Our Flattening Culture
We find ourselves in a cultural collapse far more total than anything I have seen in my lifetime, and perhaps greater than any in US history. Similar signs appear in other nations. People seem stupider, more inclined to violence, partaking less of reason, motivated by vague feelings of personal grievance. We are interested more in our own stories than in those of others, or of the larger world. We are ever more assertive of our own identities rather than considering ways in which we might improve ourselves. Balanced subtlety has given way to blunt aggression, and care to unleavened hatred. The unacknowledged driver of all this are the ways in which technology has welded itself to consumerism to produce instant gratifications in exchange for our money, focusing us on our separated selves and pleasures. Another factor could be subconscious fears of our planet’s impending ecological collapse, as we increasingly fill our surroundings with both greenhouse gases and tiny particles of plastic, the latter e making their way into our bodies and our brains. I try to keep reminding myself that it is always hard to understand what is happening in one’s own time, and where it all will lead us, and that it has been a mistake in the past to deny the power of advancing technologies to solve problems.
Still, I cannot avoid the feeling that we are experiencing the unwinding of human civilization. The things that represent humanity at its most unique, complex analysis of social and political issues using facts and reason, aesthetic experiences created through the carefully constructed intricacies of form in art works, neither never very fashionable in popular culture, now feel as if they are, removed from the discourse, snuffed out by the denial of reflective thinking in all our “feeds,” with their deluges of social media comments, memes, online videos, assertions of personal identity, immersive television, active shooter games, and manipulative popular music. The moving and changeable parts of our minds, that use time and sequential thinking to compare one proposition against another in the social sphere and one form of aesthetic discourse versus another in the arts, are going dark. The experiences in depth, experiences that make us more intelligent, more thoughtful, more aware of our potentials as humans, and more sensitive to discoveries in the world around us are being replaced by a commercial assault that sells us the mindlessly pleasurable instant, the hot emotion that replaces careful considerations, the endorphin-releasing highs that current movies and music try to elicit in order to make more money for their “content providers.” This flattening leads to experiences without complexity and that replace thinking with immediate emotions, thereby robbing individuals of agency. The mechanisms of popular culture perform to perfection their task of transforming us into passive, drone-like creatures whose functions are to work, consume, and pay.
The situation is not helped when a vast number of Americans, including many of our supposedly knowledgeable elected representatives, that is to say the great majority of Republicans in the House and Senate, make statements so obviously false about issues upon which our nation’s future depends that they should never be taken seriously: that the 2020 election was stolen, that January 6 consisted of “ordinary citizens engaging in legitimate political discourse” (the official position of the Republican party), that our ex-president is being prosecuted by “Biden” for political reasons. Indeed, that so many have joined an apparently brain-dead, fact-denying cult, or pretend to have joined it to win reelection even when secretly knowing the truth, is a huge part of our problem, in that without admitting it they are supporting the reinstallation as president of one who has said that the power of the U.S. President is “absolute,” and that “that is the way it has to be.” His constant “feed” of multiple lies and falsehoods each day during his term helped prepare the groundwork for our collapse by devaluing the value of words and of truth.
Presidents can effect seismic changes in a nation’s ideology. I remember from my early teens how the idealism expressed by John F. Kennedy with “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” inspired a shift in thinking, especially among the young. It is worth remembering, too, that those words were preceded in the same speech many others far less nationalistic, advocating for human rights “at home and around the world,” for freedom rather than tyranny in newly decolonized nations, and for our country’s possible role in alleviating poverty worldwide. I remember too the shift away from concerns about the world and toward personal economic self-interest inspired by Regan with his profoundly earth-is-flattened campaign question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” It should be no surprise, then, that hate crimes, hate murders, death threats against election officials and teachers and so many others greatly increased under Trump, who spews hateful and violent rhetoric as easy as breathing, and who during his 2016 campaign expressed support for the unprovoked physical assault on a journalist by a Republican congressman who later pled guilty.
In recent years I have been beginning my classes at two different Chicago colleges by distributing large topographic maps with downtown Chicago at the center. I discuss how most of us, me included, navigate today, using undeniably convenient apps that tell us exactly when and which way to turn, whether walking, bicycling, using public transit, or driving. But years ago, I would sometimes go to a new city with a street map, walk or bicycle wherever I felt interested in going, get lost, and then find myself on the map using street names. In this process, I got to know more of each city. To get to a location back then, one would find it on a map and figure out a route, thus becoming more aware of the whole region. Now our apps encourage us to ignore the larger world, instead bringing us directly to the restaurant, the club, the party, the friend’s house, or, increasingly less likely, the library. During our trip, we may not know north from south, east from west, where we are in relationship to other parts of the city, or observe much about the areas we are passing through. If we are in a subway, we are not encouraged to develop any awareness of the larger transit system. The more effortless such travel, or purchasing needed goods, becomes, the more we transform ourselves into machines seeking, and centered around, the often thoughtless highs that movie makers, television creators, video game designers, and popular musicians, have become so expert at providing.
We thus reinvent ourselves as increasingly self-centered humans. We obtain our pleasures without any trouble; we just dial them up. Tech offers us exactly what we say we want, or even what it “thinks” we want, often guessing correctly. And so instead of stoking our curiosity about aspects of the world we do not know, it recreates us as individuals whose main task in life is to stay within our existing limits, consuming, posting photos, bragging, and later forgetting.
