Tuesday, August 4, 2009
The paltry excuse being used for this is that there was actually a blasphemy law on the books already, and that, as blasphemy is mentioned in the consititution, we had to create a new law so as not to leave a 'void'. Of course the constitution is also a document that states that the authority of the State comes from an entity called the Most Holy Trinity - something roughly equivalent to declaring The Easter Bunny to be one of the Founding Fathers.
Now we come to this little thing known as offence. The last sentence of the preceeding paragraph might be said by some to be 'offensive' to those who beleive in God. By comparing their holiest of holies to a creature that all sane adults agree is merely invented to please children, is 'offensive' we say, and we leave it at that. We all know what 'offensive' means, and we all agree that its not a good thing and there should be less of it. Or something like that.
My question is: Do we really know what 'offensive' means and is it something that need be of any interest to the law? To put it this way: I am an atheist. If I am at a dinner party and somebody starts talking about their deep personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, I will probably bite my lip and say nothing, to avoid 'offending' the person in question. Privately, of course, I consider his beliefs illusory, cretinous and unworthy of discussion by educated, first-world adults in the 21st century. But I probably won't tell him so.
This of course, is how all of us feel about all beliefs we do not share, but mostly for politeness' sake, we don't actually say so: If you are a Christian, you probably think that the idea that Buddha was born from a slit in his mother's belly pretty silly and if you are Islamic, you probably think it laughable that Hindus worship a god with the head of an elephant, and the body of a man. You can take it as read that if I introduce myself as an atheist, that I think all of the above are transparently false and furthermore that I think slightly less of the intellectual honesty of anyone that believes in them. Furthermore, any religious person reading this probably pities me for my blinkered refusal to accept the blindingly obvious reality that God loves me whether I beleive in him or not.
So why is it, that even though we are all perfectly well aware that anyone who does not share our beliefs, thinks they are profoundly, blatantly and obviously wrong, we consider it 'offensive' for them to admit to it? And why is it that we only do this where the beliefs in question are about things which we cannot see?
Imagine I were able to say to a right-winger "Your belief that market forces are the best arbiter of social justice offends me, and I think you shouldnt be allowed to express it." Instantly such an idea would raise the hackles of any democratically-minded person, of whatever political stripe: We all know that democracy is based on saying whatever you like about reality and the concept of 'offense' is given short shrift.
When the subject becomes religion, we become like a teacher in a remedial class, telling every student that he is 'special' and the best student in the class, as we know it will make him feel better to believe so. We walk on eggshells around people's religious beliefs, because we know how important they are to anybody that holds them. Though this is understandable, and socially probably a good move, it should in no way be enshrined in the laws of a country.
Let us admit to one thing: Anybody who does not hold the same religious beliefs as you, thinks that your deeply-held sacred tenets are guff, your God(s) non-existent, your prophet a deluded moron with delusions of grandeur and your Holy Book transparent twaddle invented by ambitious patriarchs. We think this even if we happen to have swallowed a different flavour of twaddle from somewhere else. Let us not pretend that this isn't so. If we take this as read there is nothing to be offended about, in much the same way that after an hour or two on a nudist beach, the endless parade of wrinkly scrotums and labias on show simply becomes part of the background scenery. It is covering them with clothes that makes them capable of offense.
Let us be honest that beneath our polite ecumenical smiles, our pious rubbish about 'inter-faith dialogue' and ecumenism, that underneath our clothes, we all think our fellow men are morons. Once we accept that, there is really nothing to get worked up about. Im quite sure that God would approve. Of course you're well within your rights to consider me a fool for saying so.
Monday, June 29, 2009
It was unlikely of course that I or any of my friends would have ended up sitting insensible in a pool of our own wazz at a train station, most of us so-called Tiger Cubs (I know, Im sorry) were from far too decent backgrounds for that ever to happen. It was more likely that like countless millions of talented Irish people before me, I would have ended up having an uneventful, frustrated life of dissipated talents whose central lynchpin was drinking booze. Chances are you have at least two or three friends who have ended up or are on their way towards such a fate. Mercifully for them, nobody in Ireland would be so rude as to stage interventions or hustle them into a van and drive them to rehab - The downward spiral is usually laughed off with a wave of the hand and a sigh: "Ha, ha, he's a legend that one!"
So, having discovered over the past two years what Ireland looks like through the bottom of a 7up glass, I feel its only my duty to scoop up what little urinal cakes of wisdom I have gleaned from the well-piddled on bowl that is the Irish drinking scene: This, if I may presume, is my advice for those considering a booze-less life in Ireland that doesnt involve joining the Moonies or becoming so alienated you feel like climbing the Spire with a sniper Rifle:
(1) Pubs Really Are Incredibly Boring Places:
A sacred cow of a certain sentimental sort of drinker is that pubs are lively places full of anecdote and sparkling conversation, where revolutions are forged, dreams dreamed, poems conceived and novels born. In some way the alchemy of alcohol manages to turn a dingy little room full of people making small talk into a literary salon full of fascinating agile minds. By and large the conversations that people have in pubs are a good deal more boring than the conversations they have elsewhere, due to the volume of other people's conversations, the music, and the fact that alcohol makes you not give a toss about boring the arse off other people.
As a non-drinker, that is what a pub is and for the most part it is to be endured. If possible try and steer things towards pubs that have other things to do in them: A live band, a dance floor, a stripper, a fistfight or a game of darts, are all reasonable ways to keep your mind active while the drunks around you are emptying their minds of whatever uninteresting silt has gathered in them over the week.
(2) House Parties:
Now this is where it's at. House parties actually are fun. Therefore you dont need to alter your brain chemistry with fermented fruit juices in order to enjoy them. Not only do they cost almost nothing, they are usually far closer to the spirit of what the drinking life is supposed to be all about: At house parties you can usually meet and talk to new people very easily, which, despite the propaganda, actually happens quite rarely in pubs/clubs. You can usually dance (to good music) and there is a far better, less posey vibe at most of 'em.
Plus the people at a house party are filtered for your delectation: If its a friend's party, chances are its full of the sort people you'd actually like to meet: Not the random collection of social driftwood that washes up at the doors of whatever nightclub you've ended up in. Plus, at a house party, if you get bored, you can simply pack up and go to another room and talk to somebody else. Try that in a Dublin pub where the 10 square inches of floor space you've conquered to place your feet on has to be guarded like it was Tokyo real-estate.
