Thursday, 28 April 2011

Conforming To A Pattern

"And the bitter conclusion is that it is all irretrievably over with the arts of form of the West. The crisis of the nineteenth century was the death-struggle. Like the Apollinian, the Egyptian and every other, the Faustian art dies of senility, having actualised its inward possibilities and fulfilled its mission within the course of its Culture.

What is practised as art today - be it music after Wagner or painting after Manet, C├ęzanne, Leibl and Menzel - is impotence and falsehood. One thing is quite certain, that today every single art-school could be shut down without art being affected in the slightest. We can learn all we wish to know about the art-clamour which a megalopolis sets up in order to forget that its art is dead from the Alexandria of the year 200. There, as here in our world-cities, we find the pursuit of illusions of artistic progress, of personal peculiarity, of "the new style", of "unsuspected possibilites", theoretical babble, pretentious fashionable artists, weight-lifters with cardboard dumb-bells - the "Literary Man" in the Poet’s place, the unabashed farce of Expressionism, which the art-trade has organised as a "phase of art history", thinking and feeling and forming as industrial art. Alexandria, too, had problem-dramatists and box-office artists whom it preferred to Sophocles, and painters who invented new tendencies and successfully bluffed their public. The final result is that endless industrious repetition of a stock of fixed forms which we see today in Indian, Chinese and Arabian-Persian art. Pictures and fabrics, verses and vessels, furniture, dramas and musical compositions - all is pattern work. We cease to be able to date anything within centuries, let alone decades, by the language of its ornamentation.

So it has been in the Last Act of all Cultures."

- Oswald Spengler, "The Decline Of The West"

The story of Western art in the 20th century was that of its desperate, hopeless struggle against ossification and irrelevance. In comparison with the previous 500 years that had seen the gradual evolution of technique and tincture in painting; in instrumentation and acoustic space in music, it saw a profusion of disparate styles, ever emerging and fusing and fissioning before tailing away into cul-de-sacs of obscurity or rarefication. Burdened with an art that had crystalised its final form, and would no longer yield mana, artists could only respond in an ad hoc and provisional manner, seeking any means they could to breathe life back into the dying disciplines.

These efforts usually entailed either one of two strategies: firstly, to incorporate and adapt styles from cultures that had previously been despised and therefore neglected. In music this meant incorporating innovations from Black America and later the Caribbean. In the plastic arts of painting and sculpture it meant adopting "primitive" styles from anywhere from Africa to Polynesia. Secondly, whatever forms already existed were abstracted, so that any remaining mana could be iteratively sieved out. When miscegenation and abstraction had been exhausted, then two other now-familiar artistic gestures would result - nihilism and shock tactics. Although nihilistic art movements such as Dada and Punk are often written of as responses to the extreme socio-political currents of the 20th century, they were even more a response to its artistic-cultural exhaustion - a howl in the face of expressive extinction. Classical music, jazz and rock all ended their productive phases with abstract-nihilist gestures that, though decades apart, sounded hauntingly similar in their brittle, atonal desolation.

It is this alternating pattern of miscegenation and abstraction that gave 20th Century culture its strange, giddy, quality, as the adoption of a new form could suddenly generate a new optimism and vigour in the arts and popular culture, before its premature exhaustion within the rationalising cultural superstructure would lead to the bitter deflation of hope. New eras and new ages were perpetually declared and quickly found to be false dawns. The sense of desolation was amplified in the wake of the constant hyperbole and "buzz" that necessarily saturated the culture, amplifying the mana-affect of exciting new styles while simultaneously attempting to ward off the underlying sense of doubt and anomie. The abstract-nihilist phase was invariably policed by particularly virulent progressivist rhethoric, partly to ward off the layman who might impolitely mistake the work for a cacophonous din, like the apocryphal cleaners who disposed of priceless conceptual works from modernist galleries, but mainly as an act of bad faith: the maintenance of the collective illusion that any 20th century art movement was capable of going anywhere.

Britain in the 1990’s was to witness two parallel movements that affected to reinvigorate the nation’s artistic culture. One of them, Britpop, was a classic revitalisation movement in the tradition of the Ghost Dances of the Plains Indians of the late 19th century - a call to long dead ancestors to replenish the spirit-well. The other, the Young British Artists, was a farce, a flurry of gestures as a disparate band of hucksters marketed their unlikely wares to plutocrats grown fat on the decade’s credit binge.

