Culture Vulture – Winter 2015
Is art a luxury? The John Peel Lecture 2015 – Brian Eno
In this years BBC John Peel lecture, the musician, producer and all round renaissance man Brian Eno suggests that we are all potential artists and that the only thing that gets in the way of producing art, or at least taking part in what he calls ‘stylisation’ is starvation. Once we are no longer hungry we focus our mind on things other than the stomach. He suggests that the question ‘Is art a luxury’ or ‘does it do something beyond that’ is absurd, as art is so deeply ingrained into human life to be not only vital but ever present, a part of the way we communicate. Even politically conservative thinkers who are against subsidisation of the arts take part in artistic ‘stylisations’ themselves. Our current government, unbeknownst to themselves sport haircuts and clothing that communicate a number of things about them culturally and these stylisations define them. Just as the Mohican haircut suggests you wish to be seen as rebellious and on the outside of societies norms, the sensible haircut and black shoes of the cabinet politician make an artistic statement about themselves, whether they wish to admit this or not. Eno contends that ‘Art is everything we don’t have to do’. We have to eat of course but not in such creative, culturally specific and decorous ways as humans have contrived. We have to wear clothes but not in the complex way that humans do to signify our personal attachments. We have to move, but we stylise that through dance, sport etc. Even the ways we get from A to B have become highly stylised and culturally significant. The urban cyclist is a completely different beast to the suburban commuter in so many ways. We communicate in many different ways too. We speak to another to make ourselves understood but we also like to make ourselves understood romantically, politically, philosophically; so we invented poetry, the play, the novel, the political pamphlet etc. We ‘stylise’ in a meaningful, communicative way to make ourselves better understood. These considerations raise the question why are these cultural stylisations important? We all do it, so we must conclude that on some level we enjoy it. We do like to do it (stylise); we enjoy the myriad ways we promote our cultural leanings and beliefs. It gives us meaning and satisfaction, and most importantly from the point of view of the analyst, it gives us levels of understanding of behaviour. The why (?) we continually seek is often found in culture and art.
Eno discussed how children’s play is the primary way in which to learn and we all know that children who don’t enjoy healthy play will not develop so well. We know this to be true from research. Play, including drawing pictures to help us to understand the world we live in is important. In the act of playing children are developing their imaginations, something humans excel at. This helps to develop things like empathy, as we get a more sophisticated view of another’s perspective through play and creativity. Eno says that ‘children are good at using their imagination until they are sent to school to learn’ which then gets in the way of their inherent creativity. Still, children do learn through play generally speaking and later on down the line adults play through art, which stimulates our imaginations/creativity/problem solving skills.
Eno proposes that art does indeed have a serious function in life. One major function (from Greek Tragedy through to the Violent Movies of today) is it gives us a safe place to view opposing perspectives from; we are one step removed and able to study the significance of adultery, murder, genocide etc from a safe distance, whilst being encouraged simultaneously to think, to create perspective. Art does not corrupt, as the tabloid mentality would have it, it enables us to form opinions from an informed position, encourages us to think about what is possible and acceptable. If we don’t like a film or a work of art we can turn it off or look away. We are not imprisoned by it. Quite the opposite, it frees us up to consider, to contemplate and to respond with our own ideas, reactions.
There is also the pleasure of synchronisation to consider. This is a significant function of art and culture as it enables us to do stylised things together such as dancing, marching, swimming and gymnastics. We enjoy doing these things together and this helps to get us ‘in synch’. So culture, the creative arts, can be seen as ritualistic behaviours that not only keeps us in synch but improves our chances to co- exist successfully, harmoniously. A massively important function one might say.
Eno then asked the questions; ‘how do ideas come about, where does art come from?’ He postulates that ‘scenes’ can produce great art and ideas as artists thrive and feed on and off one another. Eno coins the phrase ‘scenius’ to explain this phenomenon; or we could call it collective genius. History is full of groups of writers and musicians and artists who drive one another and thrive on the encouragement found within the collective scene. Such as the early psychoanalytic scene to name but one.
