Invaded by the Body Snatchers (1994)



 "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers", a 1950s movie starring Kevin McCarthy, is the dead-accurate metaphor for the dehumanization of our time...the materialism and mechanistic depersonalization afflicting the arts and all sectors of society.


 McCarthy is a public health official who notices a change in people's behavior. At first he thinks it's a disease (which it is, but not the kind he thinks). Then he uncovers a plot to turn human beings into compliant, emotionally dead, personality-less robots who look the same as before, but are now devoid of feeling and individuality. Turned into utilitarian objects, they are enslaved but free of troubling emotions and the burden of decision in a complex time.


 Overnight in each house, a pod is placed in which the new, dehumanized version of the person develops to replace the original -- more human -- being.


 McCarthy's character spends the rest of the movie trying to save the town, keep the plague from spreading, and keep from being turned into a robot himself.


 There were no pods put in our homes that gave birth during the night to a less human version of ourselves (TV sets were...and the hypnotic pap, sterility and manipulation they present have been nearly enough). But we are not the same people we used to be. We are no longer as fully human, if judged by our actions and the art we create.


 The process has taken decades, and is the result of many factors. But a dominant reason is the mechanization -- the mishaping and hardening -- of our spirits and psyches by technology, war and loss of religious belief which undermined our faith in God, justice, humanity and the world; warped our sense of hope, the poetry of life, nature and human feeling. We became part of the machines -- the world view -- we created, machine/human hybrids of a kind, left with the pseudo-intellectual sterility and overly-rational aridity that passes for thought and human sensibility today.


 Instantaneous mass communication, rather than the touted blessing for humanity, has further numbed and horrified us. The endless daily details of corruption, cruelty and suffering at home and from the farthest corners of the planet weaken our faith in life and the goodness of humanity, to say nothing of propagandistic media's one-way funnel of misinformation.


 Two World Wars and Vietnam haven't helped. Neither has a surprisingly wide-spread disregard for, and abhorrence of, truth. The rise of a dictatorial "political correctness" -- the censorship and control of thought and speech -- is another name for "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers."


 Artifice is another major problem. There is little in the contemporary world of media hype and commercial pressure that is solid, genuine, fundamental, uplifting upon which we can meaningfully construct the foundation of our being.


 Art has been artificial for many decades now, with little contact with the reality of our lives, feelings, aspirations and the reality of nature and the world we inhabit. Contemporary art is mainly about cleverness, fashionable theory, fad and economic exploitation of the worst, most superficial non-values of the world of media and commerce.


 Too many of the stabilizing values of honesty, decency, justice, spiritual faith, love of nature and our fellow man have been corrupted by the distortions that pass for thought, ideas, creativity and belief in what has become a mechanistic, dismal, blaringly-vulgar, totalitarian world.


 As our technological society grows ever more complex and populous, individuality and individual rights diminish or are eliminated. The eternally valid concept of human life as something to be cherished, or at least respected -- once so firmly stated in documents of a greater age than ours -- exists mainly in the pink mists of greeting card fantasy.


 We become ciphers: "markets" to be researched, "statistics" to be evaluated, "voting blocs" to be courted, "demographics" to be studied (Rodney Dangerfield's line, "I don't get no respect," may not be grammatical, but it succinctly expresses a truth of contemporary life).


 Paul Gauguin fled Paris for Brittany in the 1880s to escape just such dehumanization in its earlier forms. Then to Tahiti in the 1890s where he hoped to be "free to live, to love, to die."


 Claude Monet, creating his own escape plan, constructed his fantasy "Garden of Eden" in Giverny where he could paint and immerse himself in flowers and cloud reflections in the water-lily ponds, and forget the painful world outside.


 During this same period, Vincent Van Gogh passionately asserted the Self against the depersonalization of mindless mass society, and the right of the individual to live and feel in a mystical, emotional union with nature and mankind.


 Sixty years later in America, in the late 1940s and 50s, the abstract expressionists -- Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning -- would surface, expressing anger, angst, pain and a kind of maddened, inchoate self-assertion in the face of corporate conformity, the faceless "flannelizing" of the spirit and human feeling (the novel "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" symbolic of the deindividualization of the "corporation man" and the corporate state).


 A fascination with the form and content of primitive art and culture was shared by Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Andre Derain and many other artists and non-artists, then and later, who sensed, or at any rate hoped, that people living a more primitive life closer to nature retained an understanding of the meaning of life and man's relation to nature and the cosmos that had been lost in sweat shops, assembly-lines, urban crowding, mass mind-control and the mustard-gassed, machine-gunned, artillery-blasted trenches of World War I...the mechanistic "civilized" world.


 Even the birth of anthropology and psychology as sciences in the 19th century is one of the clearer societal attempts to understand, for a different kind of era, the nature of man and his variations, and try to find "a place in the sun." Margaret Meade's later studies in Samoa and Sigmund Freud's research in the dark and tangled depths of the psyche, are the anthropological and psychological equivalents of Gauguin's quest in Tahiti.


 Scott Nearing, fired from his Ivy League university position for his anti-war stance during World War I, moved to Vermont with his wife, Helen, and began to farm organically, living off the land as a vegetarian, harvesting maple syrup as his cash crop, becoming an inspiration -- through his life and philosophy -- to later, younger generations seeking escape from the dehumanization of a metal world through reattachment to the earth.


 In contrast to this desire to escape societal dehumanization, Cubist artists' planar fragmentation and mechanization of life forms directly express its distortive, destructive effects. Georges Braque's and Picasso's pre-World War I experiments are not just aesthetic games being played under the influence of Cezanne and African sculpture, they are seismic intuitions of the psychological and political tremors that would lead to World War I, and premonitions of the current and future dehumanization of the human race.


 The Cubist-derived grids and squares of Piet Mondrian and the "de Stijl" movement in Holland, Joseph Alber's later "Homage to the Square," Barnett Newman's stripe paintings, and more contemporary Minimalist manifestations are the exact aesthetic equivalent of the soul-killing, poetry-killing, dehumanized social forces Gauguin and the other artists were trying to avoid and counteract by their own, more significant, more life-enhancing art.


 The Dadaists were caught in the middle. Enraged by the corruption and dehumanization of the First World War, they rebelled against art itself and the tradition of art, which they saw as synonymous with the corrupt traditions of society and its rulers. They created anti-art, formless work without real meaning except as protest that would ultimately lead to the debauched state of artistic meaninglessness and formlessness in aesthetics and content enveloping us today. Dadaist outrage only created more dehumanization.


 Though we rarely make the connection, Pop, Minimal, Conceptual, Computer and Video "art" -- the continuation of the Dada spirit -- are demeaning manifestations of pervasive societal and personal dehumanization, the mechanization of the human spirit. We may think we are merely witnessing a sequence of art movements unrelated to the realities of life, but in fact they are symptoms of the disintegration and degradation of the contemporary soul.


 By agreeing to be "snatched" by the dehumanization of "The Body Snatchers" -- the dehumanization of contemporary life -- we agree to be less profound, less honest, less feeling, less creative...less human.


 How can our lives -- and our art -- not suffer because of this?


Copyright by Don Gray



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