November 18, 2010

You Say You Want a Revolution?

Artwork courtesy of Erika Iris Simmons

Beatles For Sale.

We live in strange times. Times when a burger is cheaper than a salad and some of the most poignant cries for simplicity are voiced via the most high-tech means.

Last week I attended an exhibit of John Lennon’s artwork in downtown Boulder. I had giddy goosebumps approaching the venue: it’s safe to say The Beatles had a deep and important impact on my life. I spent my formative music-listening years drenched in Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper, and I marvelled at every rare B-side and documentary I could find. Heck, I even had Beatles stamps. I appreciated each of the Fab Four, but John was always my favorite. The incisive intellectual, the mysterious loner, the idealistic revolutionary, the artist, the misunderstood lover, the uncompromising activist—he was a kindred soul and role model.

“Everything is clearer when you’re in love.” ~ John Lennon

One day when I was in fifth grade, my Grandfather came home to find me in his living room, rivetted by the movie, Yellow Submarine. I thought it was witty and brilliant and provocative and couldn’t wait to share it with my entire family. Upon hearing the line in “Eleanor Rigby” about “Fr. Mackenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear… no one comes near…” my Grandpa (a Southern Baptist Minister of formidable conviction) asked me, pointedly, “Darlin’, why do you think they would say such a thing?” Quaking in my boots, I garbled my theory: it was a lament of the rampant alienation and loss of faith they saw in both priest and congregation. My Grandpa rejected this and insisted he’d seen members of his church lured away from the flock merely by listening to The Beatles. His question was the beginning of the biggest fight I ever had with him: while I was inspired by the love and hope I heard in their music, my Grandpa still saw The Beatles as radical and potentially dangerous figures. That afternoon was pivotal, as I stood firmer than ever before in my own convictions—and considered for the first time that my elders might not be infallible.

I think we often forget this radical, revolutionary edge The Beatles pushed. After all the punk, grunge, and goth movements our culture’s weathered, they seem milquetoast—especially since many prefer to focus on their “pop sensibilities”: what’s edgey in belting out, “Baby, you can drive my car?”

Yet John Lennon was a radical idealist. This was what thrilled me when I first discovered The Beatles, and this is what I was grateful to be reminded of at the exhibit last week. Amidst his witty cariacatures and whimsical sketches were biting social criticiques and outlandishly hopeful imaginings.

And it was all for sale.

I witnessed a couple purchase a piece of artwork from the wall. They hemmed and hawed for a bit first (it was no small purchase, after all: prices ranged up to $20,000)—and there was a small flurry of excitement in the crowd when they gave their definitive “yes.”  I listened as the broker explained the certificate of authenticity on the back of the piece, and its importance. He described some of what Yoko Ono has done to manage the estate as I wondered where all that money might go.

I stepped away from the happy couple and stood contemplating one of the John Lennon quotes peppering the exhibit, my favorite one:

“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.” ~ John Lennon

This is an outrageous statement—not in the magical thinking, Secret-y kind of way, but insofar as it poses a direct and profound challenge to each and every one of us. What am I doing, right now, to further or hinder peace and justice? Does my lifestyle truly reflect my highest ideals, or am I suburbanizing my way out of walking my talk? We all say we want more peace and love in the world, but are we willing to do the work and make sacrifices to this end?

I left the exhibit inspired and befuddled. I was grateful to be reminded of John Lennon’s idealism, yet overwhelmed by the dissonance of his revolutionary pleas and disregard for consumerism packaged as commodities.

Compounding and further contorting this confusion is the controversy over whether these pieces can truly be called Lennon originals—there’s a compelling argument that they’re vaguely illegitimate copies at best, and outright forgeries at worst. Yoko (who added color to many of the lithographs after John died) has defended her contributions to John’s work as collaborative; critics claim it’s misleading and opportunistic. I’m undecided, myself. I would, however, love to know where those thousands of dollars go, something I’ve been unable to track down.

There was, however, an opportunity to donate to the Boulder County AIDS Project at the door, which I appreciated. And I feel privileged to have seen the exhibit, however contentious its legitimacy. Yet I’m still reeling from the oddity of it all. I’m not calling John or Yoko sell-outs; I am, however, touched by the difficulty we all have in balancing ideals and pragmatism, especially in what’s become a hyper-real culture, polarized by the unbridled aristocratic decadence of the few and the acute impoverishment of the many.

Like I say, we live in strange times.

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