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10 November 2010

Brief thought on political art: Houellebecq, Bob Dylan, Kaiser Permanente, Shepard Fairey and the possibility of making a difference

I won’t pretend like I trust or respect political art. I think it’s inherrently suspect. Which is not to say that art cannot have a powerful galvanizing effect on politics, or that it cannot be great art.

My problem with political art is not qualitative; it’s that political art is destined to become logically incoherent in the long run.

Political situations are fixed in time; history only sort of repeats itself. Art, by contrast, should be eternal; music lasts even as the interpretations of a given piece of music change and shift; in fact, I’d argue music’s meaning should be allowed to shift over time. Viz:

Frankly, the use of the archtypical protest song — Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin‘” — in an advertisement for insurance company Kaiser Permanente does offend my sense of propriety in a fairly intense way. But the question of whether it truly ruins or modifies the meaning and significance of the song is much more complicated. Dylan’s position within & belief in the protest movement of the 1960s was at least partially opportunistic; the most important aspect of his participation in the protest movement was that it helped align his art with the interests and experiences of his generation; and, circa the 21st century, what is more aligned with the interests of his generation than health insurance?

In any case, this brings me back to Michel Houellebecq who I was quoting here just the other day. I’ll make no great claims about his art. I’ve only read a couple of his novels; I was intrigued by them but I can’t say they struck a particularly deep chord in terms of their poetry or artistic resonance. But the thematic resonance = wow. This guy has thought deeply about the ailments of our age and, in many ways, he’s got our number.

Does he understand the joys of our age? I’m less certain of that… Anyhoo, without further adieu (that’s French!), here’s another great passage from his interview with The Paris Review.

    Interviewer: What is your concept of the possibility of love between a man and a woman?

    Houellebecq: I’d say that the question whether love still exists plays the same role in my novels as the question of God’s existence in Dostoyevsky.

    Interviewer: Love may no longer exist?

    Houellebecq: That’s the question of the moment.

    Interviewer: And what caused its disappearance?

    Houellebecq: The materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love.

    Interviewer: Your last novel, The Possibility of an Island, ends in a desolate world populated by solitary clones. What made you imagine this grim future in which humans are cloned before they reach middle age?

    Houellebecq: I am persuaded that feminism is not at the root of political correctness. The actual source is much nastier and dares not speak its name, which is simply hatred for old people. The question of domination between mean and women is relatively secondary — important but still secondary — compared to what I tried to capture in this novel, which is that we are now trapped in a world of kids. Old kids. The disappearance of patrimonial transmission means that an old guy today is just a useless ruin. The thing we value most of all is youth, which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.

(Image at the top of this post via Kotaku. It’s by Shepard Fairey. It’s for a video game called Civilization Revolution.)

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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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.)

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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