28 February 2014

Some Straggling Endnotes

A couple of clarifications re that last post:

1) Discharge, Pussy Riot, Banksy, Hirschhorn...are not artists that I have any strong or firm opinion on, one way or the other. So none of what I wrote should be construed as a defense of or attack on any of those cited.

2) That Spectator blog article: Aside from the pointless of the piece itself, what I find much more deeply amusing is the matter of a British/Western/Outsider party posing the question of artistic merits in this instance. Because anyone the least bit familiar with the history of Russian punk knows that it has its own peculiar history, that it developed under artistically insular conditions, and that it in many ways has broadly departs -- stylistically & etc. -- from what constituted "punk" elsewhere. (The same could be said -- altho' to a lesser degree -- for the evolution of jazz and electronic music in Russia, as well.)

Case in point, the crew above. They probably wouldn't rank as "good" in many peoples' books; but there are at least a couple of DJs at WFMU who think they're brilliant. And, really -- what's not to love?

The Inaesthetic, I

First, there's Chris Jones at The Appendix (by way of a relay at The New Inquiry) writing about the UK hardcore punk band Discharge, specifically about why the band received a much less-than-welcoming reception when it played Long Beach in 1986. Jones doesn’t make a bold assertion about whether or not Discharge were, in the end, any good; but he does make the case they were very good at what they aimed to do – playing fast and loud, etc.. If anything, Jones’s thesis seems to be that the band’s main problem was that it existed in the crap universe of music in the mid-late 1980s.

Which brings us to this bit, in which a cultural contributor to the conservative UK publication The Spectator dares to ask the question: Is Pussy Riot’s music any good? God, how tedious. But I suppose the question was bound to come up at some point. After all, critic Jed Perl recently had the audacity to ask if Ai Weiwei was a good artist. And of course in recent years there’s been a fair amount of debate to that same affect about Banksy (where the verdict seems to be overwhelmingly no).

All of which goes back to what I touched on in a prior post -- the nagging persistence of notions of quality. And how in recent times the argument has been made that the notion of quality and all its accompanying criteria are little more than an elitist (i.e., “undemocratic”) rubric that makes sure than certain people are kept at the cultural margins, that certain voices aren’t acknowledged, etc..

At any rate: As the Spectator columnist points out, Pussy Riot haven’t recorded anything yet. Well, of course they haven’t, and they probably won’t, because being a musical act proper probably ranks among the lowest of their ambitions. Rather, it’s probably better to regard what they’re up to as a type of performance art (of a “street theater” stripe) deployed in the service of activism. Aesthetic concerns are at best tertiary, in this context. Their intent isn’t to get signed to XL Records any more than Banksy ever wanted to be exclusively represented by Hauser & Wirth Meaning that most likely the wrong questions are being posed.*

In the case of Pussy Riot, as with Weiwei and Banksy, the goal is a form of activism, inasmuch as activism might involve little more than a calling-attention-to or "awareness raising." Which of course raises a whole different set of theoretical questions; questions having little or nothing to do with aesthetics, but rather with strategies of “hacking the society of the spectacle,” social engagement or intervention, or whathaveyou.**

Do you ever hear anyone asking if Thomas Hirschhorn is “any good”? Not really, because the critical consensus (for the time being, at least) is unanimous. But then again, Hirschhorn largely works through the usual channels, doesn’t he?

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*  A better question to ask in the case of Banksy might be: In what ways does this work differ from your run-of-the-mill newspaper political cartoon? The answers to which would have a lot to do with many things that fall outside the realm of art.

**  All of which is very dicey territory -- both critically; and also tactically, since it many (if not most) instances it can go so terribly wrong.

26 February 2014

Lost in Translation

Related to the prior post. And recycled from Evan's blog, which I miss. It was Evan's post that brought this book to my attention several years ago. I think I'm partial to the early, impure English translation (twice removed -- British, from a French edition, from which the above was copied) to the much more recent one; which aimed to stick as close to Gombrowicz's original Polish text as possible.

Schools of Resentment

Further sychronicity on the topic of canonization...

