Anonymous, and His International Fame
Brian George, The Guardian, 2003
Genetic engineering of the planetary rulers has projected each subject's shadow as a
hex, as a door that none should open, as a gulf that none should cross. All attempts at purification are shaped like a figure eight. We are not natural. Our powers are
congested. If we were to add up all of the experiences that define us, we would note, upon closer scrutiny, that it is always the key element that is missing. Why do people
we do not know dare to occupy our homes? They do not dress well. We must hurt them. An archaic wound pursues us like the voice of superconsciousness.
From the end of the last ice age, when what were first small streams broke through
the dams of the Himalayas, when whales were stranded on the Andes, when ships crashed on the sky, Earth's rulers have agreed to play the role of our absent yet
somehow abusive guides, and to model, in the mists of our imaginations, those behaviors we would do well to avoid. If they have set up signs and left us rules for
their interpretation, we might, in the end, perceive such help to be a threat. If, however, the self exists in a multitude of locations, then what haunts us may be the
lesson that we have not bothered to learn.
For what harms can heal. What does not kill us can potentially make us stronger,
unless, as with Nietzsche, it strips us of our identity altogether. True harmony is disjunctive. We know that evil exists. We know the top 26 people hold as much
wealth as the bottom 3.8 billion. Trauma? Whose fault is that? We are fetuses. We are innocent. You can see how happily we kick against our wombs. It is said that the spheres make music.
Earth's rulers would prefer to rule, for that is the role to which their memories have
assigned them. This leads them to see the destruction of an ocean in the light of a bigger picture. In terms of vision, it is only practical that I not attribute too much
virtue to myself, that I not be quick to accuse. I have benefited as much as anyone from the extraction of rare elements, such as tantalum, from the Congo. I wear socks
manufactured by starving children in Bangladesh. I keep my milk in a refrigerator, thus adding to the spread of HFCs and helping to push Earth's temperature towards
the point of no return. Like the rulers who have conspired to take away my breath, I am also very old, what did not kill me has made me stronger but less sane, and my
relationship to the living has grown steadily more ambivalent.
I have taken what I need. I fear no unseen hand, and I do not need to be liberated.
Able finally to act as a good parent to the child that I was, and am, I am intent on making use of every scrap of my experience. The years now rearrange themselves,
permitting me to wander through each period of my development. Time turns into horizontal space, as though the future and the past were no more than the
handicapped-accessible rooms of a museum.
Brian George, The Revolution of the House, 2003
From 1968 to 1970 I attended St. Peter's Parochial High School, where I was
subjected to two years of military drills in Latin, a subject that would interest me now but that held not a bit of interest for me then, when my goal was to help to
provoke a revolution. "Why do I need to learn this?" I would ask. The answer was the one preformatted by the Roman Empire: "The mind is a muscle. Exposure to the
classics will teach you how to think." Reason had constructed a converging web of roads. As all roads led to Rome, so too, all exploration was designed to lead to a
single end. This form of institutionalized violence was almost seamlessly covert. The barbarian and/or student was allowed to wander off but only so as to demonstrate
the hub's hypnotic force. The goal was not actually to exercise the intellect; rather, it was to give the impression that the intellect had been exercised.
When I did attempt to think for myself, at first in small and then in bigger ways, I
very quickly got myself into trouble. No questioning of the shadow of Saturn was allowed. The new philosopher's stone should look no different from a football.
Mystic transport should occur in the context of the pep rally. Mass hysteria was acceptable. Irony was not. The grail was a NEPSAC championship trophy. Light
pulsed from it. Concern for the oppressed should result a donation to the "poor box." Liberation Theology" led only to the Soviet Gulag system, to Stalin's forced
industrialization and starvation of the Ukraine.
At last, on the day of a country-wide protest against Nixon's covert bombing of
Cambodia, I decided to put my body where my mouth was, to take my place at the barricades and to act on my beliefs. In practice, this was not as simple as it seemed.
Perhaps, albeit unconsciously, I had decided to embody the Taoist ideal of "acting without acting." About 60 of us were milling around at the edges of the schoolyard.
The bell rang, and we didn't move. The headmaster, Father Gonnier, then paced across the basketball court before stopping a few feet from where we stood.
Straightening his back, he quite cryptically announced, "You are causing a disturbance. Please leave the property. Absence will be treated as such."
