The “Not So Fast” Election
Democracy has been saved, for now, by the gatekeeper of last resort: The American Voter. There’s our Person of the Year.
November 8th pitted the Big Picture issues of privacy rights (abortion) and democracy (voting rights) against the more immediate matters of inflation (price of gas) and crime (racial anxiety). Democracy and abortion turned out to be more important to voters — FAR more important; in fact, foundational — by a sliver of a majority. An important sliver. In the weeks since, October commentators who misread the November tea leaves have been attempting to interpret the Democrats holding service instead of Republicans cleaning up as a “win” for democracy. I’ll put it this way: most Americans saw fascism on the march and said, “not so fast.”
If that is not quite cause for celebration, this Thanksgiving is a time neither for anxiety or ashes and sackcloth. How appropriate that we shift our focus so soon after a consequential election to themes of abundance and sharing.
Jacques Hnizdovsky, “Box of Corn,” 1976, linocut print, 18 x 16”. Courtesy of the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, Chicago
With that in mind, I can’t help but reflect on the hardships that our Ukrainian partners, along with our vast network of international allies (many of whom are dealing with a higher rate of inflation than we are), are experiencing, thanks to the archaic malice of a tyrant bent on returning the international community to a pre-World War politics driven by naked aggression. This brutality has only strengthened Ukraine’s thirst for the freedoms we take for granted. Beyond the reduction of oil and gas imports, a byproduct of our choosing the right side to support, there is also the inflationary impact on food prices resulting from the embargo on Ukrainian corn and wheat exports. This is a small price for us to pay when Ukrainian fighters risk their lives and civilians suffer the cold and darkness of winter thanks to Russian missile and drone attacks on civilian infrastructure. Providing our Ukrainian friends with the armaments they require to defeat their invaders is a remarkably small price to pay as we enjoy our Thanksgiving and year-end holidays. It is the cost of patriotism. Our tables are not barren.
Judy Chicago, “The Dinner Party,” detail, 1974-79, ceramic, porcelain and textile installation, 576 x 576”. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art
Thanksgiving is our food-based sacrament of gratitude. It cuts across all divisions of religion, economic class, race, age, ethnicity, gender, and state lines. The latest rounds of multiple mass shootings will not permit us to forget that these lines of division are real. The shootings may be random, but their significance is more than symbolic. Yet, far from posing an insoluble problem or an inevitable civil war, they help clarify the path to fully realizing the sacrament of abundance and gratitude.
Our first priority is to achieve a national reconciliation with minimal loss of life and minimal disruption to the brilliant infrastructure that we have built to produce and maintain our familiar quality of life. The next priority is to provide sustainable American leadership to ensure these areas of improvement in human rights are made increasingly accessible around the globe. Our third priority is to ensure for new generations of Americans, those recently arrived and those yet to come, that we strengthen the sustainability of our domestic systems.
Rachel Ruysch, “Still Life with Fruit, Bird’s Nest and Insects,” 1716, oil on canvas, 30 x 22 1/2”.
Courtesy of Dudmaston Hall, Shropshire, England, © National Trust
The very existence of these systems enables us to appreciate just how successful the American experiment has been thus far, imperfect and fragile though it may be. The growing access to a success that most Americans were shut off from, starting from the Founders’ generation, lends testimony to that proposition.
The best news is that a new generation is maturing which possesses both dedication and means. The nature of their principles, taken as a whole, is being both augmented and attacked by our contesting tribes, so it behooves us to pay attention and to lend our assistance to those whose calling is to effect positive change and press for a world that bends increasingly towards justice.
Artists have long paid homage to the pleasures of the table, so as to promote or critique the order of the day. But in recent decades, and especially the last several years, social practice has advanced back into art’s mainstream (following a period in which social and political content in art was dismissed as unserious). Today there exists a wide array of artists throughout the world who dedicate their aesthetic investigations to the process of social justice and the politics of cultural advancement.
Jean-Francois Millet, “The Sower,” 1850, oil on canvas, 40 x 32 1/2”. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Thanksgiving by its nature asks us to consider the problem of food access and distribution not merely for one day but 24/7/365. Consider, for example, a duo of artists (David Allen Burns and Austin Young) working out of Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood who collaborate as Fallen Fruit. Their “Monument to Sharing” (2017-ongoing) is a project that conveys generosity and abundance via orange trees, and is informed and given nuance by personal narratives in the form of short quotations etched onto the trees’ metal planters.
The location of this “Endless Orchard,” the Los Angeles State Historic Park just north of Chinatown, is public and shares in a distinctive aesthetic history. Lauren Bon’s “Not a Cornfield” installation (2005) aesthetically and physically shaped the park’s land space and its civic identity. It quickly and poetically concluded with the corn harvest at the end of that growing season. After that there would be no going back to the industrial park to which the plot of land had been subjected for decades. The aesthetic form of Fallen Fruit’s installation begins with a simple grid layout and a fixed repetition of physical elements. But its mature form sits on a potentially very long timeline, and is subject to the DNA of each plant, the seasonal variations produced by soil, climate, and horticulture, and of course the people in the neighborhoods that surround it.
Like our political culture, there are literal and cultural roots that over time become more fixed in place, and crowns that over time grow and shift in appearance and character. The “Endless Orchard” shapes a new kind of public park environment, one in which the interaction of food consumption is grafted onto its historic function of providing respite. The material needs that access to free citrus addresses are more symbolic than real, but the gesture is relevant to the larger economic aspirations of much of the surrounding residential community in a way that would be wasted in, say, Beverly Hills. There is a balance between reasonable consumption and the potential for petty theft that requires the community’s ability to self-regulate. The artists, let it be said, have done their part and may be permitted to ride off into the sunset.
Fallen Fruit, “Endless Orchard” from “Monument to Sharing,” 2017-present,
public art installation at Los Angeles State Historic Park. Photo: Christina House