The critic discusses the medicine, the artist administers it. It is neither the job of the creative artist nor the creative critic to make you feel good. It is not our job to provide hope, but truth. The artist gives you truth at all costs. The critic – merely interprets and records what is before him and tries to illuminate certain things we prefer to keep in an artist’s shadow. Or his closet.
Once you have usurped true creativity with an eye towards consumerism and advertising culture you have turned your back from the North Star and have settled on the ethos of Madison Avenue. When banks become proselytizers of culture instead of the individual artist you are in a wasteland.
And wastelands are living death brought to realization by inability to imagine.
I want to make it clear that I do not have a romantic view of humanity. I don’t think we are God’s gift to the planet. In fact, if there was a God I don’t think it would create a species as deranged and undignified as we are. That being said, it is important to state this because one of our only great accomplishments or aspects (“accomplishments” might be too big a word) is our stretch for truth and beauty and understanding in our self-expression. Our art.
In a remarkable discussion one evening over dinner, activist and social worker Susan Kingsland once remarked that the “Left have lost their ability to imagine.” This sent shivers down my spine as I related this to the problem of the radical left’s arm: the arts. Both art and activism alike seem to be adrift, repeating the same mistakes, declaring the same problems, arriving at the well-trampled solutions. An unwritten scenario for a film developed in my head about a radical Left-Wing couple whose relationship deteriorates as they can no longer find new ways of promoting progressive ideas and enacting immediate positive change in society, regardless of how dangerous the ramifications are to their own life.
Poet and filmmaker Vagabond later wrote, “the autopsy report on our extinction will be filed under lack of imagination.”
The great theater director Peter Brook once wrote that man could easily exist without art. That it was not an essential part of being alive; unlike air, water, literal sustenance…touch even. Competition perhaps. And laughter. One wonders if those are some of the vital essentials to actual living.
Struggle, justice, even money – comes into being only when one considers the extraordinary efforts mankind has put into creating his own ecology, with his face as God.
Oppression and vulgar transgressions committed create the need for justice and liberation and tools to cope with burden, trauma, and madness. And while they are natural responses – I often wonder if they are natural alone in themselves.
‘Everyone likes a good story,” a young advertising executive remarked smugly, once in an elevator, as he was responding to the overwhelming success of the children’s movie, “Shrek.”
I wanted to say, to ask: “Do they?” Does everyone enjoy a good story? If so, what does that even mean?
Sitting around the fire and authoring the first mythologies and rules of drama may have developed out of man’s need for answers, for gods, for religions. The more pain we have the more Gods we create (listen to John Lennon’s masterpiece “God”) but what about the most vital aspect to actual living? Fighting is not an essential element to living. Survival may be. But if you have to choose between who gets the one piece of bread amongst three people – that state is not man-made, it is simply nature. You were born into a crisis you had no control over. Man-made catastrophe is something else. Diseases, war, poverty, rape --- these are pathologies and qualities of derangement. Some would even say evil. Others would gleefully concede “It’s just the traits of a Capitalist society. And those who can’t keep up are destroyed, left behind…”
But that’s not what obsesses the mind in crisis – nor is that what impedes health during a holocaust.
Let’s go back to the top of the stairs.
What is essential?
Certainly not another movie.
Certainly not another badly written play.
Certainly not another excuse for one to promote themselves.
Stanislavski said, “Love the art in yourself. Not yourself in the art.”
I often wonder how difficult it is to create something lasting or worthy if one has a high level of dislike for the human race. I struggle with this every day: my desire to be part of humanity, to help or ignite other homo-sapiens becomes put to the test when I note the present day’s atrocities committed by my fellow brethren and then neurotically re-acknowledge our terrible history on this planet, always coming up short on the side of creation and transcendence despite our maniacal compulsion to thank or make a God as a way of explaining not only our mysteries but the few beautiful contributions and achievements we have made as a species on this particular plot of land hanging in the solar system. (Who knows how greater of an impact the work of a Matisse or a Billie Holiday would be allowed to have in another galaxy?)
Driving home one night, in a cab, many years ago (yes there was a time in NYC when broke artists, too, could simply afford a cab–if as a Black man you could get one!) I came to the conclusion that perhaps the greatest artists were always the ones unknown, unread or “un-experienced”. How could this be?
Well when one considers the folk legends of Blues artists who – preceding say Robert Johnson – created music in the wilderness and for small audiences but never recorded their songs/sounds – who do you think loses out?
