Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The punctuation, was weird

The default mode of 90s TV was irony. It was incubated in music and youth television, before infecting general light entertainment. Then it attempted a putsch in arts programs:

Matthew Collings’ This Is Modern Art and the follow up Hello Culture were the main spearhead with their knowing voice overs, the refusal to pass judgment, the acceptance that high culture had come to an impasse. The scripts Collings speaks from, like the accompanying books, have no difficult concepts and use short sentences. Few words, little meaning. Collings throws in references to The Situationists or Clement Greenberg, but in a way which suggests ‘hey, don’t worry if you’ve never read them their moment has passed’. The End of History – not just something for policy wonks. In your living room, right now.

There is now a ‘Collings Shrine’ on YouTube, but watching the programs again is a little disappointing. It’s interesting to see him chat with Patrick Heron or Elizabeth Peyton (maybe the only time they’ve ever been on British TV?), and I personally don’t find him irritating as others do, but the lack of insight or challenge is striking now. 

There was another way however:

Obviously both critics wanted to avoid art-doc cliché . But Meades made the opposite choices to Collings. Collings and his producers put all the distancing techniques into the script and voice over. The look of the programs are in fact rather conventional, they just go a bit ‘grungy’ every so often. Instead, Meades plays it straight as a presenter. He really is a patrician English man barking cultural instructions at you. 

It could be Kenneth Clarke. The scripts are not gushing or trite, but they are not detached either. Instead they are polemical: you know what he likes and what he doesn’t like, for what reasons and why it matters.The irony, the distancing techniques, are instead in the camera work, the music, the extras, the props. These are used not just to take the piss, but as a way to make you look again, to look harder at what is on screen:

Collings defence was that to make serious programs about artists at the end of the 20th century had to done ironically because of all the accumulated clichés. The Meades approach ducks this by taking things that were never presented seriously by television – Birmingham, pigs, post-war church architecture - and treating them as if they were the most important subjects in the world. In fact many of his subjects are just the sought thing that were used so witlessly by 90s irony e.g. pubs and drinking, Belgium, golf etc. The programs move quickly and pack in a lot of examples, facts, opinions and jokes. Your brain is working really hard for 30 minutes. 

Ultimately, the Collings programs suffer from the problem of all TV series where a critic or academic is brought from the outside into television. So often these people just don’t actually like the medium or are afraid to take on the producers and get what they actually want. By not treating seriously something that they think of as ‘dumbed down’ from the start, they end up with something naff and full of padding. 

For the viewer the frustrating thing about Meades’ programs is: why hasn’t it had any effect on the rest of arts or history TV? How can Simon Schama still be striding across fields after this:

But then Newsnight outlived The Day Today.


W. Kasper said...

Meades is probably my favorite 'kultur' presenter. Did you see his one on Stalinism? Hilarious/horrifying - a great mix to have. He certainly brought it to life anyway.

William said...

He's brilliant. But his most recent series have less and less surrealism in them and are getting longer and longer. Still better than everyone else, but i hope he doesn't just become a deadpan Schama.

Phil Knight said...

I tolerated Meades until he expressed the opinion that the neolithic stones in the Western Isles of Scotland weren't built for any spiritual purpose (it was just ancient starchitecture / playing-with-form, eh, JoMea?).

I concluded he was just Richard Dawkins with a sense of irony. Which is worse than actually being Richard Dawkins. Also, the lordly font-of-all-knowledge-I'm-well-educated-you-know tones made my hackles rise. Pure ruling class magic in action.

Phil Knight said...

But yeah, he's better than Schama.

William said...

Yes I saw that one about the Western Isles. It was a pretty flippant comment. But the thing about Neolithic stones is nobody knows what they were for. It's a field were even Julian Cope can be a respected authority.

Phil Knight said...

I think any anthropologist would be extremely impressed by a pre-civilisation tribe that expended such a high level of surplus labour on a non-religious activity (human behaviour at this level conforming to very predictable patterns).

I think Meades, like most people, doesn't understand what religion is. It's not about believing in God, it's about constructing abstract models of society that serve as an ideal against which normative behaviours (morality) can be formed. It frightens me that the best educated people in the Western world aren't aware of this basic distinction.

What did Copey say about the stones, btw? That they were an alien landing ground? That they gave birth to Bert Jansch?

William said...

