Sunday, October 22, 2017

On The Point

If you are suspicious of the liberal elite, especially the intellectual variety that seems to pick apart everything that is good and valuable to people, reduce it to a lot of power dynamics and hidden agendas, then you might be glad to know there’s a gathering wave of young liberal intellectuals who aren’t satisfied with that project either.

Some of them publish a magazine right here in Chicago.  It’s called The Point, as in Promontory Point, the lakefront park at 55th Street.  Or as in ‘There is a point’ – to reading literature, to engaging earnestly in history, in politics, in life in general.  Six months ago they held a conference called ‘Reimagining the Sacred and the Cool’ to discuss what that might look like for literature scholars.

The ‘cool’ literature critics of the 1980s and 90s were skeptical that real meaning could ever be arrived at. They thought their job was to see through the polished surface of ‘the text’ to the latent dynamics the author wasn’t being honest about, even with himself.

It was invigorating when it first came out.  It was a sharper tool for dissecting tradition and prejudice, for prying open the canon of great books to let new voices in.  It seemed to re-activate the old liberal education, by really illuminating how values are socially constructed.  Not so students could toss them all out, necessarily, but so they could participate in a clear eyed way in the endless project of revising them.  At least, that’s what a traditional liberal education is for.

Except that once you set it rolling, it’s hard to put limits on skepticism as a method for reading, or for life.  ‘Deconstructionists,’ ‘poststructuralists,’ scholarly critique in general moved from taking apart the text, to taking apart the author, and the reader, to dismantling the very idea of the coherent individual, capable of independent judgment.  From that vantage, sincere expression, truth and morality aren’t just impossible to achieve, they become embarrassing to pursue.

This is also one point where scholarly critique starts to sound like a lot of fuss over issues that aren’t real problems for regular people.  When is the last time you worried if you had a coherent self or not?  Or whether you are capable of making real moral decisions?

It is possible to argue as if all human discernment, from our taste to our conscience, are just codes for striking a social posture, or internalized demands of the surveillance state.  As if reducing any human expression to something legible in utilitarian terms is really the most honest way to approach it.  If that is true, than opportunism really would be the best strategy for life.

But from experience, we know that’s not true.  Or we know that it’s part of it, but that it’s not all there is.  Intellectuals and artists are supposed to help us with this – that is help us to look at ourselves and our situation honestly, in its complexity and fullness.  Part of the job is to expose weakness and illusion, but the other is to appreciate the potential, even dignity, in our condition.

If they have painted themselves into a corner where they can’t see dignity in our condition, then they abandon that job to those who are willing to deal in less nuanced terms.

That’s what was cool about the conference: it suggested that young scholars are unsatisfied with the project of deconstruction alone, that they see the potential of literature to summon up something of value.  Not through Nancy Drew mysteries about ideal characters solving a world where the ugly facts of reality are suspended, or easily overcome.

But a literature that deals in ambiguities, one that recognizes a multitude of competing principles, all of them aspects of what is true and good in the world, but aspects that are not neatly reconciled with each other either.  Drawn in abstract terms, carried too far, they conflict with one another.  At which point, some inner voice that we still have protests.

The first speaker made the case for that inner voice, a seat of conscience that is “meaningfully autonomous”, even though it’s “socially informed.” She spoke of developing it through spiritual practice, carving new neural pathways through meditation and prayer. 

All the speakers argued for sources of critical discernment other than the voice of traditional authority or disengaged science.  One described an imagination activated through poetry to move back and forth between the landscape of the material world we know, and something that transcends it.

Another suggested that critics might model themselves on Biblical commentators, whose method is not to describe literature from a distance, but “to enter into its point of view, to think alongside it.”  Whose claim is not to settle questions decisively, but to illuminate the possibilities, to feed into the pool of collective imaginary that a reader may draw from, pulling out the commentary that resonates with his situation.

Articles in the magazine often argue for similar discernments in the real world.  They acknowledge ambiguity, and multiple points of view.  But just as important, they value the need to step out from a critical stance of endless equivocation, they believe in the reader’s capacity to engage in matters of meaning, and in the scholar’s ability to point him in promising directions.

They call for a history unembarrassed to explore deep themes, or describe a narrative road map for a general public.  For a politics willing to argue in terms of deep values (like whether it is true that all human beings deserve some measure of respect or not), rather than skate over them with centrist arguments about the best techniques to achieve economic growth.  And for a literature that is ‘conducive to a feeling of aliveness.’

In an early issue, editor Jon Baskin describes finding just such a literature in the novel Infinite Jest.  He knows it’s sometimes read like other “difficult” novels of its milieu, a cool study in ironic alienation, its characters exhausted by the impossibility of being a real person in a thoroughly commercialized United States.  Baskin says Infinite Jest is just meeting the reader where he is.  So its first character is creepily familiar, “the grieving white male of high education and questionable maturity,” he’s literally stuck in a self-conscious feedback loop that’s made his speech unintelligible, his head into a cage.

But another character has found escape through Alcoholics Anonymous.  Baskin says that’s what makes Infinite Jest different, it presents the insights of AA un-ironically, as a real antidote for the postmodern condition. “The addict seeks refuge in his substance,” he observes, but “his true addiction is not to his substance, but to a highly reflexive and indulgent way of thinking.”  It’s much the same for the reader, savvy in the tongues of “satire, theory and reflexive sophistication.”  What he craves is a literature that points a way out from that reflexive cage.

You can’t just switch from irony and alienation to na├»ve sincerity and embedded-ness.  Once you’ve seen the human capacity for bias, spite and self deception, you can’t un-see it. But you can turn your attention to the human capacity for other things. And there is no better place to start than here.  The urban neighborhood is the perfect scale for seeing how people are complex. It’s large enough to be diverse, close enough to see your neighbors face to face. 

I like to ask people about their work because a lot of times they find a lot of dignity in it.  I don’t think that diminishes large scale concerns about the widening gap between the rich and poor, the narrowing of economic opportunities, and the serious threat those dynamics pose to our national well-being.  Bridgeport is a neighborhood where you can see close up what good union jobs have done for people; it’s also got a significant population who will probably struggle hard for not very much their whole lives.  But among them, all kinds of people seem to want more than wages, they want their work to mean something.

Much has been written about how the art world produces meaningful work on the superstar scale – especially how the players work together to cultivate the authority of an artist and the market value of his work.  Of course art is supposed to have a non-commercial value too, but that gets obscured by fabulous prices.  It might actually be easier to see it on a local level among artists who are still feeling their way toward an audience.  How do they do that? In conversation with what?

The neighborhood is also an ideal scale for talking politics, especially a neighborhood like Bridgeport, which has Bernie Sanders supporters and Oath Keepers, voters for Obama and for Trump in near equal parts. We see each other face to face, though we don’t necessarily get into one another’s point of view.

In fact, that’s exactly the topic of one of my favorite recent articles from The Point magazine.  David Alm knew white nationalist Richard Spencer in graduate school, before Spencer became a major figure on the national stage. Back then, Spencer’s views weren’t fully expressed, but they still made his fellow students uncomfortable.  In his article, I See a Darkness, Alm recalls that he and his friends mainly avoided engaging Spencer when they got a glimpse of his illiberal views. Now he wonders if they should have engaged.

To do it, they would have had to have been willing to consider a worldview they found deeply wrong alongside their own tacit assumptions. Do you really believe that all human beings are worthy of some measure of respect, for instance? And if you do, how is that best expressed in matters of public concern?

It’s hard to argue in those terms without shutting down, or walking away indignant.  But if there’s a place to try it, that place is here.  And the more intractable national politics becomes, the more that conversation, held face to face, may turn out to be fundamental to everything else.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

An Other Worldly Production

Photo by Daniel Belli, credit 1 below

Last year, I spent a lot of time wondering what to make of an otherworldly performance that’s hit all three of Bridgeport’s art centers -- scenes from a non-conventional opera called Thunder, Perfect Mind staged by NON:Op Open Opera Works.

