31 January 2016

Kitsch, Dirt, Mud, and Chaos

Hans-Peter Zimmer, collage, date unknown

At the end of the prior post I had mentioned the Gruppe SPUR. I hadn't had reason to think of them in many years. In fact, I once had a copy of a German-language book on the group; a book that was long ago lost, destroyed, or came to some other such fate. At any rate, being reminded of them, I decided to seek out images of their early, SI-era work online. No quick task, as the group was -- I gather -- never widely known outside of Germany.

Comprised of painters Heimrad Prem, Helmut Sturm, Hanz-Peter Zimmer, and sculptor Lothar Fischer, the group came together in 1957 in the city of Munich. Their work during those years in many ways mirrors of number of postwar "art informel" avant-gardist tendencies of the era -- like a mishmash of COBRA-style taschism and art brut primitivism.

Heimrad Prem - Untitled, 1962

Lothar Fischer, title and date unknown

Helmut Sturm  "Paar", 1962

Hans-Peter Zimmer - Untitled, 1961

Lothar Fischer "Flucht aus dem Morgenland", 1959

28 January 2016

Ceci n'est pas une pipe, pt. 118

From a recent discussion between Susanne von Falkenhausen and David Joselit, concerning the latter's curatorial hand in the Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age exhibition, via the German edition of Frieze mag:

SvF: So medium specificity – that’s the old spectre. And what does medium specificity, what does Clement Greenberg, have to do with Guy Debord? You would like to get painting out of the register of Greenberg and put it into a register of Debord?

DJ: I suppose it’s very hard to characterize a complex project in a slogan. But from my point of view, what painting really can do is represent, even theorize, the circulation of pictures – and by ‘pictures’ I mean commoditized images as they arise in mass media of all types ranging, in our period, from television to the internet. We know that appropriation was aimed at indexing the ‘life of pictures’. But it did so in a very severe way, which in fact made the displacement from one context to another – art to advertising, for instance – clean and unambiguous. Whereas in painting, what you see from Robert Rauschenberg to the present is that commoditized images are put into circulation in time and space, and move at different rates. Many of the questions animating conceptual art with regard to changing values of visual knowledge have been explored in painting, but I don’t think this has been sufficiently recognized. While it is a simplification that has many problems, for the sake of argument I think your characterization is largely correct: we are trying to take painting from Greenberg to Debord.

SvF: But Debord...

DJ: He would have hated the project.

SvF: Yes, I think so. He would have sent in some black paper or something like that.

DJ: Right, or a film. ...Obviously Debord did not and would not approve of painting.

Unless the painting in question were one by Asger Jorn (who's included in the exhibition). In which case, Debord was all to ready to accept it as a gift, which -- lore has it it -- he would turn around and sell, using the money from the transaction to fund the publishing of the next edition of the SI journal.

26 January 2016

23 January 2016

Canon Fodder: Institutionalized, II

From a recent interview with Hal Foster at Mute, prompted by the publication of his latest book, Bad News Days...
JDM: It’s interesting that you dedicate this book to those art spaces and journals. At one point in the book you say that, ‘we might reassure ourselves’, when faced with some of the art you are discussing, by relating it to some historical precursors. I wonder though how much the modernist canon that you rely on is relevant to the kind of artists who operate through those same grassroots venues and journals. It seems to me that that particular art history and canon is no longer the context within which a lot of younger artists see their work operating, or not in any kind of privileged way.

HF: I don’t discuss the split between contemporary practice and postwar practice very much in this book. Certainly modernist art is quite distant, but then again I think when ambitious artists develop they do have connections to the past that they might not recognise and that it may be incumbent upon others to extract. So, for example, I was surprised when I wrote about the abject that there would be connections to Bataille, and that when I wrote about the mimetic that there would be a different Dada that would emerge. I don’t think that that is an imposition on my part. I think ambitious practice always reconfigures history. So I do understand that there is this disconnect but new lines also open up. Certainly we’ve lived through a long epoch of art in the context of cultural studies and artists are a lot more involved in the social and the political in a synchronic way and so artists think about work as just so many projects. That tends to devalue the diachronic and the history of medium. But the serious ones, I think, come around to that question too. To sustain a practice you have to develop a language and that language demands an engagement with the past.

