Sunday, September 18, 2005

A digression around edges

I have failed dismally to do any "primary" work this weekend, so this is a digression really. I picked up Eno's A Year with Swollen Appendices andone of the appendices is on Edge Culture. In this context his digression is not so much about the edge, but about the "line" that art/cultural historians draw. Its possibly going back to the canonical - in literature, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare etc. - and saying that this is how one makes sense of it all, and that this is the dominant cultural strand, and closeness to this strand is what is important in terms of greatness, influence etc. Eno makes the point that the centre - the line, if you like - has adapted through broadening - i.e. bringing a Duke Ellington or whoever into the canon, a kind of "yes, but the canon can also include...". I suppose in a political sense its the way that the mainstream (in the UK at least) adapts to external pressures by bringing them into the camp. Influence, once external, becomes internal, or central. Eno's point is that during the 2nd half of the century the high art consensus pretty much collapsed even though the critics and guardians of that art make a pretence of its continued importance/existence. I guess that's really about saying, what can be placed up there next to the high points of western culture? Do the Beatles fit? Does Miles Davis? We're still wedded to this idea in the same way we're wedded to the idea of the capital/the centre/the institution. There are lots of vested interests. The edge city thesis, is that the interesting stuff is happening on the edges of our metropoli, linked communities at the edge (in this case a geographical one), and this is how we now live our lives. Without reading Garreau its hard to know the exact thesis, but I guess its about the car, our orbital roads, our out-of-town malls - our linking together of once separate settlements that probably took succour from the centre, but now can thrive with each other. South Manchester is such a "strip" I guess. But for culture - I guess Eno's point is that we have to embrace a diversity that doesn't quite fit into any "great man" view of history. Its self-serving in some way, since its doubtful whether a single one of Eno's own tunes or ideas (ambient music perhaps?), will last beyond his involvement with them - I'm a great fan, both of his music and his innovation, but the edge here is perhaps self-selecting. Working with Bowie, Talking Heads, James and U2 - it doesn't, in retrospect, look like someone working with the edge (apart from literally in the case of U2!) but of bringing his awareness of the edge to the mainstream. These are not criticisms - those are some of the most intelligent, articulate artists of the last twenty years - but in music, at least, where all diversity - however deviant - is welcomed, pop music's polyglot polyphony has made any "high art" "low art" debates a little relevant. It seems at any point in history there may be one, two or more genuinely unique talents; most of the time however there is a scene, a wave, a common creed. It's not overstating it to say that it's hard to think of an Anglo-American poet of real stature since the fifties - and that's something about this singular vision matched with a method of executing it, that perhaps is what's most lasting from a Kafka, a Shakespeare, even a Plath. Because it is how work influences a culture that eventually sees its currency lasting, it has to be - or become part of that culture at some point. I've been listening to David Bowie. It seems that his sixties recordings were pale versions of the contemporary zeitgeist, a mod/hippy amalgam. Its only with 1970's "The Man Who Sold the World" that he hit on a darker, more compelling subject. This Neichzean philosophy is commidified, sloganised, popified (McLaren would try the same thing with situationism not long after), for a wider audience. By the time of homage album "HunkyDory", its Bowie as avant garde teacher - Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground, William Burroughs - he's letting his audience in on his recent reading/listening. There's easy access via the bookshops and the internet to any subculture you want now, and I think probably this is where the "line" has now blurred. I've mused for a while: have we "one culture"? Is my reference relevant to anyone else? Yes, and no, and don't get too bothered about it, would seem the answers. I read Iain Banks' "Complicity" with glee when his character was listening to the Pixies (you can't imagine Julian Barnes' or Ian McEwan's characters knowing who they were), but that was then - the Pixies have reformed, are on a reunion tour, anyone, in fact, can now see or buy them. Nick Hornby's frequent music pronouncements are personal, ultimately un-inspiring, canonical only to himself, but that's fine, it's local colour, that's all. I have a great deal of admiration for Alison Lapper, but uts from me seeing a TV documentary of her, not coming across her own work, or even standing in Trafalgar Square and coming across Mark Quinn's sculpture of her, by accident. I know all about it already. Its formally part of our culture - but without any effort on mine, or many other's part. We're even told that yes, she's a real life Venus de Milo, that if the latter can be beautiful then so can she. I've no problems with any of that, but it doesn't leave much for me to do, other than say, "yes, okay, what's the next story?" (As I said, a digression, sorry.)

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