OPINION: Welcome to 2023, Where Nothing is Old and Nothing is New

Jan 13, 2023 at 04:02 pm by Paulette Jackson

Nothing is old, nothing is new, save the light of grace underneath which beats a human heart. The way of feeling, of understanding, of loving; the way of seeing the country, the faces that your father saw, that your mother knew. The rest is chimerical.” Georges Rouault 

It is 2023. And somehow, after all of the New Year’s fireworks were finally displayed recently, I wasn’t exactly sure, of what was being celebrated…other than the recurrent arrival of a new year.

One realization, many of us may comprehend is, that even though we may perceive changes in our cultures, somehow, we also realize … that change, whether old or new, wanted or unwanted… is inevitable.

To begin with, one might find it interesting, pertaining to the major changes, recognized in our culture between 1607-2001, from the book, An Empire of Wealth: An Epic History of American Economic Power (2009) by John Steel Gordon. From pop culture, innovation and technology, and home and family, we see revealed how many changes have taken place, since 2004 to 2023!

1 The Computer: Today half of American workers use computers on a daily basis in their jobs; in 1954 perhaps one-tenth of one percent did. 

2. Globalization: In 1954 American exports totaled less than $14 billion, or 3.7 percent of GDP. In 2001 exports amounted to $729 billion, or 7.2 percent of GDP. Fifty years ago the American economy was effectively an island. The only great power whose industrial base had been strengthened, not diminished, by World War II, the United States was still self-sufficient in all but a few commodities. Today that is but a distant memory. American Motors is long gone, and the Big Three have only a little over half the American automobile market, about what GM had all by itself 50 years ago. 

3. Communications: In 1950 about a million overseas phone calls originated in the United States. In 2001 the number was a staggering 6.27 billion. In 1954 only radiotelephony, with a very limited capacity, was available. Today a cat’s cradle of undersea cables together with communications satellites provides nearly limitless capacity. In 1954 you needed a reservation to make an overseas phone call, and it would likely have cost a significant percentage of your weekly wage. Now it often costs less to call London than it did to make a local call 30 years ago. When you dial an 800 number, you may well find yourself talking—absolutely free—to someone in India.

4. The Financial Revolution: Many Americans in 1954 still handled their financial affairs largely in cash. They received their pay in cash, and they paid their bills in cash. The reforms of the New Deal had ended the fear of banks’ collapsing so, many families maintained savings accounts to safeguard their rainy-day funds, but far fewer had checking accounts or ready access to bank credit.

By the 1960s credit cards were common. Today they are ubiquitous, with 1.2 billion in use in the United States in 2002 by 190 million cardholders. Thanks to credit cards—and their latter-day descendants debit cards—cash is rapidly disappearing from American retailing.

5. Management and Labor: In 1954 more than a third of all American workers belonged to unions, mostly of the old-fashioned blue-collar variety. In 2002 only about 14 percent did. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, for nearly half of today’s union members are government employees, such as teachers and hospital workers, virtually none of whom were unionized in 1954.

Meanwhile, the number of strikes has greatly diminished. In 1960 there were 222 work stoppages involving more than 1,000 workers, with 13,260,000 workdays lost. In 2002 there were only 9 such strikes, with 660,000 lost workdays, although the size of the American work force has doubled in the last 50 years.

6. Productivity: Part of the reason for the decline of the labor movement is the shift from manufacturing to services as the major source of jobs in the American economy. The United States has not stopped making things (total manufacturing output grew by more than a third between 1990 and 2001) but is becoming ever more efficient at it, thanks to the rapidly increasing use of computers in the process.

The recent history of manufacturing in this country is very similar to the longer history of agriculture. Farm production has steadily increased, while the percentage of the population living on farms has steadily declined, as has the percentage of GDP that is derived from agriculture. That trend did not stop in the last 50 years; it accelerated.

7. Women: In 1954 the typical American woman was a housewife. That is certainly no longer the case, with more than 60 percent of American women in the work force. Moreover, women in business are no longer confined to the steno pool by any means. (The steno pool, of course, disappeared years ago.) In 1967 Muriel Siebert became the first woman to own a seat on that ultimate male bastion the New York Stock Exchange. All major corporations now have female executives, half the Forbes 500 companies have female corporate officers, and eight have female CEOs. There is no question that these numbers will rise as talented women who started working in the last few years reach their career peaks.

8. The Imperial, and Imperially Compensated, CEO: A few months before American Heritage first appeared, the last comedy by George S. Kaufman (in collaboration with Howard Teichman) opened on Broadway, and two years later it was made into a highly successful film. It was titled The Solid Gold Cadillac, and it told of chicanery in high corporate places. But while recent scandals have shown that management wrongdoing is still alive and well in American business, if no worse than it was in the past, management compensation has gone through the roof.

9 Antitrust: Antitrust was one of the big political issues in the 50 years before American Heritage was born, but it has nearly disappeared in the half-century since. One reason, to be sure, is that mere bigness is no longer perceived as inherently bad, especially as more and more Americans have become stockholders and thus more inclined to see things from the capitalist point of view.

10. The Internet: The Internet is a communications medium and very much part of the communications revolution. But it is so new—barely a decade old as a popular medium—and so fundamentally important, that it deserves an entry all its own. As the railroad was to the steam engine, so the Internet is to the microprocessor, the most important spinoff of the basic technology. What is perhaps most impressive about it is that it erupted into existence almost spontaneously. Railroads had to be built with iron and wood and sweat. They were very expensive. The Internet costs so little to operate that almost anyone can have a Web site. That is why there are now about four billion Web sites in existence, and tens of thousands more are added every day.

The Internet allows people with common interests to find one another easily, including buyers and sellers. Thus it performs much the same function as a broker. That, in turn, means that all traditional brokerage businesses—real estate agencies, stockbrokerages, auction houses, travel agencies—must change fundamentally or go out of business.

As we look back on the past of business in America, we see not only change—but something truly singular, and a change on a vaster scale of economics than has happened during any 50 plus years.

But if we were to, perhaps go back a bit further, to the 19th century, where we would meet a man, an artist, named Rouault, who, in the decades, between 1891 and 1958, produced nearly 1000 paintings, most of which were on canvases six feet or more in height, we would be acquainted with one who valued life, soul and spirit from his Creator.

Quoted as saying, “The quest of the real is never-ending” it was this pursuit that made the difference in his capacity to give us of both the real and the great. For it was this quest that never allowed himself to be diverted from his work, even for what some considered “necessity”.  But neither did he rush things. For he found contentment in honoring the product of one’s heart and mind, through the sustained and loving effort, where it was not considered a waste of time, to “fold one’s arms and close one’s eyes for a moment so that same imaginary composition may take shape.” For this was to him, “the secret that makes us stay up a little later.” And if the critics bristled and were rubbed the wrong way due to his different approach, it was not important, for Rouault understood from experience that “to be true to one’s self and to be a success – these are incompatible”.

It happened early in his career, when he had achieved a measure of success, that a dealer contracted Rouault to complete all of his unfinished paintings for him. An “all or nothing” deal, Rouault accepted under the circumstances that he could take as much time as he needed to complete the paintings.

While the dealer agreed, his demanding and overbearing manner throughout the relationship led Rouault to later describe the experience as one where he was “A voluntary prisoner, shut up from dawn to dusk for years without a vacation, working all day long on the premises of a dealer who spied on him and kept prodding him. He saw nothing of the city except the crazy pattern of rooftops with their chimneys and weather vanes. He found his bondage irksome. However, he put up with the dealer’s greed without complaint, as later he was to put up the dealer’s impatience, because he did not understand the psychology of the artist.”

In the end, it was Rouault’s love for the gift of his work, that allowed him to acknowledge the difficult circumstance as working to his advantage. For he felt himself to be the gainer “as long as he was permitted to bring a successful issue to that disinterested form of work we call art.”  His unswerving dedication and devotion was again reflected similarly on another occasion when asked if he would continue to paint if he were on a desert island, where he had lost all hope of ever again communicating with his fellow-man, to which Rouault answered, “I am sure I would continue to paint, even without a single viewer, even with no hope of one.”

Along with this particular dealer’s lack of appreciation, Rouault was also willing to accept all of the other risks of being an artist, including the illusive capriciousness of inspiration and the understanding that an artist’s approach to a subject, knowing how to stop, look and reflect, were qualities which would differentiate between what is merely good, and what is great. And since no artist can be all things to everyone, he found comfort in the ability to continue producing, from the voice that reminded him “even though your art be an art of unhappiness, keep on!”

And keep on he did. In the many years that he painted, without rushing, and in a way that he considered “working on the side”, where he kept others waiting, he still honored staying true to himself, a quality that served him to create meaningful art that would stand alone as well as the test of time. And in Rouault’s eyes, the result he saw revealed was the very fortunate gift of producing works, not only of one piece of art, but of several versions of the same subject.

It is this kind of inspiration in oneself, Rouault said, “that shows that our subjects come down to a few themes, and the emotions, and that one’s work conveys and reveals the surges from within; the passion, the surety, the spontaneity – they move us. Is this a rapid brilliance? No. For genius does not lie in the format. It lies in character, a refusal to simplify things, a commonness known to all of those whose work stands alone and can fend for itself. For through this way of working, we are offered true beauty, hidden, as it has always been. And even though there is nothing new under the sun, we can sing a different tune in a different key. “Between the Insititut and the Louvre flows the Seine.”

Georges Rouault is considered a major and phenomenal figure in recent world art, yet he felt it unjust to only pay attention to the greatest artists, deprecating those who used to be called “minor masters”. For to him, the tradition of art is not academic, although it could be, but only for a time, because, “life with its hidden forces makes this impossible.”

Rouault modeled for us his reality of art as an expression of life itself. It is not to be rushed. It is to be savored and cherished, as we see it take shape – an unfolding gift of wonder.

Below is a poem, written by Rouault, revealing his being, his living, his thinking and feeling regarding art and life, and the sustained, loving effort to honor all of it.

You shall celebrate all living things:
The smile of the newborn infant
When he begins to stammer
The first buds in spring
The smell of the hawthorn
The first week you were created,
Apprentice, even if it was a failure,
In the hope of doing better.
Don’t conceal your pleasure
Over a color harmony
Even if you hit on it by chance.
Celebrate the long road
In the golden summer sun
The friendly white house
By the little path
And its cheerful occupants
Who rejoice over
Your imaginary successes
First fruits of lifework
Slow to be born
But steadily growing
Some new trouble every day.
Celebrate the living source
The bark that drifts by noiselessly
Over the sleeping waters
The wheat swaying under the wind
Which is to be harvested tomorrow
Everything is occasion
For serene joy or toil
According as your heart and mind decree

For the Support of Your Life
For the Many Sides of Life

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