To mark the 100-year anniversary of Dylan Thomas’ birth, Wales – or, more accurately, the BBC – has been gripped with an attempt to align the poet’s life and work with the country of his birth. There is nothing untoward about this initiative in itself – anniversary-governed programming plays a huge role in the BBC’s arts output – but the tying of Thomas to Wales and its national and cultural identity doesn’t quite work here, and belies a quiet desperation to inject a dose of nationalism into a subject that doesn’t quite warrant it.
The act of assemblage, of composition through unifying disparate elements of pre-existing texts, takes many forms in contemporary British poetry, and is utilised to various ends. However, despite the multifarious ways in which this aesthetic manifests itself, there are two overriding functions that assemblage performs: firstly it challenges pre-conceived notions of poetic form and extends the ways in which a text can generate meaning, and secondly it uses this formal and linguistic experimentation to exhibit a certain postmodern malaise in contemporary culture, which displays as self-evident the difficulty of meaningful self-expression in late-capitalist culture. Most importantly, the use of assemblage ventures a viable means for artistic expression in an era in which, as Kalle Lasn writes, ‘culture is no longer created by the people’ and ‘the spectacles that surround the production of culture…are our culture now. Our role is mostly to listen and watch – and then, based on what we have heard and seen, to buy.’
Within music criticism and journalism in recent years there has been a growing fixation with what has come to be known as ‘retromania’, or ‘pop culture’s addiction to its own past.’ The overriding thesis of this critique is that recent technological and cultural circumstances have led to something of a regression in the creative impulses of musicians, leading to a lack of innovative styles and an overreliance on pre-existing forms as the inspiration for ‘new works’. This criticism has been particularly championed by SimonReynolds, who articulates his misgivings about contemporary pop music as follows:
Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.
In order to fully understand the extent to which popular culture today is commodified in comparison to previous eras it is essential to recognise the various developments of capital not as distinct phenomena, but as part of a continual process of accumulation, expansion and consequent abstraction. It is crucial to note, as David Harvey writes, that:
Capital is a process and not a thing. It is a process of reproduction of social life through commodity production, in which all of us in the advanced capitalist world are heavily implicated. Its internalised rules of operation are such as to ensure that it is a dynamic and revolutionary mode of social organization, restlessly and ceaselessly transforming the society within which it is embedded. The process masks and fetishizes, achieves growth through creative destruction, creates new wants and needs, exploits the capacity for human labour and desire, transforms spaces, and speeds up the pace of life.
With the recent hype surrounding the latest batch of Christmas-themed TV adverts, it is notable how their reception appears to have displaced ‘proper’ art. I have witnessed, on social media and elsewhere, more excitement, anticipation and discussion regarding these adverts (particularly the ubiquitous offering from John Lewis) than I have any film, TV show or song in recent memory. While this is not inherently a bad thing – it’s not that I’m precious about people paying more attention to advertising than capital ‘A’ Art – the way people are coaxed into venerating content that exists solely to extract money from them is rather sinister.
To gain an understanding of the way in which art can itself be an agent of cultural critique it is vital to explore the true nature of spectatorship, how this relates to the production and reception of meaning in art and, ultimately, how a lucid understanding of these two issues contribute to a recognition of art’s actual critical capacity. Here we will identify art’s critical potential through a focus on the implications of Jacques Ranciere’s analysis of spectatorship, while also drawing upon Adorno’s exploration of meaning in art, and identifying how their work relates to a burgeoning accelerationist aesthetic evident in some contemporary artistic practice. The manifestation of this critical potential in contemporary art will be explored through the works of musicians James Ferraro and Daniel Lopatin, as well as a selection of the multitude of artists following in their wake.
‘In a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.’ – Frederic Jameson
‘The twentieth century’s closing scenes having witnessed the apparent end of history rather begged the question of what on earth we were meant to do from now on. The same instability and uncertainty which has produced a loss of faith in political orthodoxies, and analytical paralysis in the face of a multiplicity alternatives, has also produced a splintered and disintegrated culture at a loss as to how to define itself and, given the apparent imminence of disaster, unconvinced that it’s worthwhile bothering to do so.’ – Rhian E Jones
I’ve been intending to write about vaporwave for some time, but I’m glad I have refrained from doing so until now, as two pieces I’ve recently read have led me to completely reassess my thoughts on the genre, and by extension what I believe to be the misunderstood role of what is commonly identified as pastiche and retromanic tendencies in modern music.