What's In a Name?

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The mainstream art world is a world that exists so detached from everyday reality it is sometimes beyond comprehension. It is a world of strange rules, extreme pretence and six-figure-sums; a world populated and dominated by a small clique of elites who socialize in members only clubs where even the cheapest bottle of wine costs more than the wage most people earn in a week.

To peer behind the curtains of this mad world is to stare in the bare face of crude wealth and pure delusion, as the debates surrounding an alleged Andy Warhol ‘fake’ earlier this week have once again illustrated.

The likeness of the silk-screened Warhol self-portrait at the centre of the present controversy is not in dispute -- the argument is rather whether Warhol himself ‘approved’ the print or not. Many of his prints were mass produced, sometimes by people and sometimes by machines; Warhol’s job was simply to ‘approve’ their quality and with a swift signature, just like magic, the price would rocket.

And rocket they would. The self-portrait in question, if judged to be genuine would be worth $2 million dollars – fake it is worth next to nothing. Art, when treated in such a way, is reduced to nothing other than branding; becoming less about aesthetic value or any emotive worth than about the signature that appears in the corner.

A genuine Warhol is thus the Jimmy Choo shoe of the Art world, only unlike the Primark version of the designer shoe, there is actually zero difference between the fake and the genuine Warhol print – both were mass produced with only the profit motive in mind.

But the senseless mass production of Warhol’s work is a non-issue to status hungry millionaires, to whom a certified genuine Warhol artwork is nothing short of the holy-grail. Indeed, the star-crossed elites who glide like snakes across the smooth floors of the Sotheby’s auction house any given afternoon seem blind to the lunacy of their frenzied consumption of anything tagged with a famous name, as was so brazenly obvious when one ‘connoisseur’ in 2006 paid $250,000 dollars for a Banksy titled: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”

Certainly, in the midst of economic crisis, and when the average wage remains £24,000, it is baffling to enter into the realms of the art world – a world where we can witness the crazed behaviour of individuals who will pay £7.8 million for a painting of a cow’s carcass, and who will furiously debate whether or not a Warhol print is mass produced and real ($2m) or mass produced and fake ($0) as if it actually matters.

There’s no doubt about it: it would be better if the curtains stayed closed.

A version of this article appears at: http://www.theskinny.co.uk/blog/2-the-skinny-blog/343-a-skinny-take-whats-in-a-name

The Afterlife of Kurt Cobain

Friday, 25 September 2009

When Kurt Cobain felt the cold steel barrel of his shotgun rest against his lips in the fateful moments before he said goodbye to the world, one wonders what his final thoughts were. The pressures of life as a famous rock star were certainly on his mind; his small-town, punk-rock background did not sit well with fame and fortune; and it would be an understatement to say that he had become chronically disillusioned and depressed by the cynical business side of the music industry. His suicide note provides us with an insight: “I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage” he scribed, presumably minutes before his death. The life, it seems, had been sucked from him long before he died – he felt like a stooge, a parody of himself – he may have pulled the trigger, but the industry handed him the gun.

The latest chapter of Cobain’s legacy has in recent weeks taken yet another controversial turn – he has been resurrected to feature in Guitar Hero 5, where players can not only use Cobain’s character to jam a couple of Nirvana classics, but in a cruel and perverse twist can also use his figure to play along to a range of cheesy rock hits, such as You Give Love a Bad Name by Bon Jovi. Cobain must be spinning in his grave (well, he would be if he hadn’t been cremated).

Should we be at all surprised by Cobain’s posthumous exploitation? After all, it’s no secret that dead celebrities are big business – since Tupac Shakur died in 1996, he has released five ‘new’ albums; Elvis still manages to chart on a yearly basis; and John Lennon still generates an estimated £12.7m per year. The difference though is that Lennon, Elvis and Tupac were all comfortable with the fame and the money; each of these artists were heavily ‘branded’ during their lifetimes and in fact were among the first to truly embrace the commodification of the artist as celebrity in the modern sense.

In contrast, Cobain hated the notion of ‘celebrity’ and rejected his own fame. He killed himself in large part because he couldn’t handle the commercialization of himself and his band – therefore surely it is unethical and immoral for this man’s image not only to be used to sell a computer game, but for that same image to be used to perform the kind of stadium rock anthems and power-ballads that Cobain himself, whilst alive, rallied against.

