Writing the first draft of this on a 171 bus, on the back of some sheet music (‘Walk on By‘ – Bacharach & David) that you can’t read, leaning on a new Verso book (that you can read) of Walter Benjamin’s little fictions (‘The Storyteller‘), heading to Bloomsbury for a discussion of same.
Its been a week in which you reconvened with your academic colleagues and heard news of last year and the coming year in academia. Increasingly we are assailed as art tutors with fearsome stats and digital analysis, followed by digital analysis of the digital analysis, all of which makes us, or is perhaps designed to make us fear for our careers, livelihoods, meaning and purpose in this world.
However, you happened to (fortunately) believe that art is more than statistics, in fact it is the relentless production of possibility DESPITE statistics, facts, reality. Walter Benjamin and Sigfried Kracauer were both very wary, in their own fearful times of ‘the processing of data in the fascist sense” (Benjamin).
As one of your heroes Alfred Jarry said, art is the ‘science of exceptions’ (he also renamed it ‘Pataphysics’). Meanwhile, we all know how that consummate and untouchable artist Mark Twain judged statistics to occupy a realm that was even more contemptible than ‘damn lies’.
What Is Soul? The real art highlight this week however was ‘The Infinite Mix‘ the Hayward Gallery’s Pop-Up show in an enormous disused office building on The Strand. The key to and core of ‘The Infinite Mix‘ is a subject very close to your heart i.e. the convergence of art and music and of art and ‘soul’. And should you write it in inverted commas?
What Is Soul? Hmmmm, yes, your own mixed-up and rather wavy career, shuttling back and forth between fine art and popular music has repeatedly confronted this schism, this question, this conundrum. for a generation of artists influenced about equally by Modernism, Conceptual art and Postmodernism ‘Soul’ is a largely taboo or ironicised value.
What Is Soul? Consider the contemporary artist ‘Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’ who explicitly references one of our greatest, and undeniable Soul heroes (here I write it without inverted commas and with a capital letter in honour of marvelous Marvyn). Is Chetwynd a fan of Gaye? Does she believe in or pursue the value of soul in here art? Or is there some critique, of the quasi-spiritual concept (soul) or of the black music genre in her audacious appropriation? (RESEARCH!)
What Is Soul? Your own teaching seminar, and apparently some conducted by your colleagues too, purposefully addresses a growing number of references in art and its theories relating to the emotive and ‘affective’ values and possibilities of art.
What Is Soul? Fine art can be ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘interesting’, ‘beautiful’, ‘challenging’, ‘innovative’ etc. and yet it could be argued that it might still only rarely touch you in that special spot targeted by the world’s myriad musicians, songwriters and record producers, that defenceless ‘soft’ spot that gives goosebumps to the determined commuter, brings a smile to the face or a tear to the eye of those passing-by the busker, or sends you rushing to turn up the radio when a certain song comes on.
What Is Soul? In ‘The Infinite Mix‘ you get to witness stunning visuals accompanied and enhanced by some magnificent musicianship and moving mixes of sonic and visual clips. Dancehall, Dub, Hip Hop, R&B, Rock, Jazz, Funk and Soul all feature, oh, and there’s a little bit of Rock and opera too.
What Is Soul? Sometimes your critical antennae grow concerned about the repeated presentation of blackness in this show. In many ways you can simply enjoy it as a (truly) beautiful celebration of black music, culture, subculture, style, lifestyle and achievement (there are other aspects to The Infinite Mix, but this is the aspect on which you wish to concentrate here). The artists here all presumably draw personal and private inspiration or simple pleasure from black music and culture (we all surely do) but without referencing it as explicitly as they do here in their fine art works.
What Is Soul? Nevertheless, most of the audience visiting the show alongside you look like freshers drawn in from the prestigious universities nearby (LSE and Kings) and this sometimes gives you the slightly uncomfortable sense of blackness and black culture being exploited or rendered as a magnificent spectacle for a privileged audience who can simply rake-off its pleasures and even adopt some of its style and attitudes but without ever having to experience the kind of socio-economic oppression from which so much of it surely springs.
What Is Soul? Dancehall, Dub, Hip Hop, R&B, Rock, Jazz, Funk and Soul, and the Blues that underpins white Rock, all unarguably provide examples of creative excellence and innovation, whole new genres in fact that, like fire stolen from machinic gods, like little victories repeatedly wrested from relentlessly crushing defeats, have helped us all to negotiate and survive modernity (city life, motoring, consumerism, capitalism, industrialisation, technologisation) with our hearts, souls and minds relatively intact.
What Is Soul? All the ‘beauty’ of black culture that you witness here is undeniably a product of a centuries-long, more or less conscious regime, of constant marginalisation and oppression, essentially based on a barbaric and primitive fear of largely visual difference.
What Is Soul? If black music seduces and charms, moves, excites, soothes and reassures, and if it simultaneously amazes with its apparently inexorable fecund production of avant-garde risk-taking innovation (which seems so absent from so many other arenas of cultural production) it still has to be acknowledged as the outcrying and outpouring of a horrific, pervasive and all-but unbearable injustice, the corralling, intimidating, abusing and oppressing of individuals and communities who, despite all, constantly strive for and achieve, thorough innovative art and culture, the special kind of excellence you can witness repeatedly throughout this show, and which you can also ‘enjoy’ throughout your life, even (or especially) as a member of a relatively rich, largely white, privileged audience.
What Is Soul? A Christian preacher may tell you it has something to do with God, but most of the visitors to this show will recognise it (hopefully) in their own visceral response to the sound of a sampled bass drum or Roland cowbell, in a conga or shaker pattern, a bass line or funky riff, or in the deliberately staggered rhythm of a rich rhyme laid leisurely over a sensuously winding loop. Combine all this with HD video that can pick up and instantly hero-ise, glorify and romanticise even the most ordinary scene or impoverished life (assisted by slow motion, wide-angle, drone shots etc.) and you come close to the reason that for you this is the show of the year so far.
What Is Soul? On your first visit you stayed 3 hours. The next day, about the same again, and you are looking forward to returning, each time a little more critical and discerning but also prepared for a pleasure-fest. Nevertheless, the political readings and implications of this show have to be considered too.
What Is Soul? Time and time again you experience here something truly ‘extra-ordinary’ (a currently much overused word); time and time again (despite your underlying concerns about eh possible ‘spectacularisation’ of black bodies, black lives, black subculture etc.) the artists and curators time and time again seem to get the balance right between image, idea, concept, sound, installation – ‘mind, body and soul’ we might say.
What Is Soul? All in all its a ‘cracking’ experience, fun yes, but also ‘cracking ‘ in the sense in which, having opened you up or ‘wounded’ you, it encourages you to confront and consider your ‘soul’, what it is, (is it your nerves, your conscience, your inner nobility?) and to ask yourself again some of the hardest, deepest human and moral questions that face every single one of us today. After all, the socio-economic structures and the fear and the prejudice that created the terrible conditions of injustice from which so much of this ‘beauty’ arises -far from being consigned to a shameful past- may be increasingly rampant, ruthless, unchallenged and global.