In a little less than 12 hours, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will finish up the 2008-9 awards season with the handing out of their precious, publicity-oriented Oscars. In preparation for the critical shoulder shrug to come afterward, SE&L offers these articles written about the coveted little gold statues. They range from reaction to the nominations, a discussion of the Dark Knight snub, and an overview of the multiple times when the Academy got the winner wrong. So put on your designer duds and get ready to walk that torn and tattered red carpet. It’s time for the movie biz to pat itself on the back - and as usual, we can’t resist being spectators.
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At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen raises a good point about Spin magazine’s new record-rating system (it’s pertinent to the one PopMatters uses as well).
The old rating system granted up to five stars but now the maximum number of stars is ten. This signals that they wish to start exaggerating the quality of the product. When there are only five stars you know that they are laying their reputation on the line when they grant five stars to a new CD…. But say they give a new release eight, nine, or who knows maybe eight and a half stars? What exactly are they trying to say?
So by make the rating system capable of finer distinctions, it becomes basically opaque.
I dislike ratings, though I understand why they get used—some readers would like a bottom line without reading, or will only read when the high rating cues them to. Naturally, this gives incentive to writers (and editors) to rate everything higher. Often, the rating is at obvious odds with the reviews themselves, which, if they are not overwrought 75-word blurbs full of incomprehensible comparisons, tend to be more ambivalent, or more charitably, balanced. The best reviews, in my opinion, aren’t reviews at all; they simply take the work in question seriously enough that you know it is stimulating, worthy of careful attention. In other words, everything that is reviewed should be considered worth checking out—in effect, a one-star system, I suppose. The only things that should get panned—a maybe this is a reason for the backlash effect perhaps, come to think of it—is newsworthy new work by already well-known acts. A hatchet job won’t be published at all unless it is about someone the readers already care about, so established artists are often the only ones being savaged in print. Reviewing is a pretty thankless job, and a backlog of bile can easily build up in response to the corrosive effects of the practice—the routinized listening, the striving for things to say to overcome the “dancing about architecture” problem.
When I reviewed music, I had trouble reducing my opinion to a rating, not because my insights were so nuanced, but because in general, most records are incomparable. They can’t be reduced to a common aesthetic currency. What does it mean to rate a reissue of a Kinks record a 10 along with a newly released Radiohead album? Aren’t the standards being applied entirely different? Doesn’t an album grow richer with the years, as its influence plays out and the responses it has prompted in generations of listeners enrich its significance? Ratings set up false equivalencies between works that basically bars them from being taken as seriously as works—art shows and books, for instance—deemed too complex to be assigned a number of stars. Pop music, though, is meant to be cycled through quickly rather than lingered over, and the ratings system suits that end, even if our actual listening practices, thankfully, don’t.
I first heard Simple Minds the way most people probably did; in The Breakfast Club. John Hughes’ magnum opus of teen angst begins and ends with “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” a song written for the film by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff. They offered the song to a number of artists, including Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry, but were turned down by everyone until Simple Minds, under pressure from their label, agreed to record it. The song has been both a blessing and a curse to the band. It was their first and only US number one hit and stayed on the UK charts for an incredible two years. The band, however, obviously had mixed feelings about the success of a song they did not write. This became evident when they decided not to include the track on their next album Once Upon A Time, much to the chagrin of their record label. The album was (and remains) their biggest selling record, but Simple Minds surely couldn’t help thinking that most people who bought it had probably never heard of them before The Breakfast Club. These people missed out on the band at the height of their powers. When they were a glorious mess of ideas and influences. When their sound was changing and developing so fast that they themselves could barely keep up. Unfortunately, the greatness of these early years made the disappointment of their later albums that much harder to take.
Few bands have made such an artistic leap in such a short amount of time. Within one year, Simple Minds released their debut album Life in a Day wearing their influences (Roxy Music, Bowie, Magazine) a little too plainly on their sleeve, to writing, recording, and releasing Reel to Real Cacophony, a record that could not have been the work of anyone else. Angular guitars fight with stabbing synths, creating a kaleidoscope of post-punk pop. Amongst other landmark releases of 1979 from Joy Division (Unknown Pleasures), PiL (Metal Box) and Gang of Four (Entertainment!), it’s easy to forget Reel to Real Cacophony but it’s important not to. It’s an album on par with anything released that year.
Taking their interest in electronic music further, Simple Minds changed gears again with the aptly-named Empires and Dance, released in 1980. Songs like “I Travel” and “Thirty Frames a Second” are cold slices of paranoid disco, dance music for Arctic oil rigs. It’s with this album that singer Jim Kerr began touching upon political issues in his lyrics. At this point they’re effective in their vague evocativeness, and still buried amongst other more abstract imagery, but it was the beginning of a trend that would become detrimental and just plain annoying by the time the ‘90s rolled around.
The band’s label, Artisa, were unimpressed with Empires and Dance and pressed only a minimal amount of copies, making the record difficult for fans to find. Simple Minds jumped ship and signed with Virgin, promptly releasing two albums simultaneously. Sons & Fascination and Sister Feelings Call sees the icy landscapes of their previous album begin to melt and reveal hints of the epic scope their music would soon take.
