On Art, On Society

Pop Art and the Political

Not too long ago I visited the British Museum’s American Dream: From Pop to Present exhibition, which documents the American pop art movement from mid-century to present day. With Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and prints of celebrities firmly lodged in the collective consciousness, we assume that pop art is about using luscious colour palettes and new printing techniques to elevate banal objects and create icons irrespective of the subject’s actual characteristics. Yet this aesthetic has often been the medium for social commentary and critique – a point that the British Museum exhibition drives home most effectively.

Sure, some pop artists were not always politically charged. Take Ed Ruscha. Having published a book of 26 photographs of gas stations in the early ’60s, he expanded on the theme with a series of vibrant prints of one particular Standard station, chosen for its appealing geometric composition (after a little manipulation of some of the proportions and perspective, of course). Whilst this particular gas station was located in Texas, the print evokes the sunny optimism and sheen of Ruscha’s home city, Los Angeles. The artist often played with LA or California as themes for his work, screenprinting a series of Hollywood signs and using an innovative process to produce ‘liquid words’ spelling out “Made in California” in the saturated colour of freshly-squeezed juice.

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While American pop art has often concerned itself with capturing a vision of an increasingly affluent and commercialised USA, political undercurrents have frequently surfaced and left their mark. American Dream displays many examples of this, a few of which have really stuck with me. Chief among these is Andy Warhol’s deeply unsettling depiction of Richard Nixon, with his burning orange eyes, a near-gangrenous complexion and the tagline “Vote McGovern” as the deathblow. Willie Cole’s woodcut Stowage also makes for uncomfortable viewing; it comprises a blueprint of a slave ship and a border of irons to illustrate the continued servitude African Americans faced long after slavery was officially stamped out. More lighthearted yet still powerful are the posters produced by the Guerrilla Artists, an anonymous group with the mission of raising awareness of sexual discrimination in the art world. The exhibition shows that even Lichtenstein has taken on a political lean in his time: his instantly-recognisable comic book art parodies have featured above poems critiquing conservatism in society.
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Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989 by Guerrilla Girls

The exhibition ends with a cold reflection on the American dream. One print calls out, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS CALLING IT QUITS EVERYTHING MUST GO” – a nod to the dreaded economic burst bubble and its casualties.

In many ways, society has improved dramatically since the pop artists started codifying social ills through printing. However, aspirations and optimism have been beaten down by economic strife, political apathy and chronic cynicism that shows no signs of abating. And the progress made towards equal rights for women and ethnic minorities in Western culture is by no means secure in the current climate.

Trump has promised to resuscitate the dream, make America great again. Sadly, Andy Warhol is no longer here to emphasise the absurdity of his hair, brows or pout with a rainbow of colour. Will a new breed of pop artists assume the mantle of political activism through print?

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On Society, On Travel

Found in translation and footsteps

while back I wrote about the negative psychological externalities of city life: the paradoxical feeling of isolation in claustrophobic environs; dissatisfaction caused by too much choice; and fear of missing out (which has even become a popular acronym, FOMO). If I were re-writing the piece today, I would add ‘busyness one-upmanship’ to the list – another urban pet peeve.

What struck me recently is that the English language doesn’t cater to those trying to convey the need to get away from city life from time to time, for a certain kind of respite. The German word Waldeinsamkeit denotes the feeling of being alone in the woods – a very specific sense of solitude that I believe urbanites crave on occasion. Fernweh describes the need for distance, a kind of homesickness for a place unknown. Staid surroundings can make one feel lethargic.

We can’t express it, and a lot of the time it seems like we can’t experience it either. How does one capture woodland solitude or satisfy the travel bug when in full-time employment in London? The answer may just be found in the wisdom of walking advocates.

