I stole my sister's boyfriend

within a week we emptied the churches and burnt the idols

I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat and flash. In a week we killed my parents and hit the road.

You’ll recognise the image, if not the words. She draws from a lit fag, her black glasses hiding, no doubt, equally glassy black eyes. Her sister’s boyfriend hangs a limp arm around her shoulders, and, effortlessly cool, the inhabit a listless nihilism. Fuck everything, let’s run away. I knew it before I knew the music, because it’s an icon. The cover for the 1990 Sonic Youth album Goo was drawn by Raymond Pettibon, himself an icon. When I was a teen I loved it for what it said, but then I too was shallow, narcissistic and nihilistic, and trying too hard, too desperate not to care. I think Pettibon was thinking about something else though. Smashing through a police roadblock, speeding towards the impossibly beautiful cotton candy sunset doesn’t quite do it. But then, fuck it. Leave your parents bleeding out on the shag rug, like we did.

The aesthetic is the enemy. The image. Always has been. The irresistible draw of display, when the desire to signal wealth and health and happiness, or whatever ideological claim, overwhelms inhabiting our meagre bodies. The aesthetic in European culture is nothing less than the desperate urge to possess, forever, with legal rights until the Last Days, that which we can see, and to see that which we can possess. Observation is nine-tenths of that law. I looked down from the luxury suite towards the swimming pool, and saw a woman remove her towelling robe and slip beneath its waters, her white bikini cut out against her brown swim. Her husband held his camera to his eye as she stretched her arms out perpendicular to her body and let herself jet into the cool unconscious. Pettibon starts each sketch with a line about the American Dream, casting spattered ink against the cheap white paper. It’s as though the more ink he soaks into the paper, the more of a residue of Americanness will be revealed, like lemon juice writing, it’s as though the invisible ink is etched onto every product you buy. In another image he draws another woman in another pair of sunglasses. She could sell anything I think. She stares straight towards the eye. In the corner the artist has scrawled a desperate confession: The image that I carried inside me making me making me find copies of her everywhere.

Image making is one of capitalism’s primary forms of magic. Any art school worth its salt should excrete only graduates fearful of its power. The image we carry inside us makes us find copies of it everywhere. And we look. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote:

The convention of perspective, which is unique to European art and which was first established in the early Renaissance, centres everything on the eye of the beholder. It is like a beam from lighthouse --only instead of light travelling outwards, appearances travel in. The conventions called those appearances reality . Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God. According to the convention of perspective there is no visual reciprocity. There is no need for God to situate himself in relation to others: he is himself the situation.

There is no need for God at all, in fact, once you can focus the eye. The convention of perspective arose  in Europe at the same time as both the emergence of secular painting, and the birth pangs of capitalism. Painting no longer became a form of divine worship of God, but a form of possession. The act of possessing became a state of being possessed. As simple industries such as weaving emerged in the Low Countries and Flanders, its rich proto-capitalists at first sought to gain influence and prestige by the sponsorship of holy art for the Church. The Ghent Altarpiece was paid out for by Joos Vijd, a merchant turned noble. His marriage bore no children, but he found his way to live on – both the good merchant and his wife are on there, when the altarpiece is closed, hands clasped in piety. In a week they killed her parents and hit the road.

Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together. – Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich

I think iconoclasm just found its market, and really, it made the mood of the Reformation. Karlstadt and Zwingli, and others, went further than Luther in their furious rage against the image as a prototype of divinity, a stand-in for Christ. Where the Brethren of the Free Spirit had pushed their heresy to the point of polytheism and animism, claiming God in all things, the Calvinists launched their crusade against the divine power of the image. Nonsense of stilts, and they emptied the churches and burnt the lot. You can’t help but wonder whether the success of their heresy was down to the power it shifted towards the secular image. Banned from the church, the brooding malignance of the aesthetic was now free to metastise across the world of the merchant and capitalist. At last the rich could drop the pretence that their paintings were towards the worship of God, and make themselves centre-stage. I paid for the damned thing, after all.

The focus shifted towards perspective – at last, they thought, now we can drive off into the horizon. I can be the centre of attention. From here, everything you see is mine. Nature can be our aesthetic. That’s why Berger goes on to focus on the claims that Mr and Mrs Andrews, the subject and commissioners of Gainsborough’s painting, were simple figures in a Rousseauian nature. Not so; oil paintings were themselves simple demonstrations of what gold or money could buy, and the birth of capitalism is nothing if not the seizure and accumulation of land. As Berger points out, the state of nature they supposedly felt graced with, their fields rolling out towards far hills, features no poachers nor potato thieves, on pain of deportation, but just their property, demarcated with walls and gate, and their product, wheat. 

