Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Art and the Future: A Conversation

Sometime back in June, when I first began my "alligator wrestle" with civilization and the potential for its collapse within our own lifetime, the editor of an online 'zine, Russ Volckmann, of www.integral-review.org, requested that I do a telephone interview with him, which he proposed to publish online in December. At the time, I wrote about the effect of our conversation on both of us in a blog entitled "Two of Three Events," partly because Russ said it "shook him to the core," and partly because it became a flashpoint for me, in realizing just how far into the Apocalyptic mysteries my own thoughts had traveled. The interview has now appeared on the site mentioned above, and Russ has kindly given me permission to reproduce it here, as my Christmas blog offering. It is pretty long, agreed, but is, I hope, not dull. Meanwhile I will hope to see everybody again in the New Year. Virgil, who is sitting under my small, pink Christmas tree waiting for Santa to appear, sends you his great good wishes for a longer, happier future than this conversation portends!


Art and the Future:
An Interview with Suzi Gablik by Russ Volckmann

One day, I was interviewing a particle physicist (Basarab Nicolescu, Integral Review 4) and
he called my attention to the work of an art critic. I wondered to myself if this was a case of
transdisciplinarity. Well, in a way it was, at least at the level of valuing meta approaches to life.
He indicated that the art critic, Suzi Gablik, had referred to transdisciplinarity and also the
integral theories of Ken Wilber in her book, Has Modernism Failed? Well, I just couldn’t let that
drop. It was just too intriguing to see if I could find the themes that brought these two unique
individuals together. I wanted to play in that sandbox, too.
First, I turned to Gablik’s book, Has Modernism Failed? Here is a summary of what I found
that encouraged me to take the next steps. Her thesis is that the world of art has become
competitive and exploitive and that the focus in the world of art had become profit. Not only are
these limiting to artistic expression, but they ignore essential concerns of art: aesthetics and
ethics. “Aesthetic autonomy is a deeply rooted idea—autonomy implying moral and social
separateness as the condition of art-making,” she wrote. She saw the need for a unified vision of
the world where art and ethics would not only coexist, but cooperate.
Gablik found in the works of Ken Wilber the promise of integralism where diverse
perspectives can be engaged to address the world as one undivided whole with the “well-being
of each part is the responsibility of every part.” Here she found a promise for an end to art
dominated by economics and consumerism, an art liberated to be an essential life of individuals
and of communities. She found examples of this in the world of art. Two high school teachers
engaged their ceramic students in the Empty Bowls project to help a local food drive. This
simple project has grown into a nonprofit organization, The Imagination/Render Group, which
supports drives around the world.
She then turned to Basarab Nicolescu’s Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, which she sees as
pointing the way to dealing with multiple levels of reality at the same time. Gablik observes,
“Also, it has a unique goal: to propel us beyond either/or thinking into a coexistence of nested
truths.” This leads to the potential for the individual artist to become an integral component of a
larger social network, which she sees as a generative creative force. Seattle’s ARTS UP program
that pairs artists with communities around the United States has led to engage in a civic and
artistic dialogue. These dialogues have led to numerous projects “founded on the idea that art
can have a vital role in community building, and in giving voice to those whose lives are
otherwise unrecognized or isolate.”
Her book closes with a note of optimism in which she senses that significant changes in power relations are occurring as these decentralized network structures now offer the possibility for artists to interact with each other, and share
information, in a democratic and cooperative atmosphere that was mostly absent within the
hegemonic, competitive, institutional structures of modernism.
This would lead to “a new kind of art that can help realize needed change in the world.”
Now this was going somewhere interesting, I thought to myself. This sounds like a whole new
perspective on growing a healthier world. The edition I read was published in 2004 (1984 was
the original), so here is an opportunity to explore that perspective. After setting up a date to have
the interview with Suzi Gablik, she helped me access a couple of her other books.
Conversations Before the End of Time (1995) is a series of interviews about the themes
related to the development of a relationship between art and community, art and a healthier
future for the world. It includes discussions with James Hillman, Thomas Moore and many
others more directly involved in the world of art. Living the Magical Life: An Oracular
Adventure (2002) is an intimate focus on her own life at a time when she seems to be a coming to
peace with her having moved to Virginia from London in 1991.
"Everything is collage. In a sense, the parts ‘give themselves.’ Living the magical
life means learning to recognize and connect them to the whole. We are
translators and mediators in the field from which our experience arises. In this
field, all is analogy, relation, revelation, by the laws of correspondence.
Imagination is what opened the connection between one level and another."
She has learned that “the universe is a better organizer than you could ever think of being, so
give it a chance and stay out of the way. Surrender to the world, receive it in your stillness:
And it will happen. For miracles gravitating
To earth, know just where people will be waiting.
And eagerly will find the right address
And tenant, even in a wilderness. (Joseph Brodsky)"
Her account of relationships, experiences and explorations leads ultimately to this:
"Psyche’s secret has finally become transparent to me: Let go of the consciousness
of disappointment. Release your belief in the promise unfulfilled. Sacrifice the
need to know, and trust the invisible processes that are at work. Develop a mind
that can work with whatever happens. Allow everything to be all right as it is and
simply remain true to the quest. When you learn to stop struggling and do
nothing, everything is possible. Submit, surrender, become an embodiment of the
feminine principle. Don’t assume you know the right answer in advance. We are
simply part of the vaster design that is unfolding."
I hope that these glimpses into the work of Suzi Gablik prepare you for this challenging
interview. It is challenging, perhaps, because I have not yet learned Psyche’s secret.
— Russ Volckmann
Volckmann: Art and the Future
Russ: Suzi, it’s a great pleasure to talk to you. I’ve read three of your books, and it seems as
though you’ve been on a quest—perhaps more than one. Initially it seemed you were
concerned with the commercialization of modern art, particularly in the New York art
scene, and next, the relationship between art and the ecological and sociological crisis
we face in the world. Then, you seem to go on to looking at the role of esthetics and
ethics in art. Finally you have engaged in the discovery of the mystical in your own life.
How would you amend that summary of your quests?
Suzi: I don’t know that I would amend it. I think it’s nearly perfect. I definitely would say
that my initial concerns with the idea of art being so commodified, and my subsequent
search for alternative models of art making are still a concern to me. Since I first started
writing and talking about these things, a kind of alternative parallel art scene has
developed that is quite fluent and rich, but at the same time, the hard-core art world is
more commodified than ever, and is still firmly entrenched in those same patterns of
behavior. So in one sense things have changed, but in another, nothing much has
Q: One of the things that really struck me in thinking about art in some very new ways as
a result of reading your work was the idea of art as a social expression, as a political
expression, and so forth. A colleague of mine called my attention to a quote from the
German artist, Joseph Beuys, which states:
Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and
activities related to art [to] provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-
revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a
senile social system that continues to totter along the death line, to dismantle in
order to build ‘a social organism as a work of art’...every human being is an artist
who—from his state of freedom, the position of freedom that he experiences at
first-hand—learns to determine the other positions of the total art work of the future
social order.
Does this comment of his, written in l973, and the kinds of work that he did in Germany
in the ‘80’s with, for instance, the 7000 Oaks project, represent the sort of thing you are
looking to have happen in the art world?
A: I would say very much so. In many ways, Beuys was possibly the first person to put
forward a significant and radical idea that ultimately became a ball many of us took up
and ran with: the idea of “art as social sculpture.” With this small phrase, Beuys laid
claim to the idea that art doesn’t have to be made from specific physical materials like
wood and stone, or paint and canvas, but rather you could sculpt society itself, shaping it
through ideas and modeling behaviors. He made use of social processes and contexts that
went beyond familiar art institutions, like museums and galleries.
Beuys is a particularly interesting figure, however, because he was like a shaman in
that he could navigate freely between different worlds. Many of his art works consisted
of things like projects for planting trees and he was even the founder of the Green

movement in Germany. But he was also quite comfortable making art in more traditional
modes, which he exhibited in the usual art world channels. They were not necessarily the
most predictable kinds of objects, however—his sculptures were often made from bizarre
materials like fat and felt. They were exhibited in a huge retrospective show at the
Guggenheim Museum in New York. Beuys was unusual in the way he was able to
straddle and bridge two worlds. Most artists tend either to follow the predictable, lockstep
scenario for becoming “professional” and competitive in the art world, or they go off in a
completely different direction and make their own path. Beuys was interesting because he
did both.
Q: I recently read your book, Conversations Beyond the End of Time, and thought it was
just an extraordinary work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it where over a
period of about a year and a half, you had conversations with all kinds of people—artists,
critics, psychiatrists, sociologists, and more—discussing these themes. You were able to
create a work that shows art as a developmental path, not only an expression of the
individual, but as an evolving social expression as well.
A: My work over many years has been to articulate the vital role of artists in society, and
along the way, to create a new paradigm as well. In my early years of writing art books, I
was very influenced by New Age, or new paradigm thinking—that included things like
systems theory and the eco-philosophies that burst forth on the scene during the 1970s.
Many books were written that influenced my own approach greatly. I tried to apply these
ideas to the sphere of art.
I guess I’ve always been trying to deconstruct the cultural narrative which pins art to
careerism, self-promotion, and the creation of “art stars,” and which is linked to the
obvious gallery and museum nexus. I wanted to validate and expand the possibilities for
art making, so that they could include many more options than that. This was not meant
to negate the former, but rather to help those artists who found careerism a deadening
path break out of the mold. I wanted to encourage them to feel validated if they work
outside the familiar contexts.
Others have taken up the same banner, so at this point there is a whole world of post-
studio practices, and of artists who see themselves not just as makers of valuable
commodity objects, but who see themselves as active participants in a global world, and
who are willing to make art in the service of something more positively social or
environmental. Many of them set out to try to solve social and ecological problems as
artists. That often entails embracing what probably interests you most in my work: a
willingness to embrace a healthy confusion of genres, to cross boundaries and disciplines
at will. In a way that often decentralizes the act of creativity. This stands in direct contrast
to the heightened individualistic modality of “look at me and admire what I’ve done” that
is so much a part of the art scene.
Q: There are several themes in what you’ve just said that are really interesting. I’m
reminded of how during the Depression, artists and architects were used to create public
works, be they paintings, buildings or sculptures, to try and help bring some income to

