In Search of Home: Cultural Traditions and Richard Deming’s book The Art of the Ordinary: The Everyday Domain of Art, Film, Philosophy, and Poetry
“It is also the case that there are injustices that can never be righted, that there are ghosts who cannot be mollified, that an uncanny haunts the landscape of any home we may want to provide.”
—Thomas Dumm, Home in America: On Loss and Retrieval
What does it mean to know self, others, the world? What kinds of choices and possibilities does our knowledge endow? The good life is often a matter of balance, but that balance usually occurs in negotiation with self and others. Time, place, and principles can be read in the transitions from colony to nation to empire, in the impressions made on conceptions of self. Does one look out at the world with confidence or doubt? The self’s attentions to its own being, alone and in relation to others and the world, are the kinds of considerations that Richard Deming’s examination of art and philosophy brings to consciousness and conversation. In his wonderfully engaging and thoughtful book Art of the Ordinary: The Everyday Domain of Art, Film, Philosophy, and Poetry (Cornell University Press, 2018), the poet, essayist, teacher and theorist Richard Deming recognizes that daily life is something that is often slipping away from our awareness—for reasons of boredom, crisis, distraction, priorities; but both art and philosophy, alone and together, through their attentions, can return the ordinary to us: “The ordinary is that which passes out of view merely by staying still” (Preface; page x); and is covered by phrases such as the banal, the everyday, the familiar, the habitual, the mundane, and the usual. What more is to be found there? The claims for the philosophical meaning of the arts in their exploration or expression of the ordinary are made on behalf of the ability of the arts to “model not the world but ways that one might find to respond and be responsible for the world” (page 165). The contemplation of film, for instance, might bring together aesthetic appreciation, questioning of assumptions, identification of knowledge and meaning, moral instruction, social awareness, and the suggestion of personal choices.
The ordinary faces skepticism, dismissal; yet, the ordinary life is actual life, what is real, rather than ideal. Despite the alienation or elevation of self, the self lives in the world. Often art and philosophy focus on ideals and extreme failures of ideals, on crisis or limit situations; but not always—some artists explore, even illuminate, the ordinary. Richard Deming, the author of the 2018 Cornell University Press book Art of the Ordinary, as well as Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading (Stanford University Press, 2008), explores the works of artists such as painters Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter, actress Katharine Hepburn with Spencer Tracy in the George Cukor remarriage comedy Adam’s Rib, comedian Steven Wright, poets John Ashbery and Gertrude Stein, painter and filmmaker Andy Warhol and the philosophers Richard Wollheim, Heraclitis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stanley Cavell, Thomas Dumm, and Arthur Danto. Stanley Cavell (1926 – 2018), the author of Must We Mean What We Say (1969) and The World Viewed (1971), is a thinker of great significance for Richard Deming, as Cavell is for philosopher and film critic William Rothman: Cavell returns us to ordinary language philosophy and criticism, and perceptions of shared realities seen through differing perspectives and principles; and Cavell sees the Hollywood remarriage comedies of the 1930s and 1940s as a genre that permits consideration of contested ethics. Deming states, “Marriage is shown to be a daily management of disagreement and consent in light of a doubt that two individuals can ever know each other’s mind, or even their own” (page 34). As well, the very different motion pictures by Andy Warhol show simple acts or static subjects, as in his films Eat (1963), Sleep (1963), and Empire (1965), compelling consideration of their fundamental nature and the basic requirements of film, making explicit the duration of experience and the space in which experience occurs.
As both Richard Deming (Art of the Ordinary) and William Rothman (Tuitions and Intuitions) insist, Stanley Cavell’s work on film and philosophy allows a different kind of conversation to take place regarding cinema. Film studies focused on research into the aesthetics, technology, production, and reception of films, on authorship, form and style, analytical rigor, and sociology; and philosophy on the study of knowledge—on definitions of the film medium and clarifications of its subjects, on perception and thinking, meaning, moral evaluations, and relation to the world. Stanley Cavell’s books—among them, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) and Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes (2003)—were long in gaining attention and respect from peers in both philosophy and film studies. (Cavell’s work, to me, has seemed charming and intelligent, but his interest in remarriage comedies rather arbitrary—a matter of personal taste more than importance—but I am curious about Cavell’s 2005 text Cities of Words, which features discussion of great philosophers, creative writers, and cinema.) For Cavell, according to William Rothman, cinema did not become modern but was born or created as a modern thing, and is both serious and popular, while it manifests our alienation from the world and our ability to see the world anew. We see film, but film does not see us, even while it presents images that echo our own experiences—demonstrating ways of being, of living, the fulfillments or frustrations of ideals. For Cavell, according to Richard Deming, cinema allows us to see our separateness from the world, our place as observers and the negotiated connections between people; and the remarriage comedies (such as 1940’s The Philadelphia Story and 1949’s Adam’s Rib, which allow for self-division and divisions between people—arguments, court trials, divorce), are films that represent ethical interactions to Cavell, and why Cavell returned to them and their theme again and again.
In George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949), with a screenplay by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are Amanda and Adam Bonner, a married couple who are practicing lawyers representing different sides in a court case in which a wife, Doris (Judy Holliday), shot her adulterous husband: Hepburn’s Amanda critiques the notion that women are no more than appendages of men, their consoler, supporter, and possession, sacrificing female needs; and Tracy’s Adam wants the law and its punishments observed, respected, fulfilled, without contingencies or exemptions. George Cukor was known as a director of women—which seems to mean that he cared about people and honest emotion, and that included women. The gentlemanly Cukor, born to middle class Hungarian Jews in New York, and gay, interested in theatrical life, was a resident director for a Rochester, New York, stock company before working on Broadway and then in film; he co-directed before taking on his own projects, which would include Tarnished Lady (1931), Little Women (1933), Camille (1937), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and A Star is Born (1954). Cukor exemplified civilization. Saul Bellow once said that certain Jews were less interested in contesting social categories than in surpassing them; and, as William Rothman remarked, Cukor made the American and Jewish aspects of his identity seem compatible, mutually enriching; and Cukor’s films are cosmopolitan, humane. The 1949 film Adam’s Rib, while allowing for Adam Bonner’s masculine assertions and Amanda Bonner’s defense of female feeling, ideas, and agency, reveals marriage as personal experience and social contract, open to change, to dissolution; and, as the marriage of Adam and Amanda is tested as well, the film permits the characters and the viewing audience to see, to understand, to judge. The testing of the bond confirms its existence, but not all tests are passed—some fail. “To explore the terms of a relationship is to uncover the structure of a condition,” declares Richard Deming in Art of the Ordinary (page 43); and self-consciousness makes possible choice.
Philosophy is frequently dedicated to exploring found meaning, to discovering the principles of nature, or the nature of reality, rather than the interpretation of constructed meaning, as in literature or the arts, but the found meanings are usually situated within a given language; and literature and the arts are often an illustration or intensification of languages, natures, and realities found elsewhere. For Richard Deming, who recognizes that invention and interpretation are not the same, the interaction of reader and text is interpretation: the interaction can be event, education, evolution; and philosophy can augment, or help us correct, how we experience the world. Deming uses Andy World’s paintings and film as a reference for how philosophy might be done in a way that is both accessible and challenging—but the challenge is not where one might expect to find it. Warhol said that he reversed inside and outside —which has resonances for both cultural and spiritual life. (I thought Warhol helped us to look at what we were already looking at—and to see it more completely.) Warhol painted things thought of as common or commercial, rather than fine or obscure, such as washing pads (Brillo boxes) or soup cans (Campbell), and he showed people doing ordinary things, such as eating. Some of Warhol’s subjects are fun (movie stars) and some are functional (a container). The difference in subject questioned the requirements for artistic content; and Warhol’s work was a new stage in an era when the definition and practice of art were broadening. Whereas some artists and critics wanted to insist on the heroism of artistic practice, or the ideal of the artistic realm, Warhol was more open, generous, and knowing: he saw the possibility of art everywhere—and sometimes seem to give art no greater deference than anything else. As the experience, and the meaning, of art was the contemplation of the object offered as art, rather than the object itself, philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, who saw art as a realm of both freedom and thought, recommended philosophy. “Warhol’s work examines how people form relationships to objects and images and how these relationships determine the ways a person engages other things and even other people. Warhol finds these complications are not exceptions but are present in the most everyday examples,” states Deming (page 142). Of course others saw, and sometimes still see, Andy Warhol more cynically: as a celebrity illustrator and marketer.
