Black artists protesting Emmett Till painting are fatuous philistines

A painting of murdered black boy Emmett Till’s beaten body on show at New York’s Whitney Biennial has become the latest object of fatuous, philistine claims of cultural appropriation and so-called systemic racism.

In 1955, 14-year-old Till was beaten and murdered in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman. The attackers were acquitted by an all-white jury. Till’s mother famously insisted on an open casket so the world could see the full horror of the crime.

‘Open Casket’ by Dana Schutz recreates the original, iconic photo of Emmett Till’s disfigured face, as an impressionist, modern and powerful reminder of a decisive moment in the movement towards civil rights in America. Whitney claim the painting was made as a response to worries about police brutality against black people today.


However, a number of protestors have taken it upon themselves to brand the art work as racist and illegitimate, claiming that Schutz has no right to objectify black victims, as a white artist.

Rather than see the painting as a sign of solidarity, these silly, imbecilic activists are determined to make Schutz the enemy.

Artist Hannah Black has written an open letter to Whitney calling for the painting to be destroyed. She writes:

‘Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.’

It appears we are suffering here from the ‘sacredness of the protestor’ syndrome. From Islamist victimhood to Black Lives Matter’s self-entitled immaturity, all someone needs to do now to be taken seriously or to make a university board cow to their every need, is to pull off the pose of the protestor.

We have been so programmed with the Apple Mac repackaging of the sixties, that the image of a marching, placard-carrying youth is now the shorthand for progressive ideas, and any attempt to criticise it is automatically reactionary.

Protesting has now become a lifestyle choice, a badge of honour for the instagram age. People seem more concerned with being seen to be on the right side of public opinion, than they do on being on the right side of history.

We really have to take a look at the issue of white guilt. Doing so does not mean we are re-writing the past, or turning a blind eye to colonialism. If we now live in a public space in which any reference to whiteness and privilege clears the ground for arbitrary moral claims to be given extra weight than they really deserve, then surely there is something wrong with the idea.

It is now impossible to weigh the claims of Black Lives Matter protests or outcries over ‘Islamophobia’, on their own merits. All someone needs to do to rise above scrutiny is shout accusations about systemic oppression or marginalisation, and all of a sudden they elevate themselves to some ethereal moral space that rules out further discussion.

If you pursue the fundamental moral worry, you hear all sorts of apologism about such and such a person’s experience, the marginalisation of their historic perspective and so on… on and on and on. All of this is supposed to give such claims a special dispensation against scrutiny and challenge.

If you are black, muslim or gay, for instance, you are now immune from such ‘white supremacist’ concerns about free speech, logical consistency or public order.

And this doesn’t even touch on the concern about artistic freedom. History tells us that when a movement begins to prescribe which art is morally acceptable and which is not, then that movement has turned from revolutionary to reactionary, it has assumed the role of executive power, and often does so without any deference to public warrant.

Not only that, the protestors in this case are not content with the removal of the pice of art in question, nor the closing of the exhibition – both of which would be an outrage in their own right. What is being piously demanded is the destruction of the piece of art in question.

How close are we now to book burning? How much further do we need to go from destroying works of art that we don’t like, to exterminating people we deem to be collectively guilty?

These protestors have ever right to protest and express their anger. But that same right gives the rest of us the freedom to not give a monkey’s behind about their feelings, and ignore them.

Crying wolf about racism and oppression is a double insult. Firstly, such claims are false and amount to a slander on what is undeniably one of the freest and most expressive cultures in history.

Secondly, they are a mockery to the countless feminists, journalists and political dissidents currently languishing in rat-infested cells around the world for simply disagreeing with their governments, or being of the wrong skin colour or racial group.

Appeals to invisible racism, or sub-conscious oppression, or hidden biases, amount to nothing more than a tenuous attempt by spoilt, bratty bourgeoisie kids to give their life some kind of elevated meaning. All you need to do to make yourself feel like a revolutionary is to invent through circuitous sophistry some reason for explaining away your liberties as examples of fascistic oppression.

Ultimately, if we are to accept the claims that only black people are allowed to discuss or creatively reflect on the crimes of white racists, what will happen to the numberless songs or works of art that formed the backbone of the civil rights movement? If we destroy this piece of art, what other mementoes of struggle do we have to wipe from our history? And who gets to decide which works stay and which have to go?

Some may respond to what is being said here with a claim that though the reaction of the protestors is extreme, their concerns are legitimate, that Dana Schutz’s art is an example of cultural appropriation, so we as white people should ‘check our privilege’ nonetheless.

Well, this too has hidden repercussions. Beneath this seemingly moderate claim is the admission that artistic value depends on political correctitude. And what is deemed correct still needs to be referred to some mythic council of tastemakers.

Fundamentally, the protests against Dana Schutz’s work are an insult to everyone who would otherwise get to make up their own mind about the painting. The very idea of cultural appropriation itself is an insult to the notions of artistic experiment and cultural exploration.

