Michael Chance and the Ruin of Man

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Many of the figures in Michael Chance’s recent show have a stuttering, hesitant quality. Painted with harsh square strokes and often thickly outlined, they are not relaxed in or fully inhabiting their bodies, but instead oddly tensed, or perhaps captured creaking in transit. The elongated, crumpling legs of the figure in ‘Pity’ are caught in a moment between standing and collapse. With its flatfootedness, shortened stride, and hunched shoulders, the figure in ‘Please Take Me Back’ appears pitiably geriatric, its limbs momentarily locked as a hand gropes for a nearby railing.

Therein lies a marked difference between the bodies of men and those of women as painted by Chance in his ominously titled show The Ruin of Man: male bodies seem comprised of rigid pieces, sometimes barely being held together, whereas female bodies have a sense of wholeness and vitality, as exemplified by the stretching, curved figure in ‘She Woke’.

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Elsewhere, a complimentary dynamic is illustrated in ‘Nudes from Nowhere’: the male figure sits, hunched into a ball with its back to us, head bowed as if acquiescing to the portent of mankind’s ruin. To its right, a voluptuous female figure dances, rendered in vibrant red as if to conjure Matisse’s dancers. This image offers an easy introduction to Chance’s commentary on the downfall of dominant masculinity, wherein our attention is not drawn to a hackneyed idealisation of ‘the feminine form’ but instead to the relative decline and irrelevance of the male.

In the context of the often elliptical and obfuscating titles attached to many similar shows, it’s surprising how all the paintings in The Ruin of Man relate directly to the evidence for, and permutations of, such a declaration of doom. We have scenes of emotional devastation, such as the anguished facial close-up of ‘Exit’; a depiction of bodily decrepitude in the aforementioned ‘Please Take Me Back’; and a suggestion of ecological disaster in ‘Venus, or Mars?’, a vision of the iconic armless sculpture against a scorched landscape billowing with distant smoke, its head blackened. Something has gone terribly wrong with the way in which mankind is living and this manifests in a breakdown of relationships: with our bodies, with each other, and with nature.

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The differing presentations of male and female bodies here adds a more hopeful aspect to this show and goes some way to tempering all this Anthropocene angst. The small square canvas ‘Ushering Out the Old’, the image with which this show has been advertised, makes literal what was suggested by the contrasting figures in ‘Nudes from Nowhere’. With a gesture that is tender yet decisive, a female figure rests her hand on a shoulder to guide away a male figure made representative of wider masculinity by his white shirt and bald pate. Her presence as a female nude initially seems to jar with the message here but is possibly best interpreted as an advocacy for averting the male gaze, given that she is turning the male figure away. In this respect, we can also consider the ‘old’ in art historical terms, bound up with who is given licence to look.

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This ushering of an era to its end is clearly something in which Chance is personally invested. He reflects upon his own complicity as a young white man and perhaps his unsuitably to see this story through, painting himself into the left panel of the Blake-inspired, revealingly titled ‘Transition’ triptych as if already prepared to step aside.

In his detailed notes for the show, presented in a small accompanying book, he elaborates upon the links in his work between toxic masculinity and the toxification of the natural environment, indicting unchecked male power for tainting everything it touches. He argues against what he claims is a spurious duality, perpetuated by centuries of patriarchy, between humanity and ‘nature’ (here specified as the local and global ecology). His proposed corrective is nothing new: a renewed focus on empathetic understanding figured in similar terms to the notion of ‘fellow feeling’ put forward by such Victorian social problem novelists as George Eliot. There exists in Chance’s writing a disconcerting equation of such ‘feeling’ with femininity, thereby reinforcing one long-standing binary in the course of attempting to defeat another. His thoughts on the positive alternative presented by traditions of eastern mysticism also lack any reflection upon his limited qualifications to make such wide-ranging (and outdated) assumptions.

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Chance is evidently still grappling with his own place in this debate, compelled to speak out but thwarted by the knowledge that his voice is not necessarily the one that needs to be heard right now. The most accomplished piece here chooses to approach the show’s themes in stranger, dreamier terms. His ‘Penitent’ (pictured directly above) is a tribute to Degas mixed with a personal memory of washing his mother’s feet in the family’s living room. The rich earthy hues, against glowing fleshtones and strokes of brilliant white, situate the scene simultaneously in a painterly parallel universe and in the ‘groundedness’ of domestic life, the latter exemplified by the poised cat, mug of tea and television remotes. The whole effect is intimate, macabre, and humourous, given an added sense of playful spectacle by the kneeling figure’s conical headgear – conjuring both Ken Russell’s The Devils and the Silent Hill video games – and the parade of similarly attired musicians heralding his act of devotion. The complex interrelations of these elements suggest a fruitful direction for a painter very much searching for his own place amidst the ruins. Ω

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Imagining an Art Show by Katharina Grosse

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Green and red break out like a bruise where two walls meet the ceiling. A knotted rainbow creeps close to the floor, rising into a vivid pink wave. Windows of blinding white are cut from a cloud of gauzy blue. Thick mauve smoke billows from a furnace of brilliant red.

The latest full-room painting by Katharina Grosse finds many ways to celebrate the raw thrill of colour, filling the Main Gallery at the SLG in Camberwell with an array of experiments and exaltations. It’s the play with surface and depth that makes this show so involving; the hard lines that hugged the edges of stencils appear doubly sharp against mists of subtly morphing shades, producing some striking effects that pay tribute to both abstract expressionism and street art.

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These techniques have been developed from Grosse’s works on a similar scale and from her use of stencils on smaller canvases. This latest piece, a painting-as-installation named This Drove my Mother Up the Wall, is like a performance in paint that demonstrates all of her skills and tricks, a kind of greatest hits. Without some of the materials she’s involved in previous works – whether heaped stones, huge balloons, or felled trees – there’s an evident confidence in just how she has approached this interior. In one rare concession to the practical demands of the building, a boxy bright red fire alarm stands out from a murky purpling swathe – but even this appears like a stray fizzing ember, an effective and humorous addition to this exercise in responding to space. The painter is at once an illusionist, an opportunist, and a vandal.

It’s upstairs, in the First Floor Gallery, where we witness a different insight into Grosse’s approach to space. In the short documentary simply titled Women Artists (2016, dir. Claudia Müller), she talks through her ideal exhibition of women artists working today, speaking plainly to camera whilst in her studio and explaining her dream selection of artists and which pieces would represent them. It’s a straightforward concept given some visual intrigue by Grosse’s miniaturised versions of the works selected, each of which she positions in a diorama until the full show has taken shape.

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What’s interesting here is that the gallery space itself, as imagined by Grosse, is the kind of dilapidated, borderline bomb-site that you’ll find simulated any number of degree shows or fashion shoots. The piled rubble, toppled plinths and monolithic stonework add up to a crumbled, post-apocalyptic aesthetic that we’ve seen many times before. The askew television, plunged corner-first into a mound of rubbish, looks close to parody. Why has Grosse chosen to place the works of her favourite artists in a setting that seemingly conforms to such a prominent convention?

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Could it be something to do with the art of salvage, or rather the salvaging of art, in the context of a culture that may not fully appreciate the value of making or expressing something? If so, it’s a dubious sentiment, considering that it rests on assumptions made about art, ‘non-art’, and mainstream culture as wreckage that have been in wide circulation since, at the very least, the early twentieth-century.

Perhaps it’s more to do with salvaging art made by those who may otherwise be marginalised; this is an imagined show in which all the exhibitors are women, something that is certainly not unusual but that is at least historically uncommon. By placing surrogates of their works in the ruins of the traditional (male-dominated) gallery space, the new has risen from the ashes of the old or outdated. Yet this is a well-worn conceit and one that is employed heavy-handedly.

