Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves?
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Artist, writer, and educator Jonathan Blaustein studied Economics and History at Duke University before receiving an MFA in Photography from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
His project, “The Value of a Dollar,” was published by the New York Times in 2010, and subsequently went viral on the Internet, creating dialogue about the manner in which food represents deeper issues of wealth, class, power and health. “MINE,” his mixed media photo series, was also featured in the New York Times, as well as Fraction Magazine.
On a recent spring morning Blaustein was bustling with energy as he deftly balanced a nearly full 16 oz. to-go tea while gesturing with his free hand in order to make a point while I concernedly looked on. Originally from New Jersey, he’s maintained an East Coast manner of speaking and is alternatively erudite, frank, and probing, while simultaneously looking every bit the Taos local under faded trucker hat pulled tight over his collar- length black hair and full goatee.
I’d recently come across an online video of him intelligently discussing “Value of a Dollar” and, interest piqued, subsequently went to his website to investigate further. What immediately struck me was the juxtaposition of images Blaustein effortlessly conveyed; where The Value of a Dollar clearly pulls back the curtain on industry and the purported value of mass-produced food, MINE is about sense of place and the unpredictable quality of nature.
These two bookends had me thinking of a quote from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, specifically about the Appolline and the Dionysiac, two qualities which, according to Nietzsche, “spring from nature itself, without the mediation of the artist, and in which nature’s artistic urges are immediately and directly satisfied; on the one hand as the world of dream images, whose perfection is not at all dependent on the intellectual accomplishments or artistic culture of the individual; on the other as an ecstatic reality, which again pays no heed to the individual, but even seeks to destroy individuality and redeem it with a mystical sense of unity. Faced with these immediate artistic states in nature, every artist is an ‘imitator’ – either an Appolline dream artist or a Dionysiac ecstatic artist or else – as for example in Greek tragedy – a dream artist and an ecstatic artist one and the same time.”
The Appolline and the Dionysiac. Order and chaos.
These concepts were running through my mind as I stared at Blaustein’s images; the orderly deconstruction of the “Value” images contrasting with the ecstatic goriness of MINE; both executed without a trace of the artist’s ego to disrupt the flow from subject to object.
Whereas the value series conveys an Appolline energy in clean, geometrical lines; images still bearing the mark of production, of technology, MINE offers a peak through the veil of reality to those things of the earth in their unimpeded form; the timeless beauty of a severed deer’s head, the eternal mask of sleep serenely evident on the face of a baby mouse.
What’s evident in all the images, however, is a sense of Nietzsche’s mystical unity, an absence of individuality.
Both series have traces of the Appolline and Dionysiac, of well-thought out process and spontaneity, of ego and selflessness. MINE, in particular manages to convey a “Goldsworthy-ian quality” in its own, distinctive Apollonian way, anchored in terrifying images of life post-bacchanalia; bones, hair, hooves, blood and flesh now precisely laid out in surgical white light; dead, but not decayed.
Back on the front porch of World Cup coffee, downtown Taos is bustling with mid-week energy, as steady traffic coughs up and down the tiny two-lane highway bi-secting town east from west. Ambulance sirens blare to cut through the stagnation, inching along to their emergencies.
At a break in the conversation I remember the crushed Pepsi can I’ve got in my bag I brought especially to show Jonathan. I’d been hiking in the mountains around Taos Canyon a couple days before when I spotted it lying in situ among the dirt at the base of a piñon.
What immediately caught my eye was the antiquated quality of the can, the fact it was obviously not made of the aluminum now produced. I wondered how long the rusted refuse had been sitting there in its stunning natural landscape when I decided to scoop it up and do some research.
Apparently, Pepsi stopped manufacturing the type of can I found in the mid 70’s when lighter aluminum and the stay on pop-top became available. Prior to the stay on pop-top the “pull off tab” was the norm in canned beverages. The problem with the pull-off tab, however, was that it was just one more thing to throw away, as a matter of fact, the can I found had the disposable tab lying a few feet from it, and it’s probably still sitting where I left it.
Back at World Cup, Jonathan picks up the flattened, rusted can and examines it briefly before handing it back to me and we head off on another tangent about disposability and the amnesiac quality of first-world culture.
The siren’s blare is starting to affect us, Jonathan visually, as we’d been in the midst of a deep conversation about life as a father, an artist, a consumer, and shared values, when they started.
