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26 August 2011

Snapshots from Denniston Hill: Research & Inspirations

Often the places one’s mind travels while in a certain place are more important than the place itself. What follows are some stray hints at the deliberate researches, happenstance investigations & random (mental) walks I’ve been taking while at Denniston Hill. (There have been random physical walks as well. Those are fun, too.) All of it circles around an unexpected intersection where art, capitalism, community and anarchy make contact.

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18 May 2011

The things New York makes me care about: A short attention span essay on Janet Malcolm, writing, psychoanalysis and the decline of the Chanel brand, fashion, Western Civilization

A few nights back I stayed up late, reading this interview with “journalist” Janet Malcolm.

I put quotes around the term because Malcolm famously wrote The Journalist & the Murder, a kind of meta-book which takes as its subject the relationship between murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and author Joe McGinniss, who wrote a best-selling crime thriller about MacDonald called Fatal Vision. Malcolm’s book was one in which the journalist doesn’t come off much better than the murderer.

One can only imagine she thinks of herself as something apart from this particular breed of human. But if journalists are murderers — and let’s assume to be a murderer is undesirable — what, then, does Malcolm think should journalists become? Psychologists, perhaps?

It’s an influence she denies. “Although psychoanalysis has influenced me personally,” she says, “it has had curiously little influence on my writing. But there are parallels between journalism and clinical psychoanalysis. Both the journalist and the psychoanalyst are connoisseurs of the small, unregarded meditations of life. Both pan the surface — yes, surface — for the gold of insight.”

Hmmm. She may deny psychology’s influence but I would dare even an armchair psychologist to not detect a strong thread of self-hatred and horror in Malcolm’s descriptions of writers & writing. She discusses the “brutal frankness” of an early writing teacher. The purpose of journalism? “Malice remains its animating impulse.” Even her much-adored deceased husband, Gardner Botsford, is not immune to accusations of cruelty. She recalls a writer edited by Botsford who referred to him as “The Ripper.” Not content to let blame lay in one direction, she goes on to explain the writer was particularly fond, probably too fond, of their own words, blaming their self-regard as much as Botsford’s ungentle hand.

Not only does she pathologize the psychology of journalists, Malcolm then attempts to explain their shortcomings in a medical and historical framework:

    I don’t know whether journalists are more agressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a “helping profession.” If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take. I am hardly the first writer to have noticed the not-niceness of journalists. Tocqueville wrote about the despicableness of American journalists in Democracy in America.

What one forgets amidst all of Malcolm’s fulminating about the motivations of the journalistic exercise is that there are sometimes subjects worth eviscerating. Not, perhaps, in the daily, all-encompassing and self-absorbed fashion that has defined the internet age thanks to the practices of publications like Gawker; but, yes, in a wry subliminal sort of way, the character assassinating power of a journalist can be a force for good.

Read for example “Brand New Bag,” a recent piece from The New Yorker about the simultaneous aesthetic fall and economic rise of the Chanel brand under the watch of designer Reed Krafoff. Was his influence benign or malignant? Let this image serve as a preview.

So, erm, yes…without further introduction, here is writer Ariel Levy explaining the development of the Coach brand over the past 50 years:

    “I’m a very limited designer,” [brand founder Miles Cahn] told me, “so the notion that come winter I’d have to design a new bag was just horrifying. We said, we’ll do classic bags: just one theme.” For nearly two decades, Coach had only about a dozen designs. “The concept was, buy a Coach bag and it’ll last forever,” Cahn said. Coach offered free repairs, and built its ad campaigns about longevity and durability.” …

    After Coach bags had become ubiquitous in the closest of well-heeled women in the Northeast and the Midwest, Cahn sold his business to the Sara Lee Corporation and, in 1985, went off to make goat cheese at his new venture, Coach Farm, in upstate New York. To succeed him, Cahn chose Lew Frankfort, a Bronx native… Frankfort raised sales from nineteen million dollars to half a billion during his first decade in charge.

