Friday, December 21, 2007

new and very, very old

I did not invent the Internet, and Al Gore never claimed to have done so, either, but three decades back I was hanging around a doctoral candidate at Emory who had arrived there full of the almost entirely untranslated work of a philosopher named Jacques Derrida, and determined to translate and annotate his most esoteric volume on Husserl as his dissertation (p.s.: he did).

Not all that many years later, the guy’s dissertation director (and mine) wrote to me about having been asked for yet another survey article on deconstruction, with the observation “When the nuns and the Republicans want you to explain it to them, you know it is over.”

By that standard, Tokion magazine is not over any more than Juxtapoz is, but when Abrams puts out a handsome anthology from the one (titled Revisionaries) and artists from the other are featured in museum retrospectives, one begins to wonder if the political conventions can be far after. On the other hand, it has taken forty years for Mike Huckabee to fantasize about having the Rolling Stones play at his inaugural ball, so perhaps Tokion is safe for another thirty.

Juxtapoz, though, comes out of an aesthetic that is as old as the emergence of deconstruction, and it is only its relentless pursuit of its codified aesthetic that keeps it outside the realms of respectability. It took fifty years for Jack Kerouac to appear in the same archival format as Walt Whitrman’s barbaric yawp, though it took less time for Howl to be read for class at the military academies, presumably with the prim asterisks still in place in the umpteenth City Lights edition.

But I was going to write about the Abrams volume of Tokion artists, including the biennial-worthy Marcel Dzama, the all grown up ex-Atlanta graffitist Jose Parla, and many, many more. And there is indeed a consistent aesthetic of transgression to gladden the heart of old Paul McCarthy.

Perhaps it was the recycled psychedelia tucked away here and there in the volume, but I suddenly remembered the aesthetic associated back in the day with the late great San Francisco Oracle…not that there is a blessed thing in common with the copulating couples in yab-yum postures and the Day-Glo evocations of Aubrey Beardsley, but rather the sense that the edge at any given historical moment contains a few visual seeds that will grow into lasting legacies and a lot of crap that will someday seem as embarrassing as paisley and patchouli. (Those of us who were ostentatiously searching for the incredibly rare Beat Generation artifacts of only ten years earlier already turned up our noses at patchouli and paisley. We wore a lot of black and talked about European movies, but both were very hard to come by in most places.)

The skat8punk aesthetic, and graffiti, and the assorted schools of hip-hop have shown greater staying power than psychedelia and acid rock ever did, or even (apart from niche markets) reggae. Hell, it looks like the longest-lived phenomenon of our time is death metal, which just goes on into the third and fourth generations. But skateboarding and graffiti, also, are now raising up the grandchildren of the first-generation founders.

And that sense of tradition is pretty impressive, given how in 1968 hardly anybody celebrated the hipsters of 1943, or remembered the Zoot Suit Riots. (Woody Guthrie was something else, of course, and there was a certain nostalgia for the Old School Authenticity of the Great Depression.)

I, as I say, was crossing the continent to find the tiny number of Tibetan sculptures to be seen in California museums, and modeling myself after the poets of the great Six Gallery reading about which almost nothing could be learned except from battered copies of Evergreen Review. And I still pride myself at being as out of step with the culture as possible; though it is hard to know what to look for these days, when reasonable replicas of zoot suits can be seen on the bods of trendy art dealers and collarless Greek wedding shirts are still best reserved for the anniversary celebrations of yesteryear’s Greek weddings.

I may have found a few things that just about everybody who is either hip or mainstream-tasteful considers embarrassingly awful, so watch this space for further developments.


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