It seemed as though we had each heard something different. Such is the spell of
Maya, the gnomic utterance of Thoth, the smoking mirror of Tezcatlipoca. About 50 or so of the rebels went immediately inside. The rest of us took this statement to
mean that we were free to attend a protest march, with no consequences beyond being marked absent for the day. "Thanks, Father G!" I said. It can be difficult to tell
the big things from the small. This almost accidental choice changed the whole course of my life.
Waving, students leaned out of the windows, shouting taunts at or encouragement to
the few rebels that were left. Several of my comrades went downtown to shoot pool. Another expressed an interest in browsing through the magazines at Red Square, a
combination communist propaganda outlet and pornographic bookstore. One James Dean-style drag racer went home to work on his car. Chanting slogans, the rest of us
marched off toward Holy Cross College, where an all-day "teach-in" was scheduled to be held. Its row of Gothic pillboxes was just visible in the distance, about five miles
off, at the top of one of the seven major hills.
This was Worcester, 1970. It was not, as it turned out, a flashpoint for the coming revolution.
In tight jeans and white t-shirts, hoods with existential hearts were the devotees of a
car cult that was launched in the 1950s. Already, there were several thousand martyrs. Railroad bridges served as playground equipment, as well as initiatory
tests: we would hang from one hand as a train went roaring by. Neighborhoods were mapped out according to the country of a family's origin. There had once been a
gang war between Swedes and Latvians on the picturesque green of the Worcester Common. In one uncoordinated exchange of taunts, a French Canadian from two
streets over had once yelled, "Hey, Lucky Charms, freckles are stupid!" Caught unprepared for battle, I came back with, "Yeah, well…French's Mustard!"
In the winter, we rode our sleds head-first down the hills of tree-filled parks. For
whatever reason, we were more concerned about our "Flexible Flyers" than our skulls. Baseball was played in weedy lots, and football without pads or helmets. At
the Boy's Club, there was still a compulsory "No Bathing Suits Allowed" policy in effect at the pool, left over from some health craze in the 1890s, when the New Age
really began. There were pedestal shrines to fallen servicemen—just Average Joes, not "heroes"—that had been set up in small neighborhood squares. About once a
month, the city would put fresh wreaths on them. Many businesses had large clocks on their towers, and there were ornamental bronze ones as well, with Roman
numerals, set on 12-foot posts along Main Street.
Things would soon change, but many mothers had not yet joined the corporate workforce. Hands parted curtains, from behind which eyes would look. Boys and
girls sat on opposite sides of the Saint Peter's High cafeteria. The law banning married female teachers from the classroom had only just recently been overturned.
As to the Red Square Bookstore: the idea that sex would somehow lead to liberation, to be found, for example, in D.H. Lawrence, was still something that could be
believed. This was before what Marcuse called "repressive desublimation"—the incorporation of sex by the advertising industry—had gone viral, before it had
tainted every aspect of American life.
Quite a few men walked to the factories where they worked, which were located,
often enough, no more than a mile off. Why spend more time travelling than you had to or waste any money on gas? Best to be close to home in case of an emergency. An
archaic custom, even then. Perhaps this way of doing things developed during the years of the Second World War, when Worcester, the industrial heart of New
England, was thought to be a prime target for German bombs. City-wide blackout drills were conducted until 1945. In any case, this localized order coexisted with the car culture.
When I was younger—until, perhaps, sixth grade—my grandfather, a shop steward at
Crompton and Knowles, would walk home to eat lunch with me. This was usually two sandwiches, wrapped in wax paper, which my grandmother would leave out on
plates. On a special occasion—such as an A-plus on a test, or a fight with a large bully that I won—my grandfather would cut a donut in half and then toast it in the oven,
until crunchy. He would then ostentatiously serve each half with a slice of American cheese. Such rituals did not seem quaint, not yet, or at least not to us, and they had
nothing to do with what we could or could not afford. If other people lived in other ways, so be it; the world was a big place.
Brian George, Smokestack, irradiated and solarized photo, 2002
It is difficult for me to register that more than 50 years have gone by. The key
memories from that period are still as vivid as they were. In the morning, for example, I would look out of my window; there, I would see a one-inch figure
climbing up a smokestack. Although we knew about pollution, the smoke puffing out of giant smokestacks was somehow reassuring. It meant that productive work was
being done. On spring and summer evenings, many families would sit on their front porches, telling stories for hours, talking with any neighbors who happened to walk
by, and democrats and republicans, engineers and cab drivers, factory workers and professors, did not, at least automatically, tend to see each other as enemies. The top
one percent had not yet won the class war. Even working- class guys read books, and the Earth had not yet departed from its orbit.
