Sunday, 27 March 2016

Feeding the Pythons - John Cleese and Eric Idle

Sometimes you discover a performance that you know that you should go to, even if it probably isn't something that you are all that interested in. This was the case when Simon and Garfunkle, years after they had split up, decided to do a reunion tour and come to Adelaide. I'd never been all that interested in their music, however I knew that not only was it going to be something that my brother would enjoy (he did), but it was one of those experiences that I knew wasn't going to come around again. As it turns out that seems to be the case because rumour has it that Paul Simon isn't really all that fit to be able to go on tour again (though I could be wrong).

However, I'm not actually writing about Simon and Garfunkle, but rather about another duo that I fortuitously discovered where making and appearance in Australia – John Cleese and Eric Idle. I have to admit that after seeing Jimeoin perform live I have always been really dubious about going to a live comedy show. When a friend and I decided to go and see a one at the Adelaide fringe we decided to pick Jimeoin because we were under the impression that out of all of the acts that were on at the time, he was probably going to be the most tame. As it turned out he wasn't, and to say that it was a huge disappointment is an understatement. The same was the case when we were watching a Billy Connelly video – while a friend was rolling on the ground in laughter we were just sitting there trying to work out why he found his jokes so funny.

Mind you, I would say that it was with some trepidation that I went to purchase tickets to see two of the Monty Python team perform live, but I have to admit that it wasn't the case. In fact, as soon as I discovered that they were performing live, when I got home I jumped onto the internet and booked the first ticket available, which unfortunately turned out to be a Sunday night (namely because Friday and Saturday had already sold out). While I don't like staying out too late on a school night, it was John Cleese and Eric Idle, so this was going to be an exception.

Pythonesque Humour

I have to admit that despite seeing the first couple of seasons of Monty Python a number of times, I have to admit that there aren't a huge number of laugh out loud moments. This is also the case with the couple of movies that they released afterwards (with the exception of Meaning of Life – I've never really liked A Meaning of Life). However Monty Python isn't really known for their laugh out loud moments. Sure, the first time you see the Parrot Sketch you are probably on the floor laughing, but with a lot of humour you end up getting used to it. However that doesn't mean that it stops being funny. Take Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels for instance – the first couple of times I watched it I thought it was hilarious. However, after the first three times the humour starts wearing off, but that doesn't mean that it ceases being funny. While you may not laugh the same way that you did at first (because comedy does rely a lot on the unexpected) you still enjoy the humour that the movie produces.

Humour does rely a lot on the unexpected, however humour also relies upon making us uncomfortable. As John Cleese explained, we laugh at sex, violence, and religion because it makes us uncomfortable (even in today's sex mad society), and we deal with that feeling of discomfort by laughing. Mind you, it is not that violence, or sex, is funny, but rather the way that the comedian portrays it. They tells us a joke and we know that we shouldn't find this funny, but we will laugh at it anyway. Another aspect is how a situation may be absolutely preposterous – such as the Dead Parrot sketch. The idea is so absurd, that of a customer discovering that the pet shop owner has pulled a fast one by selling him a dead parrot, yet continues to treat the customer as an idiot by pretending that the parrot isn't dead, it is just resting it's eyes, so we laugh.

The Background

The performance wasn't just a series of jokes being told by Cleese and Idle, though there were a number of trips down memory lane, which included Idle playing some of our favourite songs, but it was also, in part, their story. In fact it was the back story as to how they came together that I found interesting. Mind you, we are talking about the celebrity sphere here, so it is not surprising that the Python crew had connections with other famous British comedians such as the two Ronnies (does anybody actually remember those guys, or am I the only one who recalls watching their sketch show) and the Goodies (being Graham Gardener, Tim Brook-Taylor, and Bill Oddie). In fact Cleese and Idle were involved in a comedy review at university with two of the Goodies (and later met up with the third when they travelled to Scotland for another show). I would suggest that this show was their big break, but it wasn't. While it was a hit in the West End, when they travelled to New York they received one bad review, however it was in the New York Times, which unfortunately carries a lot of weight in the theatre scene.

The interesting thing was that their big break came when David Frost (a celebrity that always seemed to be the butt of jokes on the Goodies, and I suspect Monty Python as well) invited them to participate in one of his shows, and this ended up morphing into what eventually became Monty Python. The thing that they found surprising was that the executives at the BBC literally gave them free reign, but they were also put on the late time slot, which meant that not many people would have been watching them (especially the TV executives, though I sometimes wander whether they actually watch half the shows that they put on television). From there the crew became the stars that we know and love to this day.

The Good Old Irish

John Cleese had a little to say about racial humour, and when he makes a comment about laughing at that which makes us uncomfortable, this is one area which in today's society it is very taboo. Yet Cleese was more than happy to show an old video of him pretending to be a Swede who was promoting Swedish Fun week (which sort of suggests that the Swedes aren't really all that fun). Mind you, back in the days of Monty Python, racial humour wasn't frowned upon as much, however in today's society of radical political correctness it seems that only somebody with the calibre of John Cleese could get away with it.

Yet there is a thing about racial humour that makes it bad. Okay, there is the racial stereotype where the joke really only applies to a particular people group, and then there are the jokes (such as the Irish jokes) that are designed to denigrate the current flavour of the month. I still remember as a kid running around telling Irish jokes, and there were even books full of them in the school library. As an example (which I can hopefully get away with) here is a clip from the Goodies:

The question is why? Well, I suspect that stems back to the long struggle between the English and the Irish, and even then when I was young Belfast was still in the midst of war and IRA terrorists would every so often strike at London. However it wasn't so much that they were enemies - in the way that the Germans were enemies during World War II - they were rebels, fighting a guerilla war against the British. Yet it also has a lot to do with denigrating an entire race of people - which is similar to some of the aboriginal jokes that would be told here in Australia. In the end I have to admit that I really don't like racial jokes (despite the fact that I did laugh at Cleese's) namely because it is another way of getting a cheap laugh at somebody else's expense.

Am I Getting Old?