Adam Gopnik is a New Yorker writer with a flair for dissecting the banal. In his article Why We Walk, he summarises what other writers have opined on writing as something more than merely a mode of transport. Walking as a sport seems a little far-fetched; however walking to spur contemplative thought is pretty compelling. Recalling briefly his own experience:

“For a long time in the nineteen-eighties, I seemed to do nothing but walk around the city. I was blessed by several bits of new technology: by the first great age of the modern sneaker, for one, which allowed even the flat-footed to stride on what felt like cushioned air. And then the Walkman made every block your own movie. Just as the period of the first flâneurs falls between the rise of gas street lighting, which opened the city to twenty-four-hour circulation, and the onset of the automobile, which made cities loud again, so walking in the nineteen-eighties lay between the invention of the Walkman, which suddenly neutralised the noise of the automobile, and the onset of the iPhone, which replaced isolation-booth serenity with our now frantic forever-on-guardness.”

This side of the Atlantic, Will Self champions the city walk. His articles on the subject argue for reconnecting with the physical environment and people, and not falling prey to the constraints of corporate culture. Similar to Gopnik, he laments how mobile devices have – ironically – disconnected us from the world.

“Her responses to her fellow city dwellers, to the road traffic, to the business of finding her way using a handheld GPS system while listening to music on her MP3 player are all quite normal, and yet, set down like this they seem to me to be indisputably analogous to a clinically defined psychotic state. Like a sufferer from psychosis, our young woman’s conception of reality radically diverges from her environment: she is surrounded by actual buildings, with a defined and apprehensible nomenclature; the people she passes are neither clones nor individually known to her but a mass of strangers; neither these people, nor their vehicles are moving in sync with the music she listens to; and finally: her perception of distance is distorted, while her ability to negotiate her environment is dependent on systems external to her own mind that, for all their technical efficacy, are as opaque to her as the magical rituals of a shaman.”

For me, walking is a joy. Sometimes an adventure. A time for reflection. For new ideas to germinate. Walking can also be a great comfort, helping to alleviate all sorts of emotional stresses and strains.

So naturally, I concur with Gopnik and Self and would offer the following advice to others. Wander aimlessly. Look around you and tune out of the podcast. Put your phone somewhere hard to reach (and don’t buy an Apple Watch!). Indulge in the moment, rather than focusing on where you’ve got to get to or fogging over with nostalgia. Do as the French do, and flâner.

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On Politics, On Society

In support of multi-cultural Britain, 2010-2015

Digging through old shoe boxes of hoarded tickets, birthday cards and travel memorabilia this weekend, I found my Editor’s Note for a special mini-issue of the uni student journal. The mini-issue, Perspectives on Immigration, was produced to accompany an on-campus photography exhibition, but its publication was also timely because of the subject matter’s relevance to the 2010 general election. It’s no big secret that economic migrants experience more resentment during economic downturns; what was perhaps surprising at the time was the extent to which politicians across the political spectrum seemed to jump on the bandwagon, arguing for greater controls and doing little to sell the benefits of immigration.

Fast forward to 2015. The third of the televised leaders’ debates was heartening viewing, insofar as the nationalist, more left-leaning party leaders united against Nigel Farage in highlighting the net contribution made by immigrants to British social and economic life. They also didn’t overlook the advantages of EU open borders to Brits searching for a warmer climate or job opportunities elsewhere. Yet arguably, Sturgeon and co. were preaching to the converted. Shaping the immigration discourse in this country will take a much larger and more concerted effort. The Con-Lib coalition government entirely shied away from delivering this, despite the importance of foreign talent and investment in maintaining the UK’s status as a global financial hub.

In light of political intransigence regarding the issue of immigration, I thought it worthwhile re-publishing part of my Editor’s Note. The following comments are just as relevant today as they were five years ago, and I suspect will still feel current in 2020. I wanted to put forth these views to remind people before they go to the polls that issues of tax and debt are not the only ones that matter. Community, society and culture receive little airtime unless UKIP raises these – that’s to our detriment. I hope that others with a positive view of multi-cultural Britain agree and cast their vote with issues other than cuts and business interests in mind.

The 21st century has seen opposition to the influx of economic migrants in the UK become a central issue in the public sphere. The tabloid media sits firmly in the anti-immigration camp, with sensationalist headlines beckoning the British public to share in their stance. Even on the left of the political spectrum, politicians have pandered to the public and media on the issue. Anti-immigration sentiment has even permeated popular culture; the infamous Morrissey interview conducted by the NME – in which The Smiths singer lamented the loss of a distinctive British identity – is the example that springs to mind.

