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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.


Plate XXII: “[The Milky Way] a vast Gulph, or Medium, every way extended like a Plane, and inclosed between two surfaces.” From Thomas Wright of Durham’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750). The Warder Collection

Michael Kimmelman’s piece in the Sunday Times, D.I.Y. Culture, touches on themes that I have been mulling over for a number of years. First there were the concerns that world cultures were being mowed down by the homogenization of the American consumer machine that co-opted everything in its path, from music to food to jeans. In that scenario, the internet was seen as just one more invasive agent destroying cultural distinctions.

Then there was the backlash view, one that pointed out that the internet has actually served to enhance subgroups and microcultures, allowing them to create a presence with a virtual footprint (which, in some cases, is the only footprint possible.)

Kimmelman places his bet on the latter point of view:

Nationalism, regionalism and tribalism are all on the rise. Societies are splitting even as they share more common goods and attributes than ever before. Culture is increasingly an instrument to divide and differentiate communities. And the leveling pressures of globalization have at the same time provided more and more people with the technological resources to decide for themselves, culturally speaking, who they are and how they choose to be known, seen, distinguished from others.

Culture means many things in this context, but at heart it is a suite of traits we inherit and also choose to disavow or to stress. It consists in part of the arts. It is something made and consumed, in socially revealing ways.. Anyone may now pick through the marketplace of global culture.

This may sound like the essence of globalization, but the fact that everybody from Yerevan to Brasilia, Jakarta to Jerusalem, knows songs by the Black Eyed Peas or wears New York Yankees caps doesn’t mean that culture is the same everywhere.

The common denominator of popular culture — which these days encompasses so many things that you could even include all sorts of high culture — seems to have just intensified the need people now feel to distinguish themselves from it. And global technology has made this easier by providing countless individuals, microcultures and larger groups and movements with cheap and convenient means to preserve and disseminate themselves.

Kimmelman’s article features his personal observations of differences in the culture of his new home town, Berlin, as well as insights from time he spent in Gaza. Because he is primarily an art critic, he also has strong words about how art functions as an element of the cultural mix. (I liked this line a lot—“Art may challenge authority; and popular culture…but art doesn’t actually overthrow anything except itself, and never has.”) This concluding thought was a poetic and useful way to think about things:

Hollywood and Broadway, the major museums and art fairs and biennials and galleries, buildings designed by celebrity architects and the music business are all the traditional focus of big media, and they tell us a lot about ourselves. They constitute our cultural firmament, the constellation of our stars. But scientists say most of the universe is composed not of stars but of dark matter. It is the powerful but invisible force that exists everywhere and requires some leap of imagination on our part, some effort, to identify.

Most culture is dark matter.

This seems timely given the recent claims that our universe just may be sitting inside a wormhole which sits inside a black hole which sits inside another larger universe. A Russian doll scenario that can hurt the head to unravel. Maybe it is just a call to pay more attention to dark matter, to the great unseen, to the stealthish realities that we cannot fathom with our every day senses. All so deliciously mysterious IMHO.