I first saw a scene from it at the Zhou B. Arts Center performed by 6 young women, all delicate in white.  Three of them were seated on chairs mounted high on the walls, playing stringed instruments.  Underneath, on the floor, the other 3 women seemed to play another set of strings, strung from the ground to the ceiling like a great terrestrial harp.

The performance was beautiful, but hard to grasp, like something spoken in a language being invented while you watched, just past the limits of your intuition.

Photo by Ron Wachholz, credit 2 below

Which is why I’d come to see it, really, at the suggestion of Deirdre Harrison, who’s had a long career in musical theater.  She’d just stepped in to help the composer, Christopher Preissing, orchestrate the players, to help them spin a way to think their performance.  For the scene at the Zhou B., she knew the young instrumentalists perched on the walls would need some point of mental reference, so she’d given each of them a scrap of paper with a line from the text on it to repeat to themselves during the silences.

For I am the first and the last…
the whore and the holy one…

Photo by Brittany Tepper, credit 3 below

Thunder, Perfect Mind is titled from an ancient Gnostic text that had been dug up from the Egyptian desert in the 1940s.  It was part of a whole lost library that had been buried in giant clay jars for some 1,800 years.  Even after the jars were found, the Nag Hammadi texts were jammed up in intrigues over ownership for decades before they started to filter out into the world.  They were just becoming available to Coptic language scholars in the 1970s, and then to the public in English translation in the 1980s. That’s when Christopher Preissing first read some of them, when he was still in school.

Preissing was a graduate music composition student, writing a dissertation on the history of opera.  He was studying its conventions so he could test them later.  He would step outside the traditions of composition, explore expressive notations, subvert the way social hierarchies had been worked into the seating arrangements and the theater itself.

The Gnostic scriptures also held a counter cultural appeal.  For almost 2 thousand years, the Gnostics were known mostly from the wild accounts early Christian Church Fathers gave of their beliefs.  
Those accounts were always suspect, the Fathers were using them to establish an orthodox church by defining it against degenerate heresies.  Though as the Nag Hammadi texts became available, some of the Fathers’ most outrageous accounts, of Bible stories turned on their heads, of the Biblical God willfully blasphemed, turned out to be pretty accurate.

The library is also diverse, it presents a whole range of lost possibilities, of paths not taken, rediscovered in an age when people are suspicious orthodox authorities and how they assert the truth.  Preissing found himself drawn to the hymn called Thunder, Perfect Mind in particular because it evoked a feminine voice, and it read like a riddle.  The divine speaker describes herself in impossibilities and paradox.

I am the mother of my father and the sister of my husband -- he is my offspring.

Photo by Scott Johnson, credit 4 below

In 1992, he got a grant to make an opera from it.  Even after the first performances, he has never entirely stopped working on it.  It has continued to grow in scope and dimension as scenes are elaborated in public practice sessions around town.  Today, Thunder, Perfect Mind, the opera, is a site specific immersive performance for a 12 member chorus, percussionists, street performers, orchestral musicians and 2 sopranos, one of whom is an aerialist who will descend through the heavenly spheres to earth, and re-ascend into the divine fullness in the end.

In the shock of more recent history, ancient squabbles over divine metaphysics and the esoterica of avant-garde opera may sound beside the point.

1800 years ago, a Gnostic would say that is the point: that the so called real world isn’t actually real.  That the powers of this world aren’t just ignorant of reality, they’re constitutionally incapable of understanding it, they sense it vaguely when they spot a true spirit in other people, then they’re jealous of it, they persecute it.  But those rare souls who have that spark of the divine spirit can be restored to the divine wholeness by remembering where they came from.

Modern people are less interested in escape to transcendence in general, and the Gnostic answer in particular is elitist and radically anti-cosmic, dismissing the material world we live in as a disastrous mistake.

But Gnosticism arose in a world that had compelling parallels to the world we live in now.  The latter centuries of the Hellenistic-Roman era are sometimes called an age of anxiety, menaced by threats of barbarian invasions, plagues, even financial catastrophes.  But they were also an era of unprecedented cultural ferment and change.  Like in our own era, change was disorienting to navigate for the individual person, and the Gnostics expressed the crisis of dislocation in a startling way.  But they also show that human instinct for hope.

Photo from Hubble Space Telescope, credit 5 below

Gnosticism was a trend of thinking, not a church with clear boundaries, and the so called Gnostics were enthusiastic speculators about the origins of the world and the human condition in it.  Some of their accounts focus on the story of Sophia, or Divine Wisdom.

They start with the perfect divine Wholeness, or indescribable Depths, whose qualities begin to emanate outward in pairs, male and female.  Sophia is part of the last pair. She sins, she falls from grace, she launches a whole chain of catastrophe.

The exact nature of her sin is some form of willfulness.  She wants to create on her own, without her consort, or else she wants to contemplate the original Depths without permission.  She becomes pregnant, like the emanations before her, except she gives birth to a monstrosity, an abortion.  A divine Limit gets summoned up, and Sophia’s abortion is cast out to the other side of it.

Photo from Hubble Space Telescope, credit 6 below

It has various names, Sophia’s abortion, sometimes it’s just called the Demiurge.  But outside, in the dark, it’s scared, it’s alone, it doesn’t know where it came from.  It creates the material world to comfort itself.  It creates a whole host of celestial powers, to serve as its minions – they rule the spheres of the planets and stars, they make mischief in the sphere below the moon.  The Demiurge declares itself God and feels powerful.  But it’s never really confident in that feeling.

The Demiurge creates mankind out of filth, and breathes life into it, gives it a Soul.  But our souls are just an animating principle, our appetites, our lower passions, our perceptions of the material world.  We’d have no access to the divine realm at all except that Sophia, from some divine purgatory where she waits for her own redemption, scatters some of her light into humanity.

The human Spirit is a divine shard that’s embedded in us, it’s alien to our world, and we’re born in a condition of flesh-bound forgetfulness.  But when we hear the truth about where we really came from, our spirit responds, it remembers.  It knows.

The Gnostics didn’t believe that all people have that divine shard.  Or else we don’t have it in equal quantities. In some people, the spiritual principle is so weak or absent they are essentially just animate creatures, slaves to their material natures.  Some are in an intermediate condition, they’ve got enough spirit to be reasonable, to exert their will, they’re soulful creatures, but not truly spiritual.  The Gnostics are an elect minority of truly Spiritual beings.

These Gnostics were a great irritant to those Orthodox Fathers who were trying to build a church where everybody could participate just by faith in something they didn’t understand.  And that Gnostic Spirit is a strong rhetorical device.  Because if you don’t recognize the truth when you hear it, it’s probably not your fault, and you won’t be convinced by arguments, you’re just not equipped to know.

Meanwhile, down here in the cosmos, the Demiurge and his demons do have some vague perception of that spiritual element.  They recognize it in Eve and her daughters.  They know they don’t have it, and they’re jealous, they chase her, they rape her trying to get it, they persecute her wherever they catch a glimpse of it.

Preissing’s opera tells the story of Sophia and Eve like a double answer to the identity riddle posed by the hymn, Thunder, Perfect Mind.  The production starts with Sophia, setting out for redemption. She descends to earth, through the spheres of the planets, accumulating worldly qualities like heavy clothing.

Preissing’s Eve has wandered from the countryside into a big city, looking for adventure, but she’s quickly lost.  She wanders disoriented, she’s abused and assaulted, she sinks deeper and deeper into confusion, shame and fear.  When they meet, Sophia will relay her message, she’ll tell Eve of her true nature, remind her who she really is.  Sophia will re-ascend into heaven, restored.   Eve will stay behind.

In the opera, the results of their encounter, the nature of any transformation is left open ended, which is fitting for a terrestrial production.  So is the urban setting of Eve’s travails.  The urban condition has been one of the great themes of modern life; it is also a link into that ancient world where Gnosticism emerged.

Photo by Takashi Hososhima, credit 7 below

When Alexander the Great conquered the Persians in 331 BC, he said he was after more than glory, he wanted to integrate the known world – East and West – into a single cosmopolitan culture.  And he achieved that, he laid the ground for a new kind of empire, one built from a network of cities whose residents would be citizens of the world.  That condition exerted a dramatic psychic change.

