Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Lucky Age

Study for The Golden Age (1862)
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University
Adapted by

I was lucky. It was a weird time, which I haven’t really seen again.
Laurie Anderson, New York Times, April 28, 2011

Bill Viola said it. Peter Stein said it. And now Laurie Anderson has said it. We were lucky, they said, to have come of age at a time when we did, when so much was possible.

Viola was making video art in the 70s when few people even knew what it was. In those days, the video artists didn’t think about making money from their art, and they all knew each other, like a family. Stein was selected to lead the Schaub├╝hne in Berlin in 1970, and famously ran the soon-to-be-legendary theatre as a socialist collective. Anderson lived in SoHo in the 70s, where she and numerous others turned the raw lofts and water tower-dotted rooftops into their artistic playground.

In an exclusive midtown club. In a penthouse at Lincoln Center. In a feature article in the New York Times. Everybody’s doing it. All these world famous artists are saying it. I was lucky.

So what gives? Why should this be happening now?

I’m sure there’s a touch of “golden age” thinking here. It’s only human to idealize the past. But that doesn't explain it. The 60s and 70s were unquestionably an exceptionally fertile time for art and ideas. There’s got to be more.

Maybe they have reached an age, reached a point on their climb up the mountain, where they can pause and look back over the landscape and see that those of us who came afterwards weren’t so lucky. Cramped by the rise of corporate power. Stunted by conservatives and neocons aggressively rolling back the permissiveness of the 60s. Numbed by a US media dragged inexorably rightwards by the Machiavellian grip of Murdoch and Rove and their ilk. Despairing at the powerlessness of the anti-war movement to prevent the parade of military adventures and misadventures that followed Vietnam. Tehran. Grenada. Beirut. Panama. Iraq. Somalia. Haiti. Yugoslavia. Afghanistan. Iraq. Libya. Abbottabad.

Or maybe the realization has well and truly sunk in that they made it, and many of their friends didn’t. While they’re living the dream - Stein perhaps most spectacularly so, in a rambling country villa overlooking Rome - artists with whom they shared such intimate discoveries way back when are struggling to deal with harsher realities. I heard a writer on the radio the other day talk about growing up in the sixties and seventies, when they all believed they had been blessed - whether by Bob Dylan, contraband substances, or otherwise - and destined to be forever young. They saw their parents’ beer bellies and thinning hair and budget clothing simply as bad life choices. Only now are they realizing that they are becoming just like their parents, albeit without the experience of having lived through the Second World War.

Or maybe those artists feel blessed by having chanced upon a particularly potent creative process early on in their careers which, as it happened, has sustained them to this day. And, whether by chance or design or through sheer communion with the source, they have remained healthy enough to live a full creative live. Joseph Campbell and Anthony di Mello talked about a stream of awareness that you can access anytime - it’s right there. All you have to do is recognize the layers of dross that are obscuring it for what they are, and they'll fall away, and you can just go ahead and dip right in. Maybe those artists did that, and did it early. And they’ve never forgotten how to do it.

Maybe, also, there are other unfortunate ones who didn’t come afterwards when there were more layers of dross to contend with; nor were they the ones who kept on keeping on but weren’t as well prepared to get older. Maybe these artists knew of a third class of unfortunates: peers who fell perhaps too heavily under the spell of that special time of the 60s and 70s, when all of them were busy creating a new world. Maybe some of these peers made that experience the very substance of their art, their lives. Maybe when the walls started closing in, in the 80s, that continued regardless. Maybe there wasn't anything left to make their art or lives about, but they still couldn’t stop themselves from going down the rabbithole. And maybe it dawned on an unfortunate few that they had staked their spark on something that wasn’t meant to last, that only lasted as long as the spell did, and there was no turning back. Maybe that thought lodged itself deep inside, like a spur in a bone, and as it grew it threw them more and more off kilter. And, one day, whether by accident or design, maybe fate dealt them an unspeakably sad end, one which that tragic flaw had brought to pass in some mysterious way beyond our understanding.

I wonder whether that time in the 60s and 70s was indeed a golden age, whether it was like the late Renaissance, or the Elizabethan Age, or periods of ancient history we don’t know enough about to pin down but we can glimpse in fragments of stone and words that leap out and ignite our imaginations like invisible wildfire. And I wonder whether that time, that so recent dawning of the Age of Aquarius, might have lasted as long as those previous golden ages, had the politicians and power brokers not stepped in and snuffed it out. It feels like it should have.

Were those golden ages just a natural occurrence, a spontaneous alchemy of creative delight that occurred according to some unknowable, unpredictable cycle of nature, like green rays at sunset? Or can we ourselves create the conditions for a golden age? Can all the blood, sweat and tears which has been shed since the “lucky” times in the staunch belief that art is the best way to change the world be enough to one day defeat the efforts of those who seem hell bent on destroying everything we've been working for?

I see little of more importance to this country, its future, and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.
John F. Kennedy

Fancy that. Were they just lucky to have him as president at exactly the right moment? (Even Stein in Berlin, where to this day a key passage of the “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech is etched into John-F.-Kennedy-Platz, all arranged by students in the wake of his assassination).

But let’s look at it another way. We are no longer in the twentieth century. God knows SoHo ain’t what it used to be, and the old rules no longer apply. The people who made the Arab Spring understood this. To make our new golden age, is it really necessary any longer to have the patronage or political blessing of a queen or a president?

Could we all be presidents of the new golden age? Could we really be lucky enough to do that?

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