Actually, I don't like to think about getting old, not because I don't like the idea of growing old, but rather because I feel that the whole idea of age is simply one of those preposterous ideas that society throws on us to make us feel useless. However when you start to see Facebook posts that talk about contemporary musicians not having any talent and contemporary comedians simply not being funny, you suddenly begin to wander whether you have entered that period of life that you sneered at your parents for being. Mind you, I have always moved with the times, or at least believed that I have, but I am starting to question whether it is the case where I have moved to that stage of life where I'm starting to see that the talent I saw in the 80s is no longer around.

The reason I suggest this is because, unfortunately, comedy isn't the same anymore. Sure, Monty Python was quite rude, either implicitly, or, as in the case of the Penis Song, very explicit. However, when I consider many of the modern comedies that are appearing these days it seems as if all they are doing is going for cheap laughs. Sure, my Dad never watched Monty Python when I was younger, though I still remember shows such as The Goodies, or the sketch shows such as Fast Foward and the Comedy Company. Many of these shows relied upon the eccentricities of the characters, such as Con the Fruiterer, or Uncle Arthur. It seems that this is no longer the case these days, especially where we consider the antics of the modern comedians such as Seth Rogan and his ilk. Sure, I have found his films funny, but I am questioning whether the comedy is actually funny, or is it simply making us laugh by being grouse.

It seems as if Cleese's statement that we laugh because something makes us feel uncomfortable, and it is a natural defence mechanism to laugh when we feel uncomfortable. Mind you, I'm not all that inclined to agree with him because these uncomfortable events need to be painted in a particular way for us to laugh – horror movies make us uncomfortable but I hardly see people bursting out in hysteria when watching Stephen King's Misery. No, it is not that we laugh when we are uncomfortable, we laugh because the comedian makes a mockery of something, and we laugh because we learn to see the funny side of things.

I guess this is probably why Life of Brian ends with this now famous song:

Actually, I should finish off with a little anecdote about this song. I remember, when I was in high school (I went to a fairly strict Christian school) that Life of Brian was on one Sunday night, and I watched it. As was expected, the next morning that famous song was running through my head. Actually, it was running through everybody's head, to the point that we all started singing it at school, to the horror of the teachers. Not only did the song contain the 's' word, but it came from a movie that many of the teachers considered to be blasphemous. As such, in a panic (as they always did) they immediately banned anybody from singing the song. Mind you, that gut reaction ended up making us like the film even more, simply because our teachers didn't want us singing that song.

I do wonder, though, what would have happened if it had been the penis song instead?

Creative Commons License

Feeding the Pythons - John Cleese and Eric Idle by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

Billy Connelly By Eva Rinaldi

Monday, 21 March 2016

Ai Wei Wei - China's Conscience

One of the interesting things about the Andy Warhol exhibition that I attended was that they combined it with the art of a more contemporary artist - Ai Wei Wei. Mind you, the main reason that I wanted to go to the exhibition was simply because of Warhol and to be honest I wasn't really interested in seeing any other artist alongside him. I guess if there was one thing about this exhibition is that Ai Wei Wei seemed to be intruding upon it a little too much. That doesn't necessarily mean that he isn't any good - he does have his own interesting style, and he also has some very confronting artwork, however it wasn't Ai Wei Wei I went to see, it was Andy Warhol (and if you are interested, here is a link to my post on Warhol).

I guess the reason they did this is because they were using Warhol as the big name to attract the crowds, and to expose them to another artist that has been heavily influenced by the work of Warhol. It is true that Warhol and Wei Wei are very similar in their methods, though Wei Wei is much more contemporary than is Warhol. Where as Warhol was active mostly in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, Wei Wei is still active to this day. However there was a period in the early 80s where their paths crossed. Despite the similarities there are a couple of major differences - whereas Warhol is quintessentially American, Wei Wei is Chinese. Further, while Warhol explored the nature of American consumerism, Wei Wei is much more critical in his subject, and is much more of an activist than was Warhol.

These photos were displayed prominently in the first gallery and they raise the question (at least where I am concerned) as to what aspect of it is the artwork – is it the photos of him dropping the antique vase, or is it actually him dropping the antique vase and the action of him doing so has been captured on film. I am inclined to lean towards the second interpretation in that the photographs are simply catching him performing the artistic impression because for the art to be able to work it needs to be captured on some form of medium.

I guess this is what art has always been – it is not so much the medium upon which it has been captured but rather the image that the medium has captured. Many of us, when we consider art, we always look at the medium – this is a beautiful painting, that is an amazing sculpture – but we fail to see the art that is beyond the medium. Take Michelangeo's David for instance – many of us look at it as a sculpture of the perfect man, however we tend to get caught up in the sculpture as opposed to what the sculpture represents – humanity in it's perfect form. The same is true of DaVinci's Universal Man – it is not the drawing that we should be focused on, but rather what the drawing is about – that is humanity (or should I say man, since even the enlightened renaissance artist was still restrained by their patriarchal society, though Da Vinci also painted the Mona Lisa).

However let us consider these photographs, or more specifically the act of Wei Wei dropping the vase. In this instance we have him dropping an Han Dynasty Vase. What we have here in an artistic reflection of the destruction of history. In a way the vibrant and dynamic history of our culture is slowly, but surely, being destroyed by rampant commercialism. While Wei Wei was specifically targeting modern China (as seen with the Cultural Revolution) this is true of the modern society as a whole. Our culture and our history is being wiped out and being replaced by a new culture that doesn't care about history, only about profit. Wei Wei reflects this with the the neolithic vase that has been branded with the Coca-cola logo. In a way the modern branding culture is taking over our history and remaking it in our own image. No longer do we have the image of neolithic man creating a vase, but neolithic man enjoying a drink of coke – the brand is taking over our identity and inserting itself into our past.

The Art of Photography

Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes a photograph a work of art. I have to admit that I go around taking an awful lot of photographs, however would I consider my photos art – not really. They are just photos of buildings and food. They have a practical purpose since I post them up on Yelp, as well as using them as visual aids for my travel blog. Yet it seems as if an artist goes around taking photographs then all of a sudden they become art. Mind you, I have a friend who is a photographer and his considers the photographs that he takes as a form of art. Mind you, the interesting thing are the tools that he uses to take these photographs – I use a digital camera, and the camera in my smartphone (which is coming very close to the end of it's days – I really need to get around to purchasing a new one) whereas he uses film.

