Category Archives: Aesthetics

The Bastard Sons of Postmodernism

gavin-mcinnes-red-eyeThere is a type of person (you know this person) who loves things (e.g., musicians, bands, musical styles, authors, ideas, causes, movements, etc.) until they become popular. If you ask this person what their favorite Bowie song is they’ll invariably choose some random, obscure song found on the b-side of one of his lesser known albums. Gavin McInnes is one of these people. And his bizarre political trajectory makes sense as soon as you realize that. Like many hipsters of his age, who were schooled (directly or indirectly) in the postmodern nihilism of thinkers like Foucault, Gavin equates being radical, not with any vision of social justice, but with being provocative, pissing off the bourgeoisie, and making fun of people who really care about stuff (any stuff). I know people like Gavin who enthusiastically supported Trump, and probably even voted for him, not because they liked any of his proposed policies, but because they just wanted to watch the world burn. As a guy I know put it, with gritted teeth, “I just want Trump to win so I can see the look on Jon Stewart’s smug little face.” Gavin and Milo Yiannopoulos, and others like them, are, in a sense, the bastard sons of postmodernism.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

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Being Yourself vs. Being Original

“It is unhealthy, and extremely modern, to worry over one’s originality. The Elizabethan poets used to rewrite each other’s poems to try to improve on them. That was a far superior attitude.”—Aaron Haspel

westworld3-700x525If a time machine like the one described in David Fiore’s Hypocritic Days (2014) was discovered tomorrow, and I was asked to write a travel brochure for the 21st-century West next week, I’d be sure to mention individualism as one of our era’s big attractions. The freedom to be yourself, do your own thing, choose your own profession, move to a new place, break with tradition, make a new family, be a little weird, have a little privacy: we take these things for granted far too often. Many of our ancestors would kill for what we have. Many of mine died for it.

Many of yours too.

Still, individualism is a human thing, and, like all human things, it’s flawed. And it comes with a cost. Sometimes a hefty cost. So don’t get me wrong: I know full well how much trouble the emancipation of the individual has caused. But I would nevertheless argue that the freedom to be yourself is one of our culture’s greatest accomplishments. It’s well worth fighting for, despite its drawbacks.

At some point, however, in the not-so-distant past, we seem to have collectively forgotten what it is that we were fighting for all along, what it really means to be authentic, what it really means to be yourself—and I think I know why: we’ve confused being yourself with being original.

Recognizing your own ordinariness can be hard when you’ve been raised to believe that originality is a cardinal virtue. But it’s a bitter pill that most of us have to swallow. Because we can’t all be original. Just as there’s a limited amount of beachfront property in the world, there’s a limited number of people who can be first, unique, singular, and truly original (sui generis). To some extent this is a function of the limited number of geniuses in the world. But it’s mostly a function of dumb luck: some people just happen to be the first one to think or do something new. After all, someone has to be first.

If, like Sam in Garden State (2004), you think that to be an individual, to be yourself, you’ve got to “do something that has never, ever been done before . . . throughout human existence,” you’re bound to go through life profoundly disappointed with yourself. Because this is an unrealistic goal, a silly ideal. You’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s time to return to the sensible authenticity proposed by the Roman Stoic Epictetus. In The Art of Living, he maintains that “one of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate. . . . Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.”

Schopenhauer makes a similar point in “On Thinking for Yourself” (1851), wherein he stresses that being the first one to think a particular thought isn’t what’s important; what’s important is that you make a thought your own. What’s important is that this newly discovered idea enter “into the whole system of your thought” as “an integral part, a living member”; “that it stand in complete and firm relation with what you already know; that it is understood with all that underlies it and follows from it; that it wears the color, the precise shade, the distinguishing mark, of your own way of thinking . . . . This is the perfect application of Goethe’s advice to earn our inheritance for ourselves so that we may really possess it: ‘What you have inherited from your fathers, earn over again for yourselves or it will not be yours.’”

It occurs to me now, and only in retrospect, that this is probably the original purpose of that annoying high school injunction: don’t just copy it out, rephrase it in your own words. I always found that exercise tedious and pointless. Drove me nuts. Seemed like a complete and utter waste of time. After all, if Aristotle said it so well, why can’t I just quote him? I remember asking a few of my teachers questions of this stamp. Not once did I receive a good answer. And I strongly suspect that this is due to the fact that they didn’t have one to give.

But I do. Now. Finally. At 42.

