September 24, 2004

Is that modern art, or something useful?

The reasons I haven't written here lately are:

(a) I've plunged into a stream of fantasy and vampire novels

(b) I've changed my life, and

(c) I've been away.

I'll start bottom to top.

(c) I went to Ontario, Canada, where I'm from, for a week to see family and friends, and to convene 12 meetings in 2 days. It was really fucking tiring. The organisation I work for is in a tenuous place right now, kind of between bosses, and so nobody wants to do any risky shit and definitely nobody wants to do anything fast. The shareholders, so to speak, are watchful and everyone's running scared.

(b) I have applied for a leave of absence from work to go back to art school. Because I'm rarely sure of anything, I'm petrified I'm making a huge mistake. Do I really want to stop working on environment issues? Do I really want to do art? Life would be easier if all I could do was jump hurdles. Then I'd be a hurdler. So I wanna do art about environment issues. We'll see how it goes. I'm having trouble feeling un-guilty about leaving.

(a) Lots of novels, lots. Anne Rice, Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey, Sharon Shinn. My waking brain is so strained I'm just pretty much burying myself in them. Somewhat disorienting, but good. The best novel I've read lately, though, was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, not so much for its literary qualities, but for all the psychological and mathematical observations sprinkled throughout. Also, as someone swimming in a sea of spin, angles, and PR, seeing the world through the eyes of a literate-minded, simple child is so pure, it lulled me into longing for a more truthful world.

In my adult years, I've tried to get used to the facts, to face reality, and accept the conditions of life, but I've never grown to love it. Four years ago I lost a job because I didn't work well with people, indeed, I didn't pay much attention to co-workers, just tried to work as hard and as smart and thoughtfully as I could. I really like working, so. It never occurred to me that others might worry that I wanted their jobs, worried they looked bad to our bosses because I was so iconoclastic and new in comparison, never thought I should be sensitive to the fact that people needed to adjust to me (and I them) before I sprung my project ideas and my hard criticism on them. I never "sussed the group out," didn't try (or know how) to be tactful, didn't think at all about how people received the things I said. When I asked someone how she thought I could progress in the company, it never occurred to me to imagine she might assume I was bitchily asking her how I could steal her job. I was really innocent and, let's face it, pretty cruel as a result.

I paid for it by losing the job and also by adopting a terrific amount of anxiety about relating to others. Diplomacy and sensitivity eventually became what I was known for, to some. I think I mastered what had beaten me.

But I never liked it. I still believe that we should be independent of our baggage, fresh, clean, searching only for the truth or the best idea, instead of worrying about how the fact that we didn't dream up the great idea might mean we don't get promoted. Of course it's totally unrealistic and disgustingly insensitive of me, but I really preferred how I felt in my head about myself then. Sure, now, people don't feel alarmed around me and I'm happy about that. I actually hate to make people uncomfortable now. But I was happier when I spent my energy worrying about progress instead of about public relations.

But there's so much to lose in leaving this job! The ignorance, arrogance and isolationism in artistic communities is staggering. It's not everyone, and it's not for everyone to not be this way anyway, but I find generally that the art school makes people navel gaze (the artistic vision apparently sees better when it looks for the artist within. So artists make art about, usually, nothing that anyone needs to care about or with untested and irrelevant observations). It encourages them to forget society, disdain it and politics too, and to consider themselves better for it. And if that wasn't enough, the burden of self-employment and marketing removes the energy and opportunities necessary for a person to remain relevant and engaged. That's a surmountable hurdle if you have a good foundation in understanding your world, but they don't. If they are politically or socially active, it's often with an amount of passion well in excess of actually understanding the issues and the Way Things Work. I dread re-entering that milieu.

Maybe if high school did what it should, and taught kids what governance and politics are and how they work here and world-wide, then you'd get artists who saw a place for themselves in society and wouldn't be so marginalised, or wouldn't choose to do art that made everyone ignore them. Or maybe I'm the naive one to think there can be a relevant art outside advertising/illustration/design in a functioning, though indolent, culture.

I don't know. I'm just tired of going to Western art galleries and seeing things that have no bearing on the ENORMOUS PRESSING PROBLEMS of my generation. By contrast, I go to the African art gallery and there's piece after piece about democracy, health, race struggle. Why aren't North American artists doing art about business and governmental corruption, flawed democracy, the environment, Aboriginal policy? Am I missing it? Is it sandwiched in between the unmade beds and the vertical stripes and the old shoes and rocks arranged on the floor? The prevailing theme of Canadian literature is memory and the immigrant experience of multiculturalism. Well, what the fuck for? There's a future to worry about, and it looks both interesting and dim.

