Saturday, July 23, 2016

Entry - 7.23.16

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Sumpf - 2005

I came across the image above on a site that indiscriminately presents art, fine and commercial, in all media by artists both professional and amateur.  I really like the democratic nature of the site.  It forces the viewer to evaluate artwork without any background information or preconceived notions.  If you like a work, you can simply put it in your “stack” for future reexamination or reference.  So I put the image above by Sebastian Meschenmoser into my stack and, from time to time, would see it there.  I’d never heard of Meschenmoser before, but the image intrigued me.  It pictures a stocky toddler in lederhosen and Tyrolean hat wading through a swamp.  In spite of the potential for disaster inherent in the situation, the moment caught by the artist seems calm and peaceful.  I think it was this strange duality, the contradiction between situation and mood, that brought me back to this image again and again.  This contradiction captures quintessentially the innocence of childhood which is characterized by a vulnerability unrecognized.

Being intrigued by this image, I eventually made the inevitable search on the internet and found many other images by this artist, most of which were based in fantasy and often presented violent and extreme situations.  Animals behaving like humans are commonly included in these images – as comrades of humans or battling against them or dispensing justice to them.  I liked his paintings.  I found them engaging and disturbing.

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Abgrund - 2013

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Baeren - 2006

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Diorama - 2009

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Eastern Lynch Party - 2012

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Still - 2013

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Wanderer - 2013

Digging a little deeper, I was surprised to find that Meschenmoser is an author and illustrator of children’s books; I was also somewhat pleased.  These works would be considered completely inappropriate for a younger audience here in America – by the way, Meschenmoser is a 36 year old German born in Frankfurt am Main.  I think that too often we Americans underestimate a child’s ability to process powerful, emotionally dense material, the exact kind of material that stimulates associations and sparks a rich fantasy life.  We filter and sanitize the art and literature that our children are permitted to experience, which, I believe, ultimately hampers creativity and originality.  Now I must admit that I was unable to gather a lot of information about Meschenmoser; he may have a very compartmentalized dual career as both a children’s book illustrator and a fine artist presenting work to an adult audience.  But, at a minimum, if his output is so diverse in content, it certainly can initiate a discussion concerning what material society deems appropriate for consumption by children.

Long ago, when just a teenager, I joined a friend in our Long Island neighborhood to celebrate New Year’s Eve and to babysit his younger sister, a child of about six or seven.  After my friend had performed on his guitar for a while and we had played a great number of ping pong games in the basement, the hour was approaching when it was determined that my friend’s sister should go to bed.   More for our amusement than hers, we decided to read her some bedtime stories and after some searching found stashed on a bookshelf a collection of children’s stories by Hans Christian Andersen, the nineteenth century Danish author.  I was only familiar with Andersen from the Hollywood movie starring Danny Kaye and believed him to be a sweet, gentle soul who wrote cute stories about the Ugly Duckling and Thumbelina.  My friend and I took turns reading stories, which we selected arbitrarily by thumbing through the thick tome.  Imagine our surprise and delight when we discovered that one story after another was filled with bizarre happenings, injustices, masochism, violence, maimings and death – all presented, of course, within a moralistic framework.  We particularly loved “The Red Shoes”, a story in which a young girl covets a showy pair of expensive red shoes which she, inappropriately, desires to wear to church.  Unfortunately for her, her pride is not overlooked by god.  Her feet, imprisoned in the offending shoes, begin dancing of their own accord and refuse to stop, carrying her over the landscape, from town to town, until the girl is utterly exhausted.  Since she is unable to remove the diabolical shoes, she decides to have a sympathetic woodsman chop off her feet.  But even then her penance is deemed insufficient; the amputated feet in the red shoes continue to dance, following the fleeing child, forever haunting her.  As we read these strange stories, our enthusiasm swelled and soon we were roaring with laughter, tears of joy literally streaming down our faces.  My friend’s sister was amused more by our hilarity than the stories.  But she was far from terrified by our readings and went to bed when requested to do so quite unperturbed by the evening’s entertainments.  Though I am certain that Andersen intended his stories to be edifying rather than humorously macabre, I am equally certain that he didn’t believe it odd or inappropriate to address eerie, sad and violent themes in his stories intended for children.

