Monday, October 17, 2005

Collings's's Dairy

(Blogger bugged out when I tried to add links. So this is incomplete & some things won't make sense. Other things won't make sense even after I add the links, but hey.)

I was reading Matthew Collings’s Diary (or ‘Mathew Collings’ Diary’ as the editors of Modern Painter put it) (one of my more morbid fancies, prompted by a misreading of my sister’s homework assignment: a graphic novel chronicling the workings of Anne Frank’s Dairy) which was, as art journalists might say, something of a revelation (but without the qualifier. Emma Dexter in Modern Painter on Marlene Dumas: “… it is a testament to her subtlety as a painter that by intermingling these themes she achieves nothing short of a revelation.” Nothing short?). Collings is my current favourite disgruntled person of middle age. From the June issue of Modern Painter: “… like articles about art written by people who usually are novelists or poets – these too are always great marvels of sympathy for something that doesn’t exist … It’s extraordinary how a kind of unmistakable jobbing Time magazine style kicks in very quickly, as the structure upon which flowery enthusiasm rides…”

That issue obligingly carries pieces by Jeanette Winterson and Toby Litt. Litt, ‘one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists 2003’, describes Phil Hale honing his painterly technique as a means of liberating his choice of subject. “Phil Hale doesn’t want to be an artist who doesn’t because he can’t, and who, as a result, does merely because he can.” It’s a neat enough idea, but carries less weight as observation. What is so exemplary about these paintings, by this painter, that teaches us about the qualities of craft and mastery of technique? Litt’s sympathy is not so much for something that doesn’t exist, as for something that doesn’t exist here - or rather its specific instantiation is nullified by its generalness. The novelist’s preoccupation with a theory, or more agreeably -what could be more disagreeable than a theory? - an idea, of art distracts him from the difficulty of looking at the work itself. This preoccupation with generic polish often betrays the writer’s shallowness as a reader. (The irony of my having randomly picked this article to illustrate this point has not passed unnoticed.) (Borges in the preface to A Universal History of Infamy: “Reading, obviously, is an activity which comes after that of writing; it is more modest, more unobtrusive, more intellectual.” I have not read the rest of the book.)

My faith in novelists, and in good writing, and the conviction that the latter is dependent on good reading, was restored by the Modern Painters Fall 2003 edition. Firstly, because there is an article by Philip Roth on Philip Guston. I have not yet read it, but it’s pleasing to know its there. Secondly, because of Julian Barnes’s beautiful account of Vuillard, and the effects of looking towards the artist rather than his work (Though to judge by the enormous photograph, and raffish pose, in every book, Barnes is one artist who doesn’t mind being looked at.) In a few lines, he affirms, by argument and – more illuminatingly – by example, the power of good writing, and the joy of good reading. Against the ‘astute’ renaming, as one catalogue called it, of paintings to reflect the circumstances in which they were painted, Barnes insists:

Such rechristening is ‘astute’ only in the sense of commercial branding – Hey, don’t be scared, you can call him Edouard. Artistically, it is far from astute. It’s saying: oh, by the way, this is what he was really painting, it’s just that he didn’t like to tell us at the time. It’s reductive, and while it couldn’t make the pictures banal, it makes them seem more ordinary. It treats them as narrative, as conversation piece, as domestic autobiography. It invites us to look for theme rather than composition and aesthetic. It is a small but significant betrayal of the artist.

A similar malady exists in the academia of the humanities, with its obsessive explication of it’s own methods, of fitting the real world to methodology, or using the world as a springboard to some discussion of scholarly technique. This is what the history of the pygmies is really about. I recently read a paper in which every second paragraph was about how complicated the facts were, and how subtle was the author’s interpretation. Neither of these was true, but even if they were, the impact was slight compared to, say, a compelling New Yorker story.

But I’m not here to convince the hip young citizens of blogland to eschew the academy. That would hardly be responsible. Indeed, the theme of this post, to arrive at it obliquely, but with some measure of continuity, and contrary to even (especially) my expectation, is a tentative endorsement of the serious.

The internet, as any fifty-year-old will tell you, is an unprecedented means of saying nothing. More surprising is that now so many say nothing so well. The agitated pursuit of form, the relentless common shaping of styles and modes (see how quickly the surface of cool crit shifts and morphs with the restless adding on and refining – and subtraction through disremembrance - by every geek with an ipod and a gifted lexis) lends credibility to the reading of hypertext as shorthand for hyperactive. For all the buzz and excitement, let’s not forget that hyperactivity is attended by a deficit of attention.

