Category Archives: Art & Artists

Dépanneurs and Bridal Shops

10514228_10152377913477683_7292019885298708821_o-003My old friend Ron Kensley used to say that there were two types of people in the world: people from Verdun, and people who wish they were from Verdun. I’ve often said the same thing about Montreal. Regardless, if you’re not from around here, you probably don’t know what a dépanneur is: a “dep” is a kind of all-purpose convenience store that sells everything from beer, wine, smokes, and lottery-tickets to milk, bread, hummus, cheese, toilet paper, toothpaste, and tampons. Since they sell basics people need and consume daily, there’s a dep on every street corner, and people tend to go to the dep closest to them.

But deps can’t be too close to each other. For instance, when Frank’s dep at the corner of Rue Roy and Avenue Laval burned down a few years ago, we switched to the Mastrocola mural dep at the corner of Avenue des Pins and Avenue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. Took years, but the insurance claim finally came through for Frank; and, as a consequence, the dep at the corner of Roy and Laval is being rebuilt. This worries the owner of the Mastrocola mural dep. Big time. Because when deps are too close to each other, it’s a zero-sum game: your competitor’s gain is your loss and visa versa. The same is true, to a large extent, of gas stations. But it’s not true of bridal shops.

The vast majority of the bridal shops in Montreal are clustered together on a few blocks of Rue St-Hubert. Do they compete with each other? Sure. But the benefits of coöperation far outweigh the costs of competition if you’re running a bridal shop. If you live in Montreal, and you’re looking to buy a wedding dress, most people go to Rue St-Hubert first. And one of those bridal shops makes a sale, more often than not. Why waste hours and hours running around the city when you can find everything you’re looking for in one place?

If you’re an artist or a writer or a musician, you’re much more like a bridal shop owner than a dep owner. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t steal my attention away from other fantasy writers when I was a teenager; he made me want to read more fantasy fiction. Tony Hoagland didn’t steal my attention away from other poets in my mid-twenties; he made me want to read more poetry. And Aaron Haspel and Nassim Nicholas Taleb didn’t steal my attention away from other aphorists in my thirties; they made me want to read more aphorisms. If you’re working within the same genre, the benefits of coöperating with other artists far outweigh the costs of competing with them.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

The Year of Living Homerically

emile_levy_-_circeGetting sucked into the insanity of the 2016 election was like getting sucked into an ancient myth. One minute you’re living your life, next minute you’re a character in Homer’s Odyssey. Seriously, I feel like I should write a sequel to A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically (2007) entitled The Year of Living Homerically (2017). Were we not, like Odysseus’s men, turned into swine? Were we not, like Odysseus, bewitched? Did we not lose track of time, trumping till two, night after night? Waking up this past weekend, after a thoroughly unhealthy, year-long obsession with American politics, I felt like disoriented Odysseus, coming to his senses on the Island of Ogygia.

Angry people are incredibly easy to manipulate. Same is true of the self-righteous. The more “political” you become, the more you become a mere pawn in someone else’s chess game. Your ideas are no longer your own. They’re not even your friends’ ideas. They are, instead, prefabricated ideas, manufactured by spin-doctors, mad scientists of the spirit, who understand human nature better than most, and are practiced in the art of deception. These master manipulators understand that the pleasures of politics may be ugly pleasures, but they’re pleasures nonetheless. Anger feels good. Self-righteousness feels good.

But these pleasures come at a cost. Politics erodes your creativity far more than it erodes your humanity. I can’t believe how boring I’ve become. I can’t believe how boring many of my friends have become. Thinking prefabricated ideas all the time is sort of like moving into a prefabricated suburban row house. You get to choose the drapes, what color to paint the walls, little else.

Oh Aristotle, stop snickering in the back row! Yes, yes, yes, I know! Man is indeed the political animal. But it’s equally true that the political too often brings out the animal in the man. And you, Edmund, for God’s sake, save your breath! I know what you’re gonna say: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Of course there’s truth to what you say, much truth. But can you not conceive of a species of evil that’s akin to quicksand? Can you not see why Epicurus admonished his followers to shun politics?

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

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

14359149_10153997409147683_6468728265552459049_nOh Leonard, sweet poet, sweet priest, thanks for teaching me how to find reverence in an irreverent age; thanks for teaching me how to slow down and take the world seriously; and thanks for teaching me how to take off my shoes and remember, that this place, the place where you are, is always sacred ground.

