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The Good, the Bad & the Ugly - I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like

1

Two nights ago, Facebook was alive with responses to this year’s Brit Awards, that great barometer of mass musical appeal, cultural relativism, and - above all - units shifted - which has turned that very marketable concept of British pop into an establishment-based respectable spectacle.

The winners – Coldplay, Adele and co – came as no surprise. 


They’re what most people – the man and woman on the street, presumably – like to hear.

But are they any good?

There’s nothing wrong with being popular, after all.

Shakespeare, Picasso and The Bible have all taken complex works of art chock-full of difficult ideas into the mainstream, and have retained an integrity beyond the heritage industry that hi-jacked them.

But this is Coldplay and Adele we’re talking about, remember.

2

One of the most telling Facebook observations of the 2012 Brit Awards came via a posting of some film footage taken at the 1992 Awards.

It was ostensibly a performance of 3AM Eternal, the pop rave anthem by The KLF, Bill Drummond’s troupe of avant-provocateurs, who opened the show after winning that year’s Best British Group Award, an accolade shared that year with Simply Red.

As The K Foundation, Drummond and co would become notorious two years later when – a) - the same night as Rachel Whiteread won the 1994 Turner Prize, they offered 40,000 pounds cash prize – twice what the Turner awarded - to the worst artist of the year, which they also awarded to Whiteread; and b) subsequently filmed themselves burning a million pounds in a boathouse on the Scottish island of Jura.

At the 1992 Brits, at which the audience sported very un-punk, un-rock-and-roll and un-pop but very British dicky-bow and DJs – no, not that kind - The KLF’s piece of trippy euphoria was reinvented as a confrontational cacophony performed by thrash metal band Extreme Noise Terror.

Ever the Situationists, The KLF ended their performance with Drummond machine-gunning the audience of industry movers and shakers with blank bullets, before their publicist Scott Piering announced that ‘The KLF have left the music business.’

After a motorcycle courier was refused entry to the ceremony to pick up their award, The KLF later dumped a dead sheep on the steps of the Royal Albert Hall, where the event was being held.

I say again, the 2012 Brit Award for Best British Group went to Coldplay, while Adele gave the finger after her microphone cut out in order to allow a reconstituted Blur, veterans of the so-called Brit-Pop wars, to play their full eleven minute set.

Controversy?

Compared to The KLF, Chumbawamba throwing a bucket of water over Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in 1996 and Jarvis Cocker waggling his arse at Michael Jackson the same year, Coldplay, Adele and co aren’t really in the same league.

But still, people – the man and woman in the street – like them.

3

When asked once on television what jazz was, the late scat singer, writer, critic, bon viveur, raconteur, suit-wearer, man about town, style guru and Surrealist George Melly replied something on the lines of “Well, I know what it’s not, and that’s respectable.”

Coldplay and Adele will never be jazz.

As an even more extreme assessment of the Brits, we could look to Sid Vicious, Punk iconoclasts The Sex Pistols doomed bass player, who, despite barely being able to play a note, joined the band early in 1977 following Glen Matlock’s sacking for allegedly liking ABBA.

After the Sex Pistols messy demise, Vicious would go on to die of a heroin overdose aged twenty-one after being released on police bail following the suspected murder of his American girlfriend Nancy Spungeon.

At some point before all this, Vicious was asked by journalists Fred and Judy Vermoral whether he made music for the man in the street.

I’ve met the man in the street,” sneered the artist formerly known as John Ritchie, “and he’s a cunt.”

4

Eton-educated UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently pronounced his views on the British film industry, and how it should look to be more commercial.

Whether this was in light of the international success of Margaret Thatcher bio-pic The Iron Lady isn’t on record, but Cameron’s sentiments recall those of screen-writer Colin Welland’s at the dawn of the real life Thatcher years at yet another respectable spectacle.

As likeably bluff northerner Welland picked up his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1981 for the Vangelis-scored, Olympic-inspired triumphalist romance, Chariots of Fire, he held his trophy aloft.

The British are coming,” declaimed Welland, part Olivier-style rallying-cry, part would-be prophecy, even as he appropriated the phrase from eighteenth century American revolutionary Paul Revere.