Another nineteenth century children’s book author, the German Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, really had no intention of ever being published.  Frustrated by the dearth of good children’s books available for purchase one Christmas, he determined that he would write and illustrate a series of cautionary tales for his three year old son.  Delighted by the ten rhymed stories that Hoffmann created, his friends urged him to have them published, which he did anonymously in 1845.  The stories, mostly about children, tell of the exaggerated consequences, often ruinous and grotesque, that result from mildly bad behaviors.  For instance, a boy, who never watches where he’s going, falls into a river and nearly drowns, and a girl, who plays with matches, lights herself on fire and burns to death.  My youngest son and I became aware of Hoffmann’s work during a random internet search.  We came across an animated video of “The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb” and were delighted, my son laughing gleefully at the absurd and macabre storyline.

Link to Little Suck-A-Thumb video:

I am sure that many people would object that these stories are not suitable for children, but I think they would be underestimating the natural intelligence of children.  The real fun of the stories is to see revealed the absurdly horrible consequences of fairly benign bad behaviors.  The more extreme the punishment, the funnier the story.  Of course, these stories are satirizing the predisposition of parents to attempt to modify their children’s behavior by forewarning of the undesirable ramifications of continuing to engage in said behavior.  “Don’t do that or you’ll put your eye out!” or “Keep making that face and it will get stuck that way!”  Ultimately, these unusual stories are poking fun at adults and do not seriously seek to provide edifying lessons for young children – only to entertain them.  Obviously, Hoffman did not want to terrify his three year old son.  It would be sheer folly for a sleep deprived, working parent to foster nightmares in a young child, but clearly the good doctor recognized that children could differentiate between real and fantastic activity.  I guess many others recognized this also for, when published under the title Struwwelpeter, these stories became popular throughout Europe and were printed in numerous editions.

Taking a look back at most classic children’s literature created prior to the twentieth century, I find that many of the most beloved stories were populated by sinister, terrifying characters and presented eerie, frightening and often gory storylines.  Having evolved organically within a folk culture, most fairy tales, but those of the Brothers Grimm in particular, reflect the subconscious fears, aspirations and associations of the members of the communities in which they developed and function without regard of any standards of what is appropriate for children.  The cycles of Arthurian romances and Robin Hood stories, ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, all traditional staples of a child’s library, contain many adult and violent themes.  Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan all contain underlying contexts addressing sexual themes approached from an adult’s perspective.  In the twentieth century, Roald Dahl is probably the premier children’s author, yet his books are rife with strange, unsettling and gory occurrences.   The cartoons I grew up watching (Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry and Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse) were often incredibly violent.

Now I’m not promoting a steady diet of violent and frightening reading and viewing material for our children.  When still a kid, I sometimes thought that the persistent presentation of violent subject matter in the cartoons I watched was somewhat over the top – really a bit sick.  But, even at a young age, I was able to process the material and empathized with the characters on the receiving end of all that hilarious violence.  My point is that children can process difficult and unsettling material.  Not only can they tolerate it but, as I stated earlier, may find it essential to establishing a rich and satisfying fantasy life, a key component to the initiation of creative thought.  It seems that these days we’ve reinvented children’s literature and animated movies, diluting or avoiding completely scenes of horror and violence, seeking a mildly pleasing pablum of positivity and edifying material easily digestible but lacking much flavor.

For instance, though Disney used Hans Christian Andersen’s story as the inspiration for The Little Mermaid, the studio changed the ending dramatically.  In Andersen’s tale, a mermaid, seeking to secure the love of a handsome prince, takes on human form at great cost to herself.  When the prince chooses to marry a princess from another kingdom, the mermaid has the opportunity to return to her true form if she will kill the prince.  The mermaid actually intends to fulfill this obligation but at the last moment cannot act.  Brokenhearted she leaps into the sea, dissolves into seafoam and is transformed into an earthbound spirit, thereby receiving a spiritual reward for her compassion and commitment.  Disney revamped the story completely, making teenage rebelliousness the central theme of their animated movie.  Ariel, the mermaid, feeling stifled by the restrictions imposed by her overprotective father, surreptitiously takes risks, exploring forbidden realms, and, during one of her forays, saves Prince Eric from drowning, instantly falling in love with him.  I won’t go through the whole plot, but you can rest assured that Ariel never considers killing the prince in this version, the story ending happily with the newly married Ariel and Eric sailing away on a ship together.  The movie version, stripped of the tension, excess and religious underpinnings of Andersen’s tale, now serves a dual purpose, cautioning parents not to be unreasonably restrictive with their charges and warning children not to push the envelope too far.