The world had seen big empires before.  The great empires of the Near East, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians all helped lay the ground for imperial rule that wouldn’t just exploit conquered territories, siphoning off tribute and slaves.  Over centuries, they’d begun to build the bonds of trade, establish roads and postal systems.

In the west, Greek traders had been settling in foreign ports for centuries.  After Alexander’s conquests, they emigrated in much larger numbers, forming a leadership class in cities across the empire.  The Greek language became a lingua franca spoken across the realm. The Greeks also brought a common currency and cultural institutions like the gymnasia, which acted as secondary schools, teaching Greek literature and philosophy.

Some speculate that the alphabet the Greeks had adapted from the Pheonecians was a more versatile way of writing that helped them to develop new ways of thinking, especially abstract thinking, that they now brought with them across the empire.  Others have ventured that it was the dislocations of conquest itself that nudged ancient peoples to develop a capacity for thinking in universal terms.

Traditional cults had worked to guarantee the safety and integrity of small societies.  But once the town walls were razed, the local king deposed, the people sent into exile, their gods were either discredited, or else they were set loose from their parochial roles.  Exiles, soldiers and traders brought their gods along on their travels, and picked up new ones along the way.  People from all walks of life, cut adrift from all variety of old traditions, would appeal to universal gods as personal saviors.

A host of religious philosophies pushed abstract thinking to its limits, imagining a sphere of divine perfection so entirely transcendent from the earthly realm it was virtually indescribable.  The rational man might perceive it through the logos (“the Word” in the Gospel of John), a rational principle that mediates between the two realms, penetrating the cosmos, giving it shape and coherence, and resonating through the human mind.

At any rate, travel, trade and communication were all a lot easier in the new era.  The results were stimulating, but profoundly disorienting.  Geo-political boundaries were opening up, the population was more mobile, ideas that had been floated among philosophers a few centuries earlier seemed to penetrate further and more deeply into the populace, including a whole new concept of the universe.

It’s said that ancient peoples saw Heaven fitting over the earthly plain like a dome, regal but not all that distant, and there were clear axes for communication with the gods who dwelled in it.  The Ptolemaic universe exploded the dome, replacing it with a much vaster construction of planetary spheres and a realm of stars much further away.  The divine powers they expressed seemed indifferent to the passion and strife of the terrestrial sphere, maybe even hostile.

In the 1950s, the historian Eric Dodds evoked the anxiety of the age in a record of questions posed to an oracle – he says oracles had surged as the world became more changeable.  “Am I to become a beggar?” one record reads.  “Will I be sold as a slave?”  “Am I under a spell?”  “Are you God?  Or is someone else God?”

Gustav Caillebot, Paris Street, Rainy Day

The great scholar Hans Jonas thought Gnosticism expressed a spiritual condition of profound pessimism.  It reminded him of the existential alienation current in his own era. In fact, here in Chicago while Jonas was studying the Gnostics, a whole school of sociology was writing lyrically about the experience of urban life, and the psychic changes it affects on modern people.

The Chicago scholars would observe that in the modern city, life takes on a certain superficial quality, as people brush shoulders with uncountable numbers of strangers on the street each day, they each size each other up, read each other in an instant based on hints of dress and demeanor.   That pageant itself becomes fascinating and invigorating, there are whole genres of painting and literature spent observing it.

Each person traveling it can realize potentials that would be suppressed or ignored in small town life, because tradition and social conventions are much weaker in the big city than they are in the small town.  Those potentials express in good ways and bad ones: there are more artists, realizing their creative potential, and more juvenile delinquents, unrestrained by disapproving elders.

“In a small community it is the normal man, the man without eccentricity or genius, who seems most likely to succeed,” Robert Parks wrote in the 1920s. “The small community often tolerates eccentricity.  The city, on the contrary, rewards it.”

So the urban world is larger, in a wonderful sense, but more dangerous.  It is much harder to pick a course through the infinite variety and find meaning in it, much easier to skate through life on that distracting surface, oblivious to things that really matter.  It is easier to get lost.  This is the landscape Eve wanders in the scenes from Thunder, Perfect Mind -- a maze of urban streets, flickering with images and false idols -- sinking deeper into distraction and despair.

Photo by Scott Johnson, credit 9 below

Jonas links Gnosticism to a crisis of purpose in the ancient world.  He says that in the classical polis, the independent city-state, the citizen knew he was an essential part of a larger social whole.  He might be bound by its limits, he might be just a small part.  But his being helped to constitute and maintain a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

As cities were overtaken by empire, the citizen becomes a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.  He is still part of the whole, but as it becomes more vast, he is reduced to insignificance.  He can still participate in it, sync up his rational capacities with that principle evident in the cosmic order.  But his actions matter only to himself, he is like an actor playing a part on a stage.  “A role played is substituted for a function performed,” Jonas writes.  He may play it well, or play it badly.  Either way, it makes no impact on the stars.

For Parks, the sociologist in Chicago, the modern city is also a whole, more than the sum of its parts, more than a meeting place of individuals.  It is a state of mind, he writes, a body of customs and traditions, and the sentiments that inhere in them.  Where Jonas ties the psychic change of the ancient city to the dislocations of empire, Parks attributes the effect of the modern one to the mechanisms of urban life itself.

He believes those mechanisms are organic, tied to “the vital processes of the people who compose it.”  But since the city is also a center of trade and industry, they include the rationalizing tendencies of industrial society, especially the division of labor, the tendency to specialize.  They make the urban person more dependent on other people in a sense – where he performs one part of a process, he relies on others to complete most things.

But the nature of the connection has changed.  In a village, people are bound together by complex emotional connections – ‘bonds of sympathy’ is Parks’ term.  In the city, these are replaced by simpler, rationalized relations based on common interest.  Bonds of interest are more volatile than the other, more complicated kind.  They can be adjusted more easily as situations change, but they also leave individuals more vulnerable to being dismissed if they are not particularly useful, or at all annoying.

Every small town has its oddballs, Parks observes.  The peculiar character, who might not command the highest respect, but who is tolerated, looked after, maybe even with some affection.  He’s an oddball, but he’s our oddball.  In the city he might find his way into the right circles and become an exceptional artist, or a billionaire entrepreneur.  Or he might just never find his function at all, and drop out from the bottom of the machine.

George Bellows, The Cliff Dwellers

Jonas believed that the material world the Gnostics wanted to escape was rational, in a demonic way.  It was a world defined by law and order, but it was “rigid and inimical order, tyrannical and evil law.”  It was “devoid of meaning and goodness,” it was “alien to the purposes of man and to his inner essence.”  Like existentialists in his own era, the Gnostics wanted to defy this tyranny, to be true to their inner essence, to live authentically.

Modern people seem to have more or less continued on the trajectory that extends the logical principle to further and further ends.  The rational, instrumental pursuit of interests reigns supreme.  It’s helped us accomplish amazing things.  It’s made our horizons much larger, but it’s made individuals smaller, it’s made the powers of this world, in government and in business, powerful to the extreme.

We still have a sense, like the Gnostics, that their powers don’t rule the whole of reality.  We know that there is some inner voice that we have, maybe not expressed in all people in the same way, but it is the link to some more authentic existence.  And when we hear it in music, for instance, or see it in art, we recognize it – or we hope we will.

I don’t think it’s accidental that when we’re talking about “authentic” experience we’re less likely to call on the spirit, we’re more likely to say something’s got soul.  We really mean that lower element.  Not the airy, the distant, the detached, but the embodied person, connected to passions, deeply embedded in the material world and its sympathies.

It’s as if that logical principle has become too ascendant.  We’ve pursued the good things it has to offer, we’ve learned to detach ourselves, to be objective, so we can see a bigger picture than what’s visible from where we stand embedded in our parochial lives.  We’ve learned to recognize that the kind of social judgment and outright bigotry that thrive in small societies ruled by sympathies are corruptions to root out.

But pursued to its ends, rational detachment becomes dangerous and proud, ignorant of that field of goods outside its reach.

