Guest post today by my friend, writer, film maker and photographer Samuel Webster. The Sydney Dance Company recently performed the show 2 One Another, an interpretation of Samuel’s poetry.
Just to demonstrate how current we are on Sheep, I note that the prestigious Salon.com published on this topic JUST A MERE FEW MOMENTS AGO.
Over to Samuel:
It’s been three months since my last collaboration opened at the Sydney Theatre, and I’ve talked a lot about it. I had been working with Rafael Bonachela and Sydney Dance Company on 2 One Another, and before it hit the stage, I had to do the usual rounds of media to promote and discuss the show. I’ve never minded doing interviews – I don’t find it a grind – because I enjoy talking about my work. Part of that is pure egotism, I’m sure, but I think there’s something more to it. Personally, I think I’m still finding the ‘mythology’ which pop artist Momus has referred to in his own work.
That mythology is part method and part a system of thought. The latter is such that even as I write this, the first time I have done so since undertaking the task of writing poetry for dancers, I find it evolving. It is the system of thought, beyond technique, which gives an individual artist some style. It’s that system which allows me to feel comfortable promoting myself as a film maker and poet, a photographer and painter. Because it sits above the technique and medium and informs the message.
It is this state of mind that I took into the studio. Without it, a poet working with dancers might turn out to be as strange as it sounds. By adapting myself as someone who represents and interprets, and forgetting the technical element with which I do so, I feel that I can work in any scenario based in impulse response. It is for this reason that none of the interviews filed about the show refer to the technical. Though I have made some effort to describe the kind of output that the process created, that was not the focus of the work. The focus of the work was always about building that mythology, contained and centralised in the dance studio, to inform the creation of abstract work. It is my firm belief that, unlike other forms of art, modern dance would cease to exist if it let go of the necessity for mythology. For me, contemporary dance’s means of representation is far too abstract to sustain without some grander consideration. Working with Rafael Bonachela may have spoiled me on this fact, because he is a very intelligent choreographer who has almost completely succumbed to the whimsy of such ‘mythological’ elements, yet has the technical ability to back it up. In fact, he is one of the artists I aspire to be like for this reason. I have not yet found the place where I can surrender to those elements, though I suspect that is part of an artist’s ongoing development. This is not to say that I wish to find my place in complete abstraction, but rather, I would like to train myself in a method which mythologises the real.
Reality is the catalyst for abstract expression – it is the anchor for grander ideas. Over the last few years, I’ve found myself strangely enamoured by work which finds itself in reality. Like Billy Collins naming the silence between himself and his dead father, or the way modern poets experiment with Twitter as a social medium of brevity. These are intellectual rich endeavours, yet sit in a plain of reality I find comforting. However, the appeal of such things has the by-product of leading me away from the simple enjoyment of the popular. Pop music is the first casualty, but film is sure to follow as I sink deeper into the comfort of pretence.
That dreaded term, ‘pretentious’, seems now to be the empty dismissal of anything lacklustre to which effort seems to have been applied. Indeed, even engaging with it is likely to have me branded likewise. Nevertheless, I don’t see any reason to shy away from an idea for the sake of avoiding marginalisation.
It seems that the term ‘pretentious’ is the cry of the less engaged when feeling forced to think beyond the pure aesthetic of a piece of art. Why does that drive me away from pop culture? Because, those who really engage with the genre can come to one of two ends:
- Pop culture is naturally, and intentionally, devoid of meaning.
- Pop culture is unaware of the triviality of the tropes it propagates.
Pop musicians and blockbuster directors don’t guide us either way, because a belief in either direction requires conviction to the cause. Admitting superficiality could be a death knell for an artist who has been perceived otherwise.
So, instead of degrade a genre which the majority enjoys, we say that ”art has changed” and the art which refuses to change is “pretentious.” The term pretence literally refers to the act of intentional deception. But by that virtue, all art is pretentious, because even the furthest attempts at portraying reality are not without some form of deception. This is not a bad thing, because deception (a magician’s disappearing act) is not the same as insincerity (a loaded roulette wheel). Pretence seems necessary to me, so ‘pretentious’ as a term should not be used to degrade cerebral art.