In the midst of a midnight nervous breakdown, when clarity reins supreme after the nocturnal rise of cats and moonlit corners of an apartment clamoring to be cozy in an asphalt jungle amidst nervous energy and constant advertising on an electronic device – I wonder…what I am doing.
I know literally what I am doing, but I never tire of interrogating myself and forcing myself to be honest – I mean, by God lie to your landlord, yes, your boss yes – the debt collector of course – but why yourself? The problems start when you lie to yourself.
Is what I am creating necessary?
Not to humanity, just to YOURSELF. You may enjoy and if you do – that could be one healthy way of getting through life. Not as a crutch but as an instrument of aid.
But ego has nothing to do with using a wheelchair or putting on a pair of glasses.
Do we need more reflective surfaces of our faces and behavior now in the 21stcentury?
I will never be a great artist simply because I don’t have one of two essential ingredients: The Talent and the Ability to Forgive Man’s Contempt for His Brother. Talent wise there is nothing I can do, the challenge is to make the best out of what I was given. It is a combination of what you are blessed with; innate vision, craft (technique), discipline, desire, taste, as well as laziness, empathy, stubbornness, and where you fall on the Richter scale between Truth and Appeal.
While movies will come and go, and plays will always beckon you into their dust – will we be moved and touched and heartbroken and enlightened by having viewed any dramatic productions, generally, or motion pictures, specifically?
Most imagination occurs when pushed into a bind, when a deadline is looming about how to pay a bill, stay out of jail, save someone’s life…figure out an outfit for the first job interview you have had in 7 years, getting back home somehow with no travel money, putting an end to an escalating fight before it becomes full-blown war leaving us not with beauty and insight but carnage and blood and more opportunity for the establishment to exploit it and say, “But look there is a job opportunity here.” Combating thatcynicism takes creativity and imagination.
And what of the word or music?
Poetry died the minute it went for sale on Broadway and music – as a form of popular song – is probably not necessary either as Bob Dylan once surmised in 1991 in an interview to Phil Zallo.
But let’s be ornery about this, let’s really ask ourselves what do we want or hope to achieve or THINK we are achieving by creating art.
Filmmaker-Actor John Cassavetes once said, smartly, that making films was in a way an opportunity to avoid actually dealing with life. Now no being on the planet besides the artist understands that art can go two ways: fantasy or direct correlation to human lives’ actual experience on the planet.
But again, as the clock strikes two now and the moonlight no longer covers my face, leaving me alone now in the darkness – where I suppose I prefer to be (where else do the dispossessed feel muscular or an inch of pride?) – the question looms:
With all that we have seen and heard – what do we truly need now from our artists? Imagination. If there is any left. Not facts, but acts. First of all, originality would be a big help. And yes there is such a thing as originality. It’s not the idea, it’s the expression or approach to the idea. Many ways to freedom, my friend. To be radical is go back to the root.
I propose all the arts go back to the basics. I see the threat of social division and what we refer to as “social distancing” now in 2020 as more than a health measure to not catch a deadly virus; the virus is deeper and worse than COVID-19, for example, or the incessant published and recorded accounts of racism and police killings of Black people - and we all know this; these measures are a hallmark of a corroded imagination; I feel the challenge is for us to abandon and forget the past (Artaud’s No More Masterpieces) and start from ground zero, a literal leveled off clean slate. Create a new thing. What worked for the past won’t work now. In any arena.
When a Caucasian illustrator needs to prep himself by committing to depict the glorious ‘humanity’ of the African Man we have a problem. He should naturally see us as his fellow human; he should immediately be aware of the fact that we are all composed of positive and negative individual traits. But because he is not endowed with enough intrinsic “awareness,” and not enlightened – he must find a way in. He must work hard to remove the layers of his own self-inflicted racism and brainwashing that his own people have created: mass media. Amiri Baraka wrote that the Africans of many countries once referred to it as the “White Man’s magic.” Indeed, television, newspapers, radio, movies, and now the cosmic terror of the Internet – certainly are. But how did we get in this situation in the first place?
This is not a debate about being singular or who can be clever and come up with what idea first. I am merely proposing we create nowwithout being so beholden to the past standards and categorized “masterpieces” of the past. A new punk DIY element – from the borders of Baudelaire to Robert Johnson to Kurtis Blow to Keith Haring may be in place and if so, so be it – but I think a return to artists objectifying and critiquing themselves is the first step in any cultural revolution. And if you disagree ask any DJ from the 1970s or any curator who has launched his or her own film program, festival, or gallery solely outside the confines of the establishment. There are a thriving handful, most have been cut off at the knees, some have waved the white flag, others died in combat – twitching in the trenches as the mode of independent art not only became gentrified in itself – but warped from meaning within ten years’ time…
The only difference between art and God being dead is that God was not necessary, yet he could not exist without art. God came from the caves, from the plays around the fire…But art cannot exist in a time or context where money is God and where we all believe WE were created in God’s image or some such nonsense... Still, Marx may have gotten it wrong. Religion is not the opium of the masses. Perceiving ourselves to be special is.