This time via a backpages piece in the latest Harper’s, in which contributor Arthur Krystal writes “in defense of the canon”:

“The idea that literature contains multitudes is not new. For the greater part of its history, lit(t)eratura referred to any writing formed with letters. Up until the eighteenth century, the only true makers of creative work were poets, and what they aspired to was not literature by poesy. A piece of writing was ‘literature’ only if enough learned readers spoke well of it; but as Thomas Rymer observed in 1674, ‘till of late years England was as free of Criticks, as it was of wolves.’”

Krystal – as you can see – is here writing about the literary canon, and aiming to (re-)assert its categorical imperatives. He’s apparently prompted to do so by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollor’s recent aargument that the idea of what constitutes literature these days has become much more porous. Yes, Krystal admits, the canon (the notion and ranking of “Great Books”) is shaped by consensus, and – yes -- ever since Gutenberg that consensus has overwhelming been a petite-bourgeois enterprise. This has – historically – included not only “informed readers,” critics, and academics, but also the publishers who had an investment in publishing and repackaging The Classics, and moving as much product as possible. And so it goes even today...

“In sum, we live in a time when inequality in the arts is seen as a relative crock, when the distinction between popular culture and high culture is said to be either dictatorial or arbitrary. Yet lodged in that word ‘inequality’ is an idea we refuse to abandon. I mean, of course, quality. The canon may be gone, but the idea of a canon persists. Penguin Books is now issuing a series of ‘modern classics,’ which the publisher has decided are classics in the making. No doubt some of these novels deserve our consideration…[but] do Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues or Nick Hornsby’s Fever Pitch, enjoyable as they are, rate as modern classics? Clearly the idea of greatness continues to appeal, and just as clearly our definition of it has changed – as has our definition of literature.”

It all gets a bit squishy, really – with Krystal at a couple of points writing somewhat disparagingly of the relativism of latter-day “anti-canonists,” only to cede ground to them later in the essay. As the artworld anti-Formalism backlash of a few decades had it: once you start relying on connoisseurial notions like quality, critical disinterest, et al., then things not only get deeply subjective, but aggravatingly tautological, as well.

24 February 2014

Autrestitial Outerludes

A couple of recent affinities...

The second: Drummige supreme! And natch the whole thing bears all the usual trademarks of the David Axelrod sound -- the centrality of drums and bass serving as the linchpin, from which so much else in the piece pivots. Chief difference this time out being that Axelrod has relegated the vibes to a more subtle role, mostly using them to provide some riddmic & tonal underpainting. The word "expansive" was among the first that came to mind.

The first: From a concert in Cologne, c. 1975; rumor has it that it never released because Cherry's trumpet distorts on the third composition. Didn't know it existed until recently. Much more interesting and hypnotic and deeper stuff than the trial studio sessions (also circulating in bootleg form) that the two recorded in Copenhagen some 5 years previously. The opening moments of this one have me thinking of Sun Araw -- possibly explaining the difference between his first couple of efforts (which didn't have much to say other than, "I really, really, really, really love Spaceman 3"), and the darker, more exotically enigmatic territories he struck out into with Heavy Deeds.

Bigger Than Jesus

Related to the last post, I now see that Phil K recently weighed in on the topic of canonization and cultural worth.

The third stage scenario he describes is an all-too-familiar one. It explains those instances when “hip” or “cutting edge” listeners quickly turn a band or artist once that artist begins to gain more widespread acceptance/sales. And, correspondingly, why a lot of bands adopt a “Never Play Your Hometown” policy once they start to attain larger audiences.

23 February 2014

You Got Good Taste

As one would expect, my reading across the usual array of sites and blogs during the period of my recent relocation was at best sporadic. One thing that did catch my attention a few weeks ago came via a series of posts by Aaron at Airport Through The Trees, who had a number of thoughts and misgivings prompted by his visit to the recently-opened Rough Trade shop in Brooklyn. The one bit that most lodged itself in my memory was his comment:

"How to write a record that gets a 0.0 on Pitchfork's website and is also so excellent in its own way as to delegitimize that website? I can't even imagine this aesthetically."

Nor can I; but it's an amusing idea, and a mental exercise worth attempting. And admittedly, there was a time – in the not-too-distant past -- when such a scenario wasn’t all that unlikely as far as the online publication in question is concerned. But no matter, more interesting is the general focus of Aaron’s posts, specifically about the shop’s presentation of its wares, and what that mode of presentation indicates about the shape and character of contemporary culture. Over the course of which, he touches on a number of topics I've spent a great deal of time turning over in my own head over the years, and which I have long regarded with a deepening sense of ambivalence.

