Lesson IV. High Definition 

Chapter 15. The House of Memory

In a 2012 documentary called Never Sorry, the filmmaker and journalist Alison Klayman followed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei through processes of artistic labor. Taken as a whole, the film provides a glimpse into the slow and patient work of compiling artistic structures that are intrinsically meaningful in their interactions with their social environments. There were more than one existentially important concepts and ideas that Weiwei’s art engaged that were seen throughout the documentary. We are given the opportunity to witness laborious working out of the sort of artistic engagement that sheds light on dark corridors that should be examined as humanistic issues of concern to the entire species. Witnessing them is up to our ability to look beyond the commentary and intrigue that the film’s narrators and talking heads project.

Throughout the two hours of this documentary, we see Weiwei on tour and in China where a sprinkling of reporters would materialize from time to time eager with questions. They had the opportunity to ask one of the most distinguished artists we have about the formal considerations of compiling a human portrait comprised of children’s backpacks in order to demonstrate the movement of seemingly endless arrays of tactile things that initially speak of brightness. These uniform objects were the burdens that children who had lived innocent lives carried on their last day on earth before they walked into the school houses that would buckle and collapse under the weight of careless construction goaded by the forces of nature. Weiwei spoke and wrote about the inception of his artistic method which mirrored the initial glimpse of the work from afar.

The sheer size of the work and it’s bright clarity telegraphs a resonance with the innocence of youth. It draws the passerby in with it’s brightness. The closer we come to the thing of beauty that drew us here, the more we are able to decipher about the construction of the design sequestered into thousands of tufted rectangles. There are so many. It’s only when we get close enough to the building for our eyes to focus that we realize that these are children’s backpacks and that there are thousands of them. We wonder about the text that was projected out to us from a safe distance and, while we are in the midst of this increasingly horrific epiphany, we are offered the translation. These incomprehensible words come out of the mouth of a mother who lost her young daughter:

She lived happily for seven years in this world. 

Those words really are incomprehensible. Once you start to decipher the form, you’ll see that there are 9,000 repetitions of these backpacks. Weiwei places them carefully. One backpack for each senseless death of a child. That’s more senselessness than most can take in. But take it in we must.

Several instances of Ai Weiwei’s practice show an exemplary commitment to the patience of an advanced artistic discipline. He isn’t interested in circumventing the accepted systems of accountability in the Chinese government. If one does not go through the available avenues of government in order to lodge complains then one is not only going to fail at changing a system in the only way most systems will allow (by working within said system). Anybody who does not begin the task of improving the world around them by exploring available options can expect to also be regarded as absolving any government or power-structure of their commitment to even respond, to let alone act on complaints.

Civilized nations record their losses from the most vulnerable child to the boldest soldier. But sometimes, civilized nations choose to take a pass on civilization and any artist who is worthy of his practice must understand the need to take on a corrective task to the best of his or her abilities.

So Ai Weiwei faced down the site of damaged cities, wrecked schools and lost children. He wrote down the names and looked the parents in the face. He built a memorial.

Weiwei’s account of the disaster is an explanation of his artistic intent:

During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.

He’s right. And that’s exactly why the artist must not be confused for an activist. Artists embark on missions intended to synthesize the fabric of history that cannot be left unrecorded if nations wish to remain nations after their greatest failings of memory.

Human beings can construct music that is capable of cutting through the roaring of beasts that, taken in large numbers, produce what Auden called the “importance and noise of tomorrow” back in his elegy. Can we be human beings or must we settle with falling short? For his part, Weiwei had some advice for his compatriots who embraced the familiar indulgences of hugging and gathering while others deal with the ideological ramifications of their apathy:

Silence please. No clamor. Let the dust settle, let the dead rest.

Extending a hand to those caught in trouble, rescuing the dying and helping the injured is a form of humanitarianism, unrelated to love of country or people. Do not belittle the value of life; it commands a broader, more equal dignity. Throughout these days of mourning, people do not need to thank the Motherland and her supporters, for she was unable to offer any better protection. Nor was it the Motherland, in the end, who allowed the luckier children to escape from their collapsing schoolhouses. There is no need to praise government officials; for the lives that are fading just as we speak need effective rescue measures far more than they need sympathetic speeches and tears. There is even less need to thank the army, as doing so would be to say that in responding to this disaster, soldiers offer something other than the fulfillment of their sworn duty.

Feel sad! Suffer! Feel it in the recesses of your heart, in the unpeopled night, in all those places without light. We mourn only because death is a part of life, because those dead from the quake are a part of us. But the dead are gone. Only when the living go on living with dignity can the departed rest with dignity.

Live frankly and honestly, respect history, and face reality squarely. Beware of those who confuse right and wrong: the hypocritical news media so adept at stirring passions and offering temptations; the politicians parlaying the tragedy of the departed into state craft and nationalism; the petty businessmen who trade the souls of the dead for the false wine of morality.

When the living stray from justice, when their charity is only meager currency and tears, then the last dignified breath of the dying will be erased. A collapse of will, a vacancy of spirit renders the fine line between life and death’s realm of ghosts.

This emptiness of collective memory, this distortion of public morality drives people crazy. Who exactly died in that even bigger earthquake of thirty years ago? Those wrongly accused in the political struggles of recent history, those laborers trapped in the coalmines, those denied medical treatment for their grave illnesses who are they?

What pain did they endure while alive, what grief do they provoke now dead? Who before them cried out for these suffering bodies, these troubled souls? Where are the survivors who belong truly to them?

Before we let murky tears cloud our already unclear vision, we need to face up to the way the world works. The true misfortune of the dead lies in the unconsciousness and apathy of the living, in the ignorance on the value of life by those who simply float through it, in our numbness toward the right to survival and expression, in our distortions ofjustice, equality, and freedom.

This is a society without citizens. A person with no true rights cannot have a complete sense of morality or humanity. In a society like this, what kind of responsibility or duty can an individual shoulder? What kinds of interpretations and understandings of life and death will he have? The samsara of life and death in this land has it any connection to the value of life in the rest of the world?

As for all those organs of culture and propaganda who subsist on sucking the blood of the nation what difference has their largesse from larceny? No one wants for the charity of parasites; their greatest kindness would be to let themselves die off just one day sooner.

Back in Klayton’s documentary, those journalists who occasionally sprinkled in to speak with Weiwei had the opportunity to shed light by asking vital questions such as why there was such an urgent artistic (rather than activistic as it was described) demand for Weiwei to record the names of those children himself. Robert Frost answered that decades ago through descriptions of pride and hope in The Death of the Hired Man.

The artist must build a house of memory where society elects to leave history blank.

And yet, on more than one occasion we heard discourse like this from the questioners:

Question: You don’t have children, do you?
Ai Weiwei: I have a young boy, a year and a half old. Not with my wife, but with a friend, which is also crazy but…
Q: You ’re an artist, you are allowed to do that, right?
AWW: Not really, you are not really allowed to do that.
Q: Does your wife mind?
AWW: Of course. But not to a degree. She understands that, well, this kind of situation, what… I cannot really guess what it is about. I guess it is not desirable, but it happens.

The entire unnecessary intrusion into personal affairs is significant beyond it’s casual assumption contained in the statement-question-assumption “You’re an artist, you are allowed to do that, right?”

On the surface, that sentence would seem to presume that the (presumably vogue and eccentric) world of art coincides neatly in finding it’s social expression with the beats of gossip columnists and little more. That would be bad enough but for the fact that it reveals an even bigger problem. In chapter 3, Part 5 of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist, Raskolnikov, is engaged in a conversation during which he is presented with a  corruption of his own essay on criminality:

There is, if you recollect, a suggestion that there are certain persons who can… that is, not precisely are able to, but have a perfect right to commit breaches of morality and crimes, and that the law is not for them. 

The idea is that those who are deemed to be “exceptional” are entitled, by virtue of their superiority, to transgress moral norms. It is through the simple extension of this premise (one that Dostoevsky describes as “unpublishable”), that we can imagine a person with no distinction whatsoever believing that they can attain the quality of becoming exceptional by simply committing a crime. And once they transgress, by virtue of the transgression alone, they see themselves as immune to the moral codes that are binding to the inferior masses. The “exceptional ones” have become part of a superior echelon.

This suggestion would be perverse enough if it postulated that a person who did nothing could attain exceptional standing but what it says is that the unexceptional person can do less than nothing. They could commit a crime and become “extraordinary.” The journalist’s nonchalant question would be bad enough if it was directed at an “ordinary” person. But posing this question to Ai Weiwei, a man whose artistic distinctions are real and result from a lifetime of labor and thought, adds an extra layer of distastefulness to the assumption. The question unwittingly aims to indict artistic labor itself.

That answers the question I implied at the start of this chapter:

Throughout the two hours of this documentary, we got to see Weiwei on tour and in China where a sprinkling of reporters would materialize from time to time eager with questions. They had the opportunity to ask one of the most distinguished artists we have about the formal considerations of compiling a human portrait comprised of children’s backpacks in order to demonstrate the movement of seemingly endless arrays of tactile things that initially speak of brightness.

“We are given,” I said, “the opportunity to witness laborious working out of the sort of artistic engagement that sheds light on dark corridors that should be examined as humanistic issues of concern to the entire species.” But how could this reporter ask about the artistic work? Weiwei’s accomplishments are not the result of mindless transgression or crime (we will examine examples of that corruption in the following chapter); they are the result of an artistic life devoted to creation. How could this reporter, whose statements assume to see only laziness or ignorance, ask questions about work that he literally cannot see to appreciate?

The artist’s response to the reporter is clear but the questioner cannot relent. The result is simple awkwardness.

 

Chapter 16. Function

In a 2017 essay to some fellow composers, I wrote the following as an explanation of the basic function which relates art and journalism:

Journalism and art are essentially about illuminating truth to the best of our ability.

I am far from alone as an artist in appreciating the truth which art and journalism provide to human beings. My first opera, The New Prince, was composed on a libretto by David Ignatius; a journalist who is also one of America’s finest novelists. My second opera, Bhutto, was composed on a libretto by Mohammed Hanif; another journalist who is also one of the finest novelists in the world today.

And I follow in a long line of artists who have also contributed works of art through the consideration of a lens which is more akin to the practice of journalism. A range of artists from Charles Dickens and Emile Zola to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and Henry Mencken and Tom Wolfe (and many others), artists have clearly drawn together their long arcs of creativity through their investigations into the daily lives of human beings as social creatures.  

In his 1846 essay titled The Philosophy of Composition, Edgar Allan Poe wrote:

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial commentary , whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

Poe goes on to note that “it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes — that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment.”

Technique and result; the artist who creates it must have skill in order to do it well and, above all, one who is writing fiction should know that they are writing fiction. This involves a methodology and, above all, intent. A work of art has to be intended to function as fiction in the first place and, following that, the fiction must have an intent of its own on the part of the author. The intent itself may be intentional or unintended on the part of the author but it serves the purpose of imbuing every work of human creativity with meaning.

Take these three vessels as an example:

They originate (left to right) in 6th century Greece,  Goryeo Dynasty Korea, and the Amarna Period as it coincided with the reign of Akhnaten in Egypt.