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There could be something more nuanced happening, something to do with ideas of inheritance and transition. Grosse is an established figure who has exhibited worldwide and held positions at the Art Academy Berlin-Weissensee and, since 2010, the Düsseldorf Art Academy. She has the platform to give greater exposure to other, sometimes lesser-known artists, to now provide a patronage that has long been available to men in the art world. The diorama in Müller’s film is perhaps less ruin than site of regeneration, as Grosse imagines a gallery space that provides the soil for future flourishing – not so much bomb-site as thriving plot.

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Consider again the title of the show downstairs and the eponymous ‘mother’ to whom Grosse refers by way of groan-worthy pun. Employing an idiom that evokes exasperation from a parent, she could be commenting upon the length of time it’s taken for ‘artist’, or specifically ‘painter’, to be considered a respectable vocation – for her individually, even as a long-time practitioner, or more widely for women in general. Or the ‘mother’ could be more literally driven up the wall by Grosse, being paint – or the practice of painting – itself, a progenitor who is celebrated in this mural for her infinite variety.

This Drove my Mother Up the Wall is at the South London Gallery in Camberwell until 3 December 2017.

Jonathan Jones Existential Question Time

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Just as the opportunity to (again) berate an anonymous graffiti artist for making attention-grabbing, disposable work seems like too much of an open goal, it’s almost unethically easy to pick the holes in another hysterical column by Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones.

But then again, he’s always coming up with the goods, so why not afford him some attention?

Jones’s polemic against Banksy last week was his reaction to the notoriously anonymous Bristolian’s ‘Balloon Girl’ – a simple, stencilled image that first appeared in 2002 on the side of a bridge on London’s South Bank – having just usurped Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’ by being voted the nation’s ‘favourite artwork’.

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Jones is an outspoken opponent of what he alleges that Banksy and their popularity represents; some quick Googling will reveal that Jones checks in pretty much annually to pick up where he left off, much as he has done with (the admittedly more visibly ubiquitous) Grayson Perry. The nature of his complaint? That the viewing public are being duped into appreciating works that display a lack of effort, an absence of passion, and that therefore do not qualify as being ‘art’ at all.

Jones’s critique of Banksy has, by now, completed the bingo-card of reactionary tropes. In 2007, he called Banksy’s work ‘art for people who think that artists are charlatans’, representing a rise of the ‘philistines’. When assessing the newly opened Dismaland ‘bemusement park’ in 2015, he quipped on the irony ‘that one of the most famous critics of the way we live now is nothing more than a media-savvy cultural entrepreneur’. Now, in this latest fit of spleen, he calls Banksy a propagandist who makes ‘art for the media age’, whatever that is supposed to mean, alluding to Twitter like an exasperated parent who has tried using a smartphone only to give up.

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And this is why Jones’s broader critical argument is worthy of interrogation rather than just being dismissed out of hand. Of course, he’s entitled to whatever opinion he has of Banksy, or for that matter any artist who quickly produces straightforward, sloganeering work that is designed to be instantly and almost universally understood. It’s another thing, though, to be continually berating public, or popular, tastes and using the success of Banksy or Grayson Perry as evidence of declining standards – or even ‘stupidity’, as the headline wails.

The header image of a young woman snapping a copy of the chart-topping Banksy on her phone puts it all out there: these are the kind of people who are apparently ruining art. Jones begins by bringing in John Ruskin as the Virgil to his intrepid pilgrim, quoting the eminent Victorian’s views on public ‘stupidity’. He’d previously invoked Ruskin in his October 2016 tirade against Perry and is perhaps unaware that, be repeatedly doing so, he is aligning himself with the kind of high-cultural scare-mongering that emboldened the twentieth-century’s ugliest campaigns of hatred against the great unwashed masses (see John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, amongst many others). Perry himself is problematic as a finger-wagger, but at least he seems to carefully consider questions of audience.

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The underside of the question that Jones ask – do artworks like Banksy’s ‘Balloon Girl’ deserve their popularity? – is surely, “Do the public deserve to have access to art, given that they are unlikely to appreciate it?” To frame this, as he does in this article, within the current political climate of far-right populism, presenting it as a defence of values in the age of Trump and fake news, smacks of cynical opportunism.

It’s not just that Jones fears for the future of art and its audience, but that, like all good reactionaries, he fears philistinism will lead to rampant iconoclasm, the destruction of Western art’s heritage and the corruption of all culture. In this article, he supports his argument by lambasting the recent production of Twelfth Night by the Globe’s outgoing creative director Emma Rice, which features a Luhrmann-esque cavalcade of drag queens and disco dancers against the buttoned-down backdrop of the Thatcher era. He yokes the advent of such a liberal adaptation to the work to the rise of Banksy, ‘that night at the Globe’ similarly exhibiting ‘no effort’ in creative terms. But again, it’s less about the work itself than the implication of a heathen public that has apparently demanded it; Jones does nothing less than refer to Nuremberg, bundling in art-poll-voters and casual theatre-goers with Nazi book-burners.

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These are the same old anxieties about public taste and popularity as those in the age of Ruskin, the mid-twentieth century, and pretty much every period to varying extents. It’s re-stating the obvious, but just because something has proven popular that doesn’t mean that all other ‘good art’ has been supplanted and is now at risk of erasure. The rise and rise of pop music in the 1960s was much-maligned by cultural critics, cutely exemplified by Sean Connery’s rug-chested, woman-slapping Bond quipping about the allegedly unlistenable Beatles in 1964’s Goldfinger; now the Fab Four couldn’t be more enshrined in the canon, more exhaustively pored over by historians and theorists. And, crucially, their success did not wipe the cultural landscape of Handel, Elgar, etc.

Nevertheless, Jones sees the triumph of Banksy’s ‘Balloon Girl’ over Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’, previous holder of the top-spot in the nation’s affections, as hugely significant. Jones is suggesting that some kind of artistic spirit is being lost, named in this article as the spirit of ‘punk’; this is disingenuous on so many levels that it’s best to keep this brief. Jones enthusiastically quotes lyrics by Paul Weller, whilst suggesting early punk pioneers viewed pop music as trash. This is the same Paul Weller who made his name with two-/three-minute verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs; who was influenced by the most bucolic tendencies of the Beatles and the Kinks; who, when choosing his favourite records in a 2015 interview, praised Nick Drake’s album Bryter Layter because it ‘just has great pop songs’.

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If Jones really was the student of punk that he claims, he’d know that punk music was partly an attempt to return song-writing to the finding of a single kernel of an idea expressed in the most direct and unembellished way possible. Punk was a reaction to the excesses of the mid-1970s. The Ramones in particular were unashamedly keen to revive a pre-Beatles simplicity encapsulated by early girl groups and rock ‘n’ rollers, when music was about escaping teenage boredom by dreaming about cars and mildly perilous misadventure.

It’s evident that Jones is flailing for anything to support his prophecies of imminent cultural dereliction. But what of the poll that re-ignited Jones’s ire and spawned this latest article? Jones doesn’t reveal this detail, but a quick search confirms that the offending list of Britain’s favourite artworks was voted for by just 2,000 people, who were asked to choose their top 5 from a shortlist chosen by arts writers including broadsheet columnists. The survey itself was commissioned for the launch of a Samsung television, dubbed ‘The Frame’, that camouflages itself as a work of art when turned off.

How can such a display of reactionary ire as Jones’s therefore be anything other than manufactured? This article says less about the state of art than it does about the condition of art criticism, for Jones is surely one of the greatest proponents of clickbait in his field; wait for breaking arts ‘news’ to wind him up and watch him go. This is Jeremy Clarkson with high culture pretensions. And this kind of backward-looking hectoring is exactly what provides the cultural underpinning of the kind of political conservatism that Jones himself decries. He would do better to consider culture and creativity within its many contexts, rather than fretting over what is and isn’t art-with-a-capital-A. Ω

 

Vince Staples and the Art of Not Talking

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In her 1965 essay On Style, the critic Susan Sontag asserted that, ‘A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something.’

