In the annals of fandom, there are Star Wars nerds and there is everyone else, in diminishing scope of impact and importance. The object of their impassioned mixed affection and frustration is more commercially successful and culturally penetrating than Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Alien, James Bond, or any other major film-based subculture. Even the deeply-rooted superhero comics milieu that pre-dates all geek film properties doesn’t quite measure up to Star Wars geek culture.
Since it inspires such focused devotion from its acolytes, the creative influence of George Lucas’s original space-fantasy trilogy is also unparalleled in contemporary American culture, sparking not only homemade internet creations like Troops or Star Wars Gangsta Rap or the brilliant Star Wars Uncut project (about which more in a moment) but also corporate-funded products from the likes of artists as diverse as Kevin Smith, Seth McFarlane, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and J.J. Abrams (whose longtime open fandom finally got him the dream gig of directing the new Star Wars sequel trilogy for Disney beginning in 2015).
But the fandom is not uniformly of the positive variety. Indeed, as is pointed out in an insightful soundbite in the course of Alexandre O. Philippe’s comprehensive documentary examination of the Star Wars fanbase’s alternately worshipful and spiteful relationship to the universe’s steward Lucas, it is often a badge of honour for fans of a certain product to be able to prove the intensity of their devotion to that product by openly hating it. Star Wars fandom is nothing if not consensus-based; once an opinion gains intertia among the base, it’s nigh-on impossible to keep it from becoming almost universally accepted.
This would seem to be an appropriate tendency considering the nature of the core formative experience of Star Wars fans. As profound as the shared experience of the original trilogy is for fans who first saw it as children, they all basically experienced it in the same way. Every film is ideally open to audience interpretation, but the notable thing about Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon is the lack of variance of interpretation among its legion of fans. They tend to love the same things about Lucas’ creation, and so they mostly hate the same things about it as well.
The consensus opinion can be summed up thusly: the first Star Wars film in 1977 (now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope) was a revelatory experience to those who saw it in theatres (especially if they were young boys), the rest of the so-called “original trilogy” (comprising Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi) satisfactorily completed the saga (to some extent), and fans filled the void left by the absence of further sequels by purchasing mountains of official merchandise. With accelerating advances in computer-generated imagery, Lucas elected to first re-release “special editions” of the existing films with re-mastered sound and image and a series of CG additions (which did not always go over well) and then to return to the Star Wars universe he created and profited from with a prequel trilogy, beginning with Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999. Greatly anticipated by longtime Star Wars fans, the prequels were critically panned and savaged by the Original Trilogy generation for dozens of egregious missteps at the least and for violating their childhood dreams at worst. Though they did get better and it’s possible that children might have enjoyed them, the prequels were a forceful end of innocence for older Star Wars fans, a rupture of the charmed relationship between the universe’s creator and his cohort of lifelong devotees.
The People vs. George Lucas, despite fandom’s will to consensus and the film’s courtroom-ish title, does not cling to a single perspective or argument concerning the sometimes antagonistic trajectories that fans and creator take to Star Wars. Just because most fans of Star Wars have the same basic experience with the films (the ones they liked and the ones they didn’t), that doesn’t mean that they cope with that experience similarly. Not every fan goes the “George Lucas raped my childhood” route, although that deplorable catchphrase is mentioned, along with other similarly-pitched analogies to child and domestic abuse that betray the callous insensitivity of a largely homosocial fanbase. Just as much blame is apportioned to fan expectations and to the passage of time, and there are appearances by relative apologists for Lucas’s errors, or at least by devil’s advocates who agree that he blew it but don’t agree that he owes the fans a pound of flesh for doing so.
But George Lucas does absorb some shots. It wouldn’t be an accurate portrait of this ongoing relationship if he didn’t. The usual complaints are dutifully dragged out and discussed, scanning like an accounting of artistic atrocities for Star Wars geeks and like an indecipherable code to the uninitiated: Greedo Shoots First, the Star Wars Christmas special, midichlorians, Vader’s “Nooooo!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and, of course, Jar Jar Binks. Theories are offered for the turning of the space worm, most convincingly Lucas’s insistence on total creative control over his work after his pre-Star Wars run-ins with interfering Hollywood studios, which has led to a creative isolation that has left him out of touch with not only the expectations and tastes of his fans but of the larger culture as well.
The most interesting aspect of the love-hate conflict, as I have examined in the past, is the question of ownership of Star Wars as a cultural object, as a cinematic mythos, and what Lucas’s additions and alterations to the popular text jive with fandom’s engagement with and understanding of it. Legal copyright dictates that Star Wars belongs to Lucas (or, now, to Disney; the documentary feels incomplete with the subsequent sale of rights and the promise of new Star Wars films constantly in one’s head). He may do with it as he pleases, even if what he does changes the terms of his fans’ emotional investment in the product, not to mention its constructed meanings.
The fans do have a voice, though, a role in the continued construction of the Star Wars myth. The documentary is quite enjoyable as a flood of (sometimes witty, sometimes just petulant) opinions on the ins and outs of that myth; the section detailing the elation and then deflation that characterized the fan reception of The Phantom Menace says nearly all that needs be said about that painful turning point in the fandom’s history (it doesn’t say nearly enough about the film’s old-fashioned and offensive racial stereotyping, I think, but judge for yourself; video is below). But The People vs. George Lucas is at its best when it shines its spotlight on the participatory culture of Star Wars fandom, typified most clearly by the deluge of internet videos expanding, critiquing, and parodying the canonical material. The aforementioned Star Wars Uncut is the most consistently employed example, particularly being utilized by Philippe to fill visual gaps left by the expensive-to-license clips from the Star Wars films.
