Originality

The modernist thirst for originality makes the mediocre artist believe that the secret of originality consists simply in being different.

—Nicolás Gómez Dávila

The Artist’s Statement

Hat tip to Michael Flynn. Out of the mouths of smart-alecks comes spot-on satire: Calvin and Hobbes strip on artists' statements

The artist as citizen

In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is. Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted. If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear. And, after all, the worst crimes are not always the punishable ones. By encouraging necrophilic reveries one probably does quite as much harm as by, say, picking pockets at the races. One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

—George Orwell, ‘Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí

(Paragraph breaks and boldface added.) And yet here we are, less than a hundred years later, and the Hollywood elite lionizes and defends the likes of Roman Polanski, who did not quite stoop to raping little girls in railway carriages, but is no Shakespeare, either. I will say it plainly: We live in disgusting times.

The Curators of Culture

Wise and great are the Keepers of the Books, for they provide the People with all the knowledge that we need. There is the Red Book, and there is the Blue Book. The Blue Book tells us how to plant the pobble seeds, and when to pick the pobble fruit, and how to cook the pobble fruit, and the proper manners for spitting out the seeds after the pobble fruit is eaten, so that we will not look like the brute beasts. Also the Blue Book tells us how to harvest the stems of the pobble plant, and how to make them into fibre, and how to weave the fibre to make the grundle cloth, and how to wrap the grundle cloth round our bodies to cover our nakedness in the approved manner. And the Blue Book tells us not to stare at the light, for the light of the sun is too bright to stare at, and it is the only light we need; all other lights are a snare and a delusion. We have one food, one plant, one cloth, and one light; who could want for more? The Red Book, now, the Red Book is a thing of magic. The Red Book contains the Song, and the Poem, and the Exciting Story. It contains an excellent colour plate of the Picture, and a detailed plan from which we can rebuild the Statue if anything ever happens to it. We thought that the plan was needless, because who wants a plan when we already have the Statue? Then one day the Statue was struck by lightning, and we perceived that the Keepers of the Books were wise to make the plan. O great and varied Culture that we enjoy, having all the things that we need, thanks to the Keepers of the Books! Praise be to them. Now I hear that a madman, an infidel, a disturber of the peace, is writing a Yellow Book. What can this be, but evil? For what can there be in the Yellow Book? It cannot be about food, for we already know all about the pobble fruit. It cannot be about clothing, for we already know the grundle cloth. It cannot be about the false lights, for we need only the true light of the sun. Moreover, the Yellow Book cannot have a song, for we already have the Song. If there is a song in the Yellow Book, either it is the same as the Song, or it is different. If it is the same, we do not need it; and if it is different, it is false. For who could sing any song but the Song? Surely it is a great evil that anyone should try to deprive us of the Song, by luring us with false substitutes. Likewise, there cannot be a poem, or an exciting story, or a picture, or a plan for the Statue, for we already have all those things. What can there possibly be in this Yellow Book, but confusion, lies, and destruction? Therefore you must pardon me, while I join the rest of the People. We go now to smash the maker of the Yellow Book with stones, until he is dead. Our Culture must be protected!

Talent

Talent is what, if you succeed, people who don’t know why will say it’s because of. And if you don’t succeed, people who don‘t know why will say it‘s because you haven’t got it. Talent is the Snark; but the Snark is actually a Boojum, and the name of the Boojum is Luck. People do not want to believe in Boojums, so they try very hard to hunt for Snarks.

Zombie Opera

Another guest post by the austere and infernal H. Smiggy McStudge. Take with the usual quantity of salt; that is, if you have no salt mines in your neighbourhood that are willing to make bulk deliveries, strain half a gallon of seawater through your teeth for each sentence. —T. S.
I love Wagner, but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws.