Having set the scene, let us cut back to the action: The bell had rung, and all but a
few rebels had obeyed the headmaster's order. Perhaps two dozen students stuck their heads out of the windows, waving, and we left, to change the world. The world,
of course, did change, as did we, but in ways that the most intelligent could never have predicted.
A few days later, I found out what the Delphic pronouncement of the headmaster,
"Absence will be treated as such," actually meant. It meant that we each should write a letter of apology, to be posted on the wall by the main office, as well as sign off on a
list of punitive new rules. Then, and only then, would the school consider the possibility of revoking our expulsion. Quite oddly, the school did not bother to
inform my family of this ultimatum, so anxious were they to escort me on my way. With no second thoughts, I left. "Mom," I said, "I am fed up with the nuns, and there
are courses that I'd like to take at Doherty." I was used to and good at keeping secrets. My family never did find out.
The outer darkness was beginning to look very good indeed.
As it turned out, my expulsion was a blessing in disguise, a gift of almost
unimaginable value. It is as though I had awakened beneath the mosquito netting of a hotel bed in Guatemala, like my uncle Ed, to see first a broken window, and then
the bullet hole left sometime during the night about a foot above my head.
Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of the Oracle, 1910
The mind may be a muscle, but it is not a muscle that can be exercised by fiat.
Discipline does not make it automatically stronger, and it can be difficult to tell, at the time, what benefits and what harms it. Mistakes are of greater value than
accomplishments. We must carry our stupidity on our own backs as we grow.
In 1888, in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche wrote, "What does not kill me makes me stronger
." I have always been amazed that this is his most often quoted statement, since, in 1889, he went insane. The details of the breakdown are quite fascinating, if obscure.
On January 3rd, 1889, two policemen approached Nietzsche on a street in Turin,
where he lay, sobbing uncontrollably, in a heap, after having caused a disturbance. According to one version of the story, he had seen a cabman whipping his horse at
the other end of the Piazza Carlo Alberti. He ran to the horse, threw his arms up over its neck to protect it, and then collapsed. It is said that, as he put his head against the
horse's neck, unmoving, he was able to hear the beating of its heart, and that this is what had caused him to start sobbing. He felt pity, perhaps, which might have struck
him as a breach of his superhuman code, or perhaps the sobs were due to some memory of his father, Carl Ludwig, i.e., of his "spare the rod, spoil the child" approach to education.
Over the next few days, he wrote a series of short, and highly bizarre, letters to his
friends. To Jacob Burckhardt, his former colleague at the University of Basel, he wrote, "I have had Caiaphas put in fetters. Also, last year I was crucified by the
German doctors in a very drawn-out manner. Wilhelm, Bismarck, and all anti-Semites are abolished." And later, on a more practical note, he commanded that
Kaiser Wilhelm should go to Rome to be shot and called on the European powers to declare a preemptive war against Germany. After issuing these instructions, he
would spend the next 11 years in a state of near absolute silence, perhaps philosophical, "only broken on occasion," according to Franz Wright, "by a lengthy and unpunctuated scream."
In 1890, on January 3rd, he was committed to the Basel Psychiatric Clinic, and then,
on January 17th, he was transferred to the clinic at Jena University. An anonymous patient there reports
What interested me most was a patient who was always quiet and secluded and
held in his hand printed notes on which stood: "Professor Friedrich Nietzsche." He said this name often every day. He had no keeper at his personal disposal..
.He got up at six in the morning and washed in the general washroom. He had to be watched so that he would not steal an institute comb. He was most interested
in an institutional hat, a so-called "progress-hat," which he wore from morning to evening and which no one could take away from him.
This anonymous patient reports that Nietzsche must have been a lively dancer in his
youth. "When Baron X. played on his zither," he writes, "Herr Nietzsche could not get on his legs fast enough to begin a marathon dance until the head warden led him
off to calm him down." The patient also reports that Nietzsche loved to bathe. Although the patients at Jena were only allowed to take two baths per week,
Nietzsche could often be found sitting in the bathroom, where he would stare, with apparent longing, at a tub. This patient sketched him once while he was sitting there.