Here there is an unfortunate confluence with “identity politics.” Once it was much needed. I was young in a truly “don’t say gay” world, you would immediately lose your job for doing otherwise. Never mind trans people, considered freaks if even considered at all, just as gay people were officially characterized as suffering from a mental disorder. Women were treated as lesser than men to a degree far greater than is the case today. People of different races were discriminated against, insulted, disregarded, and even, especially if Black, murdered, also to a greater degree than today. The top universities had quotas limiting the number of Jews who could be admitted, and many law firms and corporations refused to employ Jews at all, also of course refusing Blacks and women. Encouraging everyone to enjoy the validity of their own existence has been a giant, if nowhere near completed, step forward.
But steps can step too far, as is the case when our senses of our identities are located less in the facts of our origins, what we have accomplished in life, and what we hope to accomplish in the future, but rather in what we are feeling about ourselves at this very moment. We are encouraged to conceive of ourselves as natural, beautiful, and self-validating, but also not subject to self-questionings, criticisms, or needs to change. Should not celebrating who we are go alongside asking what we can become?
I encountered flattened, frozen identities in 2017, when, deeply depressed by the election of Mr. Trump, I found my way to a Facebook page run by a Chicago Republican who I worked with briefly years earlier. I’ll call him Henry. I had found him intelligent and honest then. I began participating with the idea that no one who believed in facts, reason, our Constitution, and basic humane values, could possibly support Trump, whose life has been based on a denial of all four. His supporters must change their views, I thought, in the light of careful arguments. I would address some issue, offer information, and show, I thought irrefutably, why Trump was wrong. I made such a post early on; I cannot remember on what. Henry replied with something like, “Let me explain something to you. You hate Trump. Well, I hate Obama.” I read this and thought it so ridiculous, so much not an answer, that I ignored it. Big, big mistake. Henry had actually explained to me the essence of Trumpism. It is not public policy, such as Trump’s “beautiful” health care plan that apparently never existed. It is not facts nor reason. It is not fidelity to our Constitution, which Trump falsifies, denies, and violates. It is not keeping promises, as in our nuclear pact with Iran or our promise to protect the Kurds in return for their fighting and dying with us, or his promises to repay the buyers of his companies’ bonds or the contractors who worked for his businesses. It is hate, pure, unadulterated, personal hate, one person to another, or one person to a whole group. “Go back to your country,” Trump himself once said to four Americans of color in a centuries old racist trope. I should have seen the “truth” of Henry’s hatred post right away. He even offered me a second chance, replying to a link I posted to a Washington Post story with, if I remember right, this one-liner: “I hate Jeff Bezos.” Had I thought about these, rather than rejecting them outright as irrelevant to my idea of truth, I could have saved myself huge amounts of time in subsequent online argumentations, some of which were answered with similarly non-responsive assertions, such as “And he’s going to win in 2020,” which did help me to understand the way the “winning is the only thing” ethos of spectator sports has polluted our politics. In reply to my complaint about the incivility of our president’s calling a congressman “Adam Schitt,” someone replied to me, “He really is a shit.” Based on similar experiences, a request for evidence of this rather vague assertion would likely have gone unanswered. More than once a poster openly disparaged expertise. Lies and distortions were presented as “evidence.” To paraphrase Max Planck’s account of a meeting with a dictator who shall go unnamed here, “There are no terms with which one can speak to such men.”
Since I first started reading newspapers, newspaper prose has become increasingly dumbed down. Sentences are now simple and declarative, unqualified by the subordinate clauses that are perfect for expressing the nuances of an issue. The instant metrics made available through the Web tell editors which articles, and which headlines, get the most clicks. I would like to think that on their own, editors who care about the future of our nation and our world and who didn’t have to run a for-profit enterprise would not be prioritizing articles with headlines such as “The 50 Best Films to Stream on Netflix Right Now.” But like so much else today, newspapers have become vehicles for consumer satisfaction, not for helping us find truths. Two decades ago, a journalist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch told me he didn’t much like the transformation that newspapers were then undergoing, from trying to inform their readers to trying to become their friends. If your focus is on your self and your gratifications, rather than the world as whole, isn’t a new friend what you most wish for?
In a way that I find perhaps unduly frightening, headlines of news articles, in keeping with our takeover by consumerism, try to sell their articles to readers rather than simply stating the article subject, and editors can instantly see how successful a headlines is at its sales job, even testing one against another. But these market-tested headlines then often falsify the act of thoughtful reading. “Four Takeways From the President’s Speech,” or “Six Takeaways From the Ex-President’s Latest Indictment,” are now commonplace. I gag on the resemblance of “takeaway” to “takeout,” as in a food order. In any case, in the act of reading a news article, learning new facts, evaluating the statements of quoted experts, and attempting to form one’s own opinion, should be key parts of reading. Practical matters in our mass civilization are complex, and it would be quite reasonable when considering a thorough account of an issue for a reader to find no “takeaway,” just a series of unanswered questions for further contemplation or research. “Takeaway” connotes the falsifying reduction of an issue to a completed object, a flattening of language that is inimical to thinking. Constructing articles around “takeaways” to make journalism easier to consume is one hallmark of our collapse.
I largely stopped watching television after studying the 1988 presidential campaign by viewing hours of it each day, coming to understand how the whole campaign had become a theater of trivialities, from the infamous Willie Horton commercial to George H. W. Bush’s “successful” but substanceless attack on Dan Rather over an issue in which Bush seemed possibly guilty of something or other. I have since viewed entire seasons of some of the newly emerging “long form” TV series, praised in recent years as the modern equivalent of the novel. I mildly enjoyed some, found The Wire a bit more intelligent than the rest, but in the end got nothing from any. Then two different friends who had viewed all five seasons of The Wire, and whose tastes in literature (Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Balzac, George Eliot, Proust) I much admire, rejected it using almost exactly the same words, something like “The connections between its characters and stories are far too simple compared to the best literature.” My fear is that the best literature is little known to most TV viewers today. If you lower the level of your comparisons, from The Wire versus Balzac to The Wire versus Gilmore Girls, you will deny yourself the deepest possible human experiences.