them, as well as make a contribution to the public. We had an example of an economic
crisis that brought a very special role for art in the culture. Would that be an early
example of what you’re talking about, at least in the last century?
A: Up to a point. But those public works’ projects, in the context of the time in which
they happened, pre-date what we can call the “paradigm shift,” which refers to a change
in the whole modus operandi of making art. Mural artists then were still making art in
acceptably traditional ways, although they were oriented towards a different kind of
public and site, and they were more socially directed in their imagery.
Q: In more contemporary terms, I’ve seen public programs that work primarily with at-
risk youth who paint murals on public buildings; they’re being guided by muralists, and
that’s another example of the same phenomena.
A: Yes, but there’s an important difference between the two. Both produce murals, but in
the more community-based art of today, there are other creative social processes going
on, such as building communities for these youth, and positively altering their lives in the
process, by giving them a sense of purpose, or bringing out artistic talents they didn’t
know they had. It offers a more healing component rather than just a purely visual
Q: That’s one of the streams that I think your comments brought out—that of the healing
potential of art. Another one is that art can be an expression of a desire for change. It is
a desire to have the world be more aligned with aesthetics and beauty, perhaps even with
social justice and other humanistic criteria. Is that also a stream you were alluding to?
A: Yes, definitely. The whole idea being to open art up to a larger definition of itself, and
allowing it to engage with more aspects of life and the world than is possible if you are
functioning alone, behind closed doors in a studio. A lot of this sounds pretty old-hat
now, but at the time that I first started writing and talking about it, these ideas were pretty
blasphemous. Sometimes I’d be greeted in a lecture hall as “that woman who hates art
objects.” At other times, I’d get a standing ovation, so it was a very emotionally intense
kind of stand to take at the time. What I was saying really challenged accepted ideas that
were strongly in place and still are, for that matter, in terms of the culture. If you work
with young people (which I don’t do much anymore), you will find that, in any group of
art students, there are always the ones who want to go the accepted cultural route. That is
to say, if there are megabucks to be made, they are certainly up for it, willing to give it a
shot and abide by all the rules of that game. Then there are others who are not drawn by
that at all. They want to pursue a kind of art oriented towards a different vision of
Q: You talk about ecology as well. In the nineties, the threat to our world was very
prominent in your thinking. Is that accurate?

A: That is accurate, but it can’t hold a candle to where my thinking is now. My distress at
what is happening to our world is so consuming now that art has just about dropped
below the radar and become almost irrelevant.
Q: So are you saying there is no role for art in trying to address the ecological challenges
we face?
A: No, I wouldn’t precisely say that. I still consider that an “eco-vention” by an artist—
meaning, for example, the reclaiming of a contaminated landscape or restoring a polluted
river, is arguably a more honorable and interesting form of engagement with the world at
this time than seeking to get one’s work favorably reviewed in a major art magazine. That
sounds very judgmental, I know, but I’m only speaking for myself here.
Q: But with the intensity of the ecological crisis we have in the world, that’s what’s
calling your attention, is that correct?
A: What is calling my attention right now is a book I’m reading, called Endgame. Its
author, Derrick Jensen, puts forth a rather unforgiving and radical thesis—one which
those of us who have been thinking about these things for decades already know, but
haven’t ever quite put in such drastic terms. Jensen claims that civilization is
unredeemable; it has catastrophically degraded the planet and has given us license to
destroy life on many fronts—species, plants, humans—in order to get whatever resources
it needs to keep itself going and continually moving forward. Meanwhile we’ve vastly
overreached the earth’s carrying capacity, yet we continue to expand as if this were not
the case. Jensen calls this a “traumatic situation,” because no action we can take at this
point is of any avail.
There is a second volume in which he actually encourages the dismantling and
destruction of civilization—taking it out before it takes us out. I think he’s right about the
intransigence of the cascading crises that confront us. I don’t think there is any escape
from situations like the polar ice caps melting. Nothing we can do at this point is likely to
reverse that, and this is just one example of an intractable situation.
There’s another way that we are under total threat as a civilization and as a species and
that is the virus of holy war. I’ve spent the last year reading about the threat of global
jihad and the clash of civilizations: jihadism versus democracy. What it comes down to is
a sort of lust to annihilate at any cost. For us, it’s a matter of taking control of markets
and devouring resources to sustain our way of life, whereas jihadists want to take over the
world under the umbrella of a very sinister religious control. If we think that America is
bad in the department of imperialistic agendas, I can tell you that al Qaeda is far worse,
albeit for different reasons than ours.
Q: That leads to a kind of pessimistic perspective that is a little different from 1994 when
you were talking with Laurie Zuckerman in your Conversations book about the ecological
crisis. You had some sense, then, of optimism about a paradigm shift. I remember one
statement in which you were talking about living in a transitional time, when the values

and way of life we’ve been taught to live by in our culture have come to be seen as toxic.
This brought up issues of healing and transformation. You said, “It seems as if there is a
spiritual and social obligation to participate in this process of healing our world,
however one can.” Does that mean that if things are as bleak as you’ve just described,
that you’ve moved away from that?
A: I don’t know what I think at this point. I’m trying to come to terms with the
unpalatable fact that despite decades of so-called “paradigm shift,” little has really
changed for the better. It seems instead as if things have gotten much worse. So I think I
would want to frame your question differently: “If you were on a bus going down a
mountainside, and you realized that the bus was careening out of control and about to go
over a cliff, what would you be doing? Would you be looking out the window, or would
you be hiding your eyes?”
Q: I guess I’d be looking out the window.
A: That may be our primary task at this point: to come out of denial and bear witness. To
really confront the sheer deadliness of our present circumstances. It’s a moot point as far
as what the human race can do about all this now, since too many genies are out of the
bottle and we can’t put them back in. The human race has proven itself to be deeply
dysfunctional. We’ve known for a long time that we’re destroying the planet, yet we
continue to do it with no let-up. Everyone knows that this war in Iraq is lethal, but we’ve
managed to create a situation where nothing we do can solve the problem. Whatever we
decide to do, the truth is we’re trapped—or as Jensen prefers to put it, more grandly,
“We’re fucked.”
Q: Back in 2004 when you published the new edition of Has Modernism Failed?, your
closing chapters indicated that you had an interest in transdisciplinarity and integral
theory—in the works of Basarab Nicolescu and Ken Wilber. It seems that you saw
something about the work they were doing as providing frameworks or perspectives that
added value.
A: I definitely believe that’s true and I haven’t changed my mind about that. Integralism
is a great antidote to perceiving reality in the dualistic mode that plagues Western
civilization. It calls for reciprocity and equality among all the levels of reality, and all
levels of being. If I seem to have developed what you might call a bad case of
“disheartenment,” it’s because I see that all the information we need is out there—all the
philosophies and spiritualities that could guide us through—were we but to espouse them.
But make no mistake, we haven’t espoused them, and now our problems may no longer
be amenable to amelioration by such means. So the question really is, “What is it about
the human race that prevents it from following its own wisdom?” We’ve learned so
much, but failed to put it to use.
Q: Do you have an answer?
A: Like I said, I think we’re a flawed species, and we’ve managed, unwittingly, through
our many technological advances and our unwavering belief in them as desirable, to write
ourselves out of the picture, Obviously this is very unfortunate, both for us and for all the
other species of the world that we’re taking out along with us.
Sometimes I think I shouldn’t be talking like this at all—I don’t enjoy the Cassandra
role. A friend of mine sent me an article that she had written a year or two ago about
“peak oil,” and how supplies are running out. She described how whenever she brings the
topic up in conversation at dinner parties, she never gets invited back. This is not the kind
of thing that people want to hear.
There’s a conversation I had with an artist friend of mine, James Marriott, who does
environmental art work in England. (I think you can find the text of it on the website of
www.greenmuseum.org). We get into an old idea of James Hillman’s and Michael
Ventura’s from their book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the
World’s Getting Worse. What should you be doing when the ship is going down? I don’t
know that anybody has a suitable answer to that question. Something James and I discuss
is, at what point do you actually accept the fact that the ship is going down, and how does
that affect what you think or can do about the situation?
Q: One of the things that seemed to happen in your life, and was expressed in magical
ways in your memoir, Living the Magical Life, was that you seemed to turn to a larger
sense of life and to invest yourself at the level of faith. Is that still there?
A: Yes! I still find synchronicity the most interesting spiritual phenomenon that I’ve run
into in terms of human experience. I consider it to be the biggest pointer to the possibility
that there is indeed something out there that we can’t see, something that may be
orchestrating events in a way that we don’t understand. If I were to say I had any hope for
the human race—and to counter everything else I’ve said so far—it would be that if there
really are such forces, they may be operating now in a way that could save us.
I saw a movie recently about the Mayan calendar ending abruptly in 2012. The
speculative thesis about what this could mean is that maybe time as we know it, time as
delineated by historical narrative and the continuity of a certain way of life, will suddenly
come to an end in 2012, precipitated by we know not what. But the spin that many
scholars have put on it is that there will be cascading crises that will lead eventually to
opportunities for evolution. We will come out in a place of higher consciousness. I would
say that it’s possible. But the odds don’t look that way to me. However, I’m only one
person, and I may not have any special insight into the future.
Q: One of the comments you make in Living the Magical Life is that the universe is a
better organizer than we are. We just need to stay out of the way. Is that a principle that
still applies under current circumstances?
A: I am basically Taoist in my spirituality. Non-interference is a very Taoist approach. So
yes, I do think that many of the problems we are experiencing in the world at this time

