Thursday, November 29, 2012

Presidential piss and pork products

Polemicist-cum-weeping-buffoon Glenn Beck has put a model of President Obama in a jar of urine. Meanwhile, a 16-year-old has been arrested in Sussex for throwing ham at a mosque. One or both or neither of these is art. My head hurts. I blame Duchamp. Let's put him in some urine and throw him at the Pompidou Centre. Maybe we should just declare Year Zero and go back to cave paintings and start again. Although there would doubtless be some fur-clad* numpty in the cave, claiming that a child of five could do that.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Twitter: computer shall talk nonsense unto computer

A while ago I signed up to a service called TwentyFeet; at least, I assume I did, because I have no memory of doing so. TwentyFeet analyses the verious comings and goings of one’s Twitter account, which it then packages into a single weekly report. Not the content, though; just how people have responded to the content, what they’ve done to it. So the most recent report reads:
My week on twitter: 112 retweets received, 1 new listings, 5 new followers, 100 mentions. Via:
And that report is sent as a tweet from my account. Now, one of the problems with this is that some people might think that I’m making a conscious decision to tell people how many retweets, new followers etc I’ve had in the past seven days. And although I’m not as a rule bothered about what other people may think of me, there’s one significant and paradoxical exception; I’m bothered that people may think that I’m bothered about what people think of me. And if people do think I’m a bit needy, is it worse to blow one’s own trumpet, or to get a bit of software to blow it for you?

There’s another service, to which I haven’t signed up, called It goes through the feeds of the Twitter accounts that you follow and collates articles to which they’ve linked, turning them into a sort of virtual newspaper. Now, the problem with this is that it just goes for the content that has been linked, cutting out any contextual comment made by the user. So if I send a tweet saying:
Cuh, this article in the Mail on Sunday/Huffington Post/Goat Breeder’s Quarterly is a bit rubbish!  
...what appears in the finished product is said article with my Twitter identity attached, which implies that I’ve somehow sanctioned it. Again, it doesn’t bother me unduly that people might think I approve of an article in Goat Breeder’s Quarterly, but sometimes it just ain’t so. Anyway, someone called Colin Campbell (not this Colin Campbell, as far as I know) follows me on Twitter and the dull, ruminant bots of appear to have seized on my tweet (the TwentyFeet status update, not the one about the goats, which I made up, OK?) and incorporated it into his paper. But all they took was the page to which it links, which is a anodyne explanation of how the TwentyFeet aggregator works, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before and certainly wouldn’t bother to recommend to the Twitter massive.

And suddenly I have an image of the near future; a newspaper concocted by a machine, comprising tweets sent by a machine. And Colin Campbell and I get our names attached but that’s the limit of our involvement and we don’t even read the bloody stuff, let alone write it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Radiohead and the allergy to now

When I started reading about Velma Lyrae, a London woman who suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome, my immediate thought was, “She sounds like something out of a Radiohead song.” Her condition means that she suffers multiple debilitating symptoms if she comes into contact with computers, mobile phones, even hairdryers, and she spend most of her time inside a protective cage in her Blackheath flat. The Radiohead connection was because of Thom Yorke’s contention that one of the defining themes of the band’s 1997 albums OK Computer is “fridge buzz”, the inescapable background noise, actual or metaphorical, that pervades the modern world, and which the band covers in the song ‘Karma Police’. Damn, another missed opportunity; when I was writing my Radiohead book (hey, the Cohen and the Noughties ones got plugs in the past few days, I’m only spreading the love) I should have created a mythical, rejected song called ‘Velma In Her Cage’, featuring Jonny Greenwood playing an ondes martenot through a bank of vintage detuned radios and Thom curled in a ball, mumbling about how he can only communicate the evils of technology and capitalism by utilising the fruits of technology and capitalism, innit?