The Uncut project, if you’re unfamiliar, is the brainchild of Casey Pugh, who split A New Hope into 473 15-second segments and put out a call for fans from around the world to craft and submit the scenes to be cut into a fan-made version of the film. It’s remix culture at its simplest, its most surprising, and its most epic. Uncut has everything from amateur camcorder video shot in garages and backyards to sophisticated animation sequences to scenes recreated using cats, alcohol bottles, paper bags, and ferrets as “actors”. It’s a supreme collaborative act of defamiliarization, alternately endearing, impressive, hilarious, and surreal. Nearly everyone with even one eye on pop culture knows A New Hope quite well, yet in this version you never know precisely what’s coming next. And if a certain segment doesn’t work for you, you’re mere seconds from the start (and the end) of the next. It shares A New Hope‘s expert construction and approximates its fresh-eyed creativity as well as anything under the title of Star Wars can, at this juncture, be expected to.
Now, of course, we can expect to come at Star Wars with something resembling fresh eyes again, thanks to J.J. Abrams, Disney, and George Lucas’s not inconsiderable greed. As was tangentially mentioned, The People vs. George Lucas might be comprehensive in its examination of three decades of fraught fandom and shifting cultural profiles, but it was completed before the most recent twist in the tale, which casts many of the theories presented about Lucas’s perspective and his relationship to his intergalactic creation in a very different light, if it doesn’t contradict them entirely. Involved in the new films as a creative consultant only, Lucas has nonetheless claimed to exercise guru-like control over the boundaries of his universe, telling the filmmakers that his creation spawned what they can and can’t do and still hold a claim to Star Wars. Even as his world-famous cinematic invention passes largely out of his hands, Lucas won’t entirely relinquish his grip on it. It’s obvious that the opinionated Star Wars geeks of The People vs. George Lucas would nod knowingly at this latest development. Just George being George, after all.
In the third period of last night’s NHL game between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers, moments after the Caps had gone up 7-0 over the woeful Flyers (the Oilers have a bad record, but they’re not that bad), some predictable violence ensued. “The Code” of hockey, you see, seems to stipulate that in the event of a lopsided loss, the losing team must show that they won’t be pushed around on the ice as they have been on the scoreboard by engaging in reckless violence outside of the accepted limits of the usual game.
This is part and parcel of the increasingly absurd justifications for violence in the sport favoured by traditionalists, many of which now stem directly from little more than hurt feelings. The recent inevitability of such rough stuff in a blowout loss has made watching such games into a queasy experience for fans not impressed by hockey’s extraneous violence. Fans of the the losing team, in particular, have it especially hard. Not only must those fans witness their team embarrassed in the final score, they must also watch them humiliate themselves with thuggery (although some fans, especially those in Philadelphia last night, were irrationally excited by the punching).
Situations like last night’s are partly a consequence of the general meaningless of score differential in the NHL’s standings structure. If, like in many major European football leagues, goal differential was a primary tiebreaker in the standings at season’s end, running up the score in a lopsided game would have a tangible point, rather than feel like an unsportsmanlike slight by the stampeding victors. Win totals tend to separate deadlocked teams well enough (and with only playoff spots at stake and no relegation in the league, sorting of basement-dwellers is less vital than in, say, the Premier League), but making goal differential at least a secondary tiebreak factor could have some effect at least.
The debate over evading such incidents will be muted, however, when compared to the already-vehement division over the actions of Flyers goaltender Ray Emery in the midst of the wild line brawl that followed the seventh Capitals goal. With each team’s skaters pairing off into fighting duos, Emery skated the length of the ice to challenge Caps goalie Braden Holtby to fisticuffs. Holtby clearly wanted no part of Emery (as the video below demonstrates). Declining a fight is viewed with disdain by proponents of the Code’s hyper-masculine ideology, but the reply by the challenger is rarely to engage in violence nonetheless. Emery was not deterred by Holtby’s evident unwillingness, and attacked him anyway.
As can be plainly seen, Emery lays into Holtby, including some very dangerous punches to the back of the head. It’s a very uneven bout as hockey fights go, and bluff Code-upholders would doubtlessly declare that if Holtby wasn’t such a wuss (if he “defended” himself, as Emery claimed after the game that he gave him an opportunity to do), it wouldn’t have been so bad. But as bad it was, and what made it worse was referee Francois St. Laurent standing by, hands literally on hips, doing nothing to stop it and even waving away Holtby’s Capitals teammate Michael Latta when he attempted to intervene. The Code allows an alarming assault by one player on another, but NHL rules doesn’t allow a third player to enter an established two-player fight. Dangerous actions like Emery’s are punished less strictly than any attempt to prevent them, which is not a ringing endorsement of the league’s ability (or willingness) to curb such incidents.
What this unflattering moment in the continued controversy over pro hockey’s on-ice violence demonstrates is the deficiency of the Code in effectively redressing perceived wrongs and resolving inter-team grievances. Ken Dryden discusses hockey violence in terms of Freudian transference and emotional release in his book The Game, but its uneasy collaboration with league disciplinary standards has proven insufficient in defusing tensions, only extending them, deferring them. Grudges and feuds are rarely resolved with further violence, only exacerbated. They calcify and cease to pain the aggrieved only with considerable time and fallow tensions, and even then can endure as niggling minor dissatisfactions. The Code will not allow this healing period to commence, with its focus on mob-like retribution (and it’s not like a Caps goon is going to fight Emery next time the teams meet, either). Resolution is left to the league’s disciplinary discretion, which is more up to the task but rarely wholly effective either.
This should particularly be the case in the Emery-Holtby incident. Can the NHL suspend a player for fighting another who did not want to fight and beating him badly? Not without setting a precedent that could be fatal for fighting in the sport (and cheers to that possibility, unlikely though it is). Indeed, the referee involved is more likely to be disciplined for his failure to protect Holtby from Emery, to properly manage a volatile situation. But St. Laurent himself was handcuffed by the rules he must uphold. He allowed the players to fight and kept Latta from being the third man in; this, by the letter of the NHL law, was his job. The Code and the Law, in this case, are at clear cross-purposes. And unless one or the other adjusts its shifting but absolute strictures, more black eyes like the one inflicted on the NHL last night in Philadelphia wait in the wings.