What could be more fundamental than eating or sleeping? Andy Warhol, while accepting mundane responses (boredom, irritation, mockery), saw the value in ordinary experiences and objects, and Warhol does not embellish, does not present basic acts as beautiful: Warhol’s Sleep (1963) is a “roughly five-hour film of the poet John Giorno sleeping” and his Eat (1963) features painter Robert Indiana “eating a large mushroom for forty-five minutes” (page 149). The films, offering consciousness of existence, and documentation, do not seem designed to elicit a response: they ask nothing of the audience. Andy Warhol had come quite a distance from his early work illustrating women’s shoes: born Andrew Warhola to Czech immigrants, he studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and made money in advertising. His own artistic work became experimental in that he mixed content and forms; and when Warhol began to make films they were studies, without authorial imposition of attitude or perspective, without sound, plot, or complex action (his later films would use performers, scripts, improvisation, and indulgence in a bohemian, ambisexual milieu). Andy Warhol paid attention, and through his work allowed the viewer to pay attention; and he accepted boredom as one response, seeing it as a kind of serenity (anticipation and anxiety could drain away); and Deming says Warhol’s acceptance of boredom was similar to that of Martin Heidegger, the philosopher of phenomenology. Andy Warhol’s cinema portrait, lasting more than eight hours, of the Empire State Building in which the film Empire (1965) moves as the photographed building stands its ground, compels awareness of time and space; and Arthur Danto (1924 – 2013), the author of Philosophizing Art (1999) and Andy Warhol (2009), called Empire a philosophical masterpiece. Here, boredom is part of the experience—and Deming says part of the object itself. (I wonder if an architect or architecture student—or lover of New York landscapes—would agree.) Arthur Danto thought Warhol, eliminating all that was not necessary from film—including qualities previously thought to define film—had created pure film; and Deming says that Warhol is an artist of seeing rather than of vision. “The discovery of meaning is the creation of value,” declares Richard Deming (page 164).
In Art of the Ordinary: The Everyday Domain of Art, Film, Philosophy and Poetry, the cosmopolitan Richard Deming has written an elegant, intelligent, sensitive, and useful book, one that might appeal to philosophers, art lovers, and spirits requiring refreshment. Deming, a graduate of the State University of New York and Ohio University, is the Yale creative writing director and a senior lecturer. His 2008 Stanford book Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading examines Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882), an essayist, poet, and moral leader, born in Boston and the son of Reverend William Emerson, was a prodigy, graduating from Harvard at nineteen, then teaching a few years before returning to Harvard for divinity school. Ralph Waldo Emerson became a minister, but the death of his young wife preceded his religious doubts, and Emerson gave up his ministry; and he traveled to Europe, explored literature and philosophy, and moved to Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson lectured and wrote Nature (1836) and Representative Men (1850). He advocated both liberty of mind and moral responsibility. Emerson was against the theft and tyranny of black bodies, labor, and time that brought wealth to white people, and for the abolition of slavery: he wrote the blood is moral: the blood is anti-slavery: it runs cold in the veins: the stomach rises with disgust, and curses slavery. In Listening on All Sides, Richard Deming considers Ralph Waldo Emerson as an aesthetic guide for character(s), community, and culture, examining literature and language use, remembering that characters are made of words and use words. Richard Deming is a published poet—his poetry collections include Let’s Not Call It Consequence (Shearsman Books, 2008) and Day for Night (Shearsman Books, 2016)—and Deming’s verses have been recognized for their grappling with consciousness and rich references to the arts; and he brings his deep and imaginative care for language to his prose. There seems beneath his logic an alert sensuality, a wounded tenderness, an informed compassion. Yet, at times while reading his Art of the Ordinary, I did find myself thinking that the ordinary is different for some people—and includes daily trouble, if not trauma. How does one appreciate that?
However, Richard Deming has written about a 2019 site-specific work by filmmaker Bela Tarr that begins to address my concern: Bela Tarr’s Missing People (2019), at the Wiener Festwochen, an annual festival in Vienna occurring over several weeks, is reviewed by Deming in Artforum (online June 27, 2019). Missing People seems to be about perception in society, of society; and it features two groups of people: one has been filmed, and one is viewing the film. Bela Tarr, whose films include The Turin Horse (2011), about an a poor farmer’s abused horse, and Satantango (1994), a long film of episodes about communism’s end, creates possibilities for ethical revelation in art, acknowledging time and space and focusing on “the endless complexity of the particular,” allowing for “surrealism” to emerge from the subject. In Missing People, according to Richard Deming, the gathering audience moves through an alley in a Viennese art area, then into a viewing hall with tiered rows of seats, bleachers, beneath two small movie screens, not far from high tables suggesting a recent party—and things suggesting a marginal life, sleeping bags and dirty parkas. Once the audience is seated, a curtain opens and the observers sees another screen, a large screen, and showing on all three screens is the same hall in which the viewers sits—except, the footage seems to document an earlier event, in which apparently homeless people have chicken, fruit, and wine; and talk, laugh, dance, read, and more. There is an inevitable contrast—of class, of comfort—between the people filmed and the people viewing the film. Following the screening, there is beer for the audience, and time to talk; but “Tarr’s implicit moralizing risks overwhelming the work’s aesthetic complexity.” I have not seen what Deming describes, but it seems a fairly direct way of bringing the ordinary but difficult reality some people live with into the realm of aesthetic, philosophical, and political considerations. What nourishment, what rest, and what entertainment are there for the homeless? What is one’s responsibility, moral and political, to those whom we do not know but whose suffering is obvious? How much fact, and truth, can an art experience contain? What is a beautiful, intelligent, and just society? One can find the ordinary in John Ashbery—and in the work of Langston Hughes. One can find the ordinary in Andy Warhol—and in the work of Charles Burnett. We can find examples of the ordinary in the literature and the arts of every inhabited continent, every culture. Every nation has its own blues music, its own songs of praise and protest. Whom and what do we choose to examine, and why?
Thomas Dumm, who has contemplated human attempts to control space and time, is one of the intellectuals and writers Richard Deming cites in his Art of the Ordinary, quoting Dumm’s 2008 Harvard University Press publication Loneliness as a Way of Life, in which Dumm states that loneliness is experiencing the pathos of disappearance, a feeling of separation from circumstance and culture. The earth is not ours, although the world may be, as Native Americans long recognized; and the sense of who and what is out of place, of the uncanny, has haunted American history. Thomas Dumm has a more pointed reference to alienation and separation in his book Home in America: On Loss and Retrieval, in which Dumm first quotes Ralph Emerson saying the wise man stays home but when he travels goes as a missionary of wisdom, not an interloper; and then Dumm quotes Friedrich Nietzsche on certain modern men’s alienation from their culture and time—children of the future—those who cannot feel at home in a broken, changing culture. Yet, Dumm goes further, referring to his own source for the reference to Nietzsche: Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), on the modern African diaspora; and Dumm declares, “I flatter myself by imagining that Gilroy may be thought of as a predecessor, or belated companion, to the thoughts that inform this book, in that the way toward home I seek to chart seems to require learning to think through the double consciousness of modern subjects. That consciousness has so far been primarily the unbidden gift of those thinkers whose harsh experiences have combined with their genius: a W.E.B. Du Bois, or a Ralph Ellison, or a Toni Morrison, or a Duke Ellington, or a Billie Holiday, or a Charles Mingus, or a James Baldwin, or a Michael Jackson, or a Pauli Murray, or an Aretha Franklin, or an Octavia Butler, or a Cornel West, exemplars all. These African American thinkers / artists, and many more, have themselves restlessly sought ways home, while realizing each in his or her own way, how the stubborn facts of life spur us on our travels and prevent us from finding a resting place” (page 22). Thomas Dumm recognizes the foundation of exploitation and tragedy beneath American modernism, money, and power; and the effect of that on bodies, minds, and spirits. Dumm recognizes different kinds of homelessness: he asks if we are at home in our houses, and he notes that the international refugee problem is of great importance. He recognizes truly great and transcendent figures, possible nowhere else.
