10/28/2011 10:58:06 AM
Considering the maddening details behind our nation’s current socio-economic struggles, it’s natural for many to ask: Where is the art to help us deal with our troubles?
In this second installment of the “This Art Is Your Art” series, we’ll look at what role popular music had played in helping people survive tough times in the past, and what role it is playing in the struggles of today.
It was bound to happen. After nearly four years of prolonged economic struggle
, lingering joblessness, an ever-increasing income gap, declining household wealth with an incongruent gain in corporate wealth, and a resulting explosion of mass frustration, people were bound to start asking: Where is the music that speaks to my problems? “Every successful movement has a soundtrack,”
New York Times
recently quoted former Rage Against the Machine member Tom Morello telling reporters during a rally at the Occupy Wall Street Protest. Others concurred with Morello. NPR’s Ann Powers had run a similar story two weeks earlier. 24-year-old college student Martían Hughes told the Times: “I have not heard a single song that sums up what we are trying to do here,” and a clever wag joked on Twitter: “
Really torn by the Occupy Wall Street movement because I agree with the message but I fucking hate drum circles.”
These concerns raise questions. First, has there actually been, during past struggles, music that
spurred on mass protests movements or that soothed and inspired struggling masses of Americans
? And, if so, is it reasonable for people to insist that such a soundtrack emerge for a protest movement that is so young it has yet to even decide what it is protesting exactly? And, perhaps most importantly, if we need music to raise us out of the muck, what is it about drum circles that fail to satisfy this desire?
Today, we can look back from our safe remove at past eras of suffering and despair—the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, or the sustained economic troubles of the 1970s—to examine the role music may have played in helping society deal with times of systemic troubles, how it may have given solace to the suffering or provided inspiration, and how it may even have helped affect change. And we can take heart in the fact that conditions today are the same as they ever were, and also completely different.
The Music of the 1930s: Daydreams and Defiance
The Great Depression struck the country with the suddenness of a howitzer shell. After a decade of brisk economic growth, bustling consumerism, and a resulting speculative bubble in Wall Street, the Black Tuesday stock market crash of October 29, 1929, ushered in a quick economic decline that would culminate in 1933 with a 25 percent unemployment rate (from a near-0 percent rate in 1929), a 37 percent drop in gross domestic product (from its high in 1929), and a debilitating deflationary spiral. Millions of displaced workers stood in bread lines. Families struggled with widespread anxiety and despair. Local union workers fought harassment by union-busting companies. Displaced and bankrupt workers were forced into itinerancy. And through it all an ineffectual government remained uncertain about the best course to take to solve the nation’s troubles.
At the time of the Wall Street crash, jazz was the ascendant style of music, and through the 1930s jazz vocalists such as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Rudy Vallee, Ted Lewis, Dick Powell, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, Kate Smith, Billie Holliday, and Ethel Waters would provide a soundtrack for the Depression. As with most eras of American popular music, the radio air waves of the 1930s were filled with fluff—songs of unrequited or jilted love, songs hoping for a chance at love, and songs celebrating the acquisition of love. But there was also, as early as 1930, an undercurrent in the time's popular music suggesting that life had changed. In January, 1930, “Why Was I Born?",
from the Jerome Kern musical Sweet Adeline, captured a sense of the year’s uncertainty in its lyrics:
Why was I born?
Why am I livin’?
What do I get?
What am I givin’?
Why do I want for things
dare not hope for?
What can I hope for?
I wish I knew.
The song that many consider to be the anthem of the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, followed in the same vein. Written in 1931 and recorded by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby in 1932, the song recounts the heartache and frustration of a narrator who, just a few years before, had helped build railroads and skyscrapers, and had marched alongside his victorious countrymen in 1918. That the song struck a nerve with thousands of displaced American workers was evident in the fact that both Crosby’s and Vallee’s recordings reached the top of the hit charts that year.
Beyond the music of the popular airwaves, a resurgent “folk” music in the 1930s—created by figures like Jim Garland, Woody Guthie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly—further explored the injustices faced by millions of ordinary citizens whose lives had been disrupted by the Depression. Songs like Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World No More” told stories about migrant workers, families reduced to poverty, and people forced to live in hovels and worker camps. Florence Reece’s 1931 song “Which Side Are You On?” channeled the anger and frustration of Kentucky miners facing union-busting activities during a labor strike. And Jim Garland’s 1933 song, “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister (All I Want),” spun the sentiments of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” into even more defiance.
We worked to build this country, Mister,
While you enjoyed a life of ease.
You’ve stolen all that we built, Mister,
Now our children starve and freeze.
So, I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.
