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Dewey Square in Boston on October 15

On the topic of art and political activism (discussed in my earlier post here): Susana Viola Jacobson, consummate artist and critic, left the following response to that piece. Her thoughts were too good to not share.

Very thoughtful piece. I wrestled with this divide for years and finally realized that painting is generally not a very effective tool for the politics of change, though it has been at times. My painting definitely isn’t useful in that way.

But art too works very slowly and most often on a small audience. It does help people figure the meanings of things, of their lives, so in that sense helps them be more purposeful and clear about what they do and who they are. It reflects our best and worst manifestations as a species, even when it is primarily geared toward entertainment, as long as we look at it critically. It does require us to work to get more out of it than a past time.

I’ve often found topical art too short lived in its effect and in making a clear point. It challenges boundaries and can break them for the rest of us, but then it tends to quickly become out of date. I’m grateful to artists who throw the pointed spear and make the first breach but I’m also grateful to artists who come before and after those moments and provide places for us to ponder, contemplate, absorb and reflect within their work.

We need all of it.

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A note about Susana Viola Jacobson: Formerly at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania where she was a professor of painting, Susana now lives in Salt Lake City Utah. We shared a loft together on the Lower East Side in the 70s.


“Diverse Evils and Accumulated Sorrows”, by Susana Viola Jacobson (on display at the Humbolt State University library)

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October 15 march and protest in Boston

Aligning the work you do with the passions of your heart is not a given. My partner Dave worked for decades before he finally found a way to integrate his professional life with his personal desire to make the world a better place. (His organization, ReachScale, creates public/private partnerships to fund innovative social enterprises.)

But it isn’t so easy for me. I have not yet found a way to bring my political passions and my work as an artist into confluence.

I struggled with this discrepancy after 9/11. Other artists felt that same discomfort, and a number of thoughtful pieces appeared addressing that issue. If the work that emerges from your most authentic self is non-narrative, non-political, made by one person working alone, there just isn’t an easy alignment with ideology, at least not directly. So you do your work in one compartment of your life, and you advocate in another.

The Occupy movement has brought those bifurcated feelings to the surface for me again. This is a “finally!” moment for so many of us who were raised on believing in the power of bodies in the street and the impact of physical presence. This moment in time feels like a return to my roots. Like going home for a meal made by your mom—familiar and nourishing.

This showed up in Michael Kimmelman‘s piece in the New York Times, The Power of Place:

It so happens that near the start of the protest, when the police banned megaphones at Zuccotti Park, they obliged demonstrators to come up with an alternative. “Mic checks” became the consensus method of circulating announcements, spread through the crowd by people repeating, phrase by phrase, what a speaker had said to others around them, compelling everyone, as it were, to speak in one voice. It’s like the old game of telephone, and it is painstakingly slow.

“But so is democracy,” as Jay Gaussoin, a 46-year-old unemployed actor and carpenter, put it to me. “We’re so distracted these days, people have forgotten how to focus. But the ‘mic check’ demands not just that we listen to other people’s opinions but that we really hear what they’re saying because we have to repeat their words exactly.

“It requires an architecture of consciousness,” was Mr. Gaussoin’s apt phrase.

For me, living a few hundred miles from Zuccotti Park, it started with constant monitoring of the twitter feeds for #occupywallstreet, #ows, #occupyboston, #rootstrikers, #globalchange. Then Boston came on line. I expanded to helping out with donations and food. But on Saturday it moved out of virtual and into the visceral when I stood with thousands of others in downtown Boston to protest a dysfunctional world. How can you not want things to tilt towards a better direction, towards the creation of a world that is just, sustainable, good? How can you not be hopeful we can do better?

Designer Bruce Mau asked the same thing when he started the Massive Change movement several years ago. “I was troubled at the time by the mood of the day. What I saw was incredibly positive change, but the more I read [in the media], the more I saw people being convinced that the world is going to hell in a handcart.”

Then he found an extraordinary quote by the historian Arnold J. Toynbee:

The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.

I have found comfort in that quote for years, and now another good sign is Steven Pinker‘s exhaustively researched and important new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Is it counterintuitive to believe a better world is possible?

Our perceptions are deceptive. 24/7 news coverage is skewed to the negative. How can anyone get the full picture?

Several years ago John Cage was asked this question in an interview with Laurie Anderson:

“Are things getting worse or are they getting better?”

His answer:

“Of course things are getting better. It is just that it is happening so s-l-o-w-l-y.”

