15 July 2013

Whenever I hear the word 'Culture,' I first check the Terms of Service agreement...

Despite the fact that the topic of Disney is in no way part of any recent research I'm doing, it seems to keep turning up randomly without my looking for it. So, one last item in this thematic thread, one that I came across the other day...

That being the recent UK premier of Philip Glass's latest opera, The Perfect American, which takes the legacy of Walt Disney as its subject matter. Glass composed the music and helped develop the premise. The libretto was supplied by Rudy Wurlitzer, based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Peter Stephan Jungk.

Reviews of the opera have been mixed, Citizen Kane comparisons have been a staple throughout, and there's been no shortage of discussion about the production's unflattering portrayal of the figure of Walt Disney. Glass himself has admitted that it was a project born of deep ambivalence, the decision to do it originating when he was given a copy of Jungk's book some 5 years ago by then-director of the New York City Opera Gerard Mortier, who requested that the composer develop it into a stage production. "Of course it's not a hatchet job," he recently stated by way of anticipating criticism, "Why would I spend so much time making fun of someone I don't like?...Disney was a man of his time, both in his shortcomings and what was powerful about him."

By the varying descriptions, the show sports a couple of intriguing scenes. One involving a crew of technicians wrangling to properly wire the animatronic Abraham Lincloln for the Disneyland park, with the robot coming to life to draw Disney into a debate about race relations and social equality in America. Another involves Andy Warhol appearing as Disney lay in his deathbed, the former paying tribute by telling Disney that he’d been a role model for the pop artist, proclaiming that he was "born the same year as Mickey Mouse” and that he also “has a huge army of helpers."

This last bit naturally has me thinking back to the remarks of Pierre Huyghe, which I cited in my prior post on this topic; Huyghe’s observation that “ [Warhol’s] Factory was a place where Warhol could embody the capitalist system,” in relation to how artists like Huyghe and Mathias Poledna have adopted the medium of film production in recent years. Film being a collaborative art form, and its methods – of course – mirror those of industrialized manufacturing; with its departmentalized, assembly-line systems of production. And it’s a model that’s lingered on well after the decline of the manufacturing sector and its diminuation by an emergent post-Fordist economy. In the context of The Perfect American, Glass chalks the Disney-Warhol analogy up to the persistence of the Atelier System in the artworld, the hierarchical system by which an established artist pursuing large or ambitious projects does so by overseeing a crew of assistants and apprentices in a workshop setting. Warhol probably had other sources of inspiration than Disney when setting up his Factory, but it could be argued that Koons adopted it from Warhol, with Hirst taking it from Koons. Historically, it’s not that uncommon of a practice, and it’s been around for centuries.

But enough about Disney, already. My interest in all of this has to do with broader issues concerning art's engagement with pop culture, and the critical strategies it devises or employs in doing so. Older, supposedly critically interventionist tactics look toothless and inadequate in hindsight. Say, for example, postmodernism's prior 1980s fixation for appropriation from the pop-culture (and art historical) canons. All those supposed deconstructive siphonings from the domains of advertising and entertainment amounting to little more than shadowing the visual rhetoric of the dominant culture, while at the same time perhaps capitulating to the the alleged "end of art" verdict (i.e., art's previous societal role having been subsumed by the hegemony of "mass culture" throughout the course of the 20th century). Likewise with other varied strains of "neo-pop" or "pop conceptualist" practices that soon followed in the 1990s, where all pretenses at semiotic inversion were jettisoned for a type of jaded resignation (if not outright Baudrillardian "nihilism," by some critics' reckoning).

Quoting or borrowing from the public domain purported to serve some subversive critical purpose at the time, but in the end -- no matter how playfully done -- it seems a bit feeble in many respects. As dead-end tactics go, one might be tempted to recall the words of Martin Heidegger, who, in Being and Time (and admittedly speaking of something else entirely) wrote: "Appropriation [merely] appropriates. Saying this, we say the Same in terms of the Same about the Same. To all appearances, all this says nothing."

Plus, it was so much an easier thing to do once-upon-a, back when it was less difficult to pinch and abscond with and détourn without having to lawyer-up first. Y'know, before that the borders of that "common culture" were so thoroughly and rigidly policed. Before the corporate entities that distributed and administered such stuff began claiming ever-increasing restrictive rights to exclusive ownership, rendering all free and "creative" engagement therewith likely to a cease-and-desist notice, liability to prosecution, and the threat of litigation.

* * * *

In some areas, however, pop culture isn't what it used to be; at least not in terms of it having any claim to be a "common culture" that serves as a mutually, broadly shared cache of reference points. It often seems like a quaintly anachronistic idea in the era of media atomization -- of profilerating channels, echo-chambers, sub-niches and sub-subgenres, and increasing degree of nanocasting that break down to the point of individually-tailored/-filtered content.

Film (in the form of mega-budget blockbusters, anyway) might be the only remaining form of media that still -- as Huyghe described it -- provides any remaining remnant of providing a "public space; any social or civic or communal grounds for discussion. The same can't be said of any form of pop music anymore, certainly. And if you read the recent interview with filmmaker Adam Curtis in FACT mag, you run smack into a "twas it ever thus" assessment along those same lines. In speaking of his recent live-event collab with Massive Attack, Everything is Going According to Plan, recently staged at the Manchester International Festival. In the interview, Curtis raises the topic of regurgitative retrophilic tendencies in recent music; of pop music's incessant mining of the styles and gestures -- so radical, allegedly, in their original in situ context -- of prior zeitgeists:
"Pop music might not be the radical thing we think it is. It might be very good and very exciting and I can dance to it and mope to it, but actually it just keeps on reworking the past. ...If you continually go back into the past then by definition you can never ever imagine a world that has not existed before. I think true radicalism...comes from the idea of saying this is a world that has never existed before, come with me to it.

...[But] music may actually be dying at the very moment it is everywhere. There comes a moment in any culture where something becomes so ubiquitous and part of everything that it loses its identity. It will remain here to be useful but it won’t take us anywhere or tell us any stories. It won’t die in the sense of not being here but in the sense of not having a meaning beyond itself. It will just be entertainment. What will happen is that something else we haven’t imagined yet will come in from the margins that tell us a story that unites us."
If that weren't bleak and dystopic enough, Curtis sets it up by flatly stating earlier in the interview:
"My argument is that we live in a non-progressive world where increasingly we have a culture of management, not just in politics, but everywhere. Modern culture is very much part of this progress. What it’s saying is: 'stay in the past and listen to the music of the past'."

Or as Simon recently put it, was the idea of pop music ever being anything akin to a socially transformative phenomenon little more than a myth rooted in Boomer "generational over-estimation"?

Full interview with Adam Curtis here.

1 comment:

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

I heard a speech by Animatronic Abe Lincoln in Disney World's Hall of Robot Presidents during the 1980s. Two things about it impressed me:

a)that it was full of fine phrases signifying nothing

b)that at the end the audience stood and applauded.

May the Creative Forces of the Universe have mercy on our souls, if any.

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