Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Imagine David Bowie Happy - an experimental life well lived.


This is a piece I wrote in the Summer for The Modernist Magazine
(Available online as the magazine has now sold out)

Just to clarify my own personal experiments involve potentially futile attempts to reintroduce anecdote to Art. I see this as similar to Henri Michaux systematically ingesting mescaline in order to record the affect on his creative output. Both experiments are about questioning the sense of linear causality which has consumed our experience of creative practice. From the Renaissance onwards the acceleration of art’s alleged necessity for self-sufficiency increased until in the 20th Century the image became autonomous and finally we had Guy de Bord’s vision of “separation perfected”. Through intuitive genius Einstein and Picasso devised ways to join things back together – E=mc2 and Les Demoiselle D’Avignon. It is significant that Picasso’s painting drew so much dark energy from cultures where separation is not present (the art object is part of life’s rituals). The painting’s power was triggered when Picasso made the decision to remove the sailor, on the left hand side, whose presence had kept the painting within the realm of a specific street in a red light district. The resultant tectonic shift created something primordial but instead of culture embracing a collective shadow-self, Art via Analytical Cubism became an arena of formalist experimentation. As if the rational mind wanted to take back control after the shock of things re-colliding.

Fast-forward to the sixties and a gang of idiotes-savantes called The Beatles managed to briefly weave things back together. For a while it seemed as if they were writing history before it happened. They embodied Bruhl’s concept of the primitive mind, which explores the idea of “participation mystique” where a personality merges with surrounding persons and objects. I wanna hold your hand.  They managed to animate Derrida’s idea of the Trace precisely because they were unaware of the tangled web academics were stuck in because language and ideas are mutually reinforcing. I mean their weaving of personal and social threads was not about appropriation but an embodied understanding that the “new media” were part of life itself.  Then this happened

“A malignant rot has spread through the Western mind since the mid-seventies: the virus of meaninglessness”. Revolution in the Head

David Bowie seems to have cottoned onto this before anyone else. Bowie has mentioned that he might have been a painter. Had he been would we think of him more as a great experimenter of the late twentieth century? His choice of idiom was his genius – perhaps he is a painter at heart. I don’t think Bowie ever said that painting directly onto canvas would not have allowed him to get at what he was getting at but that this is so is irrefutable. Part of the reason my attempts to clarify Bowie’s experimentalism become more convoluted the clearer I seek to make them is because the sense comes from magic-thinking. The synchronicity, for instance, of David Bowie’s first acting role being in “The Image” as a young man who steps out of a painting to haunt the artist who created him. Later he and Iggy Pop both tried to outdo each other in re-creating Erich Heckel’s painting Roquairol for the covers of Heroes and The Idiot respectively. Iggy got closest because David could never entirely forsake beauty. Painting somehow wasn’t a medium capable of escaping the already tired reflex of making jokes about jokes about art.

As a songwriter I had become somewhat obsessed with how Bowie had written Life on Mars. Rather than consoling myself with the knowledge that he’d had a head start with the chords to My Way (Comme d’habitude) I realised that the pain of his lyrics being rejected (Even a Fool Learns to Love) had driven him on to create a work of seismic intensity in much the same way that Picasso had with Les Demoiselle. There is a story he tells of jumping off the bus from Beckenham to Lewisham in order to get back to his piano because the song wouldn’t leave his head. You don’t do art it does you (Leonora Carrington). What he ended up writing was the first time anyone had managed to hold up a shattered mirror to the fractured times (The Beatles’ A Day in the Life had come close but is cracked rather than splintered). This structure of feeling became perfected and repackaged in a much more easily digested form known as Postmodernism. The following year Venturi’s learning from Las Vegas was published but this was a far more considered and objective stance. It wasn’t symbols that we needed it was meaning. Bowie chose considered meaninglessness as a proof against the rot.

And so the question “Is there Life on Mars?” is the plea of the anomic heroine “is there meaning in the world?” The song encapsulates the instantaneous all-at-onceness of living in a meaningless Spectacle in a manner which is both narrative and dislocated without (and this is the trick) being ironic. Manet attempted something similar with Un bar aux Folies Bergère but this fusion of emotional empathy with distance was not continued in painting after his death. Bowie brought back the sailor, who was now having a good old scrap because he saw that the autonomous image was now part of real life. Even critics praising the song talk about the impenetrable abstract cut-up lyrics but this is to overlook the songs brilliance, which is to simulataneously be about the meaningless Spectacle and to imbue it with infinite emotional resonance. Andy Warhol never did this, he just reflected the impenetrable silver screen of modern life back at itself.

My unleavened theory is that Bowie shattered his own psyche on the high anvil of Art that we, his acolytes, may experience a glimpse of freedom from anomie. The song Life on Mars erupted through ego-pain fuelled intuition and later the trick becomes repeated as if it is a mechanism; cut-ups etc etc etc. Perhaps another way of understanding it is to consider how Camus had to write two books to show both sides of the Absurd rather than write one song. The Outsider shows the complete loss of meaning and detachment brought about by anomie and in the Myth of Sisyphus, published the same year we have the solution, which is to imagine Sisyphus happy. In other words meaning is within the act of creation itself whilst embracing the paradoxical futility of longing for something with meaning. The free expression of the Sixties was repackaged as free-enterprise individuality and the free-lovers were blamed for the self-seeking culture of the eighties and beyond. Bowie’s admiration for the direct emotional expression of Heckel tells us the intersubjective route he wanted to take but who, in the hall of mirrors created by the virus of meaninglessness would want to find meaning in such an anachronistic medium? Like Picasso, Bowie intuited a way of unleashing the primordial forces required for meaning to emerge and that was through song and performance. It was of course the only way to bring meaning back to an Art from which content had been vacuumed away. Bowie said he never cared if people bought his records and a small part of him hoped they wouldn’t so he could return to being a painter, which ultimately is the closest thing to defining him and helping to understand his output.


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