Too much doo-doo-doo


Call it a “Borat” moment—the realization that life is just too complicated. If you check out the Borat DVD and you’ll see what I mean. In one of the out-takes Borat—a vulgar Kazakhstani tourist—takes a stroll with a clerk through the packaged cheese isle in an American grocery store. He stops at each package and asks the clerk what’s inside. “Cheese. More cheese. Yes, cheese,” says the clerk patiently, over and over again. The frustrating gag goes on for ten minutes.

The point Borat makes not so subtly is, at what point is too much too much? When it comes to Borat’s America, there is no such thing as too much, apparently.

Likely we’re all suffering from choice fatigue. And it’s not just an overabundance of products. There’s the new overabundance of people, too. Turn on the television and there are hundreds of new TV personalities who weren’t there a couple of years ago. But the most amazing development is the Internet. For the first time in history you can literally meet millions of people online. The world is available at a keystroke—for just $9.95 a month. The downside is the sad realization that almost all of the people online are posting the most banal stuff, and how few truly original ideas are being explored.

So I find myself in search of breakthrough ideas. What does a breakthrough look like? Take rock and roll. The rock genre of music has been around since the early 1950s. It had its first flowering with Elvis and the Everlys, and all the black cats in the background like Sam and Dave, Bo Diddley, James Brown, the Shirelles and the Ronettes. Just when it looked as if rock had plateaued, the Brits reinvented it and exported it back to the States. From the mid-60s to the late 70s rock music swallowed up all other genres, consuming everything from folk to jazz to disco. Rock had moved from “classic” to “renaissance” all the way to “rococo” with the glitter bands like Queen. Where could rock go from there?

What followed was punk, and later by grunge. Both of these idioms offered fans less rather than more. When the Police put out De Doo Doo Doo, the back-to-basics sound and lyrics were almost shocking. The song had the perfect effect. It offended older listeners, and was unforgettable to younger listeners. To me it typifies the concept of “breakthrough.”

These days the entertainment world seems to be anything but breakthrough. Ironically, American Idol , a show that portends to dig up unsung (pardon the pun) rock stars, is one of the most overly-managed, overly-produced, talent-smothering creations ever to be foisted on the American public. And you know it’s desperate when music critics cite Kurt Cobain as the last great rock star. For those of you who don’t follow this nonsense, Cobain committed suicide over 14 years ago. That’s a long time for rock groupies to be without a reigning superstar. But truth be told, Cobain was the last breakthrough rock artist that I can remember. He was the Arthur Rimbaud of his generation.

Rimbaud, himself, was a breakthrough artist. According to Wikipedia, “(he) was a French poet and anarchist… As part of the decadent movement, his influence on modern literature, music and art has been enduring and pervasive. He produced his best known works while still in his late teens—Victor Hugo described him at the time as "an infant Shakespeare"—and gave up creative writing altogether before he reached 21. He remained a prolific letter-writer all his life. Rimbaud was a restless soul, travelling extensively on three continents before his premature death from cancer less than a month after his 37th birthday.” Well, I guess that pretty much says it all. Except that Rimbaud’s poems were written in free verse and were far ahead of most of the rhyming poetry of the day.

The Police, Cobain and Rimbaud all ripped away the existing stylistic overlay to uncover a raw new voice. They chose the simpler path.

This craving for simplicity is why I’ve been a fan of modernism. Since the invention of photography modern art has adopted a more minimalist language. Picasso’s paintings have more in common with the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux than they do with the art preceding his generation.

A lot has changed since Picasso though. For one thing, visual art isn’t such a big deal. Frankly, the galleries and museums are overflowing with the stuff, and there are far too few customers to buy up even a tenth of the art produced. For another, we either don’t value art enough, or the art has become too remote for the ordinary viewer.

This was brought home to me a few weeks ago when my editor sent me a letter and suggested I might do a follow-up story on it. The letter was an introduction to a former St. Stephen–St. Andrews artist, Keith Bentley. Keith is now living in Toronto, where he manages an art gallery and makes art. One of his projects involves collecting horsehair from slaughterhouses and weaving it into blankets, which he drapes over model horses. It’s very cool. Yet, however arcane it might seem to the average person, in the art world these kinds of didactic social critiques have become fairly common. How else could one explain UK artist Damien Hirst’s 18th Century human scull encrusted with $30 million in diamonds that recently sold for nearly $100 million? I think that we’ve hit the limit of “didactic rococo” in visual art with that one.

I recently picked up a book titled The Architecture of Happiness. I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice to focus on happiness for a change.” And here was a little book illustrating how architecture the world over has been designed to foster happiness.
Inside was a photo of the simplest building I’d ever seen. A Japanese architect built a plain box with a low pyramid roof and with one large window facing the landscape—a grassy field. The simplicity of the structure in that environment was simply—sublime. It was a breakthrough.

More to the point, it made me question the values that shape our local communities.


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