Turning the Page on Locke: Private Property in the Coming Age

John Locke (1632-1704) left quite an intellectual legacy for modernity to brood over. He was a founding figure of the empirical age, arguing that all knowledge begins with the input of the five senses. (“Perception . . . [is] the first step . . . towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it” [1].) He applied this to psychology [2], arguing that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa or blank slate (a psychological theory that coincidentally supported the views of his Whig patron, Shaftesbury, who despised the old views of inborn superiority of rank and innate ideas about social hierarchy). Indeed, Locke says point blank that there are no innate ideas “as it were stamped upon the mind of man” [3]. And then of course there’s his political theory, with ideas about the government’s role in protecting life, liberty, and property [4], which would be applied by Thomas Jefferson 100 years later in the founding documents of the US. Jefferson, of course, cagily substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” [5], but it’s the “property” idea that concerns me here.

The same ideas that supported Locke’s epistemology (empiricism) and his psychology (tabula rasa) fed into economics. Instead of the old economic system based on landed hierarchies, suddenly you have “economic individualism” as the cornerstone idea. Each individual is a self-contained unit with a right to their individual property. For “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, ownership was the cornerstone of all social relations. Indeed, Locke argued that ownership over one’s own body is given in the very state of nature, and that all appropriation of additional properties is a natural extension of that relation. (“Everyman has a property in his own Person … [and] the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his … Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided … [and] mixed his labour with … [is thereby] his property,” [6].)

Thus we come to a world where social relations take the form of individuals accumulating and competing for property, and governments organically emerge in defense of “life, liberty, and property.”

If I may take what 18th-century wit, Henry Fielding, said of a certain philosophy of the day, and apply it to Locke’s theory, I might say it is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true” [7].

OK, I can’t quite make the claim that Locke is wrong, but I can raise the question: What if this cornerstone idea of modernity and capitalism, this idea about the primacy of personal ownership, is false? Or perhaps not false, but at least not logically necessary. What if it is but one way of looking at things, and a way that is perhaps no longer the most serviceable?

My alternative would start here. My interlocutor might grant me that the idea of ownership as the primary relation between oneself and one’s own body is speculative and not in any way self-evident. But, my interlocutor might say, the relation between a person and land or objects – there, ownership seems to naturally apply. Surely ownership is fundamentally a relationship between individuals and the things that they own, no? My counterargument is this: Ownership is not fundamentally a relation to self, nor is it fundamentally a relation to objects or natural resources. Ownership at its most fundamental is a relationship between people. “Mine” is a nonsense concept in isolation. “Mine” always means, a priori, “mine and not yours.” Or, one could perhaps narrow that still further and say that (“mine” = “not yours”), and that this is the fundamental equation of ownership. With all due respect to Locke’s contemporary Daniel Defoe and his Robinson Crusoe, an isolated individual cannot own anything [8]. That individual can use resources, can deploy them in the hunt for food and shelter, but cannot own them because there is no “mine and not yours” line to be drawn.

So am I just quibbling or are there consequences to this revision of the ingenious Mr. Locke? I tentatively suggest there are consequences. Once you see ownership and private property in this light, as relations between people and people, not between people and things, it can plant the seed for a new vision of how things could work.

Marx said that the capitalist world of commodity-values converts social relations into the “fantastic form of relations between things” [9]. With social identity thus alienated, we compensate by creating a wedge between “social” and “private” identity, and start to treat private identity as “real” identity.” But what if that world view is coming to an end? Under the pressure of income inequality and ecological imperatives, it seems capitalism must break or evolve into some new form. At least the prevailing definition of human identity and human fulfilment in terms of private identity and private property must break. If we can reverse the Lockean trajectory – instead of casting social relations into terms of private identity and private property, what if we recast identity and property into relations between people?