are the result of human actions, especially untrammeled ego and ambition and greed. If
you are a Taoist, you are trained to see yourself more as a speck of dust than as a
towering rock star. Taoism says instead of striving for something, going somewhere,
needing something, be happy over long periods of time with almost nothing. Economize.
Simplify. Do not try to continue the pretense of more opulent times, as the I Ching
Q: If the bus is going over the cliff—
A: Russ, do you think it is?
Q: I don’t know. There’s a very good chance that it is. History suggests that there are
surprising things that happen that we can’t predict. I don’t know if it is, but I’m
concerned for my children and my children’s children.
The question that came up for me was, if we’re going over the cliff, and all we can do
is either watch or close our eyes, is there anything about the transdisciplinarity or
integral approaches that you see that helps us, at least if we keep our eyes open, better to
comprehend what we’re seeing?
A: I am of the persuasion that knowledge and the ability to confront and metabolize
what’s happening is the first order of the day. I absolutely agree with Alice Walker in this
regard, when she says that even if there is nothing you can do personally—for instance,
to stop the war—it’s important to face what’s really going on. People often avoid
confronting how bad things are because they feel vulnerable and helpless, and are afraid
of becoming too depressed. Alice Walker says we need to have the courage to be more
depressed! I agree with that. She says that in today’s world, where we are, who wants to
be Little Miss Sunshine anyway? It’s scary.
Q: Could you be more specific about the things that you think help you get a sense of the
whole picture that you’re seeing?
A: I’m a collage artist with a special gift for synthesis. It means that I can take the bits
and pieces from everywhere and see how they connect, perhaps in ways that someone
else might miss. That is, of course, the ultimate integral theory—which is that everything
is interconnected. There is a wonderful Zen saying that embodies this: “When you pick
up one piece of dust, the entire world comes with it.” This is a basic idea that seems very
hard for our atomized and individualistic society to grasp.
Richard Rorty, the philosopher who recently died, once said there is no big picture. He
is very highly thought of, but personally, I think that is a stupid statement, an essentially
misguided idea. I believe there is a big picture, and integralism—moving between inside
and outside realms, between individual thoughts and collective worldviews, and seeing
how all these things interact and interconnect, is very helpful. It creates a multi-
dimensional, non-compartmentalized view of reality in which boundaries are permeable
and divisions are transcended. Only then can one begin to grasp the infinitely complex

cat’s cradle that is out there. Without that grasp of the totality, it’s no wonder that no one
has any workable idea for a solution, say, to the Iraq problem, or any way to navigate
through this awful maze.
Q: If the bus is going over the cliff, and you’re keeping your eyes open, even if there are
only a few minutes to be able to pay attention, is there anything you would be doing for
your fellow passengers?
A: I think it’s one of those situations that until you’re in it, you don’t know. If the real
question is, “What is our task?” I suppose our task is, at the very least, to be constantly
vigilant in considering what our task is, rather than mindlessly pursuing our own agendas.
We can enter into the Apocalyptic mysteries, as one writer I read suggests, by looking
seriously into the realities of the times. This is a “gift” to the community. Obviously,
beyond that, we can try to mitigate whatever suffering we can and undermine the levels
of destruction.
Q: A friend of yours is promoting a different way for us to be in the world. Riane Eisler’s
new book, The Real Wealth of Nations, continues to build on her partnership model
versus the dominator model.
A: Her model of partnership was very influential for me in my early writing about art, to
construct a notion of art that’s built around relationship, participation, collaborative
communities, and interaction with others. This is in strong contrast to the modernist
construct of art as radically individualistic. The whole possibility of art as dialogue rather
than monologue (an idea I also borrowed from David Bohm), puts it back into a social
context, instead of the artificially constructed context of the marketplace. Putting art into
the marketplace is, for me, a bit like putting animals into a zoo.
So much has come down the pike since then that much of this seems quaintly
historical now, but the modus operandi for being an artist in this culture is still very much
in lockstep with the idea of selling yourself and becoming an art star, even if it’s only for
the fifteen minutes that Warhol so astutely allotted. When you start to bring in something
larger, such as a social purpose or a use value for art, you will still run into vociferous
opposition from people who consider art’s value to reside in the fact that it serves no
purpose beyond itself. It’s the paradigm of freedom and autonomy.
Q: The diagnosis of the world being already at its end is terminal, so it cuts out all
possible interventions—we can keep talking until it happens—but the interventions of
someone like Riane Eisler to shift to a partnership model, or the use of dialogue or any
other human creation, doesn’t it make all that seem rather pointless?
A: These ideas have been out there for a long time now. Riane’s books, my books, many
other peoples’ books, have been out there for some 30 or 40 years. These ideas have
taken hold on a certain level in the culture, but in terms of affecting any real
transformation and change, what is your view? Do you feel that it’s all happening, that
we’re getting closer to where we need to go?

Q: For me, it’s important to keep the focus on trying to create what’s important, and that
includes the survival of the planet. I’m not so sure there’s a lot we can do at this point;
that’s partly why your position is so strong in my opinion, and difficult to react to other
than with a sense of loss.
A: And it was not what you expected.
Q: I wasn’t really expecting anything in that regard. I knew that your more recent
writings were strongly about the political and ecological challenges we face.
For me, as long as there’s life, there’s hope. I’m in agreement with you, Suzi, that we
all need to do whatever we can to try and make a difference.
A: Have you read The Road by Cormac McCarthy?
Q: No, I haven’t. Maybe I’m avoiding the pessimist.
A: Well, Russ, you’re hardly alone in that! In the case of The Road, what McCarthy has
done is to write a novel which takes place in a post-apocalyptic world; it is so cinematic
and intense and drastically simple that you actually get to live inside that experience. You
follow a father and son, who are two of the rare survivors in a disfigured landscape where
everything has been destroyed. It’s raining all the time and everything has become ash,
and the two figures are slowly walking south, hoping to get to a warmer place. The scene
McCarthy sets seems to me to be a more likely outcome of all these impending crises
than this big transformative thing, but I could be dead wrong.
Q: Others are suggesting that destruction of the human race is a step in the evolution of
the universe. Who knows what our destruction will make room for? I’m reminded of a
close friend whose grandmother taught her as a child to expect an apocalyptic event, the
Nostradamus predictions that people see as predicting the end of the world. In our
culture the doomsayers have always been people to laugh at, ignore, or treat as strange.
It seems like the case you’re making is that it’s really where we need to be thinking these
days; it’s where we need to focus.
A: It’s a question of how reality-based one is, and how willing to enter into painful
spheres of thinking. I agree with Alice Walker who says that we are living in “probably
the most dangerous, frightening, unstable times the world has ever known.” It’s not a
position that I necessarily want to defend; I’m just speaking from my heart, and that is
how I see things. Pipe dreams and soap bubbles aren’t working at this point. It’s hard for
me to deny what I see. Perhaps I have got a kind of negative spin on things. Who knows?
But I can tell you that spending a year reading some ten books on jihadism has made me
understand that we are in way over our heads. I don’t know whether our government truly
doesn’t understand the forces it has unleashed, or whether they can’t afford to admit what
they’ve done—but what is clear is that I don’t think we’re going to emerge from this
gracefully or intact.
Q: Is there another book in Suzi Gablik’s future?

A: I don’t know—some of my feelings about this can be found on my blog. I’ve
perversely taken to blogging, given that I think technology is part of what’s going to undo
us in the end. Al Gore’s newest book says that because of computers and the Internet, we
can revivify our stolen and dismantled democracy, and rebuild it again at the grass roots.
He doesn’t mention the fact that the biggest tool for the Islamists is also cyberspace. It’s
the place where the jihadists are recruiting their terrorist converts and selling their anti-
American propaganda around the globe. What we have defined as the “war on terror,”
they call the “war on Islam.”
Q: The point there is that any tool can be used for various purposes.
A: No, I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that. Technologies like the car and the computer
are not neutral. They change us. They arrive in our world, and society builds all these
narratives celebrating them. But then, they actually change our lives, and we become
addicted to them. Only much later do we discover that we’ve got holes in the ozone, that
we’re destroying the biosphere, rewiring our brains, or that there is such a thing as cyber-
terrorism. But by then, we’ve become prisoners of these technologies, and it’s too late to
change. We feel like we can’t survive without them. Eventually, we hardly remember
there was once a world where you could actually do things without having to mediate it
all through machines.
The way we’re going, there will be less and less that you can do that isn’t mediated by
technology. Once that happens, it will be very hard to live our lives any other way. So it’s
not just a matter of technology being good or bad only in relation to some hypothetical
user’s intention; technology affects things in ways we don’t foresee and didn’t figure. By
the time we find out the consequences, it’s too late to do anything about it.
Q: What is your blog address?
A: http://virgilspeaks.blogspot.com
I feel timorous that I sounded so bleak. You wouldn’t know it, but I’m a great lover of
life and believer in life. It’s very painful to watch it all going under and being
systematically destroyed. I find myself like an alien member of the human race—how can
people act like this? How did this happen?
Q: If you weren’t such a lover of life, then you wouldn’t feel the pain.
A: Well, I suppose that’s true. Sometimes I find myself thinking of the small bands of
Eskimos that Gretel Ehrlich describes in one of her books. Even when they are starving,
they laugh and enjoy life. They are not fazed.
Q: Thank you very much Suzi.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Hundred Zulu Warriors

I feel like I must apologize for the sluggishness of my blogging of late. When not wrapped up in wrapping up Christmas parcels, or mailing them off (3 shopping bags full), I have been otherwise engaged in rotten fretting over an ailing leg and knee. It keeps me tense, stressed, and wanting to hide out--instead of ex-cogitating, being creative, or thinking up ways to see the next essay in my mind's eye.

