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Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 05:19 pm
10 concepts about hating concepts

A friend who lurks on Click Opera sent me the following -- I think interesting -- question by email: "I wonder why your readers were not pleased to know the concepts behind your art performance, but were glad to read about the concept behind your music when the topic was your old CDs. These concepts relate to art works of yours equally, don't they? What made your readers aggressive this time?"

1. I agree that this is odd if we look at it from a perspective of extraterrestrial objectivity. I'll try and speculate on possible reasons why art concepts make people angry, while music concepts don't. To be fair, there are usually just one or two overtly hostile voices on the art threads. What's more, the internet is full of hostile voices. Though, it's true, I don't recall any in the Creation Advent Calendar threads.



2. The first thing we might want to speculate about is demarcation lines and the idea of the "master identity". Although it may be considered a virtue to be a polymath capable of operating in many fields at once, it also comes close to ideas like dilettantism and being "jack of all trades, master of none". For someone considered first and foremost a musician, therefore, dabbling in art looks like pretension. It might even relate to some sort of guild system: one serves an apprenticeship and joins a guild, and cannot suddenly switch (especially without the apprenticeship of art school) to another profession, another guild.

3. But it isn't just a matter of hopping from one guild to another. We cannot avoid the question of class. Although music costs money at every stage (record, concert, merchandising) whereas concepts presented in the art world are freely accessible in art galleries (and -- in my case -- not sold for money), there is a perceived class difference between the two activities. The art world has its roots in a kind of ancien regime patronage system. Aristocrats (in the form of collectors) patronize and protect artists, who don't need to make any appeal to the general public, nor sell any mass manufactured product or spectacle. This is essentially an elitist alliance between advanced craftspeople and aristocrats. Musicians, on the other hand, have been ushered into the commercial world of the petty commercant, the essentially lower middle class world of mass production, salesmen, shops, promotion and publicity. Even if this world charges money for access to the artist's concepts and the art world doesn't, the middle class world of the petty commercant is not attacked, because it is the dominant model of our time. We live in bourgeois societies, not aristocratic ones. To charge money makes one down-to-earth and trustworthy. To offer things free smacks of suspicious privilege. It also implies that what one is offering is worthless.

4. As an aside, following on from that point, I'd like to mention that the art world began to take serious notice of me when I released my Stars Forever album in 1999, with its accompanying concept of "patronage pop". It intrigued curators and gallerists that a pop musician would switch from the mass market commercant model of financing to the art world's patronage model (where, instead of trying to make a hundred people part with ten dollars each, you try to find a single person willing to part with a thousand). During my first meeting with Philippe Vergne, the curator who put me in the Whitney Biennial, he spoke specifically about Stars Forever, saying how much it had impressed and interested him. It was essentially Stars Forever that Vergne wanted to put into the Whitney (although we came up with a different idea in the end).



5. We now have to raise the stereotype of the turncoat. In the wonderful video above Jacques Dutronc is singing -- in 1968, the year of the student riots -- in the role of an opportunist who "turns his coat, but always to the good side". It's true that my embrace of the art world might be seen in this light. When, in 1997, I came back to London after living in Paris for a couple of years, I found that the "rock stars" were all art stars. Britpop had faded, and nothing really new or interesting was happening in music. Art, though, was booming, bringing whole sections of the east of the city to life. I began to "turn my vest" from 1997 onwards. Perhaps some diehard music fans saw this as a betrayal.



6. Something strange happened to music from the late 90s onward. It began to lose its commercant nature as filesharing and internet distribution made it a free commodity. Art, meanwhile, was also changing. On the one hand, art began to appeal to a much wider audience, and to use the publicity and promotional devices once the preserve of rock. Pink Floyd might have floated an inflated pig above Battersea power station in 1977, but twenty years later such attention-grabbing stunts were the preserve of fine artists. Tate Modern's Turbine Hall became a place where artists competed to outdo each other in scale and popularity, to make installations people would talk about and visit as they'd once visited rock festivals (Olafur Eliasson's The Weather installation was a music-free music festival).

