Is Technology Destroying Our Culture?

Among the Disrupted

The above link is to a really interesting article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review section about how technology and economic forces are destroying important parts of our culture.  It was written by Leon Wieseltier.  It is definitely worth a read.  A small sample:

Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

How Music Intersects With Culture and Politics

I’ve noticed as I’ve done this blog that I get the most hits from the posts I write about music.  (Though not always.)  This might lead you to believe that at some point I am going to get smart and turn this into a music blog.  But I’m not going to.  You see, you don’t get great artists like Chuck D, Bruce Springsteen, or Morrissey, because those artists are unaware of the cultural and political situations that are around them.  In fact those artists are great because they each reinterpret their surroundings through their own unique lens.  You don’t get Fight the Power or World Peace is None of Your Business or The Ghost of Tom Joad if those artists aren’t paying attention to what’s shaking on the hill.  Meanwhile although the best music can always connect on an emotional level even if you aren’t getting everything someone is talking about, you can’t really understand the full impact of a lot of records if you have no clue what is going on in the world.  Music and culture/politics is a two way street.  A lot of the all time great records never get made without those artist being attuned to the times.  As a listener you also get so much more out of records if you understand what is going on around them.

There is a collection of George Orwell essays called All Art is Propaganda.  I want to play with that and twist it and say that all music is political.  Even the banal country song that is just about the singer’s truck, or the mundane rap song that is just talking about what the rapper is drinking or driving, is political.  It’s not revolutionary, but it is political.  It’s basically telling you that everything you are being told on TV is OK.  Don’t think too much.  Buy things and you too can live the dream.

When is a pop song just a pop song?  Never.  Motown produced a lot of great love songs, but that was a black run label that was trying to cross over to white audiences, where a great deal of the money was, during the Civil Rights era.  They were making young white teens daydream about black stars.  They were showing young black kids that they could be successful.  During those times of division they were bringing people together.

Now that being said, you can totally, as a listener, just enjoy something on a purely emotional level.  Some music just has a physicality that you get off on.  I’ve been listening to a lot of TV On the Radio lately.  I know that some of their stuff is political, but I am mostly getting off on the sonic inventiveness of their records.

However, what you get out of something and what it is, is two different things.  If you were reincarnated in another country and didn’t understand English, you might still be completely captivated by just the sound of Chuck D’s voice, but that wouldn’t change what he was saying.  (And just the sound of his voice is like a god damn cannon going off!)

So I’m not saying that you have to look for the political in all music.  It’s fine to love a record because it just lifts your spirits.  There are plenty of records that do that for me and nothing more.  But again, that is different from saying that the culture at large didn’t shape those records.  It is there under the hood if you want to dive in deeper.

So if you are a huge music fan, like I am, and you want to understand why certain records get made, or you want appreciate a lot of records on a different level, then you need to understand what is going on out there.  Meanwhile, if you are a musician and you are creating something, you can’t help but be shaped by the times that you live in, even if it is not explicit in your work.  You can’t separate music, or any art, completely from the world at large.  Even a lot of those gospel or soul records, those that allow you to transcend your earthly problems for a couple of minutes, were often shaped by those who were suffering themselves.  Whatever music you are into, it was definitely not created in a vacuum.

The Astounding Art and Photography of Bill Lanier

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Lanier Studios

Tonight I was extremely lucky.  I was invited to photographer and artist Bill Lanier’s house to see hangings of his latest work.  This is some of the best work that I have seen in awhile.  While his stuff is based in photography, it is really more complex than that.  He takes his photographs, which in and of themselves are striking images, and has them printed on aluminum, which causes all kinds of optical illusions to occur.  At times they appear to have the depth of a holograph and at other times it is hard to tell if they are photographs or paintings.  Standing in a different light or at different angles from his work makes them take on new characteristics.  There was a picture he took of blue bonnets that looked like a painting from across the room.  When I got closer to it, it was so vivid due to the textures, that I felt as if I could almost stick my head into the photograph.  There is true magic at work here.

Most of his work features scenes from Texas, of which Bill is a native.  However, he has also taken photos of other locations as far away as Morocco.

One of the keys to his work is also that he welds and cuts his own frames.  In certain pieces this is essential as the contrast between the image and the frame adds a new dimension.

There is a lot of art out there that becomes fascinating once you learn about it.  If you are even slightly educated in painting, for instance, different pieces start to come alive as your knowledge increases.  With Lanier’s work you don’t need anything but your eyes to appreciate it.  It’s not that one can’t view it on many different levels or intellectualize it, but it is visceral enough in person that it creates a true emotional impact.

The above link will lead you to his work.  However, like most art, pictures do not do it justice.  The images themselves are powerful, but the texture of the images, due to the way that they are printed and framed, again add dimensions that are truly astounding. I can only hope that Lanier exhibits this work soon so that more people can see it in person.

