Objectionable

Wednesday 7 August 2013

I didn’t see all of the London Contemporary Music Festival. On Saturday night I was at the South London Gallery for a talk by Thorbjørn Reuter Christiansen about his father, Henning Christiansen. As part of the evening Christiansen showed the video of Bjørn Nørgaard’s Horse Sacrifice. I didn’t see the Sunday night performance at the LCMF of Philip Corner’s Piano Activities either. A cultural editor at The Guardian called the dismemberment of a piano “ugly” and “a violent act”, but when I compare it to Nørgaard’s ritual slaughter and dismemberment of a horse I can’t help but think Ben Beaumont-Thomas is being just a little bit precious.

I didn’t want to write about the Guardian article, because the arguments it purports to raise seem to originate only at the service of a fundamental dishonesty, typical of the lazy, pernicious attitude so much of the media takes towards what passes for “arts journalism”: that nothing is a worthy “story” unless it can be codified as a Scandal, a Controversy with two sides, For and Against. The Guardian presents itself as one of the more ‘cultured’ newspapers. The LCMF presented two weeks of free concerts with a wide range of music. None of it was reviewed by The Guardian until it’s outburst of righteous indignation over a “morally dubious” artwork.

I find myself writing about it because friends and others have been discussing some of the issues raised, but so much of the article’s argument is specious. The tone of outrage, swiftly followed by a disingenuous insistence that the whole affair is so passé, really while still obviously worked up about it is a pattern familiar to anyone who’s read critical reactions to Olympia, Ulysses, 4’33″ or The Naked Lunch. Beaumont-Thomas’ third paragraph begins “While censoring them would indeed have been wrong,” and you can probably guess the tone of the rest of that sentence. It is the argument of a critic who wishes a troublesome artwork would Simply Go Away. A similar attitude can be observed in music writers who express exasperation that people persist in playing Cage and Stockhausen even though the personality cults that supposedly sustained their careers have ended.

The common misunderstanding to all these works is that they were created simply to shock, and that once the shock has faded the work itself should dissipate, too. Many such pieces do indeed lose their relevance over time, but the fact that Piano Activities was programmed as part of a serious concert of music, fifty years after its composition, should tip off a cultural editor that there are deeper issues for consideration here. Beaumont-Thomas attempts to dismiss the presentation of the piece as “utterly conservative” on the grounds that it is “decades” old. Possibly, but it is not as conservative as the mindset that assumes anything more recent than Mahler but older than the new Daft Punk album has nothing to say to the world today.

For all its posturing, too often The Guardian displays a philistinism little different from that of the Daily Mirror when it belatedly noticed Carl Andre’s pile of overpriced bricks. Beaumont-Thomas has his own little if-they-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon moment when he rails at “welfare cuts, permanent environmental change, information overload, banality” as the real enemies de nos jours against which the Festival directors should devote their energies. It is a simplistic idealism which which can easily entice the enthusiastic into endorsing a new Zhdanov doctrine. No time for ballet, Comrade, the people of Maidstone need compost toilets; they just don’t realise it yet.

I just read back that last sentence and thought it might be excessive; but then I checked Beaumont-Thomas’ article again and noticed that he thinks the Corner performance was “indulgence bordering on immorality”. Remember, he’s talking about a piano being dismantled at a free concert held in a car park in “one of the most deprived areas in London”. Outside the car park, in the High Street there are kids paying through the nose for designer streetwear endorsed by Lil Wayne. On the Guardian website you can read the breathless coverage of the relative orgy of consumption that is Glastonbury, with a headline act as old as Piano Activities itself. The inverse snobbery is palpable. To use a very Guardian analogy, Beaumont-Thomas is criticising benefit scroungers while ignoring corporate tax avoidance.

(On the other hand, I had to laugh when I read “destruction is a privilege and comes from a position of luxury.” Practically every Guardian editorial on the subject desperately wants to convince us that it’s precisely the opposite.)

Since we’re talking about morality, this game of motes and beams played by Beaumont-Thomas, particularly as it purports to consider a wider social and economic context, is an intellectual sin; but not nearly so great a sin as the theme that runs through his article. “While censoring them would indeed have been wrong,” he can think of an awful lot of reasons why it might have been right. It’s a paradox that with the proliferation of debate through social media, accusations of “shutting down debate” are increasingly common. Yet this is precisely what the Guardian critique attempts to achieve: it doesn’t argue the merits or demerits of the Philip Corner piece (seriously, Philip fucking Corner is the ugly face of materialist excess!), it argues that it shouldn’t have been done at all. While claiming a wish to open a debate on what the piece means, he diverts discussion into a tedious argument over why we should be allowed the debate in the first place.

Like I said, I really didn’t want to write this; I wanted to write about the music I actually did hear at LCMF. Luckily, that can wait until another time, as the music won’t be going stale in a hurry.

  1. This is such a well-written piece that should be used as a template each time one encounters some bad piece of criticism about a so-called “difficult” art piece. I come from the visual arts and my interest in modern and contemporary music is amateurish at best. Your post is really great for someone like me because it makes the issues at stake much clearer without devolving into details I know nothing about. I’m going to repost and share this as much as possible.

  2. The Guardian’s excoriation of poor Philip (“fucking”) Corner’s “Piano Activities” logically becomes part of the piece — as has your excoriation of the Guardian’s. (As, I guess, does my commentary on your excoriation.) Fluxus activities maintain their rarefied simplicity in order to leave room for all this fuss. Well done.

  3. Bravo! What an excellent piece of writing – I couldn’t agree more! Thank you!

  4. […] that little kerfuffle about the piano’s demise at the end of the festival, it’s interesting to look back at […]