Category Archives: modernism

Annie Lennox: Now I Let You Go

Annie Lennox’ long term exhibit at Mass MOCA was called “Now I Let You Go”. As the text indicates, it’s an exhibit that’s concerned with the meaning we attach to objects and the possible significance they hold when we’re gone.

I found this interesting on many levels. First off, it suggests that memory itself is real and holds some intrinsic value. It also suggests our ability to sanctify objects of nostalgia as well as our ability to immortalize the impact of an individual life beyond his or her physical existence.

I think this is kind of a big deal because the underlying assumptions are, dare I say, religious in nature. In the secular paradigm, we’re just chimpanzees floating through a universe of meaninglessness indulging delusions of free will and morality. All that exists lives in the realm of sense data. The scientific method is the only valid truth test for any unknown quantity. The underlying assumptions are simply beyond the scope of what the secular worldview permits.

What Annie has done here is locate meaning almost exclusively within the realm of the objects which contributed to her artistry. Including the various recording devices and players through which her music was heard. Since she’s a global pop star, we can feel fragments of our own experiences simply through our identification with the times that we heard her and the medium through which the music was transmitted.

If there were any references to her real legacy, her children, they were not readily apparent. Subsequently, I find it odd and somewhat disconcerting that an exhibit that’s so deeply concerned with questions of mortality, legacy, meaning and memory, that she deemed her connection to her family as either cursory or insignificant.

Advertisements

American Bolshevism: The Tragedy and Inevitability of the Destruction of San Francisco’s Counterrevolutionary Arnautoff Mural

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece arguing in favor of Trump’s aborted threat to defund the federal arts apparatus. Like so many conservatives who preceded him, Trump didn’t deliver on this promise and the progressive outrage mob was placated for at least five full seconds. I stand behind the argument I made in the piece, but the recent decision in San Francisco to destroy Victor Arnautoff’s New Deal era George Washington mural prompted a reappraisal of the underlying assumptions of my original argument. Specifically, the possibility that a publicly funded work of art portaying Washington in a less than heroic light holds value in a world of indiscriminate cultural destruction.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the San Francisco city council voted to allocate $600k in taxpayer money to destroy a mural that was commissioned by FDR’s Works Progress Administration and painted by a communist. Why? Because it’s a painful reminder to San Francisco’s Oppressed POCs that AmeriKKKa subjugated and murdered indigenous and brown people, you disgusting bigot. DUH.

For anyone with a rightward perspective, this is yet another moment of vindication and schadenfreude. The self-proclaimed champions of publicly funded art, and the guardians of culture itself by extension, who once celebrated this piece as a triumph of what enlightened and progressive government can achieve have done a full 180. Now, they want to destroy what is presently condemned by the #WOKE proletariat as a symbol of AmeriKKKa’s irredeemable wickedness. Because what else would you expect? Such is the nature of the #SocialJustice ratchet effect.

Let’s pause to do a brief recap and allow ourselves to take in the fullness of the cognitive dissonance. Here we have a mural painted by a communist which views Washington’s legacy through the highly parsimonious lens of Marxist historical revisionism. In other words, it’s a view of Washington designed to emphasize the oppression and misery versus the heroic achievements. This piece was commissioned by FDR’S Works Progress Administration and funded with federal tax dollars yet is now officially Counterrevolutionary Hate Speech according to San Francisco’s #WOKE Revolutionary Commissars. The layers of irony boggle the imagination. Arnautoff’s mural doubtless had numerous detractors both conservative and radical at its inception and since its installment. Regardless, it was piece funded by taxpayers presumably to commemorate both the New Deal and Washington for posterity, but is now being destroyed at taxpayer expense.

Alrighty then.

On one hand, it perfectly validates the case against publicly funded art. When art is funded by taxpayers it can’t avoid being politicized and becomes fodder for the fickle winds of contemporary sentiment. In this case, yesterday’s progressivism isn’t progressive enough for today’s revolutionaries. Case closed. If you think we’ve already entered the 9th circle of Clown World hell, think again. For some on the radical Left, this is seen either as bourgeois oppression of communist culture or an excuse to double down on revolutionary goals!

