Thursday of last week after a completely lost day I had to do something with myself so I went to a life drawing workshop at a nearby private studio.
A very nice studio, I might add. A small barn in the backyard of a Victorian house in one of those odd little neighborhoods you get in Prince George’s County, that seems to have been sort of cut off from progress by a highway or some other barrier, and it looks pretty much as it probably has since the 1960s. The barn was 2 storeys high and big enough to hold several people. The owner, host of the workshop, is a retired community college art professor whose style is “classical realism.” He seems to be prodigiously productive. The walls of the barn were covered to their full height with paintings. To look at them all, you might never know that such people as Matisse or Bonnard or Cezanne or Picasso ever existed, much less anybody afterwards. They were very slick: the nude figures were shiny
. Actually a lot of objects in the paintings were sort of shiny, not because the paint was shiny, but because of the amount of finish the guy gave to his rendering of forms. For me it’s not a pleasant effect, even when I see it done by someone like Philip Pearlstein
. It’s like cooked pineapple.
There were about 8 people, all very friendly, so friendly that it was a little unnerving. One black guy ran across the room and greeted me like a long-lost relative. Everybody was at or near retirement age except me and one young woman who arrived late with a six-pack of Guinness. I found myself a spot and sat down and knew that as far as drawing went it would be a complete washout of an evening. It was like there was no connection between hand and brain and eye. I was simply sitting in a room full of kooks. Friendly kooks. The model was a handsome, pleasant young black guy with a really interesting face. He will be holding that one pose for the next five weeks. And you know, if you scratch away at a drawing or painting for five weeks I suppose you can’t help get something right eventually.
But for me if I can’t get it with a gesture I get nothing. And I could tell that this crowd was anti-gesture. The setup was designed for this sort of leisurely pecking away at things which (and I’m not saying I know which is best) just isn’t the way I have ever managed to do anything, drawingwise.
They talked almost nonstop: one old guy next to me told the story of how he goes and hangs out at a Chinese restaurant in Rockville with these really old geezers. “We’re ROMEOs,” he said. “That stands for Really Old Men Eating Out.” A woman told how when she went to Germany she learned a new slang word for “people with one foot in the grave.” She added, “Well, we’re not exactly the Pepsi Generation.” A lot of old people black humor.
And that was all right. It only got weird about halfway through, when in the course of the discussion it became apparent that most of them believed that the global economic troubles (the scale of which was beyond their comprehension) were caused by liberals forcing the government to lend money to undeserving poor people.
For the life of me I don’t know why this belief persists. This is not a country in which government can be forced to do anything for poor people. The biggest controversy over Barack Obama’s stimulus package is over what portion of it might be spent on the needs of poor people, through extension of unemployment benefits or health care or funds to public education. That’s the portion of the stimulus money that state governors such as Sarah Palin are threatening to send back. The sheer self-dealing, irrational meanness
of this belief just takes my breath away, but in the richest country in the world no politician ever seems to pay a price for acting on it. In fact the more you can think up humiliating insults for the poor to endure before they are granted their measly benefits
—just enough money to keep them remembering what it might smell like to have food around the house—the more you are regarded as a serious and responsible and moral person.
So I explained about the securitization of the mortgages and how bankers had sold them upstream to where they were insanely leveraged and turned into exploding turds and sold all over the world.
Some guy said he thought it was the beginning of the end for America when the AIG contracts were being examined for ways to get the bonuses back, and I asked them why it was all right for auto workers and pilots to have their contracts broken and modified in all sorts of ways, but not AIG executives who had gambled huge with other people’s money and lost it.
I will say this for them: they listened. They didn’t respond with right-wing talking points and venom. They simply said, “Oh,” and allowed as how they hadn’t looked at it that way. And so I concluded that they just weren’t getting good information. I’m not sure they knew the extent to which the media that they have relied on all their lives to explain and inform have totally failed them.
Of course while this is all going on I am just beginning drawings and ruining them, and I’m starting to believe that I’ve lost it my brain is ruined I’ll never ever draw anything that will give me any pleasure ever again I’m a fraud with all my art supplies etc., and somebody mentions Louis XIV’s lace cuffs. Why, I don’t remember. But someone says something stupid about that—suggests, I think, that he must have been a sissy. And I explain how Louis XIV required the nobles to be in constant attendance at Versailles and spend all their money on sumptuous clothes and all their time bickering over small points of status and protocol. That it was his way of controlling them.
