A Quiet Mind; or, The Tyranny of Culture

                                      James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, Blue and Silver - Chelsea (1871)

A quiet mind.

         I’m not exactly sure when that phrase entered my head, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the past year.

         If I had to define what I think a good life consists of, in the fewest possible words, I might say that a good life involves a quiet mind (or at least the search for one).

         Quietness has become a bit easier to attain since the pandemic began, as so much of our society has been shut down. While I obviously have compassion for all the people who are suffering economically because of the various sectors of society that have been shuttered, I admit that I am enjoying the relative quiet.

         Normally, we live our lives in the midst of a tremendous amount of noise. The “noise” comprises all the things that work against the attainment of a quiet mind. The noise has increased at a terrifying pace in recent years, thanks to the Internet, cell phones, social media, Netflix. Most of us almost never get a quiet moment anymore. It’s a disaster. No wonder so many awful things are happening.

         I recently watched the film My Dinner with André, in which André Gregory and Wallace Shawn talk for two hours over dinner. The principal subject of their conversation is the need to “turn down the volume” so that one can begin to live authentically and fully. André explains how he came to feel that our modern lives are so dominated by media that we have become totally numbed, unable to feel. He describes his own attempts to reconnect with his soul (my term) through various New Age-y experiences, and why he turned his back on the theatre (because he felt that audiences were so numbed that they were incapable of being touched by anything). Towards the end of the film, he summarizes his philosophy by saying that at some point in one’s life, “you need to cut out the noise.”

        What is fascinating to me, watching the film in 2021, is that it was made all the way back in what I have come to think of as the Golden Age, before our lives were hijacked by technology. It was made in 1981—before most of us had computers, before any of us had heard of the Internet, before cell phones, long before social media. Think how much worse things have become in all the areas André talks about. Think about just how difficult it is, in 2021, to “cut out the noise.” If the film were remade today, for sure Andrè and Wally would be unable to have a two-hour conversation without being interrupted by calls on their cells, notifications, etc.; or, alternatively, if they'd turned their phones off, they would at some point bring them out to show each other holiday pics or favourite YouTube videos outlining ways to attain peace.

         One of the surprises of the past year for me was to discover that most of the activities that constitute what we commonly call “culture” are, for me, part of the noise that I’ve been longing to escape. Now that so much of the “cultural sector” has been silenced, I understand how noisy it usually is, and I have to say, I’m loving the quiet. Every time I hear talk of theatres, cinemas, concert halls, music venues and such reopening, I will admit to you, dear reader, that my gut reaction is one of dismay. Please, I think, can’t we just enjoy a bit more quiet before “normal life” resumes? While I like live performance (and am even sometimes the one doing the performing), I’ve come to understand that most of what we commonly call “culture” is part of the noise I’d like to turn down.

         “Art” (I’m using the term loosely) has been largely subsumed, in our society, into the economy. It’s a branch of production, operating on a business model: specialized training, a high degree of professionalism, profitability, growth, ever-increasing production, aggressive marketing and self-promotion, the ongoing search for new markets. In the same way that Ford bombards us with invitations to spend our hard-earned money on a new car, the professional theatres, for example, work hand in glove with the media to try to convince us that we absolutely must see whatever their latest product is—until they have another new product, and then we can forget about the last one.

         I’ve been bemused, over the past year, to hear and read arts journalists and others talking about how “culture” has been shut down because of the pandemic. According to them, we’re all missing our usual access to “culture.” It’s interesting to me that journalists on the culture beat don’t really know what “culture” means.

Culture is, basically, people doing stuff. I’ll give you a homegrown example:

Last October, the restaurant across the road from me had to shut down because of the public health measures designed to stop the spread of the virus. In front of the restaurant was a terrasse. Every morning in the weeks after the restaurant had to close, and before it got too cold, a couple of elderly local men would sit out there with the coffees they’d bought from the fast-food restaurant at the corner and talk, something they weren’t able to do when the restaurant was open because they’d never have been able to afford the food there.

         That’s culture—two guys with their takeout coffee, sitting on the terrasse of a shuttered restaurant in a pandemic, chatting on an autumn morning.

          Unless we’re all dead, “culture” has not been shut down. We’re getting on with our lives as best we can, aren’t we? We’re doing things; we're living within a culture. What the journalists and others mean when they say that “culture” has been shut down is that the professional performing arts venues and cinemas have been shut down. Culture, on the other hand, is always alive where there are people doing stuff. And as for art in its loosest sense, we live at a time when we have access to the arts in a way that would have been unthinkable even thirty years ago. We can download pretty much any book, movie, television show, or piece of music that’s ever been created. Are we really suffering from a lack of culture in this, more restricted sense of the word—i.e., art?

         I’d like to propose a theory:

When we look back to, say, the 1950s or earlier, it’s easy to see to what degree society used to be dominated by religion. Attitudes towards everyday human behaviour, sexuality, relationships, family, marriage, and so on were filtered through the lens of a belief in God.

          In Canada, and even more markedly in Quebec, we’ve almost ditched all of that sort of structured belief over the past sixty years or so. But nature abhors a vacuum. So what have we replaced religion with?

          I would like to suggest that the new religion is Culture (with a capital C). It is verboten nowadays not to believe that Culture is desperately Important, in the same way that people used to lower their voices if they wanted to express doubt about the existence of God. It is okay these days to express a wide range of views about sexuality, gender, politics, relationships, and so on; we are all encouraged to “speak our truth.” But it’s really not okay in polite society to express the view that the professional arts are not really art at all, but profit-driven businesses flogging never-ending distraction, however well-made it may be; that the entire structure of arts grants is misguided because it is based on the notion that, with a bit of startup money, the arts can become profitable and contribute to the GDP, while in fact true art doesn’t really function along a business model at all; and that in fact the whole notion of a “career” in the arts is largely a fantasy, and that in any case the most interesting art is done at an extremely small, local, and amateur scale, such that it almost never gets covered by “culture” journalists at all.

         For the record, I don’t totally agree with the views just expressed. I think reality is much less black-and-white. But I wouldn’t be in complete disagreement with someone who expressed those views.

         “Culture” as that word is generally used in the media these days is part of the noise that I’ve decided to try to seriously tune out. Emerging from the pandemic (assuming we do, at some point), I’d like to turn down the volume permanently. I’ve already disengaged from social media. I want my life back. In the same way that some people used to get tired of being preached to by the priests and bishops, I’ve had enough of being told I need to keep up with what’s on Netflix.

         At the same time, though, I do passionately believe in the power of art to inspire people—to help them have quiet minds. I’m just trying to figure out what that kind of theatre would look like.

First, though, I need to quiet my own mind. The pandemic, terrible though it has been, has helped with that. Once I’ve attained some level of quiet, I’d like to try to find out how art—and particularly theatre—can flourish without being part of the noise.

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