Almost every day I am disgusted by politics and ideology. Recently I wrote about how you can never have all the answers, or most of them, because your relation to those answers is perpetually in flux. No hard fact has any import except in relation to a subjective, vulnerable consciousness. We can all agree on the temperature water boils at, but when it comes to our relation to boiling water, we are all over the map, and that is the concrete sort of fact that’s been established in controlled experiments and for which there is no contrary evidence. Thus it is astounding, or should be, that people have absolute conviction in unverifiable, subjective conclusions that are just so much gossamer.
Ideas are often exclusionary, and that is the point. Approaching life in this way is like approaching a patient etherized on a table and starting with the conviction that you need to cut away at least 50% of the body mass. The ideologies create the enemies that need to be destroyed by any and all means necessary, while propping up the in-group as inherently good and incapable of the kind of atrocities that the enemy lives and breathes. Riiiiiiiiight.
I’m going to start with politics, and then move over to art. Politics is the worst offender, so, you can skip to the “Art” header is you like.
The last election cycle killed politics for me, or finished it off. Trump was elected partly because he was – from the perspective of many mainstream white Americans – the enemy of the enemy, and the enemy was not just Hillary Clinton, but the political correctness and identity politics she disingenuously rode in on, and which blamed the average American for everything wrong with the infinite universe. If you don’t know about this phenomenon, consider that conservatives are already compiling outrageous claims from the far left in order to try to secure a Trump victory in 2020.
One of Hillary’s fatal errors was decrying average Americans as a basket of deplorables. Once she was established as the enemy of the average American, the enemy of the enemy, who merely had the savvy to not shit on the average citizen UNTIL it was too late, became the ally of the everyman.
Hillary’s much bigger crime — which has somehow astonishingly been glossed over and forgiven — was to deliberately sabotage her Democratic opponent, and in so doing override American democracy. How that is excusable, I have no idea. The only worse thing she could have done was have Bernie assassinated. Additionally, Many people believe that Bernie, as an alternative to Hillary (and the same shit merely pumped out of a different asshole), would have defeated Trump. While Clinton represented more of the same in a pantsuit, when the mass of society was slowly being squelched by enough of the same already, Sanders was a real alternative. Despite a near media blackout, the Sander’s campaign was picking up enormous speed up until he was poised to overtake Hillary when California got their chance to vote.
I was for Bernie. Whatever anyone said there were two things that convinced me he was the best person for the job, and they were his historical stances towards the two biggest F’ups in recent American history: the Iraq War (cynically named, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”), and the economic collapse due to the criminal excesses of the banking industry.
I looked up his position on these most crucial matters, and to my pleasant surprise, he not only opposed them, but eloquently, passionately, and pugnaciously while everyone else was folding and kissing ass. When politicians were fastening flags to their lapels in order to be with us and against them Sanders was standing up to anyone and everyone barking about how many people would die in a war, who would have to go fight, what the consequences would be, how much it would cost, what the effect would be on terrorism, and who would run the country after deposing the leader. It’s prophetic.
Then, there’s wonderful footage of him grilling Alan Greenspan about economic policies which history has shown were suicidal. Again, prophetic.
Those speeches by Sanders are of history book quality, while the eloquent contemporary drivel Hillary delivered was sugar-coated Machiavellianism (just saying whatever would insure she maintained and increased her station), and Trump merely belched whatever platitude his cronies eructed. Clinton and Trump get on whatever bandwagon has the most rewards for them personally, and that bandwagon is not likely to be the best one for everyone else.
But Bernie was a white male, and, well, you see, he had to be SHUT DOWN in order to select a female with much more right-leaning policies and a commitment to war. You gotta’ give a candidate credit for historically opposing the biggest mistakes in recent history, which his opponents went along with like lemmings over a cliff. When the next iceberg comes, who would have the foresight to see it, and the backbone to steer around it even if everyone was saying “ram into it”?
