the arts lie dreaming of the life to come

"Knife-Edge also Standing Figure" (c) Henry Moore (1967)

...music shows its heterogenous nature and superior intrinsic virtue by its complete indifference to everything material in the plot; in consequence of this, it expresses the storm of the passions and the pathos of the feelings everywhere in the same way, and accompanies them in the same pomp of its tones, whether Agamemnon and Achilles, or the dissensions of an ordinary family furnish the material for the piece.

- Schopenhauer

At some point you might have told yourself and others that you listened to the Backstreet Boys because it was funny. But in fact, you were enjoying it; it's just a different kind of enjoyment...

- John Darnielle

I stopped formally studying English more than a year ago now; this should mean I never have to criticise anything I don't feel intensely about ever again. For similar reasons I don't want to 'review' things anymore. I'd like to criticise instead.

Why the distinction? Because we're engaged in skirmishes in a war with the Observer, with the whole moribund practice Reviewing. It's everywhere, having long usurped most public critical thought (since it looks like criticism but is shorter and less wanky). Bite-sized impersonality is the reviewer's way, because it makes the review seem objective, and thus 'worth' reading. To review is to tell someone if a thing is shit or not. To be critical is to investigate how something works, not just to say it does or doesn't. Seen this way, reviewing is not dialogue but autopsy! (Morticians - i.e. historians - are great, but they really should only work with things that have metaphysically died first - as no object, when considered aesthetically, ever will. "In aesthetics, the present is the only tense there is.")

I don't agree with Wilde when he says "all art is useless" (by definition) - but he's on to something. Reviews are functional and artless beasts. Their function is to provide a concise injection of perspective for those without the time or tools to form their own opinion: album reviews are horse-betting tips for the 1000-albums-per-week derby that is modern music.


Premise: Value is mind-dependent.
Premise: Meaning is intersubjective, mind-dependent on a grand scale.
Premise: Interpretations are second-order features of states of affairs. A pattern seen is a pattern present, regardless of author-intention (that's what interpretation is!).
Premise: We produce meaning involuntarily, and project value onto every thing we contact.
Premise: Value is not a matter of whim; we are given tastes in a similar way that we are given physical traits. (Though obviously more dynamic and steerable.)

Conclusion: You can't be 'right' about cultural objects, but you can be wrong. You're wrong if your interpretation doesn't conform to the first-order features of em. (Might be better to say "aesthetically senseless" rather than 'wrong' here.)

"Aesthetic falsificationism"?.


Putting on a Marxist hat for a moment: reviews prop up the conspicuous consumption of music: the much-mocked hipster attitude. They appeal to the social superstructure of music rather than the aesthetic base (by base I just mean listening to songs, rather than bands). We can't help judge each other by our tastes - but latterly we place too much on it, and in doing so we obscure the sounds to listen to propositions. Another instance of our poisonous dismissal of subjective things.

These generate the weird neurotic character of modern music fandom: the "guilty pleasures", the canons of airless "Classics" whispered of in endless retro magazine profiles, and above all in the great joyless indie-cred cult of authenticity, which all musical subcultures are guilty of. (...Maybe not house.)

Don’t say the light show’s excellent -
it makes you smell of the laboratory instead of
a fan of the band...

- Half Man Half Biscuit

(Note: Nobody totally escapes the cred game. But remember that its handmaiden, the review, is not really a reaction to art at all. And I do so crave the chance to react.)


What's wrong with reviewing in general is doubly wrong with the pop review. The only modes the pop review can take:

I: Autobiographize. Compare album to their old albums, say it's not as good as the last one. (Crap contextualization)

II: List the tracks, assign them genres, trace their lineage. Say the middle bit isn't any good. (Crap textualization)

III: Sophomoric, "ooh, I once read something quite like this in class maybe they mean this concept". (Crap intellectualization)

IV: Identify what they were trying to do. Compare to paradigm songs, of the band in question or of bands who tried the same thing. Intentionalize. Pick representative details and paint the page with them. Pull out narrative if you see narrative. Include the personal,
1) cos all attention is personal and
2) to remind readers that all reviews are just readings and if you see it, it is present.
(Actual analysis.)

