Who Are the Art Police?

The Dr Frank Weakly Reader for 01.24.2020

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ood lord, people, another Friday has rolled around, meaning the time has come for another Weakly Reader. I did a whole lot of writing this week for some reason, the Love Is Dead commemorative post and the lengthy essay on “I Wrote a Book about Rock and Roll” for Song for Odin, mainly, plus all the Mtx forever and “More than Toast” and Valentines Day stuff (about which see the FRONT BURNER directly below.) Plus also the usual scattering of bits and bobs and this and that and pictures of not safe for work and such.

The essay on the art police, also known as “Cancel Culture Comes for Your Science Fiction” is new here and can be read below (IN THE NEWS), and there’s also a thing on Randy Newman, the concept of the singer-songwriter pop star, and Hollywood’s so called “American Renaissance” (OTHER PEOPLE’S MUSIC), plus an appreciation of 1990s London by way of appreciation of the TV show Spaced.

Now, on with the show, good health to you.

FRONT BURNER

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— The “More than Toast” audible Valentine flexi card single gift box thing:

See box at left. Here’s the link.

You can select a Toast < You < Staplegun or Songs about Girls shirt and it comes with the card flexi single, which you can add more of if you like. (While supplies last — there were still a few left last I heard.)

Here’s the shirt:

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Here’s the link again. Do it by 02.07.2020 if you want it by Valentines Day (but earlier is always better.)

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Mtx forever: “dibs” — Sounds Radical’s system for reserving copies in advance of release — opened Monday for the deluxe limited 180 gram lavender vinyl pressing. The 300 slots were very quickly filled. You can still sign up, though, to get on the waiting list, which, if you want this thing, is the only way to get it. It’s super rare on purpose.

Here are the relevant dates still to come:

— 02.14.2020 : “dibs” ordering opens (when the emails with the buy links are sent out)

— 03.02.2020: “dibs” orders ship

— 03.13.2020: street date (for the standard weight “normal” pressing)

(And if you don’t know what this is all about, you can read about it here and here.)

have to say, I’d braced myself for a bit of grumbling when the track list was revealed, and I even had some answers, not to say retorts, on deck for people who were miffed that their favorite song wasn’t on it, who disagreed with the approach, etc. In fact, though, no one complained, that I heard. As many of those who answered the poll to “take the temperature” of fans know well, condensing 30 plus years’ worth of albums, EPs, and singles into a 24 track representative collection that played like an album was no easy task. There are many songs the leaving off of which would have broken my heart had I still a heart to break, and I second-guessed and berated myself right up to the very last second. However, after taking a break from it and recently listening to the whole thing again without thinking too hard about the experience of having organized it, I do believe it works, as a representative “retrospective” and as a listenable album.

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As a trial run and launch pad for further remasters and re-issues, it was a very good thing to do. We learned a lot about these tapes, and the results of the “lab experiment” of taking a bit from each and seeing what would happen to them when rendered in vinyl form in the 21st century will come in handy. It sounds really great. And if your favorite song isn’t on it, hang in there. We’ll get to it eventually.

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MTX-IANA

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Love Is Dead turns 24: a “behind the music” essay, some old notes, and a video playlist, posted on Medium.

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— Get in your time machine and go back in time and label your tapes so you’ll know what’s on them 20 years later: and speaking of, the Love Is Dead tape archive is collated complete, as they say of antiquarian books, and it’s possible to do that and know that because of meticulous labelling by Hyde Street Studios engineer Bernd Burgdorf. Many of the other albums did not fare so well. Would it have killed us to write a date and a tracklist with a sharpie a little more often than we did? For some reason, we didn’t.

—Punk rock pot pourri: “Most pop-punk thing ever…”, seen on twitter; Stacee’s Love Is Dead tattoo; yet another track popping up on Spotify as the latest Mr T Experience release that just ain’t us. (Come on guys, get it together.)

— Song for Odin — Dr Frank, “I Wrote a Book about Rock and Roll” live in Bergamo, Italy, 2006. (By request.) Video on YouTube.

“Minor secrets” here. Song for Odin playlist here.

— …and your Friday morning “..Hitler…”, from a theatre class talent show, found on YouTube:

And on the Covers Playlist it goes.

DR-FRANK-OPEDIA

— Dept of bons mots:

Whatever the pretext, professional jealousy and a vague, usually delusional, stratagem for damaging the competition is always (as in never not) a factor when an artist attacks another artist, and I include myself in that.

— In which I expound on my love for the TV show Spaced on the occasion of its 21st anniversary, and wonder about the absence of Nick Frost on this British Film Institute panel.

