Peripatetic Postcards

I Know It When I See It

For those in America, of a certain generation (or two), a knowing smile, perhaps. For, the words in the title form the catch-phrase associated with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous struggle to define pornography. For most of us, it may be clear what porn is (within a relative range of gradations, accommodating blips of difference here and there), but can we actually define it? Can we articulate the standard by which this one is and that one isn't?

Like many aspects of our social world, hard and fast rules often elude us over the most consequential of matters.

(For instance?

Nation X is part of the "Axis of Evil". Hence, we must attack them for possessing weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, Nation Y is also a part of the "Axis of Evil". Hence, we must refrain from attacking them for possessing weapons of mass destruction . . .

. . . now, wait a minute, I know I was making a point here . . . )


. . . Ah yes, the relativism of "I know it when I see it" (since "it" might end up being two and the same thing, at once).


That point was driven home the other day when I visited the Pompidou, the site of Paris's National Museum of Modern Art. Leading to a variation on the Potter Stewart (and, by deficiency of ratiocination, the George W. Bush) test.

In this case: "what is art?" Can we really know it when we see it? For instance, is that rough-hewn red pig over there art? How about that glistening red rhino la bas?

Spend a day at the Pompidou and the questions are sure to come. Often. And often in dizzying succession.

"What is art?"

"Will I really know it when I see it?"

"How could I possible know?"

Ah, the perpetual, vexing conundrums of negotiating a day on the pock-marked, pot-holed roads of human existence.


In this case (and for your edification), the pig was outside a bric-a-brac shop just within the shadow the Pompidou. Exposed to the elements and endless sweaty palms and chocolate-coated fingers of kids passing by. The rhino, on the other hand, was inside the Pompidou, polished and way-off-base for anyone hoping to cop a stroke along its smooth alabaster surface. So, is it the fact of installation -- the existence of socially-enforced rules regarding touch -- that makes an object art?

Why, there's ol' Georges, hizzownsef, right now. We might ask him. Long laid to rest, but . . . "hey Georges: are you art?"

Or are you just the grand eminence, presiding over all these objets?

Well, about these objects of yours. Let me ask you: "are they art?" Would you know it, if you saw it? I mean, just because they are in your building, does that make them the real deal?


For a long time, this was the kind of conversation associated with the Center, itself -- which is to say the physical infrastructure housing all this . . . whatever it is, once we see it. Was this building an eyesore or high art?

With its futuristic (for the 1970s) styling: a jangle of exposed beams and girders and pipes and glass housing, running -- where?: into one another in a mass of visual cacaphony or in harmonious, graceful concatenation?


Well, that debate has been to put to rest, but others -- decades long, at the very least -- remain. Endemic disputes about the nature of art. You know, your basic wars over ontology. For some. art is the simple sketch of something recognizable, mundane. A moment, an action:

For others, it is the complex convergence of contours and colors, the ability to see and express, perhaps, what no other can -- certainly not in the same way:

For still others, art is the materials as much as the shape or coloration or the ultimate manifestation of voice:

Okay, that slithering form is expression -- possibly; communication, one presumes. But is it -- and the thing you sit on to contemplate its serpentine form -- art? A number of "artists" on display in the Pompidou apparently would have you believe so:


Matisse was an artist -- a good one, it is roundly agreed. There are rooms devoted to him at the Pompidou. At least three on this particular visit. Matisse, like protean artists of his ilk, had numerous styles; various periods and experiments to try on for size. From line drawings to full-hewn, fill in the spaces in-between.

So, looking at Matisse, we know that art truly does come in versions, as it does genres. And looking at others adorning the galleries at Pompidou, we know that art is not all of one cloth, so to speak. For, as we take in the walls and floors and cases and ceilings of the Pompidou, "art" includes planks hung on a wall; a canvas turned on the diagonal; a paper mache gown. a vibrant silk-screen built of inverted images; neon lights suspended from a ceiling; prime numbers, added consecutively, and hung as a neon display in (physically) ascending fashion across three walls . . .

. . . on and on.

Leading me to wonder: "is any of it art if all of it is art?"


As I made the rounds, asking my questions, I noted that many of the pieces I encountered referenced art from bygone eras. Leading me to wonder whether art can really exist in the product formed primarily of someone else's effort. Can my artistic "creation" really be a simple re-interpretion or rendering of work by a precursor third party? Can it be art when creations of the past are used as the base for the present? Is it fair to cash in on someone else’s hours of sweat and pain and confusion and feverish, countless revisions? Maybe we are past this debate in a world peppered with decades of hit covers, mash-ups and rap laid over previously hummable tunes, but still, where is the art in masterpieces blithely appropriated, reproduced, then somehow modified?

For much of my “artistic” and then intellectual life, I firmly believed that a major portion – perhaps the lion’s share – of what qualified a creation as art was its conception. The art was in the original idea that no one else could have arrived at – well, at least not in that particular way. Hence, Michaelangelo or 0Tintoretto or Van Gogh. Of course, it is “in that way” that comprises the other component of art: execution. Because it is in the realization of the idea in tangible form that art actually becomes; it is in the process of production that art actually finally, indisputably “is”. It is this aspect of "how" a concept becomes reality wherein the "art" label gets conferred.

If so, if this be the case, though, then how original must the idea of executing what has been executed before -- albeit with a twist - be?


Surrounded by all these efforts at expression – some of which seem, in their lackluster, underwhelming essence, to fail either the "conception" or the "execution" criterion (or – egad – both!) -- one might even be tempted to take a stab at it oneself. I mean, if he or she can do that, then why not me? Given the appropriate materials, the opportunity, some inspiration, and a capable medium to work with . . . one might seek to adopt the “artist” mantle, themselves. Say, begin with this:

. . . and come up with something like this:

And, depending on how it is framed and executed, putting someone else in the picture might even become art.

Or how about sticking oneself in the frame. Could that be art?

We could call it “self-portrait in shadow on canvas, #3”. Names, you know, have a tendency to confer legitimacy on an undertaking. Or so Orwell said. (And who is in a position to challenge what Orwell said -- about this, that or any other thing?)


Well, okay. Agreed. Perhaps not everything that we create with our eyes, our fingers, our synapses, our grey (and white and pink – for that matter) matter is art. Maybe something more is required than simply catching the reflection of one's shadow across a pre-formed, previously composed canvas. Perhaps to qualify as "art" something extra is demanded. Like . . . what?

This question comes to me as I stand before this work . . .

Regard: the confluence of a bare-breasted woman -- not completely in the frame. She is backed by a man encased in a window, intently cranking the focus on a pair of binoculars. Is that enough to qualify as "art"? Well, we can talk about concept; we can mention materials; we can speak of execution. We can even dress it up by pontificating about its purported meaning; observing that beneath the simple composite lies a complex juxtaposition detailing our modern condition: the contemporary obsession with sexuality, with surveillance, with skewed gender relations, with exhibitionism or exploitation, with private becoming public at every turn.

If so, how about it then? All things considered, that lithograph is art you say?

Well . . . yeah! Sure. I mean, if you put it that way, then it's obviously art! Right?

Fine. But if you would, please don't think to ask me how I would define it . . .

Because . . . I mean, aside from the fact that I know that before us hangs an image suggestive of any number of possible meanings, I can't really tell you why or whether that makes it "art". (Could you?)

You know, it's got . . . it's . . . well, there's . . . oh, and that other thing . . . it's like . . . oh, and don't forget that part . . . you know, that other thing -- there. The . . . um, what's that called?

Well, hell, it's hard to explain . . . but, one thing I know for sure . . .

I know it when I see it.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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