Not all Great Depression music was as despairing. A certain American optimism filled the radio air waves alongside these other, more dour songs. In February, a song appeared in a movie called Chasing Rainbows
that would become another great anthem of the Great Depression. Though written in reference to the end of World War I, “Happy Days Are Here Again”
struck such a catchy, joyous message of hope that it inspired many Americans too look beyond their current troubles to when times would one day improve. The song’s sentiment was so popular it appeared in more than twenty movies during the Depression’s height (1930-1933), and then in nearly twenty more as the downturn lingered through the rest of the decade. Other songs based on this forget-your-troubles-be-happy model were common throughout the Depression: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” from the 1930 Broadway musical Lew Leslie's International Revue;“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” performed by Rudy Vallee in 1931; “
Help Yourself to Happiness,” from the Ziegfield Follies of 1931, “Looking at the Bright Side” performed by Gracie Field in 1932, and so on. One such song became so popular it helped make the film it appeared in—the Busby Berkeley choreographed spectacle Gold Diggers of 1933—the biggest box office hit of that year. “We’re in the Money,” written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, epitomized the cheering quality of much music of the Depression, even as it added a thumbed-nose to the whole idea of Depression in the final line of the chorus.
We’re in the money, we’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong.
Both aspects of Depression music—the indignation and defiance in songs like “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and the roll-up-your-sleeves optimism in songs like “We’re in the Money”—spoke volumes about the values of the times. While people suffered, faced hopeless job markets, and had their families torn apart, this was still an age when the idea “American know-how” had currency. Many of us have heard stories about how our grandparents and great grandparents survived the Great Depression through a collective sense of determination, pluck, and thriftiness. My own grandmother used to keep a drawer full of old, used tinfoil—even well into the 1980s—because “you just never know when you’ll need it.” Franklin Roosevelt, a Democratic presidential candidate who broke a 12-year Republican hold on the office in 1932, won election that year by emphasizing American’s natural perseverance and ingenuity, and stressing how much we have relied on each other to get by. In his inaugural address—the famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech—Roosevelt spoke words that might have come from the mouth of a folk singer of the era:
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline…. With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.
The 1970s: Songs of Anger and Songs of Pain
Considering the similar trajectory of the 1970s recession to the turmoil of the 1930s, it’s no surprise that the music of the later era followed a similar pattern to the music of the Depression. As with the Great Depression, the lingering recession of the 1970s came after a long period of economic expansion. Both downturns lingered for a decade or so after the initial recessions had technically ended, and both were precipitated by a single event. (In the 1970s, the event was the 1973 oil crisis that followed the OPEC oil embargo on the United States that began on October 17, 1973.) Therefore, it did not take long for American ears in the 1970s to turn to music that spoke to the pain of era. In November, 1973, Stevie Wonder released his single, “Living for the City.” While not as sharp a commentary as songs he would write a few years later, this composition strung together a blunt series of images depicting the nature of American city life. Meanwhile, that same week on the opposite end of the musical spectrum, country-western star Waylon Jennings released his depiction of a laid-off factory worker, “If We Make It Through December.” The similar sense of empathy that these two very different artists feel for the downtrodden reveals the universality of artistic concern in a troubled time.
Plenty more popular music depicted the troubles of the times as the nation struggled after 1973 with joblessness, inflation, and stagnant economic growth. J. Geil’s Band’s “Detroit Breakdown,” Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century,” Hudson Ford’s “Burn Baby Burn,” Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Winter in America” and spoken-word album “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Don McLean’s “Homeless Brother," 10-CC’s “Wall Street Shuffle,” and the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” all appeared in 1974. Note: While some have adapted this last song as an ode to American acquisitiveness, a glance at the song’s lyrics make clear the O’Jays’ original intentions:
For the love of money
People will lie, Lord, they will cheat
For the love of money
People don’t care who they hurt or beat …
I know money is the root of all evil
Do funny things to some people
Give me a nickel, brother can you spare a dime
Money can drive some people out of their minds
In 1975, gritty looks at the times included “Hard Times” and “Never Say You Can’t Survive” by Curtis Mayfield, “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers, and “Rich Get Richer” by the O’Jays. In 1976, Stevie Wonder filled an entire album—Songs in the Key of Life—with songs that reflected his increasing dismay and bitterness at the way the country was being run. The album included the stark and angry “Have a Talk with God,” “Village Ghetto Land,” and his tour de force “I Wish."
By 1977 and 1978, the times were so frustrating that artistic anger led to the rise of a new, underground musical genre. These so-called “punk” bands played spare, loud, and angry songs about
the frustrations of the working class—the class from which most of the performers came—and of the hypocrisy and control exhibited by the rich and powerful
. Among the punk acts that appeared between 1974 and 1977 were the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, t
he Sex Pistols, the Boomtown Rats, the Undertones, the Buzzcocks, the Damned, the Clash, the Suicide Commandos, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Crime, the Nuns, the Tupperwares, VOM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, the Slits, the Subversives, and the Runaways. “
All the power’s in the hands of people rich enough to buy it,” screamed the Clash angrily in its 1977 song “White Riot,” “while we walk the street too chicken to even try it.”
