Reading notes (2021, week 4) — On nothingness, counterculture, and the ecology of work

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: How sensory deprivation has been subsumed and then extruded as a mirror image of itself, emptied of its original meaning; the internet didn’t kill counterculture — you just won’t find it on Instagram; environmentalism can’t succeed until it confronts the destructive nature of modern work; why we are losing the imaginative power to create and find meaning through metaphor; when is a model not a model?; a 100-mile-long “negative utopia”; a road trip with David Hockney and Richard Wagner; why Germany is Europe’s greatest artistic nation; and, finally, Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States, in his own words.

How nothingness became everything we wanted

Even before the pandemic, American culture was embracing numbness as an antidote for the overload of digital capitalism. But is it a real escape — or another trap?, Kyle Chayka, the author of The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, wonders in How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted.

“For years, an aesthetic mode of nothingness has been ascendant — a literally nihilistic attitude visible in all realms of culture, one intent on the destruction of extraneity in all its forms, up to and including noise, decoration, possessions, identities and face-to-face interaction. Over the past decade, American consumers have glamorized the pursuit of expensive nothing in the form of emptied-out spaces like the open-floor plans of start-up offices, austere loft-condo buildings and anonymous Airbnbs. Minimalism from the Marie Kondo school advocated a jettisoning of possessions that left followers with empty white walls. This aspiration toward disappearance made luxury synonymous with seeing, hearing, owning and even feeling less,” Chayka writes.

“Then, in March 2020, much of our lives in the outside world that had been so agitating ground to a halt as the first round of coronavirus lockdown hit the United States. Alongside so much tragedy and despair, mass quarantine has represented a final fulfillment of the pursuit of nothingness, particularly for the privileged classes who could adapt to it in such relative comfort, sunk back into the couch cushions of spare country houses, equipped with grocery deliveries, Netflix shows and livestreaming exercise classes. This interregnum has often felt to me like an all-encompassing, full-time session of sensory deprivation. Quarantine has been widely regarded as a radical break in our daily lives and the ways we interact with the world, but in truth it’s simply an overdose of the indulgences a certain segment of the population was dabbling in already. We’re a little like kids caught with a cigarette, forced to smoke a whole pack at once.

This obsession with absence, the intentional erasure of self and surroundings, is the apotheosis of what I’ve come to think of as a culture of negation: a body of cultural output, from material goods to entertainment franchises to lifestyle fads, that evinces a desire to reject the overstimulation that defines contemporary existence. This retreat, which took hold in the decade before the pandemic, betrays a grim undercurrent: a deepening failure of optimism in the possibilities of our future, a disillusionment that Covid-19 and its economic crisis have only intensified. It’s as if we want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations, so that we won’t have anything left to lose.”

“The millennial-yuppie cohort, a group I count myself as a member of, has been characterized as preferring experiences over things, and living in cities where extra space comes at a premium, a confluence of trends that has fostered an endless parade of e-commerce brands promising the last X you’ll ever have to buy: hoodies, water bottles, bookshelves. But some of the most discussed products to come out of the last few years go one step beyond that, offering to act as replacements of themselves, simulacra. [An example of this is Soylent, which tries to supplant food, posing eating primarily as a problem to be solved to get back to scrolling.] Our consumption habits were in some ways our last refuge during the disintegration of life as we knew it amid the pandemic. The spring brought an era of quarantine consumerism, the feathering of our respective nests to a state of benumbed comfort enabled by essential workers, whose lives were valued less than the continued flow of Amazon boxes,” Chayka writes.

“The emotional underpinnings of this economy have been best theorized by Venkatesh Rao […] In a series of popular blog posts beginning in March 2019, he prophetically described the inclination to hole up at home with Netflix binges, video games and Seamless deliveries as ‘domestic cozy’: ‘a pre-emptive retreat from worldly affairs for a generation that, quite understandably, thinks the public sphere is falling apart.’

[…]

Many opt to simply stay home, pursuing as uncomplicated and swaddled a life as possible, surrounded by things that feel if not good then at least neutral. ‘It’s not pure subtraction of public sensations; it’s the addition of private sensation,’ Rao told [Chayka] over the phone, long before the pandemic. ‘Hot cocoa, gravity blankets, sensory deprivation.’ We create an acceptable layer between our internal and external environments, a barrier that’s still under our control even as the outside world grows increasingly chaotic. ‘It’s an essentially defensive posture,’ he said, ‘an instinctive adaptive response.’