For the next decade, works by Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Bill Douglas, Terence Davies and others put British cinema on the international map.

Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Jarman’s The Last of England, Comrades by Bill Douglas and Distant Voices: Still Lives by Terence Davies were all somewhat remarkably released during the Thatcher years.

And there were others – Withnail and I, My Beautiful Laundrette, Another Country, A Private Function, The Shooting Party, Brazil – that were less art-house, more conventional, and yet which – helped by a nascent Channel 4 that still valued art over commerce - retained an integrity that is brutally absent in the post Lock Stock straight-to-DVD marketplace.

Commercial?

Yes, no and by degrees.

What all the films mentioned have in common – Lock Stock aside – is that they are masterpieces, filmed – and in some cases looking very painterly indeed – by great artists.

In 2000, Tony Blair’s New Labour government, - possibly with Colin Welland’s words still echoing in their triumphalist heads, - and possibly with one eye on the sort of commercialism David Cameron dreams of, constituted the UK Film Council to develop new work.

In the last decade, while Channel 4 has become the home of reality TV freakshows, in 2010, the UK Film Council was scrapped.

5

Of course, making self-consciously commercial art can be done.

Andy Warhol did it.

And it was that man Bill Drummond again who, after his own adventures in the pop world, both as artist and record company apparatchik, co-wrote a book titled The Manual: How to Have a Number One Hit The Easy Way.

As for Cameron, who has such a little grasp of how popular culture works that one wonders – or not - how he ever became a successful PR man for the TV industry, one can only shake one’s head with despair at how he so spectacularly and damagingly confuses commercialism with the lowest common denominator, and think, ‘All that expensive education, wasted.’.

One thing David Cameron will never be is the man in the street.

Although,- perhaps by Sid Vicious’ reckoning - maybe he already is.

6

When first generation punk band The Clash released their third album, London Calling, in 1979, it caused a sensation on many levels.

The record’s radical mix of styles demonstrated that things had moved on considerably from the punk scene’s original one chord wonder posturing.

Dub reggae was now heavily in the mix, as was a radical professionalism that had already cracked the crucial American market.

The fact that London Calling was released as a double album as well seemed very un-punk, harking back to previous generations.

But London Calling was something more again.

The photograph on the cover of bass player Paul Simonon by Penny Smith captured the man generally regarded as the coolest member of The Clash in full flight as he smashed his Fender guitar against the stage during a show at the New York Palladium.

Smith originally didn’t want the picture used, claiming it was too out of focus.

In 2002, her photograph was named by middle-aged music magazine Q as the best rock and roll photograph of all time.

The design of the London Calling cover was by Ray Lowry, whose cartoons moved from counter-culture bible International Times to satirical institution Private Eye to music paper NME at its peak.

Well-versed in rock and roll history and recognising an icon when he saw one, the typography Lowry placed around Smith’s image of Simonon referenced the green and pink lettering of Elvis Presley’s eponymous debut album.

In 2001, Q named the cover of London Calling as having the ninth best album art of all time.

In 2010, the Royal Mail issued a set of stamps depicting now classic album cover art, one of which was London Calling.

So even before you arrived at the music, you already had two works of art wrapped around the two slabs of black vinyl that provided the main event.

7

Several years I go I interviewed Paul Simonon about an exhibition of paintings he had on in London.

Ostensibly, we were there to talk about these paintings, large-scale West London views of the Thames.

Yes, Simonon still lived by the river depicted in London Calling’s title track and lead single.

Yet, sitting there on the sofa in the foyer of a London radio station, listening to him talk about these images he’d made of a place that meant so much to him, all I could think of as I looked at him while I let my Dictaphone do the listening was – somewhat pathetically - ‘You’re Paul Simonon, and you were in The Clash...’

The paintings? 


Outside of the image that was reproduced beside the text of my article, I never saw them.

8

Last year in Edinburgh, John Squire, the then former guitarist with The Stone Roses, whose initial record cover designs by Squire at the dawn of what came to be known as Madchester looked to Jackson Pollock for its reinvented Mod-Baggy Action Art.

Twenty years on, Squire’s Edinburgh show was jazz-influenced, the catalogue said.

The best that could actually be said them, however, is that John Squire is a very good guitarist.