So it’s Monday. Back to work. On both fronts.


The light in Canada

Politics and art have been combined and comingled in the past, producing work that is powerful and provocative. Goya. Guernica. Beckmann.

But that isn’t the case for me and my way of working. In fact mixing the two is a toxic brew. Over the last week I have had to conscientiously firewall my studio from the acidic cloud emanating from Washington and polluting the summer skies in every direction.

So thank you Whiskey River for posts that helped me look out beyond my bunker. Maybe the water level rises a drop at a time.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

— Pablo Neruda

Burlap Sack

A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, “Hand me the sack,”
but we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The mule is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
and leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thick ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?

–Jane Hirshfield


Skyline of the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake just after a cloudburst

Yesterday I heard an interview with an American journalist on NPR. She has spent most of the last 8 years in Afghanistan reporting on the war. In the process she developed a deep affection for the country and its plight, so much so that she just couldn’t bear to stay and watch as bad decisions and misguided policies have made things worse.

For the last few months she has been living on Cape Cod. Instead of reveling in the exquisite summer of that breathtaking landscape she has been restless and dissatisfied, stewing over her discomfort in being back in what was once her homeland. Her turmoil is more than missing the adrenaline of a war zone, she said. It is how much the United States has changed since she last lived here.

“Everyone I speak with now is deeply unhappy with the way things are going in this country. Everyone. They each have a list of what they think is broken, and their concerns vary. But every person I speak with is convinced this country has severe problems and that we are headed in the wrong direction.”

That is my experience as well, and it was brought home to me recently during a recent trip to the west. Two of my most spiritually-inclined friends live off the grid in the wilderness of New Mexico, and they announced to me quite unexpectedly they were very optimistic about the future. It stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t heard that kind of optimism from anyone. For years. At that moment I realized the deep divide between life 10 years ago and now. If I had polled my friends about their view of the future just 5 years ago, I would have seen a reasonable bell curve distribution ranging from “life is great!” to “everything sucks”. Now that response would just flatline.

Is this just a case of “end of the American empire” blues? The twilight of our self-professed hegemony and “best country in the world” mythos? Is it generational? Is it a proclivity particular to progressives and liberals (like me and 99% of my closest friends)? Is it a larger story, a global pessimism that transcends national boundaries or political beliefs? Maybe a case of e) all of the above?

I keep thinking about the cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien who spent 20 years living with indigenous people and learning about how to live from those who seem to do it with more joy than we do.* She was a keynote at a psychology conference a few years ago and told a thousand therapists, “You think you know all about addictions? Well maybe not. We live in a culture that harbors addictions so large you probably don’t even see them.”

Here is her list:

1. Addiction to intensity and drama.
2. Addiction to the myth of perfection.
3 Addiction to focusing on what’s not working.
4. Addiction to having to know.

This past week has been all about #3 for me. Every political update on MSNBC, Facebook and Twitter (and particularly exemplified by the hashtag firestorm of Jeff Jarvis‘ “#fuckyouwashington” last weekend) has been about what’s broken, what isn’t working. And yes, it does have an addictive quality to it. You get good at finding what’s broken, and what’s broken gets very good at finding you. It’s a reinforcing loop.

Being a hermit or doing a “Jonathan Franzen” (he wrote The Corrections wearing “earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold”, and for Freedom he shut down his Ethernet port with Super Glue) are options. But is it possible to shift to another lens for viewing the world? I am tired of feeling hopeless. Maybe that is part of the old wisdom that things sometimes have to get worse before they can get better. The saturation finally forces a shift.

No answers here, just a public pondering of what it will take to move out of this weather pattern.

________
* Angeles Arrien’s Four Fold Way, culled from her experiences living with several different indigenous populations:

1. Show up and be present.
2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning for you.
3. Tell your truth without judgment or blame.
4. Be open to outcome, but not attached to outcome.


Being at home in a layered reality…The view through the rooms in Stephanie’s magical Rockport home

I’ve confessed here before to the paradox at the core of my art making and blog writing persona: I don’t believe art can be parsed and analyzed in language the way other topics can be. But there are words and languaged explorations that inhabit the borders of that non-languaged land and are of interest and value. This blog is about the content that lives in that liminal zone, bordering the border and at home along that edge.

Laurie Fendrich is a blogger on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm site and has written about the “deafening silence” she encounters whenever she writes about art. When the topic is politics, the switchboard lights up and everyone wants to log in on their opinion. Why so little commentary when the topic is art?

