I recently submitted a brief but masterful letter of approximately 1,200 words to Jim Mullin, the editor of Miami New Times, criticizing an example of his publication's tendency to relish derogatory personal aspersions and vindictive and invidious insinuations instead of the most relevant subject at hand. Indeed, the free street rag's increasing fondness for vulgar allegations and virtually interminable drones on irrelevant subjects has ruined its former reputation as an alternative paper willing to take on important controversial subjects - subjects far too relevant to what is really going on in Miami for publication by Knight Ridder's bilingual big business, power-elite booster, The Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald.
"Dear Editor," my missive began, "I had mixed feelings when I read the April 7, 2005 New Times article, ‘Colorful Personalities’, on the alleged personality clashes at Art Center/South Florida, an art colony located on South Beach's famed Lincoln Road Mall. On the one hand, I was chagrined by the focus on the bickering instead of the art exhibited. Little was said of the art itself, other than the inference drawn from the mouths of disgruntled dissidents: that the art must be of poor quality because of the authoritarian regime of the institution’s current chairman. The reporter, Forrest Norman, made a slight positive statement about the Center in the first sentence of his leading statement, but then used his wee blessing as a license for a protracted revelation of the carping 'turmoil'...."
My masterpiece was "very long", responded the editor, and he politely asked me to send over a shorter version. Without my cooperation, he said, and given his editorial restrictions, he would be unable to run it. I replied that my submission comprised such a fine work of organic art that I could not bear to mutilate it. However, since I am a cooperative sort of person, I gave him permission to run it just as it was written, but as an article instead of a letter. Surely my piece would not be “very long”, as an article, not given the average length of New Times articles. To further cooperate, I waived my usual two-cents per word fee for brilliant commentary. No thanks, countered he. I zapped back a cheeky rejoinder: No problem, I shall put out the word worldwide, to whomever it might concern, that you have rejected my little masterpiece! In response to which he suggested that I simply publish our email exchange - wherefore this instant summary of our momentous transactions.
I was not offended by Mr. Mullin's refusal - not at all. After all, my reputation as the leading Refusé in my field would have been ruined by his acceptance. As it were, I took quite a risk with my counteroffer, to provide the work gratis, on an all-or-nothing basis. I certainly would not butcher my baby to appease the editorial restraints presumably imposed by his publisher. Would we ask Dali to cut Jesus out of his painting or amputate the Lord's arms outstretched on the crucifix simply to suit a gallery director's narrow sense of proportion? No.
Mind you that I may have misjudged Mr. Mullin's rejection of my counteroffer. My masterpiece may not only have been too long for a mere letter to the editor, it may have been too short for a regular article to boot, given Mr. Mullin's editorial criteria. My masterpiece was 1,200 words in length, in contrast to the unusually short, (450-words) gossipy article it took to task. But to fully grasp the New Time's average sense of proportion, consider that the editor ran, in the very same issue as 'Colorful Personalities', an article of some 3,300 words, entitled 'Organic Produce', about a Hip Hop studio king's diet and his objective: to look like a monkey.
As I persued 'Organic Produce' at length during my morning toilet, it dawned on me that my letter was in fact much too short to be an article. 330 words on the subject if not 500 would have been amusing enough, perhaps even hysterically so given the right writer; but such cannot be the case at the New Times, where a little bit of humor must be beaten to death with at least 3,000 words. Furthermore, the composition of 'Organic Produce' certainly did not comprise the "organic art" or artful excretions of my own making, which I had with sufficient reason grunted about to the editor. Truly organic art evolves from life as life is felt. But there was little life in 'Organic Produce'. Technically speaking, it was a well machined sausage, ground out in accord with the generally accepted accounting principles of professional journalism: an impersonal accounting of superficial facts, posing, in the shroud of mechanical style, as the truth about the underlying subject.
However that may be, I must admit that 'Organic Produce' might have had a substantial audience given the contemporary mentality in some pockets of Miami, and the fact that Hip Hop Week was coming up in Miami Beach. The author revealed that Hip Hop King Timbaland had become one of the most influential and innovative record producers of the last decade. He bought an $8 million house; hired an expensive trainer; went on a creatine-supplemented diet; has reduced from 331 to 222 pounds thus far; he wants to become a bodybuilder because communicating an image of perfection is seen as the key to maintaining celebrity today.
