Monthly Archives: November 2011

All the shallowness of modern mass culture began in avant-garde art 40 years ago

Andy Warhol Retrospective, London 2002

A spectator walks past Andy Warhol’s Campbells Soup Cans (1962) at the Tate Modern, London. Photograph: Sion Touhig/Getty Images

No sphere of high culture is implicated in the fall of the affluent society in the same way art is. Yesterday I commented on the resistance to melancholy, the flight from reality, that enabled art in our time to promote the fantasy of an unlimited market. Some have called the system that has now fallen “offshore capitalism”; perhaps another description is “post-modern capitalism”. In post-modern capitalism, secondary markets created a counter-reality that was unfettered by production. The economy was run like a theme park. It’s obvious how deeply involved in that daydream was the art of the last 20 years, which so gleefully rejected anything that might tie it to the slow, patient, tedious stuff of real creativity.

Drama, the novel, even cinema have all kept a safer distance from the booming monster of modern capitalism than artists did. What I want to ask now is – why? What happened? How did art become the mirror of fraud? It is not a story that starts with Damien Hirst’s diamond skull but one that goes back to the very origins of the consumer society.

After the second world war artists were steeped in history and introspection. Art has never been more serious in its view of life than it was in the era of Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon. But even as modern painting reached such heights and depths, western society was going through an epochal transformation. The power of the capitalist economies in the postwar era was unprecedented in world history. An entirely new lifestyle, that of “consumerism”, was born.

Consumerism instantly inspired artists. Pop art in America and Britain took the surfaces of objects, the instant appearances of the new bright world, as its subject matter. Everywhere, emotional depth in art was censored. Abstract Expressionism had to die. Art could teach people to look at the world in a new way: to embrace the cool. Pop art taught everyone to enjoy money and the mass media and 1980s post-modernism taught the same lesson again.

These emotional styles have long since been so popularised that even intelligent people accept that reality television is a form of culture and celebrities fit receptacles for our ephemeral floods of feeling. All the shallowness of modern mass culture began in avant-garde art 40 years ago. We’re Warhol’s ugly brood. Art has even fed the unsustainable appetites that are destroying the planet by constantly telling everyone cities are better than the countryside, culture more real than nature. It has become the enemy of truth, the murderer of decency.

The modern world has screwed itself and art led the way.



2 days ago by Maryanne Lee

Singapore has never been known for games.We are well renowned as a country that prizes academic qualifications and material possessions over the less tangible things in life. Engaging on volunteer work to get our children into ‘better’ schools; aspiring towards a condominium, country club membership and a car; even picking paper over professionalism when it comes to jobs.

It is not often that a Singaporean is lauded for his or her achievements that aren’t financially or academically oriented.

But we’re doing that today.

Canada Cup 2011, a fighting-game tournament that is considered the equivalent of the World Cup, was held last weekend. Participants from all over the world convened in Calgary to duke it out against the finest fighting-game players in the world. Street Fighter, Marvel vs Capcom, BlazBlue, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, they played it all.

Reputations were built and torn down over the weekend. Fans of the games who weren’t able to go to Canada cheered their favourites – and their countrymen – on through the online live stream.

Singapore was no exception. From Beach Road to Bukit Batok, members of the local fighting game community gathered around computers and television screens to watch the Singapore contingent win and lose.

Team Singapore lost the international five-on-five exhibition. The crushing defeat was dealt by USA (5-1 their favour) and Europe (5-2 their favour).

But it was the same Team Singapore from whom these champions emerged:

David ‘RealDeal’ Sim combo-ed his way to a stunning first place victory in Street Figher 2: HD Remix

Leslie Cheong beat the odds to emerge overall second in Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition. We’re talking about beating some of the international players here.

One might assume that these two are sponsored, paid pro-gamers like many of the US and Japanese players participating in the tournament. In reality, they’re no different from any average Singaporean picked off the street.

David holds a full time job, while Leslie is a full time national serviceman. All the practice they get is from their local arcade in Bugis, where the skilled players only emerge during the weekends. Many of the players they had to face on their tournament conquests included world-famous, sponsored players who draw a salary from fine-tuning their game day in, day out.

But they beat them anyway.

Asked local player Soon Yong, who was supporting them from home: “who still thinks that Singapore is a small country and we have no local talent?” David and Leslie’s victories sparked an emotional Facebook post from Soon Yong, who passionately lauded his friends and the rest of Team Singapore.

Unfortunately, the heroes’ welcome for David, Leslie and the rest of their team will be limited to one held by a small clique of gamers. eSports, or competitive gaming, is not something that holds clout with Singaporeans, and only their friends will greet them at Changi Airport, unlike when the Singaporean table tennis contingent returned from overseas.

Is it time for Singapore to step up?

