by Mark Naida
“The man gazed at the television. He finished his drink and started another.” – Raymond Carver, “Why Don’t You Dance?”
In Dearborn, Michigan, there is a theme park for historians. Or more properly, a park full of old things – things to stare at, trinkets to buy, and elderly docents all too willing to dispense stories from their vaults of knowledge.
It is nearing Christmas and I am attending one of their “Nights before Christmas” events with my family. Greenfield Village is brimming with the sound of Model T’s, children’s choirs, horn ensembles, and the synthetic shuttering of an iPhone capturing and effectively assaulting the Yule atmosphere. The street lights reminisce of the times when lightbulbs were revolutionary, their incandescence tenuous as each tungsten filament shakes in the December breeze. Docents and historical fanatics stroll in period garb, arm in arm, while nylon jackets and made-up faces gawk in the storefronts. These storefronts include the actual Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop, an old British toy store now vending factory-made sweets, a mid-19th-century tavern, and a glass-blowing shop. It feels like we are admiring the skeleton of history: the contrast between the brick, antiquarian building with the blacktop streets full of plastic strollers and tablet-laden schoolchildren is suffocating.
In the back of the village there is a two-storey wooden home constructed in New England a few years before the American Revolution. Echoing against each footstep, the never-settled house creaks while light blooms from the hearth. A young docent in a frontier dress shows how bread was made by burning a fire down to coals inside of the beehive-shaped hearth, which retains the heat of a fire long enough for someone to brush out the hot ashes, wet the inside of the beehive with a broom, and bake multiple loaves of bread in the residual heat. In the winter, the family would move down into the kitchen. They would set their bedrolls in front of the glowing embers to wait out the cold. And I had arrived in a car, talking to a friend on my cell phone as we drove up the interstate past six McDonalds restaurants and two Walmart stores while my sister checked her Facebook feed and we all complained about the radio. As I sit on an old barrel in an antique house, watching the fire’s light tongue the corners of the wooden room, the contrast is suffocating.
“realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm.” – Ambrose Bierce
The focus of this essay is realist art in the contemporary world. Realist art utilizes simple, everyday experience to distill reality into a form that is technical and beautiful, and which allows the viewer to attain deep insight into the true life of man and his world. The aesthetic of realism allows the whole of life to be poetry: even the banalities of laundry, doing the dishes, or digging a hole, within a realist aesthetic, can be poetry.Realism has little chivalry, few wizards, and only a limited number of spaceships–like life. Though it is dark, it is also true and honest. However, within a contemporary realist aesthetic, there exists the constant tension of technology: how to use it as poetic substance, how to order an artistic life to technology, how to find beauty in the loathsome things that we cannot understand.
What objects and images are we surrounded with and what art arises from them? How does the aesthetic experience interred in Greenfield Village produce Frost, Fitzgerald, and Twain? These men harnessed the tangible objects and experiences of the everyday in order to create the art of their time. For them, art was tangible – based in both image and process. The whole of art is the grafting of a tangible, sensual experience onto the human imagination. As such, we crave immersion into art – aesthetic immersion, a fully comprehensible scene of life. Meanwhile, the televisual age suffocates the tangible, honest aspect of art as a few brave souls try to locate the slender aesthetic lining of our time. It is not that the contemporary world is lacking in poetic silage, it is that the world of art is stuck in a pre-media age. There are few who insert technology (cell phones, television) into poetry or art; oftentimes a letter or newspaper acts as an aesthetic replacement. But if this replacement is made, the art can hardly be considered realistic: it is, instead, historical. Through aesthetic replacement, an artist simply lops off large portions of the contemporary human experience. According to one estimate, Americans spend an average of 8.5 hours each day in front of a screen, whether it be a television, a cell phone, or a GPS. To be realist, it would seem that art should conform to this aspect of reality, though it is grim.