Rephrasing one of, say, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, in your own words, using examples derived from your own lived experience, is in fact a worthwhile exercise. I see that now, at long last. Because to do it, and do it well, you have to truly grasp the idea Nietzsche’s referring to; and if you can truly grasp the idea, it’s yours just as much as it’s Nietzsche’s. This isn’t plagiarism; it’s pedagogy. The ideas I present to my students semester after semester are no more “mine” than the air we breathe in the classroom or the water we drink in the hall. They’re a part of a vast spiritual commons, part of the shared intellectual property of the most fascinating animal ever to walk on God’s Green Earth.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Why Drake Was the Music Industry’s Worst Nightmare

ahr0cdovl2ltywdllmlozwfydc5jb20vaw1hz2vzl3jvdmkvmta4mc8wmdazlzcymy9nstawmdm3mjm4ndguanbnBecause he’s a household name they didn’t make, a self-made man who slipped in through the backdoor, crashed their private party, and made fools of them all. Because he’s a self-owned man who can’t be bought or sold on the auction blocks of L.A. Because he scrawled “OH CANADA, BITCHES!” (in permanent marker) onto The World Map of Hip-Hop. Because he tattooed “DRAKE WAS HERE” onto the industry’s sleeping fat ass. Because he proved, once and for all, that Toronto’s reputation for being the capital city of The Republic of Boring is about as outdated as Pluto’s reputation for being a planet, and Bill Cosby’s reputation for being a nice guy.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Art for Art’s Sake™

“You have to make a decision: Do ya wanna be a traditional artist? Or do ya wanna be an artist who eats regular?”—Bob Ross, The Joy of Painting (Season 1 Episode 8)

xrma2Corporate corruption of the art world is an ever-present possibility, something to keep an eye on. But corporate sponsorship isn’t nearly as problematic as many seem to think it is. I suspect that we see corporate sponsorship as deeply and necessarily problematic because we’re still living in the shadow of the “art for art’s sake” movement, and many of the artists we know are living off of government grants. Regardless of the reason, it remains a thoroughly unrealistic standard. Rarely in history were artists independently wealthy; they’ve always had to pay the bills one way or another. During the Italian Renaissance, that meant painting religious themes for the Church or hagiographic shit for a Machiavellian prince; today, it might mean painting a mural which employs the colors found on some corporate logo. Is this really such a big deal? I think not. We’re part of the world, friends. There’s no getting around that. We’re all inextricably enmeshed in a thick web of relationships that enrich and delimit our action in the world. Now, as always, power and privilege afford a small minority of artists the freedom to do as they please. Some of these fortunate few produce timeless work, sublime work, but, let’s face it, most of them produce forgettable garbage. Art, like philosophy, is usually at its best and most vital when it’s in conversation with the messy world most of us live in.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

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The Protestant Work-Ethic Aesthetic

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Jackson Pollock in his Springs, New York studio (1949)

“More and more,” Nietzsche noted in 1887, “work gets all good conscience on its side.” He was repulsed by the increasingly work-obsessed culture of the late 19th century: “breathless haste in working—the true vice of the new world—is already starting to spread to old Europe, making it savage and covering it with a most odd mindlessness.” Nietzsche was remarkably prescient. But I doubt that even he could have imagined the wacky work-obsessed world of the early 21st century. Work has, it seems, succeeded in getting “all good conscience on its side.” Not even the field of aesthetics has proven immune.

The recently concluded Nuit Blanche art festival is a case in point. Again and again, in one gallery after another, I heard artworks evaluated solely (or largely) on the basis of how much hard work and technical skill went in to them. For instance, one art critic, who’s been a huge Jackson Pollock fan for decades, recently told me that he no longer likes Pollock. Why? Because he saw a retrospective of his work—including earlier works, representational works, works done before he became “Jack the Dripper” (the abstract expressionist). These earlier works make at least one thing clear: Pollock sucked at figurative drawing and painting. This supposedly casts aspersions on all of his subsequent work. Apparently Pollock’s abstract expressionism is somehow fraudulent because he couldn’t paint a house that looks like a house.

Seriously? Seriously?!

Although I’ve never really liked Jackson Pollock, I find this reassessment of his work thoroughly unfair and vaguely perverse. Why would anyone want to base their aesthetic judgment on a bootlegged version of the Protestant Work Ethic? It’s like trying to base a meaningful philosophy of life on a Hallmark card slogan. You invariably end up with banal judgments such as:

1. This is good art because it looks like it took a long time to make it.
2. This is good art because it looks like it required specialized skills to produce it (specialized skills which were, of course, acquired via lots of hard work).
3. This is bad art because it looks like it didn’t take a long time to make it.
4. This is bad art because it looks like something a five-year-old could do.

