Paintings of Clouds

            Imagine you are an artist. You specialize in impressionist paintings of clouds, but in the digital age. Your specialty is a movement against objectivity and truth and a culture’s fixation on realistic representation and scientism—which are the things, you believe, that reduce us to machines. So, you go to art school, you get an art internship, you begin an art career, making paintings of clouds. People attend your showings, standing around sipping wine. They feel a peaceful emptiness when they see your paintings. You become successful enough to survive well. Your works become more and more abstract, and people stand around calm and happy. You and your audience know that humans are a cultural species, and that our most virtuous aim is to make art. We remind ourselves that the experiences cultivated in an art gallery are what makes us unique, and what makes life so valuable. That is that, and your clouds become more abstract.

            Your friends, however, did not go to art school. You keep them around. They studied sociology or journalism or ecology or philosophy. So they talk about globalization or poverty or climate catastrophe, or current affairs, really. “What will happen when African countries industrialize?” your philosophy friend asks, “will humanity overpopulate beyond Earth’s carrying capacity? Where will we get our food?” Your ecology friend knows better, “No, the global South is slowly becoming a desert. It’s not gonna be possible for them to grow if they lose the ability to grow their own food or find water. So we’ll start seeing mass migrations of people, and all the complications of global movement. Plus, what about the HIV epidemic concentrated in South Africa?” Your sociology friend replies, “I’ve heard that it’s getting better, with a global distribution of anti-retroviral treatments. But the religious factor—that there are Christians and Muslims who protest against safer-sex campaigns—that always shocks me completely. Maybe these Puritan-type people just exist everywhere, beyond just America, you know?” Journalism friend speaks up, “well, you’d at least expect Americans to have outgrown their Puritanism by now. But talk about comprehensive sex education, to prevent so much grief of teenage pregnancies and STIs, and there are so many right-leaning people who immediately shout ‘groomers!’ It’s a culture based on fearful buzzwords. And talk about including queer people in society, man, so many people are afraid of being turned gay that they even still talk about hunting down gay people as if they’re pests. Personally, I think it functions on a logic of contagion—that they’ll be turned gay—which is a sort-of purity logic. But we have such larger issues in society, like poverty and ecological collapse and our own epidemics and this pseudo-religious authoritarianism that seems to be rising—” and your sociology friend interrupts, “no, it’s entirely religious, not just pseudo-religious. It’s like we were just born to watch the slow-motion collapse of the world that we’re living in.”

            You speak up. “I watched a documentary called CODA about the famous pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto. It’s my favorite documentary. And he was aware of this climate change ordeal, so he took a boat to the arctic and recorded the sound of a glacier.”

            Your friends look at you blankly, knowing that you just paint pictures of clouds, that, recently, have become more abstract—they’re hardly even clouds anymore. “Sounds pretty self-absorbed to me,” says your journalist friend. Your philosophy friend adds, “you know, Marx used to call religion the opium of the people, but I think art has taken its place now. Especially after modern art took that religious turn. Think of Rothko and all the people in awe of his…” you stop listening and their words trail off. Their concern seems dumb. They do not understand the transcendence and virtue of pursuing art. They do not understand humanity because they’re so focused on these despairing problems, as if the world were reduced to systems that we have to fix.

            Your next exhibit is a white page, crumpled a bit, with subtle gradations of very light, nearly transparent blue-gray. And people fly across the world to applaud your work, experiencing bliss.