Tag Archives: Greil Marcus

The Assault on Culture

On re-reading Stewart Homes The Assault on Culture (Aporia Press & Unpopular Books, 1988, London).

Maybe I should have been reading Grail Marcus Lipstick Traces instead as it is better written and covers the same trajectory as Homes does in The Assault on Culture. Homes follows the history of the various post-war utopian art movements: Cobra, Lettriste, College du Pataphysics, Nuclear Art, the International Movement for the Imaginist Bauhaus, Situationists, Fluxus, Auto-Destructiove Art, Dutch Provos, Kommune 1, Motherfuckers, Yippies, White Panthers, Mail Art, Punk, Neoism, up to Class War in 1985.

Situationalist slogan stenciled in Melbourne, 2010

Homes published his shorter book a year before Marcus – it is shorter and physically lighter than Marcus’s tome. There are other physical differences between the two books – there are no illustrations in Homes, no soundtrack CD – just a densely written history.

Homes declares in the preface that he is writing for the insiders first and others second – Marcus is clearly writing for the others. Also in the preface Homes scorns Andre Breton’s interest in mysticism and magic whereas Marcus brings magic, heretics and, even, God into his preface. Although Homes can’t ignore the historical connections with Lollards and Anabaptists, he didn’t have to worry, the tradition can be traced further back to the completely non-mystical Cynics of Ancient Greece – Diogenes pissing and throwing plucked chickens like the punks – so we don’t have bring religion or magic into it.

Homes might be able to ignore the mysticism but he couldn’t ignore the music and it is the music that provided a focus for Marcus. The music of the Sex Pistols is the beginning and the end for Marcus. So Marcus leaves out Neoism, Mail Art, Fluxus and other groups.

This history could be continued with groups like Negativeland, Survival Research Labs and the Church of the SubGenius and the street art movement. Home’s careful distinction between groups and movements becomes clearer with these examples; Negativeland is clearly a group with a few members whereas street art is a movement with thousands of participating artists.

Paris, Melbourne

Why include street art with these utopian political art practices? It is a hard case to prove, as there are thousands of disparate artists involved with no leaders writing street art manifesto to quote but the trace elements (to use Marcus’s metaphor) are there. From the Letterist International street art has the love of letters and the continuation of an urban exploration and reinvention. The linage between political stencils and street art stencils is clear from Crass and other punk bands. And some street art is an opposition to the contemporary gallery art.

“Down with the abstract, long live the ephemeral” – a Situationalist slogan from 1968 that could be the slogan of street art.

Phoenix, Less Ephemeral More Ephemeral, Melbourne


Street Art & Anarchy

“Anarchy is chaos. Chaos is the principle of continual creation. And Chaos never died.” Hakim Bey, 1987

Various artists, Hosier Lane

The streets are chaotic image of the mass of humans and a few other animals that manage to survive in such a hostile environment. The idea of a well-ordered tidy street is the image of a dystopic totalitarian state; disguising them as a garden city or behind historic facades only hides the fact. There are always back alleys, service lanes, the backs of signs; and as the philosopher, Max Stirner points out kids love getting behind things and seeing their backsides. The street is a media that the authorities cannot censor; it can never be controlled completely, stickers, dead drops and all kinds of uncontrolled communication (see my posts on Political Graffiti and Graffiti in WWII).

Graffiti gives courage to those who agree with the opinions that they are not alone while demonstrating to the authorities that their view is not universally accepted. Graffiti is about non-violent propaganda by deed, as much as, it is propaganda images and propaganda is so much more effective with cool images. As Sydney street artist Jumbo said: “sometimes the message is just in the action.” (“Vandals or Vanguards?” at RMIT 26/9/11) Graffiti, like the punk bands, says if they can do that then what can I do?