But hey, what’s this? Velma says:
I used to love going to festivals and experiencing live music, but because everyone has a mobile I can’t even go near a gig now. The last gig I went to was Radiohead. I knew I was getting worse and wouldn’t be able to go to any more so I wanted to make it a good one.
I can just picture her, heart pounding, joints aching, desperately hanging on Thom’s every baleful squawk despite the distraction of the tens of thousands of iPhones surrounding her, pulsing their evil ones and zeroes into her throbbing skull. And then I start to feel a little heartless as I wonder whether the whole thing might be some sort of conceptual joke to plug the next Radiohead album seeing as how an anagram of Velma Lyrae is

“rave lamely”
(And incidentally, that Infinite Jest blog of mine has shuddered back into some semblance of life, if anybody’s still pretending to be interested.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Christy Wampole and the decade that perhaps never happened

Christy Wampole’s interesting article about ironic hipsterdom in the New York Times includes this paragraph, suggesting that in the last decade of the 20th century, sincerity ruled:
Born in 1977, at the tail end of Generation X, I came of age in the 1990s, a decade that, bracketed neatly by two architectural crumblings — of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Twin Towers in 2001 — now seems relatively irony-free. The grunge movement was serious in its aesthetics and its attitude, with a combative stance against authority, which the punk movement had also embraced. In my perhaps over-nostalgic memory, feminism reached an unprecedented peak, environmentalist concerns gained widespread attention, questions of race were more openly addressed: all of these stirrings contained within them the same electricity and euphoria touching generations that witness a centennial or millennial changeover.
Now, I’m a little older than Ms Wampole, but I’m not yet quite so senile that I’ve forgotten that decade completely.  And my 1990s may have included a bit of grunge earnestness at the beginning (incidentally, Wampole seems to have overlooked Cobain’s wit, and that of the smarter punks), but it was also about the pop postmodernism of The Modern Review and the raised-eyebrow laddishness of Loaded (before it became just another vehicle for tits), the louche poses of loungecore, Jarvis Cocker vs Michael Jackson, Madonna when she was still funny, the Young British Artists ditto, Tarantino in his trash-referential pomp, Trainspotting, the hilarious implosion of John Major’s government, Monica Lewinsky, Lorena Bobbitt. Irony wasn’t just a desperate pose to fend off the reality of economic and environmental omnishambles by growing a moustache. It was just how it was. With great big air quotes around it.

So is this divergence between Wampole’s memories and mine a matter of age or gender or nationality? Or was everybody’s decade just entirely different? In my book about the Noughties, I suggested that it’s very difficult to find a generic image that sums up the 1990s, which distinguishes it from the preceding decades (mini-skirts and flowers; flared trousers and picket lines; power suits and Filofaxes). I even posited the idea that the decade never happened at all, existing merely as “a history-free buffer zone between the ideological polarities of the 1980s and the socio-religious anxieties of the Noughties.” So there. And lest I be accused of even more egregious touting of my wares than is normally the case, I’ll balance it by recommending John Robb’s excellent tome about the 90s, aptly subtitled What The F**k Was All That About?

But anyway; how was it for you?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Maybe there’s a God above...

Three years ago I wrote a book about Leonard Cohen and if you haven’t read it you really should, but first read this article I wrote about LC and religion for Aeon magazine.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On brows

In The American Thinker, William Deresiewicz seeks to add some 21st-century nuance to Dwight Macdonald’s famous identification of ‘Midcult’, mass culture that masquerades as art.

Actually, I say “famous”, but while Macdonald’s pronouncement caused a stir in the States back in 1960, it was pretty much ignored in Britain, where slagging off the middle brow had become an established and respectable hobby for several decades. TS Eliot, for example, was a devotee not only of serious, abstruse cultural endeavours, but also of what would be regarded as trash. He loved the cheery vulgarity of musical hall, writing an adoring epitaph to Marie Lloyd, and was also a big fan of detective thrillers, especially the works of Georges Simenon. However, he was remorselessly rude about the stolid seriousness of then-successful but now almost forgotten writers such as John Drinkwater, whom he dismissed as “dull, supremely dull”. As Arnold Bennett put it, “Good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste.” Although I suspect Eliot might have dumped Bennett with Drinkwater in the recycling bin of middle brow.

