Saturday, 5 September 2015

Pop Art

Steven Shorter behaves like a robot. This makes him odd. It sets him apart. Every other character is recognisably human; the one possible exception is Vanessa Ritchie; she can be as gauche as the star she has been commissioned to paint. It is meant to be like this. An artist is an alien presence. Born to give meaning to the world, to do so she must remain  forever detached from it. Thus Vanessa refuses to marry Steven. She needs her solitude. To make a puzzle out of her life, to truly understand what she encounters, the artist must recreate it within the privacy of her own personality. To marry a celebrity would destroy such detachment; too many people would now live inside her.

Steven Shorter is devoid of private life. He is surrounded, perhaps we should say imprisoned, by other people. Steven is not an artist. No. He is a pop star. The two can appear very similar; and there are times when nothing can tell them apart; we think of the early Sly and the Family Stone. Nevertheless, they are fundamentally different types. Pop is essentially a product of the emotions, which it seeks to convey in their totality; meaning is either secondary, or, and this is far more common, non-existent. It is one reason why pop stars do not survive for long; unable to renew their work through subtle elaborations of meaning, their emotional juice runs quickly out and they have nothing more to say. In place of lyric inspiration there are tired repeats of the same old material. At most there is an album or two of quality.  

An artist is a qualitatively different character. She seeks meaning in the world; and when found she uses it to impose her own aesthetic patterns onto a reality she knows is independent of herself. Emotion is important to her; she is often more emotional than the pop stars who live off the feelings of themselves and their besotted fans. Feeling is both her means of discovery - it is the drill that bores the holes through the crust of appearances - and the method by which she transposes these discoveries into images. Her emotions serve a mind replete with meanings; we think of such a mind as a regularly fertilised field, able to produce crop after crop of creative life until the day the artist dies.

Vanessa isn't a good artist. Although…she doesn't have an inspiring model - Steven Shorter shows no feeling; lacks all thought (all thought - he cannot even utter a commonplace); and has no will power. He is a machine, an automaton, who needs a human being to switch him on - usually his manager, his press agent, or his artistic director. Without his operator he can hardly function: it sleeps; it watches children’s TV; it listens to its own music; or, if in an unfamiliar place - Vanessa’s studio - it wanders aimlessly, mindlessly picking up random objects. Steven Shorter’s mind is empty. Even his music is created by others. We think of him as a tunnel through which other people travel to get to their destination - to wealth, to power, or into the affections of pretty teenagers. How do you paint a human who is nothing beyond his own façade? At most you will make a clever but valueless design. Vanessa is failing. We are shown the working canvas: a sort of skull dissolving into a black hole, with squiggly lines running across it that could be sparks of electricity flashing out from a malfunctioning circuit board. It is awful. The empty eye sockets emphasise the vacuity and bad art. Then suddenly there is a moment of connection between them - they are laughing together - and Vanessa fills in the eyes; for an extremely brief moment (the connection is quickly broken) the picture is alive.

Steven Shorter is an instrument. We could conceive of him as an artist voided by the system that employs and promotes him. Once he had something to say, but with popularity his inner voice is crowded out by the money merchants who now live off his success; reducing him to a tabula rasa onto which they imprint their own voices. When the film begins he has become nothing. He has lost control of both his music and himself and is completely passive; he relies on others to feed him his instructions. This leads to absurdities - Uncle Jules trying to persuade the artistic director to get Steven, who takes no part in the conversation, to sing one of his own compositions; ancient and inappropriate. Art has fallen to the floor, where it is trampled to death by a frenzied rush towards money and fame; even the accountants want to step up to the microphone.

We are too generous to Steven Shorter. He is only a pop star. He never had much to say. The stage act that represents his custodial sentence is nothing more than a consciously designed artifice whose purpose is to generate mass hysteria. The meaning of such a performance exists outside of it - in the boardroom of Shorter Enterprises, which squeezes the maximum profit out of the commodity they own; and in the departments of government that wish to manage the public mind. This act is a fake; it is a formula with no authentic feeling and without individual meaning. Little wonder it is a success. For it is precisely because it lacks authenticity that it attracts a mass audience, who live off its crude ideas which excite the wildest of emotions.1 It helps that Steven Shorter has no personality. There is no obstacle to the fulfilment of his fans’ desires - he is a mirror in which they see their own faces. It is the frisson of self-love. And his music... An opportunity to lose themselves in ecstatic liberty; those cries of freedom allowing their feelings to flow free. And they are free, for as long as the performance lasts. 

