Monthly Archives: September 2019

RIP Sid Haig (1939 – 2019)

Sid Haig was an American actor known for his parts in Jack Hill’s exploitation fare (Spider Baby (1968), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974)). He also had a part in THX 1138 (1971), the science fiction film directed by George Lucas in which in a dystopian future the populace is controlled through mandatory use of drugs that suppress emotions.

Spider Baby (1968)

Cult Movie Stars (1991) describes Haig as:

“Ugly, ruddy faced, usually bald, and occasionally bearded — he looks like an original member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention — Haig has been a seedy presence in low-budget, sex- and action-packed drive-in movies since the mid-sixties.”

Above is Spider Baby (1968) in which Haig is Ralph, one of three inbred, demented, and dangerous siblings. Ralph is a sexually advanced, but mentally deficient simpleton who moves through the house via the dumb-waiter. Unable to speak, Ralph communicates with only grunts and leers.

The siblings are introduced by their guardian as:

“Well, no. It’s more than a retardation. It’s sort of a regression, a progressive deterioration of the mental faculties, a rotting of the brain, so to speak. It begins in late childhood and progresses rapidly, ultimately resulting in physical deformity, rather like the last stages of paresis […] The unfortunate result of … inbreeding.”

The full film is on YouTube.

RIP Wim ‘New Alphabet’ Crouwel (1928 – 2019)

Wim Crouwel was a Dutch graphic designer, type designer, and typographer.

Warsaw”  by Joy Division, lettering by Crouwel, using the ‘New Alphabet’ (1967

F. alerted me to the death of this design icon.

Crouwel is perhaps best-known for his typeface New Alphabet (1967), as used on the above Joy Division record.

The typeface is in the tradition of geometric reductionism of the Architype Van Doesburg (1919).

While researching this post, it suddenly occurred to me that Crouwel is perfectly and absolutely antithetical to Luigi Colani, the previous entry in this growing collection of necrologies.

What Colani was to the curvilinearity of biomorphism, Crouwel was to the geometric reductionism of the straight line.

Both Colani and Crouwel were born in 1928.

They both stand for one end in a major ‘Straight lines vs curvilinearity’ faultline of 20th century aesthetics.

I have long been fascinated by three major faultlines in 20th century art. Or four if you split up the third.

One may be tempted to map these fault lines onto the earlier Catholic–Protestant schism.

RIP Luigi ‘biomorph’ Colani (1928 – 2019)

Luigi Colani was a German industrial designer, known for his use of curvilinear biomorphism.

wished him happy 80th birthday in 2008 and did a post on biomorphism in in 2007.

Car Styling brought four special issues on his work:

  • Designing Tomorrow (1978)
  • For a Brighter Tomorrow (1983)
  • Bio-Design of Tomorrow (1984)
  • Concept-Design of Tomorrow (2010)

I own ‘Designing Tomorrow ‘ the first of these booklets, in the magazine edition, in very good condition. I’m selling it for 100 euros, contact me if you are interested.

This is a good occasion to delve into the historiography of biomorphism:

The term biomorph was coined in 1895 by anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon in his book Evolution in Art, in which he stated that “the biomorph is the representation of anything living in contradistinction to the skeuomorph, which […] is the representation of anything”.

One year later, British writer Geoffrey Grigson uses the term biomorphism in two essays: in the short “Comment on England” (1935) he notes that “abstractions are of two kinds, geometric […] and biomorphic,” and observes that the way forward are the biomorphic abstractions; in the chapter “Painting and sculpture” in The Arts Today (1935), he describes the term biomorphic as “no bad term for the paintings of Miro, Hélion, Erni and others, to distinguish them from the modern geometric abstractions and from rigid Surrealism.”