Unfortunately for Cobain though, the second his heart stopped beating was the same second his legacy and his ‘image’ shifted from his hands into the hands of another. The individual who now controls how he is sold to the world – his widow, Courtney Love – is an individual who never shared his principles; Love’s actions have repeatedly illustrated the stark contrast between her and her husband – she is not reclusive, fame shy, or anti-corporate.

If anything else, Love is a shrewd business woman. Cobain’s estate has in recent years generated in excess of £30m p.a; more even than Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Marley or Johnny Cash – and this is all down to her. In 2002 she sold his private journals to a publishing house for £2.8 million, in 2006 she sold 25% of her stake in Nirvana’s back catalogue for £29 million, in 2008 she allowed Converse to manufacture a special edition Cobain Shoe complete with scrawlings from his journals all over them and now, in 2009, she has sold his image to the Activision group allowing him to appear in Guitar Hero, causing a backlash from fans and his former band mates alike.

Love is currently protesting that she didn’t authorize Cobain’s image to be exploited in such a way by the game’s makers – whilst the makers deny this and say she did. Perhaps it’s taken this long for Love to discover what Cobain knew all along; as he told a friend only a year before his death: “be careful with the system, they’ll swallow you up and spit you out like a maraschino cherry pit.”

Jacques Mesrine and the Tragic-Hero Narrative

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Jacques Mesrine died on November 2nd 1979 aged 43. His relatively short but action packed life came to an end on a cold Saturday morning when 19 police bullets passed through the windscreen of his car.

Mesrine’s story, little known outside of France, has recently made it onto the big screen in the form of a gangster flick of sorts; split into two parts – Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1 – and directed by Jean-François Richet, the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of the man some describe as the ‘French Godfather’, who gained notoriety throughout the sixties and seventies for a series of audacious bank robberies, kidnappings, and jailbreaks.

Mesrine (played in the film by Vincent Cassel) exudes charisma, and despite his temper and occasional outbursts of brutish violence, is ultimately endearing to the audience in a Travis Bickle-esque way. Mesrine is a classic tragic-hero, a troubled outlaw who becomes obsessed with his own celebrity. Crossing somewhere between Charles Bronson and John Dillinger, he is a hybrid criminal spawned from the contradictions of capitalist modernity; a materialist but a non-conformist, a father but a murderer, a lover but also a hater – Mesrine thrives upon these contradictions as much as he does on his infamy as both a public enemy and a public hero. Mesrine is Robin Hood transposed from the forest to the city.

Like the tale of Robin Hood, Mesrine’s story is also characterized by an air of romance between the public and the protagonist; the way in which we romanticize criminal behavior in this context reflecting a subversive impulse that has been illustrated time and time again by the resonance and popularity of the anti-hero narrative – from Bonnie and Clyde to Ronnie Biggs – and with Mesrine things are no different. He is likeable because he taunts and attacks the things most of us quietly disdain; authority, banks, millionaire landlords – and in his righteousness we rejoice; as he derides the corruption of the prison system when in court, mocking the judges clothing before remarking in defense of his bank robberies that he “may be a robber,” but is only a “small robber, robbing a bigger one.”

Behind the romance though, behind Mesrine’s heroic yet brutish façade lies the tragedy that he is essentially a lost soul whose fate has long since spun from his grasp on an unstoppable, fast moving downward spiral towards his inevitable, premature death. Whether the character is Clyde Barlow, Sonny Wortzik, Scarface or even Macbeth the death of the tragic-hero is always somewhat poetic and similarly cathartic – and again Mesrine is no different, his death inflicted by policemen who rain a storm of bullets down upon him, finally managing to avenge their nemesis, their tormentor.

For the audience, Mesrine’s death is deflating because his lifeless body signifies that the excitement is over – no more bank robberies, no more standing up to ‘the man’ – it’s back to the daily grind, to the uninterrupted routines; life without the tragic-hero is safer, but boring. And it is for exactly this reason that we choose to adorn the likes of Mesrine with our subverted romanticism, for it is not necessarily the actions per se that we romanticize, rather what the actions themselves symbolize: defiance, rebellion and the exhilaration that is offered by both of these things from the escapist confines of the four cinema walls. For the duration of the film, we too get to experience the adrenaline rush upon which the outlaw thrives; only unlike him, we get to leave alive and free.

R.J. Gallagher – 01.09.09.