Sunday, July 29, 2012

Norman Towle: St. Petersburg's Henry Darger?

Note: I now blog at  It's much prettier to look at, and more focused on fun stuff like weird fiction, extreme music, and awesome art (like this!).  Also check out my Tumblr at

Last night I hit the opening of one of the more exciting and challenging gallery shows I've seen in a while. The show is at the Venture Compound, a D.I.Y. music and art space in St. Petersburg, FL, and the opening coincided with the 29th installation of the Pangaea Project, an ambitious noise/avante-garde series curated by the Venture group.  The art is by Norman Towle, who died recently at the age of 99.  The show is said to encompass 95% of the work Towle produced in his lifetime.

Knowing Towle's story is key to understanding why this apparently unassuming work is so interesting.  After spending time in the Merchant Marine, Towle attended a technical art institute, then spent several decades as a commercial art retoucher, largely working for the New York Times.  He retired to Florida, only after which, apparently, he actually began to produce art of his own.

And what art.  The works - over a hundred of them - cover everything from local St. Petersburg landscapes, portraits of public figures, nonspecific scenes of everything from dancing to ocean life, abstract works that include elements of collage, and a little bit of softcore pornography.  These are all rendered in a hand that can be described as inexpert, even clumsy.

But the whole body of work, and many of its individual pieces, are profoundly absorbing and multidimensional.  This interest isn't because the work is 'good' in any conventional sense, either technically or because it advances some coherent, self-conscious aesthetic or social message.  Towle falls in that troubled and weird category known with measured condescension as 'folk art' - works and artists whose interest derives from the unselfconsciousness of their process, which allows them to represent, at best, a set of truths as deep as those in more conventional 'high' art.

In Towle's work, as in those of so much folk art, those truths are dual-edged.  On the one hand, when we connect Towle's story to his work, we see the way that modern society can limit human possibility.  These paintings show a man with a profoundly foreshortened vision of life, someone attracted primarily to the most banal of public figures and the safest modes of existence.  There are numerous pictures here of 'beautiful' farmhouses, churches, golf courses, suburban homes, and parking lots (!), and dozens of portraits of presidents and film stars and singers and models. Towle, at least according to his paintings, saw the world exactly as NBC, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have wanted him to.

At the same time, the traces of his own life in Towle's paintings show, through no intent of the artist, what utter lies he was reproducing.  Just as his life fulfilling the commands of others seems to have left him with little ability to reflect critically on the culture around him, decades of touching up other people's images as part of a process that reduced art to nothing but another industrial, assembly-line product seems to have left Towle himself with an imperfect command of fundamental artistic principles of perspective, figure, and color.  His apparent naive reverence for Pope John Paul and suburban normality, filtered through the imperfections that this banal world imposed on his abilities, reveals the absurdity, beauty, and even brutality of modern 'everyday life.'

There's also something profoundly troubling about a man trained in 'art' who produced no work of his own until retiring from his career in the art world.  There's a particular piece here that captures that poignancy - a desolately kitsch landscape of a flower garden, which nonetheless stands out from the other paintings in its technical refinement.  This is apparently another artist's work that Towle gave a few small touch-ups . . . and then signed.  It's one of those instances where the unvarnished reality of folk art manages to convey the desperation and sadness of the human condition far more effectively than 'high' art.  Here and elsewhere, Towle's work, in its way, shows the darkness that lies beneath the facade of normality better than Francis Bacon's.

But Towle's work also shows the ability of people to transcend the limits imposed on them by society.  Every observation of Towle's technical limitations comes with the caveat that a great deal of this work was completed when he was in his 80s and 90s, with a hand that would have been unsteady for reasons having nothing to do with skill.  That he persevered at that age at producing any art at all is some kind of testament to human creative energy.  And there's a real joy to lot of the paintings,  something that could be seen as either childlike or just sincere.  It's particularly worth remembering that, as someone born in the early 1920s, who served in the military during the 1940s, Towle would have been close to enough darkness in his life that he might not have had much interest in reproducing it.  What looks to people my age like suburban banality and empty-headed celebrity culture may have been a fully justified retreat to psychic safety for those brutalized by world history and the machinations of social elites.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Noriko Manabe on Antinuclear Music

A fresh article from Princeton-based Japanese ethnomusicologist Noriko Manabe, who here describes the No Nukes 2012 concert hosted by Ryuichi Sakamoto.  There are some snippets in there about artists' careers being destroyed because they have spoken out against nuclear energy, which are shocking for me even knowing what I know about just how controlled and corrupt the Japanese entertainment industry is.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gangster Computer God

Big Announcement Time! About My New Book, Blown Horizonz

Hello friends!  I'm really excited to make an exciting announcement. About WRITINGS.