The ideals of liberty and justice held by Martin Luther King Jr. were not original to him. There were many before him, such as David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells-Barnett, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and many after him (Barack Obama was one), who had similar ideals; but King had the character, education, mission and opportunity to intervene in the practices of his times, to contest the terms of the ordinary and the limits of domesticity as permitted to African-Americans. King was not alone—and as filmmaker Ava DuVernay once said, Everything has happened before; and everything will happen again. Ava DuVernay’s well-received theatrical film Selma (2014), featuring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo as his wife Coretta Scott King, reminds us of that civil rights struggle utilizing civil disobedience and public protest against immoral laws and brutal violence, as does the film Boycott. Selma is about a 1965 voting rights campaign that included a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; and Boycott (2001) is about a mid-1950s bus boycott, and both present an admirable but quite human King. What is fascinating is how peaceful protest speaks to conscience—and inspires rage. Boycott was a motion picture for Home Box Office (HBO) television based on the book Daybreak of Freedom by Stewart Burns, with a script by Herman Daniel Farrell III and Timothy Sexton. The West Philadelphia actor-director Clark Johnson wanted a fresh interpretation: the son of civil rights (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) activists who moved from the United States to Canada, Johnson wanted an aesthetic that would appeal to the young; and, working with cinematographer David Hennings and editor Cindy Mollo, Johnson has created an exciting and enlightening work, most of it in color, some of it in black-and-white, at once dramatic, documentary, and experimental. Directed by Clark Johnson (who appeared as Meldrick Lewis in HBO’s detective series Homicide), the great actor Jeffrey Wright plays Martin Luther King Jr., in this intelligent and imaginative television feature focusing on the pivotal municipal boycott against segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968) was an educated man, a minister, and a radical; and he was a son, a husband, a father. His spiritual faith—his belief in the health and inviolability of the human spirit—compelled questioning of the social order. He was the son of Martin Luther King Sr., the minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin L. King Jr. was ordained in 1947; and Martin L. King Jr. got his bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Morehouse College in 1948, his bachelor of divinity degree from Crozier Theological Seminary in 1951, and his doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955, a year after he became the minister of Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery. The motion picture Boycott (2001) begins with King (Jeffrey Wright) stating that the time has come for change—the viewer sees Christmas Santas and Negroes getting on the bus, paying the same money as others, and walking to sit in the back of the bus, accompanied by a new interpretation of the song “Sweet Home Alabama.” A black woman sits in a forbidden seat, one reserved for Euro-Americans, for whites; “Leave me alone,” she says, her impatience suggesting the absurdity of the situation, but she is taken off the bus. The abrupt but predictable removal is disregard for decency, disrespect for dignity. Then, another African-American woman, Rosa Parks in 1955, is sitting on a bus, her mind full of images and memories—the film moving forward and back—and Parks refuses to move to the colored section. Rosa Parks (Iris Little-Thomas) is asked to participate in organized civil disobedience, a bus boycott for which a group of women, the professor Jo Ann Robinson and her Women’s Political Committee, using work resources at the Alabama State College, print thousands of flyers.
The minister Martin Luther King Jr. (Jeffrey Wright), a student of philosophy and a graduate of the Crozier Theological Seminary, ordained at age nineteen, is writing a speech, referring to the first Negro in America, and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), who had studied music, comes in to dance with him to the sounds of singer and pianist Nat ‘King’ Cole. The young Martin King (Wright) and his colleague and friend Ralph Abernathy (Terrence Howard) talk about different preaching styles—the intellectual versus the emotional and comic. Which most reaches the assembled? There is the suggestion that King’s rhetoric may soar above the heads of some of his congregants, and that while Abernathy is more entertaining his ideas are not well-remembered by those who enjoyed him. The Montgomery boycott activists meet in King’s church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, although King is not yet significantly involved; and the men argue, jockeying for influence, an insight into real political organizing—competing passions and vanities. Boycott shows local people at work and at leisure, and their comments on plans for the boycott: their personal wit sticks a pin in the balloon of blatant white ignorance and hostility.
The plans for the citywide boycott includes how to get people to work (taxis? private cars?), and the demands to be made to Montgomery officials for ending the boycott; and, while there are ongoing political disagreements, the Women’s Political Committee president and an English college professor, Jo Ann Robinson (CCH Pounder), suggests that one of the demands be a Negro bus driver. The meeting between boycott representatives, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), and the city officials is shown in black-and-white (black-and-white as signifying difference: possibly authority, possibly simplification, possibly a further illustration of the differing ideas of the town population—blacks and whites do not share the same sense of reality). The boycott must go forth to compel attention and respect for Negroes; but while bus rides are only ten cents a ride, taxi rates are raised by regulators to forty-five cents for black drivers, to discourage the boycott, for which Negroes seem eager, for the greater liberty it may deliver. When Ralph Abernathy (Terrence Howard) draws attention in his sermon to an elderly woman who is walking rather than riding a bus, the answer comes: “We are not walking, we are marching.” The ordinary is being transformed. King (Wright) asks parishioners to share their cars during the boycott; and they do; and the carpooling provides 20,000 rides a day, 130 rides per car (and the buses lose 30,000 rides per day—some people simply stay home). A Dexter church board member calls to remind King that he is a pastor, not a professional activist: of course, King has a broader vision of his mission as a theologian and pastor. The cluelessness of town officials (their compromise and corruption?) is evinced by the fact that they, despite King’s disapproval, include the attendance of the avowedly racist White Citizens Council in their negotiation meetings with King and the Montgomery Improvement Association.
No victory is promised or assured. King (Jeffrey Wright), after the negotiation meeting, says to Ralph Abernathy (Terrence Howard) something about the smell of the coming rain on a bright day: it might be a metaphor, but it could be a country boy’s intuition—and soon it does begin to rain. Rain inhibits walking—and the carpool is further challenged. Coretta King (Carmen Ejogo) goes out to be a driver, too. (Carmen Ejogo is smart, sensual, honest—a match for Wright, as she would be years later for David Oyelowo in Selma.) There are surprising boycott participants, including a few white ladies who drive their needed maids and cooks. Television commentators advise white employees against driving their employees. The boycott holds, and there is a rumored settlement—backroom shenanigans involving white officials and black ministers not involved with negotiations. Traffic tickets, for going slow, for going fast, are given to carpool drivers; and even King (Wright), while driving a group of affectionate, respectful and worried women, is arrested. Blacks in groups are harassed, arrested. King faces himself in jail: doubt, fear of death; and his colleague and friend Ralph Abernathy (Howard) bails him out and introduces King to his new driver.
The dynamic duo Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, are presented as mid-1950s figures of conviction and intellect, humor and passion, glamour and respect. King, whose philosophy and politics were debated during his life, and inspired death threats, remains one of the icons of his nation. When white Christian ministers cautioned King that his public protests could incite violence, Martin L. King wrote critically of a Christianity, and a democracy, that could accept the suffering of oppression in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” presaging the passage of the 1963 civil rights bill. King believed in reconciliation and reparations; and he was critical of capitalism and of war. Martin Luther King Jr. was activist and thinker, and his philosophy is articulated in volumes: among them, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1959), Strength to Love (1963), Why We Can’t Wait (1964). Martin L. King and the civil rights movement have been the subject of television documentaries and tributes, magazine and newspaper articles, such as the March 2 / March 9, 2020 “His Legacy / Equality Now” issue of Time magazine, featuring Tressie McMillan Cottom, Annette Gordon-Reed, Bryan Stevenson, Kimberle Crenshaw, Henry Louis Gates Jr., R. Eric Thomas, Kimberly Teehee, Emily Barone, Justin Worland, Andrew R. Chow, and Reverend William Barber II. “Today racial inequality leaves more of an impression, albeit one deeply felt by black Americans, than it does a concrete picture of oppression and extraction,” wrote Tressie McMillan Cottom in “Survival Mode.” King and the movement, of course, are the subject of many books, among the more respected books are David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross (1986) and Taylor Branch’s trilogy America in the King Years (1988, 1998, 2006); and in recent years King’s legacy has been explored in To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry (2018); and To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice Michael K. Honey (2018). King was, and is, part of American and African-American traditions, some of which is described and illuminated in books such as Black Intellectual Thought in Modern America: A Historical Perspective edited by Brian D. Behnken, Gregory D. Smithers, and Simon Wendt (2017); and New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition edited by Keisha N. Blain, Christopher Cameron, Ashley D. Farmer (2018). The prominence of King could make him seem an isolated figure, personally, philosophically, politically: King’s wife Coretta, one assumes with some humor as well as accuracy, called him the president of the Negroes. In Boycott, Jeffrey Wright as the young King is alert, calm, caring, decent, thoughtful—he is very deliberate: he hears and sees, and decides when to speak and act.