The formal similarities between these objects is not surprising in the least even though they were developed on three different continents and in a time period rendering them apart by several millennia.

I am leaving aside all deeper meaning of ritual, rarity of contents to be stored, symbology or an infinite number of other considerations that inform these vessels’ meaning as artistic objects. All I’m talking about is the surface meaning; the meaning that reaches for these objects’ universality and their relationship to the universal human circuitry. That meaning should not be hard to abide by.

There are not a million ways to store liquid in a vessel and pour liquid from that vessel. That is the essential principle of being for these objects. They were created in such a way that their technique and form are self-evident to one another; the intent is clear and the method of execution works in elegant consort with the craft.

What these object are and how they work, is revealed through their function. Why these objects exist is also revealed through their function. 

An October 2017 study conducted by the Pew Research Center surveys coverage of Mr. Trump in terms of those that provide a “positive assessment”, a “negative assessment” or “neither” in three further categories depending on the political predilections of the outlet’s audience:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The graph shows that a healthy majority of press provide an assessment of Mr. Trump’s performance by men and women who call themselves journalists rather than simply reporting the facts as dispassionately as possible and letting the readers and viewers form their own opinions based on the facts. Journalists, like artists, must tell the truth and then “let the chips fall where they may.” 

Sermons and rallying speeches are not the function of journalism. In other words, “fiction,” as the word is generally understood, implies the making-up of stories. “Fiction,” therefore, is not a function of journalism nor is it a function of art. The journalist shouldn’t be making anything but, rather, reporting facts as they are. The artist cannot not be engaged in fiction because the fact that a work of art is not factually true to reality is understood by the artist and audience alike.

It is through the use of words that journalism (as well as history, the sciences and other forms of learning) meet with the arts. Method is where making and other forms of human inquiry meet. Let us start then with exploring the function of the novel, a literary form which is often categorized under “fiction.”

What is the function of the novel? Let us begin with an explanation from a seasoned, artist, Maya Angelou, who, in an interview with the Paris Review, made it clear that it is not the function of a novelist to lie: 

INTERVIEWER
What, then, is the function of a novel? In a Aren’t you tempted to lie? Novelists lie, don’t they?

ANGELOU
I don’t know about lying for novelists. I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being—what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.”

Angelou then discusses her poetical work in autobiography (making autobiography as a means of truth telling): 

ANGELOU
I really am trying to do something with autobiography now. It has caught me. I’m using the first-person singular and trying to make that the first-person plural, so that anybody can read the work and say, Hmm, that’s the truth, yes, uh-huh, and live in the work. It’s a large, ambitious dream. But I love the form.

INTERVIEWER
Aren’t the extraordinary events of your life very hard for the rest of us to identify with?

ANGELOU
Oh my God, I’ve lived a very simple life! You can say, Oh yes, at thirteen this happened to me and at fourteen . . . But those are facts. But the facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like. Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth. Not superficial costs—anybody can have that—I mean in truth. That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.

Angelou’s popularity is all the ascertainment which one would need of the universality of her tales. In the construction of autobiography where composite characters are created (a character made from two or more real people) Angelou was particularly illuminating.Is there a thread,” asks the interviewer, “one can see through the five autobiographies? It seems to me that one prevailing theme is the love of your child.”

Angelou’s response is as follows: 

Yes, well, that’s true. I think that that’s a particular. I suppose, if I’m lucky, the particular is seen in the general. There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That sounds goody-two-shoes, I know, but I believe that a diamond is the result of extreme pressure and time. Less time is crystal. Less than that is coal. Less than that is fossilized leaves. Less than that it’s just plain dirt. In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays, I am saying that we may encounter many defeats—maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats—but we are much stronger than we appear to be and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be. Human beings are more alike than unalike. There’s no real mystique. Every human being, every Jew, Christian, backslider, Muslim, Shintoist, Zen Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, every human being wants a nice place to live, a good place for the children to go to school, healthy children, somebody to love, the courage, the unmitigated gall to accept love in return, someplace to party on Saturday or Sunday night, and someplace to perpetuate that God. There’s no mystique. None. And if I’m right in my work, that’s what my work says.

The Paris Review Interviews, IV.

In 2015, the 43 year old Peter Frankopan published a 505-page book titled, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. which he called his “magnum opus.” Some chapter titles include “The Slave Road,” “The Road to Hell,” “The Road of Death and Destruction,” “The Road to Crisis,” “The Road to War” and many others. There are 28 mentions of artists in the entire tome. Composers like Bach and Mozart are missing entirely while artists like Leonardo Da Vinci are discussed briefly and only in their (indirect) role in the creation of gunpowder. When it comes to entire nations, American founders like Jefferson and Adams are missing entirely while humanitarians like Martin Luther King Jr are also absent: the result is a portrait of a savagely imperial nation with little to celebrate in terms of values and much to lament in terms of militarism. How could we expect anything different if the architects who drafted those values and the moral leaders who taught us to remember them are missing from the picture. 

Bach created over a thousand works of musical art and dramatic art and they have revealed layer after layer of their richness to me over the course of my young life. I couldn’t imagine life without that sort of richness and yet Bach and so many pivotal creative forces are absent from Frankopan’s world (where Hitler is given 28 pages). Luckily, I do not have to live in that world and neither does anyone else who is willing to learn about the entire kaleidoscope of history and not just a record of the destroyers and conquerers. 

All art that is able to transcend its locality or age must be, as Ezra Pound said of literature, “news that stays news.” That’s why Mozart, Shakespeare, Basho and Mahfouz have produced work that is as true to an audience in Shenzhen today as it was to the audiences of their own respective centuries and locales. The world is full of art that has withstood the daily fluctuation of markets to the reorganization of the national borders and the cataclysms (revolutions, genocides etc) of history. The works remain because they ring true.

One of the most pragmatic reasons that every culture on the planet teaches children not to lie is that the tangled web we weave through deception is simply not sustainable. “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time” says President Lincoln, “but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” That explains why a large portion of the American public is willing to accept President Trump’s assertions that the American press is, by and large, “fake news.” The final part of Lincoln’s statement should be considered as applied to art. Works of art prove to us, through their continued existence, that they cannot, by necessity, abide lies. If a politician’s lies can be debunked the following day, how is an artist who supposedly lied or expressed themselves in ill-defined terms though to have created a body of work that survives centuries or (as is the case with many of the work in this book) millennia?

I cannot think of an example of an artist who has successfully co-opted form and order to create conflations, confusion and inexplicable chaos and still go on to produce a work that has survived or any work of art at all. 

A work of art must be searingly clear and defined; even it’s profoundest abstractions and ambiguities must be brought to the surface and expressed for all to see.  Only through expression does the artist accomplish that “raid on the inarticulate” which T.S. Eliot spoke of in his poem Little Gidding (the last poem from his Four Quartets). 

The intent of this inquiry, as Eliot’s poem tells us, lies as far from the gains and losses of the marketplace  and “human progress” as can be imagined.

When writing for newspapers, I have dealt with the manipulation of my own essays and the process has been informative. I have learned more about the persons in journalism with whom I’ve dealt. I will explain the factors which affirmed my reasons for having continued to write essays for journalistic publications. I will also share the reasons for ceasing my work with these publications.

When I have written for these newspapers, many of the titles of my essays (as they appear in those newspapers that publish them) are selected by the editors and are not my own. Titles are then attached to my writing without my consent. In many cases the titles coercively impose a meaning on my writing that is not present in the content of the essays themselves. I would find out the title selected by the editor only after the essay was published. There were cases in which my editors selected titles in order to project a divisive or polemical tone deliberately. This tone, it was sometimes explicitly explained to me, was chosen to provoke engagement from prospective readers. I believe that the “provocative engagement” which editors have sought carries the worst attributes of sensationalism and is always far from my intention. There have been cases in which editors have imposed words and ideas that have had the effect of changing the meanings of my words and, therefore, misrepresenting my thoughts. In those cases, I have entered into lengthy conversations with editors in order to have them amend their selected titles (or added content) so as to maintain the integrity of my own thoughts in my written work. Despite all this, cases have still persisted in which editors have maintained their additions to my thoughts and so have corrupted my thoughts themselves and impinged on my right to speak freely and directly to the reader and to represent my thoughts to the reader as my own thoughts. Attaching a name to written text is a matter of honestly to the reader as well as a matter of self respect. This is the reason why these misrepresentations have caused me to limit my press appearances to giving interviews and only to write when I am given assurances that my words would not be altered.

When confronting editors and journalists over the concerted misrepresentation of my work, these individuals have provided me with several “rationalizations” for why they insist on this practice. These have included written correspondence in which they have explicitly stated political or financial motivation for their behavior.

While some of my attempts to amend destructive editorial decisions had been successful, many have not been successful. The content of my published essays, I am grateful to say, remains mostly my own and I therefore generally encourage readers to disregard the titles entirely and approach the publications with a critically awake and cautious mind.

The editors who have openly stated that they are motivated by particular political considerations have blocked my essays from publication when they have deemed those essays as unhelpful towards their goals. Their stated political considerations are false. To be clear, this practice has included their refusal to publish essays in which I have provided researched and documented corrections to explicit lies that have appeared in their publications. In many cases, the lies which I have taken pains to correct continue to appear in the same publications to which I have delivered my researched corrections. 

That situation does not speak of political considerations or partisan biases. When clear corrections are presented and ignored (and by “ignored,” I mean not even engaged) one is practicing a dissent not from any political point of view but from the value of engaging with simple truth itself.

These editors have persisted in this practices even in cases where they gave me their assurances (even as they continued to exploit my previously submitted work by re-publishing those essays when it satisfied their “needs”). You will find hearty critiques of practices that have taken and take place in many different circles and forums of leadership. For the sake of added clarity, my constructive critiques have not been limited by political party (in the United States or elsewhere) or any other political entities throughout the any region of the world that I engage with and know about. My essays also highlight the necessary points of positive light that need to be shed on the many good practices that I see every day and which define the bulk of humanity in the most prosaic and immediate sense. These writings are often the first to be disregarded altogether. 

I have had to write essays that correct prevalent lies in many different publications depending on such factors as which policy, party, government or group I happened to have been engaging a given essay. This is nothing to do with a purported political perspective on the part of a newspaper (a fact which is already anti-journalistic in itself) but due to the desire of many news outlets to simply oppose other outlets or individuals whose they do not (collectively) “like.” 

It is notable to the current lesson for me to point out that those essays of mine which have reported on the creative endeavors which are actually taking place throughout the world were usually met with total and summary dismissal by journalists and editors.

For a time, I had made a conscious decision to continue publishing my essays if editors agreed to treat the content itself (beyond the title) with integrity and if my text could be left uncorrupted. I have found that attempting to work through any concept or present any truth was regarded as utilitarian. From researched and sourced facts to even those simple and self-evident universal truths (which are my main concern and which I seek as an artist) would be interpreted by editors as being “useful truths”  or “useless truths.” National Public Radio would accept publication of an observation or fully developed and demonstrated thesis while an equally valid, researched or sourced truth would  be rejected and then need to be placed in On Being or in The New York Times (and so on). This depended on the editors perspective in terms of what they deemed to be “useful truths.”I have also found that this editorial flexibility extends to ethics and intelligence.

