American Utopia: Maira Kalman’s Spare Visual Poems Drawn from David Byrne’s Masterpiece of Anticynical Humanism

The paradox of progress is that the more of it we make, the higher the stakes and requirements of justice become, and the more we slip into a sort of cynical ahistorical amnesia– we evaluate individuals and events of the past by the standards of today and indict them as ignorant; we evaluate the shortages of the present without the long success ledger of the past and fall under anguish. Overwhelmed by all that stays to be done– which need to be every dates focus however not its paralysis– we forget all that has actually been done, and done at the cost of incredible work by generations who fought for the incremental victories with the totality of their lives. In the century and a half because Whitmans day, much of what was to him a brave thinking of– womens suffrage, abolition, the birth of an international ecological conscience, the discovery of brand-new worlds and new galaxies– has actually come true, unlatching bigger vistas of possibility far beyond the horizon of even his most positive vision.

What makes her work such a burst of pleasure is that whatever extant reality she brings her brush to– be it the weather condition or the alphabet or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas– the components that have actually beckoned to her creativity from the enormity of the work become a meta-poem radiating a peaceful viewpoint of being.

In the last years of a long life animated by optimism as a catalyst of democracy and the spring of action toward justice, Walt Whitmans aged baritone unspools from the only enduring recording of his voice to check out a verse from among his last poems, picturing America as a “centre of equivalent daughters, equal children, all, all alike endear d, grown, ungrown, old or young, strong, sufficient, fair, long-lasting, capable, abundant, seasonal with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.”

Artwork courtesy of Maira Kalman/ Bloomsbury. Pictures by Maria Popova.

Pair American Utopia with Kalmans tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklass love, then revisit David Byrnes buoyant hymn to optimism and his pencil diagrams of the human condition.

Endless half-remembered transformations after Whitman, after Angelou, David Byrne– a polymathic poet laureate of optimism for our own period– picks up the baton of anticynical humanism in his Broadway musical turned HBO film turned illustrated book American Utopia (town library), featuring the art his long time pal Maira Kalman initially painted for the Broadway drape, coupled with lyric lines in a series of minimalist visual poems, designed and edited by Mairas kid and regular collaborator Alex Kalman.

What emerges is not an entertainment of the musical world in book kind however a luminescent satellite of that world, intimate yet different, gotten rid of by a degree of artistic abstraction yet reflecting the glow of the very same directing star.

It is with American Utopia– extra lines from Byrnes lyrics, extra gestural utterances from the body language of the choreography, extra micro-expressions on the faces of the cast come abloom as painted vignettes, tender and meaningful, dancing with their own aliveness.

To raft an awareness of this in the middle of the awful tide of cynicism engulfing our culture is absolutely nothing less than a countercultural act of guts and resistance, for as Maya Angelou astutely observed, “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, since it means the person has gone from knowing absolutely nothing to believing nothing.”