Am I the only one who finds this Martha-Stewart-worthy aesthetic totally unsatisfying?

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

The Fate of the Imagination in a Narcissistic Age

“Art is an arranged marriage between chance and humanity.”—George Murray, Glimpse (2010)

It’s probably good that Christopher Lasch died in 1994. Because he was already getting sick of us in the 1970s when he wrote The Culture of Narcissism (1979). Of course he lived to see—and be horrified by—the rise of talk radio, reality TV, and talk shows like Oprah. But imagine how much more horrified he would have been by the brave new world of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: a world filled with people who can’t seem to get enough of themselves.

Narcissism is always to some extent a failure of the imagination. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find imagination languishing in a narcissistic age such as ours. If most of our art sucks, and most of our artists seem pathologically self-involved, it’s good to remember that most of us can’t stop talking about ourselves. If our novelists too often resemble their main characters, it’s good to remember that most of us are obsessed with the politics of identity. If everything on the radio sounds the same, and our artists seem to lack imagination, it’s good to remember that “we the people” usually get the artists and politicians we deserve.

But not always. Sometimes we get an artist like Grimes, who seems to transcend many of her culture’s limitations. Her last album Art Angels (2015) is a case in point. Grimes’s prodigious imagination floats across the face of God’s Green Earth like a shapeshifter: in one song, she imagines what it might be like to be a butterfly, in another, she’s a male vampire. Her approach to the world brings to mind the most beautiful passage in The Upanishads: “Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear. . . . When a sage sees this great Unity and his Self has become all beings, what delusion and what sorrow can ever be near him?”

This is easily your best work yet, Claire. The sweetest damn thing to pop out of that crazy creative head of yours thus far. But I regret to inform you that the track you like the least is the one I like the most. “Easily” has a simple beauty, a sweetness, and a razor-sharp delivery that’s entirely new for you, and thoroughly enchanting. Hearing it for the first time brought to mind the breathtaking intensity of Kanye West’s acapella version of “Love Lock Down”. Much has been made of all the dis-songs on this album. So far as I can tell, this whole story is based on one seemingly offhand comment you made to some random reporter. Regardless, I don’t buy it.

The inspiration of an artist like“ you—an artist who seems capable of tapping into deep underground oceans of creativity, more or less at will—cannot be reduced to a messy break-up, a run-in with a douche-y music exec, a clueless critic, or a misguided fan; nor can it be reduced to the ennui of a twenty-something who’s wondering what the fuck to do next. Whatever it is that you’re tapping into transcends the delights and disappointments of your day-to-day existence. It’s bigger than Grimes. And it can’t be found in the biographical details of your life, nor can it be captured in a gossipy article or a scandalous YouTube clip. It can, however, be glimpsed in your mesmerizing music videos.

Watching the video for “Genesis” is like renting a room with a view of the collective unconscious, getting front-row tickets to the inside of your head, and downloading a daydream. Same is true, indeed, doubly true, of your new video, “Flesh without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream”. I have but one major criticism of your new album: the version of “REALiTi” that’s been on YouTube since March is considerably stronger than the one that made it onto Art Angels (2015). At first I suspected that I might be disliking it merely because I had grown accustomed to the YouTube version, but I’ve since listened to Art Angels dozens of times, and I’m still not feeling the new version of “REALiTi”. Regardless, I’m sure you had your reasons: you always do, Claire. After all, you were born in The Year of the Dragon: trusting in your own judgment, safeguarding your independence, refusing to be a product, and having faith in your own aesthetic—these things have served you well thus far. So you might as well own them.

There’s something about the artistic process that always seems to elude us, something that’s forever shrouded in mystery, something that resists the tidy Sunday School stories found in art history textbooks. But I’m nevertheless willing to play the part of the fool who rushes in where art angels fear to tread. I’m willing, that is, to venture a guess, and it’s this: you’re a stubborn shapeshifter, Grimes, who has consistently refused to be captured and confined by claustrophobic conceptions of Claire. And this has, I’ll wager, been as key to your preternatural creativity as Samson’s long locks were to his preternatural strength. Hang on to this. And beware of Delilahs!

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

What Else Is There?

