Saturday, June 30, 2012

Storytelling in the Age of Mechanical Social Networking

 Ways of Seeing

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak…. Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.” 
—John Berger, Ways of Seeing, pp. 7, 9

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

Ibid, p. 9

I finally located the, as they say, groundbreaking documentary, Ways of Seeing, which appeared on BBC TV in 1972, which will be the fixed point around which the old blog will turn today. Its writer and host, John Berger, took as his starting point an essay by Walter Benjamin, “A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” (Some history on this author: As best as can be determined, Benjamin, a brilliant thinker and writer (his essays form a collection called Illuminations which isn't easy going but is really worth a try) and a German Jew, escaped into Fascist-controlled Spain in 1940 and, facing immediate deportation back to Germany, killed himself at the age of 48—the age I am now. (Berger produced his documentary when he was around that age, 46—I’ll come back to their ages in a bit.) I’m always so deeply impressed how in the midst of certain death at the hands of the most bigoted and ignorant among us, the great thinkers and artists go on thinking and creating up until the edge of doom.) Berger begins by asking: What is a museum-quality oil painting, for example, and what does it mean for us, in a time when you can now take a detail from it, print it up, and make it into a postcard?

[NOTE: Can you even begin to imagine, even fleetingly, such a documentary appearing on American television today? Maybe in 1972—because the ‘70s had masses of groundbreaking television—but today? And if that impossibility doesn’t have you reaching for a beer, I don’t know why you are reading my blog.]

When we see, we often turn what we see into a story. Storytelling is the art of showing humans to themselves. This is my own definition, formed while thinking about which of my friends are and are not storytellers. John Berger (pronounced with a soft “g” in the French way, in case you don’t want to sound ignorant when asking a librarian for his books), is a massively brilliant man, alive and creating even now at the age of 86. I first learned about him in my first class at Bread Loaf, “Narrative and Desire,” a study of desire of/by/for “Woman” in literature. This sounds deep, and it was, but all the guys who signed up for the course were there for the sexy. They admitted it on Day 1. The women were there for vindication. (Side Note: Sex sells, duh, but here’s a fun and, really, fucking ironic little tidbit in light of the given subject of Berger’s documentary: The second episode of the series, focusing on the female nude in oil painting and in advertising, has gotten over one million hits on YouTube, whereas the rest of the series has gotten only around 100K hits per episode. (For the students out there, take a thesis.) And you have to laugh because of the pointed critique Berger discusses, and can only hope the voyeurs looking for twat and titty learned a little somp’n somp’n about objectification of women while wanking off.)

Making art with an appropriately titled book in a self-posed and suggestive way, 
Miss O' photographed by George Lightcap 

For a lot of us who have very full daily lives, going to work and raising kids and doing laundry and trolling for that next party and the easiest lay, such a question as What is art? or What is a woman’s nude form in art? must seem pretty  indulgent. Even the word art has become old-fashioned, I guess. Is the idea of “art” over? Let’s breathe on that one, shall we?

Ways of Sneezing

At age 48, I am savoring the greatest, most satisfying sneezes of my life.

I am finding of late that this is an age when everything loosens: the skin around my bones pulls up and over and rather farther out than one would think skin should; my jaw at night has unclenched again, alive for drooling, rather than remaining closed for grinding; my lips part far too freely allowing for a way lot of talking; my fingers type my tales more recklessly and more quickly than ever goddamned before. I am concerned that I may have lost all restraint, and then I remember that this is what aging is for—the one clear payoff for having lived longer than 40 years.

That, and never having to have sex again. Not as long as I have those orgasmic sneezes!

I mentioned the ages of Berger and Benjamin back there (also the same age as Stephen Colbert is now), because I think the 40s must send its entrants hurling ourselves into the universe, toward immortality, or at least into the streets, with a degree of freedom we hadn’t imagined possible. Woody Allen made Annie Hall when he turned 40. While I personally haven’t accomplished anything on the scale of any of these guys, I also know that I no longer care. I just the fuck do it.

What we all do have in common is the media and the need to use it to further our own thinking, and to possibly affect the thinking of you, the reader/viewer/listener. Media should be—when it is at its best—the beginning of a conversation, even if it’s a dialogue only within each of us.  (Later I’ll be bringing in Albert Einstein, too, because by around age 45 he’d accomplished all of his major scientific work, and the last years of his life were devoted to humanitarian and political pursuits, including pacifism; as well as Sebastiao Salgado, who changed his profession from economist to social documentarian photographer when he was around 40. It occurs to me that all of the sexamples I am mentioning are men. That happens. Men have done an awful lot of things, and have long lived in societal structures that have allowed them to become famous for their accomplishments. What’re ya gonna do?)

