Light in the Dark

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Anthea Jay Kamalnath, 2003

I have been rediscovering the things that made me happy as a child, like civil rights causes, photography, and writing. These are old abstract photographs from 2003. Our New York home is an actual house of glass, a mix of mirrors and windows, with endless rainbows as lights breaks against the prisms. I have always been fascinated with light, so as a young amateur photographer I decided to get a magnifying lens for my Canon EOS and set up stands to prop up cellophane to make light bounce back between the mirrors and these 800 watt lights. Thank God my parents indulged this nonsense. I would shoot blind directly into the light not knowing what would come out. The result was these Rothko-like photographs with no digital alteration. Our professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge, Alan MacFarlane, wrote a book where he argued that the Renaissance happened in Florence – and not Venice! – because of the quality of glass. One object – just like one person – can change the course of history and thought.

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Television
written on May 8, 2002

For all the warnings that watching too much of it will fry your brain, no other art form has had the impact on civilization that television has had. There are over 99 million households with TV sets in the United States alone. According to the Nielsen ratings service, the average American watches 120 hours of television per month. Currently, if not including the Internet as an art form, no other medium of art has the ability to reach such a broad audience as television. No other medium has such potential to bring about social change. Unfortunately, its potential has yet to be realized. Television has rested for the past forty years as the art medium that is waiting for someone to transform it into a form of humanitarian propaganda. It is waiting to be taken advantage of for the sake of bettering society.

A case was made for the importance of art by a group of Western Marxist thinkers in the 1920’s. Out of this intellectual development came Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party. In Marxist theory, every society rests on an economic base, out of which rises the superstructure, which consists of the polity, the law, and the arts, part of what Gramsci calls the hegemony of society. Capitalists control not only the economic base, but the superstructure as well. Capitalist hegemony manifests itself through the arts and political institutions. But since the superstructure still has a degree of independence, Gramsci suggested that it is not necessary to wait to transform the economic base in order to transform society. Revolution, change are found in the arts. The superstructure can be the vanguard of change. A cultural revolution would anticipate any economic or social revolution.

This cultural theory came to lie forty years later, when sit-ins by students were accompanied by the folk songs of Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, and Joan Baez, all heralding social change. But these same students quickly recognized the best medium of art of eliciting change: television. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) would plan its demonstrations so their events would be televised on the 7 o’clock news.

Thus, the 1960’s legitimized television. Marshal McLuhan, a professor in the mid-1960’s at the University of Toronto, under the direction of his mentor Harold Innes, declared that the world had finally entered into the greatest cultural revolution since Guttenberg’s printing press. Television had created a world culture, both macro and microcosmic, at once universally embracing all and deconstructing borders through its expansive form, while also presenting itself in highly personal terms. The phenomena to change culture now rested on changes in the media. The avante-grade could be reborn on the TV screen.

But the forty years that followed McLuhan’s revelation have culminated into a sort of visual and audio pandemonium. The television praised by Innes, McLuhan, and other 1960’s intellectuals has evolved into a box ceaselessly showering out a barrage of never-ending images and noise. In his recent book, Media Unlimited, public intellectual Todd Gitlin confronts this problem of the attack on our senses by our media. Modern intellectuals are haunted by fears of standardization, fears of mass conformity, and fears of having finally reached the end of culture. But Gitlin recognizes no solution is readily available. The two main functions of television, as a news source and an art form, seem to have failed to bring on any greater social change. Gramsci’s theories of a capitalist hegemony reassertion itself through culture have materialized, specifically in the use of television for news. As for entertainment in television, one has simply to turn on their TV set and flip channels to see the quality being put forth. CBS’s Vice President for Television Research recently told Gitlin, “I’m not interested in culture. I’m not interested in pro-social values. I have only one interest. That’s whether people watch the program. That’s my definition of good; that’s my definition of bad.”

Fault is not to be found in the medium itself. It is up to our society to resuscitate our culture. One does not have to be a Marxist to take the advice of Gramsci and the political ideologists of The Frankfurt School, who sought to use art as a medium of social change. Progressive artwork, here through TV, is not simply an idea of socialists, but a means for any party or platform to achieve social reform. Television is waiting to be taken advantage of for the right reasons. As Gitlin proposes, maybe the best thing for us to do is to step back for the frenzy for a moment and recognize what force we have at our hands. And then, as he suggests, “we will know what we want to do about it besides change channels.”

