Schism

Dec 27th, 2012 | By | Category: Book News

tate_modernOctober 2007. The Tate Modern, London. Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth is on exhibition in the sloping, forbiddingly cavernous Turbine Hall. The “Shibboleth” consists of what appears to be a long, zig-zagging crack running through the floor of the hall, from barely more than a scratch in the tiling at the hall’s entrance, to a wider fissure, like a miniature of a canyon, some 30 or 40 metres here, where most visitors congregate. As you enter the hall, attendants press leaflets into your hand reading “Warning: Please watch your step in the Turbine Hall. Please keep your children under supervision.” Come the end of the year and 19 lawsuits have been brought against the Tate Modern by visitors claiming to have been injured by this exhibit.

Today, however, nobody looks at all put out by the schism in the floor. The Tate Modern, very probably the UK’s leading tourist destination is packed, with practically every demographic, every continent, represented. Do a 360% swivel and they are all there. In the cafe seats overlooking the Turbine Hall, a pensioner munches diffidently on a damp sandwich. Slumped against the far wall are a couple of down and outs, clutching warm tins of lager, taking in the human traffic. To and fro pass old Americans, young Europeans, huddles of women, single men, families with infants in buggies, retired couples, foreign students, and excited school kids. One tourist and his wife dutifully read aloud in monotone the notes to Shibboleth in the leaflet forced on them, as if reading an instruction manual. “Walking down Salcedo’s incised line . . . particularly if you know about her previous work, might well prompt a broader consideration of power’s divisive operations as encoded in the brutal narratives of colonialism, their unhappy aftermaths in post-colonial nations, and in the stand-off between rich and poor, northern and southern hemispheres.”

Now, here I observe an altogether different schism – between the notes and the reality out on the floor. People are enjoying Salcedo’sdoris_salcedo exhibit, enjoying it thoroughly. They marvel aloud at the technical aspects, revere the leap of “creative imagination” it took to conceive of such a thing, such a breach beneath their very feet. They stand astride the schism and snap each other on their mobile phones and digital cameras. They stick their hands down the schism. Since the work of art in this particular case isn’t a solid object but an absence of solid object, is that schism, that bit of fresh air they’ve just stuck their hands in, the work of art? Are they, therefore, in technical, naughty breach of the Do Not Touch rule, that invisible force field which still surrounds gallery art? One young lad snatches his hand in and out, as if afraid that the curators have set up some sort of electric shock device for transgressors. What no one is doing, if their cheerful demeanour is anything to go by, is contemplating the brutal narratives of colonialism or their unhappy aftermaths in post-colonial nations. This is not because these good people are insensible to colonialist brutality or its after effects, or too stupid to make the connection. It is simply, one suspects that the connection has been hitched on, as an act of piety, to validate and lend a proper conceptual gravitas to this particular artistic act, to satisfy the needs, spoken or otherwise, of everybody involved – the artist, the curator, the sponsors Unilever, Sir Nicholas Serota, who heads up the Tate Modern, even the visitors who are comforted to know that there is some latent, morally nutritious purpose to their joyride down this fissure across the marble, sacrosanct body art, freeing them up to enjoy it – as spectacle, subversion, fun. And after all, why not? There is, after all, insufficient data inscribed in the Shibboleth itself to make its ostensibly didactic purpose an effective one, without explanatory notes.

I amble around the rest of the gallery. I should say, I’m no Man Apart from the Common Herd, disdaining the unwashed populace gawping at these priceless works of which they have no comprehension. In the expressions of my fellow visitors I detect the same mixture in them that’s buoying me up and weighing me down – the barely stifled urge to yawn deeply, coupled with a sense of serenity duchampsurinaland curiosity, a sense of a mental cloudiness that no amount of forced concentration will dispel, coupled with the occasional, piercing shaft of epiphany and joy in the face of, say, a Chirico, the sense of having somehow been fed and watered at a deeper level, coupled with a craving for a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin. I tag onto a group being led around by a kindly, in-house guide, who, explains in plain but not inaccurate terms, the significance of the replica of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, signed “R. Mutt”, among the most significant works (or rather, gestures) of the 20th century. Was the urinal violating the cordoned off, sacred space of the art gallery, or, more likely, freeing up ideas of what sort of thing was admissible in the gallery, and by whom? Another work, by the recently deceased American minimalist artist Sol LeWitt presents a new and special set of problems. The work consists of a matrix of white lines, chalked in geometric and criss-cross fashion across black boards on all sides. What’s most noteworthy is the way in which this piece must be transported, should another gallery, say, in Paris, wish to exhibit it. What would then happen is that workers at the Tate Modern would scrub out the lines on the boards they had erected, thereby erasing the work. It would then rematerialise in Paris, redrawn by their gallery’s people, following strict instructions from the artist. The “work” here is not the physical thing but the “immaterial” concept, with great lengths travelled in order to preserve its sacrosanctness.

I stroll around the rest of the galleries, milling curiously, appreciatively, dutifully, rapt with boredom, fascinated and fatigued, just like everybody else – works by Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, Fiona Rae. Some of the more abstract works, only decades old, seem dead and encrusted in their frames, like flattened out fossils, products of a vanished, Utopian era. I look at Max Ernsts’s Celebes, with its docile, elephantine, machine-type figure beckoned away by a headless mannequin. In a moment of fleeting smugness, I do recall looking at this same picture at the old Tate Gallery on Millbank, back in the mid-Eighties, in relatively sparse company. But were those really better times?

