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buryin mary

dc is my home town, as you may know, and i grew up there during the emergence of the formerly alive marion barry. i recall him even as a young pseudo-blackpower leader. i wish i could say something other than that marion barry was a charlatan, a buffoon, and an embarrassment. i really do think that for a good 70% of the men who rose to political power during the golden era of patriarchy, poontang and blow were the basic motivations for public service, so he was not alone. and i can forgive someone for being an addict; i do it all the time.

but what i won't forgive marion barry for is coming out of rehab, using the rhetoric of recovery as a way into the terrible problems of dc in, say, the early 90s, and just continuing with the crank and trim all the while. once it became clear that this was the situation, it also became clear that this was about the grossest imaginable reflection on barry the person and on my native city: in my world, that recovery thing is sacred, and dc as a whole was in a terrible addiction spiral from the early-70s heroin epidemic to being one of the world centers of crack and hence murder in the barry administration and beyond. for so many people, that recovery thing was obviously life and death on any given day. and yet barry just fed it into his hypocrisy machine and rode it back to some semblance of political power. he really was a metaphor for dc like that, in every dimension from congressional and cabinet to back-alley ghetto: the seething corruption within, baby.


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#NaBloPoMo 2014: Day 23: Creativity Blocks – part 2

Everyone seems to have their own unique approach to getting through a creativity block. Yesterday and today, I have been sharing some of the ways that I have dealt with my own creativity blocks over the years.

#NaBloPoMo 2014: Day 22: Creativity Blocks – part 1

What do you do when you are experiencing Writer's Block or a similar creativity block?

cheese it, the cops! 2014-11-22 04:19:32

American High Renaissance  

By Crispin Sartwell

    My Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael are Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, and Biggie Smalls.

   Certain periods of art history seem unaccountably potent. For example, the Italian High Renaissance is represented as an almost momentary perfection, a sublime height of human aesthetic expression. Indeed, perhaps on certain accounts, art has been in decline ever since, or at least has rarely or never reached such heights again.

    I think that we have lived and are living through a similar period, and I propose that American popular music of the twentieth century was an artistic high point comparable to the sixteenth century in Italy, or the classical age of Greece. No, I am not kidding.

     Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Thomas Dorsey, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Public Enemy, the Ramones, Lucinda Williams, Eminem: these are artists as great, in my view, as the High Renaissance masters or classical Greek sculptors, and it would surprise me if there was a comparable set of musical achievements anywhere in the world at any time.

   This tradition, it seems to me, has produced things as beautiful, as moving, as intense, as intelligent, and as challenging as the painting and sculpture of the Italian High Renaissance, and things with far more effect on far more people around the world.

     If these claims appear absurd, it's probably partly because of the suspicion, at the high end of the art world, of popular or commercial art, art with a mass audience. None of the artists mentioned above were trained at Julliard or spent the summers of their youth at Tanglewood. The way people experience this music is to go out dancing or buy records or listen to the radio. But surely few people, on reflection, would assert that the greater the number of people who like something, the worse it is.

    Indeed, American popular music is, more or less, the world's popular music. There is no corner of the planet it hasn't penetrated, no culture whose music is unaffected by it. This, I think, is because of its great power: its emotional immediacy, its relentless formal and technological development, the way it helps bodies move or demands that they move.

    Now the fine/popular art distinction is problematic in a thousand ways, but as Pierre Bourdieu among others has asserted, one of its problems is class: fine art as the art of rich people and those who aspire to that status, as opposed to the popular arts of the commoners. One approaches high or fine art seriously, but one approaches popular music in order to be entertained. The idea that people take pleasure in it and so want to buy it, itself seems to undermine its aesthetic quality.

      All this is irrelevant snobbery, and the notion that Bartok is more formally challenging than Ellington is unsustainable. And indeed, the art music of the twentieth century, even with its tiny audience of culture mavens, is inconceivable without jazz, which started to be incorporated into 'classical' music almost at the moment jazz recordings appeared.