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”—Matthew 11:15

Röyksopp - What Else Is There  - YouTube - Google Chrome 2015-11-19 20347 PMSome say that the bizarre video for Röyksopp’s “What Else Is There?” was inspired by LSD. But the profoundly personal nature of the imagery suggests otherwise. Listen carefully, the sirens of solipsism sing softly and sweetly throughout. What’s more, the storytelling is way too lucid, and the richness of the detail smacks not of the psychedelic but of the idiosyncratic, the eccentric. If it was LSD-inspired, this video wouldn’t feel so forbidding and foreign. If it was LSD-inspired, surely we would’ve run into a few familiar faces among the freaks—you know, those poorly-paid extras that people the crowd scenes in the movie of your life, the usual suspects, those popular projections of the public mind, trusty testaments to our shared cultural imagination, other known as the Jungian archetypes. If this was LSD-inspired, the greasy fingerprints of our collective unconscious would be on every glassy frame. But they’re not. In fact, comforting clichés are few and far between in this filmic fantasy.

Röyksopp - What Else Is There  - YouTube - Google Chrome 2015-11-19 20344 PMWatch it again if you must. Dust it for prints if you will. Doubt you’ll find anything that’ll interest the DEA, but you’ll find much that’ll interest those who place stock in the interpretation of dreams. What gives “What Else Is There?” its preternatural strangeness is that it consists, in large part, of raw dream data which has yet to be refined, filtered, processed, and rationalized. It’s a wild dream, a dream that managed, against all odds, to break free, to spring forth, straight out of a human mind, a wondrously whitmanesque mind. Witness the stunning specificity, the haunting lyrics, the absence of visual clichés. What can we say of the capacious soul that gave birth to this hypnotic hymn? This person contains multitudes.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Irony and Sarcasm

zn29jMy generation is noted for its fondness for irony and sarcasm. This makes us delightful dinner guests and witty travel companions. But it also makes kids and students hate us. The problem is this: kids don’t pick up on irony, for the most part—same is true of those who are new to the English language. Both frequently conclude that the literal meaning of your witty little remark—the obvious meaning, the meaning on the surface—is the intended meaning (i.e., what you really meant to say). Thus, liberal parents who mouth racist remarks—within earshot of their kids—in a mocking tone of voice (a Southern accent, perhaps) frequently communicate to their children (inadvertently) that they hold these racist views in earnest.

Same thing happened to a Jewish professor at Concordia University. He made a few anti-Semitic remarks during a lecture on Depression-Era America. He did so to make fun of the stupidity (and asinine reasoning) so often found in antisemitic thought. I was thus shocked to discover, after class, that a francophone student (a friend of mine, studying in English for the first time) thought the professor (the Jewish professor!) was a flaming Nazi. Indeed, he went so far as to suggest that we file a complaint against the professor with B’nai Brith Canada. Naturally, I dissuaded him and clarified the professor’s meaning.

This experience (and countless others) have convinced me that irony and teaching don’t mix, unless you’re teaching privileged kids with a strong grasp of the English language. What’s true of irony is, I suspect, doubly true of sarcasm. Children and new English speakers invariably miss the subtleties of the sardonic style. Hate to be the one to break it to you: but all they hear is senseless meanness. They don’t think you’re cute. They just think you’re an asshole. Alas, though the charms of irony and sarcasm are undeniable, confining them to the company of peers is prudent, and forgoing them altogether in the presence of children is wise.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Trudeau’s Hotness

11230109_10156175696195068_6632135282872998127_nDISCLAIMER: While I do in fact have eyes, and can therefore note the new Leader of the Great White North is in fact …. smoking fuckin’ hot… I have to confess, having actually met him on a number of occasions, that while he’s pretty to look at? He’s actually not my type. I’m 5′ even on a day when I stand up super duper straight and fluff my hair a bit. And I feel like a little kid when I am with guys his size, as I barely come up to his rib cage! (The new PM is also super ridiculously crazy tall. Well, compared to me, anyway). I actually used to have “if you’re over 5’8″ please don’t bother messaging me!” in my online dating profiles, and I wasn’t kidding. On one of our first dates, my husband told me he was 5’5″, and I jumped across the table and kissed him, because I’d never heard a man admit outloud that he was less than 5’7″ before. Fifteen months later, I married him. So while I can indeed see that Canada’s Favourite Boy Scout is fiiiiine, I am not one of the many women who has JT on her “Freebie List.” This piece is in defence of those men and women who do!