We learn from 'Organic Produce' that the ideal of perfection today is a rock-hard body. Timbaland is certain that his new body and outlook will make his new album "way hotter" than the others. "There's going to be some jump. Plus, how I look, that's what's going to kill it. Appearance is everything," he said. He wants to teach the youth the lesson he is learning so well: "Your outer being is who you are as a person. People say no, but your outside effects who you are inside." Our young buck keeps natural models in mind: "I don't want to be lean and cut, I want to be buck. I just like that look. When you see horses, or animals, like you see a monkey or gorilla, like, the cut. It's a freaky look. When you keep working out, you get to be almost like an animal. I like the veins popping out. I love all that."
At least that is this monkey's cut of an otherwise obese text. The lean horsemeat provides food for thought, while the fat reflects the inutility and vanity of much of our 'contemporary' art today, including the contemporary art of alternative journalism represented in Miami by the New Times. It is an allegedly counter-cultural journalism; it promotes all sorts of irrelevant nonsense, much of it injurious to mental and physical health, simply to drum up consumption. Its publisher should take Timbaland's to heart, and consider what the appearance of the New Times is doing to the souls of its insiders and deafened readers.
Yes, indeed, make no mistake about it: a healthy body and good appearances are important. But appearances are not everything. Every coin has two sides. Civilized people deliberately cultivate the mind as well as the body for good reason. Mind and body may be one, but human beings are able to elevate the mind in their favor. The mind is made superior to the body, at least for those of us who walk upright, with our heads in the heavens and our feet on the ground.
Personal image is overemphasized by the cult of gilded individualism. The rage for superficial self-surveillance and relentless self-promotion in the war of all against all renders the idolized superficial self dependent on consumption of ephemeral images, leaving it without any metaphysical ground to stand on. Christopher Lasch once pointed out, in his now classic, The Culture of Narcissism, that narcissism, contrary to what we might think, is not based on self-love, but rather on self-contempt, if not self-hatred, for it is a defense arising from the fear of retaliation for one's own aggressive impulses.
Our generation's culture of narcissism arose from the evolution of the culture of hypocrisy derived from the rise of the city slicker and carpet-bagging confidence man, around the turn of the century, when the scientific-industrial revolution and world war opened up the pursuit of happiness (property) to more ordinary people. What counted were deceptive images and styles, smiles and other veils of generosity masking selfish, competitive motives. "Getting ahead" was the order of the day, hence self-realization was based on the devaluation or lowering of others at home, at school, and in the workplace.
Has anything at all changed since Lasch's summary critique of typical American image? We still have the usual fear of dependence, inner emptiness, repressed rage, oral cravings, fear of old age and death, decline of play spirit, fascination with celebrity, deteriorating sexual relations, and devaluation of others. But at least we want healthier, better looking personal images today. The fat man and the skinny woman are out of fashion – “fat” and “skinny” are politically incorrect terms. Lean and mean is all right. Buff and tough might do. "Buck" and "cut" is better, for that will "kill" the competition.
In fine: What you see is what you get, and how you look is who you are. We must give credit where credit is due, and say the posing today is less hypocritical, or honest in its deprecation of the idealism it lacks. The ideals man falls short of today have diminished along with the mediated dementation of culture; hence the lofty old ideals, including classical ideals, are scoffed at. The mental/moral side of the coin is forgotten - the mental aspect used to be called "moral" because mind chooses conduct. The idols and those who idolize them have their heads in the sand, the barren soil produced by the atomization of social persons into individual competitive units mechanically manipulated by the mass culture they really have no power over.
Wherefore a truly alternative, genuinely counter-cultural press should pay more attention to the old platitudes. For instance: appearances are deceiving; clothes do not make the man; money isn't everything. Positive substance and principal should be affirmed over fleeting, arbitrary forms. And hip dancers, buff body builders, "contemporary" artists, and everyone else who really wants to be liberated are well advised to get a liberal education, either on their own or in schools. They would do well to write as many brilliant essays as they can; and the wordier the better if the words flow naturally in profound streams.
Writing about works of art, for instance, teaches us to question the images we behold, to be at once critical and self-critical in the examination our preconceptions and prejudices; a practice that is useful and applicable to any endeavor the person might choose to pursue. To press that thoughful end, we definitely need an alternative, independent press in addition to an irrelevant press that prefers to gossip about artists and ignore their art; which, of course, might be very bad, notwithstanding or even because of the contemporary-art maxim now taught to children in public schools, that there is nothing right or wrong about art. The work of art provides a truer self-portrait of the artist, and in that artistic perspective the perspicacious viewer might discern an indictment of the sort of contemporary culture which is the ruination of art and artist as well as the reputation of authoritarian chairmen of art institutions.