Monday, September 26, 2005

Aeolian Tor

so I'm up there this afternoon - fairly wild, overcast, gusty - and suddenly I'm aware of this sound coming from behind me, right at the edge of my hearing - kind of ambient weirdness - wild oscillations of pitch and tempo - and I look round - and there's nothing there - no-one, nothing - and I think, that's it, I've finally lost it, I've been living around here too long - I'm hearing the fairies - and I start carefully walking toward what seems to be the source - and I suddenly realise what it is.

they've put up a temporary fence around a newly-turfed area to protect it whilst it beds in - and some of the uprights have small drainage holes drilled in them at the bottom at irregular intervals - and the wind is turning the whole thing into a scratch sound sculpture - a kind of Aeolian harp with pipes instead of strings.

totally entrancing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

the art of two andy's

I found myself saying "I've really no idea what art is" the other day in that clever-dick sort of way that comes complete with the banal rider - "but I know what it does" - thus demonstrating both an infuriatingly smug humility and a rhetorical cowardice. but, apart from the spurious retro-self-flagellation, reflection prompts me to confess that, really, honestly, I have no idea what art is, despite having spent my entire working life, supposedly, 'in the arts.'

I think the problem, now, is the enormity of the gulf between what art has been and what it is presented as and what I - whose relationship with 'it' is tenuous to say the least - think it should be, and that the process of trying to articulate that gulf necessitates an engagement with such an impenetrable cartload of manure - both academic- and media-generated - that my inclination is to just turn away and say what the fuck who cares anyway and get on with doing whatever it is I do.

but if art matters at all, and if we're to continue using the word 'artist' to describe someone who makes art, then it matters what it is, and, somehow, we have to come to some sort of agreement about that, if it's only an agreement to differ.

I know what I used to think: I thought that art - secular western art - the only art I really know much about - was a manifestation of something called 'truth', and that the artist was an elective inheritor of a quasi-sacred trust: I actually visualised a golden thread of 'truth' stretching back to whenever, and the artist as someone whose function was to maintain the integrity of that thread and ensure its survival into the future.

I supported that belief by acknowledging that the root of all art is in the sacred - the pigmented scratchings on rocks and cave walls that testify to the earliest emergences of the conjunction of ritual and worship - and that, whereas secular art can deny its currency in a context of cultural agnosticism, it can no more deny the hermeneutics of that legacy than the individual artist can deny the existence or the original purpose of his or her tailbone.

the artist and the priest, therefore, had become like estranged brothers - estranged without hope of reconciliation, but without hope, either, of ever being liberated from that burden of shared provenance.

bereft of that fraternal bond, however, I regarded the relationship between the modern artist and the scientist as a kind of familial surrogacy - a second-cousinship of sorts - the only difference between them being that the 'truth' the scientist was attempting to illuminate was a physical phenomenon. a scientific experiment was 'verifiable' and, definitively, repeatable, whereas an artistic experiment was always ephemeral, intangible, and unique. certainly, I considered that the artistic and the scientific sensibilities were complementary, of equal value, indeed, that their different approaches to confronting what are essentially the same concerns about reality, meaning, and understanding our place in the cosmos represented something fundamental, something that chimes perenially in our consciousness as the symmetry of opposites, without which there is no balance, no possibility of conclusiveness, no hope of a definitive 'this is this' or 'that is that'.

time and the spider's kiss of reality have somewhat modified that view, not least in the sense that I have come to accept that the continuing use of terms like 'beauty' and 'truth' in that yoked Keatsian sense of the eternal verities being essentially, and simply, 'beautiful' is historically and pragmatically naive, and that even retaining the idea of 'truth' as definitive is to risk tautology - as in 'art is truth revealed through art'. 'truth', furthermore, is as often as not a very ugly beast indeed. which isn't to say that there isn't still a place for art that is beautiful, just as there is for mathematical resolutions that are beautiful, but to admit that there is equally a place for art that reflects that which is ugly - since the reflection, in either case, of truth, is, or should be the predominant concern.

further, I feel that, just as the community of post-Heisenberg science has been obliged to embrace some extremely discomfiting refutations of earlier assumptions about 'reality' - I'm thinking in particular about the ways in which notions like space and time have undergone fundamental revision in step with advancing understandings about quantum behaviours - so that world has been redefined and freshly illuminated in terms of the post-modern artist's displacement of his or her modern precursors.

clearly, art is whatever society agrees it is, and in the absence of a clear, passionate consensus, the tendency in our society has been, historically, to abrogate responsibility on what to agree upon to a small but influential caucus of critics and academics and, latterly, media fuhrers (occupying the space formerly occupied by gallery owners and agents) whose yeasay or naysay will drive the upward or downward inclination of an artist's stock.