.. and krautrock

They had 'a lot of free time on their hands'

Hey go straight to the source:

W. Kasper said...

"it's about constructing abstract models of society that serve as an ideal against which normative behaviours (morality) can be formed."

- Good point, and I reckon a lot of cultural misunderstanding/arrogance misses that - from Victorian anthropologists misreading tribal customs to modern dimwits who think ANY political ideology influenced by Islam must be inherently 'fanatical'. Europe's uses of religion (since the decline of Roman caesars) may actually be the exception - its experience of Christianity as a violently top-down political tool means they apply the same 'fundamentalist' intention to cultures that may not have used religion in the same way. Of course Islam, Bhuddism etc. obviously do at times - especially at times of cultural/economic crisis - but it doesn't follow that its always been the main point of it. There's always degrees of intellectual/emotional subtlety to any abstract model.

As for neolithic stones - does anyone really have a clue? Only recently are they figuring neanderthals had some form of religion - or even that great apes may have vaguely 'spritual' motivations in certain activities. Meades probably wants to appreciate the stones simply as impressive architecture - that's his forte.

Phil Knight said...

You have to remember though that the resistance against top-down power in Europe was also Christian - this is what the Civil War was about. There's nothing inherent in Christianity that makes it a particularly appropriate tool for repression.

It's the same with Islam - Sufism and Wahabism are almost totally opposite; which elements of a holy book a society or elite choose to emphasise is a reflection of their own cultural values or ambitions.

W. Kasper said...

By 'top-down' I meant the transition from Roman Empire to Holy Roman Empire (and the many tribes & sects both of 'em brutally suppressed on the way - Christian or otherwise).

I was just reluctant to blame Europe's religious ills on the example of 'Popery', for fear of sounding like the Rev. Ian Paisley.

And yeah, Wahabism uses Islam in a more repressively 'geopolitical' way than other forms of Islam - of course there's political/economic reasons for that. Just like there's been Buddhist sects that are more punitive than others.

Phil Knight said...

Anyway, there's an epic post by John Michael Greer (by far the best blogger on the internet) here:

Like Morris Berman and Joe Bageant (RIP) he's one of the very few genuine high-calibre intellectuals around. Puts me right in my place.

Greyhoos said...

I have to admit I'm unfamiliar with Meades. He never "crossed the pond."

Collings I can't quite figure out. He recently wrote a column about Kenneth Clarke and the whole matter of presenting art docos to the public. I've never been able to size up how Collings feels about his own role in that area. As I understand it, he's an artist who just happens to be vocal about his appreciations & whatnot, which landed him with some writing gigs which eventually panned out into him become something of a default spokesperson for the YBA thing, which led to a few books & BBC specials, speaking engagements, and the odd appearance on quiz shows. But I've long sensed he was fairly ambivalent about the whole matter, espec about his "public persona" in how to go about it. Case in point...

Greyhoos said...

And as far as the punctuation being weird is concerned, I recall a review of Blimey! that appeared in Frieze mag many years ago, in which the reviewer described it something like : "Colling's style often goes off in a fit, with the author sparked by a flash of insight and inspiration, charging up toward the end of a statement and delivering its verdict in a dash of breathless enthusiasm. Followed by a sad little sentence like this."

W. Kasper said...

Private Eye did a quite funny spoof of Collings' style way back. It riffed off off that tired sense of postmodernism gazing upon its own reflection off the end of a rather tired pier. Or maybe not. Who knows what was looking back. Wow.

Phil Knight said...

The key point really is that Britain (as a living, breathing, dynamic culture for all its faults) died somewhere between 1945 and 1960.

Since then it's been a zombie culture that has generated various attempts at pseudo-rebirth (The Swinging Sixties, Cool Britannia) to lighten up the gruelling, irreversible (I challenge the Tao) economic decline.

The responses to this decline amongst the more ardent Faustians have ranged from wild Europhilia (the EU as the fantasy that Britain's decline has not been symptomatic of a more widespread Western decline), and, more recently, regional nationalism (e.g. The SNP's delusional narrative of rebirth) which hopes that civilisational death can be avoided by the devolution into pre-industrial organo-cultural units.

Which is to say that Collings' exhausted tone is entirely appropriate in that there is no escape, either in whole or in part, from the social, cultural and economic exhaustion that engulfs us all, no matter how one attempts to redefine the culture or re-draw boundaries on any map.

Obviously this is a tremendous heresy on my part (we have to have some future don't, we?) so I'll be setting this out in more detail soon(ish).