An artist could never do this. Too much of her own personality imposes itself between herself and the audience; whose self-projections onto an idealised object will thereby meet with resistance. Art demands that you look at it; that you recognise its independence. This will create confusion and resentment in the egotist who demands that everything should resemble himself.  

Although, and this is a truth we have to recognise, even the wild seas of art can be turned into Narcissus’ garden pond. An artist cannot control her admirers.

The artist can affect her audience in strange ways. Vanessa brings out Steven’s unhappiness; she makes him think that it is wrong that there is nothing inside him.2 It reminds me of my own prose poem: the artist is a destructive force (who should be avoided).

There is an awards ceremony. Asked to make a speech Steven breaks down, and in his stuttering, confused and barely articulate way - his one moment of meaning is delivered in the most mangled of communicative forms - he admits that he is nothing. Here is a moment of truth that none can accept. His bosses sack him. His fans turn against him. Their hero must be genuine; he should have the power to create a reality that can co-exist with those they experience at home and in the classroom; his fans disciples who need to believe that this reality can transform their everyday lives; even when deep down they know that it is all a fantasy. Steven Shorter’s cries for freedom, his resistance to the brutal cops who manhandle him on stage, are meant to exist only in the imaginations of his audience; where safely quarantined they will remain forever true. The imagination is real. In our youth it exists on the same level as everyday life, where it can excite the most extreme of emotional states; thus the female fans who invade the stage to revenge themselves on the policemen. Ultimately, though, its fictions are harmless; this riot kept safely within the bounds of the performance - there will be no marching on Parliament Square to throw out the politicians. Fantasy is an escape from life’s banalities. In his speech Steven not only reveals this truth, but also shows that it is in fact a myth. Christ is no different from his disciples. Both are ordinary. Both lack meaning. No fan could accept such a truth. He has polluted their dreams. He has devalued the imagination; work and school, our exam results and our bank account, are the only important realities…their parents were right after all. They hate him!

Steven Shorter is a commodity used to sell other commodities. The most ridiculous is the Christian religion. The film is set in a period when individual freedom, at first encouraged by the establishment, is perceived to have now gone too far; the government wishing to reconstruct a strong, socially cohesive, country. Steven is to be their St Paul; his redemption and transformation into a Christian saint binding his fans to the new national religion. “We Will Conform!” is the motto and the song. We laugh and laugh until…we think about the Rave Scene. If young kids believe conformity is rebellion - if we dress up authoritarianism as self-conscious irony— then they will willingly submit to it. Dance the DJs told them. And they did.

When priests start gyrating to popular music you know the film has ceased to be serious.  It too has become pop, though not for commercial but for ideological reasons. This movie is a work of agitprop; one which argues that everything (including the Anglican Church) is used by the state for its own instrumental ends. The public realm is a façade and utterly fake. Behind the scenes is a vast conspiracy, which controls all of the culture. It is an adolescent’s wet dream.  

Does the director believe this? Or is it the view of the makers of the documentary that frames this movie - Privilege is a film within a film? We wonder… Is Peter Watkins after two targets: the cynicism of the music business and the ideological naivety of the radicals; such as the socially committed documentary-makers who were then becoming fashionable? Radicals tend to see everything through a political filter; which, inevitably, exaggerates the importance of instrumental reason - everything, it is believed, is done for a purpose.3 Even worse: because politics is a wholly human institution which is understood only through the radicals' favourite friend - reason (with its bias towards self-enclosed systems: there can be no loose ends in a rational analysis: how many times do we hear a critic say “there has to be a reason”, as if life will helpfully provide just one4) - very quickly they can come to believe that a small group of people control the whole society.5 It is a failure of sensibility. It is the outsider’s view of politics. The idea that the government is using a pop star to control the public mood and to sell British products is just as mechanical as the robotic persona of Steven Shorter. It is too crude, and lacks the subtlety to appreciate the complexities of a political culture that rests as much on habit and custom as the daily exercise of bureaucratic rationality. Little more than a poor caricature, this movie’s portrayal of politics is un-intentionally comic; we are reminded of Tony Benn, who once argued that Radio Caroline was allowed to broadcast because it absorbed otherwise far more radicalised behaviour. Nonsense, of course. Benn unable to admit the truth that the British government was powerless to change the zeitgeist.

