Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back to back and toe to toe

New Zealand Morris dancers performing the ‘black joke’ , one of their most embarrassing and idiotic moves, for patrons of the Wellington pub Britannia. Image from Te Ara. Needless to say, I will be discouraging the small guy from anything remotely resembling this sort of thing, although in truth I think it most unlikely that I'll need to.

What I really don't like about Mondays, said the small guy: FOLK DANCING. You have to hold people's horrible hot hands. It's no good. There's a dance about Christchurch, where you walk round the cathedral. And in Wellington, you do the cable car, and keep on bobbing up and down until your legs are tired. And then you go to Dunedin. It's a blinking nuisance.

*Apologies to people who've previously read this one elsewhere: I'm blogging it following a request for 'more of the small guy'.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The politics of aesthetics

In 1960, American social critic Dwight MacDonald wrote 'Masscult and Midcult', an influential and excoriating essay in which he expressed his utter loathing of the middlebrow culture first derisively described by Virginia Woolf three decades earlier. As MacDonald saw it, the loathsome midcult fell well short of both the high culture with its specialisation and drive for excellence, and the low culture of the working people with its 'raw', 'honest', 'folk' qualities of genuine expression. The middlebrow involved a nasty pastiche of both the low and the high. It was fundamentally inauthentic, primarily expressed by mass-produced products which aped the cultural refinement of the upper classes; experiences designed by shameless money-grubbing commissars to be flogged to half-educated idiots who were trying to appear cultured.

Of course, MacDonald's critique involved a particularly distinguished kind of snobbery: the targetted disdain of the upper classes, or of the highbrow culture -- largely interchangeable terms -- for the tastes of the middle classes. What Woolf and MacDonald identified is still very much with us: if anything, as the middle class has expanded, it's become the official culture. Among recent midcult products one might consider including Oprah's Book Club; the NZSO's concerts with Crowded House; Kiri te Kanawa's release of Christmas with Kiri; anything at all by Merchant Ivory; Te Papa; the vile Dan Brown; the very fact of Hugh Grant; blockbuster art exhibitions; Brancusi's endless column knock-off lamps at Freedom Furniture; Vivaldi ringtones, etc.

I read MacDonald's essay some time ago, and was reminded of it again yesterday evening when I got into the bath and settled down for a quiet read, only to discover that I had picked up the wrong book by mistake.

The inside back cover mentions that writer Jeremy Strong sat on a heater when he was five and burned his bottom, and used to look after a dog that kept eating his underpants.

This is the book I'd meant to have taken with me into the bathroom, an account of contemporary life amid the rebel combat zones of Uganda by Jane Bussmann, a journalist who used to write comedy sketches for So Graham Norton and celebrity features for The Sunday Times.

And this is what I actually should have been reading, but couldn't bring myself to, an important book by a theorist ominously described on the back jacket as one of the most compelling thinkers and writers in France since Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

And there, in a nutshell and neatly illustrated, you have Dwight MacDonald's theory of high-, middle-, and low-brow culture, alive and well and in operation at our house.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What he said

I've come across a few good quotes recently. First this discussion of the importance of creating problems in your work, from artist Chuck Close, via Glasstire, a continually interesting site for visual art in Texas:

'For me, the most interesting thing is to back yourself into your own corner where no one else's answers will fit. You will somehow have to come up with your own personal solutions to this problem that you have set for yourself. I never wanted people in front of my work thinking about another artist.

See, I think our society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to participate in "problem creation" -- it is more interesting than problem solving.'*
It reminded me quite a lot of some things Wystan Curnow had to say, in his seminal essay on New Zealand culture 'High Culture in a Small Province' back in 1973, when he suggested that the 'highest level' of culture is comprised of people with great tolerance for ambiguity and an interest in problems: making them, analysing them, solving them. The problem in New Zealand, he felt, was that the necessary conditions were not in place to allow such people to flourish here: 'the true specialists we export'. I always think of Len Lye when I read this.

And from one of my great heroes, the wise-cracking poker-playing Lester Bangs of art history, Prof. Dave Hickey:

'Everything has to deviate. And the easiest way to do this is to change the canon: to go back 40 years and find someone you like and start stealing shit from him. And this is called going back to the moment right before it started sucking. Go back to '75, you see Richard Tuttle, you say, ‘Oh this sucks,’ go back further.'

'A perfectly ordinary field mouse does all the field mouse shit you’d want it to do. A perfectly ordinary work of art just disappears.'

'Patronage has its price. It’s about the insecurities of the patron.'

'I’m standing here today because about ten of the critics who were about to snatch the torch from my failing grasp died of AIDS in the ’80s. Otherwise I would’ve been playing Texas Hold ‘em all day in Las Vegas.'
More Hickeyisms here at Little Known Facts. Via @jaymjordan and @TylerGreenDC.

And then there's this, from New Zealander @Homage on Twitter, currently travelling in the US, which speaks of a profound cultural difference between New Zealand and the States:

'One thing I've noticed about the American people is they're much more likely to fix your label when it's sticking out.'

