Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Commercialised art

I believe that Andy Warhol wrecked art. It was shorn from any aesthetic worth. You can now erect any random object in art gallery and accrue millions. It was mollified to the point of inanity. Warhol made art cute and cudly. Gone was the passion and hubris of the Renaissance, the Romantics and the Surrealists. Art became as cute - and disposable - as a coca-cola bottle or a cuddly toy.

When Andy Warhol arrived on the scene, it changed art irrevocably. His ilk dominate the market. People who dominate this market know how to control precisely because they are business people, not artists. What they offer isn't art. It is a vacuous commodity to be sold for billions. Warhol turned art into an advertisement and commodity. It tapped into the free market in a jiffy. Warhol revelled in the inanity of the free market. Unlike a great painter like Caspar Friedrich, he didn't discriminate from the drudgery of contemporary life. He merely swallowed it and regurgitated more pointless drudgery. I would take any day an artist who forensically examines phenomena and selects the remarkable, the transcendent. We are saturated with rubbish all the time by advertising. We don't need to go the art gallery to see more of it. If you want to use art to comment or critique the inanity of advertising - that's great. You shouldn't, however, mimic it.

Andy Warhol

The fact remains that these are businesspeople, not artists. 'Artists' like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst are seen as exemplary by David Cameron. They are business people working in the private sector who make billions. They are reticent to pay tax. They just want to accrue as much wealth as possible, spend it as lavishly as possible, gain cachet and surround themselves with a coterie of sycophantic yes-men. Thatcherites see them as exemplary because they have managed to have some influence on the free market. Like a truly great businessperson, they have made billions out of something farcical.

There is a new breed of business fundamentalist/entrepeneur who is poisoning both culture and politics. It is the same sorry story as positivists and 'scientism,' but it is more sinister because it has a far wider reach. Business has to be applied to education. As soon as you sell education, it turns it into a worthless commodity. Education should be a right. Universities are now virtually shopping centres. With little wisdom or knowledge to impart, they are awash with business courses and shopping precincts. Ludicrously, they seem to have more clubs and dance halls than library space. Instead of teaching how to think critically or originally, universities just teach students to be consumers. This malign 'business positivism' has also crept into 'high' art. You don't sell art which tackles big social/existential/moral topics; you sell gimmicky products to be scrutunised by bearded hipsters.

These 'gimmicky products' are simply kitsch with no intrinsic value. What does an unmade bed or a shark in a tank have to say? The supposed commentary in these works are shallowly imputed by critics. They are not intrinsic to the art.

In the end of the day, this will all blow over. Hirst and Emin will die with a lot of money in the pockets, but they won't go down in time as great artists. Nor will Warhol. All they can do is create zeitgeists. Most of the trends of our time will not leave a slightest dent in history. Today's painters and artists who are trackling big important questions will be remembered. They might be unnoticed now, but their work will manage to transcend time. All the likes of Warhol, Hirst and Emin can do is to conquer the free market. It is ephemeral. The outsiders and fringe artists, people who are marginalised by the bloated art market, will go down as the great artists of our day.  

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Power and human fallibility

Marxists and anarchists see humans as being inherently good. Man is a benign creature whose freedom is being repressed by coercive institutions. If we replace these institutions with economic model x, man will be free. Not only that, he will behave as a moral and conscientious individual. We are all progressing to the next 'episteme.'

Post-modernists see all power as an inherently bad thing. Although they are opposed to revolution,they see any person in any position of power as being repressive. It doesn't matter if they propose a more ethical alternative, their being in power is inherently bad. All states must be criticised and dissented from.

