On Contact: Art – transformative, transcendent, revolutionary
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to artist and cartoonist Dwayne Booth, aka Mr. Fish, about the cultural requirement for revolution.
Mr. Fish's new book is ‘Nobody Left – Conversations with Famous Radicals, Progressives and Cultural Icons About the End of Dissent, Revolution and Liberalism in America’. Among those featured are: Joan Baez, Wavy Gravy, Lewis Lapham, Paul Krassner, Tariq Ali, Robert Scheer, Dennis Kucinich, Norman Mailer, Howard Zinn, Abbie Hoffman, Jon Stewart, and Lenny Bruce.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, I discuss the cultural requirements for revolution with the artist and cartoonist, Dwayne Booth.
Dwayne Booth: I think that an artist creates this safe space where you can have these considerations and you can--and you can implicate yourself because that's one of the things, when it comes to art, it's not about pointing fingers and saying this person is right, this person is wrong. It asks you to explore yourself and have sympathy for how other people might misbehave. And not to be so ashamed with maybe your tendencies to understand what motivates you as a human being so that you can better understand maybe not to become reprehensible and how to serve your better angels.
CH: There was a moment in the 1960's when a variety of popular radical and liberation movements gave a voice and power to groups that had long been repressed and silenced by the ruling elites. That brief opening has closed. How did this closure happen? What happened to the activists, intellectuals, and artists who gave these movements words, songs, and images? How were these movements crushed so effectively? What happened to our celebration of alternative and independent thought? The political cartoonist Dwayne Booth aka Mr. Fish in his book "Nobody Left" tracked down the old radicals to answer these questions and put together a book of interviews, reflections, and drawings to keep alive the embers of resistance the corporate state has so effectively erased from memory and consciousness. Joining me to discuss "Nobody Left: Conversations with Famous Radicals, Progressives, and Cultural Icons About the End of Dissent, Revolution, and Liberation" in America is Dwayne Booth. So of course I completely agree with your thesis but that may be because I'm old. But I do think you actually had a wonderful little essay here about Howard--the death of Howard Zinn, the great historian and how it kind of hits you. He died at 87 in 2010 and then you list all of the other--Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Studs Terkel, Edward Said in a sense that we're losing something irrecoverable. Can you talk about that?
DB: Yeah, absolutely. If you just consider the people that you just named, they all come from a generation that remembers how the artistic community was a viable entity at one time when it came to communicating what it means to exist in the world and also engage in a meaningful life. If we're talking about that generation, we have to consider what happened in the 1960's. We have to consider what the Second World War produced in this country and all around the world. That would have created an existential dread that was--that was global and I would argue brand new because it was the first time it was proven that playing follow the leader or exercising a certain conformity to power could result in the ultimate destruction of the entire planet, so that was new. So following that piece of time in history, it became necessary for people to self-reflect in a very, very serious way. And in order to self-reflect in a way that was going to be honest, you had to be somewhat of a non-conformist because conformity had just demonstrated something very lethal in the world. So where do you go for that? I think everybody still goes to the arts for that because the arts are there to ask people, what does life feel like, you know? It engages with the emotional truths. So when you're doing that, you're ignoring hierarchy, you're ignoring certain manners and structures that are there to tell us how to think and feel. So just the people that you named grew up in this time where that curiosity was demonstrated and engaged with in all of the different arts. And so that's--so much of the book is about the loss of the artistic community as a--as a truth seeker and a truth teller.
CH: I want to ask about figures like Zinn or Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer, these were combat veterans. These were people who had experienced war and knew, you know, how venal and murderous and sordid violence is and I don't think that's accidental. So yes, they were important radical voices in the '60s and the '70s but they were kind of forged in the crucible of World War II. How important do you think that was?
