Posts Tagged ‘Andy Warhol’

On being cool, or, “I Hope You Don’t Know That I Hope You Care That I Don’t Care What You Think About Me”

Friday, February 8th, 2019
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The Doors … does cool stay cool?

“Hot is momentary. It quickly turns to ashes. But cool stays cool,” said Robert Pogue Harrison, discussing Jim Morrison, the Doors, and the “ethos of cool” last year. He saw it as the triumph of Apollo over Dionysus.

Former Stanford fellow Chris Fleming has undertaken a study of  “Theoretical Cool,” in the current Sydney Review of Books. As an associate professor of philosophy at the Western Sydney University, he had “a dawning realization that would take many years to coalesce: cool in the humanities isn’t that different from cool in other areas of cultural life, like planking, hotdog-legs photography, mason jar rehabilitation, and novels whose main character is a city.” It’s funny … and deadly serious, too, and surfaced in my Facebook feed. As he explained, “I wrote this, using only words.”

As for the photos below from his Facebook page, the author takes a shot at “cool” himself, in its various guises, some we might recognize.

In his words, then:

“The great Romantic injunction offered by the Aspiring Cool of Instagram to their potential audience is watch me not caring about whether or not you watch me (but please do watch me). The double imperative isn’t just a product of social media; the mating call of almost every VCP (Very Cool Person) – and every aspiring rebel – walking the street is: Look at me – I’m amazing! / Don’t you look at me – I don’t fucking care what you think! Which brings us necessarily to Andy Warhol, that erstwhile king of Union Square Weltschmerz, who gave us one of the clearest renderings of this double injunction. As far as I can recall, the only time Warhol ever looked like he had an elevated heartrate was when an interviewer suggested that he courted attention. In 1980 Warhol toured Miami Beach for his exhibition ‘Jews of the 20th Century’ at the Lowe Art Museum, when a reporter makes this statement:

Interviewer: Your work tends to be … I don’t want to use the word ‘sensational,’ because that connotes something bad, but you want attention…

WarholOh noNo, that’s not true! I just work most of the time and … well, they make me do this … so …

The story of “Maurice Wu” demonstrates the perils and micromeasurements of cool. The lad  arrived in Sydney via Hong Kong and was introduced to Fleming’s high school class. In the parochial school, “Brother Anianus put his arm around the new boy and announced to all of us: ‘This is Maurice Wu – and I bet he can breakdance better than any of you!'”

“The problem was that breakdancing had been very popular at our school, like that groovy Saturday Night Fever dancing before it (or so my older brother swears, although one can never tell with him), but that time had passed and breakdancing was now something of a joke. Unaware, Brother Anianus pushed on: ‘Go on, Maurice, show them your moves!’ Maurice stepped to the side of the podium and proceeded to chainwave, robot, and donkey – all a capella – for about a minute. At the conclusion there was just the creak and whoosh of the fans above our heads – and then the whole year erupted in hysterical, ironic cheers, clapping, whooping, screaming ersatz approval. The year meeting ended. Unaware, Brother Anianus and Maurice Wu thought they’d done very well. It was, in fact, catastrophic (which is why I’ve used the pseudonym ‘Maurice Wu’).”

“Brother Anianus was really saying to us ‘Hey, listen up, funky town inhabitants – this guy is cool to the max.’ But it could only have the opposite effect – for a number of reasons. One is temporal. The historical miss here was very small; it had probably only been about one or two years since break dancing was at peak cool, at least at my Sydney suburban Catholic (ie. uncool) school. But something having-been-recently-cool is often not a mere approximation of being cool, only slightly less so. Despite the resurgence of vinyl, cool’s movement is often digital, not analogue. Although there are gradations of cool, at its peak, a near miss of cool is not like a near miss of a hole in golf or a near miss in a game of darts, where points decrease relative to the distance of the miss. No. In certain very delicate situations, trying to hit cool and missing it by a little is like hitting the wrong note on piano by a semi-tone: the smallest error will affect the biggest dissonance. (It didn’t help in this instance, of course, that the advocate here was a middle-aged man in a long white robe with a huge crucifix hanging from his neck – and whose name was pronounced, at least by us, as ‘any anus.’)”

Fleming describes “normcore” as “a cyborg word combining ‘normal’ and ‘hardcore.’” He continues, “Apart from being It, what exactly was normcore? To the outsider, normcore basically looks like what your uncle might wear to an engagement party at Sizzler: white Reeboks, a polo shirt, and Lowes sourced, bad-fitting jeans. Except, of course, it’s not like that at all; that’s just your uncle. Normcore only looks like that to, well, almost everyone. But ‘radical’ culture is often just like that.”

As he explains, “a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in a Manhattan bar isn’t the same as … someone who isn’t a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in … a bar somewhere else. Again, normcore only looks like a loaned collection from Jerry Seinfeld’s wardrobe. To those in the know, it’s nothing of the sort. Just as an airport beagle can tell the difference between bowel cancer, a land mine, and MDMA residue at 100 metres, the truly cool can tell the difference between, say, K-Mart’s ‘Active’ running shoe line and Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Triple S trainers. (Apparently such a distinction exists, although it is lost on me.)”

King of Cool … for awhile.

He concludes: “Cool, of course, is one of taste’s dynamics, a silent, unavowable face of fashion. We can’t reliably predict its path because it never announces its itinerary. Its minimal requirement is simply to not be where it has just been; as such, the only rigorous science we can apply to it is hindsight. As Walter Benjamin reminded us many years ago, fashion more generally, articulates ‘the eternal recurrence of the new’.  Cool is one antidote to the tendency for people’s taste to reify at a particular historical moment. We are familiar enough with the opposite: we see a person sitting on a train wrapped in a stonewash denim jacket, fluorescent parachute pants, and a hairspray-frozen bouffant which looks like a half-deflated basketball, and think quietly to ourselves ‘1983 was a pretty big year for you, huh?’ The idea is that at some point in our lives, for whatever reason, we became incredibly sensitive to the world around us; we might have had – to paraphrase lyrics from Dirty Dancing – the time of our lives – and as a result, we were dropped into a kind of temporal amber which preserved us like some insect from the Cretaceous period. 1983 passed but the uniform remained. This isn’t cool; the only amber the truly cool person is interested in is craft beer. They will not be frozen. (Of course, if the person on the train is 23, then all bets are off; along with the stonewash, this person is also sporting invisible inverted commas: they are quoting the 80s. To confuse this with the genuinely uncool is like believing, on the basis of her name and plethora of crucifixes, that Madonna was a nun.)”

Read the whole thing here.

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017
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Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

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