Monday, October 08, 2012

Casaubon in the age of Facebook

Culture has always been commodified. The Elizabethan theatre would expect an instant turnaround from its playwrights. A "hit" might run for longer, a "miss" would require a new play to be rushed onto the stage. There was probably a good market in fresco paintings in Renaissance Florence as well. Our current equivalent; a decade or so after the "cultural industries" became commodified - that post-Bilbao rush to urban cultural flag-planting - there are a number of questions relating to our new austeritied times. On the one hand there are probably more artists, poets and musicians than any time in history. On the other; where are the culturally significant? Are we stuck with "names" living off reputations forged ten or twenty years ago  - or in a world where curators can make a name from themselves by magpie-like, picking up the "hot" names just before they sizzle in the mainstream sun, is there some kind of arms-race amongst the big galleries; the big prizes?

Our audiences as well - are they "finite" or ever changing? Life is not so consistent as in previous generations. Watching a Simon and Garfunkel concert from the late 1960s we see not hippy flower children, but the well-to-do baby-boomers, post-marriage and possibly pre-children, respectable couples that are fated to the conventional marriages that Dustin Hoffman was ready for before he met "Mrs. Robinson". At a gallery launch in Manchester, you don't just see the same faces; but the same type of faces - a new year's crop of students, post-students, etc etc.

I marvel, even in the age of austerity, at how late Capitalism's exagerrated Ponzi scheme has somehow spilled over into culture. All this activity going into an album or a film that is forgotten after a weekend; a constant sense of activity to keep the paying (or non-paying) customer busy. How to keep up? How to even keep up in a smallish city like Manchester when this week alone there were two major exhibition launches? The First Cut at Manchester Art Gallery on Thursday (all I can say is GO!) and David Shrigley at the Cornerhouse on Friday.  The paper works in The First Cut belie this frantic activity - who knew there were s many artists doing frankly astonishing things with paper? Origami this isn't. Impossible to write a review based on an opening - but the sense of wow was there from the start, and the range and complexity of the work on display (from massive installations to tiny sculptures) made me wonder: who knew there was a whole world of paper-artists doing there own little thing? Perhaps that is what modern curation amounts to - a bringing together; not of a scene, but of like-minded artists. I've not been to the Shrigley yet, but here's an artist who is better known outside of Fine Art, perhaps like Grayson Perry, crossing that line. I imagine this will be incredibly popular; familiarity with an artist's name encouraging engagement. Though I doubt we'd see a Jack Vettriano show at the Cornerhouse; interesting how art is categorised. I was at the Buy Art Fair and the Manchester Contemporary the week before, and the former, with its commercial galleries, seemed not just stale, but little more than decoration - whilst the latter, representing a range of galleries where more cutting edge art is being exhibited - seemed not just collectable, but accessible. I'm wondering if we're seeing something of what happens a decade on from the "creation of a taste" that Tate Modern and the YBAs heralded. I headed to Damian Hirst's Artist's Room (a travelling portfolio, placing contemporary artists in provincial galleries) at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. It was great to see "Away from the Flock" again, like bumping into an old friend, and his work - anatomical, mortality-obsessed, always somewhat sculptural in its form - fitted surprisingly well with the Epstein's of the Garman-Ryan collection. Genuine dialogue between the two artists.

The artists gathered in the First Cut aren't made for a one-night wonder; there's too much technique, too much intricacy in the use of their material. Yet, we move on. I was interested to see that the Frieze fair now has a pre-2000 tent (and accompanying magazine.) On occasional trips to London or elsewhere I tend to visit historical shows. My interest in contemporary art is strong, but its contextualised for me, by a trip to the V&A or wherever. This is me catching up on the art history I never got at school or afterwards. But history also reveals. My poetry has rarely felt much affinity with whichever contemporary books are du jour at any one point. This week you could have drowned in poetry; it was national poetry day (this year's nonsensical theme: Stars), the Forward Prizes went to Denise Riley, Jorie Graham and Sam Riviere. The shortlist for the Manchester Poetry Prize was published. If you'd thought from the Riviere listing that there was some poetic break with the past - that a poetry that referenced the present, that appeared on a blog - could not only be published by venerable Faber; you'll look in vain for contemporary references in the Manchester shortlist, even as you admire the poems.  (Full disclosure: I entered this one, with poems that talked about the coalition government and Mars' Curiousity Rover.)

Micheal Chabon, last night being intereviewed as part of the Manchester Literature Festival, was philosophical about the failure of the John Carter film that he was part of. All that work (all that money) and the film arrived stillborn at the Box Office. This week we heard that career/studio wrecking "Heaven's Gate" was being reissued.

Pop into HMV and they're clearing out last Christmas's box sets so that £200 would buy you the complete Sopranos, West Wing, The Wire and "24", which would be an undergraduate module in 21st century TV drama all by itself. The reason these programmes are so long is the market: no longer a self-contained narrative, but something that has to reinvent and spiral out based on it being a hit in this most competitive of markets.

You see, there are two things at play here. The speed of transmission, or even of consumption of late Capitalism, when it's applied to art; and then the much, much slower transmission of influence, of hard craft, of individual vision, of articulating a personal space in a world that is shouting loudly about what sells and how. What should be a moderator between the two - critical culture - seems swamped by the hype of the market; or at least by the competing voices that require to be heard. Even in the blog space one tends to keep quiet about the crap that's out there, as there's only so much time that you'd rather concentrate on the good stuff. Since the millennium I get a sense that contemporary art hasn't been as effective as in the brash decade before; whilst at the same time appearing to be more successful.Are younger artists creating their own underground space (say, in zines, like Laura Oldfield Ford, or in quirky books like Shrigley?) but with the suss of the Hirst generation's marketing gene? I get a sense that poetry has been healthier this last few years from not being so dependent on Faber-favour, and would only wonder whether Riviere's "81 Austerities" should be interrogated in a wider context - whether the poets he shared Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives with, or others. The HBO/TV boxset has given grand guignol drama on a scale that those of us brought up on the 50 minute standalone story can hardly believe has happened - and made most contemporary film appear childish (or at least, for a younger popcorn gorging audience than the serious work on our screens.)

An artist can only do so much - a life's work can be a series of moments - a great song may come in a minute. Needing an extra track to complete "Revolver" Lennon came up with "She Said, She Said" which kind of invented power pop. "The Wasteland" or "The Cantos" took large chunks of their author's lives. In Middlemarch we are made to laugh at Casaubon, the old academic, unable to publish, as he works on the impossible task that is the "Key to all mythologies" - but Dorothea marries him because she perceives in him a seriousness of purpose that isn't actually there (no more than it is in the dashing Ladislaw.) There are plenty of Casaubon-like tasks littered through 20th century art - whether it's "Finnegan's Wake" or the late novels of too many "great" writers. Yet we need a bit of that seriousness (even if we're drawing cartoons - will there be a better object this year than the new Chris Ware for instance?) As audience-critic-blogger we can just consume if we want - concentrate on the next thing, next show, next song, next poem, next book - and hardly have time to assimilate the last. Caught between the impossible task of a Casaubon, we relentlessly check the goldfish memory of our Facebook status. Somewhere in between these two extremes is where the worthwhile happens.

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