Thought For The Day

Thought For The Day
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.

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.

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.

In our DJ culture, where the museum and the discotheque are almost the same thing, the 1980s have come back and what we had previously taken to be their self-evident horribleness is suddenly a strange beauty, made all the more attractive by its otherness, its deadness, its fascism.

Yes, the deathly beauty of the 1980s is somewhat fascist. The decade begins with a reaction against the liberalism of the 60s and 70s. There is a swing to the right. Thatcher and Reagan are authoritarians. There is an emphasis on 'incentive' and 'competition' which is Darwinian in its abandonment of the weak and the poor and the disabled. Physical fitness becomes a metaphor for 'the survival of the fittest'. Even that icon of the 60s, Jane Fonda, changes her spots and makes a work-out video so that the masses can 'get fit for life'.

'Fashion in the 1980s tended towards the functional and the formal. The typical 'power dressed' woman of the period wore her shoulders wide, her skirts short and her heels high. The sometimes colourful and relaxed men's fashions of the 1970s gave way to more conventional dressing.'

Fashion Sourcebooks: The 1980s (Thames and Hudson)

The 1980s are no more and no less beautiful than Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'. 'Beauty,' said Rilke, 'is the first glimpse of terror we're still just able to bear'.

Emulator 2

A: Didn't the art of the past die for a good reason?
B: Are you blaming the victim?
A: No, but stuff like New Romanticism was just sick and silly. It was all a bit fascist, a bit foppish and effete. That's why we replaced it.
B: You mean you are not in love with our sick silliness?

I am at a friend's house in Tokyo in 2002. We're watching a video about Haruomi Hosono, who was in Yellow Magic Orchestra. (1980s neo-classicist pop groups like YMO and OMD called themselves orchestras, not bands. They played keyboards, not guitars, because the keyboard is Classical, the guitar Romantic.) During the biography section on Hosono there's a clip of YMO in concert in -- what? -- 1982? It's extraordinary how fascist it all is.

The three group members are dressed in military uniforms, matching green tailored jackets with red tassles swinging from their epaulettes. They play puffed-up synthesiser instrumentals with the huge oriental top lines octaved up. Sakamoto in his white and pink face make-up looks mean and intense, very much the expression he wears when he acts the fascist homosexual prison officer in 'Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence'. The group leave the stage and bound up a staircase between two red banners which look exactly like Nazi swastika hangings, pausing only to click their heels and wave before disappearing into the wings of the theatre.

Palace in a Bubble

A: So when you've tracked down those elusive releases by Haruomi Hosono and Miharu Koshi, what will you do with them?
B: I will sample them. I mean that in detail; I will make digital copies of small parts of them and incorporate them into new compositions released now. But I also mean that I will try to lock onto their otherness.
A: What is their otherness?
B: I cannot answer that question except by quoting Rilke: 'We are the bees of the invisible'.

I am trying to imagine what Tokyo was like in 1982. Japan's 'bubble time', the time when tiny rooms and houses stood on the most valuable land on the planet. I recall photos in the French Institute Library at Ebisu Gardens of Tokyo fashion people from the early 80s. They're exquisite pierrots in grey and white and black, in layers of angular Germanic fabrics. Rei Kawakubo is studying the photographs of August Sander; Germans in working clothes photographed between the wars. She wants her Comme des Garcons line to have the same quality she sees here: the heavy sombre fabrics, the conservatism.

There is a scene in 'Triumph of the Will' where farmers talk about their love of the soil and the fatherland, their plans to attend a rally. It is disgraceful, and yet it's also full of the same spooky beauty we find in the paintings of Anselm Kiefer. We can watch 'Triumph of the Will' with the eyes of Rei Kawakubo and marvel at the shape of the cotton collars.

The Japanese bubble time can also be seen in the paintings of Kuniyoshi Kaneko. Homosexual, mannered, very neo-classical in the 80s style, these paintings, which I have consumed mostly in the form of a CD-ROM called 'Alice' (made in the early 90s by Japanese multimedia company Synergy) depict waiters, crustaceans, and short-haired boys in short trousers who play with each other's penises while looking through telescopes at lighthouses.

What's fascinating in Kaneko is the combination of formality and perversity. As in Balthus, we are in the world of the Paris conservatoire, the same elegantly evil world seen in 80s films like 'The Hunger', 'Blade Runner', 'Dangerous Liasons', Paul Schrader's 'Mishima' and anything by Peter Greenaway. Music as poised and crystalline as Nyman, Satie or Glass can accompany scenes of debauchery more shocking than anything in the mind of a 60s or 70s rocker, for all his vitality (or 'aggressive normality', as Susan Sontag preferred to call it). In the context of film, we could speak of the Straubs too, whose severity is ultra-classical, or of Eric Rohmer, of whose 'The Marquise of O' one film encyclopaedia notes 'Rohmer practices his customary restraint, like Mizoguchi, registering the most passionate moments from a distance.'

Memphis Milano

A: You love things only when they're forbidden, dirty, neglected and dead, don't you.
B: Yes.
A: Tell me about the alternative universe that you are building up with the help of this stuff.
B: It is a world which might exist only if humans knew how to be gods.

