Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Welcome to Vietville

If you've spent some time in old Saigon - or Ho Chi Minh City as it's now known - you will find the building familiar: grey stone that's become streaked by downpours over the years; the style of the architecture rather ornate, sort of inter-war imperial-municipal; a dark interior with what could be white tablecloths just about visible, suggestive that this official-looking but rather tattered building is now given over to another, more social activity.

But this isn't Saigon; it's a former council bath-house off the Kingsland Road in East London. The Vietnamese restaurant, Huong Viet, is housed in a place that became a Vietnamese cultural centre once its ablutional activities ceased. It was converted in the early '80s to help out the so-called Boat People who fled Vietnam as the victorious communist government tightened its grip following the fall of Saigon.

Like many immigrants, one of the first activities they turned to in order to earn some money in their new home was the restaurant business. Cooking and waiting: most communities have those skills no matter how disorientated they are. It's a local success story: Vietnamese restaurants are dotted around the East End, dominating the bottom of the Kingsland Road where trendy Hoxton meets equally trendy Shoreditch.

But it's not a national success story. Vietnamese cuisine - unlike Thai and even Japanese, more recently - hasn't conquered many other high streets. Which is a shame as it has some distinctive qualities that deserve wider appreciation.

Vietnamese food works particularly well during this very warm weather. It's almost unique (sushi providing another exception) in tasting as good when it's hot and muggy as when it's cooler. It's to do with the profusion of raw ingredients - fresh and crunchy vegetables and herbs mostly - which are combined with the hot food at the last minute (and often at the table). The clear broths sharpened with lime, coriander, basil and chili, as well as the odd, more exotic addition also turn out to be spectacularly refreshing (the national dish pho, a clear beef broth, is the classic).

But year-round, there's nothing quite like Vietnamese cuisine's combination of flavours and textures: soft, fat prawns; sweetly aromatic basil; intensely-flavoured barbecued beef; fragrant and enlivening mint; fierce little chilies, and more, much more  (I'm making my mouth water just writing this - I have a serious Vietnamese habit).

Having been to Ho Chi Minh City a couple of times I can vouch that the food here is as authentic as the Huong Viet setting can be when you catch it on the right, really hot day, one that's ideally been humidified by a tropical-style downpour. We're lucky enough to have had a few of these recently and I've been lucky enough to accompany a few of them with a satisfying pho and a couple of summer rolls.

Despite these virtues and more - it's cheap too, and healthy, of course - Vietnamese cooking is not well-known in this country. There's no Vietnamese celebrity chef (where's the TV producer with the initiative to pluck a Vietnamese Jamie from one of the Kingsland Road kitchens?). And what's stranger is the lack of awareness of this East End cuisine-cluster even in London. We are lucky enough to have what is practically a Little Saigon in our midst. Other immigrant areas are better known: China Town in Soho, of course; what's now been branded Banglatown around Brick Lane; and even New Malden, which, we're reminded by the World Cup, is home to the largest number of Koreans outside Korea. However, the Vietnamese community's profile remains astonishingly low.

The Vietnamese team qualifying for the next World Cup might help. Or more prominent celebrations for Vietnamese New Year? Or perhaps, given the Banglatown rebrand, what they're lacking is a catchy name? If so, I suggest Vietville, with its nod to the French influences still discernible in Vietnamese culture.

As China Town is to Soho, so Vietville could be to Shoreditch, which with its creative types and its painfully fashionable bars, clubs and restaurants is sometimes described as the new Soho. And now the East London Line extension has started to provide a new and designer-cool link from here to the rest of the capital, there's really no excuse: take the next train to Vietville and be prepared to take on some serious refreshments.

Caro Diane

Diane Abbott has had a pretty disastrous Labour leadership campaign so far. But she probably made the best choice of favourite book, film and TV programme:
The book that I would recommend is one of the best political biographies ever, Robert A Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson. My film would be The Godfather. And for the TV box set, no contest: it would have to be the incomparable West Wing.

That's the choice of someone who's a serious student of power and its workings. But good students don't always become good practitioners. Nevertheless, for what it's worth (not a lot, I would think), she goes up in my estimation. Anyone who appreciates Caro's staggering achievement - his series is the best biography of anyone, ever - has something going for them (Banana Boy's choice of the Gruffalo, not so much).