Anyway, Deresiewicz does not argue that Macdonald’s middle brow has ceased to exist; it’s still the stuff that wins the big, mainstream prizes. But he has identified a new brow, younger, hipper, but still neither high art nor avant garde, and he dubs it “upper middle brow”:
It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that *should* have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).
Deresiewicz suggests that such works – like the old-school middle brow – are designed to flatter their audience; the only thing is that the audience is different. The funny thing is, not so long ago, such art would have been defined not by its audience, but by the economic context of its production. We would have called it “indie”. Wouldn’t we? 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Savile, McAlpine, Petraeus and the truth about Leonard Cohen and me

 I wasn’t going to say something about the latest bizarre developments in... well, what I don’t even know what to call it for a start. It’s not Savilegate, because things are moving so fast that Jimmy Savile, who a few weeks ago had become some sort of conceptual synthesis of Myra Hindley, the Yorkshire Ripper, the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Satan himself, has almost been forgotten; when you’re brought on as a stooge so that a not-fondly-remembered Doctor Who can say he didn’t like you much and oh, by the way, I’m going into the jungle with Nadine Dorries, then you know you’re on the margins. Well, you would know if you weren’t dead.

No, the story’s moved on, spewing out rumours and counter-rumours. Reputations of the living and dead have been left in shreds; not least that of the BBC, which was still apologising for not acting on allegations of sexual abuse when it was forced to apologise for acting on allegations of sexual abuse. Lord McAlpine is threatening legal action, even though he was never actually named by Newsnight; maybe he’s going to sue Philip Schofield’s piece of paper.

Two things, though. First, this is by no means a new story; I first became aware of the (unfounded, scurrilous, etc) allegations about McAlpine over 20 years ago. There’s been lots of grumbling about how various social media are to blame for rumour and innuendo taking hold, but in truth the likes of Twitter only amplify and accelerate the effect. The other point is that, allergic as I am to most conspiracy theories, I can’t help but wonder if somebody with an agenda (Anti-BBC? Anti-Twitter? Attempting to discredit accusations of abuse and those who make them? Any or all or more of those?) set some sort of journalistic honeytrap, an apparently solid story that was going to fall to pieces as soon as it saw the light of day, thus destroying the credibility of those involved in bringing it to public attention. Again, I’m not suggesting that MacAlpine was any part of this; he’s a MacGuffin.

But I wasn’t going to talk about that, was I? In the States, they’ve got a sex scandal that seems to be – on the face of it at least – far more straightforward. David Petraeus, the boss of the CIA, has resigned because he’s been having an extra-marital affair. Now I’m not sure whether he’s broken some particular clause in his contract, or if he’s just falling on his sword (oo-er) because he feels he’s brought shame upon his office; if the latter, it seems terribly old-fashioned, but there you go. No, the weird thing is... well, the first weird thing, as a number of people have pointed out, is that the whole messy business seems to have been prefigured in a problem page in the New York Times back in July (see the second letter). But the really weird thing is that the woman with whom he was cavorting is also his biographer. Which raises all sorts of questions about objectivity and the awkward threesome formed by subject, writer and reader. I mean, would we read Boswell’s life of Dr Johnson differently if we found out that James and Sam were an item? What of Charles Moore’s only-when-she’s-dead tome about Margaret Thatcher? Paradoxically, I suspect that even as the credibility of Paula Broadwell’s book about Petraeus falls apart, sales will rocket.

So I suppose it makes sense for me to announce, in the light of disappointing sales for my 2009 biography of Leonard Cohen, that I have enjoyed regular bouts of rudeness with the septuagenarian crooner, although he kept his fedora on at all times. Hallelujah, indeed.

