Art in the 21st century

“Despite all its powers, society cannot sustain the artist if
it is impervious to the vision of the artist.” – Henry Miller

What is art today? More precisely, what does art convey? Art has become an adornment, mere embellishment to our mechanical society. It is what you hang behind an office desk, in the hallway of a bank, in the solitary confines of a museum. It is what is read while we travel between two points, what is listened to while we drive to work, what we assist to in moments of laziness and passive submission to entertainment. It is that which is viewed askance, situated in the periphery, unobtrusive to the real function of society: business.

Art is no longer an expression of a deeper vision of reality; and if it is, we, at least, no longer perceive it as such. It is aesthetic, no doubt. But it is not beautiful enough to secure a prominent role in our routines. As far as we are concerned, it is pastime, an elegant but inferior activity in life. It conveys no truth or doubt to the spectator. Life is predetermined and already decided; art is solely an amusement, even if it constantly fights against modern life. It exists as a hallucination, a sort of intoxication that can easily be dismissed as unreal and irrelevant. The serious business of life cannot be questioned; it has no room for the artist and his or her artwork that challenges the unconsciousness of its drives.

And yet some artists do become idols in this culture and their art known universally, but is their artwork studied as profoundly as we study engineering or business administration? The artists’ message, their restructuring of our understanding of reality, their incessant re-questioning of our basic assumptions, remain quite below the general level of public attention. We all recognize the dripping clock of Dali or the visual massacre of the Guernica, some will recognize the dreamy seascape of La Mer or the cavernous sorrow of the Adagio for Strings, the name of Humbert Humbert or Harry Hope may be familiar to a few, a minority will recall The Waste Land or a Season in Hell; but what is noteworthy here is that recognizing these works of art by their name is no sign that we have delved in them and studied them profoundly. We care only superficially of what they imply, what the message is all about. There is no understanding that an artist is a transformation of the human being and is attempting a redefinition of what is to be alive in a mysterious universe. We assume art as a gift to culture by one and the same kind of individual that already lives in that culture.

Art has now been banalized, it has become a career and today there are flocks of artists that operate as businesses, as factories manufacturing objects to be bought and superficially enjoyed. The true artist is rare these days, he or she is muted and oppressed by this contradiction. How to bring forth a genuine work of art in this spurious world that is driven by money? The voice of art is being drowned by the roar of commerce and trivial entertainment. Society has absorbed art; and the artist has docilely submitted to his or her new harrowing role of ornamentalist. The commandments of art are now thus: you shall entertain, you shall impress, you shall produce the beautiful, you shall be famous, but under no circumstance should you dishonor your loving parent: society. Society does not want individuals to think and act differently, to produce controversies that may outstrip the authority of the status quo. Art may produce change insofar as it remains within the parameters of the socially digestible.

The artist is no longer an artist. He or she has forgotten that divine calling of making of life an experiment. The artist must suffer eternally, must wrestle with the incongruities and absurdities of living and dying, must explore the unknown realm of the spirit and  (in the words of Rimbaud)become a seer. The work produced thereafter will be only an inkling, an announcement of vaster realms accessible to all, it is an opening at the roof of an abyss for those who dare plunge into it. The experiential adventure of consciousness is now going extinct, there are few enthusiasts left. It is a form of wisdom that society ignores and lumps together under the heading “esoteric mumbo-jumbo”, or more spitefully, “madness”. (Hasn’t history shown that many great artists were deemed mad in their time, only later to be proclaimed visionaries?). And yet this wisdom is no particular statement or philosophy; it is an active engagement with the mystery of creation, what once was the domain of the artist and religious fervent. Today art as well as religion is downplayed as historical curiosity, still operating as long as they leave intact, and even follow, the new order created by the God of modern civilization: money.

killing time

Killing Time

 
 
 

 

