The primordial critic

“Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.”
– Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurist manifesto, 1909.

Just a thought by Degtyarov


A primordial artist


During the tumultuous Interbellum period, Ernesto Giménez Caballero proposed that the political crisis of the time was to be seen as inseparable from the concurrent artistic crisis. He perceived both the impotent governments of Europe and the deplorable state of the continent’s art production as symptoms of the same disease. Were the sickness to be cured, the antidote would have to be administered omnipresently; the only viable solution was one that concerned itself with the totality of the affliction, resolving all its infectious tumours until the political, the spiritual and the artistic spheres were once again in order. Giménez Caballero called this phase of post-malady the natural ‘State’ of a nation, in which all aspects of culture were once again aligned with the national spirit. To clarify this concept, he emphasised the origin of the Spanish word for state, ‘estado’, which is based on the verb ‘estar’, which in turn translates as ‘to be’ in a spatial, dynamic sense. In doing so, he pointed out that a State is a concept that embodies something much broader than a mere title for the administration of a country; rather, it is the state a country finds itself in. To put it more simply, in his conception of the political and the artistic aspects of society, these are not separate, insular manifestations of human activity, but rather closely interwoven ramifications of one, all-encompassing worldview. This is illustrated most directly in Giménez Caballero’s assertion that the man who “achieves [the] State is not a politician”, but “a primordial artist”.

Though there is the popular view of philosophy as onanic intellectual meandering that exists on a plain completely detached from reality, observations such as the one described in the previous paragraph may increase our understanding of more recent affairs. It helps us comprehend, for example, why people on different ends of the political spectrum have such fundamentally different respective ways of looking at the world. Especially in politics that transcend simple-minded economic bickering, and concern themselves with the nature of man, where we stand on a particular issue does not depend so much on the effects its outcome will have on our personal surroundings, but much rather on the philosophical outlook that determines how we experience the world around us. The deep-rootedness of our views explains the exceptionally low odds of a political debate altering the stance of any of the participants: we see the world in a different light, and if anything, the sense of estrangement we derive from our brief contact with the other reaffirms our own belief system and the desire to protect it from those unwashed people who “just don’t get it”.

GeCe

It was the thought described above that made me wonder about the correlation between a person’s worldview and the music he listens to. After all, if my political and musical preferences are derivative of the same worldview, there must be something in that worldview that links those preferences. So could it be that, by knowing my political stance, it would be possible to make an estimate of the likelihood I will accept or reject a band’s music? Going by recent events, it would seem so.


Political ideas in metal criticism and hissy-fits based thereon


Over the past few years, metal criticism has evolved to a point where we see less and less of the classic type of metal reviewer, whom a reader accurately described as, ‘an alcoholic metalhead with no axe to grind’. The broader appeal of metal has set in motion attempts to ‘mature’ and/or ‘intellectualise’ the genre, something which is reflected in the way publications write about it. In modern interviews and reviews, many critics like to take into account extramusical factors. The time when you could get away with just asking band members about the amps they use and their favourite touring venue is rapidly fading; critics and artists alike are expected to delve into philosophy, politics and other such affairs. This is a development that is not only positive, but also necessary; metal critics no longer have exclusive access to bands, and it is easier than ever to completely circumvent those geriatric writers who still stick to ‘buyer’s guide’-type reviews. If they wish to remain relevant, they should not just describe music, but channel it; provide it with a context. Instead of merely informing the reader of a band’s existence, the critic is now obliged to use his knowledge to amplify the reader’s understanding of the music.

An encouraging development though this profound metal coverage may be, problems can arise when certain views become dominant while other perspectives are scarcely offered. Yet this is exactly what we have been witnessing over the past year. The question is: why?

While the Metalgate ‘movement’ fabricated by the Dark Legions Archive was a blatantly obvious and frankly obnoxious attempt to ride the hypewaves of Gamergate, it is not a lie that certain ideological trends can be observed among metal writers. Particularly in the Anglosphere, or more specifically Britain and the American East Coast, there is a degree of uniformity between the political implications of major websites, for example MetalSucks and Metal Injection; they all sway towards – in lack of a better term – the ‘progressive’. But rather than being the result of some vast conspiracy against the metal community, a more logical explanation for this tendency may be offered by our hypothesis that political and musical preferences spring from the same underlying philosophy. Consequently, the predominance of a certain philosophy in the metal microcosm may also explain the recurrence of specific political and artistic views.