As this new, energetic underground flourished on the indignation and anger of the times, similar sentiments filtered into even the most mainstream of music between 1976 and 1979. Songs like Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Angry Young Man” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Factory” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” more tunefully expressed the frustration felt by young people with few options for success in their lives. Even the biggest band in the world at the time, the hyper-successful Rolling Stones, who had little real reason to be upset in 1978, couldn’t keep the frustrations of the time from creeping into their feel-good brand of rock ’n’ roll. Their song “Shattered” spoke of the rising crime rates, the “money grabbers,” and the maggots overrunning New York City. “You got rats on the West Side,” Mick Jagger moaned, “bed bugs Uptown. What a mess, this town’s in tatters. I’ve been shattered.”
And you know once Mick Jagger is feeling frustrated, then it’s a safe bet that the masses are dealing with some pretty serious troubles.
Today: Music of Distraction
The breadth and depth of the anger and the haunting depictions of pain that was commonly written into the music of the 1930s and 1970s—as well as the popularity of such songs among the angry and frustrated masses—might lead one to expect a similar occurrence today. Thus, the questions raised today by Tom Morello and Ann Powers
are completely valid, especially when considering the breadth and depth of musical response to bad times in the past. While mainstream pop charts of today are, as in times of past, filled with songs of frivolous distraction and the obsessive pursuit of (or pining after the loss of) love/sex, what’s different now is that, unlike in the past, there has been little sign of the troubles of these times in the charts of musical hits. (Just to cite one example, in the Billboard list of the top 100 hits for 2010
there was only one song—Jay-Z’s somewhat gentle depiction his life on the streets of New York, “Empire State of Mind” (#21)—that includes any sort of social content, and no song that examines the anger or frustration of the times.) If pop music is to be believed today, no one seems to care to hear their own life frustrations reflected back at them in their music. (If pop music is to be believed, in 2010 Americans spent its spare time clubbing, cruising, and “doing it big all over the globe.”) In pop music today, no one seems to have any interest in venting their worries and frustrations or in being uplifted beyond the troubles of the current times.
There may be several reasons for this social disconnect in mainstream pop music. In an age when the lilting spiritual-cum-protest song “Kumbaya” is deemed an embarrassing national joke, we may have come to consider ourselves too savvy, too cynical, too clever by half to have our emotions and feelings depicted and manipulated by something so banal as a song. Indeed, several musical acts, in several different musical genres, go so far as to suggest that the protest song is dead. This includes the heavy metal band Foundation, who released their song “No One Writes Protest Songs Anymore” in 2011; the modern folk-rock group GioSafari, who produced an entire album called Protest Songs (Are Dead) in 2011; and, finally, and most famously, there’s Hugh Laurie’s send up of the protest song, “Protest Song.” This song
appeared on national TV just as the country began tipping into the economic abyss in 2008. As Laurie sings it, the answers to the country’s lingering problems—“poor keep gettin’ hungry, and the rich keep gettin’ fat,” etc.—are easy: “All we gotta do,” he sings, before mumbling an incoherent (nonexistent) answer.
So we may have—despite the wishes of Morello (wishes that, actually, may be self-motivated; see more on this below) and Powers—moved as a culture beyond the protest song. It’s possible that we live in a time when our values have turned so inward into personal introspection and self-regard that we find it impossible to gather together and sing about a common cause. Or else protest music may simply be too embarrassing a relic of the past, of a time when such well-meaning sentiment actually meant something. Today is a different age, we prefer to think, when problems are so complex, so difficult to solve that they’re not even worth bringing up in polite society. Considering all of these attitudes, it makes sense that the music that has thus far dominated the Occupy movement—the ever-present drum circle—is essentially an act of solipsism, in which a person with a loud percussive instrument expresses himself loudly without regard to whether or not anyone really wants to listen to the racket. And this may be the one object-lesson of today’s protests: Most of us, no matter our sympathies one way or another, can agree on one thing. We hate the music of the Occupy movement.
There may also be another, somewhat related reason that protest songs today simply don’t have the sticking power of the past. We may not only be prone to dismiss such music as out of touch with the times, but, as Live Aid founder Midge Ure suggests, we may also be living in a culture that makes it impossible to hear such music. “The protest song isn’t quite as relevant right now,” Ure said at a recent conference on politics in the digital age. “The world certainly has enough turmoil going on in it for people to write about. I just think maybe the vehicle to hear those songs has changed, or broken, or disappeared.” As Casey Rae-Hunter of the Future of Music Coalition recently pointed out in an NPR story, ours is a “fractured culture,” sliced up in so many different ways that we lack much common cultural ground now. In an age when people carry in their pockets devices that hold upwards of 10,000 songs of their own choosing, when satellite and internet radios offer access to hundreds and thousands of radio stations of every particular bent, when Spotify allows you to tap into the music collections of your entire network of friends, when we have, in a word, unlimited amounts of choice about which music to consume, it makes sense that songs of complex or troubled sentiment might be lost in the mix.