Graphic designer Shepard Fairey, now famous for the “Hope” posters for the Obama campaign (which has kicked up a legal battle about fair use), had a retrospective recently at the ICA in Boston. Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the New Yorker, was not particularly impressed.
Warhol sublimely commodified images of Mao and the hammer and sickle four decades ago, in keeping with an ambition—to infuse subjects and tones of common culture with powers of high art—that has not grown old. Warhol’s revelatory games with the cognitive dissonance between art and commerce have galvanized artists in every generation since. But you can stretch a frisson just so many times before it goes limp. Like the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who included a Louis Vuitton boutique in his Los Angeles retrospective, Fairey reverses a revolution achieved by Warhol, along with Roy Lichtenstein. He embraces a trend in what the critic Dave Hickey has called “pop masquerading as art, as opposed to art masquerading as pop.”
That remark is a bit cryptic, particularly if you are skeptical about the dichotomy between pop and art. Around what concepts can that dichotomy be organized, anyway, in our culture? Can you refer to the intentions of the work’s creator? And then which intentions are artistic, and which ones aren’t? Evaluating how purposefully commercial a work is no longer lets us pigeonhole it along these lines. Art, after all, is big business, an investment category. Artists have become self-conscious businesspeople, producing their work along industrial lines and with a mind to maximizing its market value by controlling its scarcity and promoting it with various stunts. And the nature of the audience has changed, with the democratization of cultural consumption and the ease with which certain sorts of works can be distributed. Whether something is pop or art may depend entirely on the spirit with which it is contemplated by the viewer—the aesthetic quotient of a particular piece may rely as much on the cultural know-how of the audience as the proficiency of the artist. If we are conditioned to judge visual works by how effective they are in capturing our attention—the way marketing efforts are judged—than is it inevitable that artists will move toward catering to that principle?
These are the sorts of questions Rob Walker gets into in an essay he posted to his site about Fairey from a few years ago. At the time Walker was writing, Fairey was working in marketing but also conducting guerrilla art projects, blurring the lines (at least in his own mind) between the two.
When I interviewed Fairey for that magazine article, I of course asked him about the contradictions involved in, say, being someone who has both wheat-pasted the icon face over Sprite billboards – and who has actually done professional design work for the company that owns Sprite. “People make this very black-and-white delineation,” he said. “But I say, ‘How would you feel about it if it were a little more ambiguous? If all companies had marketing materials that didn’t insult the consumer? That were somewhat creative and intelligent and almost like an art piece with a product behind it?”
In other words, instead of responding to the encroachment of evil branding into the supposedly pristine authenticity of the street by withdrawing – why not engage? If the idea of spreading the Obey image is to see how far the Obey image can spread, doesn’t it make a certain sense for it to show up on apparel that is sold in chain stores? If a multinational can put its icons on the street, maybe the street should put its icons into the shopping mall.
Drawing on cultural historian Jackson Lears’s Fables of Abundance, Walker contrasts Fairey with Joseph Cornell, another artist who appropriated materials from pop culture and refashioned it into art. But Cornell’s work was obsessional, private. It didn’t seem to be made with the idea of seeing how far his influence, or his trace, could be spread, as is the case with Fairey’s work. At the Cornell retrospective I saw in Salem, Massachusetts, the intimacy of the work was unmistakable; peering at his boxes made me feel a bit voyeuristic, even as I was inspired with a notion of my own potential creativity, the ways I could indulge my own obsessions (whatever I discovered them to be) with certain motifs of imagery, certain juxtapositions. Cornell’s art doesn’t seem to want to redeem his found objects so much as to render them mysterious, with all the mystery that a specific person’s peculiar and ineffable fascination can supply them with. Cornell’s work would not make for effective marketing material. The resonance of his designs are too inward and idiosyncratic. They are what no effective advertising can be: creepy.
Advertising is never creepy, always cool. And Fairey’s work seems to fit that aesthetic, prompting viewers to respond with the recognition that something hip is happening in Fairey’s mode of appropriation. Once you recognize that commercial persuasion has crowded out the space for art appreciation for just about everyone in our culture, the natural response is to try to function within commercial persuasion, adapt its ends to one’s own purposes. You can turn yourself into a brand, or you can take personal pride in how effective you shape the image of a product’s brand. Or you can work as though influence (cool, or hip, or what have you) was a medium all its own, with a meta-aesthetic beyond a given work’s persuasiveness. (You see this when people judge Super Ads in terms of their creativity rather than in terms of how many more people purchase the thing advertised.)
Popularity has become a medium in which artists now prefer to work. Artists can now treat the delineation of their influential scope as the measure and the message of their work; this iss perhaps the most characteristic aesthetic for which contemporary culture can take credit—the essence of art in the early-internet era. Artists can extend and measure their reach, “subvert” mass persuasion by perfecting it. But the pursuit of such scale, of making notoriety art, corrupts the intimacy that art like Cornell’s had succeeded in achieving in the past. Or worse, it permits that intimacy to be refashioned as marketing, so it seems like our closest intimates, those privy to our deepest desires and concerns, those who can give them form that can stir and move us, are advertising copywriters.