Perhaps most troubling is that references made to the “immigration explosion” and “flooded gates” are almost reminiscent of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. Political correctness has prevented the overt racism that characterised the immigration debates of previous generations in this country, but comparisons can still be drawn. It’s true that many people today are merely expressing legitimate concerns regarding the rate of immigration, but there are members of the ‘indigenous’ population spewing the xenophobic prejudices of old. National identity is still frequently viewed as a fixed entity, and thus as something that is destroyed with change. This notion is overly conservative, and entirely untrue; growing heterogeneity in our society marks transformation of British culture, rather than disintegration. Unity in diversity is not an uncommon fact of collective human existence, nor does it amount to a death sentence for national identity.

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On Art, On Society

A place to call home

There are conventional ideas about how the average person makes a home for themselves and potentially a family, too. In London, an intensifying housing shortage, unrelenting interest from foreign investors and a dearth of rights for renters all contribute to a frenzied preoccupation with the great search for a city-based home. We can’t help peering into the windows of estate agents as we pass by, “just curious”, and then wishing we hadn’t looked because £1,500,000 for a leasehold of a small house is, frankly, depressing. We lament rising rents and energy bills and demonise landlords in conversations with friends and colleagues. UK-wide, we watch reality TV shows addressing the challenges of home renovation or moving house entirely.

I’m as guilty any other for whining about the plight of young people trying to make a living in the city. Yet recently, I received a healthy dose of perspective, in the form of an  evocative photography exhibition at the Barbican. Constructing Worlds is a skillfully curated exploration of how people interact with architecture. This is where I first learned about Torre David in Caracas, Venezuela: an unfinished office building that many call home.

The 45-floor tower could easily have stood as a relic, a painful reminder of the economic collapse of the country in the late ’90s. However, its appropriation by hard-up urban inhabitants has turned a negative into a positive. Thousands have set up home and shop in the building, creating living spaces with found objects and establishing businesses that serve the emergent micro-community such as hair salons and grocery shops. Photographer Iwan Baan has has captured their lives through his camera lens, neither to pity nor romanticise a less-than-ideal state of affairs, but rather to showcase real human ingenuity and resourcefulness.

A family scene

A family scene

Micro-business in action

Micro-business in action

Dumbbells made using pulleys from the lifts that never were

Dumbbells made using pulleys from the lifts that never were

Conceptualising your home needn’t involve kitsch furnishings or the perfect feng shui.

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On Society

Jews, Punk and the Swastika: An Uneasy Exploration

“Rock against racism” is a phrase with which I’ve been familiar for many years now, having likely seen it emblazoned on tour posters for NOFX, Rancid and the like. Anti-racist activism and rock – especially punk – music seem likely bedfellows, in that the music is an audio assault on conservative/ authoritarian thinking and institutions – Nazis, Black Shirts, the Thatcher and Reagan administrations. Plus the alternative music scene used to serve as a club for those who didn’t feel that they quite belonged to mainstream society, a group defined by members that alluded easy social categorisation. This is still true today to an extent, although there is relatively little to distinguish the cliques and associated conformist style and behaviour that have developed in this space to those that are more of the MTV world.

When I bagged an invite to a Jewish Book Week panel discussion, “Jews in Punk”, I anticipated a relatively innocuous conversation about the links between minority groups, religious or otherwise, punctuated with the odd amusing anecdote about Gene Simmons requesting maotza ball soup backstage, or the Beastie Boys originally naming one of their most anthemic tunes “You’ve Gotta Fight For Your Right To Purim Party” (disclaimer: to my knowledge neither of these things actually happened, but wouldn’t it be great if they did?).

What I wasn’t expecting was discourse dominated by the appropriation of the swastika symbol by some of punk music’s most renowned figures.

On the panel were Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade Records, Charles Murray, an editor for the NME in the ’70s when working for the magazine actually meant something in music circles, Daniel Miller who founded and heads up Mute record label and publishing house, and the artist Toby Mott.

The panel discussion began with exploration of the links between their chosen professions and Jewish identity.