I think that authentic reality is something we make up amongst ourselves.  It’s a kind of music, or a subtle language that is constantly being invented and elaborated among the people speaking it.  The process of making up the language is most obvious in art.  I think that’s what Preissing, and Deirdre Harrison and the young musicians in white were all doing that night at the Zhou B. Center.

But it is something that goes on all the time, whether we’re conversing easily with people who seem most like us, or whether we’ve got to stretch to understand how they can be so backward, or annoying, to recognize them as being essentially like us.  We have that capacity to know.

For more information about NON:op Open Opera Works visit For more information about Thunder, Perfect Mind visit

Photo from Hubble Space Telescope, credit 11 below

Photo Credits:

1.  By Daniel Delli (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

2. By Ron Wachholz, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at the Ear Taxi Festival, Harold Washington Library, 2016

3. By Brittany Tepper, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at the Chicago Loop Alliance

4. By Scott Johnson, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at Feed Salon, 2016

5. By NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

6. ESA/Hubble [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

7. By Takashi Hososhima from Tokyo, Japan (Day 4: Stars #1) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

9. By Scott Johnson, performance from Thunder, Perfect Mind at Feed Salon

11. By NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, June 6, 2016

Two Young Men and Politics

Basketball Coach Bobby Knight, Photo Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m scared at the prospect of a Trump presidency, but when I heard Bobby Knight endorsing him on the radio, it did cross my mind that maybe there is something heartening about the way huge numbers of people seem prepared to vote for a grand view of what they want to be as a People.

At least that’s what Bobby Knight is doing.  He says he supports Trump because he’s the candidate who’s most likely to make our Nation great again.  If life is like sports, greatness assumes dominance, there can only be one world champion.  But it can still be us if we can muster the commitment to hold on to the title.

There will be costs, the players all need to be prepared to rise to the challenge.  And even as they do a lot of them will get sidelined, or injured or retired, or never make it off the bench.  But they’re still part of the team that breaks records and exceeds all expectations. Great teams raise the level of the whole game to heights that inspire multitudes.

I know I am a little susceptible to examples where people define their interests more broadly than their personal wealth and status, because I believe they help prove personal wealth and status aren’t the real measures of value in human life.

That’s one of the reasons I appreciate Brian Cerullo, who served as Field Manager for Theresa Mah’s (victorious!) campaign for State Rep from the 2nd District.  [Candidate Mah was profiled on The Hardscrabbler in August 2015.]

Brian is also driven by a vision greater than his own wealth and status.  It’s a different vision than the one you hear championed by Trump and Knight, but not entirely different. He also reminds me of someone I knew 20 years ago.  Brian might be something like what Bill would have been like, if he’d arrived a couple decades down the road.

The Reagans at the 1981 Inaugural Parade, Photo Wikimedia Commons

Brian was born during the Reagan Administration.  That makes him a Millennial, the new generation everyone speculates about.  They might be exceptionally socially accepting and community minded, but maybe also narcissistic (all that social media), or craving too much affirmation in the workplace (too many trophies when they were kids).

I’m from Generation X myself.   They called us Slackers.  We were known for living too long in our parents’ basements, maybe also for our political apathy.  We’re the generation who missed the threats of widening income inequality and the growing power of corporations because we were too wrapped up in the authenticity of our social markers -- our tastes in alternative rock, the nuances of our identities.  Maybe that was because we still assumed we’d have access to the national prosperity, even if we hadn’t achieved it yet.

Young Goethe contemplating a Silhouette

My friend Bill was the kind of young man Bobby Knight would want on his team, or should have if he could see what he was looking at.  He was raised Irish Catholic in a small, hardworking town in Massachusetts.  His father was an argumentative drunk.  His mother struggled to raise 3 boys on her own.   Bill was the oldest, he kept his brothers in line.  He’d tell them “You’re just going to have to work a little harder than everyone else,” because it’s what he told himself.  He was smart, brave, determined to make his mark in the world.  But over and over again, the world wouldn’t have him.

First he tried the football field, when that didn’t pan out he turned his attention to his education – to the liberal arts in fact.  Not the touchy, feely liberal arts, but the most stern and unforgiving undergraduate program he could find. Great Books, great souled men and all that.

His social markers expressed a little different because of it.  He came out with a peculiar nostalgia for an aristocratic society where men once had the courage to think and act independently, as opposed to the society of obedient sheep where we find ourselves now.

Partly, the change has to do with how in a society of equals, we’re left struggling against the drag toward the lowest common denominator.

Partly, it’s the hazard of the modern world itself.  As science extends its reach, life becomes ever more technical, our field of vision narrows.  We have to specialize.  Burrow into the “tunnels of the specialized disciplines” in the phrase of a novelist.  We lose sight of ourselves in context of the world, of history, we forget the big questions, about meaning and dignity.

Bill used to drive me nuts, arguing the first part.  It implies that people need the false confidence they get from social distinction to think for themselves.  Without it, they tuck their head down and conform, and in a society like ours it’s not even because they’re  afraid society will turn on them if they don’t, they’re afraid it’ll just ignore them altogether.

As far as I was concerned, Bill defied his own arguments.  In the Old World, wouldn’t he be laboring in a field somewhere, without a lot of time to cultivate grand thoughts?  In this one, they saved him.  They lit up his conversation, they sustained him through his struggles, they lifted his eyes to a horizon beyond where he was standing at that particular moment.

Bill graduated in the late-1980s, straight into the slough of a recession, and he couldn’t find a job.  He was smart, articulate, though he wasn’t polished, he was always a little rumpled, and he had an angry edge that might have been growing, getting edgier.  I thought Bill was better than other people and I was always a little surprised when they couldn’t tell, but then you could imagine reasons he might not rank a favorite among the be-suited men of business who came recruiting at the university.

When the world seemed closed to him, he made access to a wider one through novels – Emma Bovary yearning for something beyond the ordinary, or those macho heroes from Joseph Conrad novels, facing the limits of their moral fortitude in uncharted places outside the bounds of civilization.

Still, Bill freely admitted he’d been on the verge of desperation when he finally got a job.  It was a position as a clerk on the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade.  It was perfect for him.

Swirl of Action on the CBOT Trading Floor, Photo Getty Images

At the time, a lot of the guys I knew seemed to pass through those trading pits.  They’d put in some time clerking first, literally writing trades down on slips of paper and carrying them across the room, and if they didn’t get fired for some catastrophic notation error they’d graduate to a position as a trader where they’d have a chance to make real money, to live the successful life – summer afternoons on a golf course, maybe a boat with girls on it.

Bill had a lust for all those things that money could buy.  He wanted to see the world, to travel, to appreciate the best experiences the modern world has to offer.  But the trading pits represented more than that.

Electronic trading was in its infancy then, it would be another decade before it emptied the trading floors, and the CBOT was still making the case open outcry was the most efficient way for buyer and seller to arrive at a fair price.  It was also a hyper masculine environment that reminded Bill of the locker room.  It drew on his strengths.

In the commodities pits, traders stood shoulder to shoulder among peers, they were a platform where a man of good character, strong nerves and trust in his wits could assert himself.

Bill’s employer wasn’t sure of him at first.  It took a long time before they’d submit the application to graduate him to a position as a floor trader.  And when they did, the CBOT shot it down.  They’d say it was on account of his student loans, which Bill fumed was ridiculous, no one he knew had been sidelined on such a flimsy pretext.  To hear him talk the floor was full of debtors and bankrupts scratching out second chances.

Then, when his application finally cleared the hurdles at the CBOT, it got hung up again by federal regulators.  Eventually they were telling Bill it was just one guy, one sanctimonious bureaucrat with too much power on his hands.

Bill drank and he fumed, but he kept his head.  It was like he’d woken up in one of his favorite Eastern European novels, where men of courage and some sense are perpetually thwarted by a great, stupid bureaucracy.  And by the narrow minded functionaries who, from a creeping sense of their own inferiority, perpetuate it.

At least the traders he worked for were behind him now.  They floated appeal after appeal on his behalf.  And eventually his application passed.  He didn’t fly out to the coast to assault that bureaucrat.  He cleared the hurdles, he started making the money.  Hopefully it afforded him the experiences he wanted, or at least the sense of being able to take action, and have it come to something.