Media is really about showing us ourselves—not only as we are, but, as Berger points out, as we dream of being, or as we imagine ourselves. Who are we now? The whole enterprise, in the end, is about storytelling—and the story isn’t always pretty or smart; many of my favorite storytellers are people who have transformed themselves over the years to become fearless chroniclers of ugly times. I discussed Salgado and Einstein, briefly, and, in addition, John Berger trained as a painter, became an art critic (and I would say philosopher) and novelist; and Stephen Colbert started out as an improv comic, went on to report on The Daily Show, and in his forties has become our pre-eminent political satirist and American societal critic. 

Then there’s Miss O’.



Art and Education in the Age of Mechanization and Technological Turd Bombing

What should a classroom be: A free exchange of original ideas, or a standardized curriculum with measurable, quantifiable outcomes? Can it be both?  That “we” get stuck in debates like this exposes our national fears and limited imaginations. Education and art, as you know, are a unity to me.

In one of the greatest poems of the 20th Century, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, Eliot’s protagonist wonders much the same things about his own mid-life, I think. Here in an excerpt:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
  So how should I presume?

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons: My senior English teacher Mr. Corbin used to ask his AP English students to examine Prufrock’s narrative in terms of their own lives: With what do you measure out your life? What do you fear? What do you think (if you think) people say about you behind your back?  Would a quiz question be more educational?

In the poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the speaker says that he measures out his life with
a.     tea cups
b.     butter pats
c.      coffee spoons
d.     toilet seats

What does anyone learn from such a question, or reveal when writing down the letter of the correct answer? And how should we presume?

The poem opens and offers an early reference to questions of meaning in life and in art:

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

I think of the way the speaker of the poem goes through life: anesthetized, wandering, avoiding the big questions, aware of the ladies who quip about art. John Berger recognizes that for many of us, art hangs on the walls of museums, selected and judged as “the best,” so that we ourselves as viewers are denied the experience of saying, “I relate to that,” or “That is beautiful.” The pictures hang in an artificial place, and the context of the painter’s experience is lost to us, except for what a curator includes on a wall plaque. So should we care about the images we see?

I’ve written about photography before—what it can do, how it can make us present. Now I am thinking about how painting and photography tell us the story of ourselves.

Sebastiao Salgado: Humanist Photographer

In trolling for the Ways of Seeing episodes, I chanced upon a related video of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, of whom I’d never heard. And after watching his one hour talk at UCLA's Hammer Lecture, I was profoundly embarrassed that I didn’t know his work, and even more so when he revealed that his first book was not allowed to be published here for 15 years, because the Americans, he was told, could not handle the truth of his images.

Our own political discourse bears out the American publisher’s concerns: Witness the Facebook postings in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to uphold so-called Obamacare: RIP gravestones of our Constitution, wild screeds of how we are all going to prison, and the like, would seem to support this. And to hear Salgado speak of his art—the earth-bound tones of his voice, the positive vocal energy, the clarity of ideas, the lack of sentimentality and immense heart all at once, is to know how all of us should aspire to be. Go on Google Images and type in his name. Spend an hour. It’s work that goes unseen in this country, and my life has been less for it. His books are available on Amazon, but they are expensive. Still, I think I will have to send some money his artistic way.

A few notes I made: He encountered cultures that don’t know “no” when it comes to personal exploration, how you can’t tell a child or adult to “stop hitting my camera” for example. (Can you imagine such people in desks?) Later he shares how he and his wife are actively saving and restoring rainforests to Brazil—his love and hope are amazing to me—energy that says, “we must do it, we can do it,” and from an honest place, from one who has seen the world.  That 50 million trees cost 100 million dollars sounds like a lot until you hear the perspective: It’s the cost of two fighter planes. (War is so, so, so stupid. You can’t believe it’s still going on.)

Just the way Salgado was able to explain how the rainforest preserves the water table delighted me: He points to his shaved head: the way your hair takes three hours to dry naturally, and a shaved head that holds no water at all dries right away—trees are the key to our water supply.

And in all this talk of people in harmony with nature and his discoveries on Earth, he lets us know, too, how hard it is to do this work—arguing with airport security over rolls of film, for example, in the wake of 9/11.

