Wednesday 19 June 2013

High Trash and the Decomposing Spectre of Mass Society

Earlier this month I took part in a fascinating three-day conference on High Trash and the rise of Low-Brow Culture. It had been organized by the School of Art History at the University of Siegen in collaboration with the Department of Art and Media at the Zurich Hochschule der K√ľnste. I had been invited to come and talk about Ludwig II, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley as a further stage in the development of my new project: The Psychoanalysis of Trash.

I am reproducing the conference programme above as it gives an excellent overview of how wide the field of Trash Aesthetics has now become – ranging from Henry Darger’s hoarding to recycling plastic, the reverential disposal of nuclear waste, knock-off luxury goods and Comara-backed pop singers in Naples, plus the heroic efforts made by the German public to demolish an entire pyramid constructed from cases of imported Turkish beer. Nothing, after all, is more ‘post’ than trash; and those who struggle with the decomposing spectre of modernism, which is also to say mass society, suddenly have a reference point that simply won’t go away. On the contrary, it threatens to bury us in our own ideological landfill. Any attempt at transforming this into a useful virtue only suggests a nostalgic yearning for twentieth-century notions of progress and the enthusiasm of those who wished to be the last.

For my part, I felt proud to speak on behalf of the modern alchemists of trash, whose garish, shining palaces are temples to the subversive combined spirits of Orpheus and Narcissus. But then Elvis claimed to be afraid of intellectuals and Michael Jackson was…well…Michael Jackson. One thing that was particularly useful about the programme for the conference, and the main reason why I have reproduced the running order above, is the manner in which the papers have been sequenced, the divisions between them suggesting some useful avenues for future research and discovery. A conference of this sort is always going to be a problematic affair: so far as I am concerned, the appreciation of trash is simultaneously rebellious and aristocratic, making it something that has to be enacted or performed rather than critically reviewed to the level that strict academic analysis might require. The two may never fully meet – however, there is also much that we may learn from the tension between them. The fact that Alissa Alexander, who gave the talk on Henry Darger’s hoarding, has a Vivian Girl tattooed on her wrist gives me some cause for hope. Downwards and onwards...