—Charles Beaudelaire

Professional jealousy causes artists to say some terrible things; even, in extreme cases, the truth. For the purposes of the McStudge clan, Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen marked a crucial turning-point in our age-long struggle against Art. In one or two very important ways, it foreshadowed the ultimate fate of grand opera, which was once so dangerous to us and is now so useful to our cause. If you mention ‘high culture’ to anybody in the English-speaking world, and ask them what is the first thing that comes to mind, there is an excellent chance that they will reply: ‘Opera.’ For generations past, the opera has been the playground of the wealthy elite and the social-climbing sub-elite. I do not, of course, mean that these classes of people write or perform operas: that would be absurd. Though the snobbery and self-importance of the people who do perform operas for their benefit, I am happy to say, is equally absurd and quite real. No, I mean that rich people and senior bureaucrats gather at palatial opera houses, not to see the opera, but to be seen as opera-goers. They dress up, to this day, in passable imitations of the clothing worn by nineteenth-century aristocrats – the closest some of them ever come to being elegant. They then spend hours of agonizing tedium brought on by music that they do not like, by acting that nobody could praise, and by singing in an artificial and constipated style, all done in a language that they do not understand and for which no translation, as a matter of etiquette, is supplied. (Only a philistine, we teach them to say, would ask what an opera means.) But during the intervals, they have the ecstasy of chattering with their fellow elite in the lobby, eating awful finger sandwiches, swilling champagne, and generally carrying on as if they were the favoured guests of Le Grand Monarque for an unusually exclusive evening at Versailles. Like the Pharisee who prayed on the street corners to be seen praying by men, they have their reward. Now, as that pestilent man Chesterton said, people do not make up rules of etiquette because they make sense. The point of an etiquette is to be such obvious nonsense that no sane person would ever do it accidentally. There used (it was Chesterton’s favourite example) to be a rule of high society that cooked asparagus was to be eaten with the fingers. This was a disgusting and often futile thing to do, especially if the asparagus was slathered in butter or Béchamel sauce. Sensible people ate asparagus with knives and forks; only cultured and fashionable people knew that they were supposed to use their paws. The ‘white tie’ mode of evening dress, and the ‘black tie’ version that is traditionally worn to the opera, are etiquettes of this kind. Men do, as a matter of fact, look uncommonly stupid when they are dressed like a flock of penguins (or snooty French waiters), and of course there is no folly to which women will not descend when trying to look fashionable and rich. The crowds that gather in the lobby of the opera house are, strictly speaking, ridiculous in themselves. But when they do it for opera—! From the sublime to the ridiculous is not always but a step; there are times when they actually coincide. For in its origins, opera was a fairly ‘low’ form of popular entertainment, a pastime for the sort of Italians who were neither rich enough nor snobby enough to go in for the formal theatre. There is a reason why the gondoliers in Venice, in the old times, used to sing arias whilst poling their boats along; and it is not because gondoliers were the upper crust of Venetian society. The opera was the Top 40 radio of its time; the songs of the gondoliers were the latest popular hits. But as opera travelled across Europe, it rose in the social scale; for imported art is always a luxury, and simple people, in most times and places, used to content themselves with the domestic article, which they understood and knew how to make for themselves. The Viennese took to opera fairly naturally, the north Germans unnaturally, the French with great and mostly wasted effort. German opera was more often seria than buffa, as befitted a country of foul clammy weather and foul clammy people. Italians make their petty lives bearable by singing happy songs; Germans, by singing sad songs. The frequent German habit of invading other countries can be explained as a way of escaping from German music. French opera was stilted and artificial, like French drama; it was in that country that the art form began to appeal to snobs and dressers-up. Then there was English opera, which, by a happy chance, did not exist at all. There was, of course, a fad for Italian opera in London at the turn of the eighteenth century. For centuries past, the English had had a peculiar habit of madly adoring, and ineptly imitating, absolutely everything that came out of Italy, except the Papacy. You can see the mania working in Shakespeare’s comedies, with their unspeakable Italian names and impossible Italian geography. But the ‘Englishman Italianate’ reached his limit with opera. For a year or two, Farinelli, the famous castrato, performed