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Might they be sell-outs?

I went to a great gig on Saturday: They Might Be Giants, in the salubrious surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall. TMBG's witty, catchy and inventive tunes have been amusing me on and off for twenty years and I felt pretty sure they were going to be great fun live. But I have to say my enjoyment came as much from who was in the audience as from what was being played on stage. I was there with my wife but also my two little boys, a four-year old and a two-year old. They'd never seen anything like it: they were bemused at first, but by the end they were clapping along and bouncing around as if they'd found something to compete with the bouncy castle.

As it happens, they recognised a few of the songs: TMBG are pretty much the house band of kids' cable channel Playhouse Disney. We've had many jigs in the sitting room to the catchy and remarkably non-irritating Mickey Mouse Clubhouse anthem 'Hot Diggity Dog' (much missed from Saturday's set). Seeing a two-year old run around in circles kicking his legs out whilst shouting "Hot Dog!" is a sight not to be missed - you really do learn the true meaning of the word 'diggity'.

But the band also has rather more nerdy aspirations than Hannah Montana. You could see it in the parents in the audience wearing TMBG t-shirts dating back several years, showing their offspring around the science exhibition in the foyer of the Festival Hall. And how many bands produce songs called 'Electric Car' or 'I Am A Palaeontologist' or 'Meet the Elements' ("Elephants are mostly made of four elements", don't you know)? A radio-controlled silver penguin, one of the science exhibits, hovered over the audience until the feedback from the radio frequency made the band's mics go all wonky.

All good geeky fun. However, I have to confess a certain uneasiness about the Disney tie-in. You see I suffer from being just old enough to have been indoctrinated by punk. I persist in feeling that rock music should somehow be anti-establishment. I know that particular Fonz jumped the shark a long time ago - the ubiquitous sponsorship of bands and tours, Noel sipping champers in the drawing room at Number 10, Sting performing for a Central Asian tyrant's daughter, and so on. And, of course, one should retain a sense of proportion when we're talking about kids' music. Being played in the Royal Festival Hall. But there's still something that doesn't seem quite right about a post-punk band - I guess you'd describe TMBG as New Wave - jumping into bed with a corporation.

It's perhaps not surprising for me (or anyone of my generation) to have some residual sensitivity about this sort of thing. Being exposed at an impressionable age to the music papers (remember them?) in the late-70s and early-80s made its mark. They were as full of denunciations as the cells of the Lubyanka. Selling out, being a mere poser, being exposed as a fake - that sort of accusation was bandied about on a weekly basis. 

For me, the final sign that those days really were very much over was nailed home when Iggy Pop appeared on the telly advertising insurance. Iggy Pop advertising insurance. I couldn't quite believe it at first: the ultimate outsider rock nihilist advertising what has to be the most boring, conservative and capitalistic product ever devised by The Man. Perhaps it was all a situationist stunt? (It wasn't.)

But then Iggy had always been pretty upfront about the material motivations for performing, remarking before a gig during a particularly thin period (and Iggy-thin really is thin):
Look, you're here to see me, and I can't go on until my dealer is here, and he's waiting to be paid, so give me some money so I can fix up, and then you'll get your show.

Not much change there then, except that now his insurance gigs fund his claret habit rather than anything more edgy. 

So do these left-over hang-ups about authenticity, credibility, creative autonomy, etc. matter any more? I mean, it's not as if Iggy isn't still inspiring rather magical responses like the one recently recounted here. Aren't objections to him making a few bob by working his image on the side just a bit priggish? And who'd begrudge an old feller topping up his pension in these straitened times?

Well, Saturday might have been the occasion when I stopped worrying and learnt to love commercialism. You see, this is a two-way street: what's so wrong with replacing some bland musical rusk-mush with something a bit more sparky, original and stimulating for the kids? What's so wrong about livening up a bunch of pretty anodyne cartoon characters - Mickey and his gang hardly have the edginess of the Warner Brothers' lot, after all - with some quirky post-punk? Certainly, anyone there on Saturday would have to be just plain, er, goofy not to see the good in that.