When the philosopher noticed that a sketch was being done, he straightened his hat and made a happy face. The patient offered the completed sketch to Nietzsche, who
stood up, shook his hand, and said, as much to himself as to the artist, "Professor Nietzsche."
In the same year, Nietzsche's mother, Franziska, took him to her home in Naumburg,
where she cared for him until her death in 1897. At that point, his sister, Elizabeth, took over. She took him to Weimar, where, although totally uncommunicative, he
was allowed to meet with a number of famous visitors, such as Rudolph Steiner. In 1898, he suffered a series of strokes, which left him partially paralyzed. After
contracting pneumonia in mid-August of 1900, he suffered yet another stroke on the night of August 24th, and then died the next day at noon.
It is certainly coincidental that Nietzsche died at noon, when this hour has such pregnant significance in his work. For example, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, he
The sun of knowledge stands once more at noon, and the serpent of eternity lies coiled in its light: It is your time, you children of the noon…
And this is from Twilight of the Idols:
The true world—we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent
one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one. Noon: moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point
of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.
Unable to speak, or, towards the end, to dress or wash or feed himself, he then left at an apex, at the moment when the shadows were the shortest.
"What does not kill me makes me stronger," as he said. In the face of such convoluted irony, I, too, am left almost powerless to speak. But what should we
make of this often-quoted statement, and do later developments invalidate its truth? I would answer: If a life coheres, it does so in and of itself, and it not up to us to
figure out just how, or at what point in the future we might grasp it as a whole. I would argue, too, that the sun at noon is not actually very bright, nor is it the original
sun. In fact, we are haunted by the sun of the nonexistent, and it is that sun that tortures us. Such events as these are the cusp of an almost unimaginable sphere,
which, without dark eyeglasses, there is no way we can see.
We do not know if a thing will transform or destroy us until long after the experience
is over. We do not know how the story will play out, which arcs and elements and reversals have been scheduled in advance and which ones we have had some hand in
shaping. Even after we have passed from this world to another, it is possible that the outcome is ambiguous. Necessity, the stern mistress, for reasons as metaphysical as
they are opaque, may choose to veto every object of which we dream. Due to blindness, we must learn to navigate by scent.
Brian George, Time Spiral, 2003
Twenty-seven years after graduating from the Art Institute of Boston, at a higher
turn of the spiral, I at last received my state certification to work as a high school art teacher. Unfortunately, this was just at the moment when the city had gutted the
majority of high school art programs. Once again, it was time to hurry up and wait.
An alchemical maxim reads, "In my patience is my soul." It was not the perfection of
my own soul that concerned me. Ghosts had hollowed out the soul of the Decentralized Plutocracy. High Modernism: now sentenced to endless cycles of de
-pixelation. Genius: the knack for selling outrage to those too inert to feel it, the transubstantiation of the ego to the brand. A cold wind howled from the wastes of
the Younger Dryas. I had only a black stone upon which to rest my head.
My goals: just weightless holograms, lures designed to hypnotically distract me from
their hooks, requests for donations to postpone a mass extinction. Attempting to make do, I taught junior high for a while. I then decided that I would prefer to cut
my wrists. I loved teaching art, and I was skilled at cultivating a state of "creative disorientation" in my students, beyond which breakthroughs into some greater
breadth and depth of imagination could occur, but I was no one's idea of a natural disciplinarian.
I have often wondered: why did this process take so long to play out? Why, upon my
graduation from the Art Institute of Boston, and given my belief that my vision was unique, was I not prepared to assume my rightful place in the world? On the
simplest level, you could say that I was reluctant to grow up, yet it was equally true that there was no world that was waiting to receive me. My body: a fortress left by an
antediluvian reich, upon whose battlements a race of dismembered birdmen sang.
Perhaps the world actually had ended on July 16th, 1945, as many scientists had
feared that it might, when the first atomic bomb, called "The Gadget," was detonated over the Jornada del Muerto Desert. Since then, we had measured out with calipers
our lengthening shadows on the sand. In fear, we had turned our backs on this surrogate for the Bindu, with its 20-kiloton yield. We had scoffed at this gift from
Shiva. We had fixed our eyes on our TV sets when so ordered by the Powers that Be.