Throughout the essay, Sontag makes clear her frustration that such an assertion – accompanied by reminders that characters in fictional narrative are not real but part of ‘imaginary landscapes’ – should still need to be made in modern times. Over fifty years later, the West Coast rapper Vince staples seems similarly irked that he should have to make this point and defend his reluctance to justify his work.

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Staples likens his records to works that, once they are made available to a curious public, are left for the viewer to interpret and assume responsibility for, given the inevitability that ‘everybody’s trying to put themselves in someone else’s picture’.

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Staples evidently likes to describe his work as a musician in terms of visual art: ‘I look at an album like an art exhibit, it’s like a solo show […] you put them on the wall, and people gawk at it. That’s the point of an art show. Now, when you see art on the wall, it’s [coming with] two to three things at the most. It has an artist’s name, the name of the piece, when it was created […] Some things have explanation. Most things don’t. So my question would be: Why, in music, is there a need for the artists to explain?’

It seems to be that the pressure to explain and justify one’s work is a problem particular to rappers; if their work references past experiences with violence or drug abuse, they are above all expected to moralise. It’s as if the anxiety persists, thirty years on from the moral panic surrounding N.W.A., that any representation of such experiences without explicit moral judgement by the artist/s themselves equates to glorification.

There’s evidence that this pressure is keenly felt by contemporary rap artists. Even the highly idiosyncratic indie darling Danny Brown, on the final track of his brilliantly experimental 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition, rounds off his narrative of life-threatening excess by proffering the (rather eighteenth-century) caution that, ‘I lived through that shit / So you don’t have to go through it.’ In other words, heed his warning. We can speculate as to whether this eleventh-hour underlining of the album’s moral position by Brown eased critics’ minds enough that it was afforded almost universal acclaim.

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It’s arguable that the demand for justification is being made on behalf of the white audiences who, in Staples words, are there to ‘gawk’ at the work of black artists. An apology for the scenes and behaviour depicted in rap lyrics, ideally with assurance that the rapper in question is now adopting a persona that they are now sufficiently distanced from, may be helping to assuage the anxiety of white listeners that their entertainment involves eavesdropping on the culture of an often radically different socio-economic situation.

Vince Staples’ lyrics frequently reference a youth spent in the Crips and the experience of growing up in Ramona Park, Long Beach. His debut full-length Summertime ’06 (2015) paired his deadpan yet highly elastic drawl with chilly sonics to create a pervasive sense of unease. In the starkly monochromatic video that accompanied ‘Norf Norf’, Staples is bustled through the various stages of police custody and eventual imprisonment, his alleged crime never alluded to, his unwavering glare his only response to his situation. That aesthetic should have been enough to convey to listeners the complex relationship that Staples has with his past, but still the questions kept coming – in Staples words, usually to the effect of: ‘I heard you just put out an album, but what’s it like to be in a street gang?’

It’s significant that several reviewers approached Summertime ’06 as reportage from a correspondent whose jadedness evidenced a sufficient distance from the experiences that he was relating. Framing the album as an unflinching despatch from somewhere akin to a warzone mitigated against fears of rubbernecking by positioning Staples as a correspondent or chronicler of something that now required the attention of broadsheet-readers.

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Following the release of his second full-length, titled Big Fish Theory, Staples is clearly wary of being asked once again to feed interviewers and critics with his assessment of past misdemeanours. Perhaps the anxiety persists around Staples to such an extent because the music itself is so immediately alluring; Summertime ’06 was often stripped-down and snakingly funky, whilst Big Fish Theory finds him embracing danceable house production and paying tribute to Chicago footwork. Above all, Staples flow is effortlessly flexible, stretching and bouncing irresistibly from bar to bar. Sontag reminded her readers that, ‘Art is seduction […] But art cannot seduce without the complicity of the experiencing subject.’ The fear of seduction by a black ex-gang member may be sending critics and audiences scrambling once again for reassurance from Staples that his troubled past, and his current pain, are being explored at a safe critical remove.

It seems that with Big Fish Theory and the surrounding promotional material – including album art, photoshoots, and videos – Staples is attempting to create a coherence of imagery and metaphor that will prove sufficiently self-explanatory that he will finally be left alone. The titular ‘big fish’ is a ubiquitous metaphor for elevated social status, whilst the title of first track ‘Crabs in a Bucket’ makes explicit his concerns with the microcosm of rap fame and the disquieting feeling of being treated a specimen for analysis. Such a strong internal continuity of lyrical metaphor and accompanying visuals – the video for single ‘Big Fish’ simply has Staples delivering his verses from a boat out at sea – has already done much of the interpretative work for his listeners. The imagery is arresting, and the promo material for his ‘Life Aquatic’ tour has been amusing, but one hopes that Staples isn’t being increasingly railroaded into spelling-out or critic-proofing his work.

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Despite having created one of the most coherent and distinctive aesthetics in the rap world, it seems as if Tyler, the Creator is next in line to explain himself. With leaked lyrics from his upcoming album Scum Fuck Flower Boy being interpreted as Tyler coming out of the closet, suddenly there’s a renewed expectation for Tyler to justify previous lyrical slurs (including, but not limited to, his use of ‘faggot’) in light of this revelation.

Whilst the use of such insults cannot be condoned, it’s disappointing to see that publications such as High Snobiety have taken such a censorious tone with this story, rather than considering the highly cartoonish, grotesque and highly ironic aesthetic that Tyler has spent years cultivating and placing this new information within the context of an artist who has always tried to provoke. Indeed, the Odd Future collective of which Tyler is the de facto leader is characterised in large part by its queering of hip-hop culture, and includes amongst its members Frank Ocean and Syd the Kid (of The Internet and more recently solo fame). Tyler himself has made repeated references to being closeted and attempting to come out, and perhaps the difficulties of this are represented in the most confrontational and subversive aspects of his work.

Nevertheless, there will likely be a retrospective demand for Tyler to have been a spokesperson rather than simply an artist who makes challenging and often deliberately ugly music. It all speaks of a disquieting demand for black artists to represent as opposed to simply create, a symptom perhaps of an entertainment industry unable to shake the current anxieties around identity politics. Ω

 

Window on the Post-human World

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Train stations and car parks lay deserted under heavy grey skies.  Shopping centres stand silent and empty, littered with the plastic debris of better times.

The new film from Nikolaus Geyrhalter begins as an exploration of abandoned human-made structures, an essay on how changing times quickly render the sites of social and economic life obsolete. But it is soon apparent that something else is at work here; widely categorised as a ‘documentary’, Homo Sapiens (2016) is constructed entirely of long, fixed-position shots of real-world locations, yet the cumulative effect of its sequencing and rhythm invites the kind of speculations that concern science-fiction, revealing the undeniable intent of its grandly enigmatic title.

With no narration, no music, no human voice to mediate the visuals, we are confronted by the question: What will the post-human world look like? Or, more specifically, what will the world we have made look like once we are no longer here to live in it. No argument as to the reasons for human absence or extinction is posed by the sequence of images that unfolds on screen. Instead, a world no longer populated by humans is simply posited as fact, an inevitability requiring no further explanation or context that we can then reassuringly regard as avoidable. One way or another, this will eventually happen.

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Such cues as Japanese signage or former Soviet symbols may contextualise many of the earlier scenes, inviting consideration of specifics by the audience, but very soon the shattered interiors and crumbling structures come to stand for all their kind. It’s irrelevant where the uniformly blank bowling alley is, or the half-dismantled cinema, because they confirm simply that there is no longer such a thing as leisure as shaped by consumer capitalism, just as there is no entertainment, no art. Places charged with a social significance, or with a certain cultural prestige, are no longer such in a post-human world and decompose just the same as everything else. One is reminded of the meticulous scale models made by artist Lori Nix, depicting derelict museums, galleries, and libraries as heaps of objects and signs shorn of all context by human absence.