He then suggests from a political perspective that the next age, after the deaths of both Communism/Capitalism could be born from the technological era we find ourselves in the early stages of, where technology is moving at such a rate of knots that the main function of humans once they are rendered fully obsolete as a manual work force (a phenomenon we are in the beginnings of now) is to exist purely as philosophers, artists, cultural avatars. This next age could be seen as a new age of enlightenment, a utopian, altruistic age Eno suggests, where the earth’s riches are spread out evenly, where all humans get a living wage and a share of the spoils and are able to follow their artistic/cultural dreams above all else. This may sound like science fiction but according to many socio political thinkers it could become a reality sooner than we think. A new age of altruism, signified by humans whose main objective is to create art and culturally progressive thinking.
The Analytic Culture Vulture
This edition of the newsletter sees the beginning of a new feature which will include a wider look at the arts world bearing in mind the influence of psychoanalytic thinking. This is intended to be a fun and informative look at some of what may be going on in what I like to call ‘the culture’. I hope it will all be interesting, edifying and entertaining.
This edition will be looking at the Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard; the populist novel and television series behemoth that is ‘Game of Thrones’; The latest re-boot of the teen sex/slasher movie, the chilling ‘It Follows’; another HBO gangster masterpiece to stand confidently alongside ‘The Soprano’s, Terence Winter’s ‘Boardwalk Empire.’; then, last but not least, the latest Russell T Davies comedy/drama, the sexually charged, edgy television drama, ‘Cucumber’.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six part, self -exposing memoir (collectively entitled ‘My Struggle’) has been building up a head of steam over recent years to the point where, having been informed by several ‘in the know, intellectually speaking’ friends, that I must read the books, I finally succumbed to the first instalment, ‘A Death in the Family’ after reading an excellent interview with the individualistic author in a recent edition of ‘the Observer’. The interview had me rushing to Amazon UK to order the first book. I would direct you to ‘the Observer’ website to read the interview itself as well reading the book. Knausgaard comes across as a particularly singular and fearless interviewee, as befits his writing. His work has been translated into 22 languages and as journo Anthony Andrews states in ‘the Observer,’ ‘Given the size of the undertaking (6 novels, with a kind of Proustian overview), the widespread critical acclaim and cultural buzz the series has generated, it has a strong claim to be the great literary event of the 21st century so far.’ And any literary work whose first chapter opens up with a lengthy reflection on how society represses the actual visual reality of dead bodies is instantly fine with me:
‘A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leaves people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and car parks, is not a town but a hell. Hence the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead.’
Knausgaard is superb also on memory and the composition of the memoir as a creative act in which the ‘truth’ of the history and the reality of ‘false memory’ is seen to be subjective on a sliding scale in a way which should be fascinating for the analyst. ‘For me’ he says, ‘there has been no difference in remembering something and creating something. When I wrote my fictional novels they always had a starting point of something real. There’s a lot of false memory in the book (‘My Struggle’ as opposed to his ‘fictional’ novels) but it’s there because it’s the way it is, it’s real.’
A thoughtful admission that everything he includes in his memoir may not be factually accurate but is yet somehow truthful or, ‘real’ as he prefers. In the same interview he gives an example of how a writer subjectively remembering a scenario can be thrown into doubt by the challenges of others. After the description of his alcoholic Father’s death is published, describing how the old man was surrounded by empty bottles, members of the family challenge Knausgaard’s account, only for his version to be confirmed by a health worker who had worked in his Father’s house. So it was the family who wanted a different (more socially acceptable) memory to corroborate their own sensibilities rather than face the real truth.
Knausgaard’s first publisher described his work as ‘a monument of male shame’ a subject that the novelist deals with in great depth, although this was initially unconscious; he says ‘it had never occurred to me that I was writing about male shame. It was so much a part of me that I didn’t see it, didn’t recognise it as shame.’ As journalist Andrews says in ‘the Observer,’ ‘Once he accepted the diagnosis, he began to explore its literary potential.’
Knausgaards response to this was to say, ‘Writing is a way of getting rid of shame. When you write the whole idea is to be free.’ But he then goes on to say ‘I think shame is an essential mechanism in social life.’
Two interesting lines of thought for us to consider here; the idea of the supposedly therapeutic need to get rid of shame to be ‘free’; while also considering shame to be ‘an essential mechanism in social life.’
The first book of the six I found to be compelling, if not for the faint hearted. He has an attention to detail that gets straight to the point emotionally speaking. The first encounter we get with the young boy’s Father comes with this revealing preamble which tells us all we need to know about their relationship within a couple of pithy sentences:
‘We are not allowed to run in the garden, so just before I enter his line of vision I slow down and start walking. He is standing at the rear of the house, down in what will be the vegetable plot, lunging at an outcrop of rock with a sledgehammer. As he straightens up and turns to me, his face is almost completely shrouded in darkness. Nevertheless I have more than enough information to know his mood. This is apparent not from his facial expressions but his physical posture, and you do not read it with your mind, but your intuition.
