What makes my runaway rants rants is that I write them in one go, initially without editing. I will go back and fix my more egregious typos, misspellings, and so on, but not change the flow. The ideas come one after the other, without an outline. It’s a way to keep it simple, but also a way to explore ideas that haven’t solidified: things I’m starting to understand.
When it comes to what is or isn’t reality, it’s much easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. Here I want to address a strong belief I’ve certainly held that an artist needs to be aware of what’s going on in the world, and of politics. I now disbelieve that.
I still think that an artist needs to be aware of reality, though there are different realities, including imaginary realms, psychedelic forays, fleeting feelings, strong emotions, and so on that one might not associate with solid reality. All of those things are aspects of reality, but here I want to focus on political awareness, and even whatever is going on in the art world.
I unintentionally conducted an experiment on myself over a decade ago. I went for at least a year without following politics or what is going on in the world. There was a nice lesson tucked into that.
Somewhere around 2007 (I don’t keep very strict accounts of time) I moved to China. It wasn’t really a choice. I can’t go into it here, but I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t find a job with months of looking, and I used to be able to find work the same day just by popping into any temp agency. Out of desperation I took a job teaching English in China.
I ended up living in a small city smack in the middle of the country, which most Chinese haven’t even heard of. There was no real tourism, and what there was targeted Chinese tourists, and not really foreigners. There were a handful of foreigners living in the city, and I knew them all. There were additionally some Russian “dancers” who did stints at a local nightclub, in which case there would be the curious sight of young blond women seemingly out of nowhere, but other foreigners were an extreme rarity.
My apartment was an absolute shit-hole by any standard, including Chinese standards. It was provided by the school as part of my salary. The apartment directly across from me, in the same building, was enormously superior. All my furniture was used, and broken. If they’d tried to give me a more fucked up place to live, as some sort of punishment, they couldn’t have done much better.
The students were little kiddies, and so there I was with a master’s degree, doing elephant and monkey impressions, and spending evenings crafting fun and interesting lessons to teach them, while the school tried to find ways to cheat me out of my rather modest earnings. People stole my money out of my apartment while I was teaching (this same thing later happened to me at a university in China), until I carefully hid my money.
The important thing here, though, is the internet. I didn’t have any in my apartment. I had to go to a local internet shop, filled with kids playing computer games, and smoking, and drinking, if I wanted to go online. A year later and they started giving teachers internet in their apartments, but when I first arrived it was a luxury. Suffice it to say that it was too difficult and unpleasant for me to go to the internet cafes (we’d have to rotate, because one or the other would not be able to serve us, depending on where the police last enforced the law, because technically, without a Chinese ID, we weren’t allowed to use the internet). The end result is that for more than a year, I was cut off from the Western world, and the whole world, other than a little grey city in China where nobody spoke English and there was only one KFC if one wanted anything other than Chinese food.
After my first 6 months, I reflected that I would never want to put myself through that experience again, but also that I was really glad that I’d done it. Everywhere I went I was greeted by people who’d never seen a “lao wai” in person before, and the chants of “lao wai” were so frequent it was like walking through a forest of birds whose calls were all “lao wai”. As soon as someone would see me, they’d have to alert other people. If I ran into a student in the street and stopped for a moment to talk, a crowd would surround me. People would touch me.
Looking back, that experiment brings the question, what is more real, living in China for a year in a shitty apartment teaching kids English, or following the news closely from the comfort of one’s home? Is it saddling up to a noodle stall and ordering breakfast noodles (mian pi) — a local specialty — in Chinese, while everyone gawks at me, or is it reading the New Yorker on my subway commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan (which I did for 8 years)?
Of course it’s both, but there’s a question of degree and quality. But a comparison is not really necessary. Or maybe it is, because political awareness can be a veneer between oneself and ones immediate surroundings. When I get involved in politics or the art world, I am mulling over those problems rather than addressing my immediate needs and engaging with the people and world I’m in direct contact with. Is reality information, or experience?
In the last few days someone discovered an article on my blog about Gerhard Richter’s crappy digital strip paintings. In short, he made enormous prints of horizontal stripe designs which were heralded by the art world as a breakthrough in digital and fine art, and these things sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, I discovered this same technique years before he did, and didn’t take it seriously, because it’s just too limited. The interesting thing is that my article was shared on a “Glitch Art Community” site, and that’s a kind of digital art. To my not-so-surprise, the post sharing my article was filled with personal attacks against me. Accusations that I don’t know anything about art, am ignorant, jealous, and every manner of low blow.
