Thursday, July 1, 2010

the unicorn

Years ago, a friend told me she had been invited to be a unicorn at a private party that moved around the city, expressly for the purpose of letting moneyed couples explore their swinger /exhibitionist inclinations. You might ask, as I did, what a "unicorn" is, in this sense. She replied, "A unicorn is a single woman who cruises parties for multiple partners. They are rumored to exist, but no one has ever seen one in nature."

More recently, my friend, poet and writer Colie Hoffman, also got me thinking about unicorns. They appear in some of her magically surreal prose poems that I had the chance to read when we were at Hunter. I vaguely remember a scenario that involved unicorns playing baseball. In this scenario, unicorns in humanoid postures seem to suggest humans can attain an idealized form by elevating a mundane pastime (apologies to those who pray at the batted altar) to one of mystical meaning. Or, that our human hunger to believe our fantasies and ideals can somehow form a transcendent logic that is at home in this world.

As some of you know, I have the privilege of working a day job in advertising that magically doesn't eat up all 12 hours of daylight. I also have what I consider to be the privilege of working in design. Even when my job is boring, there is the satisfaction of making things orderly, pretty, or functional, and most usually some combination of all three. I like organizing closets and making collages. I like type and colors. I like ordering information. So, all in all, this works out remarkably well.

Recently a printer contacted me about submitting one of my designs to a contest. This happens on occasion, and is always flattering, even exciting. Since I've been focusing on my writing over the past few years, the energy I'd been pouring into design took a hit. These moments of reflection help stoke my flame that still burns for design, and reminds me that I might, after all, have the touch. That maybe there is hope for me yet at being more of a William Blake or Robert Bringhurst than a poor man's Wallace Stevens, toiling behind the scrim of a gray flannel suit.

However, these moments also pose uncomfortable questions....have I made the right decision to spread my energies around, in this day of increased specialization? Am I wasting time trying to do too much, be too much? What IS that Most Important Thing? Could it be design for consumer markets, when I thought it was Art?

This spiral continues, and the cheap seats begin to bark tips at the unicorns on the field:

You can't eat poetry.
Advertising is a career for the masses, art for the few.
You're still "creative," even if you're not an artist.
There're more benefits in being an art director than a poet.
Why don't you write something like "Twilight"?
Good luck with all that, kid. You'll never buy a house.

But I'm not a kid, really, and I don't believe in unicorns. When models are hired to circulate at parties in various states of undress, either selling vodka or just the illusion of sexual availability, I don't believe the illusion they are selling. (Of course, I'm not the target market.) And I believe, Pollyanna-ish as it seems, that most members of said target market also don't believe in what they are being sold...they're buying into how safe the idea is when it's divorced from the threat of reality.

My friend who "performed" as a unicorn at the aforementioned underground parties told me that her job really was to talk to people, and to wander around. I'm not going to pretend that her experience was in any way bound by the monogamous heterosexist narrative this comment implies. This was her take-away from the experience--that the unicorn was a unicorn because the unicorn wasn't real. The unicorn was extra-human, a figment of the imagination. And if she did choose to engage with break down the line between fantasy and reality...well, she never shared that with me. I suspect that might be because the reality of the event (so many arms and legs, the impossibility of three-way eye contact) made the pre-game illusion much more interesting.

When I saw the first window ad for Diesel's "Be Stupid" campaign months ago, the line I'm shuffling toward drawing in the sand between Teams Unicorn (where the teams are consumer design and poetry/non-consumer art) got a little clearer. This campaign represents exactly the kind of work I could be doing. I could be manipulating rhetoric, cultural symbols and psychological motifs into profitable advertising ventures. I even think I might be able to be good at making that kind of unicorn--the type that touches on some of our basest human desires and raises those desires to the level of an ideal. The desire that substitutes "creative" for "stupid," and counts on a society's anti-intellectual terrors to fill in the blanks. Or the desire that substitutes luxury goods with self-worth. That appeals to aspirational identity, and uses said rhetoric and motifs to make that identity emotionally fulfilling. The unicorn who frolics in sweet meadows, backlit by soft spring sunshine, silken mane buffeted by the wind as a chance ray of light reflects off the horn that springs from her forehead like an aesthetic messenger of Zeus.

Then there is the unicorn in the baseball uniform. Is this unicorn ever really safe? This unicorn that stands on two legs, one hip stuck out as she throws a baseball into her glove (somehow), and glares at the competitors. This unicorn whose mane is stained with sweat and clay. Who, by playing a human game, reveals us to ourselves--our human ways suddenly absurd, for what could be more ridiculous than believing any of our logics can be transcendent, or that any of our ideals can be perfection?

And yet, that's what we do over and over again, and that's the unicorn I want to chase. The unicorn that pulls humanity, in all its absurdities and beauties, into high relief. Not the unicorn that clicks shut like a box, a cipher of a desire that, while also all-too-human, somehow seems to push me further from becoming more human and further into a mountain of consumer goods.

It's not that I don't love my consumer feelings are certainly ambivalent here, as I'm ever-so-much part of the machine I critique. It's really that my life project is to explore what makes us human in a way that brings me closer to humanity, within myself and (perhaps aspirationally!) within others...not to study how to push human buttons from behind a curtain.

There....line drawn. Imperfectly, and certainly with logic flaws. Inconsistent. Contradictory. Perhaps even ephemerally delightful, like a unicorn playing baseball.

Batter up.

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