Additionally, the notion of Art evolving into Pop Culture we see today is patently false. If anything, art has split into Intentional Art and Entertainment, and it did so because people engaged in the Entertainment business hijacked it with considerable amounts of money.
Perhaps, we could redefine the way we refer to the cultural landscape: ‘Art’ could refer to the use of a medium to bring about a point of some philosophical or intellectual statement or engagement; ‘Culture’, the repetition of specific tropes within a society which promote engagement and work toward some form of identifiable structure; ‘Entertainment’, is the use of a creative medium to fascinate and engage without aspiration to a developing consciousness. Instead of just accepting that the modern world’s concept of art is preoccupied with nightclubs and the hedonistic exploits therein, why not establish pop music as entertainment and deconstruct it through aesthetics instead of philosophical arguments?
Of course, none of this is particularly new, though we have more and more platforms on which to discuss it. In 1988, Momus released “Tender Pervert”, a stand out track of which claims: “Whenever I played my protest songs, the press applauded me, rolled out the red carpet and parted the red sea. But the petit bourgeois philistines stayed away. They preferred their artists to have nothing to say.” (I Was a Maoist Intellectual)
If the music industry claims to be interested in art, why did people call for censorship when Sinead O’Connor tore an image of the Pope on national television? Why is such an act not standard fare?
A year after releasing Tender Pervert, Momus responded to the accusation that he could be considered pretentious with this: “You’ve got to have a mythology, a set of ideas to live by. Otherwise you have to get your ideas from News at 10 or Brookside or something. Pretentious – okay, I’ve read a couple of books in my time, because I was lonely and had nothing better to do on a Friday night than read Nabokov. I would probably have preferred to go down to the Stretton discotheque and boogie down, but that’s not the way my life turned out.”
To consider the pretence of something is like breaking apart the “technical playground” of the Ferris Wheel. Sure, knowledge of physics isn’t a requirement to enjoy the ride, but the manipulation of that knowledge, on the engineer’s behalf, is key.
The problem with conflating pretence and insincerity is simple. What should be niche, high order thinking, is dismissed because of some consideration that says an aspiration toward intelligence cannot occur without some level of arrogance. This way of thinking implies that the intellect exists only for perpetuating elitism, when it is more frequently the case that art aims to destroy the bourgeois, not strengthen it. In fact, if there’s anything that perpetuates the elite, it’s the pop music industry which profits hugely while paying artists a pittance.
With lovers of entertainment judging the progression of art, it seems that the only way to avoid the cry of arrogance seems to be to shoot for the middle-ground. This is the problem with bundling the arts and entertainment together. It is a bundling which places soviet war anthems alongside UK dance hits. The genre matches but the intention, reception and intellectual potential differ. Sadly, funding is also lumped together in this way, such that $1 million dollars for the rights to Annie is quoted, alongside grants for new opera, dance and theatrical works, as ‘funding for the arts’ when they are quite different in form.
My next project is to shoot images in Tuscany, to experiment with the concept of memory and history and clashing nostalgias. Is this pretentious? Of course. It is an engagement with a localised mythology, defined by geography and constrained by medium. Without a doubt, the focus will be intentional and the colour balance deliberately manipulated. To lose the mythology would be to turn myself over to pure aestheticism and publish only those images which matched the generic representation of Italy. There may be those who have no need for deeper considerations than this but, for me, that is not art; it is entertainment. I have no wish to be an entertainer.
Read more about Samuel Webster here.
SAMUEL’S NEXT PROJECT, BELLA TOSCANA, IS PUBLICLY FUNDED IN EXCHANGE FOR REWARDS FROM THE PHOTOGRAPHIC SERIES. VISIT THE PROJECT PAGE ON POZIBLE FOR MORE INFORMATION