This helped complete a circle of people and genres I’ve personally been attacked by in the art world. Traditional artists dismiss me entirely because I work digitally. Political artists revile me because of my epidermis, genitalia, and sexual orientation. Conceptual artists laugh at my hopeless backwardness in making proper visual art. Now, even digital artists viciously attack me for being outside their particular brand of artistic preference.
I had a curious reaction to this latest assault. I didn’t care. I read all the nasty comments, and then added a comment of my own thanking them for their intelligent and insightful commentary, and for the free psychological analysis, then departed. It’s partly that the arguments weren’t even worthy of my consideration (I’m hardly going to be persuaded that I’m completely ignorant about art), but also that I’m not even interested. People are savaging me in a public forum, and I can’t be bothered about it.
True, I read the comments, and I made one sarcastic response, but in the past there were instances where I’d go in and take everyone on, and dismantle them one by one, ultimately losing because all you need is two people who agree, when you are only one, to lose an argument. It’s a bit like walking down the street, people slapping me and kicking at me, and not bothering to hit back. Your blows don’t hurt, and you aren’t worth my time.
While people had a lot to say in their FB group about my article, none of them commented on my blog. I’ve had a similar experience with Reddit communities. The reason is that they are jockeying for status within a hierarchy in their own communities and have no interest in actually engaging me or challenging me. I’m a convenient fool for them to denounce from afar in order to elevate themselves. Thus, my purpose in making one civil comment was to simply let them know I was aware of what they were saying about me.
In order to comment I had to join the group. After commenting I left it, after which I couldn’t comment again. Within seconds of my posting there were two responses. More responses accrued in the next hours. Now the personal battle had raged against me on another level, and this time it was personal. I let them all have the last words on the subject, and me. The prospect of whatever they had to say, what names they were calling me, and so on, didn’t even arouse my curiosity. Not out of defiance, or a test of will, but honest indifference. I don’t care what they think, and I hardly care that I don’t care.
Information about reality is not reality. Conclusions are not truths. Facts have no relevance except in relation to the value we personally ascribe to them in relation to our one lives. The Buddha, when asked if there is life after death, refused to answer, so the records say. His reason was that an answer is a sentence, people would feel they had a conclusion, the job was done, and would move on. But life, death, and the prospect of an afterlife are all experiential, not snippets of linguistic utterances with a stamp of official approval.
Reality is outside of language, not within it, despite what some Postmodernists say, and their followers uncritically believe. Consider that any argument about the nature of reality takes place in sentences, and at any given point you only have a portion of one sentence in your mind. Reality can never be a partial thought. Rather, it’s an overall orientation based on accumulated knowledge, and for scientists this might come as a kind of awe. People who view a vast expanse of desert on a clear day, or look out into a brightly starred night, may have a glimpse of the immensity of reality that can be overpowering, but which words can’t convey in a FB post, with or without a picture. The appreciation of reality takes place outside of the unfolding of sentences in time.
People think they are “woke” when they accept certain foregone conclusions, including about me, such as that all problems with the world are due to the existence of my (perceived) kind.
At this point, where having an alternative interpretation to the dominant narrative can get one in serious trouble, it’s one of those times when artists and writers are compelled to use stories to indirectly address abuses of power. I like to imagine a story where people start to open their eyes and see the truth that all problems are due to witchcraft. If they can get rid of the witches and the witchcraft, than they will live in a paradise on Earth. One of the true believers is himself accused of being a witch, put through trials, tortured, and eventually burned at the stake. While the people surrounding him are confidently eradicating evil in the name of bringing about light, his last thoughts are that they are stupid brutes, that witches don’t exist, and witchcraft is utter bullshit.
I find a lot of what I am getting from “news” to be social engineering, designed to produce and maintain narratives which both serve the interests of the most powerful, and provide a convenient scapegoat. Is ingesting this poison tantamount to having an awakening?
