8/2012

Filling The Gap

 

The following is an excerpt from a 2011 Charlie Rose television interview with New York Times writer David Brooks:

Charlie Rose: Do you think people – who – all of us; are looking for people, you and others – and certainly leaders – to help us understand the age we are in, and the moment we’re in – and to speak to our fears and our hopes? And do we expect that from, politicians – or is it only going to come from someone else?

David Brooks: Well it would be nice if it came from novelists – or artists. And in some cultures it did come historically – if you were in Russia, you were a Tolstoy person, or a Pushkin person, or a Dostoyevsky person. If you were in Victorian England, maybe Dickens was defining your life. That doesn’t happen in America to me – I don’t think there are too many novelists whose novels generate; who define the age the way they used to.

Charlie Rose: Do musicians define the age?

David Brooks: Maybe a little more – I think music has real cultural purchase – and movies do. But in terms of – but I do think it’s an added burden that’s put on politicians to do more than they did in the 19th century. To say, as Kennedy said - he beautifully said (I have problems with his inaugural address) but it captured the birth, it captured the emergence of a generation. It really did define for a lot of people, where they were, where they were headed – I think Reagan did that, FDR did that – Teddy Roosevelt did that.

Charlie Rose: How did Reagan do it? Because he was changing from the 60’s - and the counter culture; to something that was to take place?

David Brooks: Right – Especially the 70’s – The 70’s were a period of stagnation, and what Reagan did, was that he updated traditional America. He was about traditional small town America, even if we were in the age of none of that. But he took those values and he reinterpreted them for an age of a global superpower – and so it began to make sense. You could agree or disagree - but it made sense. It cohered what you saw around you with our new status in the world. And now we’re incredibly anxious – we have these traditional values – American culture which has been around since Tocqueville; and yet maybe it’s winding down - maybe it’s sporadic. Maybe the Chinese have something we don’t have, the Indians, the Brazilians.

And so we need somebody (to fill) – I guess the way I’d put it; would put it - is the ‘vacuum’ – Bill Clinton talked about the bridge to the 21st century – the bridge – but the bridge to what? What does the land look like on the other side of the bridge? That was a mystery. Barack Obama gave a fine speech, which he wrote himself, called the ‘New Foundations’ – but foundations for what? So I do think there’s a sense – are we a manufacturing economy; are we a service economy – what kind of people are we? I do think that is yet to be written – and I don’t really see the painter (or artist) whose writing that right now.

 

Part I – What’s Missing

Trying to define the age we are in is a hard task of course. Equally as hard as trying to figure out ‘what kind of people’ we are in the 21st century. Which is probably why there seems to be nothing on the other side of the ‘bridge to the 21st century’ or anything on top of the ‘new foundations’ so to speak. This ‘gap’ or ‘vacuum’ as Brooks sees it, is something to be filled by artists or political leaders. However, maybe the age we are in actually weakens the ability of either to ‘fill the gap’. Maybe the ‘cultural nutrition’ (as Brooklyn College Professor Archie Rand calls it) just isn’t there to sustain such an endeavor by an artist or politician. The ‘missing story’ of our time might just be about ‘something that’s missing’.

In search of that ‘missing story’ lets say you ventured out across America. You traveled to Ohio, New York City, North Carolina, California, etc – and you stopped (at random) hundreds of different people. And lets say they were all over thirty years old, from various backgrounds – across a broad economic spectrum. And lets say you asked them one simple question: Does it feel like something’s missing in American society today? I believe most would probably say yes – but many might have trouble putting their finger on it. The older they were the more likely they would say things were ‘better before’. But what was better? Certainly social tolerance, technology, and medicine were not ‘better’ in the past. But again, most would probably say we’ve lost something in our society - but what exactly is that something?

It’s the something that makes up the difference between a Walmart (or Target) – and thirty individually owned neighborhood stores. It’s the something that makes up the difference between the music industry before the digital age – and after. It’s the something that moves many New Yorkers to wish for Shea stadium and the old Yankee Stadium over their modern replacements. And it’s the something that has been besieged by the notion of ‘progress’ in city development.

One can find many more cultural examples if one chooses – yet they all seem to have a common element: the ‘something’ that’s been lost has been replaced by ‘material’ gain. A Walmart or Target provides everything imaginable in one place, for cheap convenient consumption. The digital age makes it possible to purchase (and share) music without listening to a whole album or frequenting a record store. The new baseball stadiums have exotic beers, cuisine, shopping, and sports clubs to boot. City development has brought luxury high rises, upscale businesses, food chains, and ‘ultra urban capitalism’. This is all progress – in a material sense. But is it human progress?

‘Human progress’ is the ‘something’ that’s missing. It’s hard to measure because it can’t really be seen or easily detected – it’s not tangible. It has to do with how human beings relate to one another and to the ‘things’ we make and experience (and where we live). ‘Social capital’ is probably the best definition for it. The loss of social capital is what I believe many people feel today; yet have a hard time expressing. The constant push of ‘material progress’ at the expense of social capital would seem to be one of (if not the) dominant trends of our time. We can see the decline of social capital when we look at the examples mentioned previously.

Thirty neighborhood stores that cultivated personal community relationships, and provided goods that were not simply ‘objects of consumer capitalism’ would not be models of economic efficiency – for the goods would be more expensive and less convenient to obtain. However, one could not argue that a neighborhood with a Target or Walmart would have more social capital than one with dozens of unique privately owned small businesses.

The experience of going to a record store, flipping through albums and looking at cover art might not seem important – but to many it was. While not essential of course, it was a human thing. Easy access to mp3 downloads has forced musicians to rely more on touring for income and less on album sales. Thus allowing less creative time to actually make new and interesting music – and basically ending the notion that a musical album should be considered (and constructed) as a whole. There is no question that the digital age has decreased the social capital of the music industry. And since music is one of the most ‘social’ of all art forms – it seems paradoxical to have an industry construct which works against its own interest.  