The odd feel of the film, emphasised by the reverse casting of a musician as a mannequin and a model as an artist, captures the self-conscious patina of a documentary; programmes where real people are made to look like fictions. The awkwardness of the acting - or perhaps I should say non-acting: Steven Shorter merely exists in this film he does not act - thus becomes its strongest point.  The performance looks inauthentic; it thus convinces us that we are watching the real thing.

(Review: Privilege)



1.  And don’t think I’m having a go at young kids… How many intellectuals - how many artists - get excited over simple ideas like Freedom and Fascism?

2.  We could quote Robert Walser.  We will:

How horrible it must be to know that one is famous and to feel that one doesn't deserve it at all. I can imagine many such famous people. Isn’t such a fame like an incurable sickness? (The Little Berliner in Selected Stories)

Compare with the artist’s persona:

I had the whole rich earth immediately before me, and I still looked only at what was most small and most humble. With gestures of love the heavens rose and fell. I had become an inward being, and I walked as in an inward world; everything outside me became a dream; what I had understood till now became unintelligible. I fell away from the surface, down into the fabulous depths, which I recognized then to be all that was good. (The Walk)

Walser’s stories capture the loneliness of the artist. Just about all his characters, and we see this in particularly The Walk, where his conversations, we at last realise, are all imaginary (except for the one in his memory, which, being a confession of love that drives the love object away, is symptomatic), are trapped inside themselves. This creates an atmosphere of melancholy, which is leavened by ecstatic revelries and grandiloquent self-flattery. Walser is a mystic who writes as a Romantic; although one belonging to the 20th century - most of the time he knows that his imagination can exist only inside his head.*

*For the contrast with the 19th century Romantics see Isaiah Berlin’s preface to The Mind of the European Romantics, by H.G. Schenk; quoted in my A Broken Fairy Tale.

3. For a wonderful example read Gordon S. Wood’s book on the making of the United States (The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787), and then compare the revolutionists' views with the actuality of British political life; described in what by now are regarded as historiographical antiques: J. Steven Watson’s The Reign of George III, 1760-1815 and Basil Williams’ The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760. The Americans were ignorant outsiders, who placed too much emphasis on the surface of political life and on their own reason; with its tendency towards to paranoia and conspiratorial thought.*1 

Reason is a highly dangerous mode of thinking precisely because of its bias towards simplicity and clarity, which creates fine distinctions that do not exist in ordinary life. Moreover, reason, especially when applied for instrumental ends, tends to invent rather than analyse; the latter a far more difficult and intuitive process; one that requires a far greater depth of knowledge and insight; and which can only be achieved if one acquires the sensibility of the insider - of a group, an institution, a culture. Lewis Namier describes it wonderfully:

There were no proper party organisations about 1760, though party names and cant were current; the names and the cant have since supplied the material for an imaginary superstructure. A system of non-Euclidean geometry can be built up by taking a curve for basis instead of the straight line, but it is not easy for our minds to think consistently in un-wonted terms; Parliamentary politics not based on parties are to us a non-Euclidean system, and similarly require a fundamental readjustment of ideas and, what is more, of mental habits. A general explanation registering the outstanding differences may be understood but cannot be properly assimilated; one has to steep oneself in the political life of a period before one can safely speak, or be sure of understanding, its language. (The Structure of Politics At the Accession of George III)

One example of the colonists' mistake: the Americans at first believed that the House of Commons, The House of Lords and the Crown were three distinct social realms, with qualitatively different kinds of people in them. This idea was an absurdity: the elder son of a peer would first sit in the Commons before being elevated to the Lords on his father’s death. The mistake was to accept Montesquieu’s analysis  (in The Spirit of the Laws) and to project the French social structure (with its distinct and clearly demarcated estates)*2 onto a far more fluid British culture. Through a long and haphazard process political institutions were then created that arose out of this ideological misreading of the British constitution: a separation of powers between the different branches of the government, whereby The People replaced the Crown as the legitimating authority. Though note: while The People are acclaimed as the sovereign body actual power rests with the institutions of the state; the original intention of Madison, who, like other leaders, came to distrust parliament and democracy, which they believed gave too much influence to unrepresentative local groups and factions. To be clear: the United States of America was created to limit the democratic tendencies that arose in each of the independent colonies.

