Tuesday, July 14, 2020

We need cultural turbulence more than ever


As an antidote to the saturation visuals of face masks and Zoom I offer striking graphics from two young Moroccan pop artists. Casablanca based Sarah Addouh (b.1993) created 'Tajine Vinyl' seen above and also the topically relevant middle image*. The third graphic 'Gnawi Boy' is by freelance graphic designer Ilyesse Nouhi (b.1994) who uses the nom de art Iriessu. This graphic is based on a photo by the late French–Moroccan photographer and video artist Leila Alaoui (1982-2016) who was killed while working for UN Women and Amnesty International on an assignment about women's rights in Burkina Faso. These graphics come via an article on a Moroccan news website about how pop art is transcending borders and finding a large audience in the Middle East and North Africa.

The work of Sarah Addouh, Ilyesse Nouhi, and other young Mahgrebi artists challenges cultural comfort zones by breaking down established barriers between fine art and commercial art, and between Western and non-Western societies. Their work also lays to rest the debatable traditional viewpoint that Islam forbids non-representational art. This new wave of pop art from the Mahgreb is the beneficial product of cultural turbulence. In a very early Overgrown Path post I proposed that creativity is a product of the outer reaches of the mind. In support of this proposition I quoted this passage from 'Then We Sailed Away' by the British adventurer John. M. Ridgway.
Perhaps the brain has the equivalent of a laminar flow region (like water from a tap), where all the ordered information and processes are well catalogued and indexed. This is our acquired and inherited knowledge, conscious and sub conscious. Outside this region there is the equivalent of chaos, masses of unstructured data and half-formed thoughts: a swirling mass of unstructured and unintelligible information derived from the incalculable quantities of sensory input the brain receives every second: a region of wild turbulence and disorder. Chaos.

We are only vaguely aware of this chaotic region. Here lurk the demons of madness. Yet isn't genius on the edge of madness? What is actually happening at the boundary - at the edge of chaos? If the analogy of our example of the water flowing from the tap holds true, than at the edge of chaos there is an erratic stream of tiny whorls of disordered thought which comes spinning out of chaos to penetrate the laminar region. Are these tiny whorls the seeds of creative thought? Does inspiration heighten our awareness of them, and allow us to crystalise the occasional one into a brilliant idea? For so much of our brief time on earth, we are content to exist in the secure and predictable laminar world. However, when we face the demons at the edge of chaos we can sense the tiny whorls of creative thought as they come spinning out of the blue.

Our comfort zone is the laminar flow region where ordered information is safely catalogued and indexed. This secure and predictable region is expanding exponentially; because ubiquitous online algorithms and filter bubbles mean we only receive the information we want to receive. Currently coronavirus dictates we spend more time in this virtual world; while in the real flesh and blood world restrictions on personal movement and travel for the foreseeable future will force us to stay in our risk-free laminar flow regions. Which means that as this laminar flow region expands, the vital creative outer reaches of the mind where cultural turbulence thrives atrophy.

I know many readers have appreciated my posts about travels to India, Morocco, Egypt and elsewhere. It distresses me to realise that, as I am now over 70, the pandemic means I may never visit those distant places again. Access - whether via physical travel or second-hand via books, music and art - to cultural turbulence is the lifeblood of inspiration and diversity. We must not let that lifeblood be drained away by the enforcement in the name of health and safety of cultural bubbles, aided by the pressures of cancel culture. Although written in pre-social media 1985, Neil Postman's foreword to his book 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' is chillingly relevant to the rise of bubble culture:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

* Sarah Addouh's two graphics have been presumptuously cropped by me; simply because portrait format images do not fit well in the blog. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

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