PS: Ooh, and the New York Post does well on the Petraeus front:

PPS: And a rather good blog post concerning the meme that says Morrissey knew all about Savile way back when...

PPPS: And yet more; Buzzfeed kicks Petraeus when he’s down, but does it well.

Friday, November 09, 2012

On Stuckism

Charles Thomson (I’m assuming it’s really him, but since I’ve been following the US election on Twitter my ability to distinguish trolls and sock puppets and non-specific pranksters from the real deal has completely evaporated) has responded to a passing mention I made of him in a post about Damien Hirst’s new piece in Ilfracombe:
I not only existed, but was exhibiting art, performing poetry and staging events, when Damien Hirst was still at primary school. I can assure you that I was not in the slightest annoyed by Hirst at this time, as I had never heard of him. which I responded that yes, I accept all that, but my reference was specifically to Stuckism, the movement for which he’s become the de facto spokesman and as far as I know that didn’t come into existence until the late 1990s, by which Hirst and his chums were pretty well embedded in the public consciousness. No YBAs/BritArt/New Conceptualism, no Stuckism. This doesn’t reflect on Thomson’s own talents as an artist; I rather like his fusions of Pop Art and Expressionism to be honest, certainly more than I care for most of Hirst’s vapid gestures. But the fact remains that when Thomson appears in mainstream media, it’s more likely to be as part of a story about Hirst’s art than Thomson’s. Stuckists have become defined by what they’re not rather than what they are or what they do; in effect, they’re critics rather than artists, the provisional wing of Jackdaw magazine. I’m not saying this is an ideal state of affairs, or fair, or a good thing in terms of art, but that’s how it is. In hindsight, art historians may well come to agree that the Saatchi/Serota generation was an enormous, bloated con trick and Thomson and his gang were right all along but – notwithstanding the recent critical kicking that Hirst’s had in some quarters – the not-so-Young-any-more British Artists are still on top right now.

Put it this way, Charles: most Express readers probably loathe Damien Hirst and his works and everything he and they stand for; until they’d read the article I was discussing, most Express readers had no opinion about you or your work, because they’d never heard of you. We’re in Oscar Wilde territory here; which would you prefer to be?

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Bodypainting: what’s it all about? (NSFW)

Is bodypainting art? Or is it mere craft, with a bit of titillation thrown in, sometimes on the verge of soft porn? Danny Setiawan, I suppose, thinks it’s art. His stuff is available through Saatchi, although I’m not sure whether when you buy one of his works, you also buy the person on whom the art is painted. Where does the art stop and the canvas start? More to the point, when Setiawan paints a Klimt on a model’s chest, is it more or less art than if he’d used an original design? Maybe we could argue that Klimt is art; copying Klimt is craft; copying Klimt onto boobs is porn? Or is that unfair? Would painting a Rubens nude (art) on a real nude (porn) confuse the issue further?

We can have even more fun with Olaf Breuning. He’s also inspired by other artists when he paints on naked people, but his stuff is less about copying an existing, well known painting, more about identifying a theme. But some of the artists he chooses were known for their own paint/skin interfaces, such as Keith Haring:

and Yves Klein:

In fact, one could argue that Klein’s art was in fact the marks left behind by his blue-painted models, rather than the models themselves; so what Breuning is creating is a simulacrum not of Klein’s art, nor even his canvas, but of his paintbrushes. In fact, since his pieces depend entirely on our knowledge of the original works and our response to them (if we like or dislike Haring or Klein, does that make us like or dislike Breuning’s takes on them more or less?) then what he is doing isn’t so much art or craft or porn – it’s more like criticism. With boobs.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Leonard Rossiter, The Sun, weirdness and wanking

Here we go again. Someone else has made an allegation of sexual misconduct against a deceased showbusiness personality at the BBC. As I said about the Savile stuff, such claims need to be taken seriously, although the Leonard Rossiter file would appear to be rather slimmer.

