Category Archives: Art

“A song doesn’t have to mean something: it is something.”

I’ve been saying the above phrase as often as possible for the last few years: it’s my own personal counterpoint to the oft-expressed adage that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. My bugbear is that most music writing isn’t writing about music; it’s largely literary criticism applied to music (and, thus, mostly lyrics) plus some historical / cultural context (“X is in a lineage from Y” rather than “X sounds like ∉ because they did ♣ with Ψ”). The stuff that steps beyond this, that deals with sound, with texture, with consumption (with technology, or musicology itself, which is beyond my expertise), is the stuff that fascinates me.

The other month I had the pleasure of interviewing a prominent art historian about his research. The next 300 words or so are taken straight from that interview, after the conversation turned to areas where, as a music writer or some semblance thereof, I felt very strongly that the experiences and bugbears I describe above became violently analogous to what the professor was saying. It’s pretty much verbatim from the tape, minus one short interjection by me where I explain how much I identify with what’s being said.

“The other thing which gets me out of bed is wrestling with the solution to a problem common to all art historians, which I’ll express in a banal way: if pictures, or sculpture, could be represented in words there’d be no need to make them as pictures and sculptures. They’re self-sufficient, they’re very rich, they work in a form of cognition which I think you can only call sensuous – they appeal to eye and hand. And we’re left, as art historians, in the odd position of trying to use words to capture something that quite properly lies beyond words. It doesn’t mean that painting and sculpture are not intellectual; they’re incredibly intellectual, it’s just that the form in which the expression is couched is not verbal. So we’re in a ‘silly’ profession if you like. It’s very difficult to overcome. Students in schools are not trained in ‘visuality’, so if you give people a picture to write about, everybody tries to go through the picture to talk about what lies beyond, as though the picture reflects ideology X or reality Y, and it’s an obvious and easy temptation. It’s not just students who do this, its art historians as well – a great deal of the writing on Victorian art will simply assume that they can talk about the social world of Victorian life of which the picture is a product. But I think ‘no’, the word is mediation, and that means we’ve got to pay attention to texture, to brushstroke, to colour, to composition, to what the artist is working with, the expectations of the audiences (which is plural, because there are many audiences). The whole thing is incredibly difficult to unpick and we’ve got to find a way of using words that keeps the work of art and the experience of works of art central to the discourse.”

You could very easily switch the words ‘art’ etcetera to ‘music’ and so on, and it would make perfect sense. To me, it means exactly the same as “a song doesn’t have to mean something: it is something,” but it elucidates and expresses itself better, couches the argument fully. So there it is.

Obsolete

In parsing Krauss I have become enamoured by the idea of “the redemptive obverse”. It’s my favourite idea that I’ve come across this month. As loaded with post-modern obfuscation as the phrase is, I think it’s pretty easy to understand if you break it down and use some simple, everyday props as examples. So let’s do just that!

Dictionary.com tells us that an obverse is “the front or principal surface of anything”; generally it means the side of a coin or bank note that contains (in Britain) the Queen’s head. Consider a five pound note. I don’t really think of a fiver as having a “front” or a “back”, yet if you look closely, all the import of a fiver is on one side – the Queen’s head; the promise to “pay the bearer on demand the sum of five pounds”; the hologram; the chief cashier of the Bank of England’s signature; the serial number: the back just says “Bank of England” and “five pounds” over an arbitrary picture of a figure from British history. The front is what the note DOES, what its intention and function is, its purpose; the back is just garnish added to make it look pretty.

An obverse as a philosophical (or theoretical) tool doesn’t need to be a literal flat face, then; it just has to be the initial purpose and intention. So the obverse of a mobile phone, say, is the idea (of / and the function) that it allows you to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, on the move, without being tied to a physical location. This idea, of infinitely location-flexible communication, is pretty utopic; it makes the world better. Likewise the idea of a fiver is pretty utopic – it allows you to carry “money” anywhere, where we understand “money” as real physical gold stocks that are cumbersome and difficult to move. A fiver is not “money” itself, then; it’s the promise of money (but the promise is so entrenched within the thing in our minds that the fiver becomes the money, to all intents and purposes).

