What the Artists Had Forgotten
By John Cutler

They had forgotten that what was shocking was not, now, original. With the fall of Christian doctrine, most perversions had been seen, even if not accepted.

The shocking had, at one time, acted as shock therapy. It was a massive, overwhelming dose of the different. The different would then be seen, or imagined, and it could stay. It would be, with even the moderately educated, a clearing wind in the busied mind. Art can have the effect of encountering the wilderness, when you are well-fed.

But later in the century artists continued making and performing these shocking things. They too had become integrated parts of the repetitive mass culture, although their integration, and the integration of everyone else, was so complete that no one noticed. Corporations had been formed for funding.

The integration of the artists allowed them to believe that the exposition of the shocking and the controversial was still such. But it bore only a resemblance to that which was shocking and clearing at the turn of the century.

All of the art was neatly framed by exposition disclaimers which identified the art as controversial. Because it was controversial, it was therefore to be given the artistic moment of silence. You would be crude, an unbecoming primitive (a redneck) to be actually shocked. When a lonely woman asked the ticket-taker why they allowed such art into the museum, he could only utter, "for different people there are different tastes." He did not look her in the eye, nor even feel any need to look her in the eye. This disagreement was not allowed. It was only recognized as the fright of a young child, rather than the disgust and fear of an adult, with experience.

Art followed this formula, and was as successful as all formulas which find success; there was critical acceptance, and shows, and sales, and then the viewing public moved on to the next round of art spectacle, emitting moments of silence far more than moments of quiet, personal joy. Works became dated quickly, despite their unwillingness to accept or know their own times, and despite the artists' sweeping rejections of the hegemonic order.

This art, which confused the shocking for a clearing wind, rather than as debasement, which was its true nature, had an effect on the people who composed popular culture. And much that had been counted on in the past was exhausted. As the rainforests and oceans were depleted, so were the reservoirs of common decency, which before had been considered as plentiful as air.

And always they fell back upon the right to express one's self, as they are defined by law. Freedom of speech became a rallying cry. They pretended that there was a closing envelope of cultural restriction, when in fact there was a clearly discernable hemorrhaging of daily life. The sounds made by the artists in response to censorship resembled the whining tones of failing aristocrats, unable to find a place where things were done properly. The artists could simply find fewer venues in which to shock, as most people had become numb to much that happened around them; the outrageous disregard for human life occurred at many levels.

The artists believed that this numbness came from a Western absorption with materialism, with empty religiosity, with Eisenhowerism. Often they relied on the offal of popular culture as their medium. Pieces were gathered; moments of silence were offered. Often lawyers would buy pieces of art that allowed them, for a certain consideration, to snicker at the superficial world in which they labored.

Through some strange contortion, the artists came to resemble lawyers more than poets. Artists strained to make their points before judges and juries. Their works lacked common sense. Average people were held in disdain, while codes were revered. Neither group cared that what they were doing was not appreciated much by the average man. Neither group realized that they depended, ultimately, upon the labor of these people. A deep numbness from an empty religiosity prevailed among these two groups, despite the frenzy of their actions.

A virtual alliance between artists and lawyers emerged. There were no more acts of God. Every evil was the direct result of a measurable, assignable affliction. Where there was no blame, blame would be found. And most of all, there would be payment. The works of lawyers and the works of artists demanded retribution. The artists, guardians of freedom of expression, demanded funding, and more freedoms. Lawyers, guardians of civil and consumer rights, demanded more opportunities to litigate. As guardians, they were blameless knights. Their demands were immaculate.

Through brutally honest art or an exquisite lawsuit, the front of the corrupt man or woman would be lifted: justice would be meted down. But most people, it could be said, loathed these groups. The lawyers and artists knew this only through stories about themselves, written by people like themselves, as they were held aloft by the formulas of their corporations. These formulas ensured some modicum of financial security, and the psychic certitude about the value of their class.

This world held aloft was apart from the confusions of the mobile home park and the four-lane commute. It was apart from the quiet horror of the news at eleven, when people watched the world they lived in and compared it to the world they had lost. (There was so much abstract loss at the time. Strangers overcame the feeling of strangeness by recounting their shared losses.)

More time was spent demanding freedom of speech. More time was spent demanding funding. New laws were needed, to protect speech, personal freedoms, and litigation. Lawyers longed to have the freedom to construct images of people and society enjoyed by artists, and artists longed to have the power of lawyers, the power to transform a culture. Each partook. Both beheld the average people as raw materials.

They had forgotten about the lives of solitary people, struggling to make moral sense out of each working day. They also forgot that these people talk to each other, less now because of television, but still there is talking. Ordinary people continue to take an interest in speaking, directly and honestly, with other people. It is still the best policy to look a person directly in the eye when speaking to them. If you cannot do this, you have a problem on your hands.

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