      The classical music tradition has been marked by people sitting politely and trying not cough while large groups of musicians read sheet music and play it as written. Louis Armstrong never played the same solo twice, and the formal innovations he instituted were made on the fly, in response to the audience and the other musicians. The risk of this approach is higher - you make mistakes. But the rewards are higher too: sudden flashes of unaccountable genius perfectly suited to their musical and social contexts.

     Listen to the early cadenza on "West End Blues" or the cornet solo on "Chimes Blues": perfect compositions that can only emerge at the right instant. One might say the same of Jimi Hendrix on "Little Wing", for example. The entire high art musical tradition, I believe, can show nothing comparable, nothing as compelling, nothing as connected to human happiness or to the truth.

     You might think the music of Alan Jackson or Kacey Musgraves is just hicks playing cornpone. But it has told and still tells real stories about real people. I am going to assume that even art snobs occasionally experience things like lost love or addiction. I don't think there's any reason that great art should avoid the human condition or fail to express emotion, and I don't think the fact that a piece of music is aimed at non-rich southern white people itself shows that it is not aesthetically excellent. If you think so, you need to re-think your attitudes toward art and human beings from the bottom up.

     Of course, popular music is connected to capitalism, and this itself appears to disqualify it among art snobs, who strongly prefer their art to be funded by the state or approved by the Pew foundation. (Perhaps they should reflect on the relation of the sgovernment and the foundation themselves to capitalism, to begin with.) But the fact that Run DMC and Patsy Cline were trying to sell records meant that they were in constant dialogue with their people: they both tried to give the record-buyer or concert-goer what they wanted, and to show them what they might want next.

     And the fact that popular music has had a huge audience has also made it an incomparable cultural index. There are few clearer windows, for example, onto race, gender, class, and sexuality. If Tammy Wynette sang "Stand By Your Man" and Loretta Lynn "The Pill" almost simultaneously, they showed the lives and values of women in transition. You could take Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" or Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" as ways into the American racial situation, and as among the most powerful statements by black people of what this has been like. And remarkably, precisely because these are works of mass art, the songs communicate the experiences across the lines that divide us.

     The music that helps create cohesion among sub-cultures also communicates these cultures, potentially, to anyone. And the whole thing leads to a thousand problematic and liberating personal and artistic crossings: white folks slumming in Harlem to see Fletcher Henderson; hip hop's production of wiggers; Benny Goodman's work with Charlie Christian or Billie Holiday; Elvis Presley's synthesis of hillbilly and jump blues; Mahalia Jackson performing at a peace rally; Eminem's long collaboration with Dr. Dre.

   Popular music has been central to liberation movements, and all over the world, musicians from oppressed groups are still taking Public Enemy as a model. Probably the greatest achievement of the century in this dimension is the music Bob Marley, and in general one of the few rivals to American music in the late twentieth century was the music of Jamaica. But Marley would be the first to tell you that there's no Jamaican pop without American rhythm and blues. And the Jamaican ska, rock steady, and reggae styles have been feeding back into American pop since perhaps 1970.

    The British had a pretty good pop run, but if you think you could get anything like the Beatles or the Stones without American rhythm and blues, you might talk to the surviving members of those groups. Both started out as blues and soul buffs and cover bands. The Beatles would not have existed at all without people like Smokey Robinson and the Isley Brothers.

     But there's no need to get captured by musical nationalism, and we should recognize everyone's achievements as far as we can. What I will insist on is that art history has produced few objects in any medium as moving in every sense, or as true, or as transformational in as many dimensions as "I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow", "Hellhound on My Trail", "Folsom Prison Blues", Biggie's "Suicidal Thoughts", "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", "Body and Soul", "Great Balls of Fire", "Sweet Old World".

    In short, American popular music has been central to social identities, connected to real people's real lives, an agent of personal and societal transformation, and an incomparable source of collective and individual expression and pleasure. The world had never seen its like before, and I'm not sure it ever will again.

    Perhaps the American High Renaissance is over, or has transitioned into a new Mannerism or an international, postmodern Baroque. On the other hand, the Baroque was pretty impressive as well, and popular music continues to be our most vital art.