It was for those reasons that I decided limit my engagement with those journalists and journals who are counted as “mainstream media” (a meaningless moniker which deflects the need to define which particular newspapers or news outlets we are speaking of at any given time). 

I continue to engage many major newspapers and television stations by granting interviews to their journalists and would consent to being interviewed as long as I was able to speak for myself and not be the subject of a “story” in which my words would be edited into a distorted meaning.

When the Huffington Post published stolen emails belonging to the Ambassador from the United Arab Emirates to the United States, a man named Yousef Al Otaiba, I wrote to the chief editor who ignored my corrections despite the significant time I had spent writing well-researched and documented essays in the Huffington Post. I later recounted the experience in The National:

I’ve written for Huffington Post for years and that is why I recently wrote an email to the new editor, Lydia Polgreen, expressing my concern at the repeated publication of articles over the last week citing documents that were stolen from Mr A1 Otaiba. I explained to her that this was a violation of my own national sovereignty and expressed my regret that, despite my studious work for the publication she now stewards, this was a violation of my will as a citizen of a sovereign nation. I also pointed out the process that I go through every time I write an essay for the Huffington Post or any other publication. I cited the use of stolen material as journalistically unsound.

This event caused me to end my relationship with the Huffington Post.  For added perspective, allow me to say that I could not value my own work in the same way when I re-read it as it was published in the company of writers and editors who disregard principles of basic integrity or fact-checking. The simple option would be to commit to publishing only that information which is honestly retrieved and which might be verified. The Huffington Post could not abide by this basic standard.

The reason for my having persisted in my essay writing despite knowing about cases which were spoken about as “lesser editorial malpractices” is that it has meant that I have been able to reach readers with news of the many affirmations that most major American journalistic enterprises are happy to disregard on a daily basis. In 2013, I wrote:

All of this shifts the focus away from the emphasis on advancements in the humanities, the sciences and the arts that we desperately need. This may sound like hopeless optimism but I do know there’s a vast universe that we need to continue exploring (in fact it’s likely to be vital to our future). There are human bodies that need to be cured through advancements in medical research and whole human beings that need to be inspired by a new poem, sculpture or piece of music.

Five years later, I’m grateful to say that my basic perspective hasn’t changed. The experience of navigating the unnecessary labyrinth, however, forced me into a more extended inquiry into the behavior which I was encountering. This daily-practiced sort of anti-poetics is the subject of the current lesson. 

Let us begin with an instance in which the forced manipulation of a title has lead to the widespread misrepresentation of my thoughts was when The Independent took my recollection of an incident of dysfunction at New York’s JFK airport and labeled it as a case of religious profiling (something I had said I had no suspicion of) through the application of the title “I’m an American with a Muslim name who was detained at JFK Airport for hours – I want an explanation.”

Anticipating that this was an article that would most probably be levied for “clickability,” I wrote to the editor before it’s publication asking that the words “Trump” and “Muslim” not be added to the title. After it was published with the present title, I appealed to the editor who defended the decision of the publication. She told me in an email: “remember the personal story is what will pull readers in and if you want this to explode, you need to get people involved in your story.”

But I didn’t want anything “to explode.” I had written the article with the intent of shedding light on a dysfunctional system and so I suggested the title: “US Border Patrol Detained Me Then Asked For A Complaint. Here It Is.” The editor refused to change the title once more. Her reasoning, which she conveyed to me in another email was that my suggested title “doesn’t tell a huge story there.” A few hours later, the editor reached out to my with a happy email saying that the article was “getting lots of love on the Twitter and Facebook right now.”

I didn’t write the account to “tell a story” and “get lots of love.” Nothing I could say or do would change the editor’s mind. All I could do was speak for myself when asked about the incident. In the following months, I gave interviews in which I continued to offer my record of what was and wasn’t the problem at hand. When I was interviewed for a May, 2017 profile I said:

“Now this is not a grand romantic tale, it’s not the diaries of Anne Frank; not a historical moment in music history — no matter how much editors may try to attract attention with heads and titles that include the word, ‘Trump’ or ‘Muslim.’ Which is why SEO [search engine optimization] is ruining the world. I really think that what happened to me was just a mundane clerical error that happens every day. The most sinister explanation is that they have a quota to keep this self-sustaining ecosystem alive.”

Fairouz wanted to be clear on the point that he didn’t think Trump had anything to do with what happened to him, “But that’s the point, it’s hard to talk about anything these days without assuming he’s in some way involved.”

“The larger question… is whether we’re at the point where the discourse that’s followed this election has seriously debilitated us from having a conversation about how we can fix these broken systems. If we are at that point, then I think we’re screwed. And the fact of the matter is that it’s not just our border patrol system, it’s our education system and our healthcare system. We’re in a dark place right now and if we can no longer talk to one another, then we’re not going to be able to solve problems. That’s really what this all about: solving problems.”

When the AFP reached out to find out more about the incident, I clarified my position once again which was reflected in their report:

The composer, who was returning from a string orchestra recording session in Britain, hesitated to allege he was singled out because of his Muslim name. He said that most of the dozens of others in the detention room were from Latin America owing to flight timings.

But despite all this, the many interviews in which I explicitly restated my position that that this incident was not racially or religiously motivated, the original lie perpetrated in the editor’s title stuck. Most recently, the event was cited on page 22 of a report by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT):

On May 1, 2017, Mohammed Fairouz, an American composer, was detained at JFK airport in New York City, apparently without reason with the exception of his Muslim name. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) subjected him to extensive additional screening that included intrusive questions relating to his finances, career, and personal life. During those hours, he did not have access to his phone or belongings.

SAALT seems to have presented my case without reading the content of my article, any of my followup interviews or contacting me. They decided to include the incident in a collated database of events outlining examples of racial profiling which they describe as “a widespread institutionalized practice by law enforcement, which suspects a person or community of a criminal offense based on their actual or perceived race, ethnicity, or national origin.” They also included the incident despite the fact that I had publicly said that I did not believe myself to be the victim of any actions that were motivated by my race, ethnicity or nation of origin. SAALT is organization that, among other things, “connects with elected officials, media, and government agencies to highlight issues that affect South Asian Americans.” “Our work,” continues their mission statement, “includes regular briefings and meetings with the White House, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security, as well as our Advocacy Days that bring advocates and community members closer to decision makers in D.C.”

All this means that the lie, as it was forcefully projected by the editor upon my text would mislead in order to cause pleasure. The title would now be added to a database. As we have just seen, this database could, and in my case was, used as  an “analytical” justification for demanding changes in policy from civic leaders in Washington.

One might now reasonably come to the following conclusion: “Obscuring the truth does nothing to solve problems.”

These misrepresentations cause people and organizations to put their resources into solving problems that doesn’t actually exist. That sort of activity towards dysfunction was the exact opposite of what I was hoping to engender when I made more people aware of a fairly mundane and clerical problem by composing an essay. I wrote my essay to make a journal-like account of an incident that was of concern to me as a frequent traveller and that I thought would concern others (not least because I stand in immovable airport lines with many, many other people every time I reenter the United States). This was journalism rather than poetics. I reserve my poetics for my work as a composer and I keep the mundane out of my artistic work which, if it is to mean anything to others, must embrace subjects and objects which are common and, ideally, universal. 

This brings us back to “poetic journalism.” This term is a negation of the poetic and that which is journalistic. But rather than consider this as just another confounding statement that that must be undone, I would like to attempt an understanding of it.

If this was the case, the editor’s comfort with misleading her readership should be understood as an active decision that causes things to happen. The intent of the editor may have been to make the incident more “intriguing” to curious readers. The reality is far more actively destructive but it is the arrival at this reality through demonstration that will allow us to appreciate a vital source of the catastrophically inclined journalism of which we have seen example after example. More importably, this leads us to an important source of the anti-poetic idea. Understanding this source will help us understand the profundity of it’s destructive world-view. 

To begin, we must remember that Aristotle writes of poetry (art; craft; making) as springing from two causes. Let us look at the first of these causes in the present context. Human beings imitate (mimic) and are the most imitative of all animals.

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience.

The reader will pay special attention to Aristotle’s explanation of the fact that human beings learn our earliest lessons through imitation as it is important to the issue at hand. 

The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.

On the other hand, Aristotle points out a difference in technique which he observes to accompany the representation of things that people view with pain or discomfort. These works of art are not evocative of the commonplace or the mundane. Examples of artistic objects such as Darth Vader, Cthulhu, are not commonplace or mundane. 

When people experience an artwork that represents a familiar thing, they can “learn” through recognition of the familiar. This  discovery is heightened if the artist reproduces something familiar as a “likeness” and increases the level of ambiguity in his recognition. This comes through pleasure of recognition of the familiar in a form that is not familiar. Aristotle describes the moment beautifully in the Poetics and he does this through demonstration of a reaction: 

Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.

When an artist chooses to represent something as a likeness of what he senses (in the “real world”), this choice enables him or her to employ ambiguity and even to render that which is abstract. Let us visualize the spectrum of representation as a line. 

The artworks that appear further to the left of this spectrum are more and more abstract and render that which is imagined and fantastical. 

In those works that appear further to the right on this imaginary spectrum are works in which the artist represents the subject with a fidelity that renders it as close  to objective reality as possible.

Here is the spectrum of artistic expression:

With that in mind, let us consider Aristotle’s view of how artists tend to represent things that are fantastical, imaginary and unknown. This is especially true of those subjects that could cause us great pain and discomfort if we were experiencing these things in reality. This is because we know that these events and subjects are real or can be real. In the case of that which is real, we know this by the fact that human beings have witnessed them and they have been recorded either historically or journalistically (being led into a crematorium at Auschwitz; being the victim of a nuclear disaster; perishing at sea upon a sinking ship; jumping from the North Tower as it collapsed on 9/11). In the case of those things which could be “real,” or terrify us in concept we believe in their veracity through the artists ability to imagine things that occupy the more nightmarish workings of human fancy (Chucky the Doll, Cropsy, Cthulhu) and render those things in a way whose veracity is demonstrated not least because of it’s ability to frighten the audience of that work (or affect our emotions in other ways). 

Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure.

The very fact of our inability to be close to something which we either know to be real makes us want to render the thing in question with as much fidelity as possible. This is because it is our only way to discover more about it without being harmed. 

In the case of that which is imagined but which the artist is capable of persuading us to believe is real (even though our common sense —objective sense— tells us that it is not real) the work of art is our only recourse to learning about it. We yearn for as much information as possible on the creature or thing that is “hiding in the dark.” Ironically, these objects and subjects are exactly the things that we cannot truly define. We cannot define, in any serious detail, those things which we cannot examine closely without being hurt. This is also true of things which present themselves to us as nightmares, omens or other premonitions and negations of the imagination. 

We are repulsed and frightened away by those painful things which present themselves in objective reality (terrorist attack; sinking of a vessel; sucked into vacuum of space). We attempt to escape these unpleasant things even when they are not “real.” We do this by warding them off when they obsess our imagination. The reader will bear in mind that these facts are not merely explained by statistics such as those which would rank the “scariest horror movies of all time” or through the  absurd attempts at deriving statistics on phobias. We have seen these attempts in the destructive person’s tendency to extoll the subjective while forgetting that human beings are individuals in the fullest meaning of that word and that the “subjective” is not to be defined, as they understand it, to mean “incomprehensible.” 