From Locke to Adam Smith to Marx to Thomas Piketty, we have been in the age of homo economicus, where homo sapiens are defined fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations. But is that necessary or is it just the signature paradigm of the 17th – 20th century? I won’t say 21st, because I think it is finally time for a paradigm shift out of the age of homo economicus. Increasing inequality (well-documented in Piketty as an intrinsic feature of capitalism, despite spikes and troughs [10]) and ecological imperatives require it. If we can reconceptualize ownership and private property into the fundamental social relations that they are, perhaps we can start to turn the ship. Perhaps we can redefine human identity and human fulfilment in terms that render the obsessive desire to accumulate private property for one’s own self into a historical curiosity. There are enough resources to go around. As Russell Brand points out in his cheeky anti-Establishment manifesto, Revolution, “a bus with the eighty-five richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth’s population” [11]. Stripped of the debilitating definition of human identity as private self and private property, a technology and a sharing economy in the service of something larger than personal gain might flourish – not that ownership will disappear, but it will be conceptualized differently. Instead of “owning” being an absolute relation between individual and thing, a removal of the thing from the field of social relations for oneself, owning would be seen as something provisional and embedded in social relations, an ongoing negotiation, evolving and flexible as our relations to others are evolving and flexible. This way of looking at things is not only possible but as the current cycle keeps turning, it will become more and more a practical necessity.

  1. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, II.ix.
  2. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, I.ii.
  3. Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, I.i.
  4. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap 7, parag. 87.
  5. U.S. Declaration of Independence.
  6. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap. 5, Parag 27.
  7. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book 15, Chap. 1.
  8. The Lockean sense of ownership Defoe gives to Crusoe is almost unintentionally comical as Crusoe surveys the island with “pleasure . . . to think that this was all my own . . . and [over it I] had a right of possession” (Robinson Crusoe, 1985 Penguin ed., pp. 113-14).
  9. Karl Marx, Capital, 1906 Random House ed., p. 83.
  10. Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century. The documentation referenced runs throughout the book.
  11. Russell Brand, Revolution, p. 8.

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The real problem in the body politic

(Trigger warning: equivalence alert!)

No, I don’t think the Democratic and Republican platforms are equivalent. Ideologically, I’m with the Dems maybe 50% of the time and the Repubs maybe 10%. No equivalence there. But the partisan tone has become equivalent on both sides. If a Dem or Repub leader says anything at all, the other side must consider it a priori wrong (and indeed evil) or risk being kicked out of the club. Perhaps social media is the worst for trapping people into such silos, but with many friends posting political comments daily, I can’t remember the last time any of them on either side deviated from the preset party line when an oppostion leader spoke.

So yes, I favor the Dem platform (or at least find it less bad), but there are three beasts in the cage, and the Republicans are not the most destructive of the three. There are the two major parties, and then there is the “us vs. them” paradigm of politics and social relations, shared equally by denizens of both parties. With my old hippie vision of moving toward a more ideal union, where people still disagree but with the understanding that we are all on spaceship Earth together, it is the paradigm itself that is the most destructive beast of the three. As long as we are locked into the zero-sum, “us vs. them” paradigm, we can move laterally to fix this or that local issue, but there can be no forward movement. We can get short-term ideological gains from our party – e.g., as I favor the Dem platform, I can hope the Dems seize the reins from Trump for at least the short-term benefits I think they would bring. But I cannot hope that Dems any more than Repubs will fix the long-term, and possible fatal, disease in the body politic. Neither party has the slightest motivation to correct the “us vs. them” model that is killing us.

Our only long-term hope is for someone to emerge outside the current political spectrum, an MLK-type voice. Politics per se is dead, killed by the two parties and the army of idiot activists on both sides. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

The good news is that underneath the veneer of us vs. them activism, I find that many people are quietly hungry for a unifying voice. I thought Obama was potentially such voice, but his failure to unify the country was pre-ordained by the fact that he emerged within one of the two major parties. Half the country will never listen to any unifying voice that emerges from the opposition party. Thus, my statement that the voice must come from outside the current political structure is a kind of logical tautology. Logic permits no other way. Of course, such a voice, on such terms, may never come, and we may disintegrate slowly or quickly, depending on which of the two parties is in power. But those people I meet hungering for some voice to restore a sense of shared humanness, those people still give me hope. We just need to take all this activist energy invested in one side or the other of the us vs. them paradigm and turn it against the paradigm itself. I would especially ask my friends on the left who consider themselves radical: How radical can you be if you are still hauling around the old albatross of the “left vs right” paradigm? If you want to be radical, break the paradigm.