Pop deserves better, more of 4.

Robert Christgau, one of the more auteurish people talking about pop, is at least honest: his long-running archive of mini-reviews is called the "Consumer Guide", and he calls himself a "media professional" as well as "rock critic".


In my head, a "proper critic" is an intellectually rigorous individual with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their specialist subject and an admirably nerdy compulsion to dissect, compare and analyse each fresh offering in the field – not in a bid to mindlessly entertain the reader, but to further humankind's collective understanding of the arts.

- Charlie Brooker,
denying that he is a critic.

There's something to that. But it takes creative power as well as noble nerdishness.


I want someone younger than me to get foolish about pop again, to stop telling me all the things I could be listening to and start telling me why I SHOULDN’T listen to certain things. Reattach guilt to pop, reattach hierarchy, reattach shame, reattach style, remember that style is different from fashion, instead of just adding their void-voice to the general hey-if-you-enjoy-it-that’s-cool numbness of discussion. Stop fucking rehabilitating everything and start locking stuff up and out and AWAY. It will be out of reach for a reason. Pleasure forced to justify itself again.
-Neil Kulkarni

Police mentalities will always try to impose correct readings, to align intentions with outcomes, couple imaginary causes with putative effects, but we always have a choice.
- Dave Hickey

Kulkarni calls this syndrome "critical sleepiness" - you might know it better as relativism. He's wrong but in a very interesting way: he's wrong because cultural objects like pop songs, or nationality, or masculinity can have no single true analysis. But Kulkarni's right in that we shouldn't accept relativism as a muzzle on disagreement; the fact that contradictory interpretations stack (without needing to be sorted into "true" or "false") means that we absolutely can and should be opinionated! We can speak unqualifiedly about things we feel strongly about, because, no matter how violently we deride a thing, our reaction isn't really oppressing anyone (if they're secure in their own positive reaction to the object). Just because there's no right answer doesn't mean that all answers are as good as each other. We cannot change the fact that people enjoy Wagner (either Wagner). But why bother, politics aside?

(It does occur to me that this theory is not a good thing to put in the hands of the internet. Perspectivism is fine if you've patience and modesty, but...)

I intervene in what I read. You relate to one of the characters in Brothers Karamazov? No shit; you're in every text you'll ever look at, because that's what reading, and consciousness is. The more 'present' you are (the more its symbols resonate with the meanings latent in you), the more you'll like it.

Corollary: No one has ever read the same book as anyone else, just commensurate ones. Come to that, no one has ever read the same book as themselves some time later.

Awesome corollary: anything can be critically engaged with. This is what Schopenhauer (opening quote) implied but could not say (being as he was such a snob).

It's terrible that the transformatory, egalitarian way of seeing stuff has been presented in the maximally obscure manner that it has. What would they call it? "Hermeneutic aesthetic perspectivism", perhaps. What should we call it? "Poptimism"


After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one's tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.

- Oscar Wilde’s mouth

Experience is not a matter of having actually swum the Hellespont, or danced with the dervishes, or slept in a doss-house. It is a matter of sensibility and intuition, of seeing and hearing the significant things, of paying attention at the right moments, of understanding and coordinating. Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.

- Aldous Huxley

These two remarks suggest a related piece of philosophy of life - what we might call spiritual empiricism. "What's art for?" Eh; same as everything else.


Yeats says that "the arts lie dreaming of the life to come". But we shouldn't think that "dreaming of the life to come" is good in itself. (The Futurists and the Communists put paid to that.) Let's look at Art Nouveau trains:

Eurgh. The inherent menace of the style was most recently realised in some artsy computer games.


  1. I've been thinking about those trains again as well. I think they represent a really interesting historical point about material/functional imbalance and the role of unconcious instability as historical force: we can look at those sleek, prescision engineered shells on tecnology a good century older than their design and say "why make steam trains areodynamic?".
    Well, why impose jury duty on a population rife with prejudices?

  2. It becomes still more apparent that my historiography is unapologetic Gramscianism.