Clearly, the contemporary model for media marketed to children does not permit the excess and edginess that was par for the course just a generation of two ago.  No longer do writers and artists seek to intrigue, thrill, excite or, heaven forbid, frighten their audience.  Today the goal is to edify, to present a prepackaged, mundane truism for ready consumption by our youth.  So the plots of children’s books and movies will usually revolve around a central lesson like: “Girls can do things too!” or “We should protect the environment!” or “Racism is bad!” or “It’s okay to be different!”  All admirable concepts, but I can’t help wondering a few things.  If a child hasn’t been brought up to embrace these elemental ideals, is a Disney movie really going to make a difference?  And after being bombarded over and over with the same enriching messages, are our children feeling bored, numb and a bit manipulated at this point?  Finally, I can’t help but wonder if any of this material will stand the test of time.  One or two hundred years from now, will anyone be interested in this stuff?

These changes in children’s media shouldn’t really surprise us.  We as adults are undergoing regular indoctrination in our daily lives.  For instance, at my office, all workers must undergo regular training on a number of topics often addressing professionalism and personal behavior.  A decade ago, we might have received training on a pertinent topic every two or three years.  Today, annually, we are enrolled in an ever expanding array of online courses which focus on a wide variety of topics including, among others: ethics, workplace violence, reasonable accommodation, equal opportunity employment and sexual harassment.  On a fairly restrictive schedule, we take the same courses every year while trying to meet the demands of our jobs.  I sometimes feel like I’ve been banished to a Maoist reeducation camp.  It’s pretty clear that management believes that with repetitive positive tutelage it’s possible to effect major changes in the attitudes and behaviors of the workers.  We Americans are bombarded continuously with a wide range of material intended to make us better people; commonly, news programs, advertisements, television shows, movies, social media, the courts and our jobs push an agenda intended to shape us into ideal humans – never mind that the definition of “ideal human” changes every fifteen minutes.

America has become a nation of thin-skinned milquetoasts poised to succumb to the vapors at the slightest offensive gesture or ill-chosen expression.  Under the banner of “Political Correctness”, an army of avengers fight the good fight, vanquishing all those who stand in the way of the establishment of their Utopian society.  A momentary lapse in judgement, a drunken comment or a poorly conceived joke can easily result in public condemnation, social ostracism, loss of employment and loss of community.  A career, indeed a life, can be defined by a slip of the tongue, the choice of the wrong word.

And I’m not so na├»ve as to believe that these slip-ups, faux pas and missteps do not result from deep-seated, long established opinions, convictions and prejudices.  Often they do.  But isn’t it better to permit people to air their opinions, to encourage an honest and open dialogue on the issues most pertinent to our continued survival and well-being, than to shut down discussion and vilify those who disagree with our sacred truisms?  Do we really want to live in a gray society in which everyone says the same thing, in which everyone holds the same beliefs true?

I am currently rereading The Joke by contemporary author Milan Kundera.  In this novel, Kundera, who matured in the heady postwar period as Czechoslovakia embraced Communism, presents a protagonist (Ludvik) who, made jealous by his girlfriend’s effusive communication about participation in a distant Party training session, writes a sarcastic postcard to her, critical of optimism and a healthy atmosphere.  He tosses in the phrase “Long live Trotsky!” just to shock her, even though he has no idea what the then disgraced revolutionary stood for.  Ludvik, a committed and loyal Party member, writes the postcard as a joke – but also recognizes that he intends to zing his girlfriend for innocently expressing enthusiasm at being separated from him.  Unfortunately, the postcard is intercepted, and he is summoned to District Party Headquarters to explain himself.

