Friday, June 4, 2010

Art and Big Brother

We are reminded that, in power, both the Nazis and the Soviets banned and burned abstract art. Curious, that art which which claimed to represent nothing nevertheless represented so much to them. Perhaps art is a threat to totalitarianism when it does not have a clear, censurable subject and is left to the musings of the public. 
Roger Ebert's review of the movie Max, about a post-war sympathetic Jewish associate of Adolph. 

...   but I kind of understand the power of where religion comes from, because art comes out of that same kind of fervour. The first artists were shamans and priests. And contemporary art, including rock music, has some of that same power—which is why many cultures ban the arts, because they know they have the power to influence and inspire.
Julie Taymore, director of the stage play Spiderman, interviewed by Oprah in O, the Oprah Magazine, p. 199, February 2011 

When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives.
“If this goes on—” (1939) By Robert Heinlein, published in Revolt in 2100.

I cannot prove it intellectually, but I feel emotionally certain that art is vital to freedom and democracy…

You know the concept: The world is your mirror. Learn a new word, and you start coming across it. Buy a special automobile, and soon you start seeing that model on the road. Believe in racism, you meet racists. Believe in goodness…

The mirror can be changed, of course, and you know that concept too: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Unhappily, the opposite is also true: My mansion has many windows, but most of them are covered in black velvet. Or as Nancy Friday once expressed it in My Mother, Myself, when her therapist told her something important “it would run out of my head like water.”

This has recently happened to me. I had contributed a comment to one of my bookmarked essayist/bloggers, Scott Berkun. His wife is an artist, so I presume he is not your stereotypical computer nerd, although he is indeed a computer guy who used to be software project manager. Now he is a consultant and writer. His post was about needing design skills, art, and not solely computer skills. My comment, in the middle of other folk’s comments, included “hey, I’ve just realized” and “wow.” None of the other comments, understandably, picked up on mine, partly because (wow) it was a little out of emotional sync and partly because the students were not ready. And neither was I.

This I know because a few weeks later, reviewing Berkun’s works, I came across my own comment. What? Did I say that? And I realized: My insight had run from my head like water. At the time, I wrote how I couldn’t imagine a pimp allowing his stable of “girls,” not women, to buy easels and learn art and excitedly share their growing power with each other. So let me grapple with this insight again so it sticks this time.

I’m ready, now, to ponder art, although it won’t be clear or easy. To illustrate: When scientists tell you clearly all about the commonalities of modern cults it is only because they have studied existing cults… but the first cult leaders had no science to go by, only instinct. The pimps who control girls have no college psychology courses, but like the cultists they somehow know. Because there is no easy science of “anti-democracy” I can’t “know” about “art suppression,” not yet, but I am determined, here today, to instinctively cast a net and try to think. Any resulting essay must be like a net: showing connections around the square holes of missing knowledge. It can't be like an orderly path of logical paving stones leading to a tidy answer.

Closed Body

Everyone instinctively knows that there’s some sort of relationship with art and democracy, art and rigid “-isms.” I recall (from Bugles and a Tiger by Robert Masters) some pre-war young lieutenants trying to get their rigid majors to allow them to have a modern messy abstract painting. “Harrumph!” said the wary old officers. The younger men got their painting put up by claiming the picture was of a night sky during an air raid… This was during the time that both Hitler and Stalin favored art with photographic realism—you know, “real” art.

During the cold war people knew something about communism. They said: The communists do classical music, but we do jazz; they do Moscow ballet and Beijing acrobats, we do barefoot modern dance with wild hair. They print out orthodox dreck, we write creative literature… It was my fellow Albertan, a recording artist, k. d. Lang, who said, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”

Artists could not effectively think, let alone truly create, unless they defected across the Berlin wall, or under the bamboo curtain, over to our side. People in cults or “-isms” don’t create classic work. If ever another Salman Rushdie tries to create while living under Muslim theocracy, or under sharia law, then he will surely conceive no classics. (Rushdie had to live in Britain first.)

Everyone knows that when a revolution establishes a Chairman Mao or a Muslim Ayatollah then the first thing they say is not Shakespeare’s line: “First, lets kill all the lawyers.” No, the first thing they do is suppress all the artists of print, paint and sound.

So far I am repeating things that are common adult knowledge, things observed by Bertrand Russell and George Orwell, things I didn’t know myself until I was on my own, as a single young man learning about the world... Ah, youth! Back in those days, when the world was young and so was I, when my mirror was an exciting romantic world, back when Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan magazine had a theme of living a self disciplined and frugal life, with things like suggestions on how to get free wall posters from travel agencies, then my own choice of wall art was… rather practical. Spartan. Maybe I’d have a pretty travel poster, but more likely a colorful street map or something. Here is the queer thing: I’d tack up only one piece on each wall and that was it. Decorating was finished.