More irony can be found when one looks at the two new baseball stadiums that were recently built in New York City. From the outside they were designed to look like their ancient predecessors. One (Citifield) was designed to look like Ebbets Field (the original Brooklyn Dodgers stadium), while the new Yankee Stadium was designed to look like the original Yankee Stadium. Why on earth would one do this? Why in the first decade of the 21st century would two teams want to reference stadiums that were built in 1912 and 1923 respectively? Obviously there was something the old stadiums had that people remembered fondly – or had an attachment to. It wasn’t a material sense – those old buildings had no stores, restaurants, or skyboxes. What they had was social capital – and tons of it. It’s seems fitting that the facades of the new buildings are references to the past. Because that’s all they are – plastic shiny shells that mask a devoutly material interior. Yankee Stadium is much worse than Citifield; but at least Yankee Stadium is still called, ‘Yankee Stadium’ - a stadium named after Citibank is beyond shameful. I’m pretty sure that (if asked) most New York baseball fans over the age of thirty five would rather attend game seven of the World Series at Shea Stadium or the old Yankee Stadium - which is quite a statement when you consider the amount of money spent on the new buildings. And it’s not so much about ticket prices or stadium design. It’s that the ‘experience’, which drew from the social capital of the old buildings was richer - even ‘realer’ in a sense.

A whole book could be written about the decline in social capital that goes along with most modern city development – indeed Jane Jacobs wrote such a book in 1961. In speaking about New York City in 2010, Fran Lebowitz stated, ‘I think that sometimes I like the city less, you know because the city is less city – like’. She would also say that, ‘we do not like cities because they are noisy, crowded, and dirty. We like them because they are interesting’. In other words – we like them because they have social capital out the ass. A city whose progress is always measured in a material sense, whose ‘development’ is always geared to the same slice of the population, and whose gentrified neighborhoods increasingly resemble one another – becomes less interesting by the year. Now does that mean Times Square should go back to being home to hookers and peep shows? Probably not – but on the other hand I’m not sure it needed to turn into ‘Disney Land’ either. There’s plenty of room for a ‘happy medium’ between those two dualities.

The idea of a ‘happy medium’ is important - because one cannot view this as a ‘zero – sum’ game. Material advancement has its obvious place. Buildings get old and need to be replaced. Technological advancements can enhance and enrich our time spent on this planet. However, if the majority of our culture is on the constant track of material progress – then I don’t think we can say the overall impact is a positive one. For I assume as human beings we would want a society that actually has some kind of awareness – or ‘human consideration’ to it. Or as David Brooks has written – a realization that we are indeed ‘social animals’.

As was stated before, one could find numerous examples of declining social capital across our society today - whether it’s the news media, art, entertainment, politics, education, etc. If this is indeed the dominant cultural trend of American society then it’s not hard to wonder why we can’t really figure out who we are any more. David Foster Wallace once described our culture in terms of ‘high calories’ and ‘low calories’. He made the point that if you eat junk food (low calorie stuff) every once and while – you’ll be okay. But if you decide to eat junk food for every meal – you’ll get sick at some point. A society with decreasing social capital produces more and more ‘low calorie’ cultural items. And at some point the ‘cultural nutrition’ that’s needed to produce the ‘high calorie’ cultural items (or allow them to be received) just isn’t there anymore. And thus the society becomes stagnant – unable to define itself. Or produce the art or politics that can ‘hold the mirror up’ so to speak.

 

Part II – The Place for Painting

Making art that can ‘hold the mirror up’ is difficult of course. For it not only requires the viewer to ‘escape’ the life they are living (through aesthetic means) – it needs to allow them to confront the life they are ‘escaping’ from. And in order for art to do such a thing it seems that it would need to run contrary to ‘everyday life’. In other words, it needs to function as social capital in a society that’s trending in the other direction – it needs to ‘fill the gap’. It needs to manifest itself in forms that have value beyond which can be measured by the metrics of the current society – this in turn will make it interesting. Just by its very nature, painting is one of these forms. It’s a human act - that draws on human experiences to create something that has a ‘social value’.

This ‘value’ is partly due to tradition, craft, and virtue. Painting is part of our human tradition (or continuum) – ranging from cavemen to our current day. Actually making things by hand – and taking the time to garner skill is a ‘high calorie’ act. It encourages individual virtue, which in turn adds to society. However, this notion of value is not important to some – for they have claimed painting ‘to be dead’. Yet maybe they are the ones who have ‘died’ in a sense. Maybe they are the ones who’ve allowed their artistic notions to fall victim to the trends of a ‘dying’ society.

Painting is a language that can speak to the questions raised by the modern human condition – either directly or indirectly. This aspect of art in general is as important today as it has been in the past – maybe more so. The idea that art can illuminate the intangible weak points in a society is not a new one. In a 1963 speech paying tribute to the poet Robert Frost, President John F. Kennedy said the following:

When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

In order to speak to the ‘basic human truth’ of today, art must be a ‘social thing’. Painting is indeed such a thing – it always has been, and it always will be. Filling the gap of what’s been lost is the best way to allow the human spirit to awaken to what it intuitively knows is missing. Painting cannot do the job alone of course – but it should not be dismissed. Instead, it should be seen as vital. It should be seen as a vital part of whatever society resides on the other side of that ‘bridge to the 21st century’ – or rests on top of the so-called ‘new foundations’. For eventually we will come to realize, that whatever society we would yearn for – it cannot be measured in a material sense alone.