And finally, from the utterly reliable @shitmydadsays, a Twitter account run by 29-year-old Justin who lives with his 73-year-old father:

"Sometimes life leaves a hundred dollar bill on your dresser, and you don't realize until later that it's because it fucked you."

A little wisdom in there for all of us.

*From interview with Chuck Close by Joe Fig, Inside the Painter's Studio, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.
Chuck Close photograph via Swindle Magazine. Dave Hickey photograph via Drawer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Christchurch mounts new claim to be considered cultural capital

As the Rugby World Cup draws ever closer -- and we're now able to monitor our growing excitement second by second, courtesy of the countdown clock recently unveiled in Cathedral Square by Mayor Bob Parker -- plans are afoot all over the country to spruce the place up so that our overseas visitors will see us in our best bib and tucker. Everywhere you look there are new rubbish bins, roads, pedestrian walkways, and tree planting going on; even new public sculptures are going in, as New Zealand looks to its international reputation and scrubs up like a boarding school's dining hall on Parents' Day.

Some wowsers have moaned, a bit, about the country driving itself ever further into debt by building massive white brick and mortar elephants which are only going to be used once by a relative handful of beer-swilling global munters. Plans recently unveiled in Christchurch, however, reveal that local planners are on to this problem already. With Cathedral Square expected to be the number-one fan zone, ideas to rugger the old girl up a bit have been mooted. The arts are likely to take a front row spot, but we needn't be concerned that we'll have to look at whatever blinking thing they come up with forever. We don't have the details yet, but we're talking about more than just flags, said the council spokesperson.

"Proposals include a large inflatable rugby ball, that could sit in the Chalice sculpture."

Regrettably the news report did not provide an image of this, so I have produced my own artist's impression.

Sometimes I wonder if Neil Dawson ever gets a bit tired of this shit.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"This art is a terrible business."*

It's been a dry spell in the blogging life: while twittering like a maniac, and scribbling away offline, I've been on the blogging wagon for the past month. Last night, however, the clouds burst and the rains came, and here we are again this morning. Kia ora and hello.

With season two of Mad Men now a distant memory, there is now officially nothing to watch on New Zealand TV if you're not keen on:
a. sexy vampires;
b. forensic pathology;
c. other people's home renovation disasters;
d. Hamish McKay (not the art dealer, the other one) being subjected to yet another personal indignity on Pulp Sport.

There is, however, always Coronation Street, a guilty pleasure for a couple of decades now. I represent the third generation of women in my family to be obsessed with it. The baby hasn't shown any interest yet, but give her time, give her time.

Yesterday evening in a disgraceful example of life imitating art the big guy and I were eating dinner in front of the TV. We had just settled down in front of Coro with a plate of kedgeree (a dinner choice prompted by various nostalgic and plaintive tweets about one of the things I miss most about living in Wellington, along with the Northland Panels and Moore Wilsons: Kelda's kedgeree at Nikau), when I happened to mention to the big guy that I was sick of looking at the horrible 'art' in Gail Platt's house -- a framed poster of a flower-bedecked doorway in the Algarve by an anonymous watercolourist, which has hung in the Platts' lounge behind various scenes of mayhem over the past decade including attempted murders, divorces, teenage pregnancies, juvenile deliquencies and the greatest horror of all, Gail simply being herself -- and I expressed a fervent wish that the set dressers would change it.

No sooner had I said this than a major new storyline began to unfold, involving, for perhaps the first time in recorded history, art on Coronation Street. (Thus neatly combining two of my greatest interest areas and strongest specialty subjects, and prompting this post.) Here's the set up. Having recently swapped houses, a source of teeth-gnashing female interpersonal tension and consequent escapades of one-upmanship that lasted several months, Claire Peacock finds a painting rolled up in the attic of what until very recently was for many years the appalling Kevin and Surly Webster's dreary residence.

In a frenzy of excitement she takes it to her drippy husband, the butcher Ashley, and unrolls the canvas.

'Ha ha!' he says. 'Did the kids do that?' Thus confirming his suitability for his chosen vocation of chopping up bits of offal rather than a career as an art critic, interesting plot device though it could be.

But hang on, those matchstalk men look familiar...

Could it be ... could it be ... a real Lowry? One of these? A previously undiscovered work of art by that other great cultural chronicler of fictional working class life oop there in the bleak North? But that would be worth a fortune! And involve endless dramas over its authenticity, provenance, and ownership that would keep a troop of actors in work for months sorting it all out, wouldn't it? Eeeee, but that were a champion idea for a story, Deidre.

Can't wait for next Tuesday.

*One of the more memorable quotations of the rather peculiar L.S. Lowry, who would himself have made a good guest appearance on Coro Street, given his habits of being economical with the truth, painting secret erotic works, and keeping a suitcase by the front door so that if someone he didn't fancy talking to called round, he would be able to make a quick exit by pretending he was just off to the station.