Friday, February 21, 2014

Art is not a monologue

The last few days have been good ones for the anti-art brigade. First, a man in Miami smashed a vase by Ai Weiwei as a protest against the museum’s failure to promote local artists. Then came that reliable classic, the cleaning lady who thought the art was rubbish and threw it away; in this case, biscuit crumbs in Bari. Both actions provoked sardonic support from those who think it’s not proper art if you can’t make a souvenir tea towel out of it. And now a banal apology by President Obama has provoked a firestorm of Gradgrindian hatred, apparently directed at anything that has the word “art” in it.

What’s interesting is how quiet artists themselves are in all this. Ai Weiwei, not usually one to shy away from expressing his opinion, tutted lamely that he doesn’t think people should do stuff like this (although the pictures above suggests it’s OK to do it to your own art), but that’s about all. The thing is, as media becomes less top-down and more interactive, this is increasingly how criticism will be expressed and creators are going to have to learn how to stick up for themselves. Annie Slaminsky said on Twitter a few days ago that sites such as Flickr have become social media for visually oriented people, which implies that if you do pictures you can’t do words. I hope that isn’t true.

I’m reminded in some ways of what started happening to journalism in the mid-2000s. When I started writing for Comment is Free, there were seasoned journalists who appeared not to want to engage with the rabble below the line, allowing their articles to appear on screen and walking away. As Graham Linehan said, also with reference to Twitter, You have in your possession a magic mirror, and you're just using it as a mirror!” It was those of us who descended into the pit who really got something out of it and for all the vitriol, the commenters seemed to appreciate it when we did, even if they still thought we were talking bollocks. And if modern art is to beat the austerity-era Gradgrinds, it can’t remain aloof any more. Rising above it is not an option.

PS: Here’s one example of an artist giving the haters a going-over, as photographer Derek Ridgers takes Jonathan Jones to task for his wrong-headed review of a David Bailey show.

PPS: And here are some thoughts about Comment is Free and its founder Georgina Henry, who died this month – in a form she would have appreciated.

PPPS: And it seems as if some of the details in the Bari story were exaggerated. I guess that’s an art as well.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Her: except it’s not about her

So I go to see Spike Jonze’s Her on my own, not quite on Valentine’s Day. If you’ve missed the hype, it’s a sort of conceptual sci-fi romcom about Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional letter writer – hints of Cyrano de Bergerac – who’s struggling to get through a divorce. He installs a new operating system on his phone and begins to fall in love with it.

Well, I say “it” because although he specifically asks for a female voice, it’s just an OS, a disembodied concoction of ones and zeroes. There’s been plenty of critical pondering about what the movie has to say about the Turing test, which posits a computer that can pass as human. But I kept wondering how it would stand up to a different test, the Bechdel, which is passed if two female characters have a conversation on a subject other than a man. There’s no clear answer, because although the OS is given the name Samantha and is voiced by SodaStream-touting sexbomb Scarlett Johansson, the character transcends gender: Theodore could just as easily have chosen to embark on a bromance.

In any case, despite the title, this is really a movie about Theodore. Phoenix gives a very good, understated performance, stepping back from offering a full-on nerdy, otaku stereotype but still miles away from being a conventional masculine protagonist. His combination of moustache and glasses means that in some shots he resembles Tom Selleck, in others he’s more like Johnny Galecki (Leonard from The Big Bang Theory), which pretty much encompasses the gamut of modern-day XY identity.