Still, the fracturing of our culture is not necessarily a completely bad thing, as Rae-Hunter explains, because it gives a “plethora of folks who otherwise would’ve had no shot of getting on commercial radio” a change to be heard. And, as it happens, this dynamic is analogous to the changing nature of protest that has become apparent in the Occupy movement itself. Today, the traditional trappings of protest—rallies, speeches, song circles—seem less important than the constant stream of chatter that is made possible through social media. “In the 1960s music was the social media of the day,” said Ralph F. Young, a professor of history at Temple University, in a recent Time magazine story. “Today protesters have Facebook and Twitter to disseminate their message.” And in an age of flattened discourse—made possible by universal access to the Twitter stream—music ends up being far less of a player in the debate than in the past.
In the end, apparently, it may no longer really matter whether or not artists are writing meaningful music about the times. Which is unfortunate in a way, because
in fact there are plenty of songs of protest and complaint to be found if you’re willing to look beyond your own iPod’s playlists. The New York Times story, of course, lists a few—by Ry Cooder, Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, and Aloe Blacc. But the list could be much more expansive, including a wide range of genres and takes, including: “Survival of a People” by Gabriel’s Grandzjuk, “Sounds Like Life to Me” by Darryl Worley, “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” by John Wesley Harding, “Ponzi” by the Felice Brothers, “Shutting Detroit Down” by John Rich, and entire albums by Robb Johnson (Some Recent Protest Songs) and the Nightwatchman, a.k.a. Tom Morello—no wonder he wants us to reconsider the protest song (World Wide Rebel Songs).
And then there’s my own personal current favorite song about the times, one that I would gladly share with anyone who comes within reach of my own ear buds: Jeremy Messersmith’s recent composition “Blue Sky (Corporations Are People My Friend).” In this simple, tuneful song Messersmith finds an accessible, endearing way to put his musical thumb right on the deep, raging, universal vein of frustration that is nagging at the so-called “99 percent.”
We don’t have money
We don’t have guns
Off shore accounts
Or mutual funds
But from the suburbs to trailer parks
We’ve got each other, and that’s a start.
While Messersmith’s song may not change the world, in this age of iTunes and Spotify, and it may not find its way onto the Billboard charts, by sharing his take on the times through this song I can honestly say he’s changed my life just a little bit. And that’s a start.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
Read more of the “This Art Is Your Art” series.
Lead image by David Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Additional image by Jessica Warren is licensed courtesy of Getty Images. © 2011 Jessica Warren. © 2011 Getty Images. All rights reserved.
10/27/2011 2:38:41 PM
Inspired by an image of an Occupy Wall Street protester with a dollar bill covering his mouth, sketch artist Gary Bedard decided to draw his own versions of the image, calling the project “Ten Occupy Wall Street Demonstrators in Ten Days.” “The dollar bill speaks to ending silence on corporate greed, tax breaks for millionaires, and social injustice,” he said. “When I saw it, I thought—oh my god, that means everything. It says it all.”
See more images at Turnstyle and Gary Bedard's website.
Source: Turnstyle, Gary Bedard
Images courtesy of Gary Bedard.
10/24/2011 12:18:49 PM
In this continuing series,
Art Director Stephanie Glaros explains the
process behind an
One of the most important things I’ve learned during my tenure
as Utne art director (and in life in
general) is to trust my instincts. A good example is my most recent
collaboration with David Gothard. I asked him to illustrate the article
“Criminal Minds,” which suggests that brain scans can identify children who may
become killers. As always, Gothard submitted several smart ideas at the sketch
stage. I asked him to provide a couple more, based on feedback from my editor,
who found the initial direction too “dark.” Gothard gave me two more options,
both “lighter” in tone. My editor chose one, and I told Gothard to go ahead
with final art. Almost immediately, I knew it was the wrong choice. While a fun
visual solution, I felt it didn’t match the tone of the story. But I ignored
this feeling, in the interest of keeping things moving along on a busy Friday
afternoon (I normally work with 15+ illustrators each issue, and don’t have
much time to second-guess my choices).
The next morning, that nagging feeling didn’t go away, so I
called my editor at home and asked if we could reconsider our choice. I pointed
him back to my initial favorite, and he conceded, knowing from past experience
to trust his art director when it comes to art (go figure). Luckily, Gothard hadn’t
begun work on the final illustration, so a quick email to him got the project
back on track. Not only do I think the final illo is perfect, it’s also my
favorite from Gothard (and that’s saying a lot, as he has done exceptional work
Since its inception in 1984,
has relied on talented artists to create original
images for stories that express powerful emotions, brilliant new ideas, and
humorous storytelling. Browsing through back issues of
is like a tour of “Who’s Who”
in the illustration world. Artists like Gary Baseman, Brad Holland, Anita Kunz,
Bill Plympton, and Seymour Chwast have graced our pages over the years, to name
just a few.
10/21/2011 3:36:49 PM
Over the past few years, many photographers have tried to frame the home foreclosure epidemic in a meaningful, visceral way. They’ve tried to capture the empty bedrooms and abandoned lots of an over-mortgaged, hollowed out, defaulted-on American Dream.
