AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


3 Comments

Interview with Ivan Anderson from SWEET FIX

 
Ivan Anderson is a guitarist and copyeditor living in New York City. He graduated from Brown University. Ivan plays lead guitar in SWEET FIX, a neon, futuristic, cyber rock band in NYC. Their first full-length album, Golden Age, was produced by Geoff Stanfield (Sun Kil Moon, Firehorse, Black Lab). Members of SWEET FIX are endorsed by Godlyke Distributing, Jo Lyon Underfashion, and ZU Shoes.
 
 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: A standard view within the philosophy of music is that one of the primary distinctions to be made between classical music and rock music is that of live versus recorded. That is, in the case of classical music, the proper object of aesthetic appreciation is the live performance, as opposed to that of the studio performance (studio track) in the case of rock music. How do you (and SWEET FIX) see the divide between your songs as recorded in the studio and as played live in concert?
 
 
IVAN ANDERSON: This is something we talk about at length every time we record. If we start doing really cool stuff with overdubs, will it be a problem if we can’t recreate it live? We discuss it, and then we always go for the really cool overdubs, for reasons that are about to become clear.
As for which version of the song is the real version—or which version is the proper object of aesthetic appreciation, the live rendition or the recording—we’ve decided to treat them as separate things, with different goals and different things that we care about.
The cool thing about doing an album is that you have a chance to make an indestructible record of how the song goes. So, my view is that you should do whatever it takes to make it sound awesome forever. If that means 100 overdubs, or whatever, just do it.
The cool thing about a live performance (especially a rock band doing its thing) is that you’re on stage and there’s lights on you and there’s just this live vibe that everyone knows and loves. So, use that. None of that is happening when people listen to records—but live, you have a chance to add all that sweat and everything to the songs, finally.
So we try to let the record be as awesome as it can be without worrying about how we’re going to play it live—we’ll just find a way. Like if the song is good, there must be a way. Also, it’s not like there’s anything on the records that we can’t play in real life because we totally cheated and used Auto-Tune the whole time—I’m not always a first-take wonder, but whatever you hear on a SWEET FIX record is really SWEET FIX.
That said, if there’s something on the record that I can only recreate live if I stand perfectly still and hold my breath, then I’m not going to try to recreate it note-for-note. I’ll play something else, and it should be OK because it will inherit some of the energy of being live.
Also, the other thing is that I hate the idea of using recorded backing tracks live, and we don’t do that, but that’s a longer conversation.
To summarize, basically I’m trying to min/max the advantages of playing live and recording, in the Dungeons & Dragons sense of min/maxing.
 
 
 
AFB: Relatedly, until about 10 years ago, most rock musicians toured in support of the album; however, with the advent of iTunes, Spotify, and a recording industry frustratingly unwilling to adapt to market changes and consumer expectations, rock musicians increasingly must rely on touring to provide the vast bulk of income. Do you think this might affect the way in which you write songs? Or more generally, how you see the role of the live performance within contemporary rock music?
 
IVAN ANDERSON: The way the recording industry has changed has not really affected how I write songs or how I see the role of live performance. I guess I’m ignoring changing consumer expectations at my own peril here—but my ideas about how to write a cool song and put on a good show don’t really have to do with Spotify or whatever else. It just has to do with the kind of music that rules my life, which is also the kind of music I’m trying to create, which is catchy, hot-blooded rock music that’s recorded with serious TLC and performed with lasers shooting out of our eyes. Maybe there’s a way to be savvy and figure out a version of that specifically for iTunes, but I have no idea what that means, and if that’s what I’m supposed to do then I’m doomed. Early on, our manager said something to us like, “Do your goddamn best to write cool songs and put on the best show around and the rest will fall into place,” and I thought that was cool advice. Fingers crossed, though.
 
AFB: At the height of the video era, bands/musicians producing mediocre-to-terrible music (or music beyond the pale of contemporary pop tastes) might nevertheless enjoy massive success on the back of a slick music video (or just one that showcased the band’s good looks). With the influence of the music video now in sharp decline, it’s not uncommon to have very little idea as to what the band behind the song you’re listening might look like—and those wishing to know such things usually must themselves make some effort to find out. As such, one might think visuals are now comparatively less important in contemporary rock music. Do you find this to be true? To what extent do you think SWEET FIX is a visual band? To what extent do you think visual elements play a role in helping define the SWEET FIX image (e.g., album covers, the band’s overall look, individual personal style of its members, the visual aspects of live performances, etc.). Do you think SWEET FIX’s synth-pop new-wave meets neo-glam rock sound comes with certain visual inheritances?
 
 
 
 
IVAN ANDERSON: Even with the decline of MTV-style music videos, things like YouTube and Facebook still force bands to figure out how they want to look on the Internet. So I think visuals are as important as they ever were, or more important. By the time anyone ever clicks “Play,” they’re already seen your banner image or your profile picture or your whatever. That’s just the world we live in now.
As for SWEET FIX in particular, we’re pretty into it. We’ve taken it on: flyers, logos, clothes—we spend a lot of time trying to make everything look the way SWEET FIX sounds. It’s not always easy, and sometimes the process of trying to discuss it in greater detail just ruins everything. “What are the key images that we want people to associate with us?” There’s no coming back from that. It can derail everything.
Maybe clothes are the best example: it took a long time for the five of us to be able to wear clothes on stage that looked like (1) we all belonged in a band together and (2) we weren’t trying really hard to look that way. Maybe some bands nail this on day one, but for us it took a while.
Without a doubt, though, we care about the visual stuff, even when it’s hard and talking about it only makes it worse. We still care. For me, a big part of this was being a kid and looking at the booklets that came with CDs. I would do this for hours, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in particular blew my mind. It still blows my mind. The two booklets, and the artwork and the fonts—the whole thing was perfect. It was a world you could enter, and that’s what I loved about it.
So, overall, we want to create a world. When you look at SWEET FIX stuff while listening to our songs, we want it to feel like you’re on planet SWEET FIX. Take the last song on Golden Age, which is called “Golden Age.” Part of the idea was that the whole record is an elevator ride, and when you get to the last song the doors open and you’re standing in the world of the cover art.
 
 
Then the other thing is that after we finished the record, we hired Tim Jacobus, the artist who did all the cover art for R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, to do a portrait of us in his classic Goosebumps style. In the history of SWEET FIX visual everything, this has to be the coolest thing that ever happened. He created this giant robot for us, and in the portrait we’re standing in front of it like it’s a Goosebumps cover or whatever: The Legend of SWEET FIX, who knows. He nailed it. When you listen to the first note of “Showtime”—the machine-puke thing—somehow, that note is taking place in Jacobus’s robot.
Then, finally, when it comes to the live performance, I believe this is the one place where we don’t overthink it. We go out there and do it, and that’s us. Over the years, we’ve spent countless hours watching videos of ourselves and disagreeing about what’s cool and giving each other these shitty little notes, and all of that was really important, no doubt. But then, you know, the lights go down and you sort of have to forget everything—just go out there and be real.
 
AFB: SWEET FIX has no covers on any studio work and you’ve mentioned in conversation that you oppose playing covers live. Could you say a bit more about your reasons for this? I, for one, would love to hear you guys play a kick-ass updated version of Gary Glitter’s “Sidewalk Sinner.” Why must you deny me?
 
 
 
IVAN ANDERSON: First, I have to say that my own feelings about this have changed over the years, and they will no doubt continue to change. Also, the members of SWEET FIX disagree about when and why a cover song is cool, and it’s an ongoing conversation. So, I can only speak for myself here.
And it’s worth noting that we have played covers at various times, going back through the entire history of the band. Lately we haven’t been doing them, maybe/probably because I have been strongly opposed. But my opposition has more to do with practical matters about our live gigs: if we add a cover, then we have to come to an agreement about which original song in the standard set we’re going to lose, and that, in itself, is going to be a whole long conversation. You just have no idea how long that conversation will take. Then, in most cases, making a cover sound the way we want it to winds up being almost as much work as writing a new song from scratch. And my attitude is, Let’s write a new song from scratch instead. Also, I kinda feel like if we need a cover to grab people, like if our material just isn’t doing it, then adding a cover to the set is solving the wrong problem.
Those are my views. I don’t have major problems with covers like on a philosophical level. We recently did a long-ish set at the Jersey shore, and we played a Stereophonics cover and it was cool. I’m glad we did it.
As for your specific suggestion about Gary Glitter, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s probably a great idea, but so many people have been telling me what song to cover for so long that every time I hear a suggestion I instantly hate it.
 
 
For more information on SWEET FIX, go to www.sweetfixmusic.com


Leave a comment

Interview with The Counterfactuals

The Counterfactuals play an addictive brand of indie jangle-pop, with a signature blend of golden hooks, Americana, and a dose of grit. Their debut album, Minimally Decent People, was released in January 2014, and has been met with acclaim from audiences and critics alike.  After hearing one demo, 89.3 FM The Current dubbed the band “must-hear music” and later featured their single “If you go then you go it alone” as their Song of the Day. The Counterfactuals are heading into the studio to record their second album this summer. You can read some of what people have said about the band at The Daily Album, The Current Local Blog, and Tropics of Meta.

Andy Flory (bass) teaches course in American music at Carleton College. He has written extensively about American rhythm and blues and is an expert on the music of Motown. His book, I Hear a Symphony: Listening to the Music of Motown, is forthcoming from The University of Michigan Press. Working directly with Universal Records, Andrew has served as consultant for several recent Motown reissues. He is also co-author of the history of rock textbook What’s that Sound (W.W. Norton).
Jason Decker (guitar, sound engineer) is Assistant Professor of philosophy at Carleton College and interested in epistemology, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and just about any philosophical problem worth its salt. He has published papers in journals such as Synthese, Erkentniss, Analysis, Analytic Philosophy, and Philosophy.
Michael Fuerstein (drums, sax) is Assistant Professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College where he works on issues concerning the social distribution and advancement of knowledge, particularly in political and moral contexts. He has also more recently become interested in the moral aspects of contemporary capitalism, and has been involved with a newly formed “Society for Progress” devoted to bringing together business leaders, business scholars, and philosophers. His work has appeared in venues such as Episteme, The Journal of Political Philosophy, andThe Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 
Daniel Groll (vocals, guitar) is an Assistant Professor in the philosophy department at Carleton College and an Affiliate Faculty Member at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. He works on issues at the intersection of normative ethics, epistemology, and medical ethics and has papers published or forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Analytic Philosophy, Ethics, The Hastings Center Report, Pediatrics, and Philosophy Compass.

 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Many folks are quick to dismiss certain bands as one-hit wonders, lambast certain chart toppers as talentless hacks, or accuse the whole of pop music of being musical pablum. However, crafting a good pop song has always struck me (though I’m hardly an expert) as being an incredibly difficult thing to do (and that someone can do it once let alone multiple times I find to be an impressive feat). To what extent has being in a band and playing/writing your own songs changed your views about pop music in general and current audience tastes therein?
DANIEL: It has definitely affected how I listen to music. It’s done so in two ways, one as a result of writing songs, the other as a result of recording songs.
I wouldn’t say that my tastes have expanded as a result of writing, but there’s no doubt that I appreciate a lot more stuff. I don’t know if I was inclined to dismiss the stuff you hear on the radio as crap before, but I certainly didn’t listen to it the same way I do now. I often explicitly think about how songs are put together now. I tend to have the radio on while I’m driving around. This is largely because we’re blessed in Minnesota to have The Current (which, incidentally, have been really supportive of our music) come over the air, but as often as not I’m listening to the classic rock station from the next town over. Most of what they play is stuff that I literally never listen to other than when they play it. But all the stuff they play is tested: it’s music that people still love listening to 20, 30, 40 years after it was recorded and, more or less without exception, there’s something interesting to listen to. I suppose this is less true of current top-40 stuff, but even there, even when I don’t like it, I find that there’s something there well-worth listening to. It is hard to put stuff together in a way that people find compelling, so I’m disinclined to diss anyone that does it successfully.
But learning what goes into making a decent recording has had a far more profound impact on how I listen to music than writing music has. I went into the process of recording knowing very close to nothing about how it works. Now I know a little (Andy and Jason know a lot. They listen to recordings and talk about frequency ranges). Before recording, I would listen to the music. Now I spend a lot more time listening to the sounds of particular instruments and the mix: How are they getting that guitar sound? Are the drums super upfront or are they back in the mix? Are the vocals doubled? If so, are they closely doubled and on top of each other in the mix? Or are they loosely doubled and panned to opposite sides? Is there a lot of reverb or not so much? Is there delay on the vocals?