(3) Fun Things Are Still Fun:
Music, gigs, dancing, festivals and good conversation with interesting people are actually more fun when you don't drink than when you do. Its just that as an Irish person, you've probably spent most of your life not really giving a fuck where you go on Saturday night as long as there's a bar.
Also, it is nice not to have to approach your night as if it was a chemistry experiment, as you are forced to do when you're a drinker: "O.K. Ill have one beer at 8, before the support band, and another at 8:30 before the main band comes on, so Ill have nice little glow on when the first song starts: Then Ill have to go for a whizz at 9:00, have another 2 beers before they finish the set, so that I peak somewhere about the last song, but Im not too drunk to chat up girls at the end, but not too sober either as Id feel self-conscious, which will hopefully give me a window of about two pints to see if there's anything fun happening afterwards, and make sure I dont pass the Magic Pint that gives me a filthy hangover the next day." It is actually kind of liberating not to have to think in those terms.
(4) Things That Aren't Fun Aren't Fun:
One of the magic things about the old electric soup is the way it papers over the cracks between human beings, even if the cracks are of the order of The Marianas Trench. When I was drinking I could probably have sat at a table with Hitler and said "Ah well, 6 million aint so bad, sure we all make mishtakes, ya wannnotherdrink?"
When you don't drink, people that are irritating/boring/objectionable/sexually unattractive/murderous fascist dictators, remain so. You thus have to be far more selective about who you hang out with than you used to. You actually will find it annoying to talk about Rugby for 2 hours with some D4 arse-wipe, whereas before you'd probably have thought "Am n't I a wonderful expansive social chameleon for talking to this guy who's completely different to me. What an interesting experience this is!"
This experience, can, of course lead one screaming back to Auntie Ethanol, as the terrifying realisation dawns that things which one had previously considered the apex of fun, are actually really dull. This of course is all part of the deal, once you've coped with this realisation, you'll probably want to go and find things to do that actually are fun, which will make your life far more interesting. This phenomenon has it's reverse side, too, of course. Ask any of your friends who are betrothed to the booze why they do it and they'll probably answer "Cause there's fuck all else to do in Ireland!". And then notice that when they go abroad they do exactly the same amount of drinking. One of the major effects of drinking too much is to make you think that drinking too much is the only way to have fun.
Remember too, that drinkers will tend to use what I call the Keith Richards Defence: The idea that there is some essential connection between alcohol and youth, fun, freedom, sex, music, socialising and having a good time. That if you give it up, you necessarily have to become a bit of a Ned Flanders. This couldnt be further from the truth: The only sense in which not drinking makes you a Neddie, is in the sense that you dont drink.
All the other stuff remains unchanged, except that you enjoy it more. How many drunken one night stands do you actually enjoy (or even remember) ? How many hundreds of times have you had a drunken heart-to-heart with somebody, that you thought was an epiphany, only to wake up the next day and think "Oh Jesus, what was I saying.." Have you noticed alcohol ever make a non-fun person fun? Its effect is mostly the opposite: It generally takes fun talkative people, and in the course of a few hours reduces them to sitting subdued staring into their glass or prattling on in a loud voice about nothing.
That it makes people more open and sociable is also a myth: I have watched numerous drunks and always see how at the beginning of a night, social interaction proceeds as normal. Once people pass The Magic Pint , no meaningful social interaction takes place: People talk, but dont listen, and eye contact often dissipates: It is as if by creating a soft cushion around each drinker that reduces social anxiety, past a certain point it becomes a suit of armour: Everybody is oblivious to everyone else, even though each thinks they are relating more deeply than they normally do. Its a very odd illusion.
Yet it is a pervasive one. Imagine we lived in a country that beleived that looking at porn and having sex were intimately connected: One in which most people looked at porn before, during and after the real thing, and it was widely beleived that looking at porn made people better in bed, and that people who dont look at porn are probably sexually frigid. Yet as most of us know, the guy with the massive stash of scruffy mags under his bed is in fact usually the least likely guy to be a sexual dynamo. He is more likely to be a jizz-spattered, hollow-eyed virgin who never leaves the house. We all know that looking at eyefuls of porn is probably more likely to diminish your interest in sex with real people than enhance it.
The same is to a certain extent true of Alcohol: In Ireland we tell ourselves that a chemical subsitute for a good time, is a necessary component of having a good time. When actually it's really a fairly grotty little tranquiliser - good for mashing up your brains when you're a feudal peasant who works the land from dawn till dusk, useful for easing the aches, pains and boredom of old age, but not something that engenders youth , vigour and energy. Yet amazingly, we've somehow got it into our heads, that it is the very bottled essence of same. In reality - it is only because young people are so full of vigour and energy anyway, that they can afford to quash it by drinking booze.
Of course I realise, that for uttering the above words, I have resigned myself to the ranks of the terminally uncool. I sound like a bitter old man. A Fun-Black-Hole. Or worse - like John Fucking Waters. Which is of course a fair accusation, to which the only answer I can supply is this:
Think of Valium - The original Mother's Little Helper, a relaxant drug first used in the 60s for panic attacks, anxiety and depression. Most of us associate Valium with highly neurotic people, uptight housewives and people in Woody Allen movies. It has a reputation as something of a dull, bourgeois person's drug, a sort of Soma for the uptight hard-working professional.
Imagine somebody asked you "You dont take Valium? Jesus, you must be so stressed out!" - you would rightly laugh at them, thinking, "there's no necessary connection between Valium and relaxation, unless you happen to be massively neurotic in the first place" We have this clear-eyed attitude to Valium, because it is a niche drug, one used by a small percentage of the population and so we are not blind to it's effects. Alcohol, by contrast is used by everyone and his auntie - and thus it is difficult to see it with the same clarity as a drug on the sidelines. We have built up fairly ridiculous notions about what it's affects really are.
This is the major reason that those DrinkAware ad campaigns are so bad: They all show ordinary, hard-working, decent citizens who are not amused by your irrational, unpredictable drunken antics and are sniffing at you: "Ive Had Enough." - One is a nurse, another is a shop-steward who has to mop up your barfed-up Guinness, the other an old man who's trying to enjoy a nice nap and is being woken up by the sound of you being young, and having fun, which he hasn't done since 1972.