The people protesting this painting are using the right to protest to give their ideology credibility it does not deserve. They will no doubt claim to stand in history alongside Martin Luther King Jnr as dissenters against ignorance and racism. However, this claim has no more weight than the claims of warmongers to stand alongside Winston Churchill as one of history’s just warriors.

We must not be cowed by accusations of racism, or feelings of white guilt. A free society depends on its citizens feeling empowered to protest the protestor, to dissent against the dissenters. This right is the foundation of creative freedom, and the only thing that stands between civilisation and rapacious philistinism.

Why Jim Morrison was a true poet

Whether we consider Jim Morrison a poet or a rock star, his real art was as a vocalist. This was a form that he mastered, and studied, and took very seriously.

Look at the Hollywood Bowl concert, or listen to his poetry recordings, and you will start to understand his prowess in vocal phrasing, his sense of timing and feel, his complete lack of hackery and automatic recital. Morrison never phrased the same thing the same way twice. He relished the possibilities in the rhythms each word presented, the way you could rearrange conversational cliches to make poetry.

The word ‘spontaneity’ is obviously overused to the point of being meaningless, but in Morrison’s case it is a practical description of his approach to vocal performance.

The Doors

At the very least, the common image of Morrison as a buffoon pretending to be Byron doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, when you study him as a vocalist. He sounds like no one else, but you can hear echoes of Billy Holiday, Sinatra and Johnny Cash. He is versatile, can go from lyrical whisper to a gasoline growl in an instant, and had a Brando-esque ability to balance the violence and the tender with a Shakespearean command.

The charge of pretentiousness relies on the iconic image of him as a mere stream-of-consciousness garbler, a man who made theatrical use of his babbling narcissism.

When you listen to LA Woman, whatever limitations you may or may not find in the writing, the performance, the timing and ironic sense of feel, the playfulness of his delivery, show an artist who considered the effect of his work very deeply. There is a self-awareness and sensitivity to his audience that is overlooked with an almost ideological fervour by his critics. It suits everyone to dismiss Morrison as a cavorting fake, because to admit any level of craftsmanship would be to admit that a beautiful, sexually dangerous drunk had greater talents than oneself. An unconscionable proposition.

At the very worst, The Doors could be shambling, disordered and masturbatory. However, their characteristic style was progressive and dangerous, and very much centred around playful rhythm.

This playfulness extended to Morrison’s verse, which no one can argue is Milton or Donne, but is far better than is usually given credit for.

Morrison wrote in moving images. If we can say that the Ezra Pound imagism of the early twentieth century was a response to photography, Morrison’s great innovation was to write in dynamic images, as a response to cinema.

Without this understanding of Morrison, and without putting two and two together with his background in film and his love of Brechtian theatre, the poetry will inevitably seem meaningless and contrived.

In its proper context, it can be seen as an attempt to make poetry come off like film, to communicate via images and internal dialogue, rather than sculpted lyric for the page.

A perfect example is LA Woman, the song. We are placed in a revving car on the Sunset Strip, images of topless bars and drunks flashing past us, and a girl’s hair streaming in the flying air.

The song is all about creating a sense of movement, and we don’t get this just from Densmore’s drumming or Krieger’s hysteric runs.

‘I see your hair is burnin’
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar
Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars,
The topless bars
Never saw a woman…
So alone, so alone
So alone, so alone’

‘Midnight alleys roam’. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense, grammatically. But imagistically, it makes perfect sense. It’s language as cinema.

The language is forced and contorted to meet the stretched activity of the moving thought being communicated.

Morrison was a master of this. In Texas Radio And The Big Beat, the phrase, ‘soft, driven, slow and mad, like some new language,’ captures perfectly the swampy, overwhelming and dreadful creative possibilities that the young poet felt in confrontation with the blues and rock and roll music of his youth. The words don’t make sense the way a WH Auden poem makes sense. This stuff won’t pass the test of literary society.

A pretentious person wants to be accepted, to be part of the cool crew. Morrison sang the blues as himself, not in impersonation of anyone. In this sense, he’s easily a better vocalist than Mick Jagger. No cultural appropriation here, sorry.

Morrison’s style is his own, it’s the growling, theatrical, ironic intellectual outburst of a damaged, middle-class and mercurial boy. His soul is as expansive as the western desert, everything from barren sands to sweltering suburbs. It’s both apocalyptic and a celebration of the human spirit.

The strongest argument for calling Morrison a true poet lies in John Densmore’s creative reaction to his words. Densmore said himself that on first hearing:

‘You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Try to run, try to hide
Break on through to the other side’

…he heard rhythms, his jazz instrumentalist’s brain was awakened to the possibilities of song dynamics in such subtle and joyful interchange between rhythm and image.

Densmore is a consummate percussionist, one of the great underrated heroes of modern music, a true innovator in combing jazz music with rock and roll, something which has never been achieved since, without seeming bloated and tiresome.