In general, I feel like I hear things a lot more in terms of choices than I did before. Recording stuff is a little like putting together a puzzle. You’re asking “What should go where so that it all fits together?” As a result, I find that I’m often asking, “Why is that here?” when I’m listening and I’ve become far more attuned than I was previously to when individual tracks come and go. When Andy joined the band he listened to a demo that Jason and I had done. One of the first things he said to me was something like, “You know, you don’t have to have all the parts going all the time.” A very obvious point…but it was kind of a revelation to me.
Let me give an example: Eleanor Friedberger’s My Mistakes. One way to start would be to just have everyone start in off the top. They don’t do that. First, there’s no bass, just guitar, drums and vocals. But more importantly the mix is thin, it kind of has an AM radio sound to it. It’s hard to hear, but the drummer is playing the same pattern on the bass drum that he’ll play throughout the tune. At :15 we get a variation: the vocals get delay (so the main voice, which is on the left side, is heard as a kind of tight echo on the right side)…but only for two lines. And then the delay is gone (although it comes again for three words (“1956”) at :28). After a few more lines the mix starts to change dramatically: a piano banging away on the I chord is faded-up on the left side and the drum sound starts to get fatter. The bass drums goes from barely audible and quite thin at :28 to increasingly robust over the next 8 seconds or so. And then everyone is in (including a great fuzz bass line…although maybe it’s synth?) for the first time at the chorus at :36. That’s a lot of choices for the first :36 of a song! I don’t think I would have noticed most of that before we recorded. One last (simpler) example: the song “An Ocean Between The Waves” by the War on Drugs has not one, but two, false starts with the drums. It starts with what is pretty obviously a drum machine. And then at 1:26, the drums fatten up. It sounds like the real drums have entered. But then at 1:50, real drums kick in. That’s some pretty awesome patience. I’m not sure I would have noticed that kind of (awesome) choice before.
Along with better ears, we have far more pedals, better amps, and access to way better mics for album number 2, so hopefully we’ll be able to make some cool sounds on the next record.

ANDY: I’m a music professor that teaches courses about pop music, so I spend a lot of time helping students understand the intricacies of songwriting. Playing in a band is really important for my facility with teaching and understanding rock music for a number of reasons. For one, in most pop-oriented music after the mid-1960s, performative and recording elements are integral parts of the composition. Most people don’t think about this. If you look at the “composed” elements of a Radiohead song, for example, they look pretty boring on paper. Through performance practice and recording, however, music by groups becomes more complete.

 

 

 

MIKE: Years ago I was finding my way out of being a jazz saxophonist and tried to write rock songs.  I thought I might put together a band and perform them.  But I couldn’t write anything that I actually enjoyed playing and listening to.  So I have a tremendous appreciation for Dan (who writes all of our songs) and others who are able to do that well.  Playing and recording rock drums, which is a new instrument for me, has given me an appreciation of the subtle ways in which drummers can make songs sound great or terrible.  I’ve come to realize how little I actually listened to drummers before picking up the instrument, and the many nuances involved in coaxing good sounds out of the kit.

 

JASON: I’ve been playing in bands and recording music for most of my life (since the age of 12 or so), so it’s hard for me to say how doing so has changed my perspective on pop music. I remember making multitrack music with two boom boxes and a radio shack mic. My friends and I would record a stereo track and then feed it from one tape deck to the other with the next track mixed in using y-cables. We could record as many tracks as we liked.  The results were…um….pretty crappy. We learned a lot about working around the limitations of our equipment, though. We had to record the tracks that we didn’t mind sounding muffled first, for example, as bouncing from tape deck to tape deck always involved the loss of high frequencies. We also had to record things like pianos early on, as the playback speed of our tape decks wasn’t precise, and the pitch of the song after a few generations of extra tracks could drift significantly lower or higher than standard tuning. With guitars or vocals, we could compensate for this. But we were no good at fine-tuning pianos. 
Making quality (or even listenable) recordings is incredibly difficult as every piece of equipment involved has limitations for which one must compensate. This hasn’t changed in the digital age. We don’t have to worry about tape hiss or warble anymore, but we do have to deal with bogged-down processors creating audible ‘blips’ in the recordings and hot gain levels causing ugly clipping. There’s a lot of music on the radio that does nothing for me, but most of it was performed, recorded, and mixed by incredibly talented and patient people. If it sounds like it belongs on the radio, that’s a feat in itself. If you can hear all the instruments in the song, the kick drum doesn’t sound like lifeless thumping, the vocals never sound obviously too loud or obviously too quiet, solo instruments are cutting through the mix without hurting your ears, etc., then it wasn’t produced by hacks. This all takes some know-how and some good ears.  
Likewise for the performances themselves. Not everyone can sing on key, and of those that can, very few have voices that are pleasant or interesting (in a good way) to listen to. Everyone can play the guitar, of course, but, as Aristotle would say, not everyone can consistently play the right notes at the right times with the right tone. I certainly can’t, and it annoys me to no end.   I suppose that maybe if I were much better of a performer and producer, I would look down on popular music. But I’m not, so I don’t.
 


AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Pop music has never been known for its lyrical complexity. In fact, in most rock/pop songs the lyrics (other than the chorus) take a backseat to the music. When audiences hardly pay any attention to the verse at all let alone to the degree required for any kind of  (deep) interpretive activity, its not unreasonable to think pop music a poor outlet for anything other than the most superficial sorts of lyrical expression. Given that the band wears its academic (specifically, philosophical) bona fides on its sleeve, do you find yourselves actively trying to control for this or do you assume your listeners to be of the sort already primed for close attention to the lyrics?

DANIEL: I think given our credentials, and particularly since three of us are philosophy professors, there’s a tendency to think that the lyrics have some meaning that, frankly, they don’t. A few reviewers (and listeners) have found things in the lyrics that aren’t there. Well, so as not to take too strong stand on the place of authorial intention in interpretation, I’ll say they’re not there intentionally! I try to avoid anything explicitly philosophical when I write lyrics, although very very broad ideas that I’m thinking about might make it into a line here and there. There is one exception to this. A song that will be on our next record has a line that prompted a philosophy friend to say after a recent show, “Nice song about compatibalism.” So yeah…this is why I generally try to avoid writing philosophy into the lyrics!

 

 

 

I would just add that I’m not sure that pop music is “a poor outlet for anything other than the most superficial sorts of lyrical expression.” I think it’s easy to think so if you look at lyrics disconnected from the music. Most pop lyrics – and I definitely include my own here – are just embarrassing to read on their own (there are some obvious exceptions). But I think it’s a mistake to then infer that they are equally bad when combined with the music (and that it’s just that we don’t notice them as much when there’s music along with them). Of course, some lyrics are really awful even in the context of the music. They’re just totally asinine. But I don’t think that’s true of lots of lyrics. Combinations of words or phrases that really are asinine, or meaningless, on their own can become quite evocative or powerful with music. And it seems to me that, for that reason, lyrics are not a poor form of poetry (nor is it the case that music with words is somehow lesser as music than music with words). Music with words is sui generis, and so one fails to do justice to it if one separates the words from the music and declares them dumb (or whatever) or one separates the music from the words and declares it simple or boring.

 

I hasten to add that I think this is true of good lyrics (and music), which probably isn’t the norm in pop music. And I would classify my lyrics as, at best, adequate. I aim for evocative inanity™. I should also add that I basically never listen to lyrics. I’m one of those people who doesn’t know the words to songs I’ve been listening to forever.
ANDY: There are certainly many artists in the history of pop that use lyrical complexity to the detriment of musical sophistication. A lot of people ask about the manner in which “intellectual” thinking pervades our music, both lyrically (because of the philosophers in the band) and musically (because I am a musicologist). In fact, I think we tend to run from this expectation, and try not to seem too cerebral. Musically, there are actually a lot of complicated ideas in our songs, but these aspects are not so apparent to the untrained ear. (Although it is sometimes comical to watch people try to dance to songs that have odd meters!) Dan seems to focus on the music first, and then (often begrudgingly) add lyrics at the last possible moment.
MIKE: Well, I plead guilty: I barely listen to lyrics at all.  Though I appreciate Paul Simon and Bob Dylan as much as the next person.  I don’t write any of our songs, but I suppose it seems reasonable that some people might expect to hear a bit of philosophical cleverness in the lyrics.  I also assume that expectation fades pretty quickly once they give a listen (that’s not intended as an insult to Dan!).  Though I think Dan throws in a little reference to free will in one of our newer songs.  I hope that doesn’t ruin the next album for anyone. When I was trying to write rock songs, my aspiration was just to put words together that both (a) didn’t induce significant nausea and (b) didn’t sound like total nonsense. I think Dan achieves both of those things quite nicely.
JASON: A couple of months ago, I replied to an email message from a colleague who was looking for faculty members to sign up for a workshop entitled ‘Stats for Poets’.  In the email, I expressed my interest in the workshop and then said, “I trust that it’s okay that I secretly despise poetry.” Proving that I am my mother’s child, I accidentally hit ‘Reply All’ and this message went out to all of the faculty at the college.  
The only thing that resonates with me about Logical Positivism is their very low view of poetry. The poet is just making interesting sounds; but it’s all just nonsense, Carnap claimed. (But they’re doing better than the metaphysicians, Carnap thought, for at least the poets don’t think they’re making assertions.) Well, this goes a bit too far, but I do think that a fair bit of fancy poetry is a fair bit less ‘deep’ than it’s given credit for. Much of it makes me cringe with its palpable pretentiousness and pseudo-depth. I don’t mind at all when pop music has lyrics that are simple or superficial. I’m in it for the sounds more than the propositional content. When I was first getting into early Elvis Costello records, I kept hearing him referred to as ‘angry’. It didn’t make any sense to me. The music didn’t sound angry. It wasn’t until years later that I actually paid some attention to the lyrics and understood why the songs were considered angry.
 


AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: With what some might call an over-saturated market, do you find the philosophy connection a way to carve out a niche for the band (as well as avoid reductive-style critical comparisons to other established groups: e.g., The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, etc.)?

DANIEL: Well, the philosophy connection is definitely not enough to avoid reductive critical comparisons to other established groups. I think every review of our album has compared us to The Shins…which we’re not going to complain about!

 

 

 

With a name like The Counterfactuals and an album titled “Minimally Decent People”, it would be totally disingenuous to suggest that we don’t use the philosophy connection. We do. But I think the way we understand it is as follows (well, it’s the way I think about it anyway.): First, I think the group name and album title are just independently good qua band name and album title. It turns out that philosophy is a pretty good source for these things (I want to name our next record “Natural Kinds”). The names tend to induce eye rolls in philosophers, but not in others (I don’t think). Biology is pretty good too. A biologist friend of ours suggested the band name “Charismatic Megafauna”, which is awesome…except that there is already a band named Megafaun.

 

Second, I think one reason we’re comfortable sort of pointing to the fact that 3/4s of us are philosophy professors is that the music is respectable on its own quite apart from that (I think. I hope!) So the kind of interesting backstory is good for getting people in the door, so to speak, (because you’re right: there are tons of bands out there and the vast majority are totally intersubstitutable) but then the hope is that they just like the music. There’s no doubt we’ve benefited from people’s low expectations. Contra Sarah Stroud’s and Simon Keller’s views about how good friends (rightly) ignore normal epistemic standards when assessing the efforts of friends, we’ve definitely found that our friends came to listen to us expecting something at best tolerable and at worst quite embarrassing…only to be pleasantly surprised.
MIKE: Sure. It’s unavoidable. Though reductive style comparisons are unavoidable too. Even bands that make staggeringly original music (which we do not) are not necessarily that interesting to read about. A cute back story always helps.
ANDY: Connections to these bands are just fine. They are fantastic groups, and it is really flattering that people think of this music when they listen to us. You are correct, however, that philosophy, and academia in general, has been a fantastic marketing device for the band. There are so many good groups active today that people need a quick reason to listen to your music. Music is rarely appreciated solely in terms of sound. Even the bands that you mentioned have many extra-musical elements that help people contextualize their sounds. For us, connections to teaching, a college community, and academic research are great hooks. Hopefully, these connections evaporate slightly as people actually listen, and realize that we are pretty serious about our performances and recordings.

JASON: I haven’t thought much about the market at all. I never expected anyone to listen to our music, except our families and friends. It’s not like we have a huge audience or anything, but the fact that it has expanded beyond our families and friends is absolutely wonderful. People do latch onto the philosophy professor thing, which I think is great. It’s nice to have philosophers occasionally doing things that normal people don’t find strange and obnoxious.


Leave a comment

Interview with Punk Rock Legend Tesco Vee

Photograph by Joe Gall courtesy of Tesco Vee

Tesco Vee…Drum Major in the Squadron of Doom and sworn enemy of the politically correct…is the creator of Touch & Go Magazine and soon to follow Record label and has been plying the punk rock waters off and on for the last 35 years. He hath resurfaced once again with the first new platter of Meaty originals in almost 2 decades and sat down with Christy for some heartfelt anti-social intercourse.
 

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: It’s of course notoriously difficult to define Punk and well-nigh impossible to do so in terms of some shared musical sound—even within a small time frame and regional scene like early L.A. punk you still get bands with radically divergent sounds (e.g., The Go-Gos playing shows with The Germs and Fear). The closest things I can think of that seem to unite the punk movement across time and place would be some attitude of rebellion and a strong DIY sensibility. Given that you’ve been part of the larger “Punk Rock” movement since the late 70s both musically (as founding member of the seminal band The Meatmen and later Dutch Hercules and Hate Police) as well as culturally (by helping shape, disseminate, and ensure the survival of such music as co-founder of Touch and Go Records), has anything struck you as being particularly essential to the notion of Punk Rock?

