Sunday, December 20, 2009


Donald Fagen, "What I do," "Security Joan" (2006)

A lesson in love from Ray Charles turns into a love-letter to a lost father figure, while the "thuggish cult that's gained control of the government" somehow manages to to get him laid. In his mind at least.

Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)

In the summer of 2000, I listened to this, a Duke Ellington live album and almost nothing else, to the point where I virtually knew the lyrics off by heart (and Eminem's horror vacui at leaving something unsaid means there are a LOT of lyrics). To be honest, I haven't heard it for years - I quickly turned from devotee to apostate, and latterly to distant admirer. No doubt about it, this is one of the best albums of the decade, but there's just a bit too much of it to call it a favourite. What got everybody so worked up about it wasn't so much the violence and misogyny and homophobia themselves, as the fact that nobody knew how to take them - you can't dismiss Eminem by saying "oh, it's all in character," since Marshall Mathers and Eminem and Slim Shady (and on "Stan" the obsessed fan of Slim Shady) are all inseparable from one another. The auto-critique is constant - sometimes he gay-bashes with menace, other times with a sense of shame, but always he does it gratuitously. Simon Reynolds: "in Stan's scenario of disavowed boy-love, the woman (pregnant too, woman at her womanliest but also most potent) gets killed into the bargain. You could see why Stan has to die, for raising the spectre of homo-eroticism, but why the woman too? Could just be gratuitous melodrama/shock-horror factor, but it suggests to me that Stan's line "we was meant to be together" is Eminem projecting his own buried longings onto his "confused" fan (who appears to be closer to knowing what he really wants than Em). A longing to bypass womankind and find a true soul-mate, a male wife. That's the only way I can explain the tone of tenderness and concern that appears nowhere else in Eminem's songs."

Fleetwood Mac, Say you will (2003)

Buckingham comes across like one of those crazy old guys who fix you with a beady eye and expound at length about a conspiracy theory they heard on late-night radio; Nicks is as self-regarding and gloriously, earthily pretentious as she ever was. Where McVie would once have provided light relief, she backed out of this project and her absence does get in the way. But the fact remains, they're still a great band - the two bearded blues guys at the back never put a foot wrong (and in the case of "Thrown Down," Mick Fleetwood is as fleet of foot as he was on "Sara"), and however antagonistic he might be to her in the flesh, Buckingham drenches Nicks's songs (which generally form the better half of the album) in the gloss and gossamer that's missing from her solo stuff. Honestly, I doubt this is one of the best 50 records of the decade, but it shows that FM are still a going concern, and I listen to it more than any Mac album except Rumours and Tusk.

Giggs, Walk in da park (2008)

Marcello Carlin: "Walk In Da Park is what the real drowning of South London in the credit crunch age sounds like; messy but strict, bloody but governed by its own inaccessible precepts of anti-morality.." "You raised me," a hushed, acoustic guitar-led apology to his mum, is perfect (though no more perfect than "Bring the message back" or "More Maniacs"), intense and determined.

Go-Betweens, Oceans Apart (2005)

The Go-Betweens' last album, and their best. Forster is more human than ever, acutely analytic, aware of what he's done, but not regretting it for a minute; McLennan comes to life with the best music he ever wrote, (Christgau: "Grant couches his romanticism in instrumental subtleties that soften his detachment"), and died within a year of its release. Their nostalgia for the Australian landscape, for lost relationships, for gorgeous love songs which trickle with regret, ended here, with an unfashionable and immutable masterpiece.

Gorillaz / Shaun Ryder, "Dare" (2006)

So good, it almost makes you remember that Britpop ever happened.