Imagine a novel with a gripping story and engaging characters, but artlessly written in the blandest of prose. Your “takeaway” will be unambiguous escapist engagement, with little serious thought. That is my limited experience of long form TV. Most great films articulate themselves through a use of cinema: compositions, light, movements within the frame, camera movements, sound, and editing. The result are uniquely expressive spaces, paintings-in-time that represent the world both visually and, at times, also rhythmically, kin to the weave of words and sentences and prose rhythms in a fine novel, and giving the works contained in such forms the uniquely untranslatable qualities of art, never reducible to statements or themes. Escapist television instead offers “takeaways,” characters and story as easily-graspable objects rather than as the rounded mysteries a great work of visual expression can convey. It asks of the viewer a certain blindness, blindness to its attempt to render its photography and editing as transparent containers of content, replacing active viewing with passive identifications.
Even comparatively right-thinking TV can be a problem. Four years ago I viewed a few hours of Rachel Maddow while visiting a dear friend who has her program on as much as possible. I hated it. It seemed to me that its rapidity, loudness, and rhythm all discourage thought. Factoids are flung at the viewer one after another like a torrent of mudpies. But I can’t entirely blame Maddow; perhaps to survive in relation to the competition, you must crank your “volume” way up. To acclimate oneself to such conditions, however, is to also make it harder to appreciate attentive reading, a great painting viewed in silence, or the deeply engaging quietudes of much classical music.
Our children are growing up on the garbage flood of television, videos games, and especially social media, with little or no serious reading. The constant buzz of our culture, the popup messages and ads of the Internet, destroy the focus that reading requires. This barrage has its own blurring-out effect, each element to some extent cancelling the other, creating a noisy flood that levels everything to a drone of hypnotizing stimuli. It’s not hard to understand why an encounter with an art work that is so great that it stands above all else, that it moves one to tears, that it changes one’s life, seems less and less likely. One must start by approaching such a work with respect, and an openness to silence. It sadly makes sense that “awesome” no longer means “awe-inspiring,” but something more like “cool,” as in, a little better than what is around it. It is thus that we are being dulled to the very best human culture has to offer.
I could argue that even reading “junk” – I once struggled to get through a bad romance novel to see what the genre was like – still requires more intelligence, and imagination, than watching the equivalent on film or TV. In reading, you imagine what characters and scenes look like. You imagine movements, and dialogue. This all involves some degree of intellectual activity. It is easier to watch an immersive TV series, all its elements pre-digested for you, while it fills you with its characters, its sounds, its events, its detailed plotting. Doing so also makes one stupider.
Even better at making us stupider is the contents of our various “feeds,” endless streams of clickbait spiked with isolated, often lurid, facts that make little sense out of context. Trying to understand our world partly depends on trying to understand history, which is much devalued today. Posts on Facebook have grown increasingly cryptic, images or memes posted without explanation: if you’re sufficiently “cool,” you will already “know.” A few do post to ask. This online tumult disguises itself as information, itself disguised as knowledge, so that people who grow up with it, and without much reading, can be easily fooled. One of those might have been cryptocurrency trader Sam Bankman-Fried, thought to have been worth billions until he and his customers lost their illusory fortunes allegedly due to his own fraud. Before that, he told us that not only did he not read books, but that, “…if you wrote a book, you f—ed up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.” Blog posts, of course, are not known for their subtlety, complex analyses, careful marshalling of facts and logic, considerations of ethical principles, or references to history (Charles Ponzi, anyone?).
I now turn to the least-understood of our major arts, cinema, and begin by offering an apparently trivial example of flattening that also stands for much more. Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo is acknowledged to be one of the greatest in film history, a consensus with which I agree. The flattening involves Hitchcock not at all, but the digital versions of this film offered long after his death.
The original film began with the Paramount Pictures logo, a mountain with a “crown” of stars, as films from this studio did in 1958. This logo image appears in the film in black and white, as it would for a black and white film. But the next image, of a portion of the mysterious face that continues throughout the credits, is flesh color, which later becomes a more monochromatic dark red. The black and white opening has fooled us. Gradually more color enters the credits, though never the full spectrum. The logo had announced a black and white film; are we dreaming? There are rotating abstract geometrical shapes, but with only minimal depth effects. The dark blue night scene that follows is also rather monochrome. The scene after that is brighter, but still dominated by a single color, in this case yellow. The next, in an office, is mostly brown. Madeleine, the beautiful woman that is to be a principal subject, appears only after 18 minutes, in a close-up whose suddenly brightening background suggests she could be an illusion. The dominant color of that scene is red. In fact, the full spectrum of colors arguably only enters the film about 21 minutes in, when Madeleine visits a flower shop. Hitchcock thereby subliminally suggests that his entire film is a gathering illusion, and one reading even suggested, implausibly in my view, that almost all of the film could be taken as one character’s death fantasy. The cinematic magic here is partly to be found in the gradual emergence not only of color but of this climaxing in the cluttered flower shop, its details a faint echo of the graphics of the credits but much lusher than anything we have seen thus far. Reality is shown as somewhat unsteady, even hypnotic.
As the film continues, its use of cinema as art becomes ever more apparent. The alluring colors are balanced by a calculated compositional formalism common in Hitchcock. When we cut to a high or low angle image, the change is calculated both in relationship to the narrative at that moment and in terms of its destabilizing effect on the film’s space. Destabilization is indeed a central theme. We twist and turn left and right, sometimes rising and falling within the same few seconds, as in the car pursuit scene that leads to the flower shop. The power of all of this is greatly enhanced by the feeling that it has magically sprouted from that first flat black and white image. The studio logo is not perceived as being a part of most films; in Vertigo, it surely is.
