March 7, 2017
The question of whether or not I could write a piece concerning contemporary art or culture that would stand outside and not necessarily be influenced by the current political context has been crossing my mind of late. Another question gnawing at that very same withering consciousness, of course, is whether or not I would even want to.
First of all, I am not a culture critic by any stretch and secondly, shouldn't I, and everyone else for that matter, just be in the streets, clogging the arteries aiding the takeover and pillaging of public lands not to mention the restructuring of the Bill of Rights. Obviously, the streets offer much more exhilaration than the keyboard.
Well, I've been pondering that latter query at least as much as the former and making similar headway, which is: Not Much! Actually, other people's words keep popping up — words that were committed to memory during what I like to call my misspent youth.
During the space-time in question, while traversing coastlines by foot and thumb with serape, hammock and a few paperbacks, I found myself memorizing not only bits of Eliot, Whitman, Yeats, Ginsberg and Dylan, but also, as a way of burning further daylight, Mario Savio.
I suppose the ultimate reason I’m so attracted to banned books is that, over time, I’ve found those who do the banning to be so lacking in culture that, by reverse osmosis, I could count on them to continually update any voids on my own bookshelves.
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The section lifted from Savio's then 3-year-old speech from the steps of Berkeley's Sproul Hall had found its way via smudged ballpoint into a small journal that also kept me company. Arriving at the birth of what would become known as the "Free Speech Movement" quite early in the evolution of the counterculture, that paragraph achieved instant notoriety:
"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"
Inspiring syntax to be sure but as history so well demonstrated, it took another eight years for the draft and America's involvement in the Vietnam War to cross the finish line.
Even the topic of "banned books," which I have written about numerous times now takes on "dystrumpian" overtones. It's difficult to separate the bill recently put forth in the Arkansas legislature to remove all books attributed to the prolific Howard Zinn from the license seemingly granted members of the Presidential cabinet to "drain the swamp!"
I suppose the ultimate reason I'm so attracted to banned books is that, over time, I've found those who do the banning to be so lacking in culture that, by reverse osmosis, I could count on them to continually update any voids on my own bookshelves.
A recent piece in The New Republic magazine by Josephine Livingstone titled "In Defense of Cultural Criticism in Trump's America – Why the arts need a space the state can't touch and how we get there" is what got me pondering this issue.
Actually, whom do I think I am to even consider standing outside the toxic cloud of Agent Orange and his gang while contemplating the state of the arts? My columns never address the cultural workings of the disciplines involved anyway. Rather, the attempt is to express my experiences hanging in the neighborhood of this rarified air.
Even if I were more erudite on the abstractions and improvisations involved, however, I see no service being rendered by remaining outside the fray. Except, I suppose, that, as a reader, following the current intellectual status of a particular form is always fun — if the writer is able to keep the subject matter reduced to my level, that is.
In many ways, of course, supporting the arts is "taking it to the streets" these days — especially as it pertains to live music or poetry and prose readings by our current batch of interpretive ink-slingers.
No doubt the time will return quickly enough, however, when this space once again attaches itself solely, if only subtly, to all things Trumpian. Or maybe, if under the microscope of careful reading, the realization will arrive that it's never been any different. That it's always been, as David Byrne would put it, "same as it ever was."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.