I had an old friend who was a self-proclaimed “Communist” (who spent more than one Xmas in his banker-sister’s Central Park penthouse: embrace the contradictions) and I only momentarily regret having finally told him to “fuck the fuck off,” three years ago, because now I can’t send him, this ex-friend, who was a rabid Terrence Malick/ Badlands fan, the following item:
“A documentary about Lil Peep is reportedly on its way, executive produced by Terrence Malick. The New York Times revealed the news in a feature detailing plans for posthumous Lil Peep releases. Malick, who directed Badlands, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life, is a friend of Peep’s family, and the documentary may come with a new soundtrack too.”
Where to begin? If you know little or nothing about Malick’s Auteurist reputation, or of his work itself (after I watched the very Hollywoody Days of Heaven, which only became interesting decades later, because its narrator later appeared in the near-masterpiece Gummo, I had to reconsider how supposedly good I thought Badlands had been; Tree of Life could have been chopped up into ten really pretty commercials for The Gap) or if you haven’t heard of this cartoon pop -infection called “Lil Peep,” (yeah, I know, sorry, the poor little fucker died and everything), none of this will mean anything to you. If you know something about both cultural figures, however, the combination would seem to be slightly head-spinning, and not just because, as The AV Club puts it, “In a superficial sense, there couldn’t be a starker divide between artists like Terrence Malick and Lil Peep.” It’s because, in a deeper sense, Malick is only doing it for the money, obviously, rendering the divide between Malick and Peep not so very stark at all, and beyond the fact that we expect a creator to get paid for his/her Art, Artists who are only doing it for the money are actually Hacks.
Which judgment doesn’t include Artists who strategize, like revolutionary bandits, whoring a little in order to earn the money to afford making a labor of love (à la JLG, who once fantasized about becoming a well-paid maker of TV commercials by day while remaining a maker of commercial-culture-assaulting movies by night, a fantasy we can forgive him for having had). I, too, have been a Whore, because I wasn’t born with a trust fund. I would define a Hack as a Whore who isn’t forced to; a Whore who Whores with no higher purpose in mind, just because the money is good and sucking cock is easy. A Genuine Talent who is forced to do Hackwork, to eat, but never makes ART, on the side: I’ve never heard of this happening.
Malick, in the role of executive producer for the Lil Peep biopic, is donning his Hack hat. That clarifies things somewhat, but anyone sensitive to Art has to wonder about a culture in which Art and Hackery are so (apparently) interchangeable.
Every few years, some culture-wide Television phenomenon comes plopping down the chute and the reviews are unanimous: The Wire/ True Detective/ Deadwood/ Babylon Berlin: masterpieces! “ART!” Only, they aren’t. The production values may be high (craft) and the nudity/ language/ violence may be boundary-pushing (middlebrow porno as a populist hook) but ART it isn’t, although it may seem so to people who don’t spend a lot of time thinking seriously about ART. Dennis Potter’s 1970s-made The Singing Detective, as I’ve pointed out before, was a rare case of Television ART: a batty, high modernist opera built around the kitschy armatures of the pulp cliché of the Chandleresque Private Eye and WW2-era pop songs. The Singing Detective investigates, with wit and precision and brutal compassion, the demons called Agony, Longing, Delusion and Despair… it hits us where we are Human; where we are Meat. The distance, in vertical cultural miles, between the high point of The Singing Detective and, say, the blatantly, cornily, propagandistic Babylon Berlin, is (or should be) dizzying.
There are still social, medical and legal barriers demarcating the difference between Filipino faith healing and skilled brain surgery (I assume): where is the wide red line between the Aesthetic Sublime and time-killing Entertainments for The Sofa People? Well, I don’t need such a line and neither do you, sensitive (erudite, worldly) reader but there are those who do; those who need such guidance. There are otherwise-intelligent people who can’t tell cultural shit from Shinola (the Shinola Company no longer makes shoe polish, btw: I wonder if they’ve switched to making shit?). And no, it’s not all “purely subjective”.
What one likes or not is a matter of subjectivity, clearly, but more-or-less fixed standards of technical accomplishment, in a given discipline, are a structural feature of learning, and perfecting, the discipline: budding concert pianists practise their scales and runs and it’s perfectly easy to hear when the practise isn’t going well. If a brilliant renegade comes along to re-write the rules of the discipline, that’s fine (and exciting) but the rules of the discipline won’t be rewritten by half-assed dilettantes or cynical Hacks… whatever the average un-educated consumer of the cultural production associated with a given discipline thinks. But the scales/runs (metaphor or not) are only the beginning. The scales/runs, so painstakingly learned, become the first great obstacle for the Artist to transcend.
