Calculated Cackhandedness

Charlie Brooker’s take on the BNP’s recent party political broadcast seemed to me to hit one particularly interesting nail on the head. Let’s borrow his hammer and see if we can drive it a bit further in.

I’m talking about this:

[B]y referring to “professional politicians”, Griffin is presumably suggesting we should elect amateurs instead. Maybe that’s why the advert’s so amateurish. [...] It’s deliberate incompetence. Don’t vote for those nasty slick parties. Vote for a shoddy one! Never mind the extremism, feel the ineptitude.

Brooker’s busy being funny here and it’s not his main point, but it looks to me like a good observation. Oddly, my first thought was of artist Paul MacCarthy.

I’ve seen clips of a few of McCarthy’s films — Chocolate Santa, Bossy Burger, Painter — and they all share the same aesthetic of wobbly sets, cheap props, poorly-composed shots and bad lighting and sound. McCarthy isn’t an incompetant film-maker; whatever you think of his art it’s meticulous and deliberate. If glossy production values worked for him, he’d give us glossy production values, and perhaps turn into Jeff Koons. The cackhandedness of his films is a deliberate choice.

McCarthy doesn’t want to be Koons. I take his intention to be somewhat Artaudian: to produce visceral, shocking experiences that engage his audience at a deeper emotional level than most art can. I don’t know that that’s the best use of art, but it’s certainly effective on its own terms. Danto says of Bossy Burger, for example:

I can hardly write about this piece without feeling queasy.

I can’t help feeling that the effect of these films often relies heavily on their lack of polish. You come away feelign as if you’ve witnessed some sort of crime, or even been complicit in it. You have the sense that what’s been done hasn’t been approved by anyone, and so it might not be okay.

Imagine if a professional production company had been employed to make these movies, and professional actors brought in, and they’d been shot on 16mm in nice locations with decent props. Sure, they would still be weird and disturbing. But you’d be able to see that money was behind them. And you’d assume that McCarthy had been vetted by a prestigious gallery or arts funding body, and his work been approved by someone who Knows About Art. Someone sane, wearing a suit, who goes to work every day. You’d assume everything was alright, no matter what you’re seeing on screen. The films would cease to feel threatening; they’d turn into slapstick.

But in McCarthy’s work, nobody official seems to have been involved at any point; nothing’s been inspected or signed off. That’s not comforting.

It’s this lack of evidence of external validation that I think ties the BNP’s visual strategies with McCarthy’s, although their aims could hardly be more different. The BNP, too, want you to see the lack of money. They want that because they want to get close to you. McCarthy wants to get close to you, too, but he wants you to want to get away from him when he does.

Never mind that everyone involved in making the BNP’s broadcast was almost certainly an idiot. These aren’t conscious choices as they are in McCarthy’s case; they’re manifestations of the extent to which we’ve all absorbed the semiotic conventions of film and understand them instinctively.

If you like, you can chalk this up as yet another reason why media studies isn’t a complete waste of time.

[UPDATE: Some of McCarthy's recent work has deliberately aped the high-gloss finish of Hollywood movies (NSFW), demonstrating he can make aesthetic choices other than the ones he's best known for. There's other interesting McCarthiana on YouTube too.]