But let’s take a step back and consider the magnitude of this loss in the wake of today’s neverending slow motion Cultural Revolution. Regardless of your opinion of the NEA, FDR or the painting itself, I invite you to consider that this was an attempt, however niggardly, at canonizing Washington and his legacy for all Americans. Subsequently, it can rightfully be viewed as a contribution to America’s cultural heritage, and by extension, a source of national pride. In contrast to the Left’s overt attempts to troll conservatives with taxpayer money with pieces like “Piss Christ” or Mapplethorpe’s Corcoran Gallery exhibit, Arnautoff’s piece had enough of a veneer of earnestness that any American could, in theory, take a small measure of pride in our first POTUS. It is more likely that the mural was yet another way for spiteful leftists to troll conservatives by forcing them to fund communist propaganda, but for the sake of argument, let’s take the most charitable interpretation of the original intent and grant that this effort was animated by a sense of real national pride. I concede that it’s a stretch of imagination, but let’s give it a shot.

The Left has been carrying out a slow motion Cultural Revolution for the past couple years. In contrast to yesterday’s liberals who could at least pretend that they cared about expressions and symbols of national pride, contemporary progressives make no effort to conceal their utter disdain for America. Whether it’s the idiotic preening of Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick, the demolition of Confederate statues or the routine flag burnings, these acts of vandalism are the acts of cultural destruction one expects from totalitarian ideologues who wish to erase all vestiges of national unity and pride. It’s behavior we saw in Mao’s regime, the Khmer Rouge, the Bolsheviks, the Jacobins as well as their Islamic counterparts in ISIS and Boko Haram. It’s a steady erosion of the past to pave the way for another Year Zero.

People want and crave heroic ideals and individuals who embodied these ideals. In contrast to just about every other nation, America is young country built on what were believed to be pure and noble philosophical abstractions completely divorced from metaphysics and theology. However, people do not follow abstractions. They follow leaders who best embody heroic ideals. This is precisely why America’s founders are idealized in works of art, national symbols and monuments. Despite their human foibles and errors in judgment, America’s founders are intentionally romanticized for the express purpose of concretizing American ideals and binding the citizenry together in their preservation for posterity.

Unfortunately, it is the spirit of negation at the core of American republicanism that makes the destruction of the Arnautoff mural both a bitter loss and an inevitability. Ideally, a publicly funded work of art would be something that would represent a universal and timeless ideal which upholds a classical standard of beauty. One would hope that such a project would be borne of a genuine spirit of national pride and would inspire unity for generations to come. However, the very possibility of either universal timeless ideals or objective aesthetics are impossible in the post-Enlightenment worldview. The current decision is likely the exact outcome the painting was intended to produce.

For the the communist, the only ideal he sanctifies is perpetual revolution. Despite America itself being a product of revolutionary ideals, the communist sees only bourgeois subjugation of the various proletariat underclass groups he chooses to recognize for the purpose of advancing his own political power. The communist is not an aberration of American republicanism. He is inextricably linked to the post-Enlightenment dialectic. A society which purports to uphold a free marketplace of ideas has to allow people who only seek to destroy and undermine the very order that allows them to pursue their absurd and nihilistic jihad. After decades of propaganda which consistently casts the leftist rebel as the beleaguered underdog desperately struggling to be given his fair hearing in the court of public opinion, it has finally reached its logical conclusion in the unfortunate destruction of what was already a flawed memorial to America’s first President.

Wynton Marsalis and the Paradox of Artistic Conservatism in the Progressive Age

Wynton Marsalis has positioned himself as a jazz conservationist and all purpose pop culture reactionary for the past several decades. From his lofty perch ensconced in the Lincoln Center, Marsalis has inveighed against the pernicious influence of avant garde, R&B and hip hop to howls of outrage on numerous occasions. Reviled by many in the musician community as a self-appointed authoritarian schoolmarm, effete royalist and uptight poindexter, Wynton is an easy target for any artist with modernist sympathies. As one would expect, Marsalis’ latest foray into the white hot culture wars has provoked yet another collective spasm of indignation from the social media commentariat. Brace yourself, proles. In an interview with Jonathan Capehart, Marsalis posited that hip hop is “more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee.” Cue autistic screeching.