[…]

The very businesses and services that sustain coziness further entrench us in a bifurcated economy fueled by data surveillance and cheap, precarious labor. Software was already eating the world, as the investor Marc Andreessen’s 2011 prediction ran, and we let it keep gorging. Months of semi-quarantine offered few other options. All of life’s randomness and surprise were replaced by smooth, predesigned corporate systems and commodified, automated feeds through which we received the next thing to consume, inducing one of the most disturbing psychic features of 2020: that a substantial portion of the population could float on in a state of lulled passivity, even in the middle of a global disaster, thanks to those who could not.

Perhaps we don’t truly want the culture of negation. There’s plenty of evidence that not everyone acquiesces to its numbness, from the intentional agitation of the band 100 gecs to the incisive investigations of the sensual by novelists like Garth Greenwell and Bryan Washington. But it does serve a purpose, acting as an effective salve for the very problems that these atomizing platforms create, the overflow of targeted information and stimulation. We turn unremarkable albums into think-piece fodder and recommend terrible reality-television shows to our friends because they recognize and soothe our anxiety; they act as anesthetics more than art. And now, in a very anxious time, it’s even harder to find what doesn’t conform. As theaters, art galleries, opera houses, symphonies, cinemas, poetry readings, comedy clubs and bookstores all evaporated in the pandemic, the last thing left seemed to be streaming video, broadcast through the largely unregulated, for-profit digital platforms that now have a monopoly on our housebound attention and connection.”

“The culture of negation inspires a taste for nothingness and glorifies numbness,” according to Chayka. “No one seems to want anything; there is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up. It’s an almost Buddhist rush toward selflessness with the addition of American competition and our habit of overdose: as much obliteration as possible. In the words of an enormous piece of graffiti I spotted during a quarantine drive past Philadelphia: ‘Make America nothing again.’ The statement contains a tacit admission of guilt — you can’t blame something that doesn’t exist.

[…]

‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,’ Fredric Jameson wrote. The line is such common wisdom that even its originator was paraphrasing it from some uncited source. Our imaginations, after all, are limited by the platforms that dominate the distribution of culture; we feel more than ever that we’re in control of these streams of content, but in reality we are in thrall to the rules and patterns they create. Microtrends rise and fall daily, but only within the bounds of the digital spaces, like TikTok and Twitter, where they exist — what stays consistent is the mode of delivery, and the sale of your data. Right now, counterculture glorifies passive numbness, just as corporate structures reinforce and profit from it. Any alternative ideology or stylistic innovation, like those of the hippies and punks of decades past, is instantly integrated into the commercial mainstream by the algorithmic feeds of the enormous social networks that establish mass taste. Positions of resistance are neutralized. Ennui itself is a brand: In December, Pantone announced two colors of the year for 2021; the first was Ultimate Gray.”

The internet didn’t kill counterculture

“Search Google Images for ‘counterculture’ and it overwhelmingly returns black-and-white photos of young people all now over 60. In the pictures, it is so clear what they were countering: The Man, of course, who, with his white collar, white skin, and short hair, singlehandedly symbolized dominant cultural norms,” the Berlin-based writer and founder of New Models, Caroline Busta, writes in The internet didn’t kill counterculture — you just won’t find it on Instagram.

But in an era of social media and Big Tech, “the new culture to be countered isn’t singular or top-down. It’s rhizomatic, nonbinary, and includes all who live within the Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon digital ecosystem (aka GAFA stack). With digital platforms transforming legacy countercultural activity into profitable, high-engagement content, being countercultural no longer means being counter-hegemonic,” Busta writes.