But what about Iggy and insurance? I think we can be confident that insurance will remain no more than a boring financial product even after the antic ministrations of Mr Pop. Nevertheless, I think we should welcome Iggy as an entertainer who's in the middle of the mainstream now, someone whose totemic presence during the odd ad break might go some way to suggest that there's an alternative to the waves of mass-manufactured Cowellite pop-pap that sometimes threaten to inundate us at prime-time.

Perhaps one day we may even see Mickey, Minnie and Iggy getting all diggity together down at the Clubhouse. Though personally I'd match him up with Bugs, Daffy and that gang - a cooler group to hang with. And he's practically a Warner Brothers' cartoon anyway. Mind you, he is advertising insurance so really I suppose anything's possible. I mean, insurance...

Monday, 28 June 2010

Heroes in our own movies

My response to this video was positively Yardian (snuffle). Why do we invest cities with so much romance? Sometimes we'll be traveling around, the mood will take us, and we find ourselves heroes in our own movies. Or at least I do.


You've Got to Love London from Alex Silver on Vimeo.

H/t Daily Dish.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Keep the geraniums flying

On my journeys around the borough of Islington I'm noticing a disproportionate number of window boxes containing red and white flowers. It's surely the posh version of the flags of St George hanging from what seems to be every other balcony and window on the estates.

Football support expressed through the medium of gardening. Very English. And who said football was classless nowadays? More that it's followed by all the classes, each in their own way.

Anyway, good luck this afternoon England! May a thousand flowers continue to bloom.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The other production line

Julia 'Stacey' Gillard (born in Barry, see?) becoming the second Welsh Oz Prime Minister (after Billy Hughes) reminds me that I didn't post anything to celebrate John Cale getting a gong in the last honours round (MBE, I think).

I'm not a fan of the Velvet Underground - I got into him through the 'Songs for Drella' album he made with Lou Reid about their relationship with Andy Warhol. Subsequently, his solo 'Fragments of a Rainy Season' long-player became one of my all-time favourites. It bears a lot of playing and, although it's just a voice accompanied by piano, I haven't come across anything else quite like it.

He was on The South Bank Show ten years or so ago and I was struck by his unusual Mid-Atlantic Welsh/American accent, identical to that of another West Walian-born export to the US, Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The Swansea area has been a remarkable producer (and exporter) of theatrical talent with perhaps the most peculiar phenomenon arising in nearby Port Talbot. It's a town of about 35,000 people, so small to medium size. And yet it's produced probably the most outstanding British male actor in each of the last three generations: Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and, most recently, Michael Sheen. It's also the home town of probably our best comic actor, Rob Brydon (I wonder if Ms Gillard has an Uncle Bryn? If so, imagine the pride...). And that's from a place which is about the size of Abingdon. As I say, peculiar, if not downright weird.

Anyway, here's JC with 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night', lyrics by another West Walian creative type:

Glorious failures are us

I have a feeling that Nicolas Mahut would be better off if he were British. We love glorious failure and after a failure as glorious as his, I suspect he'd be made for life. If Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards achieved fame by falling off a ski jump imagine how far such an extraordinary, record-breaking loser could get - possibly further than he would if he'd won the tournament.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The immense multitude takes off

It's probably not an original reference, but the last post brings to mind this passage from Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' about the terrorist known as The Professor:
Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he meditated confidently on his power, keeping his hand in the left pocket of his trousers, grasping lightly the india-rubber ball [the trigger to his suicide bomb], the supreme guarantee of his sinister freedom; but after a while he became disagreeably affected by the sight of the roadway thronged with vehicles and of the pavement crowded with men and women. He was in a long, straight street, peopled by a mere fraction of an immense multitude; but all round him, on and on, even to the limits of the horizon hidden by the enormous piles of bricks, he felt the mass of mankind mighty in its numbers. They swarmed numerous like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force, pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed, impervious to sentiment, to logic, to terror too perhaps.
That was the form of doubt he feared most. Impervious to fear! Often while walking abroad, when he happened also to come out of himself, he had such moments of dreadful and sane mistrust of mankind. What if nothing could move them?

