giovedì, giugno 11, 2009

Crazy like a crazy person

Watched the final section of Berger's Ways of Seeing and then Robert Hughes's doc on Goya last night; just to make a week of comparative art documentaries, I suppose. The final section was on advertising, and it left me with the suspicion I like John Berger so much so far because he says things I already thought, in a much more coherent way than I could say them - notably the sheer contextual madness of paging through a magazine between pictures of dead and dying third-world types and the warm fuzziness of hard liquor ads.

That sort of thing first struck me in a big way back when I was working at the television commercial place, watching 50 or more commercials a day, one after another. Especially watching the PSAs next to the other ads - a woman with black eyes gazing imploringly at the camera in the rain, or something of the sort, when it was aiming to boost donations for shelters or encouraging men not to beat their wives - and then a beer ad suggesting all the marvellous social and sexual things that would happen to a man if he got plastered that night.

The side effect of my job - and this happened to my predecessor in the position too - was not being able to watch commercial television anymore; not only was it infuriating and awful to be inescapably confronted with the fact of audience-as-commodity, but it was like listening to the pushier kind of madman, or a cacaphony of opposing, fanatic voices. Without even changing the channel. Thank god for internet streaming sites.

Anyways, profoundly enjoyed the whole Berger series, and the Hughes Goya: Crazy Like a Genius documentary wasn't too bad either, though I vastly preferred the book. I think that's partly because when you read the book, you don't have to listen to the lecherous snide fuck speak, and can let your eyes skim over the gratuitous sentences about what he'd like to do to the Naked Maja. In his documentary about Caravaggio and in American Visions and in the Shock of the New, I swear he wasn't so consistent about forcing himself front and centre, and that they're vastly better television for it. Somehow in the book, the extended part about the visions of Goya-ghouls during the aftermath of his road injuries was less obtrusive. I think it made more sense in the broader context of a kabillion-page book rather than an hour-long or whatever it was documentary.

mercoledì, giugno 10, 2009

Ways of Being, 2

To continue from yesterday.

Some think that so much of today's art mirrors and thus criticises decadence. Not so. It's just decadent. Full stop. It has no critical function, it is part of the problem.

As I wrote, it's a good point, and it's in the company of a few other good points, like how an overheated art market is transforming desired paintings into super-expensive commodities, and having a horrible impact on public galleries’ ability to collect and show. There's also a suggestion - poorly explored - of how it may be skewing instruction at art schools; something that hit my art-school alumnus boyf as extremely relevant.

BUT what we have building up to this point is an extremely personal, elitist and deeply unpleasant vision of decontextualized art and the response of masses of people to it. We have the messy, badly argued, and unlikely premise running through this documentary that the way working-class and middle-class Americans ‘experienced’ the Mona Lisa on its trip to New York in 1963 and the way they generally see gallery art is by its nature generally deeply inferior to the way Robert Hughes sees it in its proper context. Not just less educated, not just less loving, but by its nature deeply inferior - that the masses experience seeing art, and Robert Hughes looks at it. Or vice versa. Whatever verb makes Robert Hughes sound cleverer and the masses sound more insensible. I think this was a beastly, unfair, and erroneous generalization, and it’s what I hated most about the documentary.

Another thing I hated about it was the idea it presented to us that this perceived deep inferiority of the popular vision is tied to the present overheated, overpriced, and qualitatively poor state of the expensive end of the modern art market – a ridiculous, speculative art market with which only the tiniest percentage of the population has any engagement at all, and which mainly impacts them by baffling them when they go to public galleries to see something else . . .

Hughes’ perspective shows a complete unconsciousness of the importance of all the mighty piles of art vastly aesthetically and intellectually superior to shark-in-formaldehyde, that continue to be accessible and affordable in co-op or community galleries or other points of sale – points of sale that are burgeoning like mushrooms after the rain now that we have the internet. This is predictable, because the man seems incapable not only of appreciating the way the masses may or may not be impacted by art, but incapable of appreciating there may be an artistic world in existence beyond the top end he's covered in Time magazine and a series of admittedly delicious books and documentaries.

But both things I hated about the documentary can be summed up rather more simply in one phrase: Robert Hughes absolutely failed to think outside of himself.

He failed to consider that in all those thousands of people herded by the Mona Lisa in New York in the 60’s, there mightn’t have been a few hundred who saw something in it they deeply needed, making the whole exercise worthwhile; that even the frustration of being herded past something so small, so distant, so quickly could of itself be of huge importance in the artistic consciousness and education of many spectators. He failed to question if the re-contextualization of it could possibly have any value.

And by virtue of the contempt he felt for both, he was happy to put the popular experience of art in the same dependent chain of the events as Damien Fucking Hirst - when the two things are, quite obviously, only linked in antipathy. And he failed to consider that - in terms of what’s available out there in the reams of galleries and art schools and co-ops and communities - we could be living in a time that’s deeply exciting and important for the visual arts, with fine art creation de-centred and widespread as it's never been before in the western tradition. He could only see the expensive end of the market, that he's been involved with throughout his professional career.