Another year later, in 1936, New York art historian Alfred H. Barr Jr. in the catalogue of his 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, borrowed Grigson’s term without acknowledgement and noted that there is a secondary current in abstract art wich stems from Gauguin and Matisse and is “intuitional and emotional rather than intellectual; organic or biomorphic rather than geometrical in its forms; curvilinear rather than rectilinear, decorative rather than structural, and romantic rather than classical in its exaltation of the mystical, the spontaneous and the irrational.” He mentions the work of Joan Miró and Jean Arp and concludes: “the shape of the square confronts the silhouette of the amoeba.” Barr elegantly points to the major faultlines in 20th century art, which run along the axes ‘straight lines vs curvilinearity’, ‘wit vs seriousness’, and ‘cult of beauty vs cult of ugliness’ (or sexuality vs asexuality).

For a historiography of these early beginnings of biomorphism, consult Biocentrism and Modernism (2017).

Colani is dead. The last persons in my database alive in 1928 are philosopher Noam Chomsky, anthropologist Desmond Morris, musician Ennio Morricone and photographer William Klein.

RIP Ric ‘Car’ Ocasek (1944 – 2019)

Ric Ocasek was an American musician famous for his work with The Cars.

I have no connection with the man, nor with his music, it’s just too much bombast for me. However, my database shows that one of their songs was featured in a film I liked in the 1990s.

The song is “Moving in Stereo” and the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, but … the problem with this kind of music is, in the words of music critic Bill Flanagan:

“Bit by bit the last traces of Punk were drained from New Wave, as New Wave went from meaning Talking Heads to meaning the Cars to Squeeze to Duran Duran to, finally, Wham!”.

Just What I Needed” (1978)

Anyway, to end on a good note, their song “Just What I Needed” (1978) is in the The Pitchfork 500.

RIP Robert “snapshot aesthetic” Frank (1924 – 2019)

Robert Frank was a Swiss photographer, best-known for his photo book The Americans (1958) and his documentary on The Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues (1972).

Three gay men from ‘The Americans’

Of that book, which was criticized at the time with the words “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness” by mainstream media, a criticism that by the way, became the hallmark of a new aesthetic in photography: the new snapshot aesthetic.

My fave picture of that collection is the photo of three gay men, looking defyingly into the camera. Behind them is a sign which reads ‘Don’t Miss Mister Instin …’.

This particular photo is reminiscent of the work in Naked City (1945) by Weegee, of the photos of Paris de Nuit (1933) by Brassai and is also a precursor to Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin.

And then there is Cocksucker Blues.

Cocksucker Blues pt. 1
Cocksucker Blues pt. 2

RIP Daniel “songs of pain” Johnston (1961 – 2019)

“Urge” from Songs of Pain (1981).

Daniel Johnston was an American singer-songwriter regarded as a significant figure in outsiderlo-fi, and alternative music scenes.

Johnston’s cult status was propelled when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt at the 1992 MTV music awards that featured artwork from Johnston’s 1983 album Hi, How Are You, a T-shirt that music journalist Everett True had given him. Cobain listed Yip/Jump Music as one of his favorite albums in his journal in 1993.

Much of Daniel Johnston’s music has focused on the subject of unrequited love, revolving around his own experiences with Laurie Johnson, an early obsession. Notably is “Urge” (above) on 1981’s Songs of Pain.

His work is collected on Songs in the Key of Z (2000), a collection of outsider music.

RIP RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ (late 1960 – 2010)

RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ was an American artist.

Somehow I missed this death. The passing of Pedro Bell brought it to my attention.

I want to show you three things:

RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: It’s Not Who But What (2018), a 9-minute documentary on RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ in which the art of Ramm is described as Transformers meets a mad scientist.
Beat Bop” (1983), an early hip hop recording in which Ramm raps.
Style Wars, a documentary on early hip hop and graffiti which features “Beat Bop” (above).


RIP Immanuel “world systems” Wallerstein (1930 – 2019)

Immanuel Wallerstein was an American sociologist best-known for his world-systems theory.

He came to my attention via local left-wing thinkers such as Ico Maly, Stephen Bouquin, Mark Saey and Jan Blommaert.