What I am presenting is not fanciful. The human repulsion away from objects of pain and fear is instinctual. It can be caused through the activation of our fear, the insecurity of our footing, the need to resist pain or simply the need to flee death. We risk being hurt or killed if we experience such a thing or event but we must know about it precisely. The pleasure of our knowledge is rooted, not least, in the workings of the human instinct to survive.

We will now draw our spectrum of expression once again. This time, we will add the information that we have just worked out:

Now, let us apply our same spectrum of expression to journalism, photography (video and still photos) as well as any other way of recording reality (day-to-day reality). Before we do this, it would be wise to define journalism. 

A journalist is defined in the earliest English Dictionary as follows:

JOURNALIST  (JO’URNALIST)   n.s. [from journal.] A writer of journals.

And a journal is defined as follows:
JOURNAL  (JO’URNAL)   n.s.[journal, French; giornale, Italian.] 1. A diary; an account kept of daily transactions.
2. Any paper published daily.

A journal is:
JOURNAL  (JO’URNAL)   adj. [journale, French; giornale, Italian.] Daily; quotidian. Out of use.

The more abstract or obscure end of the spectrum involves fantastical reports or misleading reports. False leads that turn out to be false news and other such tangled webs which great journalists have worked hard to untangle in the name of discovering the truth and telling it to others. The right side of the spectrum involves accurate reporting. Presenting the news of the day as news (regardless of conflicts of interest and, in many historical cases, great risk to personal safety and career advancement). Journalists record the facts as they perceive them with the five senses that they have. They do not rely on speculative volition or the ability to form creative plots or connections between events that are disparate.

Things which are abstract and unclear must be clarified and presented in a concise and comprehensible style (one which is devoid of “self-expression” or the use of such things as metaphor. Fantastical and unbelievable information is verified through fact-checking and extensive copy-editing. Unknown or speculative events (or “non-events”) are not anticipated in reporting.  The journalist is tasked with clarifying daily events and recording them in the clearest and most direct way possible. Anything cryptic will be clarified or left to further observation “once the dust settles.”  Unsourced or sensitive information which is provided to journalists will be weighed against what the release of this information means in terms of public well-being and will only be released in extraordinary cases. It will be released if the failure to do so will result in certain and known disaster or public harm. The journalist will only report on things which are relevant to the public sphere and will not pry into things which do not count as news (such as reports that record events in people’s private lives and that have no bearing on the citizenry at large). 

The artist’s expression can encompass the more abstract as well as the more minutely realistic (as follows): 

That arrow should only move in one direction (from the murky and cryptic to the clear and verifiable) when it comes to the practice of proper journalism (recording the daily facts). Here is how the journalistic (or record-based) chart would properly look: 

Now, let us apply our same “spectrum of expression” to science which is the study of anything that exists (including archeology and other studies of things which were previously crafted or made by artists or artisans) through methodological means of inquiry. This scientific method involves beginning with an observation and, through speculation, forming a hypothesis which is then subject to experimentation. Following this, the stages of hypothesis and experimentation are repeated until a consistent and constant proof is obtained. 

Once again, the full spectrum of expression which is available to an artist (from the wildly abstract to the minutely detailed rendering of reality) is not to properly applied to the sciences. Here, once again, is the “artistic spectrum of expression”:

This movement towards the more abstract as well as the movement toward the clearer and more defined is not to be properly applied to the sciences. Therefore, scientific inquiry should not look like this:

It should, on the other hand, only move in one direction; from the murky and cryptic to the clear and verifiable. This method can be employed in the way that was codified by Ibn Al-Haytham in the 10th Century (which is essentially the reliance on demonstration through experimentation and proof as outlined below):

The scientific method can also be employed to the study of history. Here it is as it was codified by Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddamah  (“The Introduction” or “The Prelude”) of 1377; a book in which he introduced the “new science” of history. Ibn Khaldun states that “All records, by their very nature, are liable to error” and then goes on to describe a seven-part process of critical sifting in which he mentions seven items which must be avoided by the historian: 

1…Partisanship towards a creed or opinion…
2…Over-confidence in one’s sources…
3…The failure to understand what is intended…
4…A mistaken belief in the truth…
5…The inability to place an event in its real context
6…The common desire to gain favor of those of high ranks, by praising them, by spreading their fame…
7…The most important is the ignorance of the laws governing the transformation of human society.

Since Ibn Khaldun already states that “all records, by their very nature, are liable to error,” it should go without saying that no proof is 100% accurate or correct in this context either. 

Now we must cross-examine the arts against other disciplines. Let us start with journalism.

The artist, it will be recalled, is properly enabled the full spectrum of expression (from the most abstract stylings to the most realistic and concrete ones). This is, in no small part, because the truth of a work of art lies in it’s function and in it’s self-evident existence. 

I would like to reiterate Aristotle’s explanation of the reason why men derive pleasure from that which is commonplace being rendered as abstract, startling and “new”: 

The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.

Aristotle also pointed out a difference in technique which he observes to accompany the representation of things that people view with pain or discomfort. These works of art are not evocative of the commonplace or the mundane. Examples of artistic objects such as Darth Vader, Cthulhu, or an apocalyptic scene from a movie like Independence Day are anything but commonplace or mundane. 

When people experience an artwork that represents a familiar thing, they can “learn” through recognition of the familiar. This  discovery is heightened if the artist reproduces something familiar as a “likeness” and increases the level of ambiguity in his recognition. This comes through pleasure of recognition of the familiar in a form that is not familiar. Aristotle describes the moment beautifully in the Poetics and he does this through demonstration of a reaction: 

Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.

And so, if a “journalist” desires to evoke pleasure or sensation in their readers (or viewers), thy would have to do so within the province of expressing the commonplace or day-to-day (by definition). Here, once again, is the definition of “Journalist” as well as the pertinent sub-definition (“journal”):

JOURNALIST  (JO’URNALIST)   n.s. [from journal.] A writer of journals.

And a journal is defined as follows:

JOURNAL  (JO’URNAL)   n.s.[journal, French; giornale, Italian.] 1. A diary; an account kept of daily transactions.
2. Any paper published daily.

A journal is:

“JOURNAL  (JO’URNAL)   adj. [journale, French; giornale, Italian.] Daily; quotidian. Out of use.

Art which depicts the day-to-day cannot do so in a forensic or “dry” way without seeming didactic and overwrought. In order for people to find pleasure in what they see every day, those things need to be represented as abstract, fantastical and “new” (otherwise people would be startled by seeing a fire hydrant which they see every day or an old lady at the supermarket which they see every day). This creates a problem for “poetic journalists” since the “day-to-day”  quotidian element of journalism cannot be circumvented without a complete and obvious betrayal of reality. 

Therefore, “poetic journalists,” like the “new journalists” before them, cannot occupy this sphere (the practice of depicting the every-day happenings about town in an abstract or fantastical style). They would be discovered very quickly as practitioners of gossip or fairy tales rather than serious recorders of hard facts:  

The urgency of “today’s headlines” can, however, be utilized to relay a sense of “stakes” and “now-ness” to the news-story which is being broadcast. 

This works well with the only “artistic” option that remains to the journalist who wishes to express him or herself in a way that proves to be sensational and pleasurable. The journalist must render the day-to-day events with the reality of minute detail expressed in mimicry of the stylistic attributes of serious journalism. They must then apply that style to communicate that which is not every-day or common place. The style of “serious and fact-based reporting” is used to communicate the disastrous, painful, unpleasant, catastrophic and “out of the ordinary.” 

This means that the viewer will find pleasure by “needing to click on the story” or receiving “urgent news” which they must read on pains of life-or death. The audiences for this sort of “poetic journalism” are beholden to a constant state of crisis in which they must stay “up-to-speed” on all the latest details in order to remain “informed.”

Real subjects that could cause us great pain and discomfort if we were experiencing these things in reality cause sensation and intrigue as well as a “need-to-know” obsession on the part of a public which needs to “stay informed”. We know that the events and subjects that are being communicated to us are real or, at the very least, could be real. 

We know about the things that are real because of the fact that human beings have witnessed them and they have been recorded either historically or journalistically. This is how we know that Jews were led into crematoria at Auschwitz or the day-to-day banalities of Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. We have seen victims of nuclear disaster holocaust at Hiroshima as well as civilians jumping from the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center as it collapsed on September 11th, 2001. 

But it is the case of those things that could be “real,” which provides the opportunity. These things terrify us in concept and we believe in their veracity when we are placed in the hands of skilled artist. The artist’s ability to imagine things that occupy the more nightmarish workings of human fancy and render those things real and believable enough to keep us up at night is demonstrated not least because of it’s ability to frighten the audience of that work (or affect our emotions in other ways). This is done by design. 

One of my favorite examples of terror by artistic design comes from Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter for the movie Alien. In describing the design of the “Facehugger” creature (a design which evokes make and female genitalia as well as rape in the (correct) sense: entirely devoid of anything “sexual” and driven by violence and ripping apart of one’s body. “One thing,” says O’Bannon,  “that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.”

This is a case of terror which is imagined but which the artist persuades us to understand and glimpse a possibility: that the horrible object of our fears is real. We abandon common sense —objective sense as well as our rational faculties. The work of art becomes our only recourse to learning about the dark nightmares which we would like to uncover and bring “into the light.” And so, pained as we might be, we watch with eyes wide open and we scream.

While human beings yearn for information on the creature (or thing) that is “hiding in the dark,”  it is, these very objects and subjects are exactly the things that we cannot truly define, touch or understand. We cannot define, in any serious detail, those things which we cannot examine closely without being hurt. This is also true of things which present themselves to us as nightmares, omens or other premonitions and negations of the imagination. And so it is that children afraid of the night who have never been happy or good cannot resist learning more about the objects of their worst nightmares only to discover reason after reason to stay away from that very object of fear and repulsion.

These actions of fear, anger and repulsion are observable, impulsive and form the foundation of countless stories which span millennia and cultures of expression by artists of all stripes. 

The human repulsion away from objects of pain and fear is instinctual. It can be caused through the activation of our fear, the insecurity of our footing, the need to resist pain or simply the need to flee death. We risk being hurt or killed if we experience such a thing or event but we must know about it precisely. The pleasure of our knowledge is rooted, not least, in the workings of the human instinct to survive.

And so, “poetic journalists” can create instant-stakes and human investment in a story no matter how exaggerated (or even flat-out-false) that story may be. They do this by co-opting the style that artists deploy in order to bring us close to the terrible (from the cyclops and the sirens to the destruction of Pompeii, Cropsy, a disfigured burn victim who is bent on revenge and the figure of a clown with all the merriment and polity that figure commands revealing itself to be the most terrible and indescribable shape of Stephen King’s It). They render the terrifying with exaggerated detail by co-opting the style of journalism and melding it with the subject of much detailed and realistic art.

Let’s put the observations which we have made on Object and Subject together one step at a time. 