Can we really get a critical mass of people to shed the dead snakeskin of politics as we know it and start over with a blank slate, a social vision stripped of politics with nowhere to turn but to heart and imagination? Probably not, but it’s worth a try.

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How woke is woke (or, gimme that old progressive vision)

I sort of fell into my recent blog series on the cultural lead-up to Woodstock (1969), but now that I’m there, I’ll piggyback with a curious political look at those filthy hippie progressives.

This may come as a shock to my younger woke friends, but back then, progressives were the ones fighting AGAINST official restraints what to say, think, and do; fighting AGAINST sorting, judging, and voting for people based on skin color or sex organs; fighting AGAINST double standards based on demographic identity and AGAINST tribe-specific definitions of truth and justice. And conservatives were the ones fighting FOR all those things. In a word, that old progressive vision was to obliterate the cultural police, while conservatives wanted to BE the cultural police. So when you criticize an old-timer whose values were forged in the Civil Rights/hippie days for being too conservative, remember: To them, YOU may look a lot like the conservative they grew up fighting against 😊

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Three language tricks

To finish off this spontaneous chain of posts on Woodstock and antecedents (from Joe Cocker to Elvis, from Elvis to Roy Rogers), let’s do just one more – Country Joe McDonald’s “Fixin’-To-Die-Rag,” an object lesson in how to use language in multiple ways outside the scope of literal meaning. In fact, I tried it twice on my intermediate-to-advanced ESL (English as a second language) students for just that reason – once it was a hit, once it was a flop. Go figure. But let’s listen.

Friends, lovers, hippies, it’s a long way back to Elvis.

But the language. The only literal meanings in the clip come in the 10-second aside at the 2:00 mark. Everything else elapses via three essential language tricks:

Irony
Rhetorical frames
Clichés, collocations, and idioms

My ESL students pretty quickly get that the song is ironic – that the words literally advocate support for the war (“Put down your books and pick up a gun / We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun”) but the speaker’s point is the opposite. But when they go through the irony line-for-line, it is still a learning experience for them to see how each phrase flips to its opposite meaning and how some of the flips can be quite serious and powerful (as when the speaker tries to energize parents with the upbeat thought that they could “Be the first ones on your block / To have your boy come home in a box”).

This brings me to the second trick – rhetorical frames. First, the playful tone that frames the whole song. It’s like a children’s sing-a-long (“one, two, three … five, six, seven …”). When up against content as heavy as “your boy come home in a box,” the emotional impact is amplified. The US government would like you to think this is a game, but Country Joe’s language tricks (which are really just an undoing of the GOVERNMENT’S language tricks) make it clear that this is NOT a game.

The second rhetorical frame is that of the all-American high school football game. The Fish cheer (“Give me an ‘f’ … give me a ‘u’ …”) and indeed the whole song can be seen as a kind of (mock-) pep rally. If the Man can’t distract you from the brutality of the war with the “children’s sing-a-long” veneer, maybe they can get you to think of the Vietnam war as a high school football game. Rah-rah-rah for our side. The rhetoric of the high school cheerleader. Not so in the hands of Country Joe. He takes that trivializing frame and turns it on its head. Is his inversion of the cheerleading rhetoric in the Fish cheer offensive? Absolutely. But this is not just a rebellious kid breaking the household rule. Country Joe’s point is that “your war is offensive – your turning it into a cheerleaders’ game is offensive – WE are offended by your war and your rhetorical tricks to make us comfortable with it. These are our friends coming home in boxes, so you’ll excuse us if we get a little offensive in this song.”

If the rhetorical framing is really just one expression of the overarching irony, my third and final language trick – clichés, collocations, and idioms – is really just one more aspect of the rhetorical framing. The entire text is composed of clichés, collocations, and idioms. Just look at the first 10 lines, with italics on the phrases the might be called clichés, collocations, or idioms:

Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.