In the same way that the image of a figure of British history on the back of a fiver is just garnish, so multi-functionality is garnish to a mobile phone; the obverse or function or purpose or utopic intention of a mobile is not helped by the handset also having a digital camera, a walkman, Bluetooth capability, hard disk storage for data files, downloadable polyphonic ringtones or detachable fascia. In fact, this garnish, or added-value, actually detracts from the obverse by assuming greater fiscal importance – the money spent on a mobile phone is not paying for the communication it offers anymore, but rather for the extras, the multi-functionality, the garnish, the added value. The added value or garnish only exists, then, because of commodification; in order for capitalism to survive, it needs to maintain the status of the mobile phone as desirable commodity, and so it adds extra functions in order to perpetuate the desire for a mobile phone in people who already own mobile phones. The original intention of a mobile phone, its utopic function, its obverse, is obscured: you don’t want a new one because it allows you to communicate wherever you are; you want it because it has sat-nav or a death ray or some kind of thermo-nuclear self-propulsion system.

I imagine you understand this idea of the obverse now, but in the time-honoured manner of all theory-talkers everywhere, I am going to repeat myself with another clever example.

Consider the iPod; the iPod’s utopic function or intention or obverse is to enable you to listen to a choice from a wide selection of music, wherever you are. Music is a beautiful thing, and not having to cart around cumbersome CDs just in case you want to listen to Battles instead of Electrelane on the bus, is a utopian dream. To simplify even further, the obverse of an iPod is that it plays music. The procession of generations of iPods have added further functionality, gizmos and added value though. Being able to store text files, view photographs and play U2 videos obscure the obverse. Simple.

Now the redemptive part. The obverse of an object is revealed twice; initially at its birth or inception, and then once again when the object is made obsolete. New generations of iPod with video functionality explicitly reveal my battered and obsolete 3rd generation’s utopic purpose of “playing music” because it simply does not do anything other than this, and furthermore redeem it from the schematic added value of capitalism that makes newer, more technologically advanced versions more desirable as commodities. That is, because my iPod no longer has any exchange-value due its lack of video-playback and a colour screen (i.e. it being technologically obsolete) the reason I bought it in the first place (the fact that it plays music) is brought to the fore, and “saves” it from being just another product that advertising makes me want to spend money on. Essentially this means that the redemptive obverse is that which saves something from being just a commodity; you could call it an ideal intention or an essence. It is something’s reason for existing. Capitalism obscures the purpose of a thing by adding garnish, but realising the purpose once again redeems the thing in question from the process of commodification. The redemptive obverse.

Why am I so enamoured of this idea? Because it’s idealistic, and because it can be used to reveal the idealism behind almost anything to which you apply it. Consider the redemptive obverses of things; on a simple level, a university’s redemptive obverse is to extend academic knowledge of (and within) the world. A car’s is to transport people; a musician’s is to play music. A Compact Disc’s is more specific and so seemingly more complex – to provide greater durability, convenience and sound quality (via increased dynamic range) than vinyl.

The redemptive obverse allows us to re-establish what it is that a thing or a person or an action was meant to be doing, before it or we became distracted by capitalism. It takes us back to an idealistic state, but not an adolescently idealistic state, because we are now enlightened and matured via experience, and thus (one hopes) less likely to once again lose sight of our true intention.

In A Voyage on the North Sea Krauss suggests that the post-medium condition of art (roughly microcosmic to the post-modern condition of everything) allows the redemptive obverse of (forms of) art to be revealed. If postmodernism is “incredulity to meta-narratives” then we can take meta-narratives as the capitalist garnish that distracts us from ideal intention, and incredulity as the tool which enables us to reveal and re-establish ideal intentions. Humanity through emancipation. Our evolution has ceased to be spiritual and has become a capitalist evolution of the market; if we can redeem ourselves from the market, we can start to evolve properly once again. This is why post-modernism is important, possibly, because it makes the world a better place by freeing us to fulfil potential; unfortunately the protracted semantic battles that so many theorists and writers get caught up in obscure the writers’ own redemptive obverses, i.e. to tell us how to use post-modernism in order to make the world a better place.