Here, there is no ambiguity possible if we are to remain within the circle of sensible human beings. What I am describing is something that we can be certain about if we are to be certain of anything in existence. There is not even a disclaimer to be given here. I cannot say that “there are exceptions to the rule” because there are no “rules” here at all.  Here are the points on which I am speaking: 

1) There exist art-works which are made by human beings. 

2) This includes all things made by human beings; ie all things not found in nature. 

3) Everything which is made by mankind (all art-works) relate to reality in some way or can be related to reality. 

4) There is no limit to the number of ways in which any art-work relates to reality. There is no limit to the “way” of ways in which an art-work relates to reality. Indeed, this can and should allow for  a great diversity of perspectives within a single human being and, certainly, from person to person.

5) By “reality,” I mean all reality. This includes that which can be perceived (the physical) as well as that which cannot be perceived (the metaphysical) and is then rendered perceptible. 

6) Artworks depicting objects which did not exist in reality but existed in the imagination of the artist were metaphysical when they existed in the imagination of the artist. They have been made physical by virtue of the artist having made the object which realized that which previously existed in his or her imagination. If a “work” exists in the imagination of a person but is never made into a work of art then that “work” does not exist. 

7) All these works will relate to reality on an infinite (and infinitely diverse) spectrum. This is the spectrum:

8) The further “left” we move, the more esoteric (“More Abstract; “More Fantastical”; “More Unknown or Unknowable”; “More Obscure”) are the works of art. The further “right” we move, the “More ‘real’ (correlating to reality as it is perceived); the “more explicitly detailed” etc. the more “convincing” and “credible” (in the daily factual sense) are the works in question. 

There exist many more adjectives than those which I have used above to describe how “realistic” or “fantastical” objects are. The purpose of the descriptive language above to simply suggest a range of expression as we perceive that expression through artistic works which are made. There is no “middle point” to this spectrum. There is no (known) beginning or end to this spectrum. It allows for all human imagination. 

Art-works cannot meaningfully be declared to be “realistic” or “abstract” nor can they be declared “figurative” or “non-figurative.” These are descriptive terms which are only useful to the critic or audience if they are clearly defined and used within a meaningful and clear context. One cannot say that Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 111 is an “abstract” work nor can one label the Sonata “figurative” or “non-figurative”; one cannot say that a piece of music such as the Sonata in question is “realistic” either. The spectrum of artistic expression would best be demonstrated as a circle rather than a line which moves in opposing directions from a presumed source. There is no middle-point and the reason for my use of a line in my diagram is for the sake of clarity. 

This spectrum is, more accurately, to be thought of as one would think of a clock. Here it is. That which that which is on the left side of my diagram (works which are more abstract) is rendered in green while everything to the right of my linear diagram (more “realistic”) is rendered in red:

That would result in an overlap of that which is “realistic” and that which is “abstract.” How would that work? 

I have already explained that “art-works cannot meaningfully be declared to be ‘realistic’ or ‘abstract’ nor can they be declared ‘figurative’ or ‘non-figurative.’” What, then would it take to give these words meaning? 

Is the following painting (Autumn Rhythms) by Jackson Pollock “realistic” or “abstract”?

 We must now answer the following question: What does the painting imitate (or what do I perceive the painting to be imitating)?  

If one perceives the painting as an imitation of an autumn landscape, most people will deduce that the painting is not a realistic representation:   

If the painting is perceived to be imitating the accidents resulting from the motion of paint as it spills, it will be seen as very realistic:

The painting can be perceived to be expressing countless other things by countless observers.

Let us take another example; a painting called Woman with Ribbon by Roy Lichtenstein.

The answer is to be found in looking at the Ben-Day dots printing process technique. Depending on the effect, color and optical illusion desired, small colored dots are closely spaced, widely spaced or overlap in print. Magenta dots, for example, could be widely spaced to create pink. 

Pulp comic books of the 1950s and 1960s used Ben-Day dots in the four process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) to inexpensively create shading and secondary colors such as green, purple, orange and flesh tones. Here is an example of the dots magnified:

The painting by Roy Liechtenstein imitates the printing style used to depict something fairly common place (a woman) in a new light

Here, for example, is a comic book which is printed using Ben-Day dots:

If we compare a detail from the comic book to a detail from Liechtenstein’s painting, it is easy to see that the painting is a very realistic imitation of the printing style (not a woman). Here is a magnified detail from the comic book presented against a magnified detail from the painting:

Lichenstein’s painting is not realistic as far as it aims to depict a woman. It is, however, extremely realistic in terms of reproducing the Ben-Day printing method. It is the recognition of the printing method and not merely a recognition of a woman that gives us pleasure in viewing Woman with Ribbon. Thus Lichtenstein renders the everyday object (a woman) in a new light through the imitation of the printing method.

The painting is an abstract representation of a woman’s skin and figure which gives us pleasure because this everyday figure is rendered in a new light through the realistic representation of the Ben-Day printing method. 

And so, we are able to look at something which we see every day (our skin) in a new way. 

One cannot simply declare an artwork to be “figurative” without asking “ in relation to what figure?” One cannot simply declare a work of art to be “realistic” or “abstract” without asking “in relation to what exactly?” 

The use of these terms without relating them directly to objects and subjects is counterintuitive. The mind will draw connections and relationships automatically as soon as a person perceives a work of art or any object in the world. A person will also naturally draw comparisons, contrasts and relationships between subjects which one already knows about and those subjects which one is newly perceiving or learning about. 

Let us place a person (me) as an audience member. I am, for the purpose of this exercise, the “blue dot.”

I have shown two clearly different perspectives of looking at the poem which are perfectly reasonable and valid. By valid I mean really valid; valid enough for me to feel comfortable printing the interpretations in the present book and believing that most people will easily understand my point of view as reasonable and, by virtue of possessing reason, illuminating.That gives us two points of view which we can add to the “clock”:

The image below is abstract to most people viewing it:

But it is only abstract until we hear what the sound wave represents:

Now that I’ve told you that the above is a representation of the entirety of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the sonograph above is no longer abstract. But one can hardly consider the sonograph to be a work of art. Isn’t it a recording? It is a visual representation of the sound waves which were recorded. The sound recording is the recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The waves are a representation of the sound which has been recorded. How about this image?

It is, in mathematical figures which we call musical notation, another representation of the Symphony’s sounds. This representation is in Beethoven’s own handwriting and was made in order to notate the pitches and durations of the symphony as well as to score it so that an orchestra can perform it (from their parts which are extracted from Beethoven’s score).

To the vast majority of persons, the recording of the Symphony (or a live performance) is much more meaningful than either the sonic recording (made after the fact of the music) or the score (made as part of a process which exists in order to make musical compositions fact).

And yet, I do have a composer friend who has the following hanging in his studio above his piano: 

It is meaningful to him because he knows what the representation is (a visualization of a recording of the First Movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony). I cannot imagine it hanging above many executive desks or, frankly, in our own studios or homes even if we do know what the sonogram represents. 

But it is a representation (not a recording). And it does mean something to someone (my friend). And so the subjective is introduced.

The blue-dot-person we placed into that spectrum can now contend with many points of view which are all reasonable and which he can see and map on the “clock”; an embarrassment of (subjective) riches!

Let us begin with the left side of the artistic spectrum (“More abstract”): 

We can now answer the question: “Art-works,” I said, “cannot meaningfully be declared to be ‘realistic’ or ‘abstract’ nor can they be declared ‘figurative’ or ‘non-figurative.’” What, then would it take to give these words meaning?”

The terms are relative. They are, specifically, relative to the object (the work of art) and the subject which is being depicted. They are also relative to the perspective as well as the 

The work must be seen in relation to the object it is representing and/or in relation to the subject which is viewing it. 

These are works of art are more abstract. In other words, these are works of art where the artist made his or her work using technique which renders the artworks more obscure or abstract.

Abstract Works of Art (Objects) are overwhelmingly produced by artists when we are engaging with subjects that are commonplace, everyday or non-existent. If I render that which is unknown, I have to make it known and evident; I have to describe the unknown in order for my subject to be comprehensible to anyone. I cannot take that which is unknown and render it abstractly as such a subject would never be recognized. 

They must be rendered as “more familiar” or “more realistic” in order to be known. 

1) If a subject is unfamiliar, as follows… 

2) … The pleasure of recognition will come from the creation of objects which provide a detailed depiction of the subject. This is as follows:

This creates the following correlation (less familiar things are depicted as explicit and detailed):

If a subject is familiar, as follows (everyday things)

The pleasure of recognition will come from the creation of objects which provide an abstract  or more ambiguous depiction of the subject. This is as follows:

Which gives us the following correlation (things which are “everyday” are depicted as more fantastical and obscure):

In the Lichenstein painting, for example, the object which is being represented is recognizable (a woman). The key to our pleasure is, therefore, due not to the imitation as such (“the imitation of the object as such” meaning the “imitation of the woman”) but to the execution, the coloring or some such other cause,” as we will recall from Aristotle: 

The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure… Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.

In the case of Woman with Ribbon, the “other cause” is Lichenstein’s imitation of the Ben-Day Printing method. We don’t know the specific woman in order to recognize her. We know the Ben-Day printing method and we know how a woman’s skin should look. We put together the pleasure of recognition based on such factors as these (those things which we know and that which we do not know). There are many such factors in addition to the ones I’ve listed here. 

This is also the case with the following painting, The Road to York through Sledmere by David Hockney:

In 1905, Picasso asked Alice B. Stein to sit for a portrait, and the results were not “Cubist” but representational of it’s subject: 

The painting was dark in tone and brooding. Picasso famously stated:

Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will.

This was quoted by Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein said later, “I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” The completion of the portrait marks the beginning of Stein’s interest in portraiture and “resemblance,” concepts that would come to influence her writing indelibly.

These two book are not histories or historical biographies but novels:

This book is not a theological dissertation but, once again, a novel:

In the film, Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, the unfamiliar (because non-existent) Xenomorph as well as the ship Nostromo are depicted with great attention to detail. That which is everyday and familiar is depicted in a obscure and abstract way. “I’ll reshoot a corridor 13 different ways,” says Scott, “and you’ll never recognize them.” 

A corridor is, of course, an example of something which we see every day. The Xenomorph or the Nostromo do not exist and are, therefore, things which we cannot see every day. 

This is one of the most important reasons for the co-existence and overlapping availability of expression which is ambiguous and concrete when it comes to art. 

That that which is ambiguously expressed is often found together with that which is explicitly expressed in a single work of art. Many works of art are a multilayered objects. 

The success of Alien as a sensational experience is due to the detailed depiction of that which is unknown to us but also to the ambiguous depiction of that which is known to us. We derive the pleasure of learning through both approaches. 

We may, for example, return home from the film and see our corridor in a new light. This causes us a thrill when walking down the corridor to use the bathroom late at night.

In Alien the following, as one example of many, applies:

In science, there should be no movement towards the more ambiguous and less clear. The pleasure of all scientific knowledge is derived from clarifying that which was previously unknown or unclear: 

A work of journalism must employ expression which is explicitly detailed; a journalist is not a camera and therefore cannot (and should not) record reality. They must, however, reproduce reality with minute fidelity. The journalistic object must correspond to the following in terms of presentation:

The journalist must report that which is real. The journalist’s subjects are as follows (everyday reality): 

Here is the chart of artistic expression. The journalist must avoid the following things.

