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Art and the Mad Machine: The Spirit of Life vs. The Spirit of Addiction

What you see above is a reproduction of the cover of the July 1992 issue of OMNI Magazine, for which I wrote the month’s “First Word” piece.  The “First Word” name of the feature referred to its being the first piece of writing in the issue (on page 3 after the Table of Contents), and to its being offered as the opinion or observation of an expert on a topic of importance to him in his field.  As a poet and an advocate for art, artists, artists’ rights, and historic preservation, I wrote about “Art and the Mad Machine:  The spirit of addiction vs. the spirit of life.”  (It really should have read:  “The spirit of life vs. the spirit of addiction” for proper parallelism, but there it is!)

My column proved to have a post-publication life:  taken up as a source of encouragement by an association of jazz musicians, listed as recommended reading for a course on art in a Northern Michigan college, offered up by private online research programs, and roundly criticized in a book whose argument is that art contributes nothing to the public good and that consequently there is no justification for government grants to artists or arts organizations.  Just recently, I saw my piece again when it appeared online through a project that has made the archive of OMNI issues available to the public.

Re-reading my old column, it seems to me that, far from having become obsolescent, much of what it says is more desperately urgent now than when it was written.  Below is the page with my column as it appeared in OMNI.  But to make sure that you can read it easily, I’ve retyped and offered it to you here:

     These days, when people in the arts talk together, an air of dejection and doom soon creeps in, like the fog, on leopard’s paws.
     The other night, I attended a meeting called by a regional arts foundation to find out how artists believed it can best spend its dwindling funds. During the session, the director of a school arts program told in anger and anguish how he’s losing creative, enthusiastic students to drugs and gangs because the city has cut his staff by more than 80 percent. “It’s killing them,” he said, “and sooner or later, it’ll kill some of us.”
     I grieve about such things, and not because I see the arts as just a sweet little beggar-boy snubbed by an Ebeneezer Scrooge society. What disturbs me is not merely our failure to care for the future of the arts, but our failure to use their genuine power for the sake of our own perilous future.
     Certainly, we make far too little use of the proven economic and educational powers of the arts. But, ironically, the religious conservatives who attack arts funding as a whole, out of supposed fear for our moral future, come closer to the heart of the matter. They sand in the right location – but they’re blind to the landscape.
     In truth, the arts are one of our few genuine sources of moral training. We should make more use in our schools of works like the tales of the Brothers Grimm and the films of Chaplin, which turn compassion and moral imagination into lived experience.
     But the central morality of the arts, their most critical importance for our future, a well as the diffident or hostile treatment we so often give them, all have a source deeper than overt lessons or explicitly “moral feelings”: namely, the arts’ embrace of an “economy,” a mode of being, which is radically different from the one that reigns in our society.
     The great American philosopher William James wrote: “. . . the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on that word success – is our national disease.”
     That’s the greasy motor that runs our mad machine and generates so much sorrow and strife. You know the mechanism: Make people feel unworthy, inferior, pimply and sweaty, in need of products and approbation which feed their egos but not their true needs. And so you persuade them to buy a new deodorant or the latest designer drug or to sanction more cruelty in the holy name of business. And these behaviors make them more insensitive, dependent, uncreative, so that they then crave larger doses, more extreme sensations, more extravagant symbols of status – all of which makes them feel emptier, more driven, more desperate – which in turn spurs their cravings still more. And so the country spins downward in the widening, addictive spiral.
     But the arts throw their wooden shoes into the gears of that infernal machinery. They trade not in superficial rush-and-crash excitement or spurts of ego-adrenaline, but in lasting perceptiveness and wonder, mystery and love, transformation and growth. The arts’ beneficiaries draw more and more life from even the most common, most subtle experience. Good art offers ploughshares of revelation and pleasure, not swords of competitive lust.
     It is here that the arts’ true subversiveness and their greatest importance for our future are found. And it is their implicit criticism of our self-destructive ways, their competing body of values, that makes the peddlers of worldly wealth and sway so scornful, angry, and even fearful in the face of the arts.
     The Spanish Falangists must have felt that “subversive” power of the arts when, in 1936, they murdered the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and dumped his corpse into an unmarked grave. Though Lorca was not a partisan in the Civil War, the fascists hated and feared the spirit of compassion, courage, and joy in his work. Peasants and professors alike memorized his “Gypsy Ballads.” [LR: Read his “Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard,” and you’ll understand what he stirred.] The fascists couldn’t kill the poet’s words, so they killed their bothersome maker.
     Those killers in their tyranny sensed what we in our freedom should know and heed far better: that our future is not saved or lost primarily in physical, economic, or scientific combat, but rather in the war between the spirit of selfish desire and that spirit of irrepressible light that feeds – and shines from – our great works of art.

Lawrence Russ View All

Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .

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