Jeffrey Wright grew up in Washington, D.C., reared by two women, his lawyer mother and nurse aunt, after his father died; and Wright attended the St. Albans School for Boys and Amherst College. His mother wanted him to be lawyer, and he studied political science; but an interest in acting grew, and Jeffrey Wright appeared on the Arena Stage in Washington, and in Yale Repertory in New Haven, and the Guthrie Repertory in Minneapolis, before attaining significant success in New York as the nurse Belize in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, for which Wright won a 1994 Tony (and an Emmy a decade later for the HBO production). Tony Kushner said Wright invested his character with spiritual and philosophical qualities that deepened the role. Wright appeared in George Wolfe’s stage musical Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk (1996), and as Mark Anthony (Marcus Antonius) in Julius Caesar (2000). Jeffrey Wright, who had played a lawyer in Presumed Innocent (1990), starring Harrison Ford, was painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in the biographical film directed by painter Julian Schnabel, Basquiat (1996), which featured David Bowie as Andy Warhol, a Basquiat collaborator. Jean-Michel Basquiat, the son of a Haitian-American father and Puerto Rican mother, was a graffiti artist and painter, a musician, a museum visitor, a reader of Gray’s Anatomy, an admirer of Leonardo da Vinci, Jean Dubuffet, Cy Twombly, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, European classical and Louisiana zydeco. Basquiat, the painter “Untitled (Fallen Angel)” (1981) and of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict” (1982), created many works that are allusive, colorful, jagged, mocking, political, sad, wordy—iconic. Jeffrey Wright saw Basquiat as an angry young man—Julian Schnabel thought of Basquiat as more innocent, as a radiant child. Basquiat could have been both, child and man, and his personal life was rambling, indulgent. As well, Jeffrey Wright was Daniel Holt, a mysteriously loyal acquaintance to a southern confederate George Clyde (Simon Baker), in Ang Lee’s film on southern bushwhackers hostile to education, Ride with the Devil (1999), based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On, an idiosyncratic film I liked. Jeffrey Wright was a gravedigger in Hamlet (2000), Peoples Hernandez in Shaft (2000), Al Melvin in The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Bennett Holiday in Syriana (2005), and Felix Leiter in Casino Royale (2006). Jeffrey Wright is often cerebral, cool—when he is not disturbed—or funky and humorous. He is a very talented actor. Wright was blues musician Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records (2008); and he was in Source Code (2011), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), and The Hunger Games trilogy (2012 – 2015). Wright has generated enthusiasm anew in Westworld (2016 – 2020), appearing as robot programmer Bernard. I have enjoyed him most in Basquiat and Boycott.
Boycott is a character study of a man, a people, a nation; and, vital and vivid, it allows for aesthetic appreciation, a critique of assumptions, moral contemplation, and political analyses: an illustration of the forming of new knowledge. A persuasive portrait of political activity can be difficult to achieve. Charisma and intellect do not make everything easy in the real world. Some of the selfish and skeptical must be persuaded. In Boycott, one sees the charged intricacy of the situation, coalescence and conflict, featuring a variety of participants, such as Reverend Banyon (Whitman Mayo) and Pullman porter and labor organizer E.D. Nixon (Reg E. Cathey); and a variety of proposals, including Martin L. King (Wright) and a young lawyer, Fred Gray (Shawn Michael Howard), considering the filing of a federal suit against segregation, for which new plaintiffs are needed. Do Negroes have the right to equal protection under the law? “I cannot be what I ought to be unless you are what you ought to be,” says Martin Luther King Jr. (Jeffrey Wright) in a sermon recognizing opposition, and the resolution of Negro citizens, and their supporters (shoes and money are sent for boycotters). King and his comrades seek transformations—which angers and frightens some people. King’s house is bombed, but no one is injured; and the community assembles outside his house, wanting to see his family are well—they will not leave until they see Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). Martin asks Coretta to go to his family in Atlanta, but she does not want to go, even after his father asks Coretta: her attitude is that if Martin will stay and face the danger, she stays. When do we get to fight back? asks one King associate, Brother Phil.
The thoughtful, elegant and ironic Bayard Rustin (Erik Todd Dellums) appears on the scene. He is radiant and radical, a man moving according to his own compass and clock. Coretta Scott, as a music student alert to the need to curtail nuclear arms, had heard of Rustin and his belief that history is choice not accident, and his advocacy of peaceful living and protest. Bayard Rustin was unique: a Pennsylvania Quaker, a promoter of peace (and draft resistor), an associate of labor activist Asa Phillip Randolph, a political organizer, a writer, and a singer. Rustin (Dellums) talks to Martin King (Wright) about pacifism, and about King’s armed guards—who do not make Coretta Scott King feel safer. Pacifism was in line with the thinking of both Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi: Thoreau, a philosopher and naturalist, born in Concord and educated at Harvard, the author of an essay on passive resistance as protest, “Civil Disobedience” (1849), and the book Walden (1854), and a friend of Emerson, influenced Gandhi, the lawyer and spiritual leader active against injustice in South Africa and India. King affirms nonviolence. The cognizant Bayard Rustin encourages a large vision, encourages boycotts around the country. A reporter from the Birmingham World, Emory Jackson (Clark Johnson), asks about Rustin’s political and social affiliations. While Coretta is in Atlanta, King (Wright) in Nashville at Fisk discusses the critique of stereotype—an intervention in mundane imagery—through action: and action has a price—there are 115 arrest warrants issued for boycott organizers and participants. Bayard Rustin (Erik Todd Dellums) asks them to reconsider what jail is, to rid the mind of jail’s power and shame. (Dellums as Rustin is quite marvelous: an inspiring figure, a man of energy, ideas, and persuasion.) However, Rustin is, also, a homosexual—once arrested for a sexual act— with a communist past; and there are plans in the media and police to focus on him. Meanwhile King, committed to his mission, accepting personal danger, refusing safety, argues with his father again about returning to Atlanta; and King discusses the possibility of controversy with Rustin—Rustin acknowledges his complexity: an ex-communist, an ex-con, a Negro, a bastard, a homosexual, a man with no proper job. “I’m a man of my times but the times don’t know it yet,” says Rustin.
“This is not a conflict between the Negro and the white but between justice and injustice” says Boycott‘s Martin Luther King Jr. (Jeffrey Wright). People—political movement organizers and participants—walk to jail stations, turning themselves in, no longer afraid of jail. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court sided with boycotters, against segregation, finding it a violation of the Constitution, a fulfillment of the faith of free and enslaved blacks who had fought in the founding American revolution, and of the hope of King and his compatriots; and the boycott, after 381 days, ends, and the riders, in December, begin choosing their own bus seats. Martin Luther King Jr. would help found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957; become co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1960; and leader of the 1963 Birmingham civil rights campaign. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 at the Washington march for jobs and freedom; and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The accomplishment of mid-1960s federal legislation protecting civil and voting rights can be attributed to Martin L. King and his activist colleagues. King was committed to a campaign on behalf of poor people at the time of his 1968 assassination in Memphis. The blood of Africans in America, and of Native Americans, are in the building blocks of the nation.
