14 January 2012

Raiding the 20th Century: Scattered and Sundry Digressive Notes About 'Collage Culture', Pt. I

Simon brings an item to my attention, a recent slender volume titled Collage Culture: Examining the 21th Century's Identity Crisis, for which I was grateful, because it had otherwise escaped my notice. The book sports a pair of essays, one being by Aaron Rose, director of the Alleged Art gallery and the man responsible for both the book and documentary Beautiful Losers; with the other being by writer/poet Mandy Kahn. Kahn's "Living in the Mess" is the longer and more enjoyable of the two essays -- a hopscotching, discursive path over & around her own ambivalence about certain aspects of the culture of the past decade. A cultural landscape in which, amidst all the slippage of irony and clutter, a type of semantical entropy results from everything canceling each other out. "THERE IS DANGER IN A LANDSCAPE OF MEANINGLESS SIGNS," she concludes early on.

Rose's contribution, "The Death of Subculture," is another thing entirely, being something of a manifesto or clarion call to young creatives, culture workers, & artists to return to a "total existence of innovation," to ditch habitual plundering and borrowing. At one point he describes the cultural landscape of the first decade of the 21st century as being "a blender devouring the trends of the last century," which prompts him to worry:

"We are in danger of destroying the fundamental and basic foundations of our creative identity. Our culture has come to view the tenets of original thought and creative innovation as an outdated model – but it has yet to release a new version to replace it."

* * * *

In the musical context, what's to blame? Why was the previous decade so largely given over to an orgy of plundering, retreading, recycling, etc? I suppose one could partially blame the whole 'bastard pop'/ mashup trend for giving the whole thing a good bit of its momentum. Or how all the business with "Grey Tuesday" and the Joy Garnett case and whatnot politicized the whole matter of appropriation and "fair use" in the face of the rapidly-inflating realm of "intellectual property" and the corporate copyright police. Or maybe it had something to do with that fucking Rapture album, and with James Murphy and the DFA network, and with all the Brooklyn bands who in the early part of the noughties unanimously decided to resurrect the post-punk sound, thus kicking off a trend of plundering the sounds of the Reagan Era that unflaggingly continues to the present. Or with graffiti art (which traditionally always relied quite heavily on quoting and citing) finally, fully coming into its own via the post-"Mission School" generation of street art. Or with "acid folk"/"New Weird America" and its fascination with the past, creative precedents, the cultural archive. Undoubtedly yes to all of the above, as well as to about a dozen other things that don't immediately leap to mind.

* * * *

A question that's nagged me for a while: With all this recently enabled access to the cultural archive, if indeed it's now "everything time," why aren't things (then?) more eclectic? Seems that there's long been a tendency to return to one specific period (to one aspect of its look or its sound) and just put things in Park mode. The '80s being the overwhelming favored era, of late. About which, the less said the better.

* * * *

And I say "that fucking Rapture record" because I think it was when I first heard the thing (that being their second one) that I began to suspect that something dodgey might be afoot. Song after song where I could easily spot the sources they had plundered from – guitar riff derived from source x, melody lifted from y, vocal stylings closely shadowing those of z. I found it a bit appalling – not knowing whether all the shameless plagiarizing and lack of originality could be attributed to cynicism, laziness, or a mixture of both. And also a befuddled, because it had only been about – what? – eight years since the band Wire had sued the folks in Elastica, claiming (quite correctly) that the latter that nicked the guitar riff for the thir own "3 Girl Rhumba." And if I recall, Elastica had to settle out of court, but then turned around and – cheekily, I presume – lifted a bit from another Wire tune on their second album.

So I reckoned that some standards must've shifted in the interim.

* * * *

images: sam durant

Hal Foster, writing about the art of Thomas Hirschhorn, Tacita Dean and Sam Durant, in his 2004 essay "An Archival Impulse":

"Durant is drawn to two moments within the archive of postwar American culture in particular: late modernist design of the 1940s and '50s (e.g., Charles and Ray Eames) and early postmodernist art of the 1960s and '70s (e.g., Robert Smithson). Today the first moment appears distant, but as such it has become subject to various recyclings, and Durant offers a critical perspective on both the original and its receptions. The second moment is far from closed: it includes 'discourses that have just ceased to be ours,' and so might indicate 'gaps' in contemporary practice -- gaps that might be converted to beginnings (again, this is the attraction of this threshold for some young artists). Like Hirschhorn and Dean, then, Durant presents his archival materials as active, even unstable – open to eruptive returns and entropic collapses, stylistic repackagings and critical revisions."