To view the film digitally, however, as most would today, is to have this entire effect destroyed. Universal Pictures had purchased the rights from Paramount, and we begin not with their black and white logo but with a highly ornate, loudly rhythmic, brightly colored and almost pornographically aggressive, especially in comparison to the film that follows, three-dimensional Universal logo. The effect of a carefully calculated progression of cinematic difference, of a possibly illusory world emerging from black and white, is flattened when we begin with computer generated illusions far “louder” than anything in the following film; the calibrated changes that follow barely noticeable in comparison. The aggressiveness of our current culture, reaching for the most obvious of kinetic effects, trumps (pun intended) subtle distinctions, reducing the film’s initial minutes to rubble. This is what is happening all around us: subtle difference is replaced with unsubtle manipulations that drown out any competition, just as advertising is replacing writing and raw emotion substituting for thinking. This is also the effect of Trump’s own eight-year “feed” of distortions, falsehoods and threats; their volume leaves us no breathing room to notice all the lies. Few commented when Trump declared, at least twice as president, that the Constitution gives him “absolute” power, making him a dictator. The effect here is not only a political one: it devalues the human mind.
The great Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka, above Hitchcock on my personal list, uses the word “articulation” to refer to cuts between two shots, or the editing together of a sound with an image, or for related conjunctions. Some version of meaning, whether verbally translatable or not, is produced by such juxtapositions. Any idea of meaning, by contrast, is obliterated in today’s chaos.
Examples such as the Vertigo credits demonstrate the effacement, but also characterize much of our viewings of film on video. We begin with a DVD box logo, whether on the box or, more troublingly, on screen. Advertising must come first. Yet a great film, whether Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Stan Brakhage’s silent and “abstract” The Text of Light (a pairing that, to be fair, Brakhage himself strenuously objected to when I made it in an earlier essay while he was still living), establishes itself not as a series of stories or pictures, but as deeply expressive visual spaces in which each tiny part reinforces every other, so that how the space begins is a crucial part of it, and noise that interferes does so only to art’s detriment.
With some care, one can try to solve the logo problem. I can cue Vertigo to its true opening when showing it to students. I can advise students to do that themselves when viewing Vertigo, or any other film, at home even if some will not, and even though DVD players will sometimes not hold such a cue in place for long, and in any event cueing the film will expose you to seeing what precedes it.
There is also a rather literal kind of flattening at work when viewing films in most digital formats. Some students, seeing the same film on DVD and on projected celluloid, correctly note that the film version has a greater feeling of depth, a more life-like presence. Part of the reason for that may be that the film strip is never completely flat in the projector gate, but can vary slightly in its positioning, and because of that the image seems to breathe. Another reason may be related to differences between analog and digital technology, which one can notice when comparing CDs to vinyl on a high-quality system. With Vertigo, and many other films of its era, we have the added problem that its release prints were produced by a process that no longer exists, in which they were not made photochemically but with a printing closer to lithography, IB Technicolor, meaning that a wider choice of color dyes was available than those amenable to photographic chemistry. The hues of an original IB print have a prime-color vividness, an intense purity, greater than that found in the photographically made prints one can see of any film in the rare theater that shows films on film today. Some original IB release prints do survive, and are occasionally screened. If you ever have the rare chance to see one, and especially if the film is Vertigo, which calls for great vividness, do take it.
There are still other kinds of flattening in viewing films digitally. Have you darkened the room? Ambient will reduce the contrast, and the power, of the imagery. Do you view the film without interruption, taking care to use the bathroom before starting it? Do you view it in silence, or chatter with your companions? Do you turn off your phone? if you are viewing it on a computer, is it open to popup alerts and sounds for things such as text messages – and do you stop to the film to check them, or check them while leaving the film running, or ignore them as you should during any film? Are you, in other words, giving an art work the full attention and care necessary to either be moved by its greatness or to make an informed determination that you don’t find it very good?
Then too, where have you positioned yourself in relation to the screen? I am not alone in observing that an old style movie theater had some resemblance to a temple, or a church. One directs one’s attention to a large screen, which was often located above one’s line of sight. Silence was encouraged. The movie, if a worthy one, took over your consciousness. All too often, all that took you over was the escapist reduction of cinema to the characters and story fostered by an artless use of the medium, but even then, at least those were taken seriously, without the ironic undertone that informs so many of our responses today, perhaps an inevitable result of the excesses of our “feeds.” But if the film be great cinema, one can be captivated by light, color, movement, rhythm, and the particular ways in which compositions can constitute paintings-in-time. To have hope of seeing any of this, you have to approach each film with an openness and humility when so many feel superior, and separated from, most all things, even the miraculous ones, that one encounters throughout one’s life. Indeed, the very idea that a great work can be miraculous, a visionary transformation of seeing and hearing and thinking, a complex experience that changes the viewer forever, rarely surfaces today in discussions of any of the arts.