America’s grand ideals, its lovely and logical founding documents, cannot paper over that history of betrayal and blood; and many of today’s crises have their beginnings in that misremembered past. What has been obscured? Native Americans in business, culture, religion, politics, travel, and the travail of foreign contact, are a rewarding and rich subject, like African-American history, yet rarely at the center of a sustained common discourse. Do you know the work of Samson Occom and E. Pauline Johnson, of Paula Gunn Allen, Joseph Boyden, Louise Erdrich, Tommy Ocean, Gerald Vizenor, and James Welch? How many people know the Vikings were frightened by the fighting spirit and skill of Natives? Or that Christopher Columbus took five-hundred indigenous people as slaves on his second voyage? Or the actual biography of Matoaka (Lady Rebecca Rolfe)? Native American lore and loss can be read in The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000 – 1927 by Jace Weaver (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer (Riverhead, 2019). The military massacres, broken treaties, and diseases, of the pale settlers are not as easily forgotten by the indigenous who survive in a changed world. “The American uncanny present this tragic possibility, and it may well be that we must learn to live with a tragic sensibility that we have long tried to repress. Native American graveyards have been plowed under, sacred mountains have been defiled, the bodies of untold millions have disappeared from the face of the Earth. What are we to do with these invisible presences?” ruminates Thomas Dumm in Home in America (page 23). While there are Native Americans of distinction in different fields, the houses and health of many Native Americans remain in a condition of disrepair, of need. The deconstruction of false but still circulating images of Native Americans continues. The recognition of genuine Native history and culture has begun, with Native political movements and governments asserting rights, beliefs, land stewardship and creativity, as discussed in the (cosmopolitan and comprehensive) book Native Americans on Film: Conversations, Teaching, and Theory, edited by M. Elise Marubbio and Eric L. Buffalohead (University Press of Kentucky, 2013 hc / 2018 pbk). The anthology offers a multi-page filmography, including Images of Indians (1979) by Phil Lucas and Robert Hagopian and In the Heart of Big Mountain (1988) by Sandy Osawa and The Business of Fancydancing (2002) by Sherman Alexie and A Thousand Roads (2005) by Chris Eyre, offering views of what is ordinary, and what is home, for Native Americans; and it places indigenous people at the center of society and scholarship, questions power, respects originality and innovation, examines film content, celebrates, acknowledges difference and disagreement, advocates training, and offers teaching tools. The intricacies of the issues can be forbidding to those outside the cultures under discussion, but are informative and intoxicating too.
The poet and essayist June Jordan (1936 – 2002) stated years ago that “the only peoples who can test or verify the meaning of the United States as a democratic state, as a pluralistic culture, these are the very peoples whose contribution to a national vison and discovery meets with steadfast ridicule and disregard” in Jordan’s “For the Sake of a People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us” (Passion, 1980), her celebration of Walt Whitman and defense of a multicultural poetry and public. Jordan declared, “A democratic state does not, after all, exist for the few, but for the many. A democratic state is not proven by the welfare of the strong but by the welfare of the weak” (page 315). The subjects and styles we choose for art, philosophy, and political affairs, create a sense of reality. Which realities are we presenting or proposing for the perception and perpetuation of others? Who are we propelling to the front ranks for our attention? June Jordan, whose own verses were earthy, lyrical, smart, claims Walt Whitman—and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Pablo Neruda, Aghostino Neto, Gabriela Mistral, Langston Hughes, and Margaret Walker. (There is a wonderful conversation of poems between Jordan and Adrienne Rich, “Dear June, Dear Adrienne” in 1996.) I suspect that the new world Jordan perceives can begin to be seen in the films of Tomas Guiterrez Alea, Alfonso Auro, Maria Luisa Bember, Kathleen Collins, Alfonso Cuaron, Julie Dash, Ivan Dixon, Ava DuVernay, Atom Egoyan, Julio Garcia Espinosa, Emilio Fernandez, Octavio Getino, Bill Gunn, Alejandro Inarritu, Barry Jenkins, Kasi Lemmons, Sandy Osawa, Enrique Quesada, Randy Redroad, Patricia Rozema, Nell Shipman, Fernando Solanos, Fina Torres, and Joyce Wieland.
Culture gives us readings, soundings, viewings of a dissonant, fragmented whole; and the culture wars have been passionate in America for decades: and in his 2019 SUNY Press book Tuitions and Intuitions, William Rothman, who sees enactments of ideas, realities, and spiritual states in cinema, and who makes claims for philosophy’s interrogations of philosophy, discusses Stanley Cavell’s comment on the self in the world, on the modern feeling of isolation and invisibility, and on shared but secretive and frustrated fantasies; and Rothman alludes to the late 1960s when “America was tearing itself apart then, our thwarted fantasies were pouring out into the streets” (page 63)—but Rothman moves on to discuss cinema and modernity, Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” and Clark Gable, Hitchcock, Emerson, Wittgenstein, Cavell, and J.L Austin, and the union of bodies and soul, and the revelation of manners. How could one of the more convulsive and creative eras in American history, the 1960s, be little more than a vague allusion? Rothman pursues criticism and cinema’s thinking about itself and the world, creating a contemplative (sometimes precious) tone, noticing eyes, gestures, declarations, not without self-congratulation. Yet, that evasion or occlusion of the political, of contested perspectives and principles, of pluralism, occurs and often occurs in discussions of art and philosophy. Must the interested reader seek out Jacqueline Bobo, Donald Bogle, Manthia Diawara, Darby English, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ed Guerrero, Phillip Brian Harper, Robert Gooding-Williams, Mia Mask, Elvis Mitchell, Wesley Morris, David Nicholson, Clyde Taylor, George Yancy? Yes—with gratitude. Cinema may be art and science, dream and documentary, but it is easy to take a region for a world. Which realities are we presenting or proposing for the perception and perpetuation of others? William Rothman’s subjects in various essays include Andre Bazin, John Barrymore, James Stewart, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Genet, Chantal Akerman, and Terrence Malick; but in the index of references in Rothman’s Tuitions and Intuitions, as with Richard Deming’s Art of the Ordinary, there is no listing for “activism” or “African-American” or “civil rights” or “equality” or “feminism” or “gay” or “intersectionality” or “justice” or “multiculturalism’ or “Native American” or “people of color”—although, just as Richard Deming discusses gender regarding Adam’s Rib, Rothman defends the lead woman character’s personal agency in The Philadelphia Story and discusses homoeroticism, voyeurism, and fantasy regarding Genet’s 1950 film Un chant d’amour. Yet, the self is defined by more than learned taste, haunted by more than philosophical skepticism. Power is real and relentless. Ignoring certain ideas and issues can make cinephilia seem a pretentious privilege. Who are we propelling to the front ranks for our attention?“Anyone who has the slightest understanding of how cultures work knows that defining a culture, saying what it is for members of the culture, is always a major and, even in undemocratic societies, a democratic contest. There are canonical authorities to be selected and regularly revised, debated, re-selected, or dismissed. There are ideas of good and evil, belonging or not belonging (the same and the different), hierarchies of value to be specified, discussed, rediscussed, and settled or not, as the case may be. Moreover, each culture defines its enemies, what stands beyond it and threatens it,” wrote Edward Said (1935 – 2003), the great scholar of comparative literature and the arts, political analyst, and performing pianist, a Palestinian, in Said’s argument for pluralism in “The Clash of Definitions” (2000), published in his Reflections on Exile and republished in The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966 – 2006 edited by Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin (Vintage Books, Random House, 2019; page 455), a response to Samuel Huntington’s ideological, negative and in some ways prophetic essay “The Clash of Civilizations” (Foreign Affairs, 1993), which asserted conflicts between the western world and Islam. Edward Said took Samuel Huntington to task for his simplifying lens: Huntington did not see the diversity, geographic range, modernity, or self-questioning of Islamic societies. Edward Said refers to Africa and Asia, Europe, Eric Hobsbawm, Confucianism, Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, the United Nations, Francois Hartog, Adonis, Native Americans, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Arthur Schlesinger, Hayden White, Martin Bernal, Aime Cesaire and more, refuses simplifications, and accepts the complexity of collaborations across cultures to address genuine problems. Edward Said, a connoisseur and critic, was among the most cosmopolitan of men; and Said always remembered the theft of Palestinian land and the loss of liberties and rights, the daily travails, and Said defended the neglected Palestinian cause, drawing attention to roiling realities in his books The Question of Palestine (1992) and The Politics of Dispossession (1994); realties and roots knowable, observable, in newer books like Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History by Nur Masalha; An Oral History of the Palestinian Nakba edited by Nahla Abdo and Nur Masalha; and Black Power and Palestine by Michael R. Fischbach (all three published in 2018)—and in the motion pictures of Ibrahim Hassan Firhan and Ahmed Hilmi al-Kilani and Hani Abu Asad, Muhammad Bakri, Michel Khleffi, Rashid Mashrawi, and Elia Suleiman. I have been touched by the work of Hani Abu Asad and Elia Suleiman, as I have by that of Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-Wait, Eric Rohmer, Satyajit Ray, Olivier Assayas, Ousmane Sembene, and Bernardo Bertolucci.