Instra:mental, "Watching you" (2009)

The double-o's weren't a vintage decade for d'n'b, but this shows there's life in the old scene yet. Al Bleek and Kid Drama have clearly been listening to Joker, laying fiddly Warp Records beats over the lush vocal science of D Bridge, and their synthesis of drum and bass and dubstep is one of the singles of 2009, especially with "Tramma" on the other side (funny how dubstep seems to revive those stalwart formats from the 60s, the EP and the double A-side). See here for D Bridge's timely ruminations on the mp3 age: [my reservations are down to] "loyalty to vinyl, and…though I can only speak from my point of view…I still feel as though you’re just selling someone air, you know? I like having a tangible product, and ten years down the line are they even going to know where that mp3 is on one of their many hard drives?!)."

J Dilla + Common + D'Angelo, "So far to go" (2006)

Taking the lead from Donuts' "Bye and sampling the Isley Brothers' "Don't say goodnight," Dilla cuts his own Quiet Storm masterpiece, only like always, life festers and disintegrates and gets in the way.

Silverlink + Jammer + Badness, "The message is love" (2008)

I repeat: "A bipolar, soca-soaked headfuck, all bassline-bass, panpipes, demented scramping (mixture of screaming and rapping – copyright me), vibrato Hammond organs and lover’s rock crooning (“Hey girrrrrrrl ... hey girrrrrrl, the message is love ... come over here girl, I want to show you a real ... man ... makes ... love ... to a woman...)"

Jarvis Cocker, "Running the world" (2006)

I can't believe how few people have heard this - it's easily Jarvis's best post-Pulp song, four minutes forty-seven seconds of absolute perfection. His delivery of a delicious lyric is truly disgusted with the world, with all the jouissance that outrage brings, but it's a world away from the agitprop of Gang of Four or Redskins or whoever (notwithstanding their appeal). Lush, orchestral, a little glammy, beautifully timed - if the chorus (punch)line wasn't "cunts are still running the world," this would've been a huge hit, I'm sure. A rage against the machine so infectious, even my dad loves it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Stephanie King, a.k.a. Missing Dust Jacket, a.k.a. Darling Vicarage, a.k.a. lots of things far too gooey to confess to online, has a new column on The Samosa blog. Her first Song of the Week is Portishead's "Chase the tear," and she is spot-on on two counts: first - and you wouldn't have expected this after Third - Portishead are indebted to Moroder and Summer - that strange combination of the epic and the unfinished or disjointed. Maybe it's me but the rhythm, for all its metronomy, doesn't quite sound right - some beats seem to come a split-second too early, others a tiny bit late. (There's a hint of the scratchiness of early New Order too) And secondly, Beth Gibbons's voice (which I can't get a taste for) is way down in the mix, which I suppose sets it apart from "I feel love," but I'm grateful for it.

Anyway, the point is that Song of the Week is going to be a weekly event, just like it was in the old days of MDJ. So read this one, and read next week's, and the week after that's, forever.

Monday, December 14, 2009


What is it about music that has changed during the first ten years of a new century? Can we make generalisations about what music means now? Can we say how that meaning has been altered by the (political, economic, ideological, technological) events of the decade? Can we say that music is more or less meaningful today than it was in 1999? That it is more or less enjoyable? More or less good?

An obvious first point is that very little from the 2000s would have baffled the late 90s voyager into the future. The sound of music has stayed much the same. Fashions have come and gone, old styles have been knitted into something new, but little revolutionary has happened in the way that people compose or construct music. But the way music is heard has changed radically. The formats of the late 90s - CDs and minidiscs, tapes and records for the terminally old-fashioned - are all obsolete, so that a record-shop already feels like an anachronism. We can download (via Itunes, or Hype Machine if yr cheap) or listen to (via Spotify and others) an almost infinite amount of music, mostly for free. We listen to songs rather than albums (though, at the moment, there is still a consensual respect for the album as the most serious musical statement), and we arrange these songs at random into a crescendous pile. We amass so much of it, we can't possibly listen to it all properly. It's more disposable than ever, because once you've consumed one set of new singles, there's another stack of new albums to hear (not to mention the old stuff you're catching up on).

