Candy Bars and Mars

Once there were corners of my soul where I could flee, safe from intrusion.

Then Sophie Calle, the French photographer, hired on as a hotel housekeeper in order to photograph those bits of intimacy we leave strewn about our hotel rooms. She took pictures of our indiscretions - condoms, letters, underwear – and presented them as a public exhibition. Suddenly you and I were the subject of the public's attention, and the object of some derision.

In a simpler time we simply closed our doors to ensure privacy. There were boundaries of outside and in, places you couldn't find me, places where I dreamed alone. Then the camera tore into our illusions, and the computer destroyed the dream. Now anyone can track me on my cellphone, steal my identity, exteriorize my interior spaces. The Genome Project can slice me into infinitesimal bits. Satellite tracking can find me anywhere, any time. Google Earth can pinpoint my front door.

As a wise friend said recently, privacy is one of our most precious commodities. But in the song “The Girl with the Prefabricated Heart” (John La Touche, 1944), we learned that “her chromium nerves and her platinum brain were chastely encased in cellophane”. I'm not sure I like being a sheet of cellophane. Remember the movie “The Full Monty”? The antihero wrapped himself in cellophane hoping to lose pounds of flesh, (and all the while devouring a candy bar).

There is no candy bar passage out of the land of cellophane. Instead we have to recognize our vulnerability, to acknowledge that borders don't exist and barriers have dissolved. We delude ourselves by putting up walls, trade restrictions, immigrant deterrents. We regard The Other with suspicion and ourselves with mangled pride. We are always better than someone, we hope. But in fact we are now the someone, and that someone is always on screen. Maybe this helps to explain our fascination with celebrities: they are the successful someones, the ones who can project fake personnas and convince us to pay to watch the transformation. Life has become a film strip without any Oscars.

The transformations occurring in our lives right now are profound and irreversible. Is this why we need to conquer outer space, because our inner spaces have been irrevocably violated? Perhaps this is the reason that art exists - to give us a deeper insight into our headlong rush into radically altered states of being. We really don't need magic mushrooms, or uppers and downers. We are mutating into something that our ancestors would not recognize and might not like if they did.

The information that artists produce is available to all, but the way in which they process and combine data is unique. Anybody can write four simple notes on a scale, three of them identical. It took Beethoven's genius to combine them in such a way that they continue to move us today. The skill to use data in a certain way, developed over decades of introspection and craftsmanship; the passion to face harsh truths about ourselves that we would rather not see; the willingness to resist the seduction of video-game mentality in favor of deep reflection – these are the hallmarks of exceptional artists. They can see through the cellophane and resist the candy bars of easy explanations. They hold the mirror up to ourselves, and force us to take a harsh look at what we are doing. And if they are really good, today's art will become the Rosetta Stone for future generations as they try to understand what possessed us to self-destruct.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2006

Note to visitors: parts of this essay were published online in 1996 and 1998. I have rewritten them to bring them into the 21st century.