Art and Aesthetics of Jerome Berglund

Jerome Berglund

Sunil Sharma recently conducted an email interview with the leading American artist Jerome W Berglund, a recipient of the Setu Award for Excellence---2022, on wide-ranging topics that have bearings on art and culture in general.

Excerpts from that stimulating conversation:

 

Q: Your conception of art, please? Views on art and writing?

A: Art and writing, first and foremost must be available to all (“If it’s inaccessible to the poor it’s neither radical or revolutionary”, as the famous expression goes), furthermore espouse intersectionality and contain pure and progressive ethos to have any extrinsic value.  Personally, I’m rather personally opposed to the idea or practice, a premise of art or writing as valuable in and of itself exactly.  As Kwame Dawes once said, “All poets are political. We are political by our noises and by our silence.  When a poet writes about trees, she is being political both by what she chooses to write about and what she chooses not to write about.”  All art, literary and visual, represents a double-edged blade.  It can be utilized to inspire positive reform, as a tool for education, organization, agitating, but in the hands of those with vested interests in mollifying and befuddling the masses is more commonly employed to placate the public, befuddle them, to discourage revolt and reform – hegemony is the formal term for this, give them ‘bread and circuses’ to remain occupied and sedated as those rulers of antiquity recommended – confuse them about who is to blame, rather to point them all the wrong places, to encourage problematic tendencies of jingoism, xenophobia, nationalism, to fragment and compartmentalize the working class along different lines rather than permit and encourage their forming a cohesive whole who can effect legitimate changes. If one researches the history of abstract-expressionism, how it was weaponized by agencies to remove meaning and idealism from particular works and situate them purely in imagistic, apolitical terms, to relocate the art world to capitalist New York from the East where Soviet Realism and moral/economic values were gaining momentum and establishing a foothold, one discerns immediately the great political and conscious subversion afoot in preferencing work of an ostensibly neutral character.  These concerns are nothing new, in the haiku world of our day (and the olden times of waka and renga) the dialectic tension between bland and trite poetic compositions and profound commentaries on class, exploitation and marginalization of the feudal proletariat and sex worker or subjugated wife and daughter  (the patriarchy in its different iterations, from the brothel to highest court settings and marriage beds, is never far from an aware, perceptive and concerned commentator’s profound concern) are in my personal opinion what distinguishes great and lasting work from insipid and trifling frippery.  The conservative class of property, influence, industry will understandably have a vested interest and tendency to prefer elevating, encouraging, amplifying material which does not contribute toward disrupting their business, interfering with a status quo and caste system which allows them to dominate and maintain primacy.  Baudelaire warned, “The devil's subtlest ruse is to convince us that he doesn't exist.”  A common misconception that bland natural subjects are the ideal in short form poetry, that the masters did not utilize such as tools to comment knowledgeably and profoundly upon issues of social justice and reform, explore human nature and highlight concerns of agency and inequality, is flatly false and easily disproved by the most rudimentary review of classic literature by the masters, especially where explanatory commentary is provided to explain the rich symbolism and context of individual works being invoked and subtly alluded to.  Just as the I.W.W. Wobblies employed cartoons and agitator stickers in train cars during the great depression to stimulate and champion critical improvement, so the humble senryu and haiga, in the tradition of easily disseminated memes or infographics, be employed to effect profound and lasting paradigm shifting, allow for communication across great distances in the global community to support all manner of informing and increasing solidarity across boundaries of border, language, appearance, gender, orientation, faith.  Poetry has long been understood as an instrumental tool in winning hearts and minds, and will always be a highly contested for privilege those who control capital and allot finite space and airtime to will be highly conscious and cautious about vetting to whom microphones are allowed.  I would advise serious skepticism about any supposed progressive provided a spot and central billing to counsel the general public, in most cases one must assume they are either overt and conscious controlled opposition (‘sheepdogs’) or ‘useful idiots’ as inadvertently helpful parties whose good intentions discredit important causes or inspire activity which serves the interests of the opposition, work counter to betterment of the working class.  The introduction of Richard Wright’s “Haiku” describing the poet’s serious reservations about propagandistic control and influence in the literary world, experiences with overt recruitment attempts by different agencies and legitimate fears resultant from his spurning them, demonstrate that these concerns even trickle down into our serene and otherwise insular, presumably harmless sector of English haiku composition.

Sunil Sharma

How does mass society affect art and art production?

Bayard Rustin posits that “we need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”  Conventionally the circus, the movie theater, the mural will be employed by the powerful to quell and pacify, tranquilize or enrage in ways that benefit the billionaire class, capitalist monopolies and destructive industry, malevolent employers and venal slumlords.  But the concerned global citizen may also grab hold of these instrumental tools and use them to effect the most noble purposes, if they can avoid their own eradication long enough, have the unimpeachable character to not be swayed by threat or bribe into switching sides and betraying the public and planet’s interests for nefarious parties.  An excellent metric for whether a politician, activist, pundit is working for or against the citizenry by and large, have they been roughly silenced, discredited, muzzled or assassinated?  Essentially all leadership, assumptions and institutions, an honest voice and pure mind should be constantly questioning, challenging, deriding.  Vladimir Nabokov once said “curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.”  True critical thinking would be promoting every manner of paradigm shifting, encouraging renovation and re-envisioning from the ground up of all that has gone before.  Alejandro Jodorowsky argues “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.”  Attempts to maintain machinery that has brought us to these dire straights is highly suspect, consequently, and should be taken with massive grains of salt by all parties.  From the abolition of human enslavement to the civil rights and suffrage movements, nothing in history has been achieved without tumult and direct action gumming moneymakers’ gears, and it’s logical to assume such as a legitimate prerequisite, one powers that be will do everything they can to prevent.  “If you want something, you had better make some noise,” Malcolm X reminds us diplomatically.  Carry Nation, not exaggerating or employing hyperbole, once noted “You refused me the vote and I had to use a rock.”  This relationship between the 1% controlling things and the 99% struggling to become free and self-sufficient, with artists and writers representing each side, arguing their case in the court of public opinion and action (spending, facilitating or preventing profit) will always form a key element of art’s greater purpose, threat or capability to affect human behavior and political/economic affairs in countless meaningful senses.

 

How can an artist battle increasing hollowness and reification of market economy?

One often hears the expression, ‘vote with your wallet’.  To understand each individual’s role in the larger machinery, it is indeed critical to appreciate what we can contribute as unique cogs.  While in a sense the impoverished proletariat is essentially powerless individually to effect profound and consequential objectives on a grand scale, each tiny action and butterfly wing we flap can contribute to enormous efforts, and like ants combining their forces we may ultimately move mountains should we truly get a mind to and rise off our collective tuchuses.  I would advise looking at every cent we spend or opt not to, each word we share with our relatives, coworkers, neighbors, as opportunities for outreach and to make an impact.  If everyone ordered vegetarian options, who knows how menus might evolve to accommodate newfound demands.  Should all donators suddenly flood the Green or Libertarian parties imagine the splinter groups which might break loose from establishment parties chasing those sources of funding, still competitive with what the industrial complex and fossil fuel magnates can afford to counter offers with.  Perhaps we might hold leaders accountable, buy their loyalty in a sense.  For self interest is always the name of the game until we create a new and better game with different values and metrics for determining failure and success.  In the art and literary communities, the concept of mutual aid is equally critical to both the improvement of our species and individual’s stations in life, and also personal successes.  What book you order, whose perspective you are retweeting and recommending, what philosophies are being recommended and endorsed, truly can make monumental contributions to the good causes, and help inform and improve your own understanding of human nature, history and praxis exponentially.  The strength of the boycott can also never be underestimated.  Recent interest in social and economic justice has led to an astonishing proliferation of great and educative work on such topics.  Realization of the importance of elevating historically marginalized voices has increased representation in literature and on screens in profoundly positive ways.  Furor over sexual abuses and industrial exploitations of women, children, neurodivergent, indigenous and colonized groups, has spawned critical movements of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #Occupy, #StandingRock, continue to energize and inspire future generations and introduce them to great theory and knowledge which may prove pivotal in enacting positive improvements on a personal and societal level.  Ultimately it is important to remember it will require significant shifting of perspectives and belief systems, hierarchies of values by those controlling largest scores of capital and influence, for them to ever surrender the reigns and donate willingly (for redistribution through force is a difficult and rarely successful notion) their disproportionate, hoarded stores of resources, land, property, infrastructure, energy, transportation to the good of mankind in general.  There is much to learn from the way collectivist storytelling, the values espoused in Eastern cinema and artwork, the differences in viewing the world and understanding it can be harnessed toward effecting positive change and reshaping the greed, individualism, and classism deeply rooted in Western attitudes, which in toto have been conspiring to usher our species to the very brink of ecologic and militaristic disaster almost constantly.  The artist can be of great help toward making valuable contributions in these battles, individually and on a global scale.  There is furthermore the important notion of the general strike and sabotage, withholding productivity at the point of production until livable wages are furnished.  In the starving artist’s personal affairs minimizing expenditures, reusing and repurposing, selling your labor only to worthy outfits and not contributing to scabbing, supporting independent and worthy causes through purchasing peers’ self-published works and donating to nonprofit literary organizations (I just threw a modest contribution to the wonderful Haiku Foundation for example), supporting colleagues by reviewing their work, creating new platforms or anthologies to champion important causes, there is no shortage of positive impacts an individual artist can make to as Gandhi advocated, be that change we want to observe in the world


Art, its meaning and relevance at personal level?

Art is of course a crucial tool for processing, unpacking and examining the world, for self-actualizing and producing valuable things to give our life meaning and help us communicate with our fellow humans, facilitate peace, understanding, solidarity, justice, support positive changes in the world. 

A few excellent quotations spring to mind where more articulate luminaries captured these capabilities better than I could:

The agents of history are not so much the leaders and the spokespeople but rather the masses of people who develop a collective imagination regarding the possibility of a new future.”

- Angela Davis

Your silence will not protect you.”

- Audre Lorde

 

To work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.

- Virginia Woolf

 

Direct action gets the goods.

- Labor Sloga

 

Do you think art could save you from cynicism and nihilism at some point in your career as an artist working within the soulless circuits and networks of the hungry markets?

Managing expectations is a key part of not being overcome by frustration and depression at a person’s inability to succeed in what amounts to a grotesquely rigged game predicated upon nepotism which rewards only the most compromised behavior and projects.  It can be helpful to study all the great painters and poets who didn’t achieve a solitary lick of recognition or sales in their lifetimes, continued stubbornly on and were later canonized.  Plenty are never so lucky, but those who are afforded prominence beyond posterity postmortem one quickly recognizes are either actively perpetrating things you probably would not care to, or have utilized dynastic wealth and affluent connections as a cudgel to throttle their way to the top of the mountain.  One can’t precisely blame actors for using every tool at their disposal to succeed, but it also is a relief to recognize the absolute impossibility of competing against such forces and their arsenals of power and influence.  Anytime someone emerges from the ether to star in a franchise, release a New York Times bestseller, pop on over to their Wikipedia to investigate their lineage, connections and pedigree.  For example, that charming Downton Abbey maid, the charming wildling on Game of Thrones?  Grew up in a castle!  I had the privilege of working on Nick Kroll’s show back in California for a brief spell.  He’s absolutely one of the most talented, capable, hardworking comedians in the industry, you won’t find a better improviser, and he also has serious range and chops in important dramatic features like Loving.  But to get his foot in, open various doors and allow for red carpets rolling out, it does not hurt to have a father like Jules Kroll with a net worth of 2 billion dollars.  That’s two thousand millions one man has access to, can utilize for all manner of purposes.  Imagine some poor rube who excelled in drama classes gets off the bus from Kentucky in tinsel town with a dream and decent headshots expecting they might go toe to toe with such a formidable force of affluence and get that coveted role?  There are exceptions, but the pay to play model – in the literary and art worlds no less, often more so – is a rule which prevails anywhere outside the egalitarian platforms.  And even Twitter with its fishy blue checks, Facebook or Instagram with their paid promotions in algorithms, ability to artificially inflate perceived fanbase through bot followers, these insidious influences have always co-opted meritocratic success, driven promotion and focus since time immemorial.  Once the system’s abject hopelessness becomes clear to those navigating it, it becomes much easier to accept lack of massive commercial success and focus on your craft, to appreciate all the more every tiny accomplishment, be so much more grateful for each generous reader and kind editor who is willing to take an interest and give your writing or art a shot rather than allocate it to influencers with ill-gotten reach and roots.  Indeed, as with the laws of scarcity, one more savors triumphs the rarer and more hard-earned they are, the more difficulty with which each is gained! 

 

Your views on the current MC-driven universe of Hollywood?

This is a fantastic question, which deserves some serious unpacking.  Those outside the industry would be I promise quite disturbed by the direct collusion between Marvel films and the armed forces, and indeed comic books (and cartoons, from reels in theaters to television iterations) have always had quite disturbing roles as formal state mechanisms of propagandizing, indoctrinating, recruiting soldiers, demonizing ‘enemies’, and so on.  This history to a certain extent is publically available to review the broader strokes of, and I assure you goes much disturbingly deeper.  Beyond encouraging people to enlist, training the next generation of blind patriotic war-hawks (Iron Man), blaming the poor for acts of desperation and encouraging their violent subduing by the very sadistic plutocrats whose hoarding created them (Batman), and glamorizing different agencies and uniforms (Black Panther), there are further horrific initiatives comic book movies (and Hollywood generally) contribute significantly to, such as bolstering population control initiatives (Thanos in the Avengers series, Aronofsky’s vile Mother!), vilifying muslims and popular leaders like Gaddafi (see A Private War) who balked at the I.M.F. and nationalized resources, provided public programs striving for independence and self-sufficiency, and rationalizing the philanthrocapitalists structures which create and foster dependency (Batman again) rather than providing tools to break free from the fetters of monopolistic concerns and globalist tyranny by the attack dogs of wealthiest nations under various altruistic guises.  From working on film sets, I can tell you however you envision Maoist China, Putin’s Russia, Goebel’s Germany, Orwell’s dystopia as authoritarian controlling of every line of dialogue, scrap of copy, shot of news being carefully curated by diabolic propagandists, our own supposedly liberated and free press and entertainment industry is no less corrupted and constantly under monitoring from private and public influence.  When one realize how blurred the line is between the two, industry and the puppets they own, it makes for very rational distrust of the fruits of their funding and oversight.  For example, any time an official uniform of a branch of the armed forces is depicted on an American movie screen, the government and its functionaries traditionally retain script approval, can change lines, adjust plots, shift themes to support their various objectives in countless ways.  In a similar sense it’s essential to realize that Saturday Night Live is meticulously orchestrated by one Lorne Michaels with his net worth of 500 million, representing even wealthier forces whose orders he telephones on down to the Weekend Update crew.  To think they are genuinely advising the working-class progressive public of their best interests rather than disrupting, manipulating, bamboozling them at every opportunity is a laughably naïve bit of faith that I recommend you don’t make the error of falling victim to.



Fantasies. Monsters. Vampires. Werewolves. Where is art headed? Is it authentic one? A moral guide?

Quite often it’s impossible to address weighty political, ideological concerns head-on.  They teach one in film school that genre is a potent means of ‘sugar-coating the pill’, and indeed the science fiction and horror genres historically have proved one of the most powerful means of engaging with the issues of our day, condemning the dystopic but also providing an inspiring vision of what a better future might look like.  There are some fascinating new genres emerging, such as solar-punk, which diverge from pessimistic and ugly depictions of the future and aspire toward envisioning better ones rather than magnified horrors of our day.  In the haiku world the #SweetWeird phenomenon has been marvelously taking hold of late.  As one eloquent manifesto explains, kindness and optimism are essential components distinguishing it from other weird but embittered varieties of the surreal one encounters elsewhere.  An anthology of micropoems in this vein is currently in the works edited by Pippa Phillips and Kimberly Kuchar, further assisted by Eavonka Ettinger, Lafcadio and myself, and I think it’s going to provide some thrilling examples of the sort of speculative positivity one found in Rodenberry’s Star Trek series, the idea – originating in Marx’s ‘fragment on machines’ and the egalitarian framework advocated in Abrahamic scriptures – oft jokingly referred to as ‘luxury fully-automated space communism’.  Myth and legend in the past have alternatively been harnessed to invoke fascist ideas and foster genocidal interests too, we must always stay cognizant that we are leaning toward ethical and humanistic centered franchises rather than those dehumanizing and disseminating frightful, Malthusian concepts and ways of framing the world, promoting militarism and ecofascist ideas which, say, conflatingly focus on overpopulation rather than industrial havoc as causes of climate destruction jeopardizing human survival.  It’s important to read between the lines always too, for plenty of olden myths contain distinctly problematic and dangerous implications, for example the evil eugenic and anti-Semitic implications of the vampire or that witch in the Grimm brothers’ fairytale.  The notion of neutral art and legend unclouded by ideological messaging is a dangerous fiction viewers and creators must be educated against and constantly on guard about the dangers of assuming.  Like the foolish saying ‘I don’t see skin color’ (read ‘White Fragility’ and ‘How To Be an Antiracist’ for great analysis and insights) ignoring prevailing associations and historical context on any issue can be enormously counterproductive, the more aware and engaged we are across the spectrum of experience the more constructive our approaches will be for ushering in improvement and increasing understanding in your own text and works as well as for the ultimate audience engaging with them.

 

Your personal anthem?

Like anyone, music has always deeply inspired me and informed both my writing and artwork, and my life in general. 

Some lyrics which have been ‘scratched into my soul’ as the Hold Steady has memorably said, include the following off the top of my head:

Growing up dealing with trauma and great challenges economically, mentally, interpersonally over the years, I always found this refrain by the Mountain Goats particularly helpful…

I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.

As a young adult a memorable line by Modest Mouse I’ve probably screamed along to en route to many a soul-sucking, excruciating, undercompensated menial position…

Gotta go to work, gotta go to work, gotta get a job.

If one was searching for anthems for my generation, my friends, family, colleagues from Minnesota to California, probably the two most iconic and capable bards I would direct them to are Pat the Bunny and Craig Finn, whose countless anthemic productions might be cited, but two which jump immediately to mind are as follows…

 

We’re kids building models of a world, that we might wanna live in…

- Wingnut Dishwashers Union

(One of Pat’s many bands, including Johnny Hobo and Ramshackle Glory)

 

Look at these mountains. Look at these trees. Tom, there must be something you believe.

- Craig Finn

 

(from “Newmeyer’s Roof”, a tune about his witnessing the Twin Towers falling, and a friends’ suspicions and ‘cynical take’ about details and bigger picture, how that event spurred escalation of the United States role in wiping out 20 Million People in 37 Victim Nations Since World War II.)



Creatives that speak to you in a bleak social system as guiding spirits?

