Monday, 30 November 2009

The Art of Jonathan Bowden, volume 1, 1980 – 2007

The Art of Jonathan Bowden, volume 1, 1980 – 2007
Jonathan Bowden
London: The Spinning Top Club, 2007

The first time my wife saw Jonathan Bowden’s art she thought he was insane. I had some days before attended a meeting where he spoke about the German filmmaker Hans-J├╝rgen Syberberg and his epic, 7-hour production Hitler: A Film from Germany. Due to engineering work on the railway network, I arrived late, in the midst of Lady Michele Renouf’s talk about freedom of speech, the Lisbon Treaty, and the European Constitution. At this time Bowden, who was due to speak next, was leaning on a windowsill, facing the audience. Clad in suit and tie, sporting a wooden pendant carved with a rune, and a pair of small, bottle-bottom spectacles, he stood there with a head of curly hair, arms crossed, and eyes closed, deep in thought. The room was hot, pre-Victorian, crammed to capacity with angry middle-aged men, compressed into tightly packed rows of hard coccyx-crunching chairs–stewing in their fury against the modern world.
As I sat down, a man in the front row, who had already asked a question, asked another. Bowden leapt like an attack dog and forcefully silenced the inquisitor. ‘Questions at the end, please!” he shouted. “Authoritarian men won’t have another’s will imposed upon them”, he said on a different occasion. His manner was harsh, loud, serious, unpleasant, overbearing. This is how I knew he was the chairman.
When his turn came to speak, his vast oral cavity exploded with a hurricane of decibels; the thermonuclear shockwave of intellectual verbiage swept over the heads of the congregated audience, stunning it into paralyzed silence. Bowden turned his head left, then right, then left, then right, his eyes closed, gesticulating, baring his teeth, roaring like a lion. Even if there was anyone present who did not understand his erudite diction, everyone knew where it was coming from: a place of Nietzschean ferocity, Doric hardness, primal purpose, pagan pride, ancient darkness, and unquenchable fury. The discharge of energy was inspiring, and motivated me to visit this man’s website.

It found he was a prolific writer and an artist with an especially rabid style. His paintings, done in acrylic (for speed), are chaotic mosaics of color, intense, expressionistic, and densely crisscrossed with sadistic lines. It is the work of a schizophrenic patient, who labors at night, hunched over his table, pen in fist, his face red, his eyes wide, perspiring, hyperventilating, furiously attacking the paper surface in an paroxysm of uncontrolled hatred and rage. Otherwise it is the work of an obsessive compulsive, who fills vast surfaces with incomprehensible patchworks and patterns that respect no rhyme or reason, who destroys as he creates, who accretes as he annihilates, cackles as he militates. The art is grotesque, primordial, and rudely contemptuous of bourgeois expectations. It is filled with ghoulish faces, deformity, evil, psychotic stares, lascivious leers, nightmarish sarcasm, and human monstrosity. The portraits offer nothing but a demonic freak show. Where there are women, the images are not flattering: they are obscene, vulgar, violently sexual. This is no derivation from the Classicist figurative tradition: when one looks at Bowden’s art one thinks of Marvel comic strips, blended with Edvard Munch, Otto Dix, and Jackson Pollock.
Jonathan Bowden
Bowden’s art is modern, or modernist, but he argues that it is no longer so, for what we class as “modern” art has already been around for well over a hundred years. This is obviously true, but all the same it enrages, perplexes, and horrifies some in Bowden’s political constituency: indeed, some years ago, he was vigorously attacked by a number of anonymous posters in Stormfront, in a manner that he later described as “semi-literate and scatological.” But while for some Bowden’s creations are another example of entartete Kunst, others rate it highly; views on its merits are polarized. In a subsequent response to his critics, Bowden wrote:
Once a classic early photographer like Edward Muybridge produced an interconnected series of images featuring Greco-Roman wrestlers and running horses, the world was forever changed. Fine art now had a choice–it either replicated photography badly or in a stylized way which was loyal to a tradition running from Rembrandt to Orpen or it contrived to do something else. What it did was to go inside the mind and tap all sorts of semi-conscious and unconscious ideas, fantasies, desires and imaginative forays. The point about this art is that it is highly personal and powerful because it comes from inside. This means that people often of a highly rigid and morally defensive character find this work heretical, blasphemous, evil and even degenerate. (Indeed the theory of degenerate art originates from the 1880’s when this change of direction took place).
He explained that “representational, classical, traditional and academic work has been taken over by cinema,” and that he sees the failure of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union to prevent painters and sculptors from producing modernist work as a confirmation of the dynamism of the modernist current. He added:
Turning to my own work, various currents are discernible. These are the demonic, strength and a concern with pure power, ugliness and fury as well as erotica and shape, or purely imaginative formulations. In my own mind the softer material balances the harsher, more violent and aggressive work. Nonetheless, I have also done a large number of relatively traditional pieces which hark back to classic art by Bosch, Rops, and Caravaggio. Some are also based on Hellenistic form. Obviously a subjective element intrudes into art but I believe that modernistic fury is the correct vehicle for elitist and hierarchical values.
Neo-Classic High JinxThe Art of Jonathan Bowden is the first of two volumes, collecting the 47-year-old artist’s work from 1980 to 2007. In total we have 179 paintings and 25 sketches. The pages are black and the text white, which is what works best with artwork of such vibrant colors. Sadly, it is a softcover edition and a few of the images are slightly out of focus.
Sadly also, there is no introduction or biographical essay: one goes from the table of contents straight to the art. The interaction between the latter and the former, however, provides an unexpected source of entertainment that compensates for these deficiencies, as it proves quite rewarding either to look at the title of a painting in the index and then find the corresponding painting or vice versa.

