Official Culture & William Wordsworth's "Immortality" (1995)



  "Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?"


 William Wordsworth's famous poem, "Intimations of Immortality," suggests that


  "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The soul that rises with us, our life's star

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar..."


 "...trailing clouds of glory do we come..."


 But, too soon, most of us lose the sense that the world is


  "Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream."


 "Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy..."


 "At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day."


  The "common day" is manufactured and perpetuated by official culture, its institutions, media and pronouncements. It is the empty, routine, sterile existence to which we all are subjected, to one degree or another.


 There is a difference between official culture and the national heritage of a country. Official culture is a façade constructed over time for power and profit. It is the mummified husk of stifling convention and regulation, dull procedure and habit hardened about and hiding the living soul of true culture, spontaneous expression and genuine accomplishment; the achievement of a nation's artists, poets, composers, philosophers and great statesmen.


 Anyone seeking to achieve anything truly genuine must fight through this wall of barren resistance.


 Official culture creates and perpetuates the disruptive and debilitating non-values, superficialities and artifices of the day. Official culture is the advertising din helping us find meaning in life by consuming their offerings. Official culture, selling us dross in exchange for our souls, vows to make us perfect if we will only administer their endless capsules, pills, potions, creams, liquids, lotions to every bodily surface and orifice.


 At last -- thank you, God -- we are truly clean, smooth, perfect, fun-loving, ever-young, plastic-surgeried carcasses, better than you ever made us, without an anti-social smell or blemish, excretion or ooze. We are now approved products fit for official culture, without a single unpleasant anything -- no disturbing thought, feeling or insight -- to remind us that we are human, and by nature, imperfect, aspiring, real and mortal.


 How more bitingly real than the adman's comic book caricatures are Shakespeare's disturbing but refreshingly succinct thoughts on the body, placed on the tongue of King Richard II:


  "And nothing can we call our own but death,

And that small model of the barren earth

Which serves as paste and cover to our bones."


 Rather than lusting, living, laughing, crying, stinking, seeking, sick and dying human beings, the more like mannikins and robots we become, the better official culture likes it, the easier it is to manage us and perpetuate itself.


 Living artists are allowed into official culture's game if they agree to play by the rules. Such art must echo the status quo, not be so creative and original -- so genuine -- that it threatens to unsettle the fashions and conventions -- and the sales -- or, God forbid, make anyone have to try to think.


 Everyone must be comfortable, be able to ooh and aah at the dunce-like creativity of this or that hack, certain they are witnessing local "genius." The more the artist conforms to official culture's debauched standards, the more wondrous he becomes. "Oh, isn't that just the most precious, darling little girl with her dear, baby kitten!

(Substitute "precious" cactus, Indian, cowboy, "pretty" landscape, "sweet" still-life, etc.) What genius to even conceive of such a subject, much less paint it. It's so adorable and life-like. I just love it!"


 So it goes for the tourist trade and this aspect of official culture. But the elite of official culture also love to pretend they really aren't official at all, aren't rigidly programmatic and narrowly proscribed; are actually anti-establishment in their tastes.


 "We're as open-minded and fun-loving as anybody. Really good people. Quite daring and adventurous. We just love empty abstractions and pseudo-avant-garde perversity. They really turn us on, make us seem better, more advanced, more enlightened than the common herd. Our debauched tastes make us really elite and special. Anybody can like a calendar painting.


 "You see, we just adore dear (insert name of favorite pseudo-avant garde artist here). Such a fun person. We just love him (her). He (she) adds so much to our parties. You know, a kind of wild and crazy, anything-goes element that shows we aren't really squares after all. Like the 'radical chic' of the '60s, we can be with-it, revolutionary and cool in the safety of our penthouses and gated communities."


 If official culture has always sought to subdue the best in humanity, fetter men and women while trying to keep them unconscious of their depletion and subservience, this certainly explains why great artists and original thinkers and doers often encounter such opposition, lead such difficult lives. There simply is no real place in society and official culture for the truly creative, the truly inspired, the truly original, the truly insightful, the truly thoughtful, the truly different. They must try, as best they can, to survive on the fringes.


 "Oh, you paint sunflowers and cypresses? But the paint is so thick and messy. (God, this guy's crazy!)"


 "Van Gogh committed suicide? Too bad. Say, do you happen to know how the stock market did today? Did the Suns win?"


 "William Fleming? You discovered penicillin? Sorry, there's absolutely no need for such a thing. (God, the guy's nuts!)"


 "Women should have the right to vote? (You're out of your mind!)"


 "You've written a play about a Danish prince who can't make up his mind whether to avenge his father's murder? Does it have any action, car chases and crashes, endless flaming explosions and automatic weapons fire? Amold Schwarzenegger would have to play the prince, sans shirt, of course. There's a speech about suicide...? 'To Be or Not To Be...?' Thanks very much for telling us about this, Bill. We'll be in touch (Oh, man, get real! There's no bottom line to this.)"


  "Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,

And custom lie upon thee with a weight,

Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life."


 Pity the poor artist, poet, playwright, composer still enchanted by the world and art, feeling the miracle of life and nature -- their perception of the wholeness and oneness of life somehow still intact -- who come up against the echelons of living-dead manning the bastions of official culture.


 But they keep coming, these hero-fools, wave upon wave charging the ramparts. They never win, but then, they never totally lose. Somehow, despite the odds, they do the work, have the pleasure and the pain of its creation. And a little bit of it, here and there -- too often posthumously -- slips through the barbed wire and concrete bunkers of official culture. Interestingly, official culture thinks that, in death, these hero-fools -- now safely devoid of the contaminant of life and unpredictable, uncontrollable creative vitality -- become part of them in their museums, libraries, concert halls and realms of government. But they never do.


 These artists, poets, thinkers and statesmen are diamonds embedded and brilliant in the muck of official culture, ever gleaming, ever alive in the perpetual darkness for the benefit, communion and transcendence of those who, too, are yet alive in soul, spirit, perception and imagination.


  "Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be..."


 Nothing, not even official culture,


  "Nor all that is at enmity with joy,

Can utterly abolish or destroy!"


 There is still room and time for the triumph of the human spirit.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms