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Sunday, June 22, 2003

Full Of Fear - Why We Don't Engage With Culture

By Jennifer Reeves

Thank you for posting Carol Strickland's article, Artists 'Toon In. The information therein expresses one of the prevalent tones of the visual arts as it exists today. The key phrase used by Strickland is, "With cultural literacy at a low ebb...."

Yes, indeed, literacy is at a low ebb but I don't think the reason is necessarily because we are undereducated idiots. I think the reason has to do with fear. The fear to say what one thinks in the art world (of all places!) is out of hand. Although the appearance is otherwise. For example, people can say something negative (rightly or not) about "expressionists" (or whatever is currently out of fashion) or the "right wing government" (always in fashion for criticism) or a belief in God and automatically be considered cool and transgressive and thus part of the club. This sort of commentary is applauded as unusually courageous, even moral, but politicians and those of other disciplines already rally behind such positions all the time.

What is unnerving is not the criticism of, for example, the hypocrisies of conservatism but the one-sidedness of the criticism. Thus to be accused of questioning the sincerity of in-house opinion is to really transgress the faux leftist policy in power and ultimately endanger, I think, an unspoken underlying hope of "open" relationships. That is, "open" in the sense of "impulsive," or open in the sense of purely instinctual.

Generally speaking if one doesn't drug, systematically cartoon, politicize, fame-seek, sexualize, engage in ageism, play the market, look like a rock star (unless you're a woman, then they want you to look good but not be taken seriously or to "look" unattractive in the conventional sense and then accept a respect given out of pity or tokenism) or be otherwise instinctually motivated one is marginalized. Please know, I'm not against the instinctual except when the instinctual is the only potential running the show.

Humanity in general nurtures a Pollyanna view of bohemianism. There is an unwitting desire to live or dream about a purely impulsive life without consequences and without guilt or to live a life where everyone always agrees and nothing "heavy" happens or simply to escape (rightfully so) the cruelty of one's parents. Somehow these escapist tactics are okay under the category of "artist". But, being an artist in this scenario avoids the reality of excellence attained through study and sacrifice and work and effectively facing injustice.

With an impulse driven art community, the danger is our losing the knowledge that spiritual growth (fair-mindedness, synthesis) is what makes the bohemian life (the life of mystic experience through vision, movement and song) worth it. Fighting pop culture with pop culture may point out the emptiness of material existence but it doesn't provide us anything with which to replenish the gap. The gravy to be had in a pensive awareness is in the work not the lifestyle, in the understanding attained not the popularity gleaned or the pain escaped. The fruit of seriousness is an openness won from an integrity to something beyond ourselves; something we are capable of demonstrating now in our love of art.

Unless we screw it up.

Let me clarify by saying I don't think the reality is as black and white as this. But, it is close and we are at present virtually rudderless. There is a greatness in the past and in us now which is being naively ignored in favor of big bunny rabbits (which are noted traditionally not just for their warm fuzziness but also for their fear and ability for flight).

Jennifer Reeves

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