He puts down the sledgehammer and removes his gloves.
‘Well?’ he says’.
And next, The Game of Thrones! The very mention of which will now immediately send us scurrying off to one or other side of the room in either excited anticipation or caustic derision. This sword and sorcery historical fantasy social phenomenon is really splitting the nation down the middle into the yea’s and ‘nay’s. So with atypical, gratuitous, head dismembering, bosom exposing gusto, I unreservedly throw my hat down in the ‘yea’ camp. I’m relatively late to ‘Thrones’ having just got the 1st series early on this year. This was devoured at a rate of three hour long episodes at a time as addiction kicked in fairly quickly. I have just finished the first novel (penned by the obviously heroic George R.R. Martin, who I imagine to be a mixture of someone with a blend of Shakespeare and Homers brain in a Viking War Lord body). It’s good to read the book after watching the series as so much happens, there are so many characters and stories, it’s easy to lose track; so the books, apart from being an excellent read, act like an index. As with any book/filmed version scenario, the book gives you more of a sense of the internal lives of the characters also, of which there is aplenty. These are well written, well defined characters with enough psyche baring and wretched attachment/object relations going on to please a bus load of analysts on the way to the Coliseum. Although this is a fantasy world populated with knights, damsels in distress and…. gulp, dragons, fear not, it is essentially a character driven drama, and these characters are well rounded and complex individuals. Dreams play a big part in the series too, both the prophetic and symbolic, and are taken seriously and studied as messages from beyond the known world.
One of the great things about ‘Game of Thrones’ is its refusal to portray everything as black and white, as in say ‘the Lord of the Rings’ ; in fact ‘Thrones’ is like ‘Lord of the Rings’ for adults. Who are the goodies and who are the baddies? It’s hard to say, they all seem a bit ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Realistic and plentiful sex and violence prevails as does political and personal betrayal. Where the heroes and villains are concerned there are plenty of grey areas. The heroic and decent do not always prevail and more often than not do make lots of bad decisions, bringing down a black rain on not only themselves but their entire families and all of their livestock too.
In series 1 through 3 the characters we are led to believe are the heroes are largely dissipated and led to the slaughter, often by their own inept decision making and by being too noble in the face of treachery. As the story progresses we find ourselves being seduced and won over by the previously well hidden virtues of the characters we had been led to believe were the bad guys (and gals!).
In what may be a first in such an archetypal fable, one of the most popular and intriguing characters is played by an actor of ‘slight stature’, Peter Dinklage in what can only be described as a heroic performance. If the character doesn’t have height, he has plenty of depth. There is no political correctness in the story of Tyrion Lannister. He is called either Dwarf, Half Man, or the Imp and generally treated with contempt and ridicule, particularly by his own Father and Sister; although his relationship with his Brother, a handsome and feared night of the realm, known as ‘The King-slayer’ due to previous misdemeanours, is relatively sound as far as anything close to positive object relations is concerned hereabouts. Tyrion, or the Half Man, is such a well- rounded, well written, well- acted portrayal that I quickly find him becoming one of my favourite characters, not only in this drama, but in general. He initially appears to be a black sheep, high born but slight of stature, thus causing the small man to have an enormous chip on the shoulder. To make up for the poor hand he was given he takes the opposite route to his archetypal heroic brother and becomes a heavy drinking, whoring reprobate. But as the story progresses his inner qualities come out. He is brave, both physically and vocally; loyal, witty, smart; a thoughtful politician who knows how to negotiate intrigue. He has hidden depths galore. Even his initially crude and dismissive Father comes to grudgingly accept that he is a force to be reckoned with and gives him more respect and responsibility as befits his high birth. This is a very sensitive depiction of a man overcoming his seemingly limited abilities to prove that he has more qualities than can be imagined upon first glance. Tyrion Lannister, despite being a member of the clan we initially see to be the ‘baddies’ of the piece, stakes his place at the centre of the drama as a hero of sorts, however unfortunate his ‘attachment’. In a world of monsters and monstrous behaviours he is able to take on the mantle of hero; but he’s a real person also, awash with both good and bad traits, but essentially seen to be fighting to survive in a cruel world, where he keeps his decency in the shadows as a tactic for survival whilst doing the right thing when he can.
