Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Avant-garde Bullshit

‘Avant-garde is French for bullshit’ said Lennon. Well ho-hum – trouble is, devotees of both The Beatles and philistinism have probably used it a million times to justify their failure to give Picasso a chance – ha!
   I, on the other hand, as opposed to the dear misguided hordes of avant-garde haters, do like a challenge. That’s it, in a nutshell (but I’ve no intention of presenting you with something nutshell-sized, so read on).
   When I listen to Cecil Taylor I do so precisely because I can’t come close to fully comprehending what the hell he’s doing, or why, or where he’ll end up as he travels that wobbly rail which he also laid (now that’s no bullshit). Hail the pioneers, I say, and to hell with the dissenters.
   Take Joyce, as I’m sure you have once or twice, and what a bitter pill he is to swallow with his word trickery and grammatical gymnastics. Yet, despite never having read Finnegan’s Wake (oh yes, another one), I love the fact that it exists. Who wouldn’t? Well, for starters, those who get all hot under the collar about the avant-garde. There are types who not only reject the radical but also start to foam at the mouth at the sight of an example. It stirs some kind of hatred. But why, dear reader? Is it because they see themselves as possessing the bullshit detector which Hemingway suggested all writers should have? Perhaps he was onto something there, but only in the name of saving would-be writers a lot of time and effort in the name of creating what amounts to bullshit, I presume. Then again, as a text-worker who has written a few novels I know that sustaining upwards of 70,000 words’ worth of bullshit is some feat.
   Joyce, Burroughs, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Stein, BS Johnson, Cage, Stockhausen, Taylor, Ayler, Pollock and other big-hitting bullshitters – take your pick – reject their work, but me, I still applaud their existence alone. I find that, in being challenged I’m finding out something about myself, my limits, preconceptions, abilities etc. And if nothing else, the radicals of culture place the conservatives in context, don’t they? Yes, I know that both ‘radical’ and ‘conservative’ are subjective terms. Didn’t Spector radicalise studio techniques? And we know that what was once thought of as radical can become acceptable according to mainstream taste (I cite jazz, Punk and, hell, even Rock’n’Roll, m’lud).
   Lennon’s quote sprang to mind a few days after I’d dived into Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and quickly found myself out of my depth (I’m no great swimmer, preferring to be able to feel my feet on the ground, if I’m honest). So the nature of ‘difficult’ works in all areas was something I began to ponder.
   There’s something to be said for not understanding a work of art. And it’s this: the alternative is easily comprehending everything. I don’t know if that’s worth saying. But if some people had their way all music would be reduced to three-minute songs and hummable tunes, all painting to literal representation and all novels to straightforward storytelling. I’ll never forget the SWP member I once dated telling me that her comrades frowned upon abstract art – seriously – as if it contravened their idea of what ‘the people’ wanted/deserved or, more likely, what artists should only produce (ie paintings of smiling farmhands gathering spuds...or miners trudging cheerfully towards the pit). Perhaps they were on to something, after all, the proletariat would not choose to storm the palace to the tune of ‘Free Jazz’, more’s the pity.
   It’s no surprise that from cradle to grave we’re wrapped in the blanket of culture that comforts in some way, even if that comfort takes the form of hellfire Rock’n’Roll. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you, perpetuated by all who control what we see and hear. ‘Nonsense!’, you may reply. Perhaps you’re right...but...the pacified mind makes for a better-behaved citizen, I’m sure. The mind that is not open and enquiring is less likely to challenge the Status Quo.
   When I bought Cyclonopedia I knew I was in for trouble. You might call it an act of pure indulgence in...intellectual ignorance? Of course, there are a million other books on a variety of subjects which I could be sure of never understanding, but this one does flirt with the idea of fiction and apocalyptic vision and I do like a good apocalypse now, and again.
   I can’t begin to describe what the book’s about, so I’ll just quote from the blurb as in: ‘Cyclonopedia meticulously plots the occult matrices of an archaic petrochemical conspiracy’ – and if I could sum it up as well as that perhaps I too would be working for the Chelsea College of Art and Design, as the author does. Instead, I do a fairly mundane job because I didn’t learn a damn thing at school (I prefer to blame the system, the school and the teachers than lay any responsibility at my own door), which is probably why I cannot read Cyclonopedia cover-to-cover, nor did I think I would be able to, and neither does that diminish my admiration for the book in all its theoretical linguistic madness.

   I only have to open a page at random and read a line such as ‘Apocalypticism which fuels and escalates the transgressive impetus of Western war machines, because the Divine and its desert can only be reached through participation.’ to know that it will continue to fascinate me for some time. I may pick it up in years to come and read a paragraph that presents another puzzle. It’s the kind of book which, if you were to transcribe it word-for-word in Word, half the text would be underlined red and need adding to the Microsoft dictionary. The random sentence I chose, by the way, is one of the easier-to-grasp, believe me.
   I think everyone should challenge their preconceptions about what’s called ‘avant-garde’ culture, if only for five minutes’ worth of listening/reading/seeing. Something about testing yourself in this way is, if nothing else, a small act of self-discovery. You find your limits but, hopefully, also expand them a little.

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