Many professional gamers feel it is. Earlier in the year, competitive Fifa player Aeriel ‘Flash.Xtr3me3’ Phirkhan wrote an impassioned note on Facebook that caught the attention of the entire gaming landscape. In it, he asked for the government for the support of eSports in Singapore, so that all the effort poured into their respective games can get them the recognition they rightfully deserve.

A group of older gamers, previously hailing from Unreal Tournament clan X3M, have also stepped up for future generations. In 2008, they formed Singapore’s Cybersports and Online Gaming Association, an organisation that hopes to push for more rights for local gamers. Their primary goals are to help players with school or national service commitments to get to tournaments.

Local business Rapture Gaming has also tried to do its part with the formation of the E-Sport Singapore Association. Their goal is to encourage professional growth for the eSports community and industry in Singapore by building relationships between people and organisations that are interested and involved in eSports.

In fact, support for local competitive gaming and the Singaporean eSports community seems to be mushrooming everywhere. Many gamers, competitive or not, feel that, an international win on Singapore’s behalf is still a win, whether in Street Fighter, table tennis, swimming or StarCraft II.

“People in the states have sat up and taken notice of our Singaporean players,” said Kenneth ‘Spore’ Lim, a 22 year old Singaporean and Street Fighter player studying at New York University.

“It’s time Singapore does the same.”

What do you think of our Street Fighter achievements in the Canada Cup? Is it time for more fellow Singaporeans to show awareness and support our growing influence in eSports? Let us know us through your comments.



By David Bandurski

In an interview with Southern Metropolis Daily, Han Han (韩寒), the widely popular blogger and cultural critic who doubles as a race-car driver, offers his views on China’s domestic film industry. Earlier today, the culture section ofSouthern Metropolis Daily shared portions of the interview through its official Sina Microblog account, pulling out Han Han’s choice quote on censorship.

It may be the case that the government in a country with cultural censorship no longer has to fear criticism or satire at the hands of its own creative works. But then the whole world subjects it to criticism and satire.

A portion of Han Han’s interview follows, but readers of Chinese are encouraged to read the original (and offer any pointers on our hurried translation).

Southern Metropolis Daily: Here’s a pretty cliche question, but can you talk about how you view “Lee’s Adventure” (李献计历险记)? Did you buy a ticket and see it? What kind of score do you give this film?

Han Han: This is a really tough question to answer. I bought a ticket at the theater to watch it, and before it came out I really wanted to see it. But during the first few days it was out I was racing, and there weren’t any theaters where I was. This is a film with the potential to become really great, but it falls short. I feel like the film actually could be made into three separate films. The first would be a fully animated “Lee’s Adventure,” nothing but animation; the second would be a youth film called “Lee’s Adventure”; and the third would be “Lee’s Adventure” the romantic adventure story. When all three of these are all put together, added to the narration bits that have a really distinct Beijing quality, a really sincere film with everything there falls a bit flat. But it’s still worth going to the theater and buying a ticket to see.

Southern Metropolis Daily: In the past you’ve commented on and graded a number of films, from “On His Majesty’s Secret Service” (大内密探零零狗) to “Founding of the Republic” (建国大业) and “Confucius” (孔子). You tend not to pull your punches. But lately you’ve not said very little about domestically-made films (国产电影), and we’ve not seen you scolding them much either. Is this because you’ve simply lost hope, or because you now know too many people in the industry and feel bad about being too critical? Can you talk about what films you’ve seen this year on your own dime that have really made a deep impression on you?

Han Han: I’ve not had contact with too many people in the film industry. It’s just that film criticism is something I’ve done in my spare time. I’ve not seen many good domestic films this year. “The Piano in a Factory” (钢的琴) was one, and while the part imitating Yugoslavian film and the totally unnecessary song and dance was a bit affected, the principal male character and the director held it together. “Lee’s Adventure” was another. Both films were filmed in a very lofty style, but both fortunately came back down to earth. Both films pushed hard to be moving and tragic but ultimately failed the audience.

Southern Metropolis Daily: Hong Huang (洪晃) once said that China doesn’t have independent film critics and needs more Han Hans. What did you think after hearing that? You’re not a film critic by trade, but many people (including the one sitting next to you right now) would read your reviews and weight them as they considered whether or not to go and see a film. Does knowing that make you more cautious in reviewing films?

Han Han: I do feel some caution about it. Every film, even the totally stupid ones, are the product of a lot of work and at the very least mean a whole crew has to get up early every day for three months. So sometimes I don’t have the heart [to be too critical]. I’m not saying though that work and effort are necessarily a good thing and should earn forgiveness. After all, killing and plundering, robbing and looting, are all a lot of hard work too. The efforts of others can’t become an excuse for forgiving [mediocrity].

Southern Metropolis Daily: You’ve started becoming involved with films in various ways, and sometimes you can be seen “standing up” for certain films. So are you planning to throw your strength in with filmmaking, or is this just out of friendship? And what if it’s you who are criticized once these films hit the screen?