“Despite being informed by billions, this new technological hegemony isn’t democratic; it’s a swarm-led form of para-governance programmed to maximize engagement while obfuscating responsibility for the social and environmental damage it wreaks. Zuckerberg, Bezos, Thiel, and other tech behemoths are quick to remind us that they’re not in charge of public laws or policy; their empires were built according to the ‘peaceful mechanisms’ of free-market capitalism — and that society has adopted their tools and spaces through its own free will. If pressed, they’ll point out how their platforms reflect the countercultural demands of earlier generations: eschewing big government and vertical corporate culture while encouraging personal fulfillment and flat organizational structures. […]

Similarly slippery is the new look of power. Far from the parades, palaces, and outsize girths of present-day strongmen like Viktor Orbán, Kim Jong-un, and Donald Trump, the most iconic tells you’ll find among the big tech set are more likely to be a black turtleneck, a Patagonia fleece, and the absence of carrying bags. It’s a flex to be visually indistinguishable from the crowd. The power of today is firmly situated in minimalism, restraint, and ease — it’s only power under threat that turns to physical displays of strength. Actual power is controlling the means by which lesser power can be displayed — i.e., congrats on the 500K likes on your polling numbers, @jack still owns all your tweets. Actual power keeps a low profile; actual power doesn’t need a social media presence, it owns social media.”

“A truth specific to our time is that dissent against one level of authority is now very often driven by a deeper hegemonic force. Perhaps this is why, among many younger people (Greta Thunberg notwithstanding), there is less focus on battling current leaders and more interest in divining counter-futures,” Busta argues.

“While climate change is a shared concern for many younger people, their responses might be more accurately understood as competitive-futurist than countercultural. [There] is little consensus over who or what they are specifically opposing. This is wise in an era when the complexity of global crises makes it exceedingly difficult to effectively isolate responsible parties. How would one even begin to hold, say, Apple accountable for all of the externalities within the life of an iPhone? Who among us could easily give up our connectivity and still be economically and socially okay? It’s as if, having grown up on a fully networked Earth, Gen Z has bypassed counterculture, finding it futile in the face of a hegemonic system that more clearly resembles a Hydra than the monolithic forces that legacy counterculture was rebelling against. Intuiting that any activity directly opposing the system will only make the system stronger, the next generation is instead opting for radical hyperstition: constructing alternative futures that abandon our current infrastructure entirely (the emergence of blockchain-based currencies, for instance, or calls to not merely reform but fully abolish the police).”

Today’s counter-hegemonic culture is “not particularly interested in being seen — at least not in person. It gets no thrill out of wearing leather and a mohawk and walking past main-street shops, which are empty now anyway. But it does demonstrate a hunger for freedom — freedom from the attention economy, from atomization, and the extractive logic of mainstream communication. We can imagine collectively held physical spaces reclaimed from empty retail or abandoned venues hosting esoteric local scenes, a proliferation of digital gangs in dark forests who hold secrets dear, and a new desire for scarcity in cultural objects — deeper and closer connections made between people even while rejecting the platform’s compulsion to ‘like and share.’ In the internet era, true counterculture is difficult to see, and even harder to find — but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

The ecology of work

“Environmentalists see the asphalting of the country as a sin against the world of nature, but we should also see in it a kind of damage that has been done to humans, for what precedes environmental degradation is the debasement of the human world,” the novelist and social critic Curtis White writes in The Ecology of Work. Written in 2007, White’s essay still makes for an interesting read.

White would go so far as to say that there is no solution for environmental destruction that isn’t first a healing of the damage that has been done to the human community. As he argued in the first part of this essay, The Idols of Environmentalism, the damage to the human world has been done through work, through our jobs, and through the world of money.

“We are not the creators of our own world; we merely perform functions in a system into which we were born. The most destructive aspect of our jobs is that in them we are mere ‘functionaries,’ to borrow Josef Pieper’s term. Just as important, we have a function outside of work: consumption. Money in hand, we go into the market to buy the goods we no longer know how to make (we don’t even know how to grow and preserve our own food) and services we no longer know how to perform (frame a house? might as well ask us to design a spaceship).