A lot of people can’t understand how art of any kind conveys meaning. At its best, it seems to sit there, or hang there, waiting to be contemplated for some sort of aesthetic pleasure. What else is there to say about it? At the same time, many are terribly intimidated by art—especially modern and contemporary art. They find they don’t like it, but worse, they’re annoyed that they don’t “get” it. It seems as if it’s part of a club they aren’t allowed to join. Tethered as they are to their preconceived ideas about what a painting should do (it should be beautiful, or at least good-looking, or it should tell a story, or be noble, or be about flowers, or the Bible), a lot of people think modern and contemporary art is nothing but one enormous joke. Since this is hardly the kind of thing sophisticated people want to admit, they prefer to keep quiet about the subject.

But Fendrich goes on to point out another aspect that impacts public interaction with the visual arts. This is one that particularly resonates with my views:

For aesthetic taste to broaden generally requires a lot of serious, direct experience with art—lots of time hanging around museums, galleries and artists’ studios. It helps to read about art, or listen and talk to people who love it, or are at least involved in it. Yet even then, and even among the educated elite, only a relatively small group of people do any of these things on any kind of regular basis. People in the humanities (where you’d think you’d find a lot of people who pay attention to art) are frequently just as alienated, flummoxed or indifferent to art as the masses that are obsessed with pop culture. The stock and trade of academics is words, not images, and for all their ability to analyze culture, academics are mostly blissfully ignorant of what it takes to make something that becomes a part of culture—a work of art, or a product of scientific inquiry and experiment. For all their study of ideas and actions (artistic or otherwise), and all their inventing of explanations and theories about what creative people do, in both art and science, they rarely ever try their hands at creative work.

On the consistently interesting blog Real Clear Arts, Judith H. Dobrzynski has written a thoughtful response to the difference between talking about politics and talking about art:

Fendrich almost makes that reticence a virtue as she dissects why everyone feels so free and almost obligated to talk about politics: “For most of us, talking about politics has become merely another means of self-expression — another way to yell (if we’re bullies), rant (if we’re full of tension), sound reasonable (if we’re nice people).”

But that has consequences: “People eagerly opine about politics because talking about politics today has deteriorated into nothing but a game of chatter–a way of responding to the unsettling modern world that seems so devoid of much that’s beautiful or good.”

So cheer up, art-lovers. Would you rather have a lot of people blather on and on about something, even when they don’t know much, or remain quiet because they don’t know much?

More specific to my particular concerns, a comment on Dobrzynski’s blog left by “Joan” captures many of my feelings with this thoughtful note:

The only language that really touches the purposes or heart of art is poetry, not analysis. Why? Because a work of art isn’t a response to a rational question. I don’t mean by that the arts are irrational. If a work of art does emerge from thinking, it is born from the place where thinking comes to a sort of intellectual dead end past which it can’t verbally go. Is America so materialistic it has forgotten that there is meaning apart from rational thought or the work and progress of science and technology?…The heart of art is non-verbal, experiential, practical, and non-commercial. Why blab about it- unless you’re an art student or artist talking to other artists, deeply involved in discovery about what it is and how it is, that you are doing what you are doing??

6a00d8341d4d3053ef010536831aeb970c-320wi

I’m still tracking the Obama administration’s pending appointment of an art czar. Robin Pogrebin wrote an excellent overview in the New York Times two days ago that answered many of the questions I have been asking.

Here’s the latest on Obama’s old buddy from Chicago who is currently coordinating arts issues for the White House:

The staff member charged with the arts portfolio, Kareem Dale, is relatively young (in his 30s) and potentially overextended (he is already special assistant to the president for disability policy) with little arts experience. And his position has yet to be defined. Mr. Dale is expected to serve temporarily and to be replaced by someone with full-time responsibility for the arts, said a White House official, who asked to remain anonymous because personnel issues had yet to be resolved.

And these final paragraphs end the article on an upbeat:

Teresa Eyring, the executive director of the Theater Communications Group, which represents the country’s nonprofit theaters, said: “Local and regional elected officials and community leaders are seeing and talking about the connection between the arts and the overall health of their communities. The same sensibility hasn’t quite landed at the national level.”

“In President Obama we have a leader who is making the connection,” she added, “who seems to understand both the spiritual and economic necessity of the arts to our nation’s strength.”

