Sunday, March 23, 2008

* Yesterday went to the Guggenheim, where Cai Guo-Qiang has taken up nearly the entire space of the museum with seven or eight gigantic pieces. This is not a "review" blog by any means, and certainly not one interested in contemporary art, so let me brief. The successful pieces are not "about" what the plaques and commentaries say they are about. The successful pieces (a stampede of stuffed wolves, a wrecked boat full of broken plates, stuffed tigers with arrows in them, a cascade of cars taking up the empty vertical middle of the museum) are successful insofar as they solve the problem of medium in art. Neither painting, nor sculpture, nor graffiti, nor computer, nor video---the genre is completely uncertain, except for the useless term "installation." Sounds simple enough. But I would go on to say that the unsuccessful pieces are precisely those that dwell too much on medium: clay figures in various states of construction, so that sometimes the wire frame is visible; the scattering of sketches and left-over construction material within the space; a prolonged meditation on gunpowder as a medium. This stuff doesn't work-- gunpowder still has to do *something* when used in lieu of paint. On the other hand, there isn't a whole lot one could do with 80 stuffed wolves that could go wrong, or that could be repeated. One mass stuffed-wolf artwork is probably all we will ever need. Ditto for the boat full of plates. The need to repeatedly employ gunpowder is a weakness of the artist, and not an interesting one. The problematic of medium is only solved when it is presented as solved, not when subjected to a number of works "thinking through" how to employ a medium. Which is all to say, aren't we all tired of the "meta"?

* How does one stand in front of a work of art like Courbet's "Origin of the World?" Essentially a frontal view of a woman's genitalia, "head on" as it were, the artwork is interesting for several reasons. For one, the body appears virtually inanimate. Second, the face is covered. Third, the painting was owned at one point by Jacques Lacan. Fourth, the painting bears a thematic and visual resemblance to Courbet's other series of painting about "origins," those depicting the origins of rivers (usually also pointing towards some sylvan cavern). It is my contention, that in 2008, no one attending the Met will be "shocked" by this painting. Further, that many clichés will be spouted in front of it. Many a dolt will inform their date that it is "strange how unsexual it is," not realizing that they are saying anything about sex itself. Or, on the other hand (but not necessarily out of different mouths!) the contradictory cliché that there is some innate beauty in the female genitalia. This one is particularly tired. For the Greeks, of course, art was a great opportunity to represent male genitals, and this ideal was re-born in, among other works, Michelangelo's David. Only in our pedantic and "sexually liberated" culture has it become fashionable to be squeamish and retarded about how "ugly" male genitals are. The genius of Courbet's painting is to silence all clichés by showing the thing "as it is." The intelligent response can ONLY be, "Well...when you put it that way..." In other words, nothing is idealized and decorated more than the object of sexual desire qua female body. The exposure of and stripping away of these idealizations is simultaneously wildly misogynist (in the "girls are gross" sense), and also very radical. Art, should, at its best, show us what it is we "really" want, and catch us in the act of not-seeing-it-at-first. Nothing can be less productive than imagining that the object of desire (here, woman) is innately this or that (beautiful, sexy). What is interesting is how we come to desire and idealize something that is itself not very appealing, rather than trying to assert (as exemplified in the feminist book Cunt) that there is something mystical and beautiful (Jungian, let's face it) about the feminine. And in this sense Courbet will probably always be ahead of the clichéd bores who treat sex (and therefore beauty) as something we are "born" in relation to.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Why I Don't Trust Anyone

When reissue label Light in the Attic re-released the first two Betty Davis albums last year, they did something very stupid. They only did CDs. Some genius, noticing this, immediately bootlegged the things on vinyl (which I bought). Now, in early 2008, about 10 months after the CDs came out, the label has gotten wise and has pressed the albums on wax (with nicer packaging and bonus 7"s).

For a split second, I thought: "wouldn't it be nice to have these beautifully packaged, legit LPs?" But, you know what? These records actually are not that great. Now, let me tell you my one insight into human nature: everyone thinks the thing that only they know about, or only they have, is much better than it really is. Extremely rare is the "long-lost masterpiece" that lives up to the hype. We were all much more excited about "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" before they, you know, really existed.

Luckily, there is a built-in psychological counter-action to the deflationary effect of finding out something does not live up to its hype. This is the joy of tastemaking: "You've got to hear it!" When something is in the vaults, this enthusiasm belongs to the few; when something finally comes out, we all get to join in. "Is it as good as everyone says?" "Yeah! It's great!"

How am I to tell whether a new discovery is truly great or only marginal? One would think we could rely upon reviews, but this turns out to be the least-reliable sphere of all. What we need is historical perspective and a kind of long-term judgment. It is not accidental that these things are lacking in American culture.

Here's a good write up about the disappointment of hearing Betty Davis' albums re-issued:

"Her music is a lot more fun to read about than listen to."

"She was, point blank, an awful singer."

"The vocals might matter less if the music were consistently inspired. But few of Davis' grooves really stick. Partly you can blame the singer: Davis often ignored the beat entirely."

"Claims that her albums belong in the first rank of the funk pantheon are deluded. Such claims aren't unprecedented, of course. Think of the mid-'90s vogue for exotica, fueled by CD reissues of forgotten kitsch by Esquivel and Les Baxter, or of R&B/rock guitarist Shuggie Otis, who in 1974 made a wan little album called Inspiration Information that was hailed as a lost masterwork by dint of a 2001 reissue on David Byrne's label, Luaka Bop. That Esquivel, Otis, and Davis became their seasons' misguided icons of lost virtue isn't something we should hold against them. Their tepid music, though, is something else."

What I like about this write-up is the historical perspective, which is two-fold: 1) What we might call a canon of funk music, against which Betty Davis can be judged as a quality, and 2) a remembrance of other hyped "lost gems," the fate of which can now be viewed serenely.

The #1 thing that happens in a record store in NYC in 2008 is that someone recommends to me a reissue of a record I was not previously aware of. Some of these records will be fantastic (the Roky Erickson "Evil One" 2xLP), some of them will be just fine (the Betty Davis albums), and some of them I will listen to once and file away (oh how many!).

The point being, we all would rather "discover" a mediocre $18.99 reissue than buy the $3 Stevie Wonder album which towers above it. Myself included. This might be taken as the central question of this blog in its entirety.