Monday, 26 March 2012

Video Now Online: Debate on Socially Engaged Art

The video of the debate on socially engaged art from a few weeks ago is now online here.

Thinking the Absolute

At this link here Robert Jackson has posted details of the panel he's organised at the forthcoming Thinking the Absolute conference in Liverpool. I'm happy to be involved and will be talking about an occult side to Luhmann (something already sketched on this blog). Full paper to follow when its done.

Friday, 16 March 2012

A Zarathustra in rhinestones: why Wichita Lineman is a great work of art

Following on from my claim in the debate (see last post) that “Wichita Lineman” is a great work of art some folk had asked why I think so. I’m inclined to think that anyone who had heard it would know why, surely?
 Jimmy Webb is a genius, I think, and the Glen Campbell version is the definitive one.

Most obviously it’s a beautiful song which is beautifully arranged and beautifully performed; a micro-opera with an obvious narrative – a beginning, middle and end - which condenses all that it needs to into its 3 minutes (and I'm convinced that there's something about a chiming chord change from G Major to Minor which captures a fundamental truth about the human condition.)

It’s a love song, of course, but one that struggles against the constraints of the pop idiom. This is something that all the very best pop does: to offer the promise of transcendence from within the parameters of a medium that will thwart and undermine those ambitions.

Contained within those three minutes there is an existential allegory: “I need you more than want you; and I want you for all time.” Those lines just floor me every time. Just there you have a perfect expression of the human-all-too-human plea for contact with another human in a world in which we are, essentially, alone. This is more than a desire for love; it is a need, a basic and perhaps destructive compulsion. It’s a thirst for communion that can never be slaked. Yet the Lineman must continue to do so; and his isolation in the sun bleached prairie is relentless. There doesn’t seem to be any respite to his Sisyphean task: “you know I need a small vacation; but it don’t look like rain”. So still the hard and cleansing and cooling rains don’t fall. When we leave the song we leave him “still on the line”; he’s still there now; still searching.

We are all like him; all “searching in the sun” for another “overload”. This is the song of both a solitary everyman and a Zarathustra in rhinestones. He is alone in a solitary quest for meaning in an essentially meaningless and indifferent world that constantly overwhelms (“overloads”) him. His world is one that is relentlessly teetering on the edge of collapse: “And if it snows that stretch down south, won't ever stand the strain” but one that never reaches the redemption that collapse and chaos might bring.

The pay off, though, is that this is a song about communication sung by someone who is utterly alone with no-one to communicate to. The character is a line-man. His job is to maintain the operation of telegraph lines so that people can communicate. The telegraph itself is an odd, mute form of communication that is inherently modern and inherently alienating (or at least must have seemed so to The Lineman): it happens silently and bloodlessly over a distance through the abstract dots and dashes of morse code.

 The art historian and iconographer of The Weird Aby Warburg noticed this effect of distance and finishes his distinctly odd essay on the serpent rituals of the Pueblo Indians with his strange nostalgic requiem:
Telegram and telephone destroy the cosmos. Mythical and symbolic thinking strive to form spiritual bonds between humanity and the surrounding world, shaping distance into space required for devotion and reflection: the distance undone by the instantaneous electric connection.”

The Lineman's fate is ruled by instantaneous electric connection. He must monitor the “overloads” and power outages that arise when there is too much, communication; a surfeit, a glut that threatens the system. But he himself is denied it. He hears the melody of his lover’s voice not via the code but “singing in the wire” and “through the whine” of the wind in the desert of the real. His own song, then, matches that of his lover and the whistling of indifferent nature; the song of the wind that blows through the wires above his head.

These dots and dashes of indifferent communication are then mimicked in the recurring motif in the song (the flute-like sound going “da da dada…”). In the end the world of the Line Man and our own world begin to mesh. We too begin to hear the morse code that he monitors and the whistling of the wind. Through the aeolian harp of the telegraph wire we too can hear the singing that he hears in his exquisite isolation. Ultimately, then, he does communicate; but not with his lover, but with us the listeners, with those outside of his world who listen on and on, only just able to stand the beauty of the strain.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Debate on Socially Engaged Art

This was a bit of fun (although nerve wracking at first).

