Tuesday, October 24, 2006

October Surprise? and America the Desolate

posted by PeterAtLarge

Don't try telling me this is not political, Bush. "Breaking News" this morning, two weeks before the election: a new plan for Iraq. "Iraqi leaders," we read, "have agreed to develop a timeline by the end of the year for progress in stabilizing Iraq, and Iraqi forces should be able to take full control of security in the country in the next 12 to 18 months." After 89 American troops have been killed thus far this month, along with countless Iraqi citizens, do you really expect us to believe that the Iraqi security forces are finally "standing up" so that we can "stand down"? After two years of hearing you publicly castigate those who adocate a timeline as traitrous "cut-and-runners", do you want us to believe in your good faith change of heart at election time? What kind of shamelessly cynical switch is this? And, more to the point, are the voters going to swallow this transparent bid to get them to vote for your Republicans?

On another front, it's...

...America the Desolate

I went to the press preview and gala opening for the new Center for Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum yesterday, Bush. It's an impressive new commitment to this art form, with newly designed, expanded gallery space "reconfigured to ensure an optimal environment for the display of photographs." The opening exhibit is "Where We Live: Photographs of America from the Berman Collection".

It's a beautiful show. It features some 170 images of America by twenty-four noted contemporary artists. I'm a bit new, myself, to the aesthetics of photography, but it's not hard to appreciate this splendid celebration of the artist's eye and the complex decisions in such matters as light and shadow, structural relationships of perspective, shape and volume, color and texture that give these works their visual appeal and fascination. In most of them, the eye could wander restlessly for hours, discovering always something new, something to excite and delight it.

What struck me most, however, in all this pictorial beauty, was the desolation of the overall image of America. Had I arrived directly in those galleries from another planet, with no other sources of information about America, what would I have concluded about the country these images depict? It's a picture of isolation, desolation, and decay. The raw, abandoned buildings photographed by William Christenberry, John Divola, David Husom among others stand isolated in their forests, prairies, deserts, as though unvisited by the human presence in decades. Others, like Doug Dubois, Robert Dawson, Jack D. Teemer Jr., show urban scenes of equal desolation: back streets where trash accumulates, where paint peels from the wooden walls of tenements or shacks, and where abandoned vehicles rust. Where people appear--with surprising rarity in these pictures--their humanity is often filtered through through the poverty or the cultural deprivation of their lives.

Sandwiched uncomfortably between the aesthetic beauty of the images and the bleak view of our culture that they seemed to represent, I asked one of the artists why this might be. He offered a multi-tiered answer. The first part had to do with the history of twentieth century photography, and the powerful heritage of pioneer artists in the medium like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange from Depression days, along with their successors in the nineteen-fifties who spied on American suburbia with a wry and skeptical eye. The second, the fact that artists commonly share a sensitivity and a social conscience that seem to attract them to the bleaker, less privileged side of life.

The third part of his answer suggested that photography by its nature offers a reflection of the culture in which it thrives, and that our American culture, in the years covered by the exhibition--roughly, the last half of the twentieth century--was on a downward curve. The rusting cars, the decaying billboards, the peeling walls of boarded-up tenements and urban churches--as well as those of rural shacks and farm buildings--all suggested the entropy of a culture whose heyday was at an earlier period in time.

I know, I know, there is another side to America, Bush. There are the glorious mountain vistas of Yellowstone and Yosemite, the magnificent deserts of the West, the midwestern prairies... Lovely landscapes all. There are, to be sure, contented people everywhere, in cities, suburbs, rural areas, who flock to their cultural centers and their churches, who do good deeds and view the world with optimistic generosity. Still, it does seem to me that there was a kind of hidden message in this remarkable exhibition. If artists have their fingers on the pulse that throbs out from the nation's heartbeat, there is surely some inner dis-ease progressing in its body--a disease that we should pay attention to if we're concerned with our collective health.

It grieves me to find myself always on the negative side of the agenda, Bush. I keep wishing for wonderful positive things to say. But my promise at the outset was to always be honest with you, and I'd be less than honest if I failed to tell you what I saw. One thing, though: look at this exhibition, as I suggested earlier, as the true celebration of the creative mind and eye. That way, you'll come out with the same kind of uplift that you get after seeing a great tragedy--a Hamlet, or a Lear: despite the dire results of the human frailties you have seen, you come away somehow cleansed of all the dross, and with a renewed sense of the innate nobility of the human spirit and its endless potential to learn and grow.


denn said...

After Pat's Birthday


It is Pat's birthday on November 6, and elections are the day after. It gets me thinking about a conversation I had with Pat before we joined the military. He spoke about the risks with signing the papers. How once we committed, we were at the mercy of the American leadership and the American people. How we could be thrown in a direction not of our volition. How fighting as a soldier would leave us without a voice... until we get out.

Much has happened since we handed over our voice: Somehow we were sent to invade a nation because it was a direct threat to the American people, or to the world, or harbored terrorists, or was involved in the September 11 attacks, or received weapons-grade uranium from Niger, or had mobile weapons labs, or WMD, or had a need to be liberated, or we needed to establish a democracy, or stop an insurgency, or stop a civil war we created that can't be called a civil war even though it is. Something like that.

Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.

Somehow our elected leaders were subverting international law and humanity by setting up secret prisons around the world, secretly kidnapping people, secretly holding them indefinitely, secretly not charging them with anything, secretly torturing them. Somehow that overt policy of torture became the fault of a few "bad apples" in the military. Somehow back at home, support for the soldiers meant having a five-year-old kindergartener scribble a picture with crayons and send it overseas, or slapping stickers on cars, or lobbying Congress for an extra pad in a helmet. It's interesting that a soldier on his third or fourth tour should care about a drawing from a five-year-old; or a faded sticker on a car as his friends die around him; or an extra pad in a helmet, as if it will protect him when an IED throws his vehicle 50 feet into the air as his body comes apart and his skin melts to the seat.

Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes.

Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.

Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.

Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.

Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.

Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.

Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.

Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.

Somehow torture is tolerated.

Somehow lying is tolerated.

Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense. Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.

Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.

Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.

Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.

Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.

Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.

Somehow this is tolerated.

Somehow nobody is accountable for this. In a democracy, the policy of the leaders is the policy of the people. So don't be shocked when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world and to humanity. Most likely, they will come to know that "somehow" was nurtured by fear, insecurity and indifference, leaving the country vulnerable to unchecked, unchallenged parasites.

Luckily this country is still a democracy.

People still have a voice.

People still can take action.

It can start after Pat's birthday.

Brother and Friend of Pat Tillman,

Kevin Tillman

PeterAtLarge said...

A powerful piece, Dennis. Thanks for posting it. I'll reference it on the blog, to make sure others know about it. Cheers, PaL