Citations

Lama Sabachthani

Barnett Newman’s The Stations of the Cross at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Barnett Newman’s zips and fields have never moved me beyond a chilly appreciation for their role in pushing painting towards the vanishing point. Walking into The Stations of the Cross, however, felt nearly spiritual. Newman’s choice of title did most of the lifting here, juxtaposing the weight of violence and supernatural suffering against fifteen canvases of brittle monochrome. My eyes tried to map these stern lines and rectangles against the familiar scenes of bloodshed, weeping, and trembling from that day at Golgotha. But I could find no correlation, and I was left alone with that heavy title, those dispassionate shapes, and a woman sitting on a bench with her pencil paused in the air, hanging somewhere between contemplation and frustration. A security guard rocked on his heels at the edge of the room, emitting an occasional rubber squeak that emphasized the hush of the place, the secret air of an empty gymnasium after hours. I walked towards the explanatory placard on the wall and, as is the case with most modern art, this moved me most of all.

When the series was first displayed in 1966, Newman said these images were based not on the flagellation and martyrdom of the crucifixion but Jesus’s cry of lema sabachthani: Why hast thou forsaken me? “This is the passion,” he said. “Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” And for a moment I felt it, a sense of utter vacancy, an emptying and hollowing of thought that left space for…something. In my notebook, I quickly scribbled this sentence: Aesthetic alienation leads to a desperation which leaves one greedy for any thread of hope, no matter how brittle. This felt like a profound insight at the time, one of those camera-flash thoughts that comes on bright and quick before fading away forever. Artists like Newman and Mark Rothko insisted their blank fields of color were not academic exercises but spiritual statements. Although I feel lucky to have caught a brief sense of this, I also left the room wondering if you can nail any damned thing to the wall as long as you attach it to the bloodshed and drama of myth.

Citations

Mono No Aware

The original Blade Runner was a rare gift of pure atmosphere. Since 1982, Ridley Scott’s dark and overheated Los Angeles has been steadily remodeling the architecture of the modern psyche when it comes to imagining the future. Now we envision fires in the sky, broken weather, and sprawling fields of scrap and junk. And we can be pretty sure that no matter what the future brings, elaborate advertisements will leer overhead like a hallucination while we fight, haggle, and jive beneath neon lights at the foot of buildings heavy with memory and rot. And it’s a strangely beautiful sight. For me, Blade Runner is the cinematic sensation of laying on a bed in a dark motel room while listening to distant traffic speeding through the puddles of a rainy street: a poignant concoction of nostalgia, dread, and the possibilities that live in the margins. But above all, Blade Runner is a story about god, a fever dream about grabbing our creator by the throat and asking, “Why did you make me? And why must I die?”

The new iteration of Blade Runner is one of the few beloved things to reappear three decades later in better than expected condition. I won’t discuss the details of the film—not because I worry about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but because things like characters and plot are peripheral elements used only to generate a mood. Nearly every scene in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel looks like something plumbed from a dream, a Surrealist fusion of our synthetic world and ancient myth. At first I craved the clutter and heat of the original film’s vision of a scuzzy and polyglot tomorrow, for the landscape of 2049 is startlingly monotonous and arid. But its bleak architecture and sterile streets are probably a more accurate rendering of the future as our democracies calcify into corporate aristocracy and our cities become increasingly homogenized spaces which cater to the individual rather than the crowd. Beyond this resonance, however, most of 2049 stands outside of time like one of the eerie monuments in the front yard of the Bradbury building.

I couldn’t help but snap this photo during the film. To my mind, it’s on par with a Dali painting.

If the first Blade Runner was about confronting god, 2049 attempts to calculate the value of the soul. If artificial intelligence can become so self-aware that it is capable of feeling flawed and lonesome, does being human mean anything beyond legal ramifications? This question was first introduced when Roy Batty shed his iconic tears in the rain; the sight of a robot weeping at the impermanence of existence left us wondering if mono no aware is a uniquely human feature—or bug. (Mono no aware is such a beautiful term for the pathos of things, the recognition that all things must end; see also lacrimae rerum). 2049 extends this theme by pondering our hardwired desire to feel unique. We follow a humanoid’s search for meaning and connection as he ruminates about miracles and wonders if he might be special. At first he is frightened by the possibility, then energized. Perhaps here is meaning at last. The action circles a vague notion of finding purpose through sacrifice for others, but the bigger question of what distinguishes a human from any other mechanism capable of brooding hangs in the haze without answers, evaporating into the haunted scenery of an utterly misanthropic world where morality is garbled by the ways we define us and them.

When Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford race towards a speedy-looking vehicle, 2049 seems destined to careen into the usual Hollywood showdown between good and evil. Instead, Villeneuve unexpectedly downshifts into the register of Bergman or Antonioni, leaving us with an extended meditation on cosmic-grade isolation that favors archetypes over characters and events. Rather than worrying about the bloodied hero crumpled on the floor, the camera is more interested in watching a black dog lope across the screen; instead of savoring the vanquished foe, our attention is directed to the mindless pounding of the surf. There is no good or evil here, only ghosts in the machine and glitches in the sublime. 2049 is not a perfect film, but it is another rare gift.

Citations

Some Excessive Humiliation

Meanwhile the president’s seething need for adulation continues to blow through the nation’s skull like a playground shriek that will never end. “Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation,” wrote Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, a meditation on the anxieties of modern life first published in 1930—and a reminder that today’s agitations, while refracted into a blinding glare by our screens, stem from the age-old conflict between fact and delusion, whether in our private lives or on the public stage.

Russell’s diagnosis of a creature like Trump is unnerving: “Since no man can be omnipotent,” he writes, “a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand.”

Although there are slow-moving rumblings of buyer’s remorse and investigative committees, there are no meaningful constraints on Trump’s lunacy. If we had a functional government or a press that did not rely upon clickbait, a cruel toddler never would have made it into the primaries, let alone the White House. Perhaps the only saving grace is that Trump is uncommonly stupid—and hopefully his need to be admired will lead to a magnificent unravelling before he becomes ‘sufficiently great’.

I find reassurance in another passage from Russell written shortly after World War II. In Philosophy and Politics, he outlines the insanity of any kind of fanaticism, no matter how well-intentioned. The inflexible views of fascists and ecclesiastics as well as communists and anarchists cannot be tolerated because they prefer to “inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good.” Reminding us that we should always aim for “order without authority,” Russell tackles the perception that liberalism is too squishy to succeed against the ferocious single-mindedness of conservatives:

“It is commonly urged that, in a war between liberals and fanatics, the fanatics are sure to win, owing to their more unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause. This belief dies hard, although all history, including that of the last few years, is against it. Fanatics have failed, over and over again, because they have attempted the impossible, or because, even when what they aimed at was possible, they were too unscientific to adopt the right means; they have failed also because they roused the hostility of those whom they wished to coerce. In every important war since 1700 the more democratic side has been victorious. This is partly because democracy and empiricism (which are intimately interconnected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interests of theory.”

Liberalism and reason may indeed triumph in the long run—but at what cost today? How many of these unnecessary battles persist due to a failure to communicate rationally and compassionately, and a refusal to tackle unchecked capitalism and the legal obligation to maximize profits at the expense of citizens? People who do not feel financially exploited do not tend to respond to strongman politics of tribalism and fear.

I no longer understand the daily shock and anger towards Trump or the Republicans who pretend the emperor is clothed. They are the viper in the fable and it is useless to complain about being bitten. The ire and energy of anyone who cares about decency should be directed towards the Democratic Party; its refusal to articulate or support a  coherent liberal vision created this breeding ground for America’s most self-destructive instincts.

Citations

Ubiquity and Lunacy

A powerful meditation from Andrew Sullivan on the nature of freedom and the psychic beating that comes with living in Trumpland:

“With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements—each one shocking and destabilizing—round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.”

“One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent—and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you—to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves—to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago.”

Citations

Decree #1 on the Democratization of Art

Published in Moscow in 1918, this document first thrilled me as an undergraduate when I began drifting from my studies in film towards graphic design. Its optimism is infectious—and heartbreaking, considering the shadows gathering in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.

“Comrades and citizens, we, the leaders of Russian futurism–the revolutionary art of youth–declare:

  1. From this day forward, with the abolition of tsardom, the domicile of art in the closets and sheds of human genius – palaces, galleries, salons, libraries, theaters—is abrogated.
  2. In the name of the great march of equality for all, as far as culture is concerned, let the Free Word of creative personality be written on the corners of walls, fences, roofs, the streets of our cities and villages, on the backs of automobiles, carriages, streetcars, and on the clothes of all citizens.
  3. Let pictures (colors) be thrown, like colored rainbows, across streets and squares, from house to house, delighting, ennobling the eye (taste) of the passer-by. Artists and writers have the immediate duty to get hold of their pots of paint and, with their masterly brushes, to illuminate, to paint all the sides, foreheads, and chests of cities, railway stations, and the evergalloping herds of railway carriages.

“From now on, let the citizen walking down the street enjoy at every moment the depths of thought of his great contemporaries, let him absorb the flowery gaudiness of this day’s beautiful joy, let him listen to music—the melody, the roar, the buzz—of excellent composers everywhere. Let the streets be a feast of art for all.”

“And if all this comes to pass, in accordance with our word, everyone who goes out into the street will grow to be a giant and in wisdom, contemplating beauty instead of the present-day streets with their iron books (signboards), where every page has been written on their signs by greed, the lust for mammon, calculated meanness and low obtuseness, all of which soil the soul and offend the eye.”