It’s easier to consider the ways in which Breaking Bad stays the same through its run than to consider the ways it changes. The finely-tuned, incremental amassing of narrative detail remains constant and superlative; whatever else one might have to say about the thematic content of Vince Gilligan’s television opus, there’s little question that its storytelling is exquisite. Quibble about its constant thematic drumbeat of motivating masculine pride and immoral Machiavellian manipulations if you will, but Breaking Bad has enraptured a mass audience with its developing plot, and rightly so.
As mentioned, the assertions of masculinity, in particular through the seedy underworld of meth-trade crime, never go away and never really wane. They even flare up on key occasions, against the better mental judgment of the show’s characters, pushing the story forward in a way that is not merely about imparting meaning but also about the unavoidable and unforeseen consequences of human agency. This tendency, the closest thing to a formula that Breaking Bad can be said to follow, crops up repeatedly in the show’s third and fourth seasons.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston), for instance, unadvisedly keeps his DEA brother-in-law Hank’s (Dean Norris) investigation into the meth operation he has been involved in alive when it might have advantageously wilted on the vine. A bit elated with liquor at a family dinner, Walter shoots down Hank’s theory that Walter’s former meth lab assistant Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) was “Heisenberg”, the true chemistry genius behind the pure, blue-tinted methamphetamine product flooding the streets of Albuquerque and beyond, a suspicion that may have put the investigation to sleep and at least temporarily left Walter and his collaborators in the clear. Walter speaks up in his disinhibited state largely because, perversely, the quality meth he secretly manufactures has become the signature accomplishment of his disappointing life, and the protection of that accomplishment the sole opportunity to fulfill any sort of male dominance over his world. Although the cruel irony of this accomplishment is that he cannot openly take credit for it for risk of legal consequence, he’ll be damned if he lets another man, even a dead one like Gale, receive the laurels due to him. And damned, one gets the distinct feeling, he will be soon enough.
This choice by Walter ripples out from him, in the form of increased DEA pressure on his drug-lord employer Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), which further strains their already-poisoned professional relationship (once friendly and even understanding of his brilliant but volatile employee, Fring is trundling Walter out to the desert to make death threats against his family before too long). But Fring, constructed by the writers and played by Esposito as a calculating logic-bot who matches and surpasses Walter’s meticulous double-life practices, makes his own emotional, masculine power-asserting miscalculation which costs him most dearly. Seeking to diffuse escalating cross-border tensions with the Mexican cartels, Fring poisons kingpin Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) and his entire cartel leadership to death. Mass murder may seem an extreme reaction for a highly-controlled man like Gustavo Fring, but then Eladio did have Fring’s former meth-cooking partner killed before his eyes, as a flashback reveals (the trigger-man was Hector Salamanca, memorably played by Mark Margolis as a crusty old invalid in a wheelchair who rings a bell like a mute, avenging angel).
A desire for revenge clouds Fring’s judgment in this matter, and only some unexpected quick action by Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who has become a trusted figure in Fring’s organization, saves Fring, Jesse, and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) from a fate similar to that suffered by the cartel elite. But with primary underhanded operative Mike out of commission in Mexico with a gunshot wound, Fring is left vulnerable to an attack from his newly-minted nemesis Walter, who engineers a final explosive encounter between Fring and Hector. Fring’s unwise, personally-driven overreach proves very costly, as many of our own emotional choices do as well.
Walter and Jesse’s inculcation into Fring’s meth operation dominates both of these seasons, although parallel and related storylines make their presence known as well (the cartel’s attack on Hank which leaves him temporarily paralyzed, Skyler and Walt buying the car wash where the latter once worked in order to launder their money, Jesse’s attempt at family life with a fellow recovering addict). But Breaking Bad‘s continuing allegory for American capitalism circles persistently around Fring’s diversified holdings, and it pulls lesser narratives and implications into this same orbit.
If the early stretches of the show commented on the consuming pressures of the laissez-faire American economy and the dark side of the entrepreneurial spirit, then Walter’s hiring by Fring and relocation into the industrial meth super-lab beneath an unassuming laundry facility represents the pitfalls of corporatization. Walt chafes under Fring’s increasingly close supervision and intrusive surveillance, become progressively more defiant in defending his position in the lab. After Walter put a great deal of effort into getting Fring’s attention and then eventually his patronage for his particular form of chemical art, the protagonist of Breaking Bad finds the supposedly more secure realm of large-scale meth production and distribution no more welcoming or easily navigated than the street-level knife-fight he sought to avoid. Selling out, it turns out, is not the solution to all that ails economic players.
Fring seeks to minimize risk like a true micromanager, and Walter White is nothing if not one big walking risk (throw in Jesse Pinkman and that’s two). His fried chicken franchise is a cunning cover, but it’s also a profitable business that could have kept Fring living very comfortably without the drug trade sideline. The car wash project is mostly about “cleaning” Walter’s income so that it can be used for Hank’s recovery (Skyler suspects quite rightly that the attack on Walter’s brother-in-law had something to do with him), but it’s also a modest step towards at least the appearance of fiscal independence, like Fring’s Los Pollos Hermanos. It’s conceivable that, like his boss’ fast food chain, the car wash could give Walter a chance to live straight. But neither man can resist the lucrative profits and ample opportunities for robust dick-measuring that the meth business has to offer. And, to tell the truth, they are both in far too deep to get out, even if they wanted to.
One other notable way in which Breaking Bad shifts on its axis in the third and fourth seasons has to do with its once-balanced portrait of meth culture. As the show has focused with more and more detail and complexity on the business and extortionary side of the trade, it has lost touch with the seedy, painful underworld of the afflicted addicts who actually buy and use crystal meth. The window into this realm was Jesse for a long time in the show’s early days, and and this perspective reached its unsettling climax in his Dante’s Inferno descent into the den of two addicts with a neglected, half-feral son (Season 2′s “Peekaboo”).
