The worlds of both contemporary art and American Zen seem deeply and equally screwed. Having devoted considerable energy to both over decades, this has been a distressing reality to keep waking up to. I keep thinking I’ve hit the bottom of it, then some new demonic or moronic manifestation rears its ugly head and another stage of grief or wonder kicks in. And, the opportunities of new problems to solve, and thoughts to think.
So, I work to understand, and work to counteract. But since both seem so fundamentally broken at a systemic level, I’m left concentrating quite close in. I’ve pulled back, withdrawn, and I work, think, write, talk, and pray. That’s the cycle – out, then in. I’ve written a 400 page book that is just off to the printers in China, due out in January, 2020. It’s ostensibly about psychedelic rock posters, but for me, it was also a deep inquiry and meditation on the rise of 1960s “counterculture” – particularly its darker, frustrating legacies in which I feel we’re all well and truly mired. I just watched a Denver city council woman state (like an even more radical Ocasio-Cortez, as if we thought that were possible) that our civilization is a complete failure that must be destroyed, “and I am excited to usher it in, by any means necessary.” That is of course code for, “excited by the chance to bash whitey’s head in.” As if white people even existed. Yet another lie of the left, invented about five minutes ago. They just shamelessly lie about everything, these people, it’s amazing, and it’s all mainstreamed.
Thing is, this is also virtually every “Zen Master ™”, “Mindfulness ™ teacher”, and “Engaged Buddhist ®”. This is most “contemporary art” curators. These are the artists given shows, and the editors of the magazines that write about them, unread but by a few groundless, angry hipsters in New York or LA, and professionals tracking their investments. These are the mayors of many mid-sized American towns, in blue states run by governors held hostage by the radical wing of their party shifting the Overton Window, and the culture czars they hire who co-sponsor Marxist indoctrination conferences.
I don’t know much, but I know neo-Marxist identitarianism is profoundly bad news and that black-masked Antifa losers are just a gender-confused Three Stooges version of Hitler’s brownshirts. I keep thinking about what happened to “liberalism.” I try to remember to make the distinction, liberality versus liberalism. -Isms makes schisms, our Rasta brethren say. It may be a distinction without difference anymore, and you have to wonder when and where the rot truly set in. Liberality, which I long vaguely subscribed to thinking it meant free speech, free thought, tolerance, a social safety net, and a culture of stringent legal process, is being torched right and left. I’ve been listening with fascination to a certain “conservative” Catholic scholar who says that essentially, it’s Luther’s fault; and Henry VIII’s, John Dee’s, Calvin’s, and Wesley’s; Newton’s, Einstein’s, and Heisenberg’s; the Bauhaus’s, Mies’s, and Schoenberg’s; Leary’s, Kesey’s, and the Rockefeller’s. Thing is, there are quite sound arguments in favor of this assertion – a total takedown of modernity itself – explaining what’s made it so prone to mass genocidal zombification, another wave of which seems eerily imminent.
Meanwhile, fewer and fewer Americans (and no one on the left) seems to have any real conscious grasp at all of the miraculous civilization, or its history, that nourishes their bodies and keeps them safe from virtually every threat that their ancestors succumbed to, 1000 times over, in order to make their soft lives and endless complaints possible. While they cry “gun control!”, gun deaths continue their steady, decades-long descent. While they scream “global warming!” a 20-year solar peak ended and we see all the signs of our entering a quite predictable, cyclical mini ice age. While they cry “injustice!”, everyone who wants one has a pocket computer and a job, and the biggest health threat for America’s poor is obesity, and a vague malaise stemming from spiritual laxity making people prey for corporate materialism and drug addiction. Poor, put-upon people, including most of my ancestors, survived and thrived for all of human history by figuring out how to live and live relatively well under duress and in stress. My elegant, sophisticated mother, descended from poor dirt farmers and carpenters and preachers in the rural south, mostly grew up hungry and without shoes, in the 1950s, picking cotton after school while her father slowly worked his way over decades toward a PhD in animal science. But the political left sees poor folk and minorities as helpless pets and losers in need of handouts, or worse merely pawns in their Machiavellian schemes. They misdiagnose every problem, misapprehend all real threats. There’s this psychological element – what causes people to think like this? What makes them susceptible to such profound cognitive dissonance, self-righteousness, false compassion, and illogic? This goes well beyond all the disinformation peddled by the MSM.
It gets into mind-boggling levels of complexity, yet we seek comprehensible answers. For decades, leftism disguised itself in impenetrable language used to baffle, isolate, and take over academic establishments, with wild success. Ironically, today it’s just been boiled down to a quite essentialized dogma, summed up by “white dad bad, brown eunuch good.” For all its debauched wizardry, that attitude is in the end all Foucault’s sophistry really ever masked. When I was a student in the postmodern academy, even later when I was a teacher, I felt all of this, but I couldn’t necessarily articulate it. And it wasn’t as clear as it is today – they were still in a weak position, academic leftists of the last couple decades, and had to couch their terms, and sneak. In grad school, I found myself set against packs of weak, bitchy, spoiled, overeducated, pretentious art students, and teachers who groomed them, who mostly thought Foucault was the be all and end all, and Freud before him, and Marx. I couldn’t be bothered to refute the finer points of their precious texts because two paragraphs into any of them you could simply tell they were full of shit, “said nothing to me about my life“, and that it all led to one big literal dead end (Stalin, Mao, Che, Pol Pot, etc.) So ironically, I threw myself headlong into Zen seeking not “enlightenment” but some simpler sort of redemption, and a better way to just be.
Soto Zen, which I settled into after stints in a couple other traditions, promised as much. “Practice is enlightenment” is their historical motto. Even better, no “practice” at all: “show up when the bell rings. Just sit.” Well, Trump got elected and suddenly every Zen Master ™ (most of them old boomer lefties secretly thrilled the time for bolshevist revolution had finally arrived stateside) felt the need to start preaching the good gospel of Marx and putting the tenets of Saul Alinsky to work, Zen founder Eihei Dogen’s exhortations to keep politics out of the zendo be damned. “Empty your mind, empty your mind, empty your mind; now, internalize climate catastrophism and irrevocable and perpetual shame/blame based on skin melanin and supposed ancestral tribal origins.” Dare anyone question, much less resist? “GET OUT, FASCIST!”
So what is wrong with Zen and art in contemporary modernity that they have been not only infected by evil ideas, but serve as primary vectors of them? Is it the fault of certain types of people who were attracted to and rose to prominence in these so-called disciplines? What fault lies in the traditions themselves, in these fields of supposed inquiry, in their genesis or morphology? For me, one led to the other and back, Zen and art, pinging me intellectually and emotionally back and forth, surrounded by a sea of people impossible to even converse with for their intellectual stuntedness, bigotry, dogmatism, and emotional fragility – everything they hysterically, bitterly project onto others, of course.
As the bombs burst in mid air on this Fourth of July, under a crescent moon, there’s welcome proof people care about this country, as a country, and not just victim categories squabbling over scraps and resentments, real or imagined. It’s an imperfect union, but union is the operative concept. Here’s to a majority keeping their priorities and their heads on straight.