The point being made is that, among the pleasures their portrait gave to Mr and Mrs Andrews, was the pleasure of seeing themselves depicted as landowners and this pleasure was enhanced by the ability of oil paint to render their land in all its substantiality.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger

The land formed part of her dowry for the marriage to Mr Andrews. Now I can’t help but want to scrawl across their poxy portrait I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat and flash. In a week we killed my parents and hit the road. Come the twentieth century mass-market photography and cheap printing changed it all again. Self-representation, god-making images, came into all our hands. If Berger teaches us anything, it’s surely that the aesthetic is materially constituted. The rich aren’t so different to us, and that should weigh heavily on our minds. We try for the same images in the heat and flash of the photograph, to reach the status of externally-coherent identities.

The image Pettibon used for the Sonic Youth cover was taken in 1966. You can kinda tell, when you look at it; her sharp bob, the shape of their sunglasses. When you look at the original photo, there’s something off about it. Pettibon renders its coolness well, but something in the lad’s face sits differently. That’s because this isn’t the start of a crime spree, but the end of one. The couple are driving away from a trial in which they are witnesses. The woman is Maureen, the man her husband, David, and the trial is that of Maureen’s sister, Myra Hindley, and her husband, Ian Brady. The two had sexually assaulted and murdered five children between the ages of 10 and 17, before taking their bodies up onto Saddleworth Moor, a stretch of wild and inhospitable moorland near their home in Hattersley, Greater Manchester. Brady had been obsessed with the aesthetic, with what his self-image said about him to a hostile world. Police discovered a stash of literature about the Third Reich, and later Brady would claim his interest in it was purely aesthetic. It’s a defence that is no defence. For a working-class youth in the twentieth century, the body was the only thing you could own. With a camera, that could be your canvas of aesthetic possession. Brady dressed in leather biker gear, a trenchcoat with goggles, or in handmade suits. He read voraciously – shit, but he read it voraciously – and needed his younger girlfriend to see him as an intellectual genius. He recorded his own brutality, on tape and in photographs, as validation of his own power. Unrecorded, without the image as proof, what would actions alone mean? And they took photographs together, on the Moors, of Myra posing, where they buried their victims.

Without Maureen and David, the murderers might never have been caught, and yet the stain of guilt seemed to seep onto them too. David sold his story, nearly jeopardising the trial, but Maureen didn’t, and also lost the support of her family, who supported Myra. The Moors Murders have a peculiar hold over the northwest of England, a folk-spook, that lingers with morbid repercussions. It is itself part of a strange and strained relationship with the landscape, the high and desolate moorland which encircles the industrial heartland of Manchester, both a place of escape from the choking city but also somewhere slightly haunting.

Fresh lilaced moorland fields
Cannot hide the stolid stench of death…

Oh Manchester, so much to answer for
Oh Manchester, so much to answer for

Suffer Little Children, The Smiths

Unlike most cities, the urban doesn’t encroach on nature. It feels the other way around. Which is evil and which is pure? Is the moor the wasteland for the crimes of the city, always threatening to creep back down into the city like the damp mist? The Moors Murderers have added another layer to that dynamic of fear and sin for a most protestant and non-conformist of cities, not least because Saddleworth Moor probably remains the final resting place of one of their victims, Keith Bennett, whose body has never been found. Nature for European art is no more than an image from the perspective of the human eye, mediated through our obsessive culture of capturing and owning, manipulating to fit our visions of good and evil, of embodied holiness and possessed sin.

They split up, Maureen and David, and Maureen died young, a decade before Sonic Youth released Goo. They didn’t kill her parents, and she certainly didn’t steal her sister’s boyfriend. But history doesn’t care much what happened to them — they will live on in endless mediated repetitions, in pastiches and pastiches and pastiches. That’s our way to process the proliferation of images that first mechanical reproduction and then digital reproduction have produced – distancing ourselves from their divine power and our exhaustion with it by mocking the images. Through irony we can keep consuming the image without having to believe in it, with all the draining demands belief makes upon us. As for Maureen and David, they suffered total devastation in the wake of their implication in a story of a pair of star-crossed murderers driven by their own self-image as Nietzschean Bonnie and Clydes, only to be captured in a photograph by the tabloid press that would destroy them. I find it an almost unbearably tragic irony that their future will probably exist only in a record cover that itself casts them as the Nietzschean murder-lovers, an image whose future is to be reconsumed in endless parodies. Maureen and David become Batman and Robin become Rick and Morty become Bart and Milhouse become Bert and Ernie. Their lives no longer matter, not when the image is, and contains, a capricious and cruel God.

We’re now under lockdown here in Barcelona. A strange time; cop vans crawling the street with loudhailers calling for people to stay indoors, but also reminders of the close and interconnected society we live in. At night people come to their balconies to applaud the medical staff fighting off the pandemic. I hope you are all keeping well and please reach out if you’re socially isolating or under lockdown and feeling alone. You can find me on twitter at @huwlemmey or just reply to this email. I’m doing well in the circumstances; trying to maintain routine, given it’s now expected that the lockdown might well continue into April, but I think the key is to keep connected, so will endeavour to have more conversations and reply to emails.

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