Google advertisements

July 9, 2010

I remain puzzled by the success of Google’s business model.  Obviously, I don’t have the makings of a good businessman, because Google is fantastically successful, with a torrential positive cashflow and high profits.  Google seems to have more of a right to the name Amazon than Amazon.com, given the relatively meagre profitability of the online bookstore cum emporium, despite it’s annual revenue, and Amazon.com should be called, say, Thames, a not all that impressive river.

Google gets its money from advertising, ads that Internet users click on after making a search.  I ran a very focused ad campaign for a specialized product related to my work, and it garnered a decent response, but if I had done a search for that product, I don’t think I would have clicked on the ads it presented.  I don’t think I have ever clicked on a Google ad, except for a few instances when I experimented to see just what they would turn up.  Once again, I am obviously not a judge of how people will behave.

My sense of the advertisements that appear on the Google sidebar is that they are generally vague, tangentially related to my search, and never better results than what I turn up with my Google search itself.  Why would I waste time with them?  When newspapers and magazines purchase advertising, they pay up front, and do so because they know their material will be seen by readers, and possibly read.  Some magazines, e.g., fashion publications, are all  about the ads.  Pay-per-click ads generate revenue only when browsing people click on them.  Why do they click?  But click they do!

So…I come to this rather depressing prospect.  Google is reaping megabucks off of billions of clicks by vast millions of users who are clicking on ads that are of limited value simply on the hope, the misconception, the belief, reflex action? of responding to an advert.  Their business model is built on the bedrock of consumer acculteration.  Countless people wasting countless hours in pointless activity is making Google rich.  People love to shop, they love advertisements, and they are happy to be led down the primrose path by ads that promise much and deliver little.  Why not, it’s all free!  We pay only with our time and attention!


What’s the Zabriskie Point?

June 23, 2010

Not a big fan of Antonioni’s Blow Up, so why would I watch another of his English language films?  Because occasionally I feel the urge to see those films that I always heard about as a kid, but never could see.  No DVDs, no VHS, no cable TV…  Zabriskie point is one of those, brought to my attention by a near insane friend of mine.

It begins as an almost vérité exercise in cinema, showing a raucous meeting of college radicals in 1970, planning a strike to shut down their university.  One good looking disaffected participant declares his readiness to die for the cause, of boredom, and walks out.  Later, during a riot, he draws a bead on a cop with a gun, but someone else shoots.  The kid runs, now a suspect in the murder he didn’t commit.  He steals a small airplane and flies to Death Valley where he meets up with a hippie secretary driving to her real estate developer boss’s desert mansion.  They play, they love, he returns to LA and is shot for no good reason, while she, despondent over the radio reports of his death, fantasizes the ultimate in revolutionary armageddon.

The film makes little sense, and it almost laughable in some ways.  Wikipedia reports that it is widely considered as one of the worst cinema disasters in history.  It is amazing to watch at times, however, for MA knew what he was doing with a camera!.   Let’s just say it’s one European’s love letter to the American landscape.

I enjoyed the scenes of the southern California industrial landscape and the street scenes, c. 1970.  Took me back a bit once again.

Some images from the film:

A clever sequence in which some mannequin-like suits watch rushes of some new commercials for their desert homes development featuring dressed up dummies.

Out in the dessert, at Zabriskie Point, in fact, the young couple gets to know one another.  She: “This is such a beautiful place. What do you think?”  He: “I think it’s dead.

The desert is an amazing place.  Cinematography is wonderful.  Aren’t those copulating couples hot??

An amazing house her boss has.  Why does she drive an old Buick?  Is that the good old days of consumerism?

We get to see this several times from many angles.  Must have cost a pretty penny to bring it off so well.

Dreaming?  A girl’s gotta dream!

Your whole world is going too.

Just in case you thought that didn’t include all those books you read!  Background music by Pink Floyd.

Ahhh!  Where there’s destruction, there’s hope.

The sunset, and Roy Orbison’s music heals all.

 


Madame Bovary – Chabrol

February 20, 2010

In a post several years ago, I commented negatively on Claude Chabrol’s take on Madame Bovary, saying it was too faithful to the book to be interesting.  It seemed a slow-paced, Masterpiece Theater sort of treatment.  On watching it again, I’m not so sure.

