This conversation took place over email from April 12-25, 2020
Neil Fauerso: When this is all over and we return to the “new normal,” many people are going to have start over — do something completely different, change their lives. I want to tread lightly here. Starting again for many will be a painful, traumatic experience. For others it will be almost impossible for structural reasons (racism, wealth inequality, gender inequality). I don’t want to downplay this as some bougie Eat Pray Love self-care journey.
The last seven years of my life have been a period of starting again, and profound change. I married young, went to law school and was lined up to become a straight-laced, white-collared worker. By my early 30s my disposition was similar to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in The Big Lebowski — tense and obsequious.
Then a completely unexceptional thing happened: I got divorced and had to reassess. I decided I didn’t want to work in corporate law and instead wanted to write about culture. It’s been a very difficult and often demoralizing journey that has also seemed somehow inevitable, or maybe that’s what one has to think to do it.
There’s an aesthetic connection with this as well. The creative rebirth is a somewhat canonical rite of passage (e.g. John Baldessari burning all his paintings and beginning again), and the concept of “doing the other thing better” — artists in various disciplines who do something else better than what they’re known for. There’s Julian Schnabel, whose ceramics on canvas seem very dated, but who has made at least two stone-cold movie masterpieces: Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and The Butterfly; there’s John Lurie who became famous for his “fake jazz” group The Lounge Lizards, and his louche acting in Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, and who has in the last few decades become a truly talented painter. Even the writer Michel Houellebecq, whose novels are brilliant, unsparing interrogations of modern life, made a Serge Gainsbourg-style orchestral groove album that may be my favorite thing he’s done.
What do you think about starting again?
Christina Rees: The Big Reset. You and I have been throwing around various forms of this conversation for months now, when we see each other in person, and well before the corona shutdown. First it was the idea of a person starting out doing one thing for a living (and being known for it) and then pivoting to something else and maybe being even better at that. Schnabel was our kick-off for that one. Then it was about which creative people have changed direction or style quite drastically halfway through a career, for better or worse (maybe more than once): Philip Guston; the Beatles, et. al. (Spinal Tap!)
Then came the corona shutdown, and the idea takes a weird turn.
Mostly now, when we try to open up the discussion to include well-known people (like Guston) plus everyday people, like you and me, we have to keep our eye on the mounting numbers of unemployed. How many people will reset willingly, if possible — and how many will be forced to reset?
But for this conversation, I do want to hone in on a lot of people I’ve been talking to, friends and colleagues, who are using the freaky current circumstances to reasses their priorities, and therefore their lives. I think this is a discussion for the disappearing middle class. Because: maybe the middle-class doesn’t want to disappear. Maybe people with a college degree who work salary jobs and feel expendable, or taken for granted — or have known for some time that their work-life stress levels are unsustainable (and so they numb themselves however they can) — are taking stock of how little time left they have on this planet to live a life that’s meaningful. Maybe they’d like to have more control over how they spend their time and energy.
In the last few weeks, when I talk to people in the art sector — artists, curators, educators, etc. — I’m surprised by the kind of resilience and cautious hope and, frankly, rebelliousness they’re voicing. They don’t want things to go “back to normal” because “normal” sucked. They’re crying out for more flexibility, more collaboration, more pooling of resources. More accessibility, more transparency. More dignity in work and life, not just for themselves but for others. When we think of Office Space and The Office, we see a pattern of turning to comedy to act as a pressure valve for the way work works. The hamster wheel feels inevitable when you’re in your 30s, but by the time you’ve hit middle age and you still don’t have a savings account or decent health insurance, you are numb.
I’ve made some drastic life changes myself over the last year. Some are profound, and so personal I won’t get into it here, but it’s a notable reset. The only constant or through-line at this point, in fact, is my job at Glasstire. A few months ago, a wise person who knows me pretty well said to me: “Do you know how unusual it is, and how lucky? That you started over and you get to have a clean slate?”
I do. I also know that things felt good to me by the end of February, and that now with the shutdowns I feel like I’m grinding through so things can go back to how they were in February. But they won’t, because nothing is really going to go back to the way things were. Not for most of us. I’m looking at a reset interrupting a reset. You, in a sense, are, too.
What reset narratives, real or fiction, have inspired you, or make you hopeful for you and your people you know?