Marsalis has been just as outspoken in his opposition to the degrading influence of popular music as he has been in defense of what he considers a more edifying, uplifting, and yes, traditional vision of black art. While his statement does not represent a radical departure from any previous public claims, it is yet another noteworthy cultural moment in our current climate of supercharged identity politics and battles over free speech. Not only does it parallel the absolute shitstorm that followed Kanye West’s recent public statements in support of Trump and Candace Owens, it draws attention to some deeper questions over whether being an artistic conservative of any stripe is even possible in the techno-progressive age.

Just as you can roughly divide people along conservative and progressive lines in the political sphere, the same can be said for the artistic. An artistic conservative would generally subscribe to the notion that tradition should be respected, have objective aesthetic criteria, and its practitioners should be held to the highest standards of excellence. The artistic conservative would not buy into the idea that good art is completely subjective nor should it be completely democratized. Conversely, the artistic progressive would hold that traditions only exist to be inverted, reinvented, cherry picked or demolished outright. Art is always in a state of forward motion and flux. Change is an unassailable good while stasis is oppressive and confining.

Given these two competing worldviews, I contend that Marsalis finds himself in a position roughly analogous to the position Christina Sommers found herself when writing Who Stole Feminism. In other words, Wynton has the thankless task of attempting to consolidate and conserve an artistic form which was already a modernist amalgam of numerous traditions long after the wild horses of modernity had broken down the stables and overrun the barricades.

This is the main reason I find the outrage from the progressive camp to be both laughable and redundant. As usual, progressives are blind to their triumphs. The modernist genie is already out of the bottle. Wynton has neither the ability nor the desire to squelch any artist from making the music he wants to make. He is simply voicing an opinion. How many young hip hop fans are even paying attention let alone being persuaded by his point? Is there any reason to believe that even one person will stop listening to Lil Wayne after hearing Wynton Marsalis’ opinion? And even if he did manage to persuade someone, why would anyone who disagrees with him even care? Isn’t music the province of individual taste?

Yet, I’d argue that this is where the progressives are shortchanging Marsalis and also shooting themselves in the foot. Since I’m a musician myself, most of the reaction I observed on social media came from other musicians. Predictably, progressives assailed his comments as fusty and clueless. The reaction to his thrashing of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Miles Davis’ electric period in Ken Burns’ jazz documentary was met with a similarly hostile backlash. Despite the fact that numerous musicians chuckle at Miles Davis’ savage putdowns of Steve Miller, the Grateful Dead, and even Marsalis himself in his autobiography, Marsalis’ knocks on rock and pop music get a completely different treatment simply because he’s attacking from a different ideological vantage point. Miles was a trailblazing badass whereas Marsalis is the backward looking stuffed suit. What’s also odd is that these very same musicians, even if working within the new music circles, generally value a certain degree of musical proficiency and historical perspective. These skills and knowledge are the products of the study of some kind of musical tradition. Generally, it’s the jazz, blues, country or classical tradition. As in the ones Marsalis venerates and wants to conserve for posterity.

The unquestioned deference to a culture of pure individual expression untethered to any kind of traditionalism has resulted in an increasingly atomized marketplace. Just as religion provides a set of shared values and norms, a common tradition in arts can also serve a similar purpose. The irony is that musicians tend to denigrate pop music just like Wynton, but for slightly different reasons. They’ll shit on its lack of originality, the absence of real musicianship or its blatant commercialism. If anything, it was precisely because Marsalis put hip hop in his sights that prompted this particular bout of fauxtrage. Despite being a multibillion dollar industry, hip hop enjoys a permanent monopoly on being perceived as an edgy street art form that gives a voice to the Oppressed. Therefore, Marsalis was blind to the fact that racist old farts from bygone eras said the exact same thing about the music he currently canonizes. Get #WOKE, Wynton.

As expected, progressives seem to imagine Wynton as this quasi-fascist dictator who’s attempting to tell artists what art to make. Since we live in an age of liberal hegemony where unquestioned deference to progress is the orthodoxy, anyone who even suggests the idea of a conserved tradition with boundaries, limits and standards is branded a hidebound reactionary and a heretic. The reaction Marsalis is receiving also has parallels to the reactions Jordan Peterson is currently receiving over his secular defense of Christianity and traditionalism.