Ben Grasso, an oil painter based in Cleveland—a city no stranger to foreclosure—has a different method of baring America’s suburban emptiness: blowing up houses. Not literally, of course, but artistically. Ka-boom!
“Grasso takes a modern American painterly tradition and mixes it with contemporary cinematic spectacle,” comments Architizer’s Kelly Chan. “In his subject matter and painting style,”
he overtly borrows the visual vocabulary forged by hallmark painters of modern American life. His thick brushwork and rich, opaque colors find resonance with works by artists like Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keefe. However, his in-your-face spontaneous combustions recast images of the American dream as volatile fantasies. In these paintings, pristine homes are desecrated, caught in the path of an apocalyptic disaster fit for a summer blockbuster movie.
I’ll add that Grasso’s disassembled homes echo the modern architectural principle of materialistic “honesty,” or being very up front about how the building materials used relate to the structure’s design. (Yes I’m grossly oversimplifying that idea.) Every plank and pipe, every concrete pylon and whitewashed windowpane is exposed in schematic isolation. The homes in Grasso’s painting are frozen between a blueprint and a scrapheap—similar, you might say, to the lives of many middle class Americans today.
Images courtesy of Ben Grasso.
10/20/2011 3:40:19 PM
“We’ve set the bar so low that we don’t feel any pressure from the outside,” says Mika Rättö, front man of an obscure Finnish experimental rock band called Circle, at the beginning of Esko Lönnberg’s meta-meta-documentary, Man with a Video Camera. To be sure, Rättö’s words aren’t very reassuring to someone just sitting down to a 50-minute-long film with a jumpy timeline and English subtitles. But for artists, musicians, and documentary buffs with even a junior varsity-level of intellectual stamina, Man with a Video Camera is an interesting, experimental peek into what is often seen as an impenetrable subject: the creative process.
To Lönnberg’s credit, Circle is the perfect documentary subject for an exploration of the creative process. Formed in Pori, Finland, and described as “ever changing, ever Circular,” the band has released nearly fifty albums, EPs, and live sets in their 20-year existence. Prolific is a gross understatement. To try to capture the band’s creative essence, Lönnberg travels with them to their winter practice space—a couple of small, rustic cabins on the edge of the Finnish wilderness.
At night, the band convenes for drawn-out jam sessions—cataclysms of piano and banjo, jaunty harmonicas and electrified Eastern guitar melodies, meandering drones and vocal gibberish. For someone not accustomed to live experimental music, watching a group of grown men in studded-leather bracelets playing atonal rock music while their singer literally barks and gargles into a microphone is enough to arch a skeptical eyebrow.
By day, however, Lönnberg choreographs an ambiguous film starring Circle. Band-leader Rättö is very interested and encouraging in the side project, the other band members drag their feet, roll their eyes, and call Lönnberg runkke, the Scandinavian equivalent of wanker. “A documentary should have a strong sense of purpose,” says Rättö at one point. “It requires tension. But here, no one’s having a sense of purpose, except to watch the Olympics. How do you create tension out of that?”
The plot of Lönnberg’s fictional film is thoroughly diaphanous, more of a vignette than anything. At the beginning, Rättö is skiing around a frozen, swampy thicket half-lost. Next scene, the band performs a folk song on the cabin’s porch (singing “Leppanen is a sticky-sticky man”) until someone shoots an arrow at a banjo leaning against a tree. At one point, they all march through the woods at night wearing ski masks and toting candelabras. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
What soon becomes clear is that the project is even more complex than I’ve laid out so far. While Lönnberg is recording his short film and Circle documentary, someone else is filming him film them. Later, we see, he presents a different version of the documentary at a film festival. What you are watching, then, is a documentary about a documentary about a documentary. Even Lönnberg gets lost in the different narrative layers. “Is this real or fiction?” he wonders. “Difficult to say.”
Lönnberg doesn’t necessary reveal something groundbreaking about human creativity or push the boundaries of cinematography in Man with a Video Camera, but he does make an artful attempt to chronicle the innate, therapeutic, incomprehensible drive to make art.
At the film’s conclusion, Lönnberg asks a hanging, final assortment of questions. His last is as cryptic as you’ve come to expect by this point: “Tell me, stars: ‘What am I?’”
Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
Man with a Video Camera was first released in 2009, but is being re-released by Fonal Records in conjunction with Supersonic Festival, an experimental music showcase in Birmingham, United Kingdom, from October 21-23. If you’re in that neck of the woods and have an interest in experimental music, the documentary is worth an hour of your time.
10/17/2011 12:12:24 PM
This post originally appeared at
It’s hard not to be inspired when you meet Shannon Galpin. At first look she’s your average smart, athletic woman, living in Colorado. Dig a little deeper and you’ll learn she’s a single mom. Spend a few more minutes talking and she’ll tell you the story of how she left her career, sold her house and launched a nonprofit, committing her life to advancing education and opportunity for women and girls.
Galpin focuses her efforts on the war-torn country of Afghanistan, and with her organization, Mountain2Mountain, has already touched the lives of hundreds of men, women and children.