to packed houses in London, and sponged up nearly all the gold in the country for his troubles. Then the bubble burst. For the English do not sing songs to make their petty lives bearable; the only thing bearable about an English song is the moment when it stops. What the English do instead is tell jokes. So at the very moment when Farinelli’s triumph seemed complete, a person named Gay, a notorious Englishman (to say nothing of his other crimes), published and performed a thing called The Beggar’s Opera, which was not an opera at all, but which his fellow Englishmen found uproariously funny. This charivari or shindy became the ancestor of the English operetta, and the music hall, and the Christmas pantomime, and the West End or Broadway musical, and despite our very best efforts, that whole tradition is not quite dead yet. But from the moment that London began singing John Gay’s songs in the streets, opera in England has been quite dead. It would not be too much to call it stillborn. A stillborn art form, for our excellent purposes, is even better than one that has died of natural causes. For art forms are not like men; they sometimes come back to life. When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, we compensated ourselves for part of that loss by killing the drama stone dead, and burying it at a crossroads with a stake through its heart; but a thousand years later, it rose from the grave, cast off its shrouds, and began to speak again in all the vernaculars of Europe. Opera in Italy, its native land, has that kind of zombie quality. No matter how often you kill it there, it will always come back, because it is a genuine part of Italian civilization, and has an honest place in the heart of the people. You would think the Italians could get by without it. Songs are superfluous to an Italian; you cannot speak Italian without breaking into music. But the natural zest and enthusiasm of the Italian, which we have tried to hard to expunge, keep playing with that damnable language and its damnable music, and opera, or something like it, springs up spontaneously every time we think we have damped it down. In the English-speaking countries, however, opera was always alien. It was an acquired taste, and an expensive one to acquire; for most of its history, the only people who could afford it were the sort of people who could also afford to dress like penguins and peacocks. If the English had been able to understand Italian or even German, we might not have made opera the etiquette or fetish that it became. Fortunately, the English are the world’s most stubborn monoglots. They can with some difficulty be induced to learn French, and a few of them used to manage Latin; but English mouths are the laziest in Europe, and they never do learn to speak any language really well. The only thing more foul to the ear than an average Englishman trying to speak Italian is an average Englishman trying to speak English. So when we reintroduced opera to England for its snob value, we had the enormous advantage of selling it to people who could not understand a solitary word of it. Most operas, Italian ones especially, are far too silly and insubstantial and populist ever to qualify as High Art. You might be bored at an opera, but never perplexed or mystified – if you can understand the words. So equipped, you can give a bad opera the hearty horse-laugh it deserves, and appreciate a good opera as the solid lowbrow entertainment it was intended to be. It is only those who don’t know the language that can be fooled into taking it seriously. Wagner, as I mentioned earlier, marks an inflection point. For the Germans themselves, the Ring cycle is a loving expression of their ancestral Weltanschauung, a musical tribute to Germanic paganism and the Germanic ethos, with all the Sturm und Drang that the most hysterical or lachrymose Teuton could ask for. But to those who don’t know German, it becomes an Intellectual Achievement; and the self-important ‘cultured’ people of Europe and America worship it, without having any notion what their idol is made of. To the non-German ear, a typical passage from Wagner sounds like a voice from Valhalla, lamenting the downfall of mankind and the twilight of the gods. But what is actually going on is that a fat little dwarf is banging on an anvil and singing words to this approximate effect: ‘I am making a sword, look, I am making a sword, it will be very sharp, I am going to find someone to stick it in the dragon’s guts because I hate him. Dragons are bad, and swords are sharp, and I am making a sword.’ This is why it is a rule that only a philistine would ask for a translation of an opera. Only a philistine could appreciate it. As it happens, opera – I mean the writing of operas, not the performing of them, which continues more or less unabated – died as a creative form in the early twentieth century, through no fault of its own; and, I am sad to say, through no fault of ours. Not even Wagner could accomplish that. It was the movies that crippled it, and the talkies that killed it stone dead. Until about 1900, opera was the queen of the popular arts; it combined every kind of talent and entertainment in one – poetry, music, drama, visual art (in the set designs), costumery – a cunning impresario could even work sculpture into the act. But all these talents were required by the film business, and more richly rewarded; because a single performance of an opera cannot really be enjoyed by more than two or three thousand people at a sitting, but a performance on film can be enjoyed by millions. The opera house was not big enough for Cecil B. DeMille; but DeMille hired thousands of people to make his movies who might have done stellar work in the opera house instead. Now, of course, it is film that is the queen of the arts, though video games are trying their best to filch the crown. Opera has become a museum piece. And if there is one thing that a McStudge truly loves, it is a museum piece. Do not be confused. I don’t mean that we McStudges approve when people visit museums. In fact, we have spent a lot of time putting out propaganda about how dull and boring museums are; and just to be on the safe side, we encourage the museums to take their best exhibits and ‘de-accession’ them, so that the public won’t get the benefit of them even if they wander in by accident. So far, we have kept the masses out of the museums, except for odd circus acts like the travelling King Tut exhibitions. Actually, we rather like King Tut. He is dead, hopelessly dead, so dead that he will never get up and walk again; which is just how we like our art. He is so dead that there is no chance of his ever influencing anybody, changing how people live their lives or how they see the world. It is wonderful that people go to see him instead of looking at any of the interesting and vivid stuff the museums have on display. For us, he has been an invaluable decoy. In much the same way, we use the snob-value of the opera, the penguins and peacocks quaffing cocktails in the lobby, as a decoy to keep those people away who might actually enjoy opera and get spiritual nourishment from it. They can’t afford to go, and if they could, they would soon grow tired of being cut by the snobs. One day, the zombie that is opera could come back to actual life. If anybody opens up an opera house where the tickets are cheap and people are encouraged to come in their blue jeans, we shall be in real danger. But until then, the opera serves a multitude of socially useful purposes. Most of the people who go to the opera to be seen are, as I have said, abjectly bored by the performance. They get no good out of the show, and encourage other people to believe that there is no good to be had. They think obsessively about themselves – no, not about themselves, about their personas: their reputation, their image, their pride of place among all the other reputations and images that infest the opera house. People outside of the charmed circle look at the fools within it and call them stuffed shirts. I am happy to say that they are often right: for there are few more desolating uses to which a human being can be put than stuffing a shirt. Partly this is an honest reaction to the stupidity of modern opera-going, but we have managed to contaminate it with the spirit of envy – the envy of the poor for the rich, of the obscure for the famous, and above all, the envy of outsiders for those in the Inner Ring. We have corrupted thousands of people by making them forget their natural tastes in drama and music and take up opera-going as a way of seeking status. We have damaged millions by making them forget their honest aesthetic dislike of the opera ‘scene’ and attribute their distaste to class hatred. It is this last function, this political purpose of the stillborn or zombie opera, that gives us McStudges the greatest delight. The governments of Europe, even those that describe themselves as liberal or conservative, are all Socialist by training and instinct: not the robust and deadly Socialism of Lenin, but the Socialism-and-water of the modern Left, which kills by a thousand paper cuts instead of one swift bullet to the brain. Another of those pestilent honest men, Orwell, gave away the secret of this kind of Socialism; fortunately, nobody was listening. A Socialist politician, he said, is a man who is chosen to fight the bourgeoisie and ends by becoming bourgeois himself. Not only while fighting the bourgeoisie, but by fighting them: that is the touch we love to see. So we teach the masses of Europe to hate ‘capitalists’, thinking of them as cartoon figures, wicked rich men in evening dress who gobble caviare and go to the opera; and then we train Socialist politicians and bureaucrats to gobble caviare at the opera in the name of ‘culture’! They become the living symbols of the ancien régime that they were elected to destroy; and we can keep the mass of the people in a vague state of sullen class-hatred without having to supply any actual capitalists at all. The real capitalists, in such a society, are too busy working and making money to go to the opera, and anyway they are stubborn people and only listen to music that they actually like. A bullet to the brain is too good for them. They deserve to die slowly, preferably by tax audits. Furthermore, by