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Mon, 01 Apr 2002 00:00:00 -0500 The Guggenheim museum recently announced the finalists for the Hugo Boss prize, which is worth $50,000 and given every two years to an artist whose work represents a significant development in contemporary art. The finalists represent contemporary art, all right, and not only in the sense that their works are mostly silly. As Aldous Huxley knew, they are also works of artistic cowardice.
Here are a few of the Guggenheim finalists, as described by the
New York Times
: Francis Alÿs, who deals with the absurdity of urban life through his collaborations with local artists and craftsmen in a variety of media, from video to performance art; Anri Sala, who has already won a prize at the 2001 Venice Biennial for his poetic video installation on transience and tourism; and Koo Jeong“a”my favorite”whose pieces incorporate everyday materials like aspirin tablets, pencils, and coins.
Yes, these are slow“moving targets, good for a few laughs. Yet whats noteworthy is not only why, but also the way many people laugh at this stuff. Usually those outside the modern art world deride works on pencils and tourism, but in a way that is a bit self“deprecating. We know were out of it, that this stuff is just too sharp and esoteric for our minds to grasp. We waffle and ask ourselves, Is it art? And if so”if, indeed, it comes with the imprimatur of the Guggenheim and $50,000”arent we more than a little bit square?
No, actually, were not, but sometimes it takes someone fearless and eloquent to spell out exactly why. Recently the complete essays of Aldous Huxley were reissued in six volumes. In volume three can be found an essay titled Art and the Obvious. First published in 1931, it helps us to make sense of the
article and the attitude that underlies it.
All great truths are obvious truths, Huxley begins. But not all obvious truths are great truths. He then lists some of the great truths that are also obvious”or at least that were obvious before the era of victimology and the rise of the helping professions: happiness depends upon oneself and not external circumstances; parents love their children and men and women are attracted one to another in a variety of ways; many people are moved by nature to feel elation, awe, tenderness, gaiety, melancholy; most people are attached to their homes and countries, to the beliefs which they were taught in childhood and the moral code of their tribe. All of these are obvious truths and great truths because they are universally significant, because they refer to fundamental characteristics of human nature. Thus people never tire of hearing about them. They appreciate validation of the facts of human life, and great artists give it to them. Its why we never tire of love songs.
Huxley then touches on the obvious truths that are not great truths”the fact, for example, that New York has traffic and that fashions change. In light of the Hugo Boss awards, we might add to this list of obvious truths the fact that people find use for aspirin tablets, pencils, and coins. These things may be appreciated by people when they see them in art, noted Huxley, but they dont fulfill the publics need for art that focuses on obvious truths that are also great.
This doesnt mean, of course, that all art about great obvious truths is automatically great art. Sometimes the public will shun great truths because they are often treated in a sentimental and hamfisted way by popular culture”in, say, dopey songs about human weakness or cloying romantic movies that fail to reveal the true beauty of love. Such works aim for the big truths but fail. And in failing, thought Huxley, they often convince our artists that the truths in them are not worth examining: The excesses of popular art have filled [our artists] with a terror of the obvious”even of the obvious sublimities and beauties and marvels. They then become compelled by their disgust and fear to address only a tiny fraction of existence. Like aspirin and pencils, for instance.
Yet as the last few decades have taught us, artists dont always retreat into the quotidian because of popular schmaltz. Sometimes they do so because they convince themselves that the big issues are unworthy of examination since great truths do not exist. Huxleys essay is more than seventy years old, so one can only guess at the despair that our art scene would inspire in him today. He was spared Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. For the last forty years our media, educational institutions, and those calling themselves artists have dragged the American people along by the nose, trying to convince us that the world we once knew”the world of tradition and faith”is an ossified relic, precious only to the stupid and reactionary, and thus unworthy of artistic interpretation. We are in, to invoke an apt phrase, a brave new world.
In other ways, however, our current situation might have seemed depressingly familiar to Huxley. After all, he came from a post“World War I generation that, like so many of us today, tended to deny the existence of obvious facts that are great truths. As far as Huxley was concerned, Those who proclaim that human nature has changed since August 4, 1914 are merely rationalizing their terrors and disgusts.
We, too, have spent years denying the existence of great and obvious truths. Isnt it long past time to say, with Huxley, that shrinking in terror and disgust from the obvious is the act of a coward? How else to describe an artist who traffics in pencils and coins when our world, both before and after September 11, offers such an abundance of subjects for art? How else to explain the cheap anti“Christian pranks of our artists when real life provides us with a photograph of the lifeless body of a priest who died giving the last rites as the World Trade Center crumbled around him? The world is full of images and acts of breathtaking beauty”and our artists give us ashtrays and aspirin.