what's really complicated the issue in the last fifty years or so has been the escalation of the information wars between the various media feeding the explosively affluent children of all classes as they emerged into the target zone of consumer marketing. whereas, until as recently as fifty years ago, the kind of surplus available to the arts from the sort of person who considered themselves a patron of the arts (in the middle-ranking sense of going to the theatre and concert halls regularly and purchasing the occasional painting) has become more and more the province of the young, and, whereas the amount spent per capita by this new arts patron is probably considerably less than it would have been by the mid-last-century middle classes, the combined purchasing power of this demographic grouping - the sheer weight of numbers, and the wide social spread of the grouping involved, has come to affect the art market very dramatically indeed.

the theatre, the opera, and the concert hall, therefore, is now virtually moribund as an active component in the current cultural scene - those yawning, empty blocks of premium seats in every auditorium are bleak witness to their abandonment to the corporate market's entertainment budget - since these relics of the elite High Arts have little relevance to an arts consumer used to the far more evolved multi-media arenas of live performance and the million-times more engaging narrative canvas of film. the gulf between the two cultures - the popular culture of tabloids, gameshows, the Premier League and the singles charts, and the élite culture of the South Bank - has never been greater, and the ever-increasing pressure on the latter to emulate the tangible successes of the former without alienating either its élite audience or its taxpaying source of subsidy has resulted in its inevitable implosion in a fit of hand-flapping histrionics and embarassing populist gimmicks. if I had a penny for every time I've heard some floppy-haired young theatre or opera director enthusing about how vitally important it was to engage a new audience with their wares, I'd be rolling in clover. the truth is that the theatre, and its cousins the opera and the ballet, have been stone dead for about thirty years, and no-one will admit it.

major cultural shifts are only ever identifiable in retrospect, and, whereas it's clear that - a simplistic summary - the collapse of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War marked the moment when the push towards American hegemony really began in earnest, it's still far too early - the waters are far too muddied still - to be able to discern what the 'new' culture - the victors culture - is that is replacing the 'old' - that which was aligned with the vanquished. it's heartbreakingly easy, however, to identify one, at least, of the outstanding characteristics of this victorious culture - strutting triumphalism - in the way the bankrupt residue of the Soviet-subsidised high art system has been assimilated by the west: there's been a brisk east-west migration for the last decade or so of highly-trained ice-skaters and ballet dancers, for instance, upping by several orders of magnitude the skills ante in the popular arenas of ice-spectaculars, nightclub revues, and lap-dancing clubs from Las Vegas to Blackpool - at bargain-basement prices.

there are rarely more than a handful of discrete major artists - groundbreakers, as opposed to consolidators - in any given generation, and the Russian filmmaker Andzrej Tarkovsky and his American contemporary and counterpart, the artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol, were two such.

Tarkovsky represents the ultimate flowering of a kind of artistic impulse that has dominated Western consciousness since the Renaissance - the heroic engagement with an intrinsically conservative status quo in order to be perceived as an immortal - to be remembered as one who represented their time in paint, stone, music, or literature. in his case, that engagement necessitated mastering a particularly complicated dance of negotiation with the Soviet cinema's presiding bureaucracy - a monolithic beast dedicated to one purpose - ensuring the political rectitude of its stable of artists. and in common with all the artists of his generation working behind the Iron Curtain, from the Baltic to the Urals, that dance was a dance of stealthy deception - of cloaking meaning in such a convoluted veil of metaphor that any surface test of political correctness must surely fail to find purchase or fault. as a consequence, he brought the vocabulary of cinema closer to music than any previous cinema auteur, and leaves a legacy that summarises the achievement of Soviet artists in particular, and of all artists still working under the umbrella of state-centralised controls. this legacy, however, is one which the victorious culture seems as anxious to forget as the one which generated it.

at the same time as Tarkovsky was enjoying what turned out to be the golden age of Soviet state patronage of the arts, Andy Warhol was enjoying a liberal arts education that straddled both the ideals of social realism (something which Tarkovsky abhorred) and the aspirations of the American Dream in its more infantilised, Shirley Temple-worshipping form. Warhol's stature as a seer who understood the power of the image, the religion of fame, and the narcosis of consumerism is something that has been welded onto his myth as a critical afterthought: in reality he seems to have had no articulate agenda, and, unlike his Russian contemporary, he left practically no commentary or critique on his own work other than the briefest, the most anecdotal and the almost cringingly banal.

both artists, although poles apart in their artistic, intellectual, and metaphysical ideologies, were almost morbidly obsessed with time (Tarkovsky's self-critical memoir - 'Sculpting in Time' - describes his own working process) and, technically, both were heedless about challenging their audiences' boredom threshold: typically, a Tarkovsky tracking shot will pass very slowly over some detail in a landscape, or a painting, or a domestic interior, for as long as ten minutes, and two of Warhol's most infamous films - 'Empire' and 'Sleep' - consist of one static eight-hour shot of a still subject.