 1.  Subjects which are made up:

      2.  Reports, investigations, books, news broadcasts or any other sort of news coverage which is ambiguous, abstract, lacking in credible sources, or coverage of unverified information as fact:

The pleasure of learning in journalism comes from the movement away from that which is fantastical towards that which is concrete; verified and verifiable facts:  

Here is the correct correlation in Journalism (that which is real is presented as such; that which is ambiguous is clarified and presented as it really is):

Journalists who present things poetically are engaged in the following process. Those things which are familiar and real (in an everyday sense) have to be depicted as familiar and real in an everyday sense. They cannot give us pleasure through abstract representation because the journalist’s implicit contract with their readers or viewers is that they are being given facts. No suspension of disbelief is required or expected by journalists or by those who read or view the news. The pleasure of learning is based in the unveiling of facts. This expectation of style means that the viewer or reader of journalism expects explicit detail, minute fidelity and facts. This expectation means that the familiar or factual cannot be rendered as abstract without being immediately perceived by the reader or viewer to not be journalism. 

This is what a journalist must accomplish (as placed on the artistic spectrum): 

That which is less familiar or unfathomable can only give us pleasure when rendered more abstractly. That line does not correlate with journalism’s function. Nor can the abstract or made up be rendered in a sensational way (thus closing off another path): 

In other words, those subjects which should be avoided by the journalist find their expression as most concrete in works of art which give us pleasure of learning because of the fact that they are made ambiguous. 

Those familiar subjects which give us pleasure in the arts when rendered fantastically must be rendered explicitly by the journalist:

While those unfamiliar subjects which give us pleasure when depicted realistically by the artist must be avoided by journalists altogether: 

The result is a fundamental incompatibility as far (as pleasure of learning is concerned) between the function of journalism (facts which are reported) and art (facts which are made): 

Those things which are less familiar give us pleasure of recognition when represented as more “real” (orange arrow):

Those things which are more familiar give us pleasure of recognition when represented as less “real” (pink arrow):

A “poetic journalist” wishing to express himself as such must first think of the fantastical or less familiar and translate it into the artistic spectrum of that which is fantastical and less familiar (1). He will then express himself as it correlates artistically (2), whereby the less familiar is depicted more realistically. This would have us arrive at the desired result (3):

I will now express the process that a journalist would have to go through in order to produce reports which are factually accurate but using an artistic model. The journalist would need to take that which is familiar to the daily news (1) and think of it in terms of realistic artistic expression. The correlation would then bring us to the desired result (2) thus arriving at the desired outcome (3):

Either method of thinking requires a crossover. The first betrays the natural correlation in the art which is shown by the initial diagram (reproduced below):

The second method would amount to journalism but merely adds an additional (and unneeded) conceptual step. But this process would have us  arrive at the same result (rendering the factually accurate and everyday as such):

Since the method on the right (that which is indicated by the pink arrow) is available to us, journalists do not need to go to the extra effort of using the artistic model in order to arrive at the results which can easily be achieved using the journalistic model. 

In a book titled Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, Mitchell Stephens takes the mailability of truth for granted. He posits that “facts don’t matter” because it is impossible to abide by them in an absolute sense: 

Stephen Ward, a philosopher turned journalist turned journalism professor, defines traditional journalistic objectivity as “the avoidance of all evaluation and judgment, the use of only facts and perfectly neutral chronicles of events.” This is, of course, impossible, as Ward understands.

At first one will note two absolutes which place the passage in the company of much extremist rhetoric; arguments which cannot be opposed unless the response is equally extreme, un-nuanced and uncritical: 

Stephen Ward, a philosopher turned journalist turned journalism professor, defines traditional journalistic objectivity as “the avoidance of all evaluation and judgment, the use of only facts and perfectly neutral chronicles of events.” This is, of course, impossible, as Ward understands.

People do not expect journalists to possess the entire and perfect truth about anything. If journalists did  have such an avenue of access to the sort of perfect and absolute truth that would give us a perfectly factual chronicle of things, they would be unique among human beings. 

What is expected (and this seems to be lost on many writers) is a fidelity to the facts and to truth. In the description of a practice which entails “the avoidance of all evaluation and judgment, the use of only facts and perfectly neutral chronicles of events” the question that comes immediately to mind is centered around the writers reference to “the use of only facts.” What are these mere facts being used for? The “use of only facts” to what end?

The definition is a perversion. A journalist (or any seeker of truth) cannot and should never attempt “the avoidance of all evaluation and judgment.” A journalist, unlike a historian studying an ancient and long-gone civilization, reports on events which are contemporary to them. This is why an “avoidance of evaluation and judgment” must be applied to the facts at hand. Events occur on a daily basis and, once they happen, these events are there whether one likes it or not. The journalist can only report these facts (the truth) if he or she does not apply their personal evaluation and judgement to the facts (which exist regardless of one’s personal feelings about them). 

The journalist’s critical evaluations and judgements of any situation or subject should be applied towards seeking the truth and not towards obscuring it with one’s personal feelings about the truth.

The final point which must be questioned in the definition provided by Mr Ward and quoted by Mr Stephens (“the avoidance of all evaluation and judgment, the use of only facts and perfectly neutral chronicles of events”) is the idea of using or generating “perfectly neutral chronicles of events.”

This is another case for the journalist to make use of their critical faculties of evaluation and judgement in order to create a chronicle of events that is loyal to the truth and not one that treats materials which as reasonable as equal to sources which are clearly suspect. The journalist must apply their rational sensibilities as a human being to sifting through the dazzling diversity of daily events in order to bring facts of public concern to light. 

I would here like to attempt a comparison between a journalist named Simon Kuper and an art critic named Jerry Saltz. The reason for this comparative evaluation is that it will illuminate a commonality of anti-poetic practice which, once understood, the reader will find to be very common. 

In the Financial Times, the journalist (Simon Kuper) reports on the motivation of his colleagues. It is not timidity or avarice which guides them but, rather, the quest for attention and sensation; these people are journalists because of “failed literary ambitions”: 

Individual journalists have almost no influence. Nor do many crave it. Most journalists I know entered the profession for other reasons: frustrated literary ambitions, the adrenalin rush of newsgathering, or a desire to describe their era. Day by day, we are driven less by do-goodery than the quest for scoops, attention and fun.

Many journalists, we are told, do not crave influence (which means that some of them do crave it). Speaking from first hand experience, this writer tells us that, other than frustrated literary ambitions, other reasons for his colleagues to enter the profession of journalism include “the adrenalin rush of news-gathering… a desire to describe their era” and “the quest for scoops, attention and fun.” This passage recalls an article by Jerry Saltz (the art critic) who speaks of his failure as an artist and his discovery, in that failure, of his destiny as a critic:

Of course, I often think that everyone who isn’t making art is a failed artist, even those who never tried. I did try. More than try. I was an artist. Even sometimes a great one, I thought.

I wasn’t totally deluded. I was a lazy smart-aleck who felt sorry for himself, resented anyone with money, and felt the world owed me a living. For a few years, I attended classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, although I didn’t always pay tuition and got no degree. But I did meet artists there and saw that staying up late with each other is how artists learn everything — developing new languages and communing with one another.

Here also, there is no mention of cognition. It may not occur to Mr. Saltz that “developing new languages and communing with one another” is also known as “socializing” and that socializing is quite different from the work and practice required to hone one’s craft as an artist. “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery,” said Michelangelo, “it would not seem so wonderful at all.” 

Reading those words from such an esteemed master as Michaelangelo is enough to inspire humility in most of us. Not so for Mr. Saltz. “In 1973,” says Mr. Saltz, “I was 22, full of myself, and frustrated that I wasn’t already recognized for my work.”

But then I looked back, into the abyss of self-doubt. I erupted with fear, self-loathing, dark thoughts about how bad my work was, how pointless, unoriginal, ridiculous. “You don’t know how to draw,” I told myself. “You never went to school. Your work has nothing to do with anything. You’re not a real artist. Your art is irrelevant. You don’t know art history. You can’t paint. You aren’t a good schmoozer. You’re too poor. You don’t have enough time to make your work. No one cares about you. You’re a fake. You only draw and work small because you’re too afraid to paint and work big.


“Every artist does battle,” says Mr. Saltz, “every day, with doubts like these.”

I can attest from personal experience that this claim is thoroughly false. I have never thought that I was a “fake” nor have I had doubts as to whether or not I am a “real artist.” Anyone who feels the almost painfully acute sensitivity which I have felt resulting in heightened perception of reality and the irresistible urge towards expression will attest that one does not doubt such a feeling. It is simply too real to be doubted or denied. 

“I lost the battle. It doomed me” says Mr. Saltz.  “But,” he adds, after demonstrating a complete disregard for the work, humility and sensitivity which are essential to the artist, “it also made me the critic I am today.”

Back in Mr. Kuper’s article, he complains about the scrutiny which every reader has the right to place upon the work by journalists which they read and which are deemed to be suspect by the reader: 

“One oddity of being a journalist these days,” says Mr. Kuper, “is that non-journalists are always critiquing the profession.” Such a fact would concern a true journalist who is, by nature of their profession, aware of their importance in speaking the truth and sharing it with their readers. 

“It isn’t only Donald Trump,” continues Mr Kuper. “Many,” he says in an accusative tone without identifying who these “many” complainers could be, “see broadsheet newspapers and public-sector broadcasters as a liberal cartel that cooks up ‘fake news.’”

Mr. Kuper then goes on to label the critical readership as “accusers” and offers to educate us in response to our allegedly “common charges” which he says are being lodged against “contemporary upmarket journalism” (a perspective that dos not account for those of us who do not regard the truth or ideas as being the province of any marketplace whatsoever but rather the cherished right and need of all reasoning human beings): 

But few of our accusers understand our everyday working practices. That’s normal: hardly anyone knows much about life in other professions. I’ve only the vaguest idea of how people in construction or advertising do their jobs, or how they think of themselves. Below I have responded to common charges against contemporary upmarket journalism by explaining how it actually works day by day.

In another passage, Mr. Kuper describes the adherence to the truth while refuting the claim of “you made that up” (which is another way of saying “you lied”). The desire to be correct is portrayed as rooted in a fear of being caught rather than any fidelity to the truth: 

“You made that up.” In the era of Google and social media, making stuff up is now a route to rapid humiliation and dismissal. Readers will catch you. It was much easier to distort before the internet. Think of Walter Duranty, The New York Times correspondent in Stalin’s USSR, who in 1933 denied there was a Soviet famine. Few Ukraine-based readers wrote in to correct him. 

“Anyway,” says Kuper, “Google — along with millennials working for media organisations as low-paid fact- checkers — has vastly improved journalistic accuracy.” The knowledge of the presence of a group of millennials who are engaged in looking up one’s lies online should be a source of embarrassment but it does not register as such to Mr. Kuper. Less than a year after the New York Times saw it fit to dismiss their entire desk of copy-editors, Mr. Kuper goes on to imply that the millennials are doing a better job than the copy desks used to do. “When I recently researched a historical biography,” he says in a mixing of disciplines which renders Mr. Kuper’s sentiment still-mysterious to the present writer, “I was aghast at all the howlers in 1960s newspapers.” 

