nydwracu niþgrim, nihtbealwa mæst

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Posts Tagged ‘suburbs

Twee: the aesthetic of the last man

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It’s not just Weird Twitter.

In the story of the emperor’s new clothes, tediously referenced by every internet commenter who wants to pretend that not liking something popular is somehow ennobling, the lone truth-teller is a little boy. Rousseau lionised childhood as an all-too-brief sanctuary from the big bad world. Wordsworth, much like Chris King (27 & 3/4), believed the child was “Might prophet! Seer blest!” He, too, might have allowed a three-year-old to rename his bread. But Innocentese didn’t appear in the late 90s out of a vacuum and I think the ground was laid, at least in part, by indie culture.

In the mid-80s, indie bands like Beat Happening in the US and the C86 scene in the UK employed a childlike aesthetic as a form of resistance to dominant cultural trends. In place of slick professionalism and expensive overproduction, chaotic amateurism. In place of exaggerated sexuality, puritanical sexlessness. In place of glossy “lies”, painful sincerity. In place of adulthood, essentially, a magically extended childhood. One could note with some discomfort that the pop culture being opposed, though identified with corporate America, was driven by working-class black people, but in the heyday of Thatcherism and Reaganomics the “twee” approach was still a valid form of rejection. [No it wasn’t.]

A generation of factory-farmed autists reject the outside world as too challenging once the hermetic seal is broken, regressing to a made-up childhood, idealizing its clueless and confused point of view and its mass-marketed aesthetic, hoping to extend the seal of age segregation always just a bit longer, until they’re 40, they can’t get away with working at coffee shops and reading avant-garde transgressive poetry over a four-chord ukulele backing anymore, and either they’ve hit the wall or college girls won’t fuck them anymore.

If you’ve been around Hoxton Square lately – as unpromising a start to an article as you’re likely to see this year, I know, but bear with me – you’ve probably noticed several billboards displaying short poems in LEDs. These texts are the work of Scottish conceptual artist Robert Montgomery. Now, it’s unlikely that one expects much of the art which emanates from this part of N1 to endure, but, although they’ve only been around for a few weeks, Montgomery’s pieces seem unusually haunted by suggestions of imminent datedness. The most prominent, above the door of host gallery KK Outlet, reads:


Describing precisely what’s so grating about this is tough. Broadly, though, it’s the insincere stab at starry-eyed ingenuousness which comes to the fore particularly, though not exclusively, in the saccharine metaphor, fridge-magnet capitalisation, and exaggeratedly remedial punctuation. It’s bad enough that supermarkets will rename products to please the demands of annoyingly precocious three-year-olds, a symptom of the current ubiquity of twee tropes in marketing, without self-declaredly radical art getting in on the nicey-nicey act.

‘Radical’ is how Montgomery styles himself. Interviewed in the Independent recently, he recounted how Situationism had been a “point of obsession” for him since his art school days. Situationism, to offer a – very – brief summary, was a 60s strand of French post-Marxism which proposed that consumer capitalism reduced all experience to mere spectacle, diminishing the individual’s capacity for self-realisation and mediating all encounters with the external world. In Montgomery’s usefully concise précis, the movement’s figurehead Guy Debord sought to describe “a society where we live divorced from real life, surrounded by images designed to sell us things and give us paranoia”.

Artistic responses to Situationism’s theorising have attempted to undermine the spectacle in order to provoke a radical questioning of the everyday, an act which might serve as the beginning of some form of return to ‘real life’.

Of course, they fail. The left, marinating in the stomach juices of neoliberalism, still doesn’t realize it’s been eaten!—that it forms a demographic for companies to market to, a subculture for companies to jump on the status-structure of, and a false opposition, thoroughly neutered by that which it claims to oppose, turned into a mere demographic, a mere subculture, a mere move in the great American game of maintaining status in the torrent of pop-culture change.

It’s this trend that leads you to wonder if Montgomery doesn’t really know his enemy. As another of the billboards shows, his is effectively a black-and-white world in which the moral failures of capitalism can be corrected by simply sending the archetypal city bloke back to the land: ‘YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO LOOK AT THE SKY AGAIN, YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO EAT FOOD THAT GROWS WHERE YOU LIVE AGAIN.’ If only it were so simple. Oppositions between belligerently acquisitive urban capitalism and an idealised pastoral ignore the new set-up, in which everybody seems to want to repudiate modernity in favour of some long-lost innocence and ease.

The target is no longer capitalism, imperialism, or anything else, but the absence of the seal. Douglas Adams, as always, is the prophet of our age:

The planet Krikkit is located in a dust cloud composed chiefly of the disintegrated remains of the enormous spaceborne computer Hactar. … Due to the dust cloud, the sky above Krikkit was completely black, and thus the people of Krikkit led insular lives and never realised the existence of the Universe. … Upon first witnessing the glory and splendor of the Universe, they casually, whimsically, decided to destroy it, remarking, “It’ll have to go.”

Hence the demographics of these movements: hopelessly confused suburbanites fresh out of college, clueless and jobless, wanting only to be back in high school, to be commanded, to be told by the melonheads that drift in smelling meat for their puppetry what is right and what is wrong, how to act and what to like. Twee is our Juche; it is the expression of the same underlying human factors that motivate the single-minded ‘minders’ in North Korea, watered down by the postmodern half-death of the metanarrative into a confused and anti-intellectual posture of prelapsarianism, a jumble of feigned childlike wonder and hate of all that is different. Difference is confusing; difference is challenging; difference prevents the twee-leftist from getting precisely what she wants, and therefore she must hate it, she must pray to the media to push PSAs, to the city Vogons to count all that is insufficiently thedish as a crime against fashion or peace. The goal is to maximize comfort, nothing else—exactly as Nietzsche predicted. Behold, I show you the last man!

“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” Thus asks the last man, and he blinks.

The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest.

“We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.

Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.

One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.

No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was mad,” say the most refined, and they blink.

One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled—else it might spoil the digestion.

One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.

“We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink.

All that Nietzsche failed to predict was the Yankees, colonizers to the very end, who largely refused to leave the cities, the places most complicated and most filled with potential, but instead set about building dystopia right there where they were, in the heart of confusion and the womb of much now-aborted greatness. Vogon neo-Puritans with public shaming campaigns and exclusivity reserved only for themselves are no strangers to hate; no, hate is a bonding mechanism, hate is the glue that holds them together and the foundation on which their narcissistic egos are built. Hate is what makes them feel alive, what makes them feel healthy and active without being either; hate is the heroin the Kurt Cobains of the suburban age inject into their veins, pushing ever larger needles through sacks of fat and sclerotic fuck-you postures playing at mimicry of the rural self-defense mechanisms Mencken mocked in true Yankee form. The twee and grunge aesthetics—two sides of a coin, as their frequent comorbidity shows—are nothing but attempts by hyper-Brahmin suburbanites to escape the world their ideological ancestors created and return to a sick, self-conscious, and intolerably intolerant totalitarianism marching ever onward to left singularity.

Thede separatism with the world as their country. “Earth is ours! Eternal comfort for every convert, and to hell with all the others!” May they find their place and never preach outside it.

The world is a large and complicated place, and it ought to stay that way.

Written by nydwracu

April 28, 2013 at 10:55


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