And what do you think of optimism? they asked. Optimism? I asked. Why, nothing special.  Do you consider yourself an optimist? they went on.  I do, I said uneasily.  I like a good time, a good laugh, I said, trying to lighten the tone of the interrogation.  A nihilist likes a good laugh, said one of them.  He laughs at people who suffer.  A cynic likes a good laugh, he went on.  Do you think socialism can be built without optimism? asked another of them.  No, I said.  Then you’re opposed to our building socialism, said the third… And you are a Trotskyite.  For heaven’s sake, whatever gave you that idea? I protested.  Did you write it or did you not?  I may have written something of the kind as a joke, but that was two months ago, I don’t remember.  We’ll be glad to refresh your memory, they said, and read me my postcard aloud: Optimism is the opium of the people!  A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!  Ludvik.  The words sounded so terrifying in the small Party Headquarters office that they frightened me out of my wits.  I realized they had a destructive force I was powerless to counter,  But, Comrades, it was meant to be funny, I said, knowing they couldn’t possibly believe me.  Do you feel like laughing? one of the Comrades asked the other two.  Both shook their heads.
-          Milan Kundera, The Joke

At first, he expects his fellow Party members to understand his intentions and believes the whole storm will simply blow over but later is forced to see things differently.

Slowly I came to realize that there was no power capable of changing the image of my person lodged in the supreme court of human destinies, that the image in question (even though it bore no resemblance to me) was much more real than my actual self: that I was its shadow and not the other way around; that I had no right to accuse it of bearing no resemblance to me, because I bore the guilt for the lack of resemblance; that the lack of resemblance was my cross, to bear on my own.
-          Milan Kundera, The Joke

Ultimately, he is expulsed from the Party and is forced to leave the university he attends, thereby losing his right to defer military service.  He is assigned to a penal battalion and, as a result of an infraction, serves some prison time.  Meaningful employment becomes an impossibility.  His previous involvement in an artistic ensemble is severed, as well as all ties to the community in which he matured.

Of course, we would feel justified in condemning how the protagonist is treated as resulting from the misguided intentions of a totalitarian, Communist regime that prioritizes the welfare of the collective ahead of that of the individual.  But we must recognize that the Party saw itself as a vehicle in creating a better society, and, to accomplish this goal, the way that people thought and functioned had to change.  Evidence of “bad” thinking had to be addressed or society would slip back into its old comfortable and abusive patterns.  I don’t feel that the Communists of postwar Czechoslovakia were any less idealistic or well-meaning than America’s social crusaders of today.  They both share the same goal: to make positive change in their societies.  The tools for accomplishing this goal are also the same both then and now: 1) consistently use all forms of media available to disseminate your message and 2) ensure that any violator of your code of ethics is punished quickly and severely.  In America today, social media is the primary tool used to assert a new enlightened morality on the population; it’s the fear of public embarrassment and the potential loss of revenue that drives individuals and businesses to act swiftly to atone for even minor indiscretions.  The pattern is predictable.  A statement is issued or press conference is held in which full culpability is assumed by the offender(s), a sincere apology is tendered and punishment is meted out (whether that means resignation from position, loss of endorsements or exile from a social or power structure is determined by the specific circumstances).  There is usually no investigation, hearing or trial.  Intense media pressure assures that justice will be meted out swiftly.

I’m not sure what the answer is.  I do want to see positive social change made in our society, but I’m also dismayed to witness the erosion of one of our central freedoms: the right of free speech.  Of late, I’ve been reading a lot of American history, particularly focused on the period of the Revolution, and I believe that the Founding Fathers would be troubled by our willingness to accept ever-tightening restrictions on a freedom that they saw as essential to the balanced functioning of a democracy.  Whether these restrictions are imposed by the government or special interest groups or the population in general is immaterial; the results are the same.  A truly flourishing democracy is by its very nature sloppy, irreverent and contentious and presupposes a citizenry of robust, mature adults that can weather the storm of uncensored debate necessary to it survival. 

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