It's a paradox, but good art both expresses the conditions of its making and transcends them. Commercial art is the purest expression of capitalism, and yet takes us beyond capitalism, hinting at other possible ways of living.
As an artist, I have the feeling that all the good things I've done depend on the music industry (I wouldn't have made much music without it) and yet exist somehow despite it. They're anomalies, exceptions to the general commercial logic, which normally leads pop music in the direction (naturally enough) of popularity, standardisation, and aggressive normality. As a veteran and a survivor in the world of commercial music, I should by rights be making records that sound like S Club 7.
Phoenix, Trophy, Ghost
But I'm not. It's as if my songs had hitched a ride on capitalism only to jump off between stops, thumbing their nose at the conductor and proceeding to explore the forbidden reservation between the flyover and the underpass.
Like defiant adolescents, my songs wouldn't exist without their progenitors, and yet they snarl with barely-disguised hostility at Mama and Papa, convinced one day they will outstrip them.
Paradoxically again, this makes them model children, exemplary capitalist products. Their transgression is easily turned into an advertisement for the whole system, evidence that art is free even where commerce is king. Because capitalism is, like Protestantism and Islam, an evangelical religion, it needs constantly to show its capacity to adapt to 'the other' that appears, at first, to resist and deny it.
A Momus song is precisely the sort of capitalist product that wins laurels, plaudits and export awards, even although there is ostensibly no audience for it and very little commercial reason for its existence. My songs are trophies for a system which is actually their enemy, but wishes to show its magnanimous grandiloquence in tolerating and even encouraging them. They are elephant tusks, ivory made all the more precious by capitalism's inevitable eradication of all elephants.
For this reason, unpredictably original pop music has a similar status in our society to the traditional ethnic and primitive cultures which are being strangled to death by global capitalism. Even as they're wiped out, these primitive cultures are invading the symbolic realm of advanced societies, reincarnated as a series of templates for youth culture style (scarification, piercing, body art, dreadlocks...). They're phoenixes, trophies, ghosts in our machine.
Mongolian Pattern Clash
I came across this photograph in Japanese magazine Composite. It's for a Japanese fashion label called Cocue. Photographer Michiko Kitamura has travelled to Mongolia and dressed nomadic mountain tribespeople in the latest Cocue clothes. It's an interesting exercise in taking coals to Newcastle, because the Cocue collection has obviously been inspired by these people's style in the first place. It's what I call 'Mongolian pattern clash' style, and you can characterise it quite easily:
It contrasts as many different patterns in one outfit as possible (stripes, flowers, tartans).
It answers the question 'skirt or trousers?' with 'both!'
It looks best on children, and suggests childishness when worn on adults (hence a 'burikko' element).
It also evokes innocence on an anthropological level, by harking back to a culture which is not only pre-industrial but pre-agrarian.
Mongolia is the ur-home or imaginary point of origin of all the Mongoloid races, of which the Japanese are currently the most technologically and economically advanced, so it's interesting that the great capitalist machine of modern Japan (so often accused of intellectual indebtedness to the West) should come full circle and celebrate these ancestors.
Is capitalism secretly self-hating and 'romantic', does it yearn for escape into worlds it has not entirely ruined with its instrumentalisation of people and its uniformisation of lifestyle? I think it is, or rather the tender-minded capitalist creative (musician or fashion designer or photographer) is sure to encounter, sooner or later, a series of powerful symbols taken from cultures which seem to incarnate an otherness, and if this touches a note with tender-minded consumers, the capitalist machine has no essential objection to marketing (and perhaps reviving, phoenixlike) its defeated nemesis. (It's not just a Japanese fetish -- Dries Van Noten's children's clothes hit a lot of the same buttons.)
Cultures which can't be bought or sold are the most exciting to buy and sell, naturally.
The Endangered Tare Panda
I guess I'm just another tender-minded consumer, because the image with the Mongolian nomads moves me. Actually, I probably have more in common with urban Japanese girl consumers than western 'streetwise' youth culture: I'm more likely to want a cutely melting, boneless Tare Panda doll than a finger skateboard.
I immediately read all the messages of innocence and otherness contained in the Cocue picture in a romantic mode (the Noble Savage etc). But I also appreciate the irony of taking advanced fashion inspired by primitive people back to the tribes who inspired it. It's the world turned upside down, it's a piece of delicious anachronism, a fascinating adventure in time travel.
My Head Crowds With Questions
Are these nomads really as unspoiled as they look? Are they descended from Genghis Khan? Do they live in tents, and if so, do they have battery-powered TV sets? Have they ever heard of Jamiroquai?
To what extent do they realise why they have been asked to dress in these clothes? Do they suspect it's something to do with irony?
Will these photographs cause a Japanese tourist influx into Mongolia? And if so, how will the Japanese react when they see the ugly chemical works of Ulan Bator?
How will these tourists react when they see the urban and slightly more affluent cousins of our friends in the Cocue advertisement dressed in the ugliest synthetic sportsgear, pirated Nike and Tommy Hilfiger? And how many generations will pass before our nomad cousins climb the ladder of consumer sophistication high enough to want to enter a Cocue store and buy exactly the clothes their ancestors wore decades or centuries before?
(The correct answer is, of course, 4.8 generations given a 6% annual rise in GDP.)
Don't Give Up On Beauty!
Ulan Bator, as the Japanese tourists will see, is like the ugly parts of Tokyo without the sophisticated shopping. Pollution, heavy industry, cars, grey concrete buildings.
Capitalism builds an industrial base, blights all beauty in the process, then, finally, gets rich enough to make luxury products which re-capture the lost beauty. Most of us must live ugly and contingent lives in offices and traffic jams in order to afford the occasional glimpse of beauty. Many abandon the idea of beauty altogether on the way. It's just too grim trying to hold onto it when you're surrounded by toxic industrial amusements (speeding cars, football matches). But a few tender souls do cling to the hope that beauty and dignity may still be possible on this planet.
Instinctively, they search for it in two places: at the very bottom and the very top. In that which is unworthy of capitalism, and that which transcends it. Which leads me back, ever so modestly, to Momus songs, and what they have in common with the Noble Nomad.
Always Read The Small Print
Just so that I don't leave you on too much of romantic note, I'd like to draw your attention to the fabulously outlandish forms of some Indonesian shadow play dolls I saw the other day in the excellent Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. You might be tempted to say that these forms arose spontaneously from an ingenious indigenous people whose creativity and all-round innocence is now being threatened by international movements of ideas. But read the small print on the label and you'll find that these forms were a direct response to the arrival in Indonesia of Islam, with its ban on representations of the human form. To get around this, the Javanese storytellers made their puppets ever more outlandish and abstract.
Interestingly, women were made to sit on the far side of the screen, where they could only see shadows, whereas men were permitted to see the puppets themselves. So the Shadow Play as we know it is the result of a combination of sexist discrimination and cowardly capitulation to the dominant foreign powers.
Art is never made in a vacuum, and history is more interwoven than we can begin to imagine, which makes searches for the pure states of unfallen grace represented by Gardens of Eden or Mongolian mountain people a pretty hopeless quest. But knowing that the primitives beat their wives and were compromised by internationalism right from the start shouldn't put us off constructing beautiful dreams of purity and otherness -- as long as we keep reminding ourselves that they're dreams.
They may be all we have.
Mongoloid: denoting, relating to or belonging to one of the major racial groups of mankind, characterised by yellowish complexion, straight black hair, slanting eyes, short nose, and scanty facial hair, including most of the peoples of Asia, the Eskimos, and the North American Indians. Collins English DictionaryThoughts Index