However one chose to interpret the disjunction, I was in the world but not of it. In
this I was not alone. Of the several hundred enthusiastic art students in the class of '77, I doubt that more than two dozen have continued, successfully, to pursue a
career in art. It is hard for me to remember exactly what I had planned to do after graduation. It was not that I did not have goals; I did, but they were convoluted,
intuitive, and arrogantly esoteric. They did not have a fixed form; thus I was under no obligation to justify my progress to anyone or to measure my amorphous intentions against fact.
Victor Brauner, Disintegration of Subjectivity, 1951
In search of liminal extremes, my path led out beyond the exit of the labyrinth, and
then back, by means of a wormhole, to the dark space at the center. I ask myself now: What feedback as to goals did I need or expect from AIB? My imagination was
sometimes out of contact with my hands; I hoped to deepen their relationship. As a teenager, I had been tempted to do everything at once, to view things from too many
angles, to be so open to possibilities that my gestures would cancel each other out. I hoped to learn to go, step by step, from the first to the last stage of a project. To go
step by step was to be able to cut into one's subconscious, to find oneself through a tactile interaction with materials. Who knew that this process could take decades?
At AIB, I learned just enough. I did take several baby steps. I did develop a lifelong
love of getting messy, as well as a capacity for misjudging every distance. I did learn to extract the pith from the words of stupid teachers. I did learn to appreciate the
beauty of wrong turns. My experience of the labyrinth was tactile: To see was to be able to feel one's way through the dark.
In retrospect, I can see how this tactile interaction with materials helped to format
my later development as a writer. I seldom begin with an outline. When I do, I begin to quickly work against it. To complete a poem or an essay is to be open to the twists
and turns of the creative process, to then read that process backwards, treating as suspect any too-facile bursts of inspiration. Edit harshly, yes, but be open to the
uncanny if and when it occurs.
As soon as a new piece begins to swim out of the fog, I will have a sense that it is
more real than I am, that it exists as a fully formed mind and body, in its own well-guarded manner of existing. Once, in a dream, on the top floor of a bombed-out
warehouse, I sorted through four years of my artwork, laughing. It then then took me four years to catch up with the dream. At the age of 16, when I first started to
write, I would hear a voice reading in a certain rhythm, with a certain tone, about subjects I could sense but in words that I could not entirely decipher. Over the past
few years, I have come to realize that the voice I heard was my own. How to get from what I sensed to what I knew, from the movement of my fingers to the shape of the
finished work? No straight path was available.
So, did I learn what I had hoped to learn at AIB? Not at all. I did learn to begin from
where I was, to bond with my materials, to remove one wave from the ocean at a time, to go step by step towards an end both present and obscure. For these lessons, I
had no problem saying "thanks." It was useful to have gone there. I was grateful enough. My complaints had rather to do with wholesale errors of omission. Students
were not asked or expected to come to terms with the larger context of their work—whether social, political, economic, historical, spiritual, or mythological—in
any way that might lead to an upheaval in the present. We had shrunk the cosmos. We had set up and then focused upon objects in the foreground, in order to blot out
the inscrutable forces that oppressed us.
We were the ghosts of a High Modernism that could never be fulfilled, the afterbirth
of Hiroshima, the imprints that a context-upending flash had deconstructed. Curiously, however, the world continued to look more or less like it did before. In
the dead of night, perhaps, our DNA had been altered, and the streets of our city had been subtly rearranged. How soundlessly the windows of our factories had been
broken. We paid little or no attention as the wind blew through the shards.
Anselm Kiefer, Nero Paints, 1974
We were the cattle of the revolving Disco sun, whose necks had not yet felt a knife.
Death came to others, only, to Mayan villagers in the highlands of Guatemala, for example, where the CIA, under the guise of foreign aid, was just starting to set up its
cocaine supply networks, and its agents scrawled Pentecostal slogans on the walls. The real sun hated us. Our hands were clean. Strangers carried out the crimes that
we committed. We stupidly kept our hearts on the insides of our bodies. For this reason, no standing wave would carry us to the land of the Hyperboreans. When we
called to the gods for help, we were offered Positive Thinking scams, each designed to look a bit different from the others. We could not see, without instruments,
through the fog, or hear the birdmen calling from the shore of the nonexistent, where they hung, upside down, on their trees of recombinant lightning.