And later in the same discussion...

JDM: Swinging back to questions of education, now that the academic institution is no longer a place to find shelter, would you agree that contemporary art has become a holding category for culture generally and, if you do agree, what do you think the positives and negatives of that situation might be?

HF: Well I think that’s right. One thing that struck me with the emergence of relational art was how compensatory it seemed, you know, like: ‘Oh, social relations elsewhere are diminished, if not destroyed, perhaps we can use art as a site for interaction.’ I feel like there’s real pathos there, but also real force, I don’t just mean to decry it. It’s a sad reflection on other spaces and other institutions if that is the case. This is the condition of neoliberalism that most people, even its champions, will admit; it wants to deregulate everything. The ravaged institutions that remain have an enormous amount of work to do. In the United States that’s usually primary schools, where all sorts of social problems are dumped and libraries that become homeless shelters. As the government withdraws from more and more spaces the ones that remain are really burdened. What troubles me in terms of the institutions of art is that the opposite is happening. Rather than act as the last strongholds or even leak-holds of the social, they seem to want to mimic the rest of the market place and become simply another branch of the culture industry. That’s one line of polemic in the book. What art institutions do at their best is provide a site where different temporalities and different ideas of what it means to be a subject in this society can be constellated in works of art, but rather than do that they seem to want to become relevant to the culture that so privileges presence, you know, the live. It’s the entertainment version of self-actualisation, of human capital, of how to be fully you at all times.

That last bit about the overburdening of various cultural institutions makes me think of my ambivalence about certain trends among metropolitan art museums that I noticed emerging back in the mid-to-late 1990s; all of which had sociological correlates. Firstly, the increasing numbers of “populist”-minded blockbuster exhibitions, the sort that were obviously intended to bait tourists and suburbanites; but which would also become more and more frequent as “re-urbanizing” demographic shifts and gentrification gained momentum. Secondly, there was the proliferation of “relational” art projects hosted by art institutions, which ran parallel to increasing discussion about the “disappearance of public spaces”, compounded by the closures and marginalization of smaller cultural venues and sites due to (once again) increasing gentrification. And then there was the expansion of museum educational departments via outreach programs; attempting to ameliorate -- in their meager ways -- the effects of inner-city educational inequities (i.e., a public education system that was becoming increasingly handicapped by successive cycles of ideologically-driven budget cuts and public demonization). On these last two counts, I’m tempted to think of Claire Bishop’s description of relational art projects as attempts to create temporary “functional ‘microtopias’” that offered “provisional solutions in the here and now” -- albeit in the shadow of far greater, far more extensively destructive socio-economic forces.

20 January 2016

Don't Talk to Sociologists

Mayo Thompson interviewed for BOMB magazine, speaking about divergent modes of creativity and the "waxen herring" of a 50-years-old conjectural musical project...

KC: Would you say you see Red Crayola as a product?

MT: Mike Kelley once told me that he was no democrat, but that we were going to have to have universal democracy before anything interesting could happen again. He was thinking about product, good product. Though he did not think art is redemptive, Mike was a utopian. He believed in progress. I don’t. And I don’t think anything is necessarily interesting. Something’s being interesting only serves those in whose interest it functions. Punk qua form wasn’t about making interesting music, rather about music as self-realization. Even poor punk was interesting, though, particularly if it sold. That’s what made the Crayola viable. Sales made it interesting in a broader sense. When we started we knew we couldn’t play up to the standards operative in those days but didn’t let that stop us. We made a virtue of what we could do that conventional musicians couldn’t do, and exploited that, with the idea of making them eat it thrown in. We were playing a theoretical endgame. We let the world know we couldn’t be bothered. You might say that was and to an extent remains The Red Crayola product. Our music expressed our aggressiveness, our attitude. When I heard The Beatles, Dylan, I thought, 'Fuck, cool. If that makes it, I can sing too.' The Sex Pistols had the same effect, giving people a sense that they might empower themselves. People discouraged me when I sang as a child, said, 'You can’t carry a tune in a bucket.' People still say that. Well, fuck it. I haven’t been trying to carry a tune. I’ve been essaying, expressing my interests in abstract terms, devil take the hindmost.

KC: So you do not consider the records that you have made to be works of some kind?

