A UCLA conference gathers a creative and philosophical group to ponder the contemporary artist's place in society. The age-old question persists: Can art change the world?
By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
June 12, 2011
Forty years ago, art and politics intersected importantly. The avant-garde flourished. And the academy disapproved. Protest songs may have been the soundtrack for ending the Vietnam War, but on days when stinging tear gas from demonstrations seeped into its building, the music department at UC Berkeley, to choose one example, insisted that politics sullied art. Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein and John Cage were to be despised for the political content of their music. In fact, pop culture, campus-wide, was given little academic credence.
Now, the avant-garde is said to be dead. Bob Dylan, at 70, is sainted in and out of the classroom. A new book about protest songs, Dorian Lynskey's "33 Revolutions Per Minute," reads like an elegy to a time when it seemed as if art could, for better or worse, change the world.
But at least academia is finally on board. Last weekend at the Hammer Museum, UCLA presented a two-day "hybrid conference/performance" titled "Can Art and Politics Be Thought? Practices, Possibilities, Pitfalls."
Some big names participated. The artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney exhibited a section from an ambitious work-in-progress, "Ancient Evenings." Alain Badiou, a leading philosopher in France, distilled into an hour a lifetime of deep thinking about art and politics. Two noted professors, Shakespearean scholar Drew Daniel and music culture theorist Steve Goodman, demonstrated their academic chops during the day and their electronica alter egos at night.
Art and politics can, of course, be thought. But is anyone paying attention? The Internet and social media, rather than the protest song or political art, now connect us, motivate us, activate us. But the message can be without thought and leadership. Populations are, more than ever, readily susceptible to manipulation.
Goodman provided disturbing examples of sonic warfare, a subject on which he has written a terrifying book. We can thank the military for helping research the kinds of ultrahigh and ultralow frequencies that club-goers enjoy for the deep-tissue massaging bass notes and the frenzied upper registers that, at high volume, set the nervous system awhirl. These "ultimate bad vibrations" mess with the mind and when deployed by the police can scatter protesters in the street.
This is art as sensation, not ideas. But as founder of the record label Hyperdub and a dubstep performer known as Kode9, Goodman adds new layers of confusion. During his hourlong evening performance, he fascinatingly transformed a wide range of musical source material into something I found both torturous (the loud sounds) and pleasurable (unexpected combinations).
Daniel is half of the inventive electronica duo Matmos (with M.C. Schmidt) and a former go-go dancer. He was also a co-organizer of the conference with Kenneth Reinhard, director of the UCLA program in experimental critical theory, and he espoused the conference's most provocative notion. "All Sound Is Queer" was the title of his paper. In a dark suit, white shirt and tie, he was the most formally dressed participant of the weekend. He read fast, showed off his absorption in academic jargon and flair for delightful irony.
"Sound eludes capture," he said. You cannot close your ears, which makes them our most promiscuous sense organ "open to all comers."
For the Matmos set, he wore shorts and a glittery top as he operated twinkling electronic equipment. The show was a music circus. A mariachi band was on stage. So was the Dick Slessig combo, which describes its music as "distended, quasi structural meditations on popular tunes of the day" — and also describes itself as not agreeing with that description. Several singers, wearing exotic glasses with white lenses, piped in mysteriously — they formed the Matmos Chorus.
It was a promiscuous performance. Sound did elude capture. Interesting differences were scrunched together into a mass of sound rather than allowed individual identities.
If any theme emerged from the conference, it was that art and politics are ultimately separate spheres, and their differences must be acknowledged, understood, honored. The poet Joshua Clover pointed out that the structure of late capitalism depends on maintaining a distance from state. The dockworker, he cleverly noted, has become the .doc worker. He designated the state as the container for power.
The photographer Allan Sekula screened excerpts from his new film, "The Forgotten Space," which looks at dockworkers and the global implications of shipping. The forgotten here is the ocean, responsible for 90% of the world's commerce. Unlike the average commercial documentary these days, made to be entertainment and usually structured like a crime film, Sekula used glassy narration, gorgeous photography and Dutch composer Louis Andriessen's marvelously driving music to reveal the maritime world as a complex of the sublime and voracious.
Barney had barges too. His "Ancient Evenings" is a modern interpretation of Norman Mailer's epic novel about the Egypt of the pharaohs. The scale for what is part TV crime drama, part performance piece, part opera is huge. The excerpt, about 35 minutes from what will be a seven-hour film, was shot live before a small audience on barges in the River Rouge in Detroit. Egyptian deities are "CSI"-style detectives. A 1957 Chrysler Imperial's afterlife is ritualized. Corn snakes are sacrificially lowered into the Imperial's rotting hulk dredged from the river. Jonathan Bepler's score includes a giant harp, brass bands and a folk singer. The cop-deities break into odd vocalisms.
Art and politics seem somewhat tangential for Osiris and Isis in Detroit, the birthplace and burial grounds of this particular Chrysler. And Barney, who looked off into space in an insight-free interview with Daniel that followed the screening, was little help here.
But one difference between art and politics is that artists needn't be articulate in their thought, whereas politicians should be. What Barney is doing is not thought but ritual and sacrament for modern society. He gives life to a dying city in what he said is the second of a proposed seven-part work. He also said he doesn't know where he is going with it. But he has already provided a striking and brilliant example of the themes of destruction and creation, of the real and the imagined, that Badiou argued separated the artistic and political spheres.
Political art, on the other hand, is always propaganda, the philosopher asserted. On its own, however, art interrupts the laws of the normal world, the common rule, with a fragment of a new world. "A new world then becomes possible," he said. "Because a fragment of the new is already here, we can trust the future."
For Badiou there is no more avant-garde, only different activities, different local interruptions. We wait for the future, he said, and we accept the notion that the wait is magnificent. Badiou is a compelling theoretician, and his vision is lovely. But does this mean we will no longer sing songs to stop wars or insist on basic rights?
Ultimately, the separate spheres of art and politics are a luxury of free societies. Just ask the Chinese conceptualist Ai Weiwei, perhaps our most potent political artist today. He has proved that the avant-garde, when employed to oppose oppression, can make governments cower. And, sadly, waiting for Ai these days is time spent locked up in a prison cell.
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times