At AIB, in a manner that resembled but was opposed to my own metaphysical method, much as a corpse can be said to resemble a living body, knowledge of all
large-scale issues was thought to be retroactive. Each thing worth doing had already taken place, in an almost perfect form, in such a way that we could imitate but never
equal the achievement. Revolutionary concepts could best be found in the movements of the first half of the 20th century. In the 1970s, our epochal
breakthroughs could not be other than clichés.
Einstein invented Cubism, for example, as channeled through his acolyte Picasso.
Each object was the sum of all intersecting views. Kandinsky assigned a spiritual value to each color, along with synesthetic specifications. Blue is pure. It grows
concentrically, like a snail in its shell. It sounds like a flute. Yellow disturbs and evokes delirium. It sounds like a trumpet. It jumps out at the viewer before leaving
altogether. Green lacks vigor. Orange emits health. Purple is slow and dull, like an old person. It sounds like an English horn.
Malevich knelt before the icon of the square, its absoluteness, its silence, and its
brutal pragmatism. Futurism was the embodiment of speed, an ever-accelerating Model T. Speed kills, however, and the movement did not last long. Dada harvested
the nihilism of the First World War. With the help of the 9½ million gassed, machine-gunned, and shelled, it managed to invent a new species of black humor.
Matisse was once regarded as a Fauve, a 'wild beast." He later dreamed of "an art of balance…devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter," an art "something like a
good armchair, which offers rest from physical fatigue."
Max Ernst, Surrealism and Painting, 1942
Surrealism had appropriated the Cliff Notes version of Freud. Pollock had jettisoned
his Jungian imagistic self-indulgence in order to focus on the elements of flatness, line, and color. Sadly, archetypal images were allowed to sneak back in. This betrayal
of Abstraction led to an alcoholic relapse and then to semi-suicide by car crash. WARNING. CLEMENT GREENBERG AHEAD. CROSS AT YOUR OWN RISK. Art
history soon after culminated in the color field paintings of Larry Poons.
It did seem that all of the most important breakthroughs already taken place, that
there was, perhaps, little of substance left to do. It was odd to experience the avant-garde as an object of nostalgia. To read the future was to accurately read the entrails
of the past, now embalmed. These served as a kind of Rorschach blot, whose fixed patterns could be, almost indefinitely, rearranged. This freed one from the
messiness of having to come to terms with the living. The living were naughty, like children, prone to indeterminate movements. Granted: it was important for great
artists to take risks. We were no more than interpreters. Our role was to systematically express our knowledge of such risks.
Among many of our teachers, it was an act of faith that death was the precondition of
genius. Against this, I proposed the following: That our definition of "life" was that of the Ancient's "death." A stranger in a strange land, not quite a part of nature, the
genius was the one who had hermetically sealed his leaks. By this sealing up of leaks, the artist would gain the energy to enact the "reversal of a reversal," as described by
Schwaller de Lubicz, the idea behind the crossed arms of the Pharaoh. Already, I had begun to sense that the movement of time was problematic. Time did move, yes, but
in more than one direction.
For the Ancients, the point of ontological convergence was projected back into the
past—onto a period of higher civilization, heard as the echo of an echo within stories; onto an age when knowledge could be picked like fruit from trees; onto an
age when the gods were playful, in which delegates from the three worlds drew up rules for war; onto a time when the human body was made up of eight limbs, when it
could move, by the power of thought, from one place to another; onto a time when statues breathed, when babies could choose their own astrological charts; onto a
time when the largest cities, with their tens of thousands of inhabitants, could be fit into a space no bigger than a vowel; onto a time when the blind poet could step
down into the sky, before his plunge into the mist beyond.
Brian George, Hawk Mummy with Rising Snakes and DNA, 1990
We Moderns, on the other hand, project this point into the future. We envision it in
terms of the Social Darwinist perfection of the race; the electrification of the rural South; the construction of a Marxist Workers Paradise; the triumph of abstract art,
the Return of Jesus; the global spread of Neoliberalism; the cleansing of the curse of Multiculturalism from the West; the development of the driverless car and the
replacement of real Uber drivers; the mapping of the three billion base pairs of DNA; the extraction of the last ounce of tar sands from the Alberta/Saskatchewan
border; a leap to Teilhard de Chardin's "noosphere"; or the formulation of a Unified Field Theory. We believe that we are "evolving" toward this point, rather than
"devolving" from some already more or less perfect sphere.
