Televisual art

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A few words of praise for The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes’ eight-part TV series about art in the 20th century. Not that it’s ever been lacking in praise—it was lauded from the outset back in 1980—but, having read the book of the series twice, then dipped back into it on regular occasions, it occurred to me recently that I’d not seen the series itself for a very long time.

If you don’t know—and is anyone today really unaware of this?—Hughes was commissioned by the BBC and his employers at TIME magazine to travel the world presenting a history of modern art from the 1880s to the end of the 1970s. The series was part of a run of costly co-productions that flattered viewers with colour television sets (still a luxury item in the UK) while engaging the intellect; Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth established the template that Hughes was required to follow. If you have the time and the money, the globetrotting is the easy part of an enterprise such as this. Much more difficult is making sense of the increasingly fragmented development of art in a century of two world wars and rapid technological change. Hughes did this by selecting a single route of evolution for each episode, often missing out significant artists or entire movements, then winding back the clock in the following episode to trace a different route that included the neglected names. Some of them, anyway. In the introduction to the book he admits the difficulty of trying to summarise a century of complex aesthetic activity and philosophy in a mere eight hours. The book is inevitably much more thorough, making the TV series seem like a sketch beside it; but there are good sketches and bad ones, and this one is exceptional.

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Hughes had an enviable talent for lucid explanation, an ability to tell you what was important about an artist or an idiom or an artistic development in a few simple, memorable sentences, free of jargon or the obfuscation that bedevils art criticism. This is best seen in his collected reviews from TIME magazine, Nothing if Not Critical (1991), which offers bite-sized appraisals of individual artists or group shows, from the Renaissance to the present day. Difficult to do well when you’re limited to a few hundred words, near impossible when you have to explain something using a minimum of words while simultaneously talking to a camera and walking down a busy Paris street. Some of his statements, like the following one, have been lodged in my memory for years:

A Rodin in a parking lot is still a misplaced Rodin, but this in a parking lot is just bricks.

“This” being Carl Andre’s oblong of 120 firebricks, Equivalent VIII, a minimalist sculpture that caused a huff of outrage from the philistine British tabloids in the 1970s. Hughes’ comment occurs when he examines the way that galleries in the same decade became frames for creations such as Andre’s, works that wouldn’t be recognised as art without the building they were situated in.

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The explication is very familiar but I’d forgotten about all the foreign travel. This seems profligate at times although it’s only the same as David Attenborough flying to a remote jungle to film a lemur or a lizard. Paintings and sculptures seen in their natural habitats, as it were, together with the locations that inspired them: van Gogh’s Arles, Matisse’s Côte d’Azur, de Chirico’s Turin, and so on. One of the axioms of Hughes’ criticism, repeated here as elsewhere, was that art has to be studied in situ, not appraised via mediated representations, whether that means halftone dots in a book, 16mm film delivered by cathode ray tube, or a gallery website. It’s an attitude I sympathise with even though I don’t visit galleries very often. Sculptures have a physical presence that doesn’t reproduce at all, while paintings are more subtle or more dramatic or more detailed or more dimensioned when you’re standing in front of them. Piranesi’s prints are big; William Blake’s paintings are very small; Max Ernst’s engraving collages are not only smaller than you expect but they’re also toned by age; Picasso’s canvases reveal the direction his brush was travelling when he painted a line in a single stroke…

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Hughes and Complex One, an artwork that few people are allowed to visit.

Something else I’d forgotten about was the artist interviews in the later programmes, especially those with land artists Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria. The final episode in the series examines the collapse of the idea of the avant-garde, with land art being presented as work that can’t be bought by wealthy collectors or appropriated by mass media. Hughes treks into the Nevada desert to see Heizer’s Complex One which at the time was all that existed of the massive site known today as City; Walter De Maria is seen walking through The Lightning Field in New Mexico accompanied by synthesizer chords from Jean-Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe. Electronic music abounds in this series, from Peter Howell’s clanging Radiophonic theme, to extracts from albums by Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno, Music For Films being a popular choice with TV producers at the time. It’s notable that the phrase “the shock of the new” only occurs once, near the very end, possibly as a capitulation to the BBC who Hughes says chose the title for him. In a later book, Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir (2006), you’ll find another of those memorable statements:

Some new works of art have values of some kind or another. Others, the majority, have little or none. But newness as such, in art, is never a value.

I’m following this with a re-viewing of Hughes’ multi-part American Visions (1996), a history of American culture that I’ve not seen since its first broadcast. The Shock of the New is all over YouTube if you require it, also at the Internet Archive. The series took three years to create and was broadcast at 8:00pm on Sunday evenings to an audience of millions. They really don’t make them like this any more.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Robert Hughes, 1938–2012
Land art

Weekend links 601

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The Innocents (1961), one of the great cinematic ghost stories.

