Wednesday, July 12, 2006


I think one of the most common and devastating phrases that cross an artist's mind is the notion that: "I'm not that kind of artist." Normally we probably think of it in terms of style; I don't paint that way. But it applies generally to how we relate to the world and the work and provides a huge limitation on what we can do. Sadly, I think the phrase is equally applied to countries. The United States now constantly murmuring to itself "We're not that kind of country."

I've wanted to write a massive kind of cross-cultural comparison post for a couple of days, just watching what my blogger friends are doing. HiLowBetween's post last night beat me to it with a lot of excellent points, as did the much talked about post from Deborah Fisher of a few days ago.

One of the things I keep learning about Americans is that it is going to be very difficult for us to accept and understand that ours is a second-rate nation like any other. The fight must still be fought, for all the things we truly believe in, but fighting to somehow return to building a virtuos city on a hill is, I think more than ever merely a conservative fallacy. Like all conservativism, it is based on a fictional history and is not worth despairing over.

I say this with respect to the feelings and thoughts and words of everyone I read around here, I understand how I was conditioned to want more, to expect more, and to believe more of my country. And that conditioning does not crack easily. But with not a hint of despair, we need to see that America is only one among many. I think Larsen is right to praise Fischer, for picking apart his book carefully and with attention and concern, but the unspoken premise I see more and more now is that America should be different, that we should be better, and that we are not fills us with the same rage and despair that blinds conservatives. I simply know too many people from other countries whose feelings are mixed and confused and embarassed to believe again that we were any sort of chosen people. Modesty is a very attractive feature in a country.

I remember very well how stupendous and Earth-shattering it was to watch the Soviet Union collapse into nothingness. By then I'd been studying it's history and culture and foreign relations for 4 or 5 years. And then again, I remember that in fact it felt like nothing at all. I don't mean to suggest that America will go away, that it will collapse, but I do mean to suggest that it will not likely change. The same thing every Mexican feels about their country, the country of which some huge majority are warmly, deeply proud - is that it will
never change. No fan of cynicism, I respect the wisdom of their placing hope in all the places they look, to Europe and - now - to Asia, to tradition and culture, and even to the north and to their abilities and industry, but not so much to the wisdom of their politics and their police forces.

I've thought a lot about Geoff's very interesting post of a few days ago, quoting Nelson Mandela, ""in order for the oppressed to become free, the oppressor must also be liberated." Perhaps I just need a number to wrap my head around it, I've been thinking 30%. John Dean says in this disturbing interview with Olberman, that the number is 23%. 23% of Americans will follow Dick Cheney, or whoever he is manipulating, over a cliff. They will do whatever they can to please their leader including follow him into oblivion.

Thinking about that 23% I can't imagine what to feel. I feel compassion but I don't see any reason to believe they will be liberated in time to do us any good. I don't have hope for America or its art scene. I have hope for second rate countries, and their second rate people, their second rate artists, and so in a sense I have hope for the second-rate Americans. But anything more than that is based on a false reading of history, that somehow we were once pure, we were once great. We weren't and in the elevated terms that we expect of ourselves, we won't ever be. America is a country of lost provinces, of deep pervasive terror and with a blindness that stretches now like the dark shroud from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. I say this not to cause you further despair, but in hopes that if you realize now how low it has sunk, you might appreciate its wooden architecture, its quaint nearly obliterated cities, that even ugliness has a place in every character. It takes a twist to appreciate these lost kinds of places. And then hopefully if you can make it only an aesthetic of compassion and beauty, you can divorce those same aesthetics from the horror that results from beautifying -aestheticizing- history and politics. That I think, is the
intellectual idyl, mentioned by Trilling, of William Kristol and Rumsfeld and Cheney and their loyal 23%.

I don't assume that any artist falls into that 23% but then I am wrong often enough. As Highlowbetween asks:

Who is the moral personality behind the work? Do I have the ability to be virtuous in the face an ideology of debasement or what Larsen calls simplification? Can I understand beauty and justice?
The point of course is to understand beauty and justice independent of the ideology of debasement and simplification. The moral personality must fight to be independent of all ideology, for it is ideology that insists on the first-rate caliber of its adherents and their great mythology. Our caliber is not first rate, not for 23% of us especially. And I believe living with that 23% is like learning to understand what prevents you from being whatever kind of artists we want to be, so that we are never saying "I'm just not that kind of artist."

Image is courtesy of Non-prohet Photo.


  1. Excellent to read this my friend.

    There were two points I didn't go into. 1. the ramifications of a political pastoral embraced by an intelligentsia not rooted in reality. As in the staunch support of Stalin despite the reality that he was a military campaign. That historic marker has a strong parralel with the Neo-conservatives, who possess some intellectuals, many of which were formerly left. That's interesting in its own right - people that slide on that scale.

    2. The other word Trilling used regarding Orwell was that he was in a sense - "declassed". I like the neutraility of that or rather the sobriety of a person in that state.
    Wondering if that is real as well.

  2. Holy cow, Ashes, great post!

    Independence seems like such an important part of the puzzle, and I like the way you came at it. It sounds like you are giving artists a specific role--preserving and tending a relationship to beauty and justice (I would say reality, but to each her own) that is independent of the larger ideology.

    Is this what you mean?

    Your assesment of Americans as being powerless and second rate, just like everyone else, really strikes a nerve for me. Politically, I have had a hard time being an American since Reagan, but I identify so heavily as an American, an overly earnest, roll-up-the-sleeves, totally special, pragmatic as can be American....

    ...I will have to think about this one. Thank you as always.

  3. I am a little bit too tired too write much today, but thanks for responding. I am not sure I want to give artists a specific role, if anything i might like a lot of them to revert to a more traditional role, artists instead of celebrities. But I am thinking about this and your other post and will pile some more words out soon.

    thanks again.