Besides, 'tis the season to be jolly, and I'm having a hard time getting up the stairs. And, I don't like to blog unless I've got something cogent to say about the world. But then, enough is enough, and duty eventually calls. The show must go on. I open up the one book that I keep right next to my computer at all times for random inspiration: Annie Dillard's "The Writer's Life." And, beckoning sublimely, she is right there for me!

"Remarkably material also is the writer's attempt to control his own energies so he can work. He must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it....If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours along with a hundred other Zulu warriors, you might be able to prepare yourself to write...."

Thing of it is, I can't seem to find my spear. And I have nothing to bang on either.

"If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance that on a certain morning the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals and drinking dubious liquids, you might, when the time came, be ready to write. But how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on ordinary mornings?"

Carrot juice and slow walks on the treadmill don't cut the mustard.

"How to set yourself spinning? Where is an edge--a dangerous edge--and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?"

Ideally, every writer needs a personal GPS and/or two working legs. Without them, the trail remains both elusive and unnavigable.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Call for Heresy

I confess to having occasional concerns about some of the radical views I put out on this blog. It's well past 1984, and you never know who's out there watching you, especially these days. One of the things I know about myself is that when it comes to paranoia, I'm usually racing for takeoff like a jet on the runway. It doesn't take much for me to lift me off.

I mention this because I'm never quite sure whether danger lurks in what I'm doing, or is just a phantasm of my overactive imagination. Meanwhile I recently finished reading Naomi Wolf's book "The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot," in which she argues that the foundations of our democracy are being slowly but systematically dismantled by the current administration, and that we are on the brink of closing down the open society. That book definitely had the effect of lifting me off.

Wolf has done some formidable research into the rise of dictatorships in certain societies, notably Nazi Germany, and she believes there are a set of (basically ten) classic steps that are followed when a government is on this road. As it turns out, the U.S. is right on schedule: each of these steps, she argues, is currently underway in our country today.

One key feature of dictatorships is the use of surveillance of its citizens, not so much for the obtaining of vital information, but rather to coerce and intimidate people. The government wants you to know it is eavesdropping on your calls and emails (and blogs?) without a warrant so you feel you are being watched. This creates fear, and a general climate where people think twice before, say, signing petitions, because they don't want their names to get on a "list." I can't say the thought has not occurred to me.

The White House surveillance program, Wolf writes, is triggered by certain key words and names. If your communications reach a certain level of interest to the government, an actual person may be assigned to monitor what you are saying. Klein draws parallels with the Gestapo, the KGB, and the Chinese Politburo, all of which requisitioned private data such as medical, banking, and library records. This scrutiny breaks down the individual's sense of being able to act freely against those in power. If you are outspoken enough, she suggests you may find yourself subject to harrassment, by, say, for starters, the IRS. She sites one grim instance of an environmentalist consultant who approached the VP when he was making an appearance in a mall in Colorado--and he said, "I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible." Ten minutes later he was apprehended and handcuffed by a secret service agent and charged with assault.

A second notable feature of dictatorships is sending lies to the press and then accusing those who tell the truth of lying. The promotion of lying helps to facilitate a fascist shift. If the ground of democracy is truth, says Wolf, the ground of dictatorship is assertion. (Welcome to the world of the Decider!) Truth (as I myself have written in a previous blog, "Truth Is What Gives the World Its Fragrance"), must be eliminated in favor of "a new reality in which the truth," as Wolf puts it, "can no longer be ascertained and no longer counts."

Once you can no longer ascertain the difference between truth and lies, can no longer be sure about what is right and what is wrong, you lose the ability to trust in your own judgement. We are living in a society that is relentlessly being gas lighted by its leaders. No wonder we all feel like we are slowly going crazy. We can't rely on newspapers or television to tell us what is really going on. Journalists and the press have been so compromised that they no longer represent the interests of their readers.

Wolf asserts we must make a heightened effort to cease being consumers of the media and become instead leaders with a responsibility to speak the truth and educate the public. The best route for doing this, she claims, is--hold on to your hats--BLOGGING. Bloggers now have to lead the way and become warriors for truth and accountability.

Suddenly I have a new found elation in my task. What ho, Virgil! Get that alligator butt over here where it's needed, as the monks say, for the sake of the choir. We have work to do!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Can Art Change the World? Maybe!

Lately, as anyone who follows this blog even cursorily will be aware, these days it is hard for me to hear the fifes and drums of positive change coming from anywhere. But yesterday I went to a weird sort of fiesta at the Roanoke Hotel with my friend Katherine Devine, in which 900 women of all sizes, ages, shapes, and hair colors had paid $50 to attend a luncheon sponsored by the Art Museum of Western Virginia celebrating "Women, Art, & Education." It was also the Ann Fralin Award event, a prize now offered annually to honor someone for her commitment to the arts, education, and community. This year the recipient was the well-known poet, activist, and educator, Nikki Giovanni, and we all sat down to a plate of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, salmon salad, and chicken slices with greens, in her honor.

Nikki had been allotted only ten minutes to speak, but managed nevertheless to have her signature impact anyway. She told us something about her state of mind when she sat down to compose the poem that she delivered to the convocation on campus the day after the Cho shooting at Virginia Tech, in which thirty students and faculty died.

She had been asked by the administration to help out at the convocation and do something to honor the dead. "Of course I'll do whatever I can," she thought to herself, "I have to, but I'd better write something down. Otherwise I'll just stand up there and cry, and that won't do." So she composed her phenomenal poem about grief and world suffering that would ultimately ricochet around the globe, and when she recited the final words "We are Virginia Tech. We are the Hokies, and we will prevail," something really uncanny happened. The shocked, grieving faces and bodies suddenly, synchronously, shifted direction and burst into wild exhilaration and communion, chanting and clapping as loud as they could, "Go Hokies!" A zombie crowd had in a few seconds transmogrified back into life again. I, who watched the proceedings on television from home, was witness to what can only be described as a miracle: the kind of radical energy shift only shamans accomplish when healing. I've never seen anything quite like it.

"Of course I had no idea of the impact it would have," Nikki explained, adding "but that, you see, is the power of poetry."

The power of art to change the world. Most surely it was a true moment when art did change the world, and I know, because I saw it happen with my own eyes.

"That's the power of PineSol, baby," mocks Virgil, trying as usual to stamp his droll personality on whatever I write. Today he is sporting his Jackson Pollock necktie, bought at the Guggenheim Museum gift store, proudly on his alligator chest. "Yummy Yummy Yummy, I've got art in my tummy," he sings to me, as he quickly turns back to his Basquiat jigsaw puzzle, the latter having been acquired recently from a trip to the Brooklyn Museum. He says he's going to hold an "Alligators for Art" luncheon in cyberspace to honor the Surrealists, the Jacobeans, and recondite graffiti artists. He wants me to wear my orangutan string jacket, the same one I wore years ago to Jasper's opening, and to be the keynote speaker. But I haven't seen hide nor hair of that jacket in years.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Proust Meets Jasper Johns

It is customary for the back page of Vanity Fair to be a questionnaire addressed to a celebrity. It's called "Proust Questionnaire." Usually I don't personally know the celebrity being questioned. However this time I did: Jasper Johns. Seeing him there, staring at the camera the way he always does if someone insists on taking his picture, wearing a red and green plaid shirt, reminded me that, for many years when I was young, and even into middle age, Jasper was the person in whose company I was always the happiest. I met him before he got famous, when I was only 18, and he was living on Pearl Street at the bottom of Manhattan, working as a salesclerk in a bookstore midtown, and, of course, painting. It was hard not to be drawn in by his luminous melancholy, the icicle wit, and outrageous laugh. I have never laughed as hard or as much with anyone.

The back-page questions tend to vary, but some are always the same, like "What or who is the greatest love of your life?" Inevitably people say "my spouse" or "my family" in answer to this particular question. Jasper's response was striking: "no one, no thing." Did he really mean it? Or was he being sarcastic? Always the conundrum with Jasper. I'll hazard that he really meant it.

Once I was visiting him for the weekend at his country house in upstate New York. He went outside late in the afternoon, gathered up a clump of ratty looking mushrooms from the base of a tree stump, and cooked them for dinner, together with a baked sweet potato. "That's dinner," he announced somewhat petulantly. Jasper just loves eating and is a great cook, and he was mad at me because earlier I had vetoed the purchase of a packet of pork chops when we were at the supermarket. So it is not really surprising that when "Proust" asked him "What is your most treasured possession?" he answered, "my refrigerator."

Another time, in France, we were hunting for mushrooms (morells) in the forest of Fontainebleau with our friend Teeny Duchamp and her daughter, Jackie. I was arm-in-arm with Jasper, who doggedly recited the whole of Edith Sitwell's "Facade" to me by heart, imitating perfectly her rapid falsetto voice and making me laugh so hard I could hardly stay on my feet.

In Vanity Fair, Proust asks Jasper: "If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?" His answer: "my inability to sing or dance." Yow! me too, although I've had pretensions in both directions, but never together at the same time.

