Sunday, November 11, 2007


I mentioned to my friend John R that I felt American culture was profoundly insincere and ironic. He said he agreed, and what made this interesting is -- Americans as a group are unable to see irony.

I said, "But American popular culture is ironic."

He said, "Yes." But the kids he had as students that last fifteen years he taught college did not see the irony. They saw people like Tarentino as "extreme," rather than ironic.

This strikes me as disturbing. At its best, American culture is ironic. It's also dishonest and hypocritical. If you can't see the difference between the surface and what lies below, then you are not seeing America.

Sincerity and Popular Art

My father worked in the art history department at the University of Minnesota and at the Walker Art Center when I was a kid. His passion was contemporary art, what would be called modernist art now, and he was fascinated by living artists. Both my parents belonged to the generation that read T.S. Eliot, Pound, Proust, Joyce -- all the high modernists. So I was exposed to avant guard art and artists.

It was art that was self-expressive and self-examining, an art about art and the individual psyche, not easily accessible for the most part, and not intended to be popular.

That was my idea of art as a kid, though I was also exposed to jazz and folk music and grand opera, a popular art in Italy if not the US. On my own, I found comics and science fiction, though my parents might have introduced me to mysteries.

The artists my father knew best, the Abstract Expressionists, had done WPA art during the 30s and were politically progressive. Mark Rothko told my mother in the 1960s that he still carried his IWW card, and you can see Philip Guston's politics in his late art: terrifying images of ruined buildings, ancient battered shoes and the Klu Klux Klan.

I have wondered if these artists became abstract in response to the political reaction after the War. No one could attack them for their politics, if there were no recognisable images in their art.

What they gained was safety and the chance to explore pure style. For the most part, their art is beautiful -- vivid colors, wonderful textures, wonderful patterns and shapes. But they ended with an art which did not reach ordinary people. Instead, it appealed to critics, curators and rich collectors.

Maybe I should cut the artists some slack. This was the generation that went through the Great Depression and World War II. Maybe they needed some simple beauty.

If I am right that they were keeping a low profile in the 1950s, then their art -- lovely as it was -- was not entirely sincere. There were things they were not saying, because they didn't want the hassle. (They did get hassle for being abstract, but that wasn't as bad as the hassle people were getting for being on the left.)

At the time, I was reading science fiction, because its paranoid vision of a future of police states and radioactive wastelands seemed real to me.

I'm not sure where this is leading. Science fiction in the 50s was deeply disturbing and true to the age, as was Mad Magazine and the EC horror comics, and these were all popular art forms.

At one point, I tried to argue that McCarthyism drove art into several defenses: be abstract, be fantastic or be something for kids, since art for kids was not taken seriously. This last is not entirely true, since there were Congressional investigations of comics, and rock music was roundly condemned by most of the white adult world. But corrupting the young is not as bad as being a Communist or Socialist.

Am I arguing that McCarthyism destroyed sincerity in American culture? Maybe.

There is the story about a group of Soviet journalists who travel through the US. At the end of their tour, they say, "How do you do it? Everywhere we go in this country, there is the same message, which is the government's message with only slight variations. In order to get this result in the Soviet Union, we have to jail hundreds of journalists."

One might argue that Geli Korzhev (in my previous post) is sincere the way that Norman Rockwell was sincere. I suspect Rockwell believed in what he painted, though I find his art profoundly dishonest. It was popular because many Americans wanted to see America through Rockwell's rosy, middle class glasses; and because the powers that be -- the Saturday Evening Post -- liked the message his art sent. "We are all white and happy here, and life has no real problems."

Not that Korzhev's gritty, gray art is at all like Rockwell's rosy images of cute, small town Americans.

Social Realism

Yesterday Patrick and I went to The Museum of Russian Art, a small museum in a residential neighborhood in south Minneapolis, which is devoted to 20th century Russian Art, specifically socialist realism. The current show is work by Geli Korzhev, a prominent Russian painter, born in the 1920s and still alive.

If I understood the labels correctly, his work is social realism, rather than socialist realism. I don't understand the difference. The work is certainly realistic. According to Korzhev, art has to be realistic, if it is going to reach ordinary people.