TESCO VEE: I marvel at the staying power and the fact that this music so resonates with generation after generation of folks…representing the outsider movement I suppose keeps it relevant…bands I covered in Touch and Go magazine over 30 years ago still plying the waters and not sucking in some cases! I both bristle at and embrace the words ‘punk rock’ and it can mean myriad things to different people.


AFB: The Meatmen are known for their less than wholesome songs, many of which adopt in a tongue-in-cheek manner various offensive viewpoints, from the radically politically conservative and super-macho (“True Grit”, “French People Suck”) to the ultra homophobic, xenophobic, racist, and downright misanthropic (“Tooling for Anus”, “Camel Jockeys Suck”, “Blow Me Jah”, “Cripple Children Suck”). How often do you find fans embracing the offensive superficial message rather than the satirical content underneath? Do you notice a difference in this respect from your American fanbase to that overseas?

TESCO VEE: I write for reaction and some of what I write represents who I am but I also write in the 3rd person in “True Grit” lampooning Americas greatest export the White Trash…I’m actually a left wing free thinking and free swinging verbal machine gun who just says things for effect sometimes and for a laugh most of the time…Yes people take me literally but you either ‘get it’ or you don’t…in these hyper sensitive PC times we live in I just continue doing what I do…take it for what it is…as long as I make you laugh, ponder, get pissed, it doesn’t matter to me…Punk is about anger, hostility and fucking shit up after all…and I choose to do that with my verbal Tommy Gun…We toured Europe and they didn’t get it…Germany especially…they have no sense of humor…Patton Oswald does a hilarious bit about this…in Europe Hardcore and Punk are two separate spheres of orbit…good scenery, good food, loved Italy…but tongue in cheek humor is lost on those folks.

 

AFB: Do you find the line between adopting hate-speech so as to satirize it and good ol’ fashion hate speech anything more than just the line between satirical success and satirical failure (e.g., a line I take to have been crossed in the case of El Duce of The Mentors)?

TESCO VEE: It’s a fine line…and yes, the Mentors rode over it with a Sherman tank…I always called the Mentors, ‘The Meatmen with the brains knocked out of them’…but I still love them…they make me laugh…and they made the PMRC hearings and I didn’t…that will forever chap my nuts! El Duce was annoying as fuck but a good guy buried under his alcohol sodden carcass…a promoter in Florida back in the 80s said the 3 of them drank 8 cases of beer between Noon and 11 PM…now that is Punk Rock.

AFB: The Meatmen and yourself in particular are also know for your live performances and stage antics. Do you think that to truly appreciate your music, one must see it performed live or is the live show just something extra for the fans of the music? Do you think that Punk Rock perhaps more so than other subgenres of Rock Music places greater value on the live performance as opposed to the studio track?

TESCO VEE: I think for the true Meat experience you need to experience it live…get off your wheelchair butts and go to a show…but either way my job is to paint a picture through words and music and entertain your ass…I try in every way I know how to put on a show…a Hades Meets Las Vegas Extravaganza of cosmic fun and frolic.., with confetti and T-shirt guns…goofy costumes, offensive throw rags, and a between song banter that would make Shecky Greene proud…This line up I have now is as good as any I’ve ever had, and we do not disappoint live unlike some other legacy punk acts.
Photographs by Joe Gall courtesy of Tesco Vee

 

AFB: What changes in Rock Music over the years have struck you as being either particularly positive or negative sorts of shifts (musical or otherwise)?
TESCO VEE: Man, I haven’t kept track of all the shifts, ups and downs…all I know is I like what I like…and hate what I hate…the difference is if I hate a band I say so…on stage…I really don’t care what other bands think of me…I enjoy my status of cult hero…also ran…footnote…my lyrics ride hard on alla you fuckers! You are all swimming in my  verbal wake, bitches! I’m an English major and a semantic tactician and I ain’t done yet! (insert mad scientist laugh here)

AFB: Perhaps my all time favorite cover song has to be The Meatmen cover of “How Soon is Now?” by The Smiths (I even philosophized about it here). You’ve done several covers over the course of your career (e.g., “Razamanaz” by Nazareth, “Dance to the Music” by Sly & The Family Stone, “What’s This Shit Called Love” by The Pagans, “Crazy Horses” by The Osmonds). What is it about a song for you that makes it worth covering? 

TESCO VEE: To have fans…you need to BE a fan…I am a HUGE Fan of music…people ask me are you a fan or a band first and foremost…no question a FAN…I have my heroes…people that inspired me like Zappa, The Fugs, Black Randy…funny, clever, inspired, creative music that made me who I am…I pay homage to all of these greats on my Cover The Earth CD…I always try to make ‘em my own.


For more information on the man, the myth, the legend Tesco Vee, as well as The Meatmen’s new album Savage Sagas, go to Tescovee.com 

 


Leave a comment

Interview with Visual Artist Curtis Gannon


Curtis Gannon (b. 1974) completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Houston, and then received an MFA in Painting at San Diego State University. Using American action comics as source material, Gannon creates collages, sculptures and installations that reference the Pop language of the medium and its influence as a universal form of visual communication. Gannon’s works have recently been exhibited at Blaffer Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Williams Tower, and Lawndale Art Center. Gannon lives and works in League City, TX.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: The world of fine-art was introduced to comics most notably in the 1950s and early 1960s when Pop artists seeking to challenge traditional notions of fine art began appropriating the panel images from comics: e.g., Warhol’s Saturday’s Popeye (1960) and Superman (1961) as well as Lichstenstein’s Image Duplicator(1963) from Uncanny X-Men and Takka Takka (1962), Bratatat! (1963), Whaam!(1963) from All American Men of War. Of course, this was done in such a way that inevitably divorced the appropriated (and often de-paneled) images from the narrative they were supposed to serve. Your work, however, shifts the focus away from what at times can be a condescending fine-art fascination with comic imagery along with the often crude narratives it serves and instead draws attention to the very structure of comics itself—i.e., not its pictorial or narrative content but its formal content.

Curtis Gannon, Cosmos: The Copernicus/Miller Correlation (2013)
Paper Installation 12 x 6ft diameter (dimensions variable)

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Of course, from the fact that comic imagery and now comic form should be counted amongst the legitimate subjects for works of fine art it doesn’t follow that comics themselves should be similarly counted amongst the legitimate works of fine art. As an artist who uses comics and comic imagery to create artworks about comics but not themselves comics, where do you stand on the fine-art status of comics (or on the commercial-art/fine-art distinction in general)?
 
CURTIS GANNON: Like any mass media form of entertainment, the highest achievements of the medium have the potential to be elevated to the status of “fine art”. In my opinion, there is an art-to-crap ratio of 10%-90% in most forms of entertainment. A rare minority rises above the common to a level of what might be considered “art”. Comics that should be considered fine art are those that set the standards of quality and form. New approaches to sequential narrative and storytelling, and pieces that challenge preconceived notions about comic book content, are more than entertainment. They make us question what comics are and how they function. Cultural objects that question society and culture, or test the commonly accepted ideas of a medium and its function, meet the criteria for what is often considered art in any form.


Comics were not initially created as art, but to be inexpensive entertainment, readily consumable and disposable. In a similar way, many objects in museum collections today were originally created to educate, document, or entertain as objects of beauty. 

 

Curtis Gannon, Closure Construction #5 (2012)
Plexiglass 32 x 41.5 x 2in


AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Do you think comics can be appreciated as fine-art while still being appreciated as comics?

 
CURTIS GANNON: Absolutely. When I read comics like Nemesis, Punk Rock Jesus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, or even Fantastic Four #1, I enjoy them not only for their narratives, but for their interplay of text and images in their entirety. Unfortunately, when displayed in institutions, a comic is often shown out of context by exhibiting it closed, or opened at some predetermined point within the text. Much like cinema, a comic book must be experienced from cover to cover in order grasp the creator’s original intent.

 

New approaches to storytelling, character development, and illustration techniques set some iconic issues apart from their forerunners, elevating the genre to new heights. I believe these are works of art not only for their physical beauty, but also for the experience created through sequential narration. They cause me to question the comics that were created previously, and set a new standard for all of those created afterward.

Curtis Gannon, Closure Grid: Locas Big City (2012)
Collage 32 x 66 inches

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: What if anything do you think would likely have to change for comics to gain admission to the world of fine-art?
 
CURTIS GANNON: Time is the major factor when considering if an everyday object is “art”. Once objects become rare because of the passage of time, they are often considered valuable. An appreciation for an object also increases when seen in retrospect, acknowledging how that object was a reflection of the attitude of its time, as well as its effects on culture and its own medium. For example, Action Comics #1 is important for two reasons: it essentially established the “super hero” comic book as a genre and because so few exist today. Surviving issues are therefore extremely valuable as objects.

Curtis Gannon, Page Mosaic: Pangea (2011)
Collage 84 x 96 inches

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: What sort of reactions from the fine-art community have there been to your work with respect to comics as its material and subject matter?
 
I get some mixed reactions from the fine art community about my use of comics. For the most part, it isn’t an issue. Comics have now become accepted (after 100 years) as an important document of popular culture. They reflect on who we were and who we hope to become. The relevance of comics has been established among academia as well. They are recognized as fertile material for understanding and commenting on modern urban culture. Most of the people I encounter who are resistant to comics have little to no experience with the medium. They have written them off without trying to understand them.

Curtis Gannon, Plot Weave #23 (2012)
Collage 15.75 x 15.75 x 1.75in

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Some folks within the comics community see Lichtenstein in a rather unfavorable light, namely as a fine-art carpetbagger guilty of flagrant theft who enjoyed wealth and fame as a result while the comic artists from whom he stole were largely consigned to obscurity and poverty. Do you see your own work as a species of appropriation and if so to what extent if any do you think appropriation of a comic’s page structure (panelation, guttering, etc.)—rather than it’s pictorial elements—susceptible to similar charges of fine-art carpetbaggery?
 
CURTIS GANNON: My work is a form of appropriation in two ways. In a simple way, I am recontextualizing the comic book page as a media construct that facilitates sequential narrative. For this purpose, a page from any comic would be suitable.
 
However, for me as an artist, I don’t want to use just any page. The sources that are repurposed in my work are very carefully selected. My work is a tribute to my favorite creators, in much the same way as a musician would cover a song by another artist. I want to dialogue about specific comics I loved as a kid, as well as comics that are hallmarks of the medium itself. I am continuously in awe of the works of Stan Lee, Claremont, Kirby, Ditko, Miller, Romita, Byrne, and Mignola (to name but a few).

Curtis Gannon, Association Grid #27 (2013)
Collage 20.25 x 12.25 x 1.5in

In this more complex way, I want my work to be a homage to their accomplishments by representing these comics in new ways; hoping to attract non-typical audiences to re-evaluate the original sources. The comics I adopt are not inert documents of the past, but are viable works that are the spring board for new ideas and discoveries. When I give talks about the work, I find myself spending much of my time referencing the original sources and why they are important.

Curtis Gannon, Comic Strips #1 (2013)
Paper Installation 56 x 48in (dimensions variable)

I understand why the comic book community frowns upon artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol. The images they appropriated for a small part of their careers helped to make these artists famous without specific reference to the original creators. But a major point is often over looked by these critics. The work of these and other Pop artists made major strides in establishing comics as a legitimate artistic medium to academia and society as a whole. They helped to raise comics out of the perceived mire of mass media “low culture” to a unique and important form of literature as well as art in their own right.
 
Both of these viewpoints will continue to have countless supporters, but that is how I perceive it as an artist and a lifelong comic book fan.

Curtis Gannon is represented by THE MISSION Chicago | Houston (www.themissionprojects.com) For more information contact Sarah Busch, Director | Houston: (713) 874-1182.


Leave a comment

Interview with Philosopher & LEGO Sculptor Roy T. Cook

Roy T. Cook is an extremely nerdy associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, a resident fellow of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, and an associate fellow of the Northern Institute of Philosophy – Aberdeen, Scotland. He has published over fifty articles and book chapters on logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of art (especially popular art). He co-edited The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012) with Aaron Meskin, and his monograph on the Yablo Paradox is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is also a co-founder of the interdisciplinary comics studies blog PencilPanelPage, which recently took up residence at the Hooded Utilitarian, and hopes to someday write a book about the Sensational She-Hulk. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife, two cats (Freckles and Mr. Prickley), and approximately 2.5 million LEGO bricks.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Presumably mathematics as well as its philosophy requires creativity, but before that creativity can be usefully employed one must have already mastered a rather imposing set of technical skills. Do you find that LEGO sculpture is much the same?

ROY T. COOK: Definitely, and much of it is, in fact, mathematical: LEGO bricks have a very specific, and very precise, geometry: a stack of five one-stud bricks, connected stud-to-slot is (not including the stud) exactly the height of six of those same bricks stacked on their sides. And pretty much every LEGO element is designed in terms of this ‘unit’ (i.e. one sixth the height of a standard brick). This opens up a lot of possibilities for creative building, in terms of using this geometry to ‘fit’ pieces in upside down, etc., where they aren’t ‘standardly’ meant to go. And of course, there is a lot of specialized terminology, such as SNOT (studs not on top) used within the community to describe these techniques. So there is a whole set of technical building skills and background knowledge that adult fans of LEGO (or AFOLs) gradually master – techniques that go well beyond the basic brick-stacking utilized in official sets. 

