In late 1999, in search of a New Millennial Normal, I visited Belfast poet laureate, assemblage artist, and futurist Bern Porter: publisher of Henry Miller, lover of Anaïs Nin, Manhattan Project physicist, and, locally, Rapscallion Founder of Belfast’s Institute for Advanced Thinking.
Porter (1911–2004) was always a mixture of questionable facts, blatant self-promotion, and hellishly rigorous recipes for transformation. Still, he was solidly a humanist who saw a grand possibility for peace and harmony in the new millennium. However, he advocated it through decidedly strange routes, which seemed designed to jolt the mind into change rather than lead it down a garden path.
The Institute, “composed of 34 scholars with agents in Verona, Italy, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Belfast, Maine,” was currently assessing the health benefits of eating but one meal a day, a breakfast composed of nothing but onions, “the only food which grows worldwide containing everything the body needs.”
The Institute was also evolving battery-powered roller skates for silent gliding around town. Women would wear floor-length, grey gowns with Institute-designed hoods and shoulder-to-fingertip gloves, while for men, the disposable, sprayed-on, dissolvable suit would set the new look.
The Institute advocated easing the worldwide conditions of mankind by open trade, no tariffs, and the ending of embargos; America getting out of foreign military occupations, minding its own business, and relaxing; no more wars. Electric cars.
The Maine Governor and six others would run the state rather than the colossal waste of 127 legislators with their salaries and pensions. City Councils, the House and Senate would be cleaned out while giving them all boxing lessons.
James Schevill, author of Porter’s biography Where To Go, What To Do, When You Are Bern Porter, says, “Bern reflects both the horror of an age destroyed by mechanistic science operating without morality and the transcendental idealism that could be if science and art were imaginatively combined.”
Twenty years later, no onions for breakfast, and things seem infinitely more complicated. Yet for all its madness, Porter’s was a hopeful, original vision that seems benign compared to today’s world.
Is our Post-Pandemic New Normal anywhere near so amusing? And what’s Art got to do with it?
Predictions suggest three general scenarios: life gets better, life stays more or less the same, life gets worse. Wherever your life is focused, it’s bound to be a combination of the three.
The experts predict a new tele-everything world with consequences throughout our experiences of climate, health, economy, class, race, community, family, and the individual.
On the one hand, “unthinkable scale,” “exponential disruption,” “ineradicable complexity,” “a post-democracy run by mega-technologies that challenge civil liberties,” says a Pew Research Foundation report.
On the other, deepened real-life connections, racial and economic equality, less pollution, locally-produced community economies. In the Pew article, David Rushkoff says, “Simple, real tasks like growing food, building houses, teaching kids, health care, and providing energy may dominate what we now think of as ‘work.’ People will learn how to do things which could prove truly fulfilling and psychologically stabilizing.”
And this is where the arts come in. Real-time and space; in-person, eye-to-eye observation; communication, judgment, action; the risks of being creative. This is the way the arts get done.
Art practice concerns the spiritual in us all—emotion, candor, bravery, honesty, enrichment—the human values. In the face of the truly horrific possibilities, the new normal becomes the artists’ ethical imperative to lead by vision, integrity, and play. With those values, one can start anywhere and forge ahead. Even though the road is unknown, you will arrive.
My New Normal
Tools in hand. Make a stand. Become the dream.
Paint flow. Stone fly. Clay roll. Wood scroll. Words toll. Be Free.
Image at top: Alan Crichton, World Egg, watercolor on paper, 7 x 5 in., 2021.