Hard as this material was to watch, it was necessary to ground the meth trade intrigue in real, harsh consequences. It became impossible to forget that whatever pecuniary rewards Walter ultimately earned, at the bum end of the whole sordid affair was a person whose life was being strangled by the drug he made for them to pay to use. But the intrigue was simply too intriguing to Breaking Bad‘s creative braintrust, and the crime noir elements take firm precedence over the depiction of meth’s social costs by the fourth season. My previous consideration of the first two seasons lamented the privileging of the incident-laden story over the possible thematic social messages, and if anything, this issue intensifies as the show carries on. As the fifth and final season looms for this one delayed follower of Breaking Bad, the appeal of narrative appeal remains the main draw.
The interesting confluence (if not quite congruence) of two blockbuster touring exhibitions sharing special gallery space at this moment at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto brings several potent issues revolving around image, identity, and representation in the post-modern age into a tighter orbit. Prominent Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei’s According to What? show runs until October 27th, and the recently-opened David Bowie Is admits visitors until November 27th. Although the sprawling, multifarious oeuvre of the wildly-creative Bowie would initially seem to share little thematic ground with the focused conceptual provocations of Ai Weiwei’s work, they in fact provide fascinating opposing case studies into the contemporary construction of identity in the public sphere.
Ai Weiwei may currently be the world’s most famous artist, his shaved head, scraggled goatee, and hardened gaze familiar features to any follower of current developments in the fine arts. Weiwei’s work, to a great extent, conforms to contemporary art’s dominant practice of large-scale abstraction and privileging of concept over form, signified over signifier. As such, it often shares the movement’s smugly self-confident pretention, its conviction of its vitality and importance in the face of evident self-indulgent conceit. Just how important, really, is a shark preserved in formaldehyde, or a turbine hall full of ceramic sunflower seeds (Weiwei’s famous installation at London’s Tate Modern), anyway? Most would say, and have said, not very.
But even if his form follows that of major contemporary art influences like Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol, its function, its meaning, is subtly modified and possibly even deepened by his engagement with Chinese cultural history as well as with the country’s current political situation. Weiwei often employs traditional Chinese fabrication techniques and materials in his works and installations, connecting the intellectual metaphors of conceptual art with the cultural bedrock of his nation. Examples in the According to What? exhibition include sculptures made of wood from demolished Qing dynasty temples that take the form of the map of China and a traditional rural woodpile, scaled-down house shapes made from pressed tea leaves, traditional wooden stools (constructed without nails) arranged in a vertiginous sunburst pattern, and Forever-brand bicycles attached in a circle, a suggestion of eternity that puns on the brand name.
Weiwei does not merely adapt Chinese cultural tradition to more modern usages, however. He also challenges the sanctity of that cultural heritage with a series of works confronting contemporary China’s modernization efforts and its concomitant erasure of that heritage. He dips centuries-old vases into bright industrial paints, photographs himself dropping and smashing another vase from 2000 years ago, and paints a silver Coca-Cola logo onto Neolithic pottery. Is he defacing ancient and valuable artifacts, making them beautiful or meaningful in new and striking ways, or executing both acts at once in a commentary on the post-capitalist order’s own focus on progress over preservation?
This would all be interesting enough fodder for contemporary art, but would not necessarily make Ai Weiwei a figure of the gravity and integrity that he has been invested with. Weiwei’s antagonistic relationship to and frequent challenges of the authority of the Chinese Communist state accomplishes that nicely, adding a note of agitprop frisson to the subtle wit of his works. His support of political dissidents and efforts to compel greater disclosure from the Chinese government with regards to the death toll and infrastructure failures of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake has gotten him arrested, beaten, and currently under house arrest, his passport confiscated, preventing him from travelling outside of China. These events have found their way into his art, as other works in the exhibition include a huge snake made of backpacks (5000 children died in the Sichuan quake, many in collapsing, shoddily-constructed schools) and a shattered wave constructed of rebar, salvaged from destroyed buildings and laboriously straightened for use in the sculpture.
What emerges from According to What? is an artist whose presented identity is grounded in his country’s history and character as much as in the provocations of contemporary art. But even as he challenges the authoritarian system of China and engages with its rich and ancient culture, his processes of artistic production reflect the industrial and commercial underpinnings of that system. The Warhol-esque repetitions of his works require a large labour pool to achieve the desired effect; According to What? includes video of Chinese labourers hammering the aforementioned rebar straight, and the sunflower seeds were made by a ceramic works that once provided precious objects to the imperial court (the project saved it from bankruptcy, apparently). Is Weiwei exploiting the huge Chinese labour pool like the government whose record he often protests, or is he turning its almost immeasurable energies to more productive creative uses? As with most of Ai Weiwei’s creative interactions with the Chinese portion of his artistic identity, he leaves it largely up to interpretation.
Speaking of identity left up to interpretation, David Bowie Is (put together by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and featuring hundreds of items from Bowie’s personal archives) is a multifaceted examination of a popular artist whose many facets have been presented at different times. Spawned by a comfortable suburban English milieu, young David Robert Jones sought out substitute identities based on a variety of sources: Buddhist spiritualism, science fiction, German Expressionism, ambiguous sexuality, even mime. His boundless artistic appetite has expanded beyond music into design, art, dance and performance, and film acting. Indeed, perhaps the most contained expression of his chameleonic powers in the enormous exhibition is a screening room looping scenes from his eclectic cinematic career.
There are also clips of performances, handwritten lyrics, letters, and notes, movie and stage props, photographs and posters, and a constant stream of Bowie’s varied musical output. Most revealing, however, are the profusion of costumes on displays (sometimes revealing in more than one sense of the word). From extraterrestrial jumpsuits to oversized Weimar cabaret outfits to kabuki-style robes to an iconic distressed Union Jack coat, it is made very clear that throughout Bowie’s image transformations, the clothes have always made the man in terms not merely proverbial but profoundly identitarian. Bowie’s wardrobe has not so much enabled his assumption of shifting identities as it has constituted it. There is no better illustration of David Bowie’s unstable but always precise image changes than all of these sets of empty clothes that he once wore, now standing idle on mannequins.
