Rating: 3 stars
I’ve had the occasion to travel to New York for work, to meet a man who collects the ephemera of counter culture. We’re hoping to acquire the collection of another man, a British man who also collects the ephemera of counter culture in order to comment on it. He’s a man I like very much. I can’t name names yet, because the acquisition isn’t secure.
The man I’m meeting in New York is Johan Kugelberg. He created the Cornell Hip Hop Collection, as well as Punk archives at Yale and Cornell. He has documented The Velvet Underground. He’s a collector, an academic, an archivist, a curator.
I thought I ought to read something of his work before we met.
Brad Pitt’s Dog is a collection of essays written between 2001 and 2011 in which Kugelberg reflects on the meaning of celebrity and the death of celebrity, and what makes a counter culture. His purview includes musicians, photographers, philosophers and their subjects. Some of the pieces are so short as to be musings rather than essays in the critical, exploratory sense. I got the feeling that Kugelberg was thinking out loud on the page, albeit in a studied way. Other pieces are more considered and have more to give to the reader. My preferred pieces are those that talk about the DIY aesthetic in music that is seen in Punk and Hip Hop.
As someone working class who doesn’t get the whole vintage fashion thing (it’s not vintage, it’s second hand, and why would you choose to wear someone else’s cast-offs unless you couldn’t afford new clothes?), I understood Kugelberg’s statement in relation to Hip Hop and ghetto superstars.
There will never be a vintage clothing store in the inner city.
Brand new, box-fresh, shiny and expensive was my goal growing up. I was the recipient of hand-me-downs and loved nothing better than to get something brand new to wear. In the 80s it was all about key items. A particular style of trainer. The right sort of coat. Not knock-off, not own brand. I’m still the same. I bought a “vintage” dress once, but it was for a 60s-themed party. I wore it once. Old sweat stains aren’t a keeper.
But I digress. Kugelberg talks about the only counter attack available to the working class being the complete control of dreaming. Build a facade based on appearance, having the best clothes, looking affluent, and even if the fake it doesn’t transform into make it, at least you can escape your daily reality through your dream.
The facade leads to other creativity. Outside observers, photographers, film makers, commentators, see beyond the dream persona and capture the discarded moments of ordinary life to create a different kind of art. Kugelberg talks specifically about the photographers Daido Moriyama and Carl Johan De Geer, but it could also be Martin Parr or Shirley Baker – photographers who see past what we expect art to represent and capture the truth of who people are in their less guarded moments. Kugelberg is disdainful of the commodification of photographers.
The corporate circus-trick of consumer as artist is partially responsible for the relationship today between the vanguard of photographers and the cool-branding industries of commodity. This is obsequious, fawning and sycophantic. The photographer ultimately holds the short end of the stick: the images can maintain a notion of complete artistic freedom, followed by a handsome check, but this nevertheless is still only hawking products like a salesman.
Which leads eventually to a quote from Guy Debord.
The commodification of all forms of culture – turning all its aspects into saleable things – and the rise of mass communications led to revolutionary potential being diverted, sometimes turned reactionary.
This quote opens my favourite piece in the book, a tongue-in-cheek discussion of the psychogeography of record fairs.
Like anyone who works in archives or museums, I’m not a collector. I’m a possessor. Outside work, I choose the things I want to keep based on what they mean to me. I don’t care about rarity, or mintness of condition, and I’m not thinking about resale value if I buy something at a collectors’ fair, be it book, record, image or toy. At work, I survey collections based on their informational value, what stories they hold that a researcher might uncover, what they tell us about how life was lived and work was done and play was enjoyed. In both cases, I want to be the person who owns the things and who can make them available to those whose interest is passionate.
Kugelberg’s take on record fairs made me laugh, particularly the passages about the tension between dealers and punters. I could quote extensively, but the essay is available on The Quietus website, so why not read it yourself? Sections III and IV are the funniest.
This discussion did give me pause, though. It made me question whether Kugelberg is part of that commodification of culture in the way he collects and feeds the curiosity of the academic community in cultures that aren’t their own. Is he, like the collectors who hoard cuneiform texts, fuelling demand for things that should rightfully stay in their own communities? And by working as an archivist in a museum, do I do the same thing when I agree a price with a dealer for a collection that has been given commercial value by collectors like Kugelberg? Who am I collecting for? And why am I not dealing directly with the creators? Why do I feel the need to possess the culture of a group I’m not a part of?
This navel gazing was interrupted by another essay that made me laugh. The New Sincerity contains high level snarking about the devoid-of-meaning lives of today’s twenty-somethings and the urgent way they abandon irony to embrace ways of dressing and living not seen for 100 years.
The importance of connoisseurship has never been more prevalent in an urban cultural strata [sic] than among the new sincerity crowd. You need to know a lot. A whole he’ll of a lot. Luckily, the level of knowledge you need to amass is along the lines of an Edwardian occult order: You can front as long as it seems as if you know … The naming of things is the knowledge of things, and it makes you wonder if the naming of the jeans-spirits, rock-spirits, tree-spirits and artisan cheddar-spirits, as the new sincerity crowds walk through life like hunters and gatherers, is the only self-empowerment left to those who have their everyday infused with a world of banal appearances on Facebook pages and message boards.
Ouch. But also, Funny.
What Kugelberg identifies amidst this snarking is that those younger than him (and me) are searching for authenticity and know only the methods of Wikipedia to find it.
Other essays look at authenticity and nostalgia. The way the creators of revolutionary art become the reactionary defenders of their legacy, the way the privileged adopt an approximation of working class experience in order to create authentic art, the way we consume this art through the prism of personality rather than for its own sake.
There are certain pet tropes that Kugelberg is wedded to: quoting Guy Debord; referring to the commodification of culture; attempting to understand da yoot but always falling back into disdain; paraphrasing Asger Jorn on the subject of avant-gardes dying without knowing their successor. These tropes are repeated in near identical phraseology, incorporating overuse of word and phrase tics like logorrhea, gnosis, occult-knowledge, such much and connoisseur-ship (it’s the hyphen that catches the eye), across a number of essays, giving the collection a feeling that Kugelberg is the man at the party who talks to people individually, even when they’re in a group, so that his listeners end up hearing the same story a dozen times. It must be the selection of essays and the way they’ve been sequenced. That or Kugelberg had a post-911 decade of only thinking about three topics.
The sequencing of the essays at times gave hints of what was coming next, such as the essay that gave me pause being followed by one that reminded me to laugh at myself, such as the essay on Ragnar Persson’s drawings reading like an Umberto Eco essay followed by one that is a direct homage to Eco’s The Vertigo of Lists. This trick counterbalanced some of the repetition.
There were moments, when Kugelberg compiled lists of records in the way men questing after toothsome obscurity do, that I was acutely aware of not being a man and of never having been a boy. Whatever that means. It didn’t alienate me so much as bore me slightly. Horses for courses and all that. Sitting on a plane as I encountered these feelings, not yet having met the man, I was both grateful for the heads up and worried about the effect it might have on how I behaved when I did meet him. The overriding sense I got, though, was that Kugelberg postures while realising his posturing is ridiculous. In written form, he reminds me of the flaneur I once tangled with. Or maybe that’s because I was listening to the new LCD Soundsystem record on the flight.
It was an interesting introduction to the things that engage Kugelberg’s attention, and I’m glad to say that our meeting went well.