Tag Archives: Modernism

Communicating faster than creativity

I ponder in my isolation as only the digital era could provide the question of creativity in our time. We have it and use and present all over, yet I wonder whether we realize the shallowness it exudes in the newness of complexity that all these intersecting signals have created. We raced to get here as fast as we can asking not what it means but rather what it can do, or do better, or faster, or longer, or smaller. We threw our net wide and incorporated the world from streaming internationally to communicating globally. The Earth isn’t as large or mysterious as it once was, the universe too now shrinks more and more. We hunger for information, raw and unchecked, that we aggregate it all to measure its success. Yet through this conglomerate of what we can present we have lost something meaningful, something only human. In our hunger to know we’ve forgotten context and depth. What matters now is a false sense of objective knowledge crowd sourced to the masses. In that importance we deemed the editor unnecessary, the journalist a waste, and the critic ourselves. With the communication of the digital age we all became the critics and informants of our own world, assuming that because we can now get around the critical eye, the critical eye is no longer necessary. Why learn from a historian what you can google on wikipedia? Why read from a journalist what you can learn first hand from twitter? why pay to experience the new when you can create (or decide) it for yourself?

The internet and the digital age has such an ability to create depth and yet all it has been used for is breath. We are losing touch with creativity because we no longer know what it means to be creative. We trust that which we don’t understand and fear that which is unfamiliar. We are as lost as ever despite everything that is helping us get found.

In all these vague generalizations what I really mean to say is something rather simple: We have lost our desire to be challenged intellectually. The 20th century saw the childhood of this concept in art, modernism though born in the 19th century truly came into its self in the 20th. But in so doing it created a world of art that needed to be engaged, thought through, and then understood. Modernism isn’t easy art, you can’t look at it once and understand it, it takes time and thought and engagement and discussion and research and understanding, and an open mind above all. But with all the tools of communication at our fingertips we have no interest in spending time figuring something out, rather we’ll just google it. And in so doing, we fail to fully understand it.

I challenge us and myself to stop googling. I challenge us to return to our tried and true techniques of learning the hard way. Use what has come before us, trust the disciplined approach it takes to be called a historian or journalist. And if through the internet we have come to believe that these academic processes for creating measures of distinction in our society are truly damaged or corrupt then lets fix them.



Liz Phair: Modernism and Modern Feminism

A while ago I wrote that the aim of shocking one’s audience is necessarily conservative. The example I used is South Park – the show is amusing and occasionally clever, but I’m really surprised that more people haven’t commented on its reactionary tendencies, which I find rather obvious. While they play the ‘messages’ at the end of episodes for irony, at least in the use of corny music, most of the episodes do make statements fairly unambiguously, and more often than not those statements are socially conservative. Exhibiting transgression as shocking, disgusting or laughable reinforces the idea that there’s something wrong with it; this is why Umberto Eco made the claim that all comedy is conservative. Perhaps South Park’s left-leaning fans just don’t want to ruin the show by teasing out its politics; I really can’t reconcile it with my beliefs, which are, in the end, really not that extreme.

I don’t reject art because I disagree with it, but I do find it interesting to think of how its political identity relates to that of its audience. Another example of intentionally-shocking art that I’ve been thinking about lately (because it’s been back in the media, naturally) is one of the great rock albums, Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville.’ The album may not be particularly shocking today (this is one of the reasons why Chris Dahlen’s review in Pitchfork Media claims that the album now sounds dated), but in its time it was fairly notorious for the highly explicit presentation of Phairs’s (Phair the character’s, if not Phair the actual person’s) sex life. The album has often been called feminist, and feminism often shows through in Phair’s independence and sexual aggression, which places her in a traditionally masculine role. But the absence of a traditional relationship is conspicuous, and the need for one comes to the surface in ‘Fuck and Run:’

Whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who tries to win you over
Whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who make loves ’cause he’s in it
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas.