What I listen to doesn't define that point in time in the way it did in the 90s, and I don't think that's because I'm not a teenager anymore. It's not because the music I listen to doesn't depict a particular time or space either - Burial does both obsessively, and much of the music I've been into during the last 3-4 years could only have come from London in the late 00s. And it's certainly not because music isn't as good anymore - there was much more, much better music this decade compared with the 90s. And contrary to the polls which Simon Reynolds has written about, most of my stand-outs are from 2006 onwards. This roughly marks the time when I started downloading a lot of music, but upping the amount of stuff I listen to has also made listening seem more orderly.

So I don't buy the idea that pop music is dead or pointless, but I do accept that it's somewhat adrift. There seems like less cross-fertilisation between people of different races, genders and classes than ever before, and a bigger gap between one sort of pop and another. Once upon a time, pop music was the antitode to a class society - it was the one place where anybody could make it to number one. That's not the case anymore (although grime revived that sense of possibility, and in a few cases, realised that ambition). Perhaps it's partly down to X Factor, a programme which refutes beyond doubt the very point it tries to prove: that anybody can make it if they've got enough talent. In fact, you can only make it if you keep Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Dannii Minogue and Louis Walsh happy, which means trotting out bland versions of songs people have heard so many times, they've simply become numb to their impact. But more generally, the pop divide is a sign of a widening class divide and a more polarised society. Even in the 80s and 90s (when class divisions were pretty rampant), you could put three or four people from utterly different background together in a room, and at the very least they'd probably have music in common. Now we humans barely even share that.

But although this IS the time for wondering where we're at now, I'm tired and it's much easier to play some tunes. Here's the first 10 of 50 nicest bits of the noughties - not too many surprises, or so I thought, but play any of these and they'll keep offering up surprises long after the next batch of new releases lands on your download pile.

Al Green, "Just for me" (2008)

Guitars burble under a battery of drums, before the horn section ushers in the whole Hi-sound orchestra - and over it all, Al Green waxes hysterically, as only a desiring machine can. "Why can't you tell that I love you by the way than I smile?" he protests, grateful for the pain she brings. The album is every bit as good as most from the 70s, but this track's the killer.

Basement Jaxx + Dizzee Rascal, "Lucky star" (2003)

Mixing two of 03's biggest sounds - Dizzee Rascal and bhangra - this was better than Beyonce, better than Timberlake, better than Outkast ... in fact, it rivalled Dizzee himself for single of the year. A paean to music wrapped up in a song full of the stuff.

Boards of Canada, In a beautiful place out in the country EP; Geogaddi (2000; 2002)

Hauntologising before hauntology became a household name, BoC mourn the passing of unspecified Utopias via the metaphor (sometimes the reality too) of dead children. Layering old samples of educational films and whacked-out Waco communards over analogue synths and beats of found sounds (a slide projector here, a film about volcanoes in the deep-sea there), they arrive at something "simultaneously Arcadian and sinister". Geogaddi challenges the primacy of technology ("Ready let's go" sounds like it was recorded on a cassette player; "Music is math"'s proggish beginnings become suffocated under the weight of its own disorder), but at the same time corrupts the innocence of the pastoral ("Beware the friendly stranger" scuffs the noble savagery of rural life with crackle and dissonance). The beautiful place out in the country, in which people laugh and all the chaos of humanity dissolves into communal worship, is the Mount Carmel ranch at Waco, where 76 members of a Branch Davidian cult were killed by the FBI in 1993, following various accusations of sexual abuse, stockpiling of weapons and production of methamphetamines. On Geogaddi's "1969," a backmasked voice remarks of Amo Bishop Roden, "although not a follower of David Koresh, she's a devoted Branch Davidian". Through their oceanic sounds and wide-eyed innocence, both records turn the menace of Waco into a dreamland, a place where dead children can sleep easily in their beds.

