17 February 2011

All Tomorrow's Art Parties

Mid-Romantics: David Burliuk and Vladimir Mayakovsky sitting around with
painted faces, impatiently awaiting the release of Aladdin Sane. Moscow, 1914.

Some things are best left for dead. In that respect, the Eighties revival seems to show no signs of slowing down, or any discerning faculty about what might or might not be worth salvaging or recycling.1

On this side of Atlantic, it was a bit hard to understand what the New Romantic thing was about. We knew that it was yet another thing from the U.K., was somehow connected to "new wave" and post-punk, and that it somehow (and somewhat unforgivably) resulted in Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. Clearly it involved a sense of flambouyant stylishness -- flash clothes, big sculpted coifs, a lot of cosmetics and ambisexual vamping, eclecticism. And obviously it was deeply indebted -- in terms of music, style, and its theatrics -- to Bowie and Roxy Music.

So it's curious to see a recent piece over at 3:AM about the New Romantics, "The Cult with No Book." As the title of the article suggests, the author's argument is that -- unlike prior youth subcultural coteries -- New Romanticism had no literary counterpart -- was so insular and ephemeral that it signified no grand cultural shift that could be discerned or documented, folded into any larger narrative. Yet, author Nicky Charlish asserts, "it was a roll-call of cultural achievers and trend-setters for the next 20 years."

Firstly, while the "movement" (if we can even call it that) lacked any outboard literary equiv, it was hardly lacking in cultural precedents -- precedents which it was very conscious of, certain scattered historical tropes or subcultural traditions that it engaged and resuscitated. It was the last wringing-out of a number of cultural tropes. For instance, there was its invocation of the waning zeitgeist hedonism and decadence of Weimar, Germany (y'know...the last party before the lights in Europe went out). Or its neo-voguish escapism and dandyish aestheticism à la Huysmans's Against Nature. There was all the other art school baggage, as well -- that of the avant-garde soirées of the Italian and Russian Futurists early in the century. All of it funneled through a variant of Richard Hell's "blank generation" ethos of degree-zero identity construction.

As far as latter-day Glam mutations of the era are concerned, goth in its early/proto- stages operated in much the same way. Unlike goth, however, New Romanticism ditched Glam's aesthetics of camp, substituting in its place a cold and value-free form of irony. Much of that irony was bound up in imagery and affected sentiment, much of intertwined with a vision of continental Europe that was at once highly modern and at the same time also looking backward -- casting a glance back not only to Weimar, but also to some sort of fin-de-siècle anxiety. More problematically, this idealized vision Europa often involved its share of mythical Teutonic/Hapsburgian imagery; the sort that Leni Riefenstahl or Albert Speer might've thought fetching.

At any rate, back to the Charlish's remark about New Romanticism's influence on the cultural landscape of the 1980s. Sure, in terms of image and fashion, it did have a huge impact in the U.K. in the years that followed; although musically it suffered a shorter shelf life. In a broader context, however, this account gets a bit slippery. Perhaps a more comprehensive history came by way Michael Bracewell, via his 1997 book England Is Mine. Situating New Romanticism (and the New Pop that immediately followed it) on the nether teleological end of a history of dandyism in modern Anglo culture, Bracewell concluded:

"The twentieth-century variation on the decadent theme, however, had not only taken the end of history as a melodramatic backdrop but also, despite itself, prophesied the irony boom and pop as Pure Product sensibility that was just around the corner. ...New Romanticism was both a wake for punk rock and a dress rehearsal for the rampant materialism of the 'Designer Decade.' ... Spun off the backs of Roxy Music and David Bowie, the post-punk fade into New Romanticism would remagnetize London to produce a period, eventually, of effervescent creative hot-housing, giving rise to a new wave of independent design, publishing, and video art. The dawn of the 1980s took media technology to its broken heart, virtually rebirthing it after the death fixation of Weimar neuroses of the late 1970s, and turning all artifice into artefacts. ...This was punk réchauffé, but it also precipitated a nose-dive into the despotism of cultural commodification and style mongering that would mark the Zeitgeist for the rest of the 1980s."2

But ultimately the big problem with the whole kaboodle lies with the music. Manneristic to the core, it was anemic then and much of it sounds utterly hollow now. This is because art or music that's that chronically self-conscious rarely amounts to anything substantial or satisfying.3 Still, there are a few things that fall on the margins of the trend that prove exceptions...

Given how atrocious Ultravox would become after John Foxx left the band, Ha! Ha! Ha! makes them something of a one-album wonder in retrospect. And while Magazine may have shared three members with the early line-up of Visage, one can't even begin the measure of the distance between the two outfits; for which I guess you can only credit Howard DeVoto.

And as far as the convergence of fashion, futurity, music, art, androgyny, and image, Grace Jones's people took that ball and ran with it at about the same time; executing some wall-to-wall art direction that turned the performer and her show into something of a gesamtkunstwerk package...

...And it's even replete with a bit of quasi-fascista imagery and some Cabaret Voltaire-ish accessorizing.

Of course, it was backed by a major label, an entourage of fashion-world veterans, and piles of cash. Still, it succeeded in baffling a lot of people at the time. As I recall, J.G. Ballard was a bit smitten by it.

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1. Lately, I've been getting back-to-back reminders of this every time I turn on my local college radio station.

2. Adding a few paragraphs later, "The gathering momentum of Thatcherism's social and economic agenda had encouraged irony as the principal means of protest and commentary; the celebration of consumerism could could also be taken as its own critique."

3. Unless someone wants to mount some kinda case in its favor, arguing along the lines of it being an exercise in, say, popist accelerationism. In which case, be my guest

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