Challenging our place in this system as mere isolated functions (whether as workers or consumers) is a daunting task, especially for environmentalists, who tend to think that human problems are the concern of somebody else (labor unions, the ACLU, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, etc.). We’re about the ‘Earth first.’ My argument is simply that the threats to humans and the threats to the environment are not even two parts of the same problem. They are the same problem. For environmentalism, confronting corporations and creating indignant scientific reports about pollution is the easy stuff. But these activities are inadequate to the real problems, as any honest observer of the last thirty years of environmental activism would have to concede. The ‘last great places’ cannot be preserved. We can no more preserve them than we can keep the glaciers from melting away. Responding to environmental destruction requires not only the overcoming of corporate evildoers but ‘self-overcoming,’ a transformation in the way we live. A more adequate response to our true problems requires that we cease to be a society that believes that wealth is the accumulation of money (no matter how much of it we’re planning on ‘giving back’ to nature), and begin to be a society that understands that ‘there is no wealth but life,’ as John Ruskin put it. That is the full dimension and the full difficulty of our problem,” White writes.

“Even when we are trying to aid the environment, we are not willing as individuals to leave the system that we know in our heart of hearts is the cause of our problems. We are even further from knowing how to take the collective risk of leaving this system entirely and ordering our societies differently. We are not ready. Not yet, at least.” — Curtis White , The Idols of Environmentalism

“To end the reign of work as something for ‘functionaries,’ and to end the destruction that results from that fractured form of work, we have two options. First, we can simply wait for the catastrophic failure of global capitalism as a functioning economic system. Books on peak oil, sinking water tables, and the impending doom of global warming are abundant and convincing. Huge human populations, especially in the East and Africa, are at risk of mass starvation, civil war, and the disastrous loss of human habitat due to rising ocean levels and desertification. Capitalism will have no choice but to retreat from responsibility for these crises even though they are part of the true costs of doing business.

Unfortunately, simply waiting for catastrophe doesn’t ensure that anything good will follow from it […]. It’s true that there will be opportunities to create locally based and sustainable communities, but it’s also true that fascism, barbarism, and regression are possible. So a second option is in order. We can start providing for a different world of work now, before the catastrophe. We need to insist on work that is not destructive, that deepens the worker, that encourages her creativity. Such a transformation requires a willingness to take a collective risk, a kind of risk very different from capitalist risk taking. The kind of risk I’m suggesting is no small matter. It means leaving a culture based on the idea of success as the accumulation of wealth-as-money. In its place we need a culture that understands success as life. For John Ruskin, humans should make ‘good and beautiful things’ because those things will re-create us as good and beautiful in their turn. To make cheap and ugly and destructive things will kill us, as indeed we are being killed through poverty, through war, through the cheapening of our public and private lives, and through the destruction of the natural world. Of course, many will argue that leaving capitalism behind is not ‘realistic.’ ‘Oh, certainly,’ we’re assured, ‘there are inequalities in capitalism, but on the whole it provides for everyone’s prosperity, it provides the greatest good for the greatest number. Why, you’ll kill the goose that lays the golden egg! Look, if there’s a patch of forest somewhere you want to save, fine, I’ll write a check. But this sort of talk is dangerous and un-American.’ What we need to recognize is that the real realism for capitalism is in the consequences of its activities. [We] are living now in the early stages of an era of consequences: catastrophic climate change, species extinction, and human population collapse. It is not naïve or unrealistic to say that we ought to change; it is only tragic if we don’t,” White writes.

White’s argument is not a longing for “the wonderful world of pre-war rural America. But it is to say that in the course of the last century of global capital triumphant we have been further isolated from what Ruskin called ‘valuable human things.’ In exchange, we have been offered only the cold comfort of the television and computer monitor, and the GPS device that can locate you but only at the cost of being located in a place that is not worth knowing and certainly not worth caring about.

The turn away from this ugly, destructive, and unequal world is not something that can be accomplished by boycotting corporations when they’re bad or through the powerful work of the most concerned scientists. […] A return to the valuable human things of the beautiful and the useful will only be accomplished, if it is ever to be accomplished, by the humans among us.”

And also this…

“Metaphor exists — and relies upon — the complex, emotionally resonant, arresting connections we make. These linkages, between ourselves and the world, require a degree of primary experience, as well as sensitivity to the nature and details of that experience. Metaphor is the knot between language and image, between language and sensory experience, and between language and narrative. Indeed, a growing body of research supports the view that metaphoric thinking could be deeply tied to empathy,” Heather Altfeld and Rebecca Diggs write in Sweetness and strangeness

But according to them, in our image-saturated, over-sped world, we are losing the imaginative power to create and find meaning through metaphor.