We could go on through the lyrics – pearly gates, tools of the trade, kingdom come, etc. – but why collocations, idioms, and clichés? Doesn’t that just show a lack of originality? When used gratuitously, yes. But this is far from gratuitous. It is part of the design. Country Joe is not interested in literal meaning but in emotional impact, and this is one way to get it. Collocations, idioms, and clichés are the things that localize language. They give you a house built of baseball, hot dogs, and mom’s apple pie. This is Americana in its most cliché form. Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. That’s the image the US government is using to sell you the Vietnam War. And Country Joe’s counterpoint is probably most anchored to the idiom, “I don’t give a damn.” After all, that’s the million-dollar question that Country Joe really wants to press on these 400,000 hippies: “What are we fighting for?” In 1969, no one really knew. And yet cousins and neighbors were coming home in boxes. This is the question Uncle Sam most wants you to look away from (“no, no, no, you shouldn’t give a damn about that”). So naturally that’s exactly where Country Joe, wordsmith, musician, counterculture icon, and smart-ass par excellence (who was already on an FBI watch list at the time of this clip, btw) goes to build his lyrical house.

Country Joe’s website: http://countryjoe.com/

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Elvis called to life

Per my last post, describing Joe Cocker’s band at Woodstock (1969) as remarkably contemporary in sound and appearance and Elvis (in the 1962 clip) as a character from a bygone era (despite his intrinsic merits), I received a good-natured complaint that I underestimated Elvis’s own ability to shock and rattle the culture of his day. He was not just some 1960s “square” holding onto the old ways.

Guilty as charged. Or half guilty. I will now do Elvis the service I did to Joe Cocker and the Woodstock generation in the previous post. I’ll post the famous theme song from one of the most popular TV shows of 1952, followed by a re-post of the clip with Elvis singing the #1 song of 1962.

From The Roy Rogers Show (1951-1957, song by Dale Evans, released 1952)

Elvis in Girls, Girls, Girls (1962)

In this context, one can see Elvis as all-round provocative to the Roy Rogers generation that preceded him. That’s my half-guilty part. But I claim half-innocence as well, insofar as the central thesis of my previous post still stands: If you stumbled upon a festival in the park today, Elvis, however risqué he may have been to his elders, would cut an odd and outdated figure on the stage, whereas Joe Cocker’s band would fit right in.

Now, as microscopically scanning others for flaws so that we might sit in public judgment over them has become the #1 national pastime (at least in the US), I hereby submit myself to your judgment. Innocent or guilty of misrepresenting my case?

P. S. For those of you following this choppy musical path from 1952 to the Woodstock generation, note that Janis Joplin recorded a version of “Happy Trails” to send to John Lennon shortly before she died in 1970.

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1960s culture in two clips

You always hear about rapid cultural change in the 1960s. Is it true? Is it measurable?

Here are two clips:

  • The #1 song of 1962, set in a film clip that captures the cultural moment in all its imagery
  • A song from 1969, set in a documentary clip that also captures the cultural moment in all its imagery

1962

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PU5xxh5UX4U

1969

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfLyK2DVVUU

You can draw your own conclusions. Or you can read on for mine 😊

My conclusion:

The culture shifted more in those 7 years than it has in the 50 years since. Why do I say so? Because if you look at the dress, the haircuts, the sound on that Joe Cocker stage, these guys could pop up at any outdoor festival today and not be out of place. Elvis, though – I love Elvis, I’ve been to Elvis’s house in Tupelo – but culturally, Elvis seems a million miles away in this clip compared to the Woodstock scene.

P.S. If you are wondering what the hell Joe Cocker is saying (and can’t remember the Beatles original), try this “misheard lyrics” version:

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Lesser churches of Mexico

If you go to Mexico, don’t forget to some of the smaller churches. They dot the neighborhoods and are among the most colorful and welcoming.

Cholula

                  .                          Querétaro                                             San Miguel de Allende

                             Guanajuato                                                          Puebla

                                                                              Oaxaca

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Making colorblind cool again (4 views)

In today’s discourse on race, charged terms like “colorblind” typically elicit a knee-jerk reaction unmediated by critical thinking. Indeed, a call to critical thinking is itself often considered de facto allegiance to white supremacy. For the sake of those who would write me off in knee-jerk fashion, I intend to analyze the meaning and uses of “colorblind” with an eye open to both the good and bad implications, so — trigger warning — write me off now. For others, I recommend you read through, pick and choose what you agree or disagree with based on your own critical thinking and not on what your friends or teachers want you to think, and then feel free to chime in with a comment.