Is the knee jerk defense of artistic progressivism fostering a deeper appreciation for music with artistic aspirations that extend beyond the pop sphere? Or music which requires a higher level of complexity? Will the average hip hop fan give a shit about the numerous starving jazz musicians who stormed social media to denounce Marsalis as a retrograde dimwit? Even if Marsalis wants cordon off the jazz tradition and build an ideological border wall around it, will that prevent anyone from discovering Sun Ra or Albert Ayler? Or even J Dilla?

And then there’s the issue of preserving historical integrity when facing an onslaught of selective outrage that defines our Age of #SocialJustice. Current social justice narratives cast the entire sweep of history as nothing but a long chain of oppression and subjugation. We’re already seeing pop music being consigned to the memory hole for failing to the pass the hashtag friendly litmus tests. If an artist doesn’t live up to the feminist #MeToo standards, progressives are completely unmoved by calls for removal from streaming platforms. If Robert E. Lee gets sent to the dustbin for failing to meet ever shifting standards of woke piety, who’s to say that the records treasured by the progressive establishment won’t also be consumed in the fires of revolution eventually?

Marsalis has already responded to the considerable backlash with a lengthy and thoughtful post on Facebook. Anyone who doesn’t grasp his intent or the substance of his argument is being willfully ignorant, dishonest or both. But does his thoughtful response even register for anyone who reacted negatively to his argument? Like Sam Harris’ quixotic attempt to dismantle Ezra Klein’s hit pieces in Vox, Harris was forced to stave off the SJW zombie hordes simply for defending his right to voice an unconventional opinion.

Though they likely share opposing views, Wynton Marsalis has become a more genteel version of Ted Nugent. Every time he opines, it elicits paroxysms of contempt, but once you get past the vitriol, you’ll find an occasional grudging admission of respect.

At the same time, this controversy reveals the reason there has been a decades long conflict over who will have control over the levers of cultural consensus. Progressives reacted with customary autistic myopia as though the mere utterance of a controversial opinion would topple the secular liberal order. Each side knows that culture matters, but only progressives continue to affect the pretense of being underdogs despite the polar opposite being true. You are more likely to see progressives collectively high five one another over Black Panther than consider the possibility that NWA might have had an adverse effect on the black community.

In an anything goes culture of radical subjectivity, the artistic conservative faces an extraordinarily difficult task. When contemporary woke consensus considers gender a social construct, what chance does the artistic conservative have in promoting the idea of an objective aesthetic standard? Progressives are being myopic and greedy about the cultural marketplace. The progressive paradigm has triumphed unequivocally. So lighten up, progressives. The fire of artistic radicalism will not be extinguished if Wynton Marsalis takes a few shots at the hip hop empire.

Stalker (Сталкер) (1979)

wp-1502054267255.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic, brooding and grindingly slow sci-fi film from 1979 is a favorite among artsy film connoisseurs and tastemakers, but the praise that has been heaped upon it needs to be taken with several grains of salt. Stalker is indeed a masterfully made film, and as far as I can tell, is a fairly explicit metaphor for the crushing despair of life under socialism. It is also an extended exploration of the nihilistic mindset that gave birth to one of the most repressive regimes in the 20th century. Criterion has just released a newly remastered blu-ray, so the world can now enjoy its bleak splendor as never before. That said, I don’t know that it will appeal to anyone beyond the hardcore cinephile set due to its grim aesthetics, cerebral artiness and glacial tempo.

wp-1502053088687.

Since the storyline of Stalker is fairly straightforward on the surface, the allure of the film lies in attempting to peel back the layers of metaphor and symbolism. Tarkovsky’s work invites painstaking analysis because his film lives mostly in the realm of abstraction and semiotics. Considering that Stalker alone has inspired reams of film school exegeses and an entire book which deconstructs every minute detail, it has gained a reputation of being a puzzle of infinite depth.  Despite having an aura which verges on a near mystical reverence, I think the film is quite possibly much more straightforward than prevailing opinion suggests.