Of these two documentaries, it’s only the raving pinko Berger who succeeded at all in exploring the recontextualization of art, not simply wailing over its decontextualization. It’s only Berger who made a real effort to go beyond himself, to leave himself behind, and engage with the perspective of the rest of people standing in front of art. So to answer yesterday's question to myself, this is why I’m left-wing. I think it’s only on this side of the political spectrum that you can think outside of yourself, that you have the framework available to help you think outside of yourself. In a sentence: I’m left-wing because I’m resisting the urge to live up my own asshole.

Anyways. We've gone on watching the rest of the Berger documentary. Episode two was about the female nude, and it was rather lovely to see an actual-real-life man engage in some feminist theorizing. But more on that later. Episode three, rather topically, was about the oil painting as a commodity or as an indicator of wealth. Plus ça change . . . what Berger's history of the oil painting illustrated was that as pissy as Hughes is with the hedge funds, diamond-encrusted skulls, and other fucking massive taste challenges currently buggering up the art world, this isn't the first time artistic time and talent has been wasted on expensive, market-driven curiosities.

Imagine if oil painters over the last 700 years had a real choice of subject, instead of languid women, Jeebus, and decadent still lives for rich clients. Imagine if all those technically superb and yet tediously repetitive academic painters had had the freedom to let their imaginations run riot. They were trained to believe they didn't, and they painted as though they didn't, and only madmen and geniuses, like the geniuses we remember and seek to look at now, managed to think beyond the spirit and market demands of their age, and create something new and eternal, even to the detriment of their pockets. Art endured and endures.

Anyways, worktime.

martedì, giugno 09, 2009

Ways of Being

Why be left-wing? It's a question no-one has ever bothered to ask me, either because at this point in my life I've surrounded myself with unquestioningly left-wing people, or because my interlocutors simply assume I'm left-wing because I adore marijuana. But as the freshly returned Masonic Boom has remarked, drugs and deep, macho conservatism are hardly mutually exclusive. And it's not a given that I be left-wing; it's not something I can leave unquestioned. I spent some years of my life deeply emotionally involved with someone rather to the right of Hitler, and it's not enough for me to say I didn't know while I was falling into the silken snare and didn't notice until it was too late, because I did know for some time - I'd say for a solid year - before I finally split.

Emotionally speaking, part of the reason I'm this far left at this point in my life is probably that time with Bluebird, which taught me some plain and revolting truths about what my life would become if I failed to grow a set of ideological balls. In fact, there's probably a big, complex set of emotional reasons why I'm left-wing that come from the strange cocktail of upper-middle-class inselaffen and Mussolini-lovin' guinea in my family unit, and any number of other things.

But I think the quickest, best, and most blog-friendly answer to the question - "why be left-wing?" - is for me to post these two documentaries, both worth watching: John Berger's Ways of Seeing and Robert Hughes' Mona Lisa's Curse, which both deal with the de-contextualization of art.

John Berger himself is what we call a raving fucking pinko. His documentary is simply astounding, and really not to be missed. I can't do it anything approaching descriptive and commendatory justice in the tiny amount of time I have left before I have to go to work, so let me just put it like this: he leaves himself behind, fills us with his ideas, decontextualizes art, and then recontextualizes it. It's fascinating and thorough and engaged. And it's from 1972 and looks like it cost about GBP 200 to make.

Robert Hughes - well. I love Robert Hughes, when I don't hate him; I've mentioned before that I think that Barcelona and Goya and The Shock of the New were all astoundingly good, in about the same measure I think Things I Didn't Know was one of the shittiest things I've ever read, breakfast cereal boxes and Martin Amis novels included, and The Fatal Shore a superb effort in making the fascinating painfully boring and disorganized. The Mona Lisa's Curse, an expensive-looking, slick and supremely grumpy effort that came out last year, falls on the 'hate' end of my spectrum. My first big complaint about it is that he makes excellent points about the most notorious section of the modern art market:

Some think that so much of today's art mirrors and thus criticises decadence. Not so. It's just decadent. Full stop. It has no critical function, it is part of the problem.

That's marvellous, and in my estimation, true. The problem is it's a lonely little point, towards the end - it's in the company of some other good points - but the bridge to those points is rickety, weak, and deeply fucking annoying. And fuck. I'm out of time. More later.

lunedì, giugno 08, 2009

The Green Dragon pouts, redux

I find it disquieting that the performance of the green political movement, which is now the fourth biggest block in the European parliament, has been the littlest story of this past European election in Anglo reporting here, particularly as the Anglo reporting here is British, and particularly as the Green party did remarkably well in Britain. But there it's all fuss over the BNP, BNP, BNP, who only managed to get two little measly European Parliament seats - same as the Greens - but rather more remarkably (since the two seats the Greens got were the same two seats they got in 2004), there's a fuss about the BNP getting three council seats, while the Greens got eighteen - eight up from last time. It was the fourth and fifth biggest party in the two respective elections - comfortably or far ahead of the BNP on both counts - and nobody is fucking talking about it in the papers. If you see any coverage of the green political movement in the limey press, it's about France, where the greens nearly knocked the Socialists into third place.