Mr. Ivey [former head of the Endowment], who led the transition team devoted to the arts and recently met with Mr. Dale, said he expected the White House position to involve coordinating the work of the Endowment, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“It’s great to have a direct West Wing connection,” Mr. Ivey said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had an administration that thought about the vibrancy of our cultural life as a central public policy,” he added, “as a marker of quality of life in a democracy.”

That’s a powerful statement: “Vibrancy of our cultural life as a central public policy, as a marker of quality of life in a democracy.” Sounds so simple and commonsensical to me, but obviously it is not standard fare in Washington World.

sharonbegley-thumb7

Sharon Begley writes a column at Newsweek and can mince through a problem about as fast as anybody these days. Her mind is sharp, agile and very cool.

The following excerpt is from her column in the February 14 issue and deals with the general failure of prognostication. I have been miffed by (you too?) how piss poor the experts performed in anticipating our current malaise. Begley’s article gave me a framework with which to approach this problem.

While her piece is dealing with political pundits, Begley’s take could be applied to many other areas as well. Berlin’s oft used analogy of hedgehogs and foxes continues to have a long life. I still find it an entertaining thinking tool.

Pointing out how often pundits’ predictions are not only wrong but egregiously wrong—a 36,000 Dow! euphoric Iraqis welcoming American soldiers with flowers!—is like shooting fish in a barrel, except in this case the fish refuse to die. No matter how often they miss the mark, pundits just won’t shut up…But while we can’t shut pundits up, we can identify those more likely to have an accurate crystal ball when it comes to forecasts from the effect of the stimulus bill to the likelihood of civil unrest in China. Knowing who’s likely to be right comes down to something psychologists call cognitive style, and with that in mind Philip Tetlock, a research psychologist at Stanford University, would like to introduce you to foxes and hedgehogs.

At first, Tetlock’s ongoing study of 82,361 predictions by 284 pundits (most but not all of them American) came up empty. He initially looked at whether accuracy was related to having a Ph.D., being an economist or political scientist rather than a blowhard journalist, having policy experience or access to classified information, or being a realist or neocon, liberal or conservative. The answers were no on all counts. The best predictor, in a backward sort of way, was fame: the more feted by the media, the worse a pundit’s accuracy. And therein lay Tetlock’s first clue. The media’s preferred pundits are forceful, confident and decisive, not tentative and balanced. They are, in short, hedgehogs, not foxes.

That bestiary comes from the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who in 1953 argued that hedgehogs “know one big thing.” They apply that one thing (for instance, that ethnicity and language are primal; ergo, any country that contains many ethnic groups will break up) everywhere, express supreme confidence in their forecasts, dismiss opposing views and are drawn to top-down arguments deduced from that Big Idea. Foxes, in contrast, “know many things,” as Berlin put it. They consider competing views, make bottom-up inductive arguments from an array of facts and doubt the power of Big Ideas. “The hedgehog-fox dimension did what none of the other traits did,” says Tetlock…

In short, what experts think matters far less than how they think, or their cognitive style. At one extreme, hedgehogs seek certainty and closure, dismiss information that undercuts their preconceptions and embrace evidence that reinforces them, in what is called “belief defense and bolstering.” At the other extreme, foxes are cognitively flexible, modest and open to self-criticism. White House economics czar Larry Summers is seldom accused of having a modest personality, but he displays the fox’s cognitive style: in briefing the president, he assigns numerical probabilities to possible outcomes of economic policies, rather than saying, “This will [or will not] happen.” Similarly, Yale economist Robert Shiller, who forecast the bursting of both the tech bubble in 2000 and the housing bubble in 2006, deploys a flexible cognitive style that works from the data up and not from one Big Idea down. Here’s how to identify fauna: foxes pepper their speech and writing with “however” and “but,” recognizing uncertainty in the face of competing forces. Hedgehogs suffer from no such doubts, which (combined with their adherence to a Big Idea) makes them especially prone to overpredict change: the House of Saud will fall, the European Monetary Union will collapse, Canada will disintegrate like Yugoslavia—in the last case, from the primal force of ethnicity. Leftist hedgehogs, applying the Big Idea that those who oppose dictators are virtuous, failed to foresee the fierce repressiveness of Iran’s 1979 revolution, which overthrew the shah; applying the Big Idea that involvement in regional war = quagmire, they predicted that the first Gulf war would last 20 years and claim 50,000 American lives. Oops.

