December 25th, 2005


The well-made song

This entry formerly conveyed seasonal greetings to people listed in my Mindmap, a visualisation of LJ relationships so horrifically ugly that I've decided to remove it from this page. Instead, I want to promote some comments based on the colours of the mindmap graph, which became much more interesting than the original entry.

The Mindmap colours reminded me of the Robert Malaval show currently on at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. I found Malaval's paintings hideous, but they've haunted me ever since. I've been wondering to myself "Could they be so horrible that they're challenging my taste in a salutary way?"

In other words, I've been considering the point Clement Greenberg raises here (beware, a lot of reactionary stuff there, delivered in a slurred, alcohol-impaired voice) when he says:

"What struck me, maybe surprised me more than anything else in the audience for new art was its patience with boredom. Conceptual Art was an example of that, quasi-Conceptual art, some kinds of Minimal Art. And it was precisely that because people were bored that they thought the stuff had something -- that it really had something and they were missing it -- and the fact that it was there to be missed meant that it was real new and really important. If they got it, if they got the art, if they enjoyed it some, it was probably slick, it was probably facile and dated. Now, I'm not exaggerating here; this is literally reporting things I've heard."

I was thinking about this very thing yesterday--the suspicion that something enjoyable is "slick, facile and dated"--when I happened to play Swigging Echinacea by the Free French (aka Rhodri of this hemisphere) followed immediately by Waschsalon Berlin by Frieder Butzmann from the Neue Deutsche Welle compilation "Verschwende Deine Jugend", ("waste your youth"). It was one of those iTunes serendipity things, when the program just plays something alphabetically by artist name.

Now, the Free French track is "well-made" (Modernist critics used to call Edwardian salon drama "the well-made play", rather scathingly), it's beautifully crafted; it sounds a bit like Prefab Sprout, has clever lyrics, has the capacity to move you like a well-scripted, slightly sentimental Hollywood movie. And the Butzmann track is, in a sense, a piece of boring, eccentric crap, some random sound effects and repetitive shouting. But I vastly prefer the Butzmann. It just feels so gloriously free; I don't know what's going to happen next. Butzmann has the nerve to have just one sound playing at a time. And there's a spirit of originality and adventure, tied in, no doubt, in my mind, with a certain imaginary reconstruction of what Berlin must have been like in the early 80s. So very edgy! An index of future possibilities, the construction of a new grammar for pop music!

It's precisely because Waschsalon Berlin is, in a way, boring and mad that it's art, not craft. You shift your gaze from the chords, lyrics, riffs etc to the concept, the recklessness, the audacity, the self-given license. Because it's badly (yet adventurously) made, it's far from the "well-made play". It also has the crucial capacity to "repel the weak". It completely separates the sheep from the goats. Few conformists would like it (they'd resent the liberty and reckless playfulness Butzmann has clearly awarded himself) and few radio shows would dare to air it.

I happen to be white van man today, ferrying the contents of my apartment to a storage unit, and it's a reminder of how truly awful FM radio can be (there's one in the cab). Not challenge-me awful, just awful awful, tinkle tinkle, Phil Collins-ish and filthy with repetition. Craft can drag us down into this hell, art never would.