DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid; image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art website
We are not quite sure what level of donation entitles one to receive the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s seasonal pamphlet, but the Spring 2013 edition of Met Museum Presents is certainly something special. The main attraction for this spring is “an unprecedented Museum artist residency” of one Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid.
Possibly, Dear Reader, you had, like us, been hitherto ignorant of Mr. Spooky and his works. The Met describes him as “a composer, multimedia artist, writer, and DJ.” Truth in advertising ought to have required a heavy disclaimer. A little investigation reveals that Mr. Spooky is not a composer, artist, or writer in any ordinary sense of those terms. He barely qualifies as a DJ, though he does preside over events where people are subjected to noise at least partially contrived by him. His chief distinguishing feature is command of an academic polysyllabic patois of inadvertently comic pretentiousness, reminiscent in some ways of Walt Kelly’s P. T. Bridgeport.
The philosopher Harvey Mansfield once observed that “environmentalism is school prayer for liberals.” That was a couple of decades ago, when the obeisance to “the environment” was but a gleam in the eye of sanctimonious hucksters who saw plenty of gold in the green movement. It is now a lavishly funded international consortium whose shibboleths are as eagerly embraced by corporate manufacturers as they are parroted by oleaginous politicians and canny “performance artists” happy to bask in the glow of unearned moral rectitude. So it is not really surprising that Mr. Spooky’s “unprecedented” residence at the Met should revolve around “Art & the Environment.” On March 23, for only $30, you can witness “Of Water and Ice,” a “multimedia concert of compositions based on water and arctic rhythms,” a piece specially commissioned by the Met. The very next day, you can drop in on Mr. Spooky as he “shares his experiences from the North and South Poles in a conversation with Museum curators.” Then on May 9 you can listen to Mr. Spooky and the professional environmental alarmist Bill McKibben talk about “climate change and its effect on our planet, our environment, and our culture.” In case you had anxiety about the matter, rest assured that “the panelists share a deep concern for the environment, and marshal their individual and collective creativity to effect positive and sustainable change.”
It would be cruel to subject such declarations of environmental angst to much scrutiny. They are not quite meaningless. But their meaning is a matter of quasi-religious emotive discharge, not ideas. That “deep concern for the environment,” a “creativity” that is “collective” as well as individual, and change that is—Oh, glorious buzzword—“sustainable”! These verbal emissions do not communicate so much as they anesthetize, suspending consecutive thought with the narcotic of moral smugness.
The Met has even more on the docket from Mr. Spooky. But his true awfulness is only hinted at by the Museum’s anodyne text. Mr. Spooky is one of those performers who likes to deploy the specialized vocabulary of science and philosophy in order to make it seem that his pompous version of aleatoric art is full of deep significance. His “concerts” are really just randomized noise, but they come with a filigree of verbal static from the likes of Johannes Kepler, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, etc. Mr. Spooky likes to cite Wagner and the idea of das Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art.” But what his performance reminds one of is not Wagner but a demotic parody of Hermann Hesse’s “glass bead game,” that future amusement of an exhausted civilization in which “the total contents of culture” are scrambled together in a nihilistic effort to produce the simulacrum of meaning.
Mr. Spooky is not the only preposterous figure on offer this spring at the Met. On the contrary, the Museum’s members-only pamphlet is full of alarming exotica. Consider, to take just one more example, Dan Deacon, “electronic composer and party instigator.” On April 27, Mr. Deacon will bring what the Met calls his “fluorescent creativity” to the Museum for a “music/video piece” (a “once-in-a-lifetime performance”) that “explores Dan’s commitment to civic responsibility[!] through the lens of innovative multimedia performance.” If that seems a bit rich, ponder Mr. Deacon’s statement that “it’s impossible to think about the land without the history of it, and that’s a mixture of guilt and shame.” Is that so, Dan? Is the history of “the land,” e.g., this land, the United States, “a mixture of guilt and shame”? What happened to pride in great achievements, civil, economic, political, and cultural? We acknowledge that the preening antics of hipsters like Messrs. Spooky and Deacon are things any self-respecting cultural organization should be ashamed of endorsing, but that is not the sort of guilt he was talking about.
This installment of Met Museum Presents is short but profoundly depressing. Here we have a premier cultural institution, an institution that was created to preserve and transmit the artistic treasures of the past, and what does it offer us? Rebarbative, politically correct nonsense from the dregs of our increasingly senile avant-garde. Performers like Mr. Spooky and Dan Deacon are a dime a dozen these days. No college campus or trendy art emporium considers itself quite complete without the presence of such figures. But institutions like the Met should be—and until quite recently had been—largely resistant to such toxic ephemera. Like other great custodians of culture, the Met was created to protect civilization, not violate it. Now we get Mr. Spooky and Dan Deacon. Shouldn’t there be a sort of Hippocratic Oath for great cultural institutions? “First do no harm.” The really melancholy thing is the realization that long though the road is to civilization’s heights, the journey back down is frighteningly swift and nearly irretrievable.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 7, on page 1
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