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Scooby-gang-1969

We’ll get back to talking about the fear and ignorance which is tearing America apart in later posts.  For right now, I would like to say goodbye to one of the people who defined my childhood and provided me with endless delight back in the Saturday mornings of the 1970s.  Joe Ruby (1933-2020) was a writer and producer who worked with Ken Spears to create “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” a hit animated series about four teenagers and a Great Dane who traveled around in a groovy van, solving various mysteries.

Each episode featured a supernatural mystery, which, upon closer inspection was revealed to not be supernatural at all.  The ghosts, monsters, phantasms, and sorcerers were always revealed to be scary tricks employed by grifters and con-artists (usually as part of a real estate scam or a smuggling ring).  The gang would unravel the mystery and unmask the villain through classical sleuthing, slapstick, and ratiocination.  Although the gang occasionally collaborated with other classical American cultural heroes, such as the Harlem Globetrotters, Batman & Robin, and the Addams Family, the real break in the case usually came from the group’s intellectual, Velma, who would spot a loose thread and pull at it until the villain’s ridiculous scheme lay exposed in its full venality.

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“Scooby Doo” debuted in 1969 and eschewed the violence which was a staple in other cartoons because the studio was concerned about the the wave of political assassinations which had rocked the sixties.  Although some of the various spin-offs (of which there were many) abandoned Ruby’s core principle that the supernatural stuff was not real, the original series was actually a show about enlightenment values and reason (albeit dressed up with plenty of hijinks and a talking dog).

In most cases of “Scooby Doo Where Are You” the gang was able to figure out who the monster really was by means of a simple question: who would benefit from scaring people?  Then it was a simple matter of conquering their own fear to  unmask the villain.

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Joe Ruby also wrote “Thundarr the Barbarian” a post apocalyptic show about a distant future where everything is hopelessly ruined and grotesque warlords oppress the world’s beleaguered survivors.  Maybe if everyone had asked more “Scooby-Doo” type questions centered around rational, material evidence, the dark world of Thundarr would never have come into being.  You must cling to reason, even if you are scared, otherwise the monsters step out of the smoke and mirrors and become real.

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One of modern age’s great obsessions is the desire for simplicity.  You see this concept everywhere—lifestyle gurus sell millions of books about simplifying your life.  Hollywood blockbusters are about salt-of-the-earth country boys with a monosyllabic moral code who become action heroes and easily defeat the bad guys. TED talks distill data science into a short anecdote from primary school.  The infatuation for simplicity is omnipresent—in fad diets, in investment strategies, in household management, above all else, in politics (boy howdy is the desire to make things simple running rampant in politics!).

This is a shame: for simplicity is a fallacy.  Things are not simple at all.  Generally, the more one studies a field, the more one realizes how complicated, nuanced, self-contradictory, and messy that field is. A lead ball and a feather fall at the same rate…except in the real world where they fall so differently that thermodynamics and gravity are hidden. History is not one all-important person [Napoleon or Alexander the Great, for example] saying “I will accomplish X”: it is countless millions upon millions of people trying to accomplish innumerable conflicting goals in opposition to each other (all while churches, nation states, guilds, secret societies, kingpriests, banks, and other strange cabals work on their own conflicting agendas).  In college I was excited to take cell biology and learn about the simple building blocks that life is made of…until the professor came in and wrote the Krebs cycle on the board as the first thing.  That was the first ten minutes! The rest of the class was learning how wrong the “simple” elegant metabolism cycle (below) can go when you start adding new chemicals.

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Simplicity is not real except as a concept. And it is a dangerous concept! The purpose of today’s post is not to teach you the Krebs cycle (as if I could) or to encompass all of history.  Instead we are pushing back at simplicity by striking at minimalism–the art form which espouses reductive simplicity.

Why am I attacking minimalism instead of other confidence tricks based around the illusion of simplicity? Art is the wellspring that ideas come from.  Concepts that bubble up in a font on Mount Parnassus are sanctified by the muses (or I guess these days by Jerry Saltz) and then trickle into other fields.  To start to make some headway in this worldwide morass we are in, we need to let go of some of these illusions about simple being better.  To start with that we need to go back to minimalism’s aesthetic roots in modern art.

The reason art is so germinal is because it is a place of illusions and magic.  The most fantastic imaginings can be real there.  Do you not like to walk?  You can paint everyone as flying! Are you sad that most of the creatures that ever existed have gone extinct? Just draw them as living together in Super Eden! Do you chafe at the Byzantine organic chemistry level complexity of, well, everything…just draw it as ridiculously simple! And artists have certainly simplified.  There are many artists who became influential just painting white canvases: Malevich, Martin, Baer, Albers, Ryman…the list goes on and on.

Arguably some of these works were made to express the same concepts I am expressing here.  Simplicity is not simple.  That infamous white canvas “Bridge” by Robert Ryman (1982, pictured below) has probably engendered more complex philosophical art essays than just about any artwork from the seventies/eighties.  Looking at a pure white canvas makes you realize that white can be warm or it can be cold. White can have a variety of textures and microdetails…to say nothing of the dense world of allusions it opens up.  Thinking about the nature of white begins to raise troubling questions about cognition, physics, and the psychology behind how we see things.