Han Han: Basically it’s out of friendship, but these are all people I’ve picked out as people I can trust. I’m a pretty thin-skinned and soft-hearted person, but when I come across idiots my skin still thickens right up and my heart grows hard. So these are basically friends that I know won’t let me down. Fortunately, I don’t know that many. So I can preserve my independence.

Southern Metropolis Daily: You once had a director fire back at you, saying if you know so much about film why don’t you try making one yourself? You’ve talked before about how you have played with the idea of directing. So why have you not started? These past couple of years, film has been hot, and the money has flowed. On the surface, it seems to be flourishing, with box office numbers breaking hundreds of millions. Do you think there is a higher proportion of good films on the silver screen today?

Han Han: Films aren’t the work of a single person. If a film can’t make it into theaters, there’s no way I can face my investors and partners. The film market is flourishing, but it’s even harder to make decent films in China. The quality of Hong Kong films has been pulled lower as cooperation has been sought [with mainland film partners to reach both markets]. The film censorship system means current material [relating to life today] is avoided altogether. And many people who really should be in the field of television drama, or telemarketing for that matter, have entered the film industry — all of these are reasons the quality of filmmaking has gone down.

Southern Metropolis Daily: Do you think the film censorship system is the chief reason we have so many bad Chinese films?

Han Han: It’s an extremely important reason. When I was writing my book I found myself self-censoring, taking a lot of content out myself. And then the editor would take out more. This is even more the case with film. It may be the case that the government in a country with cultural censorship no longer has to fear criticism or satire at the hands of its own creative works. But then the whole world subjects it to criticism and satire.


October 27, 2011, Posted by Richard Brody


What we, thanks to Andrew Sarris, call the “auteur theory” was called by its French proponents (the young critics at Cahiers du Cinéma who would become the New Wave filmmakers) the “politique des auteurs”—not a theory but a policy, or even a “politics.” Jean-Luc Godard has said that people talk about the auteurs and forget to mention the politique; here’s how Godard described the politique to me when I interviewed him in 2000:


We saw that we had to continue the Resistance against a certain type of occupation of the cinema by people who had no business being there. Including, at times, three-quarters of the French [directors].


They were seeking, by means of criticism, to clear space—practical and intellectual—for themselves in the world of filmmaking. They were both pushing their way into the French film industry in order to take it over, and they were priming the public, and critics, to watch the films they’d eventually make. (I’ve written in my book about how it was, ultimately, actual politics—the 1981 election of François Mitterrand, a Socialist, as President of France—that brought about the New Wave’s definitive centrality to the institutions of the French cinema.) This is a circuitous way of saying that criticism—like most public affairs—is not just a matter of ideas but also of power. It’s not an accident that the habitual critical vocabulary calls works of art “powerful,” “convincing,” even “compelling”; criticism, like art, doesn’t seek to describe the world but to change it, and, in considering the legacy of a critic, it’s worth considering the nature of the changes it involves.

Pauline Kael and her legacy have been the subject of a great deal of recent discussion, owing to the publication of Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline KaelJames Wolcott’s memoir (in which Kael figures), and the Library of America selection of Kael’s writings (a trio of books that Nathan Heller reviewed in the magazine). I’ve been calling particular attention to the question of her judgment and taste, but I think it’s also important to consider the political aspect of her career; it’s one of the things I was most eagerly anticipating in Kellow’s biography, and I think that the book somewhat glosses over it. Kellow doesn’t present a sufficiently detailed portrait of Kael’s relationships with younger critics or a sufficient consideration of those relationships as a circle; there’s little about the discussions that took place, the inductions and exclusions, the rivalries and the alliances, the helping and the hindrance, the desire to use her influence to place friends and allies at other publications.

One of the most remarkable and salient aspects of Kael’s career is that she didn’t get a position worthy of her talent (with her hiring at this magazine) until she was almost fifty. By then she had, as Kellow makes clear, known plenty of turbulence and plenty of scuffling, and it’s worth considering that she was self-consciously building herself a fortress of allies and disciples who could serve as a strike force against her detractors and could, in case of disaster, insure an easy landing. Unless, of course, she was just doing what people tend to do everywhere—to help those they like and admire and to foster the talent of up-and-comers they feel in sync with. In any case, Kellow, in his biography, doesn’t go very far into the matter. It would have been of interest from several perspectives—intrinsic interest in Kael’s own activity as it connected with her critical point of view and with her view of the purpose of criticism, as well as how the critical landscape was (and, to some extent, remains) shaped by her influence.