Ghost Songs

This afternoon I fell into the deep and dark sleep of the the hungover, only to awaken to a cold grey and white grave like early evening.  It looked as much like a dream outside, and a far more nefarious one, than the dream I had just been having on my couch.  Realizing that my dog had not been walked I put on my headphones and headed out the door.  I put on the last two songs from Bash and Pop’s album Friday Night is Killing Me.  Those songs would be Tiny Pieces and First Steps.

What an album!  It is one of those albums that I discovered in a used CD store some years back that has never completely left the rotation.  And yet it is an album so few people know about.  I wonder how many people even own that album?  It was Tommy Stinson’s first album after the breakup of The Replacements.  It is full of loose disheveled rock n roll.  The playing is simply fantastic, especially the guitar playing.  It has so many cool little guitar parts delivered with a ton of feel.  The production is organic and inviting.  It really is one of those great lost rock n roll gems, like if the Faces had some record out there that had escaped release.  It’s not music that will change the world, but it is a record that always manages to change my mood when I am listening to it.  I imagine it does that for other people that have discovered its charms.

It’s funny how the things that can mean so much to us, like dreams, are things that so many other people will never ever know.  How many great albums are out there that we will never hear?  Even more, how many great songs were written that have been lost to the sands of time?   Unlike many other types of art that must be rendered in physical form in the doing, usually songs that make it to record often leave behind many other ones that never will.  Shadows and spirits of sound that a songwriter may deliver in their living room, that are swept aside as the times change.  Ghost songs.  Not the songs of the dead, but the songs of the deceased emotion.

Maybe that organization of sound was developed into something better.  A lot of times it is just a numbers game.  You only get the financing to make so many records.  At the time you choose what you think are your best songs, although it can be very hard to judge your own work.  You record them, in a process where so many things can be lost in translation.  Then out of all of the recordings that are made only so many of them find an audience, often having nothing to do with the works validity.  Even for the most popular of artists it can sometimes be a losing game.

Friday Night is Killing Me is one of those records that at least got made, but has been largely forgotten.  It makes no difference, other than maybe in the financial bearing of its creators.  They made something great.  They took a chance and dreamed.  Even if they are few and far between, there are still people out there like me whose souls are warmed by it on a grim afternoon, as if we had suddenly stumbled upon the hearth of a friendly fire after a great storm.

One day you’re stumblin’ around
The next you’re thinkin’ of the town
And the friends that you thought would always be
With old friends come those greetings
That your eyes won’t be meeting
Though your insides want to embrace
You hardly recognize the face
With Chicago round the corner
Baby takes her first step today

Bash and Pop First Steps

The Transcendent Quality of Music

I have remarked before that 12 Years a Slave is one of the best movies that I have seen in awhile.  It is not only expertly crafted and conveys its central story with incredible emotional impact, but it also has lots of ideas and themes permeating its margins.  There is a scene in the movie that is of true power where the slaves on the plantation sing Roll Jordan Roll.  This comes at a particularly harrowing point in the movie.  In this scene, especially in the context of the movie, one is made to feel how music allows one to transcend suffering to a degree.  It does not negate suffering, but simply allows one to carry on in the face of it.  Music is not only a source of joy, but also, like all good art should do, allows one to spiritually transcend the human mud of life.  It can allow one to exorcise those emotions that would otherwise tear them apart from the inside.

12 Years a Slave Review

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12 Years a Slave is a movie of incredible power.  It not only speaks truth to power and depicts an important time in our history, but it does this while being extremely emotional and artistic at the same time.  Rarely does a movie get all aspects of film making as right as this one does.  This is not a film that gets by on good intentions.  It is a tour de force for all involved.

The movie follows the story of Solomon Northup, a person who was a free black in the pre Civl War North.  He is captured by fugitive slavers and taken down south under false pretenses.  It certain ways it is almost like the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy as it charts the lead character’s descent into hell.  We watch as Solomon goes further and further and further down the dark rabbit hole of American slavery.

I don’t believe a movie is important just because it tackles a serious subject matter.  There are plenty of made for TV movies and lesser Hollywood films that take on controversial subjects with often forgettable results.  Often these movies inform us, but many of them do not move us.  In order for something to stay with a viewer it has to have a certain kind of poetic truth, more than the just the mere representation of facts.

The direction by Steve McQueen is the work of a true master.  The same can be said by the cinematography of Sean Bobbit.  The camera lingers in all of the right places, adding meaning and pulling ideas out of the story.  There are landscape shots that add a surreal fever dream quality to certain scenes.  There is a scene that focuses on the slaves singing.  For a moment I was left thinking about the power of music to help one transcend suffering on this earth.  And yet, scenes like this are done without hitting you over the head.  The score is almost minimal.  Much of the powerful emotions of the film are communicated by the powerful performances of the actors and by what the camera chooses to linger on.  Often films will try to manipulate you with their score.  I found myself moved almost to tears several times just by the images onscreen.

