Weekend links 257

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The Nine of Swords by Pamela Colman Smith, and the same card from The Ghetto Tarot, a Haitian deck created by photographer Alice Smits and Haitian art group Atis Rezistans.

Almost four months after the murders in Paris, Charlie Hebdo continues to be problematic, to use a common epithet. The “p” word occurs with such frequency in current discussions about offence—and those discussions so often seem like a secular version of old religious arguments, with Manichean forces pitted against each other, and the same schisms, heresies and witch hunts—that I’ve taken to translating “problematic” as “sinful”. Charlie Hebdo is nothing if not a heretical text even if many of those pronouncing on its heresies have never read a copy. Back in January I was confident that we’d be seeing a great deal of equivocation (if not outright victim-blaming) when people began to look closely at the magazine, or at least read hasty appraisals of its contents. You didn’t have to be a psychic to predict any of this because the equivocations are merely the current manifestation of a familiar syndrome. This week’s authorial objections about PEN America honouring Charlie Hebdo have led to a reiteration of the grumblings we heard in January: “Yes, of course, we condemn the violence but…” But, what? “But, it’s a sinful publication…”(This piece by one of the PEN objectors in the LRB is typical.) Publication liberties, which in the UK are more constrained than in the US, are apparently best championed for the virtuous (the responsible, the respectful, etc), not the sinful. In 1963 “Yes, but…” equivocations about freedom of speech were being deployed in the letters page of the Times Literary Supplement with worthies such as Victor Gollancz and Edith Sitwell wondering why it was necessary to defend a deplorable book like The Naked Lunch; in 1992 I sat in a courtroom watching a judge make similar comments when grudgingly overturning an obscenity ruling against David Britton’s Lord Horror novel. The same judge then upheld the obscenity charge against Britton & Guidio’s Meng & Ecker comic which he regarded as trashier fare, “luridly bound” and containing “pictures that will be repulsive to right-thinking people”.

So much for old arguments. Jodie Ginsberg at Index on Censorship goes into some detail about the PEN kerfuffle in a piece entitled “I believe in free expression, but…”; Justin EH Smith for Harper’s says:

I heard from [friends and equals] countless variations on the banality that “violence is always wrong.” How did I know that this judgment, though perfectly true in itself, was only a banality, the expression of a sentiment that had little to do with pacifism? By the clockwork predictability of the “but” that always followed.”

Kenan Malik, who writes a great deal about these issues (his new book is The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics) posted a statement from Jo Glanville from English PEN, and a lengthy piece by Leigh Phillips. This affair will rumble on.

• More sinful material: Samuel R. Delany’s Hogg is a novel so transgressive/offensive that it took 26 years to find a publisher. You seldom see any mention of the book when Delany’s work is being discussed, especially in prudish SF circles, but Dennis Cooper’s blog ran a retrospective feature about it this week. Caveat lector. Related: Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany is looking for crowdfunding.

• “[Judy] Oppenheimer relates that Jackson kept a library of over two hundred books on witchcraft, and her interest in the subject was not purely academic.” Martyn Wendell Jones on Shirley Jackson.

The Satyr and Other Tales, a collection by Stephen J. Clark, the title story of which is “inspired by the life and ethos of sorcerer and artist Austin Osman Spare”.

• Mixes of the week: Bacchus Beltane 2: The Mists of Avalon by The Ephemeral Man, and The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. VI by David Colohan.

Boy and his SIR: BDSM and the Queer Family, a photo series by Kevin Warth, and Xteriors II, a photo series by Desiree Dolron.

• The Quest for Stenbock: David Tibet talks to Strange Flowers about his obsession with the eccentric Count.

Dark Star: HR Giger’s World is a documentary about the artist by Belinda Sallin.

1 in 3 Impressions, a free EP of Moog music by M. Geddes Gengras.

The rise and fall of the codpiece

Blade Runner Reality

Some Weird Sin (1977) by Iggy Pop | Sin In My Heart (1981) by Siouxsie and The Banshees | It’s A Sin (1987) by Pet Shop Boys

Dissent

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If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.

Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992)

Terrorists don’t care about rights or laws so any debate about freedom of speech isn’t directed at them. I’d be more encouraged by the show of solidarity for dead cartoonists if I didn’t believe that many of those currently declaring their support will continue burning up social media in the next few months with demands that something be banned or stopped. We live in censorious times. Censorship (or the urge to see it enforced) never disappears, it migrates along with whatever happens to be taboo to current generations. In the 1970s much of the heat was around sexual content; today it’s predominantly about identity politics. Whatever the provocation, the results are the same: angry people step forward with a demand that something be forbidden. Last September a showing at the Barbican in London of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B was cancelled after a petition and a demonstration outside the venue. Bonnie Greer wanted to make up her own mind but she didn’t get the opportunity:

These people largely reacted from hearsay, ideology, photos and the reactions of others who had seen it—not their own experience. I’ve seen people like this before, self-appointed judges, roaming the internet in search of what displeases and offends them. One protester went so far as to issue an absurd analysis of the possible psychological damage Exhibit B could cause the actors involved. It was ignorant and insulting psychobabble.

