Monday, June 29, 2009

Things to do in Dublin When You're (Not) Drunk.

I am, I have realised, the walking emodiment of Mr Burn's search for 'something so rare that mankind has searched for it since the dawn of time' - a sober Irishman. As a Celt who used to drink, but now doesn't, I have come to learn that not drinking alcohol places you at a little bit of an angle to things when one is in the Emerald Isle. To spare you the My Booze Hell story, suffice it to say that like almost everyone else I know, I spent most of the Tiger years blowing my new found Pot of Gold on whiskey, before realising that if I continued in this vein, I would end up as one of those tedious boozy gents-of-a-certain-age that one sees propping up bars all over Dublin: The boring old Irish boozer with a twinkle in his eye and a well-worn anecdote or two in his pocket, who will tell you a story about that time he went drinking with Shane McGowan if you'll only buy him a pint.

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

But I Know What I Like

I've been reading a very interesting book by John Carey recently entitled "What good are the Arts' , a reasonably unweighty little philosophical missive that takes up some of the pop-aesthetic debates many of us would have been exposed to as undergraduates: "What is art?" , "Is there a difference between 'low' and 'high art', and "Does art make us better people?" All these philosophical morsels are conveniently arranged into 7 easily digestible chapters, short enough, as Jeff Goldblum puts it in The Big Chill, "to be read during the average crap."

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