Anyway, the next gallery contained a collection of photographs taken by both Warhol and Wei Wei. I have already written extensively on Warhol in a previous post, so let us consider the photos that Wei Wei took. Actually it seems that he took an awful lot of photographs, not just of his time in New York. Looking at these photos it is not so much the photograph that one should be paying attention to, but rather the subject of the photograph. For instance a lot of the photographs are of the dark and seedy side of New York – the prostitutes, the homeless people, the drug addicts. Yet this is not the only aspect to these photographs, but also of the ruling class. Whereas Warhol had a lot of focus on the celebrity class, Wei Wei takes aim at the ruling class – such as the photograph of Bill Clinton on the campaign trail. In a way, like the celebrity class, the ruling class shuts itself away from the reality of the streets.

There was another gallery that we stepped into that contained a series of photographs by Wei Wei, and these photographs all held a similar theme – it was a photograph of a building, whether representing the government or culture, with him flipping the birdie (which is an Australian term for sticking up your middle finger). In one sense we would see these photos and have a good old chuckle (and Wei Wei does delve into the realm of satire, since it is a great method for getting your ideas across to the world at large) yet they have a deeper meaning. However a part of us (or me at least), when we read the description next to the photos, are put off more by the description than we are by the photos. I suspect that it has something to do with the relative nature of the art suddenly being destroyed by somebody else's opinion. Where as the art at first is defined by the perception of the viewer, once we read the description it suddenly begins to feel that our opinion no longer counts. Sometimes I feel that maybe we should discard the description and just view the photos as we would view them – whether it be a symbol of defiance against authority, or just some juvenile prank.

Flower Power

Flowers sit in a powerful position in our psyche, and in our art. In fact one of Van Gogh's most famous paintings is of some sunflowers in a vase. This is no different when it comes to modern artists such as Warhol and Wei Wei, though there are subtle differences in our cultural perception. To us in the west flowers are symbols of love, sexuality and nobility where as in the Middle Kingdom they are auspicious symbols of wealth and social status, but also symbolise beauty and enlightenment. Mind you, this concept of enlightenment is something that we generally do not grasp here in the west because to us flowers seem to reflect the physical and the sensual, where as in the east they have more spiritual meanings.

Flowers were actually a very important aspect in Wei Wei's art, and his use symbolised defiance against tyranny, but not defiance in the form of violence, but defiance in the form of peace. In Wei Wei's mind one does not defy the state through the use of violent revolution, but through peace and beauty. In fact Wei Wei was arrested, and then placed under house arrest in Beijing, in 2012, and during that time, every day, a bicycle full of flowers would be placed outside his house. This was an act of protest, but not in the sense that we protest here in the west (such as placing a sign up on the Tate Gallery in London calling for the Chinese government to free him) but rather as a sign that while he may be imprisoned, he is still in many ways free.

There is a video (which unfortunately is in Chinese) on Youtube, which is basically a music video of his imprisonment. Underneath the video somebody posted a comment suggesting that locking up a chubby old man is not a sign of strength but a sign of weakness. However I would have to disagree with that statement as while on the outside Wei Wei may appear to be a 'chubby old man' we must not forget what he stands for. It is not so much that they are locking up a harmless individual, but rather trying to silence a critic. Sure, Wei Wei may be peaceful, but he is still a symbol – a symbol of resistance. This is one of the reasons that Jesus Christ was executed – not because he was a violent revolutionary, but rather because he posed a threat to the social order. It is not the question of whether a person is violent or not, but rather because they are a threat. Okay, Jesus did bust up the money changer operation in the temple, but he was not calling for a violent revolution, he was calling for a spiritual revolution – a revolution that would pose a treat to the established authority.

Found Art

Like Warhol, Wei Wei has also been influenced by the work of Duchamp (the toilet bowl guy, just in case you didn't know). Mind you, as I suggested in my post on Warhol, it wasn't anything hugely revolutionary that they were doing with this form of art – Duchamp had already broken the boundaries, allowing others to continue with their experiments – but rather building on their foundations to use art as a form of exploring our society and our culture. Where as Warhol was building on Duchamp, Wei Wei was using the same techniques to challenge our perception of what is art, and the meaning behind this artistic world. However Wei Wei does attribute Duchamp through bending a coat hanger into the shape of his face.

The idea of the found form, as I have suggested in my piece on Warhol, can be a means to challenge our perception of the modern world, or simply to create something that makes us think. This is the case with the huge block of tea sitting on a pallet. Okay, it isn't a pretty picture, or some clever sculpture, but it does help us understand a part of Chinese history. As I have indicated previously, one of the aspects of modern culture is the attempt to rewrite, and even erase, the historical record, and this is one of the important things about art – it helps us maintain the truth. The tea is reflective of the main reason behind Europe's move into China, and that is for trade. However it wasn't trade on equal terms, it is trade where one partner has a significant advantage over the other. Then again is trade ever equal? Isn't it the case that everybody involved in the transaction trying to get one up on the other?

Then we have the bottle of Absolute Vodka. Mind you, once again Wei Wei was influenced by Warhol in this regards. However I suspect that this obsession with Absolute Vodka has something to do with the brand. Is it the case that this brand of vodka represents what Fukujama meant when he said that we have arrived at the end of history? Is this the point that our world was making it's way towards, a world of crass consumerism, of trade, of where the rich get richer and the poor get screwed? However it could also represent the high point of our culture, or even that point in which we release that our culture is little more than what is found at the bottom of a bottle. In fact the idea of the absolute being a bottle of not just any alcohol, but a really potent form of alcohol suggests that that is all it is – outside of the unreality that is created through strong drink there is nothing, and because there is nothing the only thing that we can do it hide from it in a bottle of alcohol.