Also today, many view films on their phones. “What?!?!?@%#,” I might ask. Then the position of the screen is not only no longer fixed, but adjustable to whatever position one sits or lies in or otherwise occupies. Likely the space is not dark. The film image becomes just another consumer object in a room likely filled with them. This may be fine, even preferable, for a film whose absence of cinematic merit suggests that the images be seen mostly in terms of their content, but is utterly destructive of visual art. Yet it fits our current ethos, in which we no longer care to “know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception,” in Stan Brakhage’s memorable phrase, but as our inferior-to-us possessions, even as our personal fashion accessories. In an art school critique a few years ago in which a student’s interestingly fleshy abstract painting suggested to me that she might also find the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch of interest, I asked her if she knew his work. At first she drew a blank, but then suddenly brightened and said, “Oh, I have a pair of Bosch Doc Martens.” Instead of regarding the best art as a mystery, even a miracle, something outside oneself to approach as a seeker after understanding, something that might require a journey to, oh, say, Madrid to experience fully, we regard it as something for self-adornment.
In 2010. I returned to teaching after a long absence, as a part time instructor at first one, and then another, arts school in Chicago, mostly on cinema but with one of my courses also focused on other arts. I have loved doing this, and found students excellent, interested, and responsive. One must reject the common instructor complaints about the ignorance of “these kids today,” which, it turns out, go back thousands of years, and I believe largely stem from the teacher comparing their present state of knowledge to those of their students, conveniently forgetting how little they themselves knew at 18. It does seem, however, that fewer are serious readers than would have been the case a few decades ago. Also worth noting are the changes in some of the words students use, even in the thirteen years since 2010. (I mean such observations in no way to critique individual students, but rather to read in these choices indications of current culture.) More often now, a work is praised for being “relatable.” That can be noticed, but how important should it be? Such praises are usually connected to a character or a plot situation; only occasionally to a theme, and not yet, in my observations, to aesthetic form. The OED has two citations for this use of the word, but both are to finding other people relatable, not a cultural product, suggesting this usage for art works may be recent. My half-joking riposte would be that I long for the student who says, “I was fascinated by the Fritz Lang films that we viewed, and found them very relatable, because in in my abstract color field paintings I have been struggling to use rectangles to suggest spaces beyond what is enclosed by the canvas edges, and that is what Lang does in his films. I feel I can learn so much from them.” The unlikelihood of such a comment signals that “relatable” usually indicates a response to a film reduced to its characters and story. Prose is sometimes praised for being “digestible,” truly consumerist language. In uses of this word, students seem to mean, “not too hard to read.” But is initially hard to read always a bad thing? Some of my favorite writing gave me serious indigestion at first, before multiple rereads and a little thinking revealed how wonderful it is. Some of my greatest experiences of art have been with works that I not only do not find “relatable” in the usual ways, but whose ideologies I abhor. It is one of the worst forms of flattening that in reducing our judgment of a work to a disagreement with its ideology, we obliterate the very separate qualities an art work usually has from an essay or a manifesto.
The language used for describing films has also changed. A forward camera movement is said to be a “push in.” There are a few camera movements in which the camera really does appear to push; most are more gentle. A director or actor who does a great job is said to have “crushed the scene,” or even “killed the scene.” What is the reason for these words of aggression? Are they needed because more polite praise would not stand out against the chaos of verbiage that engulfs us? If language is defined through usage, then “kills” now seems to mean “does a great job with.” Is this a change we should welcome? A great job to me would mean that the scene not only breathes together with the rest of the film, but also lives on in one’s memory, growing in vividness and beauty. No scene should, in other words, be “killed,” a usage that suggests fixity. “Simplistic” is now used as a word of praise, rather than with the disparaging meaning it still, if one can believe dictionaries, primarily has. Does this usage mean that complexity is now disliked? Another word that has grown in popularity is “showcase.” It is now used as a verb, to mean “show.” Why add the extra syllable? Doing so connects the word to the superficiality of a “showcase” displaying its wares. Both reek of the ethos of the distracted consumer.
Sometime around the 1980s, if not a bit earlier, people began recounting conversations by stating, “She told me her opinion, and I was like, ‘I disagree.’” “I was all, ‘I disagree’” was, and still is, another option. One researcher has suggested that this evolved from the use of the word “like” as a kind of devoid-of-meaning filler, as in “I was, like, speeding,” said by someone high on speed. Initially “was like” for “said” was thought to be a passing fad, but it has now become acceptably mainstream. I would argue that, unlike the uses of “like” as a filler, this usage has a deep ideological bias. “I said, I disagree” suggests that you are taking responsibility for a position that you might be open to changing. “I was like,” or, “I was all” conflates your position with your identity. Once this is done, the individual is more likely to feel frozen in that position, as it is a declared to be part of the self, of one’s “brand.” Changing opinions has long been disparaged in American politics too, even though it should be a sign of an intelligent rethinking, or response to new information or a change in a situation. This is one way in which we are starting to lose the complexities and contradictions of any sensitivity to a changing world, becoming more static and predictable, akin to static consumer objects – and admired by some for sticking to our “brand,” ignoring emerging new realities. It should be no surprise that despite some individual efforts and the enlightened policies of a few small nations, we are collectively doing absolutely nothing to mitigate the long term effects of climate change. It isn’t even that we don’t choose to disregard the future of our children, or of all life on earth; we simply do not think about them. This is reflected in our news sources, which focus mostly on present climate disasters, and how to mitigate their effects on us right now, not on how we might change our collective behaviors for the sake of the future.
Our stress on our own identities above all else is blatantly manifest in selfie culture. All over the world, visitors to amazing locations, to scenes of great beauty, come to appreciate looking at them, but at the same time the main purpose of many others seems to be to take, and post, selfies. In this way, as in others already noted, the assertion of the self seems to have become more important than looking at the world. The supposedly spectacular Oregon canyon I was unable to visit last year is doubtless not the only site that is now closed because it is considered unsafe due to hordes of selfie-takers. Many art history instructors now require that students prove they have seen an art work in person by submitting a selfie of themselves in front of it. I might argue that this encouragement of selfie-taking, which will undoubtedly have the subliminal effect of refocusing one’s attention in a museum visit, is more damaging than risking that students view such works in reproduction.