Gordon S. Wood’s book is an outstanding work. It describes the creation of the first modern ideology; believed to rest on natural law and reason it is actually founded on a rational fiction, which very quickly becomes a contemporary myth. The myth is very strong - because its foundation rests on The People - but at the same time is far more fictional, and a lot more fake, than the one it replaced - the authority of the Crown -; which rested on a solid ground of fact and truth: it recognised where the real source of power lay: amongst the institutions of the establishment. Modern political culture is based on a lie we all want to believe is true…how many of even the radicals talk in the name of The People?  How many books have you bought recently with the title The People’s History of….? I leave you to fill in the blank. In truth political power can never lie with The People, which is too vast and too amorphous to have any coherent say or executive role. Namier again:

I soon found, as so many have found before me, that the constitutional and political formulas of the problem were exceedingly simple, and the contemporary discussions of it very trite - which usually happens where masses act but are supposed to reason. A restatement of the arguments or an analysis of what is called ‘public opinion’ would not get us much further; for political problems do not, as a rule, deeply affect the lives and consciousness of ordinary men, and little real thought is given them by these men, whose concerns, none the less, supply the basis of the problems and determine the course of their development.

*1 Walser’s So! I’ve Got You evokes the instability of reason, with its tendency to question everything, but its inability to ground itself. (in Selected Stories)

Walser himself shows the danger of reason…his weakest stories, which rely too much on association of ideas, are too logical, even in their sudden shifts tone and subject matter. In consequence one feels that it all emanates from the conscious mind; and so creates that overly rational, that intrusively mad, atmosphere which unsettles us. Contrast with Joseph Roth who in his shorter fiction seems to have learned from Walser: his sudden narrative shifts are real surprises, and seem to originate from unconscious insight not ratiocination.

*2 See William Doyle’s The Oxford History of the French Revolution for a good summary of the ancien régime.

4.  The most common: power, which is believed to be a single and simple phenomenon. In Gordon S. Wood’s book we read of how the American revolutionists hated Power, which they conceived as a sort of Devil; always on the look out to increase its range and influence. And yet power, as Nietzsche shows, comprises a myriad of forms; many of them benign; Anthony Powell’s Lord Warminster (in At Lady Molly’s) an exemplary example.

For a different, far richer, picture of existence see Tim Parks’ piece on ambiguity, where he writes about literature’s attempt to capture the complexity of life. In politics too we need to see political reality less as an exercise in bureaucratic reason, and more as a dense and complicated situation.

5.  Reading Gordon S. Wood’s book we realise just how close the political mind is to those of the Protestant sects. Modern politics is the Christian religion with God taken out; another reason for the conspiratorial bias - something has to replace the deity.  

At that time the phenomena of combustion were generally explained by the theory propounded by the German Stahl that all combustible substances contained a fire element, to which he gave the name of ‘phlogiston’. (Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy)

Although conspiracies do exist - George Bush and Tony Blair before the Iraq War; Irangate; Watergate (all insider conspiracies - one faction of the political establishment conspiring against another) - the fundamental mistake of conspiratorial thinking is to think that a thing, a fixed group of humans, is the cause of all political action. While humans do make the decisions they are at the same time dynamic actors within a historically conditioned but ever-changing event, and it is this event, which has it own limitations - determined by history - and its own potentialities - to be liberated by charismatic leaders -*, that produces the particular political outcomes. Conspiracy theories are like phlogiston: they substitute an element - 12 old men around a table - for a process: political action

Even in the 18th century, when the political structure was more stable and there was a monarch who exercised considerable political power, this was also the case; and is brilliantly brought out in Namier’s The Structure of Politics At the Accession of George III: government patronage would strongly influence a M.P.’s decision but could not determine it; his decision dependent upon both the feelings in his constituency and on his own views; these swayed by public opinion, and, more importantly, the atmosphere in the House of Commons on the night of the vote.

* J. Steven Watson’s The Reign of George III is full of insightful character studies, which show the importance of personality on political events.

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