A lot of reviewers felt as I did, and the film is not rated among Chabrol’s finest.  Yes, Isabelle Huppert is too old for the character, and her light hair and freckles are not Emma at all, but she’s lovely.  More interesting, is the complaint I read in many places that she, and the film, are too cold, controlled, lacking the sentimental passion of Emma, the passion that destroys her.

Certainly the film is restrained. Consider the scene in which Emma meets her old (Platonic) flame, Léon, in the Rouen cathedral, and he takes her for a ride in a hired cab.  He tells the driver to drive through the streets of the town,  and the citizens of the fair city are left to puzzle over this meandering cab that occasionally rocks back and forth rather wildly.  Inside, rapturous lovemaking.  The action is described in an almost cinematic way, yet the film gives us just this, with one brief glimpse of passion:

Not much for a literary passage that surely inspired the passionate sex-in-the-backseat scene of that masterpiece, Titanic.  The sculptural group on the right in the image above is a nice touch, though.

Still, I think Chabrol is on to something here.  The crucial thing about the novel is the control of tone – a touchstone of Flaubert’s writing.  Emma is shallow and sentimental, and a prey to passion, but it’s childish passion.  On the other hand, she’s an adult, a woman who is trapped in a dull marriage in a dull town in a dull epoch, and it’s not her fault.  Another woman who is the victim of men, and she knows it.  In the film, she comments frequently on things men might do that a woman has no chance of doing.  She sees her situation clearly, and she wants to rebel against it, yet she is fiercely restrained by her own ingrained sense of social propriety. [Compare to Flaubert's other sentimental "hero," Frederic Moreau.]  She was never a wanton bohemian or heedless character, at least not at first.  She must calculate – as a woman, she is always being watched.  In that sense, Huppert’s portrayal is just right.

Emma’s passionate nature is displayed before her marriage.  She has no hesitation at sucking her pricked finger despite the presence of Charles, the doctor.  Later, when their marriage is in the offing, she drinks a liquer with more than the normal relish, sticking her tongue into the glass to get the last drop.  After marriage, as her boredom and disposable income grow, her clothes get more and more elaborate.

On the left, Charles Bovary, the oafish husband.  On the right, Homais, the pharmacist, the man of reason.  His tiresome and superficial political, scientific, and philosophical patter are an ironic counterpoint throughout much of the story.  Even when you share his opinions about the clergy, the gentry, the capitalists, you want to throttle him to shut him up.  His stupid grasping for acclaim leads him to stampede Charles into a foolish and disastrous operation on a well young man who happens to have a club foot that needs “correcting.”

Is Charles the hero of the novel?  In a way, he is.  Only he has genuine, sincere, and deep emotional responses to his situation.  He is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he truly loves Emma, though he can’t make her happy with that.

Emma is tempted by the local notary’s assistant, Léon, a callow and romantic young man who is obviously in love with her.  She seeks spiritual help from the local priest in one of the most powerful passages of the novel.  The priest is absolutely tonedeaf to what ails her.  She has fine clothes, food, fire to warm her – the notion that she could be gravely suffering is totally alien to his mind and he shoos her away to deal with the urchins who must learn their stultifying catechism.  “What is a Christian?”  “One who is born and baptized!”  A fine verbal irony, pointing out the total lack of Christian love that comes Emma’s way in the church.

There’s not much to do if you live in a small French town in 1840, but the local aristocrat gives a grand ball and invites the Bovarys since Charles cured his abscess.   The waltz is absolutely dizzying, especially for a relative novice.  Emma says it was the most beautiful day of her life, and she daydreams about it endlessly.  At least the local draper, always willing to sell on credit, has some beautiful fabrics to show her to occupy her mind.

Rodolphe, a local gentleman and ladykiller shows up just as the town gets to host the annual country fair, a real boost for the place!  He seduces Emma with a steady torrent of romantic cliches and appealing hurt and angst.  Taking a window seat to the official proceedings, his words are intercut with prize awards for pigs, manure, and cows.  The bullshit is flying hot and heavy, and Emma is powerless to resist.  At last, someone who understands her!


