This Is Where We Stand Right Now
As I write this, Lehman Brothers has filed bankruptcy. The 158-year old company that survived the Civil War has gone under. Bear Stearns was bailed out by the U.S. government. The American International Group has been told that they must raise 75 billion dollars by the end of today.
While artists and writers may not understand the nuances of these calamities, we would be wise to understand the effect they will have on our own lives and society at large. At Parabasis, Issac Butler describes the projects that Lehman Brothers was responsible for funding. The New York Sun delves into the matter, further outlining Lehman's past contributions to the arts.
It would be a mistake to limit the discussion to this angle alone. After all, the loss of jobs, homes and veritable institutions will have a tremendous effect on the psyche of the United States. Growing up in an enormous amount of abundance, we have never felt the sting of empty grocery store shelves. Americans have taken it for granted that we will have what we want, when we want it - and for a cheap price. If we don't have the money in our pocket, then we can use credit. We can buy things on the promise that we will pay for it - eventually.
Along with our material ease, we haven't experienced daily war battles on our land. Unlike other parts of the globe, citizens can expect to walk on grass without fear of being blown-up by landmines. Our wars are conducted on foreign soil.
With this history, it's easy to take stability for granted. In fact, most people can't imagine America without material comforts. This is the way it's always been; this is the way it will always be.
The American mythology is based upon the belief that if you work hard, you will succeed. If you haven't achieved material success, you are lazy, immoral and unintelligent. Rather than basing our definition of America on the Constitution, we pluck out a single phrase from the Declaration of Independence: "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
This mythology has found it's way into the spiritual lives of Americans. Prosperity theology promises material abundance for the spiritually enlightened. In this case, poverty is not only a sign of bad character, it's also a sign that God isn't smiling on you.
Most writers and artists have fallen into this money hell. We've taken out enormous student loans to pay for our education, with little opportunity to pay them off by working in our chosen profession.
Some of us chose to be artists so we could rebel against this way of life. Yet, telling the truth means alienating an audience that is complicit in keeping this belief system alive.
Success as an artist in America means making your work palatable to the masses, who are sleepwalking their way through life. Waking them up is dangerous, and dangerous work is rarely produced, exhibited or published.
Success as an artist in America means making your rebellion slick and chic. Our materialism is insatiable. It looks for the newest trend. Rebellion is crucified until it can become safe to hang in the comfort of our own homes. It is disturbing until it is tamed.
Success as an artist in America is defined by the bottom line. Respect is given to those who can achieve the most sales.
In this environment, it is easy for an artist to become a reactor instead of an actor. Rather than shaping the culture - presenting a new vision - the artist comments upon her present circumstances. The commentary is cathartic for the artist, but it doesn't present any real solutions.
When this commentary is rejected by the system it is rebelling against, the artist can have a variety of reactions.
It may validate her feeling of disempowerment. But is it fair to ask a system to embrace commentary that is attempting to destroy it?
It may lead her to believe that being an artist in this system is about suffering. But is it fair to ask the artist to have a miserable life without any personal benefit?
This is where we stand right now. Our generation has created celebrities out of people who have no talent. We have funded our lifestyles with imaginary money. We watch scripted reality t.v. shows.
Our way of life is a lie.
We are bankrupt, and our system reflects it. A healthy society would not accept these lies. A healthy society does not need to be shielded from the truth. A healthy society would be allowed to see the coffins of its dead soldiers.
In understanding where we are going, we need to understand where we are presently. We need to understand that the physical bankruptcy of our system is a reflection of our bankruptcy as a people. We don't know who we are. We don't know our history. Our American identity is based on materialism and the promise of future comfort.
It's time for artists and writers to take back American culture.
(Next up: A Vision for Where We Could Go)