Yet if you look closely at the bottle of vodka you will notice that inside it is an ancient artifact. Like the neolitic vase that has been branded with the Coca-Cola logo, so the bottle of vodka is subsuming the past. The imagery of the past is being overwhelmed by the commercialisation of the present to the point that the past no longer matters. That is the nature of the modern commercialist society – the past is irrelevant because there is no profit in the past. This is not entirely true as a whole industry has been developed out of exploring the past – one can purchase a holiday to Anatolia and go on a tour of the ancient ruins of the Greco-roman civilisation as well as visit the World War I battlefields. However when one arrives at the ruins they will discover that they are surrounded by stalls selling fake souvenirs, and a ticket box charging fees to walk inside. In fact, like the modern museum, one will visit the exhibition, and immediately when one leaves the exhibition one finds themselves in a gift shop, usually with a desire to purchase something to take home (as I inevitably did, only to discover when I got home that I really had no need for the junk – with the exception of the book on the exhibition).

Stealing Culture

The final gallery – okay it wasn't THE final gallery because there was another gallery in which the videos of both Warhol and Wei Wei were on display (as well as an exploration of their respective studios) – contained what could be considered the end point of their artistic work. Okay, it may not be so much and end point of their work, but the exhibition put this at an end. Anyway, with Wei Wei it was a collection of bronze heads set in a semi-circle. These heads were representations of the twelve heads of the Chinese zodiac that at one time sat in the Forbidden City. However these heads are no longer there, namely because they were stolen by the British.

This, being the penultimate room, shows another aspect of cultural imperialism. It is not so much that the British arrived and imposed their own culture on Chinese civilisation – this was not possible namely because the Chinese civilisation of the time was already well developed and they simply could not level it to the ground and rebuild China in their own image. This was not like Australia, or the United States, where the original inhabitants lived a very basic existence, and where they weren't wiped out by disease, they were subjugated by the gun. The civilisation of the indigenous Americans and Australians have now been subsumed into the culture of the west to create this quaint, and somewhat different, extension to the Anglo Empire.

In China, however, this was not the case. The Emperor wasn't deposed, and the cities were not destroyed. However the colonial powers moved in and established their own free trade zones. However as a symbol of the dominance of the civilisation they would loot the civilisation of their treasures and take them back to the motherland to put them in museums as spoils of war. This was also the case with the last full-blooded aboriginal in Tasmania, who was taken back to England, preserved, and erected in a museum. This was done in part for scientific purposes, but in the end it is the reality of the spoils of conquest.

This is the last picture I wish to discuss, and in a way it identifies the nature, and the role, of the artist. Sure, I try to do a similar thing with this blog, that is to attempt to shine a light in the darkness, and to open people's minds to the reality of the world in which we live. However, like this blog, most people don't think too much about the contents of a photo, or a painting, or any other work of art. Many of us simply look at it as pretty pictures, and then move on to the next one. Similar to the blogger, the artist sometimes struggles against the ignorance of society, in a vein attempt to open society's eyes to the reality of the world around them. It is interesting that Jesus used a similar metaphor when delivering the Sermon on the Mount, where he speaks of his followers as being a light to the world. However what the light reveals can be incredibly confronting, and disturbing, and in the end those who are confronted with such scenes either willingly close their eyes, or simply try to extinguish the lamp.

Further Reading

Here are some links for people who are interested in finding out some more about Ai Wei Wei.
This is a link ot Ai Wei Wei' Webpage
This links an article on the Smithsonian website.
New Republic has an article on Ai Wei Wei here.
New Yorker also has an article on Ai Wei Wei.
This is a link to a documentary about Ai Wei Wei.

Creative Commons License,/div>
Ai Wei Wei - China's Conscience by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Andy Warhol - The Original Hipster

"I have a social disease, I have to go out every night"

Okay, some might object to my title in the belief that John Lennon deserves that claim to fame much more than does Warhol, however considering that the Beatles only hit the scene in 1960 where was Warhol had begun displaying his art in the 1950s he, at least in my humble opinion, is much more deserving. Anyway I have generally found Warhol in the past to be fairly hit or miss with his artwork considering that the only one that I (and probably quite a few of us) are familiar with is his painting of the Campbells soup can. However, when I learnt that an exhibition of his artwork was on display at the NGV (the National Gallery of Victoria) I knew that I had to go and check it out. To say that I was pretty much blown away is probably an understatement. What I can say though is that I seriously underestimated Warhol's brilliance as an artist.

Yes, there is actually more than one
As you probably noticed from the poster the exhibition wasn't just of Warhol's art but also of a Chinese Artist named Ai Wei Wei, however because both artists' works are quite extensive I will focus only on Warhol in this post and will devote another post entirely to Wei Wei (especially since one of his works of art involves him travelling around the world and taking photos of him flipping the birdy at some of the world's famous land marks). 

"I am a deeply superficial person"

Well, I could go into intricate details of where he was born, where he went to school, who his childhood sweetheart was but I will leave that to Wikipedia (though I'm not sure it goes into intricate details of every person he dated in high school). However I do note that his last name was originally Warhola (which means that he changed it sometime later), and his first job was an advertising artist in New York. He was actually really, really good at that job, and had developed a way that he could create artistic copy really quickly, something that he would take into his artistic career. Another interesting thing that I discovered is that he did a lot of his artwork using silk-screen printing, something that I hadn't discovered previously (though most of the artwork that I have seen weren't from Warhol's era; they generally came before it).

If there is one thing that I have to say about Warhol and that he is the quintessential American artist. In a way he seemed to know the American society and embraced it's crass commercialism in a way that helped us understand that lying behind this desire to make as much money as possible, and to live as wealthy a lifestyle as possible, that there was a deep and vibrant culture. Take the Campbells Soup paintings (which, as I discovered, there are more than one) - Warhol takes something that is manufactured and mass distributed, something that every American knows because all they have to do is to open their pantry door and there it is sitting on the shelf, and paints a picture of it.

However, he doesn't just paint one picture, he paints a number of them, all different in a way, but also all the same. This is the nature of modern society, where we walk into our supermarkets and see shelves full of products that are all the same, yet we will spend our time staring at these items trying to determine which is the best one to buy. We look at the used-by date, we feel each bottle of milk to determine which is the coldest, we go to the back of the shelf knowing (or believing) that that is where the newer items are stored (and having worked stacking shelves in a supermarket, I can say that that is where they are supposed to be put, not that it always happens that way).