Now that that spurt of woolly and non-specific idealism is out of the way, I shall do some very specific bitching and swearing. I hate garnish and added value; I have written in the past about my distaste for ornaments and also for the inclusion of peas and carrots arbitrarily alongside any given “British” cuisine in certain types of eating establishments, and also specifically about added value with CDs. The redemptive obverse of an album is the music it contains. Garnish or added value is an obfuscation that allows, in this case, bands and musicians and record companies to get away with substandard actual product; i.e. bad albums (whether that be because the songs are poor or the music is over-compressed during mixing and mastering or whatever other criteria you would consider to contribute to an album’s music being bad). Adding a bonus DVD or some stickers or a poster distracts from that substandard product, from that compromised reductive obverse. I don’t want a free DVD with an album; I just want a fucking good album in the first place. The garnish makes me less likely to buy a record; capitalism becomes self-defeating because the thing it is selling gets lost in the packaging. This is so obvious that it hurts. So let’s go back to source and make the album itself better.

But what reveals the redemptive obverse of the album? The MP3 – the new technology which makes the “album” obsolete. If an MP3 is of shitty music you cannot hide that behind a special edition DVD or a holographic cover sticker or a “UK bonus track”. Far from killing the album format, where the album format is a cohesive collection of songs presented together in a physical format (be it vinyl or CD), the MP3 has actually compelled me to go back towards it, to rediscover its redemptive obverse, to see that the album, stripped of garnish, is not a capitalist unit of fiscal exchange but rather a utopian artistic process. It transcends its status as a commodity. I seem to remember that phrase being used as a definition of “great art”.

Speaking of the redemptive obverse of the CD – Imperfect Sound Forever has been selected to be in the 2007 edition of the Da Capo Best Music Writing Anthology, which I am, needless to say, quite chuffed about. It kind of reminds me of my own reductive obverse as regards music writing.

Some quick thoughts, that may or may not be related.

Listening to Califone on the train to London I was struck by how their spacious, uncompressed production made every constituent part of their complex arrangements (or sound-worlds) seem like a hook, because every part was distinct, existing within its own space, fully-formed, and a pleasure to experience to the extent that I wanted to experience it again, and soon. Now Califone’s music couldn’t be called “compositionally hooky” in any meaningful or traditional sense – their slowly unfurling space-country is often melodically dour or cloaked, their tempos are tepid, etcetera – and yet it is, phenomenologically, hooky, and much more so than, say, the current Thirteen Senses record, which exists in a much more obviously lineated pop landscape than the more experimental Califone. I’m sure there’s something to say about redemptive obverses there and capitalism’s compulsion of pop music to compress destroying the very hooks that pop music attracted people to itself with in the first place.

I had a vague compulsion to write something along the lines of “I am not my record collection. My record collection is something that I use to make my life better,” in the vein of this old Soulseeking column, but I lost the essence of what I wanted to say. It was triggered, I suspect, by my complete lack of sentimentality in the recent focus groups surrounding the restructuring at work; I have effectively talked my own department into obsolescence. Also, I purchased AppleWorks, which is allowing me to build a new database detailing my record collection.

Someone asked me what the high point of a (specific) band’s career was. (You can probably guess the specific band concerned.) As sad and self-defeating as it seems, my strongest instinct was to say “the period before I had heard their music, when I was only aware of them as a concept, and they were a shining, beautiful, golden concept full of amazing potential.” Potential is always greater than realisation, because the idea of what’s possible, the obverse, is always greater than the (necessarily flawed) reality.

Ontology

“Communication involves other people.”

I wrote this in a comments box of a Stylus review the other day, after another impenetrable tirade of banal linguistic trickery by one of our frequent commentors, who seems to take pleasure in a mean-spirited mockery of those around him by writing in such an obtuse and high-minded style.

Last night I spent two and a half hours parsing Rosalind Krauss’ densely-written A Voyage on the North Sea, in which she explains her vision of a “post-medium condition” in art theory. It involves several things, namely semantic discord over the term “medium”: the end of “the arts” as separatist disciplines, genres and techniques and the triumph of “art” as creative expression: conceptual art as anti-commodity-commodity: conceptual art as (critical) comment on both itself and its venue: and art as revealing the process of art rather than the object of art; that is art as “affect” rather then just “effect”. For instance Michelangelo’s David is not just a marble sculpture – it is the whole ontological process of the sculpture, from commission, planning, man with hammer, chisel and block of marble, to end result. The “art” is the whole process, not just the finished artefact.

