"Defining moment" seems to be a recurrent theme in the election news. First, the surprise when Obama took Iowa (he was not expecting it), and second, when Clinton won New Hampshire (she was not expecting it either). Now, instead of a coronation, as someone pointed out, we have a good race to the finish, and may the best candidate win.
So what constitutes a "defining moment"? I've been thinking about this a bit, and came up with one of my own, in response to an invitation to submit a short essay for the Point of View column in Orion magazine. A key component seems to be: something happens you were not expecting to happen, and it changes things in that moment, permitting you to view things differently-- forever. As you know, I enjoy tracking good synchronicities. Defining moments are worth the hunt as well, so if you have a good one of your own to share, do let me know!
If it is possible for someone to pinpoint a defining moment when something in one’s life changed, this was certainly mine. Shortly after having published, in l984, a provocative book of cultural criticism about art’s role in society, Has Modernism Failed?, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on “The Moral Imperative in Art.” Anybody who knows about the history of modernism will be aware that the “object-centered” aesthetics of that time, and the “white-cube” paradigm of galleries, museums, and auction houses, do not easily lend themselves to any obvious consideration of where spiritual or moral values fit in. I remember feeling extremely nervous about how to address such an unlikely topic. I belonged to an art world whose entire infrastructure is based upon product marketing and self-promotion, not on being responsive to social or environmental conditions in the world at large.
It was Christmas break, I had only a few weeks left in which to compose my talk, and I was still stymied—when the universe intervened. A package arrived in the mail from a friend in Santa Fe, Dominique Mazeaud, containing a manuscript she was writing entitled Riveries. It was a diary account of an art project, in which my friend described how she ritually went to the Rio Grande River once a month, armed with garbage bags (donated by the city), and cleaned pollution out of the river. (She did this for seven years.)
It was not just the undertaking itself that moved me. When I read the descriptions of what she felt while engaging in this activity, I wept. What I saw was the possibility for a whole new spiritual and ethical template, with a potential for changing product-oriented art at its roots. Later on, I called it “connective aesthetics.”
“Yes, I see what I am doing as a way of praying:
Picking up a can
From the river
And then another
On and on
It’s like a devotee
Doing countless rosaries…
How many times did I wonder about the persons who hurl the beer bottles down the rocks…trying to imagine what went into this action?...Just as I could no longer walk on trashed river banks without doing something about it, I could no longer be there without transposing my witnessing into some form that people could share. That day I started my “riveries.” …Two more huge bags I could hardly carry to the cans. I don’t count any more…I don’t announce my “art for the earth” in the papers either…All alone in the river, I pray and pick up, pick up and pray.”
I still weep, years later, when I re-read these words, slivers of artistic defiance that exert no influence on the larger culture, because they have no commercial value. Art premised on empathy rather than on mastery—art in which aesthetics does not meld well with economics—still gets a bad rap in the art establishment, which is not happy when there is nothing to sell. Other presenters at the conference, important artists, critics, and curators, all seemed to make the same unblinking case—namely, that there is no moral imperative in art, because for art to play a useful or moral role would make it a tool, no longer a valuable end in itself. The only moral imperative for artists was to be dedicated to making the best art they could, a philosophy well summed up in this comment by sculptor Louise Nevelson: “If they blow [the world] up, that’s not my business. My business is to work.”
As next-to-the-last speaker at the conference, I knew I was in trouble with what I was about to do: make the case that art can actually be used to solve social and environmental problems, rather than focusing solely on aesthetic ones. When I read out loud that day from my friend’s diary, I expected at best to receive some half-hearted, spotty applause in response. What came back instead was a standing ovation. That was a defining moment for me, in terms of the future direction of my life as a writer, and a champion of art with a moral purpose.
The sorry truth even now, when the very survival of the human race is in question, is that not much has changed in the turbocharged art world: the whole system radiates indifference. It continues to lunge forward with kangaroo speed along the same market-driven parameters, clutching at originality, without any moral imperative at all.