I promised myself when I finished my arts degree that I would never use the word 'paradigm' again, but here goes anyways: The DrinkAware campaign feeds directly into the paradigm of "Drinkers: Fun, irrational, creative, rock'n'roll etc." vs "Non Drinkers: Boring working stiffs with rods up their asses who never cut loose." The campaign is thus feeding directly into the whole idea that life without drink is life without fun: It is literally screaming at you from the ad-hoardings: "Get out there and have a drink before The Man gets his hook in you and you end up living alone and writing letters to the Irish Times that begin 'A Chara, I was shocked and appalled.."
We often hear it touted as a result that we need to adopt a more 'continental' attitude towards drinking, and you can actually hear the collective sigh that goes through Irish people when this is proffered: "Oh god, drinking little snifters of weak beer in tapas bars, and having to endure 4 hour meals with only a glass and a half of wine for comfort. Sounds like a barrell of laughs. - Sure aren't all those Continentals a bunch of dry shites anyway, and sure isn't getting arseholed part of our culture?" (Cue anecdote involving Brendan Behan/Paddy Kavanagh et al getting lamped in McDaids back in the day).
Suggesting 'Continental' drinking as the solution feeds into the, ahem, paradigm, as well: It feels a bit like your ma scolding you by saying "Now why can't you be more like your sister, she never sets fire to her toys with lighter fluid and a magnifying glass, now does she?". Plus it reeks of a sort of Middle-Class Missionaryism - you feel as if the same people would offer organ recitals and watercolour classes as a cure for inner-city smack addiction.
So what, as they used to say, Is To Be Done? Well it would be nice, of course, if Irish people did drink a bit more like Continentals, but as Irish people, we are generally gonna turn round and tell you to get fucked if you ever tell us there is anything we ought to be doing - a legacy of 400 years of being told what to do, some might say. Here for what they are worth would be my suggestions:
(1) Remove all the stupid new laws that make alcohol worth it's weight in gold after 10 o clock. Making things illicit and officially frowned-upon is a sure-fire way to make them attractive to human beings. If those humans are shirty, rebellious fuckers like the Irish, this is doubly true.
(2) Free Swimming Pools/Saunas/Gyms for all: The people who use the poor weather as an excuse for Irish drinking do actually have a point: There are only a few things in life that give you that "Aaaahh.." feeling of physical release that the first pint does so well: The knot in your belly loosens, the shoulders relax: Sex, exercise, basking in the sunshine and for some deeply Amniotic reason, swimming in a pool seems to have the same effect.Well, obviously the sunshine isn't something we can guarantee, but taking access to these simple pleasures to people who cant afford a yearly subscription to some poncy gaff like Westwood would be a good step in the right direction.
(3) Encourage an attitude to alcohol that is not more 'sensible' and 'responsible' and other boring sounding words: But one that simply sees alcohol as one option among many: Not the central Alpha and Omega of life that many Irish see it as now.
What needs to be done is not to make drinking booze in huge quantities seem dark and dangerous (thus increasing it's attractiveness) , or inconvenient and messy (making it seem Rock'N'Roll), but make it seem boring and unsexy - a tedious, predictable downer drug, that makes people drool on themselves, bore their friends and fail to perform in the sack. Ads that try and make drinking booze seem pathetic and life-destroying will fail too - for most people that's not their experience of it, so they write such ads off as scare-mongering.
Perhaps an ad which, instead of showing some tragic hollow-eyed wasted teen, struggling to stay aloft on her high heels, or a vicious drunken bastard beating hell out of his wife, show some real, terrifying footage of a middle-class dullard pontificating about house prices to an audience of ordinary ugly people, who aren't listening to him. Then show a fat secretary making horrible cringeworthy sexual advances on a pimply office boy at a Christmas party. Anything, just make sure it's DULL.Cause that, ultimately is the thing - Booze is not Baudelaire jacking himself up on Absinthe and pouring forth with Les Fleurs Du Mal, it's not Tom Waits howling at the moon or Hemingway wrestling bears. It is basically a fairly low-grade sedative that slows down your brain and makes tedious things seem endlessly fascinating. It does not allow you an entry pass into worlds of imagination and creativity that would otherwise be barred to you. In fact, a casual glance around my local pub would reveal at least a dozen would-be writers, musicians and artists that haven't created jack in years, due to being more interested in talking about creativity down the pub, than in actually staying up till 3 in the morning making something.
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Roughly speaking, Carey recommends a sort of extreme relativism with regards to judging art: Art is so subjective, he opines, and so varied in it's effects on different people that there is no way we can come up with universal judgements on it. We must be content with: "It's art if somebody says it is." and must shrug our shoulders as we lump "Home And Away" in with Shakespeare, as we cannot possibly know what deep emotions the Australian soap may be stirring in the breasts of our fellow human beings. Views, calculated , no doubt to get under the collar of anyone who beleives in muses, eternal verities, or has classical yearnings. To Carey, this will have to do as a basis for criticism.
It is an argument that goes along similar lines as that taken by Bishop Berkeley, in Treatise Concerning the Principles of Knowledge: The world is only perceived by us through our senses, and as such we have no way of knowing if the world I am perceiving is the same as the one you are perceiving, or if there even is an external world at all. Samuel Johnson is reported to have answered Berkeley's challenge by kicking a stone so hard his foot bounced off it with the words "I refute it thus."
Of course Berkeley was not actually suggesting that the world has no external reality, and that we might as well all go jump off the nearest cliff: He was making the academic point that we cannot actually know anything without the evidence of our senses - a viewpoint fundamental to modern science among other things.
And what does this tell us about our attitude to good/bad/high/low art? Well, I would argue, that though we might as well agree with Carey, that ultimately, Home and Away is to be placed on a level with Shakespeare, in that both are works of drama and we cannot say with certainty which is higher and which lower. This does not mean that we need take this view seriously all the time: In other words, if we're being high-minded about it, they are both in the same area code. If we're talking in more everyday terms, we all know Shakespeare is better than Home and Away, and are pretty sure that the feelings the Aussie soap excites are a little cheaper and less enobling than the ones in Shakespeare.