“Just give us the facts, not your opinions.” Before the internet, most media devoted most of their energy to reporting events: “Wildfires killed 20 people”, or “Interest rates rose 1 per cent”. But nowadays news is instantly free online. Journalism therefore needs to add analysis. 

“‘Facts’ aren’t neutral in any case. Do you lead with the presumed terrorist attack on Westminster or the scientific report saying that air pollution kills thousands of Londoners a year?

Even accurate reporting distorts reality. As the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker notes, ‘news’ often focuses on events (today’s bridge collapse or a politician’s lie) at the expense of cheerier trends (such as the long-term rise in life expectancy). Pinker says: ‘The papers could have run the headline, ‘137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday’’ each day for the last 25 years.’”

Facts, are, in fact, neutral. Our perception of them might not be. That is yet another reason why the journalist requires a self-aware impartiality and a finely tuned sense of critical and self-critical evaluation. Because facts are facts and they don’t have the capacity to know an individual. 

In the fourth lesson, I addressed the question of that which we can know from art and that which we can know from science: 

What can we know from art that we cannot know from science? The answer is to be found as follows. 

I go in to see my physician. After a skin test, an x-ray and a blood test my doctor ells me that I have  been infected with Tuberculosis. The doctor can make this diagnosis because of the fact that he knows the bacteria in question (Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria), can recognize it. As it turns out, he can  also prescribe a treatment. 

The doctor can know and study the mycobacterium tuberculosis. The mycobacterium, cannot and does not know the doctor. 

Any subject which is studied scientifically cannot also study the scientist. The historian can study the Battle of Hastings. The Battle of Hastings cannot know the historian. The Astronomer can know about the rings of Saturn. The rings of Saturn do not know about the astronomer. 

On the other hand, there is the kind of knowledge which is meant by the following verse (from the Bible):“AND Adam knew Eve his wife.” 

This is the sort of knowledge which I describe when I say that “I know Brian Smith” very well. In order for me to know Brian Smith very well, Brian Smith must also know me (and he must know me well if not very well). I have to be a part of a human beings’ life if I am to know that person. In order to know a human being, one must also be known to that person. This is the basis of the relationship between the artist who makes a work of art and the audience interacting with the artwork in question. 

On the most basic level, this also means that the artist must reveal himself (his personal vision of reality) in creating the work of art. This level is not a personal level and a personal vision of reality should not be confused with the personal life of the artist.

The facts cannot know us. We can, however, can know the facts. If an array of intelligence intelligence data is stolen from the NSA, for example, and a distinguished journalist like Edward Jay Epstein launches his own journalistic inquiry in order to investigate the theft and the man who stole that data, there is only one way in which the knowledge  which is found can be known and communicated. 

The theft, as well as the many events and facts which are outlined and uncovered in Mr. Epstein’s book titled How America Lost it’s Secrets; Edward Snowden, The Man and the Theft, are facts which we can know but these facts cannot know us. 

That is one reason why it is deemed to be wise (as well as good) to keep a close check on one’s biases when reporting the facts; because the facts don’t “care” about one’s own personal biases nor to they “give in” to distortion because they are perceived through the lens of personal, personality-tinged or self-interested distortions. 

Mr Kuper tells us that the people who report with a bias actually believe their own biases and embrace them (rather than treat them as something to be aware of in their striving for the truth):

In fact, almost all journalists I’ve encountered in liberal media genuinely believe the liberal stuff they write. Most journalists are liberals, not because of outside pressure but because upmarket journalism has become a highly educated profession — and highly educated urbanites tend to be liberals, who oppose Trump and Brexit and populism generally. A greater proportion of New York Times journalists than Fortune 500 chief executives attended elite universities, write Jonathan Wai of the University of Arkansas and Kaja Perina of Psychology Today; New Republic journalists have fancier educations than American billionaires. Liberalism in journalism is a cohort effect.

There is a striking absence of any mention of human thought, reasoning and critical evaluation in the paragraph above. In her essay titled “The Missing Link,” Ayn Rand described the need for tribalistic “protections” from people who, having no tribe in the primitive sense and, finding themselves unable to make conceptual associations with others (connections with other people based on shared ideas), create cohorts which grant the safety of a primitive collective without the need for shared culture or thought:

Observe that today’s resurgence of tribalism is not a product of the lower classes—of the poor, the helpless, the ignorant—but of the intellectuals, the college-educated “elitists” (which is a purely tribalistic term). Observe the proliferation of grotesque herds or gangs—hippies, yippies, beatniks, peaceniks, Women’s Libs, Gay Libs, Jesus Freaks, Earth Children—which are not tribes, but shifting aggregates of people desperately seeking tribal ‘protection.’

The common denominator of all such gangs is the belief in motion (mass demonstrations), not action—in chanting, not arguing—in demanding, not achieving—in feeling, not thinking—in denouncing “outsiders,” not in pursuing values—in focusing only on the “now,” the “today” without a “tomorrow”—in seeking to return to “nature,” to “the earth,” to the mud, to physical labor, i.e., to all the things which a perceptual mentality is able to handle. You don’t see advocates of reason and science clogging a street in the belief that using their bodies to stop traffic, will solve any problem.

“Back when there were fewer voices in media,” says Mr. Kuper in his report, “certain journalists could shift mass opinion.” He continues:

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Walter Winchell’s gossip column and radio broadcast jointly reached tens of millions of Americans a day. In 1968, a single broadcast by TV anchor Walter Cronkite arguably helped turn American opinion against the Vietnam war. But the internet splintered the media. Today each of us has a minute audience. Trump’s obsession with CNN TV news is bizarre, given how few people watch it. And viewers and readers already have entrenched world views, shaped by their life paths and years of consuming information. Each individual article barely has an impact on their outlook.

The idea that one should report the truth and, in so doing, one’s work would have all the impact in the world is simply not an idea which occurs to Mr. Kuper; at the very least he fails to communicate the value of truth if it does occur to him. 

The following passage puts it more directly: 

Even when journalists influence opinion, it’s often inadvertently in an illiberal direction. Whenever liberal media push an agenda (for instance, that climate change is a problem), many rightwingers instinctively believe the opposite. If The New York Times decided tomorrow that climate change was a hoax, many Trumpites would probably become tree-huggers.

Mr. Kuper is speaking of a reflexive reaction against anything which the “liberal media” (of which he says that he is a member) might report. If those people who are tasked with the reporting of truth not only took a “side” in acrimonious politics (“liberal” or “conservative” media) but actually showed no regard whatsoever for intellectual integrity or the reporting of commonplace truths in their work, I would “instinctively believe the opposite” of everything that they reported. 

Journalism itself is defined in the following terms by the American Press Institute: 

Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities.

Journalism can be distinguished from other activities and products by certain identifiable characteristics and practices. These elements not only separate journalism from other forms of communication, they are what make it indispensable to democratic societies. History reveals that the more democratic a society, the more news and information it tends to have.

Let us now re-consider an excerpt from Mr. Saltz’s self-review with the perspective we have gained from Mr. Kuper and the American Press Institute:  

When I arrived in New York in 1980 to become part of that world, I didn’t know what hit me or how much of the deep content in my art had to do with Chicago, my own naïveté, and isolation. I was so out of step. Chicago was still involved with 1970s Conceptualism, straight photography, regional ideas of hard-edged abstraction, process art, and Pluralism. Things in New York were so different: The city was exploding in Neo-Expressionism, Pictures, and graffiti art. The first of these was out of my painterly and scale reach; the second, out of my intellectual depth; the last was nothing I was involved with, and I could never stay up late enough or do enough drugs to really participate in clubbing.

Staying up late and clubbing may be something of a lifestyle choice but it has no relation to being an artist. But Mr Saltz informs us that he did not move to New York in order to become an observant student of art and, eventually, a working artist. At the opening of the paragraph above, he says that he “arrived in New York in 1980 to become part of that world.”

I was in shock, unable to muster what real artists use to fortify themselves when faced with situations like this. When I teach today, I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work. I didn’t. I also didn’t understand how to respond to an outer world out of step with my inner life without retreating into total despair. Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.

Mr Saltz tells us the following: “I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work. I didn’t.” 

Solving problems in artworks requires hard work, discipline and a commitment to things which are true and which stay true. Mr Saltz never mentions hard work. He then goes on to misunderstand Oscar Wilde:

Oscar Wilde said, ‘Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.’ Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.

The critical faculty of reason and evaluation eludes Mr Saltz, who goes on to conclude: 

“But I learned so much about being a critic.”

Mr. Saltz is a great example of an “anti-critic” just as Mr. Kuper is a prime example of an “anti-journalist.” The anti-critic and anti-journalist is an artist in a sense (what one would call a “bull-shit artist”). They imitate the behavior of great critics and journalists and, in their written work, tend to imitate the language used by outstanding individuals who have contributed to criticism or journalism. 

In the case of the anti-journalist, a common behavior which is imitated is that of a great journalist who “stops the presses” and declares that he has “breaking news.” Networks like CNN and Fox News as well as print outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have committed themselves to BREAKING NEWS stories on a daily or nearly daily basis. 

How is interest or pleasure (the “sensation and adrenalin-rush of news-gathering to form a breaking news story or a scoop”) to be maintained here? 

The anti-journalist, if “making things” would have to abide by the artistic correlation of “making things” (poetics) which, as we have explained, creates a mixed message because in the arts: 

1) Subject matter which is familiar must give us pleasure through another means than recognition (that which is familiar is familiar). 

2) Subject matter which is otherworldly and abstract, surreal, catastrophic or painful (or non-existent) creates pleasure when depicted with minute fidelity to reality because it satisfies the desire to learn and get close to things which we might otherwise never be able to experience. 

The anti-journalist is left with pursuing Option 2

How then are the “minutely realistic and detailed” expressions of the most terrible catastrophes made to be believable in reality by anti-journalists?

 

Chapter 17. Failures and Fabulists

How do people who are more engaged with the arts and journalism as a mere lifestyle choice than as a serious set of disciplines pull of this difficult artistic and journalistic methodology in practice? 

It is here that I must reveal something to those readers who are not familiar with my body of work as a composer. I have been a lifelong student of lies and lies and disfigurement. Some of the most prolific liars and victims of various self-inflicted woulds have provided me with a source of inspiration (if one can call it that) as well as almost three decades of  amused study. I am not alone among artists who have made lies a focus (Shakespeare comes to mind). But, as far as I know, I am lucky enough to be the latest student of this particular type of error and failure. 

The reality is that liars (or anti-poets of any stripe) do not sustain the lies which they peddle for very long. To illustrate this, I’d like to share a few case studies in the spirit of true reporting (I’ve been observing and recording such practices since my early teens).

Consider the case of Juan Thompson who wrote a story about a White Supremicist named Dylan Roof whose cousin, the story said, picked a black man over him: 

This scenario recalls a manifesto written by Elliot Rodger, who on May 23, 2014 gunned down six people in Isla Vista, California: “How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?”