They have a passionate love affair, but Rodolphe drops her because she’s becoming inconvenient.  Emma is shaken, but eventually picks up in earnest with Léon, leading to the cab ride and three days of bliss in an hotel room in Rouen.  She throws caution to the wind, and she actually scares her lover a bit, she’s so intense.  Her clothes get sharper and sharper, and the friendly merchant always has fancy stuff to sell on credit.  Finally he comes up with some promissory notes to sign and tells her to keep all the cash for now.  She can pay him pack later.  You can see the thought balloon above her head, filled with lists of things to buy.

It had to end.  The bills come due.  The bailiffs come to take back all the stuff in the house.  Notices are posted in the square – dishonor and utter humiliation await her, unless she can get 3,000 francs fast!  Won’t the draper help her out with a stay of a few days?  Her hand on his knee gets no results – he cares for francs, not fucking.  Was she really willing to do that with him? She is appalled at his insinuations, and at herself?

Of course, Rodolphe, he will help her!  He must help her!  She runs across the fields to his mansion – so difficult to do in the female costume of the day.  Standing outside his bedroom door, she is out of breath and desparate, but composes herself.

She opens the door.  “Oh, it’s you!”  There she is, in the mirror, smaller than the man of course.  She is only what she is in mens’ eyes.  Maybe she can rekindle their old love – they will run away together, of course.  She is so beautiful!

Building castles in the air is fine, but there is the matter of those 3,000 francs.  Rodolphe sees how it is, and he’s having none of it.  Cooly he tells her, “I don’t have it.” Surrounded by the accessories of wealth, in a mansion, on an estate, Emma finds it hard to believe him.  The awful truth dawns on her.  Nobody cares, nobody loves her.  She is alone.

She escapes by poisoning herself.  Charles loves her.


Sugar tapping into the bit-stream

November 16, 2009

We are all connected!Sometimes in my job, I feel like I’m in a bad science fiction movie.  The one in which a technocrat is speaking to a well-heeled audience about some new computer gismo that is going to change all of our lives – for the better – while disaster looms outside…

I attended a conference today, in the grand interior rotunda of a university library, about the use of  “geospatial” technology – that’s my field, maps, GIS, location data,  etc. - and disaster preparedness planning.  One fellow, a doctor and a tireless worker in various international NGO’s, talked about all the great, whiz-bang Web locational stuff that is helping him and his peers “save some lives.”  I’ve no complaint with that!

He talked about a sugar tapper in the rainforest of Indonesia, a bona fide member of a head-hunting tribe, who has the right to tap twelve trees in this jungle, and how he was able to double his income once he received some global positioning (GPS) tools.  Since the same person spoke about how local people serve as guides to internationals because only they can find their way around the forest they have lived in all their lives, I wondered why GPS made a difference to this guy.  Born and raised to the area, wouldn’t he have all sorts of low-tech, traditional ways of keeping track of where his trees are and when it was time to visit them to collect sugar?  Isn’t that the sort of indigenous knowledge we techno-nerds of the West are always rhapsodizing about when we get bored with our toys?  I asked exactly that question, and the answer was simple.

The tapper had no problem finding his trees and organizing his work, but by selling his sugar as Certified Organic, he was able to abandon smuggling as a livelihood and enter the global market for “green” agriculture.  In order to gain access to this market, he had to produce lots of paperwork and keep detailed records, and for this, GPS, digital maps, spreadsheets, and various plug-ins and plug-outs are invaluable.

I am happy this man is able to support himself in this sustainable way, and glad that the local university is involved in helping his community overcome the technical hurdles to entering this market – it seems like a good local development effort on their part.  It is important to keep in mind, however, exactly what problem was being solved.  The farmer had no technical problem running his sugar operation.  The problem was in being accepted into the global network of selling.  How you feel about his success here depends on what you think about globalization, capitalism, organic agriculture, and a lot of other things.  I do get the feeling, though, that in these breathless presentations on the value of hi-tech spatial technology that we are often looking for ways to solve problems that the same technologies have created.

