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Truth, shorthand and simplicity

26 of January '23

The column is from the 01/23 issue of A&B.

Once upon a time, my Lord Father, Cher Papa, used to say that truth counts. The truth always counts, and it's simple: how one helps the landraces disappear from the glass bowl on the table into the depths of one's own digestive tract, and then pretends in front of grandma that the landraces were eaten by the cat. Or when you get four notes in your diary and hide the diary secretly under the sofa, claiming that bad people stole it.

The truth also counts when one draws, writes or builds. That even if architects were already dimming in the Renaissance, making fake marble out of vein-painted polished plaster, it was still untrue. Stone is stone, and plaster is plaster. Well, and okay, I get it. Every once in a while a person may succumb to the thoughts of Calvin or Cromwell and want to live in a sterile white space, in the real truth, not just the declared truth. Rigid and unyielding. Pure and simple, like the Quakers on the Mayflower. But on the other hand, on the other hand, how much can you? It's no wonder that my own father suddenly, out of the blue, somewhere in the late 1980s, from his position as a follower of modernist truth became, like some cranky junior high school student, a fan of postmodernism. The patriarchs of functionalism went into a corner, and a merry chaos of overscaled, simplistic details, out-of-context pink pantheons and waving walls made of luxe glass followed in his designs. Because, after all, there's nothing overly sexy about clinging to the truth, is there? Where's the fun here?

There is also simplicity in the modernist love of the truth of the massive, single-layer wall. The wall is technically simple by virtue of the lack of multiple layers, and it's simple in terms of modesty: it doesn't dazzle with an external decorative layer, and the entire decoration is served by the thread of the brick, the way the stone is laid or the jambs of the wood logs. Well, maybe it still assists and adds nobility to the bougainvillea with its color and chiaroscuro. In a word, the truth is associated with modesty and simplification, which, however, require knowledge and skill, so that the wall from nobly simple does not turn into crudely simple. Meanwhile, uncleanly poured concrete or laid brick or hollow blocks can simply be covered with a layer of thermal insulation and clad with a facing layer of any material, which, in addition, can be relatively easily replaced with a new one when it gets old or tarnished. Then the quality of the construction of the wall proper will not matter much, in any case in aesthetic terms. But by any chance, isn't this admiration for the sublimation of simplicity a niche sport for modernism fanatics? Who is bothered by a pretty dress behind which to hide possible structural inadequacies?

Apparently, the same assumption is made by millions of women, getting Brazilian butt implants, injecting Botox and sticking on false eyelashes every day. Millions of men drooling at the sight of the twerking buttocks of these ladies unwittingly repeating the mating rituals of the indigenous people of the west coast of Africa must think the same way. It's no different than the combination of young men injecting collagen into their biceps in quantities that turn them into cartoon characters, with Popeye in the lead. Anyway, the implanted ladies, with their fillet-shaped noses and cheekbones accentuated with surgeons' scalpels, also seem to strive for comic-book simplification. It's as if there's no time or desire to differentiate human types, because a piecework-drawing cartoonist at a major American publishing house has to create at least ten pages a day with skilled, almost robotic gestures. And then the inker, the coloring guy, will fill in the white fields between the arched lines with a set of colors from a simple palette marked with meanings. The red hair of the Tricky Fox, the blond of the good-natured Naïve Provincial, the raven garnet of the Evil Brunette's hair. Clark Kent's torso is heroic, broad, exaggerated. And Lois Lane's breasts are perfectly round and never drooping. Because Lois doesn't flinch, she doesn't stretch out or flabby, as befits an icon.

And so the modesty dictated simplicity of Quakers and modernists has been replaced by succinctness and suggestiveness of quick imagery in the name of immodesty. Muscles, haircuts and boobs from comic books flowed into real people. The process began with newspaper strips, then television, and today the Internet with its ever-shortening coverage. Facebook, a medium for retirees, allows for real chatter and prolonged study of content, Instagram already less so, TikTok even less so, and Snapchat is already just flashing images for short-lived visual-sound stimulus addicts in their twenties whose brains respond best to the flashes of a strobe lamp. Here, content can already be just moving logos, because if any element of sublimation creeps in, the recipient of the message will not like it.
The process of creating a message dictated by the psychology of the social media viewer is a paradoxical fulfillment of the less is more maxim, because succinctness requires the elimination of unnecessary elements, but those that remain are exaggerated, like the size of Meg Ryan's lips after surgery compared to their condition in the 1990s, that is, the bygone days when Mr. Zuckerberg had not yet come up with the idea of Facebook.

Reality is not only becoming more, pardon the harsh word, oculocentric, but also tied to a never-ending rhythm of transformation. What matters is the speed of production, the speed of uploading compressed content into the medium, the immediacy of observation and the immediacy of zero-sum evaluation. The Greek athlete has been replaced by a dripping olive-skinned Arnold Schwarzenegger, who increasingly resembles the Hulk in ever-reviving purple panties. The Venus de Milo turned into a glossy Donatella Versace, and eventually into one of the women of the Kardashian clan, but forgive me, it's hard to tell which one, since they are served by the same surgeon, stylist and nutritionist.

Everything, including buildings, people, cars and structures made of toothpicks and chestnuts, has to be instagrammable, and therefore easy to translate into a media that imposes a quick, short-focused message, where first impressions count, not an in-depth analysis of the cross-section of gravity ventilation affecting the exterior of a Mendes da Rocha design villa. In the case of the latter, it's the grazing that counts: the easily grasped large scale of the concrete planes, not the sublimations of the concept. As a result of operating in this logic, architects/technicians end up at the table every day with clients who regale them with photos from Pinterest, pointing their finger at them and saying "oh that's how I want it," without understanding the true nature of what they are looking at. And the archietect/artist is faced with the dilemma of whether to come off as a bore who says "it can't be done that way, because..." or a proactive entrepreneur/artist who states "I to consent, like a fish to water!", gleefully designing an absurd copy of a motif picked up by order takers the night before in the pre-dawn phase of Pinterest snooping.