What key factor might allow us to grasp these two directions as one movement? It is
to remember that the Great Year moves continuously backwards, even as, to us, it appears to be moving forwards. By such means, the year "precesses" to its origin. In
the mid-1970s, we were still a few feet short of this point of cosmic convergence. A few relevant details had yet to be sketched in.
Was space an unbroken sphere, as Parmenides had argued? Or, as Heraclitus
advised, should we train ourselves to "expect the unexpected"? I had mixed feelings about the theories of Teilhard de Chardin. If humanity was moving in a straight line
towards perfection, why had the US dumped 7.6 million tons of bombs on Vietnam? You would think that 7.2 million might have been enough. We could have used the
money to replenish our supplies of Agent Orange. I felt that this planet was in need of much repair. At the same time, I had some experience with the rings of light that
surrounded it. Were we really even alive, in either the ancient or the modern sense, or were we reenacting a series of preprogrammed movements in the Bardo?
The world did appear to be moving faster every day. This could be no more than a
trick of the eye, however, the movement of two hands around a clock that did not move. The world's busyness did not argue against the fact that it had ended.
Movement, in and of itself, was not the same as living force. At AIB, it was an article of faith that paintings led only to other paintings, as in a museum whose windows
opened onto windows, whose doors opened onto corridors that led to other doors, behind which were more paintings, in the range of canonical styles that would be
specified in one's syllabus. "Have you ever heard of an artist called Van Gogh?" my freshman drawing teacher, Peter Krause, once asked. Such knowledge as was
available was either practical or academic, as if we students had not existed for some 8½ billion years, as if all knowledge were additive, as if a museum had any need of walls.
Tribe and story had been disconnected. Corporate logos had stolen the magnetism
from the world of ideal forms. One subject could not reweave the archaic thread of the breath. We were born ex nihilo. We were blank as tabula rasas. It would be years
before our conscious and unconscious energies would be allowed to meet. Like those before us, our immediate task was to learn the rules, in order to be able to break
them. Like instructions from the beloved author of a totalitarian handbook, how many times did I hear these words repeated? All parties collaborated to confirm the
wisdom of this paradox.
I, the prophetic capacitor, was not so sure. "Who is to say that a straight line cannot
lead in a circle," I thought, "or that a hard-won skill may be no different than a snare? Earth's Rulers rule by playing on our yearning, by yanking on our psychology of
previous investment, by weaponizing our desire to be liked. A trained dog does not bite its master's hand."
Anatomy was a challenge, both in the literal and esoteric human-as-microcosm sense
. It was the job of our freshman anatomy teacher, Mr. Maars, to explain how we human beings were put together. Mr. Maars, for reasons known only to himself and
the demons that possessed him, spoke in an almost inaudible whisper, so that he could not be heard beyond the second row of seats. If a student asked that he speak
loudly enough to be heard, Mr. Maars would, no matter how articulately the question had been asked, continue to drone on. On a good day, he would not first
pause to correct the student for his rudeness. If we did not speak Latin, well, that was not his fault.
The lack of actual instruction forced us to fall back on our textbooks, where names
provided us with a substitute for insight. We somehow managed to pass over the pineal gland, that lock into which a key was waiting to be inserted, that
eschatological pinecone. It was not visible on the surface of the body, and it was of no use whatsoever to the draftsman. There were always more bones to memorize.
We did learn to make objects, that much was real, but whom did we make those
objects for? Some catastrophe would seem to have swept away our audience, the audience that would otherwise be waiting to applaud us. Then again, perhaps this
audience did not exist in any form that we would recognize. Perhaps it did exist in a form that we did not dare to imagine. If there were eyes that had not closed, if there
were ears that could hear the cutting-edge thoughts that we so strategically held back from the world, we still lacked the means to correctly place our gifts. As the
subjects of a decentralized plutocracy, we lacked the energy to infuse our gestures with a fierce enough intent. No doubt it was better to think small.
Brian George, Egg with Columns and Instruments, 2002
When archeologists excavated the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, settled circa 1700 BC,
they found that a number of ceramic gods had been cemented face-down in the aqueduct, which was 560 feet long. This is, or so archeologists theorize, the exact
mirror image of an aqueduct still buried, an aqueduct set over to the side. Within the first, at key points, they have found a variety of "offerings"—from the mineral, plant,
animal, and human kingdoms—which we could, just as easily, choose to view as the components of a "work of art."
