Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Transcendental Business

oil painting, Rightness, by the author

In business school there is little ambiguity as to the mission, money... profits. In art school it's a little different. The one I went to required focus, after a year of fundamentals, on one of several options: Advertising, Illustration, Industrial Design (all, you'll note, with the same point as business school) or Fine Art. Within the Fine Arts, by year three, one selected a major: painting, sculpture or printmaking. Of course everyone knew that “fine art” was a commodity, but it was considered crass to dwell too much on that area. So what, if not money, was the point? Well the word transcendental might have come up, if not that particular word then a synonym. Before we go further it should be pointed out that it has nothing to do with dental work. I don't know how dental got in there.

We looked to figures like Van Gogh, wholly taken up by painting despite poverty, ridicule and scorn, little recognition beyond their circles of starving artists, a few patrons maybe. It's not about money we said, and meant it. But what did we mean? I mean, what was it we were after if it wasn't money? Beauty? Truth? Authenticity? Ok, but what do those words mean? They were bandied about in the art mags and theoretical writings and we thought we knew what they meant just by using them. But the question remains, what do they mean? Why was art-making special and beyond commerce?

Of course the artists we admired now have respect. People flock to the museums to see their work. There are adoring biographies, imitators, framed reproductions, astronomical auction prices... so there is definitely a material presence in the shadow of the great men (mostly) just as the great religious figures attracted a following that didn't necessarily get the message. Yes, ego is everywhere, crap and corruption, but that message, again, what is it?

We identify things in the world, sub-sets say of the actually indivisible whole, ie, atoms, photons, waterfalls, buildings, galaxies and death, or our ideas of that mystery. Even our own thoughts and emotions… and here we have an insight, that if we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, who or what is aware? There must be something beyond the thoughts/emotions that is aware of them and that something is awareness itself, what YOU (or I - we) actually boil down to. I venture that here is the message, that what, outside of ego, moves art makers is the tantalizing glimpse of awareness that pulls them away from commerce toward the world that can only be experienced, in its deepest aspects, through awareness, presence as the Buddhists would have it. Intuition was another word we used to try to get at this. Catherine Fox, in a review of this writer's paintings, wrote, “For Ferguson, art-making is less a career than a yoga practice - a vehicle to get him to a state of consciousness.”

So why would we be interested in “consciousness” when there are material riches out there just waiting for us to get our hands on 'em. They promise us feelings of superiority, invulnerability, and pleasures of palette and flesh. Well some see through these appeals to ego and others, like the Buddha himself it is said, achieve the seduction of “success” and find it hollow. Consider the billionaires who continue to obsessively amass wealth even when what they have would take multiple life times to spend.

The attraction of “consciousness” is that it gives us access, it is a portal to the joy and profundity of being. It is how we experience the incredibly beautiful and complex phenomenon of existence and feel our inexplicable interconnection, unity, with it... it is us, we are it... and this transitory, material world is a wave swelling up out of the sea, rolling the peppled shore and returning once again to the deep.

Monday, February 17, 2014

My Country 'tis of Thee

The phenomenon of elderly people fixed with rapt and adoring attention on The Lawrence Welk Show used to totally baffle me. Everything about it seemed transparently fake - fake smiles, fake dialogue, fake music. The bubbles might have been real. It was like the glaring opposite of hip. But hip can be fake too, more like the opposite of authentic, or maybe anti-real. It’s not much of a leap from Lawrence Welk to Ronald Reagan.

My sister dragged me to a church dinner program once while visiting her in California. It was like being in the Lawrence Welk audience; corny and lame humor with everyone laughing politely as if what was said symbolized humor and the laughter symbolized rather than was actual amusement. Sort of like a high end car can represent status rather than a good car. I thought, these are the kind of folks who believe Ronald Reagan was heroic and actually voted for the guy, later approving naming airports and freeways after him, and today going on about how they miss him – if only he were around, the country’d shape up fast. I almost said “sincerely” voted for the guy. I suppose if you believe something, however deluded, you are “sincere” when you act out of those convictions. This is what the 60s intuitively rejected as some of us began to shake off our slumber. But Welk fans were there too so it was only a segment of the population who embraced criticality. And, unfortunately, it’s not a generational thing. We can’t expect superficiality to fade with the passage of time for it seems to dwell among us and to replenish itself.

I’m not sure how large the Lawrence Welk audience was. Nixon liked to pretend they were the “silent majority”. The election of he and Reagan, and Bush for that matter (both of’em), suggests he wasn’t far wrong. In any event, they represent a huge problem for any politician with a progressive agenda. They constitute a large body of theoretically easily manipulable, and easily alienated voters. All bolstered of course by a compliant, hell, complicit media.

A strange incongruity to the picture I’m painting here is that polls show a majority of the population supports diplomacy over war, single-payer healthcare over insurance company tyranny, environmental health over corporate profits. Yet the corporate stranglehold on our political system doesn’t allow candidates with these priorities to flourish. Several factors come into play: candidates need contributions to run their campaigns; and short-term shifts in attitudes can be manipulated by mis-information efforts – witness the recent defeat of GMO labeling initiatives in California and Washington. Polls showed the labeling campaign favored until Big Money turned it around. There’s also the political strategy of saying what your pollsters determine your audience wants to hear. And the establishment pressure on elected officials to do their bidding and to mask it, in patriotic rhetoric or whatever works this week.

One of the things that seems to work over and over is to associate some virtue, flag or Jesus for example, with the desired candidate or platform. Or to the negative, distracting voters with actually irrelevant, to them, but hot-wire issues like gay marriage or abortion, getting them to unknowingly vote against their own real economic and personal liberty interests.

During Bush the Younger’s administration polls showed that people believed W embraced certain values - environmental concern, violence only as last resort, standing up for the little guy etc; values that he quite obviously did not actually give two toots for.

Given this unstable demographic there is always the danger that some master manipulator will come along who can exploit it and sweep us all, once again, into the furnace of world-wide war – this time with the “firepower” to not come out of it. There is a hope, at least as likely (?) that some gifted individual might find the language to touch the authentic awareness that lies at the heart of every person not a sociopath, an enlightened person of integrity who recognizes the necessity, if we are to survive, for a shift in consciousness. Count on the sociopaths to go after this person, should they appear, offering riches and power that cannot be declined, or, turning to the Mafia creed that if you can’t buy someone, you can murder them. Meanwhile the sociopaths seem to be running things and ordinary citizens can lay the ground for such a “revolution”, call it Democracy, by resisting pathology and asserting for an environmentally sustainable, peace and justice, alternative path.