Friday, June 29, 2007

Archaeology of Popism

A few things to add to Simon's list of the prehistory of Popism: 'popism' itself is increasingly not a particularly useful term, as it limits the critique to the Freaky Trigger/ILX/Poptimism axis, who contributed a fair amount of interesting debate once upon a time, and because this is a far wider phenomenon, extendible from Channel 4, to the Universities to New Labour. But here are a few early instances of the 'Popist' move (the consummated and unconsummated affairs between intellectuals, the avant-garde and mass culture), which also show a history that gradually degenerates into mere cheerleading for capitalism:

First and foremost, Eccentrism, a movement in 1920s USSR, basic theory being: 'slapstick comedies (Keaton, Chaplin etc) are superior to all previous Western art'. General popist valourising of all things American, commodified and so forth in their manifesto, which is a really very exciting read. Meanwhile, my own short thing about them is here. The differences are twofold with today's vastly less interesting version: a) political commitment (linked with general popist epatering of bourgeoisie but also 'aha, Laurel and Hardy are better than the Bolshoi' as workerist gesture and b) interest in using popcult to create the new and avant: Eisenstein, Modernist par excellence, was pals with this lot, and their own films were distinctly disjunctive as well as circus-populist. See also the work of Vesevelod Meyerhold, the craze for the 'Red Pinkertons' in the mid 20s, i.e detective novels with a Marxist-Utopian slant, often written by Formalist linguists such as Marietta Shaginyan's Mess-Mend; and the bizarre attempts to create a 'Red Douglas Fairbanks' and so forth. In fact there's a whole Russo-German leftist/intellectual appreciation for American masscult in this period that someone (that is, me) is going to write a thesis on.

Reyner Banham, principally in his book on LA and the delightful BBC film Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, which is available on Google video, and whom I briefly discussed here. A sort-of-Warholian/Ballardian cheering of the freeway, the strip and the billboard from Late-Modernist architecture critic. Like the above, this is more a Pulp Modernism which is superficially similar to but far more critical and intelligent than the actual phenomenon that K-Punk and others have critiqued. Pulp Modernism is unlike Popism in that it takes Popcult at its most disruptive, and most futuristic: taking the popularity of Sci-Fi, comics and fantasy as its pop launchpad as opposed to what actually sells, which is a mixture of this and a fair amount of the entirely worthless. Archigram are a fine exemplar of this trend, as were the Independent Group, and Banham had links with both. See also Streamline Moderne a few decades prior.

More akin to actual 'Popism' (or as yet unfinished new term) avant-la-lettre - Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown's Learning from Las Vegas, an early 70s anitmodernist urbanist tract. There are elements here that are more Pulp Modernist than Popist. The book divides roughly into two sections, the first on Vegas, which is more Pulp - the neon phantasmagoria of the garish and lurid billboards and the lettering on the casinos, the rippling 'Braziloid' Modern of Vegas' buildings and so forth. But the second part, 'The Decorated Shed', a call for the 'dull' and revivalist in architecture, is much more like 'Popism' as is, as can be seen in the little charts of oppositions that punctuate it: boring is better than interesting, consumerism is better than collectivism, advertising is better than art, the Client (read: consumer) is king, you know the drill - only here unlike in Warhol, Ballard and others it goes the whole hog into neoconservatism via the 'nothing interesting can happen anymore' mode and the attack on paternalism and the avant-garde leading to reclaiming of the straightforwardly, uncritically corporate: 'all that appears is good, all that is good appears', as Debord puts it.

The important point, for a rationalist theory of Pop, is the maintenance of the critical - popculture's ability to throw up all manner of excitement and brilliance is surely beyond dispute (albeit it's been having a distinctly lean few years), and despite postmodernists' self-aggrandisement on this one, this is something with a long avant-garde and Modernist (and politicised) history. Yet as has been pointed out, when we end up with this sort of thing, an impasse has clearly been reached. Forgive me for my literalism, but isn't this 'our Vietnam'??


Blogger HKM said...

Douglas Fairbanks met Eisenstein in 1926... a few weeks after meeting Picasso... and Mussolini. T. S. Eliot was a (minor) Chaplin fan. Appreciation of "masscult" (disgusting term) was not limited to the left, and it wasn't a minority thing, but on all sides of the spectrum it was limited by an essential paternalism. The eccentrist films were not exactly overflowing with political commitment -- but anyway do you not think that 'epatering the bourgeoise' is a weird way to talk about *any* cultural practice in the SU in the 20s? Not that it had much of a bourgeoisie at the outset, but even still.

1:45 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Ah, always a pleasure. But lots of this is nitpicking, really: Eccentrism in its various forms always couched itself as a response to the NEP's return to the classics, which was associated with the (admittedly limited) return of a bourgeoisie in the SU. And their films were pretty obviously politicised - New Babylon for instance, and even The Devil's Wheel has more political import than eg Venturi. Or think of Kuleshov's Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks...

And no, it wasn't limited to the left by all means - but the leftist avant-garde of the 20s were great appreciators of american mass culture, and I think this is an interesting fact, no?

3:07 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Btw sorry about the 'disgusting' phrase 'american masscult' - was meant to evoke Proletkult, from whence many of this lot came.

3:16 pm  
Blogger sevensixfive said...

Just read Banham on LA last year (while in LA), and was totally amazed that he seemed to say all of the things that Venturi/Scott/Brown/Isenour were saying too, but without the snark and bad attitude.

Banham is positive, he's 'yes, and ...' where VSBI, publishing a year later, are 'no, but ...'. Banham is trying to synthesize and organize, while the other crowd seems like they're just trying to pick a fight.

Pulp Modernist/Popist seems totally appropriate, and the Debord quote is spot-on, too.

6:14 am  
Blogger Addictive Picasso said...

thanks for this post. got me cogitating...

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