The paintings are large and clearly meant to be seen from across a room. For the most part, they show one or two large figures in the foreground. The people are mostly working people, their bodies worn and damaged by hard work and war. It's pretty obvious that the great experience of Korzhev's life has been World War II, the Great Patriotic War. The colors are grayed; the paint has a gritty texture; and the most common expression the people have is exhaustion. These are people who have worked hard and fought hard and endured.

The labels include many quotes from Korzhev. Per these, he believes in Communism and in the strength, integrity, intelligence, decency and endurance of ordinary people. My sense is, his work is utterly sincere. He does believe in Communism and the common people.

It occurs to me that contemporary American culture is not sincere. It is flip, glib, ironic. Nothing is as direct as these paintings.

My favorite painting is "Raising the Banner," part of a triptych titled "Communists." It shows a fallen worker, gray on a gray pavement. A second worker kneels beside him, grasping and lifting the banner the dead man has dropped. The entire painting is gray, except for the blazing red banner. In the label, Korzhev says he personally believes in Communism, but the point of the painting is to believe in something and raise that banner.

I think Korzhev is being too open minded. There are things which should not be believed in. But that aside, he makes a point about sincerity and commitment which is worth thinking about.

The museum was pretty full, not as full as the George O'Keefe show in the Art institute; but still there were no empty galleries, and we had to move around people to see the art. The viewers were looking at the art gravely and seriously, ordinary Minnesotans appearing almost reverent in front of art that could be called Communist propaganda. A very odd experience. I told Patrick I couldn't figure it out. He said there is a group of people in the US who would like to believe in something.

There was a group of paintings we could not see, because that gallery is closed at the moment. These are fantastic and grotesque with partly human figures that reminded me of Bosch and maybe Goya. (I saw one example in the little galley flyer.) According to Korzhev, these "are devoted to the political situation of 1993 and perestroika with its false implementations and the defrauding of the common people."

Did I like the art? I think it's thought provoking, and one has to respect Korzhev's respect for people. But I was raised to like avant garde art, and this is definitely not avant garde.

Friday, November 09, 2007

More on Science Fiction

Having written the previous post, I read the following quote from Lyda Morehouse, SF writer and personal friend, which appeared in the Loft Literary Center Schedule:

Science fiction and fantasy often get a bad rap as the genre of Star Wars, Star Trek et al. However, if a person actually reads the literature currently being written in the SF/F genres, they will find a surprising array of social and political commentary that talks not so much about the future as the present. SF/F is the genre of radicalism, in my opinion. To write effective SF/F. a writer needs a keen awareness of the here and now and a willingness to take risks.

In contrast to this, Norman Spinrad in the SFWA Forum sees SF writers as becoming more conservative as their audience decreases. They are writing tired space operas and tedious technophilic "hard SF," retro science fiction for the graying fannish core readership, rather than trying to reach out to the rest of the world.

So, SF tropes fill popular culture, and mainstream literary authors (as Spinrad points out) are writing more and more fiction that is fantastic in one way or another. At least some prominent SF authors appear to have moved into this new mainstream, which is more welcoming to nonrealistic fiction. William Gibson's most recent novel is cutting edge present, rather than cutting edge future; and only the presence of voodoo gods takes it outside the world as we know it.

As all of this happens, the SF writers who are left behind in the genre become more and more confused about what they should be writing and where their audience lies.

Or so the argument goes.

SFWA Forum and Bulletin

I just read the most current issues of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) Forum and Bulletin. There were some issues raised that I think are worth thinking about.

One is what to do about changes in technology and the resulting new kinds of publishing, especially desktop publishing and e-publishing.

It is never easy to set up a new publishing house or magazine, but changes in technology make it easier for small presses and little magazines to exist. Is a sale to a small press or an e-magazine a professional sale (a big issue for SFWA members, who are seriously into being professional)? Is it okay to put work on the Internet for free? What makes a professional these days?

Second issue is changes in the traditional publishing industry, due to media consolidation, which make being a midlist writer increasingly difficult.The old days of gentleman and lady publishers, who cared about Art, are long over. What matters now is profit, and writers who don't make enough money for the corporation are quickly dropped. Norman Spinrad calls publishing, especially SF publishing, dysfunctional; and he may well be right. (I think he means incompetent, as well as driven by greed.)