The ordinary is that which passes out of view merely by staying still. Is it always still? Richard Deming has written a book, The Art of the Ordinary: The Everyday Domain of Art, Film, Philosophy, and Poetry, discussing the ordinary in the thoughts and works of painters Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz, filmmakers George Cukor and Andy Warhol, poet John Ashbery, philosophers Stanley Cavell and Arthur Danto, and comedian Steven Wright; and of course, notions of the ordinary, like ideas of the normal, are subjective. Look out at a country horizon. Walk in the woods. Think of a parent. Visit a friend. Eat a meal. Complete a task. Listen to music, see a film. Remember an insult, a rejection, a slight. Read a newspaper. The ordinary can be banal but brutal—or beautiful. Habitual but happy—or hurtful. The discovery of meaning is the creation of value. Richard Deming, elsewhere, has written about Stan Brakhage, Marsden Hartley, Ann Lauterbach, Nathaniel Mackey, Frank O’Hara, Rainer Rilke, P. Adams Sitney, Henry David Thoreau, and William Carlos Williams. Deming’s world has contained discourse with interesting people: among them, Stanley Cavell and Arthur Danto—and Charles Bernstein, Peter Hare, Susan Howe, John Koethe, Gerard Malanga, J.D. McClatchy, Marjorie Perloff, and Joan Richardson. Deming says, “The ordinary resists definition because it does not need to be defined—it is where any of us tends always to be” (page 13).
In Richard Deming’s Art of the Ordinary, Deming finds abstraction amid the observed figures and the consciousness, materials, and acts of artists Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz, the art a way and work of thinking; and in the submissions and subversions of comic Steven Wright’s plainly spoken surrealism, a liberating laughter born of an entanglement of the beautiful, bold, and bizarre in single sentences. “Wright is arguably as stone-faced as Buster Keaton, who of course starred in Samuel Beckett’s Film. The stoicism and limited emotional register offer little in his voice or body language to inform the audience where the change in perspectives will occur, and never instruct viewers as to how they should feel about what he says” (page 55). Steven Wright, who may invoke art or science, withholds predictable references to biography and narrative, playing with alternative realities. Deming gives this example of Wright: “I went into a place to eat, it said, ‘breakfast anytime.’ So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance” (page 56). John Ashbery, the author of Some Trees (1956) and Your Name Here (2000), is a legendary and legendarily difficult poet. John Ashbery sees poetry as consciousness and language, full of allusions; and Ashbery attempts to include the mundane aspects of life in his work, which contains materials, metaphors, and mysteries, and can be received as brilliant—or as puzzling nonsense. He resists being forced to communicate. One might dismiss Ashbery’s poetry but one senses the rigor, the taut attention, despite one’s confusion regarding meaning—one knows something is there. Ashbery seeks less to produce a description of life than to reproduce its perplexing effects. Richard Deming reads John Ashbery’s work for loneliness and skepticism, for recognitions of friendship, love, and loss, for present and future absences.
Richard Deming encourages us to look anew at the everyday—but that view can be an ever expanding circle. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882), the author of Representative Men (1850) and The Conduct of Life (1860) was one of the men who helped to define an American vision and vocabulary, something apart from Europe and its values; and Emerson’s concerns were aesthetic, philosophical, spiritual, political, and practical. He respected the earth beneath his feet, the energy of his body, and sought the enlightenment of his mind. He asserted agency, not acquiescence. (His work, a book of selected essays, was given to me, Daniel, first by a high school librarian, Mrs. Ryan—who later sent me a book on making money as a writer, a book I wish I had given much more attention.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, who cultivated curiosity, suggested that our best knowledge would be a mere starting point for others, especially for subsequent generations—that the circle we drew of the world would be surpassed by a larger circle drawn by another. Emerson respected law and property, but exalted human freedom and knowledge; and, when slavery was common, he wrote against the enslavement of black people in America and abroad. He is a reminder that some men see deeper and further than others, are more generous in certain ways, and yet he could be bitter about the betrayal of ideals. Our human complexity returns to us, as do his words: Liberty is a slow fruit. Richard Deming admires Emerson, as do Stanley Cavell and William Rothman and so many others. I have read Richard Deming’s prose with great pleasure—he seemed unusually enlightened and eloquent; and after screening some of his poetic recitations and a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk Deming gave, I hoped that Deming would be willing to answer some questions. Richard Deming agreed. I think that was in November 2019, and I suggested he respond by January 2020, but then in consideration of the holidays and other matters amended that to March 2020. Richard Deming agreed again—but then the world changed; and we reconnected in early June 2020—and his answers are below. I write these words, now, as a coronavirus pandemic has changed and continues to change the habits, large and small, of nations around the globe; I write these words as peaceful protests and violent rioting occur in America following another police killing of an unarmed black man. Such facts paint the ordinary in the most tragic hues.
Questions for Richard Deming (An Internet Interview)
Daniel Garrett: Professor Richard Deming, the author of several books of poetry and the wonderful exploration of human existence, perception, thought and culture that is Art of the Ordinary (Cornell University Press, 2018). You received your bachelor of arts degree from the State University of New York (SUNY) in Brockport and your doctorate from University of Buffalo but your master’s degree from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I must say that while I’m curious about what led to your higher education in general, I am especially interested in your time in Ohio. Several of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019), James Purdy (1914 – 2009) and Dawn Powell (1896 – 1965) are from Ohio; and I have had a couple of friends, Curt and Lisa, one an economist, the other an historian, both teachers, who hailed from there as well. Those are all people of strong characters and minds, a bit eccentric too. What did you make of Ohio?
Richard Deming: I enjoyed Ohio a great deal, especially Columbus, where I lived for two years. It is a particularly interesting place because the Midwest thinks Ohio is the East, the East thinks it’s the Midwest, and it stands somewhere between a Northern and Southern feel. That sense that all these forces meet and commingle makes it a continually surprising place.
Daniel Garrett: What influences society more, civics and education or mass communications and popular culture?
Richard Deming: It’s hard to know how to separate all these forces so as to be able to weigh them differently. We are certainly buffeted on all sides by mass communication and popular culture. My impulse is to say that education is the foundation—or should be—that gives us the tools to navigate and assess mass communication. That said, I think that education hasn’t kept pace with the proliferation of forms of social media. Now more than ever before, we should be really training everyone to be adept critical thinkers and readers.
Daniel Garrett: What are the strengths and weaknesses of mediums such as radio, television, and the internet and the forms or programs they endow?
Richard Deming: Ultimately, these things are merely tools, and we have seen them each used incredibly well and so as to help benefit humanity. On the other hand, we can see through countless examples how they can be used to have a decidedly pernicious effect. That’s not particularly insightful, but in the broadest sense that is how things stand.
Garrett: Richard Wright (1908 – 1960), a writer of fiction and fact who would relish the greater freedom he found in France, would visit Indonesia and there give a talk on “The Artist and His Problems” (1955), in which Wright would say, “The increasing modernization of human life and the new experiences humanity is undergoing make it impossible for the sensitive artist to accept the old forms of expression” (Indonesia Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference, edited by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher, Duke University Press, 2016; page 129); and “Even though the novel is a form of art, it must not be forgotten that the novel is a distinct form of expression of a particular social class, and that the novel is a form of expression belonging to that class” (page 130); and, “In fact, it is not true to say that a writer who is a genuine artist is able to choose a range of political material and just shape that material into an art form. What actually happens is that the political material takes hold of the artist in the form of his own experiences” (page 131). I do not know if Wright could anticipate the multitude of creative strategies of today’s (or tomorrow’s artists) but he remains remarkable for his courage and strength and for the range of his interests. Who are some of the philosophers, writers, artists, and other public actors who have influenced you?
Deming: The list is long, and what I write tends to reflect these names. Maybe I’ll stick to three each. In terms of philosophers: Stanley Cavell, Arthur Danto, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. For writers: Wallace Stevens, Robert Creeley, James Baldwin. Artists: Robert Rauschenberg, Jannis Kounellis.
Garrett: Your book Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading (Stanford University Press, 2008) ranges through literature and philosophy, discussing Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Stanley Cavell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and J. L. Austin, considering language, community, and culture. What inspired your interest in Emerson, whom you seem to come back to again and again in different writings? Could you describe as well the process of creating and adding to a canon of literature or thought?
Deming: I was in high school, I think, the first time I ever read Emerson, and it immediately had a powerful effect on me. It was his self-possession, strength, and stoicism, I think that spoke to me. There was something about being a troubled teenager that meant I was open to hearing Emerson’s belief in the self. Yet, at every stage of my life, a seemingly new Emerson has appeared. There is something in his openness and his insistence that we can only find out deepest truths by way of experience that makes him so powerful and poignant.