I hope I am not alone in finding much in common between taking the time to gather facts and apply reason as a way of thinking through a complex issue, as happens in some of our best writing but rarely in our daily journalism, and the structures of those art works that are constructed of complex relationships between parts, which the viewer must take time and care to navigate through. Not all art can be described in this way; if there is any single truth about art that we should have learned from the last century, it is that anything can make a great work. I speak now of works with many moving parts interrelating and interconnecting, work with which an encounter requires time and attention and perhaps further encounters, as it comes to enrich your thinking, deepen your intelligence, even encourage you to change aspects of your identity — and can bring enormous pleasures unlike any other. If you don’t find these works relatable, well, they are not supposed to be. They take you out of your personal self, offer you different ways of seeing and thinking, deepen your sense of what it means to be human by allowing you enter into consciousnesses other than your own. Such art offers an ecstasy true to the word’s etymology, “I stand out of.” It deepens and expands us. Instead of occupying an instant, it occurs in time.
Art occupies time in many ways. Its formal complexity can take the viewer a while to fully apprehend. It took me years to appreciate Rembrandt, but then, suddenly, whammo! Artists speak in different languages, and depending on your experiences and biases a new language can take some time to learn. One virtue of the much-derided canon is that it identifies artists whose work has offered sublime experiences to different people in different cultures and eras. That alone might encourage one to take time, and make multiple tries, with an artist whose work does not register at first. (Of course doing so should never discourage any art viewer from taking time with the work of lesser-known artists; that is how any canon should be formed, and reformed.)
Time is involved with art one loves more immediately too. First, there is always more to see, to absorb, to understand while one stands in front of the painting, reads and rereads the book, or sees and resees the film. There is more too in memory after the encounter ends. Then, if we view art from a period and a culture quite different from our own, the consciousnesses we so encounter will likely surprise us. Do we learn only by looking in a mirror, or also by looking at others? That so many are interested only in recent art is another sign of searching for what is most accessible to us, while rejecting otherness; of wishing to stand on familiar ground rather than expanding one’s sense of possible seeings and thinkings. Chinese landscape painting from the Song Dynasty of a thousand years ago is nothing like our art today, not Western and from what I have seen not modern Chinese either. It suggests ways of being in the world, and in the world of nature, foreign to us and likely not fully decipherable now, but that, at the very time we are ignoring nature while destroying our planet, we sorely need.
Choices of favorite artists and favorite art works are somewhat arbitrary, and subject to change when coming from any active viewer, but declaring a favorite is one way of calling attention to something one loves. For some years now I have named as my favorite piece of architecture in Chicago, the city in which I live, Louis Sullivan’s Getty Tomb. Its almost cubic shape sits on a base, is topped by an unusual roof, and divides into two parts in its midsection. The walls in the upper part are heavily ornamented with Sullivan’s brilliant, nature-inspired patterns. The lower part has bare limestone walls punctuated on one face by a highly ornate metal gate. To view it is to be almost immediately struck by the tension, or dare I say “articulation,” between strong solid geometrical shapes and delicate traceries. Colliding as they do at the center, revealing as one steps back a somewhat serrated roof, the shapes come together with that untranslatable fusion that recalls for me Ezra Pound’s definition of an image as an “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” If you visit, and do not see ineffable beauties in this combination, look again. Walk short distances in the same cemetery to Sullivan’s own tomb, not designed by him but adorned with one of his designs, and then to Sullivan’s very different Ryerson Tomb. Visit his Wainwright Building and Wainwright Tomb in St. Louis. Once you feel you “get” these, you might be ready for the surpassing pleasures of his late banks.
One of the worst depredations of our current culture is the reduction of art to political and ideological messages. Many art works do have these. Perhaps Sullivan does too. There is a not totally implausible gay reading of his architecture. But a key to understanding art is to realize that its effects are somewhat walled-off, fortress like, from our everyday experience and the exegeses of language. Many artists themselves have asserted this. William Butler Yeats, in his late poem, The Circus Animals’ Desertion, critiques some of his early work as having been inspired by his own lusts, and then ends with unforgettably uncommon metaphoric images for the things he must now search for. Otherness is part of what makes the experiences art offers so valuable. They offer ways of seeing and thinking that cannot be reduced to anything less than themselves. We already know a whole range of feelings from our daily lives. Art offers something else, tying evocations of such feelings in a knot of enchanting perceptual complexities that take us out of the quotidian. The other related essential to understanding is that one does not have to “agree,” or even find relatable, the politics or themes or ideologies one thinks one finds in a work in order to appreciate it. Quite the contrary, its beauties, constituting an argument for its themes, and can cause the viewer moved by the aesthetics to believe those themes, even if only for a little while.
When it comes to preferences, I long identified Paul Cézanne as my favorite painter. Albrecht Dürer might have been next on my list, but then after a large Dürer show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington focused on his works on paper from the Albertina in Vienna, he joined Cézanne at the top. Since not that many Dürer paintings survive, and many museums will be reluctant to let them travel, large Dürer shows are relatively rare, but I have been able to see seven big museum exhibits of Cézanne since my first, in 1971, and each illuminated different aspects of his work. Coming to understand an artist can indeed be a lifetime’s journey.
I can best speak of Cézanne by using contradictions. In my late teens, for reasons I cannot identify, I had a print of a Cézanne landscape tacked to my wall. Unlike the Renoir that I also had, but soon rejected as syrupy, static, and just plain awful, the Cézanne never seemed to reduce to a moment or a feeling. On the one hand its lines and volumes seemed frozen in time; on the other they never became a gently harmonious composition.