Questioner: "What is it that you most dislike?" Answer: "seeing fish with silver skins marinating in cream." Another thing I know for sure Jasper disliked was a jacket I owned many years ago, when I lived in London. Once, he was visiting me there in 1978 for his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, and I put on my prized purple and blue wool string jacket to accompany him to the opening. He took one look at me and rolled his eyes. Then, his face wreathed in smiles, he told me I looked like an orangutan.

Other people got an even worse dose of icicle wit. A friend in those days, Eddie Schlossberg (who later married Caroline Kennedy) once told Jasper that he loved him. "That's your problem," came the terse answer, and the eyes rolled again. Although to me all those years Jasper was the most attractive, amusing, and dearest friend anyone could ever have, I knew better than to ever say the words out loud.

Vanity Fair question: "What is your current state of mind?" Jasper's response: "something like very slow panic." Me, too. Boy, can I relate!

Meanwhile Virgil, my alligator muse, has noticed me scribbling on my notepad in cyberspace and sashays over. "I really enjoyed your last piece about that libertine artist with a sweet tooth for dead animals," he says, referring to my previous blog about Damien Hirst. "Now I have a question for you, so just pretend for a minute that I'm Vanity Fair. "If you knew you had to hit the road, what would you hit it with?"

Truth is, I've never been any good at questionnaires, and I have no intention of getting sucked in to this one.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Non-Redemptive Power of Art

As I quietly watch the world unravel from my mountainside perch in southwest Virginia, one question keeps coming up for me: is the present ruination of the world built into our humanity? Things may be falling apart, as the poet said, mere anarchy unleashed as far as the eye can see, the center no longer holding, but the art market carries on oblivious, lunging ever forward with kangaroo speed. Way back in the 1500’s, Nostradamus predicted that only Ibiza will survive the Apocalypse, but clearly he was wrong. The way things go now, the art market will also be left standing, side by side with Ibiza.

In a spring sale at Sotheby's, a painting by Mark Rothko went for $72 million. But even that mind-altering sum isn't the half of it. A 2007 sculpture by English artist Damien Hirst, titled (ironically?) "For the Love of God,"-- an 18th-century skull, cast in platinum and encrusted with 8,601 diamonds which cost about $20 million to produce--was sold to an investment consortium for $100 million. A projected two-year tour of major museums around the world will further augment the sculpture's value, making it resalable later for an even larger sum. Incidentally, coincidentally, the artist is part of the investment consortium.

If I let go into the movement of my own consciousness, something about this miscreant icon suggests the ultimate folly of our times. Perhaps the artist meant to create a kind of luxurious stink bomb, thrown at what Navajos call "the glittering world," admittedly a world on its last legs. Or, perhaps he was taking a pot shot at the corpse of Susan Sontag, who once stated that "There is no culture without a standard of altruism, of regard for others." For in Hirst's universe, altruism and regard for others most surely does not include animals.

Take the case of the decaying tiger shark, floating in a tank of 224 gallons of formaldehyde. It is one of Hirst's most well known works, called "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." After 14 years in that glass tank, defying gravity, the tiger shark was disintegrating. Last year, five men and one woman donned hazmat suits, black rubber gloves, and breathing masks, and in the abandoned airplane hangar that serves as one of Hirst's studios, set about removing the defunct shark and replacing it with a new one, 13 feet long.

The original shark had been caught and killed by a fisherman in Australia, explicitly for Hirst in 1991. But eventually decomposition occurred, because the shark's insides had not been properly injected with formaldehyde to preserve it. So its skin grew wrinkled; the solution in the tank grew murky. Various patchwork efforts at restoration failed to work.

Enter one of those hedge-fund managers now turned collector, billionaire Steven A. Cohen, who bought the work from the English collector Charles Saatchi, paying $8 million for the ailing work. At that point, Hirst decided he needed to replace the shark, and Cohen offered to pay for it. Another unsuspecting tiger shark was killed and then dispatched from Australia in a specially built 20-foot freezer that took almost two months to arrive.

Now artists and conservators argue about whether the replacement can have the same status as the original. Nobody debates the fate of the sharks which gave up their lives for the sake of art. It still stuns.

Hirst is the winner of Britain's prestigious Turner Prize, which he received in 1995 for a cow and a calf cut into sections and exhibited in a series of vitrines, called "Mother and Child Divided." "I've also tried to do a Pieta with cows," he once told a critic in the New York Times. Some of his canvases are covered with real flies and butterflies. His studio is filled with freezers stuffed with dead animals, acquired mostly from taxidermists. If a prize ever existed for the most unecological artist on the planet, Hirst would surely win that one as well.

All this suggests a new kind of bone-eroding art with radioactive potential, of a different order from the kind we used to know and love. Hirst's glass-and-steel medicine cabinets filled with rows of colored pills lined up on shelves sold for $7.4 million at Christie's in New York last spring, and a similar version went for $19.2 million in London a month later. His "spot" paintings of colored circles, of which he has done nearly a thousand, sell for more than $1 million to the new cadre of hedge-fund collectors, who can sell them a month later for double the price. All this has been tabulated, measured, and proved, in a way that sets hearts pounding in the art world.

In a recent New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins of New York art dealer and cultural impresario Jeffrey Deitch, himself a collector to be reckoned with and definitely nobody's fool, Deitch manages to capture in just a few comments something of the preposterousness of the scene over which he presides like an anointed prophet: "More than any artist, Damien has used the art market as a medium. You could dismiss this as over-the-top commercial, but he's achieved a lot of cultural influence and power by using the art market so cleverly. He's using the power of the money to enhance the impact of his imagery and his art."

Let me ask my question one more time: is the present ruination of the world built into our humanity? Years ago I used to wonder and struggle and write with a different question in mind: what does it really mean to be a "successful" artist working in the world today? And is the image that comes to mind one we can support and believe in? In today's world, that question is obsolete. Now the lucky artist who understands how wealth can manufacture more wealth will earn him, like Gatsby, the epithet "Great."

Damien Hirst flits through our culture like a bad angel, zealously playing his fiddle while Rome is burning. It may be that every crumbling empire needs to have its own Nero. Someone virtuosic in artistic endeavors and chariot racing, someone who always wins and does not tolerate any rivals. The image above is by digital artist Simone Paterson, entitled "Hirst As Nero."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Beyond the Climate Crisis" by Eileen Crist

"If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star."

Excerpted from "A Ritual to Read to Each Other, by William Stafford

Some of my thinking on plunder in the previous post has been expanded and inspired by an article I've read, written by a good friend of mine, Eileen Crist, who teaches Environmental Studies at Virginia Tech. I thought this essay was so lucid I asked if I could summarize some of her ideas on the blog. She said yes, so here goes.

Now that climate change has been transformed from a hypothesis into a fact and become a focus of urgent, worst-case scenarios with the potential for large-scale societal collapse, it gets star-billing as "the most urgent environmental problem of our time," "more dangerous than anything we have ever faced."

My friend argues that framing climate change in such a manner merits being challenged; for one thing because it implies that the solutions are those that directly address the problem and therefore lie in the realm of improved technologies and global treaties. Second, it detracts attention from other predicaments by claiming the limelight for itself, marginalizing other facets such as species extinction, which unlike climate change, is not perceived as a direct threat or survival risk to humans.

By focusing on climate change, Eileen argues, the root causes of the ecological crisis as a whole go unaddressed: i.e. "destructive patterns of production, trade, extraction, land-use, waste proliferation, and consumption, coupled with population." Climate change, Eileen feels, is not the root problem. The root problem is "a sprawling civilization that is destroying the biosphere." But this part goes unquestioned and unexamined.

"Industrial-consumer civilization," she writes, "has entrenched a form of life that admits virtually no limits to its expansiveness with, and perceived entitlement to, the entire planet. But questioning this civilization is by and large side-stepped in climate change discourse, with its single-minded quest for a global warming techo-fix."

Her point: techno-fixes attempt to deal with symptoms, while leaving unmolested the forms of social organization that are causing the crisis. And here's the kicker: climate change is then viewed as a danger to the "culprit," namely, our way of life. We end up trying to save the very thing that is causing our demise. We are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Global warming, she says, is delivering its blow on an already profoundly wounded natural world. It is more a mirror than a driver.

Then there are the apocalyptic narratives of climate change that align neatly with prophetic claims in the Old and New Testaments, and have merged with religious fundamentalist visions of rising seas, raging wildfires, and rampant disease. In certain circles, climate change may even be encouraged as hastening the "Rapture," which of course has nothing to say about the suffering of nonhuman species.

Bottom line, according to Eileen, is that we are unwilling to question or limit consumer society, or to give up our sense of entitlement to, and assumption of dominance over, nature.

Eileen does not accept that the momentum of present trends is inevitable. She is, to her eternal credit, much less fatalistic than I am. In fact, she warns against fatalism, as being a mindset that fosters compliance to the very trends it deplores, by a kind of looping action (read self-fulfilling prophesy). Fatalism, she concludes, may even be the most potent form of ideology in existence, because it discourages deep questioning and dismisses the possibility of revolutionary action. And it allows consumer society to be taken as a given.

I may be fatalistic, but I can't be accused of refusing to question deeply. Thanks, Eileen, for a wonderful paper.

Eileen's paper is titled "Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change Discourse" and is scheduled to be published in Telos, a social-theory magazine, December 2007.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Short History of Plunder

Blogging, as I do, mostly without any fixed agenda, often leads me to unexpected subjects and insights, usually forecast by a certain tingly buzz of recognition and the sense that "vectors are converging here." What seems to have emerged for my scrutiny currently is the topic of plunder, stories of which have curiously festooned my week. So I checked out the Thesaurus before writing this, which offered up, among others, the following related items:

vb. liquidate, wipe off the map, steal, pilfer, ransack, strip, plunder, ravage, ruin, wantonly destroy, exterminate.