And they were curious and interested about this too. The conversation bounced around other subjects for a while and I kept quiet, feeling I had spoken quite enough, then out of a clear blue sky someone suddenly announced: “Well, I’ll tell you what gets me, is these illegal aliens being entitled to collect Social Security.”
I could not rescue the conversation from the hell it descended into then. You have to understand that except for that sort of sliver of extremely expensive real estate on both banks of the Potomac as it descends towards the Beltway, Washington D.C. is almost completely surrounded by Latino immigrants. I can walk into a supermarket a half a mile from my house and spend an hour in there and hear not a single word of English. I can walk out to the corner of my street and one of the main thoroughfares in the Silver Spring/Takoma Park area and every single one of the big old apartment complexes I see is entirely occupied by Latinos, mostly El Salvadoreans. And it continues like that east of here. In the course of my day I see more Salvadoreans than black people. And they are segregated; no one wants to live in a Latino building. People believe the weirdest things about them. Like this nonsense about Social Security. Or that all the money Latino immigrants make here is being shipped out of the country, untaxed, despite the evidence all around of whole corridors of Latino businesses, buying property, paying rent and taxes and fees, and hiring services. Like the defunct bowling alley on the corner near me that is now a thriving supermarket (with delivery vans!), thrift shop, and restaurant. This is all so obvious as you run the simplest errand—you can’t miss it on a trip to the store.
And why is it that the money earned by El Salvadoreans here is somehow less theirs than the money other people earn? If I earn a couple hundred dollars a week and send some of it to El Salvador or Jamaica or Mexico, what’s it to you? No one else is expected to account for how they spend their money. And what they’re sending home is dollars. And dollars that go to other countries – well, they come back to the U.S. because why? Because it’s U.S. currency. If they don't come back, if they are a sort of second currency used (horrors!) to buy Es Salvadorean things in El Salvador or Jamaican things in Jamaica, it's because the dollar is a reserve currency
, which means almost every country has dollars and wants dollars. If everybody didn't have this strong reason for wanting dollars then they wouldn't want them and things would be much, much worse than they are now, because its value would start bouncing around like crazy, which is what is happening to the pound right now. Those dollars aren’t actually tied up in a cellar and sold into white slavery.
And then, you see, immigrants from Central America and Mexico come here as a result of basically U.S.-driven policies that have gutted their economies. The money they send home is money they’ve earned working in the private sector that, as opposed to the evil gubmint, is supposed to solve everybody’s problems.
Of course when I come up with inconsistency, illogic, and ignorance like this I just despair. I suppose the point of all this anti-immigrant suspicion is to vent a lot of spleen on an object that you judge to be conveniently both remote and indefensible. Gonna steal mah Social Security! Boogeddy boogeddy! It’s like being in a room with eight farting dogs.
I’ll tell you what I believe. If Americans were less disposed to blame the poor for their ills, if they made a practice of looking out for the interests of the poor as being at one with their own interests, they’d be much less likely to be the victims of colossal, epic ripoffs
like the one that is now revealing itself to us, not to mention the steadily worsening conditions of even middle-class corporate work.
This country really needs to get out of the habit of believing that justice to the poor and the unlucky is a form of extorted charity. When the rights, security, and dignity of the most vulnerable are protected everybody is actually a little more secure in our own possessions because what strengthens the poor strengthens everybody. We can’t fall further than where we put the lowest of the low. When they are safe from exploitation, plundering, injustice, destitution, and indignity, we will be too. That’s how it works. When you create a hell for other people to live in you will end up there yourself one day.
So I spent the last couple days debating with myself whether I wanted to go back. Lovely space, nice, friendly people despite their opinions. They didn’t seem malicious at all, just thoughtless in the way that a lot of people probably are. But finally, ata the last minute day before yesterday I didn’t go. I felt I was being a snob or a coward or both. But I also had this feeling of escape. Few things are ever just one thing, I suppose.