Brian Wilson, SMiLE (2004)

Until 2004, SMiLE! existed only as an idea - a plan for a pocket symphony that would silence the Beatles and Phil Spector forever. Brian Wilson was so grandiosely in love with music that he wanted to destroy it, and the coherence of whatever plans he did come up with quickly went the same way as his dislocated mind. Mired in a confusion of musical fragments and disillusioned Beach Boys, Capitol Records ordered demanded a follow-up to Pet Sounds. What emerged was Smiley Smile, a sad assembly of the remnants of Brian's project and some hastily cobbled-together filler. Traces of SMiLE resurfaced during the 70s whenever the Beach Boys ran out of ideas, but they merely served to remind us of their leader's absence. This record that was supposed to change the world has been consummately constructed by Darian Sahanaja (SMiLE! is as much his creation as Wilson's), and it holds together beautifully. But the final product merely serves to remind us that the world has not changed, and nor can it. It is (in the words of Christgau) "tonic for Americans long since browbeaten into lowering their expectations by the rich men who are stealing their money". A record to be played, appreciated, enjoyed, and then filed away somewhere where its elegant spine can be admired.

The Bug, London Zoo (2008)

Lumped in with the dubstep crowd, this is something quite different: deep, heavy as hell and utterly righteous. His list of singers, toasters and preachers is exemplary: Spaceape tears apart all them fucking likkle yout' bwoy who thinks they known everything about life ("but them know nuttin', trust me"); Warrior Queen (who I can't hear enough of) smacks down boys and girls on buses who carry guns; Tippa Irie sets the world to rights on the darkly carnivalesque "Angry"; and Ricky Ranking (the star of the record) lays down his Judgement on the final track, a Blue Lines-era hymn, sweetly sung over daunting, apocalyptic strings. A dense mixture of furious chanting, cavernous bass and dancehall beats, and the sound of Jamaican irie transposed to the London streets.

Burial, Burial; Untrue (2006; 2007)

Rouge's Foam writes peerlessly on Burial, and he's right that saying Burial is a mourner for the collective spirit of rave is to underestimate him. You can be moved (and haunted) by Burial's music without holding a torch for rave - it's less site-specific than that. I guess you can be moved without living in, or regretting the passing of, London too - but RF's recasting Burial as a creator of urban nocturnes in the tradition of Whistler is persuasive and dazzling. His musicological analysis also reminds you what dynamic records these are - the unseen shock of Untrue's opening fragment, the elegant vocal science of "Night bus" or "In McDonalds," the orchestral samples (taken from Elgar? or Metal Gear Solid 2?) that run through "Archangel" - and coursing through the veins of both records, the flooded, bombed-out, wind-swept decay of London, where rich areas turn poor and poor areas turn rich, but where poor people stay poor forever.

The Caretaker, A Stairway to the Stars (2002)

The Caretaker’s second album is nothing less than a mass, a requiem for something which has deceased but which continues, elusively, to preoccupy us. Its power derives from Kirby’s construction of architectural soundscapes: the slowed-down, reversed, crackly textures create the ballroom or the cathedral in which these found, forgotten songs were once sung. They are no longer sung, and many of the samples were never meant to live on. But we cannot throw them away. For all the high-spirited intentions of the originals, they are tainted by their own inherent deficiencies. They bear upon us, but we cannot quite make out what they are. They cannot, in other words, be ontologised away, and for all the excessive discussion of hauntology, these Utopian pieces haunt our reality as much as our reality stains their romance.

Darkstar, "Aidy's girl's a computer" (2009)

I was tempted to throw caution to the wind and pick the Hyperdub best-of, but I'm either equivocal or ignorant about too much of it. Zomby, Burial, Joker, Bug etc are covered elsewhere, I guess kode9 & Spaceape should be represented by more than one song (Martyn, 2562 etc just leave me cold), so I've picked the newbie that provoked the most immediate reaction. "Aidy's girl's a computer" conveys the inarticulate speech of the internet chat-room, where even the most basic of emotional gestures go unverbalised, where sex becomes an onanistic dialogue between the surfer and the ether, and where the object of desire becomes MSN Messenger itself. As this brilliant 08 round-up notes, Darkstar and others in the dubstep-funky continuum (unlike much of dubstep) efface the throbbing, phallic wobble of bass, transcended the uterine origins of dubstep, and emerge with something altogether less gendered, even hermaphrodite. But still - where are the women on Hyperdub's roster? Are there any?

