Thursday, January 5, 2012

2012: Out with the .....? and in with the .....?

Okay, I’m back, after a couple of weeks of luxuriating in unprecedented SoCal warmth, house-sitting at friends’ Spanish villa in Altadena, commuting to kundalini yoga classes every day at Golden Bridge in Hollywood, hanging out with family—and taking a necessary break from thinking.

But then my friend, Larry, and I got to talking about music, as we have over the years, and I was surprised to hear him say that music is in a lull, and there’s been nothing new since Radiohead. Really? Meanwhile I’m finding that there are so many new and interesting sounds out there I can hardly keep track of them.  I love that I can stream KCRW’s Eclectic 24 all day long and enjoy almost everything (except Tom Waits; what do people see in him?). I’m always writing down the names of bands I’m going to explore in more depth on Spotify, but I never get around to it because the next day there’s a whole new list.

Larry put forth his theory “that the generation associated with 9/11 are a little traumatized and didn't invent very much (now they are 28 to 36-year-olds)” and hopes the "occupy generation will come up with something provocative and new.”

Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire are pretty exciting to my ears, but Larry doesn’t like them. MGMT? He says they sound like the Stones, ca. 1979. Huh? They may have written a tribute to the Stones, but they also wrote one (their only annoying song) to Brian Eno. Far from being “stunned” their music is celebratory to the point that their last album is entitled, “Congratulations!” And what about Lady Gaga? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Larry referred to an article in the current Vanity Fair,You Say You Want a Devolution” by Kurt Anderson, whose thesis is that, “as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.”  To Kurt, cars look the same, clothes look the same, and music sounds the same as it did in 1992. (A similar argument is put forth in Simon Reynolds’ book, Retromania).

As far as cars go, it’s unfair to expect innovation from an industry that’s been simply struggling to stay alive. In fashion, even if the disappearance of showy designer labels were the only change, the world is better for it. I, for one, am delighted that leggings finally returned. We still wear jeans, but they’re tighter—a lot tighter. Along with being squished like sausages into their “jeggings,” women are teetering around on cartoon-like high heels (no one said we have to like what the younger generation is wearing, remember?) Oh, and how about this? More facial hair for men and less pubic hair for women (is there a connection? I’ll try not to make something of it). Then there’s the plaid fad, come and (hopefully) gone, and in footwear a proliferation of boots—high, higher, short, and (except for Uggs), pointy and pointier—flip-flops and (eek!) Crocs. In the past ten years waistbands dropped to the point of exposing the tops of thongs and worse, but have mercifully inched upward. We have global warming to thank for the fact that there’s a lot less clothing in general, and with so much more exposed skin, tattoos and piercing are now mainstream.

Regarding music, I put the question to son Matt, a culture critic by profession, who commented that just as it’s hard to buy a bad bottle of wine these days, music in general is of such high quality that the A bands might not stand out as much from the B bands as they once did. He reminded me of the junk music that proliferated on the airwaves in the 70’s—an entire genre of “soft rock” that is, thank God, pretty much done for. Larry is complaining about Bon Iver and The National, not Rod Stewart and Tom Jones—and even he will no doubt admit that teen throbs Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are more listenable than the Osmonds and the Carpenters ever were.

Lady Gaga is hardly “stunned,” nor is she simply a clone of Madonna (Anderson calls it an “Immaterial Difference,” which is cute but not accurate). In fact the very same issue of Vanity Fair has a cover story on Gaga with a pull quote that states, “As ‘Jo Calderone’ at the V.M.A.s, she instantly made every female star who had pink hair or wore a contraption on her head look dated.” Stuck in their need to make disparaging pronouncements about the younger generation (just like our parents!—it’s a stage of  human development that, while undocumented, is as predictable as the Terrible Twos) it’s possible that Boomers simply can’t see the distinctions. While the “provocative and new” characterized the revolutionary times we grew up in, they may not be the qualities this revolution requires. My theory (I’m at that age; we have to have them!) is that there’s a time for innovation and a time for development, and we’re in the latter stage—it’s just that our hunger for the new has kept us from exploring it.

Further, how actually “new” was our beloved rock ‘n roll? Someone old and hip in the 50s could have easily dismissed Elvis’s music as a fusion of existing music: rockabilly and R & B. What made it “provocative” was the fact that he was white. And the Stones and the Beatles would have been nowhere without Elvis—they could have been seen as clones in the beginning, when their provocativeness had more to do with being British with funny haircuts.

“Newness” in 50s and 60s may have been more about a culture gap, which is now closed.

In making his case for stasis, Anderson also notes that Frank Gehry was the major architectural influence in 2002 and still is in 2012. So what? We had Frank Lloyd Wright from 1895 to 1959 and we’re not finished with him yet.

Therefore, it may be that Occupy Wall Street, rather than copying, is building on the peace movements of the 60s, Gaga is building on the Madonna precedent as MGMT is building on a synthesis of the Stones, Eno, the Beatles, Bowie and Pink Floyd (to whom I think they owe the most) without sounding like any one of them….