What these concurrent shows by Weiwei and Bowie shows us, then, is that whether tethered to contemporary politics and national heritage or to only the whims of one’s imagination, identity is constructed through image, and image preconditions identity.
Romans and Georgian British alike agreed that Bath was a charming place to relax in, and modern travelers can see the wisdom in the opinion. The ages-old resort town in West Somerset has some natural advantages of landscape, nestled in the verdant valley of the River Avon, with its course winding through the town. But what might otherwise have developed as a quaint riverside country town instead became a sought-after retreat for centuries due to another natural advantage: the hot springs that bubble to the surface in the area.
Visiting Bath today puts the continuity of its function as a northern oasis through multiple ages of history into sharp relief. The remarkable archaeological site and interpretive museum erected around the excavated ruins of the Roman Baths of Aquae Sulis testifies to the city’s role in the Roman-ruled Britain of the mid-1st Century AD: not merely a centre of comfort and physical relaxation, but a focal point of pagan worship in connection with the sacred spring.
The museum displays and archaeological pits laid open for visitors are amazing enough, but next to the Great Bath itself, standing on the Roman paving stones with the much later terrace and neo-classical statues above, a different impression reigns. A past both dead and living drifts with the steam off of the heated waters there, a history utilitarian and recreational, physical and spiritual. From certain views, the white stone Bath Abbey (standing on the spot where the first King of all England was crowned in the 10th Century) rises above the entire scene, adding a whole other dimension of history and aesthetic effect to the scene.
Elsewhere, the legacy of the town’s status as a preferred retreat for the monied invalids and hypochondriacs of the Georgian and Regency eras is felt more strongly, particularly in John Wood the Younger’s residential architectural icons from the period, the Royal Crescent and the Circus. Jane Austen is the most renowned of these transplanted residents, though not during her own lifetime, and she was famously quite miserable in Bath. “Who can ever be tired of Bath?”, a line from Catherine Morland, her lead character in Northanger Abbey, is often attributed to Austen herself and stripped of the biting sarcasm with which she clearly meant it. “Taking the waters” of Bath’s spa was a catch-all prescription to cure various ills in the pre-bacterial medical prognoses of the day. This meant both immersion in and consumption of the spring-fed liquid, despite the astronomically high bacterial content (ironic, really) and the odd taste of the water. Still, no small number of comfortable gentlemen and ladies made the city their semi-permanent convalescent home in this time, and the attendant wealth has never really decamped.
It’s this legacy of luxury that predominates in the city today, and not only in its historic Georgian architectural tradition, either. The streets of central Bath, like those of any other popular travel destination, are now dotted with corporate chain shops, expensive local boutiques, and gourmet dining; the SouthGate area near the train station has even been redeveloped into a spotless open-air shopping mall, its scrubbed new three-story white-gold Bath Stone facades approximating the older edifices in the old town. As much as the conscientious class warrior feels compelled to bemoan such consumerist penetration, it’s more appropriate in Bath than most such developments in historic places. Its heritage is one of bourgeois consumption, after all, back to the Georgians and even to the Romans, to some extent. Continued consumption can’t honestly be considered anything but valid, from this point of view at least.
All of this background sets Bath up as a playground for the rich with a few historic sites to draw in the masses, and it’s hardly merely that. Like most of the country, Bath holds onto a stolid English charm despite the onslaught of corporate consumerism, and refuses to relinquish the gentility and ease that retreating visitors have sought there for centuries. Spanish guitar notes in a square, afternoon tea down on a quiet street, and a stroll along a flowing river all have an eternal appeal to a weary vacationing soul. It helps if the weather holds, too, and if it does then Bath can offer the above as well as the deep historical roots of its more famed diversions. Whatever those diversions and that history may be, they mean little if the current incarnation of the place fails to envelop the visitor in the same way. But Bath still has the power to enrapture, and who as long as it does, who indeed can ever be tired of it?
A common line on Edinburgh, Scotland (no doubt fully approved by the city tourism board) is that during the festival month of August, when the Fringe Theatre Fest, Military Tattoo, and various other arts and culture extravaganzas consume the civic scene, it may be the most exciting city in the world. But what is Edinburgh the rest of the time? Historically and contemporaneously Scotland’s governmental, financial, and cultural capital, Edinburgh has both a stiffer, more formal reputation than its rougher industrial urban rival of Glasgow and a looser profile than the grim, traditional cities of nearby Northern England.
A peculiar mix of vestigial Presbyterian propriety and rugged self-reliance of the displaced Highlanders persists in Edinburgh today, and can still be discerned beneath the thick lacquer of globalized consumer capitalism that is layered onto the deep historical foundations of all major UK centres. It is more liberal and more conservative than a city like London in different ways (and is definitely much less multicultural), and outside of its tourist bottlenecks is doubtlessly possessed of less bustle than the massive metropolitan capital to the south.
The sturdiest and most bustling of those bottlenecks is the Royal Mile, the high-to-low road winding along the herringbone spur of the Old Town from the heights of Castlehill to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the base of the rocky bulk of Arthur’s Seat (a hearty enough hike to the top, though not even a mountain, technically). The vertical tenement buildings that line the Mile now house souvenir shops hawking tartans and wool, oak-shelved scotch whiskey emporiums, overpriced pubs and restaurants of dubious quality, and museums, with luxury private residences above them. But their stones (their soft, absorbent surfaces blackened iconically by industrial soot) were once home to striving professionals and tradesmen, writers and philosophers, and destitute labourers, packed tight like sardines in the most grittily magnificent crushed tin box in urban Scotland.