The potential truth in observations such as Thomas PM Barnett's - that in twenty years Emirates Airline will be better known than al Qaeda - are what the Islamists fear the most, not any threat of civilisational war, which, on the contrary, magnifies their historic importance. Rather, they fear being ignored, being indifferently and obliviously trampled underfoot by the 'immense multitude' going about their lives, 'the mass of mankind mighty in its numbers'. No more than the object of a police action. They must rightly wonder: 'What if nothing could move them?' (Except for aeroplanes, of course.)

A bird's eye view

The Economist reports that Dubai's airport has leapt to become the third biggest handler of international passengers in the world this year (after Heathrow and Hong Kong). A corollary of this is that Emirates is on course to become the biggest long-haul airline in the world.  And profitably - it made $1bn last year, a very tough one for airlines.

All of which prompts Thomas PM Barnett to offer this prediction:
Twenty years from now, Emirates Airline will be better known than al Qaeda, and far more powerful a force in enabling globalization's spread than al Qaeda has been in trying to stop it.

How I learnt to love the atomic power station

This psychiatrist chap was surely on to something:
Intelligence tests recently carried out [in 1956] among more than a thousand children in Wolverhampton schools appear to show a striking and quite unexpected increase in the mental capacity of children born since 1945. A psychiatrist concerned in the tests has suggested that the most probable hypothesis to account for this change is the effect on the brain of the increase in "background radio-activity".
[...]
These instances impelled Dr Thomson to search for more "prodigies" in Wolverhampton. He found what he was not looking for – namely, that all the children of this age group were by pre-war standards remarkably advanced. Having failed to find any other convincing explanation of this phenomenon, he has tentatively put forward the theory that only stimulation of the mind of the growing child by "background" atomic radiation seems to fit the facts.

Psychiatry, that's a science isn't it? And facts are facts. Actually, he turned out to be more right that he knew. I believe we've been getting clever ever since he ran those tests - I mean look at the improvement in GCSE results.

Get those atomic power stations built, and we could breed a race of super-intellegent, atomic-powered Britons. Chris Huhne - stop doing that and focus.


H/t Marginal Revolution.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Whatever works

I live with a lapsed Woody Allen fan (it was the tennis film set in England that did it - "rubbish", apparently, though that's just a summary).

She noted today that the advert to his latest film - 'Whatever Works', out on Friday - is a cunning piece of marketing (below). As you can see, it features the great Larry David doing a trademark 'Curb' shrug of incredulity with the stars above and the production credits below, the latter almost unreadably small (even on the poster).



Now, the title is written in the font the titles of Woody Allen films are almost always written in (EF Windsor, again, apparently); this means his still-loyal aficionados will know it's by him and make a mental note to see it.

But this is the only clue - and an obscure one - to the film's Allen origins for the casual browser; his name only appears at the far right of the unreadably small production credits. So, people like me - a fan of 'Curb' but unversed in the semiotics of film poster fonts - will think: "Great, a film with Larry David in it - if I could get a babysitter I might go to see that". Rather than be put off by the fact it was written and directed by someone who must have filmed nearly as many turkeys as he's eaten at Thanksgiving since around about the 'Bullets Over Broadway' / 'Mighty Aphrodite' period.

An elegant bit of segmented marketing, if a bit humbling for Woody. But whatever works, eh?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

A large (and virtual) kitchen table

Tony Judt doesn't like Twitter and other social media:
In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium—”I am what I buy”—brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “people talk like texts.”
This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else...
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”

I wonder whether people said the same thing about the 'communicative shorthand' of the telegram and its occasional 'pithy allusion' (the most concise and accomplished of which was surely Napier's, albeit possibly mythical, 'Peccavi')? In any event, I find many of the tweets I receive pithily allude to a well-written piece of exposition (sometimes 20,000 carefully-weighed words of it).

And as for there being too much 'intellectual insecurity' about? Not something one comes across that often in the more political end of the blogiverse.

But Judt's real beef seems to be with the supposedly private and commercial nature of these social media. Given they're all free and highly accessible, one does question the usefulness of the description 'private'. And commercial? Not unless you dismiss the telephone as no more than a commercial tool because it's used for tele-marketing. Besides, they'd just as well be not-for-profit, given the losses they make.