Pick any one of these, or lump all of them together; what you will find inevitably is a human propensity that has been lurking around and unfolding exponentially across the globe ever since, well, well before the cows came home. Obviously we are all aware, these days, of the wanton destruction of nature: whole species wiped off the map, mountain tops stripped for their coal, forests plundered for their timber, rivers ransacked for their fish. More recently, our current government has ravaged an entire country to gain long-term access to its oil. But this week I was quick to note a peculiar conjunction of parallel themes from the past, revealing something about human nature across centuries of civilization that makes it seem as if one of our chief talents has always been for ravaging, ransacking, looting, and plundering--in short, helping ourselves to what does not belong to us.

This week I saw an eye-opening movie about the rape, not of nature, but of culture. It is called "The Rape of Europa," a documentary about the Nazi's obsession with art (made by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham, and Bonni Cohen), with actual footage filmed during WWII. Everyone knows about the Holocaust, and Hitler's cold-blooded extermination of six million Jews, for reasons the rest of us mere mortals will never understand. But I, for one, did not know that when Hitler's army marched into France and occupied it, one of the first things they did was to empty the Louvre of all of its treasures in a massive ransack. They STOLE all the art, removed it from the walls, and took it out of the country. Some works were destroyed for being "degenerate," and the rest was forwarded by rail and truck to secret underground bunkers in Germany. Similar ransacks were performed by the Nazis on other major museums and private collections in Europe. The plan, had it worked out, was to construct the biggest museum in the world in the German town of Kirk, ultimately to be billed as "Hitler's Legacy."

"Should I recount all the lawless and brutal acts of white men upon the Coast you should think that those who visited it had lost the usual attributes of humanity, and such indeed seems to be the fact." I read this sentence the next morning, in a book called "The Golden Spruce," by John Vaillant. The comment was made by a veteran fur trader of the 18th century from Massachusetts, William Sturgis, who was relating his experiences in the sea otter trade which flourished for about a century along the Pacific Coast of North America.

The Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of Newfoundland, were first visited by Captain Cook in 1778, when he stepped ashore to find logs in order to repair his two damaged ships. There he discovered the extremely soft pelts of the sea otter, worn by the native inhabitants, the Haida Indians.

In 1785 the first trading mission arrived, looking for massive timbers and plentiful sea otters and friendly natives, having read Cook's account of his third and final voyage, published the year before. The demand for sea otter pelts, more desirable even than ermine or mink, led to boom times for all, a sort of "rapacious festival of unrestrained capitalism," with huge profits of 1,800 percent on a par with gold, oil, or drugs. There was profiteering on both sides. The Haida pursued this poor creature to the brink of extinction, so eager were they to get their hands on the traders' technical marvels, which included firearms, along with other things like chisels, nails, copper pots, scissors, mirrors, blankets, and rum .

"The first expeditions," wrote Sturgis, who had lost a brother to the Haida,"were entrusted to...men of desperate fortunes, lawless and reckless...[who] indulged every brutal propensity without the slightest restraint...[and] would have shot an Indian for his garment of sea otter skins with as little compunction as he would have killed the animal from whom the skins were originally taken." What began as an orchestrated protocol of dining and gift-giving soon degenerated into armed encounters, often ending in extremes of slaughter between the Indians and the very same traders who had sold them their weapons. The sea otters, meanwhile, became extinct. "This helped to set the tone for every extractive industry that has come after," according to the author, Vaillant.

Make no mistake, we are a predatory species. Our preemptive president is but one example in a long, insatiable history of hemorrhage and plunder--no better and no worse, perhaps, than any of the others. Since there is no way to ransack, ravage, and steal, and do it gracefully, and since it has been happening across the ages, we may just have to accustom ourselves to the eeriness of it all.

"It's no use getting the moral jitters," says Virgil, the tip of whose large alligator tail is switching electrically. "Sometimes life is just a bitter bargain. Your little history may be terminally unpleasant, but which do you think is more likely to change its spots: a giddy, swaggering, saw-toothed capitalism, a turbaned ayatollah, or a pouncing leopard?"

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Welcome to the World of "Disaster Capitalism"

The self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing U.S. Embassy planted in the midst of war-torn Baghdad (see my previous blog of Oct. 20th)) embodies much more than a chilling disregard for ordinary Iraqis, or even its symbolic value signaling the truth about American ambitions in the Middle East. As Naomi Klein describes in her new book "The Shock Doctrine," places like the Embassy and the Green Zone are the new working prototypes for how to construct security bubbles for the rich, with state-of-the-art everything in the absence of a functioning public infrastructure. In Iraq, the same corporations that sell the bombs also sell prosthetic limbs for the victims, manage the evacuee camps, and rebuild the bombed-out bridges. You don't have to have a map to get you from here to there in order to figure out what's really going on. But just in case you can't connect the dots yourself, Naomi Klein has done it for all of us, and brilliantly.

Security bubbles exist "like a giant fortified carnival cruise ship parked in the middle of a sea of violence and despair," she writes in the October issue of Harper's magazine. If you can manage to get on board, you will find "poolside drinks, bad Hollywood movies, and Nautilus machines." If you are not among the chosen, however, "you could get shot for just standing too close to the wall."

Welcome to the new world of "disaster capitalism." The word "chosen" has, of course, rich religious overtones. In this case, however, it is clear who the "chosen" will be: those rich enough to afford, whether in Iraq or in America, protection for themselves when disasters strike. Klein's provocative thesis is that in the new economy of catastrophe, people's need for help is being harnessed for profit by mega-contractors eager to replace crumbling public infrastructures with emergency services that have been repackaged and privatized for public consumption in disaster situations. Iraq has been the pilot laboratory for test-flying and learning the ropes of disaster profiteering. Climate change is providing, along with preemptive wars, new lucrative markets in which corporatized industries such as Halliburton, Blackwater, Lockheed, Wal-Mart, etc. get their real economic momentum as the world realizes it is going to have to pay for its own survival.

Klein claims that what was once the former military-industrial complex has morphed onto a "disaster capitalism" complex, in which all conflict- and disaster-related functions, like waging war, securing borders, spying on citizens, rebuilding cities, treating the injured, are performed by private corporations at a profit. They are taking over many of the core functions of a weakened government, which has basically outsourced its responsibilities to these international companies. The Iraq war, according to Klein, is now being franchised over here, in places like New Orleans.

Consider, for instance, the Florida-based service which bills itself as "the world's first hurricane escape plan" that turns a hurricane evacuation into a spa vacation or a charter trip to Disneyland. The richest evacuees can be whisked out of the hurricane zone on a luxury jet, while those left behind and still stranded on rooftops await relief from the Red Cross, which has partnered up with Wal-Mart. Klein calls it the "new apartheid" of financial inequality.

It used to be that the forces of corporate globalization advanced through an alliance between the forces of the world's largest corporations and the world's most powerful governments. It used to be that government was there to make sure the free market works, and to provide a base of safety in misfortune to all its citizens, by promoting programs like Medicaire and Social Security. But now that is changing. That sort of government has all but disappeared. As we approach the tip of a very large iceberg, government and corporations have merged into a single, seamless, borderless entity that is creating wealth--not for the purpose of ending poverty or helping to save the environment, but rather to line the pockets of its own rich, corporate elite, using your tax money and mine. And if you're not convinced by what I've written, or don't quite understand my version of it, please read Naomi Klein in the original. She will give you the long shot, the medium shot, and the close-up of this latest, sonic Republican experience. Be warned: it's not pretty.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Virgil Wants to Go to Baghdad

Not surprisingly, there is a dearth of diplomatic volunteers willing to serve in the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. According to a statement recently released by the State Department, it will be necessary to use a form of "draft" to recruit members of the diplomatic corps to serve there. Some 2-300 diplomats are being notified this week that they have been identified as "prime candidates" to fill 40-50 vacancies that will open as of next year. Those selected will be required to do a one-year posting.

"Do you suppose they'd be willing to hire an alligator?" Virgil asks, the only reptile on the planet who is busy composing a life. "I'm good at dealing with people who are absolutely allergic to any kind of direction, and I have no vested interest in always being right. I like surviving in unwholesome conditions, and could keep at bay anyone who turns nasty, or threatens us with fists, rocks, or machetes."

I freak out. "You can't possibly go to Baghdad, Virgil," I say. "Even if it does make a certain crazy sense, I'd never be able to manage without you. You may be an alligator, but you are still my best link to the human community. You're my guardian angel, helping this Cinderella as she pokes among the ashes of what used to be called civilization. You can't just leave!"

"Not to toot my own horn, Madame, or encourage confusion between your own ego and mine, but I know that it is wrong to lie, cheat, steal, or inflict cruelty, so maybe my presence there could help stem the tide of hundreds of years of exploited bitterness. At my peak, I realize that I'm only an artistic endeavor, not a liberal or a conservative. I may not fit any well-defined job description, but I do have a vivid sense of the plasticity of the human condition, approximate to the grunt. Besides, life in the swamp has become pretty pricey. Like everyone else, I've got my bills to pay."

"Okay, okay," I say, taking the hint. "So find out what they're paying, and I'll double it."

Anything to forestall my worst nightmare: waking up one morning and finding that the alligator has split. Now that really would be the end of the world.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Embassy Unveiled

Questions of when and how--or if--the war in Iraq will end anytime soon hover over us like bad angels, intruding on every debate and private conversation. "What's the point? What's the purpose? What's the goal?" The truth is our military adventurism in that country has created a Frankenstein monster; we are caught up in a sinister game whose rules are unknown and whose stakes are everything. America is now playing for its life, and is losing badly.

