Wednesday, April 17, 2013

From terror to fear to myth.

I wrote this on 15 April, after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. 

Yesterday we hosted what has become a springtime tradition at the house. In April, as every austere and stoic soul in New England is hanging by the thinnest of threads, cursing the bitter north wind and praying for just a hint of earthly delight, we invite friends over for an exchange of green things. People bring hopeful plants to share with one another and the idea is to offer a sense of renewed optimism after the grayness of winter, instilling a faint vision of metaphorical rebirth by planting saplings, seeds or bulbs, even if doing so is weeks away. Spring and then summer in New England are unparalleled—absolutely perfect—so the wretched winters here are bearable with a couple of reminders that the chill will soon go into hiding.

A couple of friends didn't make the party because they were running the Boston Marathon today. I envied them, mostly because they're about my age and are still giving it a go, while I've put aside those grand aspirations in recent years, always with the hope that I'll be running in top form again any day now (cue laugh track). One of these friends contacted me to say that he needed the rest, having scored a number at the last minute. He's run the race since he was a teenager growing up in Brockton, far eclipsing my own Boston experiences, which number two races in unseasonable and viscious heat—both pretty humbling experiences after qualifying and convincing myself that I'd do just as well on that infamously tricky Boston course.

Today was horrific and for those of us who got the news remotely, it came upon us in nauseating waves, an all-too-familiar recognition, something sadly familiar and infuriating. John and I had just finished a five mile run on a hilly loop when we received simultaneous text messages asking if we were OK and begging assurance that we were nowhere near the race course. Back home, throughout the afternoon I checked confusing headlines and studied the same gory and chaotic photos online, turning over in my imagination the origins of something so vile, the filthy, small minds who devised the destruction.

The last stretch of the Boston Marathon, whether you finish strong or part of the zombie parade, is designed to be jubilant and for race qualifiers it's especially rewarding. If you're not running for charity or as a bandit, qualifying for Boston can be pretty challenging after months of obsessive training, earning an acceptable time in a previous marathon, and (more and more) a bit of fortunate timing when registration opens. Nevertheless, no matter how folks get there, with such an arduous process of self-discovery behind them, crossing the finish line concludes a journey much longer than 26.2 miles for many people. Reaching the end is a transformative moment, teeming with significance. So what more insidious, hateful way to upend that joy than to install ferocious bombs yards from the finish line—blowing the legs off spectators, mostly the families and friends of runners? As we listened to the confusing pieces of news and began to make sense of the event, I was immediately taken back to that beautiful, horrible day in 2001 when my kids (then all very young) came home one-by-one from school. With each, I tried to explain to them how a small group of perverse minds conspired with unfathomable loathing to crash four planes with the intention of killing 3000 people and forever scarring the lives of hundreds of millions more.

In all of this insanity I had a moment of clarity today. It came out of the blue, inexplicably. In the past several years I have seen many students with extraordinary gifts, complex minds and critical, creative perspectives invest a great deal of their talent in the rapidly expanding field of character design. In all honesty, the editorial illustrator in me finds this trend disheartening. In one portfolio after another young illustrators submit to the conventions of burgeoning industry, work which includes inventories of characters in costume and not much more. These are descriptive, objective studies, not images with individual perspective, circumstance or meaning beyond archetypal representation, and they feel empty—void of content or message—no matter how well they're drawn or painted, no matter how subtle the color palette. While I respect these endeavors, as I do any classification of applied illustration, these studies represent a significant disappointment after seeing such promise in these students in previous semesters. All along I've assumed that the students are merely pandering to a trending market. More than anything I hope for a more opinionated, vocal direction among our students, a return to the editorial voice which is more about chutzpa than costumes. 

Today I realized the origins of this fascination with heroic, mythic and fantastic characters in our nation's psyche and further indulged by students of art and design. In the same way that the Great Depression was the impetus for escapist cinema in the 1930s, terrorism has bred a desperate creative investment in superheroes, fairies and mythic dichotomies of good and evil. Today's young artist has known evil in ways my own generation never imagined. 

After a few years of frustration and (I'll admit it) a growing intolerance for escapist motives in young illustrators, today's realization is saddening.  A sympathetic, tragic chord has instead been struck. This generation of wonderfully creative people was raised in a culture of insidious fear, where no real life heroes can guarantee their safety, where economic collapse is at the whim of blustery, rogue financial institutions, and where bombs blow up people at one of the most celebrated, democratic sporting events in the world, turning the personal triumphs of hundreds of people into a nightmare, all over again. 


Courtney Autumn Martin said...

I appreciate your eloquence and find your observation intriguing and probably quite accurate. I'm 28 now (I was a senior in high school in 2001). I may be a little past the kids of which you speak, but I feel like I'm in that crew. Yes, today's youth are consumed by the good vs evil escapist themes that you mentioned. But I don't see this as a bad thing. It's the simplest way to try to understand the overwhelming complexities of a world where good and evil are NOT as clearly defined as we would like them to be. We escape into stories that parallel our own world's themes but give the good guy power to overcome the bad guys in ways we dream were true. But I've seen this escapism in action, and all the joy it has brought people. I've been surrounded by college kids dressed as characters from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Star Wars of The Hunger Games, discussing how much they LOVE something---books, movies, etc. The popularity of Comic Con or PaxEast and things like them are proof that the mainstreaming of nerd culture is replacing apathy with passion. Super nerd passion for stories or games that take us ELSEWHERE.

When I think of "editorial" illustration, I think of imagery that artfully and usually abstractly depicts complex ideas--many times resulting in a murky, somewhat depressing tone. (An unfairly sweeping generalization of course, but there you have it.) It doesn't surprise me in the least that kids aren't queueing up to create these types of images. They require deep, critical thinking, and self-expression that doesn't offer clear right or wrongs. The trend may be towards art that has a right way to do it, and a wrong way to do it. Editorial illustration doesn't have such clearly defined parameters for evaluation. But with character design, you either succeed in portraying the character you intended or you didn't. Once you learn a few rules and strategies of character design it's easy to implement them and create a "successful" piece.

Editorial illustration may never be the popular choice for people so overwhelmed by the world they live in that they'd rather imagine a different version of it altogether than attempt to understand it as it is.

While my own art may not prove to be anything especially worthwhile in the grand scheme of humanity, doing it makes me happy. And I like to think that if enough people make art that makes them happy, perhaps it will rub off in other ways as well...happy people, happy world?

And if can't possibly make things any worse, can it?

SparkleFarkel said...

Dear Mr. Brinkerhoff,

I tweeted your Prayer of St. Francis today (I found it posted on your June 16, 2010 blog page). I hope you're okay with me having done so (see hashtag #Boston). Thank you ever so much.

Warmest regards and most loving prayers of comfort,