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: What would you consider to be the hallmarks of a LEGO purist? Prohibitions on cutting or gluing? Working with LEGO brand blocks as opposed to those of knock-off brands? Are there any notable schisms within the adult Lego community?

ROY T. COOK: There is definitely a significant notion of ‘purism’ within the adult LEGO community, and although most builders will claim to be some sort of purist, there is a good bit of controversy regarding where, exactly, the line is to be drawn. Pretty much everyone agrees that cutting or painting LEGO bricks is off-limits, although there are possible exceptions (for example, some builders think it is okay for long pieces of LEGO ‘flex tubing’ to be cut to shorter lengths that LEGO also produces but that the builder does not have on hand at the moment). Gluing is also verboten, but with exceptions: Most builders I know wouldn’t dare bring a glued model to a fan convention like Brickworld (part of the challenge with complex builds is often getting the work to stay together due solely to the ‘clutch’ power of the bricks themselves), but I myself have glued models or mosaics that were being given away as gifts to family members that don’t want the hassle of a model falling apart without me there to put it back together.
The ban on ‘clone’ bricks (e.g. Megablocks, Tyco bricks, etc.) is as much practical as it is principled: LEGO bricks have thicker, sturdier walls, and their significantly superior quality control means that there is much less variance in wall thickness, etc. This might not matter much to the typical ten-year-old, but if you are building a six-foot-tall tower or four-foot-tall mosaic, you want the edges to be straight. Clone brick builds of that scale tend to visibly bend, while LEGO bricks won’t.
While people are vocal about their views on ‘purity’ (and on many other topics), I don’t think there are any real ‘schisms’ with regard to this issue – the LEGO community is surprisingly congenial compared to other demographically similar fandoms where much of the interaction occurs online.
I have encountered something akin to a ‘schism’ concerning a related issue, however. I have given a series of presentations on thinking about LEGO as art at various LEGO fan conventions (e.g. Brickworld outside Chicago and Brickfest in Washington D.C.) including one that compared the purist phenomenon (at least some aspects of it) to similar debates about the addition of sound to cinema in the 1920s. I was surprised that the audience was often very divided – one group would be extremely enthusiastic about taking LEGO seriously as a significant artistic medium, while the other group were rather antagonistic, and seemed to view my efforts as an attempt to take the ‘fun’ out of their hobby. Interestingly, demographically the former group tends to run a good bit younger than the latter.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: What are some of the principal advantages and disadvantages of working in the LEGO medium? What sorts of depictive subjects do you think Lego sculpture ill-suited to capture, as compared to traditional sculptural media (metal, stone, wood, etc.)? Any subjects that LEGO is perhaps better-suited to capture than traditional types of sculpture?

ROY T. COOK: Well, I think the primary disadvantage of working in LEGO is cost – LEGO bricks retail for anywhere from 5 to 12 cents per piece, so a single 30 x 40 inch mosaic can often run well in excess of $1000 just for raw materials. In addition, unlike other sculptural media, where you just need enough metal, or stone, or wood, or a big enough piece of the same, with LEGO you have hundreds of different shapes which are (or have been) produced in dozens of different colors. Each different project is likely to involve very different parts and colors than the one before it, so a well-stocked LEGO studio/workspace is going to require a huge amount of bricks. I estimate that my own collection comes in at something like 2.5 million LEGO elements (note: I didn’t pay retail prices for most of this). The corresponding advantage, however, is the reusability of the raw materials. If you get sick of a particular work, you can take it apart, and eventually those pieces will get worked into some future project.

lego minnesota state capitol
Model of Minnesota State Capital Building by Roy T. Cook
photo courtesy of Amanda J
lego cathedral of saint paul
Model of St. Paul Cathedral (St. Paul, Minnesota) by Roy T. Cook
Photo courtesy of Amanda J
In addition, building in LEGO is unlike traditional sculpting in that you are not literally ‘sculpting away’ material, but you are instead ‘building up’ the work piece by piece. In addition, and unlike other contemporary sculptures that might be ‘built up’ in a similar way from found objects or whatever, with LEGO art you are working with a fixed and pre-determined set of possible components. This isn’t really a disadvantage so much as it is just a limitation – one adult builder I know described LEGO art as ‘quantum sculpture’ for just this reason.
I don’t see any particular topics that LEGO sculpture is ill-suited to capture or address, although it must be admitted that the range of topics addressed by LEGO work is rather limited at present. I do see two topics/themes that seem particularly well-suited for exploration with LEGO art. The first involves issues of construction and deconstruction, taken quite broadly: What are we, and our world, made of? What are the differences between our true natures and the persona we construct for the consumption of others? How can the ‘building blocks’ nature of LEGO artworks be used to address and interrogate these larger issues of ‘constitution’? 
Nathan Sawaya’s travelling exhibition The Art of the Brick (http://brickartist.com/) is notable in this regard. His sculptures focus primarily on reflexively embracing, exploring, and interrogating LEGO itself as a medium and a means for exploring the constructed nature of our world, and only secondarily on explicitly representing ‘things’ found in that world (and further, where the works are intimately concerned with representing particular ‘things’, this is usually tightly interwoven with consideration of the means of representation). The majority of works exhibited at AFOL conventions – even those that do embrace self-referentiality or other sophisticated expressive techniques – usually focus in the first instance on straightforward representation of real or imagined ‘things’, and only secondarily on the medium itself. Of course, this isn’t an all-or-nothing distinction: Sawaya also built a much-blogged-about life-size model of Han Solo in carbonite, and works as aesthetically ambitious as anything Sawaya has done do occasionally show up at fan conventions. But Sawaya is notable for being the first adult LEGO builder to produce an substantial body of work in LEGO with a consistent, aesthetically significant, overarching theme.

Untitled by artist Nathan Sawaja
photo courtesy of brickartist.com
The second involves interrogating the division between toy and artistic medium. Although there is a wealth of impressive work being created by adults, the immediate reaction you typically get after admitting (i) you own over 2 million LEGO bricks, but (ii) you don’t have any children, is somewhere between incredulity, scorn, and (in some cases) nerd-boy/girl envy. While LEGO might be a serious artistic medium, the obvious problem is that it isn’t viewed as one – it is viewed as a toy, so if you work in LEGO you are viewed as playing with toys, not creating art. One way to address this is to create works that challenge this assumption that LEGO is merely a toy. A year or so back I constructed a LEGO mosaic titled “Oops, I forgot it was a toy!” that depicted a topless portrait of my wife (nope – not posting pictures here – sorry!) and displayed it at Brickworld Chicago. The point was to try and challenge the idea that LEGO is just for kids (in a rather overt and unsubtle way, it must be admitted, but I viewed it merely as an early salvo in the right direction – not as an early masterpiece of the ‘my-wife’s-boobs’ genre). And it did spark some novel discussions amongst convention attendees about the nature and potential of the medium and the appropriateness of depicting ‘adult’ themes in a medium originally designed as a toy (it also generating the expected, obvious, rather sophomoric reactions), although in a limited way since we decided to censor it for the public display periods.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Do you regard work in LEGO as a legitimate art form? What is the principal difference(s) between what you do now as a Lego builder and what you did as a child with LEGO bricks that might ground an art/non-art distinction?

ROY T. COOK: First, I don’t see any real difference between what I did with my LEGO bricks as a kid and what I do now that goes beyond the difference between what I drew as a kid and the drawings by Rembrandt or Manet or whoever hanging in museums. Of course, there are differences – I bring a different sort of sensibility to the work (sometimes – I also still like to build cool spaceships that I can ‘swoosh’ around the workshop) and I have significantly better building skills and better (i.e. more) materials. But I see the one as continuous with the other – it isn’t like Rembrandt had an epiphany one day and stopped drawing one way and started drawing ‘serious’.
Lego Halle
Halle Berry mosaic by Roy T. Cook

 

Along similar lines, I don’t see any reason why LEGO isn’t or can’t be a legitimate art form – as I already noted, I think the challenge is to convince the public (whoever that might be) that it is a legitimate form and worthy of attention. This process has already begun: a number of LEGO artists, including Nathan Sawaya and Sean Kenney, have displayed their work in museums, and my own commissioned models of the Minnesota State Capitol, the St Paul (MN) Cathedral, and the Split Rock Lighthouse are prominently displayed inside their respective real-world buildings. But LEGO art still lacks a medium-specific context and history against which individual works can be judged – at present LEGO works are either judged against traditional sculpture and via the same criteria, or they are judged against the larger body of DIY work (costuming, modeling, fan art, fanfic, etc.) within fandom more generally. It seems to me that, in order to be taken seriously as a legitimate art form, LEGO artists and their admirers and critics will need to generate a large enough body of quality work, and some sort of theoretical/historical narrative to go with it, so that we can legitimately compare and, perhaps most importantly, contrast LEGO art with other artistic media and traditions.
With this in mind, I think it is the time in this interview where I put my own cards on the table: I actually don’t view my own work or, at least, the work for which I am perhaps best known in the LEGO community – technically complex LEGO mosaics – as the best candidates for consideration as serious, legitimate LEGO artworks. Now, great art usually requires some serious technical skill, and my mosaics have that and then some, but art also (to my mind) requires some sort of content. And my mosaics are rather thin on content: other than my choice of subject (usually females – either fictional, celebrity, or acquaintance – that I admire) these mosaics are for the most part technical feats – reproducing the photograph utilizing a limited set of resources – rather than an attempt at any sort of message.
Of course, some of the more ‘sculptural’ works created within the LEGO community are, quite clearly, attempts at expressing exactly the sort of content we might expect in more traditional art works, and I think some of them succeed admirably in this regard. But lately I have begun thinking about LEGO art in a completely different way – as a sort of storytelling rather than as a sort of sculpture (note: I see these as compatible, not competing, conceptions of what LEGO art is or might be). Influenced by Henry Jenkins’ work on the participatory aspects of popular fiction and mass art, I have been thinking a lot about the sorts of LEGO builds that don’t typically get as much attention in discussions of LEGO and art: the huge train layouts, town scenes, castle dioramas, Star Wars hangars, etc., populated with dozens of minifigures carefully set out in humorous and sometimes poignant slice-of-life vignettes. These sorts of builds are often as technically proficient as the overtly more ‘serious’ sculptures and mosaics, but they are often ignored in discussions of art due to their obvious similarity to (and often inspiration from) official LEGO sets and the sorts of LEGO creations typically produced by children. But viewed as a sort of 3-D storytelling I think that something more might be going on here. In constructing the idyllic small town, or the beautiful, efficient train yard, or the heroic impregnable castle, or the unseen portions of the Rebel hangar, these builders can be seen as contributing to an ongoing narrative initiated by either LEGO (in the case of their official train, castle, or town sets) or by the companies providing the licensed content (e.g. Lucasfllm). In short, they are Jenkins’ textual poachers, contributing to an ongoing collaborative story told both in official sets (and other materials in the case of licensed properties) and in the creations of fans. Although, as I noted, I am just beginning to think about this issue, I think there are interesting possibilities here for treating minifigure-based LEGO builds as a sort of significant, legitimate narrative art form.
Well, that’s all for now. I have to get back to working on my four-by-six foot LEGO zombie pirate town!


2 Comments

Interview with Film & Television Writer/Creator Kyle Killen

 

 

Kyle Killen is a film & television writer and producer. He is the creator and showrunner for the critically acclaimed Fox television series Lone Star, Awake (NBC), and Mind Games (ABC premiere Feb. 24th). He also wrote the screenplays both for the films The Beaver (2011), starring Mel Gibson and directed by Jodie Foster, and Scenic Route (2013), starring Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler and directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz.
 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Though unfairly cut short after only a season, your television series Awake managed to attract quite a serious following. These invariably include an element of obsessive fandom for which engagement with the work often consists of meticulously pouring over each part and subjecting it to analysis at an almost frightening level of detail, and extensively cataloging any and all inconsistencies, incongruities, loose threads, and holes uncovered. Such folks are often referred to as nitpickers. I think that label to be a touch unfair as nitpicking implies calling attention not just to some small mistake or minor flaw of a work but to those very mistakes or flaws to which audiences needn’t attend or should outright ignore in the first place (e.g., tips of boom mikes visible in the top of the shot, jet contrails faintly visible in the Middle Earth sky, etc.). That is, to label someone a nitpicker is to claim the relevant flaw lies with them and not the work. Where do you tend to draw the line between legitimate criticism and obsessive nitpicking when concerning your own work, especially Awake, which has a quite complex and detail-oriented structure?


KYLE KILLEN: I have no issue with nitpickers.  Any and all issues are up for debate as far as I’m concerned, and while sometimes criticisms point out things we chose to ignore, they also occasionally point out things we simply missed. Awake was a beast to keep track of, and then in the process or editing down to the 42 minutes you have available for actual story content in an hour of television we necessarily excised things that might have made particular aspects of the story clearer or more logical. One would hope that with more time we’d have gotten better about judging what would fit from the start and avoided leaving important bits on the cutting room floor. Regardless, when one notices something that bothers or takes them out of the flow of the story I can’t really say that they should simply ignore it or that it’s somehow not legitimate.  


AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: When major motion pictures such as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises are ridiculed for their glaring plot holes, inconsistencies, and wholesale violations of commonsense, with whom do you think the preponderance of blame most likely to rest (e.g., the director, producers, writers, actors, or audiences themselves)?

KYLE KILLEN: Plot holes usually come down to one of two things – either the issue is not considered important enough to the story or the thrust of the story to bear addressing, or it was addressed at some point but had to be cut out for some reason (time, cost, etc).  The larger issue I think is why it sometimes matters and sometimes doesn’t. Once you’ve spotted a glaring inconsistency such that you can’t engage with the work anymore, it becomes hard to fathom how someone else could either miss that issue, or see it and not have a similar reaction. But the fact that a number of the titles you reference as being ridiculed for these inconsistencies or plot holes were actually spectacular box office successes indicates that while these issues greatly bothered some, they did nothing to deter the audience at large.  Blame seems like a strong word, but essentially, feature films are designed to provide entertainment to turn a profit, so it’s unlikely those putting their financial resources at risk would do so if the audience had demonstrated that bulletproof logic was something they factored into their viewing decisions.  When something bothers an audience, it tends to go away – for example the failures of a number of films set around the Iraq war made it difficult to find money to make more of those projects.  The returns on summer features indicates that plot holes and faulty logic have approximately zero impact on the audience at large and their enjoyment of blockbuster films.  Which is not to say an illogical film can’t flop (see: Battleship) but merely to say that logic tends not to be the deciding factor.
 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Compared to that of most other art forms, film production is a messy enterprise involving scores of people all playing distinct but interrelated roles. How do you see the role of the screenwriter in film production as compared to other roles (producer, director, cinematographer, actor, editor)?
 
KYLE KILLEN: The screenwriter is like an Architect. They draw up blueprints such that a number of other people decide this is something worth building. That’s kind of it.  Once the building process begins, things change, the ideas, good and bad, of the countless number of people required to turn paper into film all get baked in and what results is really the organic creation of everyone involved.  John August (a prominent and successful screenwriter) has suggested changing the Oscar category for screenwriting to ‘Best Movie based on a screenplay’ which really reflects how things necessarily change and grow once the script heads for screen. Compared to other roles, the screenwriter has the initial say in what something ‘could’ be.  They have the opportunity to make the first argument for something’s need to exist. After that it becomes what it becomes through the efforts, successes, and failures of those who make it real.

    

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: How do you think the relationship between the script and film compares to other broadly similar relationships such as plays to theatrical performances, scores to musical performances, architectural blueprints to physical structures?
 
KYLE KILLEN: I think screenplay to feature film likely has the loosest relationship of those you cite.  In theater the text is sacred and you require the permission of the writer to alter it. The stage is necessarily a suggestion of a world, and the words and actions described in the play are the only things available to bring it to life. Builders also see largely their job as to faith execute architectural blueprints and deviations tend to happen because of specific circumstances or unforseen issues as opposed to as a result of creative choices. Scores tend to dictate as much as possible to musician in an effort to insure that what happens in reality mirrors what played in the composers head. Screenplays in feature film tend to be much more of a first step.  When you introduce the camera, the director has tremendous power to influence what you see and experience, what you note as important, and what you disregard.  Think of your favorite book that resulted in a movie and consider how different the two are, even if you happen to like both, and you get a sense how the film evolves from the stage where it’s a story to the place where it’s a movie. Even the most faithful adherence to words on a page doesn’t begin to account for the mood, tone, pace, and style of a film. Look at something like The Social Network, which is a distinctly Aaron Sorkin screenplay that was largely adhered to, but it’s a strikingly David Fincher film, and had you read it before Fincher made it it’s unlikely it would have played in your head the way it ultimately did on screen.
 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Since it’s release in September 2012, the number of times Leos Carax’s Holy Motors has been screened anywhere in the United States works out to roughly half the number of times Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was screened within a 25 mile radius of my home in a single day [Jan. 9th, 2014]. Do you think mainstream contemporary American cinema & television affords its audience the respect it deserves? Do you think audience respect any different for mainstream contemporary American music or literature? Or might the Domestic Box Office Gross, Nielsen Ratings, Billboard Charts, and NYT Bestsellers List reflect a case of just desserts? 
 
KYLE KILLEN: I think films are extremely expensive to make, and the more you bet the safer you want that bet to be.  That doesn’t mean making giant tentpole films is a ‘safe bet’ (see again: Battleship) but it does mean that audiences, over time, have shown a strong preference for things in the vein of Blockbusters over films like Holy Motors.  Rather than offer a value judgment, I’d propose an explanation.  For most of us films are a diversion, a small and occasional part of our lives during which we hope to be thrilled and entertained.  For people who are immersed in film or television, or books, the similarity of many the products on offer becomes tiresome and there’s a thrill and an excitement in seeing the form riffed on and reinvented in something like Holy Motors. But if you haven’t ingested such a volume of material, if you see two movies a year and one of them is a Transformers film, you may not be feeling a sense that someone needs to break the mold.  The mold may still be fresh for you.  And as such, things that offer a ‘reaction’ to mainstream cinema, books, or television, might seem unnecessary or uninteresting.  This is where the world of television has become exciting because the fracturing of the audience has made the pursuit of niches the model for establishing your network and sustaining your existence. The big tent broadcast model is withering while the carving up of the audience into small but reliable populations who enjoy similar things is flourishing. It’s unlikely this will ever result in a something like Holy Motors being on 3500 screen across the country or selling out on Friday nights. But it does mean that there’s a way to reach out to and connect with people who enjoy those types of entertainments and a way to make them decent financial gambles rather than art for art’s sake.
 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: The rise of digital media has already shown itself to have devastating consequences for industries unprepared or unwilling to adapt (e.g., the recording and publishing industries). To what extent, if any, do you think the move from celluloid to digital will shift film-making away from the current major studio model to something perhaps more egalitarian? Do you think the studio system will remain viable in the next few decades? In not, what do you see or hope to see as taking its place?
 
KYLE KILLEN: I think the rise of digital production and distribution as well as the technological revolutions surrounding the raw equipment needed to make films certainly opens the door to a much much larger number of people. I think it allows for much more production outside of a studio environment and allows lots of alternative way to reach your audience. But I don’t think it tears down the walls of the existing system.  Studios are aggregators of talent and marketing machines. You can lower the barrier to entry, but the world in which you wish to release your film is noisier than ever.  Marketing budgets have exploded as the cost of equipment has shrunk and ultimately it doesn’t matter if you can make a film on a 1500 dollar camera if you can’t afford to tell the world it exists.  Word of mouth, festival lightning in a bottle, etc., are certainly ways that little movies can break through, but blunt force awareness raising and salesmanship is a business studios are likely to be in for a long time.  Where I think digital demands an immediate rethink is in distribution.  The head in the sand, sue our customers approach of the moment is utterly doomed.  When one can obtain a copy of a film for free, instantly, and not have it be crippled by various DRM or unskippable warnings and previews, when the experience of STEALING a film results in a BETTER viewing experience for the end user then you have a serious problem that cannot be addressed by merely shaming your audience into doing things your way. Until paying for content offers an experience as frictionless as stealing it, stealing will remain appealing to otherwise upstanding citizens.
 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Similarly, given the rapid and radical shift in content delivery, the Nielsen system looks to be hopelessly antiquated and woefully inadequate method of reliably gauging popularity of television shows. What do you see, if anything, as taking its place? Do you see network television as a result willing to take more artistic risks (e.g., NBC’s Hannibal is arguably the most aesthetically sophisticated show on television)?


KYLE KILLEN: Measuring audiences and understanding their viewing habits has become increasingly tricky and while I wholeheartedly agree that the metrics we once relied on are becoming increasingly meaningless, I’m not sure we know what the next answer is. Twitter and other social networks seem to have tapped a digital well of information about what we’re actually watching, but it’s noisier and self selecting data. I think before we can really figure out how to count people we have to figure out what watching a show even means anymore.  The broadcast model is based on the idea that you’re selling an advertising delivery mechanism and if technology means people aren’t watching the ads, then they’re not watching the ads.  Pretending it’s otherwise is simply whistling in the dark. Netflix and premium cable outlets like HBO demonstrate that end users will pay directly for programming which leaves advertisers out of it, and I think you’ll see variations on that model expand. Ironically, things like twitter are simultaneously becoming the new way to count viewers, while being one of the only new technologies to drive people to watch television in a more TRADITIONAL manner. When a show like Breaking Bad achieves cultural ubiquity such that one cannot hide from news and reactions to every episode, the idea of storing it on the DVR for five days becomes less appealing. Social discussion creates a need to watch things as soon as they’re released in order to be in on the conversation.  The question is, does anyone think the people eager to tweet about a show the minute it’s over aren’t savvy enough to start it twenty minutes late and skip the commercials?

Mind Games (Premieres Feb. 25th on ABC) 

As for taking more risks, yes and no. Yes, when you have little to lose, as NBC did in the case of Hannibal, you’ll take some swings.  And as networks become more narrowly defined and their audiences more specific they can certainly afford to try things that might not have the traditionally required big tent element. But the larger issue is the sustainability of any of todays broadcast and cable models. Always on, on demand content delivery is where we’re going and Netflix demonstrates that it’s lunacy to pretend you need to pay 50 dollars a month for a basic cable TV package to then have the right to subscribe to your favorite HBO shows. But as more distribution drifts toward the ala cart, direct to consumer model, outlets that don’t have shows that appeal to consumers now will wither and die. And many of the successes of the recent decades have come from outlets like AMC that existed and were already being paid for by consumers before they decided to develop content that would appeal to larger audiences.  Whether that somewhat socialist bubble of basic cable was actually key to the providing the opportunity that AMC eventually availed themselves of is up for debate.  I don’t know what TV will look like after the current structure breaks down.  But I do think we’re going to find out.

 


1 Comment

Interview with Artist The Sucklord

 

SUCKADELIC is an evil arts organization based in Chinatown New York City. Specializing in Bootleg Toys, illicit remix records, and duffed out Supervillain Soap operas. More of a degenerate con-game than a real company, Suckadelic is universally regarded as the sleaziest brand in the game. Ruled from a hidden Sweatshop by the intergalactic criminal and self-serving megalomaniac, the SUPER SUCKLORD, Suckadelic has continued to pump highly addictive pop culture crap into the veins of willing victims since 1997. Greatest hits include the legendary STAR WARS BREAKBEATS album, The GAY EMPIRE Homotrooper action figure, and the epic TOY LORDS OF CHINATOWN misadventure serial. Despite revealing a softer side of himself on Bravo TV’s hit Show WORK OF ART: The Next Great Artist, The Sucklord remains a reviled gangster, feared for his smooth tyranny and the ruthless exploitation of his fans. He is the Greatest Supervillain ever to operate in the world of popular culture. Made in USA.
 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Despite the fact that it is increasingly common to find these works created by well-known, well-respected, and extensively credentialed street artists, many seem hesitant to place Designer Toys (Urban Vinyl) under the banner of Street Art. Certainly insofar as one thinks Street Art requires some transgressive element or criminality, your Designer Toy work with its emphasis on bootleg (unlicensed) action figures looks as good a candidate as any. Do you consider Designer Toys in general or your own work specifically to be part of some larger Street Art tradition or perhaps instead more in the Fine-Art Appropriationist tradition (e.g., Andy Warhol, Elaine Sturtevant, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine)?
 
THE SUCKLORD: No, I don’t consider what I do Street Art. For something to be Street Art, in my opinion, it needs to actually be up on the street, and illegally so. Otherwise it’s a mural. I suppose the attitude or stance of the Suckadelic work could possibly be lumped in with street art, but I wouldn’t put that limitation on it. I think the notion of street art as an art movement unto itself is kind of an artificial invention created by gallerists, critics, and hipsters in an attempt to package, sanitize, and sell whatever rebellion the cool kids happen to be doing today.
 
I also think it’s a trend and a label that is running it’s course. People will always continue to bomb the street no matter what. But I think the “Art Establishment” that co-opted it in the first place is getting tired of it, mostly because they are sick of taggers fucking up their bathrooms every time they have an opening. That said, I think it is possible to say that the Suckadelic bootleg series has things in common with what people perceive street art to be, which is pretty much the fuck you attitude, the law breaking, (aka copyright infringement) and the sloppy, shitty, cut and paste I-had-to-do-this-quick-and-run-away look to it. It does have other elements of Pop art, collage, appropriation and all that other shit that real artists do, but I don’t know if that makes it art. It’s also not a toy either, because you can’t open it up and play with it, and it would possibly kill a young child if you gave it to them. (choking, toxic, etc).
 