A year later, The Stone Roses have reformed.

Just because you have been in The Clash or The Stone Roses, it seems, doesn’t necessarily make you a great painter.

9

In a couple of week’s time, I will be visiting London’s Hayward Gallery to see an event that forms part of Jeremy Deller’s current retrospective.

I first became aware of Deller when he produced Acid Brass, a performance in which a colliery brass band played arrangements of Acid House classics.

Later, Deller arranged and filmed a reconstruction of the Battle of Orgreave, one of the pivotal moments of the 1984 miners’ strike, when a real life English Civil War broke out, choreographed by Margaret Thatcher and miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill.

One of the pieces in the Deller retrospective is another film.

So Many Ways To Hurt You – The Life and Times of Adrian Street, is a study of flamboyant British wrestler Adrian Street, who, throughout the 1970s, cultivated a high camp image by wearing make-up, dyeing his hair blonde and wearing feather boas and designer robes.

Beyond the image, the Welsh-born former body-builder was a vicious wrestler and an expert showman, who, as I saw many times at Liverpool Stadium as part of the now demolished venue’s many Friday night wrestling bills, was capable of whipping a crowd packed into what was a essentially a spit n’ sawdust concrete amphitheatre lined with ass-splintering wooden seats, into a cathartic frenzy.

In 1998, England Made Me, the debut album by Luke Haines’ band, Black Box Recorder, featured a photograph of Street in full peacock regalia standing alongside his father, who’d just done a shift down the mineshaft both men were stood beside.

A year earlier, journalist Simon Garfield published The Wrestling, an oral history of this most ridiculed form of end of the pier white trash Greek tragedy, which featured the same image of Street and his father - grafters both - alongside interviews with Street.

Also featured in the book – although not interviewed, because he never talks – was British masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki, whose mysterious image featured on the cover of the book.

A few years earlier, pop artist Peter Blake, who’d designed the cover of The Beatles Sergeant Pepper album did a portrait of Nagasaki, which became the focus of a prime time BBC TV documentary.

At the end of last year, a now solo Luke Haines released an album called Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early '80s, which features songs about Street and Nagasaki.

On March 30th, as part of an exhibition by a Turner Prize winning artist in one of the UKs most prestigious art institutions, Deller will host a live satellite link up with Street – now a seventy-something resident of Florida – who will be interviewed by Simon Garfield.

This will be followed by a performance by Luke Haines, who will play songs from his Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early '80 album.

10

For the last decade, I have watched as the likes of Garfield, Haines and Deller have taken the icons of mine – and their – childhood – and imbued it with a hitherto unrewarded status that goes beyond any accusations of fetishisation of cultural slumming to give it legitimacy - if not quite a respectability it doesn’t need.

But, one wonders, as with Coldplay and Adele, is it any good?

Well, yes, as far as I’m concerned, it’s brilliant.

But is it art?

Well, that’s another story.

There are worlds beyond the glossy bullshit that surrounds Venice, The Brits, Frieze Art Fair, The Turner Prize and all the other Art Star Sensations.

Just ask the man and woman in the street.

Neil Cooper
February 23rd 2012

This was a paper given on February 23rd 2012 during the University of Edinburgh's History of Art department's Innovative Learning week 2012, as part of a panel titled A Critique of Judgement, Or, How Do we Decide What's Good and What's Bad in Emerging Visual Practice. Other panelists were Tamara Trodd (lecturer, Modern and Contemporary Art, University of Edinburgh), Craig Coulthard (artist, Cultural Olympiad grant recipient) and Pat Fisher (curator, Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh). The panel was chaired by Luke Healey.

Comments

Tim London said…
Luke Haines perplexes me. Actually, he doesn't, but people who acknowledge his existence do. Here's a man born to be a 1990's cultural journalist insisting on hoisting his second hand, scared rattle and roll, topped by that self-conscious, bedroom American accent, on some of the more intelligent and tasteful people around. And some of it, like a washing line of mocked up 70s threads from some badly researched film about soccer hooliganism's wardrobe, on a windy day, sticks, huge ballooning Oxford bags obscuring eyes and ears and causing people to state that Haines has, somehow, made a significant contribution to the world of pop.

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