Where are the futuristic novels trying to picture the hopefully-beautiful, still mysterious next step in Canada's multiculturalism? Or, the paintings about a Canada covered in new jurisdictions governed by Native peoples? I mean, that's a pretty fucking interesting topic, how cool is Nunavut! It's barely been done anywhere in the world -- we are the pioneers. Where are the poems about the disappearing Arctic ice? The drought in rich Alberta? There are stories pouring out of the East about the suffering Maritimers, but what about the savaging of B.C.'s rainforest?

Not every artist needs to be political or current or whatever, but wouldn't you assume these topics would be interesting to the majority of them? Why aren't we in touch? In other countries, you can be put to death for the things you write, dance, draw, sing. In ours, you go straight to the Museum. Is it that they just don't know about these things, or they don't know how to think about them through art?

I need to understand this, or there will be no point in picking up a paintbrush. I need to speak to someone with the paint and to know I said something that might matter and be heard and commented on, ridiculed or loved or something. Even if it just stirred one cell among millions in just one human body.

Over the years I've been told in countless ways that I need to do art for myself and that I cannot care if other people like it or are stimulated by it. I say now this is wrong. How many times has someone said to you, "I just don't feel like anyone cares if I do X or not. If I disappeared from this field, no one would notice." I am not the only person who longs to COMMUNICATE, even if it is not fashionable to. Dammit. I do not want, like so many of us have been lured into doing, I do not want to turn my back on all of the things that are happening around me and to forget that my single, small life is part of this collective and that it has a voice, purpose and something to contribute, however marginal, just so I can be some aesthete in a loft pondering which brand of viridian to slap on a piece of cloth.

Once, I walked by a bunch of people setting up strange contraptions on the grass in McGill campus. The engineering student I was flirting with said, "Is that modern art, or something useful?"

August 21, 2004

Action movies

I've been to three action movies this week, and I've read five fantasy novels. It's been one of the busiest weeks of my life, and I haven't had a lot of sleep. I'm not dreaming at night, at least that I remember. It's the evenings I'm trying to obliterate. The Big Cheese visit was this past Tuesday. He and his entourage were more horrible than over email or phone. But they didn't scare me like they should have. That's because on Tuesday morning I barely made it to work. I was driving. Usually I bike, but I knew it would be a long, long day. I gave up the ride in the morning so I wouldn't have to slog back up the Hill that night. It was like a little gift to myself. Then someone turned left illegally and hit my car.

We moved the cars, talked to each other, I'm okay, you're okay. She had the brains to call the cops. All I could see in the back page of my head was her face through my window and her windshield and the impact on the ass end of my car. But there wasn't a scratch on the bumper. Nothing. Her bumper was almost clean off, and the cops had to tie it back on. Then, paperwork, witness, vehicle accident report. Bumper debris spinning in the road. I got in my car. "Are you okay to drive?" And I said I was and the cop pointed out the front wheel of my car, driver's side, showed me how it wasn't vertical, showed me the scratches on my door. I said, "Is it normal for people not to realise where they were hit?" He said that it all happens so fast. I drove the car a block holding the wheel at an angle. I stopped, went back, said, "I have to hold the wheel like this," showing them with my hands. They said, of course. It's all bent where her bumper hit it.

I walked back. I got in. Cried hard. They came, said, "Are you okay to drive? We noticed you weren't moving?" I said three things, two unecessary, "It's the most important day of my career. I have to brief the B.C. at eleven. I figured if I was going to cry I should do it before I drove." They were so fucking kind. They followed me all the way to work so that, every time I changed a lane, cringing at the rest of the traffic and the stupid things that drivers pull in D.C. because the roads are so bad, I saw the cruiser in my mirror like a warm hard white whale protecting me.

That thing where people say you just keep seeing the accident in your head, like a layer of film over everything else you see afterwards, the picture on pause, it's true. It's happened to me before. Staring at each other, while her car hit mine like a phantom behind me, instead of right at my feet where the actual damage is. Eyes and slam (no noise).

After you get hit by a car, you wake up and you numb down. On Tuesday that meant that I wasn't scared of any of them, no matter how disgusting they were as people and how they tried to intimidate, because nothing matters after you've been in a car crash. And because I know people can be nice, even in the middle of terrible events.