Wallerstein is famous for his world systems theory, a grand narrative-type historiography.

I like grand narratives, so that’s not the problem.

But I have three objections. 1) Wallerstein appears to be an political activist just as much as a scientist, 2) Wallerstein suggests that imperialism is a purely European and capitalist phenomenon and 3) I do not believe that the pre-eminence of Europe and the west (the so-called “European miracle” or the “great divergence“) is only due to the exploitation of its colonies.

1) Wallerstein literally states:”I do not believe there exists any social science that is not committed.” —The Modern World-System, volume 1, 1974

Hmmm … I can imagine social sciences as purely descriptive without resorting to human rights activism.

2) On imperialism as a typically western ailment. I cite David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998):

To note that empires go back to the dawn of history may seem a truism, but in fact it is no trivial assertion. Some insist, for example, that “imperialism, which peaked around the end of the nineteenth century, is somehow an invention or by-product of modern capitalism—in Lenin’s words, “the highest stage of capitalism.” Building on this, they argue that empire was necessary (indispensable) to the prosperity and survival of modern capitalism. The tenacity of this belief can be measured by a copious literature averring that imperialism aimed above all at material gain, even where it manifestly cost and lost.History belies such intrinsic links to capitalism. Consider the ancient empires of Egypt, China, Assyria, Persia, Rome, etc.; or, in modern times, the late, unlamented Communist-Socialist empire of the Soviet Union. That so much ink has been spilled on this issue reflects the need to discredit the imperialists and capitalists by way of encouraging resistance and revolution. They’re in it for the money—what can be worse? Meanwhile bad definitions and explanations lead to bad conclusions.”

“Clearly, the common view of imperialism as a Western invention and monopoly visited on non-European peoples is wrong.”

3) While I do believe that colonization contributed to Europe’s wealth (and the “European miracle” or the “great divergence”), I doubt that it is the only reason for its wealth.

First a summary from Wallerstein’s world-system:

Immanuel Wallerstein characterised the world system as a set of mechanisms, which redistributes surplus value from the periphery to the core. In his terminology, the core is the developed, industrialized part of the world, and the periphery is the “underdeveloped”, typically raw materials-exporting, poor part of the world; the market being the means by which the core exploits the periphery.

To paraphrase: the world-system (the first world and the other countries) redistributes wealth from the periphery (the third world) to the core countries (the first world).

To put it more bluntly, citing the words of Wallerstein follower James Morris Blaut in his book The Colonizer’s Model of the World (1993):

“The historians debate these matters [concerned with the “European miracle”], the questions “why” and “when,” but not the question “whether” — whether a miracle happened at all. Or, to be more precise, they do not even consider the possibility that the rise of Europe above other civilizations did not begin until 1492, that it resulted not from any European superiority of mind, culture, or environment, but rather from the riches and spoils obtained in the conquest and colonial exploitation of America and, later, Africa and Asia. This possibility is not debated at all, nor is it even discussed, although a very few historians (notably Janet Abu-LughodSamir AminAndre Gunder Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein) have come close to doing so in very recent years.”

So “European superiority” results from “the riches and spoils obtained in conquest and colonial exploitation of American and, later, Africa and Asia?” I doubt it. I follow Landes and Jones in these matters, but not totally.

I sympathize with an in-between-model as proposed by Pomeranz in The Great Divergence (2000) as described by (P. H. H. Vries, 2001):

“that [The Great Divergence] pays more attention to connections than Landes almost goes without saying. Landes, in his magnum opus tends to completely neglect the role of “the rest” in the rise of the West. Pomeranz regards the part played by Europe’s periphery as crucial, without, however, simply rehearsing the kind of analysis that has become stock in trade of the world-systems school.”

While I do agree with critics of the West such as Wallerstein who state that we must not lose ourselves in self-aggrandizing theories of European superiority, we must also not do the reverse and wallow in oikophobia and conclude that Europe is a horrible place and eurocentrism is just as bad as racism (or its imaginary offspring cultural racism).