• “Out of the many adaptations, Jack Clayton’s [The Innocents] is considered the benchmark. The film celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, having premiered in London on the 24th of November, 1961. Considering the sheer number of competitors to Clayton’s version, it is telling of the film’s qualities that it still stands far and above its many peers. In fact, it is difficult to see James’s story without those stark black-and-white images of the film coming to mind, as well as its stunning central performance by Deborah Kerr. Suffice to say, 60 years on, James’s screen ghosts still haunt.” Adam Scovell on the many adaptations of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

• “I wanted to turn sex into art because art makes sense of life.” Jack Fritscher talks to photographer Rick Castro about gay S&M fetishes, Drummer magazine, Robert Mapplethorpe, and his BDSM porn studio, Palm Drive Video.

• “Fela was a very good human resources manager.” Lemi Ghariokwu, creator of over 2,000 album covers, talks to Nathan Evans about his time working for Fela Kuti.

I’ve been approached several times to ‘make an NFT’. So far nothing has convinced me that there is anything worth making in that arena. ‘Worth making’ for me implies bringing something into existence that adds value to the world, not just to a bank account. If I had primarily wanted to make money I would have had a different career as a different kind of person. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to be an artist. NFTs seem to me just a way for artists to get a little piece of the action from global capitalism, our own cute little version of financialisation. How sweet—now artists can become little capitalist assholes as well.

Brian Eno on the fool’s-goldrush du jour

• At Vimeo: The Snail on the Slope, a film of generative processes by Vladimir Todorovic based on the strange science-fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

• At Dangerous Minds: an exploration of Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies, “one of the most insane pieces of music ever written”.

• “This is how one ought to see, how things really are.” Ido Hartogsohn on Aldous Huxley’s mescaline experiments.

• Always an essential guide: The Wire magazine’s releases of year.

• The end of December brings us Alan Bennett’s diary at the LRB.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Ryoji Ikeda Day.

Innocenti (1992) by Brian Eno | Innocent Square [excerpt] (2011) by Christian Skjødt Hasselstrøm | First In An Innocent World (2016) by The Pattern Forms

Weekend links 600

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My kind of window. From a collection of machine-learning images by Unlimited Dream Co. Via Bruce Sterling.

• “I will never call myself a queer. That word is one of the things that I detest that has happened, and it’s almost being forced now. For me, you cannot separate that word from the hatred and violence that once accompanied it. When I read it being used in The New York Times, I think, ‘It’s their word and they can fucking have it all they want.’ I will never use ‘queer.’ It’s an ugly word.” John Rechy, still active at the age of 90, talking to Jeff Weiss about hustling, social opprobrium, and his pioneering books.

• “At a time when we are being constantly told that humanity is destroying the planet, it is somehow comforting to see nature not merely outlasting, but triumphing over humanity’s constructions—as nature does in many of Piranesi’s Views of Rome.” Alasdair Palmer on Piranesi’s peerless renderings of Roman ruins.

• “The magical aspect of Get Back is its total refusal to adhere to the standard tropes of music documentaries. There are no talking heads commenting on the Beatles’ greatness, no continual barrage of quick edits and highlights.” Geeta Dayal on Peter Jackson’s resurrection of the Fab Four.

But men are not traditionally meant to be objects of art. “Men look at women,” John Berger wrote. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” When men look at men, however, they break rules. “I didn’t set out to be radical,” says Miller. “But I was at a fair and I had a huge nude on a stand by Michael Leonard. I’d only been open ten minutes and a woman started having a go and saying it’s filth. What I found fascinating is she’d walked past a whole span of female nudes. I think society is just immune to female nudity. People don’t see it. If you take this to the straight world of an art fair, it provokes reactions other dealers don’t get. There isn’t anyone else like me.”

Tony Wilkes talks to Henry Miller, owner of an art gallery devoted to the male form

• “I imagine men with starched collars, horrified by an animal with no hard edges to grab onto, no solidity to venerate. Something low, lateral, creeping.” Fiona Glen on “Devil Fish”, Cthulhu and cephalomania.

• I like glowing things so Brian Eno’s glowing record turntable has an immediate appeal. A shame it’s a very limited production which is almost certainly sold out by now.

• The next release on the Ghost Box label will be A Letter from TreeTops by Pneumatic Tubes.

• At Dangerous Minds: A Sight for Sore Eyes Vol. 1, a visual history of The Residents.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine on the supernatural thrillers of Archie Roy.

• Mix of the week: A reflection on 2021 at A Strangely Isolated Place.

Swan River Press looks back over a year of book production.

• New music: Spherical Harmonics by Joseph Hyde.

Octopus’s Garden (1969) by The Beatles | The Kraken (2006) by Hans Zimmer | Kraken (2017) by Dave Clarkson

Weekend links 582

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Illustration by Gustave Doré from L’Espagne (1874) by Jean Charles Davillier.