As the founder of Mountain2Mountain, I’ve been lucky to travel often throughout Afghanistan, working with Afghans as they strive to rebuild their country. My passion is working with Afghan women and girls as they fight to prove their value and worth in this male dominated culture. Afghanistan is consistently ranked as the worst place to be a woman and yet women and girls are key to the future of the country.
As a woman, and specifically, as a foreign woman, I’ve had unique insights into this country thanks to the concept of the Third Gender. A concept that treats foreign women as honorary males, and allows them to interact as equals with men, while still being a woman and therefore have full access to the women. In essence, acting as their proxy when they do not have a voice.
As a mountain biker I’ve felt the weight of women’s oppression knowing that in Afghanistan, women can’t ride bikes, but have embraced the Third Gender concept to the hilt by experiencing this country on two wheels. Via my motorcycle and my mountain bike I have ridden in several areas of Afghanistan, in the hopes that I could change stereotypes back home about the beauty and future tourism of Afghanistan, while challenging the stereotypes in Afghanistan of women on bikes.
Galpin recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, and documented her time in an exclusive photo essay for EcoSalon
Learning to fish in Panjshir River by net.
Chaihanna in Kabul—fresh kebabs street-side.
Flying with the Afghan National Army to Khost Province. A quick stopover includes time for prayer.
All images by Shannon Galpin of Mountain2Mountain. Image at top is of a Buzkashi match in Panjshir Valley—horses and riders race through adjoining fields and roadways.
10/14/2011 12:22:03 PM
In a buck-stops-here, brass-tacks era of hard economic choices, there will always be some who ask the inevitable question: What is the purpose of art? As it turns out, there are nearly as many answers to this question as there are artists. To Picasso, the purpose of art was “washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Josef Albers thought art was for visualizing “the human attitude towards life, towards the world,” while Jean Anouilh thought art was meant “to give life a shape.” Even ancient Aristotle, when he wasn’t inventing logic, had an opinion on the matter. “The aim of art,” he said, “is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
Despite this divergence of opinion, you’ll note that these answers agree on one thing. Art is definitively worth something. It's not an idle pursuit meant “to waste time,” or “to fill empty space.” Art is about being engaged in the world, about grappling with what needs to be grappled with.
And in fact, despite the grim view of policy makers, when times are tough people tend particularly to seek art out. During
past national moments of crisis—the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, and the prolonged 1970s R
a wide number of artists addressed the challenges of their times through their music, visual art, films, plays, and literature, and
people soaked their art up.
Consider the song
“This Land Is Your Land,” for a moment. Written by Woody Guthrie at the tail end of the Great Depression, just a year or so before the United States entered into World War II, it was meant as a response to the Irving Berlin’s blandly patriotic song, “God Bless America.” Though Berlin wrote his song in 1918, in 1938 he revised it for the singer Kate Smith to use on her weekly radio show. Guthrie grew tired of hearing Smith sing the song, which he considered insipid and out-of-touch, so he wrote a more realistic, if sweeping, portrait of the country that also encapsulated the feelings of people who had been shut out from the good life during the Great Depression. The genius of “This Land Is Your Land,” perhaps, was that the Depression-inspired protest in the song’s central lyric (“This land is made for you and me”) was subtle, voiced not as a complaint or call to arms but as a positive (yet still socialistic) sentiment of equality and belonging. At the time of the song’s composition, Guthrie was experiencing minor success in his career. He sang on and off in those years for radio shows in Los Angeles and New York, and he performed around the country at small venues. As the country reveled in its victory over fascism after 1945, folk singers like Guthrie faded from the collective consciousness along with their music. But Guthrie and “This Land Is Your Land” would rightly come back in favor. In the late 1950s, city kids began revisiting and reinterpreting the folk music of the earlier age, and Guthrie was a key figure in this revival. “This Land Is Your Land” would become Guthrie's signature song in these years, and over time it would come to occupy a central position in the American musical canon. (This is evident in the fact that the Library of Congress chose to include the song as one of the first 50 recordings to be preserved in the National Recording Registry alongside recordings of Gershwin playing “Rhapsody in Blue,” Bessie Smith singing “Downhearted Blues,” Elvis Presley’s “Sun Records sessions,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.)
If you look at the long view, art’s strength
and perhaps its highest purpose
is its ability to lift humans above their temporary troubles. When Guthrie sang of his people standing in lines at the relief office, “some grumblin’ and some wonderin’,” he was not fretting over his own petty concerns and struggles, he was making a universal and beautiful statement about the human condition. This is why it’s natural
as the maddening details behind our nation’s current socio-economic struggles are revealed daily
for us to wonder today: Where is the art to help us cope with our troubles? Where is the contemporary music to ease our aching souls? Where are the movies and plays and books to help us examine and understand the human condition? Where is the visual art that lifts us with visions of a better world?