One of Kaneko's paintings illustrates the sleeve of an album by Miharu Koshi. Koshi, who worked with Telex and YMO's Haruomi Hosono, forms one quarter of my illustrious personal pantheon of 1980s neo-classicist heroes: Klaus Nomi, Holger Hiller, Miharu Koshi, Alberto Camerini.

Each of them harks back, in the work I find exemplary, to classical high art. Nomi sings Purcell, Hiller makes new versions of Hindemith and samples Stravinsky, Koshi sings Schubert, and Camerini alludes often to Commedia dell'Arte. Each of them also refers forward, updating their ancient sources with the (then) latest technology: analogue synthesisers, Akai, Emulator and Fairlight samplers. If you want to be fanciful, you could call them a new tribe of 80s neo-classicists who spring from just one rib: Kraftwerk's 'Franz Schubert'. Or perhaps they're all born with 'Switched On Bach'?

Anyway, their references are to classical art. Koshi's albums are called 'Tutu' and 'Boy Soprano', and she reworks exactly the same gebrauchsmusik that Hiller does, Hindemith's 'Wir Bauen Ein Stadt', a mini-operetta for children.

Porridge and a Cup of Tea

A: In the beginnings of things there is something insolent and impetuous and unreasonable, isn't that so?
B: Yes, that is so.
A: And in the end of things there is synthesis, reconciliation with normality and with the mass.
B: Yes. That's why I am drawn to the beginning of death, not its end. For at its end, it's nothing but life. By affirming life, it denies itself. It reneges on the peculiar promise of its own particular sickness.

I'm ripping mp3s of an album by Haruomi Hosono called 'Coincidental Music' -- a compilation of compositions made between 1980 and 1984 for Japanese TV commercials. It's inventive, delicate and refined, a cross between Satie and the 'bamboo music' of YMO. iTunes is processing files with fabulously 80s titles:

Memphis Milano
Bio Philosophy
Mazinger "H"
The Man Of China
Pietro Germi

I imagine them accompanying the kind of 80s commercials I saw last year at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in their show about Eiko Ishioka and her arty postmodern spots for the Parco department store: western models posed with a very Japanese formality, accompanied by semi-classical synth music.

Eiko Ishioka, in fact, won an award for the production design on the Paul Schrader film Mishima. You can still see the formal, classical style of her 1980s Parco commercials in her latest work, a video for Bjork's single Cocoon. Although Bjork describes the mindset of Cocoon as 'dealing with the porridge and the cup of tea', there's a strong sexual theme in the song which links it to my song 'Coming In A Girl's Mouth':

'A train of pearls, cabin by cabin. is shot precisely across an ocean from a mouth of a girl like me...'

In both cases the restraint of the song's setting (the tightly-controlled harpsichord in my song, Ishioka's tight, formal direction in the Bjork video) is contrasted with the 'atrocity' of its subject, to dramatic effect. This combination of classicism and atrocity is very 80s: witness 'Les Liasons Dangeureuses', where aristocrats in a cut-glass world of etiquette scheme to corrupt an innocent young girl. It's there in 'American Psycho', where elaborate descriptions of Patrick Bateman's vestments and toiletries contrast with his savage murders and rapes. And Schrader's 'Mishima' makes clear the essential 'Japaneseness' of this theme: the artificiality of the staging of Mishima's stories (in gilded theatre sets) is contrasted with the violence of his seppuku.

It's a trick, a trope played many times in the 1980s, from Laurie Anderson's schizoid calm delivery despite the menacing subtext of 'O Superman', through the absurdly formalist turtle dances of Philippe Decoufle's choreography to New Order's druggy 'True Faith', to the stately time lapse photography of 'Koyanasquaatsi', with Philip Glass's repetitive music imposing a calm grid on the chaos of a 'life out of balance'.

It's a trick Jean Genet and Dennis Cooper know well; their dispassionate prose and elaborate, detached style wrapped around murder, lust and buggery. It's something Cornelius also knows, with his superflat cut-ups of 'violent' metal riffs, while the video and vocoder together count out an elaborate, ostentatiously formalistic 6/8 time, rendered in various typefaces.

The Hum Of Tiny People

A: You are like the Johann Friedrich Christ of classic synth pop.
B: I am not its Christ, merely its Winkelmann.
A: The job of every art historian is to make up new categories for old paintings. What do you call this Neo-Classicism you have discovered in the fascist pop culture of the 1980s?
B: I call it 'dead glory'.

There is a place where post-modernism, minimalism and neo-classicism all meet. It might be in a Sakamoto solo record like 'Neo Geo' or 'Illustrated Musical Encyclopaedia'. It might be in Miharu Koshi's collaborations with Telex, or it might be in The Art of Noise. There's a line from all of this to the work of young artists making music today, people for whom the 1980s are only a distant memory: Toog, Kreidler, To Rococo Rot, Carsten Nicolai, or Hirono Nishiyama's Gutevolk project on Hosono's Daisyworld label (Nishiyama, who is also releasing a record soon on Karaoke Kalk, is perhaps the closest thing you'll hear to a young Miharu Koshi. She is currently recording her new album, 'The Inside of Water / The Hum of Tiny People').

As a veteran of 80s classicist atrocity myself (my 'Tender Pervert' album takes as its motif Joe Orton's phrase 'give me the ability to rage correctly') I'm delighted that this style's glassy cool survives intact. Classicism, in the year 2002, is 'neo' once again. Death has never seemed more alive.

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