Secondly, the extreme relativistic view makes it difficult to express a view about art that has claims to any external, let alone eternal, truth, according to Carey. We cannot say that Beethoven is 'better' than Lady GaGa, merely that "I like Beethoven more than Lady GaGa." Again, of course, Carey is correct, having reached the point in hostory where we can easily dispense with any ideas of eternal, intrinsically valuable art, we have to sigh and simply say "Well I like it anyway, and thats good enough for me."
Except that for most of us, it's not good enough. When we say "I like Shakespeare a lot." , what we really mean is not just "I like him. " , we mean "I think there is something about Shakespeare that makes him worthy of my liking." And chances are, if you dont agree with me, I secretly reckon you're missing out. To have an opinion on anything, is to beleive that somebody else is hopelessly misguided. Its seems to be just the way we're built.
So where does that leave us? Well in my opinion it leaves us as relativists in our speech, but absolutists in our thoughts. So is there a distinction between High and Low art? Maybe not, but there is art that I think is good, deep, fascinating and full of layers of moving meaning, such as The Wire, and then there is an episode of The Hills. And I can see there is a difference - and if you can't, of course I think you are a cretin. For politeness sake and philosophical consistency, I may pretend otherwise, but my thoughts remain much the same as they did in 1989 when I wrote "Metallica Rule: New Kids Suck!" on the wall of my high school toilet.
H.L. Mencken once said of people's religious beleifs: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." , well the same applies here. We respect that everybody's response to a work of art is as meaningul to him as they are to ourselves, but we dont necessarily agree that his feelings are being had for the right reasons.
Which brings us to the other prong of his argument: That if somebody says something is art, it is. Thus, when Marcel Duchamp plonked his urinal into a gallery with the words 'R. Mutt 1917' writtten on it, he had created a peice of art. We are all familiar with the ensuing debate about what art is, and are probably forced to agree with Carey: If that Urinal can be art, well I guess anything can, and we'd better abandon any ideas about there being some ultimate criteria for what is and isn't.
And yet, again some of us are forced at any rate to say : Ultimately, this is correct, no argument there. But it is possible to create a category of art that I see as so unsuccessful in its transmission of meaning to human beings, that it can be considered to be 'failed art'. Look at it this way: If I am turning the dial on a radio, I can pretty easily distinguish the radio stations from the noise in between them. I would even suppose (though of course I cannot be sure) that 100% of human beings would agree with me about which was which (Except perhaps, Charles Saatchi).
Most of us would rightly think that anybody who tried to argue that the white noise was actually music was merely indulging himself in a little intellectual excercise. He has a point, white noise does contain all possible frequencies, so one could as easily sculpt a Beethoven's Fifth out of it as a Bille Jean, with the right tools. But, all of us prefer our music a little more selective than white noise, for most of us, preferably even more rareified as to contains notes, scales, chords and key signatures.
With visual art, it is to my mind possible to look at a peice of painting/sculpture in the same way. If the canvas was simply a white square entitled "Untitled No 7" - we cannot write it off as 'non-art' according to Carey. We can however, in my opinion, write it off as "Failed Art" in that it could possibly be communicating things to people, but it is plain to see, that it is not attempting to do so, visually it is simply white noise: Something that has not been refined to the point where it could have a meaning.
Further to this I would add the category of "Trick Art" - that is, art which is not merely 'failed art' as mentioned above, but art that is knowingly made by it's creator to slip under the radar of meaning and exploit human being's desire to seem clever and knowledgable in front if other human beings. In other words, the artist makes a creation which quite deliberately avoids meaning anything at all (Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst et al) and presents it in an environment (e.g. A fashionable gallery, Saatchi's living room) in which everybody in the room is scared to admit that they dont understand it.
Carey mentions this phenomenon when he links High Art and Low Art to their respective social classes: If I admit that I have little liking for abstract art beyond using it for wallpapers or duvet covers, I have immediately removed myself from the Upper-Middle-Class. I have indicated that I am small minded and frumpy, probably read the Daily Mail, and am definitely not getting laid tonight. Of course in reality, nobody thinks that much of abstract art - beyond "Hmm, blue and green, I guess it's kind of um, tranquil or something.", but any of us with social aspirations are not going to admit so in public, particularly if we make a living as an art critic.
The difference, however, before the Twentieth Century, when Art was divided into High and Low along class lines, the so-called high art did actually have something more complicated and meaningful about it, if only in a technical sense. Mozart was High Art, but still music that a 10 year old can understand, even today. The same cant be said of Stockhausen.
In the present day visual arts, however, the opposite is the case: That which is 'highest' probably has the least meaning (for anybody, cultured or uncultured) and that which is lowest is probably somebody worth sneering at, you know, some god-awful, painter, like painting pictures of stuff, as if anybody was interested in that anymore.
This fact may be connected , Carey points out, to the fact that visual art Art is not reproducible by mechanical means: The other major modern art forms, cinema, literature and recorded music, do not suffer from this phenomenon to anything like the same degree: Of course there are people turning out obscurantist wank in all of those fields, but they are largely doing so far off most people's radar. In the plastic arts the obscurantist wank is the mainstream, and the stuff that attempts to mean something is being sold by the yard on the railings of your local park.
This is because somewhere along the line, Capitalism realised that the Plastic Arts could be made into a financial instrument, something which could be sold and resold by the very rich in the same way as stocks and shares can. For works of art that are reproducible and copiable, like cinema and music, this option, of course, is not open. As a result of this, we needed to create visual art that could potentially hold any value that somebody wished to ascribe to them, in the same way that a company share price can rice or fall. For this to work, a blank, meaningless piece of art is what is necessary. If it were possible to attribute actual value to it, it would have no use as a financial instrument.
On top of this, Carey makes a special case for Literature as the best of all the arts. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of this, he does indicate, however, one thing in making this point that is worthy of mention: That visual art simply is not (and was never) capable of communicating complicated philosophical ideas. It can communicate moods, feelings, and very simplified emotions (Munchs: 'The Scream' for example) , and maybe even tell part of a story.
But it is simply not able to communicate many of the profoundly complicated philosophical wranglings that it is expected to nowadays. It is simply using the wrong tool for the job. As Elvis Costello once noted, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." - in the same way, visual art cannot be expected to express complicated ideas about the nature of reality or art: Except the by-now-tedious one of making us ask 'but is it art?' which has been comprehensively covered by now. That expressing these sorts of ideas has become it's main job, is a waste of it's talents, akin to asking David Beckham to stop dazzling us with his wonderful football skills and come inside for a chat about quantum mechanics.