7. At the same time, the art world kept its connection to the aristocracy. It drew its optimism and energy from its connection to a world of super-rich people who -- high-Gini neoliberal politics ensured -- would keep doing well no matter how badly the rest of us were doing. From this emerged the paradox that art managed to stay bubbly and buoyant even when everybody else was as gloomy as a Radiohead song. Art's direct connection to the world of money, together with its use of rock-style publicity and showmanship, allowed it to distribute a kind of effervescence and joy even when there was no objective reason for the middle classes to feel this joy. It became a kind of drug. Some people remained deeply suspicious of art, though, for this very reason. To cross from the world of music (which "tells the truth" and "comes from below") to the world of art (which "tells lies" and "comes from above") was not just to turn one's coat, but to become a purveyor of lies and illusions, and an apologist for privilege.

8. Recently on Click Opera we were talking about how the vitality of a medium is reflected by the number of moral panics around it; if a medium is not being described as "evil", it's dead. In that entry, we concluded that computer games were healthy at the moment because they were attracting the sort of censorship debates literature hasn't seen for decades. By the same token, the art world is pretty healthy too; last year I quoted a Matthew Collings piece headed Evil Zeitgeist: "Art today is understood as a series of moves that you have to comprehend and absorb, in order to position and advance yourself in a game for a group of people whose creativity has become repellent without their realizing it. That is, if you're an artist. Your whole role in society has become weirdly hateful. What on earth happened? The shows roll by, feeding the art industry, not feeding anything else, just seeming like object versions of shouting, or someone reading familiar, acceptable meanings off a list, or idiotically droning or mumbling in a childish attempt to come across as a mystical genius or someone highly educated. It's very rare to see a contemporary art show that isn't like toys for children." Books like High Art Lite, or blog rants like the one I delivered against Damien Hirst last year compounded this sense of the art world as evil; too commercial, to machiavellian, and so on. But it's worth bearing in mind that nobody really bothered to attack Robbie Williams for his big advances, or Kylie Minogue for her superficiality; bad motives were so taken for granted in the music industry that they hardly seemed worth commenting on. Moral panics about art happen because people think art has a higher, nobler calling.

9. 2009 is a year in which I'll publish two books. Will this bring in a flood of piqued anonymous comments about pretension? Probably not; books don't strike anybody as evil and affected the way the art world does. Books are not currently a litmus test, a flag, a red rag, a flashpoint, a battleground. More's the pity.

10. It's worth adding that talk about "concepts" in music is unpopular too. When I released a concept album in the early 80s (The Man on Your Street), it was seen as a return to the bourgeois excesses and baroque pretensions of prog rock by some critics. Punk had, in their view, brought a healthy dose of directness and anti-intellectualism to music, an explosion of working class energy. In the old binary which pits the heart against the head -- and which links the working classes to the heart and the middle classes to the head -- the heart had won. Anyone who tried to bring back the head -- and therefore, by extension, elite class values -- was the enemy. To some extent that thinking never went away. To talk about the concepts behind songs is already a little bit taboo -- you'll notice that British music commentary is mostly about drugs and the effects of sudden wealth and success, not about the concepts behind particular songs. It's also worth noting that even a shift from guitars to synthesisers can bring the wrath of some conservative music fans, and is likely to be seen, in microscopic scale, as an exemplification of many of the betrayals listed here: demarcation lines, class betrayal, opportunism, moral panics, inauthenticity, undue intellectualism, lack of virility.

Is there anything I left out? Why do people clamour for more talk of concepts in music, but less talk of concepts in art? Is it because there's too little intellectual fibre in music commentary, and rather too much of it in art criticism? Are people like me valuable in music, but over-represented in art? Is hawking concepts in music valuable missionary work, while doing the exact same thing in art is overkill? Is the art world a place one "disappears into, never to return"? Is it -- despite the fact that an art gallery is, theoretically, free to walk into -- much more inaccessible than the world of pop music? Is there some kind of "disappearance anxiety" behind criticism of a musician who dabbles in art?

40CommentReplyFlag

dogsolitude_v2
dogsolitude_v2
dogsolitude_v2
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 04:59 pm (UTC)

A couple of notes in this post struck a chord with me:

Firstly, your second point about perceptions of dilettantism. If you're a Musician™, then how dare you attempt to become an Artist™?