It's also interesting to ask what public forums of communication - presumably with a brief to maintain 'formal conventions' - are being supported in opposition to these private ones? One thinks of, at least in this country, the BBC and the universities: institutional means of communication which certainly for the vast majority of people are highly inaccessible, perhaps even exclusive.

Judt is a man of the left and the viewpoint expressed here exemplifies a particularly hieratic form of socialism. RS Thomas remarked 'There is an aristocracy of the pit, too'; we're reminded here that there's also one of the academy.

Personally, whilst having sympathy with the desire to maintain written and spoken standards (something that concerns Judt earlier in the post), I don't think restricting control of communication to an élite is any way to do this. This is surely his implicit recommendation; a goal that is probably now impossible as well as undesirable.

Judt begins his post (which, as usual, is elegantly expressed and personally attractive) recalling how words came to be so important to him:
I was raised on words. They tumbled off the kitchen table onto the floor where I sat: grandfather, uncles, and refugees flung Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English at one another in a competitive cascade of assertion and interrogation. Sententious flotsam from the Edwardian-era Socialist Party of Great Britain hung around our kitchen promoting the True Cause. I spent long, happy hours listening to Central European autodidacts arguing deep into the night: Marxismus, Zionismus, Socialismus. Talking, it seemed to me, was the point of adult existence. I have never lost that sense.

Think of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and the rest as an opportunity to enjoy your own kitchen table, extendable if virtual; you can sit around it and talk or get down and enjoy the words tumbling off. To worry about something like Twitter being much more than this - a threat to civilised standards, no less - is to break a butterfly on a wheel. But to dismiss it as much less is also to lose perspective.

We mustn't forget how exclusive the means and modes of communication have been throughout history and how cripplingly inhibited many have felt as a consequence. The maintenance of these exclusivities really shouldn't be a concern of someone on the left (though it too often is).

I, for one, prefer the sympathies expressed in the poem below by another old leftist, Tony Harrison, who reminds us that not every working class person has possessed the intellectually confident loquacity of 'Central European autodidacts':

On Not Being Milton

Read and commited to the flames, I call
these sixteen lines that go back to my roots
my Cahier d'un retour au pays natal,
my growing black enough to fit my boots.

The stutter of the scold out of the branks
of condescension, class and counter-class
thickens with glottals to a lumpen mass
of Ludding morphemes closing up their ranks.
Each swung cast-iron Enoch of Leeds stress
clangs a forged music on the frames of Art,
the looms of owned language smashed apart!

Three cheers for mute ingloriousness!

Articulation is the tongue-tied's fighting.
In the silence round all poetry we quote
Tidd the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very Bad hand at Righting.


[Harrison's] Note: An 'Enoch' is an iron sledge-hammer used by the Luddites to smash the frames which were also made by the same Enoch Taylor of Marsden. The cry was: Enoch made them, Enoch shall break them! 
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal: Return to the country of my birth, the title of a sequence of poems by the black Martinique poet, Aimé Césaire (b. 1913).

branks: a metal instrument designed to cover the tongue and inhibit speech.

Tidd:
one of the political radicals who planned to assassinate members of the cabinet and seize power in 1820. They were arrested in Cato Street in London.

(Difficult poetry but with explanatory footnotes. That's a decent sort of accessibility).

Monday, 21 June 2010

An unprincipled stand

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, is expected to leave his job later this year after growing tired of the "idealism" of Barack Obama's inner circle.
Is this the first instance of a politician resigning because their lack of principles demanded it? Imagine the exit interview: "I'm sorry Mr President, I just didn't come into politics to make the world a better place." OK, you might expect some suspicion of ideals from a hoary, old, cynical conservative but isn't Rahm nominally of the left, a place where idealism is supposed to come with the territory?

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Seen from the terrace of a café

Funnily enough, I finished reading Richard Cobb's essay on Normandy just before Nige's return from what sounds like a splendid break there.