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From a couple of articles (here and here) submitted by commenters it seems that Frost may just not like participating in panel events like this. And fair enough. I still feel Mike (the character he played on the show) didn’t get his due — he was mentioned only once, and glancingly, in the hour long discussion.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in London, because I was once married to it. As a person who doesn’t much like talking to anyone or being talked to by anyone, and who hates the sun, London suited me very well. Bitter-sweet as some of the memories now inevitably are, I do miss it and look fondly on those times. TV was a big part of it, and Spaced was a big part of that. Along with Father Ted, East Enders, Alan Partridge, and also the National Gallery, Highgate Hill, Oasis, and that commercial with the girl saying “I wish I was a lettuce.”

OTHER PEOPLE’S MUSIC

— “I could never love you — you’re too short”: I posted a comic of a couple kissing while the girl is thinking this, and my buddy David Gasten posted the link to Randy Newman’s “Short People”.

I remember this song very well from when it was a hit. I just sort of took it for granted, and though I’m well familiar with it, I haven’t really thought much about it since till now. It may not be the greatest of the great even among Randy Newman’s novelty songs (I’d vote for “Political Science”) but it’s still quite the little masterpiece, a marvel of unpretentious, sharp, compact composition, with nary a word wasted. And it strikes me how strange it is that songs such as this were once part of the “hit parade.” I don’t pay any attention to “the charts” at all now (are there still even “charts”?) But I often do hear what I assume to be the currently popular pop songs from time to time in Ubers, and I’ve never heard anything this… coherent (when I can even tell what they’re moaning about.) I know I sound like an old man grumbling here as so often, and I don’t mind if you think that, but: what was it about coherence and content in pop song composition that just had to be gotten rid of?

I mean there’s this one song I’ve heard in the Ubers that goes:

Look what you made me do / look what you made me do / look what you made me do / look what you made me do / look what you made me do…

Now, I ask you, sir, what sort of lyric is that?

“Short People” was a bona fide hit, #2 on the Billboard chart for several weeks, and a gold record. Such a thing is unimaginable now, surely. It’s remarkable that it happened then too, I suppose. Quirky singer-songwriters could become pop stars, and the public just sort of went along with it. I don’t have time or space here to go into it right now but I wonder if it’s a similar situation to Hollywood in the mid 60s to mid 70s when that next generation / “Hollywood Renaissance” New Wave-influenced American film-making — all along the spectrum from high art auteurism to low budget exploitation — managed to invade the commercial culture while it was still re-orienting itself within counter-cultural parameters, eventually to clamp down more tightly and re-normalize it all again. Is it imaginable that a contemporary (as in now) audience would be willing to sit through Five Easy Pieces in great enough numbers to make it a blockbuster smash earning twenty times its budget? Not by me it isn’t.

Similarly, how was Randy Newman a pop star? But he was, weirdly, and thank God because otherwise I’d surely not have known about him.

Anyway, here’s “Political Science”:

— “I’m afraid it’s a Greasers’ Fraud”… that time when the Ramones were on the Sha Na Na TV show in a Family Feud parody. I remember this! (via Ann Althouse.)

— …and finally, here’s Jess Greenberg and her breasts with “Foxy Lady”:

PICTURE BOOK

— Roman Calendar: Prisca; the Wedding at Cana from the Queen Mary Psalter; Fillan and the Repentant Wolf; Fabian and Sebastian; Saint Agnes, by Francesco, Guarino; Vincent of Zaragosa; Espousal of the Blessed Virgin Mary with Saint Joseph; the lapidation of Timothy

— Behold: Yvonne deCarlo in L’esclave; Westward Ho!; me too!; NTLEMEN; all the emotions; Anna May Wong; a sci-fi allegory

— Too sexy for your shirt: The Good News; a kitchen; Raquel Welch in the ’80s was still Raquel Welch; a Lyon Strat copy

— movingthis one never gets old:

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— …and finally, a bit of art I spent many hours of my youth ruminating upon and trying to copy — I had it on a calendar — Frazetta’s Queen of Ghouls:

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IN THE NEWS

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—Who Are the Art Police? (a. k. a. “Cancel Culture” comes for your Science Fiction):

