Going Viral, Part 2: The End of Civilization as We Thought We Knew It

Digital illo from photos: Self-Destruct Mode

Self-destruct mode is easy. Living wisely is hard.

While I’ve been having my tawdry fever-dream worries about unequal health care and expanding populations competing for dwindling resources amid name-calling politicians, suspicious citizenry, and fearful doomsday announcers, there are plenty of other aspects that nag at me as parts of the larger knotty problem. (Aside: is it knotty of me to point that out in the first place?) How do we reconcile the desire for a well-balanced, healthy, safe, educated, and relatively comfortable populace with those ever growing numbers?

This planet is finite. I hear highly educated people saying that we have both the brain power among the best of our species to make our equally finite natural resources capable of stretching to serve the needs of the whole world’s population. I hear some of these same bright lights claiming that the potential is here and now ready to enable humans to live far longer than the current average. I’ve no delusions of mathematical or scientific adequacy, let alone grandeur. But my limited powers of discernment and logic make me skeptical of the veracity and practicability of these claims; even more so, dubious of their desirability. Explain to me why I’m supposed to be so excited to live 300 years.

I’m not too enthralled with the idea of outliving many of my beloved family, friends, and favorite connections, whether the latter are places or experiences that eventually become outmoded or impossible for any reason. Not crazy about having to expand my thinking to find ways to occupy and better myself for not just decades but tens of them. And where’s the appeal in living a zillion years if I have to work three-quarters of a zillion to keep myself in milk and cookies? I have little faith that the American Social Security system will sustain me through the span of a now-typical life in comfort, let alone the attenuated sort being proposed. Where is the food, water, shelter, and acreage necessary to support more of us for so much longer going to be found? If I don’t die for lack of some such thing, will I languish in boredom until I wish I could die? No, really, I’m asking.

If even a sizable handful of humans live that long, I’m inclined to think their wish for such expansive longevity has less to do with all of the additional goodness they can shower on the world and its inhabitants than with how much more they believe the world and all of its inhabitants can do for or give to them. If even a couple of those millegenarians succeeded, I don’t imagine them skipping around the globe and tossing vials of AIDS cures like rose petals out to the milling crowds of children who have been born infected, or composing chorales so mystically entrancing that everyone in earshot will suddenly burst into united song and lay down their enmities, forgotten for eternity. I have more of a pessimistic image of them spending their length of days and years figuring out ways to acquire, win, or steal more, to hoard more, use more, and waste more—without being called to account for it all. Oligarchy is the longest socioeconomic tradition I can discern in human history, and I don’t think any opportunist able to spend more years perfecting that pursuit would likely be inclined to do otherwise. In fact, I would guess that those best able to push their way first in line to receive the treatment and support it will take to live 300 years will already be wealthier than the vast majority.

So what might we get? A rebellion from the planet’s resources themselves, perhaps, like the accelerated depletion of space for the competing needs of farming, manufacture, and residence that outstrip the miniaturization and optimization of those physical systems. What happens is not inevitably so, but historically speaking, it’s typically competition and division. Somebody wins, and more somebodies, both human and other, animate and not, lose. And, also in the long historical tradition, it’s the rich and privileged who win and the poor and disadvantaged who lose. No matter what you think of Darwin and evolution, by the way, there’s plenty of recorded and even remembered history to demonstrate that riches and privilege are no more a guarantee of moral fitness and communal palatability than poverty or lack of resources ever proved that one was inherently rotten or nasty.

Do we just lie back and let chance decide everyone’s fate, with a good shove from the encouraging hand of whoever can afford it to favor their own interests? Sounds to me like a good starter recipe for fomenting an increased appetite for eugenics and eventual genocide. I would hope that we could learn to prefer a taste for a good, balanced stew of self-restraint, collective and collaborative work for the widest benefit, compassion for the weak, and the kind of independence that’s less about cache-building and stockpiling and fortresses, more about how each of us can supply more of our own needs without denying  others’, and how one person’s brilliance can be harnessed to shed light on the widest possible sectors of life.

