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Sunday, 1 December 2013

Taste Bigotry

This was supposed to be about the polarisation of people’s aesthetic tastes – with graphs like the one on the left. That graph’s axes are not exhaustive by a long shot – there could also be simple vs complex (NOT the same as visceral vs cerebral), playful vs sombre and so on. I may yet sling up such graphs, filled out with examples, but I’m sure you get the gist. For now this: What turned into a damn essay on taste bigotry, and the tension between the trads and the moderns...

Earlier this year I had one of those phases where I developed a sudden interest in something and, as is my wont, immersed myself in it for a few months: Modernist architecture.

Leafing through beginners guides to all the various movements, manifestos and Stijls, I noticed, unsurprisingly, that there were an awful lot of “shoulds” and “musts” about the way forward for slinging together some rooms n that.

I got it – the new, young, passionate architects were tired of the same old shit, and keen to lay out their vision, embrace technology, fresh thinking, the new demands of modern living – to make their mark and change the world, which they largely did, hence all the books about them.

But I couldn’t help a wry smile at all the “musts” and “shoulds”, the new rules that must be adhered to – because I kept thinking “Why?”

Technology must not be hidden away, but proudly on display said the futurists; architecture should make use of strong vertical and horizontal lines, all black and white and primary colours, said De Stijl enthusiasts; decoration must be binned in favour of simple, functional forms said the minimalists.

Radical, exciting and seminal ideas for sure, and they have been validated by continued use – but why the “MUST”? Why so imperative? Because that’s the way it’s so often stated – as if EVERYTHING DONE BY EVERYBODY FROM NOW ON MUST BE THIS WAY or dismissed as creaky old bollocks.

Fair enough, it’s only the more extreme exponents who talk like this, and it is the passion talking, and passion is a good thing – but it made me smile because it was all so familiar from looking back through the history of spheres I was more familiar with – in particular “popular” music. The beatniks, the hippies, the punks, synth pioneers, trailblazers of various dance and electronica genres... they all had their share of prophets insisting the old ways were crap and wrong and dead and things SHOULD be done differently now, and here are the new rules.

Basically, the same very-human responses can be found in any sphere that has developed and progressed – everything has its fashions, its iconoclasts and trend-setters, from visual art to literature to philosophy to... fashion itself.

So much for iconoclasts. While I admire their fire, I’m often a little cool on their single-mindedness and short memory. Seems a bit... well... closed, and the emphasis on erasing history a bit... well... Stalin. And it’s got to be said, the attitude that things MUST be this way (while defending a new idea) smells rather reminiscent of the similarly intolerant and diversity-dismissing attitude of the trad crowd (defending old ideas).


Classic ideas. Time-honoured ideas. Back to basics ideas. Authentic ideas. None of this new-fangled, faddy nonsense. On the one hand the trads can be a bit fuddy-duddy, like your mate’s dad who is baffled by anything outside his own cultural reference points – where all modern art is dismissed as “not real art, can’t even paint a proper picture”, all modern buildings are “bloody eye-sores” and all modern music is “not real music, it’s just talking/shouting/noise, can’t even sing/play, sounds like a drum kit falling down the stairs,” etc etc.

That kind of thinking is easy to take the piss out of and dismiss as ignorant philistinism – but often overlooked is the equally entrenched ideology of the young trads, rediscovering and re-asserting the “real” and “authentic” from yesteryear - from the current antidote-to-throwaway-culture passion for cosy, traditional skills, crafts and way of doing things (baking, knitting, iron-mongery, Polaroid photography, collecting vinyl records) to the perennial muso’s insistence that recording on analogue equipment is just better, that one must use “real” instruments recorded live and no gimmicky effects, that there is a soul in the simplicity of folk or delta blues or 60s jingle-jangle that is impossible to attain by any other method.

There is a clear merit to this as there are a lot of good things that have been, or are in danger of being, lost - and this fights the good fight against the fickle and forgetful march of so-called “progress”. But there is the point at which it tips over into young fuddy-duddyism, a retro-hipster’s snobby wet dream, recoiling from anything new. It can all get so worthy and backwards-looking that it becomes stifling and restrictive – The trad crowd’s accusation that any musical artist who tries anything experimental is “pretentious” is a case in point, and massively ironic. Sure, arty/experimental types may have high-falutin’ ideas that they don’t quite reach, but they often have an imagination, sense of humour and playfulness that worthy trad types lack completely. One of the meanings of pretentious is “takes itself too seriously, thinks it’s more profound than it is” – which for my money describes the “authentic” trad crowd precisely.

Paradoxically, the lets-get-back-to-basics trads are also often iconoclasts. As much as the futurists, they also want to wipe away the status quo and set up a better, golden future, but by harking back to an imagined golden past. Rather like the Nazis did.