The term attained its modern relevance in the 1960s (Civil Rights and hippies) era, so I will stake out four viewpoints relative to that baseline (and thus relevant to pushing the dialectic forward):

  1. 1960s conservative
  2. 1960s progressive
  3. Today’s conservative
  4. Today’s progressive

Note: The two 1960s-based angles are not obsolete, as both still have some currency and both could experience future surges – although this is likelier for 1960s progressive ideas, which are more resilient than 1960s conservative ideas – but for our purposes the tags mean not obsolete but merely indicate a position grounded in ideas that reached critical mass in the 60s.  

1960s conservatives on colorblindness

1960s conservatives on race rejected the colorblind approach. They were the segregationists fighting against Civil Rights. They thought whites and blacks were fundamentally different, and we need to recognize those fundamental differences. Thus, their slogan was “separate but equal” cultures, schools, neighborhoods, etc.

1960s progressives on colorblindness

1960s progressives from Civil Rights to hippies initiated the modern call for colorblindness. The idea was that legal structures should be immediately made colorblind (no legal segregation, colorblind enforcement of laws, of rights, etc.), and we should work toward (since social mores cannot be changed as immediately as written laws) colorblindness in other social formations, so people can date and marry and live with whom they want without limitations of color, etc. The push was to judge people always and everywhere not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Today’s conservatives on colorblindness

In the wake of the 1960s, racism, although still practiced, rapidly became ideologically taboo. No one, especially no one in public life, wanted to be tagged as a racist. Even supporters of racist policies would often begin with, “I’m not a racist, but….” Thus, it is no surprise that conservatives gradually came on board with Martin Luther King, who is now idolized across the political spectrum. Today’s conservatives by and large do not deny the founding truth that all are created equal, regardless of color, and do not deny racial equality as a valid goal. But they tend to assume that, since equal rights are codified in law, the goal has been reached. Thus, their colorblindness places them a step ahead of the 1960s conservatives, but it also leaves them refusing to acknowledge historical disparities based on race that are very much still with us.

Today’s progressives on colorblindness

Progressives today are most vociferous in rejecting colorblindness, and they include phrases like “I don’t see color when I meet people” as racist microaggressions in written standards at many universities. The advantage of this position is it highlights the continuing inequities experienced by blacks. A disadvantage is that it reifies race into a fixed category with solid walls around it. Race becomes the essential feature of identity. If you are black, you are different than non-blacks. Black culture and black identity are in effect hermetically sealed, one type of experience inside the bubble and another outside. Whites cannot know what it feels like to be black, and thus should not teach or create artworks about black history, adopt cultural trends that begin in black culture, etc.

Summary and recommendations

The 1960s conservative position I dismiss out of hand. I assume that none of my readers share the orientation of those segregationists fighting against Civil Rights.

Today’s conservatives score well in theory for advocating equality for all, but fare less well in practice, as their disregard for continuing disparities leaves their position untenable for me.

The dispute between 1960s and today’s progressives is more interesting to me. Today’s progressives have the advantage over either conservative group in that they acknowledge continuing disparities to be addressed. But they fare poorly in that they reify black and white experience, judge people accordingly, and leave no easy road toward harmony. If white and black experiences are fundamentally different, there is little hope of mutual empathy and heart-to-heart connection and the kind of integration that 1960s Civil Rights advocates had envisioned as the path to a more ideal society.

The 1960s progressive vision has some key advantages in this regard. First, they are more in line with the historical struggle for equality. From Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King and James Baldwin, the dominant post-Enlightenment theme of racial struggle has been shared humanness. We need to recognize that “they” love their children, they laugh and cry, they struggle with all the same things “we” struggle with. Although racial identity is a relevant layer of identity – sometimes an intensely relevant layer – it is the recognition of our shared humanness that is the best antidote to the toxins of prejudice and distrust across racial lines. The fallacy of today’s progressives is that they see racial identity not as a supplement to, but as a substitute for, shared humanness. In contrast, the shared humanness line of reasoning, with racial, gender, etc., layers of identity superadded, which was embraced by 1960s progressives as well as their antecessors, seems intuitively correct. The only risk is that an overemphasis on shared humanness might cause one to overlook persistent race-based inequities. I believe this is what drives today’s progressives’ distrust of shared humanness. But they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there is that risk, and per my sketch above, I find today’s conservatives in the aggregate succumb to that risk. But 1960s progressives had always recognized racial disparities and the unique experience brought to the table by different racial backgrounds. They just thought that the best way to combat inequities was not to put battle lines and walls between races (as today’s progressives arguably do) but to recognize our shared humanness and join together, black and white, male and female, gay and straight, to address continuing inequities, knowing that we CAN see into each other’s hearts across racial lines, we can join together as brothers and sisters.