A few remaining thoughts:
  • In casting Johansson as some kind of unattainable object of love, there’s an inevitable nod to her role in Lost in Translation, directed by Jonze’s then-wife Sofia Coppola and widely believed to contain an unflattering portrait of him in the part of the Johansson character’s husband. That said, the part of Samantha was originally recorded by Samantha Morton but Jonze changed his mind and brought in Johansson to replace her. Sofia Coppola, incidentally, is now married to Thomas Mars, who sings with a band called Phoenix.
  • Is the whole thing just a post-Berners-Lee/Jobs update of the goofy-but-sweet Whoopi Goldberg caper Jumpin’ Jack Flash?
  • Could this have worked with the genders switched, and a meat-and-bones Johansson and/or Morton getting digitally intimate with a transcendent Phoenix? And what tests would it have passed then?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Michael Jackson and the raw cash value of death

Interesting news from France, where five Michael Jackson fans have been awarded symbolic damages to compensate for the pain and suffering they endured when he died in 2009. There’s been much academic contemplation of the effect that celebrities have on the lives and emotions of their fans but this may be the first attempt to quantify that impact. If the death of Jackson is worth a euro, how much for Amy Winehouse or Shirley Temple?

Which ties in quite neatly with Robin Ince’s musings about five high-profile deaths that took place 20 years ago this year. His thrust is that very few people have been able to fill the respective spaces left by the quintet but I remember feeling a sense of loss about all of them – apart from Lindsay Anderson, to be brutally honest, who was the oldest and seemed to have passed his peak by then, although I loved and still love If... The deaths of Kurt Cobain and Bill Hicks were shocking because they were so young, although in retrospect they shouldn’t have been surprising; the odd thing about Hicks was that his final illness wasn’t caused by the drugs or cigarettes that he consumed and espoused. Jarman and Potter had played out their terminal conditions in full view of the cameras; had they been living/dying now, they’d be blogging away quite merrily about the fact. Had I found myself in a courtroom in Orléans attempting to monetise my grief, I’d probably have asked for the biggest wedge for Hicks – maybe ten quid – followed by Potter then Cobain, Jarman and Anderson you could have had for free. Or is that not how it works?

PS: Hadley Freeman makes some good points on how the media should be covering celebrity demises in the interwebnets age, with particular reference to poor old Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

There There

Seriously, kids, don’t self-Google. Like reading an ex-girlfriend’s diary, it can only end in scab-ripping pain. One Robbie Bruens of San Francisco read my 2007 book Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album and then took to GoodReads to offer his considered response:
A phenomenally dumb book with a tendency to shoehorn every conceivable reference while aping the conversational style of erstwhile music critics turned littérateurs Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman with none of their charm, intelligence or wit. Almost entirely devoid of insight, while occasionally offering up actual anti-insights, such as the mistaken idea that all Radiohead super fans are invariably male (half or more of those that I know are female) and some weird idea about how Thom Yorke should do more housework. I wouldn't have finished the thing were it not for my fascination with even the most banal Radiohead trivia. 
Yup, you read it, “almost entirely devoid of insight”. I think my theoretical mid-life crisis tattoo just wrote itself. On the offchance Mr Bruens has ignored my advice regarding Googling himself, thanks!

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Sisi Belle and the raw cash value of beauty

There’s been a combination of tutting and chuckling at the antics of nine-year-old Sisi Belle Bolongaro Trevor, who climbed onto a Donald Judd sculpture at Tate Modern: “kids today are running out of control” and “that’s not really art” oozed together to form a potential entry for next year’s Turner Prize. But I was more intrigued by the response of Stephanie Theodore, the tourist who shopped Sisi and her parents on Twitter (as you do these days, I guess). “Do you know this is a $10 million artwork?” she’s said to have enquired. Which does make me wonder, does the inviolability of a piece of art increase in proportion to its market value? Would Ms Theodore have been more relaxed if the piece had only been worth a million dollars, or a thousand, or 27 cents?

And then there’s the story of Martin Lang, who was informed that not only was the painting for which he’d paid £100,000 not actually by Marc Chagall as he’d thought, but under French law it has to be destroyed. I hope he turns the destruction into a work of art in itself, in emulation of Michael Landy, who ground all his possessions to dust a few years back, or maybe Olga Dogaru, who became a conceptualist by accident when she supposedly burned the paintings her son had stolen from a Rotterdam museum. Maybe Lang should ask Sisi Belle Bolongaro Trevor to clamber all over the canvas first.