One of the problems I have is the unjustified leap-of-logic gaps at play here. One is the generalisation from what you like about a specific thing to sweeping, unjustified claims about whole genres, trends and styles.

Now, everyone has tastes. Everyone finds certain themes, moods, approaches and outlooks resonate more naturally with them. If you pay attention to how what you like is put together you will find recurring elements you can pick out and pin down – but the results are sometimes not quite what you thought. It could be as simple as a preference for certain harmonies and chord changes whatever the genre, certain sounds in a certain frequency range, certain materials or colour palettes or geometric structures and shapes. It could be that for some reason some element of an artwork evokes a mood you enjoy, or dreams and aspirations you have. Or it could be something opens your eyes to new possibilities or chimes neatly with your past experience. But it’s one thing to describe these elements specifically when talking about a specific thing, and another to then say everything of a similar genre, or made by certain group, must be “authentic” and everything not, “crap”. But people do that all the time.

Another leap is the gap between “I’m fed up of this and want to do this instead” and “This must be got rid of and everyone must do this”. There is no justification for that jump – it’s a simple case of “Everyone must think what I do, or they are tw*ts”.

We tend to lump radical idealists together but, for my money, there are two clear trends – one of which I have sympathy with and one of which I’m inherently suspicious of.

On the one hand you have the open-minded, expansive attitude: those who say things don’t need to be like they are, or have been – that we can cut loose, man, from old or current thinking, strive for change, try new things and new ways of being. Some experimentation will work out and change the world, some will peter out as naive and flawed idealism, but the point is to try, to encourage innovation and variety.

On the other hand is the closed-minded and restrictive attitude: once the “new ways” have been established something else creeps in – a dismissive, cooler-than-thou sneer towards anyone who isn’t on-board as the enemy to be stamped out. And anything not associated with the “new ways” becomes untouchable, the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater. This is simple bigotry, really, at best discouraging of free-thinking and diversity, at worst downright dangerous.


Because while it might not seem to matter when talking about the silly subject of art and entertainment, such closed, prejudiced thought processes are precisely the kind of thing going on in the mind of any bigot, just translated into the sphere of politics, culture and society.

The philosophers Depeche Mode (in their sweet-but-cringingly-naive industro-pop hit People Are People) said: “I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man, help me understand.” Well, Martin (Gore, who, I think you’ll find, sings that bit, not lead singer Dave Gahan), this may help. If someone is refusing to acknowledge anything good beyond the tiny cluster of things that make up their single-minded obsessions – and worse, Martin, calling for all else to be stamped out and their vision thrust on everyone – then there lie the seeds of alarming, hate-breeding intolerance, even if all they are doing is messing about with paint. Thank God they’re a penniless artist and not in government, is all I’ve got to say, Martin.

Ok, it may not matter in art and entertainment – but that kind of thinking is still a bad habit and (if I’m allowed to use a “should” of my own) I think it should be challenged when it crops up.

It may seem trifling but sweeping generalisations like “all pop music is throwaway trash”, “all guitar music is boring” or “all electronic music is soulless” are groundless prejudice – that because something has often been that way, that it must always be so. If someone manages to wrestle high emotion out of “clinical” digital software, or creates something genuinely fresh and new out of the old and traditional methods, you are probably in the presence of genius – or at least something remarkable and exciting – because someone has done something that has eluded others. But the closed minded will completely miss such possibilities.

That said, certain ways of doing things have certain features, and lend themselves better to some experiences than others. The mistake is often to judge one type of thing with the criteria of another, and miss the joy to be found by judging it on its own merits. You don’t go to abstract art to see a pretty landscape. You don’t read Kafka for the laughs. You don’t go to a Bauhaus building for cosy rustic charm. That doesn’t mean there is nothing to be enjoyed or enraptured by there.

You don’t go to genre-shattering experimental electronica for emotional, intimate lyrics, nor acoustic ballardry for cutting-edge, rule-book-trashing new sounds. There is joy in both and room in the world for all. And there is room in yourself – to explore a kaleidoscopic variety of moods, tastes, and types of thing. Tying yourself to restrictive “shoulds” and “musts” will only cut you off from whole continents of experience – of what is, what was and what might be. Cut loose, man.

1 comment:

  1. Down with this sort of thing.

    Love your new song...

    Help Me Understand

    If someone is refusing
    to acknowledge anything good
    beyond the tiny cluster of things that make up their single-minded obsessions
    and worse, calling for all else to be stamped out
    and their vision thrust on everyone
    then there lie the seeds of alarming, hate-breeding intolerance
    even if all they are doing is messing about with paint
    Thank God they’re a penniless artist and not in government
    they’re a penniless artist and not in government
    a penniless artist and not in government
    not in government
    >repeat to fade<