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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

2: Flood

When a reactionary tide floods the world, can the critic or artist salvage anything before being sucked down?

Part 2 of 2

Content warning: TERFs, dunking on bad art takes, systemic doomerism

Defenses of art seem to be most worthwhile when they're at their most quixotically useless.

Look, we're in a reactionary moment. We have been for, god, all my life probably? I mean I'm old enough to still remember when you could play a song with the Fuck Word on the radio, and then when you couldn't anymore. I remember "freedom fries" and "nipplegate" and "free speech zones". I remember enough about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to despise the likes of Hillary Clinton to my dying breath, let alone kindly uncle George W Bush. But the whole point of the Pink Floyd article was that this cultural turn began much earlier, that for a solid 50 years the rise of neoliberalism has been met with steady cultural degradation: the arts funding wars, the grotesque distending of copyright terms, Mary Whitehouse, Tipper Gore, Satanic Panic, the NEA Four. 🎵 We didn't start the fiiiire 🎶

So in a sense the attacks on a new statue over on Soggy TERF Island honoring Mary Wollstonecraft are just same shit different day. We're in a reactionary moment that we've been in all my life, it's just going to keep getting worse, and this latest bout of middlebrow housewife hysteria is just a manifestation of the trend. What is there to say? Nothing for me. Defenses of art are quixotic, paddling upstream against the tide of history. Is anyone actually interested in hearing about how the reaction to the statue follows this long tradition of petite bourgeois pseudo-feminist pearl clutching that we've been dealing with for decades? No.

And they don't have to hear it, luckily, for this or countless other such freakouts I can care to name! We've had one, usually targeting a queer creator, every week minimum since quarantine started and people got real bored. Who's going to put their neck on the chopping block to call out the callouts? Who will be the messanger slated for execution? Not me motherfuckers. I don't get paid enough for that gig. If I ever in my life earn enough to stop qualifying for food stamps under national poverty guidelines I'll start sticking my neck out. Sound fair?

Wait, wait, I guess I should explain the statue thing.

A local council I guess wanted a statue to commemorate Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist thought. They got an actual artist, Maggi Hambling, to do it. Big mistake: she ended up making actual art.

Hambling's statue

The actual statue is a largely abstract mass crowned with a generic nude everywoman figure, rather than some Rome-humping, thuddingly literal bronze bust of Wollstonecraft. Naturally, being thuddingly literal bronze busts themselves, the soggy TERFs of soggy TERF island really hated it. A gang of them, apparently having nothing better to do, covered the statue with a t shirt bearing their asinine "adult human femoid" slogan or whatever it is I can't be bothered to check.

The thing that really depressed the fuck out of me though is that I got introduced to the whole stupid event by a leftist podcaster mentioning the brouhaha. He described the statue, though, as "kind of weird." I looked the statue up and thought, wait what? It's not that weird. I mean I guess it's a little weird if you assume it's Mary Wollstonecraft... or if you have the same basic attitude towards female nudity as an evangelical christian, which hey, let's be fair, a lot of people who have trojan horsed their way into "feminism" absolutely and sometimes very literally do. But really though, what is so strange about this statue?

Here's a closeup, actually taken at a decent angle which most photos unfortunately aren't

It is not any more radical than shit from a century ago if not more! God it's not even surrealist it's like... symbolist or kind of art noveau at most.

I went with Alphonse Mucha here both because I love him dearly and because I looked at Gustav Klimt too and was like shit this is too formally experimental to work as a comparison point

Not exactly the fucking Avant Garde!

Now, I want to make it clear I'm not trying to slag off that particular podcaster. It's just that, it felt emblematic of the way even some of the left views contemporary art with bewilderment or suspicion, a lot of the time. I mean wow big shock I guess, most podcasters aren't art historians. But I think the nonliteral in art, things outside the narrow confines of the AAA game, the blockbuster superhero movie, and the thuddingly literal bronze bust, are treated with nervous trepidation. At worst, they're treated with a kind of weird reverse-elitism, the same treatment that Theory gets a lot of the time: how dare you suggest the Working Man needs anything more than vernacular media and personal experience? Don't you know it's elitist and indeed anti-working class to tell people to read another god damn book?