The test of a poet should never be if another poet likes it. It should never be a decision for the critic. But when a drummer, himself admired by the likes of jazz genius Elvin Jones, says he can’t help playing along to your words, then you know are onto something.

People say such and such a thing is pretentious because their own relationship with their subconscious is thwarted. Their own creative energy feels like a threat, rather than a strange friend. In a word, they have failed to break on through.

You create movement, by creating friction. And Morrison’s poetry gets its energy not from established meters, or from mimicking an accepted style, but from innovating a new way of combining words and rhythms that clash and seem incongruous.

This is deliberate, just as his suspenseful phrasing and ability to goad and provoke a crowd were deliberate. Whatever you think of Morrison as a poet, claiming that he is a stoned idiot jacking himself off, is a clear sign of ignorance, not just of his music, but of the history of poetry itself.

Why hipsters secretly hate Patti Smith and how modern intellectuals have become the propagandists for consumerism

pattinakedI was recently watching an interview with Patti Smith, by a Scandinavian cleric. He told Patti that she was embodying a very traditional, and long-forgotten Christian value-system, by centring her art on expressions of the divine.

Patti acknowledged that is actually her mission – to harness the ineffable beauty inside of her, and communicate it to her fellow man.

It made me laugh, because this view of art, and the placing of a high-value on the individual artist as spiritual missionary, flies in the face of the hipster nihilism of our times.

The very notion that an artist would arrogate herself the role of divine PR-officer is a direct threat to those with a vested interest in a Godless, Machiavellian culture.

Not only is it a threat to the CEOs and the elite billionaires who profit from animalistic consumption; it is a challenge to the smug, wise-cracking, hipster, social critics and academic liberals, who see themselves as independent thinkers, but assume that this role requires nothing more than pointing and laughing at human folly.

The tendency to assume that purely egotistical motivations lie behind everything, especially art, has its roots in the puritanical iconoclasm of the late medieval period – the Reformation.

Like the reaction to colonialism, the reaction to corrupt religion is legitimate, and accurate in ascribing narcissistic motives to the trumpery of ritual and scriptural propaganda.
But the danger is that all sacredness becomes suspect, just as today, all statements of purpose are considered suspect.

In the modern, post-Marxist, post-everything world, it is not enough to reject religion. Purpose and meaning are also to be treated with contempt.

When an artist says – “my purpose is to manifest the divine in the material world,” it sounds grandiose. But what is the alternative?

A belief in the sacred is simply the expression of gratitude and love, not just for people, but for life itself. Enthusiasm, curiosity, idealism and a faith in the flourishing of life are unfashionable.

The advantage of nihilism is it allows you to be lazy. The advantage of cynicism, is that it allows you to be right, all the time.  When one lives with faith, one must live with the possibility of failure and disappointment. When one lives with enthusiasm and purpose, one must live with the prospect of one’s own frailty, one’s sinfulness and self-destructiveness. A sense of purpose is a lot to live up to.

This is the ultimate defence of the artistic missionary. As it is with the person of faith. It may be that a simplistic Freudian explanation is true. The artist is grandiose and narcissistic. But it is more likely that their sense of who they are, the sense of meaning that guides them, is tested at every creative juncture – with every choice and new beginning, and with every moment of inevitable exposure.

In that way then, the artistic life, the life of the self-ascribed missionary of beauty, is one of great humility and egotistical cost.

The egotist plays it safe. The missionary takes risks. The egotist has the benefit of always being right, because he is never testing himself. The missionary is always wrong, and her success emerges from acceptance of that fact.

To live an artistic life, the poet’s life of spiritual purpose, contravenes the arrogant assumptions of modernity. Far easier is it for the modern happy worker, and the contented cog in the great technological wheel, to believe that human beings are narcissistic and greedy, and live lives of meaningless consumption.

Thinking this way gives a person a sense of righteous insight; it also embodies the very values that allow the worst crimes of exploitation and rapacious consumption of our times.

What people cannot stand about the artist, is not that she has elected herself to be a voice of the divine, though that might be the stated reason for contempt. Rather, it is the values implicit in an artistic world view, that the modern, Hobbesian nihilist cannot abide.

The artist, as opposed to the prosaic creative craftsman, is a threat to the very value-system of intellectual slavery that governs modern life. In order for the consumptive economy to persist, higher meaning and alternative forms of happiness must be rejected and purged from our consciousness. The pursuit of fulfilment must be replaced with the pursuit of lust.

Scientific method has come to represent nothing more than this violent nothingness, this industrial void. Academics and cultural commentators no longer feel a duty to propose alternative views of human nature and social values. Instead, they invest their rebellion in disgust at consumerism and the will to power. They sneer from the sidelines of public life about the gracelessness of human nature and reduce all human achievement to an imperial instinct for self-aggrandisement.

As a result, rebellion is really now just a form of conformity to the dominant power-worship of the day. By simply professing contempt for power, without affirming alternative values (other than economic equality), the liberal rebel is not really challenging the intellectual regime of the age.

