Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
And why should I be rummaging for deadness? I don't know. Perhaps because I work in popular culture, and popular culture is supposed to be one great big vital party, but that somehow vitality doesn't interest me, because it's become, itself, a sort of noisy deadness, so I want the real thing, the beautiful sepulchral white marbled deadness of art, and the balm of its calm.
Classicism and Atrocity
A: Are you rummaging around in the dustbin of history again?
B: Yes, I am.
A: What do you expect to find there this time?
B: I dunno, something dead. Death, I guess. Death itself.
My first instinct, in a search for deadness, would not be to reach for popular culture, would it? We associate deadness with high art, the art of the past, especially the art that calls itself classical or neo-classical. The paintings of David, for instance, are all the more dead because they were painted in the late 18th Century, yet looked even further back to an imagined Parnassan past of synthetic pastoral beauty. (Poet Peter Porter's definition of Pastoral: 'It's what the Silver Age poets who never left Rome imagined the countryside must be like'.) Or the academic poetry of Boileau; far past from our present, it was even redolent of the past in its own time, reviving the prosody, deities and metaphors of an imagined earlier time.
Art history, the study of dead art, was introduced to the university curriculum in 1734 by Johann Friedrich Christ of Leipzig University. It rapidly spread through Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The discipline was given its structural basis by Johann Winkelmann in his History of Ancient Art, published in 1764. Winkelmann was a homosexual Prussian scholar who settled in Italy to study ruins, broken walls, libraries and museums. His work publicised and revalidated Classical art, especially sculpture, playing a major part in the formation of Neo-Classicism in Europe.
Ah, to sit amongst 'the stones of Venice' and savour all that death! To be a Prussian academic in the 18th century, reviving ancient Greece and Rome! What could be further from pop music in the American age?
A: So, you're looking for fragments of classical antiquity, a couple of quips from the tabletalk of Goethe?
B: No, not at all.
A: So where are you searching for death, then?
B: In the advertising and pop music and fashion and design of the early 1980s.
There have been classical revivals closer to home, and even in pop music; returns to composition, returns to order. One of them happened as recently as the early 1980s, the era of Neo-Geo and PoMo and CD remastering and the marketing of anything and everything (the Mac, Coke) as 'classic'.
Suddenly, and most uncharacteristically, pop music and fashion, formerly American-influenced and dynamic, vital and vulgar, become melancholic and grand, monumental and Germanic, and seem to fall in love with death. Ian Curtis commits suicide after watching Werner Herzog's film 'Stroszek'. Already posthumous when released, Peter Saville's sleeve for Joy Division's 'Closer' shows a necrophile scene of sorrowful keening cast in marble. Death becomes part of the album's power, part of its marketing.
There are certain values common to classicism and the pop culture of the early 80s: harmony, proportion, monumentality, grandeur, a desire for order, a serenity, a stiffness, a formality, a poise, a fascination with the distant past, an insistence on refinement, an avoidance of strong emotions, a certain wit, irony, fragmentariness (Winkelmann, sitting amongst the broken shards of mighty pillars, would have understood how neo-classicism can be both monumental and fragmentary).
These prim and pallid, high and classical values become particularly strong and poignant when unexpectedly juxtaposed with the spontaneity, vitality, sex and vulgarity associated with pop music. This is why the poised passionlessness of early 80s pop is so valuable. To turn the natural hip-grinding power of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and dance to something as pale, mannered and sick-civilised as classicism is just a shockingly perverse thing to do. To those of us who love all that is poised and sick and sensitive and civilised, it's a glorious gesture. We wonder and marvel that it was allowed to happen at all.
And yet it not only happened -- ordinary working class people like Barney Sumner renamed themselves 'Bernard Albrecht' and turned to Germany rather than America as their template, and sleeve designers like Peter Saville made austerity, 'architecture and morality' their hallmarks -- but was massively endorsed by the public, who bought records as deathly grey and defeatist as Japan's 'Ghosts' in such quantities that they topped the charts.
Rage for Order
A: Do you love all the stuff you are finding, that bargain bin stuff. these deleted fragments?
B: Yes, I love it.
A: What do you love about all that dead stuff?
B: I suppose the fact that it needs me to live.
And now it is twenty years later. The dead stuff I speak of, the pop classical revival, is itself now being revived. It seems we have again tired of the triviality of the life force -- all those tedious sambas, those dismal Darwinian kids with their bare midriffs and their synchronised dance routines. Suddenly the dead things have become lovely once more.