DB: I think it was--it's funny that you go to that time period because, A, it's obvious given the examples that you just gave, but it's been true throughout history. If you look at the work of Goya, if you look at the writing of Mark Twain, if you just consider something like "The War Prayer" that Mark Twain wrote, he was not going to publish that while he was alive because he said it told the truth too blatantly. So in many ways, when it comes to discussions of something as grotesque as warfare, there's a parallel with--it might as well be blatant sexuality. There's a certain obscenity parallel to these two things. And again, I'll just go back to, where do you engage with this subject? You engage in the arts. Because--if--as demonstrated by, as you said, you know, like Norman Mailer, "The Naked and The Dead," and pieces like that, if you just look at the history of literature, there's been a number of obscenity trials that have tried to quiet the voices of different authors. You know, if you just--it's like the "Tropic of Cancer," "Ulysses," "Lady Chatterley's Lover, all of these things which are not supposed to be appropriate for polite conversation, the same thing with war, and you--and you know this better than most people--everybody that I speak to because you've seen it firsthand. And you recognize the fact that it is not anything that you can use to get people to enlist with vigor because it's an ugly obscenity.
CH: Well, I would also say that it thrusts you into an existential crisis so that you come back from even World War II and you recognize the lie that the--every institution, the church, the government, the media, the entertainment world has perpetuated and it creates--oh, certainly I speak out of personal experience, a kind of alienation because the wider society wants to imbibe the lie and doesn't really want to hear the truth. And that's certainly Vonnegut, and Mailer, and Zinn who was a bomber pilot in World War II.
DB: Right. And Norman Lear as well. You know, when you look--when you consider--because the scenario that you just created, as you just spoke about, says that power has framed the debate. Right? And so as long as you allow power to frame the debate, there's this hierarchy that is assumed. And as I said at the beginning, when it comes to the artistic voice, the artistic voice is there to ask all of those questions and all the difficult questions because it's in pursuit of honesty and in pursuit of these human connections that make us feel like, A, we're not alone and also that we're connected to reality because when a veteran comes back from war, I'm sure that the trauma is that they were duped. This was--this was a--this was a hell. This was--they were--they were forced to go into hell. And what do you do when you are put onto the battlefield and you're forced to engage in hell? The only way to survive fire like that is if you behave like a demon. It's the only thing that you can do. Now if that becomes your survival mechanism on the battlefield and then you are--you're taken off of the battlefield and put back into civilian life, all of a sudden, it must be true that you recognize this ability to abandon your humanity in order to survive in hell. And now you're not in hell anymore, what are you? What do you do with that? So the arts were always there to say--to give you a space to expose this pain, this sorrow, this sadness, because it's only…
CH: So the rise of this movement that you write of, these figures that you interview and that you write, about came during the height of the Vietnam War, which I don't think was accidental. And to what extent did war create the cultural space? And then we'll talk about what happened afterwards. But I was a boy. My father was a World War II veteran. He'd been in North Africa but very involved in the anti-war movement since I was a kid but I was being dragged off to these protests. And I wonder how important that war that went bad that was sending home middleclass boys in body bags, how important that particular historical incident was to causing the kind of cultural radicalism and eruption.
DB: I think that now you're talking about the generation who grew up with their antenna up for BS in that way. Many times I go back to the mid '50s. Now again, if we're talking about this generation that is coming up and being raised by people who were adults and witnessed the catastrophe of the Second World War, what they--and you're living in America which the economy was pretty good and society was operating at a high level, you then want to make sure that your children are going to get what they need, right? You--life is much more precious to you because you saw what the potential is. So what happened in the 1950's, and this is an interesting phenomenon that I'm going to suggest might have something to do with the late 1960's radicalism, is in the mid 1950's on The Mickey Mouse Show, there was a commercial that advertised what was called the Mattel Burp Gun. It was a machine gun that fired paper caps. And it was one of the first commercials that was geared and focused directly on youth, children. It was marketed. It was a toy that was marketed specifically to children rather than to their grownups. It's--it basically said to the children you have the right to nag for this gun. It's thrilling. It's exciting. You need it. And this was in October. All the pre-orders by Christmas time, the gun was gone. They couldn't get it anymore. So what happened is that all of a sudden, the marketing gurus and institutions saw that by directly marketing to children, they could--and give them license to nag, all of a sudden from the point of view of children, they had access to grownups in a way that was not true previous to these generations. Children were there in previous generations to be controlled and turned into something. Now you have the establishment speaking directly to them. So what happens to that generation as it grows up? It gets used to marketers asking what their opinion is. What do you want? What do you want? And when you're a child, you want toys. You want frivolous things. This generation starts to grow up and come of age. Its desires for things changes from toys and frivolous things to I want maybe a cleaner environment. I want rights for women. I want to avoid any framing of arguments that will lead us into another potential World War. So that's what I mean about these antenna is up. So as they get up, they expect to have their demands met because they've grown up having their demands met. That's--when they get to the age where--when they want these things that then threaten what the dominant culture and the state is willing to sacrifice with regard to their power to give to them, they're going to say no. And I think that that was one of the things that contributed to the 1960's radicalism this generation that was used to getting what it was asking for and communicating what it was asking for and what it really desired and then all of a sudden being told no and being asked to be put--I mean, society was trying to put it--tried to put them back inside of a box that they left. They didn't want to get back into the box.