For the creation of this character alone I commend George R.R. Martin and applaud the actor’s genius in bringing him to life with such skill and sensitivity on the screen. In a show awash with every archetype imaginable Tyrion, the Imp, steals the show. There are plenty of strong, complex female characters too, all vying to be our favourite character, but for me it’s Tyrion, the half man, who withstands his domineering Fathers contempt, side-lining and subjugation to find his own way through the morass into his own unique place in the drama. Oops, a little too much self- disclosure there perhaps!
And so to ‘It Follows’ a minor masterpiece of sex=death paranoia horror, currently doing the rounds and working its way into our collective unconscious with chilling abandon. I’m not a compulsive horror buff but do love a horror movie that does something different with a formula, such as 2008’s Swedish vampire reboot ‘Let the Right One In’ or the wonderful Kathryn Bigelow’s peerless vampire western/biker hybrid, ‘Near Dark’ (1987).
‘It Follows’, which is still on at the cinema at the time of writing, is a wholly original take on the 70’s teen slasher movies such as Carpenters ‘Halloween,’ the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ series and the ‘Scream’ franchise. It is much more intelligent than any of these movies and more artful than the majority of such films.
The plot is simplicity itself. A hauntingly beautiful (pre -empting her imminent haunting) young teenage girl reflectively gives up her virginity to her handsome young beau only to discover he has passed on some kind of killer virus to her, but of a supernatural rather than biological origin. He was similarly infected upon losing his virginity at which point he was informed by the host carrier that he would be killed unless he could in turn pass on the virus. And so ‘It Follows’ the cast of the movie and us as viewers throughout the film thereafter although we’re kept in the dark as to what ‘It’ actually is. ‘It’ manifests itself in different physical shape in the form of often naked grotesque humans, seemingly dead (and Zombie like) that will then attack the victim in a non-specific but ultimately fatal way. And, allowing for several visually interesting scenes with a modicum of character development, that’s pretty much it.
What is interesting about the film is how it makes us feel existentially about the loss of innocence incurred by sexual activity (a common enough horror movie trope) and/or the reality/fear of death that begins as soon as childhood ends. The film, in a knowing post- modern style, isn’t 100 per cent original; It suggests that loss of virginity is not a loss of innocence, nor a sin in the Christian sense (an idea which fuels the paranoid fantasy of the majority of such teen/slasher movies; A savagely ironic attack by liberal horror film makers aimed at the American religious right wing stance on the projection of the idea of original sin onto teenagers with healthy sex drives as a way of inculcating fear of natural drives) but the beginning of the fear of both death itself from an existential point of view and the idea of the death drive as a precursor, which it is suggested, is kick-started at the onset of initial sexual activity.
This is an emotionally intelligent horror movie about sex and death, which is both sexy and scary (as it should be given its genre) and which operates on many levels, which I highly recommend.
One of my favourite genres is the Gangster movie and this form was taken to another level in recent years with HBO’s masterpiece ‘The Soprano’s.’ Anyone who hasn’t seen the ‘Soprano’s’ instantly evokes two feelings in yours truly; 1) Envy, as in, you still have the joy of seeing it for the first time ahead of you, you lucky devil, and 2) Incredulity, as in, ‘you haven’t seen ‘the Soprano’s,’ whatzammattawitchoo???!!!’
Like a lot of lot of people I am slightly late getting to Terence Winter’s ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ as it is on cable and may have followed in the footsteps of ‘the Sopranos’ too soon given the earlier series long reaching supremacy, but it is a damn good drama in its own right, and with the reliably superb Steve Buscemi in the lead role, as an Atlantic City politician/gangster/mass manipulator, we are in reliable hands all the way. Nucky Thompson is a classic gangster anti- hero, as emotionally twisted as a stand-off between Hannibal Lector and Alfred Hitchcock. The series is co-produced by Martin Scorsese (who directs the odd episode) and Mark Wahlberg, another two reliable old hands at this kind of thing.