However there is something about commercialism, and business, that appealed to Warhol. As he said: being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art, making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.

"In the future everybody will have fifteen minutes of fame"

Warhol embraced, and in a way added life to America's cult of celebrity. Mind you this is not surprising because Warhol was a celebrity himself. Sure, he was mostly active in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, which was around the time the cult of celebrity really began to take off, but once again what we are seeing is a change in the way that society were idolising the rich and famous. In years gone by it was the rulers and the aristocrats, the writers and the painters, that would dominate this scene, however with the increased popularity in film and music, and the commercialisation of this medium, a shift was beginning to occur.

Three Marilyns
You see, what we were beginning to see was a new type of person entering societies collective conscious in the form of the actor and the musician. The the past one did not see a play based on who was acting but rather who was writing. The actors were restricted based upon location, meaning that somebody in New York could not easily travel to London to see a specific performer. The actor simply was an instrument of the writer's art. However film brought about something new, the rise of the celebrity. All of a sudden the writer (or the director) moved into the background, and it was the actor who came to the forefront. Suddenly people began to see films not because of the director, but because of the actor.

Loti Simpson
Thus Warhol would paint portraits of this new style of celebrity, yet it wasn't like the portraits of old, but portraits that reflected the changing style of the world in which we live. Being life like wasn't not important, but rather capturing the essence of the subject, and the nature of the world of the celluloid. Not only were we seeing the rise of a new aristocracy, but we were also seeing a new style in the way in which these images were being captured. Once again this had come about through the development of the camera and of film. One no longer needed to spend hours painting a portrait as life like as possible as all one needed to do now was to take a photo.

David Whitney
Another interesting piece was one which he called 'Vote McGovern'. The Democrats had requested that he create something for McGovern's campaign against Nixon in 1972, so he painted a portrait that I am sure is not what the Democrats where looking for - basically it was Richard Nixon with a sickly green face and the words 'Vote McGovern' below. This probably suggests that one of the things that Warhol was not interested in was politics, but it also goes to the heart of the political process. The whole idea is to create the image of the other side being bad for the country, and in doing so you convince the voters to vote for you. In this image Nixon is a sickly character, no doubt not fit to be president, which leaves us to vote McGovern.

"Being born is like being kidnapped, and then sold into slavery"

A funny thing about modern art is its experimental nature. Sure Warhol was a painter, but his art went far beyond just the canvas and the easel (though he actually produced a lot of his art through silk-screen printing). He experimented with film, and also with an idea of the 'Found Object' which was originally developed by Marcel Duchamp (of the toilet bowl fame). Okay, DuChamp may have gotten away with grabbing a urinal and signing and dating it, and then putting it in an art gallery and calling it art, but when it has been done once it can't really be done a second time. Yet Warhol, who was heavily influenced by Duchamp, went a step further - he took a box, filled it with concrete, and signed it.

In one sense the idea of scrawling one's name in concrete (and I'm sure we all did that at least once in our youth) is seen to be little more than vandalism, but it also creates a sense of permanency, and in a way that is something that we all want, a sense of being permanent, being remembered, and having a legacy to pass on. When the concrete sets our name is left in that concrete and everybody who walks over it, even as fleeting as it may be, will see the name in the block. In a way it is a part of the psychology behind why it has now become the fashion of a movie star to place their hands in the concrete on Hollywood Boulevard (and this has also gone over to Hong Kong).

Yet the concrete in the box - is this saying something about our modern consumer society? We buy something in the box, but it is fleeting, it breaks down, and in the end all it becomes is little more than a paperweight. I guess that is the essence of the artist, the fleeting nature of the world and of life and this desire to create something that will last and will be remembered - which is why we sign our names in the wet concrete.

Another thing I noticed was the crate of silver coke bottles. Mind you, Warhol created an awful lot of these things, and to be honest the Coca-Cola Company wasn't all that impressed with him using their product as art, probably because they actually aren't stupid and could see it as some form of criticism directed against them, which is why they issued a cease and desist order. On the other hand it probably, in the end, comes down to money, and the fact that Warhol was making money out of a trade-marked product.

Another aspect of this could be reflective of our modern, consumerist society. Things may be different, but deep down everything is the same. Could it not also be the case with the pair of jeans. If we go to The Gap, or we go to Target, if we by some no-name product, or a pair of Levi's, isn't it the case that there isn't actually anything different about them? These jeans are simply a pair of jeans and the only thing that differentiates them from the other is the brand.

Yet it could also be the case of mechanisation. The silver coke bottles are reflective of our mechanised society. They are moved through the assembly line where they are filled, sealed, and labelled, and then shunted out into boxes. The cottage industry is dead and now everything that is consumed is created by machines, by robots. The question is whether there is actually anything different between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, or are they just the same product in different packages?

Don't pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.

Film is another medium that Warhol used for his work, his most famous one being entitled Empire, which is basically an eight hour film of the Empire State Building at Night. Here is one segment:

and here is another:

As somebody suggests on the Youtube Channel, don't worry if you missed any of it because it goes for eight hours, and nothing all that much happens.

However film is a medium that the artist can use to show change, and also transience. Where in one sense they are trying to capture the moment, whether it be on canvas (or silk, as the case may be), or in sculpture, on film we see the nature of change, and the transient nature of life. Mind you, despite Empire lasting eight hours the film does come to an end, at which point you can then go back to the beginning and start all over again. Maybe this is the cyclical nature of the world, where things seem to always go in circles and in a sense nothing changes, yet despite the fact that nothing changes nothing is also permanent.

"I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic"

The final thing I wish to show are a series of paintings on American mythology. These characters have all come to sit in the consciousness of the American psyche. However these aren't necessarily real characters, in the way that Washington, Lincoln, and even Jesse James, were real people. This is a created mythology, one that was designed in the board rooms and marketing departments of the major corporations.

In many cultures (actually all of them) mythology comes about through history, and as historical events occur, the actors in these events are placed into our collective consciousness which tell us stories about who we are and where we come from. Our myths create our identity and define us as a culture. Yet the mythology of the United States, at least in the eyes of Warhol, is not the same. To him he is living in a consumerist society where the mythology has been defined not so much from historical events, or real people, but from created characters. Sure, the United States does have its heroes, but these are slowly being subsumed by a culture based around a plastic Hollywood.