packing the house with politicians and bureaucrats, we enlist exactly the section of society that is most philistine by instinct, the most conformist, the least creative, and we put them in charge of seeing that operas continue to be performed. For the price of admission, steep as it is, does not begin to cover the cost of producing an opera, let alone the cost of maintaining the crumbling mausoleum in which it is performed. Covent Garden, for instance, had to be rebuilt at crushing expense in the 1990s, and then all the money sunk into it had to be justified by continuing to put on operas there. ‘Funding for the arts’ is a major swindle in all Western governments today; and it consists largely of robbing the taxpayer of millions to support dead art forms that the bureaucrats themselves merely pretend to like. To quote Sir Humphrey Appleby, the quintessential bureaucrat from Yes, Minister: ‘Subsidy isn’t for what the people want. It’s for what they don’t want but ought to have!’ And this becomes at once a privilege for the elites to cling to, and a symbol of privilege for the masses to resent. It goes without saying that these subsidized opera companies produce nothing that is not shoddy, conventional, and banal. The subsidy that keeps them functioning also robs them of any real creative power. ‘If you want a job done well, give it to a committee of politicians’ – said nobody, ever, in the whole of human history. This is why I am a lifelong and convinced Socialist. Lenin and Mao wrecked their countries in a few months, by shooting everyone who actually knew how to make anything or run anything. The modern method is slower, but just as sure in the long run, and a lot more fun to watch. Put the capable people under the management of politically appointed committees, and watch them die slowly as their masters tell them to do impossible things for a purpose that nobody actually wants accomplished. It is the purest form of delight that this world can offer to a McStudge. It will be objected, no doubt, that the opera is after all a small thing; that there are not enough seats in all the opera houses for a tenth of the social climbers and shiny-bottomed civil servants who keep the ramshackle machinery of modern society running as badly as it does. This is true; and this is why, having perfected our method with the opera, we McStudges have been busy turning all the higher arts (and some of the popular ones) into faithful replicas of the original zombie. It was a simple matter to zombify the symphony. When all the talented composers began writing for the films, we taught the orchestras and their audiences to despise ‘film music’ and play only ‘real music’: by which we meant atonal finger exercises, wholly unlistenable, written by the third-rate talents who were left behind. What we did with painting and jazz, I have discussed earlier. We destroyed sculpture by teaching the arts councils that the word statue meant ‘five tons of scrap metal welded into no discernible shape’. Most artists don’t like welding scrap metal, and no members of the public like looking at it; but just try getting a grant to make anything else, and you will appreciate the soul-deep cosmic despair with which we have filled the heart of every honest sculptor. Every one of these zombie arts has its own little legion of ‘patrons’ and ‘supporters’, meaning the bureaucrats who dole out the subsidy and the educated fools who signal their social status by pretending to like the result. We have a thousand flavours of asparagus now, a thousand silly shibboleths that people use to prove their membership in the Upper Crust and the Inner Ring. We have crowded real art and real invention out of the ‘high’ arts almost entirely, and spilled over into the popular arts with every prospect of eventual success. In the end we shall reduce all the arts to social noise. We shall eliminate the aesthetic response from the human brain, and replace it with an endless clamour of vanity and snobbery, competition for status, competition for funding, ego clashing against ego without rhythm or reason, for ever and ever. We shall make Art a living image of Hell. We have come so near it already— But there is one particular art that requires special handling, because it can never quite be divorced from the terrible concept of meaning. A hideous sculpture or talentless painting ‘means’ whatever the artist chooses to scrawl on the ‘statement’ posted beside it, which is the same as meaning nothing at all. Nobody would buy a motorcar so badly built that the dealer had to put up a sign beside it saying, THIS IS A CAR. But people (and governments) will spend millions for art that fails completely at communicating anything, so that the Artist’s Statement is the only intelligible thing in sight. However, there is one art that carries its own Artist’s Statement – that consists of the statement. That art is literature; and the proper method of dealing with that, I am sad to say, is too complex and delicate to be dragged in at the tail end of an essay such as this. I shall therefore leave you as before, to stew in your own ignorance.    (Signed)    H. Smiggy McStudge