Currently, a considerable part of the metal writing community consists of millennials with degrees in humanities (myself included, by the way). These days, study programmes in the field of humanities tend to be subject to a heavy influence from postmodernism, which rejects the notion of a singular reality. Consequently, a worldview that hinges on postmodernism is reflected by both the political thoughts and the artistic ideals that emerge from it. On a political level, postmodernism extends into various schools of thought, such as intersectionality and egalitarianism. After all, the idea that human values are based on social constructs rather than natural or spiritual inherencies facilitates such ideas as the rejection of social hierarchy, binary gender definitions and the notion of different human races.

The artistic consequences of the postmodernist doctrine are a tad more difficult to capture in one image, but still a number of recurring trends can be discerned. Given that there is no single truth, man is bereft of the means to objectively determine what is beautiful and what is not. Even more importantly, because words are seen as nothing more than empty shells defined by the meanings that individual human beings ascribe to them, it becomes impossible to make an objective distinction between what is art and what is not. This has opened the door for modern art that, rather than attempting to achieve to live up to a standard of beauty (as these standards are ‘social constructs’ subject to constant change), instead relies on the narrative that surrounds it. A concrete result of said approach to art can be observed in so-called ‘performance art’, which offers unipolar social and political messages from behind a thin veil of artistic abstraction. More worryingly, the absence of a clear definition of art has also allowed opportunists to declare that art is thus whatever they want it to be, apparently without feeling a need to explain themselves beyond that claim.

“It is naive to say politics should be avoided by critics.”

When a person, consciously or not, subscribes to a postmodernist outlook on life [1], on some level the different manifestations of that philosophy will intertwine. They are, after all, branches of the same tree. The prominence of a postmodernist worldview among the current generation of metal critics would explain why, in this field, the musical and the political interact the way they currently do; the desire implied by critical theory to drag everything into a mundane politicised reality is exactly the type of approach that leads to controversies such as the recent polemics surrounding political opinions ascribed to bands who may not even incorporate these ideas into their music directly. So contrary to what is being claimed by the afore-mentioned hashtag movement, there is no massive witch hunt being conspired against “the metal community”; what we are witnessing now is simply an academic trend manifesting itself in the generation it helped shape.

To take it one step further, it would make for an interesting thought experiment to ask ourselves whether knowing a person’s outlook on life can be used to make an educated guess of his political and artistic preferences. Or, even more specifically, to assess the correlation between his political views and the bands he listens to. While definitive answers are difficult to provide, our hypothesis would help explain a few current trends in music coverage. For instance, when we are aware of the predominant worldview of metal criticism in the Anglosphere, it is hardly surprising that a band like Deafheaven would be so lauded by British and American music outlets; artistically, their 2013 album Sunbather matches perfectly the post-structuralist idea of words and terms having no inherent meaning. Or to stick to postmodernist jargon, black metal is a constantly shifting paradigm. Hence, to adepts of said philosophy it holds no inherent value.


A primordial critic


If such an approach is to be counterbalanced, certain pitfalls will have to be avoided; in spite of the limited, untactful and occasionally exasperating approach to politics in music criticism today, to say politics should be avoided altogether by critics is naive. There exists a firm connection between music fiumeand politics in a way that transcends the typical “I don’t agree with this band’s views and therefore I won’t listen to them” rhetoric that is so easily encountered today. Shortly after the First World War, Italian nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio established a short-lived free state in Fiume (now Rijeka, in present-day Croatia). Its constitution, the Charter of Carnaro, is a fascinating document which, among other things, puts great emphasis on the importance of music to a nation. It proclaims: “In the Italian province of Carnaro, music is a social and religious institution. […] Does it not seem that great music has power to bring spiritual peace to the strained and anxious multitude?” [2] This goes to show that the idea of music and politics being sides of the same coin is not something that emerged when rowdy people with agendas barged into the so-called metal community.