“What drives the literalism that dominates current educational practice? In part, it seems to be a side-effect of our sight-based, screen-based culture. While the digital world certainly offers examples of metaphoric thinking — memes, for one — the two-dimensional lives we increasingly lead mean that we engage less frequently in primary experiences involving our non-visual senses. Instead, we navigate the world as we see it, confined in its screen. As the poet Robert Hass writes in Twentieth-Century Pleasures (1984):

‘Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have the explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is.’

In our digital age, photographic images are ubiquitous and constantly proliferating, and yet the world we see in pictures is increasingly curated by us and also pre-curated for us; algorithms decide what we see, what we might like to see, and what we might like to buy. This state of affairs was presciently predicted by Walter Benjamin in the essay A Short History of Photography (1931), in which he writes of:

‘a photography which is able to relate a tin of canned food to the universe, yet cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which that tin exists; a photography which even in its most dreamlike compositions is more concerned with eventual salability than with understanding … the true facts of this photographic creativity is the advertisement.’

When it comes to popular film, the philosopher Owen Hulatt at the University of York, a scholar of Theodor Adorno, notes that:

‘No space is left for consumers to exhibit imagination and spontaneity — rather, they are swept along in a succession of predictable moments, each of which is so easy to digest that they can be alertly consumed even in a state of distraction.’

Since the advent of photography, the image has become a truth we trust more than our own memories and imaginations,” Altfeld and Diggs write.

Emy Koopman at Erasmus University Rotterdam has studied the ‘literariness’ of literature and its relationship to emotion, empathy and reflection. Koopman gave undergraduates […] passages of the novel Counterpoint (2008) by the Dutch writer Anna Enquist, in which the main character, a mother, grieves the loss of her child. Thus, Koopman attempted to test age-old claims about the power of literature. For some of the readers, she stripped passages of their imagery and removed foregrounding from others, while a third group read the passages as originally written by Enquist.

Koopman’s team found that: ‘Literariness may indeed be partly responsible for empathetic reactions.’ Interestingly, the group who missed the foregrounding showed less empathetic understanding. It isn’t just empathy, however, that foregrounding triggers, it’s also what Koopman identifies as ‘ambivalent emotions: people commenting both on the beauty or hope and on the pain or sorrow of a certain passage.’ Foregrounding, then, can elicit a ‘more complex emotional experience.’ Reading, alone, is not sufficient for building empathy; it needs the image, and essential foreground, for us to forge connections, which is why textbooks filled with information but devoid of narrative fail to engage us; why facts and dates and events rarely stick without story.”

Even the future has to have a metaphoric quality for us to imagine it, argues the philosopher Alexander Nehamas in a talk at the University of Pittsburgh, entitled Metaphor in Our Lives. “If Nehamas is correct, then we need to grow our capacity for metaphor as surely as we need to grow our empathy for the planet. The stories and sentiments to which metaphor adds depth, the linkages between self and sense, self and narrative, that metaphor encourages us to make are not frivolity or fiction — they are the essential means by which we connect to the planet and to each other, and one we critically need in order to dream a way out of the crises that assail us.”

“There is an important saying from Alfred Korzybski — the map is not the territory,” Harish Jose writes in When is a Model Not a Model?

“His point was that we should take the map to be the real thing. An important corollary to this, as a model-maker is:

If the model is the same as the phenomenon it models, it fails to serve its purpose.

The usefulness of the model is in it being an abstraction. This is mainly due to the observer not being able to handle the excess variety thrown at them. This also answers one part of the question posed in the title of this post — A model ceases to be a model when it is the same as the phenomenon it models. The second part of the answer is that the model has to have some similarities to the phenomenon, and this is entirely dependent on the observer and what they want.

This brings me to the next important point — We can only manage models. We don’t manage the actual phenomenon; we only manage the models of the phenomenon in our heads. The reason being again that we lack the ability to manage the variety thrown at us.

The eminent management cybernetician, Stafford Beer, has the following words of wisdom for us:

Instead of trying to specify it in full detail, you specify it only somewhat. You then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go.

To paraphrase [Ross Ashby], we need not collect more information than is necessary for the job. We do not need to attempt to trace the whole chain of causes and effects in all its richness, but attempt only to relate controllable causes with ultimate effects.