I’m also not sure if designer toys in general are really art either. Some of these independent toys are nice looking, well made, creative etc, but are more design than art (or at least Art with a capital A). For something to be Art in my completely useless and uninformed opinion, it has to have some meaning, or opinion, or argument being made. It has to reveal something about the artist, or society, or the human condition. Shit like that. Just because something is cute and colorful and made by hand, doesn’t make it Art. And just because the cute thing has a little plastic spray can in it’s hand and a boombox, that doesn’t make it street art either. but I don’t really think about any of that when I make my crap. I’m guilty of all those cheap gimmicks I just criticized in the last sentence. But I don’t really care. I just do what I find interesting and what I think my customers will buy. Where it all fits in with the rest of the art world (if at all) is up to others. I’m just trying to make money expressing myself and this is what turned up by me doing that.
 
Also, it should be noted that I have absolutely no authority expressing any opinion about Street Art whatsoever as that I was kicked off of an Art Competition Reality show for making a terrible piece of Graffiti, so what do I know?
 
AFB: There seems to be a sense in which much of your work attempts to please (or to piss off) two masters: one “low brow” (mass art), the other “high brow” (fine art). I suspect the fine-art audience, unlike their “low brow” kin, far better equipped to appreciate the way in which you situate yourself both inside and outside the artworld (and so perhaps less inclined to attribute the churlish qualities of your art persona to you yourself) but also, unlike the “low brow” crowd”, ultimately unable or unwilling share let alone understand the reverence you have for certain pop culture ephemera. Do you find yourself playing more to one side than the other at this point in your career as opposed to when you started?
 
To what extent do you think the success or failure of your work falls along such a “low/high brow” division? For example, many of your works have themes that at first blush seem unrepentantly sexist (Another Bitch You Didn’t Get to Fuck) or  homophobic (The Gay Enterprise) but in fact are satirizing or mocking those very attitudes [something which should be clear to those with knowledge of the ridiculous anatomical caricature that is the female action figure or even a passing familiarity with the history of slash fiction and its Star Trek origins (Kirk/Spock)].
 
 
How does this low/high division play into the production side of your work? For example, you routinely use non-archivable material (fade-fast inks, scotch tape, cardboard, sharpie signature), which though no doubt in step with the bootleg spirit of your work also runs directly counter to the fine-art tradition of facilitating the work’s display.
THE SUCKLORD: I don’t really know for sure. At the end of the day, the only master I aim to serve is myself (and he’s an asshole). I suppose it is kind of a tricky balancing act to both mock and revere something in the same sentence, but it may be the one thing I am sometimes good at. Some people understand it instantly, other people just take one look and keep moving. What I think fewer people understand that all of the work is autobiographical in a way, and that I’m really mocking myself for liking these things. I suppose by extension I am also mocking whoever buys it for liking me mocking me mocking them.
 
For a long time I was decidedly against the so-called Art World and was quite content making a living outside of that system in the Toy Game. However, once you become some kind of legend in any creative field and reach the highest levels that that realm offers, there is nowhere to go but down. You begin to be restricted by your status. I lately feel hamstrung by my fans expectations, and I would happily tell them all to fuck off, but as of now they are still paying my bills, so I can’t do that.
 
Also, one can become arrogant and lazy (horrible combination) once they achieve some success and start phoning stuff in while at the same time raising prices, and I’ll tell you, that practice has some harsh and quick backlash, and you suddenly find yourself becoming the thing you were rebelling against in the first place. (At least it happened to me).
 
It’s also tough to try to make something shitty and cheap looking, while at the same time exercise a high level of quality control. That’s why I can never really find good assistants. All of this stuff is getting made under duress and financial pressure. Corners have to be cut in order to make stuff fast and cheap so it can be sold quick and I can pay my bills. But the right corners have to be cut, and nobody else can do it with the same touch. I’m not saying it’s a good touch, but it is one that I haven’t been able to teach to someone else. We have attempted outsourcing parts of this operation to other people, with mixed results. Some figure come back too good and clean, and therefore aren’t Suckadelic enough. Others come back really crappy and lack the Sucklord’s “feel.” People who care can tell the difference and won’t buy it. Also, others have chosen to label the work “Important” and catalog, preserve, and archive it. Which is nice, but it sometimes makes it difficult to create a sloppy, shitty piece of crappy “Fuck you” when you know somebody is insisting it be made with archival materials and wants it in a certain size so it fits into the custom plexiglass boxes they had made. I get lost sometimes. It might be fun to throw it all away and start over in another world as a nobody and see if I can avoid the same mistakes in a higher stakes game.
 
 
AFB: There is a somewhat impressive tradition of artists with extensive backgrounds in philosophy (Robert Motherwell, Phillip Glass, Ethan Cohen, David Foster Wallace, Errol Morris, Freeman Patterson) and of course, one of the most influential art critics of the last few decades, Arthur Danto (who died just a few months ago), was first and foremost a philosopher. Have you had much exposure to philosophy of art (or philosophy in general)? Do you think art and the ways in which we create, appreciate, and interact with it to be something worth theorizing about?
 
THE SUCKLORD: Sure, I have taken plenty of LSD and was a philosophy major for a minute. I love to hear myself talk about “Grand themes.” We smoke pot all day and try to understand and explain what is it that we do (That being myself and my collaborators and contemporaries.) I can’t speak for everybody, but personally I think the theorizing and pontificating is the funnest part. For me, all the work I make starts out as words and ideas, and takes the form later. I don’t think any of this shit is really about the thing itself, but rather the intangible place it comes from, which I suppose is the collective subconscious. Other people paint pretty pictures, and they do well for themselves. I’m chasing after something else. The fucked up part is that ideas are perfect, the things not so much. Whatever I pull down from the ether gets shitty as it takes crude physical form (Yoda has some wisdom on this) and it will all eventually fall apart. That’s just the way of things. It’s the nature of our bodies as vessels for the immortal soul. (I sound like a pretentious windbag) But the short of it is, for me, if you can’t get high and blab about what it means for hours and hours, then it’s probably not worth doing.
 
AFB: Finally, one of your exhibitions was titled You’re an Asshole for Buying This. As a philosopher of art who owns several of your works [including two signed The Gay Enterprise in a front/back shadow-box frame displayed behind anti-reflection conservation-grade UV protection museum quality glass], I was curious if you thought it takes a special kind of asshole not just to buy your work but also to philosophize about it. 
 
 
THE SUCKLORD: Sure, I suppose the work asks plenty of ultimately unanswerable questions, like for example “what the fuck is this guy’s problem?” I do have a lot to say and take great pleasure in saying it. It may not be important or relevant or intelligent in any way, but I have managed to surround myself with other like-minded cretins who love to get stoned and bandy about what the meaning of is is and how does that relate to Star Wars and porn. Someday it will all be collected into a book, which can be read in it’s entirety or used to bludgeon someone over the head with. Either way the results will be the same….


Leave a comment

Interview with Philosopher-Poet Troy Jollimore

 

Troy Jollimore is Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico. He is the author of Love’s Vision (Princeton University Press, 2011) and On Loyalty (Routledge, 2012) as well as over a dozen articles in journals including Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, and American Philosophical Quarterly. He is also the author of two collections of poetry: At Lake Scugog (2011) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 2006. He is a former External Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center and is a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Aesthetics for Birds recently featured an interview with poet and critic David Orr, author of Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. Much of David’s work as a critic aims at demystifying poetry for a modern audience. Of course, philosophical enquiry can be said likewise to aim at the demystification of its subject matter. Given your status as a philosopher-poet (a designation perhaps few other than yourself can genuinely pull off without seeming for all the world a Class-A poseur), in what ways have you found philosophy to help or to hinder the study, practice, or appreciation of poetry (whether in general or more specifically in terms of your own work)?


TROY JOLLIMORE: First, thank you for making it clear that you don’t consider me a Class-A poseur! I often feel the poetry and the philosophy are continuous, or are two aspects of the same thing. Think of Plato. The dialogues are great works of philosophy, and they are great poetic works. It’s only natural that a person who does one should do the other—it’s surprising there aren’t more of us—and the division into different departments is, I think, largely a matter of academic bureaucracy, though one that has become so deeply entrenched and institutionalized that it feels natural and inevitable, as if it were a feature not of the university but of the universe itself.

 


TJ: One thing I’m tempted to say, when someone asks this sort of question, is that both philosophy and poetry are ways of trying to get at the truth. But we should immediately qualify that, with respect to poetry, because of course not all poetry is trying to be accurate in any way, or trying to depict anything. Or rather, it depends largely on how flexible you’re willing to be, how much you’re willing to stretch concepts like truth, accuracy, etc. Some poems just want to sound good, they don’t aspire to have any discernible meaning at all, in the ordinary sense, let alone a descriptive meaning. Just as you could say, of a piece of instrumental music, that it is ‘right’ in some important sense, you could say that of such a poem, too. But I think that’s stretching the concepts too far. Whatever ‘right’ means there—and that’s already not really the right word—it doesn’t mean ‘true.’ So let’s allow that there are some poems that are good poems, but they aren’t good because they are accurate or true.
 
TJ: But it’s important to realize how many poems don’t work this way, or don’t work entirely this way. Any poem that is about more than just sound, pure music, has, I think, some concern with truth. Even a poem that at first looks like pure fiction, pure creation, something that is made up and is in no way an attempt to depict reality, even a lot of these turn out to be trying to be true, to get things right, at a deep level. For instance, if a poem is trying to describe a human experience, then it matters whether it gets that experience right. The incident it describes might never have happened, the characters might be imagined (even the speaker, if it’s a first person poem, can be largely imagined, and not identical with the author at all)-all of the factsof the poem might be fictional, but there is still a deep difference between a poem of this sort that captures experience accurately—the poem that can make you say, no inappropriately, “Ah, that’s so true”—and the poem of this sort that gets the experience wrong. (It gets trickier, of course, when a poem is not trying to describe an experience but rather to provoke or enact one.)
 
TJ: I think a great deal of poetry is of this sort, and that one of the things such poetry does is to help us understand our lives better, to understand the world better. That’s not the only thing it does, but of course understanding things better isn’t the only thing philosophy does either! Philosophy, like poetry, also gives pleasure, it entertains, it builds community, it provides solace. And both make the experience of living life richer, I think—partly (but again, perhaps not entirely) because they give you a better, deeper grasp of the world. The person who, faced with a certain situation, is able to respond poetically—perhaps because she literally recalls some lines from Rilke or Emily Dickinson or Jane Kenyon or whoever, or perhaps because, whether or not she recalls a particular line or image or metaphor, reading and thinking about poetry has taught her to think metaphorically and so has trained her perceptions to be richer and more resonant—is going to grasp that situation more deeply, and will get more out of it . She will see aspects of it that other can’t.
 
TJ: We need these various ways of trying to grasp the world—and we need others, too—because the world is incredibly complex, and pluralistic, and elusive. Some insights are more easily captured, articulated, grasped, or gestured toward in poetry’s language rather than philosophy’s language; for others, the contrary is true. And if this general picture is roughly right, then doing philosophy (whether that means reading it, writing it, carrying on dialogues about it, or whatever it might mean) is going to help you do poetry, and vice versa. It’s all part of the larger, quite encompassing process of developing your mind in a way that makes it more adequate to the world, capable of capturing or registering, and responding adequately to, more of what is going on in the world.

 



 

 

AFB: Poetry often strikes me as being an exceedingly (perhaps even an essentially) formal enterprise that unsurprisingly at times seems more closely aligned with the traditional visual arts (painting, sculpture) than its immediate literary kin (prose, essay, drama). Do you consider this a fair characterization? Within the well-worn Form vs. Content debate, do you think there is a stable center to be held between the purely phonaesthetic heights achieved by the apotheosis of “cellar door” and the depths plumbed by William McGonagal’s The Tay Bridge Disaster and the lesson it seeks to impart:
“For the stronger we our do houses build,
The less chance we have of being killed.”
 
TJ: That’s a great question. But I think I’d want to say that all of the literary forms you mention are highly formal, and highly conventional; it’s just that the conventions are more noticeable in poetry, because there they are further from the conventions we tend to use in daily conversation. Essays are written largely in the way we talk, except more articulately, better organized, etc., and with all the boring stuff left out; novels, too. Although that’s more complicated than it at first appears, isn’t it? It seems true of formal poetry: people don’t speak in sonnets or sestinas. And it seems true of the stuff at the other end, highly fragmented postmodern poetry, ‘Language’ poetry, etc. People don’t talk like that, either, unless they’re having a stroke or have ingested something. The formal stuff is more coherent than our everyday talk; the most postmodern stuff is more incoherent. But then there is the stuff in the middle: free verse that carries sustained thoughts, but allows for digressions or interruptions, and that doesn’t fit an established conventional form. That can be pretty close to the way we talk. If we transcribed our conversations, they might actually sound more like that sort of poetry than like a section from an essay or a novel.
 
TJ: As for the Form vs. Content debate—well, there’s so much to say here. If I could only say one thing I’d say: let a thousand flowers bloom. There’s no reason every poem has to do everything, so let poems be specialists. Some can be completely meaningless (in the stricter senses of ‘meaning’) and just sound beautiful; some can focus more on content than on form—though I think if you have no formal thought going on, no attention paid to the form, then what you have really isn’t a poem. In the McGonagal example, while there is form, there isn’t any interesting form: nothing new or creative is being done with it, it doesn’t even feel like he’s feeling it; and the words are assembled as they are only to preserve the rhythm and rhyme scheme. It’s a paint-by-numbers poem. But more than that, the content here is also dead: it’s an obvious idea. This isn’t so much a poem that valorizes content at the expense of form; it’s a hilariously bad poem that skimps both on content and on form. It has nothing to say, and it says it awkwardly and poorly.
 