If you read this here blog, you see random, scattered, off-the-cuff musings on a semi-random assortment of popular culture nuggets, political haps, hot links, etc.  But you may also occasionally see links to my writing elsewhere, and maybe you've wondered at those times, HEY, WHAT'S THIS ALL ABOUT?

What's it all about is that I pretty frequently for the last ten years or so have been writing about music for outlets like Tinymixtapes, the Japan Times, The Wag, Popmatters, Audiogalaxy, etc.  I've now finally taken the time to compile some of these pieces into my FIRST BOOK!

It is titled Blown Horizonz: Incidental Comments on Psychedelic Noise, Abstract Rap, and Other Music That Will End Your Mind, and it will be released on September 1st, 2012.

Actually I should have probably written "FIRST BOOK"! above, in scare quotes, because it may or may not be a real "book."  It's an ebook, which I'm self-releasing, with the generous cooperation of my various editors and publishers. Is that a real book?  Your call, bro.

The collection will contain essays about everything from free jazz to weird folk to U.K. garage to Kool Keith.  It includes interviews, mostly with white rappers like Cage, Themselves, and MC Paul Barman.  Some of these pieces are difficult or impossible to find, including essays on Japanese hip hop and the Night People scene that I published in the print-only magazine Signal to Noise, and pieces from a decade ago that only saw the light of day in small newsletters.  There will also be at least one piece written fresh for this collection.

One of the Signal to Noise essays was shortlisted for the 2010 edition of Da Capo Press's Best Music Writing, so that might be worth checking out.  My writing has also been praised by such luminaries as Michael Gira of Swans and Dylan Ettinger.  But just in case that's not compelling enough, you can watch this space over the next month for samples, plugs, and the like.

Best of all, the book will be FREE for at least two weeks after its initial release!  How will I make money, you ask?  And my answer is, of course, volume, my friend.  Volume.

I hope at least one or two of you are as excited about this as I am.  (Thanks Mom!)

If you would be interested in receiving a digital copy of the book for review, please let me know in the comments section below.  Thanks!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Bane's weird voice ruins the whole thing.

Batman Shooter was a PhD Candidate: Let's jump to some conclusions.

So, the BBC is reporting that James Holmes, who apparently shot nearly 50 people in a paramilitary-style attack on a movie theatre near Denver, was a former neuroscience PhD student at UC-Denver.  This adds to a lengthening chain of doctoral candidates who kill, including Gang Lu at the University of Iowa in 1991, and James Eaton Kelly at the University of Arkansas in August of 2000.  Both of these were individuals who, while obviously insane in the way most homicidal people are insane, were immediately motivated by career difficulties.  Lu was unable to find a professional position on graduating, and Kelly had been drummed out of his PhD progam.

Obviously these are widely scattered incidents and there is no metanarrative to be drawn from them, much less any speculation to be done about this current tragedy.  But it does point out the fact that the academic world is tied into the same competitive and high-pressure system that encompasses the rest of America, with its disgruntled postal carriers, police officers, and office drones.  These expressions of malevolent rage come from people who seek validation and worth in their careers and, when it isn't forthcoming, have no ongoing reason to engage in society.  It's that disconnection from society - utter, complete alienation - that allows such things to happen.  And the isolating, hypercompetitive, high-pressure world of graduate school is a potent brew for those already disposed to instability and violence.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Was Fukushima Caused by "Japanese Culture"?

The official Diet-commissioned report on the Fukushima disaster was released about a week or so, and a fascinating catch was made by one Richard Katz on the Social Science Japan mailing list. The report is mostly a very specific account of communication failures and lapses in responsibility, but it seems that the English-language version of the report's executive summary lades on some generalizations condemning the root cause of the disaster as Japanese culture itself:

"[The disaster's] fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience;  our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity."