The final aspect of model-making is to take into consideration the temporary nature of the model. Again, paraphrasing Ashby — We should not assume the system to be absolutely unchanging. We should accept frankly that our models are valid merely until such time as they become obsolete.”

The Italian collective Superstudio warned against rampant development by imagining one continuous structure stretching around Earth. In A building as big as the world, Oliver Wainwright wonders if their warning actually inspired new Saudi plans for a 100-mile linear city?

“There was a sense of deja vu last week when Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, unveiled his plans for a futuristic 100-mile-long linear city, momentously titled The Line,” Wainwright writes. At the same time, “[t]hree thousand miles away, in a gallery in Brussels, hangs a 1960s photomontage of an eerily similar vision, part of a new exhibition about the radical Italian architecture collective Superstudio. A great white oblong is depicted cutting through a desert, slicing through sand dunes and marching past palm trees in an unbroken urban block, its surface inscribed with an endless square grid.

This is the Continuous Monument, a project dreamed up by Superstudio in 1969 — not as a proposal for a smart city, but as a critical warning against the relentless urbanisation of the planet. In a striking series of collages the designers depicted the vast blocky mass encircling the globe with an unstoppable belt of development, dwarfing the rocky outcrops of Utah’s Monument Valley, engulfing the Amalfi village of Positano and conquering Manhattan’s gridiron with its own inexorable grid.

The images were alarming, but also seductive, and they remain so today. Part endless office block, part minimalist land art, the powerful montages show the monument cutting across fields, mountains and seas in one pristine blank strip, imposing Cartesian order over the natural world. Adolfo Natalini, a founding member of Superstudio, later described the project as a ‘negative utopia,’ a warning against ‘the horrors architecture had in store, with its scientific methods for perpetuating standard models worldwide.’ But, at the time, the group’s intentions were more ambiguous, and often lost in translation.”

“A case in point is the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who encountered the photomontages of the Continuous Monument while he was a student at the Architectural Association in London. He was immediately enrapt. ‘I loved Superstudio because I took the work literally,’ he explains, in an interview in the exhibition catalogue. ‘I thought some of it would be stunning if built.’

Koolhaas struck up a friendship with the group and invited them to lecture in London, but he gradually realised that the architecture he hoped to see built was intended to remain on paper, in the realms of critical commentary. He was stunned when Natalini went on to build thoroughly postmodern, neo-vernacular buildings in the Netherlands later in life. ‘That was the paradox of my affinity with [Superstudio],’ he says. ‘It wasn’t clear whether I had respect for something that was actually a misinterpretation of their work or whether at that time I appreciated their true intentions.’ He is not alone — it seems that Mohammed bin Salman might have missed the mischievous Italians’ irony too.”

Hockney, with his utopian explosions of primal color, might seem a curious fit for Wagner, the master of shadow and foreboding. Nonetheless, the composer has long been one of Hockney’s musical favorites,” Alex Ross writes in A Road Trip with David Hockney and Richard Wagner.

“The painter has attended the Bayreuth Festival three times, and in 1987 he designed a production of Tristan und Isolde for the Los Angeles Opera. Around the same time, he bought a beach house at the bottom of Las Flores Canyon, and in the early nineties he began plotting mountain routes that could be timed with Wagner selections. These expeditions informed his ideas about the play of light on landscape, both on canvas and in the theatre. When he experienced hearing loss, he had his Mercedes outfitted with a potent stereo system. Friends and fellow-artists were invited along for the ride.

There are actually three Wagner Drives: the Malibu Canyon route; a more extended traversal of the Santa Monica Mountains, which involves going up Kanan Dume Road; and an excursion in the San Gabriel Mountains, well to the east, which is closer to Hockney’s principal Los Angeles home, in the Hollywood Hills. Until recently, the capacity to perform Wagner Drive rested exclusively with Hockney, but in 2016 the art historian Arthur Kolat completed a master’s thesis on the subject, in the course of which he interviewed Hockney and codified directions and musical cues for the drives. Kolat passed them on to me, and this past summer I started trying them out. These adventures had the virtue of adhering to even the strictest pandemic-era restrictions: I could attend performances without leaving my car.”