Geoff Travis’s family fit the Jewish family cookie cutter of the time: they lived in Finchley and owned a shoe shop in the East End. Despite being a very anti-social teen, Geoff forced himself into a communal situation by spending time on a kibbutz in Israel. This introduction to a socialist way of life ultimately filtered through to his business ideals; he wanted Rough Trade to “have an element of communality, be an open house that anyone could come to… Give people an equal chance to make art, and for that art to reach its highest point.” Geoff sees the Richard Branson model of doing business as anathema to him – “I’ve always wanted the artists to be successful, not the entrepreneurs.”

Charles Murray’s upbringing was one of quiet and somewhat comfortable suburban living, which he came to resent. “I grew up in net curtain land. I was down with anything that disrupted the smooth surface of bourgeois suburban complacency.” When people assume he is of the bourgeois brigade, he is equally disdainful: “They asked if I was an old Etonian – more like an old Estonian!”

Not all of Daniel Miller’s family made it out of Germany and Austria during the period of Nazi rule. “I was taught to always question authority.” This was reflected in his musical tastes; nothing was to conform or become staid. For a period Daniel felt that music had stopped evolving – and then along came the curious and hypnotic loops of German electronica. Whilst bearing few similarities in sound, Daniel regarded electronic music and punk as sharing much in principle: both aimed to evade norms.

Toby Mott is a long-time collector of not only Rock Against Racism, but also neo-Nazi punk, memorabilia – stickers, badges, posters etc. Jews are apparently the biggest collectors of such items, including names in music like Chris Stein from Blondie. Many feel it is vital that Nazi items be exhibited, so as not to let people forget the atrocities of the past; this is a powerful way of keeping alive the message, “Never again.” Collecting is also about regaining a sense of control, taking the insignia away from the perpetrators of old and thereby draining them of the fear and terror they used to embody.

Wedding Jewishness and careers associated with punk is more understandable in the British punk context. While the London punk scene was always highly political, influenced as it was by Marxism and often geared towards confronting the National Front, NYC’s brand of punk tended to avoid serious issues – or at least approached them in a more fleeting and playful way. The Ramones were cartoon characters compared to their trans-Atlantic brethren.

This political bent of British punk has been a bit of a double-edged sword, with neo-Nazi punks swarming the scene as well as those with socialist sympathies. Yet interestingly swastikas have been adorned by members of both camps within the genre.

And so the discussion took a controversial turn, as both panel and audience members debated punk and the swastika.

Siouxsie and Sid Vicious are just two of many prominent figures in the punk movement to publicly wear the swastika. They did this in order to be provocative, yes, but is it anti-semitic?

Siouxsie’s case is not helped by the fact that the song Love in A Void originally included the line too many Jews for my liking – and let’s ignore for a moment how catchy Hong Kong Garden is, and recognise the hugely racially-insensitive lyrics!

Junk floats on polluted water/ An old custom to sell your daughter / Would you like number 23? / Leave your yens on the counter please… Slanted eyes meet a new sunrise/ A race of bodies small in size…

At one point in the discussion, a lady in the audience with an indiscernible accent called out, “Can we stop picking on Siouxsie?” It turns out that she, an Israeli punk, had herself donned a swastika and rejected the notion that it could necessarily be used in a game of Spot the Anti-Semite. We the audience were then reminded of the Siouxsie and the Banshees song Israel.

Shattered fragments of the past / Meet in veins on the stained glass / Like the lifeline in your palm / Red and green reflects the scene / Of a long-forgotten dream…

I’m still not certain where I stand on the acceptability of punks using the swastika. Given its sinister connotations, you’d think one would give it a wide birth? Or is it understandable that punks have used it to shock, in order to get across a more productive message, shattering the “smooth surface of bourgeois suburban complacency” with jagged-edged words, chords and clothes? Hell, punk was never meant to be polite.

If I have to offer my opinion on the matter, I’d say it’s for the afflicted community to decide how to handle the swastika. Whether it’s Jews in the Diaspora collecting to document the past, or Israelis wearing the symbol in a show of strength and rejection of victimhood, there is an underlying aim to transform something that was so harmful to Jews into something constructive for Jews. As for Siouxsie, I think she should have displayed a little more sensitivity.