I’m not an art historian and I’m not a post-modernist (maybe I am, though – who can say?), but the ideas struck me as essentially pretty simple. Conceptual art triumphs over “the arts” because it is not limited by technique, tradition, or tools; it is not separatist and it is not reductionist; it does not see painting as typified only by “flatness” at a base level. Take Magritte’s infamous pipe that is not a pipe; here it is;

The “art” in Magritte’s pipe is not that it is a painting, which is flat, and contains paints applied to canvas in a certain pattern; it is that it reveals explicitly the process of art. The phrase written beneath the image of the pipe makes you realise that you are looking at a painting and not a real object – we know this already, but like realist cinema imitates documentary which in turn imitates real life, the point of art is often to obscure its own process via mythology, to make you feel moved by something fake by making it appear not-fake, or real: this is what culture is; a system of mythologies which make the artificial (social, planned, cultural, man-made, representative) appear natural (evolved, spontaneous, spiritual, organic, real) – by encouraging you to ponder on the nature and origin (process) of the art.

Looked at as a simple material thing, as “just” paint on canvas, Magritte’s pipe is pretty dull – it’s a lifeless painting with drab colours, the proportions are odd, the lines unrealistic – but looked at as a conceptual whole in which you consider the process and reasoning that brought it into being, it is an enlightening marvel; “this is NOT a pipe!” one’s mind exclaims the moment you “get” it, and one feels a little smarter for having realised Magritte’s schtick, or joke, or deep metaphysical point (delete as appropriate). (Sad that so much conceptual art should be so rich in concept and so poor in sensual, tactile physicality – place a more equal emphasis on the idea and the object, please! I am sure more people would be better disposed towards conceptual art if it was as pleasant to look upon as it was stimulating to think about.)

The thing is that pretty much any art reveals its process if you look closely enough – the brushstrokes in a painting; the chisel marks in a sculpture – so Krauss’ fight against the modernists, who had reduced painting’s essence to “flatness”, perhaps rushes too far in the opposite direction, over-praising the concept in order to defeat the notion of “flatness” as the essence of a painting, or any specific physical characteristics and/or tool-sets as being the “essence” of any work of art, in any medium / genre / discipline. (One might argue that some conceptual art relies too much on the concept as its essence and that this kind of conceptual essentialism is just as reductive as materialist essentialism – Emin’s bed, perhaps; on a conceptual level it is her life, her emotional structure, her sexual history, her most vulnerable, sleeping self; but it is also just a bed, and painfully mundane to look at.)

These ideas are pretty simple; we all know them and our brains automatically process them a thousand times a day as we encounter magazine covers, billboards, televisions, etcetera. We (almost) all know the ontological ramifications of the Nike swoosh – sport, achievement, commerce, style, sweatshops, more – understanding that isn’t a post-modern trick; it’s common sense and awareness.

I had considered for a long time continuing my education past undergraduate level; if one thing turned me off, it was the fact that the area I’d have continued studying – pop music, pop culture, etcetera – would have meant necessarily having to deal with people like Deleuze, with post-modernism and the unnecessary density of post-modern prose which is self-destructive because it actively discourages communication of simple-yet-important ideas by alienating anyone unwilling to parse its lengthy hall-of-mirrors passages. I hate it. I hated it when a lecturer in my final year read out a passage of Deleuze and said “there; I don’t understand it, but it’s genius.” It’s not genius; it’s smoke and mirrors, obfuscation, ivory towers, gate-keeping, exclusivity, nasty intellectual egotism. The ideas beneath “God is a lobster; or a double-pincer; or a double-bind” may be genius, but “God is a lobster” is not; it is ridiculous. I delved into Sokal & Bricmont’s work; none of my lecturers had heard of them and I walked away from academia disgusted by the social irresponsibility of the culture it encourages in undergraduates as well as by the intellectual impostures, straight into a job at a university.

I’ve taken tomorrow off to parse some more Krauss.