The tale of the suppression and de-publication of the short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” defies easy description and presents irresolvable ironies from within the web of assumptions in the rulebook of contemporary social-political etiquette — the author being sacrificed turned out to be a member of the reference group alleged to be protected by the self-same sacrificial rite and had in fact stayed in the proper identity “lane” as required all along. But outside of that web and its assumptions about who gets to kick whom when who is down, it’s quite simple. A mob, in the usual manner— a manner that has become so routine it could be described as almost casual — hounded and intimidated an author and publisher into withdrawing and actually un-publishing a piece of published fiction (a notion that still manages to shock me, though it shouldn’t.) The main provocation, it seems, was the title, which many deem inherently offensive and which was deliberately provocative to be sure. But if fiction isn’t allowed to provoke, what good is it? More to the point, what business is it of theirs, or of anyone, what somebody writes or publishes? You don’t like it, don’t read it and move on. Problem solved. Except, no one seems to want to solve problems that way (that is, with tolerance) anymore.

Our cultural dynamic has been headed in this direction — towards the suppression of art — for some time, though with this story it seems to have reached a new-ish milestone, another slip down the slope. A re-animated iconoclasm, the notion that disliked ideas, art, turns of phrase, and, you know, people, should not just be subject to criticism and counter-argument but to actual erasure, seems to have crept from the ash heap of history and stealthily woven its way back into our cultural fabric. Once anathema to right-thinking liberal-minded people and properly regarded as the work of crackpots and villains, it is starting to look more and more, as it was in previous dark centuries, like the norm. Tolerance (of art, of speech, of each other) was, where it endured, a hard-won feature of modern civilization, and among the only good ones; and we’re steadily rolling it back. (You can read some of my previous comments on contemporary iconoclasm here and here, if you like: scroll down to the IN THE NEWS section.)

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Why must a disliked bit of art be smashed up and obliterated rather than criticized or simply ignored? Interestingly, one of the twitter ’n’ reddit mob’s de facto ringleaders interviewed in Conor Friedersdorf’s Atlantic article on the affair in fact denies ever wanting the story to be “disappeared.” If some in the pile-on did seem to want that, many did not, and some within the community in question endorsed the story, supported the author, and lamented its obliteration.

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But the point is that it hardly matters what the participants want. The social media “cancellation” engine, once started — whether in good faith or not — has an internal logic and direction all its own. This engine drives the mob to the target and thence to the “platform,” following a drearily predictable pattern; and the “platform” (or, here, the publisher) must respond to keep the wolves, the ghouls, and the mass of robotic though maybe sort of well-meaning battle-scene extras at bay. The result is, inevitably, some sort of damage, if not total destruction, personal or professional; or, as in this case, censorship and the crushing of art and artist.

It is true that the penalty imposed through this process can sometimes be comparatively mild over the long term — the one saving mercy of the dreadful dynamic is the fact that everyone purporting to spin into paroxysms of rage and anguish over the latest blasphemy or transgression forgets all about it three days later. But it’s still no way to treat art and artists. Or anyone.

(NB. Unlike some, I don’t see a meaningful distinction between censorship from without and the coerced “self-censorship” here, if that’s what it was. The author was hounded and intimidated into asking that her own work be erased out of fear for her “personal safety and health” and the editor and publisher, Clarkesworld, agreed… to me that’s still censorship, and it is arguably worse. And to those who maintain that “cancel culture” does not exist: there is surely no more literal instance of cancellation than the removal of a published work from its publication.)

Anyway, on the subject of inadvertent participation in censorship pile-ons, allow me to quote myself, from here:

this problem of mass denunciation, public shaming, call-out culture, and “cancel culture” (and as you may have gathered I do think it is a problem) has no simple solution. Such mobs can form even without any bad actors consciously deciding to join them, qua mob. Sometimes it is indeed just a matter of individuals expressing their opinions. Most may be quite unaware that they are atoms in a threatening cloud. Regardless of this lack of ill intent, though, the mob, once formed, can be just as destructive, and it certainly feels that way to its targets. Of course, in addition, there often are bad actors in the mix, trying to spark mass outrage incidents where they judge it to serve their interests, and agitating to manipulate and direct the destruction at their preferred targets.

Another factor, as I’ve noted before, is the recreational character of the outrage itself and the joy of seeing pain and misfortune inflicted on others — people do it because they enjoy doing it, and while they’re having a grand old time piling on some wretch they’re rarely thinking of the big picture.