“When I asked about the origin of Wagner Drive, Hockney said, ‘Well, the first thing I did was, when I was driving once to Las Vegas — past Las Vegas, to Zion Park — I listened to Handel’s Messiah, and I realized that all religions come from the desert, from someone contemplating the cosmos in the desert.’ That advisory aside, he emphasized the playfulness of his Wagner conceit: ‘I took some kids on it once, and they said, Oh, this is like a movie, and I realized, Well, they would never have listened to the Parsifal’ prelude just sitting at home.’

The notion that Wagner Drive could take on a life of its own, even without the artist’s supervision, pleased him. ‘Yes, it could be adapted by anybody,’ he told me. I posed the question that Kolat had contemplated before me: In what sense are the drives art works or performances? Hockney answered, ‘When I did them, I could take only two people in the car. But I did realize it was a kind of performance piece or performance art. It was now. It was only now — when it was over, it was gone. Performance is now, isn’t it? It has to be now.’”

“[All] modern art begins with Wagner. His mystic tones can be discerned in the smoky light of Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, and they shaped the late-19th-century symbolist movement, which turned away from exterior reality into poetic distillations of feeling. The arch-symbolist Edvard Munch spent key years of his career in bohemian 1890s Berlin and originally gave his most famous painting a German title, Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature). With its blood-red sky, it is a very Wagnerian shriek,” Jonathan Jones writes in Raw, brave, wild and honest: why Germany is Europe’s greatest artistic nation.

“By the 1900s, the international appeal of Berlin as an artistic centre was matched by Munich. It was here that Marcel Duchamp journeyed from Paris in 1912 to study perspective and plan his meisterwerk, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. He was part of a cosmopolitan golden age. Munich’s Blue Rider group took the symbolist intensity of Munch into a fierce realm of raw colour. They were anything but narrowly nationalist, led as they were by Russian émigré Wassily Kandinsky who preached the spiritual depth of the colour blue. The wildest genius was Bavaria’s own Franz Marc, who painted unforgettably charged visions of red and blue horses in exploding landscapes before being killed, aged 36, at the Battle of Verdun in 1916.

Here the angel of history appears. There is no denying the nightmare of Germany between 1914 and 1945. The greatness of German modern art lies in the ways it has recorded, opposed and remembered that age of destruction. In Georg Grosz’s 1926 painting The Pillars of Society, the rise of the far right is laid bare. While a building blazes in the background, an unholy alliance of stormtroopers and capitalists rant and rave. One has shit for brains, literally, another wears a potty as a helmet, and another wears a swastika tiepin, a prophetic image — as few thought, in 1926, there would be a Chancellor Hitler.”

“Against these scheisskopfs, Grosz and his radical contemporaries revealed the joyous energy of Weimar democracy. New freedoms create a cut-up chaos of the new in Hannah Höch’s punk photomontages, while Otto Dix’s portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden holding forth in a Berlin cafe with short haircut, monocle and a cigarette between her long bony fingers is a homage to Weimar ‘decadence.’”

“In 1937, the Nazis displayed the modern German art they confiscated, along with works by the likes of Picasso and Matisse, in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. This Nazi rhetoric — that modern art was morally depraved — was a vicious response to something quite specific and homegrown: the celebration of free and fluid sexualities that takes often shocking forms in Weimar artworks, above all Dix’s pictures of sex and death. His 1932 painting Youth and Age shows a stereotypical Aryan beauty in a pornographic pose being approached by a skeleton. Maybe it’s Germany’s immediate future.

[…]

For many artists after 1945, the objectivist, photographic rationalism advocated by [Walter Benjamin] is the only truly moral art after Nazism. Gerhard Richter is a painter who refuses any idea that painting is special, who not only copies photographs but avoids all hints of the expressionist. Paradoxically, he’s created some of the most sublime images in contemporary art. His Cage paintings, abstractions made by chance according to the rules of American neo-dada composer John Cage, are as mysterious and entrancing as a Wagner prelude, or at least Kraftwerk’s Autobahn.”

“ … the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you do, or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do.

We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility. If we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes just for a moment. Because here is the thing about life: there is no accounting for what fate will deal you.” — Joseph R. Biden Jr., the 46th President of the United States, in his inauguration speech

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.

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Mark Storm

Mark Storm

1.3K Followers

Helping people in leadership positions make sense — one conversation at the time