2006 (essay response)
I brought Rilke up -a little lazily -because that confession in the night question is the still the key question to reassure the serious and challenge the art puppies nipping at the socks.
It's important to remember, as late stage capitalism threatens to make Blade Runner look like It's a Wonderful Life, that the urge to create is nearly universal among people, and the mere fact we channel it into shopping and commodified labor says nothing about our capabilities, only our vulnerabilities. (And as I write this in the cafe, there is literally a table of marketers next to me "trying to adopt the artistic mind-set process," underscoring non-profit organization "social networks'" "psychodemographics as opposed to demographics." And now the guy pretending to have the magic of artistic process just dropped the word the word "mindshare," and connected it to "community." I am restraining myself with some difficulty, imagining as I am the perfect "Clop" and tinkling sound my cracking the coffee cup over his head would make, not to mention the screaming. "We need to bring people together in real ways." Every second of this endless self-congratulatory greedy drivel is pushing me I ask myself: What Would Utah Phillips do? Probably whack them with that "sockful of puppy shit we call a culture.")
Art, - as profession and sublimity - is a special case of creativity, when it is pursued to an obsessive degree from a repeated impulse of individual necessity toward the exploration of the baroque permutation of truths observed and worked from within specific phenomena, often, in the case of painting and sculpture, by thinking within the phenomenology of material. Draw, write, compute, re-create -expand the envelope of what can be known and what is possible through explorative action, communicate it, and you've struck something that could be Art. Even Science may be a special case of Art - the same impulses drive it, the same obsessive observation, the same bringing of nothing into knowing. Art is freed of necessary function, but by giving up universal clarity, it is capable of attempting to track the whole impulse of the human mind at once.
But we all crave making. I wandered into the ceramics studio the other days and threw about 6 pots - satisfying, mediocre pots....a lot of people there, smart students otherwise, poking and pounding clay like six year olds. Something about it, ceramics at college, usually a stand in joke for misplaced pride in a lopsided ashtray, something about it that stands in for what people can't be anymore without being hobbyists: harmless, neuter, unmarketable, irrelevant.
So many people face an endless, dreamless bureaucratic life - and there so many gatekeepers to Art, of which I'm a minor one, so many reasons to wither at 19. (Kids these days: smart and meek and betrayed by our convenience, with their abilities to build and give less relevant to our markets that their manufactured desires.)
I believe there are plenty of good poets - more than ever, I suspect, like good musicians and artists, but even the greatest mastery cannot much stir a world producing endless fountains of Product. Art exists when a hair goes to one side of a blade, and not the other, and it's intrinsic delicacy makes it extremely fragile. I think the kind of obsessively clean, minimalistic, cold and empty style which has dominated since Warhol is an embrace of delicate futility, where presenting the simple absence of social noise is considered sufficient to be artistic.
The aspirants have even less chance than the students or the masters, but they will be rewarded, oh so rewarded, for making the right purchase.
But those endless schools of would be poets and writers and artists and physicists (yes it must be said - physics and mathematics as philosophy is just as highly impractical a career choice) are coming from people who are taught that their fundamental abilities are completely replaceable, our communities are interchangeable, and their lives are best lived in constant worry, false certainty, and commodified desire. Who wouldn't want an alternative? Art seems like an out - so does music, so do sports-to act, to be human, to be individually recognized. Your disposable life at Best Buy isn't gonna cut it. Facing their disposability, interchangeability and their individual irrelevance before mass culture, why not try, try to be an artist, a rock star, a poet, a B-Ball god, an evangelist zombie, or Paris Hilton? If the society teaches you that your already reified labor is done more cheaply by even more anonymous people in even more anonymous places, if it cannot offer you a place, a reasonable sense of meaning and identity, what is your plan?
Today, you can even forget trying to go into single family farming in America. Finally, we're weeding out those lazy bastards and their gold-bricking economic inefficiencies.
But in the modern world, the outs are also are professionalized social roles, wholly capitalist creatures, and it's hardly a new observation that in non-industrial societies art, music, politics, poetry, games, hunting, gathering, making and spirituality were done by nearly all and share a particular quality of full expression and participation - and aside from endless centuries of poverty, uncertainty and iron-clad social roles, it's kind of appealing.
I'm not an anarchist (or AM I?) but all this techno-industrial candy, with all its promise, is not making us our best selves. Polls pointing to growing social isolation and expressions of intense American loneliness do not bode well.
Witness the absurd - and dangerous and historically recent - rise of fundamentalism in so many religions- which is partly, I think, a toxic reaction to the disease of social isolation. That disconnect is felt with particular intensity among young 2nd generation Muslims in Europe, and we're seeing the results.
But Americans are feeling a version of the same thing, good old-fashioned alienation with a new intensity from mass-culture, ubiquitous marketing, dissolution of community, and escalating economic insecurity. They turn to art, to religion, to fantasy, to truly impossible dreams of celebrity or riches.
Interesting, just Friday, I happened to walk into a bookstore on Capitol Hill and bought The White Goddess; perhaps pre-industrial societies were better at creating a sense of our meaning.
I don't say go back. I do say: look out.