Garrett: Rainer Rilke (1875 – 1926) is a favorite writer of mine—for his sensitivity, imagination, and eloquent language. I felt seen by his Duino Elegies (1923), as translated by Stephen Mitchell. You seem to suggest less the importance of tradition as authority and dogma than of modeling ways of apprehending experience, ways of being and seeing and thinking for oneself, in what I have read of your “Rilke and Emerson: The Case Against Influence as Such” in A Power to Translate the World: New Essays on Emerson and International Culture, edited by Davis LaRocca and Ricardo Miguel-Alfonso (Dartmouth College Press, 2015).
Deming: Yes, that is indeed how I tend to see tradition and how we might inherit it, seeing inheritance as response and choice rather than a mere transmission of some static body of information. Ultimately, this is really an Emersonian conception.
Garrett: In your introduction to Art of the Ordinary, discussing the painter Fairfield Porter and the poet John Ashbery, you state, “The task of the artist and perhaps of the philosopher, too, is not to impose order but to listen carefully, look intently at what is to be seen” (page 8). What are some of the bonds and differences that you have observed between personal and social identities; and how do those identities relate to civic or social participation?
Deming: The order I am referring to in that sentence isn’t social or political order. What I mean is more something more analytically reflexive. If we look at, say, the arrangement of light, we have a tendency to find some way of ordering the patterns we see. If we consciously set out to establish an order by virtue of some theory or moral position or a sense of what we want, then we will never actually see what is there. If, however, we try to just look or listen or pay attention, we see an order take shape—we see the ways that even unconsciously we create patterns. But at that point we can pay attention to how and perhaps why we create an order. Knowing ourselves better, knowing how we think, and perhaps knowing better how we make our decisions and why lead, so goes the hope, to living more authentically.
Garrett: In “Leading an Ordinary Life” in Art of the Ordinary, you write, “A life coheres even if one’s identity is in flux, and that is how we recognize a continuity of a person’s subjectivity” (page 26). Thinking of how experience can differ as one moves from youth to age, or from place to place—and in terms of how one defines one’s priorities, one’s spirituality or sexuality, or one’s politics—I wonder how such an assertion of coherence can be made comprehensible. Most people are shocked when a radical becomes conservative, or when someone who seemed heterosexual is revealed as homosexual. How would you make such apparent changes comprehensible?
Deming: As Emerson tells us, “This one fact the world hates, that the Soul becomes.” I’m not so sure experience changes, though we have different ones and we can respond to them differently depending on where we are in our lives. One is much different at sixteen than one is at sixty, of course. On the other hand that person carries the same name and is living the same life. The discrete experiences, the different senses of the self all fall within the same life. One thing that we can never stop learning is that all things are perpetually changing at every moment, whether that be imperceptibly or drastically.
Garrett: Often conservatives are seen as concerned with the foundation and fundamentals of society, and liberals with freedoms and possibilities, the things that are seen as built on foundations and fundamentals. How do you see conservatism and liberalism?
Deming: I am not sure I would put things in those terms since I think there are many conservatives who are deeply committed to certain freedoms and possibilities, just as there are many liberals who are hoping to preserve certain foundations that protect the fundamentals of democracy. I would also say that we’re now in this time of great change in what liberalism and conservatism might be. Until recently I would have held up Ronald Reagan, say, as an icon of conservatism, but that doesn’t seem wholly in step with what we are seeing today; however, that doesn’t seem to hold up with where conservatism is or where it’s going. I think the basic question is what they see the use of government to be. Conservativism seeks to protect the freedoms of the individual and his/her/their pursuit of “life, liberty, and happiness” and government should allow for that and protect that right, giving rise to free enterprise and private enterprise. Government, in short, protects and supports an infrastructure that makes these goals possible. Liberalism also believes in protecting the rights of individual of course, and yet sees the role of government to protect the individual and to ensure that equality is preserved and that one person’s or groups efforts at exercising their rights don’t infringe on others. With liberalism there is a built in sense of change or progress, because it often looks to see where injustice and inequality exist and then alter things to set things aright. By the way, I’m staunchly liberal. If I’m being careful here, it is only because I think that the Trump version of conservatism is shutting down the possibility of discussion and if (rational-minded) conservatives are vilified, then they’re apt to be pushed closer to him. That said, I think everyone needs to take a stand against Trump, who is profoundly undemocratic.
Garrett: The ordinary is that which we assume and experience daily while paying attention to its surface details but ignoring its depths. John Ashbery (1927 – 2017) is a great poet whose work can be difficult, as it can be abstract, contrapuntal, detailed, and fragmented, work about which you write, “An Ashbery poem does not represent the ordinary as if the relationship to the everyday can be untroubled and immediate, but like Steven Wright or like cinema itself, makes the pathos of that encounter a manifest part of the experience” (page 78). Why did you decide to devote a book to perceiving the ordinary and yet use exceptional references such as John Ashbery, Stanley Cavell, Arthur Danto, Sigmund Freud, Alex Katz, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fairfield Porter, Andy Warhol, Richard Wollheim, and Steven Wright; and has the reception that followed its publication been what you expected?
Deming: As I say in that line you cited, I see in these figures attempts to actively perceive the Ordinary and see it as being, by its nature, capable of bearing meaning and insight. Anyone who can get us to see the world around us as if we are seeing it for the first time will always be exceptional. Yet, we’re all capable of seeing the Ordinary in these revelatory ways.
Garrett: You have authored critical reviews of varying lengths for the Boston Review of writers such as Elizabeth Willis (Address), Ann Lauterbach (Or To Begin Again), and Charles Bernstein (All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems). Willis is described as a lyric poet conscious of place and politics, usually humorous, and creating beautiful work; Lauterbach as exploring how to renew self and society without denying history, and being a writer capable of speculative thought and invention; and Bernstein as an experimental writer conscious of the multiplicity of language and minds, and yet in tune with the pathos of existence. That suggests remarkable attention. Literary and intellectual cultures seem more important to certain regions, cities, and persons than to others: a genuine need and resource, rather than mere commerce or entertainment. What are ways in which culture might be made more important to more people?
Deming: I do think that anti-intellectualism is a massive problem in the U. S. Part of the issue is that I think people need to come to feel like they have access to the life of the mind, that they aren’t excluded from it. Ultimately it comes down to schools and finding ways to let critical and aesthetic thinking into the curriculum beginning at the earliest points so that people don’t feel that “culture” is “somewhere out there,” somewhere separate from our lives. How we manage complexity seems vitally important and the poets you mention here are all engaged at creating art that is almost as complex as the lives we lead.
Garrett: Gregory Crewdson’s photographs of isolated people, often nude, in real locations inspires you to quote Emily Dickinson and refer to both Edward Hopper and David Lynch, arguably eccentric, even very intense and strange artists, and still, in your printed April 2016 Artforum magazine article, you describe depictions in the Crewdson digital pigment prints as being warm. What do you think makes that balance of techniques and tones possible?
Deming: In Crewdson’s case? He has a brilliant understanding of light. In some ways, I would say that is really where his brilliance lies—that he takes this somewhat uncanny, emotionally removed subject matter and then makes it all the more complex by the nuanced sense of light and how it interacts with our sense of the subjects being photographed. Hopper I think works in the different direction in terms of flattening out space in order to have the emotional life drain out and thus feel distant.
Garrett: You write about Andy Warhol and Arthur Danto’s philosophical interest in the painter in Art of the Ordinary (Cornell University Press, 2018). You discuss film and poetry as well. You capture the fundamental aspects of perception, language, and creation that embody thought, and how certain thinkers discuss art. Do you value sculpture and opera, ballet, and classical music, arts traditionally called fine or high – and, if so, which and why?
Deming: Classical music is of tremendous importance to me—from Schubert to Jóhann Jóhannsson, with whom I am nearly obsessed. A great sadness for me is that I never got to meet him. In particular, John Cage is a kind of a saint for me. I like the demands of the music, what it asks of me in terms of attention and reflection and how it widens and deepens the sense of my own emotional range. This kind of music doesn’t try to find one aesthetic or emotional experience, it gives access to the whole range, which only shows back to us how varied and varying we are in terms of our emotional possibilities. I have never really felt deeply connected to dance—probably my own hang ups with the body.
