Curriculum II: America Is an Artist

Letters at 3AM


illustration by A.J. Garces
Some thoughts about the election before this column really begins:

Nothing changed this November, except that the Democrats came out of the closet and revealed themselves as country-club, fern-cafe Republicans (as opposed to gospel-tent, truck-stop Republicans). Republican Lite. With Clinton preparing to put Republicans in his cabinet, the switch to a de facto one-party system is finally out in the open and proudly proclaimed -- a system in which the national election decides intra-party squabbles, not overall policy, because the essential direction is agreed upon by both Republican Lagers and Republican Lites. And don't talk to me about the Supreme Court. Those appointments are Clinton's major trading card with congress, and he will appoint "centrists" -- i.e., people who 10 years ago would have been considered right-wing -- to swap for what he wants on Capitol Hill. See, Lagers and Lites still need to fight amongst themselves, to generate enough theatre for headlines, for fame, and for the pure fun of vying. When a Democratic president's domestic policies are far to the right of Richard Nixon's; and when that president is cheered by the "liberal" wing of his party; then the conservative revolution is over and done and won, for now.

So it's all the more important to contemplate that conundrum that's been haunting many ever since Columbus claimed these lands for Europe: What is an American? What is the American character, if there is such a thing? What are we running from, and/or running toward? But such questions need points of reference, and that's why I'm calling these pieces a "curriculum" -- suggesting lenses through which to see parts of ourselves, departures for thinking about ourselves. This column's departure isn't a list but a metaphor, and at first may seem strange indeed:

America is an artist.

How can that be said about a culture that's committed genocide and slavery, worships money, and sees itself as entrepreneurial, practical, business-like, bottom-line? Because the American phenomenon is a story of creativity -- in fact, it is our creativity, more than any other single trait, that's made us what we are, and given us our power. No other culture has created so many original forms in art, politics, technology, and even social relationships -- forms so original that they have both infected and instigated other, far older cultures, and changed them utterly. No matter how long our list of crimes may be, later eras will marvel at our originality. You must go back to ancient Greece to find another country whose original creations have haunted and shaped humanity as much as ours.

What we didn't invent outright, we adapted and honed, creating the contemporary application of inventions -- in fact, our applications became inventions in themselves, imitated world-wide. To list a few, in no special order: small-r republican democracy; large-scale corporate agriculture; suburbia; mass industrial production and distribution; advertising; standardized education; the youth market; the use of electricity; and the invention (or implementation) of the light bulb, phonograph, recording tape, radio, car, television, telephone, airplane, repeating rifle, machine-gun, aircraft carrier, computer, A-bomb, motion-picture camera and projector, iron- and steel-hulled ships, the suspension bridge, the skyscraper, and the Internet... not to mention baseball, basketball, football... and the contemporary version of worldwide movements like feminism, gay liberation, and ecology... and most of the advances in medicine for the last century... to name a few. For good and for evil, the power of these elements to shape lives has been astounding. Combined, they speak of a restless, volatile originality, a voracious and irresistible creativity -- human creativity raised to the power of a force of nature, so much so that it intimidates and changes nature itself.

I've spent most of my working life criticizing many of these inventions and most of their applications. But to criticize is one thing, and to denigrate is another. The incredible spectacle of this wave of invention, and the overwhelming energy it both expresses and channels, can no more be denigrated than a hurricane or tidal wave. No one knows why, but somehow or other the migration of people to this continent unleashed an enormous inner energy that's expressed itself in the most creative period of recorded history. American creativity has literally become what is "modern" in modern history. To call our fantastic and gruesome era "the American century" isn't jingoism or hype. God help us, it's true.

In the arts, the American impulse has been equally pervasive. Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe invented the modern short story, Ernest Hemingway perfected it, and Poe single-handedly started the detective, sci-fi, and horror genres. Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, between them, created a poetics used now almost exclusively in the poetry of every major language. Since 1914, American films have been "the movies," the world standard -- they are what every culture's cinema plays off of and plays to. (Wim Wenders said wistfully, "America has colonized our imaginations.") The idea of the TV "series" was invented here, along with every other form of television broadcast. Martha Graham, among others, created modern dance. And as for music... what other country in history has invented so many new forms that have proven irresistible to foreigners? More or less in historical order: The blues, ragtime, jazz (in all its stages and forms), Tin Pan Alley-style songwriting, country, rock, rap -- a spectrum of sound that, like a computer virus, has infected forever the purity of other music all over the world.

If a tone of baffled, stuttering awe has come into this piece, I admit it and I can't help it. When you step back and look at American creativity as a whole, even this briefly, it's like reporting a landing from Mars on the White House lawn. For more than 10,000 years of recorded history, invention was rare. And then in a little over a century and a half, everything changed.

The same human beings, with the same physiques and the same intelligence, had been around for roughly a quarter million years and had invented very little -- then some came here and suddenly went nuts with invention and creativity, and everything changed. Was it because we weren't encumbered by tradition? Was it because so many different cultures were colliding and fructifying each other on the American continent? Was it because of the scale of the continent itself? If these are contributing factors, why didn't the same thing happen in Latin America, where many of the same conditions prevailed -- because we have winters and they don't? Because we have democracy and free enterprise and most of us are white? Nineteenth-century England had democracy and free enterprise and all of them were white, plus they had a worldwide empire of resources, and England wasn't a fraction as inventive. No reason or combination of reasons explains America sufficiently -- or at all. We don't know why -- we only know where: here.

The phenomenon of American creativity is too volcanic to be called merely an "achievement." There is nothing to compare it to in world history, so it's hard to call it anything.

In the light of this torrent of creation, it's not so strange to see America as an artist, a mad artist in the community of cultures -- an obsessed, tormented artist: volatile, manic, moody, violent, brilliant, restless, anarchic, dictatorial, bullying, yet generous with its dreams and its gifts, unable to stop its own torrent of creation, and unable to live with what it creates. An artist both adored and feared by those who can't help but be fascinated and influenced by its creations.

This could explain why America has always been so hostile to its own all-too-human artists, suspicious of their independence, contemptuous of their impracticalities, offended by their appetites -- for in its artists America sees a mirror of its own torrential out-of-control creativity. America is afraid of what it is really is, and must turn on anyone who reminds it of its soul, the soul of a genius in his art who is immature and destructive in his life.

It's no wonder we've become pinched and small-minded in our politics. We've grown so frightened at the spectacle of our own capacities that politically and socially we've retreated to the banal and venal to protect ourselves from ourselves. We do this every few decades. It's our way of saying: "My god, we have to stop somewhere, or this voracious creativity will drive us so mad that there'll be no turning back." Of course, it's too late for that. There's no way not to be what we are. With the Internet and computer technology going full steam, the artist that is America shows no signs of letting up, doomed to tortured restlessness by virtue of its gifts. But it's hard to blame anyone for being overwhelmed.

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