The modern critic does not see fit to offer new models of living, or to affirm bygone values of a higher happiness.

The hipster – the scientist, the broadcaster, the prose writer, the journalist or academic – is content to be complicit in modernity’s nihilism, because exposing it for what it is, is enough to feel superior and intellectually penetrating.

A belief in beauty, a leap towards an earnest view of human potential, would mean there is too much to lose. The modern rebel, the hipster, has thus become simply an unwitting propagandist for meaninglessness, and he is usually happy to be just that.

In an age of nihilism, the profession of faith is the most damaging form of rebellion. For this reason, the hipster rebel must pour scorn on the true artist.

Cliches, originality and hipsterism: Why culture depends on constant imitation

We are all cliches until proven otherwise. The engine of culture is imitation.

People who stop creativity in its tracks because they fear being a cliché are people who don’t understand creativity at all. They don’t understand that all culture revolves on an axis of apprenticeship. We are all a work in progress and we are always imitating others.

The distinction between original and cliché is like the distinction between altruism and selfless giving. It’s abstract at best, and in practice rarely exists. All artists are either imitating others or their own past successes, until luck and fortune turn up and deliver something new out of the mess.

That’s all an artist can do. You have to turn up – face the blank page. And you can only start with what you know.

The idea that you have to create something ground-breaking and world changing right away is a philistine’s belief. Only people who are completely ignorant of creativity and how it works could possibly think like that.

Most of the creative process is turning up, readying yourself for when lightening chooses to strike. And you have to learn the tools of your trade to be be ready.

Learning the tools of your trade means learning how the masters did what they did. It’s also important to cherish those masters because they are the only thing that will inspire you through the lean times.

It’s very fashionable these days to act suspicious of hero-worship. Just like patriotism, or idealism – holding up the greatness of heroes is seen as something untenable in the end-of-history age of the post-cold war, post-Hitler Mactopia.

This is the root of much of the nihilism of our times. We have seen the toxic dangers of idealism and nationalism, of serving a creed out of a sense of duty.

So this generation sees fit to abandon all duty, all creeds and all heroes.

This is a dunce’s philosophy, but the most dangerous thing about it is that the nihilist thinks they are being smart – they really believe that they are acting with a worldly detachment born from insight.

Behind the hipsterish distaste for imitation and hero-worship then, lies cowardice.

Rather than attempting to philosophise our way out of bad ideas into good, we reject the importance of ideas completely. Far better to invest in random, fatalistic misery and metaphysical emptiness, than to invest in the notion that how we envision the world can determine the life we lead. Much less responsibility that way.

Nihilism pretends to be a wised-up perspective; it’s a conceited way of masking fear and intellectual laziness. We know this, because it involves no risk. It’s a form of psychological surrender, and the worst thing about it is that people think it’s a kind of savant-like achievement.

There’s no achievement in defaulting to nihilism.

Most creativity is a cliché. You can’t act without a creed, and to reject all value-systems because some values have been destructive, is imbecilic.

Our heroes must be cherished, because it is through them that we find the resources to carry on. The great struggle of being an artist is that there is no earthly, rational reason to carry on doing what you are doing. The process is entirely intuitive, and that’s why so many people give up. They look for a guarantee, a rational, air-tight case to keep doing what they do.

You never find that reason. Originality, inventiveness and revolutionary works of art can’t be thought or willed into existence anyway.

The only certainty you can find to keep you going in times of doubt and terrifying, humiliating creative droughts, will be found in your heroes.

It’s remarkably easy to talk yourself out of being creative. You can’t argue with that voice, because it’s right – it’s perfectly logical.

There are already too many artists. All the great things have been said. You can’t break the rules any more than they have already been broken.

With a deference to heroes, however, we find an intuitive energy that keeps us going. We realise that they imitated most of the time, until that process of imitation bestowed on them their own voice. That voice will show itself to you, but you can’t discover it through intellectual reasoning – it will spring itself on you.

If you choose to adopt the posturing of hipster nihilism, because it gives you the false comfort of being one step ahead of a meaningless universe, then you will never find that voice.

The muses only visit the humble. The holy spirit rains fire only upon the devoted.

Your job is not to be constantly original. Your job is simply to imitate, learn your trade and be happy with being a cliché until lightening decides to strike.

It may never strike. Tough. That’s how culture works, it evolves over time, and most of it is abrasively slow.

If you have a problem with this, if you can’t stand to be unoriginal, then you are no artist, you’re a glory-seeker, a hipster, a fashionista and yes, a philistine.

You better free your mind instead: The age of revolution is over

John Lennon’s Revolution turned the ideals of 1960s on their head – challenging the outrage and fire and wilful chaos of the age.

All this coming from someone who had already become a figure head for the momentum of change. A distinct, revolutionary and individual voice was now confronting the egotistical destructiveness of the moment, and throwing it back in the generation’s own face.

