In the wake of Wednesday’s attack on the office of Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, people appear to be clamouring, seemingly above all else, for an artistic response to the events. Beyond the rolling news, the newspaper front pages, the opinion pieces, it is art that people are turning to, talking about and sharing with one another. On social media and elsewhere there has been a proliferation of artworks – professional and amateur – taking these events as inspiration and as subject matter.
Avicii – True (PRMD/Universal, 2013)
The recent trend for EDM/’American roots music’ crossovers contains some of the most unreal, aesthetic-as-commodity, artistically (morally?) bankrupt music I’ve ever heard, and is proof, if nothing else, that the culture industry is alive and well in the twenty-first century.
To mark the 100-year anniversary of Dylan Thomas’ birth, Wales – or, more accurately, the BBC – has been gripped with an attempt to align the poet’s life and work with the country of his birth. There is nothing untoward about this initiative in itself – anniversary-governed programming plays a huge role in the BBC’s arts output – but the tying of Thomas to Wales and its national and cultural identity doesn’t quite work here, and belies a quiet desperation to inject a dose of nationalism into a subject that doesn’t quite warrant it.
The act of assemblage, of composition through unifying disparate elements of pre-existing texts, takes many forms in contemporary British poetry, and is utilised to various ends. However, despite the multifarious ways in which this aesthetic manifests itself, there are two overriding functions that assemblage performs: firstly it challenges pre-conceived notions of poetic form and extends the ways in which a text can generate meaning, and secondly it uses this formal and linguistic experimentation to exhibit a certain postmodern malaise in contemporary culture, which displays as self-evident the difficulty of meaningful self-expression in late-capitalist culture. Most importantly, the use of assemblage ventures a viable means for artistic expression in an era in which, as Kalle Lasn writes, ‘culture is no longer created by the people’ and ‘the spectacles that surround the production of culture…are our culture now. Our role is mostly to listen and watch – and then, based on what we have heard and seen, to buy.’
Within music criticism and journalism in recent years there has been a growing fixation with what has come to be known as ‘retromania’, or ‘pop culture’s addiction to its own past.’ The overriding thesis of this critique is that recent technological and cultural circumstances have led to something of a regression in the creative impulses of musicians, leading to a lack of innovative styles and an overreliance on pre-existing forms as the inspiration for ‘new works’. This criticism has been particularly championed by Simon Reynolds, who articulates his misgivings about contemporary pop music as follows:
Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.
(Originally written December 2013)
In order to fully understand the extent to which popular culture today is commodified in comparison to previous eras it is essential to recognise the various developments of capital not as distinct phenomena, but as part of a continual process of accumulation, expansion and consequent abstraction. It is crucial to note, as David Harvey writes, that:
Capital is a process and not a thing. It is a process of reproduction of social life through commodity production, in which all of us in the advanced capitalist world are heavily implicated. Its internalised rules of operation are such as to ensure that it is a dynamic and revolutionary mode of social organization, restlessly and ceaselessly transforming the society within which it is embedded. The process masks and fetishizes, achieves growth through creative destruction, creates new wants and needs, exploits the capacity for human labour and desire, transforms spaces, and speeds up the pace of life.
With the recent hype surrounding the latest batch of Christmas-themed TV adverts, it is notable how their reception appears to have displaced ‘proper’ art. I have witnessed, on social media and elsewhere, more excitement, anticipation and discussion regarding these adverts (particularly the ubiquitous offering from John Lewis) than I have any film, TV show or song in recent memory. While this is not inherently a bad thing – it’s not that I’m precious about people paying more attention to advertising than capital ‘A’ Art – the way people are coaxed into venerating content that exists solely to extract money from them is rather sinister.