Katz and others have focused on the discrepancy between the English and Japanese versions of the report, with the reasonable assumption that the English version is specifically conceived as playing to foreign expectations.  But I'm more interested in the fundamental questions raised by the mere idea: how do these claims seem to define "Japanese culture," its limits and boundaries relative to other spheres of culture, and the way culture affects individual behavior?  The points made above seem focused on very local interpersonal behavior, relative to, say, a boss.  This is an important distinction from, for example, 'culture' in the more mediated sense, where it may be more difficult to make an argument for any such thing as a uniquely Japanese culture in an era of globalization.

Relevant sources at:

Asahi Shimbun
National Diet of Japan
Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Note: Car Radio, Space, and Class

A sudden insight and clarification of the piece on car audio that I'm working on.  It all hinges on Zizek's notion of paraconsistent logic, transferred in a somewhat crudely metaphorical form to the social realm.  The car radio is an instance of technological work that, at the same time, helps extend the atomized form of the early 20th century suburban/suburbanizing white middle class into the space of the car, and also produces its obverse, in the form of car radios used as broadcasting platforms that disturb both urban and, later, suburban ideals of middle-classness as they are linked to quiet/the lack of disruptive 'noise.'   This is linked to the idea that even with the earliest forms of electronic networked communication, the middle classes/knowledge classes began to transcend or escape from the physical space of social life.  At the same time, the development of a working-class vernacular of car radio as noise producer was a work of bringing power and meaning back into space.

The middle classes used the car radio to connect themselves over great distances to projects of national identity and development - for instance, during World War II, radio listening was conceived as a kind of patriotic duty.  These were early experiences of networked identity.  By contrast, the subaltern-identified usage of car radio as a broadcasting platform in local space - specifically, in the emergence of the 'boom cars' that we're all so familiar with now - was a resistance to the networking of identity, and a reaffirmation of localized identities formed in physical spaces.  It was not just a rejection of and attack on middle-class cocooning, but the articulation of a different logic of community altogether.  It is crucial to this understanding that the main media channels for boom car culture were rarely actual radio broadcasts, but physical media, in an era that roughly coincided with the democratization of the production and distribution of these forms - the appearance first of the cassette, then later the CD, then the CDR.  These were not vast networks of high-speed, ephemeral, space-binding broadasts, but much more time-binding, coherent 'records' (in both senses) of highly developed, increasingly local worldviews.

But is there an inconsistency to using Zizek, who in his take on Hegel rejects the notion of socialized reason and history as a project of "The Cunning of Reason," in an argument that hinges on the presumption that these processes play out some sort of structural problem-solving?  I'm not sure.  More generally, I'm not ready to comment on the legitimacy of Zizek's notion of paraconsistent logic - I can frankly say that I know I am well inside that mindset, and I still don't have many of the tools that I'd need to take a step back and place it in the context of the history of ideas.

All of this came to me as I was reading the exchange between John Gray and Zizek in the New York Review of Books and Jacobin, respectively.

New Call of Duty Villian Based on Julian Assange

In case you hadn't already figured out that video games that put you in the shoes of an 'elite' soldier were always authoritarian wet dreams/fascist training tools, this one went ahead and made it a little clearer.

Black Ops New Villain "The Leader of the 99%"

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Race and Technology: Okeh Records

Mamie Smith
I've just been poking through William Kenney's Recorded Music in American Life, and came upon a really amazing little tidbit.  Apparently Okeh records, which would go on to be early and vital popularizers of African-American music, were initially successful not because of their content - which at least in the early days Kenney characterizes as "uninspired" - but because of their technology.  The founder of the company pioneered a pressing process that allowed Okeh's records to be played on any turntable, whereas most companies at the time pressed in proprietary formats linked to phonographs that they also produced.  This was particularly important to the story of black music, because the Victor and Columbia companies, which held controlling intellectual property in the dominant lateral-cut pressing system, did not record black musicians due to supposed risks to the companies' respectability.

Okeh would go on, after the initial success bolstered by their technological leapfrogging of these barriers, to aggressively open markets in first Northern, then Southern black communities.  This began with Mamie Smith, but would culminate artistically with the recording of Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens, which remain to this day one of the definitive statements of American musical culture.  This art might not exist today if not for the technological and structural paths of recorded sound development.

McLuhan would be delighted.