In order to prevent Sanders from taking California, and going after the powerful elites that run the country, the Associated Press published an article, which all the media dutifully reported on, concluding that Hillary had already won, in which case voting in California the following day, and waiting in those long lines, was superfluous. It was already over. You see, they had personally called the super-delegates, asked them how they intended to vote, and based on their unconfirmed findings, deduced that Bernie couldn’t possibly get enough votes from average citizens to compete with unaccountable super votes by select powerful individuals. Even if one was for Hillary because she has ovaries, this should have left a terrible taste in ones mouth. Since when does a newspaper call an election the day before voting in the key state, and we accept that like the boiling point of water?
As it turns out, Trump was NOT the friend of the white working class or the American citizen. He was and is merely a far right, Republican wet dream. He cuts taxes for the rich and for corporations that already have enormous loopholes or don’t pay taxes at all; he completely sacrifices the environment for short term financial gain of already enormously powerful businesses; and he’s a war hawk on par with Hillary.
While the overblown rhetoric of the radical left ideologues served to drive average Americans to Trump, they just ended up getting crushed by the ideological extremes of the other boot. As it turns out, the enemy of the enemy is quite likely just another enemy.
There are three ideological extremes in the art world that I see, and they all make me puke. One is the Duchampian legacy in which ideas in visual art trump the visual (imagine this same conclusion applied to music). I don’t actually mind the thought experiments, dry humor, and gaming of the art world. It’s the notion that this kind of art makes other art forms irrelevant or redundant that ultimately pisses me off.
The second ideological extreme is really popular right now, and that’s seeing everything through the lens of social justice and its foregone conclusions. Again, my problem isn’t with the best work which addresses political causes, but rather with the blanket dismissal of everything which does not anchor itself to a politically progressive cause, or is made by the wrong kind of artist’s biological body.
The third kind of reductionist is the painter with his or her traditional mediums who thinks that only an oil painting on canvas hanging in someone’s living room is the real, authentic art with a soul. This is like saying, “Man, a banjo player plucking stings on his porch while birds can be heard chirping in the distance is the real, no-bullshit, honest music”. In which case everything done by Morton Subotnick with synthesizers and computers since the 60’s is automatically disqualified on ideological grounds.
It’s strange to me that visual artists are so competitive, compartmentalized, combative, and thoroughly dismissive of other artist’s creations. They have access to communicating in a non-linguistic language, but nevertheless resort to overarching and reductionist conclusions wrought in sentences to cleave off whole genres of art in order to prop themselves up.
The overriding impetus is to disqualify others, and the message couldn’t be clearer: your art isn’t art; it doesn’t count; you don’t get to play; what I do is the most legitimate. Now, I am not entirely free from doing this sort of thing myself, though in my case it has been a reaction to ideological extreme #1, and its blanket dismissal of painting.
When I went to UCLA as an undergraduate, I had already developed my own painting style. But I wasn’t able to develop it there. I was shut down. This has its benefits, in that I had to grow new limbs and create outside of my comfort zone. In fact, I went on to get a 10k fellowship as a senior, based on a juried exhibition, and I included none of my drawings or paintings in my own style.
I made the most of it, but I was NOT allowed to do what I wanted artistically, and this only got worse in grad school. In grad school I only made one painting, which was rather conceptual, and in my first term. I was required to make conceptual art around a political theme. This was the ONLY acceptable kind of work.
And so, I have some resentment towards ideologies which took giant craps on me and prevented me from doing what I really wanted to do. As an undergrad I was able to beat them at their own game, so to speak, but as a grad student, well, I couldn’t change my race or gender, so was ultimately destroyed. Paradigms #1 and #2 have been my enemy, not because I oppose them, but because they disqualify me.
But this does NOT mean that #3 is my friend, either. Hell no. My worst run-ins at community college and Cal State Northridge (I dropped out because it was so reactionary) before going to UCLA were with conventional, conservative, traditional artists. I got kicked out of an oil painting class on the first day because when the teacher tried to impress us with paintings by Bouguereau, I asked if he wasn’t the same artist the Impressionists most detested. When there was a student show at the end of the year, I only got a constellation prize because, as another teacher who liked me confided, “One teacher rejected your work unconditionally”.
