Friday, October 12, 2007

Two Questions

1. What do Radiohead and Wes Anderson have in common?
Because this band and this filmmaker not only share an audience, and both have high-profile new releases out now, these are good examples of a common phenomenon that I have noticed. Let's call it the "The Best Art Was Made at Precisely the Moment I First Became Aware of Art Syndrome." In a larger field (of everything coming out) this draws a veil over that art produced *immediately prior* to one perking up one's ears-- a veil that extends backward until the moment when things can be safely seen as canonized. My personal example would be, I have zero interest in hardcore that came out in America between 1986 and 2000. This is famously a "dark ages" of US hardcore, but the famous bands (The Pist, Los Crudos, Talk is Poison, Econochrist, Aus Rotten) are still well-loved, and in a way this period still defines the way American hardcore looks on itself, before the explosion of international influences brought about by Tragedy in the early 2000s, and before the much-lamented "thrash revival." Which is only to say, my "blindspot" corresponds to an actual crappy period of that art form, but I will be the first to assert that I have never been generous to bands who were playing immediately before my interest in hardcore.

That is for an entire field. For the specific career, being encountered as "contemporary," one's age is all-important. The important years for this are like, 16, 22, and 30. When I was 16, Weezer had not yet released their Green Album. Woody Allen was still starring in his own movies, Shania Twain was the biggest thing in the world, etc.

So, I saw Rushmore in theaters when I was 15 (the same age as the main character). This seems a completely different experience from seeing Darjeeling Limited when I am 24, or renting Bottle Rocket and watching it alone at my parent's house when I was 17. In a way, then, I don't care (although I will still ask) what someone's favorite Wes Anderson movie is. But it is no different from asking how old they are (unless, which is so rare, one thinks that a person has real taste).

I haven't cared about Radiohead since I was 17. I bought (and was very excited about) Kid A but not Amnesiac (six months later). I don't know the songs off that later album, I've never really heard it, and I certainly have not heard their 2003 album. And although I think that "they suck," if their records prior-to-my-being-17 came on, I would probably not mind at all. But, because I could never hear their subsequent albums with any kind of anticipation (ie: patience), it is unlikely I will ever sit through a latter-day Radiohead song with any kind of attention.

That is just to add to the list of ways that opinions and taste have none of the absolute or *even* "subjective" force we like to imagine. One doesn't like these films or records based on the quality of those things, but rather overwhelmingly as a factor of the time when one encountered them.

(This applies only to contemporary careers. Something like On the Road, encountered retrospectively, must be read at the age of 15, but posthumous reputation has a vaccinating effect; we know what not to read, we know which are the most famous works, the manner of appreciation has already been codified.)

2. Where does bourgeois appreciation draw the line in an artist's career?
Now, in direct but not substantive contradiction to what I just said, I want to argue that the white educated bourgeois is always willing to draw a line in an artist's career--not with respect to the age of the audience, but concerning experimentation.

Take this example: the phenomenon of "Banned Books Week," "Banned Books" tables at Barnes and Noble, where banned books are valorized as heroic, righteous, challenging, sophisticated, forward-looking, etc. No one today would think of banning Madame Bovary. Nonetheless, books are banned every day in America, usually by prudish Christians in middle-American school districts, without having read said books.

This hypocrisy, applied to an artist's career, means that an earlier work that has been assimilated will always be canonized before difficult, "later" work. The best example is John Coltrane, whose Giant Steps and A Love Supreme are highly rated and coffee-shop favorites, but the line is drawn when he "starts to get really weird." See the new Ben Ratliff book on Coltrane, "The Evolution of a Sound," for a great analysis of the reception of Coltrane's later albums.

This also manifests in tropes about "maturity" and "development" of an aesthetic. Like, when you see Metallica's Black Album rated higher than their thrash metal albums, as if the effort that went into dumbing down their complex and technical metal into simple butt-rock was "maturity" itself.

So, Ulysses but not Finnegan's Wake. Kind of Blue but not Jack Johnson. La Dolce Vita but not Juliet of the Spirits.

Or, to make my point explicit (regarding the bourgeois), any black recording artist prior to making any political statement unfavorable to white people, but *not* the same artist afterwards (they're so extreme!). Cf: Lauryn Hill.

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