Every actor in this film brings their A game.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyoung’o, as Solomon Northup and the female slave Patsey, are able to convey complex emotions often with nothing more than the expressions on their face.  Also, none of the white actors in the film allow their characters slip into caricature.   Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson always make it feel, no matter how horrible their deeds as slaveowners are, that you are watching the actions of complicated human beings.

This movie is not only a deeply moving historical drama, but it is also as horrific as any horror movie, and even features certain scenes of jet black comedy.  Yet it does all this while never letting you forget that as strange and as horrible as the scenes in the film are, that this is anything other than another day in our history.  This is not the work of strange beasts who have no relation to our present, but the day to day lives of many of our American ancestors.  It does not simply condemn the past, but also makes us aware that the deeds of these people are very much alive in our modern world.  In fact there are times when Fassbender’s character sounds quite a lot like modern day racists.  He simply had the legal permission to cary out his worst impulses.

Anyone that thinks this movie is depicting worst case scenarios simply hasn’t read enough history.  I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  William H. Seward, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, makes a trip down south and is completely disgusted by the day to day depravity of the South at that time.  He sees a group of black children being led in shackles while being whipped.  Children!  And again at the time this was nothing unique, but just another day in America.

When I mentioned that there were scenes of dark comedy, I meant that the film features moments where the absurdity of human behavior comes to the forefront.  Several times Fassbender’s Edwin Epps character commits horrible acts while being drunk, and then quickly justifies his acts by bringing up the Bible.  Hannah Arendt once said that, “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”  We recognize the truth in this behavior, in that even in our modern world many people justify their behavior through religion.  Because this behavior is absurd, to anyone that has a brain, it becomes ridiculous, but it is no less true or horrific for being so.

This movie, which features so many scenes of horrific depravity, is also full of compassion.  The dignity for which Solomon bears his suffering is inspiring.  Brad Pitt also plays a character later on in the film that reminds the viewer that, even during times like these, the world is full of good people as well.

If this movie just relayed the message that slavery is bad it would be bringing nothing new to the table.  However, by infusing this story with poetic truth, the filmmakers have made a film that allow us to reflect on our present.  While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that not only was this a story of where we came from, but so much that is in the film is still with us, even if it is often just below the surface.  I think if you not only want to understand our past, but also our present, this film is a must see.

Marina Abramovic: the Artist is Present Review

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Tonight I stumbled upon the documentary Marina Abramovic:  The Artist is Present.  Marina Abramovic is a performance artist.  I admit to knowing nothing about performance art before watching this film.  I’m always looking for some new world to dive into and explore, and the movie looked interesting, so I tried it.

Abramovic is a performance artist that uses her own body as the basis for her art.  Early in her career she, and her then partner, run naked into each other to communicate issues with male and female relationships.  She gives an audience different instruments, some of which, like a gun, can harm her, to demonstrate how easy a crowd, when given permission, can cross the line into immorality.

When the movie began I thought I was in for something that was a real life Christopher Guest movie.  The beginning of the film, and certain other moments throughout, seem to feature people that are not aware of their own absurdity.  There are definitely certain characters in the art world that seem as if they came out of a spoof.  Also, if I were to tell you that someone carved a pentagram into their stomach as part of a performance piece, I’m sure the reactions would be varied, and many of them not favorable.

However, as the movie progresses, there seem to be more and more moments of transcendent beauty.  But one of the things I loved so much about the film is that although it slowly makes you appreciate what you are seeing more and more as the film progresses, it never forces its viewpoint upon you.  Like great art it never tells you what to think, but just asks you to think.  When the film is over you still might view some or even all of it as absurd, but the film implies that any reaction to art that is an emotional feeling is valid.

The movie centers on Abramovic’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  In it she is debuting one new piece.  The entire time the exhibit is open she will sit mostly still in a chair while visitors to the exhibit sit across from her.  Some of you upon reading this may think, “That isn’t art.”  But by the time you finish watching the film you may think otherwise.  It makes you think about time and how hard it is to do nothing in the modern world.  She somehow uses stillness and quiet to demonstrate an emotional power.  There is a certain Zen like quality to it.  She treats everyone that sits before her as someone of worth and therefor communicates the idea that all have value.

The film also shows behind the scenes clips of her getting ready for this retrospective and shows how much work goes into it.  While getting lost in a performance or a piece of art at a museum, it is easy to forget about the real physical labor that often goes into creation.

I think this movie, like Abramovic’s work, will get a wide range of responses.  However, I think most will find it captivating in one way or another.  I myself feel pregnant with ideas after having seen it.  I find it liberating to see something that is complex.  I’m not even sure what I think about Abramovic and her work, but I know that I will not stop thinking about it for days.  That in itself is a victory for any artist.