Flogging the artist

It’s easy to consider the 1960s as the time when the various counterculture movements in the world’s industrialized nations reached their peaks for both potency of influence and hypocrisy of intent. There was plenty of money to be made on the backs of those who very loudly proclaimed a disdain for money, and there was plenty of money made by those who very loudly proclaimed a disdain for money as well. (With some on that spectrum used more than others (e.g. Leonard Cohen, z”l), and some using more than others (e.g. (I suspect) Bob Dylan).) This is most famously the case for music, although all of the arts were involved, and as publishing can find its way into everything via collections, books from, about, and related to this era stand out particularly.

One such book is the recently published Okinawa by Rat Hole Gallery. In it, for about US$40, you will find fifty-eight pages of photography by Takuma Nakahira. Questions beginning with Who? Where? What? and Why? are probably all jostling for attention in your mind right now, and so let me fill in some of the background. Nakahira was a pioneer in the kind of rough and blurry style of street photography that became a staple of Tokyo’s underground protest magazines such as Provoke (which Nakahira also co-founded) during the decade. Some gains were made, some battles won, but the war was ultimately lost, and perhaps lost more definitively in East Asia than in other places. Disillusionment inevitably set in. Nakahira gave himself a coma via acute alcohol poisoning in 1977, and coming out of it was left without a memory and largely without the ability to create any new long-term memories. His first period of recovery was spent in Okinawa, and it was then that he took the photos found in the new collection. These efforts are of a completely different style than his earlier ventures, being of a far more straightforward full-exposure and head-on type of photography (some critics have labelled them “mere snapshots”.) You can read about the book and Nakahira’s story in this review by Darren Gore from The Japan Times.

Nakahira remains a broken man, a shell who must be taken care of by his family and whose days now consist of two jaunts along a predetermined route through his neighborhood, taking pictures of this and that which he happens to come across. We can only guess at what it must be like to be him, but what drives his new agent and publisher is probably easier to ascertain (but not all negative, I’m sure at least a (good?) part of the motivation comes from a desire to share the man’s work). A name that was famous then can still sell now. Enter Bob Dylan and his prose-poetry book Tarantula.

Tarantula was written in 1966 and is mostly stream-of-consciousness, unpunctuated snippets, strings, scraps, and shreds of the mind that produced so much wondrous music and verse during the latter half of that era. It never saw the light of day until about a decade ago, and this reader would consider it no loss to the world had it never seen the light of day; but then there are all of us Dylan fans who would be very curious if it hadn’t. And that, I think, is the sad point of all this recent nostalgia: money to be made. The artist who once stood (posed?) as the rebel, the iconoclast, the prophet, is now – or has always been? – both predator and prey, raging against the system while at the same time supporting and sustaining it, purposefully or not. This of course is a trite observation, but it’s worth mentioning because the spirit that drove publications like Provoke may not be dead but is on life support. A situation that is especially a pity given that the Age of the Internet and of Self-Pubbing has now put the production and distribution of all mediums directly into the hands of artists in a way unimaginable fifty years ago. At present, as then, we are co-opted only primarily to the degree that we allow it, that we seek it, that we prefer personal profit or fame over message and content. It is the ideas that matter, and it is our thinking that will either drive us on to a truly new way of living or keep us at the same self-flagellating that has proven so durable in its appeal to our worse natures.

Next week, a sneak peek at Freedom’s Mask, a new work that is very much meant as a step in that liberating direction.


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