art and self-restraint: the work of david shrigley

I laughed a little when I found this drawing on the website for David Shrigley, a Glasgow-based artist.

There’s not much to it, but for some reason it’s funny. Also a little unsettling. I realized I was laughing not so much because it’s comedic (though it might be) but because it’s absurd. There’s hardly anything in the drawing, yet it succeeds as a complete work, whole in itself: are we being watched? Should we be afraid that we’re being watched? Should we laugh at the fact that we’re afraid of being watched? Shrigley could have included more in the way of subject – the figure of a person, a building – but would doing so have improved the work itself? He must not have thought so. And I agree, though I’m still intrigued by the reason why he must not have thought so.

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Why I Hate the Avant-Garde, part 1

[Update: Part 2 is here]

Re: Greg’s most recent post on the term “avant-garde”—I’ve already discussed this somewhat here, here and here, but to recap:

  1. The term’s early 19th-century Socialist origins have mostly been forgotten. And that’s fine—language changes—but, personally, I find it deliciously perverse that the original Avant-Gardists, the Impressionists, essentially stole the term from Socialists, for use as a marketing term.
  2. It seems to me that anyone who wants to use the term today—especially if they want to use it to refer to some progressive art that’s free from any capitalist influence—would have to account for that history.
  3. People mostly don’t, though. Instead, they just use it interchangeably with terms like “experimental” and “unusual” and “innovative.” I consider this conflation very wrong-headed, not to mention not all that useful.
  4. For one thing, it assumes an incorrect model of how art and innovation actually proceed. It begins by positing that there’s a single conservative high art world, which follows a long and noble yet conservative tradition, and that there’s a single low art world, which is popular and commercial (i.e., crass). And then it assumes that there’s a small band of daring creative pioneers, huddled in some corner of the culture somewhere, who pass all artistic innovation to both the highs and the lows. (It’s the art world version of Reaganomics.)

I don’t truck with any of that. I think it’s important to remember history (even as it changes); I think it’s important to be as clear as possible in one’s terminology; and I regret any and all myopic views of the culture. (Not to mention, the notion of the avant-garde is rather elitist and racist: it posits a view of history in which all innovation flows from middle- and upper-class white folks.)

One need only look at recent music history to put the lie to the term “avant-garde.” Today Facebook showed me the following ad:

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What’s So New about New Wave?


Vanity Fair, August 2008 (cover).

I’ve outlined some of the following in my Looking at Movements series of posts (more of which are forthcoming), but here I want to examine the New Wave tradition exclusively, and from a different direction. I’m increasingly fascinated by how that simple two-word term has been used over the past 50 years to describe so many different trends and styles, some of which have been fairly disparate. It’s a label that’s really traveled, and hasn’t finished moving yet.

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Looking at Movements, part 1: The Post-Punk Revival

Part 1: The Post-Punk Revival
Part 2: Post-Punk
Part 3: No Wave
Part 4: New Wave (UK)
Part 5: New Wave (US)

This is the start of an ongoing series, in which I’ll examine two long-running interests of mine: 1) the concept of the art movement (and related issues like “scenes” and “the zeitgeist”), and 2) how the culture-at-large is not all that homogeneous, but rather braided together from numerous different subcultures, each following their own individual traditions, which sometimes overlap with one another, but often don’t.

Since we have to start somewhere, let’s start with Interpol, as they have a new record out (but let’s look at an earlier song and video, since no one seems to like the new stuff):

“Obstacle 1,” 2002, directed by Floria Sigismondi

Interpol formed in 1997, and became widely known when its members signed to Matador in 2002. Since then, the band’s been associated with the “post-punk revival” (PPR) of the early 2000s, its fellow travelers being bands like Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and The Strokes.

But how similar is Interpol, actually, to those other bands?

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What Is Experimental Art?

Edgar Degas, "Les Danseuses Bleues" (1890)

One typically hears unusual art called three different things, often interchangeably:

  • Innovative
  • Avant-Garde
  • Experimental

But what do these three words mean? Do they mean the same thing? I don’t think so, and in this post I’ll point out some basic differences between them. I’ll also define what I think experimental art essentially is, and how such art operates.

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Art’s Morality (A Reading of William H. Gass’s “The Artist and Society”)

Mike Allred's such a prankster.

Formalists are often accused of ignoring art’s morality, as well as its other social aspects. (Of course, artists are often faced with the same accusation—hence the logic by which legislators divert money toward math and the sciences. Whatever strange thing it is that the artist contributes to the culture, it is at best of secondary importance.)

In my last post, I tried to make clear that social value in fact formed the very center of the work done by Viktor Shklovsky and the other Russian Formalists:

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