Maybe I should write an addendum about graffiti to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (Penguin,1989). Marcus brilliantly traces an element of anarchy from medieval Anabaptists through the Dadaists, the Situationalists and on to the punks. But do we really need the repetition of Situationalist slogans almost half a century after they were first written on the streets of Paris? Do we even need another slogan or a manifesto or Hakim Bey’s invocations to poetic terrorism to spell out what is written on the wall? Do we need to spell it out blockbuster style or is it enough to bring beauty to an abandoned place?

Situationalist slogan stenciled in Melbourne, 2010

“Culture and the state – one should not deceive oneself over this – are antagonists: the ‘cultural state’ is merely a modern idea. The one lives off the other, the one thrives at the expense of the other.” Nietzche, Twilight of the Idols

From the deliberate actions of culture-jammers and slogan writers, to the basic anti-police and anti-authoritarian attitude of all graffiti writers, graffiti is political. And graffiti is political because it is repressed, because the government attempts to control chaos. For if you act like someone is your enemy then they will become your enemy.

There is a lot of hostility to street art because it is chaos (I choose to embrace the chaos). I catch the train and there is a wanted poster for some guy for doing a tag. There is a flier in my letterbox from a politician boasting about how they cleaned up a small patch of graffiti and replaced it with clunky but colourful painting by school children. The approval of a politician makes the illegal legitimate. It is hard to write about Melbourne’s street art without talking about the influence of the law; what is a legal piece and what is not, the council’s rules and where they are ignored, overlooked or unenforceable. For an opposing view on “Graffiti and Anarchy” read Tom McLaughlin’s blog. In response to Tom teenage boys drawing phalli are part of the anarchy and chaos of human life and I would only criticize the culture where this is the best that teenage boys can graffiti.

There are plenty of self-aware anarchists doing street art in Melbourne but flying the flag for anarchy is rarely a very useful activity. Walking through Melbourne I was handed a flier in the street by veteran anarchist, Dr. Joseph Toscano calling for a new people’s bank. It was a very old school demonstration out the front of a corporate headquarters that had ripped off some small time investors. Toscano talking with a megaphone to small a group of people, other people were handing out leaflets. It made the evening news that night.

I’ve said enough for now – I welcome your thoughts on anarchy and graffiti.


Strange Streets Indeed

Guerrilla gardening, urban interventions, performance graffiti: many of these wild and freaky ideas that are only now being realized on the street have been around since the Yippies and Mail Art in the 1960s, probably even earlier. Maybe these ideas have been floating around in an idealistic haze of the adolescent Dadaists a hundred years ago. And finally the praxis is possible for these strange utopic ideas; they are practical. These ideas never really worked before because of the limits of communications; underground magazines were underground. Only Fluxus had the celebrity names and the cheap communications, courtesy of the US military mail; until the internet came along, again, courtesy of the US military. Not to get all internet utopian about it but the impact can’t be ignored, see my post about “Street Art and the Internet”.

Nick Iltons "Suggestion Box" 2010 with peace sign

And if it didn’t start in the 1960s it happened soon after. Liz Christ and the Green Guerrilla group in NYC started guerrilla gardening and “seed bombing” in 1973. This was just a year after the first graffiti exhibition in NYC by the United Graffiti Artist group. (Maybe street art should be called “guerrilla decorating”.) The Wikipedia entry on “urban interventions” cites The Diggers theatre of San Francisco and the Dutch Provo movement as precursors. The Digger’s Free Store on Page Street, San Francisco, had a sidewall covered in frames called “Free Frame of Reference” The Dutch Provo movement were notorious for their happenings and white propaganda.

Amongst the many stranger street art activities currently in Melbourne there is Bados Earthling who calls his work “performance graffiti”. His character, a man from the future allows him to comment with confusion about the kind of activities that humans are currently engaged in. As Bados explains: “I’m like a child seeing something for the first time, with a million questions.” (See Invurt’s inteview with Bados.) Bados Earthling’s speech balloon blackboard creates a visual communication that the audience can participate and interact with.