I'm having a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale: I left an Insurance company to become a web-designer, and this seems to really annoy a lot of people. How dare I, a lowly Compliance Consultant who held meeetings and wrote reports and stuff dare take up Dreamweaver and Photoshop? Creating websites is for funky young guyz who like to make phunky hi-contrast lo-fi collages of skullz with wingz and retro-vector designs. I've even had a crack at making some music, but that's just sat on MySpace and I really don't see that as a career option. Most of my tracks don't really go anywhere, which is a sort of a metaphor in itself I guess...

Thing is, you've demonstrated your creative integrity with your music. You've never really sold-out or anything like that. Why some people have a problem you turning to other creative realms is beyond me. Maybe they're just cross with you for daring to crawl out of a box they'd put you in, and have to take out their frustration at the resulting cognitive dissonance somehow.

Secondly your last points in the final paragraph of your post make a lot of sense. Music is becoming increasingly accessible, and has been a staple of popular culture over the last generation or so. Kids listen to it, crusties listen to it, goths listen to it, bankers listen to it. Whatever your poison, you can download it and put it on your Pod and listen to it wherever you go. Most places where one socialises have music piped through or DJed at earsplitting volume. It has a ubiquity that the visual arts seem to lack, and with the arrival of virtual studios and powerful PCs the means of production and distribution is fast becoming democratised (within a couple of days of finishing one of my tracks it got played in a club in Chicago in between Frontline Assembly and Combichrist, depsite my utterly appalling production values).

Visual arts on the other hand have remained in installations and galleries. Sure, they're free to walk into, but most kids wouldn't dare because they're scared of being made to somehow look stupid by people who use big words like 'composition', or simply don't understand how something can be cool without being photorealistic. I briefly studied art, and was amazed at how easy it is to enjoy it. By contrast a lot of folks seem to sit under the impression that you need a degree in art crit to understand, say, Epstein's Rock Drill or Ernst's Temptation of St Anthony.

On the other side of the divide sit a bunch of people who are quite happy to be considered clever. As Robert M Pirsig pointed out, jargon is a sign that a clique is trying to keep others out of their walled city. This attitude is rife in so many circles, not just the Art world (check out some of the stuff that floats around middle-management in the average large corporation).

As such I think that there's probably a certain type of Artist who's a bit pissed that you, a lowly musician whose music can be enjoyed by anyone (well, depends on their sense of humour I suppose!), has had the audacity to pole vault over their wall and start snacking on their canapes.

I think I've just tried to make the same point twice. Sorry.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 11:42 pm (UTC)

Sorry to take so long to respond to this, but Deutsche Telekom just dropped my internet connection for seven hours!

Pop's ubiquity is one reason to hold it at arm's length -- it's just become too complicit with everything. People may attack art for being a rich man's plaything, but the structure of its financing (find just one patron / collector and you're set) allows it to be much more radically critical -- from an aristocratic point of view -- than commercial art in the marketplace ever could be.


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shadowshark
shadowshark
ShadowShark
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)

Yes, change is scary! And we all know art shows don't tour North American bars for which tickets can be purchased online... for all we know, when the exhibition is over, they'll just put you in the basement until the 25 year retrospective!

(Great post--love to hear what films you've seen lately, too)


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC)

You're overthinking this, Momus.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC)

It could have its roots in the fact that some people think you are a better, more credible, singer/songwriter than you are an art artist.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 06:31 pm (UTC)

Yes, a difficult concept to grasp it seems for some.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC)

too much (intellectual fibre) in art criticism

I'm not sure. I want more! I buy things like Radical Philosophy magazine for the drier conceptual stuff but it tends to avoid talking art specifically.

In Art World magazine, Will Self called Jake Chapman the most "aggressively intellectual" of the YBAs. Names dropped, he cites Heidegger, etc. Questions arose:

If intellectualism and concepts produce the-same-kind-of-stuff as peers who just follow their instincts and influences, are they merely a conversational pastime, a shaper for the artist's private notes-to-self?