Another speaker, a professor who also runs this outfit, talked about how four or five infrastructure providers are collecting data each day on phone callers:  from where and when they place a call.  These corporations are looking for ways to use this data, “creative business opportunities, or societal-beneficial stuff ” he said.  Presented with this mass of data – the problem – they search for meaning, and create solutions to extract it.   At one point he said that using this data, we can tell who and what we are by virtue of our co-locating.  That is, you know something about people by knowing where they meet and with whom.  Except that this data just tells you where and when pretty much…

One such exercise involved graphing the volume of commuters to the financial district of San Francisco against the Dow Jones.  We see that people tend to go in to the office early when the market isn’t doing too well.  They come in later when the market seems to be trending upwards steadily.  Surprised?  Imagine, you could develop “smart advertising” targeting those people by changing digital ads in real-time on  trains, buses, and billboards! – my idea, BTW, but only in the particulars.  Unusually heavy early traffic going into the city?  Cue the bromo-seltzer and beer ads – it’s going to be a bruiser of a day on the trading floor!

I know that technology has wonderful and humane applications, but stuff like this is enough to make you a Luddite.  Part of the idolatry of the computer, and the relentless drive to draw us all into the web of the International Work (and buy) Machine.

Now, this leaves open only one question:  How do I get the four or five hundred people who visit this blog each day to pay me some money!!  How much would you pay for the privilege?




In the realm of myth…

November 5, 2009

…we are everywhere at home.

lastest from Salzburg Viennese by von Stuck

Still riffing…

sphinx collage

Modern sphinx pose sells clothes.… on the sphinx…


Google-herd

November 2, 2009

City Sense?

Should Google-herd be a new word in our lexicon?

Citysense is an innovative mobile application for real-time nightlife discovery and social navigation, answering the question, “Where is everybody going right now?”

…and why should we follow them..?

File this under the expanding portfolio of hi-tech computer applications intended to capture your money.  GIS cum position (al) technology, like GPS, is now a growing element in marketing.  Companies like this collect historical and current data on where people have gone, process it according to the latest market segmentation categories, and try to sell the service to other companies and us, the individual consumers.  Making it easier for us to spend our money, find those things we really want, find the people who are just like us!

Is this bad?  No.  Is it evil?  No.  It’s just business, and it’s pretty dumb. What gets me is the breathless tone of the selling that makes it sound like it’s something more than new technology being used to make a standard selling tool sexy. Gads, I hate hearing marketing stuff described as sexy. What does that say about our culture?

Yep, just file this under, International Work Machine, crank, gripe, and complain.


Can’t buy me love!

September 30, 2009

Ladies!  There's plenty for all of you!

Around the corner from the entrance to my office is the Century 21 Department Store, certainly one of the most popular tourist destinations in New York after the World Trade Center site -  with the slogan “Fashion worth fighting for! ”  I go there regularly on my lunch hour to consume and keep myself in high-quality slacks, shoes, and haberdashery without breaking my bank.

The image of frenzied women clawing over tempting fabrics and clothes is at the center of Zola’s novel, Ladies Delight (Au Bonheur des Dames), the story of a hugely successful department store c. 1880, and an amazing novel in many ways.  It is a tale of the swaddling days of consumerism, commodity fetishism, commodification – the whole array of cultural-crit jargon.  Here it is, laid out:  advertisement, loss leaders, seductive product displays, free giveaways, ominbuses with huge posters, mega-sales, fads-fashion-and novelty; the economics of price wars, driving the small shops on “main street” under the wheels of the big malls, and on and on.  It’s so familiar, you wonder if there ever was a world without shopping centers!

Mouret is the dynamic, handsome, hedonistic, creative volcano at the center of the huge machine that is his department store, the shop, as the employees call it.  He has his pick of the sales girls – any would give themselves to him for the thrill of it and the money he’ll throw their way – and a society mistress as well.  He is a font of new ideas for selling, marketing, creating desire, creating need, creating new products, new sensations!  The daily takings climb steadily towards the landmark figure of 1,000,000 francs!

The sales workers are a frenzied competitive lot – backbiting and driven.  This job is their chance to make something for themselves, perhaps of themselves.  They are dismissed en masse at a dip in weekly sales, and many come from lives of unrelenting urban or rural poverty.  The feminine protaganist arrives this way, and the trials of her incredibly difficult life during her early days in Paris are related in detail.  Then she “goes over to the other side,” as her uncle, the doomed proprietor of an old fashioned fabric shop calls it, and she goes to work for the infernal machine.