To see his images, I found this blogspot, Witness This:

Here’s another, of coffee farms, on a site from the U.N.:

Image-ine a Story

My own job in text book publishing has taught me an astonishing amount about image and message—learning to edit text around an image; choosing photos that do what you need them to do, such as demonstrate a hard vocabulary word for an English Language Learner (ELL); format restrictions in the book design—horizontal v. vertical spaces (the slide show of the Hammer Lecture was limited this way, as Salgado discusses)—and all the permissions and the photo vendors and the budget, to name a few other issues. The way we have to fight to do our jobs—the restrictions, some real and others self-imposed (but all of which reflect "the market")—always bring me back to the classroom, how I wished it could be. I also think about how much we learn on the jobs we do. Yet isn’t it a shame we can’t focus on the joy of the work instead?

“I don’t work for one picture, I work for a story,” Salgado says of his photos. He sees himself as a storyteller. Just so, John Berger sees his art criticism (as much as his novels and drawings) as storytelling. Salgado is aware that “the memory side” of photography—images as part of our memory, our archives—is storytelling. The oil paintings Berger discusses are the same thing, all stories of us.

It is artists more than politicians who must hold the planet together—they use activism to protect, or to rebuild what we destroy. We are all artists in potential. What are you doing in your creative life? What is your story?

On a small and wonderful scale, the site Humans of New York brings the images of myriad city denizens to Facebook:
The photographer, Brandon Stanton, is wonderfully successful because he is open to seeing so many truths and realities—he understands that for an artist to get in, as Sebastiao Salgado has pointed out, you have to let people know you, and you must discover what is around you. That is a big advantage of photography, he says—to know and feel that we are not alone; we are an agrarian animal whether we live in the city or the country: I'm struck by the images this produces for me: the traffic cop as shepherd, for example, or the bottle and can collectors as blackberry pickers in sun-drenched, concrete fields.

To make these kinds of discoveries and put this sort of art out there requires a lot of legwork. Planning, packing, trekking, and finding toilets that work are all part of this endeavor. Storytelling ain’t for sissies. I think of all of the flying people have to do in the service of trying to help us learn to help ourselves—certainly the climate scientists and artists who are trying to save us from ourselves must be aware of the pungent irony that the process of travel (the fuels needed, the ways those fuels are extracted, for example) is part of how we are killing ourselves.

It Doesn’t Take an Einstein…or Does It?

I forced myself through a PBS Documentary (with the least energized narration I’ve ever heard) to learn a bit more about Einstein while viewing actual footage and hearing his actual voice. I also know that science and art are also a unity. Here are my notes: I learned that Einstein hated possessions, hated school, hated rules; his Theory of Relativity was intuitively arrived at and scientists spent 15 years proving it; Einstein called this “the detail work” (in 1919 during a solar eclipse his theory was proved—pretty cool); (and it occurred to me that we need both the free thinkers and the detail workers). Einstein became very political and pacifist; he realized that if only 2% of the population of each country refused to serve in the military, then there could be no more armies; he was terrified by the mass psychology of Fascism.  Einstein’s books were burned because he was “a Jew.” The terrifying footage shows Nazi soldiers slamming books into a fire, as if to burn books full of many kinds of truth would then eliminate those truths; I learned that German was always his language in any case. He was perplexed by celebrity. Charlie Chaplin invited Einstein to the Hollywood premiere of City Lights: When a crowd surrounded the limousine containing Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein, Einstein asked, “What does it mean?” and Chaplin replied, “Nothing.”  And there were perpetual arguments within the scientific community about Einstein’s propositions: Einstein would say, “God doesn’t play dice,” to which Niels Bohr would say, “How do you know what God is doing?”

Pacifists felt betrayed by Einstein’s militant pacifism—he realized, What’s the point of pacifism if all the peaceful die? He felt obligated to bring the end of war about—felt awful about nuclear weapons and how his theories were used. He said in a statement on war and its effects: “What need is there for responsibility? I believe that the horrifying deterioration in the ethical conduct of people today stems from the mechanization and dehumanization of our lives, a disastrous by-product of the development of the scientific and technical mentality. We are guilty. Man grows cold, faster than the planet it inhabits.”