Crain's Chicago Business features images and stories

Today electronic trading has narrowed that particular avenue toward the national prosperity.  The portals for entry to commodity trading are through specialized disciplines, like computer programming, writing algorithms.

I don’t think the specialized disciplines necessarily drive us into narrow tunnels, at least not so deep that we can’t step back, attempt to place our personal experience in a broader horizon.  But they do limit access, raise the barrier to entry, make it harder for a young person with more nerve than experience to find a path.

And that is impoverishing.  Because even though it’s true that wealth and status aren’t the real measures of value in human life, it’s also true that certain base levels are pre-requisites: material security, but also agency, that sense that effort comes to something.  That’s the great advantage those players trying their chances in the trading pits had over the hapless heroes of the comic novels, struggling through syrup in an anonymous bureaucracy.
Brian Cerullo, far right (in this photo only),
at a Rally for Mayoral Candidate Chuy Garcia
For Brian Cerullo, taking the stage 20 years later, the scene has changed, but he plays something like the same character Bill once did.  Brian is also smart, articulate, he’s got the edge, but when it finds a productive outlet it’s like a current that can engage random strangers about things that really matter.

They share some family dynamics.  The angry father, the valiant mother, a little oppressed.  Brian grew up in rural Connecticut.  His mother was an immigrant from Malta, an olive skinned woman with an accent, struggling to raise sons on her own, in close vicinity to a lot of privileged Yankees.

Brian’s father grew up blue collar in Buffalo, New York.  Brian says there’s something about that mindset he never lost, even though he went to school, became an engineer.  He made a success of it.  Today, he travels the world advising third world governments on building power plants.  But he just spends his wages on dissolute pleasures – the international business class version of a boat with girls on it.

And Brian watches as the tide has begun to turn against his father now, late in his career, because the native sons who worked for him in those third world countries, the ones who needed an American engineer to supervise their technical projects, have sent their own sons to universities.  Now their sons are engineers, they’re supervising the projects Brian’s father once did. 

Later, Brian would translate experiences he had visiting his father on overseas assignments into his liberal education.  He describes looking at pictures of childhood birthday parties the family celebrated in Central American countries, and picking out notorious generals from the crowd.   “That’s when it first occurred to me maybe my Dad isn’t just working for the good guys.”

He describes being driven through teeming streets of an Indian city in a chauffeured car, with the windows rolled up, and seeing a brown boy his own age begging on the street.  The boy was crippled, his legs weren’t just broken, they were smashed like someone had driven over them with steel treads.  And being told “No, you can’t give him money.  It just perpetuates the cycle.  His parents probably did that to him so he could collect more alms.”

Back in Connecticut, Brian was a troubled student.  He had too much energy, too little self control, he scored high on IQ tests but it didn’t do him any good if he couldn’t sit still at a desk.  He did graduate high school; he did get a university education.  He studied philosophy, psychology, sociology – every possible approach to understanding human character aside from Great Books.

Today when he goes out door knocking he says the conversation he still wants to have with householders he meets isn’t just “What do you want to change about your neighborhood?” but “How do you know who you are?”

He graduated from school into adulthood just after the economy collapsed.  He may not have struggled as long as Bill to get his first job.  But it still took several false steps to find work where he could effect something, if you ask him about it, he’s no stranger to the corrosive powers of self doubt of joblessness and uncertainty.

First, he worked at a residential facility for disabled youth just outside Boston – kids who fell somewhere on the autism spectrum.  The facility used behavior modification techniques to help them master simple life skills.  The work was demanding; the progress was incremental.  The kids might never function on their own.  After a year and a half he found himself wondering “Will my work in this field ever do more than deal with symptoms?”

It occurred to him that if he went back to school to study social dynamics his work might inform policy change that could make people’s lives better on a larger scale.  That’s how he came to Chicago - as a non matriculated student in Sociology at Bill’s old alma mater.  It was just a shaky foothold, but he came with all his determination to work his way in. 

Close up though, he could see how tenuous academic life had become.  Even if you were successful, you could labor for a decade to get that doctoral degree, then work as an adjunct professor pulling in a couple thousand dollars for each class.

Meanwhile, over the summer, he attended a weeklong organizing training by National People’s Action, and it changed the way he saw his life.  He looked at his father, his stunted world view, and at his mother, struggling bravely but hemmed in by resentments.  He saw the origins of some of his own. It’s where he first began to put those pieces together in a larger context of society and the world. 

When Bill’s education lifted his eyes past his own situation, he set his struggles in a world stage where noble individuals all struggle not to sink in a sea of ignorant masses.  Brian set his in a world ruled by the opposite dynamic.  Part of that’s probably personal difference, but it’s also true that the world has changed.

American Hostages in Iran, Photo Wikimedia Commons

My own first memories of the world at large trace back to the late 1970s: stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis, especially that daring rescue attempt that just crashed in the desert.  I didn’t understand the subtleties, I just remember the sinking sense that we were failing at everything, and that gentle President Carter and all his best advisers didn't know how fix it. 

Today, conservative pundits sometimes trace The Great Inflation of the 1970s back to Great Society excess: overreaching unions and social welfare programs, too much prosperity for too many people.  They say economists were stumped by the combination of stagnant growth and mounting inflation until President Reagan came in and let Volcker raise interest rates, ignoring the high costs in high unemployment, slashing social spending, making it up with record spending on arms.

In the 30 years since, the recessions have been brief, the periods of expansion have been long, the national wealth greater than ever before.  All that helps disguise the fact that it’s only making a few people richer.  So that even in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, as economists line up urging governments to spend more to avoid a deflationary spiral, you’ve got all these 50-somethings rooting for austerity.  They’re still running from the long inflation they remember from their youth.

Brian’s cohort has come up in the environment Bill’s and mine helped create.  We liberalized markets, peeled back the big government of the Great Society years, we let the New York bankers drive.   Now our wealth is built on a financial system that races until it crashes and has to be bailed out by millions of little guy taxpayers who won’t catch a break on their own debts.  And there might be no greater glory to being the richest, most powerful Nation on earth -- just a series of small wars, won quickly, without making anything better.

Brian spent some time in Zuccotti Park, back in the 2010s, where the Occupy Wall Street movement camped out.  He remembers it being exciting, but it felt a little pointless, lots of energy with no clear goal.

In Chicago, a few years later, things were different.  That first spring after the organizing training, Brian volunteered on Election Day for Will Guzzardi– one of a new crop of independent democrats who’ve been winning races for local office.  Guzzardi won his race for State Representative that day, Brian still remembers the tremendous energy of the group effort.

“Throughout our shitty, exploitative history, my people were good at conquering other people,” he says now “good at storming beaches, raping and pillaging.” In political organizing he’s found an opening to channel and transform his aggressive energies into persuasive and developmental ones.

It was Reclaim Chicago – a joint project of The People’s Lobby and National Nurses United – that brought Brian to Bridgeport.  Reclaim Chicago works to elect “officials who put the needs of people and the health of the planet ahead of corporate profits.”  They supported Maureen Sullivan’s campaign for Alderman of the 11th Ward.  Sullivan didn’t win that race.  But not long after that Brian was hired as a Field Manager for Theresa Mah’s campaign for State Representative.

Mah won the Democratic primary, as an independent democrat challenging the presumptive heir of the retiring incumbent.  After the election, Brian says they knew it would be a close race, but they’d tallied up their confirmed voters and calculated how many random ones might choose her at the ballot box, and they thought she would win.  They were just stunned by the turn out.  They anticipated a modest turnout, tracking with previous contests in that race; in the end there were over 20,000.

They say that was partly thanks to the Bernie Sanders campaign.  Today, Brian is still working with a coalition of progressive organizations trying to harness that energy, and to keep those Sanders supporters engaged.  They’ve been orchestrating a series of monthly actions called “Moral Mondays,”  peaceful protests at the doorsteps of big financial powers.  They want a state budget that works for the 99%, and makes corporations and the very wealthy shoulder a fair share of the costs.

Public Action Outside the CBOT, Photo Moral Mondays Illinois

Last time I met up with Brian, he’d just come from a meeting to train leaders to play roles at the next Moral Monday event.  He was working with a young woman who was going to be negotiating with police – that is, try to engage in a calm dialogue about whether the officers would make arrests, or just hand out citations.  She’d let them know which demonstrators would leave quietly after the police warning, and which ones would stand their ground and go to jail. 

Women can be good at it, they may be perceived as less confrontational.  Brian was playing the cop in this particular scenario, he might have been drawing on that default aggression from his ancestor’s “exploitative history”.  The young woman he was training started to cry.  They talked it out, he says, and she’s ready to negotiate.  “She might still cry,” he says, if some cop tries to intimidate her. “But she won’t stop negotiating.”

Brian says he doesn’t particularly identify with the Millenial label.  He sees his peers as differentiated individuals, working things out for themselves.  It may be too early to tell how they’ll take the reins of history.  But if a lot of the guys who might have spent their energies in the commodities pits throw them into organizing for political change instead, it could mark some kind of generational progress.

When I think of how I’d like to see our nation made great again, I don’t visualize an elite team prodded to excellence by a coach known for his bully tactics, or a handful of champions at the very top.  I’d rather see something more like a thousand young women standing face to face with authority, even if it’s shouting at them, and negotiating on behalf of their peers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Zhou Brothers Make a Creative Paradise

Zhou B Art Center

On October 16th, the segment of 35th Street in front of the Zhou B Art Center was dedicated as Honorary Zhou Brothers Way.

Mayor Emmanuel and Chinese Deputy Consul General Wang Yong joined Alderman Thompson, Alderman Balcer and Commissioner Daley to extend the honor in front of a large crowd of art lovers from across the city.

The Zhou brothers themselves are Chinese-born, Chicago-based artists of international stature.  In the Zhou B Art Center, they have created a Chicago version of the Kunstlerhaus, a stable home base and launch pad for other artists.  And they have brought Bridgeport to the respectful attention of an audience that once saw little reason to venture south of Roosevelt Road.

The role of the arts in making cities and neighborhoods vibrant has received growing attention in recent years.  And conversely, as the Illinois Arts Council’s Tatiana Gant observed in passing at the Zhou reception, the arts are increasingly asked to justify themselves in terms of measurable impacts.  That’s new, she says.  In the past, funders supported the arts because they believed they made people happy, enriched their lives in immeasurable ways.

But the measurable impacts of the arts are also significant. In 2012 , the 4th edition of a national study called Arts and Economic Prosperity reported that Chicago’s arts sector generates $2.2 billion in economic activity each year.  That includes $1.2 billion in spending by non-profit arts and cultural organizations themselves, and another $1.0 billion in spillover that the audience spends on the cab ride to the show, the dinner at the restaurant afterwards, the hotel and the souvenirs.

The Zhou B Art  Center in Bridgeport clearly has those kinds of impacts, as crowds travel to attend curated exhibits and private events – the Center served as a venue for 80 private events last year – and open studios the third Friday of every month when the whole building swirls with people.

Still, there’s an irony in asking art to sell itself based on such measures.  In the modern world, in the west at least, artistic expression has been cultivated as a sphere of values outside the rigorously materialist one that sees the world as an object to be studied, harnessed and put to use.  Generations of romantic types have worried that the materialist view robs the world of its enchantments and impoverishes people’s lives.  That it leaves them to navigate the world as a bureaucratic maze, reducing them to conformity and obedience.  Or else they make their way by the force of their will to dominate.

The romantics sense there is an alternate sphere of values, of rich experience and genuine feeling, but that their access to it isn’t guaranteed.  It could be suppressed by the demands of an instrumental world, like it was for the man in the gray flannel suit from the 1950s, or it could be appropriated for someone else’s material gain, like what happened to all those garage bands in the 1990s, who sold out to the record industry machine.

That tension between the sphere of expressive values and of material ones didn’t unfold along the same tropes in Communist China, where the Zhou brothers grew up, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t in play.

ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou are native to Guangxi, a province in southwest China where you find the strange, green hills you sometimes see in Chinese landscape paintings – a fairy tale landscape. They are members of a Chinese ethnic minority called the Zhuang.  Their family had been scholars and educators for generations.  But the brothers were born in the decade after the Communists took control of the Chinese mainland.  Chaing Kai Chek and his Nationalist Army retreated to Taiwan in 1949, taking as much of the Imperial Art Collection and its 10,000 years of Chinese art heritage as they could carry.

ShanZuo and DaHuang, are names the Zhou brothers adopted for their new life in America when they moved to Chicago in 1986.  ShanZuo was born as Shaoli in 1952, DaHuang was born as Shaoning in 1957.  1957 was also the year their father MengYuan was convicted as a “Rightist” and sent off to a labor camp.

He’d been lured into speaking frankly about the effects of anti-intellectual reforms on the education system by the kind of policy change that made life in Communist China treacherous.  One year Chairman Mao is saying “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” because truth will be realized through honest dialogue.  The next year all the voices who ventured to contend are sent off to do hard labor in distant provinces.

Their father’s conviction tainted the entire family, subjecting them to new restrictions and punishments with each new wave of ideological tightening for the next 20 years.  In an essay Dr. Kuiyi Shen wrote to accompany their 2003 retrospective 30 years of Collaboration, the brothers still recall their early years as happy ones.  They lived above their grandmother’s bookstore in the picturesque town of Wuming, they entertained themselves with poetry and amateur theatricals, their grandmother taught them calligraphy, and painting from a classic Chinese text.  In those first years after the Revolution they had access to their grandfather’s art collection of Chinese masters, and their grandmother’s extensive library, they’d found their father’s scholarly writings on Chinese and Western literature hidden away in a suitcase.  Then the Cultural Revolution hit, it took Communist social control to another level, and “brought an end to all dreams.”

But the Zhou Brothers still dreamed of being artists, even when it was technically impossible, especially for young men with a “bad class background.” Paint and supplies were hard to come by unless you were officially employed as an artist, say painting sets for a theater company. Such jobs were only available in cities, and you couldn’t just move to the city to try to work your way into a job.

There was a registry system to stop the populace from abandoning the countryside.  Everyone was registered as a country, town or city dweller.  The system was enforced with ration cards you needed to buy food and dry goods – you could only use your ration cards where you were registered to live.  You could only change your registration status in a few special circumstances, and most of them were closed to the sons of convicted Rightists.

But somehow the Zhou brothers managed it anyway. Shaoli first, then he’d find a way to bring Shaoning along.  First he got a temporary job designing sets for an opera company in Nanning, Guangxi’s capitol.  He couldn’t get admitted to university and then placed in a city job at graduation because of his Rightist background.  But the opera company hired him as a “borrowed worker,” allowing him a series of temporary permissions to live in the city to work.  And once he was in, he managed to get a similar position for his brother - as a set painter at the Nanning Dance Troupe.

So they worked, and painted, in Nanning until the Beijing Spring, the loosening of policies that began a couple years after Mao’s death in 1976.

Li - River of Souls, Zhou Brothers 2012

To put this in context with other Hardscrabbler events, the Beijing Spring unfolded while Dan Davidson was showing his work as a systemic minimalist at the OK Gallery in New York.  They were the same years Joe Mancari and Al Ribskis graduated from De LaSalle High School to make their way through the disruptions of a postmodern economy then unfolding in the west.

1976 was the same year the 1st Mayor Daley died, Jimmy Carter was elected President, and the country was sunk in an economic malaise that seemed like it might signal some kind of more general decline.

In China, the world was just opening up, cautiously, after 30 years of isolation and bleakness.  And the faculty at the Shanghai Drama Academy, where Shaoli had been admitted, was known for being open minded.  In the late 1970s, that meant they were open to modern styles aside from Socialist Realism.