You can find all sorts of music, for free, on YouTube, blogs that provide links to downloadable albums, and other places. I’m a big connoisseur of a range of music, with a special appreciation of 70’s rock, which is no surprise given my age and being American. For one who has this interest, there is an enormous expanse of bands and albums that are quite good, that 99% of rock fans have never heard or heard of. Yes, a lot of it are B items, but those are quite interesting as well, because there are great talents in them and occasional innovations and expressions which we won’t find represented in the established canon. Some bands I’ve been listening to in the last few days include: Trees; Family; Hatfield and the North; Atomic Rooster; Fraction; Matching Mole; H.P. Lovecraft; Toad; Tamburlaine; Zoot; Bacamarte; and Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso…
I listen to music while making art. I put my MP3 player (I’m using Winamp) on shuffle, and the songs will slowly impress themselves on my ears and memory, much of it unconsciously. I ask myself if listening to music I haven’t head before is engaging reality more than reading or watching news items and commentary.
Some of the best best music is obviously going to be stuff we’ve all heard of. A real standout in the last couple weeks has been Crosby, Stills, & Nash (with or without Young). I didn’t deliberately think about this and come to this conclusion. When their songs come on, and I’m immersed in something else, they resonate with me, pluck some deeper strings, and I find myself pulled back into my childhood. The curious thing here is I didn’t listen to CSN when I was a child (not that I can remember).
Their music captures an era. It has a palpable sense of time and place about it. Not just an identifying marker — this could only happen in the 70’s — but a positive, nourishing, evocation. It works with indirect associations between their capturing intangible… wait… I guess it must be tangible… yes, tangible qualities which cannot be put into words, and my memories of specific places and feelings from the distant past. Chords, notes, and vocal harmonies will call up images of a bedroom window looking in to the neighbors yard, the edge of a pool, stucko on a wall.
The music captures and evokes reality in a way that the most correct (by any metric) articulations of important facts, or conclusions from studies, can’t.
What is this all leading up to? I have been disengaging more and more from the news, the art world, and social media. When I do engage, it’s largely to point out the ridiculousness, or perniciousness, of this of that occurrence. But even to do that eventually becomes non-productive. At first one needs to do a sort of operation to remove the cancer of this or that ideology — to see through the bullshit, extract it, place it under a microscope, and then dispel with it — but eventually, one is just continuing to engage with it after already deconstructing it, because it’s not going anywhere. How useful is engaging with pathology beyond seeing it as pathology?
The human mind has some serious problems. We try to cast a net of interpretation on reality, which is ever elusive and impossible to mentally envelope. As evidence of this, consider that there are many competing nets which always serve those who believe in them, and work against everyone else. They are, ultimately, useful lies. We can’t function without an interpretation, but all interpretations are limited, subjective narratives. The Postmodernists got this right, but in an astronomically ironic and hypocritical turn of events, their postulations are now accepted as unassailable truth.
The news and commentary is a competition to promote this or that self-serving narrative, to persuade me to believe this or that story, which is never, or rarely in my best interests. This is more obvious in other countries, such as China, or North Korea, where the government exercises severe control of what the citizens know, and what narratives or paradigms they have access to.
Having lived in China, however, would I say that your average Chinese person lives less in reality than your average American? Uuuuh. No. They’re actually very smart about knowing bullshit when it’s served on a platter. You can’t get through life without brushing against tragedy, sickness, death, love, hate, moments of fleeting joy, instances of despair, witnessing cruel injustice, being yourself a pig, and so on…
Minds in groups are the most pathological, hence wars. A soldier has to kill a stranger, perhaps engaged in a knife battle, who he has no personal knowledge of, whether the man is a nice person or not. I imagine that despite the hatred, which lens one must see the “enemy” through in order to kill them, as time goes on, soldiers on either side of the enemy line, will have far more in common with each other than with civilians of their own population. They will share horror stories, instances of bravery, witnessing deprivation, debilitating injuries, losing friends, and so on. They may not even be able to communicate any of this to their own families, but, after the war is over and countries somehow become economically aligned (how else?), they could share these stories with their former enemies. But the point here is that men will kill each other for group mentality, when they would never even be rude to those people in normal, daily life.
Group allegiance demands others don’t belong. There is often the “evil other”, perhaps always, who we place all blame on for our own problems.
Recently I was re-reading some Indian philosophy, courtesy of my favorite (or least objectionable) guru, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. He represents the “Advaita” school of Hinduism, also known as the “diamond path”, because it tries to persuade the intellect without recourse to mythology, gods, analogies and metaphors. Eckhart Tolle, by the way, merely regurgitates Advaita in a palatable form for a contemporary audience. If asked, he will admit that he has nothing to say that Maharaj didn’t say better a half century before. What is interesting is that in Hinduism and other Eastern philosophy, the enemy isn’t someone else, but rather the problems with ones own mind, and the human mind overall.