Garrett: The Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, the creator of Family Nest (1977) and Satantango (1994) and The Turin Horse (2011), is known for austere, thoughtful work focusing on time, morality, and social issues. In your June 27, 2019 online Artforum commentary on Bela Tarr’s cinematic gallery exhibition in Vienna, “Missing People” (2019), which both presents a color and black-and-white 95 minute film of a particular location and populace, the homeless, and allows for audience participation—and the possibility of connections between classes and between the observed and observers—you describe what could be a very dynamic experience for participants, but the participants are likely to be few. What are the strengths and limits of such a project, in terms of ultimate effect?
Deming: The limits are built into the fact that it really can only happen in that place during that period of time. It is site specific. But then that seems part of the magic of the shared experience of those in attendance. With so much always available everywhere at every moment, it’s good to have things that tied to a specific place and time because it gives it the feel of something that we need to pay attention to as it is happening.
Garrett: Art is the frame, the form, that helps us to see experience anew but eventually that form becomes too constraining and has itself to be deconstructed in order for us to get a more fundamental or fresh grasp of experience. Is that inevitable, even necessary, making new art possible—or would new interpretations be enough to keep art fresh? Would the simplest thing, the most useful, be to respect others enough to see, hear, think about and understand their experiences of life and world, without the mediation of art?
Deming: I do think that art, in whatever form, needs to keep developing and evolving or else these forms can never really get us to new places. Extending thinking about form means changing how we can envision the body, consciousness, our emotional lives. New interpretations can indeed keep things fresh, but very often new developments of art or in thinking in general can help facilitate new readings of work that already exists. And I’m not sure that art is simply a mediation. I think that art is very often an experience of life and the world that is made manifest in a deeply complex way that draws on the conscious and the unconscious—one that others can then look at or read and wrestle with. That takes the respect and understanding that you mention. That’s not simple, but I’m not sure that simple is the best thing. It’s one thing but isn’t in all cases the best thing.
Garrett: Nathaniel Mackey’s collection of commentaries, Paracritical Hinge (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), was surveyed by you in the journal Twentieth Century Literature (Summer 2005), in which you discuss fragmentation in modern experience and expression, and creator-critic Mackey’s cross-cultural concerns. Nathaniel Mackey’s interest in history and mythology, in literature and jazz, aesthetic experiment and social experience, and in ignoring conventional barriers on behalf of useful bridges—on marriages rather than divorces; or friendships, partnerships—is a project that challenges past and current thinking. Mackey talks about every writer having to create his own tradition—one of comparison and contrasts, of inclusion and improvisation. Yet, the reception of Mackey’s work has been both respectful and troubled.
Deming: That idea of having to create one’s own tradition is by turns Modernist and Freudian and Emersonian and seems truer as we go along. What is the tradition that will give birth to the self you want to be? Ultimately that points to us each being responsible to and for our own self-fashioning.
Garrett: The nature of everyday life is something we all contend with, yet it differs depending on history and social place. Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997) offers a complex view of history and society, in which a group of dark-skinned Negro Americans, or African-Americans, looking for haven and home are disallowed from several communities, including those of other (lighter-skinned) Negroes before they make their own community. This impressive fiction suggests something about the facts of community, which include common commitments and principles but also excludes or polices other people—sometimes for philosophical or religious reasons and sometimes for class, skin color, gender, and sexuality. A community that wanted freedom becomes a source of repression and violence in Paradise. I love Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973) and respect Beloved (1987), as I do most of Morrison’s books, but I sometimes think that Paradise may be her most significant work. The subject of who belongs and why is one that haunts America and the world. Why does so little of the concerns of African-Americans, concerns that touch on language and civic life and justice and art and representation, make itself known in mainstream philosophy, despite the contributions of W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke and Anita Allen, Angela Davis, Leonard Harris, Michele Moody-Adams, Adrian Piper, Cornel West and George Yancy?
Deming: There are other names, too, that you might of course add. I am not sure I feel qualified to speak on the history of philosophy or on the current state of the academic field, but some of what you mention is the result of the lack of diversity in the academy that of course has long been a problem. It also matters what form of philosophy you are talking about. Analytic? Hermeneutic? There was also some myopia in regards to thinking about specific groups of people—including women—because general philosophy has often been seen to be appealing to universal reason or to generalizing in regards to social power structures, which does leave out leave out real variations and discrepant experiences when it comes to race, class, sexuality, and gender. That has been changing and will continue to change. But part of the argument of my book, too, is to point out how in general philosophy overlooks the ordinary—Cavell calls it a repression.
Garrett: Mario Gooden has speculated and written about cultural identity and its relation to architecture in Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2016). It is a scholarly meditation on art and black culture that moves through various serious concerns and scenes—including the enslavement of Africans and the movements for freedom and civil rights, the experience of spirituality and sensuality, and the creation of community as well as the artistic and commercial production of materials; and Mario Gooden discusses the creative work of Martha Rosler (photomontages of domestic scenes), Louise Lawler (an installing of a painting of a solitary race-horse that focused on observer rather than the observed), and Adrian Piper (a photograph of well-dressed South Africans facing the viewer while descending a staircase, accompanied by a taped comment about the hopes addressed to art) and radical architect Bernard Tschumi, who concentrated —like the artists— on the intimate relation to space, and on objects within space. Mario Gooden stated, “It has been frequently assumed that architectural space is incapable of locating identity and its accompanying politics. After all, modernism’s failure to adequately confront the social realities and ills of urban life in the 1960s and 1970s are well rehearsed, and identity politics were thought to be better left to artists’ two-dimensional representations. The architectural projects of modernism—housing projects and otherwise—did not address the subjectivities of their users or inhabitants, but rather projected paternalistic views of their subjects through the abject lenses of poverty, class, and race. In contrast, the discursive spaces of neo-avant-garde artists like Rosler, Lawler, and Piper, and the architectural transgressions of Techumi, reveal both the construction of subjectivity and the multivalent spatial relationship through which those subjectivities are formed. The operations they deployed —spatially connecting visual foregrounds with their political and cultural backgrounds, the social repositioning of relationships of interiority and exteriority, visual and spatial flickering between the ‘other’ and its repressive power structure, and programmatic and spatial disruptions to normative hierarches of architecture and urban space— do not portend a set of codified techniques for rendering identity in architecture” (page 58). Mario Gooden also identifies two buildings—the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta—as being conceived and executed beyond cliché and stereotype. Are there artists and architects, or buildings, to which you have a significant relationship?
Deming: I do have a strong feeling about certain spaces, but this often has less to do with the architecture and more to do with the associations I have with a place. I have lately been thinking about the distinctions Adolf Loos made between art on one side and architecture on the other. I like an idea of architecture being the shaping of livable space.
Garrett: Much focus has been placed on identity politics as they relate to class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. In what ways do you find that liberating or limiting?
Deming: It is liberating insofar as it brings more and more experiences and perspectives into view. Evolution thrives on diversity. At the same time, we need to make sure that these different experiences help deepen a sense of a shared humanity, a collective experience rather than maintaining separate and disconnected conversations.
Garrett: Do you believe in transcendence?
Deming: It depends on what you mean by that term. I do believe in the transcendental problem of striving to be aware, truly aware, of always being part of a totality, yet also not losing sense of one’s individuality and singularity, one’s self. That’s the fundamental problem of the one and the many. We’re always both, but we seem to never be able to hold both at the same time.
Garrett: How far are you into your work on a book on Orson Welles and Touch of Evil (1958), the film about violence on the border of the United States and Mexico?
Deming: The book just appeared a few weeks ago.
Garrett: How do you see contemporary national and international politics?
Deming: It’s a mess, with a global veering towards nationalisms that seem incompatible with our increasing interconnectivity.
Garrett: What are your hopes for current electoral politics?
Deming: My hope is that we find a way to balance the discourse and to have civil, civic-minded constructive discussions. I don’t think we need to agree, however, but we do need to find better ways to argue. My hope is that we find a way to generate dissensus without descending into (or rather staying caught by) reified positions that cannot engage in any meaningful way.
Garrett: Are you concerned with climate change?
Garrett: What are your hopes for the future?
Deming: I hope there is one. I don’t say that to be cute or glib, but there is a way that all this talk of apocalypse and end times does communicate a resignation. Hope is always prospective—it is a way of using the imagination to inhabit a potential future.
Article submitted June 4, 2020. First published as a stand alone October 18, 2020