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Shortlisted: Scorsese, Jay-Z, “Smart-Dumb” and How to Read a Picture

“If consensus is the tyranny of the majority, there can be no radical consensus.” – Lyotard “Obviousness is always the enemy of correctness.” – Bertrand Russell “A picture’s just a hedge against death, always was.” – Andrew Berardini Let’s start with something unquestionably genuine: In a public love letter from an artist to his medium, […]

Robert Donat as early cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene in the 1951 film The Magic Box. Image courtesy of Studiocanal Films Ltd.

Robert Donat as early cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene in the 1951 film The Magic Box. Image courtesy of Studiocanal Films Ltd.

“If consensus is the tyranny of the majority, there can be no radical consensus.” – Lyotard
“Obviousness is always the enemy of correctness.” – Bertrand Russell
“A picture’s just a hedge against death, always was.” – Andrew Berardini

Let’s start with something unquestionably genuine: In a public love letter from an artist to his medium, Martin Scorsese’s “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema” in The New York Review of Books tells film’s essential history while distilling its working components. It begins with Scorsese endearing us to what he took away from viewing The Magic Box with his father in 1951. One of the film’s central characters is a lesser known cinema pioneer, William Friese-Greene. Although he died a pauper, a young Scorsese sensed that one could not altogether say he was unhappy. He’d given his life to his passion.

“But what would you rather be: Overpaid or underrated?” Recently – precisely, the time I found out “performance art died” — it hit me that I’d been misinterpreting this sentiment. The quoted lyric appears on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it’s a Jay-Z line. I took it as a rallying call for struggling artists to keep their heads up. I did this in spite of knowing that Jay-Z has admitted to dumbing down his music to draw more fans.

And that’s not to be confused with “smart dumb”, as outlined in this piece for The Awl by Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith’s notion, properly understood, serves to distinguish contemporary art brut practice from both its impostors and those found wandering aimlessly close by, as well as offering it a nice defense from hackneyed criticism. See Jean Dubuffet’s “Art Brut In Preference To The Cultural Arts” for comparison.

Goldsmith anoints Andy Warhol as the prince of smart-dumb. And if you liked the latter’s 8-hour silent film Empire, you’ll love The Figment Project – a live feed of Andy Warhol’s gravesite organized by the Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam. If you can get your hands on it, you’ll find a perfect counterpart to the project in the winter 2010 issue of Film Quarterly. Joshua Clover’s column, “Marx and Coca Cola: An American Movie,” poetically compares the live YouTube footage of the BP oil spill to an avant-garde film.

The surveillance aesthetic seems to be going mainstream. Edward Snowden on the front page of The New York Times last Friday sure signals it, but perhaps the trend was inevitable. Snowden’s likeness appeared the only way his situation allows at the moment  – courtesy of a scan of his Russian asylum document, complete with photo ID. It isn’t so much the artistic decision of the newspaper that’s of note here, but the fact that such photographic material is used at all in their pages, or that CCTV, Google Earth, and surveillance-type imagery are, more generally, becoming widely available for public view.

Just think of what we put up on social networks: selfies, embarrassing party shots, flattering photographs, etc. When Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took a turn on the cover of Rolling Stone, it was a glamorous Facebook photo the magazine used. Whatever editorial intent lay behind that decision, the photo was not well received. What’s more, if an image can be misread, one has to assume there is some proper way to read it. New types of imagery are saturating our collective image bank, each with unique coding. We need to learn how to decode them all to really know what we’re looking at.

A bulletproof case for visual literacy to be taught in schools is in the introduction to Camille Paglia’s most recent book, Glittering Images. Scorsese backs it up in his aforementioned essay as well:

Young people need to understand that not all images are there to be consumed like fast food and then forgotten – we need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling something.