Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Noises off

Noisy doors. Too true.

If you're still sweating over unfinished Christmas shopping, I always think that you can never go wrong with a Really Good Book. I keep trying to make Boccaccio's Decameron trendy so everyone buys (and reads!) it, thereby assuaging the last remnants of guilt I feel for never having read it at University when I was supposed to. I finally got round to it over the Christmas holidays a few years ago, and I'll probably preach the gospel of Boccaccio until I die. It's just brilliant. But, if you're looking for something a bit more contemporary, I started reading Hillel Schwartz's (the cover notes describe him as an “independent academic” - I don't know what that is, but I want to be one) new book on noise a few weeks ago; Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond. A 900-page brick, it would be like gifting your significant other a new read and a weapon of limited destruction in one present. So far, I'm enjoying it immensely.

There are few types of books more satisfying to me than meticulously-researched, beautifully-written books about a single aspect of cultural history. There's also something very satisfying reading a book about a subject that has an undercurrent of interest to practically everyone I know. I mean, all Londoners loathe rouge noise. Hands up, how many of you have seriously considered wearing earplugs on the bus?

Indeed, just the other day on the tube, I sat next to a well-dressed gentleman, not wearing earplugs alas, but reading a newsletter for an organisation I'd never heard of: Pipedown. Pipedown campaigns for the elimination of piped music in retail spaces. I'm hardly surprised that such an organisation exists; if anything, I'm surprised that more people aren't aware of it and active members. As for Schwartz, well I don't know whether he has anything to say about the hell of omnipresent piped-in muzak; I haven't gotten that far in his book yet.

So, I'm reading this book about this history of noise as a social concept, and I'm thinking about earplugs on the bus and piped music in the shops, and I'm not quite sure how it happened, but all these thoughts led me not to noise or music or sound, but change. 

These are still rather muddled thoughts so bear with me, but I was thinking how peculiar it is that we love music when it's our own, we love raucous laughter when it's with our friends; when tunes are tinny and chirping through the headphones of someone on the bus or the laughter is exploding through the throats of kids in the cafe, we don't love it at all. We talk about and think about noise in relation to public and private spaces: noise in public, annoying, but necessarily unavoidable; noise in private spaces, an unforgivable crime.

The best thing about cultural historians like Schwartz is that they can remind us how much things have changed, and how much we take the meaning of concepts like public and private space or public and private actions (or noise!) for granted. There's a fascinating section in his book where Schwartz talks about how up until a few hundred years ago all classes of society lived their lives in full, noisy view of everyone else living theirs: private space was reserved for confession at church, and only then if one could afford it. Even when Schwartz speaks about the interesting shift that occurred in the 1600s when wealthy domestic houses started building separate service corridors so that servants could go about their business without having to be seen, he points out that many household activities still took place in full view of servants. Obviously these days most of us can't afford to keep grand houses with a brace of servants, but even if we could and did, the thought of having sex in the presence of one's lady's maid isn't particularly palatable to most people (I said to most people...).

I'm not entirely sure how I got from thinking about changing historical attitudes to noise, to how the idea of change more generally drives (or destroys) us culturally. Just to give an example, in my tenancy contract there's an explicit clause that forbids me from vacuuming after 11pm on a Sunday. You think I'm joking. Two hundred years ago this idea would have been met with incomprehension and disdain (not least because hoovers hadn't yet been invented!).

Someone somewhere has probably written a very elegant book about the cultural concept of change (if you know of one, let me know so I can add it to my Christmas reading list!), but it's kind of amazing that, as hyper-thinking beings, we manage to make any cultural progress at all. It's an incredibly tricky balancing act between feeling nostalgic for a probably misconceived golden age, pressure to situate one's works and thoughts in the greater 'canon' of born-this-way geniuses, and looking forward to see what changes can and should be made and how to enact such changes.

It's easy to see how this tightrope works itself out in an industry like technology – we didn't have mobile phones 15 years ago and now most people can't imagine how they'd live without one – but with art and literature, it's a bit more difficult to see the patterns of change until long after they've happened. This is why it's far easier to look back at the works of a group of Paris-based painters in the  19th century, clock the similarities and break out the Impressionist epithet, but far more difficult to look at current artistic output and make any sense of what's happening. That's probably partly thanks to the internet which has made the world feel as vast and unknowable as it is, despite what the monoblob international curators would have us believe ('making is, like, totally huge for 2012').

Cultural change is such a strange thing. How does it happen? How do we go from thinking that the advent of tunes in shops is a wonder to thinking that it's the most annoying thing ever to happen to the high street? How do we go from thinking that taking a piss is a performance fit for public view to thinking that weeing is for behind closed loo doors only? How did we shift from thinking of noise as an inescapable, though natural, part of city life to being intolerable of urban rogue noise, so much so that some studies have even claimed that white urban noise contributes to autism in children.

I'm not really sure how I got from thinking about noise in relation to changing cultural values to thinking about change in the contemporary art world. My hunch is that it's something to do with the impending new year, a taking stock sort of exercise. I'm about to finish my three-month stint at Icon, which means I'll be free to wreak havoc on the world (slash job market). I'm working on a few new top-secret projects, but I'm always looking for new projects to keep me busy. Thoughts of future job prospects are typically accompanied by thoughts on the states of my industries, and I find myself surrounded by industries in the middle of identity crises. As a writer and curator of art and architecture, I feel a bit like I couldn't be better placed, but also a bit like I couldn't be worst placed.

The reason I decided to start working in contemporary art was because I had finally had enough of looking everywhere around me and seeing only (mostly) absolute crap masquerading as show-boating conceptual art. I wanted to call emperor's new clothes on all this bullshit, especially since I didn't see anyone else saying anything that remotely resembled the truth (sticky concept, I know), but I also wanted to put my own theories into practice, I wanted to curate  my own shows and try to do things differently.

There's still a lot of bad art being produced by not unintelligent people, and a lot of bad exhibitions being produced by what ought to be good museums and galleries – I do wish this would go away. But, this year, I've also met a lot of curators staging thoughtful and beautiful exhibitions and a lot of artists producing interesting work. There's still much to be done, but when the National Gallery organises a show like Metamorphosis round about the same time that the National Portrait Gallery stages a show like Imagined Lives, while MA students at the Slade are actually making art not concepts, I feel like things are getting better.

I'm an optimist by nature; I prefer to cheer-lead rather than criticise, but the overwhelming sense of careerism and ambitiousness in the art world seems to have nurtured a desire to say what I actually think in the face of a never ending stream of descriptive mediocrity. I reserve the right to change my mind, or (even better) to be proved wrong by an intelligent counter argument. Alas, thus far, the best that most people seem able to come up with is: “who are you to say what's good and bad art?” Who am I indeed.