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But sadly these meanings have not translated well as Minimalism the art movement has flowed into minimalism the cultural phenomena (frankly I think the minimalism wing in the art museums might be a bit of a carnival trick too, to get people laughing and talking not to impress them with the sublime).

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The minimalist aesthetic has been a growing problem in America for decades.  Any New Yorker will instantly recognize the prestige look of the present moment—off-white walls, ugly blocky furniture made of blonde wood and neutral fabric, recess lighting, lots of glass & steel, monochromatic accents, and minimalist artwork.  To obtain the image at the top of this paragraph, I went to Google and image searched “beautiful apartment” and the results were hundreds of images of identical white rooms with what seems like the same furniture set.  It is like being trapped inside a display refrigerator at Sears (does that place still exist?).  Is this beautiful? Obviously not, but it is cheap and simple for developers to craft.

I feel like these rooms are like the GUI of a computer—they are seemingly simple, but they are really designed by vast corporate interests to sell things (and also there are vast worlds of complexity, disorder, and mess crammed into storage, just out of sight).  Minimalism look good on screens—it is simple enough to be comprehensible even in a thumbnail so you can sell it online (no need for photoshopping). Also minimalism is like a carnival barker’s trick or an infomercial pitch in another way too.  Its simplicity makes it easy to sell.

And here is where we get to the real heart of minimalism.  It is commercially successful. That Ryman painting a few paragraphs back sold in 2015 for $20.6 million!  We already know how well Kondo’s works about decluttering your life sell.  The “clean” diet kills people because it lacks sufficient nutrients for human beings, but people adhere to it with religious fervor even when MDs beg them not to.

Our world is so complicated and baffling that the allure of simplicity is an enticement beyond any other.  Yet it is salesman’s con job.  Don’t let people convince you that white paintings have a meaning that supersedes all other art or that empty rooms are best.  Simple solutions in politics tend to be impossible and dangerous. Simple diets will kill you.  I wish I had said my thesis more simply, rather than writing such a winding narrative to say such a straightforward thing.  Anything of beguiling simplicity is almost certainly a lie.

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OK, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, my idea for today’s blog post did not work out.  I was going to write about Gothic mascots—a perfectly serviceable mashup of two favorite Ferrebeekeeper tags—but, when I got home from work and started researching gothic mascots the pickings turned out to be exceedingly slim—a Simpsons gag (the Montreal vampire), a bunch of troubling Lolita cartoons, and those godawful “Capital One” barbarians who are trying to sell you some sort of credit card (are they even Visigoths? Is “Capital One” even really a real credit card?).  Apparently nobody wants any sort of gothic mascots except for predatory lenders.

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Oh no!–what if Capital One destroys my credit rating for making fun of them? [collapses laughing]

So I ended up looking with increasing desperation at past mascots for anything of any interest and this line of inquiry lead me back to that Simpson’s joke about the Montreal vampire.  Montreal is a francophone city—beautiful and evocative—yet prone to making choices which are different from the market-driven choices of other places.  What was the mascot of the 1976 Montreal Olympics?  And, Bingo! suddenly I had today’s blog post.

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This is Amik the beaver.  Amik means beaver in Algonquin—so this character (which looks like it was designed by somebody who just spilled an entire bottle of India ink) is really named “Beaver the beaver.” Anik appears with a red stripe with the Montreal Games logo on it or sometimes with a pre (?) pride rainbow strip.

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I am making fun of poor Anik because I don’t think beavers lack faces.  Nor are they the unsettling pure black of absolute oblivion.  Maybe I found my Gothic mascot after all—in the most unlikely of places—Montreal, 1976!  I will write a better post tomorrow. In the meantime enjoy the strange juxtaposition of nihilism and naivete which was seventies design.

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The Calm Sea (Gustave Courbet, 1869, oil on canvas)

The Calm Sea (Gustave Courbet, 1869, oil on canvas)

Gustave Courbet was preeminent among the realist painters of nineteenth century France.  Although he rejected the romanticism of the previous epoch of painting, there was often a certain robust drama to his paintings—which frequently portrayed dark hunting scenes, stormy waves, and tempestuous mistresses.  This painting however is a real exception: here is a delightfully undramatic summer beachscape. Hazy half-cumulus clouds melt into the aqua sky above a yellow strip of sand. Small practical fishing vessels bake in the sun as sailboats drift by on the offing.

Although this is a view of the beach as it appeared in the 1860s, there is something timeless about it.  In real life the simple painting seems alive with the sounds and sunlight of the Atlantic coast—you almost expect a seagull to fly out of it (hopefully that comes across from the digital image—it is hard to look at art online).  Courbet’s work was a bridge not just away from the tempestuous Romantic art of the first half-of the nineteenth century, but towards the liveliness and freedom of impressionism.   This simple but powerful work really shows how he could enliven a familiar landscape with bravura brushwork!

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