If we’re too preoccupied with how to get other people to conform to our beliefs and ideas, how to keep our Stuff safe from anyone else using or benefiting from it, and how to make more room for more and better Stuff solely for ourselves, none of this is going to happen. I tend to think that few of us who are safe and well-fed and educated and privileged spend enough mindful time recognizing that we are so only because of all the other living beings who work and sacrifice to make it possible. I can’t fix basic household plumbing. I can live without it, I expect, but probably only until I start to get too cold, hungry, scared, ill, weary, or lost to manage one more trip to the nearest stream for semi-safe drinking water or one more trip to a quiet spot where I can relieve myself far enough from the same drinking stream. I can’t find my way from my own front porch to where my spouse works without constantly consulting GPS, so getting from home to the nearest place I could safely forage for food not tainted by the traffic and household waste of suburbia would be quite the stretch indeed, especially on foot. I rely on so many others to keep me alive and functional that I can’t even wrap my brain around the gap between my abilities and the comfort in which I live, and I suspect that most other middle-class persons, never mind the much-maligned One Percenters, would struggle in the same way.

Seems like an opportune point in our history to pause and reflect on why it is not only a benevolence but a necessity that we do our best to feed, clothe, educate, heal, and make very good friends indeed with the rest of our kind, and perhaps most of all, those we too easily forget to think of as our kind at all. We’ll pay for the privilege one way or another. I, for one, would rather do so by choice and with the hope of friendship as its basis than by force and in fear, knowing that I have stepped on too many backs on my way upward to have hope of anything in the end besides a very, very long fall.

I’m feeling better already, just thinking about it.

10 Terrible Words that Shouldn’t Exist in Any Language

Digital text-illustration: 10 Terrible WordsOne person who hates is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. One who cares and shares? Perhaps the only antidote.

As I recently said to my friend Maryam: poverty—both of concrete, material resources like food and shelter, and of intellectual and ephemeral resources (education, spiritual enrichment, the arts, community engagement, etc)—seems to me to be perpetrated and perpetuated more by selfishness than by an actual shortage of any of those resources. The rich and powerful always want more riches and power, and what they do have makes them able to afford and acquire more and to keep their feet firmly on the backs of the have-nots. Plenty is never enough. The resulting imbalance is as old as history, and rotten as ever. Only those who will speak up and resist entrenched inequities and injustices will have any hope of making change.Photo montage: Wolverine & Badger

The badger and the wolverine have a reputation for being among the most tenaciously savage brutes of all the mammals. Yeah, Honey Badger even has his own meme to show for it. But let’s be honest: no beast of earth, air, or sea has a capacity for vile, rapacious cruelty rivaling that of the human animal. Even creatures of the natural enmity of predator and prey compete, fight, kill, and are sated. They have little apparent ideation of hatred and war to match people’s. A wolverine or badger will fight to defend, or to kill for food, but unlike the human, doesn’t seem inclined to attack indiscriminately outside of its primal needs for safety, shelter, and food; when the skirmish is done as efficiently as possible and the need assuaged, the sharpest of tooth and reddest of claw among them doesn’t do an end-zone dance to celebrate its pleasure in winning but will usually depart the scene or go to rest for the next time of need. The remaining food and shelter and other resources stay in place for whatever creature comes next, hunter or hunted, cousin or not.

Can we humans not learn from such a thing? I’m pretty sure that if we destroy each other and ourselves in our constant self-righteous, self-congratulatory belief that we deserve everything we can get our hands on, Honey Badger won’t be the only creature that doesn’t care.