I was complaining about this to the F-word, and he thought it might have to do with the how headlines about all those people voting Green relative to the BNP might be a little too "Millions Of People Get On With Their Lives!" for the famously trite and sensationalistic British press to bother with. (Was it Alexei Sayle who made that gag? Rik Mayall? Hugh Laurie? Fucked if I can remember.) And he's probably right. But wading through The Making of the English Working Class as I am (thick into the Luddite bit), of course I see conspiracies everywhere, and the 'extremes' of the British press, that are quite open in their support for one or the other of the major parties, all had a little fuss about how not voting properly was going to make the BNP win - a revolting prospect, to be sure, but for fuck's sake, the BNP is just one of several small parties, and despite all the scare-mongering did worse than both the Greens and the single issue UKIP in the last elections . . .

My point is, this is Europe, not the United States, and a vote for the green party, or any other smaller party, isn't a vote flushed down the shitter. And that was clear enough to enough people that the green party did very well, including in Britain, where it gets so little airtime even relative to a bunch of raving racist loonies whose electorate seems to be made up mostly of truck drivers, skinheads, and doddering old brownshirts who can't even get girlfriends in their own ethnic group. What sort of vote could the green movement have got if it was treated seriously in the media; if there was some relationship between its degree of popularity and its degree of coverage? What if people who depend on the Telegraph and the Mirror and all that shit for their news had been informed that this party was a serious contender, that it was polling well enough that one's vote wouldn't be thrown away on it, that it was miles ahead of the BNfuckingP?

My personal hunch is that if they had been given serious coverage, we'd have seen a more seriously good result than we did. And I think the editorial boards of the papers in question probably had the same hunch. Furthermore, I think that means they're burrowing themselves a little deeper into the bin of irrelevance, because the green political movement is continuing to build strength and momentum with the motors of common sense and the new media. And people wonder why newspapers are in trouble . . .

The Green Dragon pouts through her civic duty

No big trips with my mother this weekend, because I had to vote in the Europeans on Sunday morning. It's obligatory here and I'd registered in a fit of civic duty a few weeks ago. I generally have some hesitation about voting in places that don't belong to me for whatever reason, but Jesus on His stick knows I spend enough time complaining about the special calvary that is living in Europe, and I pay a tidy chunk of taxes, though being a nom-dom not all that much, really . . . nonetheless, I voted.

Polls were open from 8h to 15h here, and on the understanding that Belgians are pathologically incapable of handling any sort of event that involves any sort of systematic processing of anything even with the benefit of five years' notice, I showed up at my local shortly after the doors opened. Well, not really my local. For some intensely annoying reason, my voting station was a twenty-minute walk from our flat, and I passed two other voting stations on the way . . . and later in the afternoon saw another up the road, rather than down, that was roughly a three-minute walk away . . . that early on a weekend morning, it makes a fucking difference. Trust me.

So grumbling I rolled up to the distant voting station at roughly 8h10 in the morning, and proceeded to wait for half an hour to vote for the green party. Actually in Francophone and Germanophone Belgium, it's called Ecolo, a rather lame name compared to the Flemish Belgian green party, the simple yet cheerful Groen!. Yes. The exclamation point is part of its name. And yes. There are two green parties in Belgium, just as there are essentially two of every party, because the Flems and the Loons will not speak each other's language, the Flems out of pride and frustration (most of them speak French reasonably well, but have an angry history with it) and the Loons out of sheer fucking pig ignorance. It is a nonsense, nonsense, stupid political and linguistic national system that makes Canada look like the Utopia of Bicultural Relations. Which it ain't.

But my point is that I waited in line for half an hour to vote for the green party. In the office itself there were five voting booths, and eight people manning the desk processing the electorate. In the half-hour that I waited, one person voted at a time. Absolute fucking gas factory. And of course it was because the desk of seven processing people (the eighth was supervising the line, making sure nobody was cutting or bribing, I suppose) only processed one person at a time.

The first person announced the electoral number of each voter. The second collected the voter's identification papers. The third and fourth crossed them off two lists, I assume one for the European and one for the civic elections, which were running concurrently and which I'm not allowed to vote in. The fifth handed the voter a magnetic card to use with the electronic voting machine. The sixth instructed the voter how to put the magnetic card into the collection box after voting, because the wrong sticker had been affixed to the slot, and the seventh handed back the voter's identification papers. But of course periodically an aged voter unused to the somewhat convoluted electronic voting process or someone who had never done it before ran into difficulties, and one of the processing people would have to rush to the booth and help them, which would jam up the works completely for the duration.


At least I got out of there in half an hour. Later in the day when Mum and I were out and about, we saw lines at the different voting stations stretching far out onto the streets, including in the Grande Place, which all the tourists were fascinated by. And that on one of the most wretchedly cold and wet June 7ths I've seen in my thirty years of existence. Geez, as they say, Louise. Nonetheless today I'm pleased about how it all went. The green political movement boosted its showing across Europe and here in Belgium. The continent is going a little too fascist and apathetic these days for the mighty greenwash I was hoping for, but considering everything else that wasn't right-wing went to pot I guess it's the best one can hope for in a bullocksy situation.