I don’t want to be stopped from seeing a work because, in their opinion, it’s “inappropriate”, “incorrect” or “racist”—words which are, at best, moveable feasts. I want to think for myself.

You’ll be seeing more movable feasts in the next few days when Anglophone commenters begin to discover that Charlie Hebdo was a full-spectrum offender rather like my colleagues at Savoy Books. When David Britton’s novel Lord Horror was being subject to Crown Court disapproval in 1992 The Independent wrote a prissy editorial complaining that the novel and a death metal album by Dismember were hardly worth the trouble of defending. These things weren’t art, they were trash, something that one of the UK comics mags (I forget which one) also complained about when discussing the Meng & Ecker prosecution. You can defend the principle of freedom of speech (or art) without agreeing with anything that’s being said, but for some people this often seems to be a step too far. Lord Horror escaped the obscenity charge thanks to Geoffrey Robertson QC but Meng & Ecker didn’t (comics being deemed trashier than novels by the court); my artwork for Hard Core Horror #5 was deemed obscene three years later in a separate trial in which Savoy were also declared to be unworthy of trial by jury because they were “not a bona fide publisher”. We don’t have a freedom of speech defence in Britain which is why history continues to repeat itself.

In the end all discussion about censorship comes down to this: who decides what is art and what is trash, what should be defended and what should be thrown to the dogs (or the gunmen)? You? Me? The Pope? Some guy in a ski-mask? Is freedom of speech only for the responsible people, for you and your friends? Or does it also apply to the irresponsible, the contentious, the trashy and the downright offensive? If freedom isn’t for everyone then someone, somewhere is willing to decide it’s not for you.

Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet

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Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet of the 1920s is one of the more famous products of the Bauhaus movement, a radical reinvention of the medium which encased the dancers in cumbersome costumes. The outfits and stage designs are familiar from Bauhaus histories but you’re less likely to see an actual performance, something that’s possible with this 30-minute film made in 1970. The ballet is in three acts: yellow, pink and black. Erich Ferstl wrote the music for the filmed reconstruction by Margarete Hasting, the original score by Paul Hindemith being lost.

The ballet has additional interest for me in having influenced part of the Reverbstorm book. Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus logo is reworked in the opening and closing pages together with other Bauhaus-derived graphics, but I also looked at Schlemmer’s ballet costumes when I was planning the final section which required a stylised transformation of Lord Horror. In the end I used a sketch by one of Schlemmer’s pupils, Klaus Barthelmess, for the Horror figure but the Barthelmess drawing was also of a dancer, and is very similar to some of Schlemmer’s designs, especially the silver-headed robot-like figures that appear in the black section of the ballet.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Reverbstorm: Bauhaus Horror

The Use and Abuse of Books

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Savoy • Savoy • Savoy: The first wave of book covers pinned to the Beardsley wallpaper of the Deansgate office.

I often feel I’m in a minority in never having been desperate to see my work in a gallery. We are, after all, living in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (thanks, Walter), and the idea of having to visit a physical location in order to see a work of art can seem like a rather antiquated affair. (Plenty of arguments counter this, of course, but I don’t create anything that needs to be experienced in situ, and I’m also not enmeshed in the art market.) So it’s been surprising this month to realise that examples of my work are currently on display in Monterey, California (the Tentacles exhibition), London (Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK at the British Library which ends today) and in Manchester (The Exhibition Centre for the Use and Abuse of Books at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation). If all goes according to plan, some of my steampunk book covers will also be exhibited in Beijing next month; more about that later.

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Britton & Butterworth by Kris Guidio (1986).

