(Visual) Notes on Culture

GameCulture Journal Vol. 1, No. 3 - Now available for download at http://www.gameculturejournal.com.

  Remembering a Giant of Architecture: Nikolaus Pevsner, Part 1
The study of architecture is a rare bird, requiring a bizarre, hybrid knowledge of painting, vernacular design, engineering, history, historiography, and more. If art history is itself a relatively young discipline, than architectural studies is itself a spring chick. Men and women have been building, designing, and destroying buildings for millennia, yet they have not been systematically studying them in the academy for all that long. Architectural history once resided in practical treatises and the enacted writings of a select group of renaissance humanists. Put simply, architecture just wasn't seen as an object worthy of sustained, devoted study, as, say, Milton or Plato surely were.

Nikolaus Pevsner made extreme strides toward legitimizing architecture within the broader currents of European history. Thanks to his efforts, architecture was transported from a gentleman's pursuit to a thing that was both worthy of serious attention and, strangely, accessible (and even desirable) to virtually any curious party. I wish to draw attention to Pevsner's unique achievements and, in the process, hopefully help others find a way to investigate his fascinating body of work.

Pevsner was born in 1902 in Leipzig to a Jewish merchant family. He showed much aptitude for scholastics at an early age, and would come to the study of art history at several universities in Germany. Like another famous Jewish expatriate - eminent theorist Walter Benjamin - Pevsner wrote his dissertation of the German Baroque, a fascinating and mystical stylistic practice that surely pointed toward his later eye for identifying embellishment. He taught at Gottingen University from 1929-1933, but like many, fled the Nazi regime before its utter stranglehold.

Pevsner relocated in England, which informed his sensibilities through and through. England had a relatively diverse complement of buildings and styles, yet had always been somewhat obscured by famous continental works. Since England was generally out of step with continental fashion, it proved fitting that a man of wide experience and deep knowledge would bring his eye to bear on a land of idiosyncrasy, fantasy, and conflicted tradition.

Pevsner was a practicing academic for the most of the rest of his life, splitting time between writing and teaching. Though much of his work was ground-breaking in his day, he is seldom acknowledged in current scholarship. Methodology changes. My second post will focus on his books, the shear number of which are nearly unbelievable. Needless to say, he seemed to never have wasted a moment.

Some links, to tide until Part 2:

Transcribed lecture on Pevsner the man
A Pevsner Hub

Andy Warhol - Penguin Lives
Wayne Koestenbaum
Penguin Lives, Lipper/Viking ~ 2001

Warhol is one of the most written-about artists of the 20th century. Though viewed more a curiosity during his life than a figure of reverence, he has attained supra-mythical status over the last 20 years. His "pop" attitudes permeate all of Western culture, while the vapid reproducibility and clinical impersonality of some of his works invites ready comparisons with an automatized mass society. He was a printmaker, photographer, impresario, critic, celebrity, filmmaker, painter, sculptor, performance guru, and actor. Foes denounced (and continue to denounce) his utter break with previous artistic traditions, while his defenders support how he miraculously made a crisis-in-originality into the most original body of work of the 20th century. My own view is that Warhol and subsequent Warholia is inescapable, for better or worse, and that everybody - from children in elementary school up through your Grannie - ought to at least know a little something about Warhol.

Koestenbaum brings a very personal, avant-critical reading of Warhol's life. He admits the difficulty of doing so in a limited space, but wisely choses to invest his primary readings into a specific area. While Warhol is primarily loved for his mass prints, Koestenbaum finds the realest meaning in Warhol's films. The disjuction between the man and his subjects, between experience and mediation, characterizes Warhol's whole view on life. At times, Koestenbaum's Warhol is more of a tabla rasa text than Warhol. That is, Koestenbaum sees Warhol-the-man as a site for working out issues in sexuality. The reader is constantly reminded of Warhol's supposed asexuality, or abject fear of the intimate, while at the same time clued into his very open taste for men. While this certainly speaks to his attitudes to film - where he avoids the common Hollywood tropes of fetishizing the female body of above the male - it does not precisely speak to his general (to paraphrase Freud) "polymorphous perversity." Also, Warhol's most famous sex-totems are Edie Sedgwick (the "factory girl") and Marlyn Monroe. Thus, Warhol's depictions of sex seem a little more complicated and solid than Koestenbaum lets on, though he does a pretty good job of at least getting the ball rolling on this baffling aspect of Warhol's life.

The Penguin Lives series is meant for the general reader, though much of the text bleeds specialist knowledge. While this certainly isn't inaccessible, it does not necessarily lead to smooth, quick reading. However, the book's presentation and occasional film stills amount to a Warhol-friendly presentation.