CH: Great. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about popular radical and liberation movements with Dwayne Booth. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation with the cartoonist, Dwayne Booth. So the book is really a lament for this particular time period which created powerful popular movements, not just the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, Ralph Nader organizing the first Earth Day, The Women's Movement, The AIM, The Indian, The Panthers, I mean on and on, and on, and I think you correctly asked the question what happened and as this generation is dying off, you argue in the book they're not being replaced. Let's talk about first what happened. So you saw the rise of these movements what the political scientist Samuel Huntington cryptically called an excess of democracy. You saw the 1971 Lewis Powell Memo which mobilized capital corporate forces, business interests to fight back so there was certainly a kind of counter revolt on the part of the established capitalist elites but I think you would go even beyond that to say it wasn't just the counter revolt but there was a kind of a cultural disintegration. Can you speak about that?
DB: Yeah. I think that that's a terrific assessment of exactly what is happening now. I think that a part of it--if we're talking about art as a methodology for thinking and a way to become a critical thinker, ultimately what will happen is you're going to start to question this power that you're talking about, and any--you don't even have to dig too deeply to recognize the fact that it is dangerous and it's antithetical to democracy, it's anti antithetical to just the human experience. So as you develop that conversation in public with your art, inevitably you're going to get to the place where you're going to say, "F corporations, F the hierarchy on how it is--how it is set up." Now living in a capitalistic society, you have to--you have to create art as a product, you have to commodify to a certain degree to get paid so that you can survive and you can exist in the world, that's just the sad fact about it. As the concentration of power inside corporations continues to limit and diminish the platforms from which artists are able to communicate, it only makes sense. It's not a difficult math problem to look at. All of a sudden, what corporation is going to pay an artist to say, "FU, I am dangerous, I need to be dismantled?" Because that's the logical trajectory of thinking when it comes to this kind of pursuit of truth. So, you're quite correct to say that then it becomes a campaign to try to silence that voice and try to minimize the public's access to that kind of voice because I get this question all the time when it comes to political cartoons because that's what--that's what I do, there's this spin campaign that seems to be--to be going on and on about how political cartooning is somehow antiquated, you know, that it's old-timey, they keep trying to tie it to newspapers and that--and it's just--it's not true. As a form, it actually serves the technologies of now probably better than the past--than in the past, and I always encourage people, I say, "You know, that it's not being dismantled because it's not useful anymore, it's being dismantled because it is so useful." That's the way to look at it.
CH: And humor because you write about the importance of--I think you're right, actually, you know, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote an essay about the importance of humor because he argued it exposes the ambiguities and contradictions within us, and in the life around us. Which he says ultimately is the task of religion that humor has no place finally in the holy of holies but leading up to it and I think--I think you correctly you go back to the Greeks, but you--I'll let you explain, but why that kind of satire which is, again, censored out of that kind of brutal satire that I think you do so magnificently is censored out of the mainstream, but talk about the role of humor.
DB: Well, I think that the role of humor, in order for humor to function properly at all is that you have to go in not trusting preconceived notions of truth or tradition because that's where the mousetrap is inside shumor, you have to see--you have to consider an alternative because that's all punch lines are, they're alternatives that have not been considered in any mainstream dominant culture way. So as the creator of humor then you have to rigorously assess different ideas, different truths, different theories, and look for an alternative way to comprehend them, and see if they have a connection to the real world. As the audience member, you are being asked to relax slightly, open up your mind just a little bit to allow that kind of wondering and that kind of exploration inside your own preconceived notions, and that's where the power of humor, I think, really--it really should be seen as a kind of activism. It's certainly how I engage in it and that's certainly how it is treated by its targets who are the people who are in control of society.