British rock musicians in the early Nineties had been roused from a decade of torpor by the thundering arrival of Grunge from the US northwest. Although in themselves neither musically radical or innovative, the Grunge bands managed to sound fresh to British ears largely due to their adoption of early-70’s hard rock influences that had been proscribed in the UK by Punk. However, in attempting to fashion both a response to Grunge, and a new style of music to suit the times, the British musicians faced a predicament in that they could no longer stylistically feed off their traditional source of inspiration - the great engines of musical innovation and spiritual mana that were Black America and Jamaica. Black American music had, in the form of Hip-Hop, largely shed its mana-lode for the kind of nihilist aggression of which white music already possessed a surfeit. Also, as with the more mainstream R&B of the "swingbeat" producers, it was structurally complex, and not amenable to being broken down and organically re-fashioned. The intricate recording techniques of R&B producers such as Teddy Riley and Jam & Lewis functioned like the filigree designs on a banknote - as a protection against counterfeiting. If you wanted to adopt these guys’ sounds, you had to work with them directly, and pay them well.

Two of the early notable British bands of the Nineties, the Manic Street Preachers and Suede, attempted to overcome this impasse by re-invoking those elements of radicalism that were deemed to be indigenous - in the former’s case via the use of the kind of Situationist sloganeering not seen since Punk, and in the latter’s via recalling the shock-androgyny of the likes of Bowie and Bryan Ferry. What neither band could provide, however, was the necessary aural shock-of-the-new counterpart. The Preachers’ adoption of a not-especially-bold combination of New Wave and the lighter end of Glam Metal sounded conservative even in comparison to Suede’s blend of Ronson and Marr riffing. That said, both bands represented genuine efforts to squeeze out whatever vitality remained in the dying form, as indeed did the band that was to supplant them in being the signature group of the 1990’s.

Oasis are generally condemned for a putative conservatism in their harking back to the classic melodicism of the likes of The Beatles and The Jam, but initially, with songs like "Wonderwall" and "Live Forever" it really seemed that they might pull it off, that sheer talent might by itself be able to beat back the shadow of nightfall. Unfortunately they succumbed to that characteristic affliction of the era - a lack of staying power. When rock was young and vital, bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who could undertake coast-to-coast American tours while releasing one or two albums a year and a slew of hit singles. Oasis’s American tours were notoriously reluctant and tardy, and by the constipated gestation of their third album it was clear that they had prematurely given their best. Moreover, diligent sleuthing on the part of their critics began to expose the jackdaw nature of the band’s music. Noel Gallagher wasn’t so much a great tunesmith as a connoisseur of other great tunesmiths.

After Oasis came Radiohead and Coldplay, the first of the zombie bands, and British rock, starved of sources of miscegenation, devolved into "landfill indie", a classic example of Spenglerian pattern work, in which bands sounded identical for decade after decade, generation after generation, with only the most enthusiastic admirers being able to identify the detail-differences. Hip-hop itself also drifted into pattern work - perhaps the absence of white musicians purloining its structural and textural innovations was ironically a reason for its stasis, the confounding of thieves having been a good reason to keep the music changing. The popular music landscape of the early 21st century is of course one of disparate genres, or multi-genres in the case of Metal, each one labouring away in its silo to the breathless appreciation of its own adherents. Tellingly, any collaborations across genres tend to go under the monicker of "versus", signalling in advance that after the brief fission, both participants will return to their respective corners.

If Britpop had been a futile attempt to ward off death, Britart, as the work of the Young British Artists was sometimes called, was a kind of grinning post-modern celebration of death - a dancing on art’s grave. "Conceptual" art had long been in the business of the industrial-scale production of the baffling, the shocking and the merely titilating, but with Britart any lingering embarrassment regarding the business-commercial relationship between the artist, the patron, and the paying customer was definitively put to rest. It boasted a raft of almost Dickensian characters with its hungry working-class artist-entrepreneurs, its wide-boy dealers, its shady advertising-executive patrons, its dunderhead curators buying cans of "artist’s shit" and its mysterious Russian customers purchasing works as part of complex tax-evasion schemes.