What we see in all revolutions is that it unbridles violent behaviour. This is something that anarchists never take into consideration. Without a state and without order, violent behaviour comes to the fore. This capacity is always within us. Steven Pinker recently published a banal and trite book arguing that we are less violent than we used to be. It's only because we live in prosperous liberal democracies. As soon as there is no state, as soon as there is no mediator, as soon as there is no morality, we have famine and genocide. When the colonists arrived in Oceania and the Americas, they were that inhumane because there was no arbiter of morality. When there is no law, order and morality, where humans can do what they want, we systematically kill, pillage and rape. Anarchists see all states as inherently bad. I sympathise with that sense in that I see institutions in some sense repressive. (I take other positions out of expediency.) The crux of the problem, really, isn't the systems of power/economic models. The problem is our imperfect nature.

Post-modernists blame all power. Humans are imperfect and will make mistakes. We are not progressing to the 'the next episteme' which Foucault suggests is possible or the Marxists think we are incrementally progressing towards. (Some genuinely believe that this progress is genetic as well as political.) If we do implement a better model, we will have similar problems because we will make mistakes. We might take advantage of power, be corrupt, handle problems in a slipshod manner, etc. Parliamentary politics is the most democratic system we have. This is despite the fact that it's largely dominated by immoderate right-wing parties, which would have been considered extreme in the 70s.

Here's a chilling thought - Stalin and Hitler could think, had feelings, etc. It's tempting to paint dictators and autocrats as two-dimensional figures. The fact is that they're 'human, all too human'.

Friday, 19 December 2014

My favourite films of the year, '14

There are a few films I regret leaving out. This is especially true with Frank. How could I leave out a film about an avant-garde rock band which references Captain Beefheart?! I also found it very moving. It made the point that outsider artists do not act deliberately outrageous - they are genuinely troubeled people. I regret the absence of documentaries. Errol Morris' The Unknown Known was fascinating, despite the inevitable caginess of Donald Rumsfield. Camille Claudel 1915 was an austere film on religious belief and madness - I am interested in both themes - and featured a fine performance from Juliette Binoche.

Although many of these films were released internationally in 2013, this list covers films released theatrically in the UK in 2014.

10. Calvary by John Michael McDonagh (Ireland)

Calvary is a comforting and life-affirming film about the virtues of faith in secular societies. Infused with gallows humour, it oscillates between mainstream comedy and art-house fare. Its lead character is warm, down-to-earth type who becomes a priest to get away from marital break-up and the tensions of a capitalist society. To have faith seems to invite scorn and ridicule. And, indeed, the priest is threatened with murder from the film's outset. Its only - quite major - flaw is the over-abundance of stereotypical characters.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorcese (USA)

Whilst it may be a bit shallow and superficial to rank among his best films, this is certainly Scorcese's best film in a long time. It is set at the outset of the deregulation of the financial markets and 'reaganomics.' And whilst Di Caprio's character is rapaciously greedy and selfish, the film is pretty much pro-capitalist. It celebrates individualism. You could pretty much say that it has no moral core. (Scorcese, barring his gangster films, usually is quite moralistic.) But it is extremely funny whilst being lewd. He has made one of his gangster films but populated it with bankers instead. Di Caprio's hubris and fall from grace is all the more pertinent considering the number of bankers who still have not been brought to account post-2008.

8. Inside Llewlyn Davis by Coen Brothers (USA)

The Coen Brothers have been accused of repeating themselves of late and relying on the same tired formulas. But what we have in films like A Serious Man and now Inside Llewyln Davis is a subtler and more understated kind of filmmaking. No matter how much I love their earlier work, it always felt too high-octane and cartoonish. This film follows a folk singer in his peregrinations across the US. Although he is talented, he struggles to make ends meet. Set in the early 60s, it is all the more ominous considering the impact psychedelia and pop music would soon have. Folk would soon become even more irrelevant.The film follows Llewln roaming aimlessly. It has a circular quality when he ends up where he began with. The Coens once more allude to Homer's Odyssey (which they adapted in O Brother Where Art Thou).

7. Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Russia)

Suffused with biblical overtones, this is a chilling study of corruption, abuse of power and clericalism in present day Russia. A family is forced to leave a spot of land after it has been claimed by the local mayor. Putin is a ubiquitous presence, as he hangs over the walls of politicians. Whilst the film does celebrate the religious impulse on a more personal level - it provides a sense of meaning for characters despite the bleakness of what they go through - the film is staunchly anti-clerical. The orthodox priest drives the politicians to do nefarious things. The film also alludes to Hobbes (whose most famous book is called Leviathan) in the way in which citizens lose their freedom once they have signed up to a social contract. Indeed, the characters are powerless and at the mercy of Russia's repressive political bureaucracy. There are also several lovely shots of the sea and hill-tops.

6. Maps to the Stars by David Cronenberg (Canada/USA)

Maps to the Stars is a brilliant critique on the narcissism and self-absorption of Hollywood. Instead of the parasites that feature in his horror films, here the characters are psychologically plagued by their own DNA. Hollwood is an insular place where the same people meet and the same people procreate. They are vain, neurotic and eager for nothing other than fame. Hollywood is an incestual microcosm which keeps perpetuating itself. Cronenberg hasn't merely made a film that tangentially addresses incest, he has made a film about incest. He takes a detached, scientific approach where he dissects the vicissitudes of incest and psychosis. As a result, he does not shy away from anything. This is exciting as he has not made a film as visceral as this in a long time. The film, of course, is also a satire on the cynical machinations of Hollywood.

5. Mr. Turner by Mike Leigh (UK)

This is a delightful film. It's always been said that a life of Turner would never make a good film because it was so uneventful. Leigh is a master at that kind of thing. It is mundane and quotidian, but the essence of his creative process and his idiosyncrasies are evoked wonderfully. It is set in the last years of his life when he was accused of making 'bad' art. As with all Leigh films, there is no script but the dialogue is improvised and rigorously rehearsed accordingly. The language is straight from a 19th century novel - it is very rich. It is also very funny and playful. One of the most mesmerising things about the film is the way Leigh frames landscapes as if they were one of Turner's paintings.

4. Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer (UK)

The greatest thing about this film is its point of view and its defamiliarisation. It is from the perspective of an alien. The film does this with cinematic, not literary, language. It achieves through its framing and the use of sound (it has a brilliant dissonant soundtrack). It is ambiguous and strange. Parallels could be made with 2001. Yet, despite this, it also has a documentary feel. Surprisingly, some of the scenes really took place. Scarlett Johansan really drove past Glasgow, picked up guys and offered sex. As you watch those scenes, they really do seem authentic. It is a science fiction film set in the here and now - as such, it is very Ballardian.

3. Nymphomaniac by Lars von Trier (International co-production)

This film, being four hours long and divided in two parts, can seem like hard work. It is also obscure and sexually graphic. (So, it's not for 'philistines' or for anyone prudish it seems...) I have always being fascinated by books and films which are both cerebral and sexual. This is why I love the work of both Georges Bataille and J. G. Ballard as well as the filmography of David Cronenberg. The Gainsbourg, the nymphomaniac, character divulges her experiences to a bookish type. As she does this, her host incongruously makes connections to what he has read. (Her sexual experiences lead to huge sprawling digressions on Bach/counterpoint, fly fishing, Edgar Allan Poe and mountaineering.) As such, because of its temporal breadth, watching this film feels more like reading a novel. I really found the reaction from most critics lame. They were disappointed because they didn't find it 'shocking' enough. What did they expect? Porn?

2. Twelve Years a Slave by Steve McQueen (USA)

This film is high up this list because it is so emotionally stirring and harrowing. Shockingly, it is the first ever film made about the slavery of black people in 19th century USA. McQueen, by providing an endless onslaught of violent and disturbing images, makes you empathise. As such, the film is a resounding success. The film is still slightly problematic. By focusing on the plight of an upper-class, educated black man it might be suggesting that his particular experience is more precious than the experience of millions of other slaves. It might be questioned whether the at times gratuitous violence really is needed to elicit this 'empathy.' (Instead of a more understated, distanced approach.) Still, this is an overwhelming film - with both rich dialogue and ravishing images - and should be mandatory viewing.

1. Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski  (Poland)

Ida is a film which depicts the endurance of faith. A seventeen-year-old orphan, about to become a nun, discovers that she is Jewish. She then meets her aunt - a Stalinist with blood on her hands - to track down the remains of her butchered parents. The eponymous character has the opportunity to take on a bourgeois lifestyle and get married. Instead, she to return to a convent. The film austerely emphasises the sacred and the transcendent in a secular society. It has the deft pacing and masterly cinematographic framing of space of Bresson and Dreyer. It charts the way an ascetic woman discover love, music and loss and, once she has done so, returns to her hermitage to lead a more enriched life.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Why ideology won't die

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a symbolic event. 'The end of history' was proclaimed. Liberal democracy had won the battle of ideas. Following the triumph of laissez-faire capitalism, this economic template would be exported world-wide. It would be pumped into Russia. It would be exported to the Middle East. Latin America would abandon its bloody dictatorships. Following the demise of the Soviet Union - the archetype of radical ideology - we would now live in a de-ideologised global community. There would be less wars. Wealth would trickle down to lower social strata. We would live in an meritocracy where everyone could rise to the top if he worked hard enough for it.

This 'de-ideologising' has spawned more radical ideologies. Its dogmatic belief in everything stated above has engendered a backlash. The naive belief that Russia would be set in the right-direction with unregulated markets and with the NATO treaty has not worked. The apparatchiks of the Soviet era continue to autocratically cling to power. Corruption is rife. Putin has imperial ambitions of his own and this has led to a new cold war. The belief that liberal democracy would easily be transplanted into the middle east has played a part in the shaping of ISIS. There is no way that ISIS  would have claimed so much of Iraq the way they did without the failed state that arose after American mismanagement. ISIS is funded by the gulf states that western countries support. Western countries strengthened them with weaponry in Syria. A lot of ISIS' military gained their acumen in the Iraqi army during the American-led invasion.

Michel Foucault said that power permeates everything. It permeates our institutions etc. The same can be said of ideology. Political legislation has a causal effect on the lives of its citizens. Political decisions are always ideological. In this sense, ideology permeates everything. This is true even if politicians might well have less power than bankers, managers, executives, etc. (Their power is still free market ideology.) Foucault also mentioned that, when a power-structure is toppled by revolution, the structure remains the same. You can't expunge social mores. Just like when the Soviets led their revolution, the bourgeoisie power structures remained. When liberal democracy arrived in Russia, the corruption and exploitation of power remained intact.

'The end of history' and 'de-ideolgisation' are themselves ideological positions. When the EU enforces austerity measures, it's ideology masked as pragmatism. When politicians say that ideology is dead, this just leads to confusion. In fact, using the terms 'left/right' are a very clear and cogent way of demarcating policies. Raising tax rates is generally seen as a more leftist policy. Lowering tax rates is a more right-wing policy. By saying 'I am a centrist - ideology is dead,' it is difficult to pinpoint where exactly a politician stands.

Needless to say, recessions foster extreme ideologies. They sway the public. Across Europe, radical right-wing parties are winning seats in parliaments. In Greece and Spain, leftist parties are winning seats. During years of economic prosperity and stasis, it was taken for granted that anything should be amended. Inequality had increased throughout the 80s and 90s. The market crash seemed unthinkable in the eyes of many. As a result, parties like UKIP and the National Front blame immigration. Marxists take their chance, sell thousands of books and claim that capitalism will soon perish.

The fact remains that utopian visions will always circulate. The martyrs and suicide bombers will continue to enforce their illiberal views and will continue to strive after their 'caliphate' and their ninety virgins. The fact remains that ideology won't die. Sectarianism will continue. The very idea that ideology is dead is, in itself, pure ideology.