As writers find they can't sell to the traditional New York publishing houses or to the handful of surviving professional SF magazines, they turn to other outlets, which leads us back to issue one.

In fairness, I have to say the SF magazines are not owned by giant multi-national corporations, nor are they driven by greed. Their problem is the market place. It is simply very difficult for a magazine devoted to any kind of fiction to surive.

All my experiences with the SF magazines have been good. They are a labor of love by people who work very hard simply to keep their magazines (and my markets) going.

The third issue is the graying for the core readership. In spite of the importance of SF and fantasy ideas in popular culture, people aren't reading SF, it is argued. If this is so, what kind of future do SF writers have?

Finally, there is the fact that most SFWA members don't make a living by writing SF and probably never have. Tom Easton has a graceful essay on this topic in the Bulletin.

Given all this, what is a SF writer? And where are we going from here?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Thinking Out Loud in Print

This is continuing the previous post, and is me thinking about my novel.

What is required to create a sustainable planet?

1. Eliminating the private car. Relying on bicycles, trolleys, trains and boats for moving people. A slower world.

2. Eliminating urban sprawl, whether it be suburbs or barrios. People are going to have to live more densely, in multistory buildings, though probably not too high. Modern skyscrapers are expensive to heat and cool. People will have to move out of urban areas and back on the land, since sustainable agriculture is labor intensive. Instead of huge industrial farms, we will be looking at many, many small farms.

3. Recycling all waste, including human waste. Nightsoil is a very good fertilizer, and landfills take up too much land.

4. Reducing livestock farming, maybe eliminating it. We will not longer be able to feed grains to animals, rather than people. The exception will be areas where the animals live off the land, and the land cannot be used for crops.

5. Major water conservation. This means drip irrigation or no irrigation. No lawns that need to be watered. Monitors on all water lines. Either the water shuts off, or you pay a water surcharge for excessive use. Americans may not be quite as clean as they are now.

6. Following the example of Cuba and planting every available foot of land in urban areas. Instead of lawns, we will have gardens.

7. Wind power, solar power, hydrolectric power, energy conservation.

8. A lot less plastic.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


If you don't read The Oil Drum blog, you might consider doing so. It is commentary on oil and energy issues, as we approach peak oil. Unless we have passed it. Some people say it happened in 2006.

There was an essay in The Oil Drum on how many people the planet could support, without the green revolution, which is very heavily dependent on petroleum. The gentleman writing the essay, who lives in Karachi, ended by saying without a lot of petroleum inputs, we need an acre of arable land per person, and this means the carrying capacity of the planet is 3 billion people. We need to lose more than three billion people, he wrote. How this might happen is still uncertain.

There is one country on Earth which is considered to have a sustainable economy: Cuba.

I checked the population of Cuba and the arable land (thank you, Google). Cuba has 1.3 acres of arable land per person. 60% of the land is not devoted to agriculture. While the Cubans can't be called rich; the average income is $2,000 a year; they have a society which in terms of life expectancy, health care and education equals the rich industrial west.

This was achieved in the so-called special period, after the collapse of the USSR, which had been Cuba's main trading partner and the source of its petroleum. The special period was hard. Caloric intake went down. But the Cubans survived without social chaos and rebuilt their society on a new basis.

Remember that Cuba is a poor, third world country, without the astounding resources of the first world. If the wealth now devoted to the Goddess knows what -- consumer stuff and financial bubbles -- could be devoted to changing the world, who knows what we could do?

In any case, we can feed people without petroleum, if we have 1.3 acres of arable land per person. Based on the Pakistani gentleman's figures, this would mean a world population of 2.3 billion people, which means losing 4 billion people.

Or figuring out how to feed them, which is going to require quite amazing biotechnology, and the elimination (I think) of raising animals for food in most parts of the world. We can raise bison on the great plains, because that is not farm land. In fact, we might need to go to getting meat from wild animals, prudently harvested by market hunters.

I'm thinking about the sequel to Ring of Swords, and what my future earth needs to be like. I am locked into a population of 9 billion, per the first novel. So I have to figure out how to feed them.