The Librarians and the Poets, the Artists and the Archivists
MICHAEL THOMAS JONES
I. The Librarians and the Archivists
Why is everything so ugly today, even though we all hold instant access to the truly beautiful?
I propose an alternative aesthetic spectacle. It’s pretty simple: instead of social media, let’s use history. Specifically, let’s use online archives to explore art history as an inspiration for contemporary design and broader entertainment: visual and even narrative artwork. If social media is what men and women now use to dress and decorate their bodies, their homes, their daydreams, their senses of humor – then we ought to weep for the aesthetic impoverishment of the current generation. I’ve been keeping a fairly steady weep quota, and I’d invite you to join me on that too.
It’s not that the men and women previous centuries were really that more imaginative than us; they were just imaginative in different ways from us. And certainly there is a long tradition of especially heroic dreamers whom we must not forget, and if we have forgotten, we must find them once again. Now that so much visual and literary historical treasure is instantly accessible online, it seems ridiculous to spend time looking at cheap consumer images when you can stroll through virtual galleries of the most beautiful images ever created throughout time.
The only thing is that most people like cheap things if they are made by their friends, who are living right now, and so they gladly participate in the cheap spectacle shared online by their friends. There is this excitement in being alive that only normal people and the poets feel; the nerds and the depressed, the archivists of entertainment, have a harder time with this because they are ashamed of their bodies, they are ashamed of all of their failures communicating with others, of judging others, of not being kind or having not received kindness, etc. So they retreat to libraries of leisure and archives of delight that are always giving beautiful things. (Well, depending on one’s standards.) The voices of the dead only ever judge as much as you let them, but real people… well, let’s just say that many introverted for various reasons can’t enjoy the present, nor do look towards the future.
If a nerd likes ugly things, then they will use their free time to pleasure themselves with garbage, instead of exploring the world or enjoying the soul sparks of other living beings next to them. The art historian is really doing this same process with better subject matter which, one hopes, will be more beneficial to society. But what society? The art historian or man of letters labors in vain to research and share great works of the past if the public will never appreciate it, I think. Mass culture is garbage, but elite art appreciation will be pretty much worthless if it never extends beyond a small, inbred circle of minds. My desire would be for the appreciation of the beautiful to spill out until it reaches all the way through society and orders it. But that appreciation does take a lot of time and mental work to cultivate, and so it’s understandable to see banal spectacle everywhere in demographics with less resources, virtue, intelligence, leisure time, and most of all a lack of connections to wise voices, especially when those demographics more than ever have been given the tools to vividly display their inane inner lives. (I confess to having at one time been addicted to cringe threads and glorying in the ever more spectacular examples of idiocy which the faithful archivists of the internet diligently cultivate for the pleasure of cynical folk.)
You’ll forgive me for being tone-deaf here. I myself can be found in a weird solitary coracle that floats between a typical middle class suburban evangelical aesthetic upbringing and an interest in better spectacles that I have not yet had the chance to fully integrate into my life. I am a juvenile archivist and so in a tender position; I am especially to be mocked and derided, lest others be tempted to find themselves in my position. But I can’t help it. This is what I was thinking about and I wanted to tell others, to see if anyone would respond in a kindred spirit.
Obviously the masses will always be fools, but with instant communication, is it really that hard to find a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand other people who enjoy Dutch early modern art? Is it really that hard to teach people to love things that are so evidently wonderful? Maybe it is not so evident. For some reason, it seems hard to find people who care enough about it to really ever mention it on social media. Perhaps it is not so evident anymore that such things are beautiful. But again, that is why we need teachers.
You see this communal sharing of historical art already happening, but mostly just in memes. And it’s very funny! I’m encouraged by the memes, because as we all know, the line between a jester and a prophet is very hard to determine. But seeing as these aesthetically prophetic memes have yet to bear fruit, all I see is that no one wants to spend the time to really make historical art a part of their life. That’s understandable: it’s hard to do alone. It would require communal effort, and it’s hard to gather a community together to focus on exploring one part of the Archives, because the Archives are very, very big. And most of your friends probably don’t care.
So this really has to be a (if I can write this without some bile spilling onto the keyboard) intentional communal effort. Wake up, sheeple! The resources are readily accessible but there is so much to dig into that it requires research, discussion, and sharing amidst friends with mildly differing goals to reach images and imaginative loci that are really pleasant and valuable to the individual. Enjoyment is all well and good, but anyone can enjoy themselves. It’s diving into the archives to serve others that is the really tricky part, not just to find memes to entertain and draw click-clacking attention but to find images and words that will inspire love of the good and order in the hearts of others.
I find myself having an easier time reading the thoughts of dead people than I do talking with living people. Living people are very valuable but also very demanding. So while I retreat to my island of literature (not being able to decide what book I would bring with me, I brought them all), I would still want to be reading for the sake of those who can’t or aren’t willing. I could crawl through 10,000 mountains of pages and a thousand rivers of ink so that others don’t have to. This means I need to be a teacher in some capacity. Not everybody needs to be a teacher of everything, but everyone needs to be a student of something.