With the deeper relationship between music and an underlying philosophy exposed, it should now be clearer why Black Ivory Tower makes frequent forays into political and cultural affairs in a way that contrasts the present trend of taking all political expressions at face value; instead, we prefer to explore these connotations far beyond the political messages directly expressed in music. Rather than indulging in such pointless exercises as “keeping politics out of music” or “separating the artist from the music”, we should strive towards a more mature analysis of the manifestation of the political in music. And, on a larger scale, we should also recognise the manifestation of the artistic in politics. Because Giménez Caballero, despite adhering to some goofy, antiquated ideas, was right about one thing: it is no coincidence that the crisis we find ourselves in politically and the lamentable state of contemporary culture should present themselves concurrently. It may be up to leaders worldly and spiritual to find a cure for our ill societies, but let critics contribute towards identifying its symptoms. Let us make this world beautiful once more. Let us be primordial critics.

Notes:
[1] It should be noted that a postmodernist view on art is offered on an academic level often unbeknownst to the students. It is possible to not even be aware of what the concept entails and still act on its principles.
[2] English translation as quoted from: http://www.reakt.org/fiume/charter_of_carnaro.html

Also read:
Post-Black Polemics or How Not To Market Your Religion – A critical take on Deafheaven‘s Sunbather
Sons of Aeeth – An analysis of the music of Rome
Taigafolk – A review of the Russian folk split Spletenye
Música y Estado (Spanish)

About degtyarov (121 Articles)
Molotov cocktail in the face of music whorenalism.

1 Comment on The primordial critic

  1. Finally, FINALLY got around to reading this essay.

    I’m at times kind of annoyed that the metal community doesn’t take itself seriously as a “cultural movement” to anywhere as the same extent as punk culture does (or for that matter psychedelia, goth/industrial etc) so I can definitely understand and agree with this article’s central point to a general degree. This is especially true now that while the metal genre’s return to mainstream popularity in the late 2000s has made a lot of things easier when it comes to stuff like distribution and concert booking, it also means that in my experience the fanbase is less willing to appreciate music as more than escapist entertainment.

    That said, I get the impression quite a bit of this attitude is a counter-reaction to negative tendencies of other subcultures that metal historically had a very ambivalent. While heavy metal did at first evolve out of the harder end of 1960s/1970s psychedelic rock, many of the involved musicians (at least here in Denmark) changed gears specifically because they found the psych/prog scene’s aspiration to if not high culture then as intellectual “art music” a creative straitjacket. I also mentioned punk as a counter-example, and while punk might be more successful than metal as a “cultural movement” it’s a different question when evaluated as a music genre because it in my experience often results in the music taking a backseat to the ideology even though (as you mention in the article) there should in ideal be no necessary conflict. The most common cause of punk bands jumping to metal is precisely that they find the punk subculture more concerned with ideology than music.

    There’s also the fact that those metal scenes who *did* style themselves as “cultural movements” were also those who burned out most quickly: The NWoBHM in the late 1970s/early 1980s as well as the various black metal sects of the late 1980s/early 1990s come to mind; I don’t consider it a coincidence that the only of those which are still going are the Blazebirth Hall, who also are the only of them that’s openly fascist/NS in loyalty.

    Which brings us to where I think much of the resistance against the attempted intellectualization of metal comes from: It’s seen as entryism either by the academic cultural elite whom the genre was originally reacting against as much as against mainstream society, *or* by Martin Heidegger-type far-right ideologues (you mentioned S. R. Prozak and his network of think-tanks), depending on which exact signals are being given.

    At the end of the day, though, we end up with a music genre that’s often way more instrumentally and compositionally complex than mainstream rock has even aspired to after progressive rock went out of fashion in the mid/late 1970s, with lyrics frequently referencing all kinds of obscure literary/philosophical/religious traditions… yet the associated fan culture seems weirdly reluctant to actually dive into what all of that means or even analyze it in depth. And that’s a damn shame.

    Did that make sense?

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