NF: In our previous conversation we talked about how we hope people can come out of this prioritizing what matters, and demand a better world. That is a pale silver lining for this nightmare, but what else do we have? That’s the essence behind the reset: an optimism that things can be different, that change is possible, that life can be better. Regardless of whether a reset is voluntary or forced, it requires some hope — otherwise it’s simply life as a slog; a forced march through an unending bog of shit.
There are many examples real and fictional of rebirth and change that are inspiring — as previously discussed, Guston and Baldessari, the road movies of Wim Wenders, and the music of David Bowie, among myriad others.
A commonality throughout is risk and humiliation. One of the many perversities in American culture is the obsession with and fear of humiliation. There is nothing we lust for more than the humiliation of others, and nothing we fear more than being humiliated. But being humiliated is not really a bad thing, I consider to be akin to a waterfall pounding the shoulder of ego.
The experience of humiliation, which is intrinsic in most resets or hard pivots because you feel like you failed even if you want things to change, also serves to dislodge the fantasy that one is important — the hero of the film of their life. But one doesn’t direct this movie. You watch it, and it’s an Altmanesque tableaux.
It’s hard to gauge this storm, what it will mean and how much humiliation or pain will be wrought. I find it comforting to recall this remarkable monologue from the movie Parasite:
“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned. Look around you. Did you think these people made a plan to sleep in the sports hall with you? But here we are now, sleeping together on the floor. So, there’s no need for a plan. You can’t go wrong with no plans. We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it?”
CR: I don’t know that I flip over much of anything — art-wise — that didn’t spring from some element of risk. That goes for writing and movies, all of the great creative stuff we take in. No guts, no glory. Granted, artists will often find a that, following a success, they can funnel that winner into a formula for years (now low- to no-risk), but the original Great Thing they did to get the initial attention involved risk.
What makes me really sit up and pay attention is an artist who refuses to rest on any laurels and gets on with the next high-risk proposition again and again, a thing they haven’t done before. Picasso did it, Warhol did it. The Coen Brothers do it. So does Mike Judge. Bowie did it all the time. I don’t know if it’s restlessness or recklessness that drives it; it just feels like they have the soul of intrepid explorers. I admire that impulse so much. And I like weird failures. The unexpected, ambitious train wrecks. Velvet Goldmine. Heavy Metal. The later work of Frank Stella.
A big reset by any person is, by default, laden with risk. Timing is the part of the equation, and preparation can mitigate risk. Framing the story you tell yourself about the reset can reduce your idea of what constitutes “failure.” But risk has to be there to feel… worth it? “Fail big.” Or, per Teddy Roosevelt: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life.” My own propensity toward laziness haunts me. But so much of that is really just what you’re saying: fear of making the big move, fear of doing the thing I really want to do, writing what I want to write, and falling flat on my face, publicly. Privately, even. Living the life one really wants to live can seem terrifying. And reassuringly remote.
What’s interesting about the Covid-19 shutdown of daily life and the economy is the timing, and by that I mean that most people (and governments, and industries) were so woefully unprepared for this. A lot of operating on the margins, a lot of unsustainability. And a lot of people who are well into their lives and careers are suddenly brought to a hard stop. Just two months ago, most people our age sort of emotionally and psychologically “knew” how their lives would probably play out, and there was a lot of resignation in that, if not a low-boil resentment.
Now it’s all up in the air. Which is terrifying for many, but also unexpectedly thrilling for some. Opportunity. At least the opportunity to kick their way out of a box.
NF: I think this is absolutely the right perspective to take, because we don’t have a choice. This is a forced hard change. Maybe for some, things will go back to “normal,” but for many the future is a blank expanse, completely unknowable — and you can’t plan for that. Thinking about the art world, which is so deeply, intrinsically linked to the economy: what will happen, specifically in Texas? Oil prices for shale crude may soon drift into negative territory [ed note: NF wrote this sentence only a day or two before that happened].
What does that mean for art in Texas? What will the cataclysmic dip in state budgets mean for art programs at universities? Will art schools survive? To say nothing of all the galleries around the state. What of them? Luminaria just got canceled in San Antonio, which happens in November. What does this mean for the future of artists in Texas? It’s unknowable.
