Friday, March 21, 2008

The Cremaster Cycle: Treading Water in a Sea of Retarded Sexuality and Bad Poetry

Matthew Barney's film series, the Cremaster Cycle, is a cognitively retarded and symbolically barren exercise in tedium and bad taste. Barney's take on biology is more of a superficial pose than a serious exploratioin, and the sexual logic underlying his artistic vision is not evolutionary (i.e. human) but rather postmodern and Freudian. He throws around terms like "system" and "entropy," but makes no effort to link his use of these concepts to the notion of complex dynamical systems as they are now understood to occur in nature and culture (see James Gleick's Chaos and A Blessed Rage for Order by Alexander Argyros, both of which predate the Cremaster Cycle, for an introduction to this topic). Sport, likewise, appears in his work as a pseudo-theme, but since there are no distinct players or rules (not even the dynamic, evolving ones described by game theory), the treatment, again, is superficial.

What I can't understand is why Barney gets such rave reviews--his work appears on the covers of art history textbooks, and people seem to be throwing money at him to slop vaseline all over the Guggenheim (only an American artist could be so self-consciously Eurotrash). I guess the sophistos and trendoids of the moneyed academic art world have mistaken his vagueness and obscurity for depth, so no one wants to be the poor benighted rube who asks why the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

The film series' only (dubious) value, it seems to me, is as a study of how an ill-conceived "closed aesthetic system" quickly succumbs to entropy, resulting in artless and sterile mutations like a grotesque half-sheep/half bagpipe or a rubber tire from which a pair of testicles dangles uselessly. It may be argued that this is the point, and that Barney's work succeeds as a depiction of aesthetic schizophrenia and metaphysical failure, but it's surely foolish to praise bad art for its ability to express bad ideas. Serious art, whatever its form and content, gives expression to enduring human themes like hope, promise and gravity--ideas which are absent from Barney's inane films.

Here's a link to a documentary-length interview with Barney that shows some of his work, and here's another to a Cremaster trailer. See if you can figure out what he means by terms like "mythology," "narrative," and "character"--I don't think he even knows.

Rather than releasing his films in a low cost, mass-market format like everyone else, Barney has pressed a limited run of 20 DVD's and auctioned them off in gussied up packaging for over $100,000 each. The unwashed philistines and non-cognoscenti will have to settle for a 30 minute excerpt from Cremaster 3, or maybe they will be able to find Neville Wakefield's overpriced book in a public library. Walter Benjamin, (the Marxist author of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" whose ideas about art and mass production have influenced 3 generations of "anti-establishment" elitists) would be impressed, no doubt, but I suspect Barney's marketing strategy has more to do with the fact that on some level he realizes that the common consumer, who is unburdened by a Yale education in postmodern pretension, would quickly see the Cremaster films for the malarky that they are.

THE BOTTOM LINE: If civilization fails when art and culture stop being sexy, then the Cremaster Cycle is a crime against humanity. I, for one, would rather watch a clown die of cancer than sit through all 7.5 hours of Barney's incoherent, self-indulgent, desperately ugly horseshit.

(image from


Troy Camplin said...

Never heard of it before. Makes me want to see it in a perverse sort of way to see just how bad and wrong he is.

Todd Camplin said...

I love PoMo, aka Post Modern. Weird for the sake of being weird. I think Moe from the Simpsons said that. Anyways, I love the cycle. It is a group of films that the surrealist always wanted to make, but didn't have the budget/tech. You have to admit, there are some very visually stunning scenes.

John said...

Nice to hear from you, Todd Camplin. Thanks for throwing in your two cents. I'll admit that there are some nice visuals in the Cremaster Cycle. I would be surprised if there weren't, given what the films cost to make and the talent that Barney has on his payroll. But I think the odd pretty bits just make the incoherent mess that is the cycle in its totality all the more tasteless.

I'm not sure I'd call Cremaster "weird," either. Sir Orfeo's trip to another world is weird. Miles and Clara in The Turn of the Screw are weird. Twin Peaks is weird. Weirdness, IMO, requires a kind of gravity, irreversibility, or risk. Weirdness can be dangerous or fatal. Cremaster, on the other hand, is silly and foolish. It's deviant, but without import or consequence.

Of course, that's just my opinion, and I've only watched as much of the films as I could find for free online and pieced the rest together from the Cremaster book.

Anonymous said...

I am personally a fan of Vaseline as a medium and it seems Matthew Barney is the only person willing to take the risk of utilizing it to its full potential. Its like experiencing zen but with petroleum.

John said...

According to the Cremaster book, when production is bypassed the head goes directly into the anus. No shit.

I'm sure all that vaseline really helps.

John said...

Ah. I bullshit. I guess I can't really talk about how the "cycle in its totality" is an incoherent mess if I haven't seen the whole thing. But I've seen and read enough to get what I believe is an accurate impression of how stupid it is.