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There is a startling pathos roused by the sight of VHS cassettes scattered across a floor, or the meaninglessness of folders full of paper curling and yellowing on rows of metal shelving as the wind rattles through. Elsewhere, the reinforced door of a vault has swung open, its contents no longer protected. Most provocatively, cabinets full of computer servers have fallen into severe disrepair, exposing the equipment to damage and disintegration. The notion of posterity and preservation is rendered an ultimate fallacy, having never been anything more than a delusion.

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Homo Sapiens does not show the audience anything that is recognisably a representation of a person in an image or artwork. Artefacts and remnants clutter each frame, with the only memorable effigy being that of a huge pink cartoon mouse slumped in a shopping plaza, one eye missing and mouldering. Divided into unnamed sections by intermittent cuts to black, the film is organised not by the functions of human-made environments, but by the wider ecological environments that have reasserted themselves. There are recognisable phases throughout the 90-minute runtime in which a particular ecology provides the structuring motif: the incursion of plants breaking back into a concrete landscape; the constant streaming of rainwater through cracked edifices; the howl of the wind through windows; the crash of the waves; the devouring storms of sand and, finally, snow.

The film’s sequencing conveys a gradual trailing off of human presence. Early scenes that could have been snapshots of a dreary weekend have given way to images of human-made structures being swallowed whole by powerful elemental forces; what began as the abandonment and dereliction of our constructed world has culminated in its erasure. This progression is accompanied by the steady heightening of diegetic sound from scene to scene. The Dolby Atmos sound fixes our attention first on the dripping of rainwater that binds together the early passages and later the thrum of trapped flies. The warble of pigeons lends a certain continuity near the middle of the film, climaxing in the spectacle of birds divebombing through the top of an enormous dome through which the sunlight pours; they swoop in, rattle around, and each in their own time escape. The cumulative effect is a sense of reclamation by natural forces. The first time we glimpse the sea, waves rolling and crashing in the distance, is a genuinely bracing, even shocking moment as we are brought to the very edge of the world.

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As a piece of filmmaking, Homo Sapiens is a distinct experience that requires a specific attentiveness from its audience and in doing so encourages certain emotional effects. The symmetry of the interiors suggests that we are to study each scene closely, like investigators. But symmetry in cinema is also insistently terrifying, something that Kubrick knew well, its precision inducing a nervous state of alert in which any disruption becomes acutely distressing.

Because Geyrhalter’s camera never moves, only travelling via hard cuts to other locations, his approach can seem cold and dispassionate, but what he taps into is our broader cultural investment in the morbid spectacle of imagining ourselves gone, that tension between aching sadness and incomparable thrill. By fixing his camera and refusing to direct the viewer through the film’s various scenes, Geyrhalter allows us to get caught up in the ebb and flow of our reactions as one moment we are soothed by relative peace and the next we are profoundly, uncannily on edge.

The very nature of watching the film as a theatrical release plays with the idea, the appeal, of having no-one around. Watching Homo Sapiens in a place where the careful sound design that immerses us in the tiny details of background noise is routinely intruded upon by the shuffling, whispering, and chewing that usually, inaudibly, accompanies any film screening invites us to consider our relationship to others in the spaces that have been built for our congregation – caught between the reassurance of human presence and the morbid speculation upon a peaceful world without it. Ω

‘Elle’ and the Unreliable Protagonist

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“There are two things I shall never do in my life,” asserts the Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi, “One is make political movies and the other thing is delivering messages through cinema. Messages are not valid any more, these days. Our films should ask questions rather than have messages or give answers.”

In this interview appearing in the i daily paper last week, the journalist Kaleem Aftab does go on to clarify the particular situation facing directors in Iran, that ‘he or she must continually dance a line between what can or cannot be done’ or face prosecution and likely imprisonment.

Asghar Farhadi, courtesy of kustendorf-filmandmusicfestival.org

Asghar Farhadi, courtesy of kustendorf-filmandmusicfestival.org

Nevertheless, Farhadi’s telling reference to ‘these days’ gestures towards a larger concern with a contemporary cultural situation in which polarized politics, distrust in unfamiliar voices, and a crisis of empathy has made it increasingly difficult for artists and storytellers to be seen and heard beyond a certain audience.

To clarify what is meant by ‘messages’ and their invalidity in cinema, Farhadi (in the statement quoted above) has added a partial definition as being the giving of ‘answers’ and in doing so suggested a turn away from didacticism towards ambiguity and moral complexity. Put simply, it is not enough for cinema to preach to the converted; instead, it must continually ‘ask questions’ and challenge its audience.

Few films over the past year have challenged audiences quite like Elle, the latest and most sophisticated provocation from director Paul Verhoeven.

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Elle is a film full of questions that offers few, if any, answers. On the one hand, it is a film about urgent contemporary subjects: gender politics, sexual violence, and victimhood. A one-sentence synopsis of the film does not do it justice, but serves to lay out the terrain that Verhoeven and lead actress Isabelle Huppert traverse with devilish skill: Elle is the story of Michèle, a successful businesswoman who is attacked and raped in her Paris home and the events that unfold across the following days and weeks.

The event of Michèle’s rape by a masked assailant in her own home foregrounds the entire narrative, constituting as it does the jarring first scene following a long and somewhat opulent title sequence. The indelible image of that opening scene is the lingering close-up of her cat watching the attack whilst we hear her cries and the commotion of the struggle.

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And yet the scenes that follow emit a chilly, unnerving calm; having swept up the broken glass and debris from her floor and bathed away the blood between her legs, Michèle orders takeout for her adult son’s visit later that evening before swiftly returning to work and navigating the numerous vexatious relationships in her everyday professional and familial lives. Elle quickly reveals itself not as a thriller or revenge pic, but instead more of a bourgeoisie comedy of manners, a chic continental melodrama. And it’s genuinely funny, which only adds to the engrossing sense of unease.

As such, we the audience are constantly on guard on Michèle’s behalf. The film’s opening was too shocking, too loaded with significance to not provide the defining context for later events – but what will those events be? What significance? The longer we watch Michèle sashay through her high-functioning Parisian lifestyle, one eye looking over her shoulder yet curiously unruffled, the stronger the sensation that we are, gruesomely, waiting for something to happen. There are potential dangers everywhere, particularly in her workplace where unwholesome male attention is characterised as either blithely aggressive, in the case of a bullish young colleague who confronts her during a company meeting, or creepily smitten, as typified by a boyish designer who has been stockpiling images of her for extracurricular use. Is she almost inviting trouble when she declares to a roomful of colleagues, “le patron, c’est moi”?

We cannot forget that opening scene, the masked assailant, and as such are teased with just how lightly the whodunnit element is treated in the circumstances – not only by the narrative, but by Michèle herself, who may sleep with a hammer and try her hand at a shooting range, but who generally seems determined to continue her life as usual.

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How can she remain so composed? Should she not be traumatised or profoundly changed in some way? Could it be that she was already desensitized to violence? It’s a rare thing for a film to make its audience quite so hyper-aware that they are judging every move that the protagonist makes. At the same time, she is not a protagonist passively awaiting judgement or propelled by a plot, but instead she is the most active player in a narrative ostensibly about victimisation.

As an audience we are goaded into continually re-evaluating Michèle’s behaviour and reactions. She confounds expectations by refusing to act in accordance with the generic conventions of female victim narratives; her appetite for sex, most strikingly, is undiminished and perhaps even enhanced, as when she attempts to seduce her neighbour at a dinner party where his wife is also present. She is capable of being incredibly cruel to those close to her, even if her naïve dolt of a son and her vacuous, needy mother are both presented as exasperating figures in wearying need of continual correction. It is apparent that Michèle wants to live life and not be defined by her experience of violence or the imposition of others’ needs.