What is knowable is that art is a primal expression of human beings. We will always create it in the same way we will always feel emotion. I think people have really felt the absence of art in their lives — going to concerts, seeing movies, going to galleries and museums. And likewise, they’ve certainly leaned hard on art during this difficult time as a salve, a relief, a profundity, or a distraction. Perhaps given this, and the untethering from the economy to a more DIY, community-based expression will lead to art of great risk, because fuck it — if not now, then when?
I relate to what you’re saying in regard to laziness and cowardice. I am the same, and I wonder if this will be the thing that will get me to try — to really try — to write a book or a screenplay. And if I don’t, what does that mean?
CR: The Big Reset, if it all has to happen online, remotely, unpopulated by actual human bodies sharing a space and an experience: that bothers me. We can be cautiously optimistic about the art community (any community) reassessing priorities and trying something new — and individuals as well — but if it all has to unfold in what is essentially the privacy of home (or any vaulted space), the impact will be a fraction of what it would be if we could all be together in real life and real space to experience it. I’ve been doing Zoom this and Zoom that, and looking at art online, etc., of course — and while we’ll take what we can get, it’s all so degraded. When I mentioned “risk” earlier, I’m also, in tandem, thinking about chance. And chance doesn’t happen when everything is siloed, piped directly into your brain from a screen, and we are all only getting to experience new created things at home through a laptop or smartphone. It’s already tied up and completed and confined. It’s controlled to a point of… it’s just depressing.
So much of life and living and experience is about contact. Contact is what creates opportunity. If everything is “managed” now, through digital means, then opportunity — as humans are wired up to recognize and grab hold of opportunity (and by extension, luck) — shrinks to nearly nothing. Jobs, collaborations, the very thing that makes life worth living, which is the heightened energy of making real contact with real people and real things in real space, and letting things unfold organically, as they do.
Even authors go on book tours, and people go out in numbers to see them read in public. People form book clubs. By that I mean that even stuff made to be experienced privately, like reading a novel, leads to people wanting to come together over it and celebrate it and discuss it, socially.
I realize there’s a whole world of digital art/movies/music/et. al. that is made to exist only online, but it was always meant to supplement real-life experience — to compliment a life being fully lived. I mean, I know there are lots of people who live their lives online (pre-corona), like gamers and reddit trolls and all that, but most of us would never wish for that life. (And even they have conventions and in-person events.)
“Degraded” is the word that keeps coming to my mind. Online life is degraded. We are looking to reset, but we have to be able to do it out in the world. This is my worry. We want to reset, but we won’t get to do it out in the world the way we’re hoping to.
(And even worse, many of the powers that be — the very rich and powerful — are happy about that. They don’t like people congregating and agitating for change.)
NF: Humans are deeply social animals, and this crisis is emphasizing that in the starkest terms. That is a fear I have — whether a reset is even possible. The unfortunate reality is that this strange, lonely, deeply dispiriting existence right now will likely continue (perhaps with a loosening of some restrictions and then re-tightening with subsequent waves of the virus) until there is an effective vaccine, which probably won’t be ready until… late 2021? That means concerts, movie theaters, large gallery openings, sporting events, etc., are probably on ice until then. Museums may not even open back up for a year, or they’ll have to limit the number of people in at any one time.
How diminished and degraded will our lives be when we finally can reset — will we have the vigor and desire for it? Will we ever want to be in crowded bars, venues, galleries again? Is casual dating — the chance of meeting someone new or special (romantic or otherwise) — now gone?
These things vex me and fill me with dread. But the thing is: there’s no lesson, answer, or comfort one can hold onto. The virus is absolutely blank and implacable; it is like the death character in The Seventh Seal. This is why we must hang onto the idea of the reset, the change, like an island in the distance. Because, what else do we have?
A lot of the “reset” examples you named occurred because of some internal reason. Philip Guston changed his approach because his old approach wasn’t working for him as an artist anymore. But the Big Reset will be different. Because the cause will be external–if we can no longer gather in crowds, it will change how art is appreciated or seen/heard by people, and that will change things for virtually every artist, except for the Henry Dargers of the world who produce work in total isolation. And if everyone’s economic circumstances change at the same time (which seems likely), that creates a change that also seems unpredictable. The combination of these two things is what will cause the Big Reset. What will emerge from it seems impossible to predict, but one prediction I would be willing to make is a much smaller art world.