Though the working class is far from vanished from Scottish life (their thick brogue, near-unintelligible to speakers on North American English, can be encountered here and there on the street or in the pub), the Old Town has spruced itself up and pedestrianized quite trimly, as befits a very old historical city centre in Europe. A sophisticated traveler may strike a pose of bemusement when faced with the blaring bagpipe music from the Thistle Do Nicelys, the dressed-up William Wallace buskers, and particularly the ubiquitous nighttime haunted tours. But something strange and gothic does indeed hang in the air in Edinburgh, drifting in on the maritime mist off the North Sea and lurking in the narrow winding closes that burrow down from the Mile like shafts into the city’s murky unconscious. Edinburgh’s macabre history of kings thrown from steeds over cliffs, religious martyrs, and burglar deacons doesn’t reduce the mysterious foreboding either.
This same mystery is not as discernible in the Georgian architectural symmetries of New Town, nor in the respectable inner suburbs. Even on the Royal Mile itself, one finds the feeling dissipates as the street’s eastern terminus is approached, with the strenuous modernism of the new Scottish Parliament Building (its jagged thrusts and brown-pole canopies sketching the suggestion of a defiant wooden Highland hill-fort) and the gated royal palace opposite it. Indeed, besides the slight differences in accent and the occasional notes of Bank of Scotland funny-money, much of Edinburgh would seem to be indistinguishable from any other part of the modern UK, and carries no more ineffable inscrutability than any other older city.
The will to modernity aside, this same foggy darkness that has hung around the popularly-disseminated image of Scottishness (a remnant of the influence of Macbeth on subsequent conceptions of the region, its people, and its culture, perhaps) is representative of a conception of Scotland’s past that the country attempts to capitalize on economically while reconciling its rough edges with a vision of its imagined future. After recent devolution legislation, the new Scottish Parliament houses something resembling a national government for the first time in over three centuries, and the Scottish National Party and other nationalist groups continue to agitate for independence from the British Union in the near future (despite middling support for this course of sovereignty among Scotland’s citizenry).
Although couched in more contemporary political terms (nuclear disarmament paramount among them), the dream of Scottish independence seems less a vision of its future than of its past, a vision that persists in the popular worldwide consciousness and therefore in Scotland’s tourist zones as well. That resilient image of Braveheart Scottishness – of lusty, fiercely loyal liberty of action and nose-thumbing resistance to the malicious influence of the usurping English – holds sway with the common visitor to a place like Edinburgh, and with so much exposure to it, how can even a local resident keep this discourse at bay?
It isn’t crystal clear that Scots firmly believe in the tartan-clad, haggis-wolfing version of their national identity, haunted as it is by so many pained ghosts and crushing defeats. On balance, the Act of Union has been good for Scotland, enabling its Enlightenment, its industrial development, and its economic assimilation into modern capitalism; a clean (or unclean, as a separation would more likely be) break from all of this would not necessarily be in the interest of even a more fully sovereign Scotland. But Scots do put plentiful effort into purposely selling this archaic image of Scotland to those from elsewhere who spend money in Scotland. Under the ideological imperatives of modern capitalism, is there any functional difference between believe in something and working hard to sell it to someone? Whatever a visitor understands Scotland as being now, they also must apprehend these durable (if stereotypical) elements of the national identity.
Like every great metropolis (and there fewer than you might think), London, England has a terrible inevitability about it. It’s enormous, sprawling, thronging with millions of residents and a few million more visitors at any given time. It overwhelms with its culture, cuisine, official institutions, and historic sites. Samuel Johnson said, “There is in London all that life can afford,” and it may be a truer aphorism now than it was in the 18th Century. London, as a city, is entirely too much, but that feels like just enough.
A scant few days is hardly enough to get London’s full measure, of course, but it will do for a rough sketch of an impression of this very old and richly-detailed civic experiment. Like many great old cities, London has both preserved and obliterated the physical traces of its centuries of historical change and upheaval. Much of the lost architectural heritage was not due to intentional planning, granted; the twin cataclysms of the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz during WWII wreaked havoc on the established edifices of the old City of London (the capitalization denotes the designation for the old walled medieval city alone, rather than the larger metropolitan area) three centuries apart.
But then again, much of the erasure was purposeful, from the dissolution of the monasteries and whitewashing iconoclasm of church interiors during the Reformation to the furious post-war building boom of the 20th and early 21st centuries that has filled the City and its suburbs (the Docklands in particular) with glass-fronted towers as monuments to the ravenous British mercantile spirit. Plenty has survived, from architect Christopher Wren’s great post-fire projects (St. Paul’s Cathedral chief among them) to medieval-derived national landmarks like Westminster Abbey (with its flying buttresses, royal tombs, and clustered monuments) and the Tower of London (once a prison for high-profile treason cases, now inhabited by gigantic, hoary ravens and the famous Beefeaters, who are now glorified tour guides). But London has always been a town of inexorable progress, and that means that buildings don’t always stay up for long, no matter their historical value.
This is not to suggest that only that which is old is good and that which is new is not. Relatively new institutions like the Underground, its lines spider-webbing ever further into the suburbs (though not as much south of the Thames, for whatever reason), or the massive British Museum have become staples alongside the older national monuments, as have 21st Century additions like the popular London Eye ferris wheel or the sleek “Gherkin” skyscraper at 30 St. Mary Axe. And although the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ascendancy holds stubborn sway in the City and Westminster, the muticultural stew of the metropolis asserts itself more and more with each passing year.
The new visitor is understandably consumed by the keenly-felt obligation to tick the major, must-see sights off the list, to make secular pilgrimages to the travellers’ beacons. One must photograph Big Ben, peek through the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace, ride the red double-decker buses, pose at the iconic (but still active and thus dangerous) Abbey Road zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles; surely enough (with the exception of the last activity), I dutifully fulfilled all of these obligations.
But travel, one must hope, ought to be more than doing what millions have done before, in the same spot, in the same way. London affords ample opportunity for such off-the-beaten path experiences, though you might need to veer from the comfort of the tourist circuit to find them. A stroll or even guided tour of one of the Magnificent Seven Victorian-era cemeteries might do the trick; we opted for Highgate, the most famed and oft-atmospheric of these sylvan necropolises. Rather than indulging in luxury accessories at Harrod’s department store, why not grab takeaway from its sparkling (and surprisingly non-dear) food hall and take a seat by the Serpentine pond in Hyde Park for a picnic (just keep an eye on those swans)? Skip the massive block of inferior art that is the Tate Modern and try out the Tate Britain instead, with its encyclopedic collection of paintings by the country’s greatest artist, J.M.W. Turner. Wander the Temple and the Inns of Court, once the stronghold of the Knights Templar and long the domain of the equally-sinister practitioners of the legal profession. Give the South Bank of the Thames a chance, too; it’s got some wonderful hidden gems.
