Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Arcade Fire

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

January 5, 2012
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. 

September 2, 2010

An interactive film by Chris Milk

Featuring "We Used To Wait" by Arcade Fire

A merging of art and technology that doesn’t require any kind of “statement.” Click on The Wilderness Downtown and follow the instruction. You may need the Google Chrome browser for this, but it’s worth it—actually I like Google Chrome, and find its single address/search box very handy.

Prepare to be blown away.
August 15, 2010

In the Times today, an article by Ben Sisario, “Amazon Digital Discount Helps Arcade Fire Hit No. 1,” discusses the marketing techniques that (he says) helped Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” edge Eminem off the top slot this week. Sisario cites rave reviews, sold-out shows, and their YouTube concert live-feed as well, but nowhere does he suggest that Arcade Fire might just be good at what they do.

After all, nobody twisted my arm to get me to sit and watch them in front of my computer last Thursday night.

As soon as something (or someone) becomes popular, there’s this assumption that it’s all about marketing. This is what has MFA students looking for gimmicks, the hooks that will insure instant attention, rather than developing intuitive resources that could sustain them through a lifetime in art. 

Not that music popularity isn’t vulnerable to hype, but at least (since SoundScan began tracking actual sales data in 1991) it's measurable—we vote with our dollars when we download songs or buy concert tickets.  In the art world, however, we’re still at the mercy of the gatekeepers (curators, gallery directors, editors and writers) who insist that Richard Prince is the bee’s knees, while most artists I know couldn’t care less. 

Of course everyone knows Eminem is a marketing phenom—and it’s just a coincidence that his bestselling album, Recovery, is really good too.  

August 8, 2010
While everyone seems to be complaining that contemporary art lacks heart, the same isn’t true in music. Maybe it’s because you don’t need an MFA to start a rock band, and you don’t need an agent anymore to promote it. Certainly your typical A & R person wouldn’t have found The Arcade Fire an ideal prospect—the Montreal-based band is just too big (eight core members, more on tour), and their first album (2004), written during a year in which several of the band’s family members passed away, was named Funeral. Yet it was such a success that they were instantly welcomed into the world of super-stardom by the likes of Bowie, Springsteen, Bono and David Byrne and played two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden last week, one of which was broadcast live on YouTube. Even on the itty-bitty screen of my PC (see my Mac debacle in the comments of the post below), it was thrilling, and beyond heartfelt—but with just the right touch; somehow they manage to maintain their indie edge and art-band cool while performing with religious fervor.

Their newest album, The Suburbs is, in son Matt’s words, “a masterpiece.

In an Outliers kind of way, it’s fascinating to trace the sources of this idiosyncratic sound to the distinctive backgrounds of the married songwriting duo, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, which includes, in Butler’s case (be sure to read Butler’s Wiki bio), descending from a lineage of professional musicians. In an interview I can no longer locate, Butler talks about how he never questioned the likelihood of making a life in music.

Chassange’s family emigrated to Canada from Haiti to escape the Duvalier regime, and she has written poetically about her closeness with that country’s struggles in this moving Guardian/Observer editorial, as well as in the song “Haiti,” from Funeral:

Haïti, mon pays,
wounded mother I'll never see.
Ma famille set me free.
Throw my ashes into the sea.

Mes cousins jamais nés
hantent les nuits de Duvalier.
Rien n'arrete nos esprits.
Guns can't kill what soldiers can't see.

In the forest we lie hiding,
unmarked graves where flowers grow.
Hear the soldiers angry yelling,
in the river we will go.

Tous les morts-nés forment une armée,
soon we will reclaim the earth.
All the tears and all the bodies
bring about our second birth.

Haïti, never free,
n'aie pas peur de sonner l'alarme.
Tes enfants sont partis,
In those days their blood was still warm

Chassange did, finally, visit Haiti after the earthquake.

"Wake Up," from Funeral
August 5, 2010
Thanks for the comments!

My big news is that I’m making the switch to Mac. I know, I know….
Reactions from friends and family have been ecstatic:

“It’s about time!”
“Praise the Lord!” (son Matt)

Everyone describes me as the quintessential Mac person, whatever that looks like. Is it my haircut? I said to friend Scott that it’s as if I just came out of the closet and everyone’s acting as if I was the last to know.

“Yes,” he said, “except now we’re all going back to PCs.” Scott’s allergies are making him (even) more perverse than usual.

PS: For those of you who care as much about Arcade Fire as I do, they’re streaming their Madison Square Garden concert tonight on YouTube at 10:00 EST. The urge to rush to the steaming city and try to buy a scalped ticket on the street is almost unsquelchable.