TGU: The artist in society

Friday, April 23, 2021

5:30 a.m. I don’t know what it all amounts to. We get up, we function, we go to bed, we get up – and the days and nights go by, and of course we wonder. Sometimes it’s a treadmill, sometimes it’s a gift. And we never know what it’s going to look like five years on.

I have been re-reading The Making of the President 1964. Teddy White was so clear and so genuinely wise, as he looked at the forces contending – the hopes and the fears – and yet he didn’t have a clue (and no one could have had a clue) that the forces that were so resoundingly defeated that year were going to grow in strength and virulence, overshadowing the next half century and still growing in strength and virulence. He came closest to guessing it, perhaps, in the title of his first chapter, about John F. Kennedy’s three-year presidency, “Of Death and Unreason.” We have watched unreason climb into control ever since that terrible day in 1963.

The odd thing is that nobody seems to realize their own unreason, their own growing fanaticism. Left and right and even center (to the degree that we even have a center anymore) are ever more violent and intolerant in their opinions, ever less able to see the ways in which they and those of similar opinion are causing the ongoing train wreck. Maybe it is the madness that precedes destruction by the gods, as the old saying has it. Our own opinions and values seem self-evidently right and reasonable to ourselves: Probably this is always so, or we would change them. But the opinions and values of others seem not merely mistaken but malign, deliberately perverse, evil.

To some extent this can be blamed on social media, because it exaggerates. But Facebook didn’t create the Goldwater fanatics, nor the John Birch Society, nor the cabal that killed Kennedy. Perhaps White is closest in describing the social anomie of Southern California in the early 1960s. That would be the country in general, by now. And what will a year of social distancing have done?

I thought, a few minutes ago, that there really is a wisdom that comes with age, a perspective that comes from seeing so many iterations of the same panaceas, the same oh-so-urgent crises-in-the-making that turn out to be just nothing. Wisdom doesn’t come automatically – would that it did! – but there is a reason why someone who has it while still young is called “wise beyond his years.”

Not that America looks particularly well off from having been governed by baby boomers for 20 of the past 30 years – Clinton, Bush Junior, Trump – but would it have been governed and better by more of Obama’s generation? And Biden is surely the last of the war babies – the only one, in fact – to hold the office of president.

What am I reaching for? Guys?

Perhaps you are, as usual, looking to your internal world to explain the outer, and looking to the outer to shed light on the inner.

A reciprocating process. Say more.

It works that way for everyone, but at a different level of consciousness for each. That is, some people do it reflexively and never stop to consider what they’re doing. Others are always examining their navel. And most are somewhere between the extremes. It depends upon the relationship that self-conscious thought has to the rest of your life. For some it is appropriate, even necessary; for others it would be an annoyance, a detriment.

The function of an artist in society, I suddenly hear.

An artist is someone who externalizes what s/he “feels.” Even if they deal with the world of facts (scholars, say), the exteriorized result is an interpretation, else it is nothing. A catalog is not an explanation.

But everybody is interpreting the world all the time, consciously or otherwise.

It is the gift an artist gives to society, that they have seen or felt farther, and can somewhat express what they have felt, so that others can get a sense of it without having to have made the same journey.

Teddy White spends years of his life reporting on politics and history, and his words can give us a compressed understanding distilled from the experience.

Compressed, and perhaps even prescient, but of course deeply fallible. It cannot be otherwise. In a free-will universe, the possibilities are too staggeringly large for anyone to see very far, very clearly. The best one can do is show a little farther, a little more clearly. But that gift is not negligible. Any light is valued amid darkness.

Unless you are an astronomer, trying to see the stars.

Which are light, of course.

Now, you ask, what does this have to do with me? How does it reflect upon my life? Consider, each of you is an artist at least internally. That is, you may or may not produce some external sign of what you have learned, what you have internalized, but you can’t help producing what you have become in those years. You, as art form, so to speak. Yes, you may seem to have lived entirely without expressing anything you have learned by living, but you will not have avoided creating one work of art and artifice: your life, your character, your 3D manifestation of values.

Everyone is an artist, in that sense, necessarily. You couldn’t help being an artist if you wanted to. But – you ask – what does that amount to? We’re glad you asked. It amounts to one thing: No artist lives unconnected to society. No one works alone even if s/he is stranded on a desert island. You are always connected to the society that produced you (that is, the past) and the society you are living among, even if it is only the memories and visions in your head (the present), and the premonitions and faint colors of the coming dawn that creep in between the lines (the future).

And – we should scarcely need to add – artists who produce tangible articles – paintings, symphonies, books, schools of thought, political and social movements – are inextricably connected not only to past, present, and future, but to the minds of their fellows all over the world, conscious or otherwise.

In other words, nobody is in it alone. How could you be? Less obviously – nobody’s life sinks without a trace, regardless whether it is noticed or not. That is, everybody’s life makes a difference to themselves, and therefore to all. That may seem counterintuitive, but we assure you, it is so.

Okay, so connect this more directly to my question – ?

You will be hard put to find your question. “Guys?” is not perhaps the most well-pointed question you have ever posed.

Smiling. No, I guess not. Still, we got an interesting talk about external and external out of it.

Your deeper question is perhaps unphrased because hard to put into words at all.

Yes. Not as simple as Where are we going, or What has all this been about? Not even, What is the relationship between our lives and the world. Trying to put it into words entirely escapes me. It seems to be beyond my abilities.

When you grope for something beyond words, do just that: grope. Be content with feeling in that direction even while knowing that you can’t yet see. Intention will lead you. Meanwhile, live in confidence that all is well.

Okay. Thanks for all this, and for so much over so many years.


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