Rather than using rape as a plot device to instantly recruit audience sympathy in service of a victim/revenge/‘woman scorned’ narrative, Verhoeven masterminds a more complex situation in which the audience are asked to confront their assumptions about how women are expected to react to violence and particularly sexual violence. A past master of employing hyper-ironic aesthetics (see Starship Troopers and Showgirls), he adopts in Elle the continental stylings of a visually lavish comedy of manners, challenging us to regard a woman’s reaction to rape as a matter of social decorum – one that is upended by Michèle’s highly idiosyncratic and sometimes downright unlikeable behaviour.

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A conventional ‘message’ or ‘issue’ film would get the audience on board with the protagonist and ask them to identify with and agree with them. Elle is not so superficially righteous because Verhoeven has, presciently, never been interested in agreeability, favouring instead a gaudy and ironized postmodernism wherein the audience are forced to confront their own threshold for poor taste. Without the exploding bodies and outlandish effects of his previous, more genre-orientated work, that confrontational aspect to Elle is focussed entirely on the shifting interpersonal dynamics and the unreliable protagonist at its centre.

This would not be possible without the virtuoso performance of Isabelle Huppert.  She is shrewd, stylish and compelling throughout; one moment she is impossibly arch, conveying so much with a glare or a flick of an eyebrow, and the next she is broiling with conflicting emotions to magnetic effect. The astonishing control of Huppert’s performance only adds to the sense of unease. Speaking in praise of Huppert, Verhoeven has declared, “No American actress would take on such an amoral movie.” In casting a screen icon, Verhoeven has added another complication: do we feel more attached to Huppert, and therefore more vengeful on her behalf? Or are we more willing to accept her as an outlier or ‘special case’ who we can assume will look after herself?

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Huppert’s performance certainly furthers the case that Michèle does not need looking after and we could therefore infer a message from the film that, in society’s eyes, acts of violence perpetrated against women should not come to define them. Anthony Lane has written in The New Yorker that through her actions Michèle is “rebuking a society that would like to regard her as nothing but helpless prey” and that in her performance of the character Huppert is showing us “how to stand up for yourself in style.”

Yet this film does not trivialise the everyday threats of violence towards women; Michèle is living in a dangerous world. The pervasiveness of male entitlement is woven into the film, whether it be Michèle’s ex-husband only finally apologising for hitting her because he’s in a mood to reconnect after his own breakup, or the married man with whom she’s having an affair pressuring her into sex despite knowing that she has only recently been assaulted. These are brief instances, never emphasised but unmistakeably there. The male characters are invariably slaves to their weaknesses; Michèle may freely admit to being an opportunist, but they seem unable to help themselves.

Elle remains an amoral film because nobody, Michèle included, can be adjudged to have emerged in the right. There is no message and no answer. Elle is not a film that massages an existing moral position, rather a film that asks – demands, even – the audience to reflect on their conditioned responses to narrative and reject their assumptions about how people will or should act. Much has been made of the unreliable narrators proliferating on television in this golden age of high-end serialized drama, but what Elle gives us is an unreliable protagonist, someone free from the designation of storyteller, arbiter, or authority figure. It’s crucial in a post-truth cultural moment that the question posed by the unreliability of a protagonist is not, “Who do you trust?”, but instead, “Who are you to judge?” Ω

Self and Other in Beauvoir’s Wartime Diary

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‘underlying everything, and before me, an incomprehensible horror.’

Simone de Beauvoir’s Journal de guerre, documenting the period September 1939 to January 1941, caused a stir upon its publication in 1990, four years after her death. Commenced on 1st September 1939 as France was mobilizing to meet the German invasion, Beauvoir’s wartime diary opens with a similar confluence of political and personal strife to such other contemporary diaries as Stephen Spender’s September Journal (1939): faced with the imminence of war and her separation from Jean-Paul Sartre, she can see only disaster ahead, her fate and that of France locked together in a downward-spiralling dance that threatens to destroy any possible future.

The aforementioned posthumous stir was provoked by revelations as to precisely how open her relationship with fellow philosopher and novelist Sartre really was, intersecting as it did with their passionate attachments and affairs with Jacques Bost, Olga Kosakievitch, and Wanda Kosakievitch. Yet the disarmingly direct writing of the wartime diary is about so much more than simply the complicated love lives of two French literary icons. Predating Beauvoir’s metaphysical novel She Came to Stay (1943) and The Ethics of Ambiguity (1946), the text of the diary, and the performative act of its very writing, marks a transformative phase in Beauvoir’s philosophy and particularly in her theoretical engagements with the fraught relationships between self and other.

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Beauvoir’s separation from Sartre in September 1939 presented the most immediate circumstance in which to reflect upon knowledge of the other and questions of interpersonal connection and dependency. With her lover sent to the front, she waits on his letters and writes in her diary of crying at reading him confess – so far from her and facing the reality of armed conflict – to feeling ‘absurd and so small’. She also writes of her panic at imagining Bost dead and of only being calmed by receiving his letters; but as the letters prove only that he was alive a few days prior (at their time of writing), she must live in a permanent state of tension engendered by the inevitable time lag and an unavoidable substitution of presence for mere trace.

Whilst such reflections, certainly in the early months of her wartime diary-writing, were always concerned with those closest to her and the raw immediacy of her feelings towards them, the wartime diary has since been recognised by scholars as documenting a stage of the transition in Beauvoir’s philosophy from solipsism to a post-war argument for moral and political engagement. The novel She Came to Stay, on which she was working certainly as early as 1939, still falls within the former phase of her thought, yet the wartime diary was in some ways ahead of her writing destined for publication, containing as it did the raw materials for enquiries that would follow years later. In a diary entry dated 7th October 1939, she makes a note to explore a particular problem through the two principle characters of her developing novel (what will become She Came to Stay). But this problem – an interior one of holding two seemingly conflicting statements as true, and therefore of holding conflicting ideas of love – nevertheless sets up a quandary, to be picked up later, as to why such a notion can be entertained as possible within others but not in oneself.

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The context in which Beauvoir was making such enquiries was one of uncertainty and dread. Seized by premonitions of ‘incomprehensible horror’ in the first month of diary-writing, she can imagine only worse and worse days to come as she recognises that violence will be inevitable. Her accounts of life in Paris during that tense period is one of ominous autumn evenings, disquieting silence and deserted streets, the blackness of night, and the heaviness and sheer relief of sleep. To modern readers, the relative luxury of her lifestyle is nevertheless apparent: venturing forth in her best clothes (including what seems an extensive collection of turbans), she runs errands and goes to meet friends whilst pondering the dynamics between her tangled knot of lovers. But underlying this urbane existence and the appearance of business-as-usual is the debilitating sense that ‘the world is destroyed once and for all’ and an absence of hope in the face of cultural annihilation under fascism.

The scale of the threat provokes a certain morbid curiosity in Beauvoir. She admits to ‘that very tragic interest’ in wanting to live to see the outcome of Europe’s subjugation by fascism, as opposed to simply killing oneself as her friend Védrine suggests. In an ostensible effort to comprehend the current situation and its possible outcomes by looking to the past for precedents, she reads André Gide’s Journal of 1914 and finds ‘many things similar to the situation now’.

Away from her literary pursuits, her diary-writing evidences her increasing engagement with the mood on the streets of Paris. The nervous wait for conflict to escalate prompts her to reflect that, ‘If only there was more going on and more danger […] then I would be more concerned about myself and the thought of others would be more tolerable.’ Living in what she describes as ‘a kind of stupor’, even on what she admits was a comparatively good day, she becomes preoccupied with thoughts of the crowd, the mass of Parisians milling around with their gas masks, amidst whom she soothingly feels ‘no personal life, only the community, which lives in itself as in primitive societies’. Whereas the unspoken support of the communal salves her, she then describes an experience that same day of sitting in the back room of a restaurant and being violently snapped back into herself: ‘my individual life returned; I thought I was going to scream.’ Elsewhere she admits that, in the evenings, one is in a state of ‘fever, a breaking down’, and seeks escape by getting ‘lost in the crowd’ until morning once again brings some lucidity.

