Art Encounters | Another America

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”

– Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

I’m a little confused. The main reason, and probably the one which all others feed into, is to do with my taste. Why do I like certain things? Because sometime I wonder do I really like what I think I like? Do I gravitate towards certain things because I like them or because I like the idea of liking them? Most of my life now has been spent in the realm of ‘criticism,’ offering my views on books, on music, on art in some form to students, because someone somewhere deems what I say informed. But what if the ‘I’, as some neuroscientists claim, is just an illusion; everything I do and think comes from a predisposition in brain chemistry. Then my taste becomes little more than a chimera, a play of multiples without an overarching unity. My taste, a kind of opinion on things, which I offer to others as an informed opinion, isn’t really informed at all. It’s just my brain telling me it’s informed. It’s all a bit confusing. And so I feel shit.

You might recognise this spiralling thought process as neurotic. Or even depressive. It is. But maybe it’s because I live in depressing times. Has word of mouth ever counted for as little as it does today? So many people messed about with false promises; such cynicism now part of the fabric of everyday life. We’re told it’s just the way it is. We live in end times, when everything seems to require justification, and most of the time those who demand it are faceless, behind a screen of bureaucracy we’re also told is part of the fabric of everyday life. So much information all around us and yet a curious deficiency of meaning; spiritual or not. All the while we hear of fake news, and post-truth. It’s as if the system itself has become so overheated it can’t even make sense of itself as true or false, real or illusion. We’ve gone beyond tragedy and farce.

The trumpification of reality, when life seems more and more like a Reality TV show that we’re living through, is marked by the inveterate erosion of standards, the effect of an ideology that overrides the distinction between business and public life.

I recognise this as the way things are. I live a world where Donald Trump is President of the USA. But I see Trump as a figurehead for this situation, a figurehead for forces darker and more insidious than Trump himself. And being honest, I think most of us would admit to having Trumps to contend with in our lives, propping up the upper echelons of 21st century life. First we get the ‘trumpification of reality,’ as a friend of mine called it, nodding in the direction of a certain Jean Baudrillard, then we get the inevitable add-on: Trump himself. But the trumpification of reality, when life seems more and more like a Reality TV show that we’re living through, is marked by the inveterate erosion of standards, the effect of an ideology that overrides the distinction between business and public life. Everything can be reduced to a bottom line figure; those who resist frowned upon as fossils of a by-gone age. Standards slip at every remove. In my line of work, students are referred to as ‘market share,’ and the very idea of public life as autonomous and free seems like old hat willy-nilly speak. I hold a Starbucks coffee in my hand as I talk about rebellion and the end of capitalism.

A few weeks ago, two American filmmakers visited me en route to the Aran Islands. Intelligent and articulate, they informed us, over dinner, of Trump’s desire to cut the National Endowment of the Arts, impacting on the film they were making as a result of receiving a grant. Our conversation put a real face on something abstract, over there; perspective on the effect that the rise of this man to the highest office is having on filmmakers and artists in the US. But it would be easy to think that this cutting of public funding is an isolated incident, ‘over there,’ and that a buffoon like Trump is what we can congratulate ourselves on not having. This is, of course, a real danger. And while there is a real danger in Trump remaining in office, there is danger also that this projection of buffoonery onto the U.S. will allow us to underwrite the buffoonery colonising our public offices as not so bad. What’s most demoralising about this constellation of things not just in America but in Ireland is that so much seems impervious to rational understanding. You think you’ve learnt a lesson in the aftermath of your country’s greatest banking crisis. Then you open the paper and there’s one of its chief overseers receiving an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland. It’s like a fire that simply won’t go out; the flames keep rising higher and higher. So what do I do when surrounded by ever increasing flames?

National Endowment for the Arts - HeadStuff.org
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I try to find inspiration. I try to cultivate another way of engaging and dealing with the world. Lately I’ve been listening to the Philadelphia band The War on Drugs on repeat. I see their music as a reminder of another life form; an America that still influences me. And part of me thinks The War on Drugs are important to our times. Another part of me wonders whether my brain chemistry has settled into this band at this moment, now. That I’m drawn towards their music because I’m a certain age, and white, and middle-class. Not surprisingly, this is because I’ve been locked into on-line discussions about the band, in an attempt to put flesh on my critical intuition that what they’re doing is quite rebellious, but rebellious in a way that doesn’t scream critical opposition. This isn’t Punk Mark II. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t oppose, unsettle, reveal. I’ve been accused of being a Dadrocker, of focusing in on the band because they sound like Bob Dylan fronting Pink Floyd. I’ve tried to articulate why the band are critically important, special even, at a time when corporate media especially tries to sell us so much mediocrity as special, and everything retro dominates our cultural spectrum. When so much of the media fawns over the next big event, or the next big old thing again, and the ‘trumpification of reality’ hits us as the passing off of the mediocre as spectacle, it seems harder and harder to find what is genuine and real.