Death by Bebop

A guest post by our Evil Alter Blogger, H. Smiggy McStudge. He says that if I let him rant, he will give me back my blood-pressure medication, maybe even before I have another stroke. Do not trust this man. He would steal Tiny Tim’s crutch. —T. S.
The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes.

Will Self

Listen: I write pretentious, artsy-aspiring, insufferable literary fiction and even I don’t think there was ever a time when literary fiction was “alive” enough to be called “dead” now.

Libbie Hawker

Literary fiction is dead, my dear Will and Libbie; and I am proud to say that we McStudges killed it. If you want to make out the certificate, I can tell you that it died at precisely the time when it first began to be called literary; you can work out the date from that. A McStudge never sleeps; he may put his audience to sleep, but he himself is always on duty. In the past hundred years, we have killed opera, we have killed poetry, we have killed painting and sculpture, the ballet and the symphony; we have sent ‘serious’ live theatre and ‘serious’ literature to that great arts council in the sky. Latterly, we have started in on merely popular art forms. Even the king of pop culture, the Film Industry (you can tell it is pop because we call it an Industry), has the name of McStudge written across its face in lovely necrotic blotches. We have got written science fiction starting to pine for the fjords, and now we are rubbing our hands with glee, and wondering which genre of popular fiction to kill next. You may wonder, my poppets, why we McStudges take such delight in killing off art forms; and for the time being, you can take it out in wondering. I may deign to tell you later. For now, I will tell you how this delightful and invaluable work is done. Then you will be in the  position of the pathetic Winston Smith, when he wrote in his diary, ‘I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.’ He got his understanding in the torture-cells of the Ministry of Love, and you, my dears, will be there soon enough. You may rest assured of that. A hundred years ago, when our work was just beginning, we thought it would suffice to kill off the high arts. We did not at first realize that talent and invention, and still worse, the tastes of thinking people, would emigrate into the merely popular arts and find nourishment there for their wretched souls. At that time precisely, Europe was ablaze with indignation at the murder of a silly Austrian Archduke, and not yet ablaze with war. America, typically, was concerned with matters less weighty but more fundamental. It is the horrible genius of the American people that they can plunge into some trivial fad like rock and roll or television, and after a few years’ fermentation, come out at the other end with Art. In 1914, while the educated classes were still dressing like penguins for the opera, the masses were hard at play, fermenting a thing called jazz. At the time, jazz was nothing more than ephemeral dance music. While the Great War raged, Americans performed weird tribal gyrations to tunes like the ‘St. Louis Blues’, ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’, and ‘Ja Da, Ja Da, Jing, Jing, Jing’. There was no pretence of sophistication. When these compositions had lyrics at all, they were pure fluff; sometimes (as with ‘Ja-Da’) outright nonsense. If there was any ‘serious’ or political element in early jazz, it was that white Americans were listening to music actually made by black Americans, not a sentimental and sanitized imitation. They had gone from Stephen Foster to Scott Joplin, and would go further. This would have evil effects in the future; for a while, there was a real danger that harmony and friendship might break out between the races. Despite our best efforts, we have not yet managed to wholly undo that damage; but that is another story. In any other country, this sort of thing would have been harmless enough. Nobody remembers the music-hall songs that Englishmen were singing in 1914, or the airs that French accordionists played in the cafés, unless they happened to blunder into history by being connected with the war. The entertainment of the masses is, in Orwell’s term, prolefeed; it has no artistic merit, and the real arts are neither influenced nor threatened by it – except now and then, when a seditious cad like Haydn or Chopin sneaks folk-music into his serious compositions. But in America the matter is not so neatly arranged. Americans are difficult; they are a nation of proles who think they are bourgeois, and bourgeois who play-act at being proles. And sometimes, amid all this humbug, popular entertainment crosses the barriers of class and turns into something dangerous. The trouble was twofold. First, there was much genuine talent among the underclass who invented jazz – talent that could not be co-opted and absorbed into the high arts, because of the colour bar. That could have been contained; the educated classes in America had been carefully trained to ignore anything produced by a man with a dark face. What was much worse, jazz had a Protean adaptability that could easily absorb influences from the whole world of music. Here is an early example: Dvorak’s Humoresque No. 7 (1894)— —was shamelessly stolen and ‘jazzed’ by M. J. O’Connell, under the title ‘When Ragtime Rufus Rags the Humoresque’ (1917). Jazz meant improvisation; jazz meant homage, parody, and irreverent quotation; which meant that jazz was fun, not only for the audience, but for the performer. Within a few years, the best musical talent in America was frolicking in this new field. We put the highbrow public to sleep with Stravinsky, but they sleepwalked away, and Al Jolson woke them up again. Even the serious composers of America, the Gershwins and Copland and so forth, let the fresh breeze of jazz blow through the conservatory instead of recirculating the stale air of Modernist atonality. But it was the parodists and arrangers who had the real fun, reaching their apogee with Spike Jones and Carl Stalling. These cultural criminals, by playing fast and loose with the canon of great Western music, not only made it accessible to the unwashed masses, they made it beloved; and at the same time, they lifted jazz into a high art form in its own right. Obviously, this had to be stopped. We McStudges killed painting by an elegant bit of thimblerigging. In the nineteenth century, pure representational art had become