The consummate stylist of the broadband generation must be Sasha Frere-Jones. (Has anyone carried the credibility of such various streets?) But every so often I read his New Yorker pieces with just too comfortable an outsider’s repose. Partly because of the reassuring intimations of the arcane, the beguiling geekishness of pop scrutinised with meticulous, and proportionless, zeal. But there is also a feeling, sometimes, of detachedness, of an insufficient relation between critical style and critical object. When I don’t know what sf/j is talking about, I don’t really care. But it’s not like some of the other New Yorker authors, whose writing carries me over with its power and subtlety – but also its sense of conviction and urgency (or truth). When the glossy Frere-Jones metaphor machine is on autopilot (to mangle mine) it feels like a fantastic review of a restaurant I can’t afford in a city I can’t visit. Who cares how the food tastes as long as the author gets to say fish candy! It reminds me of Sonny Rollins’s (Coltrane’s?) remark about Stan Getz - we’d all play that smooth if we could – it’s true, but it artfully conceals the point.

Barnes again:

Misia Sert tells in her memoirs … of walking through a beetroot field with him as the light was closing in, of her tripping on a root and nearly falling, of him helping her regain balance, of their eyes meeting… whereupon Vuillard burst into sobs. Sert gives a separate paragraph to the next line: ‘It was the most beautiful declaration of love ever made to me.’ Beautiful, but also characteristic – of the man, and of the painting too, John Russell … drew an astute comparison between Mallarme’s precepts about poetry and the young Vuillard’s practice as a painter. Mallarme’s instruction was ‘to paint not the thing itself, but the effect which it produces’; he also wrote, ‘Somewhere in the creative act is the attempt to evoke an object by placing it deliberately in shadow and referring to it allusively and never by name.’ Vuillard’s painting is always less ethereal and less excluding than Mallarme’s poetry; but the incident in the beetfield is the Mallarmean aesthetic applied directly back to life. Vuillard’s sobs are not a statement of love, but a display of the effect which it produces.

There’s so much to admire in this passage, its sweep and balance and rhythm, the recondite charm, the novelist’s human feeling. The salvaging of sentimentality, even portentousness, towards education is especially gratifying. It’s like discovering your favourite chocolate triggers weight loss. But it is the underlying purpose, the end towards which Barnes’s style is the means, and the completion of this end, that marks this out as a permanent and serious piece of criticism. It leads us back to the work with an expanded view, and, we hope, an expanded appreciation. And that is the point of criticism.

This feels a bit like the Lucky Jim’s nice things are nicer than nasty ones. Deep things are deeper than shallow ones, innit? Well, sort of.

Distance and objectivity are frequently considered fixed virtues of criticism. (At least by those who believe in values.) But some of the very best, and certainly the most endearing, commentary shares cultural space with its object. When Comp. Lit. Professors discover terza rima in gangsta rap it embarrasses not for lack of erudition, but, pace irony, the failure to inhabit some essential sensibility, and driving energy, that makes the work mean something. (Oh, to have Chekov review the next Streets album!) This has its limits – how do you inhabit Dylan? – but a (pop)culturally informed lucidity can initiate terrific work. Even enthusiasm is not enough: Jonathan Lethem sensitively observed of Christopher Ricks that “The critic has, seemingly, merely wished to test the songs he loves against his own pre-existing context, which happens to be Philip Larkin and Matthew Arnold, not Blind Willie McTell.” Nothing wrong with that – and I look forward to reading Ricks’s book – but if I want a guide to take me further into the work, I want someone who has lived that artistic terrain completely enough to have local knowledge.

Now look at this. There are bits where it’s as if a Norah Jones song has been transformed into prose, losing its soothing good taste along the way; but the rhythm and the voice remains intact, and, like an unusually candid artist’s commentary, it explains both the reasons and the limitations of its being. A moment like this and Frere-Jones comes across as that rare aficionado who, to paraphrase James Wood, seems to hear music from the inside.

When it works so well, you get the sense that the stylisation emerges naturally, rather than being piled on; that it is not a source but a vital symptom, of a particular cultural mode. It’s because he speaks the language of pop that the author gets such a clear reading, rather than speaking like that to affect the artist’s lingo. This is when mass media thrills. (And here, conflict of interest notwithstanding, I could say nice things about Jermaine’s text…)
Now I’m not exactly a great reader, I’m too hasty and slapdash – one reason I respond more naturally to film may be related to how much the director determines the pace – however, when the ennui lifts, I do attempt to take the author seriously. But I wonder how much empty flash I can consume before I stop caring.

Friday, September 30, 2005

War and Piss

Browsed through the newish bookshop in Norwood yesterday. Nice selection. Picked up Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night for fifteen bucks. Against the author’s splenetic revulsion at “the frustrated bile, piss, pus, and poison he had felt at the progressive contamination of all American life in the abscess of Vietnam” our blogger notes – with gratitude and lancing irony – how things have changed.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Crude Awakening

Accept for one moment that the petroleum industry is a force for good. Not an unalloyed good, of course, but what is? For the world to progress, for society to advance and for industry to develop, it is necessary to provide a steady and constant source of fuel. This powers technology and innovation, driving new vision, expanding the horizons of possibility, transforming the fantastical into the everyday. Challenges of capacity, of ability, challenges which appeared insurmountable are one by one obliterated. With new technologies come new fields of industry and commerce, new opportunities to broaden and to diversify the channels of trade, to augment, to accumulate and to broaden personal, national and global capital. New types of expertise, new areas and opportunities of education, new candidates for education. Advances in medicine and communication, farming and entertainment, all underpinned fundamentally by the fuel of industry. Books become more accessible, whiskey more plentiful, cars in each driveway, a chicken on every wok.

Drilling, refining and transporting petroleum products directly affect the environment in many places and communities around the world. It indirectly affects everyone, to some or other extent. The consumption of these products too affects all the world. But the executives tell us they are sensitive to this, that they are working in the most environment and person friendly way possible. They assure us that there is no alternative and that this is the small price we pay for progress. Let’s accept this. Why not? Some of the oil companies even have started their own campaigns to promote the cleaner and more efficient use of fossil fuels. Some think that this is nothing but slick marketing, a smog screen against rising popular resentment, and hard scientific evidence of the deleterious effects of these industries. But accept that this view is glib and unfair. Suppose rather that the oil industry, while long the source of progress, is now the guardian of a new, more just and moral progress. That the light of industry had become the authentic bearer of the torch of honourable development. And accepting all this, let us marvel as the captains of progress descend on Johannesburg for the 18th World Petroleum Congress.

But how on earth do we accept Halliburton as a sponsor?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Street Sweeper

Infinitely repeatable lope of a sax loop makes the pavement lighter, bulletproof flows change t-shirts into kevlar, reverberating crunch turns rap kids nostalgic at age 23, it's Bucktown.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ein Love

Okay, so it would have taken a lot to fuck up the original, but Einmusik interrupt Coburn's "We Interrupt This Program" in just the right ways: the microedited vocals, nano-engineered tension and release and MASSIF sawtooth chorus mean I'm kept more than satisfied until the next Rex the Dog record. (Discovered while 'researching' this post: plenty of mpfrees at Einmusik's site - if they're anywhere near as good as "Jittery Heritage", "Shaw" and this: oh boy.)

Monday, August 08, 2005

94Disko

Somebody pointed (or yousendit'ed, to be honest) me in the direction of a compilation called "We Are Icerink", and it turns out that my favourite track from it playlists very neatly next to all the other detached futurist femme-fronted electro-pop I've been listening to (Broadcast and Ladytron, namely), with two, not unconnected, exceptions: it's from 1994, and it loves you.

I haven't wanted to do any background checks on "Icerink", in fear that I'll be proved historically incorrect, but here's how it sounds to me: in a 1994 filled with 2nd degree grunge and artfully oblique english-lit major dropouts, british indie kids with a populist spirit and/or excited enough about fun noises had a dance music culture to turn to for fun and innovation, though few made the jump with as few reservations as Oval(no, not THAT Oval)'s "Love Hour". If the phrase "Indie Dance" still inspires shrugs (I never could bring myself to care enough about "Screamadelica" to hear it), it's only cause it was weedy, flat, thin and stingy, unlike this, which is muddy, round, thick and fullhearted - it's that chorus piano that gives it away, so very big, so very House. The palpable exuberance is matched by the very un-indie lyrics: "this is what you want" is delivered with a sweetness and confidence that rings truer every time I listen. And in a 2005 still shaking off the remnants of electroclash frost, it proves there are yet lessons, and hugs, to impart.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Getting Out the Hud

Indie, for all its problems with mainstream 'product', has but two ways to play a pop song, and both fall under the category of "the radio wouldn't stand for it": turn things acoustic and underplayed (this is called "sparse", and is frequently praised for "getting to the essence of the song") and sing it with a mumble or a whine (this is called "ironic sincerity") OR make it noisy as fuck, using loud guitars (this is called "making it rock", and is frequently praised for its use of real instruments). Now I'd sooner listen to a compilation of Cheiron Production's most rote album tracks than have to sit through Travis smirking their painful, unplugged way through "Baby One More Time", and the original "Toxic" rocks several times harder than Local H have ever done (Britney's still the uber-pop whipping girl, it seems).

When indie gets to covering pop-rap, that's when it really gets ugly and lost. So does !!!'s cover of Nate Dogg's "Get Up", but that's only in the last 3 minutes or so - before that, we get some great, non-reactionary ideas about using guitars (yes, guitars), excessive reverb, gating and the !!! guy's-normally-grating-but-here-very-suitably-low-and-swaggery vocals to make things bigger, brighter and hotter. Just before we lose control in an almost formless jampunk session (ie. "noisy as fuck"), we get about the most thrilling use of space in a punk-funk thing since the "Stupid Mix" of LCD's "Yeah", and what Jon Spencer Blues Explosion sounded like in my head before I actually heard them.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Baby It's Cold Outside

Can't quite bring myself to post the post I wanted to, so here's something to prove I'm still alive and blogging - icy electro (well, icier than most, anyway) from (the unfortunately named, as seems required to point out) Tomas Barfod. The fragile chimes carelessly twinkling above the undercurrent of sub-bass menace reminds me of a recurring apocalyptic nightmare I'd have as a child, where the most mundane and barely perceptible of occurances (a twig snapping under a shoe heel) would accrue unbearable emotional weight with the knowledge of impending doom.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Truth in advertising. Edgars, Eastgate.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Gullybye

Lord, sometimes I wish life could just, well, get screwed - right now I barely have the time to roll my eyes back in reverie when I listen to this, which is maybe my second favourite S&C track ever (the first is so goshdarn sublime I'm being all rockist about it and waiting til some landmark event occurs before I post it - like, say, my being alive by the end of the week). This floats by like a warm breeze on a grey day - those electric piano keyboard notes hanging in the air, near-weightless, are somehow more deeply placid than most officially sanctioned wordless gauzy ambient woosh. And I love 'day in the life' verses - "I woke up early" always brings to mind fond memories of "Life's a Bitch" (btw, Govt. Names, whose verse is that one?). I can't much afford to have lost the 24 minutes of my life that's elapsed since this starting playing (on its fifth repeat now), but I feel oddly refreshed.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Mirror Ballin'

Christina Milian ft. Twista - For Real

Disco with just a teasing hint of hop, this is the kind of the purity that I'm thinking of when people invoke "pure pop" (as opposed to, say, Death Cab for Cutie) - manufactured, sure, whatever, but also manicured, sleek, graceful, and largely perfect. Y'know, the songs that soundtrack prom nights: the ones with an undeniable, near-universal functionality. There's that same unmistakable core ache that's at the heart of all great dance music - we had our problems but still, that chirpy chipmunk diva vocal punctuating the thump-chikka-thump propulsion (is it Kanye? if so, his name goes off "Chilled" instantly)(and "Diamonds" is hot too btw). Twista isn't extraneous for a moment here, so perfectly locked into the groove, just dropping syllables into the swirl.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Make Movies Anyway

How to do a lousy job of attempting to make meaningful your largely shallow film by dressing it up in the 'knowing' techniques of postmodern pastiche and meta-commentary: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Wow, since when did having a bunch of (awkwardly) shifting surfaces give anyone license to throw symbolic devices at the audience like a teenage delinquent hurling rocks at passing automobiles? So you're trying to tell us that Mssr. Sellers feels that he's lacking a real self underneath the Clouseaus and the birdy num nums? How about a mirror with... no reflection! Better yet, how about putting us in a movie soundstage within a movie soundstage and having Geoffrey Rush just tell us that his character is an "empty vessel"! Is Sellers enamoured with the girl-attracting powers of glistening automobiles? Just replace the shiny cars with shiny girls! Is there an incestuous undercurrent in Peter's relationship with his mother? Make it an overcurrent! Put them in the same bed with the lights off! And since you're taking these enormous, potentially audience-alienating liberties, throw in some other ideas and see if they work (they don't): use 'authentic' 35mm pathe footage, throw in some needlessly herky-jerky 'real life' handicam shots, cast Stanley Tucci as Stanley Kubrick!

And how are we to believe that there's no real Sellers anyway? The Peter we're presented is an insecure, needy, selfish, womanizing fuckup (who's comedic gift seems both secondary and slippery) - real enough to do real damage to real lives (so we don't buy it when Rush assumes the role of every important castmember in some ultimate display of Sellers solipsism). And when he consults celebrity psychic Nathan Lane, the ease and obviousness of his manipulation just makes him looks uncharacteristically stupid, and even the most caustic movie viewer fails to identify. They could've made light of many of these problems by not insisting on some kernel of tortured-self Meaning - a play of differences isn't much fun when nobody's laughing.