I have a soft spot for Normandy. It was the first place I went on holiday without my parents. Not that I was on my own: I was with my girlfriend of the time, camping. It was the same for Cobb except he really was on his own when he went there as little more than a schoolboy, establishing the pattern of seemingly welcome loneliness that accompanied a good part of the rest of his life. It made an impression:
What might have been the high spot of my Rouen stay was attendance at Pontifical High Mass on Easter Sunday in that fantastic cathedral [by Monet, bottom]. I remember a very old Archbishop, Mgr de Villerabel, all bent up, lines of white-robed monks from Saint-Wandrille, choirs, etc etc, the organ growling, in fact the works. I was fascinated and repelled; it was a bit like being in the enemy camp: there were young women with faces of extreme devoutness, one of them, quite close to me - I had got myself a chair on the aisle - suddenly went down on her knees, in the middle of the aisle, and kissed the Archbishop's large reddish ring, she kissed it gluttonously, almost as if she were going to eat the whole hand off as well. But the Mass was not like going to the cinema or sitting on the terrace of the Café Victor, for it did not give me the impression of belonging; quite the contrary...

The trip also set him on his way to a lifetime of studying France, which for him was indistinguishable from enjoying it. His accounts of spending time not doing very much - 'sitting on the terrace of the Café...' - are delightful. They convey better than anything I've read the pleasures we Brits receive from the minutiae of French life, the everyday but to us idiosyncratic to-ing and fro-ing of the café, rue, pavé.

Visiting Rouen when much older he stays up all night, for no better (or worse) reason than curiosity. His flâneurie continues into the morning:
I decided to see it out till a bit after first light... I walked down towards Martainville and, already pretty tired, sat down on a wicker chair at the terrasse of the big café-tabac, rue Paul-Louis Courier, ordering a strong coffee and a small calvados. After perhaps an hour, I woke up with a start; my coffee was quite cold, but the glass of calvados was shining a brownish gold in the pale sunlight. Its sharp taste revived me and I prolonged the taste by sucking on the sugar lump that I scooped up from the bottom of the curved-liped glass. But there was not much to watch, I was the only occupant of the terrasse, and the street was almost empty, save for a few women in flowered aprons carrying black shopping-bags. There was a boulangerie open a little further down the street. The women must have lived near by, for they were all wearing slippers, one with pink pompons, the others in check patterns. The pavé had been given an early morning hosing, but it was now quite dry. The big tabac was open, two men in corduroy caps were buying cigarettes and loto tickets. A postman in a smart blue uniform brought in a pile of letters in bright yellow envelopes and trade magazines tied together in elastic, pushing the packet through the little window reserved for cigarettes and cheroots, hastily shaking hands with the female tabagiste, and then hastening on his rounds all the way down the street; some of the shops were still shut: he pushed the packets under the closed doors or wedged them in the space between the glass front and the wooden lintel. One packet, containing a thick wad of blue envelopes, he handed over to an oldish man in a crumpled blue suit who was walking a black-and-white dog on a lead, the dog stopping every now and then to raise its leg. The dog was wearing a tight-fitting tartan jacket; it seemed much smarter than its owner, who stuffed the blue packet in the pocket of his suit and shook hands with the facteur...

And so on.

I'm sorry if that seemed a little boring, what with so little happening (I wonder whether there was a time when I would have thought it a little slow) but I find it very enjoyable: for me it entirely captures that delicious feeling of sitting in a French café (or Italian or Spanish, etc.) and giving yourself over entirely to watching, to the leisurely appreciation of what is really quite humdrum but also deliciously characteristic.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Echoes

It occurred to me that the attraction of analogue over digital - as discussed in last week's post - echoes the preference of nineteenth-century thinkers such as Ruskin and Morris for the handmade and crafted over the mass-produced and mechanised. Despite our belief in our own novelty, I'm not sure there are many topics that we debate today that haven't already been thoroughly explored in some shape or form by the Victorians.

Even in the small debates we're usually travelling over worn ground. The England football team's international failure echoes that original Victorian failure commemorated by The Ashes. And the questions don't change much. As Punch wondered back in 1882, was it down to the opposition 'or our own / Want of devil, coolness, nerve, backbone?' We're still wondering but tend to the latter.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Turn to Red: Mark Alexander at St Paul's

This post will also appear at Touching From A Distance.