I’d hate to entirely privilege the mainstream vs. alternative dichotomy that characterizes travel just as surely as it does other sectors of our culture, mind you. The top sights more than earn their tour-book stripes, despite the lengthy queues and clustering tour groups. But the plethora of options and ease of public transporation in London means that you can freely choose which top sights are of greatest interest, and maybe, if you’re lucky, discover a few of your own.
London is, above all, the world’s great hybridized city. It has nearly the history of Rome, most of the culture of Paris, the modern economic thrust of New York or Chicago, a entertainment-world glamour that approximates that of a toned-down, humbler Los Angeles, and the idiosyncratic sensibility of the dozens of English villages that its ravenous expansion has swallowed and from which it has attracted countless ambitious new residents. The phrase has tended to take on fundamentally ironic usage of late, but one can say with sincere honesty that London contains multitudes. Though it may be a bit early to map out another pass, it’s quite clear that the city would richly reward return visits.
Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.
Contending for the greatest prize in professional hockey for the second time in three seasons, the Boston Bruins are matched against the Chicago Blackhawks in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals (and took a lead of two games to one in the series with a grinding Game 3 win on Monday night). More than any other current NHL team, the Bruins are surrounded by a discourse that values old-fashioned smash-mouth hockey above all. Even if they are a strong puck-possession team with a protective defensive system (hallmarks of the coaching style of Claude Julien throughout his time in Boston), the Bruins are identified with all of those hoary old clichés clustered around the fading aura of hockey’s traditional culture of barely-controlled violence. Toughness, truculence, hitting, fighting, being “hard to play against”; these tropes are trotted out again and again to explain the current Bruins roster’s successes (which include a Cup in 2011).
Certainly, the prevalence of former Bruins players and coaches in the hockey media goes some way towards explaining the spread of the concept of the value of hard-edged hockey. CBC’s hockey coverage flagship Hockey Night in Canada utilized no less than three former Bruins figures in its studio team of only about half-a-dozen not so long ago: Mike Milbury, P.J. Stock, and Don Cherry were also, not so coincidentally, the broadcast’s most stringent voices in favour of fighting, hitting, and violence in the game in general (Stock and Cherry still do defend that battered rampart, as Milbury still would as well, had his preference for physical violence not become unfortunately literal in a minor hockey setting). Other public hockey figures stick up for the role of violence in the game, certainly, but there is an added element of stubborn righteousness to those who have passed through the Bruins organization and into the media. They boast the intransigent certainty of true believers, of ideological foot-soldiers for the cause of Bruinism.
The always detailed and thoughtful Ellen Etchingham takes up this subject in a fascinating recent post in her blogspace at TheScore.ca. Her insightful consideration of the Bruins’ association with conceptions of the role of nastiness, aggression, and above all physical pain concludes that these elements are valued in the hockey context not as means to an end, but as an end in themselves. What matters is not whether smash-mouth hockey leads to winning; there’s little empirical or analytical evidence that it does, and considerable agreement that high hit totals in particular are indicative of a team with poor possession percentages that tends to unproductively chase play. Violence – and for Etchingham, the shared experience and understanding of pain above all – has an aesthetic value in and of itself; indeed, it is perhaps the central defining aesthetic of the sport of hockey, in its traditional delineations.
Etchingham, who loves the game with the passion of a recent convert, conceives this aestheticization of violence and pain as essentially positive or at least grounded in the lived experience of hockey’s fans and thus basically unchallengeable in reality if not in theory. To my mind, however, this aesthetic is more problematic; indeed, even the use of the term “aesthetic”, accurate though it may prove to be, is not without its attendant issues.
My thinking on this point is influenced by the epilogue of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which I have employed on this blog in the past). This epilogue is often overlooked, as its specific contemporary focus on the ideology of the fascist movements sweeping Europe at the time of its composition is less widely applicable than the Marxist critique of industrial production in a cultural context that precedes it. But Benjamin’s consideration of the Futurist concepts of the aestheticization of war does seem to apply, surprisingly, to the Boston Bruins and the aesthetic of hockey violence that circles around them.
Benjamin discusses the manner in which, in a fascist state that includes a sizable proletarian class but does not threaten the holding of private property, the masses must necessarily turn to the political arena for the purposes of expression. The purest and most powerful method of that expression is through war, which becomes highly aestheticized in the Futurist conception as the ideal melding of human productive activity with industrial processes. Benjamin quotes an Italian Futurist at length as he rhapsodizes about the artistic truth inherent in bullets, shells, and gas masks, about the greatly-desired “metalization” of the human body, about the artistic glories of death in battle and the “symphony” of “the stench of putrefaction”. The massively-industrialized and hugely destructive war launched by the fascists in Benjamin’s home country of Germany shortly after (the upheavals of which cost Benjamin his life) would have come as no surprise to him. Indeed, war is not only inevitable but inevitably desirable in the discourse of fascistic Futurism.
Although the Marxist Benjamin does not connect this aesthetic valorizing of mechanized violence to the concomitant valorization of masculine strength and physical prowess in the mass culture of the fascist states (Nazi Germany in particular), it is this association that connects the aestheticization of war to hockey’s aestheticization of violence. Modern capitalist democracy has diverted the masculine self-expression of the masses away from its centuries-old conduit of martial warfare, ironically due mostly to the increasing mechanization of armed conflict that Futurists embraced as a harbinger of aesthetic fulfilment.