Most curious for me was Aaron's remarks about what he perceived as the heavily curated nature of the shop. Not having been there myself, I can't chime in to concur with or refute this.* But it's a description that sounds quite familiar to me. Perhaps mostly because the showroom scenario he sketches seems typical of the boutiqification-of-everything syndrome that has become increasingly prevalent in the past two decades. Which I suppose one could subject to the Pierre Bourdieu treatment -- dissecting about it along the lines about an orchestrated signifying of taste and the market of symbolic goods or whatever. But that sort of tack usually winds up being too reductive in this instance.

Me, I find myself wondering if perhaps it's only one part rotely curated exhibition, but at the same time also two (or three) parts shrine. Y'know, seeing how The Kids (ugh) have recently -- according to so many lifestyle-section articles on the topic these past 6 years -- developed some fetishistic thing for vinyl and record shops and other such anachronistic stuff. The resuscitation/maintenance of a particular type of social space (which – noted – also happens to be a marketplace), a space devoted to a reaffirmation of things past, or to how things were once done. Perhaps a type of honorific ritual, an activity hinged on acknowledging a particular aesthetic continuum – whatever its present state or means of delivery – owes its existence and pedigree to its place in a specific domain of a material culture. The once-marginalized/now-official “alt canon,” which had to find its place (its audience, its merits) amidst all the vagaries of previous modes of production & distro – in those few niches not crowded out by the dominant culture.

And maybe it’s that last aspect that lies at the core of Aaron’s comments. That being: That when it’s all been pre-sorted and -filtered and prissily curated for you. All killer and no (bin-)filler, the dross has lost, because the canon has long since ossified and pretty much everyone agrees on what’s what these days. Which effectively means that previous status of marginalized or “oppositional” cultural product has long since entered the realm of myth. Or at least (for those who weren’t around at the time), now exists as only the wispiest of rumors.

Admittedly, the above is a loose collection of thoughts; poorly focused, barely lucid, begging to be addressed at greater length. If anything, it's a spastic dance on my part; a dance around the thorny notion of "oppositional culture," inasmuch as such a thing could ever boil down to what a bunch of white guys do with their guitars, or in most things having to do with music or art or literature in the present age. I think I had doubts about that sort of thing upon exiting my teens, and have remained a full-blown agnostic about it ever since. But that might probably only constitutes yet another "failure of imagination." Dunno. Yeah, more'n likely. Definitely.

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* But if the photos above, as well as others I've seen of the place are any indication, then I can can easily imagine a jazz record store that mirrored this one -- where clerks, in a sort of top-down administration of conservatorial taste, fussily re-sifted the bins to make sure that Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, This is Our Music, Time Out, Waltz for Debby, Mingus Ah Um, etc. always had full-frontal display?

21 February 2014

Just Do As It Says

Used to have a dubbed copy of this on VHS, which I lent to a friend many years ago, who promptly lost it without ever having watched it. Given how soon the film fell between the cracks (having passed without much notice on the 1st place), I was thinking it'd never resurface on Youtube or where-ever. But alas, wait long enough...

And yeah, fuck you. X were good in their day, whether or not the opin/assessment of recent years sees fit to acknowledge that fact or not.

(Plus, I once a guy who was an early editor on the film, in the days when the project began its 5-year chronicling. He had -- yes -- left Los Angeles early in the effort, somehow winding up in the deep south where he wound up in the shithole town I was living in; by day working for the ACLU, by night managing a movie theater that many would describe as an "art" cinema. Which was where I saw this and this and this and this & a bunch of other things, since it was down the street from where I was living at the time. The place was a lifeline for the likes of me at the time.)

20 February 2014

Don't ask why, but somehow I believe I intuited months ago that we wouldn't be able to make it through this round of Winter Games without seeing the phrase "attacked by Cossacks" turn up in the headlines at least once.

Horsewhips, no less.

06 February 2014

Stay Hungry Interlude

No, haven't dropped off the face of the map. No, not dead.  Placeholder two. Relocational recalibration & all such stuff. No traumas on this end, hope the same extends to all of youse. Something akin to Content TK.

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