28 February 2014

The Inaesthetic, I

First, there's Chris Jones at The Appendix (by way of a relay at The New Inquiry) writing about the UK hardcore punk band Discharge, specifically about why the band received a much less-than-welcoming reception when it played Long Beach in 1986. Jones doesn’t make a bold assertion about whether or not Discharge were, in the end, any good; but he does make the case they were very good at what they aimed to do – playing fast and loud, etc.. If anything, Jones’s thesis seems to be that the band’s main problem was that it existed in the crap universe of music in the mid-late 1980s.

Which brings us to this bit, in which a cultural contributor to the conservative UK publication The Spectator dares to ask the question: Is Pussy Riot’s music any good? God, how tedious. But I suppose the question was bound to come up at some point. After all, critic Jed Perl recently had the audacity to ask if Ai Weiwei was a good artist. And of course in recent years there’s been a fair amount of debate to that same affect about Banksy (where the verdict seems to be overwhelmingly no).

All of which goes back to what I touched on in a prior post -- the nagging persistence of notions of quality. And how in recent times the argument has been made that the notion of quality and all its accompanying criteria are little more than an elitist (i.e., “undemocratic”) rubric that makes sure than certain people are kept at the cultural margins, that certain voices aren’t acknowledged, etc..

At any rate: As the Spectator columnist points out, Pussy Riot haven’t recorded anything yet. Well, of course they haven’t, and they probably won’t, because being a musical act proper probably ranks among the lowest of their ambitions. Rather, it’s probably better to regard what they’re up to as a type of performance art (of a “street theater” stripe) deployed in the service of activism. Aesthetic concerns are at best tertiary, in this context. Their intent isn’t to get signed to XL Records any more than Banksy ever wanted to be exclusively represented by Hauser & Wirth Meaning that most likely the wrong questions are being posed.*

In the case of Pussy Riot, as with Weiwei and Banksy, the goal is a form of activism, inasmuch as activism might involve little more than a calling-attention-to or "awareness raising." Which of course raises a whole different set of theoretical questions; questions having little or nothing to do with aesthetics, but rather with strategies of “hacking the society of the spectacle,” social engagement or intervention, or whathaveyou.**

Do you ever hear anyone asking if Thomas Hirschhorn is “any good”? Not really, because the critical consensus (for the time being, at least) is unanimous. But then again, Hirschhorn largely works through the usual channels, doesn’t he?

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*  A better question to ask in the case of Banksy might be: In what ways does this work differ from your run-of-the-mill newspaper political cartoon? The answers to which would have a lot to do with many things that fall outside the realm of art.

**  All of which is very dicey territory -- both critically; and also tactically, since it many (if not most) instances it can go so terribly wrong.

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