‘Empire’ follows the machinations of Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, a living embodiment of the old chestnut which will have it that where politics begins and organised crime ends is a very thin line indeed. For much of the early part of the four series you are left with the impression that Thompson is a politician with criminal tendencies, when in fact it slowly becomes apparent that he’s actually a gangster who shrouds his criminal activities in a cloak of respectability; a garment which becomes more transparent as time passes. He treats his Father and Brother with contempt and pure loathing and is incapable of fidelity with whichever woman he is involved. It is Buscemi’s greatness as an actor, and the superb script, that gets us rooting for Nucky; we’re shown the vulnerability behind the mask; the story makes it clear that Nucky’s own childhood was brutal and it is his need to put as much space between then and the present that drives him. I think it is great art that can show us the traumatised child behind the eyes of the monster.
Like ‘The Soprano’s,’ ‘Empire’ makes the point that those with poor attachment will seek it elsewhere, often poorly, sometimes fatally so. In a drama that has its roots in Greek tragedy this cast of the damned deals in murder, incest, political and personal corruption and everything in between. It is superbly written, acted and directed and has enough psychological mayhem to keep the most demanding analysts among us happy.
And finally! Russell T Davies latest gift to the nation’s armchair legion, ‘Cucumber’ (Channel 4) has been one of the triumphs of this television year so far. In my neck of the woods we don’t watch a lot of live television, preferring to gorge on the modern marvel that is the box set, but where the divine Davies (he brought us David Tennant as Dr Who for heaven’s sake, what more do you want!) is concerned we make exceptions. ‘Cucumber’ is ostensibly the ribald revels of a group of middle aged gay men in Manchester who a decade and a half back may have been distant friends of the cast of Davies major breakthrough, 1999’s ‘Queer as Folk’. The first episode sets the scene nicely as the guys all meet in a pub to discuss their current state of play. It quickly becomes apparent that despite cultural stereotyping the aging process and fear of a perceived loss of potency is just as prevalent in the gay world as it in the heterosexual domain. This is a group of middle aged men like any other, looking back with awe at their younger selves and perhaps romanticising their long lost youth as they look fearfully into the onset of middle to late age. As with the majority of the middle aged, one thing quickly becomes apparent; they are obsessed with sex as a gate way back to their potent younger selves; In terms of the halcyon days of lost sexual power, it’s also suggested, that for some, such a thing perhaps never really existed anyway. For the series central character Henry Best, played with equal amounts of humour and pathos by the excellent Vincent Franklin, the harsh and comic reality is he has never properly accepted his sexuality and been able to be a fully operating sexual gay man as defined by the one particular act he has always struggled to achieve (leaving a succession of characters all dumfounded by his inability to carry out said act, ‘you mean you’ve never……….’ becoming a recurring speech). Henry’s dilemma has become a fully-fledged neurosis and as he faces down the middle aged horrors he decides he needs to do something about it and raises the cry of his need for ‘one more cock.’ This leads to initially humorous situations as a result of Henry’s position in a ten year relationship with a partner who loves him and who will tolerate his inability to accept himself fully; but ultimately this ends in tragedy as Henry’s mid- life crisis finally impacts on his partner, the likeable and stable Lance, with devastating results.
While Henry is off living with a duo of extremely promiscuous, unselfconscious twenty something lads, who are everything Henry is not (and failing miserably to keep up/connect with them as a result of his comical ineptitude as a supposedly promiscuous gay man) in their trendy Manchester loft, his partner Lance reacts by falling for a deeply in the closet, supposedly straight guy whose inability to accepts his own sexuality is projected onto Lance in a tragic denouement.
‘Cucumber’ is funny (laugh out loud so, frequently) and sad in equal amounts (tears were shed on several occasions); it’s also spot on concerning the fears of the middle aged (Henry’s sister Cleo gets some good scenes too in this regard, reminding us Davies can write for women too and Coronation Street’s Julie Hesmondhalg steals several scenes) and deserves the huge audiences it got. Available still on 4OD I think, if not buy the DVD!
It’s not very often something this good makes it onto British TV. In fact I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a home grown production as much as this since the early days of ‘Shameless,’ going back over a decade, and the character of Henry is on a par with that series Frank Gallagher (our very own Homer Simpson), all of which is saying a lot. Both series share a wonderfully refreshing gratuitous and graphic depiction of sexual activity, as well as a hilariously ribald attitude to the absurdity of the sexual act; such as in ‘Cucumber’ when the neighbour from across the road asks Henry if he can close his blind when he masturbates as the porn beaming out of his pc screen makes his activity wholly visible to her children in their bedroom across the street. What is it about Manchester I ask when it comes to producing comedy/drama? They have cornered the market.
Culture eh, isn’t it marvellous?