Sometimes there’s something I’d like to write about, but I don’t have good visuals to accompany it. And sometimes I have images I’d like to share, but can’t think of much to say about them. I’ve always considered the combination of words and pictures to be the essence of Drawing Life as a blog. Here I’m going to talk about some ideas that are close to the heart of my artist’s philosophy, my intuitive sense of the moment we humans find ourselves in. I’ll intersperse these ideas with some of my recent doodles. There’s no direct correspondence between the pictures and the words, except of course that doodling is what I often do while listening to someone drone on and on, and if I’m going to drone on in text, I may as well break up the words with some of my wiggly, loopy lines.
In 1999-2000, the American Museum of Natural History in New York hosted a temporary exhibit called “Body Art: Marks of Identity”. It was a survey of tattooing, piercing, scarification, body painting and other kinds of body modification across many cultures and through history. My friend Matty Jankowski, a tattoo artist and a collector and scholar of materials and artifacts related to the history of body arts, was one of the consultants to the curators of the exhibit. Thanks to Matty, a few of my own body painting images were included in a portion of the show devoted to contemporary body art.
Matty also worked with the education department of the museum to present some special programs. One day there was a kind of open house for the public to learn about body art from artists. There was a henna artist, a tattooist, a piercer, and I was there as a body painter. There was a slide show, and all of the artists gave brief presentations on their particular crafts. People attending the workshop were given the opportunity to try out an electric tattoo needle on a honeydew melon. The henna artist and I had our materials on hand to give temporary body art to anyone who wanted it.
There were a lot of parents with young kids at the event, and many of them formed an orderly queue at my body painting table. Most of my previous experience of body painting was with adults, in my own studio or in art galleries or performance settings, but that day I had a long line of little kids, with their parents, waiting their turn. As I was painting, I heard the parents talking to their kids: “What do you want? Just think about what you want and tell the man what you want? You can get whatever you want. Do you want a butterfly? Do you want a dragon? Decide what you want and the man will paint it for you.” Kids were presenting their tiny arms and asking me to paint Furbys or Pokemon characters I’d never seen before. A small minority, maybe one in ten, would show some curiosity, would ask questions about my paints or my experiences painting people, or would say, “Just paint whatever comes to you,” or “Go wild.”
Listening to the endless litany of “What do you want?”, I realized that indoctrination into the consumer mindset wasn’t just accomplished through TV commercials and mass marketing campaigns bankrolled by multinational megacorporations. Parents were actively programming their kids to the idea that everything was about consumer choice and acquisition, about defining desires and having those desires satisfied. Even such an odd experience as having a strange artist paint on your arm or hand or cheek was reduced to choosing a brand and displaying it.
Recall that the name of the exhibit was “Body Art: Marks of Identity.” The thesis of the curators was that body art was used to mark its wearer as a member of a tribe, to indicate a special cultural role such as warrior or bride. These children, under the relentless prodding of their parents, were engaging in the modern form of this practice, something the commercial world calls “branding”. (Of course the term derives from the practice of searing a mark of ownership into the hide of a livestock animal.) We are encouraged to define ourselves by our choice of symbols, corporate logos, or popular culture. It is no longer so much about our role in society, but about our status as consumers.
The curious minority in my body painting queue hadn’t been steered to see every opportunity as a consumer choice or a branding of their identity. They saw this as a chance to experience something fresh, to learn something new.
The consumer mindset says “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” It’s a zero-sum game, a world of winners and losers. The curious mindset says “We live in a world of inexhaustible wonders. What will I experience today?” It is a world of free play, a world of abundance for all. It is not a zero-sum game because it’s oriented towards experience, not ownership. One who collects experiences does not deny them to others.
We humans are now in the early stages of a great crisis. The industrial revolution of the past three centuries has allowed the human population to increase tenfold (it has more than doubled just in my lifetime), and has provided to the common person comforts and luxuries once reserved for kings, even luxuries unimagined by kings. All of this was made possible by fossil fuels – hundreds of millions of years worth of stored energy expended in an explosive orgy – and by an economic system in which constant increase is the only definition of wealth. For a few centuries it worked, because there were always new natural resources to be discovered, always undeveloped places to develop and unexploited markets to expand into.
Alas, we are now coming to that inevitable point where the exponential growth curve must become a bell curve, leveling off and sloping back down, if we are to survive. The earth itself is beginning to assert its limits, to push back against unchecked growth. Climate change and resource depletion are becoming costly problems that cannot be solved by ever more spending and extraction and ever more complicated technology. Our economic system, based on lending at interest, needs constant growth, but facing the slowing of real expansion, it is now just blowing bubbles. The owners of great wealth are trying to hold onto what they have by no longer sharing their bounty with the masses, but this strategy may ultimately fail too, as wealth defined as growth evaporates when growth stops.
Everyone is in denial now, imagining that there is something that will make the material economy grow again. But we don’t need more growth. Human population increase needs to slow down. Expansion in the per capita consumption of energy and natural resources needs to slow down and even begin to contract. From the standpoint of the capitalist economy, the slowdown of growth is a dire crisis and even a disaster. From the standpoint of planetary health, the slowdown of growth is an essential correction.
A child’s body grows by leaps and bounds, but when maturity is reached, physical growth slows and stops. Getting bigger is for childhood, but in adulthood it gives way to spiritual and mental development. Wisdom, skill and knowledge, the immaterial aspects of the living being, can expand for a lifetime. Unchecked growth of the organs and tissues in an adult is cancer.
There is now widespread agreement that we need to find “sustainable” technologies and ways of life. Many still seem reluctant to see that a sustainable economy must be a steady-state economy, not one based on constant growth, at least not as regards population and conversion of raw materials into stuff and stuff into trash.
The consumer/industrial economy says profits must get ever bigger. Every generation must have more material wealth than the one before. Our stores have become superstores, our houses mansions, our cars trucks, and our bodies obese.
Marketing propaganda is so pervasive in our culture that we internalize it. We base our sense of identity on our consumer choices, and raise our children to be good consumers above all.
Our highest value is choice. We associate choice with democracy and the modern way of life. We have so many choices now we may feel paralyzed by indecision. Constantly making choices gives us a limited kind of freedom, but it is constrained by the options that are offered to us: Democrat or Republican, Wal-Mart or Target, paper or plastic. The more we are focused on these choices the more we can be prevented from imagining what other possibilities are not being put before us. The more we define ourselves by choices the more we box ourselves into categories the marketers can exploit.
The curious mind is always wide open, finding interest and beauty in whatever it encounters. It is always engaged with the unknown, asking questions, speculating, wondering. The curious mind moves through the world on an exploratory path, following beauty and seeking knowledge. The curious mind tries to maximize flexibility and avoid being boxed in.
Our civilization faces a difficult period as natural limits awaken us from our dream of opulent consumption. There will be a period of denial, recrimination, rage. Those of us who have devoted our lives to curiosity and creativity already know there are pleasures deeper and more satisfying than those offered by consumerism.
Even as we are forced to cut back, to use less energy and less materials, even as extravagant materialism slips out of the grasp of most people, opportunities for learning and experience will remain abundant. Creative minds that can ask penetrating questions and imagine fresh solutions will be needed by all. Curiosity and creativity will see us through stormy times.
The doodles that illustrate this post were all made in the last few months. All are made with Tombow brush markers on letter-sized printer paper.