The Impossible Red, White, and Blue

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I think it is important to understand Trump supporters. In the past summer I have met a handful, ranging from polite university student campaign staffers with dreams of going into real estate or becoming President themselves (“if you look good and can speak in front of a camera, that’s all it takes – that’s how JFK was elected!”), to immigrants who work and study sometimes pulling 20 hour days (not a racist, but Trump epitomizes the American Dream for him; supports the wall as he prides himself on his hard work and worries about his future in this country), to the bizarre alt-conservative coupling of Trump supporters and educated ex-Bernie bros at Milos Yiannopoulos’ talk at UCLA (shouting in unison “build a wall,” holding placards “feminism is cancer” and “Gay Latinos against feminism”). They make up a more complicated demographic than progressives like myself often care to admit and whoever wins the election will have to win their hearts, minds, and trust too – there is more at stake here than a single nation’s presidential election.

Who’s Afraid?

Arthur Hill;Melinda Dillon

Actor Arthur Hill pushing actress Melinda Dillon who is screaming w. a bottle of booze in her hand in scene fr. the Broadway production of the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. (Photo by Henry Grossman//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Edward Albee died. He was founder of “The Lit” magazine which I edited, along with dear classmates, at Choate. When I attempted to process life at that age, I would always quote from his Zoo Story: “I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves; and I have learned that the two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion.”

The Romance of the First Amendment

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“On July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered an address to Harvard Divinity School that led to his thirty year ban from the institution. Emerson’s famous speech demanded and insisted of his audience that they speak out. Everyone faces the question, “Will you fulfill the demands of the soul or will you yield yourself to the conventions of the world?” The Harvard divines thought Emerson went too far; perhaps he did. Dissenters often do. Although Emerson’s perspective has helped shaped our literature and our culture, it has yet to be realized in American law. Emerson’s thought has been presented in thousands of classrooms to millions of students, but no Justice has ever even once referred to the free speech views of Ralph Waldo Emerson in any Supreme Court case. If an organizing symbol makes sense in First Amendment jurisprudence, it is not the image of a content-neutral government; it is not a town hall meeting or even a robust marketplace of ideas; still less is it liberty, equality, self-realization, respect, dignity, autonomy, or even tolerance. If it must need a symbol, let it be Emerson’s own: the dissenter. A major purpose of the first amendment is to protect the romantics – those who would break out of classical forms: dissenters, unorthodox, the outcasts. The First Amendment’s purpose and function in the American polity is not merely to protect negative liberty, but also affirmatively to sponsor the individualism, the rebelliousness, the anti-authoritarianism, the spirit of nonconformity within us all.”

– Steven Shiffrin, “The First Amendment, Democracy, & Romance”

Finding Beauty in the Ugly

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Pakistan, 1983; photo credit: John Isaac

Finding beauty in the ugly: child weavers in debt bondage in Pakistan. Photograph by John Isaac, former UN Chief Photographer — under no less than five Secretaries-General. Thank you Uncle for the perfect gift and ending to my year at the UN covering human trafficking. One of my favorite stories from his career: “Throughout his career, there have been many moments when John declined to take a photo. One of the earliest came in 1979, when he was on assignment in southern Thailand and came across a 13-year-old Vietnamese girl who’d been raped by pirates. “She was staring at the water, and wouldn’t look at anyone,” he recalls. Rather than raising his camera, John jumped in his Jeep, went to his hotel and picked up some chocolate and a tape recorder. “I’d taped some beautiful Vietnamese music and I sat next to her and played it. I held out the chocolate. After about 20 minutes, she took a piece.” Back in New York, he was laughed at by colleagues who told him he’d never succeed with such a soft heart—but he doesn’t regret his decision. “To me, it was worth more than all the pictures I could take.”

The Audacity of Hope

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With Tom Gallagher, the first Foreign Service Officer to come out to the U.S. Department of State in 1975. He was posted in Nigeria, picked up a copy of Newsweek magazine which had “Gay Liberation Movement” on the cover and read about his friend from the Peace Corps speaking openly about his sexual orientation and advocating for gay rights. Tom told me, “I thought – if he can do it, I can.” After becoming an advocate for gay rights and having his story reported in The Washington Post, Tom resigned from the State Department, giving up the job he dreamed of having since the fourth grade, as he could no longer lie to the government or himself. He was the youngest Chief of Mission at the time – posted at Guayaquil in Ecuador. He moved to California. Through his courage, he changed the lives of thousands of employees – people – around the world.

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