W. Kasper said...

Surely peaceful nationalism like the SNP is more a question of scaling back, as part of the ongoing decline of British imperialism (and its last crazy hurrah globalisation?). Just like you get more hysterically aggressive reactions to decline (mainly in once arrogantly powerful 'homelands' like the Tea Party or various Euro far-right formations?). Seems Scottish Nationalism is a way to create a distance from the UK/England as it rapidly goes down the shitter (I think Scottish Independence is invevitable this decade BTW). Not so much a rebirth as cutting their losses before the ship goes down, like other smaller countries cautiously backing out of the IMF etc.

I think the main decline of 'culture' since the 60s is as a centralised, unifying notion. It's on the margins if anywhere, including visual art vis a vis adworld-led London media hypes like Young British Art, or a still lively live music scene vs. press hypes like Britpop. The same goes for Booker prize fiction, mainstream films etc. Cultural vitality still exists - it's human - but it's just not part of any convenient 'grand narrative' anymore. Except maybe as a delusion perpetuated by the media - probably because their own once-central place in society is in steep decline. Collings' wearily self-reflexive tone is more about the redundancy of media expertise than culture really. When mainstream cultural product gets more irrelevant, it becomes more a case of it talking to itself - either getting more rabid and hubristic (like Murdoch etc), or just looking in the mirror and accepting its a bit tired and useless.

Phil Knight said...

I agree that Scottish independence is getting more and more likely, but I think it's nothing more than the dignity of dying in your own home. With their oil revenues they might have a few decades of greater comfort than the rest of the UK, but I look at the Norwegian SWF swapping its oil revenues for useless speculative paper, and realise that even oil won't keep anyone going over the medium term.

At the end of the day, none of the nations of the UK are really that old, even allowing for the fact that the British Isles haven't been populated as long as most parts of the world, and I don't expect any of them to be around in the long term, nations and peoples being inveterately mutable and stuff.

Agree with you about the end of the "grand narrative".

William said...

The Collings style is incredibly easy to imitate but strangely seductive once you start using it. I once did an A-level art presentation as if I was Mathew Collings (complete with the big shirt collar etc). The only bit of the course I got an 'A' for.

It was Meades who actually said 'the punctuation, was weird' though, in a book review for The Times. 'This book was odd in many ways. The punctuation, was weird.'

Mr. W. Kasper said...

Yeah I reckon the 'United Kingdom' is getting ever more conscious of itself as artificial Empire construct (one thing that separates the far-right groups from most other people, right or left, racist or otherwise - they mistake convenient fictions for absolute realities). Not just Scotland and Wales. Even the north of England's wondering what the hell it has to with London and the commuter belt.

Nothing like a Tory government to make most of the UK feel like it's under foreign occupation. When New Labour sealed the Northern Ireland peace deal (one achievement the idiots mysteriously failed to trumpet, focussing instead on their catastrophes), I remember thinking: "So it could have been that painless all along then? Blimey..."

Mr. W. Kasper said...

William - If you did Collings, how did you pull off that "I'm posing as though I"m deeply contemplating something. Or something. Who knows? Maybe my brain's just a blank canvas and my eyes are cluttered with thinking while my brain poses. But only my eyes would know. Wow. What a concept."

William said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William said...

Haha. Well I was a very pretentious Sixth-former so I gave it a good go.

It was about Land Art and I made the class walk around the playing field Richard Long-style in a circle thereby tracing an 'organic shape'.

ralph dorey said...

The distinction between Meades and Collings that strikes me is that Collings is so miserably non-committal about anything he might or might not be putting forward. As the original poster wrote, it could be Kenneth Clarke when Meades speaks as he is so clearly a man putting forward his version of events. Collings on the other hand is a nervous cloud of strategic uncertainty of both style and content, a cyclical movement of self-abasement, confident superiority and Ray-Ban Nihilism.
He shouldn't really be singled out for this attitude as his is simply anaesthetising that of the other artists and gallery operators which surround him, as another poster said, Collings is just a artist who happened to be vocal. He is a mouthpiece of an insular society, which avoids any real engagement with outsiders, or indeed any real discourse at all through the old patronising and humouring smile, "perhaps you're right, perhaps it is all rubbish".