Many women in Zola’s novels are the equal of their male counterpart, and this novel relates a long duel of hearts between Mouret and Denise.  She is proud, quiet, her personality is based on a rock-solid and austere self-respect.  She withstands poverty, the gossipy and vile sniping of her fellow sales girls, and exhaustion to rise within the sales staff hierarchy.  Gradually she wins them over, and Mouret, noticing her excellent good sense and employing her ideas, begins to fall for her.  She worships him, adores him, and everyone assumes he’s already bedded her, but she maintains her “virtue.”  She does this not out of sentimental notions of what a good girl is, but because she fears that to give herself to him would end up with her being cast off when he tires of her, leaving her emotionally ruined and desolate.  She is right.

Mouret, for his part, a man who built his life on women, on controlling with cold calculation their whims and desires, on exploiting them for their money and their erotic attributes, on taking an Olympian and disdaining view of them, that sorry herd of females who jam his shop and make him rich – Mouret feels himself suffering the revenge of Woman.  The Eternal Feminine is breaking him.  Denise will not yield, no matter how much money he offers, no matter what he offers!  In the end, he submits, he begs her to marry him.  She accepts, realizing that their duel has humanized him.  He realizes he cannot buy love, and it is love he wants.  Male and female are reconciled.

The book is filled with detailed discussions of how the shop works, how accounts are kept, how the machine of consumption is kept on its well-oiled track.  It also has endless discussions of textiles that are utterly bewildering to me – I don’t know what most of them even look like.   In a nice twist, the final drama before Denise accepts Mouret involves a store detective catching an arrogant society lady stealing lace and gloves.  All are slaves to the machine, rich and poor.

The shop is depicted as the personification of Woman, of Woman’s erotic allure, of superficial desire, of inhuman capitalism, of modern life.  Here are a few samples:

The silk department was like a great room dedicated to love, hung with white by the whim of a woman in love who, snowy in her nudity, wished to compete in whiteness.  All the milky pallors of an adored body were assembled there, from the velvet of the hips to the fine silk of the thighs and the shining satin of the breasts.

. . .

 In the silk department there was also a crowd, the principal crush being opposite the inside display, arranged by Hutin, and to which Mouret had given the finishing touches. It was at the further end of the hall, around one of the small wroughtiron columns which supported the glass roof, a veritable torrent of stuffs, a puffy sheet falling from above and spreading out down to the floor. At first stood out the light satins and tender silks, the satins a la Seine and Renaissance, with the pearly tones of spring water; light silks, transparent as crystals— Nile-green, Indian-azure, May-rose, and Danube-blue. Then came the stronger fabrics: marvellous satins, duchess silks, warm tints, rolling in great waves; and right at the bottom, as in a fountain-basin, reposed the heavy stuffs, the figured silks, the damasks, brocades, and lovely silvered silks in the midst of a deep bed of velvet of every sort—black, white, and coloured—skilfully disposed on silk and satin grounds, hollowing out with their medley of colours a still lake in which the reflex of the sky seemed to be dancing. The women, pale with desire, bent over as if to look at themselves. And before this falling cataract they all remained standing, with the secret fear of being carried away by the irruption of such luxury, and with the irresistible desire to jump in amidst it and be lost.

. . .

In the lace department the crush was increasing every minute. The great show of white was there triumphing in its most delicate and dearest whiteness. It was an acute temptation, a mad desire, which bewildered all the women.  The department had been turned into a white temple, tulles and Maltese lace, falling from above, formed a white sky, one of those cloudy veils which pales the morning sun. Round the columns descended flounces of Malines and Valenciennes, white dancers’ skirts, unfolding in a snowy shiver down to the ground. Then on all sides, on every counter, was a stream of white Spanish blonde as light as air, Brussels with its large flowers on a delicate mesh, hand-made point, and Venice point with heavier designs, Alen9on point, and Bruges of royal and almost religious richness. It seemed that the god of dress had there set up his white tabernacle.


Sparrow for President…

January 8, 2009

Maybe in 2012?


Ich bin ein kitschmensch!

January 2, 2009

When I am old, I shall write criticism; that will console me, for I often choke with suppressed opinions.

-Gustave Flaubert in a letter to George Sand, 1868

garden-gnome-pipe-9r pompier gerome-femmes-au-bain1179060145

I am a kitsch-man! Thirty years on, and it’s time to finally wrestle with the demon.  Sorry in advance, but those of you with an interest in kitsch are used to long-winded posts, I’m sure.

