So this is it; the last entry of Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide. Itâ€™s appropriate that Iâ€™m writing it on a plane from New York to Milwaukee â€“ thatâ€™s where I wrote my first one and most of the ones in-between.
I boarded bent on finishing before landing in Milwaukee as a kind of ceremonial gesture, but I came down with a bit of writerâ€™s block. More like writerâ€™s diarrhea, really; I couldnâ€™t seem to reduce the last 26 entries into a succinct bite-sized wafer of truth fit to reflect what Iâ€™ve gleaned.
Fidgety, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small piece of foil-covered hard candy and struggled over whether or not I should eat it.
I actually started unwrapping it, almost placing it on my tongue before rewrapping it and carefully putting it back in my pocket. The guy next to me must have thought I had a disorder. As I sat with the candy in my lapel pocket, I dwelled on this strange apprehension. Why did eating it feel so, well, unholy?
The candy in question was taken from a Felix Gonzalez Torres art piece, â€œUntitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)â€, from the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had taken a class on a field trip a few days prior. With my class in tow, I picked a couple pieces off the top of the pile, eliciting a hushed gasp from some onlookers. The security guard stood by stoically knowing very well the nature of the situation. Only after establishing that he was cool with the move did the rest of the visitors take their turn grabbing souvenirs. Did anyone get the wonderful metaphor? Did the sacredness of the context turn Torresâ€™s point into an object to be fetishized?
I explained the nature of the work to my students, how the dwindling supply of candy represented the fragility of existence and, specifically the disease that tragically took Torresâ€™s partnerâ€™s life. They seemed moved, if still content to have a bit of insider material.
Only a week earlier I had gone to the Lutheran church in Cedarburg. I attended in spite of the fact that Iâ€™m not religious. My wife and her family have belonged to the church for years, and the pastor is surprisingly ecumenical. That day, when it came time to take communion, I hesitated. Somehow, watching from the back pews, faking my way through the Lordâ€™s Prayer and mouthing hymns I didnâ€™t know, seemed ok, but consuming a wafer and some wine that represented, or, depending on your level of devotion, actually WAS the body and blood of Christ, pushed it. But, still, I headed toward the altar.
His body tasted surprisingly bland; his blood vintage Franzia, and, though I didnâ€™t feel the prescribed transubstantiation, I did feel something more profound than indigestion.
This unexpected twinge reminded me of a piece by James Gleick that was in the â€œNew York Time Magazineâ€ a few years ago about the auction value of the Magna Carta. He describes a passage from Philip K. Dickâ€™s novel, â€œThe Man in the High Towerâ€, where two similar cigarette lighters are placed side-by-side, one owned by FDR and the other of no significance. One with â€˜historicityâ€™, the other without.
The narrator muses:
â€œCan you feel it? … You canâ€™t. You canâ€™t tell which is which. Thereâ€™s no â€˜mystical plasmic presence,â€™ no â€˜auraâ€™ around it.â€
Or is there?
Though he doesnâ€™t invoke it specifically, Walter Benjaminâ€™s â€œThe Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,â€ seems to hover palpably over Gleickâ€™s analysis. Are there plasmic presences? Are there auras? No and yes. As Benjamin noted in the essay we all choked down in art school, auras are born from artifacts that derive power from ritual. And rituals require gangs of believers to endure. And most of us, wherever we locate ourselves geographically or metaphysically, happen to believe in something strongly enough to wring a little plasma from it.
So, Religion? Culture? Not so different from 38,000 feet above the earth. Both are terms ascribed to all those things we canâ€™t know for sure. And if youâ€™re familiar with Descartes, Montesquieu, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derrida or even CNN, thereâ€™s a LOT of things we donâ€™t and indeed canâ€™t know.
So what Iâ€™ve taken from 18 months of immersion in Wisconsinâ€™s more parochial precincts is that one personâ€™s â€œLight of Christâ€ might simply be anotherâ€™s frisson of energy evoked by a Richard Tuttle wire piece or a Donald Judd â€œSpecific Objectâ€. Arenâ€™t we all looking for a little transcendence, never mind where we get it or what we decide to call it?
Thereâ€™s a lot of religion in a Tuttle and a lot of culture in a Lutheran pancake social.
Itâ€™s funny when you can feel the antagonism about your remarks as soon as you utter them. Now is one of those moments. My friends are generally from the tribe that would side with the transcendence brought on by a great work of art, rather than a passage from the â€œBook of Jobâ€. Most of my acquaintances would probably claim that Iâ€™m making a false and probably dangerous distinction â€“ the religious right influences politics, right? Indeed. They infringe on the civil rights of individuals because of a bunch of ghost stories in a book written millennia ago? Sure. They canâ€™t compromise because their truth is not based in reason, but in the supernatural, right? Sometimes.
But then again, I felt something like sacrilege eating a piece of candy that was only ever meant to be a metaphor. And it occurred inside the hallowed temple walls of an institution that kind of chooses to keep those metaphors hidden, and in turn, keeps their congregations beguiled and charmed, perpetuating the aura of the object. That institution has priests who anoint objects with quasi-spiritual value. They have groups that help to canonize object makers. Not as metaphor-makers but as spirits. They have rituals, liturgies and taboos. They have saints and they have sinners. They all contribute to creating cultural relics that are sold at auction for prices that dwarf that of the most sought after religious relics on earth.
So if it walks like a duckâ€¦
Felix Gonzales Torres might be my favorite artist in the world. And God or god or Donald Judd rest his soul, I donâ€™t think Mr. Torres ever wished for me to be spellbound by the aura of his art, only moved by the poetic truth it could impart by being an achingly wonderful metaphor for the sadness and confusion we all share in a world that overwhelms us.
So right now I will eat Felix Gonzalez Torresâ€™s candy as a metaphorical gesture recognizing the power of art over the supernatural and all that mystical plasma that charms us into thinking we have an answer of a higher power.
28 episodes of The Cultural Divide reduced to one wafer of truth.