Balance photo by Marcia Sloane
“If you are depressed, you are too high up in your mind.” Carl Jung
We went to an excellent modern dance concert yesterday afternoon given by the Mendocino Dance Project, an ensemble of four women dancers, all of them residents of these hinterlands. I used to be a devotee of modern dance and attended countless concerts given by famous and not-so-famous troupes in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and at numerous universities. Three of the six pieces we saw danced yesterday, were, for my taste, as fine as anything I’ve ever seen. Right here in a seventy-five-seat theatre in Mendocino.
This inspiring dance concert got me thinking about the tens of thousands of artists and dancers and musicians and writers graduating annually from thousands of academic factories in America, and how most of those young artists will find little opportunity in the so-called real world to do much paid work in the arts they chose to pursue. Because we are an all-or-nothing culture, only a lucky few will even partially support themselves through their creative endeavors.
And that got me thinking about the annual defense budget of the United States, which is a trillion dollars a year, and the annual corporate tax breaks amounting to hundreds of billions, and the annual hundreds of billions we give to insurance companies to cover possible medical expenses—multiple trillions of dollars every year handed over to a relatively small number of people who already have most of everything, in exchange for almost nothing.
This enumeration of wasted trillions led me to imagine those trillions being spent on things human societies actually need, and after our energy system was infused with sufficient funds to feed the power grids exclusively with eco-friendly renewables, and our local, state, and national transit systems were made flawless and comprehensive and non-polluting, and our healthcare system was made a thousand times better and entirely free, and our educational system was made truly fantastic and also free, we would still have trillions of dollars to spend. Then, among other things, young people aspiring to be artists could be supported in practicing their art without having to be incredibly lucky.
But we probably won’t be redirecting those trillions any time soon, there will probably be no national renaissance, and we will carry on as we do, delighting in the very occasional excellent original dance or art or music or writing we stumble upon while making our way through the vast morass of contemporary culture.
Of course, one person’s morass is another person’s Valhalla, and every generation of artists in a society with no history and no artistic continuity, as ours is becoming, must reinvent their artistic wheels, so to speak. Which explains why so many contemporary books and plays and movies, and so much contemporary art and music seem so youthful to me, and by youthful I mean unrefined, unpracticed, imitative, shallow, and unknowing of what generations of preceding artists practiced and refined and deepened.
For several years I oversaw the work of gifted teenaged writers, and their promise was what was most exciting to me. I did not expect refined art from them, though sometimes a masterwork would pop out of the teenaged ferment. And that is what contemporary culture reminds me of—people with little knowledge or training trying to learn the basics of their chosen means of expression while on the job.
Imagine a person walking onto a stage in front of a large audience and saying, “Hi. Thanks for coming. I’m a mime and a dancer, or I want to be. I’ve hardly done any miming or dancing in my life, but I’ve worked up a little something, kind of, and now I’m gonna try some stuff out and see what happens. Okay, start the music. Hope you enjoy this. Let’s see, what should I do first?”
That’s what contemporary culture feels like to me much of the time; and this amateur approach does not make for strong and believable dialogue in plays and movies, nor produce much masterfully finished art or music or literature. Nor does the amateur approach fill the movie studios and publishing houses and theatre companies and recording companies with people who have knowledge or understanding of what happened artistically ten years ago, let alone what transpired fifty and a hundred years ago.
What does this have to do with our current government? Everything. I have no doubt that had a thousand more original and masterfully crafted books been published in the last fifty years, and two hundred more compelling beautifully written plays been produced in those same fifty years, and five thousand more fabulous unknown artists been more widely known, we would have an entirely different bunch of people running our government. They would be people infused with the genius of their society, which would, by definition, speak to the needs of the society. Our elected representatives would have senses of humor and irony. They would not be misogynists and racists. They would be learned and thoughtful, and they would all be incredibly compassionate and generous.
Furthermore, I think (here’s a conspiracy theory for you) that the overlords are keenly aware of the transformative power of excellent original art—they last saw that power on massive display for a brief window of time known as the Sixties (circa 1963-1975)—and have made sure since then to never allow such unpredictably transformative stuff to spread beyond an isolated watershed or two because that kind of Creative Power To Change Things messes with their control of society.
I’m referring to the ineffable power of original art to radically change people’s ways of thinking and feeling about the world.
The neato thing about humans is that we are inherently inventive and creative, and left to our own devices we will invent and create incredibly neato things, especially when we are surrounded by other people freely inventing and creating neato things that help show us the way and inspire us. Creativity is infectious.
That dance concert filled me with hope, fleeting perhaps, but fleeting is all we really have. So as I settle down to work on my novel today, I am filled with joy imagining people reading my book and having all sorts of unexpected feelings and ideas and excitement.