By Beppe Colli
Jan. 1, 2014

As per their custom, come the end of the year, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott - chief film critics of respected US daily newspaper The New York Times - have written pieces dealing with the "state of the art", their favourite movies of the year, all within a more general cultural framework.

And while it's true that both critics usually write acute, perceptive articles well worth readers' attention, I found the ones they wrote this year to be particularly stimulating. Both appeared on December 11, 2013, under the titles The Festival World, And What's Beyond (the one by Dargis), and Feasts For The Eyes, 1,001 Nights' Worth (the one by Scott). (Those who are interested can also check The Big Picture Strikes Back, a long piece written by Scott which appeared in The New York Times magazine, on November 25, 2013.)

Of course, both those pieces deserve to be read in full. Here I'll quote from the Scott piece, as I believe this excerpt to be relevant for what I'm gonna discuss in a moment.

"(...) Anyone who laments the death or decrepitude of movies just isn't paying attention. (...) The art of cinema is thriving. (...) The movie business has always been rough, of course, but at present there seems to be a growing disjunction - a chasm, really - between the quality of the work being produced and the intensity of its reception. (...) There are many reasons this is so. (...) But (...) let me be blunt. The problem is you. A vital art form requires an engaged - which is to say a skeptical and demanding as well as enthusiastic - audience to ensure its economic viability and encourage its aesthetic development."

The first time I read about David Mamet's work was at the time when his play Speed-the-Plow was about to be staged. It was the end of the eighties, and the name of the magazine in which that long feature article appeared was Interview (to be more precise: Andy Warhol's Interview). It wasn't that difficult to guess that the main reason the play was getting a substantial amount of attention was the fact that this was Madonna's debut as a theatre actress. Whatever the reason, it was thanks to that article that, a few years later - when Mamet's play Oleanna was so widely discussed, also thanks to the fact that audiences regularly, loudly, and heatedly took the part of one or the other of the play's main characters (something which also regularly happened later, in the theaters of the United Kingdom, where Mamet's play was staged under the direction of Harold Pinter) - Mamet's name was not unknown to me.

And it was precisely the audience reaction to that play that made me think, for the first time in ages, that maybe theater could still be regarded as a contemporary, vital, art form, which could still talk to our present age.

Though it only amounts to a minimum, thanks to the Internet and the fact of theater coverage on such newspapers as The New York Times nowadays being available to me, today my knowledge of theater is not at below zero level, as it was in the past.

So I have one question: When we think about theater, do we still think about it as being a contemporary, vital, art form? To formulate my question a bit differently: Suppose you were asked to mention a contemporary art form that's vital today, would your answer be "theater!"?

As I argued at length in my editorial titled Ten Years - the piece I wrote to celebrate Clouds and Clocks's tenth anniversary - for some time now, come year's end, and the moment to decide what kind of year it was when it comes to music, I have noticed that I'm quite incredulous seeing how mediocre, half-baked, and unambitious was the majority of the stuff I had access to. It goes without saying that there are still a few beautiful albums released, some of which even make skillful use of this or that musical language. There's always an unpleasant feeling lurking in the shadows, though, like when you know in your heart that something is seriously wrong. And it all becomes clear the moment when old, fine music from way back - the most recent example being the re-release program of all things Zappa in 2012 - is played side-by-side with all those new releases.

Perspectives become darker and darker every day. Suppose we know for a fact that Henry Cow's historical debut album, Legend, was recorded in the course of three weeks. Some could say that one only needs money to cover three weeks in the studio, which is admittedly no big deal. What is not said - and nowadays, maybe, not even fully understood - is that before those three weeks there were decades of hard work and effort spent. Decades when musicians studied their instruments, mastered them, discovered and invented playing techniques, developed a personal language when it comes to composition, and finally created a "group sound" that was original and impossible to mistake. Seriously now: How many groups you see that make you think these goals are within their reach?

What I just said doesn't necessarily entail that we can't expect something of great value to be released in the foreseeable future - nor the current "business scenario" when it comes to all things digital makes it impossible for some to survive, and even thrive.

But those aforementioned economic conditions have to take their toll, creating tunnels with no exit. As somebody said to me just the other day, today nobody finds it strange to pay ten euros for a beer, while for the majority the idea of paying ten euros for a CD is simply absurd. Then there are the most recent consequences of multitasking, with people gladly staying in the street talking and drinking, while musicians who play in those pubs and clubs all face an empty venue.