The expression of masculine aggression in the modern West has thus fallen increasingly to the sphere of sports, also famously extolled by the Nazis as a source of aestheticized Aryan glory. From the direct contending of weeknight sports leagues to the vicarious experience of rooting for pro sporting heroes, the masculine aggression of the masses once released in cathartic slaughter in war is now sublimated into the controlled, rule-bound competition of sports. The traditional hockey culture is often accused of glorifying violence, but Etchingham recognizes that what it truly glorifies is the endurance of pain, suffering, and physical difficulty, which are also the elements of war that are so often constructed as romantic and heroic. Hockey, therefore, is an ice-bound kabuki of teeth-gritting fortitude in the face of hardship enacted for the edification of the generally white, male, conservative, proletarian fanbase of the sport, or for the edification of this fanbase’s own hardscrabble daily negotiation of an increasingly obscure post-capitalist socioeconomic reality through association with their heroes’ struggles with adversity.
The point of this discussion is not to suggest that the Boston Bruins are Nazis (although Brad Marchand at least has probably been called worse), nor to simply equate sports to war in the one-for-one euphemistic substitution manner often favoured by its media. But dubbing hockey violence or “toughness” an aesthetic, just as suggesting that war is aesthetic as the Futurists did, opens up deeper and less intellectually ghettoized conceptions of its dissemination than dubbing it an ideology might do. Ideology exists beyond conscious adoption by subjective agents; it “works” even if you don’t believe in it, in Slavoj Žižek’s conception at least. But an aesthetic is closer to a preference or a predilection. It is chosen, while ideology chooses us. However we choose to justify it, either by Etchingham’s appeal to common empathy or the Bruinist insistence that it correlates to success in the win column, understanding hockey violence as an aesthetic makes its continued prevalence in the sport that much more troubling and difficult.
I have previously considered the subject of the common intersections of art and commerce in these parts, and two recent BBC art documentaries I’ve recently seen serve to further contextualize that discussion.
In The World’s Most Expensive Paintings, art critic Alastair Sooke (who also produced an illuminating documentary on British war art recently) presents a countdown show of sorts for the ten paintings that have fetched the highest prices at public auctions in the modern history of the art trade. Though the actual subject material of the program does not quite match its extravagant title (many works of art beyond all conceivable financial evaluation are held by public museums, and the undisclosed sums paid in private art sales are speculated to far outpace the publically-divulged auction prices), Sooke’s journey across the globe to reveal what he can about the art that costs its acquisitors so many millions of dollars is nonetheless an engaging odyssey into the secretive world of elite art collection.
The tone mixes wide-eyed aspirational envy of the mega-rich with mild rebukes of their splashy, ostentatious greed (much of the latter is reserved for bronzed billionaire Vegas developer Steve Wynn, who once owned Pablo Picasso’s La Rêve and boorishly put his elbow through the canvas in the process of selling it). Sooke cannot get near too many of the actual buyers of these hugely costly Van Goghs, Rothkos, Picassos, and Francis Bacons, settling mostly for conversations with their auctioneers, art consultants, and acquaintances as well as meetings with less flush collectors and contemporary art enthusiasts. Sooke is affable and knowledgeable when standing before a painting, pointing out its aesthetic valences and secret features. But he never does get terribly close to probing the exact nature of the relationship between art and money, as he promised. If anything, he demonstrates rather conclusively that art needs money. But why does money need art? Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption perhaps provides the only answer required to that question.
A more nuanced and informative exploration of these issues comes from Stephen Smith, whose BBC Four series Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau delves into the defining visual artistic movement of Europe’s Gilded Age at the turn of the 19th Century. Art Nouveau was characterized by many of the defining features of major counter-cultural movements over years in the post-Enlightenment West. Its proponents in Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, England, and Vienna emphasized sexuality and sensuality in opposition to Late Victorian propriety, natural beauty and dedicated hand-craftsmanship in response to urban and technological expansion and increasing mechanization of production processes, personal expression in the place of the conventions of middle-class taste. It owes a considerable debt to Romanticism, directly inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco, and its echoes could be felt in 1960s hippie psychedelia and the organic and artisanal pretension of 2000s indie DIY culture.
And yet Art Nouveau was a product of its own time as well; it defined that time, even, and Smith is clever in his exposition of how it did so. The focus on intricate, hand-crafted beauty in its products made them sought-after household decorative objects at the same time as it inflated prices. The very aesthetic philosophy that sought to set Art Nouveau apart from middle-class consumption therefore made it the preferred target of that consumption. Smith – amusing, self-deprecating, and more immune to Sooke’s species of hyperbole and platitudes – comes back to this part of Art Nouveau’s rich story again and again, dedicating a sizable portion of his episode on the movement’s legacy in Britain to toney London department store Liberty’s exploitation and mass-retailing of the work of artisans in the Arts & Crafts vein of William Morris and others. The store is the Urban Outfitters or Apple of its time, raking in considerable profits selling an image of enlightened consumption as much as a specific type of artistically-fashionable product.
Smith’s narrative benefits from the inherent drama of the lives of the movement’s principal figures. Prominent French designer Émile Gallé took an unpopular contemporary political stance against the persecution of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and lost many of his wealthy patrons in the process. Two of the movement’s shining lights in Britain suffered even more greatly: Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality, while his friend and sometimes collaborator Aubrey Beardsley, a revolutionary draftsman and artist, died from tuberculosis before he was 30. Even the blazing successes of the Vienna Secession are darkly underscored by the fracturing of its members’ loose partnership over time.
But this latter group’s ostentatious motto “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“To every age its art. To art its freedom”) is a fitting epigraph to Art Nouveau. In seeking to give art its freedom, the practitioners of Art Nouveau gave their age its art, but it was an art of the age: a mere idealistic glaze of edgy Bohemianism applied to the cynical imperatives of industrialized mass-culture consumerism of the striving middle-class and the wealth-amassing elite. It is in this way that Art Nouveau should be most familiar to a modern world characterized by the prevalence of similarly-pitched subcultures, and to an art world as much in the thrall of exorbitant wealth as ever before.