As an undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on “Kitsch in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production.”  My advisor loved it; my second reader said “I should just go and be angry,” and that it wasn’t enough of an art history thesis.  The chairman, following protocol when thesis reviewers disagreed strongly, knowing I was a refugee from the philosophy department, and trying to be helpful, gave it to the only philosopher in that coven of Anglo-American Empiricists who was interested in aesthetics, and he said it wasn’t enough of a philosophy thesis.  So much for inter-disciplinary thinking.  Well, I’m embarrassed to read it now anyway…

gillodorfles

My interest in this topic was spurred by my encounter with the English version of this book by Gillo Dorfles while in high school.  It’s an anthology of materials on the topic of kitsch – I was fascinated to find that the stuff had a name!  I was particularly taken by the weighty Germanic metaphysical arguments of Herman Broch, especially when he posited kitsch as the anti-system to art.  I love rhetorical absolutes!  Seeing junk as part of an apocalyptic metaphysical wave, “vomiting over the entire world,” as one writer put it, I recall, appealed to my love of abstruse analytical reasoning and over-the-top ranting.  I adopted this point of view with gusto in my thesis, arguing that kitsch was not just a consequence of mass production society, but embodied its inner metaphysical principle.  Marx, Benjamin (obviously), Hegel, Adorno, Marcuse, Hauser, etc. etc…all grist for the mill.

At one point, I toyed with the idea of making the entire piece a philosophical meditation on the archetypal souvenir, the snow globe.  As Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man wrote…apropos of the falling snow…  Why do those things fascinate so?  The wonder of the miniature – a world in a world – a mini stage – the God-like perspective they confer on us – the urge to collect them?  What is it!

The dominant position on kitsch for much of the intelligentsia was for a long time Clement Greenburg’s essay, Kitsch and the Avant Garde.  He did soften his position against Academic Art in the end, but only a little.  (Academic art, art of the establishment against which the avant garde, e.g. the Impressionists, rebelled was often referred to as l’art pompier, or pompier art.  A pompier is a fireman, the late 19th century equivalent of our contemporary American Joe Sixpack, or the Hardhats of the 1970′s  I guess.)

Greenburg’s position is about as absolute as they come: He knows art, and so he knows what kitsch is. It’s the opposite of art.  Why did he get to decide on what is art?  Tom Wolfe asked the same question in The Painted Word written during the 70′s.  It’s a silly book, and Wolfe seems to think that whatever Greenburg wouldn’t have liked must be great art – a sort of anti-avant-gardism – so it really doesn’t clarify things.  Greenburg’s view leads to conceptualism in many ways, although he was foreshadowed by Marcel Duchamp who uttered the remark in the early 20th century that “retinal art” was on the way out.  (Was it he who said that the history of art was that of postage stamps?)

Sure, craft is important, I think, but that doesn’t mean that  someone who can draw well is a great artist anymore than a calligrapher is a great author.  Which leads me to my point, sort of…Why argue about what is ART and what isn’t?  Let’s just agree that art is what artists make, and artists are those whom society regards as makers of art.  Nicely circular – we’re not talking mathematics here.  The question to ask is, “Is this art interesting in any way?”  Thus, when I hear people in museums guffaw in front of stark white canvases and say, “This is art?” I think, “Yes, dear people, it is art, but it is very, very, boring art and I don’t blame you a bit for not wasting another second on it…”

Which leads us back to kitsch, which would never evoke that response.  It always seems to be art.  I would say, it is art, kitsch_cheesecakebut not very good art.  Why seek to cast it from the select club of Art – is it insecurity about the membership of those things we secretly admire?  (This is what some call “guilty pleasures” , I think.)  The critics of mass-cult from the 50′s and 60′s, e.g. Dwight McDonald seem to be simultaneously elitist snobs, weak-kneed inhabitants of the citadel of culture under siege by barbarians, and fanatic partisans issuing a frantic call to arms.  To agree with them is to feel a member of a noble but doomed fighting band of brothers, bound to go down fighting the armies kitsch.