No one bothers anymore to ask whether those Podhale villas in Mazovia, beams imitating a wooden ceiling, alloy wheels and spoilers, muscles, boobs, smiles of hyaluronic acid-inflated lips and folded heart-shaped fingers are truth or coquettish falsehood. Evidently, neither the ostentatiously unadorned residences of the surroundings, nor the bodies "made" by the hand of a surgeon are meant to deceive anyone about their authenticity. Instead, they are supposed to say "I can afford it, here is my social status measured by an invoice from an expensive specialist." Or maybe it's just that botox mega-breasts are more kissable, and silicone breasts give everyone involved more pleasure than regular ones? And living in a Provençal palais in the Masurians is better than living in a banal house under a gabled roof?

Seekers of truth have gone down to the sectarian underworld, paging through their holy books and Standing in the Truth, lest they get out of practice. Advocates of conceptual purity have hidden even deeper, lest anyone confuse them with Cejrowski and Korwin Mikke, adherents of racial purity, True Poles marching through the streets of Warsaw on November 11 and other truthers. Their catacombs and at the same time their strongholds are home fires, houses of prayer, living rooms, institutions of high culture, sarcastic conversations of erudite people, meditations in a forest glade or the occasional reading of "Apollo" and Barańczak. Their forms of simplification, complicated and requiring knowledge and feeling, are unsexy to millions of TikTok reels eaters, boring as Pawson's minimalist details or a Neolithic stone retaining wall. Eaters want the bling of boutique hotels, quasi-art déco and a panorama of the tropical waterfront from a shoreless pool on the roof of the new Carringtons' dream mansion.

Don't be fooled by my complaints, however, because I'm not without fault myself. As a teenager, I abandoned my parents' suggested monographs of the Modernist Fathers and Barucki's booklets on the traditional architecture of Japan and Finland in favor of a fascination with Aldo Rossi, the mongrelized neoclassicism of totalitarian regimes, pink-pistachioed Arquitectonica and Gehry's frippery-sculpture buildings. Now that I've made my confession, I'll go further: in my sophomore year of high school, I signed up for a gym to participate in a new adventure myself, not just to watch Hollywood New Adventure Cinema, and to become a walking icon myself. I pumped steel to paraphrase a movie about the achievements of the legendary Arnold, turning my body into an American-inspired construct in the process. The picture was completed by dyed blonde hair with a put-upon gel fringe, dungarees worn over a bare body and green martens with a top, causing my own father to ask me one morning, "how much did I give for these clown shoes?". An Instagram eater I eventually became, too. I mindlessly scroll through idiotic videos when my brain can no longer think, and I turn into a child retching at the sight of a fat man tipping over a banana.
However, the truth has not let itself be forgotten, because there are still people around us, all over the world, who care about it. Especially the pesky journalists. These relentlessly sniff out truths about seemingly respectable figures, deconstructing their iconic images. Popes, presidents, CEOs and marshals turn out to be small, twisted people, just as complicated and smeared with lies as ordinary mortals, if not more so. Simplified images of power and respect crack, degenerate and are subjected to actualization. As if someone suddenly said: "check."

And what? And almost nothing. Tyrants still have throngs of followers, who, like thousands of Nazis in post-war Germany upon hearing of the death of the Commander in Chief, committed suicide, crucifying their children before doing so, because nothing made sense anymore. Heads of churches and rank and file clergymen still tell us how to live, although they themselves have dirty souls and, I would like to believe, even dirtier consciences. The Swiss soccer championship management company continues to ingratiate itself with the satraps, coughing up billions, while millions of viewers of these championships close their eyes to their practices, enjoying every goal of their beloved team. Each of these entities and gentlemen has his own truth, which he will sell to us daily through his channels. And we will gladly gulp it down. We Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Americans, Chinese and residents of any country in the world. Out of stupidity, exhaustion or conformity. Only when the summons from the military draft board comes will the reflection arise, at the risk of dying in glory and mud, that maybe it's not worth it after all. That maybe, after all, the truth we swallow every day, even if we ignore it, is nevertheless a "truth" as true as the message of the Soviet "Truth." But if the call doesn't come, we will still manage to reconcile the knowledge that someone is an embezzler and molester with the belief that he is due respect, or at least the symptoms of it.

Unfortunately, even the truest truth is usually inconvenient, like an overly honest co-worker at work or a child who repeats to his mother that Daddy gulped down another lady's ass. The truth itself is dangerous, it breaks up relationships, undermines certainties and takes away meaning. Our aspirations, our investments and worldviews can collapse under its influence, and then what? No one will want to build office buildings anymore, buy fast fashion, drink Coca-Cola, donate on the tray, eat Nestle products and do the millions of things that spin our world. Capitalism and Chinese quasi-communism will collapse, churches, stadiums, art galleries and casinos will be deserted. We can't let that happen!

Consistency and moral integrity sound great in leadership courses, but not in the real world. Let's be ourselves. Let's be hypocritical, bipartisan and even multi-political. Let's pay homage to principles we don't follow ourselves. Let us dutifully declare and promise various things, fulfilling only as much as convention or the sclerosis of those to whom we promise. We aristocrats and bourgeois remaining in officially sanctified and parallel unofficial relationships. We peasants politely attending church and spitting outside its gates at the mention of the pastor's grief. We who wait to be bribed with our own money in modern democracies. We followers of political correctness, the blade of which should not touch ourselves and our privileges. That's what we've always been good at, and let's stick to it.

Jakub Szczęsny

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