...

Today, modern art is accepted at all levels, from pavement to penthouse corporate. But what has become of its musical equivalent? artofnoiseBoth music and the visual arts entered upon their eras of modernity in the first decade of the 20th century – modern art with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, in which one of the female sitters’ faces looks to have been violently supplanted by some sort of African mask. Around the same time, Arnold Schoenberg is composing the very first of his “atonal” works, thereby bringing the whole, overarching harmonically developed structure of classical music theoretically crashing down. A few years later, Luigi Russolo writes his Art Of Noise Futurist manifesto, jazz’s birth pangs and development en route to its own “dissonance” become increasingly audible, Kandinsky and Schoenberg, via correspondence try to establish some sort of art/musical synaesthetic Gesamtkunstwerk.

And yet, today, their fates are very different. In his formidable survey of 20th century music The Rest Is Noise, New Yorker critic Alex Ross, touches on this. “While the splattered abstractions of Jackson Pollock sell on the art market for a hundred million dollars or more . . . the equivalent in music still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences and makes little discernible impact on the outside world.” The same people who flock from miles around to mill in the presence of abstract art run screaming, hands clasped to their ears like Munch females, from “abstract music”. Well, perhaps that’s to over-dramatise their response. More likely, on the rare and fleeting occasions on which they bump into such music, perhaps by accident on Resonance FM, they’ll dismiss it with a “what’s this racket? Turn it off!” Or calmly operate the switch themselves, turning towards some more temperate destination on the dial.

Fear of Music - Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausenmaster_visual

By David Stubbs

ISBN: 978-1-84694-179-5, $19.95 / £9.99, paperback, 144pp
Modern art is a mass phenomenon. Conceptual artists like Damien Hirst enjoy celebrity status. Works by 20th century abstract artists like Mark Rothko are selling for record breaking sums, while the millions commanded by works by Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon make headline news. However, while the general public has no trouble embracing avant garde and experimental art, there is, by contrast, mass resistance to avant garde and experimental music, although both were born at the same time under similar circumstances - and despite the fact that from Schoenberg and Kandinsky onwards, musicians and artists have made repeated efforts to establish a "synaesthesia" between their two media. Fear of Music examines the parallel histories of modern art and modern music and examines why one is embraced and understood and the other ignored, derided or regarded with bewilderment, as noisy, random nonsense perpetrated by, and listened to by the inexplicably crazed. It draws on interviews and often highly amusing anecdotal evidence in order to find answers to the question: Why do people get Rothko and not Stockhausen? David Stubbs is a freelance British music journalist and author.

David Stubbs began working life as a freelance journalist in 1986, contributing to Melody Maker, whose staff he joined in 1987. As well as helping revive the music coverage of that weekly, alongside colleagues like Simon Reynolds, he became the author of the "Talk Talk Talk" section, formerly the gossip pages, which he turned into a comedy/satirical section, in which he lampooned the various pop and rock stars of the day, from the highest to the lowest. He also created the vituperative along long-running Mr Agreeable character (who still makes the occasional appearance on The Quietus website), whose popularity was commemorated on t-shirts and souvenir mugs.

In the 1990s, Stubbs also wrote scripts for a young Alan Davies and Bill Bailey on the former's Radio 1 show. He also wrote extensively for Goal, the football magazine - an essay of his on Eric Cantona appeared in the book The Pick Of The Season: The Best Of British Football Writing 1995-96. Moving to NME, he co-wrote the Thrills comedy page. Now freelance, his work has appeared in Arena, Uncut, The Wire, The Guardian, Spin, The Times, The Sunday Times, Men's Health and football magazine When Saturday Comes among others.

His first book was an appreciation of Charlie Nicholas, the ex-Arsenal footballer. (Stubbs is a keen Arsenal fan). He has since written books on Jimi Hendrix, Eminem, the Ace Records label and also a humorous study of the former BBCTV show Tomorrow's World. He is a regular contributor to the satirical Hard Sell column in The Guardian. He also contributed an essay to the bestselling volume The Atheist's Guide To Christmas, which also featured Richard Dawkins, Derren Brown, David Baddiel and Charlie Brooker among others.

David is an established zerO Books author - his first volume was entitled Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen, which was the subject of an item on the Radio 4 Today Programme, an evening of lectures at the Tate Britain and a full-length piece in The Sunday Times.

In 2006, Stubbs began writing reports on all the major England international fixtures for the When Saturday Comes website, in the guise of the "Wing Commander", covering their ill-fated World Cup campaign, followed by their calamitous failure to qualify for Euro 2008. These proved extremely popular with readers and so Stubbs augmented these with further characters, including a high-minded aesthete and Arsenal supporter, a Self-Righteous Liverpool fan and a broadsheet correspondent forever pining for the more hardbitten footballing days of yore. Praise lavished has included "genius", "the funniest things I have ever read anywhere" and, on numberous occasions, "these should be compiled in a book." So now they are.

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