There was a time when astute commentators argued that musicians had to earn their living playing live and selling t-shirts, since getting money from the sale of CDs was by now a thing of the past. Which is precisely what happened in the case of, say, The Rolling Stones. What about those other groups? And what happens when the attending audience is so thin - and, more important, when their presence is so aleatory - that buying gas to play a concert beyond a radius of 150 km. doesn't make sense for a group? "There's always the Internet, and streaming", sure. To sell what?

The present situation looks especially devastating when it comes to jazz, a scenario where meager sales had for a long time now been regularly augmented by those highly-celebrated "European concerts" which, one way or another, were customarily funded by public money. But with subsidizes now on the wane, thinning concert audiences, and CD sales at an all-time low? Lately I've noticed an increasing number of projects being financed thanks to such mechanisms as Kickstarter, and of course I greatly prize the chance for artists to receive money this way in order to fund their projects. Then, when the CD goes on sale...?

My line of reasoning assumes something as being true: the continual decrease in quality of the majority of new music releases.

I have to admit that reading magazines, both print and online, one gets the impression that today's music panorama sees an unprecedented flowering of prized creativity. It goes without saying that, should music magazines declare that when it comes to quality things are far from rosy and that the majority of new releases they review are, to put it kindly, well below par, a revolt of angry advertisers would make them quickly reconsider the fact.

In scenarios such as this the trick is to only deal with the present, dealing with "today's best only" being the best tactic by far. Which is a strategy that's consonant with one's employing young, unskilled contributors of "highly selective" knowledge, who get low pay, who find it extremely logical not to compare new stuff to old stuff whose very existence they ignore. When it comes to adults, they can always "pretend".

Then there's the whole matter of criteria for judging quality, of course. "Weighing" something means comparing it to a "measuring unit" of some sort, but if the "measure" we assume as being adequate is "how much fun one is having", then everything that makes one pass their time is OK. The amount of "subjective satisfaction" then becomes the only "meter", which merely becomes a function of one's taste just like it happens when it comes to food or the colour of wallpaper one chooses for one's home.

When it comes to the issue of "taste" there's another aspect which is also quite serious, which deserves to be discussed separately.

The fact of one appreciating something while comparing it to other items, while taking its "construction" into consideration, can also be treated as being, "in the end", simply "a matter of taste".

And it's obvious that this kind of "preference" cannot be placed inside a "means-end" relationship like, say, getting medicine x as the best way to treat disease y.

But it's at our peril that we forget that arguing in public one's "preference" through rational discourse is very different from stating one's preferences as being only an aspect of taste, so placing them way beyond any chance of rational discussion.

Unfortunately, modern ways of consumption increasingly presents themselves as pure consumer whims, a road at the end of which we can see the complete disappearing of all critical faculties - something that the "like it"/"do not like it" feedback required by modern social platforms does nothing to discourage.

Though I'm quite aware of the risk of losing those few readers who have bothered to read me this far, in closing I have to add one more reason of dissatisfaction when it comes to things I listen to.

Having already mentioned those items called "depth" and "newness", I'll have to add a quality which at first sight will look paradoxical: "scale".

Alas, as a boomer, I, too, believe that the only success worth aiming for is one on a "Beatles"-scale. Where the ingenuity of one's ideas, when popular on a mass scale, can only "double its value".

A distortion of one's reason, of course - it will be interesting to read what Robert Christgau will have to say on this, and on related matters, if, as I've been told, "The Dean of the American Rock Critics" is currently writing a book of memoirs.

Sure, these are the type of matters that may appear as being quite abstract - here maybe the "three divisions" concept by Robert Fripp can be of help, third division being the avant-garde, arts-and-craft, exploration of Frippetronics, second division being the dignified dimension of The League Of Gentlemen - "but you won't change the world" - first division being of course King Crimson.

I have to admit it's quite paradoxical to lament the absence of a group from the "first division" when it's clear that nowadays we can't even afford an "experimentation for the happy few" sector that's surviving, if not exactly thriving.

Right now, and I mean now, everybody is called to do their part.

Beppe Colli 2014

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 1, 2014