TJ: A really good idea, a really new, perceptive insight, can carry a poem, can make it worth reading even if the poem’s formal characteristics aren’t all that special. But the ideal, of course, is to have a strong idea expressed through language that sounds both unexpected and inevitable, so that form and content are firing simultaneously on all cylinders. Few poems, few poets, ever achieve that. Yeats got there; a poem like “Sailing to Byzantium” or “The Second Coming” would perhaps be the ideal example of what I’m thinking of.
 
AFB: In your book Love’s Vision, you defend a view of love according to which love can be reason-guided without it thereby being legitimately subjected to rational evaluation. This view reminds me in spirit of the traditional conception of artistic creation (as distinct from that of mere craft) as involving some special (or divine) kind of activity that while surely reason-driven somehow lies just beyond rational scrutiny–i.e., art-making as a fundamentally inspirational rather than motivational enterprise. Do you think there is something to this distinction or is it merely yet another case of overly mystifying (and romanticizing) poetry specifically and art-making more generally? Do you find the creative process for your poetry substantially different than that for your philosophical work?

 

 

TJ: The one thing they both have in common, actually, is that they both rely so heavily on inspiration, and that because of that (and maybe for other reasons) I really don’t feel in either case like I know what I’m doing, or know how to do what it is that I do. That’s to say, they both feel like something not entirely under my control. I can sit down and write for an hour, hoping a strong poem, or the beginnings of one, will emerge, and it might be that nothing happens. Similarly, when I’m out of philosophical ideas I can’t just make myself have one. I know there are things I can do to make it more likely that a good poem, or good piece of philosophical writing, will happen, but it’s always a matter of probability; you can never guarantee it. Which is why I’m always nervous about accepting assignments, promising writing to people in advance of the actual inspiration, because the inspiration might not come. And it also means, of course, that you can’t choose what you write about. People ask me why I don’t write political poems, and it’s simply because when I try, they’re usually awful. The muse isn’t speaking to me there. Or, that muse isn’t speaking to me, if there are different muses.

 
TJ: There’s a reason why talk of ‘the muse,’ in one form or another, is always part of the discussion about poetry, and it comes from that lack of control. You’re not in control here because you can’t make this stuff happen, so of course it feels like it’s coming from outside. Really, it’s probably coming from another part of you. But then, what’s part of you, and what isn’t? That’s a deep philosophical question. Lately I’ve read a few references, here and there, to the fact – I don’t know if this is a recent discovery or just something that has recently become widely known beyond the scientific community – but apparently a very large proportion of the biological matter of our bodies is made of bacteria whose DNA is not human. Now, this is pretty interesting. And the way a lot of people seem to respond is to say, that stuff isn’t you; it turns out that a whole lot of that body isn’t you, because it isn’t human. But that isn’t my response at all. I want to ask, what’s so special about DNA? So there are parts of my body that don’t have human DNA – it still seems pretty obvious it’s my body in the relevant sense, so the right response is to say that I’m largely made of bacteria. As are you. It isn’t as if it’s an a prioritruth that we’re human. If your doctor ran some tests and said “My God, we’ve double- and triple-checked and it turns out that you aren’t biologically human, you’re a completely different species, biologically speaking,” she hasn’t said anything conceptually impossible. Her claim might well be true.
 
TJ: The point is that we have a very complex, slippery understanding of what we are and of where the boundaries are. So this talk about inspiration and the muse and so forth, which is a way of talking about inside and outside, is a deployment of a lot of metaphors to try to grasp or accommodate a complex phenomenon and answer, or if not to answer then to let us live comfortably with,  some highly difficult questions, like: when is my poem mine, and when is it not? What does it mean to put my name on it and call myself the author? When is an ideamine, and what does that mean? As for whether acknowledging the significance and necessity of inspiration is objectionably romanticizing or mystifying—well, I doubt it has to be. The questions themselves are mystifying. The very notion of a human agent-in-the-world doing any of the complex things human agents tend to do is kind of a romantic notion. I don’t see it as problematic unless the acknowledging of the mystifying nature of the questions becomes a form of deliberate mystification. We shouldn’t let the recognition of the fact that things are going on here that are profound and highly mysterious, or our attachment to certain ideas of human agency, become an excuse for not even trying to understand these things, or for accepting needlessly fuzzy thinking about them. There is no project more worthy of undertaking, I think, than the project of trying to understand persons and the things they do—including, but obviously enough not limited to, their artistic endeavors. Being too unromantic about it, or too anti-mystical—for instance, assuming simply as a matter of conceptual necessity that it all must reduce to something straightforwardly mechanistic, something that looks more or less like, say, Newtonian physics, particles knocking against one another in the void, that sort of thing—I think that can be as big a mistake as being overly romantic or mystical about it.
 
AFB: Just as love is often left out of the philosophical debates surrounding the emotions, poetry likewise receives little philosophical attention within the philosophy of literature [save extensive and excellent work on the subject by Anna Christina Ribeiro (Texas Tech)]. Perhaps the reason for this is that love stands in relation to those garden variety emotions for which cognitive activity plays a more central if not fundamental role in much the same way that poetry stands to those forms of literature for which issues of meaning, truth, and reference seem the central philosophical focus. What do you think philosophical enquiry into the emotions misses out on by leaving love out of the debate? Similarly, what contributions do you think increased philosophical attention to poetry might yield for philosophy of art and literature in general?
 
TJ: I’m happy to say that love is getting a lot of philosophical attention recently, which is certainly a departure from the tradition of the last century or so. What you think philosophy misses by ignoring love depends on your view of love. If you share Harry Frankfurt’s view that a person’s loving commitments have a strong influence in determining what they have reason to do—and I do share that view, though I disagree with him about a lot of the details of it—then you’ll think that we need to get smart about love in order to get clear about practical reasoning. If you think, as I do, that love is largely a cognitive matter, and a way of arriving at understandings of the world, then our picture of how belief, knowledge, and justification work is going to be incomplete, and probably pretty screwed up, if we misunderstand love. At any rate, I take love to be a strongly evaluative emotion (Frankfurt doesn’t, that’s a place where we disagree), and a lot of my philosophical work is concerned with questions of value, of what value is and how it works and how we can come to know it and make judgment about it. And questions of value—what kind of life is worth living, what’s worth our time, what’s good and what’s not so good, etc.—these are places where philosophical enquiry really makes contact with everyday interests and concerns. Who doesn’t care about those questions? Some people might manage to avoid thinking about those questions very much; they get into a rut. Maybe it’s a little bit like the rut analytic philosophy was in during the time when it didn’t think much about love. But really, these questions are significant for everyone, so if thinking about love can shed any light on them—and I think it can shed a lot—then it’s worth thinking about, too.
 
TJ: As for what increased philosophical attention to poetry might do—here I’m a bit more hesitant to make a prediction, largely because I think that the deepest value of pure enquiry, be it philosophical, scientific, or any other sort, is that you don’t know at the outset what you’re going to find. So many of the great discoveries, the things that have made our lives what they are, are side effects. This is something so many people today, especially in government or other forms of administration—university administration, certainly—don’t understand; they won’t give a green light to anything unless you can say up front what positive results you can confidently expect to produce. But the projects that let you confidently predict positive results are almost always less interesting, and less promising, than the ones where you really don’t know what you’re going to have at the end. Those are the projects that, in the long run, have always turned out to be most important. It’s a bit like writing a poem, or writing philosophy: it’s best not to know, at the beginning, what you’re doing, because your feeble intentions are almost guaranteed to aim at a target less interesting than the one that you might hit if start with something that feels inspired or exciting to you, and then just follow it wherever it leads you, putting aside your expectations and desires and your memories of how this has happened before or beliefs about how this is supposed to work. You might hit a target that, outset, you couldn’t even have imagined. That’s why intellectual integrity is so important in philosophy: you have to follow the reasoning where it goes, not make it go where you wanted it to go.
 
TJ: So who knows what philosophical attention to poetry will result in? Personally, even more than philosophers subjecting poetry as a genre to philosophical scrutiny, I just wish more philosophers would read particular poems. Human experience is a constantly moving target, it’s so difficult to think or talk about at all clearly, and there is so much human experienced captured and examined and enacted in this body of literature. I think philosophers could only benefit by paying more attention to it, as to any body of literature, or any neglected aspect of human life.
 



2 Comments

Interview with Musician Matt Kadane

Photo by Bob Andrews
 

Matt Kadane is a founding member of the bands Bedhead, The New Year, Overseas, and Consonant and played for five years with Silkworm. He is currently chair of the history department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and the author, most recently, of The Watchful Clothier (Yale UP, 2013).

 
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: The way in which most contemporary audiences engage with rock songs suggests that they regard lyrical content as something deeply personal and wholly subjective in its interpretation or alternatively something requiring nothing more than the most superficial of attention. [After all, what else might explain why so many wedding DJs un-ironically play Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” or “Every Breath You Take” by The Police and why Wendy’s and Pepsi Cola saw no problem setting adverts respectively to Violent Femme’s “Blister in the Sun” and “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones]. Do you think that your songs, insofar as you take them to mean or to be about something, mean or are about what you intended them to mean or to be about? In what ways, if any, might your training and work as a historian influence your position on whether song interpretation more or less concerns audience recovery of the artist’s intentions?
 
MATT KADANE: I don’t mind variety in interpretation even if I’m the one being interpreted, or misinterpreted, and so long as we’re not talking about major violence being done to intention.  I think, although maybe I’m kidding myself, that this is more or less consistent with how I operate as historian.  Some misunderstanding of intention can be productive, in all kinds of ways.  And it can be more useful, here speaking more as historian, to try to recover social reality by thinking about perception instead of intention. But speaking both as musician and historian I should also say that I think intention is important and worth recovering.  At a basic level, what an author or songwriter meant is part of the overall attempt to figure out the life history of a text or song, and it can offer important insights.  I also feel gratified when people can hear in a song something I invested in it.  What that ultimately counts for, I don’t know.  But it’s part of the equation, and being the beneficiary of an interpretation that lines up with my intentions probably contributes to the responsibility I feel I have as historian to take intentions seriously.


AFB: You worked with legendary producer Steve Albini more than once, first on Bedhead’s final album Transaction de Novo and again on The New Year’s debut album Newness Ends (both of which, by the way, are incredible). At what point, and to what extent, do you think music producers deserve authorship credit alongside those traditionally considered a song’s authors?


 

MK: Steve shuns the title of producer and identifies instead as an engineer, a word that in my experience accurately describes what he does in the studio. He sets up the equipment so bands can try to capture whatever sounds they’ve described to him, he helps to deal with various technical matters, and so on. He does all the stuff an engineer does, and he does it masterfully.  But it’s admittedly more complicated than that. Some of the routine technical things he does, his choices for mics and how to place them, the way he designed the rooms in his studio–a lot of things like that have contributed to the “Albini sound,” which people could already identify by the time we started to make records.  I remember back then saying–and this was a few years before we first met him–that we wanted our drums and guitars to sound like what we heard on a lot of records he had made.  And so we for example started using microphones—shitty version of microphones–that got us close to his sound. I guess it wasn’t his sound alone. We also loved the way those later Talk Talk records sound.  But the point is that we had already internalized what we thought of as the Steve Albini sound before we first recorded with him. And when that moment did come, we were sort using Steve as engineer to help us get a sound that he had helped to engineer in a larger artistic sense.

 
AFB: You and your brother, Bubba Kadane, composed the soundtrack to the documentary film Hell House (2001). Can you briefly describe the compositional process and how you thought it compared to that involved in standard songcraft. Did you find it more or less rewarding?


MK: I liked both writing music for Hell House and the back and forth we had with the director, George Ratliff. I feel compelled say to that we never intended to release that soundtrack as a standalone record. The record label associated with the DVD company that released the movie did that, and if we had our reservations we didn’t say no, although I’m not sure we actually could’ve said no, so maybe we just took the path of least resistance. The details are cloudy.  Anyway, had we known that there was a possibility for a soundtrack when we recorded the music for the various scenes of the movie, we would’ve spent much more time creating versions of those songs that could’ve stood up to a pure listening experience–we would’ve stretched out some of the songs, tried to make them more dynamic, whatever. As it is, all of the songs on the record are entirely customized to the scenes in the movie.  So I don’t know. I actually have some ambivalence about that soundtrack when it’s separate from the movie. But the movie itself was pure pleasure to work on. And if the right movie came along we’d be into doing something like that again.  Did I find it as rewarding as writing songs?  It was easier, but I guess not as rewarding.  Finishing and feeling good about a song is one of the most rewarding things I can imagine doing.
 
AFB: To what extent do you think a band’s label (at least in terms the creative or supportive atmosphere that comes along with it) matters aesthetically/artistically? For example, did you find that your own move from what some may describe as the more experimental Trance Syndicate (with Bedhead) to the harder, traditionally punk-oriented Touch and Go Records (with The New Year) had an effect on your work?
 