Politics and Prose

This awareness of the mechanization and dehumanization of our lives is a theme in the works of artists and the politics of my friends. My friend Rina, about whom I have written before, has been studying the U. N. resolution known as R to P, or Responsibility to Protect, wherein nations go in to protect citizens in the throes of military assault by their own countries. Rina is trying to prove that it is the economic problems that are at the root of all revolutions. She is a Marxist, in that Marx's work informed her understanding of how the system of capitalism works (and Marx wrote about this early in the development of capitalism, making him not only a critic but a seer in many ways): Capitalism depends, at its worst, on mechanization and dehumanization. Anyone working in an office or a factory knows exactly what this means. (In fact, Berger allows the camera to linger over workers in a perfume bottling factory just to demonstrate this point, should you watch his documentary.)

Just like Rina, John Berger is a self-identified Marxist, and he discusses this in an interview last year. (How Berger keeps being relevant: For his 1967 nonfiction book, A Fortunate Man, he and a photographer, Jean Mohr, follow a doctor around for a year in rural England and view socialized medicine up close, questioning from the outset: Do any of these patients matter? Does this doctor? The book was life-changing for me on the issue of health care.) John Berger’s latest book was the subject of the interview:

Some notes on the interview: Artist, art critic, broadcaster: In Bento’s Sketchbook, Berger explores the philosopher Spinoza and the idea of dualism (invented by Descartes—the existent being material and spiritual; Berger says they are not separate but are a unity); Spinoza was a lens grinder, the stunning reality and symbolism of the microscopic and macroscopic being very much part of Spinoza’s life, the needing of lenses; he was excommunicated by the Jewish religion for all these heretical views of life as it is—what else is new?) Berger discusses the sketching he did for the book, and said something that utterly arrested me:  “Drawing is a constant correcting of errors, maybe a great deal of creation is actually that; there’s not really a point when you are suddenly aware that there is nothing more to correct, and if you were aware of that, it would probably be very bad.” The interviewer doesn’t pursue that last bit, which I would like to have heard more about—but Berger does go on to say that his book explores the actual world we live in today, which is both horrific and, in moments, incredibly beautiful.

I think the ideas of the Marxists are important to listen to right now, though I have no patience with anyone who self-identifies as Communist: Whereas reading Marx from an early age helped Berger “to understand history, and therefore to understand where we are in history, and therefore to understand what we have to envisage as a future, thinking about human dignity and justice,” he also later saw that regimes established under the auspices of Marx failed their people. One of the great reasons they failed, according to Vaclav Havel (my playwright friend Mary told me), was the Communist denial of the human need for beauty. One quote of Havel’s that I found was this, and it ties in with Berger the art critic: If we are to change our world view, images have to change. The artist now has a very important job to do. He's not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people; he's really needed.

A Constant Correcting of Errors

I keep returning to Berger’s idea of life being, like drawing, a constant correcting of errors.

Ways of Seeing, the book version, ends, “To be continued by the reader…” for it is Berger’s belief that it is not up to a critic to tell you what to think. I gather that he believes that a good critic, like any good teacher, alerts you to possible ways of seeing. Wholly original thoughts do not occur in a vacuum. They are inspired, born out of encounters—with the natural world, with texts, with work, with art, or with other people, for example. Moments of elation take us over when a fresh insight overtakes us. The only way to really experience this kind of elation is to remain open. We also have to start looking at better pictures, demanding better images, better art. And, failing that, more and better wine goggles with which to see.

As if by magic, this was the poem in today’s “The Writer’s Almanac” on NPR:

The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts

For a long time
     I was not even
        in this world, yet
           every summer

every rose
     opened in perfect sweetness
        and lived
           in gracious repose,

in its own exotic fragrance,
     in its huge willingness to give
        something, from its small self,
           to the entirety of the world.

I think of them, thousands upon thousands,
     in many lands,
        whenever summer came to them,

out of the patience of patience,
     to leaf and bud and look up
        into the blue sky
           or, with thanks,

into the rain
     that would feed
        their thirsty roots
           latched into the earth—

sandy or hard, Vermont or Arabia,
     what did it matter,
        the answer was simply to rise
           in joyfulness, all their days.

Have I found any better teaching?
     Not ever, not yet.
        Last week I saw my first Botticelli
           and almost fainted,

and if I could I would paint like that
     but am shelved somewhere below, with a few songs
        about roses: teachers, also, of the ways
           toward thanks, and praise.

"The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts" by Mary Oliver, from Thirst. © Beacon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. 

Make art with someone you love, nude, perhaps,
Miss O'

1 comment:

  1. Here's a current video by John Berger, about the oppressed: On Re-membering: Bringing members together again.
    On Identity: