Is your plumber a “drainage artist”?

Oscar Wilde, who made a pretty living out of making subversive, witty and astute social observations said, “All art is entirely useless”. After all, he was one to know. Having written a handful of droll plays and a novel about a portrait taking over the life of its sitter, he was still bound by the tedium of life’s practical problems. His dirty dishes didn’t disappear when he flung a leather-bound poetry anthology at them, nor did the flat tyre of his carriage auto-inflate to the sound of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

Oscar Wilde


Wilde’s facetiousness would have been reviled by Stephen Dedalus, the 22 year-old hero of Joyce’s Portrait and later of Ulysses.

Young Stephen takes art extremely seriously as did the many ‘greats’ before him. In the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses he’s strolling down Sandymount Strand and decides to close his eyes as he walks to see how far he can get in the ‘dark’. He takes a few steps but just before he opens his eyes again a suitably verbose thought strikes him: “Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? … Basta! I will see if I can see. See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.”
Stephen, self-absorbed and brilliant wants to know if the world continues to exist when he stops seeing it. Unfortunately of course, he will never find out because he can’t have his eyes open and closed at once.

Me being ridiculous on Sandymount Strand


Wilde’s idea that art was –in practical terms – absolutely useless and Stephen’s anxiety about the relationship of his senses to the outside world make for nice discussion points about the purpose and perception of art.

These days it’s not difficult to be classed as an artist. I’ve heard pedagogues described as “teaching artists” and people that roll dough as “pastry artists”. I’m all for it. The idea that there’s such a thing as an “artist” who exists on a plane of perception loftier than that of mere mortals is archaic and implausible. While the indiscriminate use of the term “artist” might be democratising and flattering to the individual, in effect it has now become a pleasant synonym for “skilled”.

Since it’s now acceptable to use the term “art” to refer to general skill rather than individual genius, Wilde – were he still here-would have to admit that “art” in its broadest understanding has become very useful indeed. I’m sure he would have delighted in calling in a “drainage artist” to unblock his toilet.

There’s something deeply unsatisfying about sealing off the definition of art as coterminous with “skill” though. To be skilled may be considered a favourable, functional quality leading generally to better prospects but doesn’t being an artist require something more than just know-how? A particular kind of sensibility perhaps? What happened to the image of the melancholic artist living in a hut penning poetry about his unrequited love? What about the assumption that pure art is “divinely” inspired?

Christopher Witcombe, Professor of Art History at Sweet Briar College, Virginia traces the emergence of the modern understanding of the artist back to the sixteenth century. He argues that during that period, “A work of art was believed to contain an extra indefinable spiritual essence”. This “divine” inspiration was impossible to explain and so the Italians referred to it as “un non so che” (I don’t know what), which was later taken up by the French, who called it the “je- ne-sais-quoi”.

People naturally became fascinated with the mysterious, god-like figures who created celestial masterpieces. Theories about their personalities and temperaments emerged and thinkers came to the consensus that the quality, which predestined an individual to become an artistic genius, was melancholia. It wasn’t a new idea; Aristotle had thought it before, and Hippocrates guessed that it occurred as a result of a build-up of black bile in the body.

Not much has changed. We’re still fascinated with the idea of “artists” today. And no, I’m not talking about the ones that teach our kids, roll our pastries and fix our toilets. Language is constantly changing, but no matter how loose the term “artist” has become, we still differentiate in our own way between those possessing a skill and those with an innate “genius” quality.

Present-day admirers, like their Renaissance counterparts, continue to elevate their artist heroes to deity status. One of the many adoring comments under a youtube video featuring the actress Natalie Portman claims “if you don’t like Natalie Portman you don’t like God”.

One of my students, a middle-aged French lady, once said that she considered Lady Gaga an artist in the “true sense”. I’m not sure how she justified it, but she reinforced the widespread assumption that ‘pure’ artistry actually exists.

Is Lady Gaga a "true" artist?


Luckily, we’re living in an era of relentless scientific inquiry and rather than accepting that true artists are born god-like to inspire us with awe, we can test the theory by removing some of the potential confounders.

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post set out to do just that in 2007. He asked world-renowned concert violinist Joshua Bell to help him conduct an experiment to determine whether people would recognise the intrinsic value of art in the absence of relevant context. Bell was an ideal specimen for such an experiment. His playing had been famously described by Interview Magazine as doing “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”

Weingarten asked Bell to pick up his violin, dress up in jeans and a cap and perform for 45 minutes at a Washington metro stop during rush hour. Just days before, he’d sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall, with tickets $100 a piece.

During Bell’s performance, 1070 people hurried by without stopping, 27 gave money, and seven paused to listen for at least a minute. At no point did a crowd gather. One lady recognised the performer and gave him $20, which amounted to a significant portion of the total $32 and change he made that day.

So context matters. When people are in a rush, they’re not primed to recognise brilliance, or even as many describe Bell, genius. They’re not used to train stations playing host to maestros and anyway, they’re not really in the mood for “art”. The kids need to be picked up, and the laundrette closes at 2.

Knowledge matters too. The difference between a virtuoso violinist and an amateur is easy to identify if you’re a classical music enthusiast, or if you play yourself. Not so if you’ve never consciously listened to anything like it before.

Unless of course, a truly essential or “divine” quality really does exist, in which case, we should be able to identify it without prior knowledge or relevant context.

Which brings us right back to Sandymount Strand, where Stephen Dedalus, himself a wannabe artist is testing his own perception against the idea of an objective reality.
It’s a futile attempt because it’s impossible to escape the bounds of his own perception. Stephen can’t ‘see’ with his eyes closed and he can never be sure of what happens to the world when he shuts it out with darkness.

When I was at school, I found it strange that entire groups of friends seemed to like the same music. It confused me and sometimes it made me unsure of what I really liked and what I thought I should like. Was artistic appreciation a prerequisite for forming bonds? Or did people simply like the music their friends liked, because they were primed to see its value? It’s impossible to know really. Teenage sensibilities seemed to be invested heavily in film and music, and less so in visual art and writing. I couldn’t imagine lunchtime conversations featuring encyclopaedic knowledge and endless speculation about the direction of Irish sculpting or the American short story back then.

One of the most appealing attributes of art is that it evades definition. Is a well-placed mahogany chair “art”? What about a stickman figure Picasso may have penned when he was drunk? We delight in arguing about these questions because deep inside us, the idea of “art” as something pure and divinely inspired hasn’t vanished. We talk about skill, because it’s measurable: This genius savant has an IQ of ‘200’ and that performer could play the trickiest passages from Chopin at the age of seven.

New York Times columnist David Brooks
argues that the possibility to become an artistic genius lies in all of us. All it takes, he feels, is diligent practice, single-focus and proper mentorship. He reminds us that the brain is plastic, and that we “construct ourselves through behaviour”.

The Irish Times recently reported on a study that found that when subjects gazed at artwork they found particularly beautiful, they experienced a surge of Dopamine, (known as the “reward” neurotransmitter) through the brain at levels equivalent to gazing at a loved one.

In this experiment, the brain simply responds to a visual stimulus, which it has already categorised as beautiful. The Irish Times conclusion that “these findings have significant implications for Government policy” is a leap too far however. The study tested subjects with pre-existing notions of beauty. It did not explore other potential pleasure-stimuli, like a beautiful view, the smile from a stranger, a spontaneous meeting or the feeling of soft sand under your feet.

Dopamine pathways aren’t just activated by a masterpiece. They also play a key role in the progress of addiction as well as during eating and sex.

Society shouldn’t formalise art. It should encourage us to look more deeply at the world around us and to be creative in what we class beautiful. If you’ve lived all your life in a high-rise block of council flats littered with crisp bags and dirty runners, you might not be flooded with dopamine when you visit an art gallery. Maybe though, when you look outside your window and see a flower popping its head out of the box you planted it in, you will feel a rush of pleasure.

Oscar Wilde, who had “nothing to declare” but his own “genius”, fell victim to a society, which classified art into moral highs and lows. His love- surely the highest of all art forms-for another man landed him in prison in Paris, where he died a pauper’s death. Maybe it was this world of narrow definitions, which Stephen Dedalus was shutting out when he walked in darkness along Sandymount Strand.

High Art and Low Art don’t exist. Every one of us can experience moments of intense pleasure and awe. It can be at the taste of your first Lindt bunny after Lent, at the birth of your first child, or in the look in the eyes of your grandmother as she knits you a Christmas sweater. It can be in the middle of traffic in an ugly part of town or in the vast expanse of a city’s art gallery. It’s all around us.

Lindt Bunny Joy

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Three Men that don’t know they’re in my life

1.The pioneering beggar

Every day I see an oval-faced man on Grafton Street holding an enormous wooden sign, which points you in the direction of the Sweet Emporium on Duke Street. He has been holding this sign day in, day out for many months. For years before that he sat slumped on the steps of the insurance building next to Hodges Figgis with a tin covered in chipped orange paint. His eyes were too sad and vacant to be those of a charity collector; he was a pioneering beggar. Somebody must have noticed him there and decided that if he was going to stay in the city centre looking for money all day, he might as well send people to the Sweet Emporium. Now he works double shifts because I’ve seen him back by the steps on Dawson Street at evening time. He’s been on my mind on and off for years. I wonder what we’d talk about, if I ever found the courage to introduce myself.

2. The Man with long, blonde hair

Since my schooldays, I’ve been passing an extremely tall man, with long blonde hair and thick pink lips. When he walks, his whole body jolts heavily forward and then bounces back, as if on a spring. He has a long, beige face, which blends in with the bewildered expression he wears. When I watch him, he seems to be looking at something beyond what I can see. I think he is the wildest and gentlest man I’ve ever seen and I also think that he is intellectually disabled. I feel sad when I see him, because of the way he moves, and because of the large blue pools which are his eyes. Every once in a while he puts on black, knee-high women’s boots and stumbles down the street in them. Sometimes I try to imagine his mother and father but I can’t because I can’t paint their pictures in my head.

3. The Opera Singer

He wears a smoking jacket and bow tie and sings to the crowds of shoppers as if he were on stage in an Italian opera house. He has a neat, tight face with symmetrical features and short, sandy brown hair. He could be from the Czech Republic or from Slovakia, but in fact he comes from our own shores. I’ve heard him speak; he asked a lady last week if he should sign her CD “To Anne with an E”.
His body language, coupled with his attire is highly comedic. I know this because once I was sitting by the window upstairs in Bewley’s watching him speak to a middle-aged lady, who happened to be a fan. He bent forward to touch her arm and tilted his head backward to laugh at what she had said. He used his hands constantly, flapping them politely in her direction and then mock-modestly at her wide-eyed praise. He’s a charmer.

These three men are in my life but I’m not in theirs.

The Mouse

One September morning in our poky kitchen, my father and I were enjoying an early brunch. He was spooning floating pineapple rings from a large glass bowl while I dipped some oatmeal biscuits into my peppermint tea. From the corner of my eye, I noticed something small and dark flitting across the floor, but the moment I turned in its direction, it was gone.

My father’s pineapple ring splashed unceremoniously back into its pool. “Did you see that?” he asked.

“See what?” I replied, wondering whether he was talking about the same thing.
“Something on the floor?”
“Yes! It was probably a Daddy Long Legs”, I told him.
He agreed and we laughed at my infantile terminology.

I thought nothing more of it and we continued to eat in amicable silence.

That September represented a new and unforeseen period of my life. I’d finished university the May before and was still at home, having failed in my attempts to travel and to find a job.

The upside to it all was that I was rather enjoying domestic life. I got to see a lot of my dad, and we’d developed our own little routines, like making mochas in the tiny steel pot which he’d had since university and listening to programmes on Radio 4.

Though I could sense myself regressing, I took solace from the fact that these moments at home were precious; that they wouldn’t last forever.

Throughout the summer, I had been indiscriminately applying for jobs but nobody would have me; the country was at a standstill. Then one day an enormous opportunity presented itself: The Irish Times was looking for an intern.

600 applied and I was in the final eight. I wasn’t holding my breath but I was devouring newspapers all the same and after a summer of uncertainty, a date for the final interview had at long last been set. Many of my conversations with my father went something like this:

“Dad, do you think I have a future?”
“Of course”, he said “You will become a literary lay-about just like me”

My father is the honorary editor of a history journal and spends much of his time cycling to and from the National Library to check if Major General so-and-so of the fifth battalion really did travel to Kinsale in 1752 as the Right Honourable Blogs’ diary of that date alleges. If he’s not doing that, he’s sitting in front of his laptop, painstakingly typesetting articles, which have arrived in his inbox from the eclectic collection of contributors he has garnered from around the world.

“Of course you won’t be rich”, he said, “but you will find a niche eventually”.

So went our conversations that summer and we revelled in the gentle irony with which we viewed our mundane daily existence.

Now that the summer had drawn to a close, the brunch we were enjoying in early September was my last before the final Irish Times interview, which was to take place the following day.

That evening, my father made an announcement.

“We have a mouse”.

“What?”, I said, already squirming.

He nodded solemnly. “Yes, I rather feared that’s what I saw in the kitchen this morning, but I didn’t want to scare you”.

“Ugh”, my mother sighed, from under her woollen blanket in the living room. “We’d better seal up the kitchen door so it doesn’t escape into the rest of the house”.

And so it began.

I refused point-blank to enter the kitchen the following morning and set off for my interview without breakfast.

I’m a vegetarian but that does not mean that I like to be invaded; particularly not by fast creatures, with long, thin tails, I told myself. After all, that’s why I chose to grow up with guinea pigs and hamsters rather than gerbils and rats. I further justified my over-reaction by telling myself that I was under enormous stress: what with a potentially life-defining interview ahead of me.

I arrived home that evening to bad news.

“We saw it in the living room”, my father said, grim-faced but full of resolve.
“It was incredibly fast”, my mother added gravely.

On the way upstairs, I quivered at every nook, convinced that the creature was about to emerge from hiding and crawl up my leg. I couldn’t bring myself to take out my furry slippers from under the hall table either, in case the mouse had taken refuge there. I shuddered and locked myself into my room.

I sat there and wondered about myself.

Two days later, things took a turn for the worse:

“It was in our bedroom”, my mother said “I saw it scamper behind the cupboard”.

She too was highly uncomfortable about the invasion.

Action had to be taken. My father got some traps.

My protest was pathetic: “Can’t we just capture it and free it humanely? Please

We could not, and I had some nerve if I thought that I could just sit there, being an hysterical and inert vegetarian, applying a guilt trip while they went to war on all our behalf.

Impractical, irrational and immature, I knew that I could neither see the mouse suffer nor capture it alone.

There had to be another way.

I made my way to the local hardware store, passing through shelves of creosote and weed-killer until I got to a section labelled “Pest Control”. Jumping with delight, I found exactly what I was looking for; I snatched it from the shelf and proceeded to the till.

I arrived home triumphant.

“I have a humane trap”, I declared.

“Huh?”

They weren’t nearly as enthusiastic as I was. They’d spent the day trying to catch the thing, which had now been spotted in several locations throughout the house, only to have me saunter back from my sojourn in the moral high-grounds, wielding a tiny cardboard box, which promised “easy capture and release”

They wouldn’t replace their multiple killer-traps with my one humane one, but agreed to use it as a supplement to their own.

The following day I spotted the mouse in my sock-drawer, and screamed.

I noticed though, that it was much smaller than I had expected.

It was a baby mouse, with a beautiful little face and a shorter-than-average tail.

I thought about the techniques for overcoming fears that psychologists recommend. One of them was called “mere exposure”: simply coming into contact with a fear can help alleviate it.

On Sunday morning my mother went to Church, having seen the mouse scuttle under her wardrobe.

By then our battle with the mouse was becoming somewhat of a farce; so much so that my father had placed our mouse-shaped pumice stone onto a trap in the living room the day before in order to startle me.

Fortified by courage and relaxed by the prepostrousness of the situation I entered the room. My father was in bed, reading a tatty book with a dull title.

“What’s the situation?”, I asked.

He lifted his nose reluctantly from under the book: “It has to be over there”, he said, motioning to the far corner of the room, “It definitely hasn’t left.”

With a sudden surge of courage, I ran to the kitchen and snatched the humane trap from where I had placed it just beside the door.

Returning upstairs, I opened the flap to the linen closet where scores of my mum’s dresses were hanging.

In the corner, half-concealed by a green velvet wrap, whiskers twitching and tiny ears erect, I saw it perched.

Any of the fear I had left drained from me in a flash. It was adorable.

We waved a scarf at it and it dashed. We dived and it squeezed past us in a blur. We put the hoover on and it didn’t move.

We laughed.

Mum came home and I retreated, expecting that we would have the little creature captured and released into the wild by lunchtime.

Later that day a voice called me from above.

“Kate, we have it!!! We’ve got it!! Come here!”

I rushed up, tripping on the pieces of cheese they had left in a trail across the floor.

My father, grinning, was holding the plastic box, where the mouse had become entrapped.

“There you go, it was your humane trap that did it in the end”, my mother conceded, smiling with a twinkle in her eye.

I took the box from my father and stared in at the little face, with its jet-black beedy black eyes peering back at me.

In those few minutes, as we sat there in my parents’ room, surrounded by traps, with clothes and cheese strewn around the floor and the tiny creature in our hands we felt closer to each other than we had for a long time. Somehow this little incident had brought us together: first through our nervous tension and then, when we saw the cute thing up close, in our shared appreciation of the ridiculous.

There was some sticky stuff on the base of the trap so the creature couldn’t run away.

“We’ll release it in the park across the road”, I cried, beaming at the idea.

“It won’t be long before it’s back!”, my father laughed as we were getting ready to go.

We were giddy with our success.

I ran upstairs to grab my camera so that I could record the moment of release. We got as far as the gate and I got my mother to take a shot of my father and me with our mouse friend.

Once in the park, I returned the box to my dad, to do the honours. We’d brought a pair of kitchen scissors with us so we could remove the top of the box.

Gingerly, my dad cut through the roof. The mouse, impaled on the floor, did not look happy.

“Not long now”, I gushed over it, still frivolous and light-headed with our victory.

My father placed the plastic container down on the ground.

Suddenly from behind, an enormous labrador came bounding towards us, barking madly. He had smelt a rat.

My instincts suddenly aroused, I growled and ushered him away, becoming a little embarrassed as I turned and saw his ten-year-old owner watching me.

The dog gone, the park fell silent but for some leaves, which rustled in the distance. We must have been there for only a few seconds but suddenly an uncertainty engulfed the air.

My father stepped back to look at the motionless mouse, stuck to the base of the box and after a while, he asked my mother to get him a sand scraper from the house.

While she was gone, I bent down, and looked more closely at where the mouse was stuck.

Attached to the base of the box, were not just the four paws, as I had thought, but the entire belly of the mouse, rendering it utterly immobile.

My mother returned with the scraper. Dad picked up the box again. With gentleness that stirred me, he attempted to get it under the mouse’s tiny feet.

It didn’t work. The gluey goo was too deeply ingrained into its silky-thin fur.

My heart was beating more quickly now.

The little body was beginning to twist in pain. My father’s expression changed: scraper in hand, he too was twinging with discomfort.

As the mouse moved, more of its fur became dislodged.

I began to see blood.

“Stop”, I yelled, hopelessly.

I had to look away. My father’s eyes were full of pain, as he continued to scrape at the little body, wreathing in agony.

An autumn chill was in the air.

The last I saw of the creature was its outstretched neck and taut, mangled, tortured body being ripped away from the plastic box.

It haunts me still.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, nothing has invaded me like this image. We had some other mice after that which were killed, humanely by guillotine. I got a rejection letter from the Irish Times some weeks later and didn’t feel much. And for all the bloodshed I have seen in the news, and the depressing images of suffering on the streets around me, nothing disturbs me like that image, or sends a pang of guilt so accute gushing through my entire body.

American Diary:Part 3 Underground Culture

November 2nd was my birthday. It began at a subway station in New York when the digital time display switched from 23.59 to 00.00. I didn’t notice because I was transfixed to an old man, who was playing the flute. He had a hunchback, a grey moustache and sad eyes. I gave him a dollar.

LSB saw the time change though. He’d been watching it. “The first act of your birthday is a noble one: Typical Katzi”, he said, flattering me, because it was my birthday and because he is kind.

Subways in New York are grubby places. They are for poor people and for people who read large books with city library stamps printed on their spines.

They are full of crazy people and sad stories. At every stop you can see the same slumped figure: somebody with their arms folded around their knees and their head tucked into their chest, motionless. You can find them on benches or hidden away in the corners.

New York is a busy place so the forgotten people talk to themselves. I counted about half a dozen men – all black- who were having conversations with themselves. I even checked their ears to see if they had any fancy devices. They didn’t.

There are so many faces on the subway that it’s hard to remember any. I stared at one lady because she looked ordinary. I wondered if I’d recognise her face if I ever saw it again. She was middle-aged, with shoulder-length auburn hair. She had peach-brown skin and a round face. I don’t remember the colour of her eyes and I might not know her if I saw her again.

The rudest man in the world works at 103rd Street station. He sits in a plastic box. His job is to advise commuters who don’t know how to work the machines or who would like to purchase a ticket but don’t have the correct change.

If you want to talk to him, you have to speak into a little microphone through the screen, which means that everybody around can hear what you want to say.

This man is the rudest man in the world because when you approach him, he roars into his microphone “ASK”.

He doesn’t say “Hello” or “How can I help you” or even “Yes?”

When LSB approached him, he yelled “ASK”

LSB was a little taken aback. LSB is polite at all times.

He bent tentatively towards the microphone.

“I was wondering if it’s possible to get a one-day metro ticket”

“NO”, the man replied and banged his fist on the counter.

“Oh…” said LSB

The man snarled and yelled “SECOND QUESTION”.

He said it as a statement, not a question.

But LSB didn’t have a second question, because his first seemed to have caused grave offence.

“You’d never get that in Ireland” we said because Ireland is small and flat and as my mum says, it’s a good place to be an eejit.

At another subway stop one evening, a young musician was playing guitar. I didn’t give him any money but LSB did. LSB is quiet and noble. The rifs followed us onto the train. It was cold and dark outside but the carriage was musty and cramped.

I have another story about the underground, but that will have to wait, because LSB and I have something important to investigate.

American Diary Part 2 – Make poetry not paper hats!

In a shop on the banks of the Delaware river in Philadelphia I picked up a book with the title “Newspaper Blackout” by Austin Kleon. I thought it would be about the decline of print media but it wasn’t. It was a book of poems.

In 2008 Kleon was just out of college and living with his girlfriend. He was trying desperately to make it as a short story writer but he had writer’s block. His girlfriend had stacks of the New York Times at home and Kleon, struggling to find any of his own words, resorted to the papers, which had millions. Armed with a permanent marker, he began to read and to draw lines through the words he didn’t need. He was left with the realisation that although he’d “never wanted to be a poet, .. dang if they weren’t poems”.

He posted some of his poems on his blog. Over time, they began to get attention and it wasn’t long before his work was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Kleon says “writing should be fun. Everyone can do it”. It something that I have to remind me of sometimes when I’m staring at a blank computer screen late at night.

I was teaching an advanced English class today and decided to give “newspaper blacking out” a go. There were only three students in the class: a girl from Saudi Arabia and two boys from Japan and Switzerland. We read a few of Kleon’s poems first and then I gave them each a chunky board marker so they could try their own.

I’d picked up three metroheralds on the way to work. We chose to work on the cover story – the guilty verdict in the Jackson doctor case. I gave them about five minutes to complete their poems. Three completely different pieces materialised: three unique ideas jumped from the same article.

I tried my own when I got home today. Not sure I’d really call them “poems” but it was fun to eliminate words at will. See if you can read them here:

What I like most about Kleon’s poems is that you feel part of the craft of writing. You have the sense that these words were chosen actively, by eliminating others. I wonder if this kind of crafting is at odds with the processes of writing creatively. One of the biggest differences is making newspaper blackout poems is that you’re not bound by the structure of the sentence, which usually ensnares you as you begin to write. This kind of writing allows you to draw pictures and to bounce ideas abound without worrying whether your sentence is grammatically and aesthetically pleasing.

Check out Kleon’s Work at http://www.austinkleon.com

American Diary Part 1: The Land of contradiction

Compensation Culture

Cruising down the highway on a megabus from New York to Philadelphia I am bombarded by a series of enormous billboards advertising attorneys. They feature pictures of balding men with captions like “Had an accident? Get compensation! Call 15800COMP”. The first thing I see on the Long Island railroad from JFK to Penn Station is a poster of a vacant-looking woman with the accompanying text “Suffering health complications as a result of vaginal mesh surgery? You may be entitled to compensation! Call 1800MONEYBACK to speak to a professional with a track-record of payouts”. “What is vaginal mesh surgery?” I whisper to LSB, who looks bewildered and uncomfortable, because he hasn’t seen the ad I am talking about. “I don’t know, Katzi”, he replies, shifting in his seat. Another morning LSB and I are watching an excellent episode of Family Feud only to be interrupted by yet more flashy ads for attorneys promising to ensure you BIG $ compensation and no fee unless successful”. They all look offensively shifty and everything that flashes on the screen is aggressive and in your face. I feel my televisual aura being invaded.

Commercialism

We walk a total of ninety-five blocks all the way from Central Park to the centre of Manhattan. We hit upon Time Square: lights, colours, enormity; everywhere. It conveys an overload of sensation and an adrenalin rush to the pit of my stomach. The changing colours of billboard lights make it instantly addictive. I stare stupefied at my surroundings, and like all the others, I whip out my camera and add to the numbifying flashes of lights. Each skyscraper in Time Square is servant to an enormous screen, which casts rapidly-changing images onto the ground, where we as tiny human creatures stand as awe-struck consumers of a world we are too tiny to control. It’s an enormously impressive place: its size, its lights, its sensations. Forever 21 there is open until 2 am each night. From the store-front an enormous screen shows a live video of the people passing by on the street below. This video provides the backdrop to a dancing model, who pops up between the little speckles of real people behind her. We stand underneath the screen for a while, searching for ourselves as if we were in a “Where’s Wally” page and then, predictably – find ourselves in the corner, point excitedly and pull out our cameras.

Brilliance and its victims

Forever 21's live video of crowds below

The ‘New’ in New York sure lives up to its name. The skyscrapers and omnipresent screens are like something from the future. Genius entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin have changed the way in which we live. At the same time, they have created a culture of technological dependency and fuelled a society whose commerce feeds off a perpetual feeling of inadequacy, social comparison and greed. We have an accident and our immediate thought is: “I can make some money. Where is that Attorney’s number?” We want to look good all the time, so we vote with our feet and make it commercially successful to open a clothes store until 2am each night.
We ignore the little guy holding a hand-made globe on top of his head in Time Square to raise awareness about Climate Change because he doesn’t have flashing lights and isn’t tall enough to scratch the clouds. America is a story of brilliance and its victims.