We try to re-commence several times, but the pace of downtown is now humming and the day is ripe. We’re also both glancing at our phones every minute to check the time, and suddenly we’re walking out to the parking lot. However, as we’re saying our goodbyes, we agree to continue the conversation in the near future, and I get into my truck with a head full of ideas, eager to continue the exchange.
Anthropogenesis & The Mickey-D’s-ification of the Planet
Right Livelihood Award (the alternative Nobel Peace Prize) and Thomas Merton Award winning Author, Scientist and GMO Activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva offers a critique of modern scientific method in her 1988 book Staying Alive: Women, ecology, and development, referring to said scientific method as “reductionist science,” a search for universal truths obtained through presumptively value-neutral and objective, experimental methods.
Reductionist Science’s main flaw, according to Shiva, is its unflinching separation of facts and values, a problem Los Alamos mathematician and Theoretical Physicist Freeman Dyson openly admits in his 1979 Manhattan Project memoir Disturbing The Universe, recalling how he and other scientists involved in the project were enthralled with the logical and even aesthetic beauty of the mathematics underlying the invention of the A-Bomb; yet they never paused to consider the ethical, cultural, and environmental implications of their research. According to Dyson, it was “positivistic folly – the separation of facts from values” that blinded the scientists at Los Alamos.
The historical roots of the problem stem from the Baconian scientific revolution, when the European search for “timeless” and “placeless” truths came about. Shiva postulates this turn away from localized knowledge effectively severed science from ethics in the regard it failed either to respect natural and cultural diversity or to recognize the situated nature of knowledge. More importantly, Shiva continues, “reductionist science openly devalues place-centered knowledge and rejects the right livelihoods that human communities have created on the basis of caring for their ecosystem rather than exploiting it.”
New Mexico is uniquely poised to endure the depredations of reductionist science in that its history of place-centered knowledge has remained more or less intact by Pueblos, plains tribes and Indo-Hispano Farmers who’ve eschewed external interference. However, situated alongside these ancient truths are the ecological maladies and by-products of the reductionist science juggernaut: nuclear waste, poisoned water tables, desertification and cultural extinction being just a few examples.
Blaustein seems to have unconsciously embodied that place-centered ethos in MINE, and I’m telling him so as we sat on the patio of HERO restaurant in the John Dunn alleyway off Taos plaza last week. “The value of a dollar is really about globalization,” he matter-of-factly says between bites of his Maki Bowl, before adding, “I wanted MINE to be about private property…about re-invention…frankly, I saw it as an opportunity to create value where there was none,” he continues, a steady spring wind now kicking up, causing our table umbrella to do a dangerous dance to and fro.
“For me, the biggest challenge in creating MINE, and for what I’ve been doing lately, is in confronting my own fears about property, about its demarcating lines…well, I’m sure your familiar with that,” he says, looking up to meet my gaze.
He’s referring to my Hispanic roots and the historical land claims to pre-existing Spanish Land Grants, effectively ceding current land back to Hispanic hands. It’s a notion that seems absurd on some levels, just on others, but the fact of the matter is it’s too late for any such notion, if anything, the larger battle is one Blaustein’s acutely aware of, and addresses foremost in Value, that of globalization.
The uncharted territory for Blaustein isn’t in trying to conjure ideas, but in moments as a father, land owner and husband. Northern New Mexico is a chop wood/carry water sort of place, and therefore has a poetic quality to it, yet it also has a well-deserved reputation, particularly back in these suburban areas, for unbridled drunkenness, violence, and greed. Crossing a property line can get a shotgun pointed at you quicker than you can say “Guadalupe Hidalgo,” and the person on the other end more often than not means business.
“I’ve taken to showing up on my neighbor’s doorsteps with a cherry pie as ambassador,” Jonathan says with a straight face. “You’d be surprised how successful it can be. I’ve also found that once you make that initial gesture, break that wall down, the relationship tends to warm quickly,” he adds as we’re now finishing up lunch in the unrelenting wind.
“It’s been a strange trip these last five years, when they told me Value went viral, I had no idea what that even meant,” Blaustein adds as he empties his trash and we bus our dishes.
“It really was an alien concept to me, ‘viral.’ “Is that something bad? I thought.”
“Then it was all about, how are you going to monetize this?”
“These were alien concepts to me.”
As we’re headed to the parking lot with Jonathan leading the way, we agree to have dinner later that week as we’ve been discussing food quite a bit with one another, both having worked as Waiters throughout the years.
His restaurant time has molded his philosophy every bit as much as Duke and Pratt, but in a way that invariably allowed Value to emerge in an organic fashion. His mind works quickly, categorizing details and breaking down things to their origins in a matter of seconds. He sees motivations first, a mark of his urbanization, as his mind goes through the questions of what’s this? What does it do? Why does it exist? Is there any value here?
As a blogger for the NY Times as A Photo Editor, Blaustein uses his intuition to cut to the heart of the matter with verve and a confidence that thoughtfully illuminates the broad variety of subject matter thrown his way. The writing’s allowed him to examine the artistic process from idea to finished product through the eyes of the pundit, giving him a more rounded view of his own work and the artistic impulse.
It also allows him to stay connected to global and national news and ideas, ensuring he doesn’t sink into provincialism out here in the vast west, tucked away in his mountain hamlet.
His property’s hidden away on the northern end of Taos County in an old Spanish land grant. From here, Taos’ signature mountain is obstructed by its smaller, more compact partner to the left, El Salto, anchoring the spot with a fortress-like quality.
The week after we initially met, I’m pulling up his rutted dirt driveway in my compact Japanese with family in tow, in for a treat, as Blaustein’s preparing a Roman-style dinner of Scaloppine al limone for all and the evening is sunny and pretty much absent of the harsh winds associated with the season.
As our boys effortlessly switch into play mode and take to running from end to end of the Blaustein’s modern home, we head out to his vast backyard to walk the property that spawned MINE.
It’s a gorgeous spot with a river flowing to the north under antiquated cottonwoods and bordered with red willow and irrigation ditches. As we walk along he recounts some of the stories from MINE, particularly the severed deer head.
“I often walk along here by the river,” Blaustein quietly says, “One night I heard the dogs going crazy and the next morning I eagerly went out to investigate, when I found the deer carcass. Apparently, they’d tore it apart in the night and I came out to this macabre scene…”
He pauses by the river as its eternal flow sings in gurgles as it brushes past rocks. Here under the lumbering , bare branches of cottonwood I get an image in my mind of the carnage that transpired that night; the chase, the capture, the blood…when Jonathan breaks the silence.
“When I found the carcass I was pretty excited. I particularly wanted the head, which the dogs had started on, but it was pretty much still fully attached. I went and got an ax, and I just couldn’t seem to make a dent in it…so I just let it go, there was enough there, in particular I was drawn to the deer leg and the hoof…anyway, the next morning my mother in law called me out of the blue.
I got it! She said.
The deer head! The dog’s chewed it off in the night.”
In the silence following the story I’m thinking about how dogs teeth are ingeniously made to do what comes natural to them, whereas the man-made ax of steel and wood is obviously meant for another purpose; form and function, it also flows through Blaustein’s work, perhaps incorporated in light of situations such as this.
A breeze springs up out of nowhere and the wine glass I’ve been carrying is now empty, so we head back to the house where Jonathan gets right to work on dinner and I refill our glasses. I’ve lived in some of the big cities he’s lived in and we can easily switch gears from discussing a particular neighborhood and its urban trappings, to local weather and cultural events.
Our common traveler’s background is part generational thing, part individual wanderlust, but it gives us the ability to truly think globally and act locally at times. Northern New Mexico is a socioeconomically challenged area, and that comes with all the affiliated cultural problems which can arise from that condition. It’s also a progressive area, with a long history of utopian communities which have come and gone like the majority of the educated, yet transient population.
For those that choose to carve out their niche here, there’s bound to be some struggle, but if you’re honest in your intention you can leave your own indelible mark on this place, and it can do the same for you.
I’m thinking about that as I watch the Jersey boy that looks a little like Al Pacino work the stove while effectively flitting back and forth from conversations about World Cup Soccer, bacchanalia’s with Chef’s that have since left town, and the importance of having your facts checked when it comes to the paper of record.
He’s poised between the Appolline and the Dionysiac; order and chaos, his critical eye taking it all in and letting whatever occurs artistically come to the fore. If the idea gets legs underneath it, he gives it more energy. Subconsciously, his small groves, streams, and field are informing him, sometimes in the dead of night; sometimes with terrible consequences, yet it’s always speaking. The artist follows its cues, pauses and reflects, then moves on.
* All photos by Jonathan Blaustein, except where noted.