What’s the point of me spending time with books all day if I’m the only one who is happy with that? Living to make yourself happy will result in no one being happy. But at the same time, you can’t force yourself into the lives of others. If this deflection away from normal discourse, if being barred from adventure with physical folk is a necessary part of one’s story, than we have to cut with the grain of this warped table brain, if you get what I’m saying. Whether you like it or not you are trapped alone on your book island, and so you might as well get as much reading done until someone responds to your distress signal and picks you up. They may quickly maroon you, socially speaking, but usually each time you get marooned it is on an island with wi-fi, or at least a public library.
With the contemporary technology and historical resources, the question and the quest becomes whether or not we have human resources, that is, enough teachers to help show people how to love better and to love better things. But no one wants to put time into what they share or take in, they only want to consume quickly and cheaply. So maybe this kind of thing is impossible on the internet, or at least most social media platforms as they stand today, where quickness and cheapness are in the founding company’s best interest to promote. (This gets to the weird problem of seeing as social media as a free service offered by a private company vs. a weird kind of public society, but that conversation gets dicey pretty fast.)
We need to advocate examples of ancient, medieval, variously historical works of art that ought to contemplated and accepted as influences on our contemporary mainstream spectacle – at the very least, on an aesthetic spectacle that stands alternative to the mainstream and will hopefully be synthesized into it at some point for the benefit of all. Is it too sloppy of a hope to think that the more that people are taught to love beautiful things, the better society will be? I don’t know where the hole in that proposal is, if there is one.
When alternating between painting and literature here, I suppose a lot of what I say applies to both, but it might be fair to distinguish between the two by saying that: visual art of history can guide us how to design our real life sights (our bodies, homes, and gardens), while the verbal art of history can guide us how to speak and think and so, ultimately, act.
There should be hierarchies of mentorship, but where are the teachers? Where are the apprentices? Who has time or humility these days for anything like that? We need to invite others into the usually solitary quest of art appreciation, archive diving, online museum gallery meandering, wikipedia wandering. It ought to be something undertaken by a fellowship, not a single pilgrim. But it’s hard to imagine a twitch stream of some guy just reading wikipedia articles at random… actually, that’s a fantastic idea. All we need is someone with a good sense of curiosity and humor, who can be curious and funny on our behalf.
II. The Artists and the Poets
While I know myself well enough at this point to focus on training as an aesthetic archivist, the dream has always been to be an artist and poet, of course. The archivist here is the one who searches, finds, researches, refinds, refines, systematizes, critiques – it’s really just a fancy way of being a computer bound, unproductive troll. Perhaps the only good way, if you are going to be computer bound, ever entangled in the fishy webbing of the internet. The perks are a nice set of headphones and no one bothering you. But there’s a reason that the musicians get all the girls: the girls want a guy who can prove in real time that he’s smart, disciplined, and dexterous. There is something much more human and glorious about being this kind of performer or creator: if the archivist or philosopher is systematizing and dividing up the world in order to understand it, the poet is weaving moments together and using his poetic power to make manifest in the presence of others some mystical reality that was there all along (in the room, in the heart) but unseen until now. Thing is, great poets have been doing this for thousands of years, and no one will remember this unless the archivists do their job.
I think the young artist is deeply dependent on the archivists, to be honest, because the young artist usually has very little experience in the world. (Artists with tragedy in their youth can be exceptions to this.) In the beginning, during their songs of innocence or whatever, they have to build off the work of past generations and display their art using the tools given to them by their chosen aesthetic ancestors. (Chosen, yes, but sometimes it’s uncertain who is choosing whom.) All juvenilia is mimicry wanting to be more, the beginning of a transition from the passive state of appreciation into something more fresh and glorious, the human soul in activity, in bared flesh.
Everyone is both a maker and an organizer in some respect, as these are just two sides of one task of being human, but some people are simply more weighted throughout their life for one or the other (or neither, but here we are considered with human living inside the spectacle). Throughout your life, whether through your genes, family culture, or whatever you got interested in as a teenager, you find yourself leaning towards tasks within the spectacle. Honestly, I look back on my life and find myself to be so dissolute and noncommittal that I don’t feel equipped to do any human task well, but since at this point I cannot deny a conviction to work within the spectacle, or at least contribute in some avocational capacity, it’s not even a question of what I would like to do: both. But, while I would love to make art and be an artist,until a miracle happens I’m going to go after the option that keeps me more clothed in the eyes of others. Why? Well… whether you’re making a poem or a child, you need to be naked. So it’s probably best to let the attractive, well-formed people go about reproducing and exposing their lovely hearts, being the most human on our behalf.
Meanwhile, the archivists are more like angels – invisible mediators of truth and goodness. I think it’s probably good for me to remain as invisible as possible for a good stretch yet, and I’d invite you to consider that possibility for yourself as well.
Talking to people is a kind of nakedness, so only the beautiful should speak. But they will only speak foolishness if they have no way of hearing the voices of the past. So the artists need help. Not help from archivists directly, but help through them, from the teachings of the most virtuous of the past, and this angelic transmission can only take place through the work of quiet, clothed humans.
The deformed are welcome to join me. It gets lonely out here on these library islands.