1484310236_mosfilm

First and foremost, the film cannot be disassociated from socialist context in which it was created. This was, after all, a Mosfilm production, and by default, a work of art made by people living under a socialist dictatorship. Art was tightly controlled under the Soviets, so no filmmaker could make anything that was too explicitly critical of the regime. Making a ponderously slow film which buries its editorial under abstractions but still lends itself to a multiplicity of subjective interpretations was perhaps the only way to attempt to say anything that wasn’t boilerplate party propaganda.

Writer: While I am digging for the truth, so much happens to it that instead of discovering the truth I dig up a heap of, pardon… I’d better not name it.

The degree to which Tarkovsky’s aesthetic was a purely organic phenomenon in contrast to the extent that it was an adaptation to the confines of Party diktats are questions which must be considered. Stalker poses questions about the nature and role of art, and the fact that this film’s emotional spectrum ranges from sadness to suffering certainly tells us something about how art was affected by the psychological strictures imposed by socialist rule. I propose that the sci-fi premise merely provided the necessary metaphorical pretext for the underlying editorial.  Since absolute fealty to socialist orthodoxy and groupthink was a way of life, telling the truth in a direct way was a counter-revolutionary act all by itself. In this film’s case, the ponderous pace and desolate tone was likely Tarkovsky’s way of pulling you deeply into the experience of life through Soviet eyes.

wp-1502053399906.

Based loosely on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 book, Roadside Picnic, Stalker tells the story of three men who enter a quarantined area called the Zone. The Zone was declared off limits to the public as a result of some unknown incident that may have been paranormal in nature or simply an industrial accident. The big attraction of entering the Zone is the presumed existence of the Room; a place where all wishes can be granted. Two of the men, known only as the Writer and the Professor, enlist the services of the titular Stalker to navigate the Zone and lead them to the Room. Theoretically, this sounds like it could be a premise for a sci-fi action thriller, but the film has more in common with existential theatre like Waiting for Godot or No Exit than anything in the conventional sci-fi cinematic canon. Needless to say, the film is completely devoid of aliens, space travel, futuristic technology or any of the features we normally associate with cinema that calls itself science fiction.

The broad themes are spelled out very clearly in the first part of the film albeit in a somewhat oblique manner. As the film opens, we’re taken into the bedroom of the Stalker over the course of roughly nine dialogue-free minutes as he awakens next to his wife and disabled child. While dressing and preparing for the day, his distressed wife joins him in the kitchen and warns him that he risks returning to his old ways and being sent back to jail. Right away, Tarkovsky is revealing an important fact of life in the Soviet Union: the USSR was essentially an open air prison camp. Socialism had criminalized freedom itself, and the citizens had become complicit in their own enslavement.

wp-1502052936164.

We discover in the subsequent scene that the Stalker is being enlisted to guide two other men into the Zone to find the Room. Since the Room was a place where one’s deepest wishes could be fulfilled, the Room could be viewed as a metaphor for hope, redemption, and the attainment of human dreams. In a word, freedom. No one can reach the Room without first passing through the heavily guarded perimeter of the Zone. The Zone is both an explicit metaphor for the Soviet state as well as the psychological confinement it engendered. The State had outlawed freedom, so the Stalker’s willingness to defy the State and lead others through the Zone is what makes him an outlaw. Naturally, his wife is fearful of caring for their disabled daughter without him, so she implores him not to go.

Stalker: The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

Tarkovsky seems to have a view of humanity that alternates between nihilism and idealism, but tilts heavily towards the former. In one of Stalker’s monologues, he describes the Zone as an entity whose malevolence is both triggered by the appearance of people and a reflection of man’s nature.

Stalker: The Zone is a very complicated system of traps, and they’re all deadly. I don’t know what’s going on here in the absence of people, but the moment someone shows up, everything comes into motion. Old traps disappear and new ones emerge. Safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it’s hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone. It may even seem capricious. But it is what we’ve made it with our condition. It happened that people had to stop halfway and go back. Some of them even died on the very threshold of the room. But everything that’s going on here depends not on the Zone, but on us!