Yesterday I was involved in a debate on the motion that “This House Feels that the Most Valuable Art is Socially Engaged” in Trinity College. It was organized by Hannah Oellinger, Kamil Markiewicz and Thomas Hayes of NCAD, and hosted by The HistThe other speakers were Declan Long, Kevin Atherton (NCAD), Conor O’Malley (Culture Ireland) and Ursula Ni Choill, William Dunne, Cat Una O’Shea and Liam O Neill (TCD).

I’ve put the text of my 7 minute presentation below. There might be a video of the event floating around too as there were cameras. It was part of the students' involvement with CREATE so there might be a follow on.

Anway, well done to all involved for a stimulating and enjoyable debate.

Opposing the Motion: The House Feels that the Most Valuable Art is Socially Engaged

When it comes to tackling concrete social issues art is of no use at all.

Actually, it is worse than useless.

It’s worse than useless because people still cling on to this hopeless idea that the job of art is politics. It’s not.

If my toilet is blocked, I’ll call a plumber.

If I’m sick, I’ll go to a doctor.

If there’s a crime being committed, I’ll call the police.

But when, when, would I ever look to an artist to solve a problem?


If I want a better society should I make go to artists, singers, songwriters, jugglers, potters clowns and – god forbid – poets for the answers?

No, of course not.

If I want a better society I myself have a responsibility to act in a certain way towards those around me. And if I want society to change I should make specific, concrete demands on those politicians, bureaucrats, legislators and educators who can make these changes.

When it comes to real things that real people can do to make the real world a better place art is not going to help us.

Art is useless; but of course, that is its great strength, and that is what makes it so valuable.

The artist has one responsibility when making art – and I should stress this is when they are making art; it does not resolve them of social responsibility in general – and that is to make things that can be aesthetically judged. All the artistic act need concern itself with is making good art.

We don’t ask chefs to make socially aware souffl├ęs – the contestants of masterchef are not penalized if they don’t make a veloute sauce that is a biting satire of late capitalism.

We don’t expect footballers to say in their post-match interviews that the winning goal they scored in the 72 minute was a protest against the military regime in Burma. 

Food dishes, plays in sport, musical motifs, dance positions, pictures and all other forms of art are beautiful because they are autonomnous – they are separated out from the everyday run of events. Artforms are beautiful precisely because they exist in a context in which responsibility is suspended.

Take a moment to think about what you think are some truly great works of art.

Here are some of mine:

The Van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece
Bach’s Goldberg Variations
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon
Welles’ Citizen Kane
Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman

What you’ll find is that what makes them great is NOT their empirical truth, their didacticism, or their moral properness; in short their responsibility to society.

Instead what makes great works of art great is their greatness, and it’s the same for what makes works of art, good, mediocre or bad. It’s as simple as that.

The most valuable art (and obviously I don’t mean that which is most expensive) is art which is NOT socially engaged. It is, instead, art that challenges its audience to transcend its particular social situation. The best art is not bound by social responsibility but, instead, revels in a glorious irresponsibility.

“Good taste is the enemy of creativity”, Picasso said, and isn’t there something so very tasteful about thinking that you’re doing the right thing?

At its best the call for artistic responsibility is a self-righteous distraction. A harmless enough irrelevance that could be easily brushed off the stage or out of the studio before the real work begins.

More seriously -  the call for social responsibility can used as a lazy get out clause for bad artists more interested in making friends, clearing their conscience or securing funding for social inclusion. “It’s not bad – its non-elitist. It’s inclusive” they’ll say.

We only need look at the flabby, bloated, pompous farce that was Dublin Contemporary to see how several million Euro can be so badly mismanaged in the name of using – and I quote:
art’s underused potential for commenting symbolically on the world’s societal, cultural and economic triumphs and ills.”

What rubbish.

Art is brilliant, we just should be careful what we expect from it.

Art is brilliant and it does come with responsibilities: the responsibly to be freely produced; and our own responsibility to take it seriously.

Of course art can make the world a better place. I can’t and don't want to imagine a world without it.

And so can good food, and music and gymnastics and sex. Especially if you can do them all at once.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Picasso on the Radio

My contribution to a discussion on Picasso on Newstalk is now available to listen to.  This was the first time I've done something like this but I found myself enjoying it in the end.