Recently, there’s been an outcry that it’s not okay to point out that in the case of our new Prime Minister, it seems PM stands for Pretty Manly and Positively Magnificent. The argument goes something along the lines of either “it’s not okay to say that about women so why is it okay to say about him?!” or something about how talking about someone’s sexuality without their consent isn’t cool, is objectifying, and reducing them to a “thing”.

With regard to the second argument, I think there’s a way to point out someone is attractive without being gross. Being gross is never okay. And I’ll totally admit that some of the commentary on our completely fine PM is way over the top, the kind of stuff that should be reserved for bedrooms, not boardrooms! Stuff that is disrespectful to someone’s marriage and their own personhood. That’s completely not cool.

But I will take issue with the argument that because it’s not okay to say something about women leaders, it’s not okay to say that same something about male leaders.

There is a huge, massive, major difference between how men and women and their sexuality are viewed in mainstream society. A man’s sexuality has never, EVER taken away from the assumption he is also competent and capable. It, a woman’s sexuality that is, does take away from the assumption she is competent and capable when we’re talking about a woman’s hot factor. Well, actually, no, maybe it doesn’t, because it’s always assumed women are, well, women first, and competent later. If ever. So adding that she’s hot on top of it is just another layer of stuff to dig through before mainstream society sees her as competent and capable.

There is absolutely a double standard, and that’s because they are different. Men and women are equally capable of being competent, effective leaders. Of learning, of leading, of governing. But when it comes to how women and men are perceived as sexual and intellectual beings, It’s apples and oranges. Pointing out the fact the good Lord spent just a little extra time on Justin doesn’t demean Mr Trudeau as a PM, or imply he’s just a hot body and great hair. But there’s no way to seriously put forward the idea his sex appeal is not part of his overall appeal. Let’s face it, he won the election when the accompanying picture here went all over Canada, and women fell in love with the guy who handed a woman beater’s ass to him in the boxing ring, and then got kissed passionately by his wife after as if she was breathing fire into him. That has to be one of the hottest, sexiest pictures ever taken of a national leader in any country!

And no one thinks that makes him less capable as a leader. Now, a woman would absolutely be thought of as less capable due to the fact she’s a woman and seen as sexual. Somehow, we can’t be seen as sexual and be taken seriously at the same time. And so no, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to point out the sky is blue the PM is hot simply because it’s inappropriate to point out a woman in his position is hot. Instead, I lament that women have to be stripped of their hotness to be taken seriously as leaders. Because I’d prefer to live in a world where one could admit they find a woman sexually appealing without that being either a physical threat to her safety*, or essentially saying that her value as a human begins and ends with the fact that she is sexually appealing.

But we don’t live in that world. Yet.

*let’s face it, the world we live in, that is in fact what it is for many women when they are told some man finds them sexually appealing: sure, most men probably won’t rape us. And we aren’t stupid; we know that! But here’s the thing: we don’t know which men will, and which men will not, until after we’ve put ourselves in the position where he can… and yet chooses not to do so. And yeah . . . that’s not a risk many women are willing to take until we know a man quite well

—Wendy KH

Fake It, Make It, Be It

“The parsimonious explanation for why you feel like a fraud is that you are one.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)

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I’ve had people tell me a couple of times in the last decade something along the lines of: “I feel like a fraud, like an impostor, despite my successes. I guess I have that Impostor Syndrome everyone’s talking about. Guess I need some therapy or drugs to fix this, make me feel better about myself.” When people tell me this, in my head, I’m almost always thinking to myself: “um, well, yeah, so far as I can tell, you kinda are a fraud.” But the solution, as my friend Jed Trott rightly observed last night, isn’t to fix the way you feel, it’s to fix the way you are—viz., to actually become person you’re pretending to be. Three of Aaron Haspel’s aphorisms are especially good on this issue: (1) “All intellectuals must begin as pseudo-intellectuals.” (2) “To be better it is first necessary to pretend to be; and objections to improvement often masquerade as objections to pretense.” (3) “It is impossible to recognize your betters until you acknowledge that they exist.”

Recognizing that your betters exist is often profoundly uncomfortable. It might even make you feel, well, to some extent, like a fraud. But that’s okay. Indeed, it’s often salutary, good for you—like vegetables, working out, and fresh air. Yet again, I propose that we return to the sensible advice proffered by the Roman Stoic Epictetus. In The Art of Living, he maintains that “one of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate. . . . Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)