“Dylan liked her,” Scott Roof said. “The black guy got her. He changed. I don’t know if we would be here if not …” Roof then abruptly hung up the phone.

In another instance, Mr. Thompson printed a story about Black Lives Matter Activists being banned from a Trump Campaign rally. One paragraph, picked at random reads as follows:

‘They need to be monitored and surveilled,’ said the woman, who was only willing to be identified as Kathy from Buckhall, Virginia. ‘We don’t need an influx of this in America. We’ve got to stop it.’ Her husband noted, ‘That’s what we like about Trump, he’s not afraid of the backlash. He tells the truth.’

The editors, who allowed the story to run, printed the following well after the article was published:

An earlier version of this story included quotes attributed to a woman and her husband, described as Trump supporters. The woman was identified by her first name, Kathy, while the man was identified only as her husband. The reporter had provided a real individual’s full name and identity to editors but said the source did not want it to be used. When contacted, this individual said she did not support Trump, had not attended his rally, and had never spoken to our reporter.

Another article emerged soon thereafter: 

“There is a serious problem with black homicide in St. Louis, and when black people get a cold, black women get the flu.” [She] echoed the Violence Policy Center Missouri, noting that most of the black women murdered in St. Louis are killed by male acquaintances. “Domestic abuse, sexual assault, gender-based violence is a huge problem here,” she said, ‘and until we deal with that and get people the help and resources they need, black women will continue to be murdered at alarming rates.” … “No matter what anyone does in life, her life doesn’t deserve to be ignored and forgotten,” [she] said. “It’s a clear, sad truth that the lives of black women don’t matter.”

The publication ran the following after the article had been published (as it remains published today): 

An earlier version of this story included a quote falsely attributed to an individual identified as a criminal justice professor. The subject told us that she had not spoken to our reporter, had never taught criminal justice, and had no expertise in the matters on which she was quoted. She requested that her name not be used.

In February of 2016, the editors at The Intercept finally let Thompson go. The editor discovered that he had fabricated many emails (including her own) as well as multiple instances of attributing quotes to people who were fabricated or, if real, claimed to have never spoken with him: 

The Intercept recently discovered a pattern of deception in the actions of a staff member. The employee, Juan Thompson, was a staff reporter from November 2014 until last month. Thompson fabricated several quotes in his stories and created fake email accounts that he used to impersonate people, one of which was a Gmail account in my name.

An investigation into Thompson’s reporting turned up three instances in which quotes were attributed to people who said they had not been interviewed. In other instances, quotes were attributed to individuals we could not reach, who could not remember speaking with him, or whose identities could not be confirmed. In his reporting Thompson also used quotes that we cannot verify from unnamed people whom he claimed to have encountered at public events. Thompson went to great lengths to deceive his editors, creating an email account to impersonate a source and lying about his reporting methods.

The most startling part of the entire affair was not that Thompson had spent over two years engaging in this practice (he was welcomed warmly at The Intercept in 2014) What caught my attention was the following paragraph which was published in late 2016 at Thompson’s dismissal (following many instances such as those which I have outlined above). Here is the paragraph in question: 

Thompson wrote mostly short articles on news events and criminal justice. Many of these articles relied on publicly available sources and are accurate; others contain original reporting that held up under scrutiny. Thompson admitted to creating fake email accounts and fabricating messages, but stood by his published work. He did not cooperate in the review.

In December of 2017, after thinking that my case-study would not turn up again, Mr. Thomspon ’s name appeared on my desk in the context of a memo from the Southern District of New York’s Department of Justice. Here’s the gist of it: 

In July 2016, THOMPSON began a months-long campaign of harassment targeting Victim-1 after Victim-1 ended their relationship.  THOMPSON’s conduct culminated with a series of hoax threats, including hoax bomb threats, targeting JCCs, organizations that provide service to and on behalf of the Jewish community, schools, and police departments.

THOMPSON started his campaign of harassment of Victim-1 in 2016.  In July of that year, an email was sent to Victim-1’s employer, which made false allegations about Victim-1, including that she had broken the law, using an internet protocol (“IP”) address that THOMPSON had previously used to access his social media account.  On October 15, 2016, an IP address that traced back to THOMPSON’s residence was used to falsely report that Victim-1 possessed child pornography.  When confronted by law enforcement on November 22, 2016, THOMPSON claimed that his email account had been hacked a few weeks earlier.

This is simply one case which caused me to become particularly intrigued. Add to this cases such as  the 2011 incident of Fox reporter Mike Tobin who, as video shows, was tapped on the arm and promptly claimed that he was punched. ”It was a punch,” said Tobin. “A punch is a punch, but it was just a punch in my arm. I grew up with three older brothers, it’s not my first time being punched. I don’t want to overdramatize it for the sake of TV or anything like that.”

Then there’s the case of Stephen M. Glass, a man who, quite literally, lied for years on end and, in so doing, almost destroyed The New Republic magazine.

Mr. Glass then composed a first person account of his life complete with personal feelings. This was not a memoir or an autobiography. It was a novel called The Fabulist. This novel embodied nearly every technique of personality-tinged storytelling that every artist worth their salt would do anything to avoid. It was an embarrassing read (from a second hand perspective) but the teenage version of me gobbled it up for all the pathos of a liar who could become a very useful stock character in an opera or musical one day. 

“When the first few fabricated stories were done and fact-checked and the articles were turned in,” writes the narrator of The Fabulist, “my editors loved them; more than that, they loved me — I felt it.”

An article which appeared in the New York Times on May 7th, 2003 apprised Mr. Glass’ novel and it’s background. “The novel,” said the Times, “closely follows Mr. Glass’s story, again blurring the line between reality and imagination.”

I read each and every page of The Fabulist (there are over 700 of them) and, while the book offered me insight, I can only assume that the insight which I gleaned from it was due to the fact that I was an artist who was researching a particular subject (lies) and approaching the author in question with a sort of scientific empathy reserved for my research subjects. I would not read Mr. Glass’ novel for the art of it. I’d certainly never accuse it of possessing “imagination.” 

Mr. Kirkpatrick offered a choice quote from an editor at The New Republic (who almost went down with the ship that Mr. Glass would have sunk: 

”The creep is doing it again,” said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. ”Even when it comes to reckoning with his own sins, he is still incapable of nonfiction. The careerism of his repentance is repulsively consistent with the careerism of his crimes.’’

Mr. Wieseltier does not understand that one can fact-check a liar quite easily and, as a literary editor at the magazine that Mr. Glass almost destroyed, he might have done so and averted the scandal before it happened. Recording the facts as one sees them is an easy task in a free country (as long as journalists are not too busy worrying about other journalists “reckoning with [their] own sins” and the “careerism of repentance” whatever that might be). 

To be capable of writing “good fiction”, however, is a tremendous gift which requires discipline and mastery of the art-form. To be capable of writing straight and simple journalistic records seems to be a rare skill to boot. When it comes to the “incapability of nonfiction,” I will leave the choice of whether one would like to read about the confounding application of negation and incapability to the reader’s discretion. 

I would like to share two final lines from The Fabulist which I will never forget.

First is this one: 

‘For me lying had become more than a vice, or a comfort, or a habit, or the easiest thing to do: It had begun to seem vital,’

I had a tape of Mr. Glass breaking down after a similar series of confrontations with a man named Charles Lane, then the editor of The New Republic.

Second is this one which occurs near the end of the “novel.” The “narrator” reflects on why he defamed real people. Here’s what the “narrator” says: 

I saw it, suddenly: They were all successes, all people who were loved and respected. They had actually done what I’d only aspired to, and at some subconscious level, I must have wanted to bring them down, to prove they and I weren’t so different after all.

And so Mr. Glass wrote a novel; a 700-and-something page novel which was all about himself. He never wrote another novel again. I suppose he said all that he needed to say. 

So how, do these people (men who are without artistic technique) use artistic techniques so badly in order to lie and get away with it?  A couple of years isn’t that long a time. But, for the sake of assurance, there is a rational reason behind their relatively long (5 year max) lifespan. 

We are, as I said, repulsed and frightened away by those painful things which present themselves in objective reality (terrorist attack; sinking of a vessel; sucked into vacuum of space). We attempt to escape these unpleasant things even when they are not “real.” We do this by warding them off when they obsess our imagination. 

The byproduct that comes from constantly depicting the world as anti-journalists see it (disgusting and disturbing) or artists as anti-critics see them (as monstrous aberrations) is that these anti-poets  often “succeed.” 

Anti-journalists repulse a good many people from actually wanting to have any contact with the world which they describe just as the artist’s work (as depicted by an anti-critic) causes many people to view the true artist as an agent of lies and “bullshit.” It’s a defense mechanism which is well-targeted (whether intentionally or not, I cannot say). An artist speaks truth through mere observation. What greater enemy can there be to those fearing the “exposure” of their lies as well as their failure and negation.

People stay away from the site of a burning building or a car crash just as they (naturally and rightly) evade the chaotic and irrational. But, one fine day and by sheer happenstance, those people who have been repulsed by the lies of anti-journalists and the slander of anti-critics walk by a building only to realize that, per the news reports, it should have burnt down a long time ago and, per the anti-critical reports, it should not have had the requisite design to stand in the first place… or they might meet an artist or love a little piano piece or discover that a continent which, by all accounts, should be burning, is actually a nice place to visit. 

And so, people find out that the world which they we told was terrible is really a wonderful world and that the art which they were told is not meant “for the likes of them” are, in fact, made for human beings. Finding the good which is under-represented by those who hate it all the more passionately because they cannot posses it, should please anyone who is weary of the negation and despair that so often undermine the trust and belief of those who need to trust and who yearn for belief  and truth. These things give us pleasure in all branches of human inquiry.

In the first Lesson-Chapter, I amended Aaron Copland’s explanation of one’s sensory relationship to music to say that we perceive music in two ways (rather than the three “planes” which Copland wrote about). These two planes are: 

  1. The objective plane (the material which exists as music in the music—otherwise called “music”)
  2. The subjective plane (that material which is perceived or imagined or felt by the listener when listening to the music) 

We are now in a position to understand the phenomenon that Copland was trying to make sense of when he spoke of that third plane (the narcotic and soulless way of listening). For this, I will turn to Stravinsky who, in the Poetics of Music, puts it like this: 

Unfortunately, there exists still another attitude towards music which differs from both that of the listner who gives himself up to the working out of the music participating in and following it step by step and from the attitude of the listener who tries docilely to go along with the music: for we must now speak of indifference and apathy. Such is the attitude of snobs, of false enthusiasts who see in a concert or a performance only the opportunity to applaud a great conductor or an acclaimed virtuoso. One has only to look for a moment at those ‘faces gray with boredom’ as Claude Debussy put it, to measure the power music has of inducing a sort of stupidity in those unfortunate persons who listen to it without hearing it.

Human inquiry gives us pleasure in satisfying our desire for knowledge and the rational capabilities  that guide thoughtful persons to appreciate an instinct for the truth. Disciplines of learning and inquiry should be allowed to give human beings pleasure despite the efforts taken against them by those who, if one’s senses serve as an honest guide to navigating their words, cannot seem to take pleasure in much of anything.