I first fell in love with The Beatles through The Anthology series that was released around 1995. To this day my understanding of the band is through the prism of demos and outtakes – all their backstage humour and experimental creativity.

The Anthology’s great achievement was in giving listeners a sense of how completely tight these four creative giants really were. Even in the years that relationships broke down, the music was as intuitive and committed as it ever was and that standard never faltered.

It’s this that makes The Beatles unique. Not just their genius, but their ability to sustain that genius, and for it to survive and even be fuelled by, the clash of creative egos.

Revolution is a spiritual song – it’s yoga. The great revolution is in the human heart: “we all wanna change your head.” But it’s also a direct critique of the sloganeering and follow-my-leader activism that is still fetishised about the sixties.

It takes the baton from Dylan’s My Back Pages in satirising party politics and ideology, this time naming names. It goes even further in damning the ideal of destruction, something which was held up as a virtue in the sixties.

Today, we still hold destruction and disruption to be virtuous, albeit in the modified, baby-boomer bourgeoisie nostalgia of Silicon Valley and corporate branding. But the idea is the same – change is automatically good and the old world is the ancient regime – the oppressor from which we must wriggle free.

That Revolution is a balls-to-wall rock and roll song of the Sun Records variety is part of Lennon’s great artistic statement.

Yes, he is saying, rock and roll is revolutionary, but it’s not political. The great liberation is being able to decide for yourself, create your own identity free of cultural determinism. To replace the old repressive values with new party lines, defeats the whole message of hope that rock and roll once delivered.

The last verse is the most significant and tackles the dangers of revolution for the sake of it:

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You’d better free your mind instead

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow

When I heard this song for the first time, finally getting a hold of a copy of the White Album, I felt deflated and confused. My 15-year-old self was already sold on The Wonder Years-style sixties nostalgia. A time of upheaval and revolution was far preferable to me than a John Major Britain, an age of yuppies, Lovejoy and Kylie Minogue.

Here was Lennon challenging my lust for rebellion and my hatred of authority. Yes, I did want to change the constitution. Yes, I did hate institution.s These things represented my teachers and arbitrary rules and the conformist expectations of my peers – the celebration of obedience and going along with the crowd.

Everything about these ideas meant the suppression of individuality. In a way, I felt betrayed by the lyrics of the song.

However, this was my first taste of the intellectual power of pop music, and indeed popular art. Lennon had a piercing ability to get under your skin, to get right in your face, just with a few lines. That very talent, as I was later to discover with Dylan, is far more powerful than some feel-good political anthem telling me what I want to hear.

Revolution is a song that challenges the euphoric, cultish conformism of the 1960s and which we are still suffering from today.

The time for revolutions is over.

We have become addicted to the memory of the sixties, to the narrative of revolution and the glory of change.

These things are making us blind to where we came from and how far we have come; they make us see bigotry where there is only discourse and reactionary forces where there are time-tested values.

Liberty does not come from permanent revolution. Freedom is not synonymous with discord and upheaval.

What we need now is a return to the root – “the roots that clutch”, as Eliot said.

That does not mean fascism, that does not mean nativism or nationalism. It does however, mean pride, identity and civic duty.

It does mean mean deference, obedience and honouring good office.

The time for hedonistic revolution is over. Drugs do not emancipate the mind. Indulgence and license are not the roads to freedom.

The road to liberty is narrow, and grown about with thorns and briars. It’s a road of struggle, and fumbling and slow progress.

Liberty, as opposed to liberation, requires patience, and putting faith in our past.

This is not the age of innovation, or disruption or of permanent change. What we need is now is to go back, reconnect with a pre-industrial ideal of community, citizenship and culture.

That’s not a Luddite argument. I am not talking about dialling back the clock. I am talking about cultural introspection, affirming what is good and worthwhile in our culture.

There’s a tendency to think that progress means a permanent year zero. We like this idea because we are obsessed with the romance of revolution, with the idea that we can break free from our personal demons through social activism.

We believe emancipation, liberation and revolution lead to greater agency and personal self-command.

In fact, revolution very often robs us of agency, just as drugs and intoxicants rob us of our sense of self.

We must return to the western canon, the through-line of history that binds us to our heritage, and we must do this of our own accord.

It’s not about government. It’s not about equality. It’s not about human rights.

All these things are just words on paper unless we understand their place in history.

Liberty is not something made up of good policy. It can’t be enforced. It’s a spiritual condition, a state of civilisation, consisting of individuals.

Liberty is the balance of the harmonious individual, and harmonious relationships.

All the emancipation of the sixties – all the good stuff, gay rights, civil rights, breaking class barriers and giving women the right be flourishing citizens – all of this is under threat, because we are addicted to revolutions, instead of honouring the ideas and ideals that inspire them.

It’s time to stop basking in the narcissism of innovation and change. It’s time to return to the roots of our culture, the “known laws of ancient liberty.”