The screens have put us at war with our own aesthetic sensibilities. First, the point of artistic realism is to reflect upon and find beauty in the everyday, but these days our everyday experience can be anything. By turning on a computer we can instantly be in Barbados, in the Arctic, or in the crowd at a concert. This experience is offered on only two sensory planes, however: sight and sound.Additionally, the purpose of screen-based technology is access – access to images and experiences without a comprehensive sensory experience. In reality, any experience transmitted through the use of screen-based technology is actually the experience of a lone person staring into a backlit screen. We can have any of the remarkable experiences of the world and a single lonesome experience at the same time.
Reality exists in the material world and in the human mind. These two facets of reality relate through the five senses and serve as the artistic synapse. Art needs to inhabit the material world with images and objects while also being full of sensory compassion in order to express the reality of everyday experience. The issue is then, what is our everyday experience, our reality?
‘Cause the technology is just gonna get better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier… and more and more convenient and more and more pleasurable… to sit alone with images on a screen… given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that’s fine in low doses, but if it’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die… In a meaningful way, you’re going to die. – David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
Televisual culture constantly offers us a chance to leave reality. It allows the disembodied imagination to explore something lesser: the sterile world of clean and beautiful people splayed across a rectangle of glass. Because the everyday mind is abstracted by the constant availability of intangible experience, the artistic mind is also floating in a sea of images that we do not actually love, produced by people who do not love us. We have to mine and collect images in order to create art out of honest experience. There must be a constant reorientation of the mind toward the world and away from the technology. Either that, or we must use it. A decision needs to be made.
We know that there is little beautiful about technology. We brush it under the table and hide it away. Televisions are hidden only to rise out of a slot in a wooden cabinet. We hide our iPhones in cases that look like wallets. In a documentary about micro-houses, a man proudly displays a work of his ingenuity, a cabinet fully stocked with charging ports, while saying that it is necessary to have a place to “hide [his] little nasties.” It is clear that society as a whole has decided that the new baubles of our fascination, smartphones and their ilk, are unpoetic objects. But if they are such, why is there so little discontent with the growing fault lines between art and reality? Even the Luddites seem silent on the issue. Why do we keep our “little nasties” if we know that they are not something we are proud to have? The phrase “I feel naked without it” has leaked into the lexicon of even the most reluctant of smartphone owners. It seems that we have deemed them a necessity, albeit an ahistorical and inartistic one. The hypocrisy in all of this is that the world of contemporary art is turning a blind eye to a large portion of reality which grows each day. Either we fight to make them beautiful through artistic ingenuity or we should abandon them as a culture.
Maybe this dichotomy is wrong. Maybe art will adopt such unpoetic things as these as naturally as it did the automobile, the telephone, and the billboard. Maybe not.
The invention of the pixelated screen was a revolution in human history. John Logie Baird was an early developer of television’s capabilities, first transmitting recognizable human faces (1925), then moving objects (1926), and then color (1928). His advances started a revolution in human experience. No longer did people really need to wonder about the world’s contents; those contents could be captured and displayed. Man effectively created something which could turn into anything – something that could synthesize human experiences while removing any personal element. In the mid-1950s, five-inch heart monitors became commonplace for most hospitals. Most people born in a hospital after that time have not been outside the womb without an encounter with something which has the ability to transport them to a different place. This is a rapid and rabid development. Things have not slowed. The fifties and sixties also saw the mass production of television sets which have been entrenched into the ethos of the American Dream in such a way that many Americans have proceeded to spend most evenings in front of “the tube” until their death. This is our reality. It would make for a great novel: call it The Stare, try to make it honest and beautiful.
Characters on television do not watch eight and a half hours of television each day. The writers of television shows know that it is not beautiful or compelling to see the very thing that the viewer is doing when watching television. That is the irony. We have a material experience which is left ignored and unloved by our entertainment. So where should art go? We still have the material experience to resort to – the tactile experience which has created art for millennia. A decision must be made to revert to the world of cocktail hour, of conversation, and of reading in order to revert to a tactile, material experience.
“Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material”
–William Dean Howells, Criticism and Fiction
Where does this place tangible art? How does a torrid two-dimensional whirlwind of images and sounds synthesize into writing or the other fine arts? It is rare to find television or other media used in an artistic setting without massive and obvious irony hitting the audience over the head. Because of this, art should become entrenched again in the tangible world – the poetic world. This is a world unknown to most millennials and only glimpsed by their parents, the Gen Xers, with pubescent angst. The Baby Boomers, the grandparents of today, were the last generation formed in a world free from incomprehensible technological advancements. This generation knows the names of trees. They have hobbies. They think can think mechanically. This is the gap between the mechanical and digital age. We, the current generation, know how to use things without any idea of why they work – we lack fundamental mechanical knowledge which would provide an understanding of simple technology. This understanding could serve as poetic food for the current generation.
Nicholson Baker, the author of The Mezzanine, believes very firmly in the beauty of mechanism. His book reflects the tension found in the late eighties with the advent of the personal computer and the cell phone. For Baker, beauty exists in the complexity of each moment; in fact, the whole book takes place on an escalator ride up a single floor. Baker uses stream of consciousness in his protagonist to show a mind with traditional aesthetic sensibilities. He is full of intimate mechanical understanding. The technology of the book is only what is comprehensible to the narrator – the escalator being the most complex. It is full of tactile moments including the protagonist’s preoccupation with his two broken shoelaces and his discourses on doorknobs, straws, and ice cube trays. Baker manages to show the workings of an artist’s mind when he writes:
“I gave no direct thought to the escalator’s grooves that afternoon, and indeed at that time I had indistinct notions as to their purpose – I thought they were there for traction, or possibly were purely decorative; grooved to remind us of how beautiful grooved surfaces are as a class: the grooves on the underside of the blue whale that must render some hydrodynamic or thermal advantage; the grooves left in loose soil or by a harrow in a field; the single groove that a skater’s blade makes in the ice; the grooves in socks that allow them to stretch, and in corduroy, down which you can run your ballpoint pen; the grooves of records.”
A deep mechanical understanding of the physical world presents an aesthetic alternative to the world of microchips and pixels whose beauty are understood by so few. It allows abstractions to fade and personal, physical knowledge to prevail. This kind of knowledge has been injured by advanced technologies that pretend to love and nurture us, but which actually unmoor us, leaving us floating between disparate images, implanted memories, and large stretches of unpoetic activity. Baker displays the thought process of a Baby Boomer, fully formed in a world in which all technology could be comprehended. That world is not the world of today. The large majority of the complex technologies currently used are incomprehensible without intense comprehension of scientific principles, engineering, and computer programming. Although they are strangers to their users, these technologies are used without suspicion. Baker relishes the simple things. His love for everyday, tangible objects should be imitated in realist art. His understanding of technology in its mechanistic form can also serve our age and technological atmosphere. Contemporary artists should resort to this love of the mechanical in order to rediscover and cultivate an understanding of poetic objects.
So how do we begin to acclimate ourselves to an older, comprehensible world? One whose contents we can understand whose objects we can name? The French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, in his novel Nausea, shows his protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, experiencing the strangeness of human experiences with the material world. He writes:
“I looked anxiously around me: the present, nothing but the present. Furniture light and solid, rooted in its present, a table, a bed, a closet with a mirror-and me. The true nature of the present revealed itself: it was what exists, and all that was not present did not exist.”
In that moment, the world reveals itself to Roquentin for what it is. The truth is that a table is a piece of tree that we place pieces of animals on to squeeze between mineral deposits of our mouths, often with company. Sartre shows that it is strange to understand the material reality of everyday life. A true, base understanding of the material world must be reached in order to then explore the role of the imagination in the artistic life. This can aid in a new understanding of the material world and of tangibility. It would allow artists to earnestly experience a realist aesthetic without turning a blind eye to the glaring ugliness of televisual technology. In the end, we must do what we can to root ourselves in the world and to express the whole of human experience honestly.
This being said, the world will not cease to turn. The technology will not go away. I long for the poet of the digital age. I long for one who can make sense of this. Or I long for retreat – to retreat into the comprehensible, mechanical world, to retreat back into the poetic world and leave the screens behind.
An analogy for the challenge:
“A bee rose up from a sun-filled paper cup, off to make slum honey from some diet root beer it had found inside. I entered the lobby and went up the escalator.”
Mark Naida is a sophomore studying French and English.