This is because the titles reflect an obvious, (in Bowden’s own words) “elitist, semi-transcendentalist, hieratic, non-dualist, neo-pagan, ‘politically incorrect’, and inegalitarian” sensibility, and, as Lasha Darkmoon has pointed out in her recent articles for The Occidental Observer, we do not find that very often in the contemporary art world. One cannot read titles like Against Greenpeace, An Apple a Day Keeps Fury at Bay, Depressed Human Reptile, Eugene Sue’s The Eternal Jew, Louisiana Lynching, Flying Vagina Head, Give Me 140 Million Dollars, God Plays with Balls, Happy Hellraiser, I am Disembowelled, Too Many Turkey Twizzlers, and not want to find out what Bowden visualized.

These are, of course, the quirkier titles. Others suggest a number of recurring themes: classical / mythological (Masked Acropolis, Olympia on Blue), demonic (Orange Lucifer, Lycanthropy Now), sexual (Napalm Blonde, Vulvic Head and Ear), fascistic (Adolf & Leni, Mussolini with Bi-Planes), among others.
Artistically unexplored among Bowden’s obsessions are his morbid fear of obesity, for example, and his troglodytic indifference to technology. At a recent event in the United States, I noticed Bowden, who on previous occasions had refused to eat anything at all, dined out of tiny dessert dishes. When questioned on his rather singular temperance, he explained that he comes from the West country, and that people from his part of the world have a tendency to grow sideways.

His worry, however, is wrapped into a certain morbidity of the imagination. At various points he expressed disappointment at the lack of examples of “brontosaurian obesity,” the witnessing of which he had been eagerly anticipating, not without a measure of horrified fascination. Perhaps this is because Bowden, like one Harry Stephen Keeler, appreciates human deformity and freakery of nature: “it adds to the fauna and flora,” he says.

As to his relationship with the electronic marvels of our age, Bowden admits to not owning a CD player, a DVD player, or even a color television; indeed, the communicates with the world via a mobile telephone that must be nearly a decade old–a geological era in technological terms. “I believe in planning your own obsolescence,” he argues.
The Marquis de Sade
I must admit I recognize a bit myself in this rather eccentric character. This is a man who likes extremes, and rushes to them faster than the speed of light the moment an idea is presented to him. Like me, he cartoonifies everything and everybody; he enjoys exaggeration, obscurity, exoticism, rarity, maximal expression–life is a comic strip; he can see humor in even the nadir of the Kali Yuga.

Bowden’s stern appearance (I say he has looked 40 since he was 18) is somewhat deceptive, but his art accurately reflects this personality profile: beneath the hyperchromatic energy there is a gothic sensibility, that is drawn to authors like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Bram Stoker–not forgetting the Irishman’s more obscure books–blended with an extroverted theatricality. Suddenly his suit and tie and heavy-soled, skull-crushing footwear and the van filled with corpses are not inconsistencies, but parts of an organic–and partly animalistic, partly inhuman–whole. They are consistent with the orator whose meanest and most gleeful insults are “BBC News reader” and “lib-er-alll!”

The Art of Jonathan Bowden will not please everyone and will not confirm the ordinary man in his beliefs (Bowden does not give a damn), but it is without a doubt interesting for those who revel in psychological extremity and would like an insight into the psyche of this Nietzschean beast.

Note: Many of Jonathan Bowden’s books can be purchased or downloaded for Lulu.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Colin Campbell The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

Willem Kalf - Still Life

The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism
by Colin Campbell
Alcuin Academics, 2005

As the title immediately suggests, this is meant to be a companion volume to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In Colin Campbell’s opinion, the latter only told half of the story (that of production), and left unanswered fundamental questions relating to the other half (that of consumption). His aim was, therefore, to complement Weber’s narrative with its logical counterpart and to provide a complete account of the socio-cultural aspects of the modern Western economy with a synthetic super-narrative that explained both its facets of production and consumption. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism is, needless to say, a hugely ambitious multidisciplinary enterprise, produced by a profound and astute thinker.