Again, this Warhol is a very personal, idiosyncratic, and psycho-sexual Warhol and can in no way be called definitive. However, if any person of the 20th Century invited multiple readings, its Warhol.
  Some Thoughts
Just a few thoughts - each, I think, are symptomatic of bigger problems facing our world, or are concerns somewhat specific to this blog.

1) Patrons "not understanding" that GRINDHOUSE is the name of a "double-feature" film program comprising Planet Terror and Death-Proof. What is there not to understand? Did any of them look at the poster? Is the concept of the "double-feature" now so hopelessly and irretrievably dead that it simply does not register?

2) Seen at two unrelated places on Myspace.com - "Fuck all the bull shit." What are the chances?

3) Liking Shakespeare is the easiest thing to do in the world. Praising his plays and prose is so far beyond cliche as to be laughable. Politicians should list "the promotion of Shakespeare's works" as a talking point if they want to appeal to undecided or moderate voters, because it is, quite frankly, the least scandalous position to hold of nearly any position one can hold. Admitting that Shakespeare's works are an insurmountable goal for future generations should be silently passed along during grade school and left at that. Shakespeare should no longer be included in "best-of" lists (its understood), lists of genius (its implied), or in literature canons (his works are their own canon that trumps the other canon and sits comfortably atop). One can't expect to muster many votes for liking Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, or Dryden - but please, don't stick to what is safe.

4) This has been making the rounds in certain refined circles. The elites read in disbelief, laugh, and shake their heads. Those out of that loop say "so what?" One has to admit, the extremity of the set-up is ingenious...it not only exposes the publics' lack of cultural rigor, but it also exposes the supposedly soulless bureaucrat types for what the art establishment call them - soulless bureaucrats. However, I doubt that many people would be able to spot Branford Marsalis under the same circumstances. Or could identify R. B. Kitaj if he were offering to paint caricatures for $5 a head. Pretty much no figures in the so-called "higher" arts have any facial recognition these days, all this despite the ever-increasing profusion of our image culture. Less than 1% of the world could spot Robert Venturi standing next to his own building.
  Back-Catalog Raiding on eMusic
As far as online music services go, eMusic.com is a venerable granddaddy. It has been around for a number of years and has acted as a showcase for "independent" musicians of various pedigrees, across many genres. Patrons to eMusic pay a monthly sum for a set number of downloads, which yields them DRM-free tracks that are permanently owned and are playable on nearly any mp3 or media player. The main attraction, indeed the assumed target audience, for eMusic is the "indy" music lover. eMusic prides themselves on providing music from such bands as The Decemberists, The Arcade Fire, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - in fact, the promise of these bands and others is likely what keeps them in business.

My interest in eMusic is with their Jazz and Classical sections. eMusic does not have any of the "major" jazz labels on offer...no Blue Note, no Impulse...the best we get are Concorde and Prestige (and its various sub labels). What does this mean? It means no major Coltrane, none of the "essential" Miles Davis records (those are on Columbia), no major Herbie Hancock (try Warners and Columbia), and absolutely no Grant Green (he recorded on Blue Note his whole career!) So what's left? Deep tracks. As is bandied about, necessity is the mother of invention. There is actually a wealth of material on eMusic, for those willing to look. McCoy Tyner - Coltrane's pianist and one of the great chairmen of the boards - recorded a remarkable string of albums for Fantasy/Prestige in the early-to-mid 1970s that prove that he could be as remarkable a composer and soloist as 'Trane before him. Enfant terrible Charlie Mingus recorded all over the place and thus has a generous smattering of records on eMusic, the best of which are "Right Now: Live" and "The Town Hall Concert." The late, great Eric Dolphy is best known as a sideman for Coltrane and for his Blue Note record "Out to Lunch," but some of his obscure (in terms of rarity, not style) works are on eMusic. And if Dolphy is not free enough for you, most of the commercially available Albert Ayler is on eMusic, including the entirely to the "Holy Ghost" boxed set from Revenant Records. The mantra for jazz lovers on eMusic should be "try anything," because there are a number of great gems awaiting rediscovery.

Classical or "serious" music lovers will also find much to praise. Again, eMusic seems, at first, to mostly contain the obscure and inessential. Classical fiends will find almost all of the Naxos back catalog - great breadth of scope and some fine performances, often marred by so-so recording quality. Thanks to what appears to be a specially-brokered deal, eMusic has several recent recordings from the London Symphony Orchestra, including many Beethoven Symphonies and a good deal of Elgar. The recordings are crystal-clear, the performances impassioned, if occasionally workmanlike. Its a shame that the only album art we get are small jpg images, because the LSO discs are very design conscious and would look attractive on any CD rack.

In short, eMusic is not just for fans of rock, pop, punk, and indy. If anything, Classical aficionados and jazz lovers will find more to enthuse over, in part because many of the recordings in these genres have fewer, longer tracks per album, thus making it possible to download more complete albums per month.
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