One, Two, Three, Four, One – Dieter Roelstraete

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by Dieter Roelstraete

One, Two, Three, Four, One

Two musical genres are particularly suited to the One-Man Band phenomenon. On the one hand, you of course have the classic busker – the perpetual street musician, equipped with a drum kit, acoustic guitar, and trumpet, harmonica, or kazoo, who harasses unsuspecting shopping streets all over the world with laughable folksy evergreens. There is no doubt as to the temperament and inspiration of the representatives of this type of one-man orchestra: they always look on the bright side of life, mercilessly punctuating every witticism with an overly demonstrative crash of the hi-hat. They inevitably remind one of the indefatigable, ever-radiant Pete Seeger, and often share that man’s naive belief in the natural Goodness of Man. This should, for that matter, be taken as self-evident: only when armed with this kind of remarkable naivety, is the multi-instrumentalist capable of exhibiting himself in this manner (some of us would even say: make a fool out of himself). The busker needs this idealistic, illusory Goodness – hence his eternal smile, which bears witness to this hypothetical Goodness. In a word, insufferable. 

A second type of one-person orchestra is no less pathetic, albeit devoted for exactly the opposite reason to the same solitary musical path. I am talking about the misanthropic margins of the Black Metal subculture, populated by Satanists of the reclusive sort. So reclusive in fact, that they already balk at the idea itself of sharing a recording studio with anonymous session musicians. Burzum (r.i.p.) continues to be the best-known (and most controversial) example, copied to the point of nausea by resounding names like Arckanum, Nargaroth, Nortt, and Xasthur. Contrary to the always well-disposed busker, who only “exists” for the sake of the public’s fascination for a pre-modern form of multitasking (and the corresponding admiration for an archaic conception of “art” as a matter of “skill”, of talent), and who only operates in public for an audience, these kinds of One-Man Bands only ‘exist’ in the studio. The concert circuit, that traditional arena where ample opportunity exists to rack up metal credentials and/or (literally) street credibility, is what most of them reject as being a sheer sell-out in favor of contemporary ‘spectacle’ culture, a commercial perversion of the original, pure Black Metal ideal: to bear as much malice as possible against the world and everyone in it.

The question as to which of the two ‘types’ mentioned above Gabriel Lester identifies with the most, seems at first to be already answered – but does that make the question interesting? [By the way: the very last thing we are waiting for, as of 2008 A.D., is an artist plummeting down into the cliché-ridden chasms of the above-mentioned metal subculture.] As is so often the case in art, this is not so much a matter of either/or, of choosing between black and white, of taking sides – the true answer is hiding in the nuance, the hybrid, the ambivalence: Gabriel Lester (or at least the artistic personage “Gabriel Lester”) is a bit of both, sunshine and noir, Pete Seeger and Varg Vikernes. For the contemporary artist, as archetypal One Man Band, is also a combination of both extremes – as well as all the in-between hues: committed social conscience and disinterested, incorruptible commentator; public figure and merciless solipsist; court jester and entertainer; cynical Olympian and democrat; Wanderer über das Nebelmeer and man in the crowd; Einzelgänger and networker. Each ‘portrait’ of a One Man Band is unavoidably always a bit of a self-portrait.

Finally, speaking of portrait art: presently in Berlin, the first large Joseph Beuys retrospective since twenty years is being held – and there is no shortage of pushing going on to get in. However, to persuade the critical elements among the large turnout of spectators that this is not a return to old-fashioned idolatry (a long-standing German sore point), the Hamburger Bahnhof, presently transformed into the Beuys Church, is simultaneously organizing an exhibition about the myth of artistry – thereby submitting the mythology of the brilliant individual, the cult of the personality, the aura of the author etc. to a vigorous deconstruction. [But who is deconstructing the deconstructionist?] Whether the curators who organized this double exhibition had a contest in mind or else a polemical balancing exercise, I have no idea, but Beuys survives the battle practically unscathed. He is the creative jack-of-all-trades, homo universalis, pedagogue, politician, performer, all around art pope – not so much a One Man Band, as a One Man Art Movement. And probably therefore the most emblematic, influential artist of post-war Europe. Beuys (or the Beuys myth – this will never become clear) nourishes the deeply felt, universal and social desire for an illusion of individual freedom, for the possibility of individual expression. Whether the illusion needs to be cherished or exposed does not matter: the desire for it exists. Perhaps a whole generation of contemporary artists is no longer capable of feeding the public imagination, simply because everyone already knows that these artists are barely involved in the actual execution (for instance) of their art works. The artist’s atelier or studio as a factory or mere cog in the global economy – this is a notion that has only a slight (cynical) charm – our daily life is already sufficiently industrialized, and the world as such already looks more than enough like a factory. The myth of the individualistic artist continues to remain intact and operational because the public now, more than ever, wants to be reminded of the possibility, however hypothetical, of an autonomous, if necessary even autarchic, existence: that of the artist who both conceives and executes his art (but also transports, installs, sells, maintains his or her finances, and even takes active part in the daily life of the local and global art community), like the street musician who drums, sings, plays guitar and harmonica – and tunes all his instruments, records his own CD’s and even sells them himself in the street. A caricature, no doubt, as she or he takes on even more tasks – let us not forget the simplistic nice guy or the pathetic grump mentioned earlier – but one that we all need. Thank you Bobby Joe Neely!