I think it's rarely necessary to judge people. I'm very very critical, but that final step of saying, "She's a loser," or, "he's really special," frightens me. It leaves no room for change. Losers sometimes win, and special people can fall. Things change, right? If I believe that, it means that I have a chance of changing, getting clearer, finding serenity. Something. But I believe there are right ways to be. I've seen people in tragedy remain giving ("and now, what's going on in your life?" and wiping the tears away). I've seen people lose their minds with fear of everyone but remain gentle. I've seen people transcend years of bad treatment and become healers. But other people, like the B.C., take a thing like power and become totally ungrateful. It's always a struggle to figure out what the right thing to do is -- to traverse the terrible terrain of our mystifying, deadly world, and try to be better than we even believe we are capable of being.

Cops can be nice to a frightened woman on her way to work. Cops can be nice to the frightened woman on her way to work who gets hit by a car, and to the frightened woman on her way to work who hits her.

Kindness is noble.

August 10, 2004


What Kant Said, or, My Martyr Complex

Kant said, let everything you do be a maxim for the rest of us. This advice has repeatedly left me in mental ruins. The conflict within his directive lies between desire and duty -- what I want and what I need. There's no problem when I want and feel what I ought to do. There's no problem when I don't know what I want (often), because I just do what I should. But it's very hard to live in an exemplary way when I want something that should be second to my duty. If I turn my back on my duty, what does that tell the imaginary people Kant thinks are following my example? If I turn my back on my heart, what does it tell them? 
When I was a teenager I fought with my twin drives to be a good person and be a good artist, because the processes of becoming either were at such fucking obvious odds. My moral quandary this time is: do I quit my government job working on climate change, where my sweat and blood might be contributing a sliver of good, or do I go to arts school, and paint pictures about it? 

To back up for a second, at first my inner dilemma was: should I work on climate change, or do art? Then, cleverly, after spending a week at the Arrowmont school in Tennessee doing art (doing art non-stop, halleluhah), it hit me that climate change and the problems of the environment generally could provide the subject for my work which has always eluded me. 

But then there's that obvious next question. Which pursuit does the most good? and whose good are we talking about - mine or the world's? (You may be amused, by the way, that I'm sweating blood over these fundamentally ethical questions when I don't believe in God. But I'll save that subject for some other blog(s).)
I've never had illusions about the size and impact of my contribution to society. It could be deliberately huge if I slaved away my life for something... or not. It could be accidentally huge by accident, some chance discovery... or not. That factor isn't what matters to me intellectually. In my heart, of course, I feel I want to do something that matters in the long symphony of human achievement, something that matters and something that is recognised as mattering. But I'm ruled more by my soul: the reason I care what I contribute to my society is that I believe that the sum of individuals' actions adds up to something. I think to myself, if every person in our country gave a dollar to global warming, we'd have thirty million dollars. If every person turned off their monitor when they left the office, look how much energy we would save. If every person, drove one less mile, walked one more, well. We matter so much, when we act alone, like Kant said, but when we act together.  

It's faith in our collective efforts that drives me to be dutiful.

And, so, I wonder, What if EVERYONE walked away from global warming?

It's the most important problem in the world. I believe that. Yes, genocide, the illegal trade in small arms, child sexual slavery, animal cruelty, the loss of indigenous cultures, and many many many things, including human creative production, all matter. But, global warming has the potential to devastate everything, and has already begun to do so. 

Witness: we expect almost half the world's species to disappear in this century; we think ocean currents could slow and even halt because the polar caps are melting and adding too much freshwater to the mix, which needs salt to power it. Without biodiversity, what will we and the other world's creatures and living things eat? With sea level rise and no gulfstream, what other natural miracles will be destroyed?

My art teacher at Arrowmont said she knew she'd chosen the right career because without doing art she'd be a total bitch, and she knew the world didn't need any more bitches.
I just bought this book called Earth From Above. It's a collection of photographs and essays. The photos, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, are all aerial or bird's eye shots, and generally show landscapes and human activities or settlements with a view to nature's majesty, human ingenuity, or the interface between them that is so often decayed. The essays all deal with threats to the environment. The book reminds me that something powerful can be said in art to people, which might motivate them far more than my work with the government, which seems increasingly vacuous and futile.

I haven't told anyone I know, yet, that I've started this blog. Thank you for reading this, you stranger in your distant world.