The Art of Speed

by Stefán Snaevarr

17 December 2002


A Norwegian film critic pointed out that film is the first form of art that is entirely capitalistic; invented in order to make money. To my mind, something similar holds for rock ‘n’ roll: it is the first purely capitalist type of music. Actually, there are indicators that rock was in some sense invented by the music industry.

The industry was searching for music that united country and African-American music. Some white parents abhorred black music, and they discouraged, even prohibited, their children from buying that kind of music. So people like Elvis Presley were a godsend to the executives of the music industry. At last, a Caucasian who could sing like a black man! The money started (rocking and) rolling in and the rest is history, the hi$tory of the mega-buck.

I do not know whether or not this story of the origin of rock is true. What I do know is that there is a weird way in which the history of rock ‘n’ roll reproduces the drama of pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism. While it took such “respectable” forms of art like literature and the visual arts ages to go through these stages, rock went through this development in the course of a few decades.

The pre-Beatles rock can be called “pre-modern”; the reason being that it was naive, with no ambition whatsoever of being art. As is well known, the idea of art with a capital A is basically the product of the modern age. Before modern times, there was no idea of originality or progress in art. And the same holds for pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll.

In the mid-60s, however, a lot of rock musicians started to strive for the making of “true blue” art, and the cognoscenti began to demand originality at all costs. I can still hear the differences between the sound of rock songs from ‘67, and then from ‘68! That shows how hard the rock musicians tried to be creative, move on, and change their tunes every day. Rock had reached its modernistic phase, call it “pop-modernism”. Influential rock musicians, spearheaded by the Fab Four, lived in accordance with Ezra Pound’s maxim “make it new!”. Moreover, the lyrics of rock songs were often distinctly modernistic, as can be seen from the songs of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and the British progrock group Yes.

In the early ‘70s the mood changed. There was a widespread feeling that the fountains of rock’s creativity had run dry. This feeling is admirably expressed in Don Maclean’s song, “American Pie”, most notably in the lines “the day the music died” (it is a sign of our times that Madonna’s recent version of the song changed it into just another pop tune). At that time rock started to make ironic comments on its own history and the intermingling of styles becomes quite popular. Witness the British rock opera, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The 70s were basically such a post-modernistic period and possibly rap took over the mantle of post-modernism in popular music (as my readers might remember, this is Richard Shusterman’s theory). However, rap seems to change all the time, new gimmicks coming up every year, which indicates that the idea of originality plays a role in hip-hop culture. Hard rock, on the other hand, has more of the elements of folk music; therefore being very traditionalistic and non-innovative.

Be that as it may, rockers hard and soft move fast and rock’s got some fast moving cousins. The cousins in question are very fittingly called “the movies”. And the movies have also gone through the same speedy development as rock — from pre-modernism to post-modernism in a span of less than 100 years.

There was a long pre-modern phase, which ironically coincided with the arch-modernist phase of other artforms. The reason that the movies developed differently is quite obvious: modernism is not lucrative and the art of film is a money-grabbing form of art. Of course there were exception to this rule. The ‘20s saw the birth of the “cinéma pure” movement, whose members made abstract movies. The most famous of these movies was Ferdinand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique. About the same time, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dalí made their famous (even infamous) surrealistic movies (I want to add that the animated Hollywood cartoons from the ‘40s are even more surrealistic than anything these two gentlemen ever made!). But notice that none of these movies were full-length. By and large, full-length movies were pre-modern until the late ‘50s. Whatever artistic movies made were usually either realistic or romantic. An example of the latter is Jean Cocteau’s dreamlike Orphée.

Notice that most of the Hollywood movies in these pre-modern days were made by anonymous collectives, pretty much like pre-modern artworks, generally. We have good reason to maintain that the very pre-modern Icelandic sagas were created by collectives, and their authors are unknown. In the 19th and 20th centuries, efforts were made by scholars to find out who “the real” authors of these sagas were. The children of the modern age could not conceive the idea of a text, which did not have a given author. Similarly, the film critics who made the French journal Cahiers du Cinema famous maintained that certain Hollywood films bore the distinct marks of certain “auteurs” — directors who were the real creator of these movies.

In fact, these critics, most notably Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, invented the role of the director as a creator, and in the process invented modernism in the movies. Godard and Truffaut then famously started to direct (and create) their own movies, being the founding fathers of the French “nouvelle vogue”, “the new wave”. However, Godard and Truffaut were not really arch-modernist since there is a post-modernist streak in Godard’s movies, pre-modern in Truffaut’s. In contrast, Bunuel and Alain Resnais were among the “pure” cinematic modernists.

Modernism in the movies did not last long. In the early ‘70s the cinema became post-modernistic. The filmmakers started to make movies that were in the first place somewhere in-between the entertaining and the “serious”. Second, these films were full of ironic comments to earlier movies. (True, there is no lack of such ironic comments in Godard’s films, but they had hardly any entertaining, popular moments.) Examples of such post-modern moviemakers can be America’s Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch, Sabu of Japan, and the Great Dane Lars von Trier.

There is no lack of speed in the movies these guys make. Naturally, movies tell stories in a much faster way than books can. Likewise, a rock song moves quicker than any other type of songs. So no wonder that these forms of art have developed faster than any other forms of art. They send messages to the hurrying man; they are the artforms of speed.

Thanks to Soeren Birkvad for his excellent comments.


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