As well as this, if a work of art is 'merely pretty' , what is so bad about that? For some reason, if I paint an abstract painting of blue and green circles and stick it in an art gallery it is 'art' , and is supposed in some way to express very profound meanings beyond it's mere shapes. If I stick it on a book cover, a T-shirt, or a wallpaper, it becomes 'graphic design', which is merely expected to look good. We seem to think this a lesser aspiration than 'meaning something' , but abstract art is actually infinitely more capable of the former than the latter.
Of course we dont want to come over all Richard Littlejohn amnd start ranting about 'Values" - merely to say, that just because ultimately we cannot seperate good from bad
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Whether the sentence is justified or not, too harsh or too lenient is not my interest here, what is interesting to me is that this is the first major blow against the *ahem* torrent of piracy that has so defined our media lives this past 6 or 7 broadband-enabled years. For most of us, computer nerds or not, recent years have seen us completely change the way we relate to music and movies. Most of us have only a hazy memory of the last time we walked into a shop and bought a CD, all of us have at least one iPod-type gadget and one big multi-Gig hard drive full of movies and music. Many of us have not renewed our membership at a video library in several years, and most of us have a little green icon ticking away in our taskbar all the time, catching little drops of the entertainment nourishment that seems to fall out of the sky these days. The more discerning among us dont even watch TV any more: Why sit through 10 minutes of ads for 20 minutes of entertainment when you can just download the stuff you want?
This is normal now. This is modern life. And as far as that goes, it's OK. From the perspective of my couch, spliff in hand, working my way through the 3rd downloaded series of The Wire, it seems an annoying intrusion to have some dork barge in and throw open the drapes: "But all of this is Illegal! You are stealing things that don't belong to you! Wont somebody please think of the poor addled giant media conglomerates and their dwindling revenues?"
So I snort, and shrug off this jerk and his irritatingly Twentieth Century views on media ownsership and go back to my Wire. Technology has moved on, I grunt, time to stop worrying about ownership and physical discs and copyright, its all just part of the great big wave of information that is our bathwater now. Get with it.
Or not. Like that ad which we see on those rare times when we cant find a torrent of a movie and are forced to walk to the store and rent it, we are all dimly aware of the wrongness of what we're doing: "You wouldn't steal a car..." the ad says, before informing us that software piracy is a crime. And from what we see, it is plain that the average otherwise law-abiding citizen does not agree: They think that there is a huge difference between stealing a car and stealing an album. And the commoness of this belief is worth looking at. Even though it is of course illegal and wrong to steal software, music or movies, most of us do it anyway, and yet none of us would dream of stealing so much as a Snickers in real life.
So why the difference in attitude? Well it seems to boil down to a few basic categories of arguement:
(1) When you steal a car, you deprive someone else of a car. This is bad, and we would feel guilty. When you steal by making a copy of something, however, you havent deprived anybody of anything, except in some small way deprived a large organisation of a percentage of it's profits, a guilt pang which can easily be erased by the logic: "Well if I couldnt have downloaded it, I wouldnt have bought it as it's too expensive, so I havent really deprived them of anything. "
(2) Most of us don't seem to have the moral gene that allows us to feel guilty at a large remove from our victim: So I stole 10 quid from Franz Ferdinand, so what? They are just some guys on TV Ive never met. Try this experiment. Go and see a great up-and-coming band live and enjoy the show, and maybe even chat to them backstage afterwards, then go home and try to torrent their album as you normally would. Feel that queasy feeling of old start to bite? Thought so, that's called 'guilt'.
(3) The vaguely Anarchist/Fuck The System/All Property Is Theft defense. This is a nice one for people of an intellectual bent. This takes the form of a spectrum from: "Fuck 'em, those big record companies are just another big corporation getting rich off the backs of the workers (The musicians) and they deserve to lose their profits." to "Not buying music off these people is a form of protest against Corporate Capitalism/The Miltary Industrial-Complex/Israel." All of which arguments, ignore the fact that your "protest" is taking money from the musicians as much as it is from their corporate masters.
(4) The Motley Crue/P. Diddy/Bloated Rock Star defence: Those lucky bastards are getting blow jobs in the back of Limos and snorting coke off the nipples of teenage starlets while Im asking strangers on a phone line if they would like to upgrade their Verizon Wireless Service to our New Monthly Plan. Fuck 'em.
Now this one of course, holds about as much water as the Rock Star's J.D on the rocks: The whole reason to be worried about music piracy is not that it will reduce P. Diddy's Salary from 20 Million a year to 10. This is not the problem. The problem is way further down the pecking order: Those ordinary musicians (who also happen to be the ones making the best music) who would normally have gotten by making a small living salary of say 30,000 dollars a year from their fanbase. In a world in which music is free, that revenue is gone, and that guy who wrote that song that you want played at your funeral is probably sitting in the cubicle next to yours fielding calls from irate account holders.
Imagine if you will, if the same drastic restructuring were to occur in any other artistic field: Imagine if somebody said to the struggling painter, "Yeah listen, love your work, in fact I have some above my mantlepieice, but paintings are just not something we pay for anymore, sorry." Or to a writer "Great novel, changed my life, but you'd probably have written it cash or no cash, so I'll give you my goodwill instead of $8.99...Well maybe you can convince some local companies to stick some ads in between chapters 3 and 4? Well there's always book tours and speaking engagements...."
Which leads us to number (4) The Gigs Defence: So recorded music has become a loss leader: The CD or download is now merely an ad for the main attraction: The Gig. That's where artists can make their money now, problem solved. Well, not quite. What this fails to notice, is that for the vast majority of artists the costs of gigging either outstrip or roughly equal the amount of money made from it. It is only when you get closer to Sting's level that you start making money. Gigs used to be a way of generating interest in albums, which was where money was made. Now we are told they are supposed to be a way of generating revenue on their own. But for most artists, playing to 80 appreciative punters in an intimate bar will barely pay for the petrol money that got them there.
Now of course, real musicians are not in it for the money, and will probably continue doing what they do anyway. Maybe all this new technology will do is strip away the Breadheads from the True Artists. Well either that, or consign a whole generation of Lennon/McCartneys, Morisseys and Marrs to hock their guitars to pay the electricity bill.
