If everything is copy, as Nora Ephron famously claimed, the social-media age demands an update: Everything is marketing copy. There is no tragedy, no source of personal despair, that a corporation will not exploit to sell its products. The pandemic reappears to us in holiday-themed commercials; in Instagram ads for loungewear; in promoted tweets. Sorrow and misery are rich veins to tap.
Perhaps that’s why I distrust the monoliths.
Though I am woefully online, I waited several days to educate myself about the monoliths. The tweets flitted in and out of my periphery. Each promised disappointment. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe, but there’s a reason I’m still an atheist: Every time I reach out for the ineffable, the universe tells me to go fuck myself.
So I wanted the objects to go away. I thought, This seems very stupid, and also, Whimsy is for haters and losers. Don’t make me think that something interesting has happened unless it’s real. I want to see an alien, and if you can’t produce one, to hell with you and your installation art. I was raised on the Book of Revelation and Wormwood and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and it takes a lot to impress me.
I don’t know who put the monoliths where they are — though if they read this, they should know this is an invitation to fight. Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about what these useless objects are for. A movie, maybe? As if anyone is going to a theater anytime soon — what with the deadly virus and Warner and HBO Max. A credit card? Grim, but plausible; the obelisk even kind of looks like one. A video game? All respect to gamer nation, but this is an intolerable thought.
There’s another, even more insipid possibility, which is that someone earnestly believes this is art. When Christo wrapped a building, or a public space like Central Park, it was tangible magic. When you got up that morning you had no idea that something beautiful would happen, and there it was, waiting for you and everyone else. It was a gift. The monoliths are an elbow in the ribs. Look, monkey, here’s your dopamine hit! Now tweet! (Or, in my case, blog.) There’s no public benefit to an obelisk on public land; in fact the very opposite can be true. It’s a reverse Christo, a hollow mockery. The true heroes of the moment aren’t whoever left a giant Lego block in the Utah desert, but the men who removed it under the cover of night. “This is why you don’t leave trash in the desert,” one said.
I have never seen the desert. I hope someday I do. I like knowing that it will still be there when our present horrors are over. The world has narrowed to the size of a screen, which provokes a kind of claustrophobia in me. Someone is always selling me a brand, either a corporation’s or their own. The sales pitch is omnipresent, and there is no countervailing force. I’m so hemmed in by misery and fear that these emotions have acquired the physical qualities of walls. They feel like the last authentic objects in the world. Next to them the monoliths can only be props, a brief and frantic distraction. Escape lies just beyond them, in open land and an unblemished sky.