This is why I turn to and listen to The War on Drugs now. But I should give context here. Coming across the band name for me was an ‘aaghh’ moment; an initial turn off. The name seemed silly. It was only when I thought about it more, in the context of the music, it began to make sense. The ‘war on drugs’ is the name given to the state-enforced campaign of prohibition that began during the Nixon era in the U.S, when the police and FBI waged a campaign designed to outlaw the use and distribution of recreational drugs. It became most aggressive and heavy-handed but also counter-productive during the Reagan years. Reagan began ramping up the force of aggression against drug-users at a time when cocaine was circulating at lower prices than ever and once safe neighbourhoods were overrun with crack cocaine. That’s before crack cocaine destroyed so many inner city dwellings. Official reality was saying the state was winning the war of prohibition, but the other reality, the reality of the streets and underground, was saying something altogether different. Thomas Pynchon’s 1989 novel Vineland (a book I wrote my MA thesis on) tells this story, offering in the process a map of the crack-down, or the crack-up (to coin a phrase of F. Scott Fitzgerald recently appropriated by the band Fleet Foxes for their third album), when U.S streets became infiltrated with cheap ‘product’ while  – at the same time – jails became the recreational centre of choice for so many young Americans.

The War on Drugs, simply put, offer a similar way of approaching the world, poeticising struggles like those of the many caught in the crossfire of ‘the war on drugs:’ hidden America. The subtlety and poetic intensity of the songs released this summer (‘Holding On,’ ‘Thinking of a Place’ and ‘Strangest Thing’) simply blow me away. The songs affect me as a set of struggles, all of which centre on finding meaning in a world of endless information. And we all struggle in this way. On their breakthrough album Slave Ambient, this struggle manifests as a desire to be released from history, musical influence, from ‘I Was There’ (with its lyrical nod to The Smith’s ‘Hand in Glove)’ to ‘Come to the City’ (with its wail-like and sonic echo of early U2 and The Waterboys). The brilliant follow up to this, Lost in a Dream, is more lyrically and sonically advanced, and begins with a powerful ode to resist, to rethink the promise America makes to it people, and the struggle to process reality, find meaning, on our own terms. ‘You were raised on a promise, found that over time’, Granduciel sings on the opener ‘Under Pressure,’ ‘better come around to the new way, or watch as it all breaks down.’ So Lost in a Dream begins, offering a kind of mandate that compels us to move beyond the ravages of an America that Trump would rally under the promise of its own revived greatness, greatness only he alone can offer mastery of. Two classics ‘Red Eyes’ and ‘Suffering’ follow on the album. Both songs allude to the struggle again, this time set out in almost biblical terms: a struggle to find the light in the surrounding darkness (‘don’t let the dark night cover my soul’), until lost in a dream that is of our own making. But while the previous album Slave Ambient unravels like an archive of influences from which a voice is struggling to be heard, stand out, the follow up Lost in a Dream is the sound of a band content to retreat into themselves, in the knowledge the sound they make is their own.

Hillary Clinton’s response to Donald Trump’s child-like baiting during the U.S Presidential Elections was to emphasise the Democrats’ moral superiority, ‘when they go low, we go high.’ The War on Drugs, locked into a similar struggle, offer to go deep. The name of their upcoming album is A Deeper Understanding. The three songs that have come out this summer – like instalments of a great Victorian novel – are a struggle to find an intimate space of feeling, of affecting, that comes from going deeper into our selves. The most recent song released from this upcoming album ‘Strangest Thing’ is just one example. Granduciel sings ‘am I just living in the space between, the beauty and the pain? And the real thing,’ against a flowing intricate tapestry of sound, the guitar of which seems to lift us elegiacally out of this space between. The lyrics draw us into a world of unclear emotions, but the music draws us out. It’s as if the pain is offset by the beauty of the guitar solo that soars in the background, becoming increasingly dominant as the lyrical emphasis on pain fades.

I posted on Facebook last week that The War on Drugs had restored my faith in music. I had just been running in the woods with my dog Oscar when ‘Holding On,’ the first single of the three released this summer, came on my headphones. I jumped over soggy land, and dodged bits of twigs that had fallen from trees. The music surged through me like a rallying cry. But there’s no big message in the song, no bombastic attempt to inform the listener of what’s right and wrong. It could be about holding on to simple traditions, like those the video for the single celebrates: the simple act of talking to one another in a diner, reaching to those who are in need, or even love as something that crosses all boundaries, irrespective of race or sex. But it could also be about holding on to memories of moments in photographs, another important feature of the single’s video, to remind us that our reality is something we contribute to and even construct. It’s not something – crucially – others construct for us.

A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs will be released on August 25th on Atlantic Records

Further Reading in the Art Encounters series can be found here


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