In this space over the next few months, I will explore these particular questions about the arts of today
first popular music; then theatrical and literary forms like films, plays, radio and TV shows, and books; and finally visual art
—by examining the fraying and neglected artistic infrastructure of our fraying and neglected nation for any sign of a clear artistic response to our current “Great Recession.” Also, to determine the state of our national psyche today relative to past times of struggle I will compare and contrast the art being made today to that during the Great Depression of the 1930s and during the 1970s Recession (ca. 1973-1979).
If you have suggestions for any contemporary music, movies, books, plays, or visual art works you think should be included in this discussion, please send them along. (After all, we’re talking about art that was made for you and me.) Ultimately, the hope is that we can, together, discover the most artful and creative ways of understanding and rising above this mess we're in currently.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
The photograph used above is a work for hire created prior to 1968 by a staff photographer at
New York World-Telegram & Sun
It is part of a collection donated to the Library of Congress. Per the deed of gift, New York World-Telegram & Sun dedicated to the public all rights it held for the photographs in this collection upon its donation to the Library. Thus, there are no known restrictions on the usage of this photograph.
10/13/2011 11:55:35 AM
The highly publicized, highly contentious, state-sanctioned execution of Troy Davis on September 21, 2011, reinvigorated America’s longstanding conversation about the death penalty. A Gallup poll released this morning found that only 61 percent of Americans approve of using the death penalty for convicted murderers, a 39-year low. Our country seems to be the cusp of cultural change when it comes to capital punishment. Do you know where you stand?
It’s okay if you don’t. The death penalty is a morally complex issue, tangled up by competing threads of history, media, the political process, religion, class, and—last, but not least—emotions.
Sensing a need for national conversation about the death penalty, ThinkProgress blogger Alyssa Rosenberg launched “The Pop Culture and Death Penalty Project”—a six-month-long exploration of the intersections between art and crime, morality and mortality. Beginning next Wednesday, October 19, she’ll be hosting discussions about books, television shows, and films that deal with the topic in one way or another. Subjects include Richard Wright’s Native Son, 1938 film Angels with Dirty Faces, and a few episodes of HBO drama Deadwood.
Unfortunately, Rosenberg didn’t include any readings from the alternative press. I hope to fill in that gap for you, highlighting a few articles that tell the human stories of criminals, victims, and everyone caught in the fray.
Could you forgive the man who shot you in the face? The title says it all in this tale of forgiveness, bureaucracy, and racism by Michael J. Mooney for D Magazine. Rais Bhuiyan confronts his assailant ten years later and tries to stop his execution.
- “The executioner is the one that suffers,” says Jerry Givens, a former executioner for the state of Virginia, in this profile from The Daily Beast.
- A writer for The Good Men Project describes the awkward feeling one gets when reporting on an execution.
- One by one, countries are ditching the death penalty, according to an article in The Economist. The West African country of Benin is the latest to abolish capital punishment permanently.
- “Humanism cannot support the death penalty,” begins a recent moral case against capital punishment put out by the Center for Inquiry. “Humanism stands for a social ethics of equality, individual human rights, justice for everyone, and government that defend their citizens. Death penalty supporters appeal to these principles, too. But they narrowly interpret them to justify government killings, and they coldly apply them to the weakest among us.”
Utne Reader has reprinted a number of fantastic articles about the death penalty in the past few years, including “Give Me Death,” in which a lawyer explains why his client volunteered to be executed; “Thou Shalt Not Kill. Unless . . .,” in which a counts down to an execution in Texas, one day at a time; and “At Death’s Door,” an interview with long-time death-penalty activist and Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean.
- We wouldn’t want to forget the classics. George Orwell’s 1931 essay “A Hanging,” in which he describes the execution of a criminal by the British Imperial Police.
Sources: Center for Inquiry, D Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Economist, The Good Men Project, ThinkProgress
Image from Marion Doss was taken at the “instant bullets from a French firing squad hit a Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans. This execution took place in Rennes, France on November 21, 1944.” Licensed under Creative Commons.
10/12/2011 2:48:56 PM
Utne Reader’s mission is to bring our readers the best of the alternative press: independent, excellent magazines and journals and websites. You might not think that would include a site called The Frisky and billed as “Celebrity gossip, relationship advice, sex tips and more for real women everywhere!” But under the candy-pink veneer hides a true feminist heartbeat and genuine reporting about women’s issues.
You’ll certainly want to bookmark The Frisky’s feminism page, otherwise known as Today’s Lady News. It’s an assemblage of newsworthy items curated by Jessica Wakeman, who has a long list of outstanding credentials to her name (check out this interview with her at The Daily Femme). Written in an accessible and sassy voice, Today’s Lady News has become my go-to page for the most up-to-date news on abortion law, rape crimes, gay rights, and international women’s politics. Honestly. And if that starts to feel a little heavy, you can always toggle back and forth between The Frisky’s sexy Halloween costume tips or its list of bizarre sex injuries, if that’s your bag. Just don’t forget that amid all the sex quizzes and celebrity nods, some first-rate articles will pop up, like this great rant about birth control rights.