But comrades who do you think Tipper Gore and Mary Whitehouse and all the various Butterball-From-Hellraisers that make up the bulk of Republicans in congress were? They're the god damn financial elite too, just as much as the artists and art viewers you imagine make all the kooky weird nonsense that you hate! The owners of the means of production who buy contemporary art... go to the same Eyes Wide Shut parties as the owners of the means of production who mount propaganda campaigns against its degeneracy! Like the rest of the culture war it feels like a conversation happening basically wholly on the terms that the wealthy have set for us, one fundamentally ignorant of history, context, and even basic ass visual and storytelling literacy.

Thinking it over though, I don't think it's just the elites casually playing both sides of the culture war that gets to me. Why is it that I can get so angry about this when there's so many other awful ways the reactionary wave is drowning us? I think it's the sense that people are always looking for an excuse, even our ostensible allies are always looking for a fucking excuse, to throw us under the bus. Maybe it's a simple reaction to online "communities" far in excess of what we neurologically evolved to handle, that tendency to simply cull surplus humans for imagined transgressions. But it sure feels like the audience for art even on the ostensible "left" in 2020 is astoundingly fickle and always looking for some step outside the boundaries of the acceptable.

But ahhh criticism, criticism, I wanted to write about criticism. I keep coming back to the question of impotence. If my words could fork lightning, summon the storm, I'm not sure I'd be raging like this. Nothing I can say in defense of Maggi Hambling's art really matters. Like, if I told you that actually her work's pretty hit or miss for me, and I'm not sure the Wollstonecraft statue is a hit? If I said that,,, when she hits she hits hard, and her self portaits REALLY hit for me.

a Hambling self portrait

They remind me of one of my favorite artists, the expressionist and socialist and I suppose what we might call queer feminist Kathe Kollwitz, a master printmaker and drafter whose self portraits, particularly as she reached middle and old age, are just stunningly beautiful.

god I love Kollwitz

Hambling's self portraits have more of a like... what if Jackson Pollock were good, kind of energy, is what I want to say?

Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm". eh.


Fitting that Hambling seems to like painting herself and having herself photographed smoking--the paintings have an ashcan look to them, moments of primary color swirling out of thick textures in grey.

In a way I almost wish the piece was a bit more like, say, her portrait of nobel prize winning chemist and activist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin,

:) :) :)

a piece that pulses with the energy of a woman late in her life and coping with disability but still striving. Maybe it's that quality that for me calls back to Kollwitz, that sense of just the inner lives of women in particular depicted not through thudding literalism but through even things as abstract as the quality of brush or pencil. There's a real regard for the subject in their works. Kollwitz was probably what we'd now call bisexual, though she described that aspect of herself as the male part of her soul. Hambling doesn't like being called a lesbian, apparently. She prefers queer. And from that perspective... what can I say? The somewhat essentializing qualities of the "everywoman" in her statue don't bother me that much I suppose. It makes me wonder if the problem the soggy TERFs have isn't so much of the male objectification of the naked female body, as a queer woman's regard for that body, and the queerness that emerges from the statue's fascination with bodies and textures abstracted. Knowing this makes the statue hit for me more, it's a context that helps clarify for me why it might be worth defending.

And if I said all this, what then would it mean? The whole stupid English Isles is sinking into an ocean of its own wretched stupidity and all of this is just one flooded inlet. The culture has gotten horrifically violently hostile to trans people generally and trans women particularly, and it will get worse, it is going to get much worse as drowning neoliberal governments apply the grinding wheel of austerity to their citizens, all the parties joined now transparently, despite coup and counter coup kabuki, in coalition against their common enemy: anyone who imagines a different world.

And maybe that's the reason for the hysterics, the casting around for someone to cast out. If criticism can't be a raft for anyone, at least it can be an oar knocking the damned back into the Phlegethon. Hey, if it makes you feel as though you're doing something, I guess... I can't help but wonder if it wouldn't be more affirming to learn home canning, or how to cook large meals for people, or grow plants, or join your local tenant's union, or challenge zoning ordinances on your city council, or sew or or or god anything but this idiot braying day in and day out for more god damn blood!!!

