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Black Sky Thinking

Against The New Naive: ‘Innocence’, Branding, & Michel Houellebecq
Joe Kennedy , February 28th, 2012 09:01

Making reference to "grating" artist Robert Montgomery and the Western quest for washy naïveté, Joe Kennedy wonders if controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq might have the antidote

If you've been around Hoxton Square lately – as unpromising a start to an article as you're likely to see this year, I know, but bear with me – you've probably noticed several billboards displaying short poems in LEDs. These texts are the work of Scottish conceptual artist Robert Montgomery. Now, it's unlikely that one expects much of the art which emanates from this part of N1 to endure, but, although they've only been around for a few weeks, Montgomery's pieces seem unusually haunted by suggestions of imminent datedness. The most prominent, above the door of host gallery KK Outlet, reads:


Describing precisely what's so grating about this is tough. Broadly, though, it's the insincere stab at starry-eyed ingenuousness which comes to the fore particularly, though not exclusively, in the saccharine metaphor, fridge-magnet capitalisation, and exaggeratedly remedial punctuation. It's bad enough that supermarkets will rename products to please the demands of annoyingly precocious three-year-olds, a symptom of the current ubiquity of twee tropes in marketing, without self-declaredly radical art getting in on the nicey-nicey act.

'Radical' is how Montgomery styles himself. Interviewed in the Independent recently, he recounted how Situationism had been a "point of obsession" for him since his art school days. Situationism, to offer a – very - brief summary, was a 60s strand of French post-Marxism which proposed that consumer capitalism reduced all experience to mere spectacle, diminishing the individual's capacity for self-realisation and mediating all encounters with the external world. In Montgomery's usefully concise précis, the movement's figurehead Guy Debord sought to describe "a society where we live divorced from real life, surrounded by images designed to sell us things and give us paranoia".

Artistic responses to Situationism's theorising have attempted to undermine the spectacle in order to provoke a radical questioning of the everyday, an act which might serve as the beginning of some form of return to 'real life'. However, the character of the image has changed. Disregarding the fact that KK Outlet is, in its own words, a 'hybrid environment […] designed to help deliver original creative solutions for the development of brands, products and contents', the problem with Montgomery's rehearsed naivety is that it corresponds precisely to the note struck by so much of the media 'designed to help sell us things'.

Everywhere we look, we see companies (not to mention reactionary politicians) playing up their chumminess, their just-wanting-to-be-there-for-you, their ethical commitment, their passion, their desire to envelop the customer in glutinous love. The spectacle no longer promises financial or even sexual success as an incentive to spend or borrow money: more perniciously, it insists that it will help us to revert to a state of cosseted infancy. Every ad break is a relentless confection of prelapsarian kitsch, depicting sunnily undulating pasturelands on which uncontaminated food is grown and reared, and tableaux of unadulterated, yet strangely unsatisfying-looking, 'happiness' in which no-one is ever asked to deal with a tax return, undertaker, or speeding ticket. Everybody is permanently twenty-eight, drinking bottomless pints of Magners on an endless Sunday afternoon somewhere not too far from Chipping Norton.

It's this trend that leads you to wonder if Montgomery doesn't really know his enemy. As another of the billboards shows, his is effectively a black-and-white world in which the moral failures of capitalism can be corrected by simply sending the archetypal city bloke back to the land: 'YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO LOOK AT THE SKY AGAIN, YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO EAT FOOD THAT GROWS WHERE YOU LIVE AGAIN.' If only it were so simple. Oppositions between belligerently acquisitive urban capitalism and an idealised pastoral ignore the new set-up, in which everybody seems to want to repudiate modernity in favour of some long-lost innocence and ease. The reclamation of lived experience from the spectacle is a long-held cornerstone of Situationism, but it has been cheapened by lifestyle-mag imperatives to 'seek out the magic of the everyday' (exhortations, in other words, to live childishly) which foreclose the possibility of considering the political landscape with an adult conscience. There's a very, very fine line between transforming the urban environment into a livable poem and whimsical escapism, and Montgomery seems to fall on the wrong side of it.

Naivety in art is nothing novel, of course. Even before the 60s gave us the schoolboy surrealism of 'Yellow Submarine' and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, everyone from Blake and Wordsworth to Pollock and Kerouac had bemoaned the way industrial society deprived us of contact with our natural selves. In recent years, there's been a paradoxical – because so much of it has taken place on blogs – celebration of an aesthetic of pre-technological callowness which has expanded, in variously odd ways, into a loose coalition of the affectedly 'unaffected' encompassing everyone from writers like Tao Lin to musicians such as Joanna Newsom. Now, though, there are stirrings of disquiet at the increasing amount of common ground artless art and twee politics have with modern branding: Meryl Trussler's recent Quietus piece on 'cupcake feminism' and Dorian Lynskey's combative blog post on 'The Tweelight of the Gods' are cases in point.

An antidote to the simplicities of the new naïve might be found in the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, a figure perhaps most famous – well, notorious – on this side of the channel for writing about sex tourism and making provocative statements about Islam. When he's not generating headlines as France's foremost controversialist, his contrarian tendencies are channeled into fiction which has, since his debut Whatever, been uncannily sharp in its diagnoses of cultural malaise. Houellebecq's strength is his distaste for straw-man solutions, which seems to stem from his hostility towards newspaper liberalism. The Map and the Territory, published in English translation late last year, is perhaps the first literary work to take stock of the latter-day valorisation of simplicity.

The story of a youngish painter and photographer, featuring Houellebecq himself as a character, The Map and the Territory is an account of exactly why we can't go back and why "learning to eat food that grows where we live again" is inherently problematic. In an early critical work, Houellebecq wrote perceptively on how the horror and malignancy of H.P. Lovecraft's stories was spurred by his anguished realisation that the simple pleasures of childhood could not be recaptured, that there could be no temps retrouvé as there had been for Proust. Since then, Houellebecq has worked along the tracks of irredeemable disappointment first cut by Lovecraft to, in a manner not dissimilar to some black metallers, lay waste to the notions of consolation modern culture presents us with. As its name indicates, The Map and the Territory encourages us to consider the distance between the reality of innocence and its presentation as spectacle: the book's satirical force is directed in no small part against the present-day French obsession with terroir, the allegedly inherent connection between geographical origin and identity.

Houellebecq's scepticism addresses itself to a fad, which contemporary Britain and France clearly have in common, for the rustic and pre-industrial. At one point a character, employed by Michelin to rate restaurants for their guidebooks, suggests cutting an establishment from the latest edition for its serving of non-French cuisine, pointing out that wealthy diners are no longer interested in the exotic, instead preferring the quaint and folksy. Tradition and heritage have, Houellebecq implies, become nothing more than a wan performance of authenticity. Like Lovecraft, we can't get back to our own childhoods, nor can we recuperate an unmediated collective past.

This is undoubtedly pessimistic, but it makes for oddly reassuring reading in an era when we're being lectured from all sides about the virtues of simplicity. Perhaps it shores up a flagging confidence in our ability to mature and confront overwhelming-seeming political realities with strategies more powerful than escapism. In any case, it's refreshing, even invigorating, to see that the widespread employment of baby-talk seems to be in the process of being checked. While artists like Montgomery are no doubt pure of motive, their alternative to the spectacle looks awfully like a reinforcement of it: while Houellebecq doesn't seem to have an answer as such, he's at least posing the right questions.