The Chairman Has Come to Our Factory

In his Yan’an Talks on Art and Literature back in 1942, Mao Zedong put forward a vision of art in the service of Revolution.  Borrowing heavily from the Soviets, he declared that art’s theme was more important than bourgeois ideals like beauty and self expression.  Its subjects would be peasants, workers and soldiers, muscular people in upbeat scenes.  They would be portrayed in a realistic style that would be readily accessible to the masses.  And art would be produced by workers, not sensitive artists in the bourgeois sense.  Even students looking to study the Chinese tradition world focus on the work of anonymous craftsman, like religious murals attributed to a collective workshop, as opposed to the fancy landscapes of famous masters who’d spun out frivolities for the elite.

A whole generation of students and artists had no exposure to art outside these horizons.  Then, after Mao’s death, the horizons cracked open.  In a 1977 speech, Deng Xiaoping signaled it might be safe to criticize the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.  By 1980, a handful of special enterprise zones opened doors for private ownership and foreign investment. And the entire weight of Western art history splashed in the doors at once.

It came in through visiting art exhibits, from Romania -- all the more powerful because Romania was a socialist country, exhibiting Expressionist works.  And from the Boston Museum of Fine arts -- which sent Singer Sargent portraits of society ladies, and a Jackson Pollock.  And more curiously, it came in through a spate of “book exhibits,” which put deluxe editions of art books on display for a browsing audience.

The book exhibits were ticketed events, and tickets weren’t available to the general public.  Dr. Shen writes that artists and students who gained admission would recall those shows, and what they saw at them, for years afterwards.  The Zhou brothers visited them again and again, taking notes, and copying pictures they could study in more detail after the Shanghai Drama Academy purchased the 100 volume History of World Art series for its library.

These were also the years that China was building airports, hotels and public buildings, some of which would be visible to businessmen visiting from foreign lands.  They were decorating them with murals that strayed from Maoist orthodoxies – both in their subject and in their style -- and in doing so, they opened a door to a new view of the purpose of art, and the voice of the artist, views more like those that took shape in the West.

Water Splashing Festival mural at Beijing International Airport
Yuan Yengshen, 1979

The new murals portrayed Chinese minority peoples engaging in picturesque rituals and other non-revolutionary scenes.  Dr. Shen writes that these scenes were still politically correct because they promoted the unity of all Chinese peoples, a longstanding theme of China’s 20th century regimes.

But he says minority culture also gave a powerful psychological release from the arid conformity the Cultural Revolution had imposed on mainstream culture, particularly among the Han majority and in the coastal cities.  He says artists traveling inland were refreshed to find rural societies still colored by local tradition. “For artists of a romantic temperament,” Dr. Shen writes “the customs of some rural minority peoples charmed with their primitivism, and the boldness and simplicity of their folk art formed a powerful alternative to the bare concrete political slogans, and slick propaganda images that surrounded urban people.”

Stylistically, artists were beginning to stray from strict realism toward the modern and the abstract.  Abstract art was dismissed as bourgeois in Maoist China.  Its preoccupation with personal vision and self expression was decadent, corrupt.  Its corruption must have seemed clearly manifest in the way these preoccupations splintered western art into obscure movements understood by handfuls of participants, whose work and quarrels seemed incomprehensible and irrelevant to anyone outside their cliques.

But by the late 1970s, Chinese artists were striving to develop their own aesthetic language too.  Dr. Shen writes that’s what the Zhou brothers set out to do when they came out from art school.  Returning to Nanning, the provincial capital, was something of a letdown after the stimulations of Shanghai.  Their ideas about art were met with incomprehension, their reputations still vulnerable to accusations of infraction against socialist ethics.

But Guangxi was also where there roots were, as members of the Zhuang ethnic minority.  And as they turned their attention to developing their own aesthetic language, they rediscovered the Huashan cliff paintings that they’d known from childhood. 

Huashan Cliff Paintings

The Huashan paintings are scattered across the cliff faces above the Ming River for 180 miles.  It’s not clear when they were painted or how, but they are old enough that their ochre pigment has fused into the rock.  Some scholars estimate they were painted during the Warring States period, in the first centuries BCE.   They depict myths, rituals, the daily life of the ancient Zhuang people.  The figures are simple, direct, they evoke the power of myth.

At first, the brothers made a study of them, and began copying them.  Gradually they absorbed them into their own style.  Years later in Chicago, ShanZuo would tell the artist and critic Fred Camper that rediscovering them was “the golden key” to their aesthetic vocabulary.  They used simple terms to convey deep meaning, like poetry, ShanZuo said. “From that time on we felt we could do anything.”

detail from Golden Dream, Zhou Brothers 1976

Dr. Shen says their emerging language spoke on two levels.  On one, it evoked China’s glorious heritage.  Standards of living in China were still modest, and “this claim to ancient greatness provided, at least for a time, a distraction from the realities of the present day.” On another, “artists familiar with Western modernism would understand that the brothers were operating within the still prohibited modernist tradition.”  In public, though, “all would speak in very different terms.”

The figures from Huashan would appear through the Zhou brothers’ paintings for the next 40 years.  In the late 1970s, they began incorporating them into long scroll paintings with sweeping themes. Heaven and Earth, Light of Wisdom, Cradle of Life. They showed them in a series of escalating exhibits, first in Guilin, then in Beijing, and in Shanghai.  Their fame and prestige grew in China, it spoke to the country opening up to the west, but with its own native voice.  It spoke to the power of history and also of resilience springing back from the tests of the Revolution.

The Zhou brothers had achieved all the status and prestige that China has to offer them.  But the political climate was still subject to reversals, including a brief crackdown on “bourgeois liberalism” at the end of 1986.  It must have been clear that their success was still unstable, subject to abrupt turns in the current, they might lose everything in an instant.  So when they got an invitation from the Chinese owner of the East West Gallery to show their work in Chicago that year, they packed all the paintings they could fit into suitcases, and they left.

From Heaven to Earth, Zhou Brothers 1977

In Dr. Shen’s narrative of the Zhous in China, abstract art represents liberty, freedom of expression, even the artist’s compulsion to create his or her own aesthetic language.  But as a language, abstract art is fractious and argumentative.

In the decades after Mao laid out the case for Socialist Realism as the Revolution’s standard for art and literature in China, the Chinese experienced the enforcement of one aesthetic language by a central cultural authority as a definite impoverishment.  They craved freedom of artistic self expression.  Art defined by one school to advance a centrally determined agenda wasn’t enough.

But during those same decades, westerners have found that the retreat of the cultural authorities leaves you with different problems.  The aesthetic language fragments into dialects, and it becomes harder for critics to judge with authority, for artists to communicate clearly, for an audience to appreciate with confidence.  Art is still important, so communication must still be possible.  But without the illusion of aesthetic universals, the audience splinters into taste groups, and it’s a lot less clear how they develop those tastes, or come to agree that something is good.

After Babel, success can seem arbitrary.  The success of other artists in particular may seem to be a matter of cronyism, hype, commercial gimmickry.  Which are all the kind of things some anonymous locals were telling Fred Camper when he wrote an about the Zhou brothers for the Chicago Reader in 2001.

By then, the brothers were world class artists whose paintings and sculpture commanded great prices.  Their aesthetic language intrigued gallerists and collectors from the start, but that doesn’t mean their success was assured. When they’d first arrived, and were still laboring in obscurity, friendly critics sometimes encouraged them to try painting something more like the pictures of beautiful Chinese women in exotic costumes some of their fellow expats were producing for the interior decorator market.  One suggested their problem was that they were still painting for museums, without having the stature to attract museums in the West.

But their poverty was offset by their sense of freedom. For the first time they were working without looking over their shoulder, worrying about the political temper, whether their work was allowed.  They stuck to their vision, they absorbed some lessons from Western artists (They told Fred Camper their work had become less cluttered, more clear, from studying Western artists who “totally forget everything and develop one idea very directly.”) And relatively quickly, their stature grew.

They were selling paintings, some of them to important Chicago area collectors.  Within a few years, they attracted the attention of a couple German gallerists who promoted their work in Europe.  So they were making money, they were growing in prestige.  By the year 2000, they were invited to demonstrate their celebrated joint painting style as a performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.