One thing I should mention though is that we can probably add a new character to this list - Bart Simpson.

I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art anyone could ever want to own.

Artsy has a pretty impressive website dedicated to the life and works of Andy Warhol.

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Andy Warhol - The Original Hipster by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

Monday, 7 March 2016

The Bureaucratic Nightmare - Joseph Heller's Catch-22

I had just managed to make my way through this book a second time, namely because I wanted to write a review of it on Goodreads (and Booklikes), and while it was pretty rushed, I had decided that I would leave it at that and move on to my next book (and project). However, as I am prone to do, I read through some of the other reviews of Goodreads (such as this one, this one, and this one) when I realised that I simply couldn't just leave it at that scrappy piece of work that I wrote up on the train on my way home from work. Okay, while I have covered a number of points, albiet briefly, I suddenly realised that there is so much more to this book that I had to continue with my exposition on this blog.

A Phenomenal Work

As I have already written in my review, this book basically introduced a new phrase into the English language - Catch-22 - which basically means a no win situation, or as I put it, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. However, my position is that while this is significant in and of itself, the book actually goes much further than that and in effect creates a style of absurdist literature that has effectively defined American (and English) literature since. For instance we see elements of Catch-22 appearing in writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, Grant Naylor, and even The Simpsons (and its sister show Futurama). It is not so much the actual theme of the novel that has inspired these works, but the style that Heller uses to make his point.

The thing with Catch-22 is that it isn't actually a story. Most stories have a plot that moves from the beginning to the end. Catch-22 doesn't - it jumps all over the place. You see a similar style with Slaughterhouse Five, though in this book Vonnegut uses the concept of the main character becoming unstuck in time, which is why the story is moving all over the place. Another example is how Heller creates this microcosm on a small island in the Mediterranian that paints a picture of modern society. As he says at the beginning of the book, the entire work is fiction, and all of the events that happen in the book simply could not happen on that particular island. We see the same thing happening in the Simpsons, which is set in small town America, but the things that happen in Springfield simply could not happen in your average American small town.

For a small town, it's actually pretty big.

Before I go onto the themes themselves, another thing that I discovered about this book is that it is the number one (apparently) unfinished book to date - meaning that quite a lot of people start it, and of those people that start it only a few of them manage to get through to the end. Me, well I've read it twice and the first time I read it I literally lapped it up. However as I was going through all of the books that I've read I realised that there are a number of them that I simply could not do justice by simply writing a review with what I remembered about it - Catch-22 was one of those books. However, as I began reading it again I suddenly realised that it is actually a really, really hard slog - especially the second time around. However, I have since finished it, as is evident of me writing this blog.

The Bureaucratic Horror

The one thing that stands out in this novel is the bureaucracy. In fact when I checked out Sparknotes I discovered that their first theme was the power of absolute bureaucracy, and this is a constant theme throughout the book. The thing with bureaucracy is that it is nothing new - the Chinese were quite famous for it back in the middle ages, but with the development of computers it just seemed to forever grow.

Therein lies your life history
The thing with bureaucracies is that they have to record everything because unless it has been recorded then there is no proof that anything happened. However that is where the catch lies because if something has been recorded then it must be the truth, simply because there is a record of this event. Sure, it could be a mistake (or even a fraud), but the bureaucracy (or at least Heller's bureaucracy) is incapable of accepting that because a record of an event proves the existence of an event.

Bureaucracy has been around in one form of another ever since people began to trade goods of services and wrote these transactions down as proof of the transaction. In fact when people started fencing off areas of land and claiming as their own, they also created documents to support that assertion (especially since carrying a big stick didn't always work - especially if somebody with a bigger stick challenged that assertion). As these documents increase, people were needed to authenticate these documents, file these documents, and then retrieve them at a later date. In fact a whole profession arose whose simple purpose was to interpret these documents, and to make fine sounding arguments as to why their interpretation of this document was the correct interpretation - yep, the legal profession.

The things with these documents, as I have suggested, is that that have a power in and of themselves. If a document exists, and something is written on that document, then what is written on that document is the truth. We see this time and time again in Catch-22, particularly with the 'death' of Doc Daneeka, and Yossarian moving the bomb line. With Doc Daneeka, a document existed that said that he was on a plane, and that plane crashed, and nobody saw Doc Daneeka jump out of that plane, so because the plane crashed, and the document said that Doc Daneeka was on that plane, then ergo, Doc Daneeka must be dead. It didn't actually matter that Doc Daneeka was on the ground with everybody else watching the plane crash - that was irrelevant - the document said he was on the plane, therefore he must be on that plane.

Washinton Irving is another classic example. One of the tasks that soldiers in the medical unit had to perform was censoring letters, however it was a really boring task. Therefore Yossarian, who was in the hospital simply because he did not want to fly planes, decided to sign all the letters Washington Irving. This was picked up by one of the majors, and all of the sudden the staff at HQ discovered that there was this guy running around called Washington Irving, signing all these letters that he really shouldn't be signing. As such, despite the fact that Washington Irving simply did not exist, the mere fact that these letters appeared with his name on it was evidence enough that he did exist, and because his signature appears at the bottom of letters that he shouldn't be signing, then he must be a spy. As such the bureaucracy has not only killed a person that is still alive, but it created a fictitious person out of thin air.

The Disconnected Generals

Sometimes I wonder if Heller was using the military as a metaphor for the modern business world. In a lot of ways the business community and the military operate on similar lines, and the bigger the organisation the more like the military that it becomes. In fact businesses are engaged in a perpetual war against their competitors to attempt to gain as many customers as possible, so as to make as much profit as possible so that the shareholders will remain happy. In a way the business may claim to be supportive of the customer, however in many cases it is a tension between the customer and the shareholders (namely because shareholders are the ones that provide the capital).

