This Great Society - Arts



Illustration: Brian Rush


Hilary Meyerson: Upon a Shifting Plate
Illustration: Brian Rush



       It started with a celebrity. All worthy eras do. She was known by every person in the world, even the goat herders on remote foreign hillsides, huddled over tabloid magazines by firelight. She was hounded daily — every coffee run, every grocery store trip, every cigarette. She was a pop singer, and she mused to the paparazzi that creativity was being stifled by technology. First she shut down her website, forsook her cell phone. Then she disconnected her agent. Eventually, she turned her back on the world and disappeared from public life. The final word on her blog said she was going to pursue her art, alone, in solitude and austerity, without benefit of electrons or gigabytes. There were no further posts.

        For weeks, her followers waited for word, for photos from the gorgeous yet secluded rehab she must be at, but none followed. Her celebrity hit critical mass, a roiling explosion of searching, then the only thing that could rushed into the void she’d left. It was a grassroots movement of a few fans at first, then more who were intrigued by the movement. A pursuit of creativity coupled with a rejection of technology.

        Music was hit first; it was already the caffeine of the masses. Vinyl, once a cult favorite, became the only way to listen to recordings. Musicians rushed to press their emotions onto the black grooved discs and turntables became more valuable than a hybrid car. There were forays into cassettes and 8 tracks, but they were quickly rejected. One long-haired guitarist with loose hips and muttonchops said that he would never again allow his music to be held captive by an electronic prison. Live music was the only true art. Concert venues sprung up everywhere. Street buskers rolled up oil drums to hold the cash they collected. Mall stores closed and individual booths were created for one or two musicians to hold forth, without amplification, performing a song. Patrons lined up to hear a few bars played just for them, the way they had once waited for a decaf mochacchino.

        The literary arts grew from the music, as people were astonished to discover that words themselves could ring and caress and clank. The old ones were rediscovered, those inky classics that had once been so much required reading. At first, everyone read them online, until a poet with soft white braids and a mean temper said that the electronic screen with its homogenizing fonts had stripped the language of its personality. Then it was back to books, and after a few months, book publishers could no longer meet demands. Libraries were back in vogue and soon had waiting lists and check-out limitations. Each patron could only check out one, and then only by humming a ditty of their own making at the circulation desk. The wait for a volume of Shakespeare could be six months; Emily Dickinson, nine. David Foster Wallace, over a year.

        The painters and the sculptors claimed they were the truest artists, pure in non-lingual expression. The most sought-after paint was made without chemicals, from flowers and plant oils, with blood for a binding agent. It was applied with brushes of human hair. Sculptors used only rock and clay excavated with their own hands.

        Anyone with any means became patrons of the arts. Yachts and luxury cars hulked in dry-docks and used car lots, as the wealthy sold them off to commission raw, untechnologized art. A commission for a song from a well-known musician might go for a few hundred thousand, from an obscure one, even more. Bankers ducked into velvet curtained booths on their lunch hours, shelling out hundreds of dollars and closing their eyes in bliss to hear a grad student recite a haiku, composed that very hour. Weddings were frugal affairs, the bride and groom donning the most basic of garb in order to save up for a down payment on a short story. Poets became as gods. Every teenager dreamed of creating sestinas in iambic tetrameter as they lay on their narrow beds, hands behind their heads, looking up at posters of Yeats and CK Williams.

        Professional sports took a hit as well. Even publicized halftime shows of interpretive dance couldn’t sell tickets. One professional basketball team disbanded to become a tap dance troupe and their show “Three Points from Behind the Line” won a Tony. Ballet corps trading cards replaced those featuring stocky mid-westerners wielding bats and children clamored for autographs from their clog-dancing heros. Little League was disbanded in favor of youth orchestras which competed against each other, the opponents sitting on folding chairs on either side of unused athletic fields. Their portable music stands were emblazoned with the local sponsors, the dry cleaners or hardware stores that paid for the 1/8 scale violins and cellos.

        Besides the traditional visual, literary and musical arts, new ones emerged. The envelope was pushed beyond the borders of comprehension. One artist outside of Reno drew many admirers as he had weekly deliveries to his garage of peonies, industrial solvents and second hand sandals, but he never opened his door and refused to say what art unfolded behind the garage door, despite the crowds. After several weeks, he announced his retirement, and art periodicals hailed him as the age’s greatest artist going out at the peak of his career.

        As the world turned its collective face to the arts, the old economies were no longer valid. As tax attorneys and hedge fund managers left their posts to weld sculptures out of hand tools or practice fiber arts on hand-built looms, there was no one to take their places. No one noticed. Doctors renamed themselves Medical Artists and left their lucrative practices to go door-to-door looking for the sick and healable. Insurance companies withered and died as people became robust in droves after the free performance installation pieces known as “surgery” or “treatment” or “chemo” or “transplants” became free and commonplace.

        Governments replaced military budgets with arts funding and theaters grew like subsidized corn. Then one European nation replaced its Parliament with a writing workshop model, with one regional governor coming each month with rhymed legislative proposals and providing snacks while the others weighed in about what worked for them in a nonjudgmental manner. A Scandinavian nation decided that year-round government was merely a hindrance to its citizenship’s artistic endeavors and disbanded in favor of yearly jam session of legislators, which was followed by frenzied dancing and diner breakfast at dawn.

        Some people called it the New Renaissance. Some called it the birth of a new age of mankind. Some thought it a religious event, a new manifestation of the divine in mankind itself. Everyone agreed this new age of creativity was better than the old one, except for a few jazz bands, who said it was harder than ever to find a drummer.

        Then one day, the celebrity who left the world to pursue her art returned, with a cocky smile and new tattoos swirling down her arms. She explained her absence had been caused by a failed love affair, a weakness for a balding tai chi instructor from Santa Fe, a nobody who’d rejected her. She’d been on an extended vacation on a private island, consoling herself with tequila and a certain muscled goat herder who’d seen her in a magazine. She said in a press conference from her boat that while she’d healed her broken heart and the world had turned to creation as its goal, she had discovered new truths. Some were secret. She was wearing a gold halter dress with sheer cutouts in the back through which another tattoo peeked. Photographers who had not shot anything but close up still-lifes of flowers strained their lenses to capture it. Word spread from the bus station waiting rooms that housed the last remaining televisions, and people slowly gathered there, curious and eager for guidance. Her album drops next month.


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