Friday, 23 September 2011

Queer Beasts

The storm settles, sentences stutter, slow down and disintegrate; stumbling into incoherence, until, at last, the words, finally, come, slowly, to a stop.  There is silence on the streets of London.  The cameras are dismantled, presenters shoved into buses; whole paragraphs are swept from the streets.  Hackney is free of journalists.  The Great Uprising; London on Fire; The Fall of Capitalism; Barbarian Rampage; the zoo opened, the feral beasts let out…  The cleaners sweep them all away.  Chucking the rebels into black bags they throw them into the garbage trucks; tipping famous reporters onto the council dump.  The soixante-huitards are howling; and the bins overflow with clich√©s.  It is overtime for the workers.

You’ve forgotten it already?

Perhaps only the shop assistants of Footlocker will remember these days.  Leaving work to walk home amongst old friends...

Everything must go!  Is this the future for remaindered goods? Insurers subsidizing the lost stock; looters a cheap way of removing old merchandise?  The rioters a local version of humanitarian intervention? That other stimulus for the economy, as Gilbert Achar recently reminded me: the western corporations impatient for the contracts to rebuild the buildings they helped to destroy.  The brand new to replace the antiquated, bombs cheaper than bulldozers…  Blow the country up!  To rebuild it.  Libya just a few deaths away from entering the modern age.

Naomi Klein, borrowing heavily from David Harvey, has suggested that the Western financial institutions are highly conscious of the benefits of national economic meltdowns, forcing the economies they wreck to, amongst other things, sell off public assets at giveaway prices to mostly Western corporations.  Such practices “taking off” in the 1990s, the period when bombing people for their own benefit became popular amongst the liberal elite in both Europe and America. 

One wonders if Klein’s book was a bestseller on Wall Street and in the City; a DIY manual for the slower executive.  Freedom goes underground!  Is this the strap line now?  Wouldn’t we love to see their business plans; look at the strategies of their PR companies.  Wouldn’t we like to look at the advertising projects they have thrown in the wastepaper bin: Sarkozy inside a cement mixer; Cameron on top of a crane… Of course we never will: they are only for the cynics inside the offices we will never see.

John Berger has not forgotten.  The Croydon riot triggering a childhood memory.  His is an interesting piece, analysis through collage, though it is too sentimental about the rioters: sad sucks without hope, he thinks.  I am not so sure, as you know.  From the little we do know they appear a quite variegated and diverse set of the human species.  Too much can be read into an event, which appears without political significance; refreshingly recognised by Berger himself:

Looting is consumerism stood on its head with empty pockets.

Berger is an artist.  Inevitably his work is suffused with an aesthetic sensibility, of the highest order.  He has extraordinary talent; one of the great writers of our time.  You disagree?  You have read him, of course.  Oh!  You once saw him on the TV, his shirts looking like the wallpaper your mother had in the living room.  I see.

You would like a second chance?

Read his books.  It is quite easy, I shouldn’t have to tell you.  Lie on the sofa, turn the kids off, and have a cup of tea, to keep you company - the colour of dark chocolate with one sugar is about right.  Pick up the book.  Put it to your face, though not too close, just back a bit, just, just, there; that’s right.  After each page turn to the next one…  You want a list?  You want a lot, don’t you?  All right, but you must wait.  Wait?  Yes, until I have finished.  You need patience my good fellow.  Art is not some race around the athletics track.

There is a problem with great talent: its tendency to exaggerate.  For it sees life just a little too clearly.  It encapsulates the one big truth, but in so doing ignores all the little ones that ordinarily obscure it.  A large picture window allows us to see everything before us.  We don’t consider how much it focuses the view; how much our eyesight is at the architect’s command.  We see what he wants us to see, until a rival undercuts his authority.  I exaggerate too.  But you get my drift; you understand my meaning.

The taste of chocolate. The width of her hips. The splashing of water. The length of the daughter’s drenched hair. The way he laughed early this morning. The gulls above the boat. The crow’s feet by the corners of her eyes. The tattoo he made such a row about. The dog with its tongue hanging out in the heat. The promises in such things operate as passwords: passwords towards a previous expectancy about life. And the holidaymakers on the lakeside collect these passwords, finger them, whisper them, and are wordlessly reminded of that expectancy, which they live again surreptitiously.

Berger exaggerates the sensibility of the rich and famous.  He thinks them artists, and thus he elevates them too high; mere bungalows become skyscrapers, nondescript offices St Paul’s Cathedral.  Most of the rich are boring, relatively insensitive, that is ordinary, they will not recognize the small epiphanies he describes; they are blunted by habit and mediocrity; that drunkenness which affects us all.  Have you seen them?   Or heard them?  Those wealthy patrons of the Tate and the private galleries… You disagree?  You do?  Really?

Money can blunt the senses in three ways: by having too much and too little; and by having just enough to get by.  People always forget the last one.  For they don’t grasp what it means: money itself has almost nothing to do with sensibility.  It can buy you its simulacrum: those easy phrases that fill up a dinner party conversation.  All those exhibitions and plays we have seen!  The reviews we have read; the words we know how to repeat…  Money can make you aware of Gauguin and Stanley Spencer; but it doesn’t do much else; unless you are susceptible to their influence.  It is time that matters more.  In the past only the rich had enough money to live on and enough time to enjoy the fine textures of the world around them; nature and the arts; the eccentricities of human behaviour, philosophy and spiritual excess.  But only a few of the rich were capable of such pleasures – those who had the aesthetic gift.  Most enjoyed their own sort of riot: over fields and through woods after pheasants and foxes, and hares.  How they loved smashing up a farmer’s field, trampling his crops…  Many sank into an early decrepitude of port and sherry.  For what money buys isn’t an artist’s sensibility but comfort and authority; the respect we all need.  It also buys beauty and fine living; legitimate violence; and envy, a very valuable commodity, for which many will pay vast sums.

Berger has written a good piece, picking up beautiful fragments like a crow crumbs, but it distorts the social relationship.  Apart from a minority the rioters are humans like the rich who patronize them; separated only by the checkouts of Lidl and Waitrose.  Inevitably I exaggerate, but less, I think, than this great writer.  People can be cultivated, fine schools and universities can provide the essential training of the social elite, but it cannot create a sensibility that does not exist.

A small group turns its head. They watch two expansive thighs, in turquoise tights, move smoothly inside a taut mini-skirt.  Marilyn Monroe is all over it.  They see Marilyn talk as the woman walks, grimace when she turns to a friend.  Obama is on top of her; his eyes bulging out of two large breasts.  Look! Look!  It is the excitement of her blue lips... 

There is a woman with a black bob, drunk on her own laughter, making faces at a train window.  She is laughing at herself watching herself perform.  She is chattering her teeth to see the effects they make. It is extraordinary!  She knows it, fascinated almost beyond belief, as she turns herself into a chimpanzee.  Intoxicated on her own excitement she opens her mouth as wide as she can, until her teeth expand over her face; though she can hardly hold herself for her laughter… Clashing her teeth together, they become preternaturally large and white, and she disappears, transformed entirely, into an animal, into a performer of the highest rank.  And once all teeth she collapses into outrageous laughter.

Berger is right: the rich have expectations the poor don’t. 

But Berger is also wrong: the poor can be artists too.

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