And, in an accompanying footnote:

"...'So often I am attracted to things conceived in the decade of my own birth,' Dean (born in 1965) has commented; the same often holds for Durant and others of his generation."

* * * *

conor harrington - 'bang bang you shot me down' (detail), 2009

"I don't seek, I find." Or so Picasso reputedly once stated about his own artistic methods. In each of their essays, Kahn and Rose imply the same concerns that others have raised previously, mainly those concerns that envision the contemporary culturescape as a beach layered thick with flotsam, all of it being combed by a legion of young creatives waving metal detectors to & fro. Of course this sort of scenario immediately brings the question of diminishing returns to mind, as we've already seen plenty of recent examples of recyclings of recyclings, pastiches of pastiches, extended ad infinitum until all the entropic and atrophic elements so inherent in these ourobouric processes drag everything to some vanishing point of semiotic self-cancelation.

* * * *

This sort of scenario could perhaps be described, if we had to settle on a single word, as decadence. Not decadent in the standard sense, but in the aesthetic sense. And in that aesthetic sense the term has typically been used to describe the academic/Salon art of 19th-century France. That being the Beaux-Arts canon as defined by a rigid protocol and hierarchy – the ranking of acceptable artistic styles, iconography, and subject matter. All of it in the end amounting to the erudite and properly acculturated speaking to an audience of same. With the styles and subjects being so filtered and limited that the canon can only feed off itself, continually recycling itself with only the slightest of allowable variations. And yes, broadly speaking we're talking about the same canon that produced Ingres and Bouguereau, but for every Ingres or Bouguereau there were (easily) hundreds of hacks cluttering up the walls of the wings with more of the same ho-hummery.

And we all know what results from an insular and perpetually narrowing gene pool, don't we?

Which is exactly the sort of thing that the so-called avant garde rebelled against – the grain that certain artists bristled against, be it Courbet or Manet or Cezanne or Repin and the Russian Itinerants or etc.1  And there were a lot of etceteras, since a number of artists found that this stifling mode of artmaking didn't speak to them, that all the repetition got numbingly boring quickly enough, and reckoned there were plenty of other people who might feel likewise.

* * * *

image: jacques villeglé

Speaking from his own personal experience, Aaron Rose relates his teenage discovery of a neighborhood punk record store and the L.A. bookstore Amok (which are two formative points of cultural discovery I can relate to from experience). He discusses how punk, etc. related & connected to formulating a sense of identity and self-defining ethos in relation to the dominant culture, arguing:

"Being 'anti-' didn't necessarily mean being nihilistic, at least not in any serious way, but it did suggest that the world that I had been sold by the government, my parent and schools was no longer relevant to a lifestyle that I wanted to lead. I had received a cultural get-out-of-jail-free card and I accepted it with an immense gratitude the likes of which I had never come close to before in my life."

From there he offers a curtain call of the usual 20th century American subculturati -- early pioneering jazz musicians, the beats, the Abstract Expressionists, hippies, punx, and whatnot -- misfits & outsiders living in self-exile from the mainstream. This, he argues, is the only sort of environment conducive to fostering "new ideas" and creative originality.

Which is bound to strike many readers as being a bit Romantic, and which is why I bring the idea of the avant garde into the discussion. And ultimately a return to the avant-garde notion of creative innovation is what Rose seems to be calling for -- or at least the part of it that emphasized the necessity of linear progress, originality, authenticity, etc. All those Modernist ideas that were called into question and largely dismantled some decades ago by postmodern/post-structuralist critical turn.

And while that last bit may seem a bit farfetched, bringing something so esoteric and academic to the table, I don't think it is by much. In some ways a lot of those notions have filtered down into pop culture over the past couple decades, if only in some very simplified and bastardized ways (re: the 'Popist' position on the matter of 'authenticity' is deeply po-mo in many respects). Case in point: the appearance of John Lethem's widely-circulated 2008 essay "The Ecstasy of Influence." While the case Lethem makes against the Copyright Commissars is a recent issue, its tacit, core ideas are largely built on an extensive body of literature on the "author function" that stretches back for many decades -- Bloom, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Jameson, et al.