Among these were the following: heaps of human bones showing signs of butchering
and burn marks; broken pottery; jade axes; baby were-jaguars, with cleft heads; large rubber balls; small mirrors, some of them convex, polished from iron ore nodes
and perhaps traded from the highlands of Oaxaca; wooden staffs with a bird's head on one end and a shark's tooth on the other, used for bloodletting; knotted cords, for
drawing through the wound; a vast quantity of bones from the marine toad, bufo marinus, a creature inedible because of the toxins in its skin but which was valued
because of one of these toxins is bufotenine, a potent hallucinogen. All of this had been buried with great ritualistic care, and then covered up with many layers of dirt,
so that no sign of the work would be visible on the surface. Perhaps both we and our audience had once been buried in such a fashion. Yet the burials were separate, and
we were now many light-years apart.
The Museum Without Walls, in the end, had little use for us, and it had long since
ceased to be looking for fresh talent. Since this museum did not have an entrance, or, for that matter, any exits, there was no way to tell if one had actually stepped inside.
And once done with one's visit, there was no way to tell what one had gained from the experience. Even if a sample of one's artwork did hang in mid-air, one's role was
to stare in puzzlement at the name found underneath. Who was the actual artist? In what year was the work first done? As one stared at the name of the artist, as one
stared at the once familiar work, the specifics of its long inception and development would become less and less distinct. In fact, the whole of horizontal space, with all of
the hallucinatory objects that it held, would then appear to be no more than a quantum fluctuation.
The triumph of High Modernism had been frozen by a flash, by the splitting of an
infinitely small point. Its brilliance would neither increase nor decline. Newness, as disjunction from all of the shadows of the past, as radical ideal upon which one
might venture to bet one's life, was now itself a historic footnote.
Brian George, Ships on a Violent Sea, 2004
"Though a permanent storm scorches my shores, far out my wave is deep, complex and prodigious. I expect nothing finite, I am resigned to sculling
between two unequal dimensions. But even so. My markers are of lead, not cork, my trail is salt, not smoke."—Rene Char, from "The Rampart of Twigs"
A painter should learn to paint; the thinking of the AIB administration was no more
complex than that. A bit of art history would do no harm. And what should the visually well-trained, if somewhat inarticulate, painter do to make a living after
graduation? Time would tell. It would do no good to be pessimistic. If others had done it, in the 1950s or several centuries ago, then it was possible that you could too.
Let the creative waitress negotiate her schedule with the phallic manager of the steakhouse.
Let the intoxicated cabdriver each weekend tube by tube smear his Paleolithic blood across a landscape.
Let the genius who is missing his left ear deliver surplus government cheese to the
suburbs in a van, for there are suburbanites who have signed up for the government cheese program.
Let Mickey Mouse in a beret cut the stretched throat of Post-Modernism on the altar
of High Finance, for irony has had its day, and more than this the gods will not allow.
Let the shipwrecked artist return to his own coast, to the place of dark instruction,
for it is there that his dog, Argos, is waiting to lick his hand, for it is there that a great slaughter is waiting to occur.
Let the body of the artist be the same size as the Earth, even as he learns to keep his arrogance in check.
Let the carefully concealed visionary sell rugs, a practical tradition, as was demonstrated by the Sufis.
Let all graffiti be written in the sky, where there are none to scrub it off.
Pursued by the horror of his prehistoric crimes, which have frozen half of his face
and caused a lightness in his step, let the newly responsible artist not hesitate to look foolish.
Let warfare be served only at one's table at the café, the scale of megadeath to be determined between friends over little plates of toast and escargot.
Let the artists at Les Deux Magots drink no more wine than necessary, only as many
bottles as might be suitable for the event, in order to prevent unscheduled fistfights from occurring.
Let artists collaborate in the prevention of bad habits, so that only the most ancient cities would be allowed to smoke.
Let the presence in a bird-mask teach artists to remove their heads, sometimes
safely, for chaos looms, and there are those who must be skillful in this practice.
Let the timid avant-gardist be cast into the ocean, for it is there that he will learn the fate of the timid avant-gardist.