Have you ever found yourself wondering what our real intentions are there, anyway? Or which enemies, at this point, we are actually fighting? Radical Shiite Islamists? Sunni insurgents? Al Qaeda terrorists? Or Jihadist suicide bombers? Have you found yourself wondering how our soldiers are supposed to tell them apart? Do you ever think about how we will atone for the two million refugees (increasing still, at the rate of 60,000 a month) who have been forced to flee their country? Or why our liberating intervention has failed to inspire the presumed sympathy in ordinary Iraqis, igniting instead a massive craving for retaliation around the world? Is it, as many have asked, really a liberation, or is this an occupation?

If you really want a clear picture of what our motives are, there is one unambiguous, shameless thing--a single fragment, a dazzling detail--that goes straight to the heart of the matter, and, as surely as God made little green apples, puts all the confused questions to rest. That one thing is the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, perhaps the only project in that godforsaken place to be completed within budget ($600 million) and on time (projected completion by the end of this year).

This grotesque icon of material privilege and vanity is the perfect replacement for Saddam's palaces: a free-enterprise zone hidden away in full view of the stripped bleakness of a city otherwise deprived of functioning electricity, water, sewage systems, universities--and invaded every day by scenes of mayhem and slaughter.
The insider scoop on this profane counterworld set in the midst of Baghdad's ruins can be found in an article in the current issue of Vanity Fair, written by William Langewiesche and called "The Mega-Bunker of Baghdad." The following particulars, which have been well-masked until recently, I have taken from that essay.

The compound is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world, a walled expanse the size of Vatican City, containing 21 reinforced buildings on 104 acres, situated along the Tigris River. The new Embassy is self-sustaining, with its own power generators, water wells, drinking water treatment plant, sewage plant, fire station, irrigation system, Internet uplink and telephone center, cell phone network, mail service, fuel depot, food and supply warehouses, and vehicle repair garage. It contains 619 blast-resistant apartments and a multicultural food court fit for a shopping mall, tennis courts, a landscaped swimming pool and pool house, a bomb-resistant recreation center with a well-equipped gym, a department store, community center, beauty salon, and movie theater. The expected upkeep for this extravaganza is estimated to cost another $1.2 billion a year. All construction workers are imported, no Iraqis have been employed for the job. We have built a fortified America in the middle of a hostile city, according to Langewiesche, so impregnable and isolated that its main purpose seems to be in sustaining itself.

So, if U.S. agendas are deliberately confusing on the political front, and who we are fighting is often unclear, this one chilling indulgence signals unmistakeably that the American government looks upon Iraq as "their place." No wonder telling GWB that most Americans would like to see us leave is a bit like telling your dog to go easy on the bones.

Enter Virgil, the only alligator in town who regularly attends a neo-con think tank, still wearing his beer helmet (a baseball cap equipped with beer-can holders that allow the wearer to drink beer through a plastic tube). To be included in his world for a while is always a treat.

"My God," Virgil says, after reading what I've written, "this place is even larger than I remember! Mammy always said the meek shall inherit the earth. And since he loves Iraq so much, why can't we just put GWB into a salad tosser, pour cold water over him, and ship him over there to be the next President? That way, he could preside over the vestiges, shape local energies, and be boxed in forever with what he loves." He flashes me a wicked smile.

I've never seen Virgil in quite this mood before. He doesn't usually talk politics--it's not one of his subjects.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Truth Is What Gives the World Its Fragrance

Last week I found myself immersed in a very provocative conversation with a friend about trust. She described herself as being in an existential crisis, or maybe a mid-life crisis, she wasn't sure, but was finding herself hardly able to trust anyone, to the point of mild alarm.

Immediately I felt that inner synaptic flutter that usually signals: "Resonance. Pay attention. Yes, you recognize exactly what she is going through." Once the subject of trust had been put out on the table, I knew the crisis she'd named belonged to me as well.

In the old days, it might have been called a "crisis of faith," but this was not quite the same thing. Much more brutal in its scope and grandeur, this was not just a private event, occurring in someone's individual psyche. Suddenly and clearly I could see an entire morphic field, in which the patterned integrity of the world was systematically and perhaps irrevocably unraveling, like threads in a fabric. From the reliability of the weather to the raping of the Constitution, from melting ice caps to terrorist conspiracies to the moral bankruptcy of the U.S. government, we'd have to be blind not to see "It's not working." The center cannot hold.

Something prompts me to check out William Butler Yeats' prophetic poem in my copy of "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart." The lines I am looking for are from "The Second Coming":

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned..."

Trust, the very innocence of it, is the ground note we cannot do without--trust, above all, in the viability of the future. But this is the twenty-first century, and trust is disappearing as surely as the Carolina coastlines. The question of how to live in the world without that reassurance of trust, in conditions where we are not dressed up, not pretty, not smashing at the screen, not hyper-vigilantly scanning the horizon for the next catastrophe about to strike-- all of these things I sensed were contributing to the dissonance my friend was feeling between her own private ordeal and public events. We are all spending a lot of energy trying not to see what is staring us in the face, trying not to feel the horror of what is happening. Things will eventually be okay. They always are.

Another friend in Australia sends me lines from Rumi:

"You may make a jewelry flower
out of gold and rubies and emeralds,
but it will have no fragrance."

That's it, I think. Moments of conscience and decency are like fragrance. Truth is fragrance. And they are disappearing. Life goes on as before, but the soul is in a state of emergency. This is the misfortune of living in the twilit carnival and surreal fakery that is America now, of swimming in the chloroform of deceit and lies. I am sitting on my front porch as I write this, and a fox appears. It stares at me for a few seconds, then runs off into the woods. I go down to the end of the driveway and get the newspaper. The lead story says Blacksburg has been put on notice that litigation may be filed claiming negligence by the town and its employees in the matter of the Virginia Tech massacre last spring. Families of the victims have congregated under the umbrella of a certain lawyer and are considering plans to sue. In our current litigious society, money is to be made even from the tragedy of unwarranted death.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Turkey is considering a cross-border offensive into Iraq against Kurdish rebels. The U.S. is adamantly opposed. Referring to us, the furious Prime Minister of Turkey responds: "Did they seek permission from anyone when they came from a distance of 10,000 kilometers and hit Iraq? We do not need anyone else's advice." Another world leader takes his cues from GWB.

I return to the anthology, wanting to check out another poem on the page next to Yeats'. Some lines by David Ignatow had previously caught my eye; I wanted to look at them again:

"...Your eyes will waver
and turn away but turn back to witness
the unprecedented, the incredible,
for you are there
and your part will be to remain calm."

My part is to remain calm: it's the ultimate message about how to be a human being. I am ready to stop there, and to type, despite the pointlessness of it all. I write and write, but it seems like words, my own and others', hit the ground as dust, with no impact, no traction. I turn on the computer to type, checking the email first. A painter living in Roanoke, Bill Rutherfoord, has sent me these few consoling words. They come with the force of an oracular coup:

"Civilizations in decline always contain a remnant of the faithful, and that appears to be our position at the moment. As systemic evil spreads globally, we should identify it, and speak about it. That's what we do."

"Heckuva job, Brownie," I tell him, "but I'm trying anyway." Question is, how much truth can we bear?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The October-November Man

I've decided that the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a secret admirer of GWB. Why else would he model so many of his own behaviors after Bush's? Besides, it's hard not to like someone who thinks and acts like you do. Check out these comments by a Philadelphia journalist, who wrote them after attending a dinner in Ahmadinejad's honor while Ahmadinejad was visiting New York last week--and see if you don't think I'm right. The comments were made about Ahmadinejad, but you can just as easily cut to Bush, simply by replacing the words "U.S." and "America" with "Iraq," and there is no denying certain similarities:

"He really believes what he says, and knows less about the U.S. than he thinks."

"This is a man of overweening self-confidence who believes his own rhetoric. He badly misunderstands the American system, but is certain that he gets it. He prefaces every meeting with a long religious prologue calling for justice and peace and friendship, yet his words increase tensions."

Both men want to be the bigshot in the driver's seat, even while their grasp on the realm of hemispheric affairs is positively cretinous, and neither of them even knows how to drive; meanwhile, the headlock between them is taking the rest of us straight to the gates of Armageddon. Because Iraq, as David Bromwich pointed out on today's Huffington Post, has become tiresome to George W. Bush. So he wants to bomb Iran.

Nobody knows exactly when. "I'm an October-November man," Bush recently confided to his biographer Robert Draper.

"The dates can only be guessed, writes Bromwich. "November for the triggering incident, December for the trip to the U.N., February for the ultimatum, perhaps March again for the strikes. The repetition would suit his taste for boyish acts of defiance....After two wars and a proxy war, none of them yet successful, a lesser man might shrink from further dealing in blood; but in February, Bush was prepared: "I'm not afraid to make decisions."

Even the sages repeat their mantras over and over again. This time, though, there just aren't words enough for the moral squalor of it all.

Soon the Decider will decide again, warns Bromwich. "It is going to happen unless the lawmakers, the media, and those corporations that know they will find a war with Iran the reverse of profitable, overcome their lethargy and admit that this is really happening and decide to stop him."

I suppose you could say that one failed strategy deserves another. But the logic still stuns. It must be something about the viral nature of war, but I find myself wanting to put on fur ear muffs, dress in ceremonial whites, and "recede into [my] own glittering mist," as Arthur Schlesinger once wrote about Marilyn Monroe.

"The problem with that," says my ho-hum alligator muse, his gaze definitely disapproving, "is that you're no poofy platinum blonde, and you'll never really make it as a feather-boa queen."