The notion that man is inherently good, however, or is too ignorant to see what he is doing to himself is one that I never accepted. And even as a young artist, it is a notion I was never fully at home with.
There is a time and place for everything to change. There is a time however when what is taking place is not necessarily a development, a progression of some kind but a spiritual de-evolution, leading not to a ghetto or marginalization of ideas or new artists but a missile aimed against them. By celebrating and at the same time mocking their inability to conceive a new way out of hell, a new world – quite literally – which starts within the soul. The architects of culture all begin with an idea. It’s that revolution begins with two people coming together to share that same vision.
“Support living artists or else you will see no visions and receive no prophecy.”
– Amiri Baraka.
Electoral politics will not save the imagination; the artist, the activist, the doctor alike must have new ways of being…and then seeing. Andthendoing. There are about as many ways to write a poem or urge an insurrection as there are to make love. Find them.
Actors are taught: “You can never play someone you don’t fully respect.” I don’t know if I fully believe that and quite frankly it is a very dangerous idea that one can’t fully render a portrait of another’s soul if they don’t find something within him to “like” thereby demystifying his cruelty (if playing a psychopath or colonialist or pedophile for example) and making him more “human.” What we all refuse to see is that the choices we inherently make as creative artists represents where our hearts lay (“whose side we are on”) and that of the interpretive artists such as an actor or illustrator for a book is actually even a bit deeper if only because of the challenge they are often confronted with: how do I humanize this warped rapist I am playing?
Well now by referencing the term “human” we instantly have a problem. Because it is not as if personification is something we have to do – the subject is a human being why do we need to conscientiously remember that? Would a painter of trees have to constantly remind himself – “that is wood we are seeing, yes, strong resilient bark”? Absolutely not!
Man – regardless of race – would never have been in this conundrum anyway if he had never created such accouterments of culture which such a draconian hatred for certain members of our species of which he seeks to prey upon, warp, and call upon to enact his most debased desires. Formal slavery was just the tip of the iceberg: the true horror resides in what the European & Arab enslavers were thinking in the first place – and the gross, pervasive, insidious after-effects of such an idea. What I am trying to say is that only a human being could scheme so devilishly, could bring his thinking and feeling into such an unnatural and low state his entire civilization rests upon the destruction of a group or various groups of his own species. This is something Man has willfully created and condoned. Man is not an animal. He is a monster. And I propose we look first for reasons why we shouldn’t hate him when creating depictions and composing our art.
I bring us back to that classic song of John Lennon & Yoko Ono: they ask, gently, to imagine. This may inspire action. But to imagine and consider a wonderful alternative first step; a sublime and simplistic idea that it is almost baffling what we create obstacles to wanting to envision anything other than what we claim we despise.
I don’t know if there will ever be a Pop couple who will prompt a listener at the check-out line “there’s nothing to live or die for” ever again within the breath of mainstream culture. And that’s fine. So we must pick up from where those embedded ideas have been left. The brain is a wonderful muscle ladies and gentlemen: use it.
And in the end...there will be no more artwork necessary because there will be no audience available, no longer a willing suspension of disbelief- for there will be no difference between what is imagined and lived, we will have reached that beautiful end not with the Bible in tow but Becket, Baraka, Bird cherished with all the other names and works of the celebrated marginalized outcasts and the wondrous beauties of the universe. That and a cup of coffee
We have reached the end of our imagination
We turn around
And knock on the wind
Blowing through us
No answers to be heard
Or listened to
No waves to be seen or
Sparkles to be looked at
There is nothing
Just the same old gravel pit with the same old rusty nail from day one
Urging you to send payment on the first of the month
Or threatening to enclose you by the end of the year
Forcing you to repeat and regain and retell
All the lies you forced yourself to believe and which got you here to begin with.
So with all that I must bid you goodnight. I hope you got something out of this midnight ramble.
Remember, to take stock in yourselves, keep storming the barricades of your imagination, never lament casually…Think globally, act locally, and create art
whose beauty will last
at least as long
as man's ugliness.”
From the belly of the beast:
to blow the candles out.
June 27, 2020