so technically perfect that no further development was possible along that line. Photography enabled the artist to study Nature with an accuracy and diligence never before possible; but colour photography made him, as an artist, superfluous to that study. Painters began to abandon realism for abstraction. Now, there is good work to be done with the abstract in art. But this is where we came in. We rigged the thimbles; we moved the pea. When the modern artist escaped from the shackles of photographic realism, he fled straight into a prison that we built for him. You see, the average painter – and most painters are terribly average – is full of technical skill and manual dexterity, but has (it is their deadly secret) not much imagination. Give him a subject, a landscape or a human form or even a bowl of fruit, and he will work his magic. Give him nothing, and he will invent a subject out of the inadequate leavings of his own past influences. Unable to think of an original image, he will fake originality by taking the banal and making it bizarre. The easy way to do this – sometimes the only way – is to play footling games with technique. We encouraged painters to become more and more interested in the weave of the canvas, the weight of the brush-strokes, the plasticity of the paint; less and less interested in what the painting was about. The ideal picture was not a window on reality, but a sculpture a quarter of an inch thick; and for the most part, I am happy to report, the new art was as shallow as its medium. Painters stopped talking to their audience through imagery; now they only talked to one another about texture and impasto. We killed that art in a generation, and despite valiant efforts to revive it, it has remained safely in the grave. You can tell this is so, because whenever a painter dares to produce a vivid representation of a real or imagined scene, all the critics hiss and sneer and call him an illustrator: the worst insult in their vocabulary. The fear of ostracism (and of losing grants and gallery space) keeps the artists in their place; and their place is as far away from the viewing public as we can put them. Beginning about 1940, we played the same trick on the jazz musicians, with great success; it took us just twenty years to kill jazz, as a creative medium accessible to the people, stone dead. The game was the same: make the artist so interested in technique that he forgets all about his audience. But the improvisatory nature of jazz made the process even more amusing (for us) than usual. The basic form of a jazz piece is a theme, or ‘head’, followed by improvised variations, or ‘riffs’. (The awful demotic nature of the form shows in its terminology. Real musical terms should always be Italian words; unless your audience understands Italian, in which case they should be Sanskrit or Swahili.) First you play the theme, so the audience knows what the game is about, and what the rules are, so to speak. Then the soloists take their turns playing the variations, just as they come to mind. The fun of the game is in seeing how far the rules can be bent without breaking – that is, how far-fetched the improvisations can be, whilst staying in some kind of contact with the original melody. Ideally, you close with a reprise of the theme, incorporating the best bits of the riffs, so that everyone can hear and appreciate how far you have travelled and what you discovered along the way. This fun is shared by the performers and the audience, and it produces the empathy that is the heart of all successful art. That is precisely what we had to stop; so we hired an agent provocateur to break up the game. His name was Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie was a musician of great skill and talent, but he wanted something more: he longed to be a member of an Inner Ring. An Inner Ring is a special kind of claque, defined solely by its ability to keep people out, and to make them feel the sting of being excluded. We have done great work in every area of life, from politics to philately, by setting up Inner Rings and then making people outrage their better natures in a desperate effort to be accepted in them. With Dizzy Gillespie and his generation of jazzmen, we made the band the Inner Ring, and the audience the excluded victims. This is difficult to do in orchestral music, with its set scores and repertoires; but in jazz the trick was childishly easy. We taught them to leave off the head, and call it bebop. If you don’t play the melody in the first place, but launch straight into the variations, most of your audience will never be able to figure out what song you are actually playing. Gillespie delighted in this form of sadism. He prided himself on leaving the ‘squares’ behind; in a perfect performance, nobody but the band members would ever know what was actually going on. At the same time, he made his variations more and more intricate, less and less related to the tune he was ostensibly playing. Now, Gillespie was a genius in his own right, and his variations were often as interesting to hear as the original songs, or even more so. The real value of this innovation became apparent when less gifted players tried to imitate him. Like the dull average painter who can only paint the subject in front of him, the dull average jazz musician cannot compose interesting music on the fly – especially if he is trying to be as clever and sophisticated as Gillespie. The hands choose the notes, without any significant involvement from the higher brain centres. An average bebop solo is a string of finger exercises and quotations jumbled together to show off the manual dexterity of the instrumentalist. Of course one seldom hears average solos on bebop records, because a jazz record is usually the end product of many takes and rehearsals, and there is often precious little improvisation left in the finished piece. But you can hear them on any night in the clubs and the jam sessions, supposing (which is highly unlikely) that you actually want to. The musicians play for each other, not for the audience; and I am pleased to report that they usually make a damned dull spectacle when they are doing it. But even with the cheating tricks of the recording studio, most bebop solos are much less interesting or accessible than the (unstated) themes. Even when the theme is actually played, usually because it is a new composition, the audience’s eyes tend to glaze over somewhere between the