In the best of his later works, nothing seems out of place, but the work is also ever-changing. Seen from certain perspectives, an entire picture can look like a failure, as if it is “about” its inability to come together. Surely it is intentional that while at times seeming frozen, it never reaches stasis. The work struggles against itself, as if each part is passed through the eyes of a child learning to see, trying to figure out its place is in the larger composition. One also thinks of looking at any object in nature. The edges seem defined, until they are not. Is there anything that seems peculiar to the eyes about the area just outside the edge of an actual piece of fruit? There surely often is in Cézanne’s still lifes. Is he not being true to the details of eyesight that we try to ignore when we look at an apple and think of it only as something to eat? Everything in his pictures lives not among the familiar emotions that many painters bake into their works, a style that Rainer Maria Rilke, writing on Cézanne, called “the painting of sentiments.” Cézanne rather explores a level before our humanizing eyes and minds have reduced things to our the everyday. His subject is neither objects nor emotions, but the paradoxes of perception itself, and his objects occupy a state before living things seemed to settle down into what “alive” customarily means. The viewer is inside the painting, struggling to put it together, to make sense of it all; to, in a profound sense, complete it. These art works live in a perpetual process of becoming themselves, never undergoing what Henry James, in an early short story, called a painting’s “final process, its reduction to unity.”
At 15 I began to discover, and love, classical music. There was a classical DJ in New York who called himself Watson. He played Bach and Mozart, and his all-night program began with its “theme song,” the uncannily beautiful duet from Bach’s Cantata No. 78. Hearing its opening multiple times in a row opened up Bach for me.
A Bach fugue makes my case for the value of complexity in art. You hear the fugue theme solo at first, and then other voices enter repeating it one after the next. As a dense polyphonic texture is woven to perfection, the music will continue without the theme at all, and we are surprised by hearing it reenter in one voice or another, the intervening material every bit as beautiful. I might only half-jokingly say that I also find a message here, which I will now reductively mistranslate: “Here is a theme (or, an idea); here it is changed by being heard in a different context, so that we see how important context is; here it is even heard against itself; here are continuations of the thought without it being literally restated that go off in different directions and suggest new but related thoughts; here it is again, both the same and further transformed. Many things are true, and can remain true on repetitions in different environments. They also change, and yet can in some ways remain true.” The nuances suggested by my storytelling are meant to evoke subtleties and shadings I often find lacking today.
True polyphony at its best, the type that informed much of Western music from before 1200 to Bach’s death in 1750, will always make my case. The listener navigates through a forest that few, certainly not I, can fully parse, but that seems all the more beautiful for its irreducibility. Every listen means hearing it anew. Every moment requests maximum attentiveness. The listener comes to feel as if their soul is interwoven into the music’s fabric in an inarticulable dance. “Dance” is important here, because even as I listen in a chair or lying on a bed, my body is invoked along with my mind, and with vague feelings that there is more at stake than either of those of my aspects, which is why we have words such as “spirit” and “soul.”
Bach’s largest group of works are his cantatas, vocal compositions in multiple movements which can include choruses, chorales, arias, duets, recitatives, and instrumental sinfonias. Most are sacred, and performed in Lutheran church services; a minority are secular. Bach wrote about 300; some 100 are lost. One way of describing them is as a kind of inventory of the possibilities of human experience, from despair to joy, from faith to its absence, from certainty to doubt, from longing to restfulness. The words are brilliantly articulated by voices and accompanying instruments in melodies that often engage in “word painting,” illustrating the meanings of the texts in varied ways. When I first started listening to these works intensively, I also explored the word painting through reading Albert Schweizer’s study of Bach, and was a bit annoyed; such imitative mechanics seemed like a trivialization to me. Partly in reaction I would often listen to a cantata for the first time without knowing the German text or its meaning, but then there were times, as when in Cantata 21 the soprano sings “Komm, mein Jesu” and the bass replies “Ja, ich komme,” when you get the meaning anyway. In the end, I realized that many works can have seemingly “trivial” aspects that are transformed beyond their obvious effects into key parts in the larger whole.
There came a day in the late 90s when, after a long period of not having been able to listen to music at home, I played Ton Koopman’s cantata recordings on my new though cheap system. In the opening aria of Cantata 24, a singer is accompanied by strings, both playing, in a manner characteristic of the cantatas, the same melody but at different times, the voice echoing the instrument. For reasons I still do not understand, something happened to me that that had never happened before in Bach, despite many years of listening, but that has happened more than once since. Suddenly I felt I was inside the music, helping it come together, almost as if I were composing it while listening. While unlike with Cézanne, there were certainly emotions being expressed, they moved into the background, and I was amidst the music’s structure – something that had long already been happening to me with Bach’s instrumental fugues. This feeling supports my critique of our current culture, a critique I had not developed very far by the late 90s. I was no longer experiencing the music on the level of my daily passive encounters with feeling and living, or with receiving feelings in typical ways such as talking with a friend, but actively, as co-creator. I had become far more intelligent, far more capable human being due to my active participation in these complexities. Something quite similar happened some two decades later at the Dürer exhibit referred to above. I had always thought of Dürer’s paintings as evoking a certitude, a solidity though also with intricateness, the permanence of a sculpture, or at least, of an object created by a fine silversmith. But now, seeing the drawings and prints together with some of the paintings, even the most apparently fixed of the paintings seemed to become the process of reconstructing it at every second of my viewing. That continues to happen when I see Dürer paintings I had already seen earlier.