It’s indeed a delicate balance indeed between the Zen acceptance of imperfection, that serenity prayer reconciling ourselves with what cannot be changed and finding ‘courage to change what can be changed’.  There is always a genuine and frightening, intentional drive to overcomplicate matters (global politics, economics, electoral and judicial proceedings) to deter the public from understanding, following, gaining the confidence to strive for improvement – encouraging them to defer responsibilities to more ‘qualified’ specialists. It’s highly worth googling the concept of Doomerism, a recent method for disruption being employed across the media and by agent provocateurs on social networks to discourage people regarding their ability to contribute, effect change, fix flawed political systems and environmental chaos.  It makes me think of David Foster Wallace, who argued that nihilism was the greatest evil facing humanity and modern man, that apathy and defeatist rhetoric could ultimately destroy us all taken to the extremes, that such has played pivotal roles in allowing greatest evils throughout history.  “Unless you’ve learned your rhetoric in Satan's school you will not understand a word, you'll think I am hysterical,” Baudelaire warns.  But just as hazardous and rife with pitfalls are the efforts to assume control of, redirect and pervert critical initiatives for positive change.  The way the Democrat party appropriates language and weakens ideas (Green New Deal, ‘socialism’, ‘revolution’), divide and conquer attempts to unite and collaborate the working class (e.g., Fred Hampton’s brutal demise after his seminal rainbow coalition and breakfast program drew widespread ire and umbrage), are worth being highly attentive and cognizant of in all discourse and when evaluating work and its potential value or dangers.  When one looks back at the free love era and the sixties, how ostensible women’s liberation was misused to create harems and exploitative fiefdoms, how narcotics were weaponized to criminalize and discredit activists, weaken specific targeted communities, fill prisons which amount to entrapped plantations pipelining marginalized groups to provide unpaid labor for industry’s exploiting, when one realizes how many shadowy hands are moving prominent pieces in the background of any picture, they certainly begin to view the broadest strokes of history and the news cycle always with the utmost skepticism.  By and large, this is a further endorsement of seeking out uncorrupted sources of art, music, literature, reading independent work from obscure sources, eschewing the dubious blue checks and labeled material as much as possible should you care for honesty, truths which are not carefully stage managed to facilitate various purposes.  Most of the best authors and artists throughout history always had some direct interfacing with, negotiated and grappled with maintaining positive influence amidst severe pressures.  If you ever want to go down a rabbit hole, read about the Federal Art Project and Federal Writers Project under the New Deal, who it bankrolled and why, and when you review their work and its effect ask yourself where in their pieces, body of work the hand of the ministry of information can be discerned.  There are very few notable figures in the public eye who did not assist significantly in countless noticeable ways far beyond the basic crude profits their work generated for labels and distributors.  Yet while principled grassroots musical acts and lyricists like Sage Francis or Immortal Technique may obtain enormous cult followings, one will observe as a rule it’s very rare they will receive widespread dissemination or earn formal commendation and recognition if they are overtly political beyond the boundaries (Noam Chomsky, himself highly questionable in terms of credibility, famously noted “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”) of polite discussion, urge people toward collectivist modes of thinking or draw attention to immoral economic or environmental quandaries which threaten the business practices of various lobbies.  Bleakness and defeatism is encouraged by the system, they want people to throw up their hands and crack open a cold one, to not vote let alone work towards significantly improving voting integrity, recounts/exit polls/primaries, to casually dismiss any questions about flaws and vulnerabilities as ‘fake news’ when it calls their preferred team’s results into question.  Parades where participants ‘feel active’ toward no great purpose, spur donations to duopoly and its figureheads, sell t-shirts and bumper stickers without real cost to industry.  Policies situating issues along social lines rather than effecting widespread reforms which could improve situations for all, most significantly those marginalized and evincing serious gaps in distribution, such efforts are the thing feared the most, which shall receive downright vicious pushback.  Music, art, media in many cases serves as a vicarious valve for sublimating desires to rebel, through play acting and imagination, and arguably could be quelling and subverting audiences’ efforts rather than contributing to them in certain senses.  But great question worth always keeping in mind and thoughtful considering on a case-by-case basis.  

 

What is your message to the young generation seeking these fields?

Virginia Woolf famously counseled that “in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has for two hundred years, a dog’s chance… We may prate of democracy, but actually a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated.” Righteous ethics and intentions, uncompromising values represent perhaps the greatest barrier to success and widespread dissemination of ideas and work to the larger public.  A burgeoning creative will find themselves at a certain crossroads then.  They may either join in willingly to promote the interests and initiatives of evil in the different vestiges of consolidated capital media…

…the press (majority of whom print and network are owned by a handful of global entities, translate the same narrative into partisan language while pushing identical ideas and drives manipulatively), motion pictures and television (tools to solidify capitalist ideology, impress various fears and bogeymen – cold war fears stoking sinophobia and russophobia, demonizing radical islam and justifying horrific abuses of the forever wars, supporting recruitment efforts to armed services – and support fundraising efforts through impressing fear of loss and greed for gain), publishing (where various partisan efforts are vindicated through misinformation, critical environmental and social causes are disrupted and fragmented via sectarianism and boggled down by baffling minutia and intentional obfuscation and doomerist nihilism)…

…or one can consign themselves to quiet obscurity where you can affect positive change modestly through outreach and positive micro-kindnesses off their radar in relative safety.  Yamamoto Tsunetomo once said, “there are two things that will blemish a retainer, and these are riches and honor. If one but remains in strained circumstances, he will not be marred.”  I think there is much for the young artist to consider in this quite valid and insightful assertion.

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