third and fifth solos. It has been well and justly said that a bebop band consists of six soloists who have lost their way in the middle of the song. You can see this disease taking its course even in an otherwise brilliant piece like the famous ‘Take Five’, by the Dave Brubeck Quartet: The head is a masterpiece of modern music, a real technical breakthrough: so far as I know, the first truly memorable melody in 5/4 time in the whole of the Western tradition. But after the first minute, when the theme has been laid down, the record degenerates into a series of rather pedestrian solos, distinguished only by the difficulty of making the riffs fit the rhythm. Only the reprise of the theme saves the record from ending in a mournful anticlimax. Paul Desmond, the composer, could have approached the whole exercise in the spirit of the Big Bands of the 1930s, or of Gershwin or Joplin – in other words, he could have scored the entire piece. Instead of leaving the band to hang themselves after the first minute, he would have followed up with two or three more themes organically related to the first, and the whole piece would have had an intelligible and memorable structure, over and above that of the head. Fortunately, we McStudges were on hand to prevent that. We sent a little devil to whisper in Desmond’s ear, ‘But that would be square. Now suppose that a band were to play ‘Take Five’ with the first and last minutes cut off. Remove the head, and all you have left is an unintelligible noodling with a weird beat. At this point you cross over from bebop into avant-garde jazz, which the likes of Ornette Coleman were beginning to inflict on the world in the very year that ‘Take Five’ was released. The result, I am happy to say, was a historic meltdown. Jazz disappeared into the event horizon of its own collective navel, and most of its audience migrated to other kinds of music. The process, by the way, has been analysed with painful acuity by Roger Bissell in his essay, ‘What’s Wrong with Bebop?’ But be warned: Bissell is not a McStudge. He is a reactionary fool who thinks that an art form has some kind of business actually reaching an audience, and you must sift his words accordingly. However, it was not the musical branch of the McStudges that first perfected this technique. It was a McStudge of the previous generation who wormed his way into the confidence of James Joyce, and made him first into the Dizzy Gillespie, then the Ornette Coleman, of the literary novel, in each case a generation before his musical analogue became known to the world. If the art of bebop is to play the solos without the head, then Joyce was the founder of bebop. He wrote a thousand-page sequence of riffs on the Odyssey, without actually writing the Odyssey. He had the obsession with technique that we have used with such grand effect in other arts. Nearly every chapter of Ulysses is a sustained effort in some ‘experimental’ style or other, ranging from humble pastiche to arrogant dada; and most of the experiments are such failures that nobody copies them unless they are deliberately trying to be weird and offend the ‘squares’. There was no device that Joyce would not employ in his effort to tell his story, except for the trite and obvious device of actually telling it. Consequently, Ulysses reads like a giant cryptic crossword: even if you are familiar with all the sources and know all the allusions, you have to puzzle out the meaning of each clue, the peculiar code by which the antitype is derived from the archetype. If you don’t know the sources and allusions, you will never figure it out. It is an old and obvious rule that a piece of writing should convey its own meaning; that, after all, is the usual purpose of language. We taught Joyce to throw that rule out of the window, and to think himself a superior artist for doing so. He deliberately wrote a book that conveys no meaning unless you happen to have another book which contains the key to the code. In his ‘Ornette Coleman’ phase, Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake, which went Ulysses one better, because there is no key to the code. It is a sequence of riffs without even an implied head. But by that time we McStudges had got our money’s worth out of him; we never bothered to influence him at that point, any more than we bothered with the avant-garde jazzmen, because their art forms were already dead. The audience was gone; all that remained was a coterie of artists talking to one another in more and more elliptical and self-referential jargon, plus a few hangers-on and hipsters who fed their own egos and annoyed their friends by pretending to understand. This is the condition of maximum entropy, the ‘heat death’ of an art form; this is the state to which, ideally, the McStudge Method will eventually lead every art to which it is applied. We delight to see it. Now that you have been apprised of our methods, I am sure you will appreciate the skill with which our murders are performed. (By ‘appreciate’, of course, I don’t mean ‘appreciate’; I mean ‘surrender yourself in despair to the terrible and ineluctable truth’.) And I hope that part of your appreciation will consist in hating us for our work, and wondering what earthly or Hellish good we get out of it. Why do we do it? That, my dears, I am not going to tell you – yet. I want you to twist in the wind awhile, understanding How but not Why, until we meet again in the cells of the Ministry of Love.    (signed)    H. Smiggy McStudge

Told by an idiot, No. 5

If it sells, it’s crap. If it doesn’t sell, apply for a grant.     (signed)     H. Smiggy McStudge

Told by an idiot, No. 4

An artist’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s an artist’s statement for? The enormity of our semiotic struggle with reality and truth far exceeds the capacity of mere human language to express; that is why we express it in language. If it merely exceeded the capacity of music, we would have been composers instead. Only plebs and pikers actually say what they want to say. Real literature consists in saying that what you want to say cannot possibly be said.     (signed)     H. Smiggy McStudge

Told by an idiot, No. 2

The true artist must always suffer for his art. If you don’t suffer for your art, you won’t know how to make other people suffer for it when it’s their turn. As Robert Frost nearly said, ‘No cries of agony in the writer, no cries of agony in the reader.’    (signed)    H. Smiggy McStudge