The media, of course, eat this up. Bold, decisive assertions make better sound bites; bombast, swagger and certainty make for better TV. As a result, the marketplace of ideas does not punish poor punditry. Few of us even remember who got what wrong. We are instead impressed by credentials, affiliation, fame and even looks—traits that have no bearing on a pundit’s accuracy.

The truly bad news for forecasters, however, is that although foxes beat hedgehogs, math often beats all but the best foxes. If there are three possibilities (say, that China will experience more, less or the same amount of civil unrest), throwing darts at targets representing each one produces a forecast more accurate than most pundits’. Simply extrapolating from recent data on, say, economic output does even better. But booking statistical models on talk shows probably wouldn’t help their ratings.

There’s a convergence happening. When I read about the state of the art market, the economy, social change, politics, the financial sector or just how to survive personally in this brave new world of 2009, the solutions are starting to have a common theme. What used to be compartmentalized and fragmented (bankers caring only about banking, political activists focused only on their particular cause) is now showing up as increasingly more inclusive and whole system-oriented.

For example, Rachel Sklar on The Daily Beast has written about a phrase first coined in 2004 but particularly well suited for today’s state of things. Smart Power–“a subtle combination of brains and the wisdom to use them to get things done”–is a concept that has more meaning than just political clout.

From her article:

Smart Power applies across the board to the new realities of 2009. To put it bluntly, the old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore—for anything. Every reality from a year ago seems hopelessly out of date—a thriving auto industry, actually owning a home, wanting to date an investment banker. Thriving and surviving in this brave and weird new world takes more than just the raw brute power of, say, money—Lehman Brothers learned how quickly that can go—or feeling smug over a print byline (especially if the article can’t be found online). How can Smart Power apply to those of us who don’t have to negotiate trade treaties or appease mad dictators? The Daily Beast asked Suzanne Nossel, the former Clinton-era deputy to UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who coined the phrase in a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs. Nossel, now the chief operating officer at Human Rights Watch, could see how the concept might apply beyond the foreign-policy world, recognizing that applying Smart Power required that special game-changing extra spark. “It’s not just about putting smart people in place—the Bush administration had many smart people, which didn’t always make for smart policies,” she said (cough, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, cough). “We should exercise our power in ways that are sustainable instead of draining.” So how does that apply to, say, media companies, or a junior senator? Simple—by being practical instead of ideological; by looking ahead and planning accordingly; by convincing others to support you. All of these things make for Smart Power, says Nossel: “Who uses tools hard and soft, who combines them in a supple way, who does it in a way that proves sustainable, who mobilizes others behind their ideas, who has a longer view.”

On the same site, Judith H. Dobrzynski addresses the change in tenor of the current art market. In writing about the 21st Annual Art Show in New York:

This year, things are different…“We need to get away from the notion of art as solely a commodity, and back to the language of art,” says Roland Augustine, of Luhring Augustine Gallery, “and the way to do that is to have a carefully curated and qualitative approach.”

In other words, dealers want to make art precious again—not just pricey. Galleries that look like museums help do that and, when Wall Street woes have scared off buyers anyway, why not? “They are taking this approach now because they understand that this long-term approach is the sure-fire way to go,” Augustine says. Instead of encouraging people who speculate in art, treating it like a stock, these shows aim to develop true collectors, who buy and hold for years.

Whether viewed from the macro level or from our small personal outposts, retrenching and “making do” sound passive and strangely old school. Is there a catchy phrase for the Obama era mindset yet? As inferred by the now infamous statement by economist Paul Romer, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”, these are watershed times.

Danseteater

The politics of art. That isn’t my field, and yet it is. I listened to the back and forth about arts funding during the Stimulus Bill discussions with mixed emotions. Sometimes the arguments rang true, sometimes they didn’t.

The fact is that OF COURSE we need to fund and support the arts. Those who think otherwise are living in a state of disconnectedness. But for me the operative question is how do you do it? What does “supporting the arts” really mean? Whether your nut is $50 million or $500 million, how do you decide where best to invest? And in this difficult economic environment, what would be the most stimulative approach? And how do you deal with that nasty problem of elitism, perceived and/or real?

Greg Sandow, an arts writer I follow, wrote the following for the Wall Street Journal. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his claims, but I found his point of view provocative and worthwhile. See what you think.

People in the arts had a triumph.