The Stalker eventually meets the Writer and his glamorous girlfriend at the waterfront. Stalker rudely dismisses the woman as he and the Writer climb into a car to meet the Professor. Both the Writer and the Professor are quite possibly archetypes for the artistic and academic intelligentsia who have largely been conscribed to the role of being apologists for the State. The rudeness and disdain the Stalker exhibits towards his girlfriend is easily understood when examined in this light. After a contentious rendezvous with the Professor which symbolized internecine Party squabbling, the two men reveal their motivations for undertaking this treacherous journey. The Writer wishes to recover his lost inspiration while the Professor claims pure scientific curiosity. Since the arts had been completely subordinated to service of state propaganda, it makes perfect sense that the Writer would take such a dangerous risk in order to have a taste of genuine inspiration that has been so badly thwarted by demands for ideological conformity.  The Professor’s scientific curiosity is perhaps a jab at the misplaced faith that socialist society had placed in scientism.  A Room which grants your deepest wish is already an idea that lives beyond science.  Bringing a scientific mentality to such a phenomenon is misguided at best. Their desire to reach the Room was by itself an act of faith, and by extension, Tarkovsky’s affirmation of the necessity for such leaps of faith.

Upon arriving in the Zone, the color palette switches from lifeless, desaturated browns and greys to actual color. Once they had traversed past the boundaries of allowable thought, the color and vibrancy of life was accessible to them. Despite the landscape of ruin and desolation that lay before the trio, they managed to marvel at beauty. Once again, Tarkovsky reveals his cynicism towards humanity by having the Stalker note that the beauty was the product of the absence of other people.

wp-1502053156490.

The Writer’s ideological convictions are challenged as they travel deeper into the Zone. As an archetype for the artistic class, Tarkovsky lays bare the psychological schism that Marxism created amongst the creatives in one of the film’s few moments of dry levity.

Writer: My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?

Marxism had supplanted any notion of higher morality and placed the locus of virtue squarely within the hands of the State. Subsequently, the Writer’s desire to see vegetarianism win over was merely a metaphor for the political orthodoxy he’d been trained to uphold. He views his desire for meat as bourgeois false consciousness. Ultimately, he’s conflicted because his sense of Self had been disrupted by venturing beyond the ideological boundaries that were protected and enforced by the Zone.

When the three men reach the Room, they become suspicious of one another’s motivations. The Professor produces a nuclear bomb and threatens to detonate it because he doesn’t want the power of the Room to fall into the wrong hands. Conflict ensues and recriminations are exchanged. After some tortured confessions, the Professor disassembles the bomb and the scene grinds to a halt in a cloud of defeat and resignation. I suggest that Tarkovsky is saying something about how deeply uncomfortable and distrustful Russians were with the idea of freedom. So much so that they constructed their own ideological panopticon.

wp-1502053199400.

Upon returning from the Zone, the Stalker is reunited with his wife and child. In one of the monologues delivered by Stalker’s wife, Tarkovsky is attempting to access something truly primeval within the Russian soul. Some kind of deep sadness which insists that happiness can only emerge unless there is sorrow. Yet it is a sorrow leavened ever so slightly with a tiny granule of hope. Who knows exactly from where this emanates, but it does perhaps offer an additional cultural insight into the psychological legacy of the Russian people on which Marxism so hungrily feasted.

Stalker’s Wife: You know, Mama was very opposed to it. You’ve probably already guessed, that he’s one of God’s fools. Everyone around here used to laugh at him. He was such a wretched muddler. Mama used to say: “he’s a stalker, a marked man, an eternal jailbird. Remember the kind of children stalkers have.” I didn’t even argue. I knew all about it, that he was a marked man, a jailbird. I knew about the kids. Only what could I do? I was sure I’d be happy with him. I knew there’d be a lot of sorrow, but I’d rather know bitter-sweet happiness, than a grey, uneventful life. Perhaps I invented all this later. But when he come up to me and said: “Come with me”, I went. And I’ve never regretted it. Never. There was a lot of grief, and fear, and pain, but I’ve never regretted it, nor envied anyone. It’s just fate. It’s life, it’s us. And if there were no sorrow in our lives, it wouldn’t be better, it would be worse. Because then there’d be no happiness, either. And there’d be no hope.