MT: If you mean artworks as such, no. I think of them as candidates for asymmetrical functional relations, open to interpretation.

KC: Having said that, would you refer to the band as a condition of a sort?

MT: Condition? You mean like, pneumonia? No.

To my lights, it just represents instrumental potential inasmuch as its value is tied to its use. Music has been instrumental to my being able to put ideas in play, having more fun than you’re supposed to, that sort of thing. I’m no purist, and don’t believe authenticity or sincerity save anything, not necessarily. The game is to make things that have to be dealt with on the terms they instantiate. My stuff doesn’t carry or necessarily suggest imperatives for others. It’s not well-formed in the scientific sense. In personal terms, it entails a measure of shame, because it would be nice if everybody were as fortunate as I in doing what they like.

Full interview here.

19 January 2016

...Not with a bang but a shrug.

"I’m ever reluctant to take our predictive narratives totally seriously because I think that in spite of our best efforts at prediction, I think that our self-regard defeats us in the end. That we tend to—we imagine relatively heroic outcomes, and no one wants a prophet standing on the corner saying that everything is going to be hideously stupid and banal. Utterly atrocious, and that’s just the nature of things. It lacks even the—well, the appeal of the apocalypse is closure and a sort of clarity. Yes! The world is ending. And yeah it’s kind of a banner one can get behind, in a way. Its opposite is this kind of willy-nilly nihilistic absurdist narrative that one can feel one is living in."

- William Gibson, interviewed at LitHub

18 January 2016

Margin Call

Come what may:

"[The Luxembourg] report notes that following the 2008-09 financial crisis, few market sectors rebounded as robustly as art – particularly contemporary art, which has doubled in value since the beginning of the financial recovery. 
"But since art has no fundamental value, it is difficult for economists to apply economic principles to it. It is harder still to trade in art as an asset class, as the market has clearly attempted to do. [...] 
Levin said the bubble was inflating in part due to the prevalence of high-end money laundering being done through art, and how the two have come to affect one another. Buy art in one country and pop it in the private jet, the theory goes, and by morning you’ve moved $100m between tax jurisdictions.

"'In certain countries, art is very effective way for collectors to transfer wealth,' Levin said. 'It’s highly mobile and there’s a tendency for it trade up to whatever the strongest currency may be.'"

In other news:  I guess for years now NYCers have been saying that the city's been taken over by rich wankers. I guess this confirms it as fact.

image: Damien Hirst; "What Comes Up, Must Come Down", 1994

13 January 2016

Art Decade (Coda)

Some straggling, tangential thoughts; re legacy, canonization, etc....

Monday’s news eventually had me reaching for England Is Mine, Michael Bracewell’s lenghty rumination about the role of dandyism in shaping Anglo modernist cultural history. Flipping to the section where he addresses the Glam years of the early 1970s, in which the author frames Bowie and Roxy Music as staging some variety of sci-fi musical revue for the nuclear age:

“Hot on Bowie’s stacked heels were Roxy Music, who mingled science and artifice into a cabaret futura of decadent romance -- playing with nostalgia as Bowie played with the future. [...]

And yet Roxy Music and David Bowie, throughout the first half of the 1970s,...propounded notions of time travel that were heavily tinged with death, disorientation and decay. From Bowie’s ‘Five Years’, as an imagined response to the imminent end of the world, to Roxy Music’s ‘The Bob Medley’ (1972) in which the strains of an interior elegance are drowned out by gun-fire, the ultimate destination of their glamour was shaped by a romantic sense of mortality -- a plastic Keatsian ‘half in love with easeful death’. This strong sense of death beneath glamour...would be crucial to those post-punks who looked to the Glam age for their own aesthetic of death, dehumanization and Weimar decadence. As the sensual images of pin-up girls and swooning sirens on the covers of Roxy Music’s first four LPS hovered close to pornography, so too did their music move closer to the gloriously lurid, subverted by a arcane knowingness which crystallized their luxurious image into a sealed world of erotic melodrama: Edith Piaf meets Helmut Newton. Ferry -- ever the trend-setter -- would drop into German on the goose-stepping chorus line of ‘Lullaby’ (1974) to proclaim that the end of the world was nothing when one was stranded between love and art, thus setting into place, more or less, the entire agenda of New Romanticism.”

