Book review: Culture Club by Craig Schuftan



If this was a radio station, it would be Triple J—fun and youthful yet respectful to age (it’s owned by the ABC, let’s remember) but occasionally frustrating in its equanimity while bringin’ the bad local hip-hop at seven AM.

Cover

One of those intentionally ugly high-school-pencilcase collage jobs that will certainly not look dated-as-arse in another five years.

Plot

Mr. Schuftan, programmer and occasional presenter for radio station JJJ, sets out to present a much expanded version of his occasional “Culture Club” segment, which draws links between the popular culture of today and that of past decades and even centuries. Almost by default, this therefore involves drawing lines between what we call art, or high culture, and what we call pap or, at most, pop.

The good

I had a lot of fun with this, I must admit. At best it’s like a really good conversation with someone who’s into all the same stuff as you; full of file-worthy facts and a genuine delight in the material. More than once, Schuftan reminded me of moddy UK art writer Matthew Collins—he’s a lot less anecdotal and sceney, but they both have a knack for understatement and are obviously just as enamoured of the artists and their art as the intended audience is.

Schuftan adds to the formula an Australian egalitarianism when approaching art in culture (in the intro chapter he describes an inspiring moment at a rock festival when a pissed mosher recognised him instantly, and yelled “Hey Schuftan! Existentialism! Wooooo!”). Better, it seems to be borne of a desire greater than the standard rock critic “duty” of telling people a) what they ought to like, and b) why what they actually like is crap. Schuftan instead manages to convey the extra dimension to much simple-seeming stuff, and also that a lot of that stuff is linked to things that we might have thought totally irrelevant. I could be explaining this better, couldn’t I? What I’m trying to say is that Schuftan manages to avoid snobbery of the critical and also high-art varieties, despite pirouetting over both their stages whenever it suits him.

For instance, and proving, for maybe the dozenth time in the book, that there really is no new intellectual posture under the sun, Schuftan presents a quote which bemoans the commercialisation of popular music, specifically the way it turns the human creative instinct into one more product to be consumed and which thus actually becomes another tool of control for the rich, who consolidate their power with the ever-deeper entrenchment of the status quo each time you buy a rekkid. Not only that, the quote’s author goes on to state, but your so-called “political” musos, your Bonos, your Geldofs, are merely doing Satan’s homework in a different book by convincing you that Action Is Being Taken when in fact all you are STILL doing is sitting in your bedroom listening to a recording of some guy you’ve never met telling you so. And who is delivering this quote? Zack de la Rocha? No, it’s a guy called Theodor Adorno, shoutin’ out from the 1920s. So, Schuftan asks, by the (extensive manifesto-style) standards of Adorno, who WASN’T part of the problem? Hardly anybody, you’ll be astounded to discover. The only people in the current century he had any time for were his fellow composers of the Second Viennese school, who composed atonal music so unpopular that he was forced to invent Serialism instead. Which he then refused to teach to his own pupils. The tool.

Schuftan doesn’t argue cases, though, and rarely even draws conclusions. He ends the chapter above by summarising the way Adorno’s underground-scene-snob aesthetic approach seems to be ultimately futile, but then adds: “Imagine if he was right, though; that would mean every single record, tape and CD ever bought was actually aiding in our own downfall!”

There’s masses of joy to be had here, if you have any interest in popular culture or the high arts from which most of it either derives or has evolved. If nothing else, it’s a veritable ammo dump of conversation starters.

The bad

If there’s a reason or rhyme to the chapter progression, I couldn’t figure it out. It’s not chronological, that’s for sure. On the other hand we’ve got some pretty abstract ideas here, and I wouldn’t want to figure out how to segregate them—you can’t use disciplines, because there’s no reason why a writer will be influenced by only writers, for instance—the beats used jazz techniques, so where does that get filed? Authors or jazz?

I found flat patches in the middle, typically when Schuftan covered a topic which I have no interest in, but that’s my own fault for not being arty enough really.

Sometimes the lack of spoon-feeding can frustrate—even the well-balanced Matthew Collins wasn’t worried about remarking that, say, the Situationists look pretty feeble nowadays, or getting irritated with those Scottish guys who won the Turner Prize for their bare-faced bullshit. Schuftan unfailingly presents his subjects with relativism, but he fails to comment on the way in which history has tinted them, which is a little harder to defend, I think. Perhaps he seeks to look at the movements of the past beside the movements of today in an even light, but does being involved in something interesting necessarily make you worthy of such analysis? Yoko Ono was connected to many famous artists, notable periods of creative conceit, and was unfairly accused of breaking up the Beatles, but does this validate dusting off her caterwauling or dippily shallow sixties exhibitions that I personally have neither listened to nor attended? I SAY IT DOES NOT. Fortunately Schuftan is not me, and has opted to produce a great book instead of talk arse about things he doesn’t understand.

What I learnt

Culture is much more chronologically fluid than I’d considered it, beforehand.

Ginsberg thought Beck was a lyrical magician. Beck’s grandad was involved in an influential art scene that I’ve forgotten the name of, and used to take his grandson on junk-collecting missions.

That Andy Warhol probably would have liked Big Brother—in fact, you could argue that Big Brother is just The Factory minus the speed and man-love.

That somebody consciously invented “background music”, and that somebody was Erik Satie. He tried it out during the interval of a friend’s play but had to tell the punters half way through that they weren’t supposed to sit there listening intently, but rather ignore the musicians and go about their business. It later morphed into Muzak, in the forties, despite what I’d always assumed was the seventies-ness of the name.

What (probably) inspired those infectious lyrics to Crazy by Gnarls Barkley.

That I have to remember to check out Trout Mask Replica one of these days.

And, as the ads say, much, much more—I’ve forgotten half of it now, but stand well back next time I get drunk.

In short

Title: Culture Club
Author: Craig Schuftan
Publisher: ABC Books & Audio
ISBN: 0733315619
Year published: 2007
Pages: 192
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Pop culture

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here