What could I say in the midst of the storm and floodwater rush? There are days when the thought of speaking at all and adding even a fraction of a decibel to the noise makes me sick. There are days when I want to scream loud enough to silence absolutely everything else. Midway through the year I wrote fragments of a piece a bit too raw and personal (which if you've gotten this far and can imagine something more raw and personal than what's here, well!) The piece as a whole was on Seeming's "The Birdwatchers' Guide to Atrocity" which is of course a masterpiece, and one fragmentary section expresses something of this struggle:

the album cover, which kinda sets the tone for the whole thing imo

I don't know how to write the song I need to hear, as Seeming's single "Go Small" puts it. I googled tips on automatic writing. Try meditating to get in touch with your Soul, a website offered in chipper new age confidence that I have some Soul that I can access, or that I could "clear my mind" ever enough to communicate with it. I don't think I have the same knack other artists do, for pulling their experiences out via some contemplative magic trick and turning them into Art. So I noodle around on the noisy edges of my psyche, banging two things together over and over ad infinitum, producing art by complex p-zombie meat algorithms.

One of my favorite poems is "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night". I feel like I understand one more stanza of it every year or two. Eventually I might understand the whole thing, if I really work at it. I plod where others soar and dive. Here is one stanza that I think I understand, maybe:

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

This is one of the easier ones actually I think. It's paradoxical. Wise men know that it's their time to die. But their wisdom, their words, couldn't work miracles, couldn't spit pure energy. So, they don't go peacefully, gentle into what even they recognize as a good night.

Keenly aware of forking no lightning, I wonder what to do with "Go Small". Trying to put things in terms of forked lightning seems to be a dead end. After all, when you pull your focus out to encompass the whole you see "the earth is radiantly suicidal." Not good conditions for artistic productivity, the apocalypse. Yet, it feels very much like the process Alex offers is a methodology toward forking some lightning:

Write the song I need to hear 
Even if it amputates the sky 
Even if it's gone a second later 
It'll be okay 'cause I 
Go small

That sure sounds lightning-like! It sounds brief and instant, but not small at all, and honestly the song doesn't sound all THAT small itself, even if its drama is mostly confined to the pulsing periodic trills of the synths, and the dramatic closing monologue where the song jumps into 3/4 chanting. Actually, that interweaving of threes and fours is interesting. The whole song has a kind of oddly unfinished, off kilter feeling to it, subtly unstable. Each verse while in the overall meter of the song seems to end a line early, 3 lines of equal beats rather than four. It's subtly surprising.

Maybe that's part of the point. It opens, after all, like:

Write the song you need to hear 
When you've done it, tell me how

The song struggles to become the song it needs to be, something that can be small enough to be manageable, but with a power to fulfill the need that prompted its creation. 

...Telling that something I wrote months ago slots in here so well. I still don't know how to write the song I need to hear. I look at the solutions other critics have found for their own inability to fork lightning, their own increasing irrelevance in the Take Economy, the way we've been locked into a deskilling race to the bottom in terms of literary complexity and historical knowledge. I kinda fucking hate those solutions. What are the arks available? To be part of the reviewer class, increasingly stenographers for consensus, subject to disciplining from the anvil of capital and the hammer of mobbing fans? Or to join the hoard, take on my natural fan role in the Volunteerist Pinkertons, bludgeoning unruly artists and critics alike into moral behavior, ensuring that artistic labor is fungible, machines outputing alienated sanitized #content? Or maybe I can join the explainers, adding useless epicycles to the lore of Undertale or Star Wars or Homestuck, making it all fit together in a comprehensive theory. Or their ever so progressive counterparts, asserting with the fervor of someone born yesterday that THIS background character in a superhero film holding hands with another man will Finally Change Everything!

I have an image of criticism where I'm some sort of wading bird picking my way along the shore, and every so often some bright thing is carried by a wave onto the sand or mud or pebbles. And I put the pieces into the bower I am building, higher and higher as the waters steadily rise. And they fit together into some sort of partial mosaic of understanding, or at least they express something of what I'm feeling, or try to explain, by their juxtapositions, what drew me to them and made me turn them over and over in the shallows. It is not important work, but maybe sometimes someone would come and look at it and see something clarifying in it, and maybe that would be enough. I don't know what I'm doing. I move the pebbles and bits of glass around.

This Has Been


  1. > maybe I can join the explainers, adding useless epicycles to the lore of Undertale or Star Wars or Homestuck, making it all fit together in a comprehensive theory
    Does it make me a bad person if i like analyzing lore? I know its not as important as the thematic content, but...

  2. Ironically, my first reaction to this is "Oh yes the section on Go Small really resonates and I can't express why without thinking about it for weeks".


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