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On Society

‘Sick’ City Society?

Having been beyond lazy with my extra-curricular writing in the past year (save an article on my summer Israel trip, with a title I cannot and will not take responsibility for… see here if you are so inclined), I’ve been spurred into fingers-tapping-frantically-on-keyboard action by an article in the Guardian reporting on various research studies/ hypotheses about the link between city living and poorer mental health.

My initial reaction to the article was to be mildly disparaging. Journalists shouldn’t give credence or column inches to research suggesting that “aircraft noise might inhibit children’s learning” – and three-year-old me with Playmobil plane in hand (the airport set was a firm favourite) would vociferously disagree! Sight and sound stimuli are more commonly learning aids than inhibitors, I’m sure. And conversely, car noise helps?! Pet peeve as a researcher: when people focus in on the data too closely and suspend common sense.

It also omits the obvious. Us city folk tend to work longer hours, for money that doesn’t stretch as far because it’s so expensive to rent/ own a home. Very simple causes of stress, no?

Yet the Guardian article doesn’t wholly err on the ridiculous; there’s some interesting ideas to contemplate in there about how the urban habitat is not conducive to mental wellbeing. So I got to thinking about how social density cultivates social isolation. I’m surrounded by people on the packed District Line tube in the morning – the number of armpits I’ve been squeezed under like a piece of fruit waiting to be juiced is thoroughly depressing – and yet I establish no real connection with any of these people. We all plug into the Matrix (iPad, iPod, smart phone, Kindle) and try to zone out the relatively unpleasant commute. The only emotion I feel in response to a fellow traveller is typically disdain, when they attempt to read the Metro when there’s barely an inch of space between my face and theirs, and I almost lose an eye. And it’s not a real newspaper anyway.

London has a very special way of at times making one feel very alone, sure. I think another city-specific mind-fuck (not mentioned in the article) is an issue often discussed in the context of behavioural economics: the paradox of choice. The established wisdom was that choice is always a good thing – not so, say proponents of BE. Human beings have been proven to be pretty dire choosers when too many options are presented to them; they lack the capacity to evaluate these effectively. This is why best-buy shortlists and Amazon recommendation are so appealing to us – they dramatically simplify and therefore ameliorate the chore that choice can be. In a big city, we are bombarded with choice. Just open up TimeOut and see the myriad things you can do on any given evening. It’s great, and at the same time anxiety-inducing.

It’s difficult selecting the right Vietnamese BYOB restaurant on Kingsland Road, the right ‘critic’s choice’ kitchen sink drama in Soho – or even deciding at a more basic level what you feel like doing on a particular evening with friends or a partner. Whatever you finally pick entails a huge opportunity cost. OMG SO MUCH PRESSURE WHAT IF THE BURGER ISN’T AS GOOD AS AT MEAT LIQUOR OR DIRTY BURGER OR HONEST BURGER AND THE BURGERAC.ORG REVIEW WAS HORRIFICALLY MISGUIDED?! It’s a first-world problem, mind.
Sometimes the choices you have to make are more profound ones – and again, the city will supply options in abundance. There are 1,000s upon 1,000s of jobs out there in more obscure/ specialised fields than elsewhere in the country, in our predominant tertiary sector. Which career path to take? And then there’s dating in the city. With the ease and convenience provided by the now near-ubiquitous Tinder, there’s enough people out there for you to dismiss at the swipe of a finger, and you’ll still have plenty left to have a pool of several on the go, unsure which – if any – is ultimately deserving of your precious time. I’m not against using technology to help meet someone per se – and that would be hypocritical, shhh – but the tools at our disposal can dilute relationships as well as facilitate them.
Further, greater choice engenders higher expectations and, as a result, we experience disappointment more frequently.

So that’s my two cents, based on experience, of how city life can make you mental. It can also be challenging in a good way, and enriching, exhilarating, magical… But I guess there’s no news story there, so lets hear more, Dr Pseudo Science, on how “our brains are not perfectly shaped for living in urban environments”…

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