CH: Let's talk about, you call it "Fictitious reality," you write, "…it can also do something that real reality couldn't do in a million years, suggests that the universe is not indifferent to the existence of human beings. Let's talk about that your--this is an essay you have with Norman Mailer, but let's talk about the importance of fictitious reality, and I--because I think you're exactly right when Hannah Arendt in Origins of Totalitarianism says that if you truly want to understand anti-Semitism in France, you have to read Marcel Proust. If you want to understand the kind of nihilism that rose at the end of the 19th Century, you have to read Dostoevsky. I think that's right. But why? Why do artists become--I would argue perhaps the exclusive vehicle by which you can actually perceive the reality around you.
DB: It's a lab and I absolutely agree with you. I've always said that dangerous ideas, the only place they belong is in art because inside of art is where you're able to explore villainy as a human characteristic rather than a way to define a monster that is inhuman because I think the more we understand human behavior and, you know, the problems of the human heart and how we can be duped by certain kinds of ignorance, misinformation, and how that inspires us to act a certain way, in a--in a way that makes us reprehensible, you mentioned Kurt Vonnegut earlier, he's--if you know anything about the whole Vonnegut Canon, he never created a villain, there are no villains in any of his writing. There are certain levels--there are different levels of stupidity and there's different levels of blind acquiescence to bad ideas but there are not bad people, and I think that an artist creates this safe space where you can have these considerations and you can--and you can implicate yourself because that's one of the things when it comes to art, it's not about pointing fingers and saying, "This person is right, this person is wrong." It asks you to explore yourself and have sympathy for how other people might misbehave and not to be so ashamed with maybe your tendencies to understand what motivates you as a human being so that you can better understand maybe not to become reprehensible, and how to serve your better angels.
CH: Well, I think it also, when it's done well, exposes the darkness within all of us, that we all are a kind of amalgam of dark and light, you know, good and evil, and I think, of course, the danger is that externalization of evil. So great art, I would argue, see what you think, is really kind of designed to make you uncomfortable.
DB: Right. Right, because if they think about it, it's--living is a creative act. Simply being alive, I think, I would argue is a creative act. If you don't allow it to be a creative actually, you start to minimize your humanity and you start to become a less authentic human being. So if you're able to embrace that your creative connection to existence itself, which is universally multiplicist and just like it's this explosion of creativity, how best to engage with a creative act of living than with creative people? They know what that is, and they know how to do that, and they ask you for your participation, that's the other thing about art that I think that many people tend to forget is that it's a participatory way of communicating with other people. Yes, you're an audience member, but it's asking you to participate with your own personal experiences, what does this feel like? As I said early on, you know, if you do your job well as an artist, you're saying this is what this feels like to me, now as the audience member, they say, you know what, this also feels like this to me. I am less alone in the world. Now the--and tell me that is not the most political and most meaningful form of activism and activity that you can do is to figure out how we can exist as a community that has similarities rather than dissimilarities.
CH: Let's talk about the media landscape, it's changed, it's not print-based, although your book is print-based, but you work on it. I mean your--and people can see your cartoons on your own website, on Scheerpost, other sites but let's talk about the change in the media landscape, you know, it's not the Sunday comics anymore and whether that has had a kind of negative effect in terms of the dissemination of art.
DB: It absolutely has. Because it's a--it's a short form technology now that allows for me to communicate my ideas which is antithetical to continuing our understanding of history, and understanding where we came from, and where we're going, you know. I think that when you have this staccato short form technology communicating our politics and our culture to us, it's really designed to pull reactions out of us. It's not really there to pull understanding or even ask for participation in a--in a conversation. You're not at your--the most you can do is to like something or to acknowledge that you saw it. That's not--that's no--that's no way to communicate with other people nor is it a way to curate information and an understanding for yourself and so that's one of the things that is throughout the book, these conversations with many of these people that are in there is this terror that we've lost the ability to sit with information for any amount of time because that's how we develop wisdom. We do not develop wisdom by merely reacting to these put--push button issues that are there merely to get very myopic and very shallow reactions out of us.
CH: Great. That was the cartoonist, Dwayne Booth, author of "Nobody Left: Conversations with Famous Radicals, Progressives, and Cultural Icons About the End of Dissent, Revolution, and Liberation in America." Thanks.