Heller paints the modern military as one giant bureaucracy, and in a way it is. Actually, when you come to think of it the military has always been a bureaucracy - it is necessary when you are trying to co-ordinate such large numbers of people. However, this has really only existed in sophisticated cultures. In the medieval times armies were raised when the kings called upon their lords to join him in battle, and once the war was over the lords would return to their own lands to continue with their own lives. However the problem was that the king needed to maintain the loyalty of his lords, and did not have direct control over the troops. The same was the case with Rome - the legions were owned by the generals, and the commanders needed to maintain the loyalty of the generals for the army to be effective.

The problem with the modern army is that the guys at the top - the generals - are generally disconnected from the troops below. In a way all the general sees are the maps and the markings on the maps - they don't see the actual battle. To obtain information from the actual battles it needs to be passed up from the people at the front, through the so called chain of command. This, no doubt, leads to a game of Chinese Whispers. Okay, in the modern army it is based on messages being passed up and down the chain, but because of the disconnected nature of the bureaucracy the messages end up making little to no sense to the people at the receiving end.

There are a couple of instances of this in the novel, such as when General Peckham asks if there is any poet alive that makes any money, and ex-PFC Wintergreen screams out over the phone 'T.S. Elliot' and slams it down without actually telling anybody who he was. This sets in motion a chain of events were the military leadership is trying to work out what the phrase 'T.S. Elliot' means, without being able to connect it back to the original statement. In the end they decide that it is some sort of code, so they pick up the phone, scream 'T.S. Elliot' into it, and slam it back down again, thinking that it is an important code. In the end it lands back with ex-PFC Wintergreen.

We also have the bombing pattern. In fact by the end of the book, the bombing pattern becomes all important, except, as the generals mention, it is absolutely meaningless. The nature of the bombing pattern, as they point out, has no purpose what-so-ever, expect to take some pretty pictures so that high command can actually see that something has been done. Throughout most of the book the bombing raids are occurring over Bologna, however there does not seem to be any movement whatsoever in the war, so they decide to change the bombing pattern. This, of course, makes no sense, except that it sounds like they are making decisions, when in reality, on the ground, nothing is changing.

There is some movement in the war though, expect that it has more to do with something Yossarian does by moving the bomb line on the map than anything else. This is another example of the absurdity of the Bureaucracy - because the bomb line has been moved on the map, everyone believes that a major victory has been achieved, despite the fact that the victory only came about because the line was moved by Yossarian. In a way it points out that the bureaucratic machine does not question, it just accepts, because if it is written down then it must be true.

They're working out a bombing pattern

This brings me to another point with the generals and that is the number of missions. Colonel Cathcart believes that by getting his men to fly more missions then it will impress high command, which means that he will be more likely to get a promotion. However the number of missions never stays the same - sometimes there is a reason that he raises the missions, other times it is arbitrary. The same goes with Colonel Schieskopf, who believes that the best was to get a promotion is to get his men to perform the perfect parade. Neither of these things have any benefit to the war at hand - it is not the quantity of missions that count, but the quality, however one of the major flaws with bureaucracy is that it is impossible to measure quality - it is always subjective - so the temptation is to always fall back onto quantity, particularly since it is perceived that more is better.

Herding Cats

One of the purposes of bureaucracy is to try to create order out of chaos, which in itself can be an impossible task. However war has always been chaotic, as was pointed out by Von Clausewiz in using the term Fog of War. This is why armies used to wear brightly coloured uniforms - so that soldiers could distinguish friend from foe. In the heat of combat, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have to time to try to recognise a face, especially if you don't know everybody in your army. The same went with the king - you would always find him on the battle field because he would be under a huge banner (and the generals would be under smaller banners). While it was useful for communication purposes, it did have the effect of pointing out the best targets to the enemy.

Yet war has always been a tricky business, especially in a democracy, and even more so in an industrialised war. In years past all the king needed to do was to call up his lords, and his lords would round up their men. There was no concept of individual freedom, and if your lord said jump, you would automatically reply with 'how high'. The modern world has changed this because we all see ourselves as individuals - and this has become more so these days with people regularly getting out onto the streets to protest any and every military action. Further, without conscription, he army has to sell itself to get recruits, as opposed to forcing people to join.

This is how you herd cats - not!
Okay, many people fought in World War II because they viewed it as a good war, however this wasn't an army of soldiers, it was an army of individuals who had been given some basic training and then sent out to fight. Thus the generals and the commanders need to be able to keep these people in line, which can be almost as difficult as herding cats. We especially see this with the protagonist Yossarian, who is always looking for ways to get out of flying missions. It is not simply enough to raise the number of missions, one has to have bait behind it as well - fly this number of missions and you get to go home.

There is another incident I see in this book as well, though it seems that it ends up creating the opposite effect. Bureaucracy is supposed to create order, but that is on the assumption that everything goes correctly - when it doesn't it breaks down. This is the case of Mudd, the dead man in Yossarian's tent. He had died before he officially arrived, and his stuff was moved into Yossarian's tent, however because he never officially arrived at the base, nobody can actually remove any of his belongings, so his bed, in effect, remains occupied. In an ordered world his possessions would be shipped back to the United States, but this isn't an ordered world, this is a bureaucratic world, and thus while trying to create order, it has instead expanded chaos.

Unrestrained Capitalism

Okay, it seems to be a bit of a side plot to the book as a whole (though sometimes one wonders whether there are actually any sideplots) but Milo's M&M Enterprises is a clear example of unrestrained capitalism. Milo is the mess officer, but he takes his role as the mess officer to the extreme. At first he manages to obtain eggs cheaply (at about 2c a dozen) and flies them back to the base where he sells them for 3c a dozen (that is probably not correct, but it is a good example of how he starts things off). At first he is flying them from Malta, however he soon works out that he can make greater profits from exploiting price differences at multiple locations - which is traditionally how trade works.

However as Milo's enterprise grows we suddenly discover that the whole question of morality is suddenly being thrown out of the window, namely because he begins to exploit price differences in places that are controlled by the enemy. This, no doubt, is illegal, yet for some reason Milo gets away with it, in may cases because he resorts back to the argument of 'the syndicate' in which everybody gets a share. In fact, because he has managed to convince everybody that they have an interest in the syndicate, and are profiting from the syndicate, he manages to even requisition planes for use in his enterprises.