But again, I’m more interested in the way the story’s being played, particularly by the BBC’s less placable foes. The Rossiter claims were first published in The Sun, but were quickly picked up (with attribution) by the Daily Mail. Now, normally when one paper runs an article that’s based on an exclusive by another story, they at least have the grace to hone the facts to their own in-house style, rather than simply copying and pasting the original. But there are a couple of stylistic quirks that struck me as interesting in the original version, and were then carried over in the Mail’s version of events. The first is the description of what it was that Rossiter was doing. In The Sun, Stephen Moyes says that he “performed a sex act”. Leon Watson’s story in the Mail uses exactly the same language. 

Now, I don’t know exactly what was going on, but I’m guessing that the allegation is that Rossiter was masturbating. I can’t honestly see another interpretation, although I’d be happy to hear any ideas you might have. Now we know that both The Sun and the Mail have a weirdly conflicted attitude to sexual activity, drooling over young flesh in various levels of undress, but steering clear of anything too anatomical. But both these articles demonstrate how morally bankrupt such guidelines are. It’s a story about an allegation of attempted rape and in both papers, the word “rape” is used several times. Quite right too. But neither Moyes nor Watson can bring themselves to say outright that Rossiter was masturbating. The only feasible explanation is that the journalists (or, to be fair, their respective editorial overlords) think their readers will find an act of masturbation to be more horrible and disturbing than an act of rape. I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a rather peculiar paradigm of sexual morality, especially in newspapers condemning the “cesspit of depravity” (quoted in both stories) that apparently exists at the BBC.

The other oddity is about the context in which the assault is alleged to have taken place; during the production of Nigel Kneale’s play The Year of the Sex Olympics. Both Moyes and Watson use the same adjective to describe the work: “weird”. Now, I don’t know if either Moyes or Watson has seen The Year of the Sex Olympics. If they haven’t, I wonder on what basis they presume to assess its weirdness. They might like to know that it’s a dystopian fantasy about an elite that controls the moronic masses with a stream of crass media programming, ranging from non-stop pornography to a reality TV show that descends into murder. And I wonder, in the event that they ever get round to watching the show, whether these employees of Associated Newspapers and News International might experience a nervous frisson of recognition. If they don’t, they must be a bit weird.

PS: My friend Nick has given the story a bit of a fisking and, to say the least, the details don’t really stand up. In his words: “(a) There aren’t any rehearsal rooms at Television Centre; (b) What was an extra doing at rehearsals anyway? (c) The scenes being described were, in any case, shot at Ealing Film Studios.” But if they’d mentioned that, it would have rather diluted the BBC connection that was the only reason the story made it into The Sun.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Debenham's versus Abroad

Debenham’s, the archetype of don’t-frighten-the-horses retail, has revealed that 70% of its customers have difficulty with the Italian-ish names bestowed upon warm beverages and that from now on, cappuccino will be “frothy coffee”, latte will be “really, really milky coffee” and so on.

Of course, Debenham’s isn’t really responding to the linguistic befuddlement of their punters. Instead, they’re grabbing a few bytes of publicity by positioning themselves as defenders of good old English common-sense, in the face of all those noisy foreigners and their funny talk. If a fine, upstanding Englishman such as Nigel Farage ever stopped bellowing for long enough to drink a coffee, one supposes, he’d want to drink a really, really milky one, not one that probably tastes of garlic and subsidies and committing adultery in the afternoon.

But why stop with the coffee? Next time I go to Debenham’s, I don’t want to be troubled by fanciful verbiage of any variety. If I want to buy a jumper, I want it to be called a jumper, and nothing else. Well, maybe a blue jumper, or a really, really baggy jumper. And the same goes for spatulas and duvets and footstools. In fact, the very name Debenham’s is an affectation too far. They should tear down all their signage and replace it with a small sheet of paper bearing the words “A SHOP”. And have Nigel Farage on duty outside, in a Union Jack waistcoat, shouting at anyone who uses a word that ends in a vowel.