Which brings us to contemporary art, which truly sucks (at least that in most museums and commercial galleries). Unlike architecture and music, it really is devolving. Instead of building on the old ideas, current art is getting watered down to the point that it has little pulse left, with artists reinventing the wheel left and right. I believe, however, that the cause is situational rather than generational. Where Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden of MGMT could sit in their Wesleyan University dorm rooms in the mid-00s, sharing the music they liked, listening to it over and over, picking it apart, their BFA counterparts were relegated to looking at projected images or reproductions in books or on the Web. How many had actually seen a Rauschenberg combine? And even if they did, what about the ones that came before and after it? How many art students now know that Eleanor Antin preceded Cindy Sherman, or that Lucas Samaras has already done everything they (the students) are trying to do? How many have experienced an actual installation by Olafur Eliasson or attended Marina Abramovic’s piece at MoMA or have seen Christian Marclay’s The Clock? That’s why museum retrospectives, like MoMA’s de Kooning show (closing 1/9) are so important, but becoming fewer and fewer as belts are being tightened; it’s so much less expensive to clear the Guggenheim for Tino Sehgal than it is to borrow, insure and ship invaluable works.

Former art movements evolved out of direct contact: social situations that built on other social situations, younger artists reacting—in person—to the artists and art of previous generations. Now they're responding to information rather than the immediate visual experience a true understanding of art requires. Also galleries and museums, by their very nature, cannot react to the times because they’re planning at least a year, if not years, in advance.

That’s why we shouldn’t be looking to galleries and museums for the new but to the streets. Street Art is currently the most exciting and relevant visual art because it’s generated in a social situation and must survive in the moment, which is unique to NOW. One example:

Meanwhile, if you want true inspiration in fashion, look to the kindergarten crowd, set free because liberal parents no longer feel the need to pick out their children's clothes—and unlike earlier generations, kids so far seem to have no desire to conform to any but their own sensibilities. I wish you could've seen the little girl at the airport in high, polka-dot rubber boots, shocking pink tutu, and long-sleeved striped T-shirt, her curly hair topped by a giant bow. And here’s my little friend, Lucinda, who, every time I see her, is wearing yet another imaginative combo. All is not lost.

*Thanks to Roberto Juarez and Nikolas Freberg for their input. 


Rob said...

It is mostly a male thing. Somehow the imagery of lying face down in the gutter after a long night of drinking and smoking (even if you don't smoke), and having midgets dancing over your half dead body while prostitutes pick the last dimes out of your pee stained pants appeals to our sense of accomplishment and survival skills. But still, as a poet, you must appreciate his lyrics? Next you're going to say you don't like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan either -- please, don't let it be true!

Carol Diehl said...

We're talking about Tom Waits here, I presume. No, I have complete respect for Cohen and Dylan as artists and game-changers, although sometimes I prefer to hear someone else sing their songs. :-) Down and out never held much fascination for me.

Rob said...

BTW, congrats on the Warhol grant. Hopefully, this means we'll see more posts this year.

Anonymous said...

fantastic post Carol, thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Great post. It's interesting that the world population recently reached 7 billion, the highest ever on the planet. And all of these people for the first time in history have the technology to
communicate on a global scale. Statistics alone dictate the probability of an interesting conversation, but how that manifests into art has yet to be fully realized.

thanks carol!

michelle muldrow said...

I really enjoyed your post! I disagreed with that article as well. It smacked of being an old curmudgeon..yes, everyone influences everyone, it doesn't mean it isn't new..There are whole experiences that get interpreted and the filter is different if you are an 18 year old, emulating Gram Parsons, than a 40 year old..Critics lose their ears/and frankly art critics too, when they can only see their own experiences through their reflected age in new work..
While there isn't a Strokes/Yeah Yeah Yeahs moment happening,there is interesting things happening,it reminds me of the late 80's when many different movements of music were percolating.It's not a fallow time.I was a musician before I returned to painting,I was signed on Interscope, experienced the record industry in the 90's.While there was a lot of money in the industry then, it seemed so hard to make things happen if you weren't signed.By the late 90's payola was so entrenched in the radio/record store, it seemed unless you had billions, you couldn't make that the whole industry blew apart and the advent of youtube,blogs,internet radio- I think bands are just starting to realize what they can do.Although I have an art career now in painting, I actually think that it is not a bad time to do my music again.It's become so wonderfully DIY, it is liberating.

Anonymous said...

An exhilarating post. Thanks for the fresh air!

The question at the heart of your post seems to be Does knowing current and past art really well help an artist or prevent an artist from creating good new work?

The little girl in the cool outfits clearly isn't up on her Betsy Johnson, and only because we have a natural affection for her -- and a sensitivity to the details -- do we not dismiss her as an unwitting wheel-reinventor.

It's my belief that if people understood that an artwork's importance lies not its status as a "plot point" in the trajectory of Art History, if people were less quick to criticize something for having been "done," they would notice that it is nearly impossible for an artist or musician NOT to offer SOMETHING fresh and new in every work. To expect anything less is to stop looking and listening entirely!

Which introduces my real point: "Development" is just "Innovation" in smaller increments, and smaller increments, to an increasingly conscious population, are as invigorating and inspiring as the debut of Elvis. We, the supposedly "stunned" youth, are, on the contrary, highly attuned. We are sensitive to the innumerable artistic variations possible at any given moment -- and enthusiastic about our freedom to riff on them. We feel no need to push against the past in order to have our say, and we don't see artworks and artists of the past lined up in a sad hierarchy like "The Evolution of Man" but rather a big party in which we get to watch each other dance and imitate, with our unique bodies, any moves we please.

Creating art and music are no longer rebellious pursuits in service to an ego's need to distinguish itself, but rather acts of appreciation and celebration -- including for the fact that nothing precludes anything. It's not even possible for a single person to recreate his OWN artwork over and over without altering and improving it.

Yes, Virginia, we artists can't help but be original. It's okay if not everybody sees it yet. Soon, the large print edition will come out. That may be more to my taste, too. Drama is a powerful flavor.