Bados Earthling @ BSG Sweet Streets 2010

There are lots of these ideas floating around the collective consciousness like the spores of mushrooms just waiting for exactly the right conditions to germinate and fruit. “The question of ancestry in culture is spurious. Every new manifestation in culture rewrites the past, changes old maudits into new heroes…” Greil Marcus wrote in Lipstick Traces (p.21) and like Marcus I’m looking at the traces, the tiny amount that remains indicating the former presence of a thing. This is just an outline. It is an attempt to find or hunt down something.

And there are still stranger ideas that I have yet to trace amongst the drivel that various people from the 60s wrote (re-reading parts of Richard Neville’s Playpower has not been enlightening). What traces can we find in the past that explains present street art? And what new and strange will we next see on the street?


DADA on CD

It is hard to understand the totality of Dada, or most other art movements, simply by looking at a few paintings and other objects that survive as relics in museums or repeatedly illustrated in art history books. Maybe, if we had video of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s performances on his double-necked lute we might think of art, or Jimmie Page, differently. Dada was a total art movement, poetry, visual arts, performance, because as they wanted to totally transform Europe’s war crazed culture. Of the Dada performances on a few photographs and some audio recording survive. Kurt Schwitters would occasionally release 78-rpm records with his Merz magazine (a pioneering feature that has continued with magazines releasing CDs). These audio recording and others have now been compiled and re-released on various CDs and these recordings add a new depth to our understanding of Dada as well as few laughs and truly beautiful moments.

Dada > Antidada > Merz (Sub Rosa, edited by Marc Dachy) has recordings by Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann. Hausmann’s imaginary interview with the Lettristes is like an extreme part of The Goon Show and is very funny even to people who know nothing of the Dadaists. However, this is mostly a CD of hardcore Dada poetry for the fans.

Futurism & Dada Reviewed (Sub Rosa, 1988, edited and produced by James Neiss) is more of a sampler. It includes recordings by Richard Huelsenbeck and Schwitters. There is also a beautiful performance of Marcel Duchamp’s “Erratum Musicale” (curiously listed as “La Mariee Mise a Nu…Meme”) by Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz. Trio Exvoco recreates Tzara, Janco and Huelsenbeck’s simultaneous poem “L’Amiral cherche une maison a louer”.

Schwitters’s sound poem “Die Sonata in Urlauten”, recorded on the 5th of May in 1932, is featured on both CDs (it is listed as ‘ursonate’ on ‘Dada > Antidada > Merz’) and is an outstanding piece of nonsense. It was composed around the sounds of letters that Schwitters recited with precision and a beautiful voice.

Futurism & Dada Reviewed also has a sample of recordings from the period, as well as the Dadaists, there are recordings of the Futurists using Luigi Russolo’s noise machines. Russolo’s mechanical proto-synthesizers were able to produce a great variety of rumbles, howls and other noises. And, there is more, Guillaume Apollinaire reciting poetry, Wyndham Lewis, the British Vorticist almost rapping and Jean Cocteau playing in his jazz band for two tracks. This amusing CD ends with the sound of a record needle on an old 78.

Lipstick Traces (Rough Trade, 1993, edited by Greil Marcus) is the soundtrack to Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) by Greil Marcus. The CD was released separately to the book and contains a very wide variety of tracks from Dadaists, punks, Guy Debord and other Situationalists. It also includes the remarkable recording of Marie Osmond (yes, the one from The Osmonds) reciting Schwitters’s sound poem ‘Karawane’ that has to be heard to be believed. It is essential listening for the book and aurally demonstrates Greil Marcus argument that there are trace influences between the Dadaists and the punks, particularly in the use of glosslalia-like speech and other non-lexical vocables.

There is no evidence that the sounds of Schwitters and Hausmann directly influence the nonsense sounds of Spike Milligan but it sounds like it. More directly, Brian Eno samples Schwitters in a track on Before and after Science (EG Records, 1977), appropriately titled ‘Kurt’s Rejoinder’. Indirectly Dada has influenced so much of contemporary music from Merzbau to Cabaret Voltaire.


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