The second advantage of the 1960s vision, then, is practical applicability. Joining together across racial lines, in a spirit of mutual celebration, and not in a spirit of shaming or leveraging against one another, will get you more cross-cultural alliance, more spirit, and more snowballing social power than the more divisive (indeed one could say the more segregationist) approach of drawing lines between races and having each guard its own turf against exploitation.

The third and final advantage is the endgame vision. I do believe three of my four groups (excluding the 1960s segregationists) would accept a long-term ideal of a society that is open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact. Of the four, though, the 1960s progressive vision is best poised to get us there. Today’s conservative vision has the impediment of failing to acknowledge continuing race-based inequity. Today’s progressive vision has the impediment of reifying (one might even say fetishizing) race, building walls instead of bridges between races, encouraging turf wars and blocking off porosity between races. The 1960s progressive, on the other hand, was unreservedly integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and progressives alike. Indeed, the 1960s progressive might favor every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Break down all the walls, everyone share everyone else’s stuff, willy-nilly, regardless of race or gender, in a frenzy of mutual celebration across all demographic lines. It is colorblind not because it ignores race-based cultural contributions or race-based disparities. It is colorblind because, in a concerted effort to address those disparities, it refuses to judge brother and sister allies based on race, it refuses to say that I cannot know your heart inside and out, and you know mine, because of our different skin color. It is a vision much more radical than any variant we see today coming out of the self-preserving corridors of Left/Right think tanks and university critical race theory departments – more radical than any of these and probably much better suited to grease the flow toward that shared long-term social ideal.

We need to make 1960s colorblindness cool again.

x x x

Table: Strengths (+) and weaknesses (-) of colorblind orientation per ideological grouping

  Reject judgments or battle lines based on race Acknowledge continuing racial disparity
1960s Conservative
1960s Progressive + +
Today’s Conservative +
Today’s Progressive +

x x x

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Art and Reality

Review of the exhibition, Entre Fusiones, by Celes Orozco, Cuarto Cresciente Galeria (https://www.facebook.com/CuartoCrecienteGaleria/). Guanajuato, Mexico: May 3-June 13, 2019.

Reviewed by Gary Gautier

The relationship between art and reality has percolated through the history of ideas since Plato (well, probably since the cave paintings of Lascaux, but I can’t vouch for anything before Plato). Some bright-eyed theorists identify four angles: (1) mimetic (art imitates reality), (2) affective (art may or may not mimic reality, but the value lies in how it affects its viewers), (3) expressive (art projects the subjective experience of the artist into objective form), and (4) objective (art builds value through its internal design and composition, irrespective of how it may or may not correspond to the minds of artist or audience or to physical reality).

Each of these angles is to some extent at play in Celes Orozco’s exhibition, Entre Fusiones, at Cuarto Cresciente Galeria. The collection strikes immediately, visually, at the question of art’s relationship to reality, but it does so through different styles. The first style I might call “the cosmic flux.” It is abstract, but not in the manner of Joan Miró’s abstract geometrical lines or Mark Rothko’s solid color zones. Miró and Rothko are working with the abstract building blocks of line and color, but Orozco’s works seem more concrete.

   

                 Untitled 1                                                                 Untitled 2

These paintings, although they do not depict anything in particular, project, more than Miró or Rothko, some concrete, almost totalizing view of reality as a swirling potentiality of form and color. This is the primal flux that undergirds the reality of discrete objects as we know it. The strokes, too, as Orozco variously applies paint to the canvas with finger or hand as well as brush, suggest something concrete and organic, but still in potential form. The only narrowing of potential that I see comes in some of the color choices, as in Untitled 2 the sunburnt coloring conjures up (for me at least) the Mexican roots of the artist, which we see in patches or hints as we move through the exhibition.