They got culture money into the stimulus bill — but not without a fight. The House, in its version of the bill, gave $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, increasing its budget by more than the third. Then the Senate took that out. Arts advocates mobilized, made phone calls, asked supporters to make some noise. And lo! The final version of the bill restored the funds.

Arts advocates, from Robert Redford to the president of New York’s Lincoln Center, are celebrating now. But I wonder, in a still, small voice, if this is really such a victory.

For one thing, in the larger scope of things, it’s not much money. Fifty million dollars, in a hastily assembled $800 billion stimulus, is just a bubble on a wave. It’s a rounding error, a random fluctuation. It doesn’t mean that arts support runs deep and strong. The battle for the arts has been going on for decades, and in my view — as a person in the arts myself — the arguments we make aren’t nearly strong enough

Take the economic argument. That took center stage in the Battle for the Stimulus. The arts, we like to say, create jobs and bolster the economy. That’s prominently argued on the Web site of Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group. The nonprofit arts, the site insists, generate $166 billion in economic activity each year, and offer the equivalent of full-time employment to 5.7 million souls.

But does this mean — as Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D., N.Y.) told the New York Times, after victory was won — that “if we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art”? Well, hardly. Let’s not get carried away. Not even Americans for the Arts suggests such a thing.

And unless you go all the way with Rep. Slaughter, the economic argument for arts support has a hole in it. Other things have economic impact, too. Why choose the arts? All of Michigan is suffering because the auto industry collapsed.

Arts advocates also love to say that arts generate indirect spending and employment. In that same Times article, Kate D. Levin, cultural affairs commissioner of New York City, said that “even the smallest organization can record the fact that the parking lot down the street and the dry cleaner around the corner and the restaurant nearby all do better when the organization is functioning.” But that’s true of any business. In New York, it’s virulently true for Wall Street, whose sickness hurts all sorts of New York enterprises, from real estate to small businesses in the financial district. (Even culture!) This, in fact, became an argument in favor of those hated Wall Street bonuses. Without them, New York’s economy is reeling.

But then the choices that our nation has to make go even further. The San Francisco city government is facing a $576 million budget deficit. Cuts have been proposed, some involving public health. For hours at a meeting of the city’s Board of Supervisors, there were protests from advocates for homeless people, medical clinics that serve the poor, and many other worthy groups.

So somebody proposed an alternative — cut funding for the symphony and ballet. The matter hasn’t been resolved, but would you like to be the opera representative, arguing to keep your funds, with people from endangered clinics in the room?

And what if those clinic workers and others like them say the arts have a lot of money, and that they largely serve an upscale audience? Arts advocates hate that kind of talk. It’s not correct, they say. It’s anti-arts, anti-intellectual.

But let’s not underestimate how persistent those perceptions are, especially when reality at least partly seems to back them up. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera sells some of its tickets for as much as $375 each and has board members who make million-dollar gifts (or, in one case, a $25 million gift — an overflowing cornucopia). In 2006, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the New York Philharmonic paid $2.8 million to its music director and $864,000 to its CEO.

The Met, of course, has huge expenses, as does the Philharmonic. Both can say they’re paying what the market charges for the talent that they need. And the Met, on top of that, is in financial trouble. But will everyday Americans jump up and down for joy if the Met gets extra funds while public health is cut?

The arts are going to need a better strategy. And in the end it’s going to have to come from art itself, from the benefits art brings, in a world where popular culture — which has gotten smart and serious — also helps bring depth and meaning to our lives.

That’s the kicker: the popular culture part. Once we figure that out, we can leave our shaky arguments behind and really try to prove we matter.

pieter_bruegel_the_elder-_the_seven_deadly_sins_or_the_seven_vices_-_avarice
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Seven Deadly Sins

So much has changed in the texture of our cultural consciousness over the last six months. The underbelly of our collective thinking has gone ventral, exposing itself rather nakedly to all the world. In just my last 24 hour random walk through the “elite” media (you gotta love those conservatives designating my favorite channels of information with a specialized category all their own) I have encountered a plethora of exposés, quite unprecedented, on those anciently designated but ever present vices, the Seven Deadly Sins. A PBS special on greed. An article about shame in The Atlantic. An excellent neurobiological view of envy by the esteemed science writer Natalie Angier in the New York Times (which is posted on Slow Painting).

Not typical of our post modern culture milieu, this focus on the darker side of our natures is part of the reevaluation of what happened and how we got into the current disastrous state. Angier is kind enough to point out that other primates experience envy, but I doubt the chimp strain has the potential for rampant destruction that the human variety has.