The resolution of the film reveals the Stalker’s daughter moving three glasses using what is apparently telekinetic power as a snatch of “Ode to Joy” surfaces. It’s enigmatic, but I believe this is the glimmer of hope that Tarkovsky is offering. Monkey represents a new generation which possesses abilities that were unimaginable to their forebears: the ability to cultivate and express joy. An ability so powerful it can only be represented as a paranormal psychic power.

Aesthetically, the film leverages the decrepit and dilapidated architecture of the USSR to create a post-apocalyptic vibe that’s easily among the bleakest natural settings committed to film.  The Zone was inspired by the 1957 Chelyabinsk incident which was both the first major nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl and third largest in history. Ever dedicated to the purity of his vision, Tarkovsky filmed the Zone at an abandoned Estonian power plant which quite possibly hastened his own demise along with two other members of the film crew resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals.

wp-1502054403725.

I suspect that a large part of the allure of Tarkovsky and Stalker in particular is that it represents a manifestation of the great Holy Grail sought by artists across the world throughout the ages: a pure artistic expression unsullied by the taint of capitalistic profit seeking. Stalker is very much a film made with painstaking attention to the most minute details. Almost nothing that makes it into the frame seems left to chance. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a film that people will actually want to watch.

Stalker is a film which elicits admiration more than enjoyment. As much as I am tempted to get lost in the labyrinth of symbolic possibility that so enraptures the cinephiles, I see this as a pretty explicit manifestation of the Russian pysche’s very fragile grasp at humanity desperately laboring under the weight of emotional and physical devastation wrought by 60 years of iron fisted subjugation and state enforced social engineering. Since this is a work of art which leans very heavily on symbolism, people will extract a meaning from it which confirms their own bias and disposition. Predictably, the progressive media in America has heaped praise on it because they see it as antidote to Trumpism and a rallying cry for socialism itself. The fact that a film that’s this unremittingly dreary and downcast is perceived as some kind of rallying cry for socialism just goes to show how deeply this ideology warps the psyche and possesses the will of the individual.  If anything, Stalker should be taken as a dire warning of the inhospitable future that awaits should we allow this ideology to hollow out what remains of our souls.

Stalker is indeed a work of Serious Art® and I completely understand the cult of devotion it has inspired. Like all good works of high modernism, it contains the possibility of extracting multitudes of meaning. However, I genuinely don’t think Tarkovsky intended this film to be another occasion for endless academic navel gazing or a self-centered circle jerk for the intelligentsia. Tarkovsky was making an earnest attempt to tell the truth of the Russian experience by using a SF premise as a metaphysical allegory. John Semley’s dumb Salon piece praises the film for all the wrong reasons. Yes, the plodding pace feels radical in contrast to the engineered dopamine rushes we get from contemporary cinema, but it’s because the film conveys a deep sense of despair. Being boring is not an aesthetic virtue that is inherently good. Good art encompasses the entirety of the human experience, but most importantly, it has intention and should actually connect with its audience. Would Stalker have been funded on the free market? Probably not. Grim meditations on the human experience don’t make for big ticket sales. Especially if they’re the product of life under socialist rule. I’m deeply sympathetic to artistic expression which challenges norms and defies expectations. Most people do not share this belief, and as a result, won’t bother watching Stalker. And that’s fine. No one is required to consume art which evokes boredom and despair. In the end, that is perhaps that is the true legacy of the film. Just as millions died chasing the abstraction that Marxism represented, few will heed the subtle warning buried under Tarkovsky’s abstractions.

Stalker: Are you awake? You were talking recently about the meaning… of our… life… unselfishness of art… Let’s take music… It’s really least of all connected; to say the truth, if it is connected at all, then in an idealess way, mechanically, with an empty sound… Without… without associations… Nonetheless the music miraculously penetrates into the very soul! What is resonating in us in answer to the harmonized noise? And turns it for us into the source of great delight… And unites us, and shakes us? What is its purpose? And, above all, for whom? You will say: for nothing, and… and for nobody, just so. Unselfish. Though it’s not so… perhaps… For everything, in the end, has its own meaning… Both the meaning and the cause…

wp-1502053051330.