And (5) is The Disingenuous Civil Liberties Defense: Stopping people from illegal downloading is a restriction of personal liberty, and before we know it we'll all be goose-stepping around the place and governments will be controlling our every thought and deed with microchips in our heads.
This is quite plainly bullshit - and most of the progenitors of this arguement are clever enough to know so too. If we go back to the days when regular bricks -and-mortar highways were the hippest new thing (as opposed to Information Ones) - nobody would have pleaded civil liberties when government set a Speed Limit on them, nor is anybody particularly worried that you're not allowed to drive on them after necking a bottle of whiskey. These are freedoms we are quite happy to restrict. Restricting people's freedom to commit crimes, be they bricks-and-mortar crimes or dot com ones, in no way conflicts with Civil Liberties, in fact it strengthens them. It is , as tedious and as Poli-Sci 101 as it sounds, the basis *yawn* of Civilization.
And furthermore, having advanced to the point where so many of our products are virtual rather than physical, it is EVEN MORE important that we protect Intellectual Copyright, not, as so many seem to wish, to abandon the idea of it altogether.
Another arguement we hear is the Technological One (6) where it argued that for vaguely understood technological reasons, you cant protect information thats out there on the Net, pirates will always find away around Copy Protections/DRM/IP trackers and so on. Which may be true, but ignores one basic truth: The more difficult and dangerous we make piracy, the more people won't bother to do it: Look at computer games for example: The vast majority of us freely copy music and movies, but tend not to pirate computer games at anything like the same rate. Why?
The answer is simple: The difficulty or downloading something that is 8 or 9 Gigs in size and having to fiddle around with CD-keygens and .iso files is not worth the quick jaunt to the shop and the cover price of 19.99 (and 7.99 after a year or two) , for something that will give you between 40 and 80 hours of entertainment. So we buy it. Most of the time.
If illegally downloading music meant installing some-sort of proxy browser that hid your IP from your ISP, and you had to trawl through some darker corners of the internet to get your torrents in the first place - probably to the kinds of sites that come with a squillion pop-ups, malware, spyware and annoying "Vote For My Website!" prompts, a huge majority of people would simply say "Fuck it." and stump up the 5 or so bucks for an album download direct from the band's website.
As well as this, if legal repercussions became a real possibility as opposed to a vague laughable threat, most of the decent folk would stop the moment they heard that a friend of theirs got a letter in the door saying that they now owed a $1000 dollar fine. Only the true die-hards would continue past that point.
Now to qualify: I say all of this as an inveterate pirate myself: From the day in 1986 I figured out how to stick a microphone up to a stereo speaker and press record, I have loved copying music that didnt belong to me: All through the 90's most of my music collection was tapes, when I got my first CD burner 10 years ago, I never looked back: I watched helplessly as my once colouful wall of store-bought CD's morphed into wallets full of silver discs with marker on them, and then slowly watched them transmogrify into a hundred-buck Western Digital MyBook and a shiny iPod.
So I'm a hypocrite then? Well yes, I am. But then you don't ask a Mormon for advice on how to deal with the World's drug problem. I know full well, that the best way of stopping a guy like me (and almost everybody I know) from copying stuff, is to make it too hard, too fiddly, too risky, too technical, too nerdy or too dangerous. In real life, I have only ever met one person who doesn't pirate heroic quantities of music and movies and he, you guessed it, is a music industry professional. Lets face facts here: EVERYBODY who isnt a music industry professional is doing it, and in huge quantities too, and it is extremely unlikely that you will get them to stop by "conciousness-raising" or appealing to their better nature.
So outside of the world of sticker-campaigns saying "Downloading is Killing Music", what options remain? If we dispense immediately with any sort of idea of a perfect copy-protection system (they are always broken in 5 seconds flat) what we can do is actually pretty simple: Here are my suggestions:
(1) ISP's required by law to send you threatening letters if you are downloading illegal stuff, and cut off your internet service if you do it more than say, three times. Beyond that, criminal prosecution and fines become automatic. Do it a fourth time: 1000 dollar fine, do it a 5th 10,000 and so on. This is not snooping or restriction of civil liberties, it is no different to being caught shoplifting.
(2) Subscription based service gives you access to whatever music you like, yearly. You pay say 100 to 150 dollars a year for the privelege of downloading whatever you want. The money is shared out to the artists according to how many downloads they generated. The average person doesnt spend and never has, much more than this amount of money on music, so it would add up to the same basic amount of revenue. Simlar service exists for movies, though with less money, as movies can still make money from Cinema and tie-ins.
(3) Could possibly institute an amnesty on all downloading of old music which has already generated enough revenue for its creators. I dont see much crime in downloading Dark Side of The Moon, when Roger Waters and David Gilmour are already comfortably settled on the pages of Forbe's Rich List. Ditto for The Beatles and other older music that has made piles of cash and is practically a part of our shared heritage at this stage: The point of all of this is to ensure that new, up-and-coming artists can earn enough money to feed themselves by providing entertainment for everybody else.
So where does this leave the giant record labels you might ask? Well, hopefully it doesnt. There is no reason for them to exist in their present form. They once held the position that they did by monopolising the then very expensive Means of Production: The recording studios, pressing plants, stores and distribution networks that made up the Music Industry. Now that all that heavy duty industry now fits inside a laptop, their role should become reduced to that of marketing and advertising agencies: An Artist will hire them to promote his music (which he owns) and pay them a percentage of his profits (or a fixed fee) for doing so - in the same way in which any other business works with an advertising agency. They will not 'own' an artist or his music, and they certainly will not make anything like the huge percentages of the music revenue that they do now - that, hopefully will be going to the guys and girls who create the damn prduct in the first place.
One day, we will look back on the era of illegal downloading the way we now look back on the era of Drunk-Driving. Once upon a time, respectable, upstanding folk thought nothing of getting a few belts of scotch in to them and driving home. You would have been seen as quite a bore if you suggested otherwise in 1976 and probably had your sexual orientation called into question too. However, sometime in the 1980's attitudes and laws began to change and most of us look with horror on anyone who drives drunk, still less boasts about it.
And this didnt happen merely because people became more conscious of the danger: It happened because we introduced laws that made sure it was never tolerated. It is analogous, I think to the early days of The Fire Service: Previously, in some countries the Fire Department was merely a bunch of private companies, with whom you signed an agreement that they would protect your property in case of fire: If your house was on fire and you didnt have a contract with the nearest company, they'd let it burn to the ground.