Feel the beating of the prison heart? Time deals the future as cheap junk. I’m an addict just like you. No need to run, there’s no escaping. It’s useless to be optimistic or pessimistic about it. Everybody wants to change it, but who’s ever watching it? It is a remarkable thing to be a body. A body of evidence, who knows how many millions of years of evidence. The evidence points to mediocrity. If you have ever witnessed a murder, then you must know how I feel when I witness human nature. It’s atrocious. Everything is tangled up inside, confused by language, made insipid with repetitive thoughts and drives, full of sadness if you want to hear the truth. The valiant acts of art? Muddled self-pity, if you ask me. Art is a sweet kind of poison, but it is still toxic. Life, culture, art, all of it once made me sick to the bone. I am learning to deal with it now. A feeling of disgust is merely a form of disguised utopian mentality. If existence is unbearable, we are assuming or hoping for some kind of alternative worthier reality that is being spoiled by the current state of affairs. But there isn’t any and if there is, what makes us suppose we will be the ones to solve the conundrum when so many others have failed in the course of history. We wait for our time to pass, often fixated with a future state of well-being. It’s a compulsion but it does the job. It kills time. There is just too much of it and we’re running out of ideas. Take this loathsome piece of prose or art or self-pity; whatever you call it. I’m just killing time.

 

 

Nihilistic Poetry

Photography: a view of Pergamon Museum Berlin, Germany

Impressive, monumental, Pergamonmuseum or Pergamon Museum, in Berlin has one of the finest colossal “debris” from the ancient civilizations of Greece, Assyria, Babylonia, and the Mesopotamian cultures.

Here’s a photographic visit to this famous museum.

Pergamon  or Pergamum Altar:

Miletus Market Gate

Babylonian Ishtar Gate and Hallway

Assyrian Gate Keeper and Wall Relief

The Return of the Gods (mostly Greek Mythology with the exception of Habad the Weather God)

Return to Poetry and Art

A man in San José

  (photo by Ryan Moss)

 

 

It may appear imprudent that a story that takes place in a Spanish-speaking city should be told in English. First, and partly, because the English-speaking readers will have a hard time grasping the culture in which the story takes place. Secondly, and conversely, those that can relate to the story are few since the story is narrated in a foreign language. But I will remind the indulgent reader that my situation is a hopeless conundrum. English-speakers constantly visit San José but do not have enough time in the city to experience its routine and tradition. Anglophone foreigners might have come to live permanently in Costa Rica but it is highly likely they have stayed outside the capital due to its ordinariness and its dangerous crime. Likewise those that were unwittingly born in this country have avoided the city because of its pollution, recklessness and delinquency. Finally, those that have actually managed to live in the heart of San José year after year are unlikely candidates to enter this blog and squander a few minutes to the reflections of an (Anglo-phony!) Costa Rican.  I have therefore taken the liberty to entertain only a few at the risk that much of what will be said will be lost in the abysmal gap between dissimilar cultures. Also, it may not be superfluous to add that the message will apply to Anglophone first-world citizens and the English-speaking high-class citizens of Costa Rica, which so eagerly emulate the ideals of foreign societies. 

It is common to step down from the bus and abruptly wake up from your daydreaming as you enter the rowdy streets of San José. Those inevitable reveries that take place while you sit silently on an old American school bus come to an end when the smoke, heat and noise startle you back into reality. The images of the outer world that were streaming like invisible currents in the fabric of your mind become concrete and your attention is no longer floating in careless thoughts. Your vision is attracted to the large enchiladas on your right, the kiosk man selling newspapers and mangos at the corner, the pretty girl with a low-cut skirt, the taxi honking at that young woman, the bus almost crashing into the sidewalk, a big dog followed by three smaller dogs. Your head turns to and fro unless you are already too numb to notice the riot of any ordinary day. Your pace accelerates as you cross the street when the pedestrian light is red or slow down as you inspect the imitation sunglasses in every third store. People cross by you as they speak on the phone, scold their children or speak to themselves in a sometimes delusional manner. The stores’ windows have merchandise in every conceivable quality with prices tags in bold colorful numbers: ¢5,000 for a tank top, ¢800 for lipstick, ¢13500 for wide legged jeans, ¢250 for a pair of earrings, ¢18000 for a new toaster oven. Small cantina bars have brown and white beads-on-a-string hanging from the entrance, palm trees are easily spotted at street corners and if you venture a bit outside the crowded pedestrian streets you may even find trees ripe with mangos, bananas or jocotes. You get on an inner city bus that costs ¢100. When you pay make sure you don’t stand in between the electronic bars that count how many passengers get on and off (a rather recent feature), and then, quietly take your seat and distract yourself with the view of the sidewalks. It was on this Sabana-Cementerio bus that I saw for a quadrillion time the old bespectacled man that takes notes on his clipboard.