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Whilst her dissolution into the crowd is often figured as an anaesthetic, there is ample evidence that it also turned her attentions outward to an empathetic appreciation of those in vastly differing circumstances; as early as 11th September 1939, she expresses her upset at ‘all these foreigners being hounded’ in increasingly public demonstrations of intolerance. Meanwhile she records subtle shifts in the social make-up of the Paris she knows so well, noting how such establishments as bars and clubs are becoming more casual but losing their identity, which we can understand as likely meaning their exclusivity prior to the upheaval of wartime. Even if such observations initially seem somewhat snobbish, they also reveal an acute awareness that traditional barriers between people were shifting or dissolving entirely. As witness to a changing Paris stratified less and less by conventional social distinctions, Beauvoir begins to imagine even in those early wartime days of June 1940 an ‘afterwards’ in which peaceable cohabitation between the displaced, the disenfranchised, and the conquering forces could be possible. Never acquiescing to any aspect of fascist ideology, she simply recognises a need for the world to be rebuilt through restorative social integration.

On a visit to meet Sartre where he is stationed in Brumath, she sits with him as he states his belief that this will be a ‘modern war without massacres’. And yet her reflections on embodied consciousness and empathetic engagement prevent her from sharing such a detached (and, we now understand in retrospect, naïve) outlook; caught up in the June 1940 flight from Paris, she is confronted by the refugee crisis and the plight of the less fortunate, all overshadowed by the persistent rumours of vast death camps. The reality of displacement and exile, of the rending of the social fabric and of people from people, constitutes for Beauvoir its own kind of violence. She reflects that, in deserted streets, life without the presence of others does not seem like life at all.

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In a highly significant diary entry dated 9th January 1941, she wrestles with the Hegelian notion of recognition, of profound awareness of others’ consciousness, which can offer ‘a foundation for a social view of the world’. She considers this notion in relation to ‘the metaphysical tragedy of a fascism’ which denies the being of others. Whilst admitting that she has once again turned inwards, fixed on her individuality, she grapples with the problem of how one can make oneself ‘an ant among ants’ and still retain those qualities that distinguish the human. Beauvoir uses and comments upon her reading of Hegel and Heidegger to consider how recognition of the self and the other’s consciousness can be brought to greater parity. In the entry dated 29th January 1941, only a few weeks later, she admits in a self-critique of her novel that ‘to suppress the other’s consciousness is a bit puerile’.

In Beauvoir’s wartime diary we find a record of her philosophical development through the positing of such problems. Her diary-writing had impelled her to engage more directly with questions of self and the other in the context of estrangement from loved ones and the wider landscape of societal upheaval. She would experience a further seminal shock in 1944 when the Nazis murdered her Jewish friend Bourla, recalled years later in Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life (1960); critic Margaret Simons has attributed this event as a crucial factor in Beauvoir’s movement away from her previous position of defending an absolute and disembodied notion of freedom – a movement made in defiance of the German occupation. By the time of 1945’s The Blood of Others, Beauvoir was situating her interrogations of individual choice in the context of how those choices directly affect others, even how not making a choice is effectively a choice to do nothing and thus be complicit – a significant conclusion to draw considering the novel’s setting within the French Resistance.

In these published works, the trajectory towards the moral and political arguments of Beauvoir’s canonical post-war writings is evident, yet her wartime diary can add a valuable and distinctively discursive insight into the embryonic stages of those engagements with the problems of self and other that would shape Beauvoir’s thought and her contributions to philosophy. The wartime situation as she experienced it – that of a painful present that lacks, even denies, the promise of any recognisable future – created an urgency wherein only the diary form could provide an adequate means of expression. Ω

Fearless Music from a Fearful Year

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When David Bowie died on January 10th few could have predicted it would presage a year of ostensibly endless mourning.

Throughout a twelve-month mire of bitterness, division and disaster – as political leaders and would-be leaders turned the air toxic, as commentators played on prejudice and fear, and as the daily news scrambled to try and make sense of it all – many listened for the culturally progressive voices that had so often given solace only to hear they’d been silenced too soon.

The rituals of public grief can often bring out the most generous and inclusive tendencies in people, offering some kind of communal respite from more everyday grievances; nevertheless, the cull of artists from Prince to George Michael, from Leon Russell to Leonard Cohen, assumed for many onlookers a cumulative significance as a gradual extinction of the hopes and values that these forward-thinking, free-speaking artists stood for. It almost felt as if 2016 was taking with one hand and then taking some more with the other.

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If the prospect of no longer having Bowie around set an ominous tone, then his final gift to fans was a defiant statement that popular music would prevail and flourish in challenging times. Bowie’s twenty-fifth album ★, released on his birthday just two days before his death, was no nostalgia trip or victory lap. The morphing textures, skittish beats and stabbing horns all evidenced an artist very much pushing on into new territory, an artist who could at once imbibe influences from Scott Walker to Kendrick Lamar and then mix his own distinct cocktail. The album was garnering rapturous reviews before the news of both Bowie’s long-term illness and his death hit simultaneously and inevitably recontextualised the record’s play of light and shade, its weirdly phantom frequency.

The fearlessness of ★ set the tone for artists rising to the challenge. Whilst many in politics looked backwards for simple answers to complex and urgent problems, music in 2016 looked forward. It’s true that new things can be glimpsed through the lens of nostalgia, as proven by Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam on their gorgeous, yearning, shape-shifting set titled I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. Yet 2016 was a year of artists dramatically repurposing raw materials into strange and daring shapes – and perhaps in no field so much as in RnB.

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Arguably the year’s two most impeccably produced albums came from Solange and Frank Ocean. The former’s A Seat at the Table emerged from the shadow of her sister’s all-conquering Lemonade to reel in listeners with a subtler and slower dive down into issues of black identity, esteem, and survival. The breadth of styles and instrumentation – from watery synths to warm snares and glam piano – is remarkable and yet the whole record sounds so together, every piece indivisible from the larger artistic statement. Spoken word interludes and recurring motifs bind the more experimental cuts into a narrative of creative and cultural evolution; even the transitions between tracks (the jump-cut from ‘This Moment’ to ‘Where Do We Go’; the effortless slide from ‘I Got So Much Magic…’ to ‘Junie’) are calibrated perfectly to alternately shock and lull, keeping the listener locked in a fraught push-pull as Solange demonstrates complete control of her artistry.

With the long-awaited Blonde, Frank Ocean delivered a follow-up to 2012’s seminal Channel Orange that defied expectations. Much like Solange, he eschewed the easy pay-offs of radio-ready choruses and playlist-worthy beats to deliver an album less concerned with stand-alone songs than with constantly shifting grooves. His interest in texture and tone above all else gave this album a woozy atmosphere that on its first few plays could be mistaken for incoherence, yet Ocean’s commitment to contrasting barely-there beats with piercing moments of clarity brought his lyrical themes (of longing, confession, and confusion) to life in new ways and developed a sound that, after the magpie tendencies of his previous full-length, is now unmistakably his own.

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2016 was the year of the solo artist and a year in which guitar-toting songwriters broke free of indie rock’s conventional confines through sheer force of personality. Will Toledo, aka Car Seat Headrest, beefed up his overdriven guitar-pop attack on Teens of Denial and circumvented the many pitfalls of reedy mope-rock by mastering long-form songwriting, delivering massive choruses, and taking his slacker storytelling somewhere bordering on the heroic. Throughout, a sense of humour and self-awareness was key.