All the vanity of politics and ideology and technology is irrelevant. What matters is man’s own relationship with himself, the moral recognition of his own value, and the value of life itself.

The good news is that we have the resources for that, and those resources have nothing to do with Google, Mark Zuckerberg and Netflix.

We need to lean on the tall oak of our culture, the oldest songs and poetry, the most lasting wisdom of our elders and our forefathers.

Cultures do not survive through revolutions, for revolutions are like wars – they destroy the old and fetishise the new.

Cultures survive on the resources handed down generation to generation, on the accumulative ideas and principles of human growth.

Don’t talk to me about Artificial Intelligence. Don’t bore with with the new genre of dance music. Don’t lecture me on the cool new drug.

Don’t talk to me of technology, change and innovation. It’s done. It’s over. It’s all a scam.

The real truth is in the past. The real truth is in our bones, in our blood, in our ancient mind.

Everything else is a distraction, a false promise.

Nothing can change our quest for love, our terror at death, our hunt for belonging. These are the ancient principles of life, and you can’t paper them over with plastic or polish them up into something new.

Modernity is compulsively utopian, always looking for the quick fix – from toothpaste and iPhones all the way up to government policy initiatives.

We need to let go of all that, and introspect, look within. We need to go back. Progress is just an excuse for the worst kind of smug conservatism. It’s over.

In defence of Patti Smith: a rebuttal to Ian Penman in the LRB

Ian Penman’s tiresome review of Patti Smith’s book M-Train in the London Review of Books ends with this withering paragraph:

“Smith’s wish-upon-a-star bohemia is all in her head, or up on her bookshelves. It doesn’t, it couldn’t, exist out in the workaday world: the rents are too high, and social media is too quick to smother the first tender shoots of difference. The likes of Harry Smith, Robert Frank or Sun Ra (or indeed 1970s Smith herself) wouldn’t stand a chance of a slowly nurtured career in the New York of today. M Train is fixated with the mourning process one case at a time, but there is surely cause for a wider social mourning that Smith doesn’t begin to voice or articulate. She was 15 in 1961, and her airy worldview is anchored in that time: it’s a mix of cool beatnik empathy, early rock’n’roll hysteria and (still) the idea of those supernaturally funky folks on, uh, the dark side of town. (Don’t get me started on her rap about how she learned to dance with all the funky ‘spades’.) T.S. Eliot once said of Baudelaire that he was ‘in some ways far in advance of the point of view of his own time, and yet was very much of it, very largely partook of its limited merits, faults and fashions’. Virginia Woolf said of another great street philosopher, Thomas de Quincey: ‘He shed over everything the lustre and the amenity of his own dreaming pondering absent-mindedness.’ So it is with Patti Smith: you just have to take the rough with the smooth. She is great at reminding us all of our own youthful dreams; it’s just a whole lot tougher to make them coincide with reality these days than she suggests.”

Penman seems to think there is a moral failure in an artist describing an inner world that butts heads with the consumerist culture of our times. As if it is somehow pollyannaish, quaint and childish. The subtext of his review seems to be that an artist should agree with reality (whatever that is supposed to be), that an artist has a duty to get in line with the times.

What Penman has seems to miss however, is that Patti Smith’s art has always been an attempt to fight the prevailing nihilism which she witnessed growing around her in the early seventies. The idealism of the sixties turned into a commodity, and we are still living in the shadows of that glorious revolution. Like all revolutions it has its “year zero” and that could be said to be 1977.

Penman’s career began around this time, and he describes his disappointment at realising that far from being the goddess of punk nihilism that he and his contemporaries yearned for, Patti Smith had all along been a devotee of the “Electric Church” spirituality of the hippies, and the “typewriter-is-a-holy-cock” sacredness of the Beat poets.

Ian Penman’s attempt to burst the boho bubble of Patti Smith and her fans reveals the dangers of the punk conceit: that meaningless is safer and more reliable than any notion of the sacred

The punk aesthetic immediately assumes that iconoclasm is more “authentic” than a sacred image. That tearing down heroes is more truthful and honest than venerating one’s elders. The punk conceit is that believing in nothing is more grounded in truth than holding the world to a set of ideals that may not yet exist.

If this attitude had prevailed throughout history, we would not have the speeches of Pericles, the Buddha’s eightfold path, the Italian Renaissance, the American constitution, the British reform acts or rights for women.

That the 20th century disillusioned us of the dignity of man can’t be doubted. But the eventual recourse of punk was to abandon any belief in human goodness, in the hope of coming to some basic therapeutic peace with the tragedies of war, genocide and totalitarianism that haunted the post-war generations.

The punk conceit is that hope is the cause of misery, because hope is almost always disappointed. Far better to face the selfishness and degradation of human beings, than it is to believe oneself or anyone else capable of rising above the “nasty, brutish and short”.

While presenting itself as the world-weary wisdom of plain-speaking, puritan individuality, the punk conceit of people like Penman actually betrays a Soviet-style ready deference to the prevailing chaos of the times. Rather than admit that it is in fact individuals that create history, the likes of Penman prefer to see these forces as faceless, inevitable and always bent on destruction and meaninglessness.

