When I think of art, I think of language. When I think of language, I think of control. When I think of control and language, I think of how much humans need to feel they have control over their lives or they will go insane. When I think of insane, I think of cooking. If I cook something good, I feel in control – even if I am only in control of the carrots, onions and asparagus. If it all comes out right I feel like I’ve made a work of art. If it doesn’t turn out right then it’s an inedible catastrophe and yet another one of my failed art projects.
But when I think of insane I also think of politics. When I think of politics I think of the 3/5ths compromise of 1787 where Congress agreed that African slaves could be counted as only 3/5ths of a person so Southern states could claim larger representation in Congress. In the 1860 census Virginia had 491,000 slaves but with a free population of only 1,105,000, which meant basically one out of three people was a slave. That’s insane.
When I think of politics and slavery I think of erased histories and culture. When I think of culture I think of stories – some told, some hidden, some discovered, and some some deliberately erased. So invariably I think of art again because art is how culture tells and retells its stories. The problem with artists is that they are always cooking up new ways to talk about the hidden, the overlooked, the secret, the forbidden and the beautiful. After all, for example, a gay man of color living in San Francisco may view beauty very differently than a white conservative Christian housewife from Alabama. Depending on the situation just the expression of culture can be a profoundly political act.
I am also thinking of James Luna, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andreas Serrano, Linda Bengalis, Hans Haake, Fred Wilson, and others who aren’t afraid to rock the boat with their work. They all bring up tohe sorts of issues that many would prefer not to talk about at the dinner table.
But how can Americans talk about the current economic crisis, labor unions, homelessness, soup kitchens, unpaid internships, Occupy Wall Street, the loss of workers rights, the return of debtor’s prison, etc., and not remember that it was actually slavery that built the early economy of this country? Or how about the railroads that used labor so cheap it was essentially a form of slavery? Or how about the factories that used small children to produce all kinds of products for next to nothing? Who is supposed to tell their stories?
The truth is that artists have always played an important role in social movements. So have musicians and writers. No wonder the National Endowment for the Arts is always in danger of being totally eliminated – some just don’t want to hear about the lives and struggles of people of color, or the poor, or the jobless, or the ugly, or the unlucky, or the degenerates, or the sad, or about suicidal girls, or about lesbians, or about mental illness, or about the homeless. Some would prefer that Occupy Wall Street would fall apart and just go away, some would rather not have gay artists making art about gay issues, some would prefer not to have to hear another quirky story on This American Life, or read another angsty blog on McSweeney’s. Some object to social criticism in general and see the arts as a liberal force attacking the proper order of things, whatever that is.
The opposite of course, is to have legislated order where nobody is really in control but the wealthy and the powerful. The Total Information Awareness Program wants to gather all data from your phone, computers, banks, travels, taxes, credit cards, medical records, and any articles you publish or read, publications you purchase, etc, and then give you a ranking based on all of that. It would have an impact on whether you can fly on an airplane, whether you could get a certain job, etc. FYI: you have no control over what they put in your file or what conclusions they reach about you. In other words, they would control your story and your history, not you. It’s enough to freak anyone out.
So let’s just forget about politics and go back to art and control and language and cooking – oh and family too.
When I was growing up my mother cooked all the time. So I do know this – if I have a bunch of vegetables and don’t want to mess up a meal, I can cut them all up and roast them. I just sprinkle on a little olive oil, add a pinch of salt, some black pepper and then put them out on a pan (or two or three). The oven should be around 400 degrees. All you need to do is check on them periodically – but don’t leave them in longer than 50 or 60 minutes. You want them to be roasted, not burned.
Take them out and you can cut them up, put them in tacos, add them to a salad or eat them as-is. For all the existential anxiety being pushed in the news these days the kitchen is a great little oasis of control.