Why is ART so important? Because it’s the most powerful public tool/weapon/ nutrient/ beacon that we Serfs have access to; that we can make for ourselves. We can’t own TV Networks or Armies or Steel Manufacturing Plants but among us, still, are geniuses born, and in the hands of some of these geniuses, ideas become the permanent lightning of ART. Cinematic ART (eg A Clockwork Orange, Steppenwolf, Masculin/ Féminin, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Seven Beauties or The Devils of Loudon et al), like monumental sculpture, is, unfortunately, out of the pauper’s price range, but anyone can sketch, or compose a novel or a sonnet or a song or a play, on scraps of paper.
I once wrote, “Real Artists are subversive because Great Art is Inspiring and Inspired people are difficult to treat like cattle. Which is why Fake Artists and their Shitty Art are enthusiastically promoted.” Why is the Anglo-American Hegemony so suspicious/ abusive of ART? That’s why.
What is the second-most mocked noun, in Capitalist English, after “Intellectual,” but “Artist”?
** “Hitler was an Artist!” is the rallying cry of the snarky bourgeois Philistine who can’t tell the difference between crappy artfair hackwork and ART. Hitler was a Hack.
** Auctioning off great, and brilliantly ugly, German Expressionist masterpieces, by Dix or Grosz or the proto-Expressionist genius Schiele, in the same venue in which one auctions safe-as-warm-milk, salon-decorating Impressionists, is a venal attack on ART.
** Self-Expression is only ART if you’re an ARTist.
** Take away great ART from Life and what you are left with is Gray Defeat in the War between Crass Materialism and Spiritual Longing.
There are no gods, demigods, woodsprites, angels, ascended beings, Grendels, witches, sirens, curses, Higher Planes or Cosmic Truths… outside of ART. Brain-distorting chemicals and the post-1970s casualties of pseudo-spiritual Drug Culture (the psychosis-illuminated underbelly of the New Age) may claim otherwise, but when you’ve heard one old hippie, with his teeth falling out, mumble some adolescent Oh-Wowism, apropos nothing, you’ve heard them all. Drug Logic, Drug Blather: that’s not Spiritualism (Carlos Casteneda’s inauthentic peyote buttons, or the Catholic Church’s boozy consecrations, notwithstanding).
Spiritual Longing is answered and sometimes fulfilled in the contemplation of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue and Kara Walker’s My Complement, My Enemy or in the best work among the poems Emily Dickinson wrote and never expected anyone to read… and so on. Every sensitive lover of ART has her/his list… her/his worshipful moments in the private church of whatever room in which they listen to vintage Aretha, or vintage Cocteau Twins, or page through whichever spookily-funny and exalted novel (Pale Fire, say), in bed before sleep, connecting to the permanent lightning that helps us see beyond our shitty jobs or failing health or the gangrenous political processes of Empire.
But to mistake the addictive panderings of Big Budget Entertainment, which always takes the most direct and Pavlovian path to making Duh Masses laugh/cry/ejaculate/rage or scream on cue… to mistake that sort of LCD fun for ART… is to deaden your antennae, to cake them with ash and calc, to gum up the senses with residual shit from an industrial vat in a very old factory.
Is this sort of talk Elitist? Only if you think that Poor People (we Serfs) shouldn’t have ART. I think and argue the opposite: ART is the Serf’s great birthright. The ART found in the Lascaux Caves wasn’t made by some entitled mediocrity with a trust fund. Pre-Capitalist Genius met opportunity and left us with some of our oldest permanent lightning, just as happened in the Chauvet Cave, which even cinema’s greatest sell-out (aka Born Again Hack), Werner Herzog, couldn’t dim with his condescending Bavarian framing device.
ART is always, was always, under attack. Under attack from Hacks, Hack consumers and sycophants, threatened despots, bourgeois Philistines, tone-deaf hipsters, sexually deranged followers of the Desert Religions, Narcissists who resent having to cede the center-of-attention to ART, wealthy mediocrities who can’t buy Talent, media octopuses who need to trivialize ART in order to market it, the Ignorant, the Insensitive…
Defend Art, real ART, whenever you can.
Step up. Speak out.
Don’t be a pussy or time-killing Entertainments for The Sofa People is all we’ll have left.
Imagine how happy that will make The Philistines.