Love. Life. Stars. Style. Feminism!
Source: The Frisky, The Daily Femme
Image by TaniaSaiz,
licensed under Creative Commons.
10/6/2011 11:27:33 AM
Community-supported agriculture has been gaining steam in recent years as the local and organic food movements gain traction. The idea is people sign up to receive vegetables and fruit from local farmers in order to support them, share in the risk of food production, and receive delicious local food. Now, two art organizations in Minnesota have taken that idea to artists and art lovers. As Christy DeSmith writes at American Craft:
Springboard [for the Arts] partnered with advocacy group mnartists.org, and just months later, in May 2010, offered shares to Twin Cities collectors in the world's first-ever arts CSA. Since then, the model has been reproduced in Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s headed for arts organizations in Detroit, Miami, and Philadelphia this year; next year it's slated for Akron, Ohio; San Jose, California; and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Mnartsist.org describes how Community Supported Art works:
Artists are selected from a pool of applicants by a jury composed of luminaries from local food and art communities. Selected artists will receive a stipend of $1,000 to create 50 "shares" for the program by a set deadline. Shareholders purchase shares for $300 and will receive 1 box containing 3 works of art at 3 different pick up dates throughout the Spring/Summer season. The pick-up evenings will be a local art sites and will be events in themselves.
To find out more about this very cool program, read this interview with Betsy McDermott Altheimer, associate director of Springboard for the Arts, at American Craft and see images at Springboard for the Arts here.
Source: American Craft, mnartists.org, Springboard for the Arts
10/3/2011 1:45:58 PM
You can find some form of music in everything: a babbling brook, beeping computer components, an old oil drum, and traffic noises all have some element of rhythm or melody waiting to be unleashed. If you listen very closely, you can occasionally even find music on a Tom Waits record. A number of music from unexpected places and musicians working with non-traditional instruments have been profiled in the alternative press of late, so I thought I’d share them with you.
“Music From a Dry Cleaner” by Diego Stocco was featured on the Fox is Black design blog. As the name implies, Stocco takes a cue from found-sound rockers The Books and mashes up an entire song from recordings made in a small dry cleaner’s shop in Burbank, CA. “With dry cleaning equipment as his instruments,” writes FiB’s Bobby Solomon, “he created this unbelievably rhythmic music that’s pretty fantastic. It’s great that you get to see his process, that he really did walk around this dry cleaner for a few hours recording the various sounds, ultimately creating something beautiful.” Watch it all come together in the video below.
Unlike Stocco’s man-made sounds, the “symphonic march for 1,000 aeolian instruments” in Pierre Sauvageot’s Champ harmonique installation is created by the incessant gusting of Atlantic winds. Champ harmonique, which was set up in Cumbria, England, and may come to New York soon, is comprised of dozens of sculptures that react to wind by making various types of music. (This also reminds me of the kinetic artworks exploring the sound of obsolescence by Steven White.) Depending on the piece, low drones, childish wood block percussion, or sparkly wind-chimes might spontaneously start with the next breeze. According to this article on BLDGBLOG, Sauvageot is a diligent student and enthusiastic connoisseur of different wind-systems, often speculating how one might sound different from the next. BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh, though, takes Sauvageot’s ideas one step further and wonders what might sonically happen if Champ harmonique moved from the coast to the inner city.” “After all,” Manaugh writes, “there are also weather systems artificially generated inside the earth by construction projects and large-scale pieces of urban infrastructure, whole subterranean climatologies of moving air [meaning subways, etc.] that would not otherwise exist without the implanting hand of architecture, as if surgically grafted there.” Take a virtual walk through the installation in the video below.
Finally, the most recent issue of Wired profiled UVB-76, an enigmatic shortwave radio signal originating in Russia. This wasn’t however, some pirate radio channel broadcasting the latest underground Russian pop music. It’s something that’s much harder to listen to, but vaguely reminiscent of experimental electronica.
For at least the decade leading up to 1992, it broadcast almost nothing but beeps; after that, it switched to buzzes, generally between 21 and 34 per minute, each lasting roughly a second—a nasally foghorn blaring through a crackly ether. The signal was said to emanate from the grounds of a voyenni gorodok (mini military city) near the village of Povarovo, and very rarely, perhaps once every few weeks, the monotony was broken by a male voice reciting brief sequences of numbers and words, often strings of Russian names: “Anna, Nikolai, Ivan, Tatyana, Roman.” But the balance of the airtime was filled by a steady, almost maddening, series of inexplicable tones.
From there the plot thickens, as short-wave hobbyists tried to make sense of the mysterious signal. Without warning, it would change its call sign. Formal information requests are ignored by the Russian government. After the author pinpoints where the broadcast is coming from, he talks to the people in the neighboring hamlet, who refuse to say anything about the radio tower. Yet, as they say, the beep goes on. More information and a live stream of UVB-76 here.
Sources: BLDGBLOG, Fox is Black, Wired
Image a screenshot from “Music From a Dry Cleaner.” A version of this article was originally posted at
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