De La Soul, AOI: Bionix (2001)

Hip-hop for MOJO readers, and if that sounds like a sell-out, well, 3 Ft High was hardly a Nation of Millions, was it? De La were always somewhat sensible - jazzy, but cute with it. This time, they played to the only audience it made sense for them to play to it the early 00s - guys of 30-35, just like them. Not that they find it easy: Posdnuos can't fathom a world where Little Bo Peep and Sesame Street exist alongside parties that ain't parties unless the thugs don't try to shut them down. There's always someone trying to bring out in the devil in you, always someone setting traps, always little compartments of your life that you can't keep to yourself anymore. But what really gets Pos to reconsider himself is not a wife or a girlfriend, but his little girl Ayana: "when I'm watchin the news, and my daughter walks in and choose to ask, 'Why were all those people on the floor sleepin, covered in red?,' I told her that they were lookin for God, but found religion instead".

Dizzee Rascal, Boy in da Corner (2003)

Depression and anxiety marked Dizzee Rascal's debut out from the rest of the (as yet unnamed) grime crowd, and a sense that he alone had broken free of the stifling bullshit-meritocracy of the E3 crowd. The violence of beats and the bass often mask the pure, crystalline beauty of the melodies on "Sittin' here" and "Brand new day" (two of the best songs about featureless, futureless depression); likewise, the acid pow-wow between Dizzee and Shystie on "I Luv U" belies the black, sad humour of the delivery. Even at 18 (sorry, but that bears repeating - this guy was eighteen when he finished this record), he's well aware that reflection and sensitivity and shimmering, ethereal droplets of keyboards don't make him any less strong. It's a fascinating record - a state of the nation statement, but equally a personal tussle between the allure of childhood and lost innocence, and the inevitability of making it as man (and maybe between being Dylan Mills and being Dizzee Rascal too). The rest of the pack (well, the good bits anyway) caught up with him soon afterwards, but this remains the definitive statement from grime, from London - damn, from pop music during this decade.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


The first thing I imagined when I read the headlines of the pre-budget review was the scene in Cabinet, where New Labour ministers convinced themselves that they'd finally found their radical roots. You can imagine the self-congratulatory scene at No 10: this is real redistribution, this is real socialism, this is the sort of thing we've banned ourselves doing all these years! Ah yes, this'll bring all those old Labour supporters back into the fold.

The one-off tax is nothing of the sort - it is a feeble, cynical sop to all those underpaid people who will have to suffer real-term salary cuts in order to save a system that screws them over. And make no mistake: pay freezes mean increases in the cost of living, whatever the Retail Price Index says. In June of this year, the OECD found that food price inflation in the UK was 8.6% last year, four times higher than any other country in Europe. The RPI masks the real cost of living by including within its basket of goods luxury items which the poorest in the society could never afford in the first place. The prices of these luxury goods (restaurant meals, hotels, leisure products) have actually gone down, while the prices of basics have gone up. And as I wrote a couple of months ago, the cost of rent went up by 2.9% last year, while the cost of mortgages went down by 39.9%. Life has got much more expensive for the poorest 10%, and much cheaper for the richest 10% and this will be compounded by Darling's pre-budget review.

Compass have devised an alternative set of tax reforms which would raise enough money to reduce the government's deficit and fund a green investment programme. Compass's proposals would make the richest 10% worse off, but would benefit the other 90%. You can read Compass's pamphlet In Place of Cuts here, but here are the headlines (usefully cribbed from my local UNISON magazine - see, you do at least get something out of being a UNISON member...):

There are nine key proposals for 2011-14 which would raise $45.8 billion a year:

- Introduce a 50% Income Tax band for gross incomes above £100,000. This raises £4.7 billion compared with the current (2009/10) tax system, or an extra £2.3 billion compared with introducing this band at £150,000 as proposed by the Chancellor.

