Subjects with Objects Unplugged, Pt. 4

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[Editor’s note: If you’re in Franklin, Tennessee, be sure to stop by the 5 Points Starbucks where there’s currently a Subjects With Objects art print show hanging on the walls.]An Explanation for the Uninitiated: Subjects With Objects is an ongoing, collaborative art project forever ordered according to the following rules: A shadowy public spaces painter sets up in pubs and executes spontaneous portraits at the rate of one painting per pint. He then hands off those enigmatic little ocular disturbances to a semi-anonymous poet & novelist who lives with them long enough to solicit their otherworldly mumblings and ephemeral whispers, distilling each of their essences into a line or two of poetic prose. The painter is Jonathan Richter. The poet is UNKNOWN & UNKNOWABLE, so it is best NOT TO EVEN ASK! However, for the sake of convenience we may refer to him as DKM.

Untitled-46

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Untitled 46 (2008)
Things Vs. Us

Theoretically, we’re told, a man could gain the whole world and still show a loss on his balance sheet. But at least that guy got the world. What are we getting?

Soviet dissident, novelist, and GULAG-survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, rankled feathers during his 1978 Harvard Commencement Address. The rankling was not on account of his passing references to the dismal and sometimes brutal outworkings of the Communist ideology he and millions of his countrymen had suffered under for decades. Such references were expected and mostly welcomed.

No, what disturbed many of Solzhenitsyn’s American listeners was that he also had the gall to turn his eyes towards the West, and to lift his voice as one crying in the wilderness. Aleksandr, who had endured harsh years in a Stalinist labor camp in Siberia, now sought to warn his American listeners of the possibility that our pursuit of comfort and material successes had come at the cost of a greater spiritual impoverishment.

I know, right?

After all we did for him, Aleksandr stood up there calling us out in front of God and the Russians and everybody. Was it supposed to help the medicine go down that he prefaced the talk with “There is some bitterness in my today’s speech . . . but I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary, but from a friend.

When Subjects With Objects painter Jonathan Richter handed Untitled 46 off to me, I didn’t have to examine it long to note that there was, captured in the relationship of subject to object, a spiritual sickness of the first order.

In fact, this piece was one that solidified the overarching theme of the ongoing collaboration, and in so doing, ultimately led me to the project title Subjects With Objects.

The woman in this painting is, after all, fading, while the material objects around her remain solid. She seems to be shrinking in size, while the object she poses with (and yes, she does look as if she’s posing for a portrait) appears to have grown larger than it might once have been. Or perhaps she’s an adult who somehow hasn’t grown rightly herself. At any rate what we’re seeing is her insubstantial spiritual nature. Whether she once had a more robust nature that was choked out and faded over time, or whether she never grew beyond a childish (not childlike) spirituality, is immaterial. The point is, she, in her essence, is immaterial, and that owing to an exaggerated materialism.

Here, in this painting, is materialism running its course. Here is the sickness Solzhenitsyn warned us about. Here is what it means to have a life full of many comforts and things, and to prize the pursuit of things, and to prize the pursuit of happiness (through things) above all else. Here is what it means to structure one’s life around the avoidance of suffering at all costs. Here is what it means to define self and self-worth by the attainment of numbers of things. And it isn’t pretty.

One fades in the pursuit. One is stunted. One forgets who one was, or once longed to be. At the end, one finds oneself haunting the world of material things, no longer fully human. No longer able to even use and appreciate the material blessings of life, for one has become as a ghost among them, unable to define oneself except in relation to things. So the things have become some-things, while the soul has shriveled to a no-thing. One becomes a hollow suck, needing more and more things to try to give definition to the shape of one’s being, a black hole collapse of personhood from which, eventually, no light can escape.

But let us speak no more of the physics of hell.

Instead, let us flip the pages of a now-discarded yellow legal pad, and there follow the author’s scribbled trail of thoughts that led to the final choice of text for Untitled 46.

In time, the things seemed to become more real, even as I began to fade.
[Note that with this piece the central idea was there from the beginning, but the expression was too “on the nose.” No room was left for the viewer to interact and find their own connections.]

In time, my things became more solid, even as I seemed to be fading.

Perhaps we were always less substantial than we believed.

I might have been less substantial than I believed.

I might have been less substantial than I believed, but I do not see any benefit in addressing that now.

Apart from my objects, I had little conception of myself.

Apart from my objects, I’m not sure who I was.

I know I was someone who had things, but I don’t know much else about myself.

All I can tell you is that I was someone who had things.

All I can tell you is that I was someone who had a number of things.

All I can tell you about myself is that I was someone who had a number of things.

The things informed me of who I was.

The things told me who I was.

Sometimes, the things emptied me.

I remember when I first discovered that I was someone who had things.

I remember realizing I was someone who had things.

In time I realized that I would never be able to compete with my things.

It was my things they were friends with.

It was never me, but only my things they were friends with.

I knew from the beginning that my personality was thin, and so I would have to have things.

And so, what I lacked in personality, I made up for in things.

They played with me, not because they liked me, but because I had things.

They came over, not for me, but because I had things.

They were never really friends with me, only with my things.

They were never really my friends, they were friends of my things.

And now it has become painfully clear that they were never really my friends, they were only friends of my things.

I found it easiest to relate to people through the medium of things.

All I can tell you about myself is that I was someone who wound up with quite a number of things.

Untitled 46

Postscript: This piece was originally part of the gallery show First Day in Purgatory. The premise for that show I described in the “Subjects With Objects Unplugged Pt. 3” column, but it’s more or less self-explanatory from the title. I can’t look at this piece in that light without some sadness and horror. To come to the end of it all and sum your life up with that epitaph is a truly chilling prospect.

MORAL: If you’re bartering your soul, please at least ask for something more than a giant glass egg thingy.

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Subjects with Objects Unplugged, Part 1
Subjects with Objects Unplugged, Part 2
Subjects with Objects Unplugged, Part 3

Subjects with Objects, Vol. 1 is available in the Rabbit Room store.

To read the full text of Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard address (with a few typos thrown in for good measure) go to: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/alexandersolzhenitsynharvard.htm

Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).


2 Comments

  1. BONNIE BUCKINGHAM

    It is very apropos to have Solzhenitsyn’s speech here. I wonder what he would say today with world events. All that he said is still true. The chair is bigger than the girl which strikes me more as fanciful or playing dress-up. Then the words beneath her tell the real story. We do wind up with so many things.

  2. DKM

    Bonnie,

    Materialism really is a sort of playing dress-up, isn’t it? An attempt to make ourselves “bigger” than we really are, in our own eyes and in the eyes of others by attaching all this “stuff” to ourselves. The problem is, it ultimately has the opposite effect. In the GULAG books Solzhenitsyn describes the “spiritual” transformation that many prisoners in the Stalinist labor camps went through. After ten or fifteen years, many of those who survived and were released would afterwards live their lives with only the bare minimum of material possessions; a crude table to eat at, a single chair. Here is how he describes it in his own words (I love this quote!):

    “… What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary -property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life -don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart -and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it may be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory.”

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