Angel Olsen has hardly been regarded as a-laugh-a-minute, yet her acclaimed new record MY WOMAN with its promotional trailer, all-caps title, and spiky lead single added a sly new edge to her deceptively jagged persona. It was a joy to see her don a silver wig and rollerskates in her self-directed video for the knowingly unhinged glam-stomp of breakout anthem ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’. The kitschy stagecraft of her performance with full besuited band on The Late Show was an added treat from an artist bored of being typecast as ‘this sad cartoon country girl singer’. High on delivering her most confident-sounding record yet – one that variously invokes Sky Ferreira, Fleetwood Mac, and Crazy Horse – Olsen was clearly ready to have some fun.

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Other solo artists drew on their increased powers as songwriters and performers to confront contemporary questions of alienation and arrested development amongst the young and disenfranchised. On the hilariously/terrifyingly titled Puberty 2, Mitski burned through such intimate epics as ‘Happy’, ‘Fireworks’, and (perhaps most notably) the slow-burning bruiser ‘Your Best American Girl’ with incandescent energy. The latter’s video clearly articulates her anxieties surrounding identity politics and exclusion even as it illustrates her standing defiantly, and brilliantly, apart from the crowd.

Meanwhile, lo-fi lowlife Jeff Rosenstock delivered WORRY., a lovingly crafted pop-punk paean to enjoying simple pleasures and small moments when seemingly surrounded by ageing friends, dead-end jobs, rising rents and a raft of regrets. If on paper that all sounds dangerously late-Green Day, then rest assured the results are endearingly short of pretence and long on reckless, ramshackle energy.

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Responding to high-profile acts of police brutality and an atmosphere of escalating racial tension, rap has been rising back to its late 80s/early 90s prominence as protest music for a good couple of years now but by any measure 2016 was vintage. Looking beyond the now-familiar debates about lyricism, or the lack thereof, in more chart-oriented fare, hip-hop artists produced some of the year’s most purposeful and uncompromising records. Despite being in many ways the headline act, only Kanye West disappointed when he finally ran out of album titles and launched The Life of Pablo, an indulgent and mean-spirited mess that too often paired inventive beats with straight-up bad lyrics; if only Yeezus could stay behind the boards and away from the mic, thus sparing us his thoughts on bleached assholes and the sexual availability of Taylor Swift. A far more pointed dispatch from the accusatory glare of the spotlight came from Vince Staples on the terse Prima Donna, which achieved more and hit harder in a third of the runtime.

This focus and ferocity was in evidence on many of the year’s best rap releases. Danny Brown travelled down into the depths on Atrocity Exhibition, a truly hedonistic headtrip of a record, whilst Run the Jewels left it late (or perhaps early, considering the original January 2017 release date) to indict Trump and incite listeners to revolution by dropping their third self-titled LP on Christmas Day. Elsewhere, across the Atlantic, the surprising resurgence of Skepta on the Mercury-winning Konnichiwa conspired with his 2015 Brits cameo and the viral success of Stormzy to barge grime back into the conversation.

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It would be wrong to suggest that only dark, doom-mongering records defined rap in 2016. Chance the Rapper, vying with the indefatigable Anderson .Paak for the accolade of busiest man in showbusiness, spread some much-needed joy with his third full-length mixtape, the infectious gospel-inflected Coloring Book, and seemingly turned everything he touched to gold with a string of scene-stealing-yet-generous features and appearances almost everywhere else.

But of all the heartening moments in music this year, the return of A Tribe Called Quest was perhaps the most inspiring. They too suffered a tragic loss this year when original member Phife Dawg passed away in March due to complications arising from diabetes; he was forty-five years old. Unbeknownst to the public, Q-Tip and co. had already recorded the lion’s share of a new (and final) album featuring verses from Phife, the existence of which was only announced in late October a few weeks prior to its release. Again, what could have been a victory lap or a crowd-pleasing rehash turned out to be so much more, an hour of densely packed sonics and wordplay that retooled their classic 90s jazz-rap sound ready for a new golden age of promoting positivity, love and tolerance.

By mixing features from established extended family members Consequence and Busta Rhymes with guest spots by Kendrick, Kanye, and .Paak, Tribe enacted a passing of the torch between generations and gave shout-outs to ‘Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of flow’. Theirs was a message of hope, of irrepressible spirit and continuing creativity in the face of adversity. When Dave Chappelle, hosting the first Saturday Night Live to air after the US presidential election, introduced Tribe taking to the stage to perform lead single ‘We the People’, it was a moment of pure electricity. Imploring the audience to reach out to one another before unfurling a banner depicting the late Phife as his verse played, A Tribe Called Quest reminded the millions watching just how great artists can honour the past, seize the present, and face the future. Ω

A Right Wing Aesthetic? Post-Truth Politics and the New Realism

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Controversial artist Jon McNaughton has been back in the spotlight again following Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election. The proudly conservative painter of politically-charged provocations has been endorsed by the right wing in America for taking aim at the commonly agreed evils of progressive liberalism, globalised geopolitics, and Barack Obama.

Having primarily been a painter of biblical scenes, patriotic tableaus, and combinations of the two – see his rousing portrayal of Christ holding aloft the US constitution – the recurring image of an aloof and immoral Obama has become ubiquitous in McNaughton’s work ever since the media exposure given to his dubious master-/disaster-piece ‘The Forgotten Man’ (2010), pictured below.

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‘The Forgotten Man’ by Jon McNaughton. Photo by Jon McNaughton.

This painting has been making headlines again ever since the story broke that Fox News anchor Sean Hannity had bought the painting and was planning to present it to Trump to hang in the newly conquered White House. Sadly, Newsweek have reported that Hannity’s Twitter feed has clarified that he does not, in fact, intend to gift the painting to Trump after all, yet the image’s wide media exposure has served to make ‘The Forgotten Man’ a totem of Trump’s dual victories in sweeping away Obama’s Democratic regime and in winning the white working class vote. That poor schlub dejectedly benched in the foreground finally has his champion.

The ‘Forgotten Man’ does not really require unpacking in all its barely-allegorical glory. With all the previous US presidents gathered in front of an ominously distant White House, Abraham Lincoln amongst others rallies around the titular figure supposedly left behind by a changing America. The appeals for this man to be seen and heard go unheeded by Obama, who stands with his arms folded and his right foot literally crushing the US constitution. Obama is positioned fronting a crowd of previous presidents also implicated in the neglect of the ordinary man, with Bill Clinton benignly applauding. In all it’s about as subtle as McNaughton’s sort-of-sequel ‘Wake Up America’ (2011) and its portrayal of an ebullient Obama orating under a shower of dollar bills before a crowd in chains. There’s our forgotten man in the foreground again, face again downturned but now in defiant concentration as he hacksaws through his bondage.

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‘Wake Up America’ by Jon McNaughton. Photo by Jon McNaughton.

McNaughton’s oeuvre has been widely derided for its bludgeoning messages, so why is it, and ‘The Forgotten Man’ in particular, worthy of any further comment? Surely anything so nakedly propagandist is to be regarded as an amusing outlier, an almost-harmless artefact from a parallel universe. But perhaps such nakedness, such lack of effect or experimentation, gestures towards a new aesthetic that represents the political and social right; and for everyone who condescends its lack of guile, there is someone who finds in a comforting return to pictorial realism in painting the expression of their desire to reclaim an imagined past and its values.

When McNaughton appeared on Hannity’s Fox News show several years ago, the two chummily laughed off any critique of the artist’s work and politics from ‘liberals’ and ‘the left’. Interestingly, McNaughton suggested that most of their criticism was focused not on the narratives of his pictures but on his aesthetic: “They just make fun of it, the way it looks, my reasoning… don’t have anything to do with the content, it usually has to do with the way it’s painted, somehow.”