Balloon, Zhou Brothers 1990

Western critics saw the same things the Chinese ones did but from the other side of the mirror.  They saw resonance with Western modernists like Miro in the Huashan figures, but also references to Chinese philosophy and exotic aesthetic principles like the balance of matter and emptiness, air and harmony.  If their audience in China appreciated references to forbidden modern styles from the west, the western audience must have appreciated the mystery of something new emerging from a powerful, ancient civilization that had gone dark for 30 years.

"The Zhou brothers struck a chord with me," Richard Cooper told Camper.  A top Chicago collector, Cooper was one of the first to buy the Zhou brothers work when they arrived in the West.  “They weren’t doing the political art that usually comes out of a repressive society as it starts to mature,” he said “They seemed to soar with a spirituality that combined Eastern and Western feeling, an abstraction that seemed soothing but meaningful, that seemed to bridge both cultures.”

Life Temperament III, Zhou Brothers 1993

Camper’s Reader article was titled “Too Hot to Be Cool.” In writing it, he wanted to know why the Zhou brothers’ work, which was so well regarded outside Chicago, wasn’t represented by a single local gallery in 2001.  Northwestern University professor William Conger spoke up as a supporter.  He said he thought the Zhou brothers’ work has a lot in common with the figurative and surrealist art often embraced in Chicago.  “What is absent,” he told Camper “is the notion of the ironic distance.”

Painter Li Lin Lee agreed.  “Art has become very cynical and jaded, a stylistic and philosophical pastiche.”  He said the Zhous might not be fashionable in that context, but they are like other immigrants in their energy and hope.  He said their lack of irony stems from their faith in painting.  It reflects the fact that they “passionately believe in the ability of painting to communicate.”

Open My Door #7, Zhou Brothers 2001

Michael Zhou is ShanZuo’s son.  He was born in China and lived there with his mother until he was 8.  They joined his father in 1990 – the same year ShanZuo and DaHuang bought their studio on Morgan Street.  It had been a Polish social club nicknamed the ‘Bucket of Blood’ for its bar fights.  Inside, the Zhous built a spacious studio where they could work in peace.  Outside, Morgan Street was still rough for a long time.  Michael remembers that in China everyone thought the United States would be utopia.  When he moved to the studio on Morgan Street, the corner of 32nd Place was a gang hotspot and he wasn’t allowed to go outside.

Growing up, Michael says he wasn’t particularly interested in art.  He saw his father and uncle painting in their studio, but says “they painted in privacy, I didn’t realize how important they were.” He was more interested in sports.  When he went to college, he studied business.

But after graduation, in the mid 2000s, he started a venture with Rhett Johnston, the son of one of the Zhou brother’s early collectors, partly to showcase Rhett’s art.  They collaborated with brands like Nike, and incorporated Rhett’s hip hop and graffiti inspired designs into sweatshirts and gym shoes.  

The business was called MadeChicago.  They had a storefront a few doors from the Zhous’ studio but they mainly sold wholesale to clothing boutiques in Wicker Park.  There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic from Morgan Street, though Michael recalls young gang bangers appreciated the store’s visual language, “They used to come in and want to hang out.”

Today, Michael Zhou is Executive Director of the Zhou B. Art Center at 1029 W. 35th Street.  He works closely with Sergio Gomez, the Center’s Curator and Director of Exhibitions, and Donna Bliss, Vice President Creative Development.

Michael says his father and uncle once considered moving to New York because conventional wisdom said that to be successful as an artist, you had to be at the center of things.  But they knew New York was unstable -- artists would raise the profile of a neighborhood, then the developers would come in and rents would explode.  His uncle was particularly reluctant to follow the herd – he said their studio in Bridgeport was a creative paradise. 

They decided to stay and build on it.  In 2003 they purchased one of the Speigel warehouses on 35th Street.  Michael says their friends were concerned they’d got in over their heads.  There were holes in the walls and floors, and it was filled with debris, old cars and printing equipment.  They spent the first year clearing it out.

Michael says there was no business model for converting a warehouse space to an arts institution, they were learning by doing.  There was some friction from the city early on. “It was after the E2 nightclub disaster,” where dozens of people were crushed in a rush for the door, and the city was hyper vigilant. “They thought it was a rave space.”

The actual vision was something more along the lines of the Kunstlerhaus, a type of artists’ association the Zhou brothers had come across while teaching in Germany.  Artists work in the same building, providing both a material base and opportunities for dialogue.  “For an artist, the most important thing is the studio practice, having a permanent space to work and to show your art,” Michael Zhou says “and where rent is not going to explode 1000%.”

Part of the core mission of the Zhou B Art Center is to promote dialogue between artists and collectors and others who look at it.  That dialogue helps artists sell their work, but Michael says they wanted to create an alternative to the gallery system, one that promotes artists and their work, but that isn’t based on sales.

“A lot of our artists were students at the School of the Art Institute,” Michael says.  “In art school it’s easy to get lost in criticism.” They come to the Zhou B Art Center afterwards and can step out from the criticism and find their voice, “to find their visual language,” like his father and uncle found theirs in Guangxi.

Hebru Brantley is one artist who took root at the Zhou B Art Center in that way.  Brantley’s web site describes his work as “pop infused contemporary art inspired by Japanese anime and bold aesthetics of street art pioneers like Jean Michel Basquiat.”  Michael says he was personally drawn to Brantley’s animations, he encouraged him to develop the figure of Flyboy as a central character in his work.  “We gave him his first solo show in 2005 or 2006 – that was his big break, now he’s one of the most successful artists in Chicago.”

Wedding, Rine Boyer, 2015

Rine Boyer is another. Boyer often portrays small groups of people in her work, she says she is interested in how they interact, how people look at and appear to one another.  Having her studio in the Zhou B. Center helped her make a connection with the Bluerider Art gallery in Taipei.

The owner of Bluerider Art met Michael at a Sotheby’s seminar in Hong Kong.  She hadn’t opened Bluerider Art yet, Michael recalls, she was talking about it.  But she went out the next day and signed a lease on a 10,000 square foot gallery space.  Then chose artists out of the catalogue the Zhou B Center creates each year for a show called “Chicago Invasion.”  Rine Boyer was one of those artists. Now, Boyer says she does a lot of paintings on commission, many of them portraits, for collectors from overseas. 

Her Taipei gallery may also add new connotations to her visual language. The Bluerider Art website describes Boyer as an American artists whose work illustrates the intrinsic connections between art and culture.  “Modern culture is increasingly defined by its emerging subcultures.  ‘Hipsters’ stand at the forefront of the artistically aesthetic lifestyle.  Boyer masterfully depicts this trending group of style setters and seekers of authenticity.”

In the West, or at least in Chicago, the hipster and his aesthetic lifestyle aren’t always considered exemplars of the search for authenticity.  It might take a viewer regarding him from across the seas to remember the immaterial impacts he represents.  That is, the psychological riches of a culture where self-expression is encouraged as a sphere of real value.

Water Lily, Zhou Brothers 1976

The Zhous themselves are still building and extending their model of creative paradise.  They’ve kept their eye out for other properties in Bridgeport and Chicago.  Currently, they’re in the process of building an art center in Beijing. Their own artwork continues to change, probably as their lives unfold and give them new points of view.  One recent series of paintings was inspired by a return trip to China, where they revisited the rolling hills on the Li River – the “River of Souls” -- in Guangxi.  Another features world leaders, like President Obama and Chinese dignitaries.  But for the dedication of Honorary Zhou Brothers Way, they put up a preview of a new series of their own paintings on the first floor of the Zhou B Art Center, called “Water Lily Pond of Life.”

Back when they were young painters, when they first returned to Nanning from Shanghai a little isolated and unheard, they set up a studio in a drab warehouse, and they poured themselves into painting. They painted water lilies, thousands of canvases of water lilies.

The canvases in Water Lily Pond of Life have the monumental scale, the familiar figures from the Huashan cliffs, but in vibrant colors that gives some of them an urban graffiti-like effect.  They still have confidence in the power of painting to communicate grand themes.  Sergio Gomez’s curatorial notes in the gallery say that the theme of Water Lily Pond of Life is liberty.