Another point I wish to make is that the limit of Wallerstein’s world-systems theory lies in its neglect of the cultural component. Like Marxism, it only factors in the economic components.

In fact, when I googled “Wallerstein” and “Huntington” I found this citation from Wallerstein’s The Decline of American Power (2003) which is not very consistent with his own world-system theory:

“We tend to think and to speak of Christianity as the “West” and Islam as the “East.” … Why? … We have had some answers recently that are well known to you. Samuel Huntington sees the West and Islam as two antithetical “civilizations” that are in long term political conflict. Edward Said sees Orientalism as a false construct erected for ideological reasons by the Western world, one both pervasive and pernicious in its effect. I prefer to approach the question another way and ask the question, why is it that the Christian world seems to have singled out the Islamic world as its particular demon, and not merely recently but ever since the emergence of Islam? Actually the reverse has probably also been true, that Islam has regarded Christianity as its particular demon.”

So, while Wallerstein says that he wants to approach the question answered by Samuel “clash of civilizations” Huntington in a different way, one would expect that he denies that there is a clash of civilizations. Yet, he simply says that the Christian world has singled out the Islamic world as its “demon” and that the Islamic world has chosen the west as its enemy. Is that not the same as saying that there is a clash of civilizations?

I want to conclude with an apocryphal dictum attributed to Leo Strauss who once suggested that if all cultures are relative, then cannibalism is a matter of taste.”

RIP Bert “De Zwarte Komedie” Verhoye (1945 – 2019)

Bert Verhoye was a Belgian satirist, Belgium’s one-man Charlie Hebdo.

He was known to the extreme left for ridiculing extreme right ‘heroes’ such as Cyriel Verschaeve and Karel Dillen.

 Détournement  of 1991 extreme right Vlaams Blok Uit zelfverdediging political poster

After almost 40 years of left wing mayors in Antwerp, right wing mayor Bart De Wever came to power and Verhoye’s theater De Zwarte Komedie lost its funding.

Verhoye has no successor.

RIP Pedro “P-Funk” Bell (1950 – 2019)

Pedro Bell was an American artist and illustrator best-known for his work for Parliament-Funkadelic.

When I discovered Parliament-Funkadelic in the 1990s, part of the attraction was the visual style and the grand narrative holding the whole project together. This style was just as much due to George Clinton as to Pedro Bell.

Bell’s unique album and liner notes contributed substantially to the P-Funk mythology and begot the Afrofuturist aesthetic evident also in Jean-Michel Basquiat (see for example the sleeve design for “Beat Bop“).

His precursors in Afrofuturism are Lee “send him to outa space” Perry and Sun “space is the place” Ra.

Unidentified cartoon film by Pedro Bell featuring devices such as a “word scrambler,” a barrel of “fun sludge,” and a drug called “Jodybuster”.
One Nation Under a Groove” (1978), artwork by Pedro Bell

“Bell is a shackle (all shackles are just as essential) in the chain of Afrofuturism, Afro-Surrealism and black science fiction.” –Sholem Stein

A seminal text in his poetic oeuvre is from the sleeve notes of Standing on the Verge of Getting It On (1974):

“AS IT IS WRTTEN HENCEFORTH… On the Eighth Day, the Cosmic Strumpet of Mother Nature was spawned to envelope this Third Planet in FUNKADELICAL VIBRATIONS. And she birthed Apostles RaHendrixStone, and CLINTON to preserve all funkiness of man unto eternity… But! Fraudulent forces of obnoxious JIVATION grew…only seedling GEORGE remained! As it came to be, he did indeed begat FUNKADELIC to restore Order Within the Universe. And nourished from the pamgrierian mammaristic melonpaps of Mother Nature, the followers of FUNKADELIA multiplied incessantly!”

Pedro will be missed.