Concepts might add sophistication and maturity, but are as likely to point us towards the teenage-y, or into the childlike, and seem hijacked by fashion, the need for publicity, personal foibles. These days, more than ever, they need a social methodology (Marxism, feminism, post-modernism etc.) to give them meaning.

There may be more fibre in art than the NME, but it can still end up as meaningless. It's odd that the more we follow capitalism, which ostensibly permits everything, the more samey things get.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 11:50 pm (UTC)

I agree with Self about Chapman -- he is refreshingly willing to cite Bataille etc. And you can see that Bataille has rewired his brain when you look at the Chapmans' art. There's this refusal to go for easy humanist redemption. Bataille isn't just a name to drop in interviews, he's absolutely integral to the art the Chapmans make.

Will Self also wrote something recently about Bridget Riley, and said (despite owning two Riley paintings himself) that her work is essentially decoration, no more nor less interesting than his stair carpet. He doesn't really consider her a fine artist, and one of the reasons is that her work doesn't really contain ideas beyond purely visual ones (some might say, just one purely visual one, repeated in endless variations).

We could say that, without ideas, artists get stuck in certain stylistic gestures. Of course, the market is usually quite happy for them to repeat these gestures endlessly, then die.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 10:47 pm (UTC)

Momus is anything but a great musician/singer. Nevertheless, people can appreciate the emotional or comedic elements in his music. Even if an album is highly conceptual, the music will nevertheless communicate some sort of emotional content.

Granted we haven't seen this particular piece of performance art yet, but will people be able to connect to it emotionally in any way? Or will it just be self-indulgent wankery, by a European man with a Japanese girl who got flown half way across the world to sit around in a gallery space and screw around while other people actually make meaningful contributions to the world?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 12:15 am (UTC)

self-indulgent wankery

Now, this is something I forgot to mention. This equation of self-expression with masturbation. It spurts up quite a lot, and I'm not really sure why. Quite frankly, any human activity, from tag team wrestling to llama shearing could be compared to masturbation. Why single out art? And what's so wrong with masturbation, anyway? If only art were such a sure and quick route to such intense pleasure! Start hating sex and you're on a slippery slope to hating everything good.

Aki, by the way, is not flying around the world; she lives in New York, where the show is taking place.


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 08:21 am (UTC)

It's got some otherness to it that people want to keep attacking. I think they should attack TV and pop music and the internet if they want to attack something, and listen with respect to art's otherness.

Yes! And in the process come to understand what TV, pop music, the internet and cinema are. They are ways to produce art. But they have been stifled by RKO, MGM, Universal, CBS, NBC, News Corp...

There was a time when concepts and theories were important but it all came to a grinding halt around the time of D.W. Griffith with only incremental changes over the decades. All part of the rush to market I suppose. Fostering competition - "Film language? Yeah we've got that figured out."

The result is that a major part of the population are under the impression that they are experts in movies and music. They know what they like.

But art galleries haven't been crammed down our gullets all our life. So we may feel that we are in unfamiliar territory. And if we are knowledgeable about art and have studied it then we may feel more pressure to understand it and explain it to others. Some crack under the pressure and lash out.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it :)

The internet is another three paragraphs at least but for starters - Why doesn't YouTube have an option for "art" in their pull down menu?




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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 01:55 pm (UTC)

Did you ever read the book by John Carey, 'what good are the arts?' ?
In it, he takes issue with lots of what surrounds the art world, asking questions like: what constitutes a work of art, is high art superior, do the arts make us better etc.above all he rails against us calling others' aesthetic judgments into question.
I thought it raised some interesting points, although I disagreed with several things especially his idea that technologies do not carry social or political agendas.

With regard to why people get more aggressive about art , maybe part of the problem is the character of many art lovers - he cites JP Getty, with his borderline-fascist worldview - prove that vast exposure to art in no way 'makes us better'!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 02:13 pm (UTC)

John Carey is one of my betes noires, I'm afraid, after his pathetic character assassination attempts on Brecht and, in fact, any author of any merit during the Modernist period (in The Intellectuals and the Masses). He's a dwarf swinging at giants.

I don't see why art has to be burdened with making us better people, when rock music, TV and advertising aren't.


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