- Uncap National Insurance Contributions (NICs) such that they are paid at 11% all the way up the income scale (although pensioners would continue to be exempt); make NICs payable on investment income. This results in further revenue of £9.1 billion.

- In addition to the 50% Income Tax band above, introduce minimum tax rates of 40% and 50% on incomes of above £100,000 and £150,000 respectively; these raise an additional £14.9 billion.

- Introduce a special lower tax band of 10% below the poverty line (below £13,500 per annum), while restoring the 'basic rate' to 22%. This costs £11.5 billion.

- Increase the tax payable (higher multipliers) for houses in Council Tax bands E through H, raising a further £1.7 billion.

- Minimise personal and corporate tax avoidance by requiring tax havens to disclose information fully and changing the definition of 'tax residence'; these two reforms are estimated minimally to yield £10 billion.

- Introduce a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) at a rate of 0.1%, applicable to all transactions. This would raise a further £4.2 billion.

- Immediately scrap a number of government spending programmes (including ID cards, Trident, new aircraft carriers, PFI schemes), reforms totalling £15.1 billion.

- Urge that all current small limited companies be re-registered as limited liability partnerships to simplify their administration and reduce opportunities for tax avoidance.

Hardly radical stuff, is it - but it might have stopped half a million public sector workers going on the dole, and it might have stopped the recession getting any deeper. It would have been fairer than the PBR we got, both by making those at the top pay for the crisis they created and by introducing a system which benefits the vast majority. You never know, it might even have got Labour re-elected.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Best-stuff-of-the-decade coming up soon, so in order to make sure I haven't forgotten anything, I've been searching rock's back pages. This Quietus feature written by Melissa Bradshaw at the end of 08, on the genderedness of dubstep and funky house, especially caught my eye:

Dubstep had become obsessed with it’s own phallus! What linked unimaginative imitation with gestures of solidarity was masculine identification. It was all about who had the biggest ‘bass wobble’ (substitute ‘penis’). Tonally, the music took on an ejaculatory tone. And in the rave all these guys were going mental for each repetitious thrust in succession and adoring the person putting it forth because of the way he stood erect before them like a priapic symbol. (The smoking ban didn’t help me escape this type of thinking, because of the smell of unwashed boys).

Everything that has been most pleasurable about 2008 has contravened masculine music. A couple of years ago hearing tracks like ‘Neverland’ and ‘Mood Dub’ felt like being in a womb, enveloped in spacious rumbling. Or cocooned in some futuristic spaceship with the Rasta guys out of ‘Neuromancer’. Over the year dubstep by the likes of Geiom, TRG, 2562 and Martyn operated on a different kind of femininity, all curved out syncopations and seductive female vocals. Funky house, the genre of the year, was similarly slinky and oriented around a seemingly never ending line-up of star performances by female vocalists - Calista, Sophia, Ny, Katy B, and Clea Soul stand-up - who sang about heartbreak, comfort, escaping it all via the house-rave and shagging all night. Some very specifically female forms of sexual depression also emerged.

Her blog, entitled Decks and the City, is here.


Tucked away in an old dairy by Regent's Canal, the curators of the Museum of Everything have brought together a host of visionaries, discarded artists, survivors of abuse and mental illness, and resuscitated them from the world of Outsider Art (or Art Brut, perhaps a preferable designation).

It's a project full of paradoxes. None of these people, we are told, ever wanted to be artists. But doesn't that say something about our own narrow view as what constitutes an artist? An artist, to most of us, is someone born with a gift, who studies technique and art history, who hones his craft at art school, who becomes part of a movement, and who, finally, paints for the market. We disregard the use value of art - the usefulness of painting and of seeing - and focus only on its exchange value.