It is in refusing the retreat into the banal that Huxley really hits his stride, denouncing it with an intensity that would be much too bold for most contemporary newspapers. The last paragraph of his essay deserves to be quoted almost in its entirety:
Back to the Futurehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1999/08/back-to-the-future
Sun, 01 Aug 1999 00:00:00 -0400 Its not often that one leaves a movie theater feeling speechless, but anyone on the right side of the culture wars who views the recent film
Blast from the Past
will find his jaw scraping the sidewalk”and not out of disgust. This little romantic comedy, coming straight out of lefty Hollywood, is a stunner not for its special effects or its acting, but because it is an unabashedly conservative film. Its also indicative of a larger cultural trend that should give heart to those who think American pop culture is irredeemably decadent.
Blast from the Past
tells the story of Adam Webber, played with winsome innocence by Brendan Fraser (
George of the Jungle, The Mummy
). Adam is raised in a bomb shelter for the first thirty“five years of his life after his eccentric“inventor father (Christopher Walken) mistakes a plane crash for the big one during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In a reversal of the Tarzan fable, Adam is sheltered from the wilds of the outside world and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s. He is taught ballroom dancing by mom (Sissy Spacek), boxing by dad, and impeccable manners by both. He learns Latin and French in the shelters makeshift classroom.
Cut to the nineties. Its thirty“five years later, long enough for the half life of radiation to dissipate, and Adams dad ventures to the surface to hunt for survivors. Here is where the film becomes remarkable. Rather than indulge in a predictable fish out of water tale wherein Adam and his parents are forced to encounter the modern world and are made better for their experience” la last years
”the filmmakers have depicted modern liberal America as exactly what Adams father says it is: a toxic purgatory. Emerging from the shelter, Mr. Webber encounters gun“brandishing gang bangers, New Age religious fanaticism, an adult book store where their house once stood, and a transvestite hooker. It was horrible, Mr. Webber wails to his wife after beating a hasty retreat. They can change their sex! Theyre mutants!
Problem is, Adam is now a young man with desires. His parents decide to send him to the surface for supplies with orders to bring back a wife. Once up, Adam encounters Eve (okay, so this isnt
The Seventh Seal
). Eve (
Alicia Silverstone) is a thoroughly modern woman”promiscuous, terrified of commitment, and unwilling to settle for anyone who isnt a jerk. She rejects Adam, turned off by what she sees as his squareness and goofy, excessive politeness. Praying is always a good idea, he beams. Hes stunned to find out that everyones divorced, and tells Eves roommate that manners are a way of showing other people we respect them. Hes delighted when he finds out one of Eves friends is gay”thank you for being happy all the time, he tells him.
Then Eve begins to see Adam through the eyes of the civility“starved modern world. His daily dance lessons from mom pay off big time when they go to a swing dance club and Adam wows two beautiful blonds with his footwork. While other men gawk at Eves body parts, Adam compliments her eyes. It dawns on Eve that it isnt Adam whos abnormal, but the culture she lives in. This street used to be little houses and gardens, her roommate notes as they search a grimy alley behind a porn shop for the entrance to Adams bomb shelter. Boy, Eve replies sarcastically, weve come a long way. (As if you didnt know, Adam and Eve end up together.)
Twenty or even ten years ago,
Blast from the Past
would have been dismissed by liberal critics and pop culture watchers as reactionary. Yet in the last few years a new ethos has taken hold of the popular culture, or at least a small part of it, and its ascendance has changed the rules. Generations X and Y”those in their twenties and thirties and the echo boom, teenage kids of baby boomer parents”are experiencing an almost fanatical appreciation and longing for classic America, roughly the years 1920 to 1960. This movements most obvious manifestation has been the explosion of swing dancing. Spawned by the 1996 film
and reflected in a 1998 Gap clothing commercial, swing dancing has made a stunning comeback. Neo“swing bands like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, which just won two Grammies, are racking up gold and platinum sales, while all across the country, dance classes are full and clubs that formerly hosted rock and rap are converting to swing. Im a Gen“Xer and swing dancer myself”I began just ahead of the boom, in 1995.