Well. Even at that tender age I knew, as I told my peers, that something was wrong. I knew Spartans didn’t have nearly as much fun as Athenians. So what was my problem? I understand now, that I was, back then, a recent survivor: I would move about—walk and sit and stand—with a certain symmetrical stiffness that served to insulate my emotions. Better to be uptight than to feel. I didn’t realize that somehow if I couldn’t feel or move then I couldn’t creatively think. I had less power than a certain three-year-old girl who puzzled out that a music box drawer could slide open, but only after she first opened and shut her jaw. Today when I talk I don’t wave my hands but I do gesture specific meanings; I for one think by subtly moving my body. For me to have movement, thinking, is surely linked to having feeling, which I can’t do if I’m uptight.

Somehow I “know” I can create—or write an essay—only when my body is free to move, not suppressed… nor depressed… nor oppressed. Perhaps if “-ism people ” feel brief periods of frenzied hatred of pariahs then this is their way to pseudo-loosen up and compensate for uptightness. Orwell and his comrades in Spain had their daily “five minute hate.”

Closed Communication

When I was a young man, grappling with my conscience and the evils of capitalism, the movements, both "expressive-body" and geographical, of a quarter of the earth’s people were severely restricted by the communists. The Soviets and even the South Africans (under apartheid) required internal passports for travel. In China you could not even change jobs, let alone change towns, without permission from a Party member.

In the novel of freedom and Puppet Masters, by Robert Heinlein, the hero points out that control of communications is not secured by seizing the TV stations and the printing presses. Communication is also about Aunt Agatha going to the next town to gossip. Accordingly, the Party controls social intercourse by internal passports and by something more: fearsomely propagating a “Party line.” The Ayatollah and his mullahs (priests) will control not only the facts, but also the feelings about the facts. And art, naturally, is a lot about feelings. Maybe it’s easier to divide and conquer when it’s rare for strangers to bond in front of a work of unorthodox art by saying to each other, “Wow, isn’t that something?” …And with that last statement I am on to something new to me. I’ll get back to it…

Closed Thoughts

I never experienced communism—as a soldier I could not get leave to enter the second world– but I did once, come to think of it, know oppression as a young civilian. The boss was so crooked he once put a false company name on the hallway door—I never did learn who he was avoiding. He was so fearsome that all of us had to give him the rank of “Mister” and would continue to do so even when he not in the building. Our self-censorship (continuing to say 'mister') was proof not of respect for the boss but of the power of his “party line.”

Giving scientific weight to what I know instinctively, here is a related quote from my favourite web-essayist, Paul Graham, in his essay What You Can't Say

In 1989 some clever researchers tracked the eye movements of radiologists as they scanned chest images for signs of lung cancer. [3] They found that even when the radiologists missed a cancerous lesion, their eyes had usually paused at the site of it. Part of their brain knew there was something there; it just didn't percolate all the way up into conscious knowledge. I think many interesting heretical thoughts are already mostly formed in our minds. If we turn off our self-censorship temporarily, those will be the first to emerge.

I am reminded of a character in a military dictatorship in J. T. Mcintosh’s Worlds Apart, (Doubleday, 1954, p. 165 hardcover) formerly entitled Born Leader, (until the 1960’s) written well before the fearsome Chinese Cultural Revolution. A young lieutenant named Phyllis is talking to an innocent young woman her own age, Toni, a prisoner whom she has tortured by “waterboarding.” This civilian is from a planet where she has never seen a uniform or a gun.

"Do you agree with this?" Toni demanded.
Phyllis shook her head impatiently. "You don't understand. If someone says a uniform is magenta, and you know you'll be shot if you say its anything else--it's magenta. You don't tell yourself you'll call it magenta, but it's really green. If you do that, sometime you'll make a mistake and say it's green."
" Yes, but that doesn't make it magenta."
"It does to a Clade. If he wants to live, that is."
"You mean you must agree to conquer Mundis?"
"Not quite. My agreement isn't called for. Asking for agreement is giving a person a chance to disagree."

…Years later, leafing through a dictionary, I learned of the symbolism of the color magenta: it is from an Italian river, the magenta, which was once stained with heavy casualties after a battle.

What is not new, what is old common sense, is that revolutionary ideas are, as with advertising, propagated best when they contain not only facts but also feelings. You need both, of course. When I was young, when the Beatles were always on the charts, when people would go around carrying little red books of Chairman Mao, (but not make it with anyone anyhow) back when I would go to a communist bookstore to buy cheap Peking Foreign Language Press books of Mao’s guerrilla warfare teachings, and his Quotations too, well, back in those days we longhaired young people all had lots of glamorous rebel feelings, but… the undeniable facts were that we were living in a democracy where lots of change could happen without requiring any drastic revolution. Undeniable? We failed at knowing this aspect of revolutionary theory.

We had our feelings, yes, but nothing concrete to offer, no “just the facts, Ma’am” way of forcing the shorthaired “older generation” into changing. Today our children, the longhaired Green Peace guys, will do stunts like rappel down the roof of the parliament buildings. This gives them gleeful feelings, and I suppose mere glee is sufficient for them: They apparently don’t desire to know how to obtain social change. They don’t know to propagate the facts to the public, nor how to use the political process, nor how to reach out to balding shorthaired allies… and so nothing changes. Nothing? My generation has failed at passing on revolutionary theory.