However Heller seems to be quite prescient with the way capitalism is heading. For instance Milo contracts the allies to bomb some bridges, and offers his equipment for the purposes (for a fee of course) and then contracts with the enemy to defend these bridges using his equipment (once again for a fee), however he then manages to convince them that they already have the equipment needed, so suggests that they use their own, and ends up walking away with a pretty big profit.

In a way war has always been a very profitable enterprise, however it is becoming ever more so in the modern capitalist age. In times past profit came simply from conquering land and stealing treasures, though gaining access to resources was also important. However with the modern industrialised world we discover that there are numerous corporations that make huge amounts of money from war - no doubt through selling weapons and other equipment to the belligerents. In fact there is a suggestion from Heller that there were companies that existed that sold to both sides during the war. He also points out the cost plus idea, where the company charges the government the cost of performing a service, plus a profit on top. When we come to contractors and sub-contractors this becomes even more evident.

Milo also makes a comment that the army is the last socialist institution that exists, however even today this is beginning to change, with various parts of the armed services being contracted out to the highest bidder. In a way the armed services are becoming a capitalist entity in and of itself. In the past, where various units would perform logistical work, this is now being offered to other companies, and of course many of these companies do a pretty substandard job simply because it is the army and many of these organisations see it as a bottomless pit of money. Even the roll of the mess hall is being subsumed by the private sector. Mind you, this is not surprising as the troops are now taking a little bit of America to whatever base they are being stationed at.

All the comforts of home - on the other side of the world

Ground-Hog Day

I'm sure we all remember the movie from the early nineties in which Bill Murray would wake up on the same day over and over again, to the point that he seemed to be forever living that same day. For those who don't remember it (or haven't see it) here is the trailer:

Since this movie, the term Groundhog Day has entered our vocabulary to suggest that we are living the same day over and over again with no end in sight. Unfortunately for us, unlike Bill Murray, there is a difference and that is that we are growing ever older. However in a way life in the bureaucratic world, or I should probably say life in general, exists in its own form of Groundhog Day. Nothing ever changes, we get up, we go to work, we go home, and wake up to begin it all over again. Yet even the weeks, and the years, seem to be this endless repetition in which we never seem to go anywhere.

Everybody lives in Groundhog Day
This is very much mirrored in Catch-22, and in fact Heller doesn't write the story progressing through time, but rather jumping back and forward through a set period to catch the essence of the endless cycle. The only way that we know that we are in the past, or the future, is purely by the number of missions. In a way nothing ever changes, and that seems to reflect not just the nature of the modern world, but of life itself. The missions are always flying over Bologna, and life seems to consist of wandering around the base, attending USO shows, flying to Rome for R&R, and flying missions.

Okay, there are minor changes, and we see that in our lives, especially if we live in an office. Somebody might leave, or a new person (or people) might join, however it quickly returns to that dull endless cycle that seems to go over and over again. I guess that even though things may change, in the end they always stay the same. It is the epitome of hopelessness, where we come to work, go home, and in a way do not seem to have any goal or purpose in life. It is almost as if once we leave university and get that job for many of us our ambitions cease to exist. Don't get me wrong, some people enjoy that certainly to life, yet to other there seems to be this really deep sense of hopelessness - and this, no doubt, is what drives Yossarian mad.

The Absurdity of War

Well, it seems like this post has become really, really long, but this has a lot to do with there being so many ideas that seem to permeate this book. Mind you, I have noticed that a lot of people don't like this book, and it can be very difficult to get through, especially due to the idea of nothing changing and nothing actually happening. However before I finish off there are a couple of things that I want to touch upon, an one of them being the idea of the absurdity of war.

It has been suggested that Catch-22 is an anti-war novel, and while it is not the first, it certainly has given us a new glimpse on the nature of war in the modern world. In fact it seems that war is a natural fact of life, which is not surprising since people just don't want to be able to get along, and our natural state is to be in conflict with each other, even in the most minor ways. People do not like to be challenged, especially when they consider themselves to be an expert in an area. In fact dealing with experts can be really frustrating at times, especially when you don't agree with their method or their conclusions.

So, since humans are in perpetual conflict with each other, when we rise through the ranks to the leaders of countries we discover that this natural conflict rises to a new level. While a conflict with our next-door neighbour may be a nuisance for us, and those in our immediate vicinity, when the conflict begins to occur between the rulers of two countries, then the people of the entire country get dragged into the picture. In many cases wars can be boiled down to two leaders taking their disagreements to the level of violence. This is the absurdity of the situation - the citizens of the country are literally dragged into a conflict that is not of their making and not of their concern.

We see this in Catch-22 as we are given glimpses at the top ranking officials and the enlisted men. Even within the military bureaucracy there are conflicts between the top ranking officials, particularly between General Dreedle and General Peckham. The problem is that when you have high ranking officials in disagreement, all of the people beneath them get dragged into the argument. Mind you, it might not even be a legitimate disagreement - it might simply be that somebody wants what somebody else has. While it is illegal to steal my neighbours delorian, it seems that it is a different story when somebody wants somebody else's resources, or wants to force somebody to join their club, a club that the other person has no intention of joining.


Thus we come back to the title of the book - you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. This becomes moreso as we move into the modern age. We might not agree with something - in fact we might violently object to something, yet we have no choice but to go along with it. This was very much the case with the Vietnam War. As the war dragged on people became more and more opposed to it, but the problem was that the United States had conscription, which meant that if you had been called up to fight, then you had no choice but to go, even if you didn't agree with the war. The same went for the enlisted men during the Iraq War - they had joined the army, and because they had joined the army, if they were sent to Iraq they had to go to Iraq, even if they didn't agree.

In many cases this is the same with our civilian life - in a way we live in a state of a perpetual Catch-22. We need a roof over our head, so we need money, which means we have to get a job. It's is not that I am criticising working, but the catch is that without money you can't live, so you need a job, but while you have a job, you may have money but you don't have time, which means you can't train to get a better job, and because you can't train you can't increase your income to the point where you can take some time out from that job to train and get a better job.

Here are 15 Things You Might Not Know about Catch 22.

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The Bureaucratic Nightmare - Joseph Heller's Catch-22 by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.