Monthly Archives: August 2005

The New Art

I’ve lived the greater part of my life as a self-avowed member of the intelligentsia. Only in the past few years have I rejected that appellation and, not coincidentally, left behind the social and artistic ties I had spent a lifetime building. Of course, a few of my friends from those times are sufficiently amused by my current transformations to continue on in their active personal and professional relationships with me. Some try to dissuade me from my identification with the things I had rejected in my youth. Others seem to find some value in the addition of my contrary views into their desire for a more comprehensive worldview. They strike me as the most open-minded ones.In any event, much of my thinking today has been shaped by my sense of the abominations of thought and expression perpetrated in the past decades by the academic and aesthetic practitioners I used to hang out with. I’m finding new methods of working with what strike me as the most practical and sensible ways to define the world and my own place in it. And nothing strikes me as more problematic in that effort than the influence of mass media.*I’ve watched my friends and colleagues – radical, anarchist, ultra-liberal, intellectual, creative individuals move relatively unchanged from decade to decade. I see this as quite odd, as the world changes daily. In addition, I came to doubt my own life-long convictions because I could not separate those instilled in me by decades of so-called “alternative” media. The mindset of our alternative culture became the operating assumptions of mainstream media because the biases of my friends, peers, and colleagues were carried along with them directly into it as we became our society’s new creative elite.*At some point, I decided that my identity was my essential aesthetic creation. Since then, I have consciously crafted it and it exists as does any other text – in a constant state of evolution, flux, and re-interpretation. My convictions today are the result of life-experience, introspection, and the creative application of aesthetic principles.* I’m my art – my art is me.

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brain freeze

Words are frozen mind crystals.Sentences are chunks of ice.Once they are formed That part of the brain stops thinkingAnd just repeats the words Over and over.*Words by TFDWe end up with titanic icebergsIn our heads.

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Tommy, I Can't See You

After typing out the previous entry, I thought it would be worthwhile to refer again to my weekend viewing of The Who’s Tommy at the Genesius Theatre’s 10th Street venue. (The performances continue through August 13). As I stated, the show was thoroughly enjoyable even though the text itself is quite poor. It’s the intellectual poverty of the text that struck me most and so I indicated that criticism in the previous entry. But a more thorough deconstruction is in order – because this text demonstrates quite a bit about the kind of maladjusted views of self and society that are de rigueur in youth-oriented mainstream (popular) culture. The various versions of Tommy – the minimal exposition of the original double-record set, the 1975 Ken Russell film, and this latest stage incarnation – all share the same mindset. It is strikingly representative of the self-centered contemporary worldview that came to fruition in the US by the late 1960s. Tommy is first of all a traumatized victim of abuse and neglect. This is crucial – because we have been persuaded to believe that all families are dysfunctional and we are all victims. Our culture of victimization allows us to feel that we’ve not been dealt a fair hand and that it’s not our fault if we’re not all we could have been. There’s always the messed-up family and the materialistic society to blame for our problems.Tommy reflects the radiant innocence of the child – our inner child. There is the sense of unlimited potential that we like to believe is everyone’s natural birthright. When the infinite potential of the idealized child meets the existential and pragmatic necessities of the historical landscape our sympathies are with the child, of course. It’s an easy self-identification that we’re too willing to make.The central character is further victimized by the degeneracy of the world around him – perverse sex, alcoholism, and illegal drugs. That’s an interesting situation, since these are the same vices celebrated by just about every other piece of pop music that comes down the pike. It’s like the Rolling Stones’ fake moralism of Mother’s Little Helper. I suppose the idea here is that we’re not to blame for our addictions because we’re surrounded by a world that was already full of addictive behavior before we arrived on the scene. Our sympathies are with this damaged character because we’ve been manipulated to identify with him. He’s shown to be a deaf-mute-blind genius by virtue of his special ability to play pinball with great skill. (That the childish pastime of the pinball game underscores the uselessness of this kind of “genius” seems to escape the intellects in love with this text.)We like to think of ourselves as undiscovered geniuses – our brilliant candles hid beneath the bushel of the insensitive materialistic world to which we’re bound. We see Tommy’s relationship to his public admirers echoing the rock-star fantasy that’s projected in droves upon the blank slate of young people’s dream lives. Predictably, Tommy is ultimately portrayed as a Christ-like figure. This common literary device is so blatant and obviously clichéd in the various versions of Tommy scripts that it points out the paucity of imagination suffusing this entire enterprise since it was just a stoned gleam in Pete Townshend’s eye. When in doubt, cast your character as Christ. I mean, if it was good enough for Herman Melville, well then it oughta be good enough for rock and roll. All I can say about that is: I’ve read Herman Melville and Townshend’s not Melville.We’re so manipulated by popular culture that sometimes I think I should just type out the standard fluffy reviews and cute critiques that I typically encounter out there in the media at large. It would allow me to appear hip and with it. It would probably help me to impress important people with my insider’s appreciation of the ironic contradictions inherent in postmodern conceptions of self and society. I could be another savvy supporter of pop culture – and by so doing I could bathe in the projected radiance of that most venerated of all qualities – youth itself.But alas, when I see my peers giving standing ovations to bad ideas such as The Who’s Tommy (no matter how professionally expert its presentation) I figure it’s time to stand aside and cast a castigation into the mix. We owe our young people more than we give them these days. Sure, we like to cast ourselves as heroes in their impressionable minds. But one thing for certain about artists and intellectuals is that we are almost never heroic.

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Tommy, I Can’t Hear You.

*(I should say this first: the Genesius Theatre cast, crew, and production team responsible for mounting The Who’s Tommy are to be commended for the near-flawless multimedia presentation I attended Saturday evening. They did a terrific job with an essentially meaningless, hopeless script.)*I recall the 1969 release of the actual “text” of Tommy. It consisted of a vinyl double album that had been over hyped as an achievement of culturally historic importance by critics everywhere from Rolling Stone to The New York Times. I recall my friends waiting for the album to be released as if waiting for the arrival of the Holy Grail. When I heard it all the way through for the first time, I found it flabby, inconsistent, and boring. The narrative was less complex than that of a comic book – as it was nothing more than a collection of loosely related songs. I was studying the literature of the world as a college junior and I saw this piece of work as simply embarrassing.Why embarrassing? Well, it was a time when youth culture had convinced a significant part of the media that it was “coming of age” and capable of producing serious artistic masterworks. It was obvious to me that Tommy was in no way an artistic masterpiece – not even close.I was embarrassed because I had come to believe in the hyped significance of my role as a cultural arbiter helping to change the world for the better by simply being young, having the right (left) views, buying the right products, and identifying with the “correct” role models – celebrities who were pushing their views on young people through the big media conglomerates that were promoting “the counterculture.” One didn’t really question the new creations of the pantheon of rock and rollers who had earned their stripes by achieving iconic status during the second half of the 1960s. And The Who was one of those icons whose work was simply universally appreciated by those who had a vested interest in being considered “hip.”It’s not so different today but I’m amazed at how the shibboleths of 40 years ago are still standing and being hailed by new generations of young people who have no memory of the actual events of the time.They’re getting schooled in this stuff by listening to old records, of course. But more to the point, their elders are also filling their minds with the significance of the time periods during which they were young themselves. The marketing of what is considered “cool” has continued apace as has the youth culture, left-wing politics, drug-taking, and déclassé appreciation of the lower echelons of society as representative of the sort of “noble savages” that aristocratic classes have adopted as their poster children since the 17th century.I’d suggest to young people that they’d do better paying less attention to their elders when it comes to locating their own generation’s place in human history. There is, at present, a media- and elitist-induced canonical double-speak that creates coercive cognitive dissonance in the impressionable minds of young people. It is simply this: to hear members of the current professional classes of Americans speak of the cultural and political influence their generations had on human progress is to be presented with a hypocrisy of massive proportions. I happen to be a member of the Vietnam-war generation and a veteran of its “revolutionary youth culture” and I must say it had a lot more to do with making my friends and me feel good about ourselves – and it still does – than about making the world a better place. We were and remain the most selfish, hypocritical, and self-centered generation the world has ever produced and it would be best if our outmoded ideas of what is true, just, cool, and correct in the world were flat-out rejected by young people. The moment that is most difficult to take in the new and updated version of The Who’s Tommy, is when the self-indulgent protest marchers cry out “We won!” while announcements of the 1973 final US troop withdrawal from Vietnam are splayed egregiously across the multimedia mise en scene. This self-congratulatory nonsense is the kind of thing that should make any serious student of US history wince. It’s the type of revisionism that my generation has done consistently regarding inflating the events of our youth to mythic, even heroic, proportions. It was during this shallow moment of the performance that I decided to type out the current entry. I haven’t said all I would like to say about this, but by now you know where I’m coming from. If you are a young person and you’ve read this far, I’d ask you why on earth you would be paying any attention at all to someone who is my age. In general, you’d do far better, given the way things have turned out here in the USA, to question the things you’ve learned about the past 40 years or so. If you do that, you might end up wanting to invent a very different kind of culture from the one that has been handed us by the popular media and the intellectual classes whose worldviews were spawned during the Vietnam era and its aftermath. That would be a very good thing for a new generation of Americans to do.

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Politics as Art – It’s OK If You Hate It

My own opinion as to the place of politics in art is that it has its place but, more often then not, it reduces aesthetics to mere rhetoric and diminishes the universal relevance of artwork to a narrow form of preaching to the choir. Much political art also serves as a forum for the kind of ultra-narrowcasting that, in a supersaturated cultural environment, can find no other place of expression than an art gallery. Political art also supplies occasional cultural shocks to the body politic. I suppose there’s some value in that.These explanations can help us comprehend some of the more outrageous and just plain silly things that are done by artists in the interest of making some sort of political point. One of the more ridiculous recent political art statements came from British bad-boy, Mark McGowan, who last month turned on a faucet in a London art gallery with the intention that it be left running for a year. Read more on this artwork here and here. The point of the piece – just in case you see it as pointless – was to underscore the observation that, in the artist’s words, “Water’s quite cheap. I think that’s why people waste it so much.”Mmm-k…I’m pleased to report that McGowan, under pressure from the public utility, has turned off the tap. You can catch up on the details here. The stainless-steel sink that was used for the piece is for sale at a bit over twenty-five hundred dollars and the artist intends to repeat his performance. That collectors are lining up to purchase and fund the piece says more about the fact that it has gained some notoriety in the press than it does about its aesthetic value.*The 2004 US Presidential election – and elections around the world – have made us painfully aware of the political persuasions of the free-world’s artistic communities from Hollywood to Bollywood. The predominantly left-leaning views of artists should not come as a surprise to anyone who takes a moment to reflect upon what types of people generally end up in the arts. The relationship of artists to society is problematic at best. It should not shock us to see evidence that social alienation, childish idealism, establishment-directed anger, rebelliousness, hatred of authority, and a remarkable absence of pragmatism characterize the contemporary art and entertainment scene. What should alarm us, however, is the fact that in a culture increasingly pervaded by the messages of media celebrities, we’re being influenced to an inordinate degree by the persuasions of a traditionally marginal group. It alarms me – and I’ve been an artist for my entire life. I simply became disillusioned with my artistic friends who held on to the political immaturity that was their birthright, perhaps, as youths and who carried it forward as a torch throughout their adulthood. I’m as alienated by the art and artists who fall into this category as are many of my readers. Just thought I should mention that. If this helps you sleep better after hearing about the latest antics of a supposedly significant artist – then I’m pleased I could help. *Image: Artist Mark McGowan (Associated Press)

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