MK: I don’t associate much aesthetic coherence with labels today, not like I did with Factory Records or SST or probably a half dozen others.  At the same time, when we signed to Trance Syndicate we really didn’t sound like the bands on their roster, although I think our being on there encouraged other bands who vaguely sounded like us to be on there too.  I honestly never drew much of a separation between Trance and Touch and Go.  The entire time we were on Trance it was distributed by Touch and Go, and Touch and Go sort of felt like the mother ship.  We’d hang out there whenever we were in Chicago, and we were constantly in contact with a lot of people up there throughout the production process of the Bedhead records.  So when we started The New Year, which happened to be right around the time that Trance, sadly, shut down, Touch and Go was the only label we considered being on.  They actually rereleased all the Bedhead records at the same time that we put out Newness Ends.  So I guess from 2001 Bedhead was on Touch and Go.  Or I should say from 2001 to 2013. As of about a month ago, Bedhead is now on Numero Group, who will be doing a box set of all the Bedhead records plus some extra music and a book on the band.
 
AFB: Of course, you’d know better than I, but as far as I know, within your published body of musical work there are scant few cover songs—in fact, I can think of only two: a cover of Joy Division’s “Disorder” on Bedhead’s 1994 4 Song CDEP 19:10 and Cher’s “Believe” on the 2000 Bedhead Loved Macha’s Macha Loved Bedhead. Is there a reason for the absence of covers? What is your general attitude toward covering songs by other artists as well as other artists covering your songs (e.g., Adem’s 2008 album Takes includes a cover of “Bedside Table” from Bedhead’s 1996 album Beheaded)? What do you think makes something a “good” or “bad” cover? For instance, while your “Disorder” cover is rather faithful to the Joy Division original, your touch-tone telephone cover of “Believe” departs quite dramatically—not just sonically but both emotively and, pardon the pun, tonally as well—from Cher’s Grammy-winning, best-selling, heavily engineered, dance-pop hit of the late 1990s that helped usher in the Auto-Tune era of pop music. What was it about “Disorder” and “Believe” that lead you to more or less straightforward fidelity for the former but a comparatively radical departure for the latter?



MK: You’re right about us only having released two covers, although Bedhead also recorded the Strangler’s “Golden Brown.”  It was meant as a B-side for a European-only single that never came out, and it will actually now see the light of day as part of the box set I mentioned.  We also used to play a few covers live.  But they never worked with the sort of coherence we tried to give the LPs.  The two you mentioned were both on EPs and were mostly there to flesh things out.
 
MK: What makes a cover good or bad?  I don’t know if I have any general ideas.  The dude from Devo singing “I can’t get no satisfaction” makes me feel something.  Mick Jagger doesn’t.  Devo–and as much with the music as with the singing–did a better job of expressing the same idea.  They sound more convincingly unsatisfied.  But not all songs are built on ideas.  Some depend more on sound or treatment or a voice that you exclusively want to sing the words, and maybe those are the ones that it’s hard to better in a cover.  And then, I guess, some songs that are perfect in original form have the potential to be interpreted differently.  I love the Velvet Underground version of “She’s My Best Friend,” and when I first heard the Wedding Present do the same song, where David Gedge almost whispers the singing, my first thought was that that was (also) exactly how the song should be sung, as if it’s a secret that she, whoever she is, is the singer’s best friend.  The Wedding Present in general did great covers.  Listen to their version of “Cattle and Cane” for another example. The more I think about this, the more I realize other principles are at work. Some bands or songwriters were sort of made to be covered because what they originally put on tape needed elaboration. I wouldn’t choose to reach for either a Daniel Johnston record or a record of Daniel Johnston covers, but if I had no choice I’d go for the latter.
 
MK: The Disorder cover.  I’d never say our version is better than the original—because it’s not—but it was justified because of a minor idea about how to do something the original didn’t do.  If I’m remembering this right, I was playing around with the bass riff on guitar and played the transition to the chorus with a different chord, an inverted third. We thought that sounded good. It felt faithful to the spirit of the baseline in the original, but it also seemed to follow through with the logic of the idea of the bass as unanchored until the guitars and singing come in. So we worked up a more or less faithful cover with this and a few other slight changes.
 
AFB: Doubling back to the interpretation issue, I’ve always struggled with your “Believe” cover. I can take it as a viciously satirical and sardonic musical stab at the ridiculous over-production of the original; however, in some way I also want to take your having stripped the song down to its barest musical minimum to be principally in service to revealing and highlighting the achingly earnest and forlorn lyrical content. Any chance you might resolve this for me?
 
MK: “Believe” was Josh McKay’s [late of Macha and, more recently, Abandon the Earth Mission and Deerhunter] suggestion, and at first I wasn’t into it.  But we put the lyrics in the past tense, and at that point I felt like we were no longer doing a satirical version of the song.  This is giving us too much credit, but I feel like we rescued the song from Cher’s treatment.  We also used some auto-tuning, but there can be something kind of haunting about auto-tuning, or I should say that there once could be.  That effect is now a lost cause.  But back then, nearly 15 years ago, using some auto-tuning made the vocals sound suitably desperate, like a divorced middle-aged dude wearing an outfit made for a twenty-year-old as he sets out on his first attempt in three years to get laid.


2 Comments

Interview with Poet & Critic David Orr

 

David Orr is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review. His first book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, was named one of the twenty best books of 2011 by The Chicago Tribune.  Orr is the winner of the Nona Balakian Prize from the National Book Critics Circle and the Editor’s Prize for Reviewing from Poetry magazine.  His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, Poetry magazine, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer, among other publications. He holds a B.A. from Princeton and a J.D. from Yale Law School.
 


AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Much of your work as a poetry critic, especially in your fantastic recent book Beautiful and Pointless, seems to be devoted to demystifying poetry as an art form. Do you think it’s fair to say that at least in terms of issues such as accessibility and relevance (or the public’s perception thereof), modern poetry stands in a similar relation to the contemporary literary arts as conceptual or performance art stands to the contemporary visual arts: i.e., as an art form predominantly practiced and consumed by an insulated artworld elite? If so, what do you think might be contributing to this perception of contemporary poetry, especially in light of poetry’s storied tradition of being perceived as altogether otherwise?
 
DAVID ORR: About ten years ago, the critic A.O. Scott, who is generally sympathetic to poets, described American poetry as “a self-satisfied, self-perpetuating, and not especially welcoming museum world.” That sounds uncomfortably close to correct, with the exception of the word “museum.” Museums look backward by necessity, whereas contemporary poetry is often fixated on the New New Thing. In this sense, and many others, poetry is more like a small academic department. As you might know, poetry is now intimately (and perhaps irrevocably) tied to the American university system in a way that it wasn’t only fifty years ago. This is largely because of the development of creative writing departments, which made it possible – in theory, at least – for poets to make a living by talking about poetry. That relationship affects poets and poems in a number of way, some of them positive (a paycheck is always nice) and some of them unhelpful. Most obviously, the relationship can sometimes cause poets to struggle to imagine an audience that doesn’t consist almost exclusively of students and teachers.  


AFB: To what extent might exposure (or the increasing lack thereof) be playing a role in shaping public perception or poetry? Do you think any major stylistic, compositional, interpretive, or critical shifts within poetry itself might be playing some role as well? Is there something uniquely American afoot?
 
DAVID ORR: Well, to understand any art form, you need to understand the context in which moves are being made. So you either grow up absorbing that context almost unconsciously (as we do with television writing and pop music) or you acquire it somehow. The problem for American poets lies in the “somehow.” Poetry isn’t taught well in high schools for the most part, and while university instruction can be wonderful, it carries with it the price I mentioned in response to your first question. I do think many contemporary poets have worked hard to improve the situation, sometimes at the expense of their reputations among grad students and angry people on the internet. And yes, it’s certainly true that poetry occupies a smaller space in American culture than it does in, for instance, Russian culture. That’s always been the case with a couple of notable exceptions like Robert Frost, and it’s hard to know where to place the blame or credit for that.  
 
AFB: Many now consider some of John Donne’s poems so virulently misogynistic as to preclude any modern, morally progressive audience from receiving the same aesthetic pleasure so readily imparted to its less enlightened Elizabethan kin. Do you think that the fundamental aesthetic/artistic value or worth of a poem changes over time, specifically in relation to changes in audience background, preferences, taste levels, discriminative capacities, relevant attitudes, etc.? Or do you think that a poem’s value (at least qua poem) remains fixed but that a poem’s audience can change in certain ways that better facilitate the proper appreciation/engagement with the poem (and thereby better able to discern its value as such)?  
 
DAVID ORR: This is one of those chicken or the egg questions, isn’t it? Different groups of people feel differently about poems over time, so is the “problem” – if that’s the right word – with the poem or with the audience? Maybe a helpful way to think about this kind of question would be to imagine poems as being like (not the same as, but like) people. We seem different to other people depending on circumstances and across generations – and that’s okay. You or I could never know Lincoln the way someone in 1864 knew Lincoln, for example, but that’s far from saying we don’t have any understanding of Lincoln. I think that imagining poems this way helps us to avoid worrying about things like “fundamental value” – what’s the value of Lincoln, after all? It’s just not a frame that quite fits the picture.
 
That said, I do think we can make value judgments about technique, because technique is premised on historical conventions (which are the next-best thing to rules). So Swinburne, for instance, is a technical virtuoso. That’s a close to a fact as you can get in poetry. But being a technical virtuoso isn’t the same as being a great poet, which returns us again to the difficulty of trying to find a core/center of a poem that we could make an ahistorical judgment about.   
 
AFB: Many critics believe that criticism ought to function as a purely descriptive guide for the potential audiences of a work and that the critic, at least in her capacity as such, ought to avoid making any interpretive or evaluative claims about the work. On this view, just as the function of a map is simply to provide the traveler with the relevant topographical description of the area (so as to facilitate navigation through that area) so too is the job of the critic to describe a work and its features so as to facilitate audience interpretation/evaluation of that work—just as making evaluative claims about that topography (rolling hills, tranquil rivers, dead-end towns, poorly designed interstates, etc.) lies well outside a map’s purview, so too does making such claims about a poem or its features (elegantly composed, the cacophonous alliteration, a thematic dead-end, its crass appeal to an even crasser sentimentality). Some critics, however, think evaluative claims not just an important part of criticism but thoroughly essential to its purpose. As a critic, where do you see yourself as falling on the evaluative dimension of criticism and to what extent might your experiences as a poet contribute to that?
 
DAVID ORR: Oh, I’m all for evaluation! And that’s for two reasons. The first is that I’m not sure it’s possible to be “purely descriptive” when talking about a contemporary poem – that is, unless you’re simply going to repeat the thing. As soon as you start making remarks like “In the first two lines, we find X,” you’ve already gone partway down the road of evaluation, because you and your audience will have some response to X that triggers the machinery of opinion. (Mapmaking may not be so far removed from this, actually, since deciding how to represent, say, disputed boundaries could be construed as evaluative.) So if you have to go partway, you may as well go all the way. And that relates to my second reason for favoring evaluative claims, which is that I think people give such claims far too much weight by refusing to make them. No critical proclamation has yet killed a good poem to my knowledge. Acting as if that could somehow be the case gives far too little credit to poets and poems, both of which have historically demonstrated levels of durability that would impress a cockroach.  
 
AFB: Through my Irish Language study I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to the works of Irish Language poets Cathal Ó Searcaigh and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, the latter of whom wrote a wonderful poem detailing his disdain for English-language translation of his poetry. 
 
Amanna, Éiríonn tú tuirseach
de chluasa falsa Éireannacha.
Féin-sásamh an monoglot a deir leat—
“It sounds lovely. I wish I had the Irish.
Don’t you do translations?”
 
—Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, “Aistriúcháin” (1997)
 
Given poetry’s uncompromising stylistic spirit along with the vagaries, subtleties, complexities, and idiosyncrasies of the particular language in which a poem is written (dialect, patois)—not to mention the particular manner in which that poem itself is written in that language (idiolect)—one might think translation in poetry becomes less about whether or not that the poem survives intact and more about whether or not the battered corpse that inevitably comes out the other side bears enough of a passing resemblance to the original to warrant an open-casket service. What are you experiences with translation, both as a poet and as a critic? 
 
DAVID ORR: This is always an interesting subject. It’s particularly interesting to me, since I speak only English, yet have somehow been assigned to review multiple books in translation over the years. (Surely this is because of my worldly demeanor?) My feeling is that a poem is inevitably going to change species when translated. By this, I mean that the act of translation does something to (or with) a poem that is different in kind from what happens when we read a poem out loud versus silently, or when we change the typeface to 24 point comic sans, and so forth. A translation turns an alligator into an animal that is vaguely alligator-shaped, but definitely not an alligator. What is especially odd about translation is that the alligator-shaped animal is then judged by two different audiences. The first knows the original poem, and will be looking for suitably alligator-ish behavior, while the second has no idea what the original poem is like, and would happily be entertained by a zebra or a marmoset. And then there is the additional question – and apologies as I belabor this metaphor – of whether certain types of animals lend themselves more easily to the business of imperfect replication.