distance the killers from their victims, this wealth accumulation allows the wealthy to pretend they are on the side of the angels.  It’s called success, and everyone is innocent as they sing, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go.”

“It is not enough to tell me you worked hard to get your gold,” said Henry Thoreau, Van Gogh’s soul-mate. “So does the Devil work hard.”

A few years ago there was a major exhibit of Van Gogh’s nature paintings at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts – “Van Gogh and Nature” – that aptly symbolized Van Gogh in his coffin.  The paintings were exhibited encased in ornate gold frames. Van Gogh in gold.  Just perfect.  I am reminded of a scene in At Eternity’s Gate where Vincent and Gauguin are talking about the need for a creative revolution – what we sure as hell need – and the two friends stand side by side with backs to the camera and piss into the wind.

*****

But pseudo-innocence dies hard.  Not long ago I was sitting in a breakfast room in a bed-and-breakfast in Houston, Texas, sipping coffee and musing myself awake.  Two men came in and the three of us got to talking.  As people like to say, they were nice guys.  Very pleasant and talkative, in Houston on business.  Normal Americans.  Stressed.  Both were about fifty years old with wives and children.

One sold drugs for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies that is known for its very popular anti-depressant drug and its aggressive sales pitches.  He travelled a triangular route from Corpus Christi to Austin to Houston and back again, hawking his wares.  He spoke about his work as being very lucrative and posing no ethical dilemmas.  There were so many depressed people in need of his company’s drugs, he said, as if the causes of their depression had nothing to do with inequality and the sorry state of the country as the rich rip off everyone else.  I thought of recommending a book to him – Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime: How big pharma has corrupted health care by Peter Gotzsche – but held my tongue, appreciative as I was of the small but tasteful fare we were being served and not wishing to cause my companions dyspepsia.  This guy seemed to be trying to convince me of the ethical nature of the way he panned gold, while I kept thinking of that quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

The other guy, originally from a small town in Nebraska and now living in Baton Rouge, was a former medevac helicopter pilot who had served in the 1st Gulf War.  He worked in finance for an equally large oil company.  His attitude was a bit different, and he seemed sheepishly guilty about his work with this company as he told me how shocked he was the first time he saw so many oil, gas, and chemical plants lining the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and all the oil and chemicals being shipped down the river. So many toxins that reminded him of the toxic black smoke rising from all the bombed oil wells in Iraq.  Something about it all left him uneasy, but he too said he made a very good “living” and that his wife also worked for the oil company back home.

My childish thought recurred: when people have options, why do they not choose ethical work that makes the world more beautiful and just?  Why is money and so-called success always the goal?

Having seen At Eternity’s Gate, I now see what Van Gogh was trying to tell us and Julian Schnabel conveys through this moving picture.  I see why these two perfectly normal guys I was breaking bread with in Houston are unable to penetrate the screen that lies between them and reality.  They have never developed the imaginative tools to go beyond normal modes of perception and conception. Or perhaps they lack the faith to dare, to see the futility and violence in what they are working for and what their companies’ products are doing to the world.  They think of themselves as hard at work, travelling hither and yon, doing their calculations, “making their living,” and collecting their pay.  It’s their work that has a payoff in gold, but it’s not working in the sense that painting was for Vincent, a way beyond the screen.  They are mesmerized by the spectacle, as are so many Americans. Their jobs are perfectly logical and allow them a feeling of calm and control.

But Vincent, responding to Gauguin, a former stock broker, when he urged him to paint slowly and methodically, said, “I need to be out of control. I don’t want to calm down.”  He knew that to be fully alive was to be vulnerable, to not hold back, to always be slipping away, and to be threatened with annihilation at any moment. When painting, he was intoxicated with a creative joy that belies the popular image of him as always depressed.  “I find joy in sorrow,” he said, echoing in a paradoxical way Albert Camus, who said, “I have always felt that I lived on the high seas, threatened, at the heart of a royal happiness.”   Both rebels, one in paint, the other in words: “I rebel: therefore we exist,” was how Camus put it, expressing the human solidarity that is fundamental to genuine work in our ephemeral world. Both nostalgic in the present for the future, creating freedom through vision and disclosing the way for others.

And although my breakfast companions felt safe in their calmness on this side of the screen, it was an illusion.  The only really calm ones are corpses.  And perhaps that’s why when you look around, as I did as a child, you see so many of the living dead carrying on as normal.

“I paint to stop thinking and feel I am a part of everything inside and outside me,” says Vincent, a self-described exile and pilgrim.

If we could make working a form of such painting, a path to human solidarity because a mode of rebelling, what a wonderful world it might be.

That, I believe, is what working is for.