There’s nothing necessarily reactionary about the need for stability, even if takes the form of “letters and sodas,” and it’s fairly clear that the relationship Phair wants is an egalitarian one, but the album presents the alternative to jukebox-and-milkshake heterosexuality as bleak and loveless, and makes some pretty clear attempts to shock people with the details of it. This takes a bit of the irony out of these lines. There is a real longing for the courtship rituals of the (idealized) past in them.

But I don’t think this longing is reactionary. I would compare it with the sentiment of the Modernist poets, and in particular T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. If the main idea of Modernism was that poetry can only be successful if it has a strong sense of the ‘now’ – T.S. Eliot once claimed that the most important thing for a young poet to study is the internal combustion engine – the Modernists had very little affection for the time they lived in. The Modernists’ fixation on classical antiquity is in part explained by their belief that an understanding of the present must be grounded in an understanding of the past, but the genuine longing for a return to Byzantium was not peculiar to Yeats. What redeems the Modernists from being nothing more than curmudgeons is that they knew full well that the present was not the past, and that the time in which they lived really was that bad. Their longing for tradition came from a serious feeling of uprootedness that affected people across Europe and the U.S. in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and the sense of ‘tradition’ that they longed for never entailed stasis.

Phair’s work is, in much the same way, directed towards the present rather than the past – the record’s immersion in the indie rock culture of the early nineties is the other reason Dahlen calls it dated – and even though her longing for “all that stupid old shit” really is genuine, it does retain the bitterer part of its irony: she knows that it’s not coming back. The pathos in this situation could be interpreted as reactionary, except that Phair seems to be aware of the falsehood of the idealized past she craves; the real cause of her predicament is her inability to reconcile the actual nature of her life with the lingering remains of the tradition from which it has violently broken off which still reside in her consciousness. Classical feminism may not work this way – most of Katherine Mansfield’s protagonists, for instance, find themselves acting out social roles that they don’t genuinely feel engaged with, while Phair finds herself disengaged from social roles that she still has internalized. But that doesn’t mean Phair is not a feminist. Like Mansfield’s characters, she is after a way to resolve her life with the way she really feels, and a return to the strictures of the past is not the way to do that.

(Also, in response to the allmusic.com piece I linked to, which says of the album’s supposed parallel with the Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street,’ “Just try to match the albums up: is the ‘blow-job queen’ fantasy of ‘Flower’ really the answer to the painful elegy ‘Let It Loose’?” Of course it is, and the fact that ‘Flower’ takes the place of a spiritual is one of the album’s most cutting jabs.)


We’re Back… Defending the New

The conflicts of our own Wash U graduation are now behind us and following our commission on the front lines of the political battle for the past few weeks the Foundation will now resume business as usual. The Right Hand of Nixon has many posts in the work and though I have to begin preparing for Teach For America I too have much more time to devote back to this site.

So with that short introduction said and done I will also leave this short post on one of the new and pretty incredible animated films, Ratatouille. First I have found that this particular Pixar film has the potential to fill numerous posts. There is the visual representation of gustation, more generally there is the animation itself (which has moved well beyond trying to imitate reality and has entered into its own abstract version of representation). But for this short post I want to focus on the speech given by the films sinister looking yet ultimately agreeable food critic, Anton Ego. Ego delivers a speech following his proustian moment eating ratatouille.

His speech touched me the first time I saw it and again this past week when watching it. He defends the New. Here is his review in full:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

IMDB: Ratatouille

Though when stepping outside of the world of the story we realize that the new being defended here is a cooking rat, the idea of the challenge in its defense is not outside of our world. The new at times, especially in art, can appear and actually be that outlandish (as a rat cooking better than most humans). But the reality is that though at times the new can fail it truly does need support, it needs friends.

I have nothing to say except Ratatouille and Pixar are heading in the right direction to view art in such a way as to defend the new. I hope that spirit persists in Wall*E this summer.