* * * *

In her essay, Mandy Khan makes the comment that the previous decade made her sometimes feel like she was living "in a Rauschenberg poster." Throughout the book, the term collage is used in the generic sense; but the term perhaps begs for some examination of the matter and method of collage proper.

Collage having been developed just over a century ago, being a uniquely Modernist practice first devised by the Cubists (Picasso, Braque, and Gris), who developed it as a pictoral strategy interrogating conventional methods of representation and the "readability" of the picture plane, of bypassing the constraints of "illusionism" and linear perspective.2

Formalist considerations aside, there was also the question of content -- of the material chosen and incorporated into the collage. The original practice of collage involved, obviously, "found" material -- a considered selection and use of whatever was at hand. An exercise that required a certain resourcefulness, that resourcefulness limited to -- if not partially dictated by -- whatever materials the artist had within reach. But of course digiculture has eradicated such limitations by bringing everything (theoretically) within reach, making nearly everything accessible.3

But the modernist practice of collage is often framed as an affront to established hierarchies in art by way of it s integrating the effluvium of everyday life and the common (the cheap, the "vulgar" and basely material) culture into the realm of art. In a sense it also -- perhaps -- represents a refusal or a shutting-out of another, competing early modernist impulse – that of Symbolist aesthetics and all its Romantic (and sometimes mystical) impulses -- its gravitation to and emphasis on the transcendent, the sublime, subjective interiority, the inchoate, and its quasi-Platonic drive toward more pure forms of abstraction.

* * * *

Bob's White Years

Like his contemporaries associated with the early formation of Fluxus, Rauschenberg claimed to be interested in "working in the gap between art and life." Rauschenberg combing through the effluvium of the visual and material culture that surrounded him, through trash heaps or junk shops to create his early his "combines" and assemblages. All of which owes it artistic DNA to the Merz work of Kurt Schwitters, by which it earned the label "neo-dada." And like his Fluxus fellow travelers, Rauschenberg owed a huge inspirational debt to the ideas of John Cage, under whose influence he'd fallen while attending Black Mountain College in the early 1950s. But as some have pointed out, Rauschenberg initially took Cage's ideas in altogether different, more "zen" and conceptual direction. It was only after having he traveled to Italy and encountered the "sacchi" work of Alberto Burri that he changed course; prompted by Burri's use of burlap, textiles, and tar to sift for materials in the common culture.

* * * *

Obviously I'm merely doting on a specific term; and by extension the set of artistic practices that the term implies. What Kahn and Rose are referring to more precisely isn't "collage" so much, but rather pastiche -- pastiche in the Jamesonian "speaking in a dead language," "crisis of historicity" respect, the terminal end of a particular postmodern trajectory.4  Culture having arrived at a state of being that is ouroborically self-cannibalizing -- chronically self-reflective, self-referential, regurgitative, etc. Thing is, many of us -- if walking certain ideas through to their logical resolution -- might have long ago reckoned that such an impasse was inevitable, might have sighted the cul-de-sac well in advance.5

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1.  I say the "so-called" avant garde, if only because the term is one that I've long had reservations about using, a term with a dubious history, and I use it here only as a default.

2.  At which point, I suppose, certain distinctions should be made; since collage was adopted by a variety of artists and employed to different ends. For the Berlin Dadaists, collage (and photomontage) served as a "political weapon" for satirizing and critiquing the culture of early Weimar Germany. Kurt Schwitters and Dadaists of the Zurich and Paris camps used it as a purely aesthetic exercise, as a method of utilizing the role of chance as a means of art-making. Likewise for the Surrealists, who believed that the elements of randomness and chance could also provide a key to exploring the Subconscious (thereby short-circuiting the repressive and destructive mores of European bourgeois society).

3.  Another distinction to be made: That the original process of collage involved items, detritus, etcetera from mass-produced, material culture (which is something I've touched on before, albeit in a different context). Whereas the mode contemporary mode under discussion most often deals with that culture of objects and images in its dematerialized form -- by way of the proliferation of its mediated representation and facsimile via the internet.

4.  Re, collage vs. pastiche: Whatever differences might be drawn between the two, both involve a particular relationship to/engagement with culture and its products.

5.  If not "inevitable," then at the least a likely outcome.

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