The Menace Above

digital illustration

The Bird Gets the Last Word

You stay down there, and I’ll just sit

Up on my perch, whistle and chirp

And warble ’til you throw a fit

Because I’m being such a twerp—

I’ll flap and flutter, cheep and caw

And drive you right out of your tree

Until you want to break the law

And take a shot or two at me—

But I, no matter how you squirm,

Won’t quit my pestering; so far,

I’m winning, you poor lowly worm,

And soon I’ll also strafe your car.
digital illustration


This Business of being an Artist

mixed media process montageThere’s been an interesting, if hardly new, thread of conversation taking place in one iteration via LinkedIn, where a Mr. Duane Bronson posed the eternal question thus: “Does an artist have to have a recognizable ‘STYLE’ or a cohesive body of work to be of interest to a gallery and marketable?” My short answer would be a resounding Yes, but I couldn’t resist expanding on what is for me a perpetual problem. I said:

A good, thought-provoking read here! I have experienced much of what is discussed by the various commenters who precede me and think that all have some valid points for our consideration. My own answer to Mr. Bronson’s original question is that I might state it a little differently: to be of interest to a gallery as what it/they would consider marketable. Anything is marketable, if you put the right seller and buyer together under the right circumstances, but galleries, no matter how much they might pride themselves on being ‘in it for the love of art’, are businesses, and (logically enough) are not particularly interested in anything they don’t think is a relatively easy sell. [Commenters] Messrs. Bruland and Moore are absolutely right in recognizing that art does sell–at the confluence of the right forces. Figuring out what those are and how to orchestrate their intersection is the big magic trick that few of us can perform.photo of mural [with artist]I was approached by gallery owners when I was finishing my undergraduate art degree; one of them (the more successful in business, not surprisingly) met with me mainly to encourage me to produce a larger body of the same kind of work so that he could later represent me; the other, being a fledgling in the business, was willing to take what little I had already produced at my young age and give it a go. Of course I was inexperienced and had no concrete plans or prospects, so I opted for the latter, with the predictable result that that gallerist, with such limited experience and connections, was too busy simply trying to work out the logistics of her own business to actually represent any of the artists she hoped to promote. Thankfully, I’d only agreed to half the proposed trial period as part of that ‘stable’ of artists and retrieved my entirely unsold (and as far as I could ascertain, also virtually unseen) work and go forward at the end of it. [And only a year or two before it was also the end of that particular gallery, as far as I could ascertain.]photoIt wasn’t until many years later, after working in construction for a few years to save up for grad school (I suspect I’m of the same vintage as Ms. Senn, having had many similar experiences 30 years ago in that field of work) and then going through the grad program and then teaching for a couple of decades, that I could afford the luxury of devoting real time to focused practice and larger productivity of my own artwork. Along the way, however, I had continued to produce smaller quantities of work. As I’m quite sure many of the artists commenting above have experienced, what pleases me most in my own practice is to do what inspires me at the moment, to experiment, and to follow the serendipitous occurrences that happen along the way, resulting in a recognizable character in the works but not a whole lot of terribly similar subjects, media, and techniques. So I, too, have been told by many a gallerist that he or she thinks my work is terrific but, no thank you, they don’t see how they can possibly ‘package’ and market me.digital collageThe upshot of all this is that I can only echo what others have already said or intimated here: keep doing and being what is right for you, but know that you’ll likely continue to labor in obscurity unless you simply find that combination of luck and resources and persistence coming into perfect confluence. I must assume that all of us are here because making art of whatever sort matters enough that we will do it endlessly, whether it profits us in any way other than inwardly or not. Hurray to being successful, financially of course if we can, but if not that, then as wildly successful in satisfying the artistic urge as we can manage to be.I will add to this that I am no more going to stop making art because I don’t come close to making a living at it than any of the millions of others who can’t ‘get by’ doing what they love best would quit their passions. You might, just possibly, have noticed that I’ve been hanging out here in the blogosphere for some time just churning out art of the visual and written kinds and handing them out daily like free candy. But like many others, I also keep the business side of art on my radar, looking around me to see if there are any connections and opportunities I have overlooked or ways to introduce my work to others who may find something in it that speaks to them as well and (miraculously!) be willing to pay me for it. I guess this is simply my love letter to any other unsung heroes reading this, saying that we’re all in this together and yes indeed, also that I have no plans to leave off pursuing my dreams any more than you have. Might see you at the bar later, though. Everybody needs an outlet, whether it’s on LinkedIn or in the studio or somewhere else entirely. Cheers!graphite drawing