I couldn’t stand my drawing teacher at Northridge who made us copy drawings after the old masters, hated Francis Bacon, and taught us how to draw auras, which he insisted he could see. The conventional, traditional artist types frequently also reject my artwork and utter their foregone conclusions in lieu of anything substantive or particular to say. For example, they can’t abide digital painting and insist it’s “not painting” and that “the machine did it”. Look at the digital painting I did from my imagination, drawing with a stylus on a tablet, at the top of this page. How the F did the computer do it? Did the computer reach out with a robot hand and guide my hand, as it gripped the stylus, across the tablet to make the initial B&W drawing? Did it do that instantly at the press of a button?
I have been known to shoot down the most over-inflated artists of our time, who can well afford to laugh off anything I say, as if they’d ever encountered it. But I am doing this as the extreme underdog, and opposing the narrative that artificially props up some work while completely disregarding others. One of the things I have argued consistently over the last few years is that conceptual art and visual art are not the same thing, and each deserves its own arena, rather than competing against each other for legitimacy in an either/or battle.
If I am opposed to the paradigm of #1 and #2 it does not mean I uphold #3. I reject all three, while accepting the art of all three, but not the supremacy and outrageous accolades showered on this or that work BECAUSE of the ideology it upholds.
The other thing I’m always saying is that music seems so much less ideologically bound than does visual art. Consider Yoko Ono. She made both visual art and music. In the visual art realm she is a giant, whereas in music, not so much at all, and closer to a laughing-stock. The musical equivalent of the art world would consider Yoko Ono one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, and disqualify the Beatles as hackneyed, redundant song-writers and dead white males.
That said, I once watched a John Lennon biography in a movie theater, maybe 30 years ago. Every time Yoko Ono came on the screen the white girls sitting behind me sneered. Finally I turned around and gave them a nasty look. Then, in an amazing feat of complete self-unawareness, they tried to taunt me by singing, “All you need is love”. So, I gather, people have their stupid biases in the music world as well, but I still don’t think it’s as bad as visual art.
Finally, someone who sets themselves up as fighting an enemy has enmity on the mind, and isn’t all too friendly. The real adversary is probably those reductionist ideologies that look to flatten others in order to put themselves on a pedestal.
How I listen to music
Part of the reason I think music is so much less bound by ideology and foregone conclusions is my own experience with it, and approach to it.
For more than 15 years I’ve built my musical collection largely by getting recommendations from DJ’s playlists, and then putting the songs on my MP3 player, and listening on shuffle. One of the key elements is getting a really eclectic mix, and here I have sought out DJs who themselves play a wide variety of music from different genres, continents, and eras.
The most important thing, though, is the listening. Often it happens in the background while I’m working on art. Slowly, songs will impress themselves upon me, perhaps subconsciously, and not as filtered through the intellect or ideological bias.
The result is that the music that rises to the top over time is rather independent of genre, style, country of origin, or even era. I have some whistling songs, yodeling, Turkish rock, Thai country music, experimental prepared piano pieces, vintage Christian folk, traditional Tanzanian music, Pakistani Sufi songs, Indonesian guitar, Cambodian rock, and all sorts of things with stars next to them in my playlists. Any ideology or foregone conclusion is not only completely irrelevant, but anathema to expanding ones horizons through listening to music with an open mind and unclogged ears.
What shines in the long run is the musicians’ relationship their medium, to their life, and their unique expression. A lot of my collection isn’t in English, so, whatever the politics are, I have no idea. The ideological frameworks are so disparate and probably incompatible that they cancel each other out. The only thing that matters is the individual musicians, their creativity, and what they do with it. Everything else is bullshit.
And so it is with art. Your stylistic category, political beliefs, biology, techniques, theory, medium, and everything else is irrelevant compared to what you do with it. The way to access and assess music is through listening, and for visual art it’s through looking. While the intellect and your views and beliefs may ultimately come into play, it’s better to set them aside and just look, rather than merely glance at art through ideological lenses, if at all.