On Modernism, Postmodernism and the Degradation of Western Values in Art

Salvador Dali

Concomitant with the ascendancy of the trends themselves, conservatives and liberty-minded intellectuals ranging from Ayn Rand to Dennis Prager have inveighed against modernist and postmodernist trends in art on the grounds that it represents a degradation of aesthetic standards and, by extension, Western values. As an artist myself and one who is and has been sympathetic to these modes of expression, this is an argument to which I’ve devoted considerable thought. While I agree with the central propositions put forth by these individuals, I’m not ready to throw the modernist baby out with the bathwater. Art can and should affirm immutable, transcendent values that will carry on beyond the lifetimes of their creators. Art should also be grounded in tradition and those who pursue it should be held to the highest standards.  I propose that modernist and postmodernist trends, or what was once regarded as avant-garde, have largely supplanted any notions of Western traditionalism. Objective standards of beauty and excellence have indeed given way to a bottomless relativism. Contemporary art is a little too consumed by nihilism, ugliness and abstraction for its own sake.  If artists consume themselves with rebellion against values and standards to which no one is holding them accountable, then it’s little more than empty posturing.

Modernism was transgressive in its day because the standard bearers of traditionalism were the mainstream in art. When the impressionists departed from classical realism, it was transgressive because classical realism was the standard. The various movements that defined the 20th century saw art moving further and further away from these traditions to the point where avant-garde no longer has any meaning other than to signify a broad body of artistic expression defined by a departure from or outright annihilation of any semblance of traditionalism.

Pablo Picasso

If artists have no commitment to uphold anything sacred or beautiful and the profane and ugly are the default settings, then it reflects a rottenness in the cultural soul just as Ayn Rand asserted.

Art (including literature) is the barometer of a culture. It reflects the sum of a society’s deepest philosophical values: not its professed notions and slogans, but its actual view of man and of existence. – Ayn Rand

Art, at some level, must edify and exalt the divine spirit or some universal idea of cosmic Oneness. Without it, humanity drifts towards solipsism and nihilism. The avant-garde only has power to shock when it serves as a counterweight to an overbearance of traditionalism. In the world of art, there is literally no boundary which has not been transgressed, no sacred idol undesecrated nor profanity unspoken. We’re pretty far away from any kind of hegemony of traditionalism in the art world. Just as atheism and anarchism may be philosophically and logically untenable positions, each argument serves as a permanent counterpoint to institutional power. I believe that the avant-garde is the active attempt to concretize these philosophical positions.

Willem de Kooning


Jackson Pollock

People are generally attracted to art, music and literature that has identifiable structure, steady rhythms, heroism and the pursuit of justice, themes which address relatable slices of life in memorable and clever ways, and emotional content that’s somehow uplifting. For better and worse, the avant-garde has generally eschewed these conventions. Conversely, people generally do not want to consume art that is too abstract or dwells on humanity’s tendency towards depravity.

That said, the avant-garde has produced a wealth of innovation which cannot be denied. There is a place for expressionism, abstraction and pastiche. The surreal and the grotesque have their place in a panorama of artistic expression in which the traditionally beautiful occupies a prominent position. Admittedly, avant-garde has rebel cache because it was used as both anti-communist propaganda by the CIA and was repudiated by the Nazis as “degeneracy”. Anything that scandalizes the upper crust intelligentsia, pisses off the Nazis, and gets subsidized to fight communism despite being created by artists largely sympathetic to communism is going to have some built-in appeal. The avant-garde’s associations with dubious ideologies should not be ignored, but that should not preclude exploration or reevaluation of the ideas either.

Yves Tanguy

From my perspective, the avant-garde only occurs as such in proportion to the degree to which the tradition from which it departs is recognizable. Oftentimes, the most innovative artists walk a fine line between tradition and modernism and find a way to reconcile seemingly disparate aesthetics.

The critics of the avant-garde have a point. If nothing else, the central proposition that animates nearly every avant-garde movement is the departure from objective reality.  As much as I am supportive of a revival of classical standards in art, I’m equally enthusiastic about the renewed vitality it will bring to the avant-garde.

René François Ghislain Magritte

Advertisements