The Use and Abuse of Books is a necessarily brief overview of the 40-year history of Savoy Books, a notable moment in the life of the company since this is the first time any Manchester institution has acknowledged the existence of a local publisher with such a long, varied and often controversial history. In part this is a result of the cultural histories of Manchester concentrating almost exclusively on the music scene. Many of the books and features written about Manchester arts have been produced by DJs or ex-musicians who appear tone-deaf to literary culture despite the existence of Carcanet Press (established 1969), Savoy Books, and other more recent publishers who are happy to operate outside London. (The venerable Jon Savage gets a pass here.) Carping aside, The Use and Abuse of Books describes itself thus:

Featuring text, images and rare promotional content from Savoy’s infamous 1989 publication Lord Horror, the exhibition tackles the question of whether the depiction and description of horrific acts is justified in satire. In 1992 Lord Horror was declared by Judge Gerrard Humphries as ‘a glorification of racism and violence’ whereas writer Michael Moorcock believed the book to belong to ‘a tradition of lampoon, of exaggeration. Its purpose is to show up social evils, and the evils within ourselves.’ Displaying artwork from Sinister Legends and Meng and Ecker alongside other panels from rare comics and graphic novels (including Reverbstorm), The Use and Abuse of Books also examines the relationship between text and imagery within Savoy’s publications, revealing how artwork from John Coulthart, Kris Guidio and James Cawthorn supplements and enhances the storytelling through visual references to architecture, cultural figures or specific works of art. The exhibition will be open 10am–4pm weekdays and in the evenings during events from Friday 15th August until Friday 5th September. (more)

Some of my pages from Lord Horror: Reverbstorm have been printed large-size for the walls, and there’s also a life-size cardboard figure of my Beardsley-style Lord Horror. Savoy publications past and present are on display, including some of my book designs. It’s fitting that this should be taking place under the aegis of the Anthony Burgess Foundation; Burgess was a great Joycean and a champion of two Savoy favourites: William Burroughs and JG Ballard. I can’t imagine him getting too enthusiastic about many of Savoy’s publications but I’d hope he might have appreciated the spirit of Mancunian bloody-mindedness in which they were produced.

Weekend links 216

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Why Do The Heathen Rage? (2014) by The Soft Pink Truth. Cover art by Mavado Charon.

Drew Daniel’s latest release as The Soft Pink Truth is Why Do The Heathen Rage?, a witty electronic riposte to the often reactionary attitudes of black metal music and the people who create it. (The album is dedicated to Magne Andreassen, a gay man stabbed to death by the drummer from Emperor.) Dorian Lynskey talked to Daniel about queering the metal world, as did Angus Finlayson at FACT. Daniel’s project has been receiving press everywhere but you wouldn’t know it to read US/UK gay news sites where the music coverage is relentlessly narrow and insular. To date, only BUTT magazine has mentioned Why Do The Heathen Rage? but then BUTT have always stood apart from their parochial contemporaries. Never mind, here’s another fucking article about “petite pop princess” Kylie Minogue.

• “By the letter of the law, Ulysses was obscene. Obviously, gratuitously, relentlessly obscene.” Josh Cook on censorship and dangerous books. One of my own dangerous publications, the fifth issue of the Lord Horror comics series, Hard Core Horror (declared obscene in a UK court in 1995), received a very belated review at The Comics Journal. More censorship: Judy Bloom on the perennial panics in US school libraries. Lest we feel superior to American prudery, Leena McCall’s painting of a semi-naked woman caused some consternation in a London gallery last week.

• “Over and over, we’re told that nobody buys [compact discs] anymore.” Steven Hyden on the latest obituaries being written for a music format. Ten years ago the death of vinyl was being confidently predicted: “The physical presence of the popular song is gone,” Paul Morley declared. Related: The death of mp3s.

There is nothing quite like Maryanne Amacher’s third ear music. It is alarming. Some of her fellow artists never quite believed that their ears were not being damaged. Third ear music invades you, wraps inside your body, your head, your eyes — just like she says. You can’t be sure, after a while, if the sounds you hear are those created by your ears or Maryanne Amacher.

Stefany Anne Golberg on the music of Maryanne Amacher

• At Dangerous Minds: Nothing Lasts Forever (1984), Bill Murray in a “lost sci-fi comedy set in a totalitarian New York City”.

• More Joyce (there’s always more Joyce): Humument Images to Accompany James Joyce’s Ulysses by Tom Phillips.

• Another celebration of Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin, and another reminder that it’s still not available on DVD.

• Stairway to Heaven: Atlas Obscura on the Gustave Moreau Museum, an essential stop if you visit Paris.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 121 by Higher Intelligence Agency.

• MetaFilter has a wealth of links to pulp magazine archives.

Yan Nascimbene’s illustrations for Italo Calvino’s stories.

• Rebecca Litchfield’s Orphans of Time and Soviet Ghosts.

• RIP Charlie Haden

Going Home (1972) by Alice Coltrane (Charlie Haden, bass) | Earth (1974) by Joe Henderson Featuring Alice Coltrane (Charlie Haden, bass) | Malkauns (1975) by Don Cherry (Charlie Haden, bass)