The Mexican roots appear more strongly in the second style. If the first style emphasized a primal cosmic flux, the second shades into representations of “primal culture.”

Chaos

This painting, Chaos, overflows with the fundamentals of nature, with a close-in view of quasi-archetypal figures rather than on the Gestalt or expansiveness of the landscape (as we might see, e.g., in a Romantic-era European landscape). This, the masterpiece of the exhibit in my view, is not about the space of nature and culture from which we came, but about the things that populate that space. And rather than the gradient of space and color, light and shade, that you might get in Renaissance verisimilitude, here the arrangement is relatively flat, with bold colors, each figure presented in its full integrity. The presentation seems fundamentally native American, although my vocabulary is insufficient to expand upon why.

Finally, Orozco throws a few pop culture images onto the canvas – the bottle, the car, the McDonald’s balloon, the casino. It is difficult to say whether this encroachment by the artifacts of modern culture is a corruption of or an extension of the primitive layout. The bottle in the foreground and car at the center seem harmless enough. The casino atop the primitive pyramid seems a little sinister, but Orozco does not highlight the sinister. This is not the hellish 3rd panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Even the McDonald’s balloon is not accompanied by anything overtly negative. Perhaps Orozco just needed the pop culture items to show that the primitive space is not to be too idealized, not removed from time, is already flowing into the vicissitudes that come after.

Whether the second style, the “primal culture” style, encompasses the paintings below or spawns them as separate styles may be the viewer’s choice.

Protecting the infant is the clearest merging of the “cosmic flux” style with representational forms.

.                                                      Protecting the infant

Whereas Chaos had only a hint of the cosmic flux style in the brush strokes of the river, more than half the canvas here is covered in cosmic flux style. The represented images are fragmented, iconographic, not holistic scenarios as in Chaos. If there is a hybrid style in Orozco’s repertoire, this is its clearest expression.

El desierto, on the other hand, is holistic, but doesn’t strike the emotional register the same way as Chaos.

                                                             El desierto

Chaos gave a sense of temporal projection across eons of time, reaching back to some primeval culture in the archetypes of nature. El desierto has more the sense of a contemporary psychedelic experience of space, not unlike the sense of space experienced by your correspondent on some of his hippie-era LSD trips, with the sky thick and close, not thin and distant, with the cacti that seem to sparkle, the long smooth flowing strokes of the land, the stones themselves flowing to show hidden figures that had always been there waiting to be made manifest by the ready viewer. Here, one could almost say it is the subjective effusion into the space and its objects that defines the experience. This to me is a style all its own – I’ll call it the “spatial flux” (or “psychedelic spaces”).

Finally, El niño y la serpiente expands the pop culture idea from the periphery of Chaos, gives it center stage, and takes it in a new direction.

                                                    El niño y la serpiente

This is the closest Orozco comes to the traditional surrealism of Salvador Dalí or to pop art collage style, depending on how you look at it. The scene is holistic and quite modern, and we suspect full of political and social symbols, unlike Chaos, in which any symbols with overt political weight were kept to the margins. In fact, there are only the vaguest traces of the cosmic flux or the primal culture here, although the relative flatness of the brush strokes and representation aligns it more with the primal culture style, and also gives it a mural-like effect that keeps Orozco’s eclectic work at least tenuously grounded in the cultural coordinates of Mexican art.

Detail from El niño y la serpiente

It is not for me but for you to determine how much of this response is my own  idiosyncrasy and how much intrinsic to the compositional markings on the canvas. Either way, if it provides food for thought about this fine artist and this fine show, that will be enough done.

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Bonus picture (Soñando): a holistic scenario in the true “primal culture” style of Chaos, complete with archetypal Mesoamerican fauna and flora, the close view, the pressed bold color zones, and the sense (enhanced by the title idea, “Dreaming”) that we are moving through the field of what Carl Jung calls “the primitive roots of consciousness.”

Soñando

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