• Warp Records has announced the forthcoming publication of Atmospherics by Jon Hassell, a short book collecting the diary extracts, composition notes and other ephemera that Jon compiled as an evolving appendix for his website. I was involved with the first iteration of the Atmospherics when we were working on his site in 2004, and for me this section was always the most interesting part of the project, comprising unique, personal material. The book will be published in October.

• “Almost everything in his book would be dismissed by today’s streaming behemoths as ‘too quirky, too local, too slow, too dry, too difficult, too weird’.” Sukhdev Sandhu reviewing The Magic Box, a history of British TV from the 1950s to the 1980s by Rob Young.

• New music: Cobalt Desert Oasis by Marco Shuttle, Angel’s Flight (AD 93) by Biosphere, and The Shildam Hall Tapes: The Falling Reverse by Stephen Prince, a sequel to an earlier release by A Year In The Country which includes an accompanying novella.

• Mix of the week, month and year: Sentimental Ornament: A Broadcast Rarities Mix by Aquarium Drunkard. First posted almost a year ago, I only discovered it last week; Aquarium Drunkard is now added to my RSS feed to avoid further neglect.

• I didn’t post anything for Bloomsday this year but if I’d seen these caricatures by Craig Morriss back in June I would have linked to them at the time.

• At Unquiet Things: The Eerie Moods and Pulpy Frights of Henri Lievens.

• Whole lotta rarities: the strangest Led Zeppelin artwork.

• Old music: A Willow Swept By Train by Janet Beat.

Instant Lettering Database

Atmospheres (1967) by Wimple Winch | Atmospheric Lightness (2018) by Brian Eno | Ligeti: Atmosphères (2019) by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France; Alan Gilbert

The Gate to the Mind’s Eye

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Turn a 6 on its head and you’ll see a number 9. Do the same with the psychedelic culture of the 1960s and you get the 1990s when psychedelia emerged again, after a fashion, in a profusion of new drugs (plus the same old ones), “ambient” music (a lot of which was never very ambient at all), and, of course, computer graphics. The resemblance of the overlit, weightless world of early computer graphics to the vivid inner landscapes of psychedelic hallucination prompted people like Timothy Leary to declare computers to be their new drug of choice, while also inspiring the resurrection of the kind of visual tripping aid that would have been considered dead and buried in the very un-psychedelic 1980s. (There were a few musical exceptions in that decade—the Paisley Underground, the Dukes of Stratosphear albums, Around The World In A Day by Prince & The Revolution—but all these were counter to the dominant trends of the time.)

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CD-ROMS were the hippest vehicle for far-out visuals in the mid-90s. Brian Eno was vocal in his criticism of the limitations of the point-and-click CD-ROM format but he still provided music for a thing called Headcandy in 1994, one of a series of “video kaleidoscopes” with 3-D visuals created by Chris Juul and Doug Jipson. Not so overtly druggy was a series of VHS tapes and laserdiscs released throughout the 1990s by Odyssey Productions, all of which had the words “Mind’s Eye” in their titles: The Mind’s Eye: A Computer Animation Odyssey (1990), Beyond the Mind’s Eye (1992), The Gate to the Mind’s Eye (1994) and Odyssey Into The Mind’s Eye (1996). Where Headcandy and its relations created far-out visuals using original data encoded on a CD-ROM, the Mind’s Eye laserdiscs wowed the viewer by stitching together the latest examples of CGI from a variety of sources—showreels, TV ads, music videos and so on—giving you an hour of coloured balls bouncing across crystal mountains, pulsating blobs of mercury, shiny objects zooming through corridors and vortices, together with the clumsy figure animation that’s a consistent feature of early computer graphics. Each instalment was provided with a soundtrack by a different musician, so each release is really a long music video in itself, rather like The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (Patterns & Textures) (1992), a 50-minute collage of rave footage, dolphins, spacewalking astronauts and cheap video effects soundtracked by live music from The Orb.

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The Gate to the Mind’s Eye is highlighted here mainly for its having a soundtrack by Thomas Dolby that I hadn’t heard before. Other instalments feature original music by Jan Hammer (which may be okay), and Kerry Livgren from Kansas (which promises to be as unpalatable as Giorgio Moroder’s misconceived mauling of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). The Gate to the Mind’s Eye doesn’t feature the best of Dolby’s music, it should be said, which may explain why the soundtrack CD has only been reissued once since 1994, while the visual material looks like a combination of music video and computer game. But there’s a lot of this stuff around today, especially at the Internet Archive which now has a laserdisc section containing several uploads from Odyssey Productions and its affiliate, Miramar Productions. Closer to the psychedelic ideal is a series of discs from Japan with the uninventive name of Video Drug. The Internet Archive has five discs from this series. I might have been happy to watch these in the 1990s when late-night TV in the UK was either dull or non-existent but today I’m more taken with outmoded things like Electric Light Voyage aka Ascent 1, a video release from 1979 which featured analogue video effects of a type you don’t find at all in the digital world.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The abstract cinema archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, a film by Jud Yalkut
Science Friction by Stan VanDerBeek