That is why a book like M-Train is such an affront to what became of the punk movement. It is a movement that we are still living in the shadows of. Freedom becomes chaos, emancipation becomes selfishness, and the only defence against toxic ideology becomes nihilistic cynicism.

Could there be any better breeding ground for consumerism than the anti-ideology of the punk conceit?

Could mass corporations who want to illicit thoughtless responses in their “target markets” hope for a more pliable, perfectly formed audience than the post-marxist nihilistic millennial, who believes any amount of idealism and hope is a sign of a weak will?

Rather than being the picture of a woman living in the clouds, M-Train is a witty journey into the joyful eccentricities of a lonely hippy. Some of the book’s strengths are the stories that seem to fall away without ending, the mini-disasters and foibles that give this book its human texture.

Whereas Just Kids did seem to depict an idillic bohemian love story – one that hipsters long to imitate in their Shoreditch flats and overpriced Brooklyn bedsits – M-Train actually gives you the picture a woman whose domestic rituals and habits of everyday worship are the mark of true defiance.

Ian Penman needs to put down the post-structuralist theory books and go and read some William Blake. At certain points in history, when industry, war and inequality turn human beings into willing machines, the most powerful form of rebellion is the pastoral or the sacred.

At times, Penman’s review simply contradicts itself. He chides Smith for claiming to be “of the people” when in fact she has supposedly long been a high living rock star, detached from ordinary people (like Ian Penman) in her own personal Abbotsford of bohemia. Later, however, Penman mocks Smith for being a devoted mother in Michigan daring to have dreams of Jean Genet and Baudelaire. Which is it that he dislikes the most? The dreamy, wannabe Symbolist poet of downtown Manhattan? Or the wannabe mother peeling potatoes in Detroit?

What really seems to bother Penman is Smith’s catholic tendency to worship and praise. His distaste for Patti’s follow-up albums to Horses, Easter and Radio Ethiopia probably exists because they rely on religious imagery, homage and worship.

Yes, Ian, she did grow up catholic, and far from being a contradiction to her rock and roll claims, Smith’s religious tendency could be viewed as her greatest contribution to the form. Following on from her Beat mentors, Smith’s brand of rebellion shuns riotous icon defacing, for the more imaginative, empowering and truly threatening art of relighting the votive flame of individual consciousness.

M-Train begins where Just Kids left off – and it is all the better book for it. In M-Train, Smith reveals how she maintains her optimism and relish in human life, even in the face of random acts of meaningless destruction like Superstorm Sandy, or a horrible, humiliating vomiting spree in Mexico. She shows how she maintains her sweetness in the face of bullies and cynics, and how that sweetness usually wins out.

But above all M-Train is a book about everything that punk rock could have been, had it not given way to the cocky nihilism that Ian Penman seems to prize so much. It is a book about how one individual can live life as they see fit, not as the world tells them they should. How the small, habitual details of our lives can become political weapons in the hands of a writer in command of her craft.

True rebellion, and therefore the true life of an artist, is the ability to harness one’s individual peculiarities to make a general statement about human life. The stubborn bohemianism of Patti Smith is not an anachronistic delusion. Rather it is a testament to the prosaic defiance of living your life your own way, of being exactly who you are, without compromise.

The strange and sinister truth behind the fetish for Penman-esque nihilism, is that it seems to affirm individual intelligence while promoting compliance to faceless social forces. Therein lies the big threat of Patti Smith’s humble but dangerous little book.

Adventures in old songs: The irreverent freshness of Alasdair Roberts

‘I don’t really consider myself a folk singer,’ says Alasdair Roberts, whose music is steeped in traditional influences.

Alasdair shuns the label not out of some desire to avoid being pinned down, but because he feels certain words are ‘fraught with problems.’

‘Some people think of me as a folk artist, not sure if I do myself,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I do. In some ways it’s an adequate description, but in other ways it isn’t really.’


Alasdair also doesn’t like the cliches and associations with being an ‘acoustic artist’.

Though he has done his fair share of the stripped back, raw, one-man-and-guitar approach, Alasdair doesn’t seem to have an attachment to any particular style.

Having started out as an experimental and electronic artist, this makes sense. His primary interest is in the sound, not in the dogma or the genre.

Alasdair’s latest self-titled album has a warm mix of instrumentation and individuality.

He gives the impression that he would like to do more work with other musicians, and not be tied down to preconceived notions of the lone folk balladeer.

‘I think a lot of people, they think that they are getting something, because of the intimacy, “authentic”. But these words are fraught with problems. “Authenticity” and “honesty”.

‘People feel that they are getting that with this kind of approach. A stripped back approach makes people use words like that, and when I read reviews of my records with words like that I don’t really like it. It makes me uncomfortable.’

Alasdair’s music is infused with traditional music and stories.