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Power to Enchant

I'm back from Boone, infused with a ghost limb of Magritte, and his wonderful hanky-panky with objects. So bear with, and let me skid out of control for one moment only, by telling you Jerry Seinfeld's father's favorite joke:

A man falls out of a window and is laid out on the sidewalk. Another man (with or without his bowler hat) rushes up to him and asks, "What happened?"
"I don't know," the first man answers. "I just got here myself."

My talk at the Turchin Center went well. A few people, or maybe many, gathered under one roof, curious to see each other and to hear about Magritte. The talk was followed by a student performance of a play written by Barry Kornhauser, and put on by ASU's Department of Theatre and Dance, called "This Is Not a Pipe Dream," inspired by Magritte's paintings and done mostly in slapstick pantomime, with totally amazing sets derived from Magritte's images. Afterwards, someone gave me Belgian chocolate and a bottle of French wine as a present. I came home a very happy camper. I should also mention the congratulations I received from friends there at being able to spend two entire days without mentioning politics or the Iraq war once.

A few hours later, back in Blacksburg, I attended the art opening of my Australian friend, Simone Patterson, who teaches digital art at VA Tech and who is smart like a fox when it comes to anything relating to computers. It would not have seemed credible to me before attending this show that I could have a major art experience--fizzy and gorgeous and laden with soul--done with computers! But there you have it: I was WRONG. I always like it when I am wrong, because it usually means something thrillingly unexpected has happened. A group of photos she'd taken of women friends with their dogs, and then mysteriously transformed, like some medieval alchemist, into exquisite painterly portraits, even made me wish I had a dog. Then I, too, might just have been part of this Busby Berkeley spectacle.

I've had this book called "The Night Sky" for a few years now, actually since the spring of 2005 since it still contains a handwritten note from the editor at Viking Press saying, "We thought you might find this of interest."
Today, wanting something fruity and inspiring, something a little different with which to round off this blog, I was magically summoned to pick up this book and read it for the first time. The author is an American poet, Ann Lauterbach, who was a friend of mine during the 1970s when we were both expats, living in London. So here I am today, still knocking somewhat blindly at the door of creativity, looking for a full-scale celebration, and along comes my old friend, proposing 13 topic sentences to be used as possible opening remarks at a party in which everyone is wearing the same black dress (SBD), but with different accessories, of course. I offer you a selection of my four favorites:

2. "It has pretty much come to this."

4. "You put on an ornate ball gown
You say 'someone has to do it' "

6. "And you've been here before?"

12. "If necessary a prosthesis could be fashioned out of lime, hair, and dung."

So, Viva the spirit of Magritte! It sure beats the Iraqi refugee problem and Hilary talking about "When (not if) I'm President." As one Himalayan master said: "No matter where you live, live cheerfully. This is the mantra. Be cheerful at all times, even if you are behind bars. Anywhere you live, create heaven there. Remember, cheerfulness is of your own making. It only requires human effort. You have to create cheerfulness for yourself."

You can't say I'm not trying.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Magritte's "Horrible Kidneys"

I was twenty-five years old when I crossed the Atlantic on a Norwegian freighter and went to live with the painter Rene Magritte and his wife in their home in Brussels, Belgium, in order to gather material so I could write a book about him. How all this came about is an intriguing story which I recount in my memoir "Living the Magical Life." I had never written anything before, much less a book, but that did not seem to be a problem, at least, not until I tried to publish the book. After many failed attempts, I finally buried the manuscript in despair in a friend's basement in New York and went to live in London, where I stayed for twenty-two years. While I was there, I did find an English publisher for the book, Thames & Hudson, who finally brought it out in 1970 after much additional writing. The book is still in print. I recount all this now because I spent time this weekend composing a brief talk about Magritte (based on my book), which I will give this week in Boone, N.C., at the Turchin Center for the Arts. Thus, I have no new blog to post. However, since the text for the talk is succinct and enjoyable, or so it seems to me, I am offering it as a good read instead. Enjoy!

Flaubert once said about artists that they should be "regular and ordinary" in their lives so that they might be "violent and original" in their work. It is a perfect description of the Belgian surrealist painter, Rene Magritte.

In his paintings, Magritte tended to use ordinary objects, but represented them in ways that would put the real world on trial: a huge, heavy rock, for instance, that would normally be found on the ground, is suddenly floating weightlessly in the air; a darkened night-time scene with lit-up houses is juxtaposed against a daylight sky; a giant green apple fills an entire room. Such maneuvers of displacement are meant to overthrow our sense of the familiar and sabotage habitual ways of seeing and thinking about the world.

Then, to anyone who might be tempted to interpret his pictures symbolically, Magritte liked to say, "You are more fortunate than I am!" because he considered his work most successful when no explanation of meaning can satisfy our curiosity. A person who only looks for what he wants in a painting will never find that which transcends his preferences, according to Magritte. Rather than offer symbolic interpretations, it was his intention to trap the viewer in the mystery of an image that refuses all explanation. If one has been trapped by the mystery of an image that refuses all interpretation, a moment of panic will sometimes occur. And those moments of panic are what really counted for Magritte. He considered them privileged moments because they transcend mediocrity. Moments of panic disrupt the usual certainties and jolt the mind out of its stereotypical habits of thinking.

One of my favorite paintings in this regard is called "The Use of Words," in which an image of a pipe is labeled underneath "This Is Not a Pipe." Because picture and label do not correspond, there is a disorienting moment of panic. But according to Magritte, the painted image of a pipe is NOT the same as a real pipe, thus the label, "This Is Not a Pipe." The painted pipe is not a pipe because you can't smoke it. Just as the philosopher William James once pointed out that the word "dog" does not bite. Language itself is the trap. You can point our the moon with your finger, states a Zen proverb, but you must be careful not to mistake the finger for the moon. Being and representing are not the same, according to Magritte, nor does an object perform the same function as its image. An image is more like another image than it is like the thing it represents.

In other paintings, Magritte arbitrarily realigns his pictorial representations and his verbal descriptions so that they no longer correspond in the usual way. Thus, the image of a horse is labeled "the door," a clock is labeled "the wind," and in the same painting, a valise is labeled "the valise." In the same way, a name can replace the image of an object: the words "sad woman" can replace the image of a sad woman. Any object may be called by any name (the chief of a certain African tribe was called Oxford University Press, and there were girls in Nyasaland whose name was Frigidaire). Once when Marcel Duchamp was in Los Angeles, he signed real cigars and then everybody smoked them.

A portrait, according to Magritte, tries to resemble its model. But one may also wish the model to try to resemble his portrait. The truth is, Magritte was not interested in painting portraits. He thought there were already enough portraits in the world. He did paint himself once, however, a portrait in which he is eating dinner with four arms.

The mark of a philosopher is to doubt what is usually taken for granted, and Magritte used painting for this purpose alone. He was not interested in the usual aesthetic and painterly concerns of artists, but preferred to investigate and analyze the structure of common-sense beliefs and work with the paradoxes of perception.
The mind tends to see only what it wants to see, and in this way, much is hidden from our attention. There is a mystery attached to all objects in the phenomenal world that can be evoked if the proper means for doing so can be found. And so, Magritte was never interested in painting commonplace objects in and for themselves, the way a still life painter might do. What he sought to achieve was the sparking of something unfamiliar, something unexpected, that would make its presence felt once those objects could be shown in a way that defied common sense. And produced that moment of panic. Something like the double-take.

Magritte applied the same irony to his life that he used in his art. Once he told me, "This morning at the butcher's a woman asked for two nice kidneys. When it was my turn, I was tempted to ask for two horrible kidneys." He grinned, because he always enjoyed his own jokes.

Magritte was a fan of the surrealist idea of chance encounters between certain objects which could then be used to evoke surprise. For him, this was best achieved when the objects themselves retained their everyday qualities and could somehow be brought to crisis, rather than by inventing new objects that were bizarre or imaginary or dreamlike. So he would use conventional objects, leaving their external appearance intact, but rendering them enigmatic and strange by placing them where we would not expect to find them, or by dissociating them from their functional use in the world.

In a painting called "Common Sense" still life objects, instead of being painted on a canvas, are shown standing on top of a blank framed canvas which is lying on a table. Another painting, called "The Sweet Truth," has still life objects standing on a table covered with a white cloth, all of it painted on a flat brick wall. In still another, a picture frame stands on an easel that is placed by the edge of the sea, masking exactly that part of the landscape which is situated behind it. We can't tell if the seascape is painted on the canvas, or if it is the real sea showing through an empty frame.

Once Magritte made a small painting of a piece of cheese. He titled the painting "This Is a Piece of Cheese." Then he placed the painting under the glass dome of a cheese dish. Again and again, Magritte polarizes the mind in such a way so that it will not confuse reality with the means used to represent it. He wants to show that a real object and its painted illusion are not the same thing.

This creates the fundamental dynamism in Magritte's work that sets it apart from more conventional landscape, portrait, or still life painting. His methodology is to exploit paradox in order to suggest the ambivalent nature of reality. In sum, what happens in a Magritte painting, roughly speaking, is the opposite of what the trained mind is accustomed to expect. This defiance of expectation is what leads to the specific crisis in consciousness, the moment of panic that makes his work so uniquely charged and original. We never have to put up with a world that is established once and for all, deprived of the quantum jump of new possibilities.

"It is rather pointless," Magritte has written, "to put one's hopes in a dogmatic point of view, since it is the power of enchantment which matters." As for the power of enchantment, Elizabeth Bowen once wrote: "Where would Wonderland be without the dogmatic lucidity of the tempermentally unadventurous Alice?"