He has been working for the bus company for 37 years, out of those he has been in the same position, every weekday, for 35 years; keeping track of how many buses pass by his position, how many passengers were on the bus at each particular time, and making sure the money the bus driver has matches with registered passenger count of the day. It seems the electronic bars are not foolproof, and a good pair of scrupulous eyes is still warranted.  I have seen him so many times I was bound to ask him one day about his job, but as it is common in our country to tattle once we engage in a conversation, I ended up knowing much more than I initially wanted to inquire.   

It may seem strange that a man of sound judgment would choose to work in the same unchallenging job for 35 years. Not unless, we could argue, it was very high paying. But the truth is that a salary of under $325 a month is not very much. Our modern avaricious conscience would rebel against this inhumanity; but our initial repulsion might subdue with what I will now tell. 

It has been the fortune of many of us to never have dealt with the misfortune of poverty. Even if some of us have endured the hardship of unemployment, most of us, I venture to say, have always had enough food on our tables. In this country many have to strive for a decent meal every day and sometimes circumstances are not in favor of poor families that battle just to survive. Our protagonist grew in a similar condition. His mother had to support his whole family because his father had become blind from an accident at a construction site after some deadly chemicals had fallen on his face. Her mother worked in middleclass homes as a maid and on weekends sold knitted sweaters at a street corner in San José. Having four brothers and a sister, they had a very harsh time growing up. One brother ran away when he was twelve, the remaining three had to drop school to help their mother earn a living. Our friend never reached beyond third grade. It was clear from his expression that his early years were tremendously hard, yet I could perceive a certain satisfaction in his eyes. I assume he is now proud that they survived those tumultuous years.   

As a young adult he carried out many different kinds of jobs. He didn’t go too much into detail but he had enough to live on and support his family until the unavoidable crossed his path. He had gone out one night to a salsa/merengue club. Never having a radio or TV at home he grew up unfamiliar with the dexterous moves of Latin dance although he enjoyed greatly listening to the music. (He jiggled his rusty hips, I laughed). He would envy every corrongo male that would sweep women by their dance abilities. That night he was drinking a cold Tropical, a new beer that had just been released in the market by Cuban entrepreneurs, although he hardly had the habit of drinking beer. Eased by the alcohol, he ventured to take out a girl to dance. If it wasn’t for those beers, I would have never asked Yelena out for a dance– he commented. Not very romantic, I know. There’s a common misperception that we Latinos are all desperate romantics. They got married next year and started raising a family. His wife’s father had been working as an administrative director in a bus company and the rest seems logical. 

I didn’t dare to ask him why he settled for that simple position. True, it’s a higher position than being a bus driver but also very monotonous. However, when I was just about to bid him goodbye, in an unusual expansion of lucidity, he reflects on his humble circumstances and pronounces thoughts that have answered my tacit doubts: 

 “No puedo culpar mi familia, mi cultura, mi sociedad, mi país, ni la civilización mundial actual. Mi vida fue la consecuencia de una sencilla decisión: vivir sin la ambición de conocer otros continentes o poseer una abundancia de posesiones. Yo viví así y declaro sin arrepentimiento mi total conformidad con la rutina y singular angostura de mi vida. Me conformo con ser el señor que trabajó 35 años en la misma parada de bus, repitiendo la misma labor día tras día, arruga tras arruga, sin la ambición de buscar algo más que tener la comida en mi hogar mientras veía mis hijos crecer.” 

This can be roughly translated thus: 

I cannot blame my family, my culture, my society, my country, or this modern civilization. My life was the consequence of a simple decision: living without the ambition of knowing other continents or having great material wealth. I lived this way and I affirm without regret my complete conformity with my routine and singularly narrow lifestyle. I’m comfortable being that man that worked for 35 years at the same bus stop, repeating the same activity day after day, wrinkle after wrinkle, without having the ambition to look beyond the meal of each day while I saw my children grow up. 

The end.