Oh Leonard, sweet poet, sweet priest, nothing has ever summarized the heart of your message for me more than this passage from The Book of Exodus: “God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”

Oh Leonard, sweet poet, sweet priest, you didn’t visit the golden cities of our Judaeo-Christian past like a tourist; you strolled their streets, at a leisurely pace, with the telltale swagger of a homeboy; and you touched so many perfect bodies with your mind.

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

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)

In Praise of Ye

Two capsule reviews, with apologies to Robert Christgau

The Life of Pablo (2016)

Troll deleterHaving recently trolled the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and a certain Google co-founder, Kanye seems poised to become the Black Lives Matter movement’s answer to Donald Trump. Pathologically incapable of doing as he’s told, he’s made misogyny more plentiful on TLOP than anywhere else in his corpus. But as the recent father and apparently dedicated husband that he is, I don’t buy any of it. Misogyny is to Ye as homophobia was to Eminem in the early 00s, and now just as much as then people don’t seem to catch on. (Hint: it’s a middle finger to the coercively totalizing PC discourse of safe spaces and ‘n word’-style censorship by omission, a phenomenon marvelously satirized by the last season of South Park.)  Here Kanye finds himself in decent form: he achieves sublimity at the outset by dint of some Chance grace, unleashes a moment of pure joy while sampling “Bam Bam” on “Famous”, and establishes his allegorical bona fides on “Wolves”. In contrast to the compressive tension which wound Yeezus into a sobering sonic boom, there is significant dithering here – and even a few forgettable tracks. Thankfully, Ye’s sense of humor thrives in the self-aware self-sendup “I Love Kanye”. And he’s not so much out of his mind as he is hell-bent on pretending that he is. In the alleged megalomaniac’s own words: “Everybody gon’ say something / I’d be worried if they said nothing.” B+

 

Yeezus (2013)

yeezus-iphone-6-660x1199Hailed as manifestly id, Yeezy’s zero-fucks-given art album has plenty of ego – not to mention superego to spare, as when he convincingly fuses the political and the personal on “New Slaves” by calling out the CCA and then promising to fuck a shareholder’s spouse. Less a primitive attack than a chest-beating demonstration of the indomitable spirit he so luxuriously represents, this kind of sexual braggadocio is common through the album’s terse ten tracks but never feels trite. Abrasive at first blush, the strident production tricks gradually reveal an aesthetic which sonically unites 808s & Heartbreaks and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – except that the latter’s excesses and the former’s bathos are here muted in favor of darker, more confrontational, more contrarian excursions reified by the numerous descents into dancehall. As the rhythmic and melodic turns and screeching halts unravel, Justin Vernon’s signature Auto-Tuned pleas provide the link, like the Holy Ghost beckoning to Yeezus. A

—Phil Lagogiannis

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 True Face of America on the Screen

butch-cassidy-and-the-sundance-kidDuring casting for The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola got into a huge fight with his producers over who to cast in the central role of Michael Corleone. It was an epic battle that nearly cost Coppola his funding. The producers wanted blonde, blue-eyed Robert Redford to play Michael Corleone, whilst Coppola insisted that this was absurd. Corleone’s character is Sicilian; and, as he put it, “we need to see the true face of Sicily on the screen.” And that meant someone who “looked the part”, someone whose appearance resembles that of the average Sicilian: black hair, olive skin, brown eyes. Eventually Coppola prevailed and cast Al Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone. That role made Pacino’s career what it is today.

The black actors calling for a boycott of the Oscars seem to want the same thing Coppola wanted: namely, a reasonable degree of artistic realism. They’re not saying nominate me because I’m black. They’re saying stop casting Robert Redfords in roles made for Al Pacinos. They’re saying, to paraphrase Coppola, “let’s see the true face of America on the screen.”

At present, we’re not seeing the true face of America on the screen. Quite to the contrary. “And therein,” writes LaTasha Baker, “lies the problem. Emma Stone had a role whose character was written to be Asian. Renée Zellweger’s character in Cold Mountain was a biracial woman in the book on which it was based. And let us not forget how the lovely Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera, actual Puerto Ricans, played subordinate characters to Russian-American Natalie Wood as she played the lead character, a Puerto Rican. The black female character in Gone Girl was completely written out of the screenplay. You cannot tell a group of people that maybe they didn’t get recognized because they weren’t talented enough when they never even got a chance at bat.”

It’s interesting to note that many of the very same people who are highly critical of what LaTasha Baker is saying have no problem with what Coppola said. Apparently art should imitate life if it’s Italian but not if it’s black.

—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)