According to Campbell, most writing about consumption had hitherto focused on taste and fashion, without explaining where taste and fashion came from or why, and attributing the consumer revolution to simple emulation of the aristocracy by an aspiring middle class, when, in fact, the consumer revolution was a middle class phenomenon, and the two classes were divided by crucial psychological and socio-cultural differences. Another problem has been that Protestantism and Romanticism have been cast as in opposition, while Protestantism was widespread among the middle class. How come the relatively ascetic protestants, and not the profligate aristocracy, were the ones who drove the consumer revolution?
Campbell, Colin - The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism
Campbell’s investigation spends a great deal of time on an excruciatingly detailed unraveling of the protestant system of belief, and uncovers there, rather surprisingly, the origins of modern consumption. To reproduce Campbell’s analysis here in a rigorous manner would be unnecessarily prolix, but suffice it to say that a disillusionment with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination led to a more individualistic, autonomous, and heuristic approach to life choices; that this served as background for the idea of being a man of sentiment; that the “sentimental man,” originally a term that implied a man with the capacity for deep emotion (especially of a pious and sorrowful nature) and thoughtfulness, evolved to mean a deeply emotional man; and that Sentimentalism, as it evolved into Romanticism, accreted notions of daydreaming, fantasy, and individual genius. Consumption, therefore, is the attempt of the consumer to create his own individual reality through daydreaming.

The notion of daydreaming is important, and harmonious with the characterization of the modern consumer we find in Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (2009), which I reviewed this last Summer: modern consumers make significant psychological and emotional investments into consumer products, daydreaming about the kind of lifestyle they would like to have, and therefore of the kind of person they would like to be. This, in the context of the psychological processes triggered by the present historical socio-cultural environment, leads to a cycle of longing and acquisition, where acquisition does not result in satisfaction but in disappointment and continued longing. Thus, even mediocre consumer products are imbued with enormous meaning, and are frequently replaced and/or disacquired once obtained by the consumer, who has by then moved on to continued daydreaming and fixation on yet another product. This fits well with an evolutionary account of consumption, whereby consumer objects are used – sub- or semi-consciously – for purposes of status display along a variety of dimensions (e.g. amiability, stability, conscientiousness, etc.), and whereby consumers engage, accordingly, in deception and self-deception in the effort to define themselves to themselves and to others.
The fact that Campbell’s notion of the daydreaming consumer survives comparison with evolutionist explanations of human behavior suggests that said notion is theoretically sound. This is good news, for the system of objects is not the only realm where the daydreaming occurs: it also occurs in the realm of the system of ideas. Thus, by transposing Campbell’s narrative we can gain a better understanding of how ideas become objects of taste and fashion, and how, irrespective of quality, daydreaming consumers acquire and disacquire them as a result of their longing to be a certain type of person as well as of the ideas in question being emotionally imbued with meaning.

William Pierce’s claim, therefore, that people usually have no opinion of their own, and simply acquire an opinion by looking around to see what others are saying and doing and then selecting the one that is in the majority, was not far from the truth. I would only add that when people look around in search for a ready-made opinion to espouse, they are looking to identify the one that best enhances their self-esteem (their sense of being a good person), according to their temperament, socio-economic status, personal history, and system of belief. Of course, because humans fear ostracism, ego-enhancing opinion often ends up being majority opinion, but this is not always the case: many feel superior in their adoption of contrarian or unconventional views.

I must admit that a t times I found Campbell’s monograph soporific—particularly during the era-long chapter where he waded into the somniferous quicksand of Calvinist theology. This is not to say that Campbell’s prose is difficult: it is, simply, dull, clumsy, desiccated, and occasionally pleonastic—the opposite what is needed when dealing with as coma-inducing a topic as the obscure nuances of Christian theology. Worse: the book has been printed using a tiny, compressed font, which makes each line lightyears long and each page seem like a deep pond of turgid sludge, exhausting to the reader before he even begins, and as unpromising of any joy as the front cover. The unfortunate result is a reluctance on my part to relive it all over again with a blow-by-blow explication of its theoretical and argumentative subtleties. The mere thought of it makes me anxious, because it would mean diving back into that feculent prose in search for detail. I am forced, therefore, to disappoint readers looking for more than a general summary. Then again, such readers should not rely on a review, but put in the effort themselves.

That said, t here is no question that this is an accomplished effort at a theoretical level, and, to my mind, Campbell cleverly and successfully reconciles the Protestant ethic with its Romantic counterpart, as well as the parallel processes of production and consumption in modern society, in a fashion that also seems to answer the questions that had been ignored, or left unanswered, by previous writers.

Yet to me this is not the end of the journey, for Campbell, like Weber before him, only deals with the socio-cultural aspects of consumption, while Man is also a biological entity, which means that the morphology of society and culture has more than an intellectual dimension. With Spent Geoffrey Miller did a better job at integrating the socio-cultural consequences of biology into his evolutionist account, but it was light on the socio-cultural side and his book lacks the depth of Campbell’s study. (To be fair, however, Spent was aimed at a popular audience whereas The Romantic Ethic . . . was aimed at a more academic audience.) To have a complete understanding of consumption, its socio-cultural and its biological sides need to be theoretically synthesised. I am not aware of whether this synthesis has occurred or been consciously attempted.

I would recommend this book only to those who both have an active interest in consumption and are adept at a highly creative synthesis and application of theoretical knowledge.