Of course, this sort of highfalutin criticism pertains only to work that is shown in fancy galleries and museums.kitsch_jesus_king Nobody seems to entertain much doubt about works like this  masterpiece on velvet.  We all love to sneer at them.  Of course, if your seven year old child said he or she wanted it in their room would you tell them, “No, no, dear, nice people don’t have such things on their walls!”  “But Daddy,  I LIKE it..! ”  (Ah yes, “doesn’t know much about art, but knows what she likes”…Why is that taken as the acme of philistinism?  Isn’t the first step in appreciating art to know what you like?)  Another course would be to sigh and say yes, and hope that eventually the child’s tastes will develop and change.  And if they don’t, is there a moral stigma associated with it?  For avant-gardists, there is always.

This moralism in aesthetics of the anti-kitsch avant garde comes through in many ways.  Often it is deeply connected to sociological ideologies, such as the Marxist “false consciousness.”  How does one have false consciousness?  Isn’t one simply conscious…we hope?  One can be in error, but false consciousness implies a sort of drugged state of deception in which simple-minded people or superficially educated ones are lulled into averting their eyes from the nasty realities of economic exploitation by cultural manipulation.  There IS exploitation to be sure, but I’m not sure that people have a false consciousness about it as opposed to simply feeling that they can’t change it and therefore have no interest in the question…The highbrow avant-garde point of view is actually a variant on the eternal conspiracy theory mode of explanation, otherwise, of course, wouldn’t everyone just agree with us critics who see through it all?

And really, it’s hard for me to look at these classic pieces of kitsch and get all worked up about capitalist hegemony, culture of the dominant discourse, and the society of the spectacle.

kitsch_figurines snowglobe 03souvenir

I mean, it’s pretty harmless, and stupid at bottom, isn’t it?  And do we really care how people decorate their living rooms?  Must the personal always be political?  Maybe David Hume was right, taste is just a matter of experience and education.  We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist; we don’t have to surrender and say that everyone’s opinion is equal, but it is all relative in the end.  People who just don’t care about aesthetic sophistication just don’t care – let them like what they like and let’s not get snooty about it.  The world won’t end!

alma_tadema_a_favourite_custom

As for this sort of academic art,  this piece by the curator of the Dahesh museum in NYC quite nicely   kitsch_bougcupidpunctures the pretensions of the oh-so-pure critics of academic kitsch.  The discourse of kitsch critics is filled with assertions that kitsch does not present “real ideas,” or “genuine sentiments,” and that it is false, sentimental, too easy, too eager to please, too dependent on consumerism or the market, etc.  These vague criticisms simply reveal the prejudices of the writers and just about all of them could be leveled against revered works of art in all or part.  We paint with a pretty broad brush when we take this approach.

With the wall between art and mass-culture reduced to rubble long before the Berlin Wall, some people took umbrage against the puritan intellectualism, the cult of art, preached by the Greenburg-ites and his crew at The Partisan Review. Susan Sontag is among them, and her Notes on Camp was one of the early salvos in the internecine culture war of the intellectuals.  She has been followed by the avalanche of material culture studies. Let me go on the record:  I dislike Sontag, and I think her Notes is a piece of self-indulgent drivel.  There, I said it.  I am a snob as well as a kitschman!

Having trouble figuring out what I really think?  This kitsch business opens up so many cans of worms!  Let state it simply:

  • I believe we create rational hierarchies of values based on our ideas of value, but these hierarchies are relative.  If you reject my values, you reject my judgments.
  • There is no way around this.  The problem of taste and value is, at bottom, one variant on the question, “What is knowledge.”  I do not believe that absolute definitions exist, but neither do I think astrology is as good as astronomy!
  • The only way forward is to discuss, exchange ideas, argue, and test our ideas against one another’s.  To say, “Well, that’s just my taste,” is to end the discussion.  To assert that there is no way to build a bridge of common values between two differing critical systems.  Most of the time, this is just bunk.  On the other hand, in extreme cases, it may be just so.
  • Cross-genre judgments are hazardous.  Arguing that Goya is brilliant while Batman is junk is just stupid.  The aesthetic arenas within which these two exist are different.  First try and agree on whether or not Goya is a good painter, and Batman is a good comic.  Then evaluate the aims of comics vs. Romantic painting.  You may find out that it is pointless to try and compare the two.
  • Intellectuals and normal people should be open minded enough to enjoy “good” work from all sorts of genres.  Some call this “no-brow.”  To me it’s just the mark of an educated and liberal-minded person.

My rant is done…for now.


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