Eventually, we realised that this was a pretty crummy way to run an essential service and we developed something better: A proper, government sponsored service that put out fires, whoever's they might be. Doubtless there were people then too saying that fires are inevitable, that government organisations are oppressive, that fire is simply the way of things, and that individuals should look after their own damn business. Thankfully however, we didn't listen to them.
Friday, April 10, 2009
As cliched as the above might be, it seems to be a bit of a 'meme' that is doing the rounds these days. In the same way as veterans of The Blitz like to reminisce about what a wonderful atmosphere there was in wartime London, there seems to be a bit of a feeling in the air that we are all going to go back to 'the things that really matter' : A recent ad on T.V. showing girls pissing themselves over a pair of Manalo Blanhiks, then cutting to a family having a Sunday Walk on Dollymount Strand is pushing this idea, as is the return of a few pre-boomtime cultural artifacts - the return of the Cadbury's Caramel Bunny for one, and (possibly) the fact that I have heard The Special's 'Ghost Town' playing in at least 3 Dublin pubs recently.
Now, like all good truths, this idea is a cliche: "Oh we were poor but happy." "Can't buy me Love." "If you've got your health what else do you need." and so on. But I wonder if there may not be a deeper truth in here somewhere. I am reading a book at the moment called 'Enough', by an author called Will Samson. Its basic thesis is that, living, as us lucky Westerners do, in what is easily the most materially comfortable society that has ever existed anywhere, we are nonetheless unhappy: And that this may be connected in some way to the human brain, being designed at the animal level, to endure long periods of scarcity punctuated by brief moments of plenty. We are designed, he says, to cram our faces with whatever food is available now, the better to weather the weeks of famine that may follow. We have the same gerbil-like attitude to other things than food as well: Information, sex, alcohol and drugs are all pursued in the same blind, primal way.
The problem is, that being the clever little bunnies that we are, we have managed through our awesome powers of organisation, to create societies in which scarcity almost never rears its head, even for the poor: You want meat? You got it. Ice Cream? No Problemo. Sex? Type 'Hot latin pussy' into Google and you're away. The problem is that we are living in a body designed for scarcity, designed not only to grab what it can when it can, but also to accept it in whatever form its available in: Your animal brain doesn't necessarily care about the difference between gentle, intimate love-making with your wife of 10 years, and desultory one-handed website surfing. It doesnt distinguish between a day at the beach with some good friends and a nose full of Andean Happy Powder. The same mechanisms of reward are activated anyway. Except that with drugs, Ice-Cream, or Porno, all you have to do to activite the reward is pay the fee.
Thus, living in a society in which the pleasure tap is never turned off, we rarely have to practice abstinence of any kind, and our happiness receptors are burned out as a result: Remember the awesome paroxms of pleasure a new bike would have sent you through in 1986? Buying a bike now is a dull thud in comparison, a functional purchase like a new fridge. Remember the shiver of anticipation as you slid your fingernail under the shrink-wrap of that first Bon Jovi tape you bought with your pocket money in 1989? Does clicking on that yellow folder on your Terrabyte hard drive full of mp3s even come close?
Well, probably not. Firstly: It seems to be the case that happiness/satisfaction work best when they are restricted. I have had the sickening experience of being bored in front of the internet (as Im sure you have too): You think, here I am, sitting in front of almost all the information mankind has produced up to now, from articles to TV shows to music to games, to artworks, to history, and I am bored. And in contrast to this, when you go on holiday and mistakenly pack Remembrance of Things Past, or War and Peace in your backpack, find yourself in a hotel room at three in the morning with no T.V. and actually wind up reading the damn thing and enjoying it immensely. And you think: "Why dont I read this stuff all the time?", knowing damn well that Proust or Tolstoy hasn't a snowball's chance next to watching a guy take a football in the nuts on YouTube.
Secondly, it seems to be the case that we would do well to restrict our access to 'fake' forms of pleasure. Fake pleasure it seems to me, is that in which no effort is required to get it beyond, say, spending some money, and it exists within a pleasure universe of it's own: Take for example a computer game: A software company simply creates a universe with certain rules in it, and certain conditions that need to be satisfied for rewards to be given, and you play it and get pleasure in those limited terms: To anyone outside the created universe, your actions seem nonsensical: Why would one bother spending hours developing useless skills and solving challenges that dont need to be solved?
This type of limited liability pleasure universe is available in lots of other forms too: A set of criteria for satisfaction is created, and our reward centres are flooded with dopamine when we fulfill them: It costs millions in advertising and marketing to create a big empty Manolo Blanhik shaped hole in a young woman's heart, and her reward is that her pleasure centres will light up like a christmas tree when she finally gets her grateful mitts on them. There is of course, it hardly need be said, no essential need being fulfilled here: A need has simply been created and promptly filled: Like a worker in the last days of Soviet Russia whose job is to dig holes and then fill them in again.
And there are many other things that work in precisely the same way: Consumer products, pornography, drugs legal and illegal and the ultimate one: Cigarettes, which surely must be the work of a diabolical genuis from a Bond movie - a chemical which does nothing for you but remove the desire for itself.
So what of all this Puritan ranting? Is there a point here? Well, yes, of a sort, and probably a very profound one, though I fear it will probably sound trite, or like something your mother would tell you: It seems that there is something to what our religions have been trying to teach us all along: As the Oracle at Delphi famously proclaims in it's version of Deep Thought's '42': "Nothing Too Much" is the supreme wisdom.
Understandably, most of us don't listen to a blind bit of what the Church has to teach us any more, and understandably so: How could you take any advice for the most complicated and confusing part of life (human relationships) from a man who has never experienced one? Not to mention that any advice he will give you is taken from a book written by people so primitive they had never heard of bacteria, Australia, or the theory of Evolution.
Understandably we have turned our backs on the Bible as a compass, and rightly so: There is probably more useful guidance in a Self-Help book written by a creepy Californian in a chunky sweater, and less that is apocryphal, meaningless or downright barbaric. This aside, it does seem that if their were any common spiritual guidance to be gleaned from the mulch of the big religions it would concur with the Architects of Delphi.