In terms of the loss of Grand Narrative, this is no more evident than in the labelling of the YBAs. This was ultimately an attempt to construct such a narrative, defining something as it does in terms of its relevance, authority and nationality. All that really defined this group was an interest on their part or that of their representatives, in handling both art and mainstream media at a time when such media was interested in a new source of material. The work itself was fractured, at times genuinely strong though through its media portrayal defined by its worst instances of moronic postmodernist rampant avant-gardism.
The farewell tour of the label was In-A-Gadda-Di-Vida at Tate Britain in 2004 was a good example of the split, the nastiness and sublime dumbness of Lucas and Hirst, against the occasionally wonderful and completely out of place work of Fairhurst.
So back to Collings, he was (though possibly no longer is, at least in terms of the columns he writes for Modern Painters) the mouthpiece of hyper-arch art that wouldn't even give you the respect of telling you that it believes you to be wrong. After all, you can't have too many friends, even if some of them will statistically have to be the same cultureless proletariat plebs that you utterly mock and disregard whilst appropriating their urban salt-of-the-earth-ness to supplicant your own.

Meades however, I like.

Mr. W. Kasper said...

Ralph -

Great comment. Would you be interested in contributing to these here blogs?

ralph dorey said...

That sounds like a wonderful idea and I'm certainly interested, thank you very much for the offer. I'd like to know some more about the aims and protocols for these blogs, please drop me an email and we'll go from there.
ralph (dot) dorey (at) network (dot) rca (dot) ac (dot) uk

Mr. W. Kasper said...

Ah you can write what about you like, as long as it's specific to either the 70s, 80s, or 90s/recent past. Just read around em.

There's an obvious lefty bias, but it's open to all kinds of angles. It can be any subject really. Think a lot of people got the false impression they're mainly music sites, but they're really not.

matthew collings said...

The blogger assumes a lot about my motivations!

In reality I think ideas are often expressed through irony, because this mode allows several thoughts at once (not just "no thoughts at all," as the blogger seems to believe).

Irony plays a big role in TV culture at all times, not just during the 1990s. It is found in satires, dramas and movies. This is the kind of fare I find engaging. I generally avoid culture TV, because it seems uninformed.

Neither of these series really proposes that high culture has "ended." Each series is about links between the present and the past. Both of course are full of high culture. Goya, Picasso, Matisse, Byron, Coleridge, Rimbaud, Beckett, Freud, Jung, de Sade, Gericault, Delacroix, are matched with Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Alex Katz, Robert Ryman, Yves Klein, Rothko, Pollock, Warhol, Malevich, Judd, Liz Peyton, Basquiat, as well as Hirst, Sarah Lucas, the Chapmans et al. The proposal is that the "newness" of the present is an illusion. The second series is specifically about Romanticism, while the first is about Romanticism's offshoot, Modernism. If anything ought to be finished off (as far as the attitude of each series goes) it is tolerance of TV programmes about culture that don't concern themselves with links between anything. Not programmes of an earlier era (Clark, Berger, Hughes) but ones of the same period as This Is Modern Art and Hello Culture. It's certainly true that Jonathan Meades' TV work has a different tone to mine. Mine is much more goony. But both are different again to the generality of culture programmes of that period, where there was an exclusive focus on ephemeral populist enthusiasm.

Neither TIMA or HC is devoid of ideas, but each avoids expression of them that takes an academic form, or a form -- now increasingly familiar -- whereby something incredibly elementary is taken from the realm of academia and "simplified" for a popular audience. Instead, the tone of each series is informed spontaneity. No doubt this often results in foolishness and errors, but that's the chance taken.

Neither of the series is about personal preferences so I can't complain at the blogger's odd notion that "what I like" fails to be spelled out. The refusal to pretend Picasso or Rimbaud et al is "my favourite" isn't based on irony as an ideal; it's just that my personality as such isn't the issue. On the other hand the mysterious way in which the blogger refers to the scripts, as if they come from a sinister committee, is very different to how they were actually generated. Nobody suggested or demanded the tone. Each series represents my own ideas of how certain things fit or don't fit. Nobody else wrote anything, but the directors entered into the spirit of the scripts and often contributed to the jokes.

As for YBA, neither of the series is an apology for it. (I'm from an earlier generation to the YBAs, and my own painting is primarily visual and concerned with formal values, while theirs is conceptual and concerned with a complex mix of issues.) At the time both series were made, it was the YBAs that the TV audience associated with changes in art. If irony and emotional distance go with the YBAs it's only because they go with contemporary art generally, the roots of which are more in Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism than, say, Abstract Expressionism.

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