Judged by these criteria, none of the artists at the Museum of Everything exhibition began as an artist at all (though Outsider Art has become a movement in itself, and a highly marketable one). Many of them began painting after experiencing a trauma. They were institutionalised, dismissed as crackpots, schizos and paedophiles, and their creativity was a form of therapy, a dynamic way of exploring past events which continued to disturb them. We can see the results of this creativity in two ways - by fetishising mental illness and excusing the neuroses and obsessions of these works as pathological symptoms - or we can try to let go of our knee-jerk ironic impulses and see what art would be like if there wasn't a market for it.

One is initially drawn to interpret these works - they require us to conceive of the situation (often childhood in its entirety, or at the very least, a traumatic childhood event) from which they emerge. But they nevertheless resist such an approach, because one is immediately confronted by an impasse between creator and audience. The modern reader of a text is always looking for interpretations, and assumes that works (to quote Zizek on Joyce) "are not simply external to their interpretation but, as it were, in advance take into account their possible interpretations and enter into dialogue with them." But the hidden, outsider nature of Art Brut means that it does not take into account any possibly interpretations, nor does it engage directly with the viewer. The reflexive relationship between author and reader is obstructed by the work's desire to be everything, to leave nothing unsaid or unexplained, to leave no space on the canvas (or piece of paper, plank of wood etc) unmarked. These are final statements, and they do not allow for a response.

Who are the Outsider artists?

In 1922, Dr Hans Prinzhorn, a psychiatrist at the University of Heidelberg, published a book called Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, which catalogued the art of psychotic patients and explored the boundaries between mental illness and self-expression. The French artist Jean Dubuffet became fascinated with the works in Prinzhorn's anthology, and along with other Surrealist artists of the time, began collecting what he described as art brut. "After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness," wrote Dubuffet, "lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade." He believed that the deadlock between these artists and their audience, whose usual expectations of art were bound by their own asphyxiated cultural limits, provided an escape from mainstream culture, which managed to assimilate all transgressions from the norm into itself, thus deadening their impact.

The early Outsider artists were, therefore, patients of psychiatric institutions. The Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic, near Vienna, became the focus of Art Brut. Early Gugging artists included Johann Hauser, whose hypermanic episodes produced colourful, highly erotic images, and whose depressive phases generated more simple, geometric pieces ...

... August Walla, who spent his childhood with his mother and in residential homes for children with learning disabilities, and who was admitted indefinitely to the Gugging Clinic aged 47, along with his elderly mother, who had dementia ...

... Oswald Tschirtner, an Austrian who had fought at the Battle of Stalingrad, who was imprisoned in France, and diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly after the end of the war. He began by drawing squids and other marine molluscs, and their large heads and sprawling tentacles are often present in his minimalist drawings of other creatures of persons ...

... and 27-year old Leonhard Fink, current resident of the Gugging's House of Artists, seen here at work in the open studio ...

Following Dubuffet's celebration of the Gugging artist-patients, psychiatrists in other countries also began to use art both as a diagnostic aid (some believed that certain illnesses contained more or less creativity than others, and certainly those artists with bipolarity painted entirely different images depending on which end of the pole their mood was in) and as a psychotherapeutic tool. The repetitive, folkloric works of Martin Ramirez, an extraordinary Mexican artist who was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia at the beginning of the 1930s, were produced in the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, CA. But unlike many of the outsider artists, Ramirez did allow his multi-media works to enter into dialogue with their audience, and his Jaliscan churches, pistol-whipping caballeros, Madonnas and freight-trains are unmistakeably rooted in Mexico. He is not alone amongst the exhibited artists in being grounded in what we can recognise as reality, and he makes us question our perception of these artists as symptomatic of psychotic realities into which we can only glimpse.

The museum itself (which we were told was turned into a recording where Paul McCartney and Tina Turner both made records in the 80s - eek) is a wonderfully Piranesi-esque space, dominated by a high-ceilinged hall where paintings are piled one on top of another. Walking round, I noticed two trends which appealed to me (and I'm aware that I am pathologising the art by focusing on these obsessional tendencies): the use of dense lettering to describe the worlds which these artists are portraying (and many of the works are certainly attempts to put an entire state-of-mind on the canvas), and the "horror vacui" paintings which refuse to let the smallest section of the canvas to go unpainted.