    By the mid-nineties Coach hit a wall…

    In 1996, Frankfort hired Krakoff — who was only thirty-two years old — and gave him control of Coach’s products, advertising, store design, and merchandising. Krakoff, who had worked for Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, set out to remake the company’s image. “When you needed a new bag, you might go to Coach,” he told me. “I wanted to change it to a want, not a need.” … Instead of twelve sturdy bags, Coach now sells perfume, jewelry, raincoats, scarves, gloves, hats, sunglasses, and shoes, in addition to handbags made of every imaginable material. New products are released every month, and they range wildly. You might find a chic, understated python clutch; or you might find a pink-and-purple purse with sequins, faux graffiti, and a plastic tag full of floating glitter, which looks as if it were designed by an eleven-year-old-girl with a penchant for unicorns. “Frankly, I go into one of the stores now and I don’t see one bag that I like,” Miles Cahn said. “But I recognize what they have accomplished.”

Dontcha love it when subtext is laid out in bold type? And that was just the tip of the iceberg. The article consistently used the ironic commentary of those around Krakoff to turn the normally fawning profile genre against its subject. It was less a paean than a roast.

Now, personally, I’m no hater of Krakoff. Frankly I’d never heard of the guy before reading the piece. But I was convinced of the necessity of journalism like this. Was there real harm done here? Possibly. But what’s not to like about using an individual case study in fashion to point toward a larger decline in the Western Civilization? i.e. The way utility is reduced to consumerism; classics are replaced by trinkets; et. al.

To return to Malcolm’s framework, the inheritor of the Chanel brand, Krakoff, is in a sense murdered by his father, the brand founder Miles Cahn. And while that’s not exactly a classic Oedipal complex, I’m pretty sure there’s some psychological inversion of the concept that covers what’s going on here.

What I’m certain about is that there’s no moral framework which defends the creation of monstrosities like this.

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25 March 2011

Jungian psychology for entertainers

Every now again I happen upon one of those New Yorker stories that seem to summarize the daily tribulations of my life and work in the creative sphere. Dana Goodyear‘s “Hollywood Shadows”–about entertainment industry psychotherapists Barry Michels and Phil Stutz–is one of those stories. If it has one failing, it’s the lack of connection to other Los Angeles celebrity healing cults such as Scientology, a topic well covered by the magazine only a few weeks before. (Viz Lawrence Wright’s “The Apostate” about ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis.) Perhaps this is more my failing than that of the magazine–such is my predilection for random connections.

In any case, the editors of the (sometimes misnamed!) New Yorker has the potential to compile a quite excellent anthology of pieces explaining the odd facts of Los Angeles life to the rest of the world. In any case, the psychologist article is free on the web right now. Enjoy some excerpts after the jump:
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8 November 2010

Olaf Breuning’s nobrow visual Rolodex: a snapshot of contemporary visual culture

Props to Swiss-born, New York-based artist Olaf Breuning for his very awesome & whimsical website. Pay particular attention to the nice catalog of his photographic work.

Let me break down two of my favorites. The female photo circa 1997 (above) is called Sibylle; the male (circa 2008) is called Brian.

Clearly these images are not to be judged as art photographs in the the traditional sense; rather they are in the tradition of the sculptural & performative understanding of that medium, an understanding that is increasingly grabbing hold of the art world’s imagination. (It is a cross-disciplinary era we are living through.)

What I like about Breuning’s work most, though, is not how on-trend it is; rather it is his clear-eyed, multi-layered, post-taste evocation of contemporary visual culture — how that evocation collapses boundaries between high and low source material — and, finally, how that evocation makes my brain hurt. To my mind, Breuning’s work may be the definition of the word “Nobrow” — though apologies to John Seabrook if I’m willfully misusing the term that he coined. (’s review of Seabrook’s book Nobrow says it depicts a world in which “art and commerce have fused like colliding electrons” which sounds about right.)

To dive in deeper, here’s my close reading of the images at the top of this post.

High culture sources sort of dominate the Breuning visual Rolodex™ on display. Look at the Matthew Barney-esque hair and horns on Sibylle. And the severed legs remind me of Goya or Cindy Sherman. (Dude, watch out, don’t get the wrong Goya, as tasty as it may be.) It’s a bit of a bummer that the high art sources are what jumps out first, but what else would you expect from someone who makes his living in the high art world?

I would also maintain, however, that he goes out of his way to make sure there are many links to massively popular culture in these images. He wants his work to be more than some in-group in-joke. For example, I’m not sure if the dinner roll & cucumber fingers are meant to evoke the puffy appendages of Charles Schultz‘s characters specifically, but surely they are some kind of pledge of allegiance to cartoon anatomy. Another example: Sure, the half-human, half-monster nature of these figures points to the Cubist grotesquerie of Picasso or the performance art grotesquerie of Paul McCarthy, but the sense of humor indicates an awareness of fantasy subcultures like Frank Frazetta-style fantasy art or Dungeons & Dragons. The latter subculture provides just as seductive, all-encompassing & lurid a world for teenagers (and extended adolescents) as the art world provides for some adults. Ergo:

The only difference between this world of low fantasy and the world of high art, perhaps, is that the art world maintains a sometimes farcical comedy of values which prevents its denizens from ever questioning their aesthetics. Because, well, questioning their aesthetics would throw into question some crucial financial assumptions. (I love Art, but it’s sometimes hard to look upon the Art World as anything other than an economic bubble waiting to happen.)

Anyhoo, getting back to my train of thought, the slyness of Breuning’s photographs are that they don’t privilege their high art sources. No do they find the artist crafting a middlebrow tribute to popular culture that he’ll then sell as HIGHbrow to earn HIGHprices. Rather, I’d argue that Breuning is making a scorched earth Tribute To-slash-Condemnation Of visual culture in general. These photographs are love letters and whoopie cushions at the same time.

As a counter example, take someone like Jeff Koons who goes to great lengths to let us know his love of low culture (pornography, kitsch) is sincere, then makes gilded ceramic sculptures of Michael Jackson and his pet chip Bubbles, stretching credulity to its breaking point. Don’t get me wrong, I like Koons and sort of believe in his sincerity, but its a different, more blunt force tension he is working with…

Breuning, by contrast, goes to great lengths to leave us stranded in a visual maze. In that maze, it’s unclear what is lovable and what is pathetic, what is cute and what is terrifying.

Here’s my review: I like it.

A visual atlas of possible influences at play in Breuning’s photographs after the jump:
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29 September 2010

Zigs when others zag: A short attention span esssay on Alex Ross on John Cage on poverty in the arts & why I like Ross better than Sasha Frere-Jones

Let me present a backhanded insult about Alex Ross. (Which is to say, a compliment.) Here’s the thing that pisses me off about the guy. As a MacArthur Award-winning classical critic, Ross feels obligated to devote the majority of his writings to his specialty, that being 20th century-composed music. Say what you will about composed music, but from the perspective of the early 21st century it’s looking like an increasingly rarefied, quite specialized, and relatively unlistened to form of music.

The tragedy: I think Ross’s real gift is his ability to write shockingly illuminating and intimate criticism and profiles of more popular artists such as Radiohead, Pavement, Bjork and Bob Dylan. (Most of these articles, originally published in The New Yorker, seem to have been scrubbed from the internet, but a number of them appear in his recently published book, Listen to This.)

Ross’s writings on popular music are illuminating in large part because he seems oblivious or disinterested in the sectarian conflicts that make much pop criticism especially irrelevant to normal people. Viewing music from the perspective of a classical fan, he realizes “newness” and originality are something that happens once or twice a decade rather than five times in every month-long blogcycle; he realizes that “bestness” is something you must observe over a career rather than a single record.