(At which point some readers might elect to supplant that “more or less” with a “for better or for worse.” No matter, Bracewell continues...)

“In terms of drama, David Bowie and Roxy Music turned pop concerts into rallies and Goth-Futurist theater, with the trashy rock-’n’-roll finding a natural home between the atmospheric, synthesized soliloquies of love and loss. Bowie singing ‘Sweet Thing’, as a lover lost in an urban future, could compete with Bryan Ferry singing ‘In Every Home a Heartache’ as a lover lost in Harrods; Roxy Music’s ‘A Song for Europe’, with its punning on the Bridge of Sighs, fitted nicely with Bowie’s double serenading of Jean Genet and Iggy Pop in ‘Jean Genie’. A whole new language had been invented for radical English pop, a kind of neo-Platonic plutonium plush, which was a world and a time away from the previous tyranny of American rockism over pop cool.”

Many of the Bowie obits and tributes that piled up on Monday and the following day featured the same component -- the blahblahblahing about the scope and extent of the artist’s influence on so much music that came afterward. Which prompted me to think about something I said in my prior post, the admission that I had gone nearly 25 years without listening to Bowie, without having much reason to think of him. Perhaps that was in some way testament to the degree of his cultural influence; that it was -- in certain aspects -- so pervasive in the pop industry (once again for better or worse) that it became all to easy to take that influence for granted -- it became such an inherent given, such an element of the environment that it like some sort of cultural wallpaper that was there when you moved into the premises, and long ago stopped noticing.

And the lazier tributes making it sound like Bowie was Glam rock, all but claiming that he’d invented it. Much like the lazy accounts of Pop Art that have it all beginning and ending with Andy Warhol. Like Warhol, Bowie was a somewhat late arrival on the Glam scene. And as such was initially dismissed by a few as a bandwagon-hopping opportunist.*  But let’s be honest, were it not for him and Roxy Music, glam wouldn’t have ultimately amounted to much more than a footnote in the annals of pop music. If it had boiled down to the like of T. Rex, The Sweet, Slade and Gary Glitter, the whole thing would be remembered as little more than some Bubblegum 2.0 fad whose popularity was largely confined to the U.K.. (Next up, kids -- the Bay City Rollers!)

Which of course is the “authenticity” argument, the bulkiest and most unwieldy folder from the “rockism” file. Which I never fully understood, because the Authenticity party line was mostly a product of the late‘50s-early ‘60s folk movement, having only marginally spilled over into the ascendant rock scene in the years that followed.**  Whatever the case, you can deem it as part of the cultural baggage from the 1960s that Bowie, Roxy, and other artists of the period decided could be readily done away with. (Relatedly, I saw this morning that Simon had posted something about the entrance of “meta” into the pop-music spectrum, via a 1980 interview with Brian Eno.)

And I realize that in siding with Bracewell’s argument, I place myself on one side of a dubious polemic adhered to by some people. That being the polemic that roughly goes: Sod all that high-minded, pretentious art-school hijackers’ alt-canon bullocks -- like a tosser who brings a book to a party, coming along and taking all the fun out of everything.

As far as Glam is concerned, I have no idea if either party Bowie or Ferry were privy to Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” essay; which is probably neither nor there because both parties they had something vaguely similar in mind. Ushering in the entrance of postmodern irony into the pop music arena, while showing notion of authenticity the door. Something pop-music artists and listeners have been mindful of ever since. All of which, of course, mostly has to do theater, presentation, image-making, artifice, public spectacle and the like, and -- one could argue -- nothing to do with music, per se. But hey, they don’t call it show biz for nothing.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

* One can imagine the sort of incredulity that broke out in the Leo Castelli stable when the gallerist decided to take Warhol on, with Lichenstein, Rosenquist et al. grumbling, “Who’s this interloping Johnny-come-lately? Oh, he already has a successful career...and a pile of cash to go with it? well, fuck him!”

** Which of course is the “authenticity” argument, the bulkiest and most unwieldy folder from the “rockism” file. Which I never fully understood, because the Authenticity party line was mostly a product of the late‘50s-early ‘60s folk movement, having only marginally spilled over into the ascendant rock scene in the years that followed. Admittedly, this would change in later years, by which point rock-related notions of authenticity were often tangled up with issues about economic class -- was such-and-such an artist from a true working-class background/”the streets”/whatever.

11 January 2016

Exit, Stage Left

Momus on this morning’s news, and the “theatrical timing” of Bowie’s passing:

"Apparently he’d had cancer for eighteen months. What a keeper of secrets, just as he was when he used to sneak in and out of Bromley bedsits, playing girls off against each other, giving everyone a different story! Sneaky David who lied to everybody because it really wasn’t any of our business! He even got Tony Visconti to lie about him being healthy and strong! I’d heard the cancer rumours, but I believed the lies. I preferred to, needed to: the lies were so much more palatable.

"But it wasn’t really 'unexpectedly'. His songs — the public statements that really matter — had all the while been spelling things out stark and clear to those of us willing to listen. I felt uncomfortable singing, in my Blackstar cover: 'Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside...' It was totally clear who 'he' was. And then came Lazarus, with 'Look up here, I’m in heaven...' And that video which has him disappearing into the wardrobe at the end. To Narnia, some said."

Of course there’ll be an avalanche of tributes hammered out and posted today and in the days to come, but I think I may stop reading there.

It’d be fair to say that Bowie was formative musical input during my early teenage years -- Station to Station being the first full album of his that I sank into, roughly about a year before the release of Scary Monsters. In the several years that followed, I did the backtracking and absorbed all of his back catalogue. But come my late teens and about 20-plus years of my adulthood, I paid him little attention -- never listened to his music (new or old), rarely had reason to even think of him.

What changed?, what prompted a revisitation after a long absence? I don’t know -- maybe it when younger critics, those who weren’t around back when Bowie was a big artistic entity -- began to appraise the man’s career at a more objective remove. Or maybe it was hearing Seu Jorge’s delicate versions of Bowie songs for the Life Aquatic soundtrack; hearing those songs in a more naked and humble form, stripped of their multipart arrangements and electric bombast, and realizing that underneath lay some very peculiar and at times lovely songwriting.

It prompted me to gradually revisit the early Bowie albums, curious to see how they’d strike me now that I’m much older and have the benefit of my own distance from the work’s period of origin. I found that my preferences hadn’t changed much over the years. The much-heralded, hit-making, high-concept Glam years -- good, but (as before) not among my favorites. Instead I found myself more deeply drawn to the fore-and-aft transitional phases -- particularly Hunky Dory and the “Berlin Years” material. The years when Bowie didn’t in advance know what direction he wanted to go, and was operating more by intuition and curiosity than by design.

But yes, back to the matter of timing. I’d spent the past few days noting the reviews of the new (and now final) album, Blackstar. Unanimously positive of the half dozen or so that I’d read. I couldn’t help but wonder if the verdicts of “his best album in decades” weren’t partly because of the element of unexpectedness of the project’s jazz-tinged experimentalism -- the surprising change of direction as proof-positive that the man still had a sense of artistic adventurism after so many years. Each accompanied with a checklist of reputed musical inspirations and influences on the project: Kendrick Lamar, Death Grips, and (perhaps mostly puzzling of all) Boards of Canada. None of which are, to my ears, apparent throughout the album. But a number of critics mention one possible inspiration that does make much more sense when I’d only heard excerpts from the first few of the Blackstar songs --- the music of Scott Walker. A bit ironic, that; considering Walker was a figure who has at the height of his pop fame at the time that David Jones took the stage-surname Bowie, spending the next several years floundering about in the U.K. pop market, before finally becoming the artist as he's now known and remembered.

And agin about that timing: I only got the album yesterday, giving it first spin around sundown. Yes, it’s frontloaded with the more experimental, more challenging tunes; but it ends with three songs that are -- by my reckoning -- among the most gorgeous things Bowie ever did. And the voice -- that distinctive throaty croon of his -- was undiminished by the years. By the time the album’s last song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, was in full sweep, my wife came into the room, practically clutching her heart. “This is really good,” she said to me. “Fucking hell. To think it was made by a man almost seventy years old. Maybe he really is an alien, after all.” Only then to awake to this morning’s news, which cast her comments -- as well as much of Blackstar's lyrics -- into an uncanny context. Fucking hell, indeed.

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