Happiness, we might say, lies in Nothing Too Much. Buddhism consists of little more than repeated exhortation to get us to realise this basic point, if we discard the usual religious guff that was tacked on after old Guatama kicked up the daisies. The Abrahamics also attempt to get us to head in the same direction, though tend to muck it up by being rather like an ill-equipped teenage mother disciplining her scruffy brats in Tesco's Car Park: Instead of a calm, enlightened explanation of the potential dangers of overindulging, it tends to clap its followers over the head and shout "Dont fuck anybody ye vicious little bastard or Ill fuckin' bate ye roight?". No wonder, then, that now that they've moved out and gotten a place of their own, they have tended to disregard everything their poor harried teenage mom had to tell them.
And as a result, to go all Samuel Huntington on you for a moment, our world has become split into two camps: The 'Developed' World, which has been on a huge binge since Elvis invented fun in 1955, and the Eastern World , which is full of millions of young men so desperate for a good cleansing knee-trembler, that there is seemingly no shortage of them willing to strap explosives to their bodies to finally get their hands on some action in the hereafter.
This state of affairs seem to have been brought about by the simple-minded way we used to deal with the problem of enoughness: When the various bearded Patriarchs who dreamed up the Bible/Koran and Torah were having their brainstorming meetings, they must have realised that the problem of Enoughness was pretty central to the whole thing: Not least because for most of their target market, a decent meal and a day off would have constituted extravagant luxury.
Secondly, most of that target market were illiterate and would not have been capable of the sort of complicated abstract reasoning that goes on in the smoke-filled-rooms of men trying to start a world religion. So they crushed up these big, complicated, multi-course ideas into easily digestible pill form: Murder Bad, Stealing Bad, Adultery Bad, and definitely no coveting of your neighbour's wife or her ass. As simple as a Coca-Cola slogan. Easy to understand and will play well in the sticks.
Well, as Industry and progress and the inevitable March of History did their little thing on us lucky Westerners we emerged from the Second World War with a few lessons learnt. Lets stop going to war with each other cause it's largely a pain in the ass, and devote ourselves to getting nice and rich and comfortable and change our economy into one based on satisfying our every desire. And should we need to have any wars, lets try and confine them to the hot and sticky places we get our resources from. (Locals there don't call troublesome high-priced lawyers when you carpet-bomb them.)
So we did that, and the spoiled brats raised on Howdy-Doody and The Lone Ranger hit their 20s and demanded their spiritual Desires be as well-catered for as their material ones. This became known as the 1960s and was largely confined to America and the parts of Europe rich enough to think that money isn't important. Once the dust settled on this storming of the ramparts of consciousness, we began to realise that there was actually very little connection between wanting to end the war in Vietnam and demanding a Zipless Fuck. So we gradually took Bob Dylan off the Turntable and replaced him with Disco, stopped rolling joints and rolled up 100 dollar bills instead.
This then led to an Era of unabashed selfishness and greed which we liked to kid ourselves ended with the release of the first De La Soul album. But largely, from that period on, we had entered the second phase of becoming a truly Godless, consumerist society. Not only had we lost faith in all the old stuff: God, Country, Authority and all the other so-called "Grand Narratives" that Cultural Studies professors like to wank on about - but after Thatcher and Reagan and their broadsides on "Society" we lost faith in higher ideas almost entirely. So what did we do? Well for the most part, we went shopping. Buying and selling useless shit to each other to keep the economy ticking over.
We began to discover that the best way to do this was to sell shit that didnt actually exist. So we invented the internet and had a big bubble based on the buying and selling of shares in companies that didn't actually do anything. Once this tanked, some genius realised that the same model would work with houses, which we could all sell to each other for ever, as long as we all simultaneously believed the price was going up.
Which brings us up to the present day: We've discarded the hairy old Faith Of Our Fathers for the most part, and wound up behaving much as the cassocked old buzzards said we would - largely by reversing the negative on each one of the Ten Commandments. So is it time for us all to go all John Waters, pour the Whiskey down the sink and start re-assessing our Christian Heritage?
Well, no, in the opinion of this author. It isn't. Christian teaching on most matters of morality is actually astoundingly simplistic, what the Bible has to say on most of these issues is firmly pitched at the illiterate Bronze Age peasant. That plenty of clever people came along later within that tradition and said a few worthwhile things on the subject is a testament to human progress, not to the depth and subtlety of the Christian religion or The Bible. That we binged in the ways that we did, is largely the result of the Christian religion failing to teach us the real intracies of morality and opting instead for "Because I say so and I'm your Mother. Now Go To Your Room."
It is quite possible to develop a philosophy of enoughness, or to lead a life free of spiritual pollution without ever needing any help from Leviticus, Moses or Saint Augustine. At the risk of sounding like a Patchouli scented Asia-Groupie, the basis of the Buddhist tradition is closer to that, and can easily offer guidance, without asking you to swallow any crap about virgin births or Great Floods. The Four Noble Truths say it in the clearest way: Unhappiness is everywhere, because we always want what we haven't got (unless we are Sinead O Connor) , so the best way to become happy is not to get what you want, but to learn how not to want it so much.
Easier said than done, you might say and you'd be right. We live in a society that is literally designed to make sure we are constantly walking around with some sort of a hole in us that needs filling: Happy contented people are useless to the economy: We'd much rather have a pathetically needy and insecure woman spending her days frantically hunting around Liffey Valley for stuff she doesn't need than a happy self-confident woman who spends her Saturdays hiking in the woods. The second type doesnt need to spend much money to make her content and that's no good for a consumption based society.
So whaddya do? Well the first thing not to do, is not to allow this to make us run screaming back to the Bronze Age: The spectacle of a man like John Waters giving up the booze and going back to God is like watching a friend have a nervous breakdown and wind up sucking his thumb in fetal position on the bathroom floor. Going back to the fearful childish way we used to deal with things is no way to deal with our unhappiness at the modern consumerist Smorgasboard we now live in. To do so is rather as if having grown up and suffered all the petty disappointments of adulthood we say "Sod this for a game of soldiers, I'm off to play with Tonka trucks in the back garden. "
Well there are better ways to deal with it. Practicing Enoughness is one of them and maybe Mr Waters has a point about pouring the booze down the sink, and the same for a few of our other illusory pleasures. Now lets see if we can achieve that without having to bury our heads in the sandpit. Well the Four Noble Truths might be as good a place as any to start.