Perhaps the most important figure in Britart was the advertising mogul and gallery owner Charles Saatchi, who first witnessed the work of Damien Hirst at a property developer-sponsored exhibition entitled Freeze in the late 1980’s. Saatchi reputedly stood open-mouthed at a Hirst work that featured a cow’s head being consumed by maggots. It was to be the start of a beautiful friendship in which Hirst and his cronies would supply the tabloid-baiting works and Saatchi the marketing power and art trade connections to bring them to the widest possible audience. The worthless art of the YBA’s dovetailed neatly into a London that was increasingly making vast amounts of money from worthless activity - from property speculation, insurance scams, reckless credit expansion and opaque financial transactions. The decadence of Hirst’s work, his openness about his non-artistic background and use of assistants, no doubt resonated strongly with those who knew that their own wealth was equally the result of fraud and circumstance. It’s difficult not to suspect that the riches blown at auction on Hirst and his cohorts’ tat were some kind of subconscious potlatch, the plutocrats attempting to cleanse themselves by exchanging their filthy lucre for the most putrid and inconvenient exhibit possible. It is perhaps telling that when Hirst created an object deliberately intended to appeal to the wealthy, a diamond-encrusted skull entitled "For The Love Of God", it failed to find a buyer.

Nevertheless, the media furore surrounding the Young British Artists gathered its own momentum, and exhibitions such as Sensation proved to be popular draws, the public not so much going to see the works, as to see why everyone else was going to see them. Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin became household names, celebrities even. It would probably amaze future generations that such obvious charlatans could be taken seriously even for a few minutes, but then future generations will have far more important work to do than pore over the scrag-ends of our own dying civilisation.


Jake said...

This is, by an almost infinite distance, the best thing I have ever read about the 'YBA's. The commingling of fraudulently acquired wealth and fraudulently conceived 'art' is truly essential analysis, and the most astute editorial commentary on the issue since that warehouse fire which actually introduced a miniscule measure of artistic appeal to Emin's tent and the Chapmans' so-called Hell by rendering them in ash.

I pay huge tribute to this piece, which really cheered me up here on Undead Pageantry Day.

Many thanks!

Alex Niven said...

This is a corker.

The Britpop judgement day is rapidly approaching. Will it be deemed a total pile of shit? Perhaps. But there's also surely scope for more ambivalent analyses like this one.

Two good bits stand out:
- "Britpop was a classic revitalisation movement in the tradition of the Ghost Dances of the Plains Indians of the late 19th century - a call to long dead ancestors to replenish the spirit-well."

- "with songs like "Wonderwall" and "Live Forever" it really seemed that Oasis might pull it off, that sheer talent might by itself be able to beat back the shadow of nightfall."

Good starting points for further pieces?

W. Kasper said...

Great post, but surprised you didn't mention those art/stage school wankers Blur ("this week we will be Madness, next album Spriritualized, Pavement in time for Glastonbury"). Or indeed, that hideous 'opinion former' Chris Evans and shitrag Loaded - the brtipopart bible.

Phil Knight said...

Jake - thanks and glad you enjoyed it.

Alex - I haven't got much more to say about these particular bands, but I do need to do a post about The Verve and The Charlatans - the last two great British bands.

Why? Well The Verve (pre-"Urban Hymns", natch) adopted the old-fashioned habit of having a top-notch rhythm section, and The Charlatans adopted the even older-fashioned habit of craftsmanship.

Great bands both: almost as good as High Tide or Orang-Utan.

Wayne - I was kind of flattering the Nineties here in my big-picture approach. Suffice to say that the likes of Blur, Chris Evans and Loaded were consequently waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy beneath my radar.

Adam said...

So what's your take on Stereolab?

W. Kasper said...

I dunno about Phil, but I reckon Sterolab were the best British band of the 90s - a kind of 'highbrow' answer to The Fall: always the same, always fresh (and 'hauntological' while being 'futuristic'). Brilliant live too.

W. Kasper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam said...

Yes! Hauntological and futuristic is dead on. Stereolab's music always makes me think of some sort of spectrally infested spaceship. And the very ghostly Peng! even predates Derrida's "Specres of Marx", the origin of hauntology (I think), by a year!

W. Kasper said...

They were quite openly Marxist but warm (great lyrics - loved the way they used two languages too), and obliquely 'sexy' in a refined way. Made all those fake yobs, crusties, dadrockers, Nick Cave wannabes and punk revivalists look like the spoilt Thatcher babies they actually were.

Yes, I was something of a fan.

Adam said...

Listening to Stereolab today, I feel like I'm listening to some enterprising modern band that has decided to create an idealized version of the alt/indie/whatever sound of the 90s bit by bit, album by album, while eliminating most of era's stylistic excesses and dead ends.

And, yes, their lyrics were a treat. Rarely needlessly cryptic, Stereolab were somehow both earnest and casual, intelligent while almost child-like in their directness of opinion, resulting in some rather stunningly beautiful sentiments:

Two inevitables
We can't avoid dying
Bursting through our barriers
They are one of the same
They are one of the same

Dominic said...

Some see the flesh
before they see the bones
Some see the bones before
before they see the flesh...