As long as I am presenting the strongest arguments I can for the value of art as independent of the identity of the artist, its theme, or its ideology, but also as freeing the viewer from needing to agree or disagree with any of those in the process of appreciating it, by using some of my personal favorites, I will turn in closing to my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I could easily make an argument for why he is not at all the greatest English poet; in many ways, Shakespeare is clearly greater, and it would not surprise me to learn that Hopkins had agreed with this assessment. Still, Hopkins is my favorite.
Like Cézanne and Bach, Hopkins has also been a love since my teens. A Victorian, his work can seem ornate, even mannered. But it has a hardness, the hardness of diamond, or as he might write of “immortal diamond,” that one cannot find in most of his contemporaries. The sounds and rhythms of his verse alternate between the sonorous smoothness of Thomas Gray’s famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (but in Hopkins’s verse, better) and harsh collisions:
Whether at once, as once at a crash Paul,
Or as Austin, a lingering-out swéet skíll,
…in which, in the context of the poem, “crash” and “Paul” are one-syllable-long metric feet, thus spoken more slowly and more heavily stressed than otherwise, giving a striking irregularity of stresses to the line and hence a coloration to the event described, the conversion of St. Paul, consistent with the suddenness and even violence with which it is usually portrayed.
I started with Hopkins’s short lyrics – Pied Beauty would be one suggestion for a new reader — and as is best with any poem one loves, memorized many. The two lines quoted above are from his longest poem, the 35 stanza The Wreck of the Deutschland. This is a hard one. Hopkin’s closest friend and fellow poet, Robert Bridges, refused to even reread it, later calling it “the dragon in the gate” that bars entrance to Hopkins’s work. It does have difficult syntax and many obscure references, but if you simply read its first stanza enough times, it should be clear that it is verse of amazing power. Hopkins wrote using what he called “spring rhythm,” which allowed one or many syllables for each metrical foot, rather than for example iambic pentameter, five feet with two syllables per foot, a weak followed by a strongly stressed one. Hopkins’s rhythms are, by contrast, less predetermined; his use of mixtures of feet of various syllabic lengths together with his extreme sensitivity to word sounds produces effects forceful and quiet, harsh and soft, violent and gentle. His poems feel as if they had the strength and permanence of a jeweled stone, but with constant pressure needed to hold it together, creating a feeling of an architecture filled with active tensions. His subject is a shipwreck, which interested him because on it died five nuns exiled from Germany by anti-Catholic laws. And, yes, Hopkins was Catholic, a Jesuit priest. He had converted from the Church of England, and like many converts sometimes seemed more Catholic than the Pope. It took me years before I understood that when he wrote of “the lost” in his poems, he meant only one thing, people who were not Catholic.
His poem is in part a shipwreck narrative. It is also a meditation on the dual nature of God, creator of storms and of shelters, violent and kind, who binds our bodies together and can take them apart. The verses’ tensions are constantly being altered by evocations of movement, what sometimes feel like rolling rhythms evoking rises and falls of the sea, leading to an “ocean of a motionable mind” which can be calmed by the God that underlies all things. Indeed, throughout the poem the visible manifestations of the world are described as intertwined with the “master of the tides.”
The poem is also, from beginning to end, one gigantic prayer. We don’t even get to the “story” until the twelfth stanza. The impatient fans of Hollywood movies would presumably be unlikely to make it past the first few, because the “plot” takes so long to get moving.
After several attempts, I began reading it seriously together with the booklength commentary I needed to understand phrases such “Tarpeian-fast.” In the process of rereading, I found myself memorizing it until knowing about two thirds, and with its words and rhythms running around in my head I set out to learn the rest. Memorizing a poem is another way of offering it attention and care, and what I have also found in choosing to memorize a less than great poem that I very much like is that it will not sustain memorization because you don’t much want to say it again when it has ceased to reward repeated attentions. This is never the case with Hopkins. His unusual use of word sounds and meanings and rhythm cut into consciousness like a scalpel, outlining the objects and the concepts invoked with the precision of, well, a Dürer, but also causes them feel almost invasive in their vividness. Sound, rhythm, and meaning all come together, and I feel myself becoming both the ideas and objects and the music with which they are rendered.
There is, also, an ideology. It is a thoroughly Catholic one. Hopkins brings his long search for the meaning of the shipwreck – how could God have taken the lives of five already-persecuted nuns? – to a close by wondering if their deaths “on English shores” could serve to cause the conversion of “rare-dear Britain” to the Roman Catholic faith. His prayer concludes with the wish that it will.
The Pope at the time Hopkins wrote his poem was also Pope when he converted, and while originally somewhat of a liberal, was now reprehensibly ultra-conservative. Most today who read about this Pope’s involvement in the case of a kidnapped Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara (hint: despite international protests the Pope refused to return him and had him raised in the Vatican to be a priest who never wanted to see his family again) will agree. This Pope favored of a theocratic authoritarian state in which other religions would be treated as inferior to his. Not only am I not Catholic, but some aspects of Catholic doctrine even today are reprehensible to me.
So why is it that when I arrive at the final stanza of this magnificent poem, I feel even after five decades of reading not completely removed from tears, and still more improbably find myself praying along with the poet for the conversion of Britain? Why is it that I always recite the final stanza at close to half the speed of the rest? Why does it take me a minute or two after the final phrase, “our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord,” to recover my original identity? And most of all, why do I feel like I am so much more of a better person each of the many times I have gone through this process of losing myself to the heart and soul of another?
It is my genuine hope that the words I have written here might lead to an answer.
© Fred Camper 2023
Fred Camper is an artist, writer, and teacher, who lives in Chicago. His book, Seeking Brakhage, was published earlier this year.