From Angier’s article:

The new findings are preliminary, and some scientists have expressed reservations about what they or other scanning results from the fast-moving field of behavioral neuroscience really mean. Nevertheless, the research throws a spotlight on a potent emotion that we deny or deride but ignore at our peril. Much of the recent economic crisis, Dr. Smith suggested, may well have been fueled by runaway envy, as financiers competed to avoid the shame of being a “mere” millionaire.

Blame and bitterness is ambient these days, from conversations overheard at the hardware store to those we have at home. Who are the instigators, who are the greedy bastards that brought all of us so low? Bankers. Wall Street “idiots” (Claire McCaskill’s impassioned name calling actually seems tame compared to what I hear from neighbors and friends). The corrupt Cheney type politicos. The tiny oligarchy that really runs this country.

It’s a loaded issue—and one that comes with high personal cost— to spend time rounding up the likely suspects, just as it is costly for Obama to go after the atrocities committed by Bushists during the last 8 years. I don’t want to spend my valuable prana life force capital being angry and bitter just as Obama doesn’t want the much needed focus on rebuilding and repair to slip into retribution and revenge.

One of my favorite essays is by Howard Zinn, The Optimism of Uncertainty. Written in 2004, it is prescient on many levels for life in 2009. I have referred to it many times when discouragement feels like a strong tide that is relentlessly destroying the fragile sand of my beach head. I post it here in case you haven’t read it, since it may prove to be palliative for you too.

In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manage to stay involved and seemingly happy?

I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.

There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.

What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability. A revolution to overthrow the czar of Russia, in that most sluggish of semi-feudal empires, not only startled the most advanced imperial powers but took Lenin himself by surprise and sent him rushing by train to Petrograd. Who would have predicted the bizarre shifts of World War II–the Nazi-Soviet pact (those embarrassing photos of von Ribbentrop and Molotov shaking hands), and the German Army rolling through Russia, apparently invincible, causing colossal casualties, being turned back at the gates of Leningrad, on the western edge of Moscow, in the streets of Stalingrad, followed by the defeat of the German army, with Hitler huddled in his Berlin bunker, waiting to die?

And then the postwar world, taking a shape no one could have drawn in advance: The Chinese Communist revolution, the tumultuous and violent Cultural Revolution, and then another turnabout, with post-Mao China renouncing its most fervently held ideas and institutions, making overtures to the West, cuddling up to capitalist enterprise, perplexing everyone.

No one foresaw the disintegration of the old Western empires happening so quickly after the war, or the odd array of societies that would be created in the newly independent nations, from the benign village socialism of Nyerere’s Tanzania to the madness of Idi Amin’s adjacent Uganda. Spain became an astonishment. I recall a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade telling me that he could not imagine Spanish Fascism being overthrown without another bloody war. But after Franco was gone, a parliamentary democracy came into being, open to Socialists, Communists, anarchists, everyone.

The end of World War II left two superpowers with their respective spheres of influence and control, vying for military and political power. Yet they were unable to control events, even in those parts of the world considered to be their respective spheres of influence. The failure of the Soviet Union to have its way in Afghanistan, its decision to withdraw after almost a decade of ugly intervention, was the most striking evidence that even the possession of thermonuclear weapons does not guarantee domination over a determined population. The United States has faced the same reality. It waged a full-scale war in lndochina, conducting the most brutal bombardment of a tiny peninsula in world history, and yet was forced to withdraw. In the headlines every day we see other instances of the failure of the presumably powerful over the presumably powerless, as in Brazil, where a grassroots movement of workers and the poor elected a new president pledged to fight destructive corporate power.

Looking at this catalogue of huge surprises, it’s clear that the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience–whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union itself. No cold calculation of the balance of power need deter people who are persuaded that their cause is just.

I have tried hard to match my friends in their pessimism about the world (is it just my friends?), but I keep encountering people who, in spite of all the evidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope. Especially young people, in whom the future rests. Wherever I go, I find such people. And beyond the handful of activists there seem to be hundreds, thousands, more who are open to unorthodox ideas. But they tend not to know of one another’s existence, and so, while they persist, they do so with the desperate patience of Sisyphus endlessly pushing that boulder up the mountain. I try to tell each group that it is not alone, and that the very people who are disheartened by the absence of a national movement are themselves proof of the potential for such a movement.

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.