Shiny Stuff

 

Americans are obsessed with shiny stuff:  gloss, smoothness, polish, superficial flawlessness. New cars are shiny, magazines are printed on shiny paper, music is aurally spotless to the nanobeat with many layers of sound to cover up imperfection. Art museums celebrate machine-made art valorizing Murakami and Koons a generation after finish-meister Andy Warhol made factory shine cool. The printing industry and commercial photographers make shine a religion. Legions of sunday painters obsess over old-fashioned mimesis and then spray their realistic works with retina-scarring high gloss varnish. What are we trying to conceal in this shine-fever? this runaway myth that closes all doors to the uncertain and ambiguous? Are we trying to conceal a gutted humanity? residual guilt and horror from 220 years of slavery? some unspecified emptiness? Americans obsess over gloss as if we were a single generation away from life in an earthen hovel. Shiny stuff  being the only refuge from a collective memory of struggle with physical cleanliness.  The problem with shiny stuff is that in our effort to obliterate imperfection we allow a smothering imperfection of a deeper, indelible order to prevail. We live in glossy denial of our human touch, our marks, our brushstrokes and our striking of the drum behind the beat. The trace of our imperfection, the evidence of our uniqueness as individuals is erased by shine.

Paul Cezanne is a charter member of the Titanic Twelve because he put an end to shine in painting. Adding a final coat of glistening varnish was the sign of a finished painting from 1412 to 1912. The Titanic Twelve put an end to gloss. Neither Joyce nor Pound shined their words. One isn’t immediately attracted to their words and there is nothing like twelve tones in a musical composition to take shine away.  Cezanne’s late paintings, and the Cubist work of Picasso and Braque it inspired, destroy resolution, polish, shiny stuff. This principle of modernity still perplexes and frightens most Americans. Cezanne’s lesson has been unlearned. We are inundated with shiny stuff. Supermarket fruit and vegetables are polished to flavorless glow. A multitude of supermarket packages scour our brains with shiny, glaring color. Pop music is polished by sound doctors until the music sparkles with vapid aridity down to the 1/1000th beat. Movies,  television shows and video games sparkle and shine. Botoxed, lifted, puffed skin glistens, teeth glow to the point actors illuminate a set by opening their mouths. Late night TV stage sets- theaters are train wrecks of clashing, saturated color and polished form – see: Colbert renovated Ed Sullivan Theater.

We swim like a school of seduced, drugged, woozy fish following an endless array of spinning lures dipped in shiny stuff. The attraction to shine lives deep within the brainstem, conserved for 100 million years. It’s pre-human, pre-mammal. Fish go nuts for shiny stuff and we kill them with it. We were attracted to shiny stuff before we crawled out of the sea. Are we force-fed or do we demand shiny stuff and its specular reflection, a shiny feast of TV, movies, magazines, kitchen appliances and cars? If it doesn’t shine, it’s not finished. If a micro-flaw remains, truth will enter and destroy the beast. Humanity might escape and accidentally nurture someone’s soul. It is vertebrate nature to be attracted to shiny stuff like gold and silver and sparkling stuff like diamonds and fireworks. This attraction to shine goes deeper than being American, deeper than being a guilty Judeo-Christian polishing everything that will take a shine. We are seduced by shine.  To be seduced is to be duped. A shiny mediocre plateau is often  mistaken for the destination, missing a deeper worth. Unripe, unfinished stuff is shined to hide its blandness, inferiority, the faux. Shine is sprayed or rubbed on to fool people. It is a short circuit. New things shine. We love new things: new cars, new guitars, new songs with shiny sounds.

We live in the age of the polished turd. Ideas, products, images, and stories are shined until antiseptic, soul-less – dead. Information issuing from the corporate beast must be shined, made palatable and seductive for the children of global capitalism. Shine glosses over banality. Shine reveals indefensible assertions, fear of ambiguity, fear of open-ended soul-power. Why is Cezanne widely acknowledged as the greatest painter of our epoch? He faced down the purveyors of the myth of shine – the paradigm of shiny shit. He showed the world something deeper, better, more honest and thus, more beautiful. Cezanne’s ragged, open-ended late landscapes and still lifes invite the viewer to participate in the dance of creation, to “finish” his paintings in our hearts and minds. In Steve Earle’s great anti-establishment anthem “Copperhead Road”, his rebellion is most deeply expressed, not by gunning down a Federal Agent but by his shooting of a coat of primer on his Dodge, a black matte finish where shine goes to die.

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6/14/2016    9:42 AM


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