imomus (imomus) wrote,

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?
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