It’s interesting to contrast it with the story of André Bazin, who, as the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, brought in (or let his colleague Eric Rohmer, also an editor there, bring in) the brilliant and passionate young crew of auteurists with whom he openly disagreed—and let them disagree with him openly and vigorously in the pages of the magazine itself. For instance, Godard’s 1952 review of “Strangers on a Train” concludes with a note stating that “the reader will have noticed that all the points of this article are aimed against the editors-in-chief”—in particular, against Bazin, who was a well-known detractor of Hitchcock. Godard aimed barbs at Bazin on the subject of Bazin’s championing of long takes in lieu of editing, and, in 1956, the magazine featured the two of them in a pro-and-con pair of articles—Bazin’s was titled, “Montage Interdit” [Montage Forbidden]; Godard’s is called “Montage, mon beau souci” [Montage, My Fine Care].

Two critics. One influenced the future of criticism; the other influenced the future of the cinema.

Richard Brody

Richard Brody is the movies editor for Goings On About Town and the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”



Jeffrey D. Sachs, Project Syndicate, New York | Thu, 11/03/2011 7:26 AM

The past half-century has been the age of electronic mass media. Television has reshaped society in every corner of the world. Now, an explosion of new media devices is joining the TV set: DVDs, computers, game boxes, smartphones, and more. A growing body of evidence suggests that this media proliferation has countless ill effects.

The United States led the world into the television age, and the implications can be seen most directly in America’s long love affair with what Harlan Ellison memorably called “the glass teat.” In 1950, fewer than 8 percent of American households owned a TV; by 1960, 90 percent had one. That level of penetration took decades longer to achieve elsewhere, and the poorest countries are still not there.

True to form, Americans became the greatest TV watchers, which is probably still true today, even though the data are somewhat sketchy and incomplete. The best evidence suggests that Americans watch more than five hours per day of television on average — a staggering amount, given that several hours more are spent in front of other video-streaming devices. Other countries log far fewer viewing hours. In Scandinavia, for example, time spent watching TV is roughly half the US average.

The consequences for American society are profound, troubling, and a warning to the world — though it probably comes far too late to be heeded. First, heavy TV viewing brings little pleasure. Many surveys show that it is almost like an addiction, with a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness and remorse. Such viewers say that they would prefer to watch less than they do.

Moreover, heavy TV viewing has contributed to social fragmentation. Time that used to be spent together in the community is now spent alone in front of the screen. Robert Putnam, the leading scholar of America’s declining sense of community, has found that TV viewing is the central explanation of the decline of “social capital,” the trust that binds communities together. Americans simply trust each other less than they did a generation ago. Of course, many other factors are at work, but television-driven social atomization should not be understated.

Certainly, heavy TV viewing is bad for one’s physical and mental health. Americans lead the world in obesity, with roughly two-thirds of the US population now overweight. Again, many factors underlie this, including a diet of cheap, unhealthy fried foods, but the sedentary time spent in front of the TV is an important influence as well.

At the same time, what happens mentally is as important as what happens physically. Television and related media have been the greatest purveyors and conveyors of corporate and political propaganda in society.

America’s TV ownership is almost entirely in private hands, and owners make much of their money through relentless advertising. Effective advertising campaigns, appealing to unconscious urges — typically related to food, sex, and status — create cravings for products and purchases that have little real value for consumers or society.

The same, of course, has happened to politics. American politicians are now brand names, packaged like breakfast cereal. Anybody — and any idea — can be sold with a bright ribbon and a catchy jingle.

All roads to power in America lead through TV, and all access to TV depends on big money. This simple logic has put American politics in the hands of the rich as never before.

Even war can be rolled out as a new product. The Bush administration promoted the premises of the Iraq war — Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction — in the familiar colorful, fast-paced, and graphics-heavy style of television advertising. Then the war itself began with the so-called “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad — a made-for-TV live spectacle aimed at ensuring high ratings for the US-led invasion.

Many neuroscientists believe that the mental-health effects of TV viewing might run even deeper than addiction, consumerism, loss of social trust, and political propaganda. Perhaps TV is rewiring heavy viewers’ brains and impairing their cognitive capacities.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently warned that TV viewing by young children is dangerous for their brain development, and called on parents to keep children under two away from the TV and similar media.

A recent survey in the US by the organization Common Sense Media reveals a paradox, but one that is perfectly understandable. Children in poor American households today not only watch more TV than children in wealthy households, but are also more likely to have a television in their room. When a commodity’s consumption falls as income rises, economists call it an “inferior” good.

To be sure, the mass media can be useful as a provider of information, education, entertainment, and even political awareness. But too much of it is confronting us with dangers that we need to avoid.

At the very least, we can minimize those dangers. Successful approaches around the world include limits on TV advertising, especially to young children; non-commercial, publicly-owned TV networks like the BBC; and free (but limited) TV time for political campaigns.

Of course, the best defense is our own self-control. We can all leave the TV off more hours per day and spend that time reading, talking with each other, and rebuilding the bases of personal health and social trust.

The writer is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.