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And in what is being widely spoken of as the new age of post-truth politics, in which conspiracy and conjecture take precedence over ‘establishment’ and ‘expertise’, it’s appropriate that the content of McNaughton’s paintings is barely a matter for debate; both sides of a terribly polarized American public are likely to look at his depictions of a profane President committing evil acts and respond, “Well, of course.” Any discussion of whether Obama has, for instance, wilfully desecrated the nation’s constitution is redundant, because there are seemingly only two pre-ordained responses to these artworks. Any attempt to disagree with someone responding in one of these two ways is likely to descend into pantomime.

Instead, the debate as to whether McNaughton is a visionary or an idiot rests on the aesthetic, the presentation of his artistic vision (in his case a moral message) in terms of realist painting. With his commitment to narrative and likeness, he is telling his captive audience that his images are representational and therefore representative. Their easy intelligibility makes them truthful, regardless of the outlandish and often offensive situations they so often depict. To others, the overstated gestures of his figures, the crowded nature of his compositions, and his fussy miniaturist’s brushwork make him a somewhat kitsch throwback, dated and out of touch with his own medium.

For all his evident advocacy for the religious right and professed concern for the common or ‘forgotten’ man, there seems to be little if no reflection in McNaughton’s work on the role of the artist in American social or political life. Interestingly, the painting that does actually offer a portrayal of an artist – of course in the most clichéd and accessible way possible, with palette and brush in hand – is The Con Artist (2015), in which none other than Hillary Clinton stands near square-on facing the viewer, in trademark one-colour pantsuit, her head held high with a defiant smirk on her lips, in front of a simulacrum of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (1893).

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‘The Con Artist’ by Jon McNaughton. Photo by Jon McNaughton.

Care has been taken to render her flesh wrinkled and pallid, her hair somewhat lank and as straggly as the frayed streaks of the painted sky behind her. It’s significant that this is Munch’s work she is depicted as either imitating or endorsing; elusive, mysterious, and disorientating, Munch’s world of interiorised anguish is reality as undone and interrogated by modernity. It is in many ways the antithesis of good honest ‘realism’, something protean and untrustworthy. The aesthetic is modern, challenging, and quintessentially European. (My implication here is not that Clinton’s politics are necessarily any of those things.)

McNaughton’s website advertises prints of The Con Artist above the caption, “Hillary is a con-artist and has painted a careful picture of herself, but behind the brushstrokes lies the truth.” It seems art itself, as represented by Munch’s canonical ‘Scream’, is not to be trusted. For those who wish to make the case, this picture could be the smoking gun that incriminates McNaughton as the artist who hates art.

The Guardian’s amused assessment of McNaughton’s renewed notoriety, speculating that the late great critic Robert Hughes would have christened his kitsch ‘the shock of the old’, reassures its readers that art critics are at best ambivalent to such nakedly propagandising efforts if indeed they’re deigning to engage with it at all. Yet it’s worth cautioning the pollsters and arbiters of what is and isn’t credible, particularly in this political and cultural moment, that the story of art has always been, to varying extents, the story of the tastes of wealthy patrons.

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‘The Entrepreneur’ (1987) by Ralph Wolfe Cowan

To dismiss the tastemaking influence of a Teflon tycoon, an elite of well-funded fundamentalists, or a populist platform preaching to millions is to underestimate the impact of the brash, simplistic statement delivered as a statement of truth. For as long as many are presented with an image like McNaughton’s ‘The Forgotten Man’ as being a sign of their times, such images will garner more attention and likely many more imitators. Ω

Culture Wars, Cont.

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Identity crises leave us floundering. When perceptions of peoples, places, and how we relate to them suddenly become destabilised, when there is a pervasive sense that things are rapidly changing but we feel either too overwhelmed or too powerless to react or even take stock, then it can seem as if some grand conspiracy is afoot.

In the case of current anxieties as to the health of arts and culture in London (and Britain more widely), there isn’t so much a systematic campaign to undermine creative freedom as there is simply a relegation of it to the realms of being far diminished in relative importance. Beyond providing some high-end, globally visible window-dressing that parades ostensible innovation and success, the vitality of arts and culture that can be accessed, and practiced, by all is perhaps regarded as more of a welcome extra than a matter of priority. As such, London – an economic and cultural powerhouse with a truly global appeal – is being widely touted as being in the throes of its own profound identity crisis.

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All the column inches and commentaries on artists being priced out of living and working in the capital is all coming a little after the fact. Rents are high, space is limited, and job security is hard to come by. Now, even those who survey the landscape from above as opposed to ground level are realising, belatedly, that wellsprings of talent are being stoppered. This week Florian Wupperfeld, the founder of The Leading Culture Destinations awards, publically warned against underestimating the ‘soft power’ of cultural production that has made the city so attractive globally: ‘London creates jobs and is a centre for creativity, but overall the environment is getting more challenging. We’re likely to see more budget cuts and property prices rising could force out the soft power makers who help set the agenda.’

Headlining the stirrings of public and media outcry, the closure of Fabric nightclub offers a stark reminder that no cow is too sacred to be spared in the great urban land-grab. It seems that Fabric, having played its own role in the rejuvenation of Farringdon as a desirable area, has now fallen victim to the very prosperity to which it contributed. Meanwhile, the demise of Madame JoJo’s in Soho and The Black Cap in Camden were highly emblematic instances in which venues of significant cultural importance and subversive reputation were ultimately unprotected against the property investors and consortiums closing in from all sides, choking their very right to exist.

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But this has all been going on for a while. In the last ten years, half of London’s live music venues have closed. Photographs of the sites on which many of them stood make for grim viewing. It’s quite the prospective headache for whoever mayor Sadiq Khan appoints ‘night czar’, charged with bolstering the nocturnal buzz of the capital as the night tube extends its reach. Aside from crippling living costs, many artists are effectively having to live and work in environments that provide fewer of the local hubs and outlets that foster their creativity and offer opportunities to collaborate with one another.

Artists are not the target of some coordinated crackdown, but simply amongst the inevitable victims of what Dawn Foster has called a ‘hollowing out’ of the city. She argues that, in a moment which is seeing the closure of such cultural landmarks as Fabric, token measures by policy-makers to create designated artist spaces will do little to counteract the pervasive effects of widespread inequality and unaffordability that will continue to impact those who contribute to the arts and heritage sectors. She reminds readers that cultural health relies on the support of hospitality industries, of gallery staff, and of cleaners and security. It is, to her mind, ‘a far greater problem than a few more studios can solve’.

In the Evening Standard last week, Simon Jenkins expressed his lack of sympathy for the ‘luvvie’ brigade of London’s cultural elite in a piece entitled: ‘Arts lobby is as much to blame as any for the great Brexit divide.’ It’s difficult to imagine the disaffected in criminally neglected post-industrial towns were particularly riled by the words of Sir Ian McKellen, but Jenkins does make a salient point about the centralist bias in the arts and the understandable resentment in hard-hit and underfunded areas of England.

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Where Jenkins is misguided is with the equation of the Brexit vote’s cry against regional inequality with the 1960s counter-cultural movement, currently memorialised in a high-budget show at the V&A. He claims, ‘The old guard has experienced a political Woodstock’, which confuses utopian thinking with defensive nationalism; empathetic desire for equality with last-resort protectionism.

Most tellingly, Jenkins proclaims his belief that post-Brexit London will essentially sort itself out, as if some eternal character of the place will prevail. ‘I have more faith in the independent vitality of London’s culture’, he writes, citing the city’s appeal to a world beyond Europe and its continued ability to attract talent and investment. But what about actually fostering talent by creating supportive conditions to live and work? His argument does not seem to acknowledge that there are artists who don’t belong to any elite, and who didn’t go to the most prestigious schools, who saw membership of the European union as symbolic of a wider companionship – one that offered solace and support, however utopian, as they struggle to negotiate the ruthless marketplace that London has become for those who wish to live and work there. Ω