March 4, 2010

Your Mind A Bounded Set

All the planes were late; a gusty storm in San Francisco had everyone in an anxious hover. So as we waited and waited at the over-crowded gate for our plane to depart to Portland, I slowly browsed the newspaper. And I came across a headline which gave me pause: "France May Make Mental Violence A Crime."

France is considering a non-gender specific law that would punish anyone in an ongoing relationship who engages in psychological violence, what the French Prime Minister called "insidious situations...[that] can mutilate the victim's inner self." Part of the motivation for the law is the high number of victims of domestic abuse in France, and the high rate of females deaths from domestic violence. The lawmakers see this new law as a preventative measure, for use before verbal abuse morphs into physical contact, as it so often does.

The article made me reflect on how people have evolved their thinking on what violence is in general, and specifically on what impact others' words and views can have on the intellectually or emotionally vulnerable. In my mind I pictured the people gathered at Tea Party rallies, and I recalled a woman telling me once about her family's engagement in a church where people speak in tongues and fixate on casting out devils, and I envisioned the Limbaugh listeners I have known. Lots of elephant talk, as King Crimson would say, but persuasive and repetitive and mentally engaging talk nonetheless. And the end result of this type of talk is often violence, because truly the starting point for this type of talk is violence; partners who engage in psychological violence start from a place of personal insecurity that feels as real as a physical threat, as do the Tea Partiers. And I am fascinated by threat.

We were in Portland for that city's excellent annual jazz festival, but we also stopped by the Portland Art Museum, where they had just opened a new exhibition of work by contemporary artists called 'Disquieted'. The intention of the exhibition is to show work by a range of artists who create art about the moment we live in, pieces "challenging our preconceptions and exposing our vulnerability in these turbulent times."

As you enter the exhibition space, you are confronted by a sculpture by Charles Ray, a life-like sculpture of a white woman dressed in a 1990's power suit and low heels -- a sculpture that is 10 feet tall. She has her hands on her hips and she is looking (eternally) down at you with disdain as you crane your neck to look up to her. She is the misogynist's nightmare of the emasculating female boss, circa 1992. She is the embodiment of a threat, and of disquiet, for those intimidated by women in roles of authority. Charles Ray just brilliantly captured a moment in our modern times, and seeing this sculpture first set the tone for much of the rest of the exhibition, which contained many reflections on forms violence (from the interpersonal to acts of war) in contemporary life.

For better or worse, I tend to believe that persuasive repetitive language is a form of violence, and feel dismissive language (and intentionally dismissive acts in general) are also forms of violence -- because they shove a player off the field of conversation when there is plenty of room on that field for all players. And this happens a lot in conversations where the two sides don't concur, or where the subject matter under discussion for some reason makes one person feel threatened. This happens so often when talking about art with people who are not art-inclined that I have gone through long periods of simply remaining silent. And it happens too when talking about esoteric subjects with someone who is defined by their practical responsibilities. A recent conversation I had with one such acquaintance (a parent of 2 small kids) went something like this: Me: "And after that I went to a very cool lecture, given by an Astro-geophysicist, all about the process by which NASA scientists developed an assessment model for analyzing whether elements on the surface of Mars provide an environment capable of supporting (bacterial) Martian life similar to Earth life." Other: "Not to be rude, but really, who cares? I mean, why should I care? I get so tired of hearing people spending money on science projects in space when, you know, we have shit to take care of here."

So then we started talking about that person's kids' Montessori school.

I think if one is a pacifist in one's approach to living -- meaning one is not inherently competitive externally and one tends to be on the reflective or analytical side of the seesaw -- fewer outlets exist for expression that is not impinged upon, or that is not forced or forceful, or that is not a form of persuasion, and yes, even violence. But creating a wordless reflection on the threat of the larger-than-life female is a powerful thing; creating work, like that shown in 'Disquieted', which reflects the weird tumult of life around us now is a powerful thing.

And in the silence of my own studio, after months of chewing on how my own brain makes sense of what I live, and how others make sense of what they live, and on how the incompatibility in that sense-making can result in such tremendous strife, I finally finished a new painting. It is called 'The Binding Problem'.