Here we see the enemy as not the Muslims, the immigrants, the straight white males, Trump, the Nazis, Antifa, the SJWs, or whomever, but rather the mental qualities of selfishness, greed, jealousy, competitiveness, spite, arrogance, ignorance, stupidity, and so on. The main objective is not to fight the other — the witches — but to overcome the enemy in oneself. This is work you can’t do for someone else, but only for yourself, and they can only do it for themselves. You can’t eradicate the enemy by killing off anyone. What better thing can you do to fight the real enemy than to conquer it in yourself, which nobody else can do for you?
Now THAT makes really good sense. Sure, sure, we also have external enemies, though the problem is their mental shortcomings, which we are also highly vulnerable to, and not their bodies. So, racism, for example, is the real problem, not racists.
The most dangerous people are not the others who we ascribe our problems to, but rather those who ascribe all their problems to someone else. The latter types will want to destroy the evil other, eradicate them or their associated culture by any and all means necessary. And in doing so, they will become the apotheosis of the enemy themselves in every aspect.
Looking back, that year in China when I was cut off from the news was one of the best years of my life. I was more “present” in my day to day exchanges, and had more time and energy to devote to my work.
It seems selfish to not take on the world’s problems, but it may be as much the opposite. Mulling over the issues, writing angry screeds, posting memes on FB, throwing punches in the air over the latest social transgression, screaming at the election of a politician we despise, and so on, contribute little.
We place a lot of emphasis on voting, and a friend recently refused to discuss some political issue or other because I hadn’t voted, in which case my opinion was meaningless because not brought into useful action. But how useful is my vote really? My vote for Sanders would never have been counted because the unaccountable “Super Delegates” were projected to pick Clinton, and so by the time my state had a chance to vote in the electoral college, it was already too late. My 1 in 576,000,000 votes would have been utterly useless.
If I took all the time and energy I spent following the 2016 election cycle, and used that for anything else, I would have been far better off. It was a toxic waste of my time.
I would have voted for Obama in 2008 if I were in America. I voted against Bush Jr. in back-to-back elections. But, in China, I missed the whole damned thing, and the effect of me being there, in that city with only a handful of foreigners, teaching little kids English, was far more beneficial to the world than my vote would have been for Obama, who won without me.
I don’t feel the obligation to follow politics or world events anymore. THAT is NOT reality! It’s a pathological cocktail of social engineering, scapegoating, and group psychosis. I believe one would be far better off reading literature, listening to music, and watching film, all of which deals with world events anyways. When I look back, it’s my personal experience and art that have given my life meaning, whereas politics and politicizing, ideologies, news, and commentary have mostly had a negative impact, and can foster ignorance more than dispel it. Yes, of course, balance is probably the answer, but one doesn’t want to balance cancer.
I’m going to go with the Eastern philosophers here. I rather think reality is perceived more through clearing ones own mind of obstructions, and thus experiencing reality less through delusions, addictions, perversions, vendettas, and all manner of neurosis, than through accumulating stilted facts about the world or the external enemy. That shit is pollution, and I’m increasingly finding the effect of it is to poison and obscure my reality.
I do believe that an artist needs to be in contact with reality to be any good. There may be some question of the sanity of some artists, but an artist like Van Gogh, who may have lost his control and had bouts of extreme negative emotion, also grappled tenaciously with reality. It’s something else to just be delusional or live in a private bubble detached from the plight of humanity and blissfully unaware of the human condition.
The problem is that what people are taking for “reality” now is a litany of foregone conclusions, and dutifully ingested social engineering doctrine. Aligning oneself with the answers of the day doesn’t mean one has truly tackled the questions on ones own. Just siding with the majority only demonstrates that one is socially aware of what the majority believes, and thus conforms in order to belong, no matter what the majority believes. One routes for the home team, no matter which home team it is.
One of the lessons I learned in China is that I could be off in a city nobody where I come from has every heard of — where I don’t know anyone, where my politics are not understood, where my language is not spoken, where the things that are most important in my culture are often irrelevant — and life goes on in all its richness and fullness.
If I want to engage reality I’m better off listening to another song from the 70’s I’ve never heard before, by a B band, or just taking a walk, than I am processing the headlines, the politics, the identity politics, and all the blather that is mostly just, consciously or not, substantiating this or that self-serving narrative, over and over.