the centre of attention

Momus on Baroque Povera

or back to the library  

Momus

Baroque Povera


'Derrida says that all of Western thought behaves in the same way, forming pairs of binary opposites in which one member of the pair is privileged, freezing the play of the system, and marginalizing the other member of the pair. Deconstruction is a tactic of decentering, a way of reading, which first makes us aware of the centrality of the central term, then attempts to subvert the central term so that the marginalized term can become central. The marginalized term temporarily overthrows the hierarchy. And this play goes on endlessly.' Kaehr Rudolf

Working on the binary opposition 'young/old', I've been doing exactly this in my recent attempts to make you agree that old people were cool (this has nothing to do with my recent birthday, and, ahem, even less to do with a desire to portray wherever I'm headed as 'cool'). I made you aware of the centrality of the central term (showed young people as central and the old as marginalized) and then made it look subversive of the status quo to put old people back at the centre, make them 'cool'.

We could call this strategy 'the return of the repressed'. That's a term from Freud, but it's a good description of what curators, cool arbiters, and kulturarbeiters do. From the fashion designer telling the world that 'the 90s were out, but now they're back' to the feminist demanding an end to patriarchy or the neo-con politician trying to portray his powerful state as the potential 'victim' of a 'dangerous madman', this 'return of the repressed' is a familiar part of our daily lives. It's also somewhat circular. As soon as one value in the binary is seen as dominant, its paired complement begins to gather its strength for the palace coup that will allow it to storm the bastions of centrality. And so Democrats decentre Republicans, flinging them out of the nest and taking it over themselves. And the whole thing starts again. Marginality makes the binary's second term pregnant with nostalgia for both the past and the future, when it was king.

What makes this a somewhat tedious pas de deux is the way the whole story is preprogrammed by the way we've set up language. It's pretty predictable. It depends on what we've designated as the 'opposite' of what. The problem with many binaries is that they take on a completely false air of being something natural and inevitable. We fail to see 'alternative opposites'. For instance, is the opposite of 'cute' scary or macho? Is the opposite of 'abstraction' representation ('a window on the world') or physicality (texture, surface)? Look at Abstract Expressionism. New abstract art came along after the second world war with a set of ideals and missions:

1. To ensure that New York replaced Paris as the world centre of advanced art.
2. To oppose a formalist capitalist painting style to the socialist realism of the Soviet bloc.
3. To achieve in painting what black musicians had achieved in jazz: a truly American art based on the spontaneous improvisation of 'masters'.

What Abstract Expressionism didn't anticipate was that its engagement in these battles would fixate it on Europe, on Picasso, on Paris, on Socialist Realism, on the past. AbEx failed to see 'alternative opposites' to itself, especially when it became successful, became the dominant postwar style in the 50s (Jackson Pollock's appearance on the cover of Time marks the exact moment AbEx became the central or dominant term in art). When Pop Art came along in 1962, it suddenly became clear that it was Pop Art which expressed the reality of contemporary captalist America. AbEx suddenly looked macho, opaque, dated, pompous, hyped, pseudo-metaphysical, heavy, irrelevant, just as Prog Rock did when Punk came along fifteen years later.

Those who are interested in 'alternative opposites' tend to mess around with meme splicing. They find ways (drugs, Dada, dice) to generate unexpected binaries, fresh opposites, things no-one else had thought of including as a possible opposite to other things.

How do meme splicers splice? Instead of working with the terms of one binary, they work with two or more. Let's take my term Cute Formalism as an example. From the binary 'cute / macho' I take 'cute', and from the binary 'content / form' I take 'form'. I splice them together and get Cute Formalism. Actually, that sounds like I invented the term in a lab. In fact it came to me as I walked down Omote Sando one day as a good way to describe the feel of typical Tokyo retail and art space. The commercial art and arty commerce of Japan struck me as being light and gay and trivial, yet exigent, masterful, fixated on form and void of all narrative or political content.

It struck me that this was a combination of qualities almost unthinkable in the west. Western Formalism hadn't considered the possibility of being superficial and friendly. You couldn't imagine a Mickey Mouse smiling out of the stormy centre of a Mark Rothko painting. You couldn't really put those things together. The binaries in place in the west didn't allow that thought even to be thinkable. Western Formalist art was very serious and very macho. No time for jokes, no time for fun, no time for sex or play or laughing or idiocy or childishness.

AbExpressionists didn't try these things because they didn't even think to try them. They were so obsessed with the binaries in place -- the relationship between Paris and New York, between Socialist Realism and Decadent Formalism, between Representation and Surface -- that they failed to think about the possible relationships between AbEx and fun, between AbEx and shopping, between AbEx and just going out and looking around at what mattered to people in contemporary America. The binaries of the time weren't set up to allow those thoughts -- Clement Greenberg wasn't talking that way -- and nobody was doing any meme splicing. Which left a wide open goal for the Pop Artists.

It's always exciting when people try a bit of gene splicing, try to brainstorm new binaries, rephrase basic questions about how art relates to other art and to the world, try previously untried associations, new combinations of existing memes. Dogme 95 and the New Puritans were 90s attempts. Now we have Baroque Povera, a new movement based in London which describes itself as 'an extremely new, fledgling sensibility in art practice... the result of a very recent synthesis of ideas, experience and practice in art... A new sensibility can be defined only tentatively as it is still an emerging thing. With that in mind the characteristics of this aesthetic are cautiously suggested below in 20 points that are neither exclusive nor exhaustive...' (20 points about Baroque Povera follow, eg 'Embraces the incongruous, in its light but tough approach.')

Your homework today: download and read Stockhausen Serves Imperialism by Cornelius Cardew. Read the history of the Scratch Orchestra contained within. Resolve contradictions and make self-criticism of your own art praxis with the ferocity of a tiger. Class dismissed!

Momus


Momus' Live Journal here