the time-period for which Warhol is remembered, however, by everyone, regardless of whether they know anything about pop art, is the fifteen minutes of fame which he predicted would become the universal allotment.

whether or not the one was the 'better' artist than the other is beside the point: both happened to be working at round about the same time in two countries whose horns were locked for the entirety of these two artists' working lives in the most terrifying of nuclear standoffs. after winning that confrontation, the inevitable artistic consequence of the supremacy of a Warhol-world rather than a Tarkovsky-world was the emergence within twenty years of the soap opera, online gaming, and reality TV as the dominant forms of cultural expression. whether it also entailed the inevitable decline of the artist from shamanic gatekeeper to McDonalds clown is still far too early to say.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

no pussyfooting around

we used to call a spade a spade around here once, apparently ...

Monday, September 12, 2005

decisive attitudes

in common with most people I know, I have been trying to bring up my twin sons to understand that violent behaviour is a form of sickness, and that violent people can be helped to change their behaviour.

now, at thirteen, they seem to be developing into quite big, strong fellows - quite capable of humiliating several of my friends foolish enough to challenge them at arm-wrestling (not me, not quite, not yet), and well on their way to being able, as they say, to take care of themselves - and I find myself beginning to wonder if I oughtn't to lighten up a little on an issue which, to them, clearly isn't an issue.

I say this because I'm beginning to have to accept that, thanks in large part to the miserable failures of the dominant culture and its cringing satellites in curbing the excesses of inequality that are now hopelessly endemic in the social structures of the so-called developed world, the notion that might is right is the indisputable norm of political, and therefore social persuasion. Gandhi (shanti, shanti, shanti) would get short shrift if he sat down in front of an advancing platoon of American or Israeli soldiers these days.

from the school playground to the White House, the bully's day is right here, right now - having taken all the advantage he can muster from the well-meaning liberal tolerances which have failed to deter him.

if and when it happens that one of my boys takes on one of the grunting psychopaths that all schools have to tolerate and gives him the kicking of his miserable, un-boundaried, parenting-impoverished life, I doubt if I shall do more than go through the motions of tut-tutting in the head's office at the subsequent enquiry - the same cynical nod at compliance that she herself learnt in the damage-limitation module of schools management, her proficiency in which she has already demonstrated by bringing two boys together in her office - one aged twelve, five foot, a hundred pounds, his persistent tormentor aged fifteen, six-foot, one-eighty pounds - to 'shake hands,' thereby having implemented, on the record, the school's decisive attitude towards such behaviour.

I recall no-one shedding any tears when one particular psycho at my own school was given the 'surprise selection' treatment - ie he, despite having never demonstrated any team aptitude whatsoever, was 'selected' (he had no choice in the matter) for inclusion in a house rugby match, during which fifteen of the school's finest - all perfectly aware of his reputation - legitimately grounded and battered, kicked, choked, elbowed, kneed, and generally mauled him at every opportunity for one of the longest and most painful hours of his violent existence - with a large, knowing crowd having assembled to add humiliation to (superficial) injury.

antisocial behaviour can be modified pacifically, given the will, and sufficient resources to repair and recover the backstory damage that promotes it. I seriously wonder, however, if the will is there, other than at the individual level of those few saints upon whom society seems eternally to rely as moral arbiters. meanwhile, I shan't stand in the way of my own sons meting out such summary discouragement as they might consider appropriate to such malcontents as enjoy beating up kids who are half their size.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

god and muscular dystrophy

why are the fundies so foetus-fixated? what's their holy writ reason for getting so hot under the collar about early womb-life, given that the sacred book compilers had about as much understanding of female biology as a newt has about quantum mechanics? if the foetus has a soul, then it follows that a sperm and an egg have half a soul each, which means that two months of menstruation = one ticket to purgatory and one wank must be equal to several genocides, which means that the entire fundie population is condemned to endlessly unavoidable breaking of the holy rules and life is unutterably hopeless and shameful so why bother?
human life, it seems, is so sacred, at even the protozoic level, when it resembles little else than a tadpole, that it is worth taking a few lives to protect it.
and, when some wonderful piece of technology worthy of our place at the rim of the local galactic cluster at this period in time emerges that makes possible the control of one or two of the more seriously incurable genetic disorders known to our species, what do they do, the fundies? they wail in horror, loudly expressing their preference to continue living in the middle ages, in a condition of fearful superstitious fumbling in the dark, trusting in the enlightenment of the sacred texts.