Such is today. In contrast, back in the 1700’s, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense “hit Philadelphia like a rocket.” He “met the people where they were at” calmly writing of how the colonies had enough timber and nails to build a big enough to-defend-itself navy, and then he also included strong feelings like, “Theses are times that try men’s souls!” He pointed out that if they didn’t fight for independence now then their poor innocent children would grow up and begin the fight.


At the time Paine was inking his art, his society had lots of countervailing conservative art. In their paintings only the lower class might smile. The ruling class posed stiffly, as mid-east dictators and Muslim mullahs (priests) do today. Mullahs never dance for joy. I wonder what feelings they are avoiding?

People back in Paine's time, to use a modern term, were brainwashed. Indoctrinated. I don’t suppose the priests were still saying “Bless the squire and his relations, and keep us in our proper stations.” (Although I guess the mullahs are still saying something similar today over in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.) But within the colonies there was a still a sense the king kept the social order, traitors burned in hell and even a dastardly knave would never commit regicide: kill a king. To prevent disorder, when the king died, they would proclaim, all in one breath, “The king is dead, long live the king!” (The new one.) Everyone knew war is hell: They had to prevent civil war at all cost.

Amidst all this tradition and culture appeared Common Sense. This was at the same time that colonial delegates, slowly plodding to the continental congress, had been told by four of the colonies to vote against independence, if such were proposed, and no delegates were directed to propose it. But then, suddenly, Common Sense was being read around hearth fires and campfires. Someone wrote home to England that all who read it were instantly converted, although just the day before they had been loyalists. I can imagine colonists around the fire nudging each other, their feelings crackling, igniting each other to convert to independence. Forsaking King and Colony to see each other as something new, as Americans… No wonder today’s tyrants, like the Taliban, censor early and often.

Words, of course, are good for left-brain communicating, but right-brain art, as Paine knew, has a greater bandwidth. Hence Paine’s artsy rhetoric went singing off the pages. Today, reading the words of song verses on paper, for example, is not the same as sharing in the singing of God Bless America. —Who can forget the strong but silent mill workers, heads bowed, holding hands across a kitchen table, singing lowly, at the ending of The Deer hunter?

Such is the power of art: not merely to spread factual ideas but also to invoke feelings and bonds of common humanity. Again, I wonder if "divide and conquer" means destroying the bonds of viewing art together. Surely it was to destroy such bonds that Mao acted against ancestor worship, family, religion and traditions. I’ve just finished Red Flower of China, by fellow Canadian Zhai Zhenhua (Page 91) where the young Red Guards are ordered to “Destroy the Old Four” to “resolutely destroy old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting class.” As you know, the youth would forcibly enter homes and destroy all the art and artifacts they found.


In an earlier time and place, back here in North America, an American heroine, Helen Keller, once escaped a tyranny of darkness. As a child she was like a beast. It is said that as she began to learn words her face grew more and more to express her intelligence.

Today, as I have commented on Berkun’s blog, I can imagine a pimp’s stable of prostitutes all buying easels and taking up art. The faces of these grownups, no longer “girls,” I see as growing like Helen Keller: no longer bimbo smooth; now concentrating, now smiling, steadily growing in expressions of depth and power. As they share ideas of impressionism, surrealism and cubism, as they bond, I can imagine them moving away from “bread and circuses,” away from simplistic drugs and television, away from submission to a pimp or an “-ism.” But it can never be. A pimp or an Ayatollah would instinctively disallow any easels. Let them do womanly crafts! As well, the Ayatollah would forbid his women to see any art, any cartoons or any Danish cartoons. No wild art, no wild feelings. And no wild hair. Only orthodox feelings are to be expressed or shared. Not the full human spectrum: Certainly—when it comes to pariahs—no mystic chords of affection, no better angels of our nature.

In horror, whisper it: “Regicide is a mortal sin.” In orthodoxy, shout it: “Danes must die!”

Until recently I had thought art was suppressed solely to discourage individuality, to make people easier to regiment. I thought dictators preferred a 1984 streetscape of grey faces on grey streets. Yes, that’s true, that’s common sense, but now I’m casting about, trying to see something more.

As I see it: Art puts my mind in a healthy place. Art allows growth as I freely take my interior left-brain stack of facts and then … in a right-brain swift shuffle, suddenly integrate them. The simple presence of art is my proof of permission to both "see" and "share" with… freedom. Without such permission I suffocate: my face turns grey, my I.Q. effectively plummets. I need a free world where noble magazines and art (like the former Cosmopolitan) share shelf space with ignoble magazines. (Like today’s Cosmo)

… I think art prompts people to have uncommon feelings, to have something they can share, to bond over beauty… and yes, even over wicked Heavy Metal, be it the roaring music or the graphic magazine. They bond over the sharing of feelings. As Walesa and his comrades in Poland found, when sharing is crystallized into feeling Solidarity then it’s only a short step to saying, “If this goes on—”

Sean Crawford
Where my home is my gallery,
Calgary 2010
~For more on Danish cartoons see my "chitchat" and essay proper of January and March 2012

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