[piece i couldn't sell]    






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#NaBloPoMo 2014: Day 21: I Need a Car & Other Random Thoughts

So, there it is: I need a car. I am open to thoughts, ideas, leads, and well, any clients who have a car available for trade.

cheese it, the cops! 2014-11-21 04:05:15

obama was good last night, and i am strongly in favor of not deporting millions of people, and of assuring them that they will not be deported. indeed, if it weren't for first and second-gen immigrants, my section of rural pa would be in a major economic depression, and would mostly be abandoned. now, i wish i was as sure that the executive is not legislating in this case.

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president warren

this here shows why we need a big old dose of elizabeth warren. also i think she is running for president. also i think she can beat hillary clinton. it strikes me that no one outside the top 1% of the 1% has any reason to vote for hillary other than her gender, and in this respect elizabeth warren is her equal. forecasting the hillary campaign: it will be boring and empty to a point that is euthanizing. believe it or not, i think that it might become so evident so early that hillary is going to get smacked again like she did in 2008 that she never actually announces. obama will be a millstone. hillary has no convincing way or reason to run away from him. warren, as that huffpost piece shows, already is, and already is doing it effectively and for principled reasons. hillary is hauling so much baggage from every period of her life and career that it is almost absurd.

also a million things have to unfold but it is not impossible that elizabeth warren could be elected president.

to my way of thinking, a randpaul/lizzy campaign would be a renaissance of american political discourse. both of them say something, which has to be the starting point. hillary clinton says nothing and means nothing and, in public space, is nothing. and obviously warren could beat rand on a given november day, though rand is a surprisingly good politician and on another november day might beat her. (rand i think, has a less plausible road to the rep nomination than warren to the dem.) i like her against christie too, though i don't think christie will be the nominee. she makes a good contrast in a number of ways to jeb bush, whereas jeb and hillary are indistinguishable. 

harvard prof is a problem. but she has been campaigning like mad and she is getting better and better on the stump and in putting across her common touch. i think the populist/egalitarian thing translates to some pretty concrete economic proposals, and i think you might be surprised how well such a program might play even in parts of the south. she could stage some interesting red-state invasions, as rand the other way round.

i think people may be overestimating money as a factor just because the entire system is swamped in infinite cash: any given ad means nothing; even the mid-term just sank into interminable incredibly stupid slop that no one could possibly pay attention to. warren or paul or whomever will have plenty of money and plenty of wealthy supporters; there just will be billions of money in this campaign no matter who the nominees are. but rand and liz could also raise a lot in small amounts from everywhere, which would be some little victory in itself.


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#NaBloPoMo 2014: Day 20: Drinking Tea – part 3, wisdom (Our Daily Tea)

I do not know whose idea it was to add bits of wisdom onto teabag tags, but I approve. They are like fortune cookies, except I do not have to entertain the idea of eating one of those horrid "cookies" to get a little nugget of wisdom, of truth.

#NaBloPoMo 2014: Day 19: Drinking Tea – part 2, a ritual

While water molecules are being rearranged, science is happening, and such, I stare at the "Wall of Tea" and make my selection. (Though, sometimes, I really know what I want, especially if I am grumpy -- that is when the Lapsang Souchong comes out first thing, guns a blazing.)

hatest grits

i thought perhaps i'd hit you with some of my own greatest hits, in my own opinion:

nypress (later a version in harper's): al gore and nothingness

creators syndicate/latimes: the spirit of exploration lives on (in the same vein, latimes/all things considered: marshall tito puente)

philly inquirer: headless human clones

reason: gigantism

latimes: the genocidal killer in the mirror (this seems to be reprinted in writing textbooks? i get email about it from teachers and students every year). also the soul of the terrorist

philly inquirer: mathematical proof that the stones are better than the beatles (got me on howard stern, cnn, etc: my 15)

manifesto of sartwellianism and the atlantic, against consensus

nypress: if i were a murderer i'd want to be joanne

stephen hawking, the takedown and against physics and more



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