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Here’s a story I often think of, a literal rather than merely rhetorical pile-on. Once, as a child, I witnessed a group of thugs beating up a drunk guy who had offended them in some way. I remember being startled (and deeply alarmed) by how much fun they seemed to be having. I’m not sure if the guy survived — I ran away and hid once I realized what was happening. But, in furtherance of analogizing this event to my observations about online pile-ons: one could doubt that the smiling, laughing person who was kicking him in the sternum, say, genuinely wanted to kill him. Perhaps he just wanted to get a few kicks in and have a good time like everybody else. But when you’re in a group of guys kicking a semi-conscious man lying in the gutter, you know, the guy could well die. That’s the sort of thing that can happen in that situation, even when you don’t, as an individual, necessarily mean death to be the result from any one of your fun, well-aimed kicks. You may not be intending to murder anyone, or to cause the censoring of anyone’s short story, per se, but that’s still a potential and logical outcome of your participation in the … project. One could say, just don’t participate in such projects, but that’s easier said than done in the virtual world as most participants aren’t even aware that there is a project and that that’s what they’re doing. Yet, that is, in fact, what they are doing.

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Yeah, yeah, I know: no one’s being kicked to death here. (And thank God for that.) But suppression of art to appease an ideological mob is nonetheless disgraceful, even when no one dies. And that is what happened.

Well, we get the drunk rolling and the social media we deserve. The social media dynamic’s perversity arises from the fact that its architecture incentivizes the worst aspects of innate human proclivities and behavior; and as resisting it requires reckless insubordination that few will want to risk, it seems as though we’re stuck with it. Until the whole thing comes crashing down, anyway, which is something I’d like to see. I refuse to discount the possibility that we may, en masse, decide to abandon this gruesome pastime and turn our attention to other, better things. Because I’m a dreamer.

At any rate, the cancelled story can be read here via a web archive site.

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It’s not quite my cup of tea, to be honest, but it clearly has merit, and moreover is very much in line with the rich, longstanding Sci-Fi tradition of the “novel of ideas” in short story form that Clarkesworld has, to its credit, done much to keep alive in the modern day. It wrestles with weighty, culturally and politically salient matters, set in an inventive satirical context, and has a kind of messy, virtuosic brilliance. Even if that’s not your sort of thing, read it anyway, just because they don’t want you to. That’s why I read it. Even if it were as awful as its ad hoc censors claimed it was, there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?

Conor Friedersdorf’s piece ends with this:

The controversy over “Attack Helicopter” is another case study suggesting that rejecting “art’s for art’s sake” in favor of “art for justice’s sake” doesn’t necessarily yield more justice. It may help no one, harm many, and impede the ability of artists to circulate work that makes us think, feel, grapple, empathize, and learn.

I’d agree that this problem arises from a conflict between two different views of art, that is, the “art for art’s sake” view versus the ideological view of art as a mere instrument, of use only insofar as it propagates the ideology and dangerously undesirable if it does not. This view will brook little ambiguity, nuance, or complexity (and still less, dissent) as these qualities impede the work’s effectiveness as a tool for enforcing conformity. “Bad” art, in this sense, is best destroyed; and even art that is, again under these parameters, good or good-ish, but that doesn’t pull its weight in service of the cause, is expendable and no one need weep over it if it is eliminated. Other art workers will step in to fill the gap, creating better, more orthodox, more useful instruments, and the world will be a better place. For those who have adopted sectarian politics as a religion, art is only and can only be propaganda.

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Here I’m going to quote another writer I came across, Justin Lee, who said (on the subject of Stephen King’s “dragging” over some recent twitter infelicities):

Because art really does concern itself with truth, which, being infinite, is always only provisionally accessible, a work that begins and ends with its creator’s message — even a message bound up with their identity — is a dead work. It lacks that crucial movement, that dive into unknown depths — which is to say: it lacks love.

I’m not sure I’d put it that… flowerily. But I am one of those “art for art’s sake” people, for whom art (and the intellectual and spiritual freedom presupposed by it) is much bigger and much deeper, bigger and deeper than just about anything; bigger and deeper than politics certainly. I don’t know that there is a possible compromise or accommodation between these two camps and I imagine we’ll keep seeing this sort of conflict over what should and shouldn’t be allowed to be written, published, and read for some time to come. It’s “police the art” versus “let it all hang out.” I hope we win.

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— Howard Zinn, Fake Historian: Ronald Radosh reviews a new book debunking the “people’s historian.” Those who need this book won’t read it, and vice versa.

— Terry Jones: the world genuinely feels emptier now that you are gone.

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CODA

— And that’ll just about do it for this edition of the Dr Frank Weakly Reader. But for those who have made it this far down the page, here’s Klimt’s Venus, from the pendentive on the west wall of the Main Staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna:

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See you next week.

Written by

I am Dr. Frank. I write books and songs. Mtx Forever.

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