The tragedy: I wish Ross wrote about popular music more often. He’s certainly better at it than The New Yorker‘s pop critic of record Sasha Frere-Jones. Frere-Jones is better than 95% of pop critics out there (maybe more!) and he is often an erm, impressive risk-taker who leads critical opinion rather than following the pack. But it’s also obvious that he’s as intoxicated by a personal notion of rock stardom as any of the pop musicians he covers. I get that tinny, foreign, metallic taste of ego on the tip of my tongue almost every time I read one of his pieces.

Unaffected by rock & pop groupthink, Ross’s shiz-nit is a paradigm of clarity in a pop crit universe dominated by the same morass of crap that makes popular culture (sans criticism) so hard to navigate, so glutted with dross.

And now, as if to go back on everything I’ve said I want Ross to do, here’s an excerpt from his excellent profile in this week’s magazine about composer John Cage. I think there’s a tiny bit of chronological fuckery going on in the piece (and even the excerpt) but who cares with writing this good. Ross’s clear-eyed identification of what makes Cage so inspiring — his realization that this “composer” is, as much, a philosopher, an artist — is a perfect instance of Ross’s genre-agnostic vision of what makes music good:

    When [composer, critic and professor Kyle] Gann talks about “4’33″” in classes — he teaches composition and music theory at Bard College — a student invariably asks him, “You mean he got paid for that?” Kids, Cage was not in it for the money. The Maverick concert was a benefit; Cage earned nothing from the premiere of “4’33″” and little from anything else he was writing at the time. He had no publisher until the nineteen-sixties. After losing his loft on Monroe Street–the Vladeck Houses stand there now–he moved north of the city, to Stony Point, where several artists had formed a rural collective. From the mid-fifties until the late sixties, he lived in a two-room cabin measuring ten by twenty feet, paying $24.15 a month in rent. He wasn’t far above the poverty level, and one year he received aid from the Musicians Emergency Fund. For years afterward, he counted every penny. I recently visited the collection of the John Cage Trust, at Bard, and had a look at his appointment books. Almost every page had a lit lie this one:

    .63 stamps
    1.29 turp
    .25 comb
    1.17 fish
    3.40 shampoo
    2.36 groc
    5.10 beer
    6.00 Lucky

    “I wanted to make poverty elegant,” he once said.

    By the end of the fifties, however, Cage’s financial situation had improved, though not because of his music. After moving to Stony Point, he began collecting mushrooms during walks in the woods. Within a few years, he had mastered the mushroom literature and co-founded the New York Mycological Society. He supplied mushrooms to various elite restaurants, including the Four Seasons. In 1959, while working at the R.A.I. Studio of Musical Phonology, a pioneering electronic-music studio, in Milan, he was invited on a game show called “Lascia o Raddoppia?” — a “Twenty One”-style program in which contestants were asked questions on a subject of their choice. Each week, Cage answered, with deadly accuracy, increasingly obscure questions about mushrooms. On his final appearance, he was asked to list “the twenty-four kinds of white-spore mushrooms listed in Atkinson.” (Silverman supplies a transcript of this historical moment.) Cage named them all, in alphabetical order, and won eight thousand dollars. He used part of the money to purchase a VW bus for the Cunningham company. The following year, he appeared on the popular American game show “I’ve Got a Secret”: as he had done on “Lascia o Raddoppia?,” he performed “Water Walk,” a piece that employed among other things, a rubber duck, a bathtub, and an electric mixer. Cage charmed the audience from the outset; when the host, Garry Moore, said that some viewers might laugh at him, the composer replied, in his sweet, reedy voice, “I consider laughter preferable to tears.” (YouTube has the clip.) Radios were included in the score, but they could not be turned on, supposedly because of a union dispute. Instead, Cage hit them and knocked them on the floor.

Enjoy the visuals:

(Image of John Cage score “Fontana MIx” at top of this post via Data Is Nature.)

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