Kunizo Matsumoto never learned to read or write, and his obsessive writing - huge series of Japanese characters, copied out from newspapers, films and menus onto blank scrolls or printed calandars - represents an effort to order the world in a language which he does not understand. The impulse to write and the cognition of words are governed by different areas of the brain, so malfunction in the temporal lobes (where words and ideas are understood) does not affect the desire to write (which is generated by the limbic area, deep in the cortex).

Something similar seems to be at play in the paintings of Dwight Mackintosh, whose meandering, highly detailed drawings of boys and animals are topped with long, nonsensical titles with lots of dotted i's and crossed t's, which recall Charlotte Gainsbourg's notebooks in Antichrist. Harald Stoffer's hypochondriac texts, arranged across staves like musical notes and often resembling cloud formations or geological strata, are even more extraordinary, but born of a more (dare I say it) literate drive. The magazine Raw Vision describes the way in which his notations take on an everyday drama here:

Before he begins to write, Harald Stoffers first draws freehand guide-lines, each aligned with the preceding ones. The effect is reminiscent of the constant repetitions that occur in nature in the form of wave movements, wood grain or rock strata. Within the lines he writes, in the form of a letter, everyday notes, memos, schedules, or comments about the circumstances in which he is working. Sometimes he tears away a sentence and starts it again from scratch using the rest of the sheet of paper or the back of another piece on which he has already written. From time to time this means that he tears in half a longer sentence on the other side of the paper.

Stoffers mainly writes about things he is going to do, detailing matters such as which trousers he will wear the following day when he goes to work in the art studio at the Elbe-Werkstätten GmbH (an employment and rehabilitation centre in Hamburg, Germany for people with disabilities, mentioned in almost all his letters), at what time he will leave and from which platform, and how much money he will need to pay for a cup of coffee. Sometimes he refers to what is happening at the time of writing, for example the fact that the coffee machine has to be switched on: 'Eine Kaffee Pause Machen Wasser Aufsetzen' ('HaveCoffeeBreakBoilWater'). In this way the letters take on the quality of a performance.

Aloise Corbaz became a governess in the court of Wilhelm II in the early 1900s, and developed a massive crush on the Kaiser which led to her being committed to an asylum in 1918 (whether the date is coincidental or not, I'm not sure). Her pictures, made with crayons and pastels, depict women with gigantic anatomic proportions (hair, lips, eyes, busts) and contain highly elaborate borders. The fanciful biography of Augustin Lesage on the French Wikipedia site tells us that he was a French miner, straight from Zola's Germinal. Told by the voice of his sister, who had died as a young child, that he would be a great painter and must get to work immediately, Lesage produced frighteningly detailed images on three metre square canvasses. His paintings are always symmetrical along a vertical axis, and often inspired by Egypt.

Madge Gill, an East End medium who grew up in an orphanage and who gave birth to a stillborn girl and a son who died in the Spanish flu pandemic, drew images as cenophobic as Corbaz or Lesage. Her guide was Myrninerest, her medium was a ballpoint pen, and her subject was a woman with a blank face (dotted with two eyes, a fossil of a nose, and a quizzically pinched mouth) and a kaleidoscopically intricate dress. This woman is thought to represent the realisation of her stillborn daughter, or herself as an orphaned child. Her horror at the thought of leaving any part of the paper unadorned may be a symptom of her fear at losing control, of stepping over the boundaries of what was acceptable to her. When her son died in the late 1950s, Gill stopped drawing and started drinking heavily. She died in 1961.

The centrepiece of the Museum of Everything's exhibition is the work of Henry Darger, who warrants a separate piece which I shall post soon. The exhibition runs until the end of January - see here for more details.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Am reading Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism, so am building myself up to the futile task (for me at least, since economics is a subject I feel terribly insecure about) of writing something about Marxist economic theory. Meanwhile, here's how the country as a whole has reacted to the credit crunch: