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Transmutations of Horror in Late Twentieth
Century Art is a rare find, investigating the gothic sensibility in culture and
its intensification in the wake of the sanitized values and corporate culture of 1980s
Reaganism, and as the millennium approaches. Edited by Cristoph Grunenberg, curator
of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, and published concurrent with an exhibit at
the Institute, Gothic chronicles this dark emotion through the novel (Anne
Rice), the visual arts and film (Cronenberg, Lynch, Greenaway), and music (Joy
Inch Nails, Dead Can Dance). This is a great art book, liberally strewn with
images, whose essays make the connection between a society gone increasingly corporate
(capitalism the vampire) and cultural trends.
Toward a New Degeneracy is a provocative title, and so is Bruce Benderson's essay contained in this sparse sixty page volume. Benderson argues that the decline in new and vital forms stems from the fact that bohemia has lost its "energy source" its ties to poverty culture. Without such ties, new forms lack meaning and are little more than marketing vehicles for corporate culture. Making an interesting connection between promiscuity and the "chaotic energies" of bohemia whose collision results in innovation, Benderson observes that for the gay man before AIDS, "the willingness to fuck opened class and age barriers." For Benderson, American society's increasing esconcement within the security of the middle class and its and normative values has been the death of bohemia, hence of creation. What Benderson seeks is the germination of a new "degeneracy," enlivening bohemian culture. Oddly enough, but probably because of the author's admitted fondness for the subculture, he seems to exempt Beat from appropriation. This, however, doesn't ring true in light of Beat's revival as fashion and as a marketing platform. Nevertheless, Toward a New Degeneracy is quite an unusual essay and well worth a read for the cultural outlaw artist, writer and intellectual.
When Tom Reider submitted his series of Cibachrome mannequin images to pomegranates, we had to think of Sara K. Schneider's Vital Mummies/Performance Design for the Show-Window Mannequin, a well-designed art/culture criticism book which traces the history and uses of the mannequin in society through the realms of visual and performance arts to merchandising practices. Particularly revealing discussions in the book relate to how the "embodiment" of the mannequin has varied in relation to cultural trends, and public discomfort with both "nude" and male mannequins.
Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler is a collection from The Baffler magazine investigating "The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age." Though sometimes a bit too caustic and quick to attribute the coalescing of societal forces to some nefarious conspiracy, these essays are nevertheless intelligent and enlightening. "Back in Black: Here Come the Beatniks!" is Maura Mahoney's unsentimental look at how marketing forces marshalled a revival of Beat for selling purposes. In "The Killer App: Wired Magazine, Voice of the Corporate Revolution," Keith White reveals Wired as a feat of marketing engineering par excellence which makes techno-culture heros out of the heads of tech industry while doling out to subscribers liberal doses of insecurity relieved only by purchasing the latest gadgets. Prefacing remarks to this collection of essays begin with the premise that by 1988 when The Baffler began its rein, "cultural criticism had become specialized and intentionally obscure." This seems yet another tired complaint from those uncomfortable with the French theories of semiotics and structuralism. Those who began The Baffler may not appreciate current trends in culture theory, but their aspirations and goals are admittedly different, harkening back to an American style of business culture critique of the early 20th century. Commodify Your Dissent delivers a scathing one-two! punch to corporate culture, however, and among the essays on everything from marketing to the rebel consumer, to the growth of "alternative" culture, to the films of Quentin Tarantino as nothing more than a hodgepodge of plagiarisms and pop-culture references, there's bound to be a tonic in this volume for everyone.