Writers in these pages have frequently observed that culture”that is to say what we eat, wear, watch, what we do for leisure and how we date and marry”is more important and affects us more deeply than the Dow Jones or who runs Congress. In this sense, the swing and retro“culture boom is more than a little significant. Surely some of it is nothing more than fashion“conscious nostalgia, but a close reading of the phenomenon reveals that swing is providing more to young people than long skirts and wingtips. A twenty“year“old named Katti Ehoff had this to say to a writer from
magazine, whose March cover story was on the swing renaissance: At ordinary nightclubs, if you dance with a man, he thinks youre going home with him. [At a ballroom] youll touch thirty“five men in one night but it doesnt mean anything. Youve come to dance. A young man at the same dance claimed that when hes dressed for a night of jitterbugging he finds himself opening doors for ladies.
Such apparently small things contribute to the winning of the culture war. In fact, many of the neo“swingers claim that they are advocates of a movement and a lifestyle, not a fad.Their attitude is deeply countercultural, considering that the dominant youth culture is suffused with the anger and nihilism of punk rock and the rage and narcissism of rap. Simply by advocating nice dress, traditional gender roles, civility, talented musicians, romanticism, joy, and adulthood, swing is the first fad that has kids looking to grandparents for whats hip. Neo“swing is nothing less than a pop culture revolt against the youth cultures of the last forty years. And unlike those youth fads, this is a movement that can flower as its practitioners age.
Unsurprisingly, the swing wave has already touched off reaction in the rock culture. There have been blasts from
but the most scalding indictment came this spring in the pages of the
, a Seattle“based weekly paper: What does it mean that [young Americans] are fetishizing a period before rock and roll, before womens liberation, before civil rights? asks writer Juliette Guilbert.
The answer? That kids these days are women“hating racists who wish Donna Reed was their girlfriend and Amos n Andy were still on TV. Guilbert equates the sharp“dressed Sinatra worshipers of the 90s to the blazer“and“tie neoconservative Buckleyites she avoided on her college campus in the 1980s: They are all wearing suits, the same tyrannous outfits their fathers fought and bled and wore bell bottoms to get away from. In other words, the clothes make the culture: Every level of our culture, from
Monday Night Football
to peoples choice of bathroom fixtures, reflects and inflects social structures and attitudes about things like”to cite the Big Three”race, class, and gender. And as such, the current nostalgia is deeply racist: when told by one martini“sipper that she liked the idea of a time when we were all together, Guilbert snaps, The we of this rose“tinted 40s and 50s included returning soldiers, pinup girls, housewives, bandleaders, the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, bobbysoxers, greasers”but not blacks.
Yet one thing that becomes clear after spending even one night on the dance floor is that these people are not racists; indeed, these kids positively adore black culture, almost to a fault. They worship original lindy“hopper Frankie Manning, still going at eighty“five, to say nothing of Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, and other golden age swing heroes. A few neo“jitterbuggers have made it their personal mission to see that these artists get the honor today that racism made difficult while they were alive.
But this isnt good enough for Guilbert. OK, she writes, these people love black jazz, but only as represented by the mindless bounce of Dixieland and swing, the two earliest forms of jazz, and not the more esoteric and free“form bebop music of jazz giants like the late sax legend John Coltrane. When John Coltrane gets left out of retro, its not just because you cant dance to his music, but because he was a black intellectual, and intellectuals cannot be portrayed as instinct“driven darkies who let go of intellect. As has happened so often in the past, black culture is made into a simple“minded inoculation against the disturbing complexities of modern life . . . . Its a rebellion against the 60s. Astonishingly, Guilbert thinks the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong is not intellectual”as if the linear, Apollonian ride of a great swing chart is not as cerebral as the wilder Dionysian flights of bop. The real problem for rock and rollers who reject swing is that retro culture is striving not for a return to racism”the new dancers really are hooked on beats, which is why Coltrane doesnt grab them”but a retreat from the kind of overcooked self“consciousness and smugness championed by rock n roll. If it wasnt always, rock has become in its own way oppressive, with MTV preaching never“ending rebellion. Rap stars insist on keeping it real, which often means never losing the anger and illiteracy found on the street.
What swing says, in a nutshell, is that the kids are sick of anger and irony. Somewhere along the way we discovered they like dancing, dressing in nice clothes, and having rituals to gradually get to know the opposite sex. On a recent PBS special celebrating Duke Ellington, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis noted that many old“time jazz musicians are coming up to him and delightedly asking, Man, do you believe these kids are out here swingin?
You better believe it. This could be the start of something big.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is a contributing writer to New York Press and the author of a forthcoming book,
The Home of Happy Feet: Swing, Suburbs, and the Rebirth of American Culture