He often peppers his live performance with new interpretations of classic ballads and can bring large audiences to utter stillness with his unaccompanied renditions of these songs.

Alasdair’s advantage as a ballad singer is that he doesn’t rely on established approaches, and he’s not referencing any nostalgic oeuvre.

Scottish music in particular suffers from this nostalgia, and can often be dismissed and avoided by modern audiences for its perceived corniness.

In short, British folk music can sometimes suffer from an image problem.

Alasdair, being a sound artist first, brings your focus onto the song, and the song only.

But if he doesn’t consider himself a folk singer necessarily, why turn to folk songs?


‘I’m attracted to the song form in particular,’ he explains.

‘I think when comes to traditional song, in Scotland or elsewhere, it’s the ballad or narrative songs that appeal to me, and have done for a long time. So I suppose in that sense I suppose I could be regarded as a folksinger.

‘But I feel like I am trying to act creatively with traditional material. My own writing draws on quite traditional sources a lot of the time.’

There is a marked difference between his approach to traditional forms and his own writing, however.

When interpreting old songs, he still pays respect to their simplicity, and to the heritage of melodies that they provide.

Alasdair’s own self-composed work, however, is broad reaching, drawing on multiple influences and he seems to go out of his way not to let a song be dictated to by style.

Each piece has its own identity, and invents its own rules.

Alasdair recalls his first adventures in sound recording, which were anything but traditional.

‘I started out recording in my bedroom when I was like sixteen or seventeen. Well, I started recording stuff then,’ he says.

‘I bought a four track when I was seventeen, and I spent a lot of time as a teenager alone in my bedroom recording music. At that time it was more just sonic experiments, it wasn’t necessarily about songs.’

The concernen with texture and sonic impact is something that has lasted in Alasdair’s approach, particularly in his live performances.

But his background and family heritage were steeped in the Scots folk tradition. With a father who was a folk musician, Alasdair says he remembers old records from the likes of Alex Campbell in his father’s collection.

Was there a sense of reacting against all that in his early musical identity?

‘I think so,’ he admits. ‘And I think that tension sort of remains. Sometimes it’s felt more keenly in the work than at other times. But I think that’s quite typical of a lot of Scottish artists of my generation.’

Where does the resistance come from? Is it wanting to avoid cliches, or the familiar?

‘An association with conservatism, small-mindedness, and backward looking, retrogressive impulses.’

That ‘remaining tension’ could be the source of Alasdair Roberts’s piercing and arresting performance style.

When playing live, there is a constant need to explore, to avoid the predicted result and find a new way of saying what’s been said already.

Alasdair continues: ‘After a while the question of conservatism didn’t really bother me.

‘I didn’t feel that exploring or having an interest in an art form that one perceived as something conservative necessarily entailed that you as the explorer of that art form were conservative.’

This balance of exploration and conservatism is prevasive in Alasdair’s work, and he now embraces it fully.

He says that the influence of a presbyterian culture may be the source of puritanism in the Scots folk tradition, and as a result its tendency to get trapped in repetitive tropes and associations.

However, Alasdair is wary of getting into any political or cultural speculation, and though he recognises the Scottish heritage, he doesn’t consider it – or anything else – the dominant influence on his creativity.

‘I suppose on some level there was an exploration of Scottish identity,’ Alasdair explains, ‘but then my repertoire has never been exclusively Scottish. I sing English and Irish and American songs too.’

Like any good sound artist, the environment and immediate sensory resources are where Alasdair seems to get his impulses to write.

‘There’s a historical influence and the traditional influence comes from these older recordings and things, but then there is the very immediate contemporary influence of the people I am working with in the moment.

‘I live in Glasgow, and I’ve lived there for about twenty years, and its very vibrant musical community so we just absorb the atmosphere of what’s going on.

‘Different projects of the people you work with, that’s more of an influence than saying I’m influenced by Bob Dylan or something.’

Even when it comes to traditional material, the sense of exploration and freedom still fuels the process.

Alasdair explains that one song can change identity each time you sing it, and that this is part of the power of old songs.

He says: ‘The Cruel Mother, I’ve probably been singing that for fifteen years now. And the way I approach it now is completely different than the way I did ten of fifteen years ago.

‘And I am sure as I grow and mature, and as I experience things in my life, it will enrich my approach to that song.

‘And hopefully the way I sing that song in fifteen or twenty years time will be totally different to the way I sing it now. You can always find different things in the song to explore.


‘Different ways to think about it. Different ways to think about the characters and different ways to bring those characters across.’

This fluidity and adaptability are essential to Alasdair Roberts as an artist. But it’s the fact that this sometimes irreverent freshness meets with traditional forms that makes his work so important and unique.

As long as Alasdair Roberts continues to perform, Scottish folk song can properly be called a ‘living tradition’.

Alasdair Roberts will be performing a two-day residency at London’s Cafe Oto on February 10-11. 

Tickets can be purchased here

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