Mark Alexander has never lacked ambition. I've known this since I suggested back in the early '90s he fund his remarkable painting talent by going to art school and he decided Oxford University's Ruskin School fitted the bill. He didn't regard having just the two 'O' Levels as an insuperable obstacle.

Of course, he got in - an achievement that was reported by the Daily Mirror as if they'd discovered a latter-day and rather happier Jude the Obscure (I think their headline was something like 'Factory Worker Goes to Oxford'). It wasn't a fluke: he got a First, even in his art history paper. And he's not lacked ambition since, his work being exhibited in London, Basel and Berlin and appearing in some of the world's most prestigious collections.

So it came as no surprise to find myself at a private view yesterday evening talking to him under the dome of St Paul's Cathedral whilst admiring his two latest works - together 'The Red Mannheim' (below and bottom), two non-identical twin, four metre-high paintings in a red monochrome palate. They each feature an image of the ruined Mannheim Altarpiece, a masterpiece of rococo carved from limewood in 1739-41 by Paul Egell, probably the outstanding German sculptor of his age. They do much more than hold their own in this impressive setting.


Mark's work is difficult but perhaps not just in the sense often intended by contemporary art critics. That is, it's difficult to make, often involving craft techniques and skills that are little different from those used by the Old Masters. His sometimes staggering technical virtuosity doesn't, however, preclude his works from being as conceptual and philosophic, and sometimes as playful, as anything more obviously contemporary. A remarkably successful attempt to make a flat, painted surface resemble beaten Aztec gold comes to mind. His latest work is no exception.

How the Mannheim Altarpiece came to be ruined is still partly mysterious. Mark used to visit it regularly in Berlin's Bode Museum - he lived in the city for a number of years and a friend of his, a German master-carver who sometimes makes his frames, was helping to restore the base. His fascination eventually impelled him to consult the museum's curators. In his words:
During the Second World War it was thought that for safekeeping a number of the most valuable German artworks should be stored in the Friedrichshain bunker. But towards the end of the war, in the confusion of the Soviet advance, there was a fire after which many of the works were lost. It may have been started by an air raid or perhaps by some Red Army troops. We also still don't know for sure whether the items were destroyed in the flames or taken and never returned by the Russians. 
In the case of the Altarpiece, originally there was much more to it: Christ on his cross, palm trees, attendant figures including the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene. These had been removed and stored separately - but were they consumed in the fire or were they spirited away by the Russians, not being sent back unlike the damaged backing and surround that's all we have left on view in the Bode Museum?

The Mannheim Altarpiece, then, was a victim of the war, making its presence in St Paul's this year, the anniversary of the 1940 Blitz, appropriate and even resonant. St Paul's is a famous survivor of the conflict: “At all costs, St Paul’s must be saved,” believed Churchill. And saved it was, the image (below) immediately becoming an icon of national survival and defiance. The contrasting fate of the altarpiece makes for an interesting juxtaposition - even if it too survived, albeit as a fire-damaged fragment.

Mark's work is displayed as part of St Paul's Art Programme, which also features artists such as Anthony Gormley and Bill Viola. It 'seeks to explore the encounter between art and faith'. But The Red Mannheim's relationship to religious faith - certainly the Christian faith - is surprisingly oblique, even subversive, given the source of its image and its current home. Mark:
When I first saw the altarpiece in Berlin religion wasn't on my mind. I was more interested in how it's elaborate rococo had been mostly erased leaving some sort of sexual negative, really an image of pagan sexuality. In the Bode Museum in Berlin the altarpiece is hung so that it seems to float on the wall, an ever-ascending icon. It seemed to be an extremely primitive scene. Christ had gone, and taken his cross and mourners with him. The only figures left were the distraught cherubs in the bottom corner - representing Adam and Eve. So in a way all we're left with is Original Sin, a black hole and this phallic negative.

The allegorical significance doesn't need spelling out. So is the red an accentuation of this sort of latent sexuality?
I got the colour from the Pina Bausch production of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which I saw last year or the year before at Sadlers Wells. The dancers came on wearing some sort of absorbent, flimsy pink material. As they perspired the pink was saturated into red and it ended up sopping, clinging. It was incredibly sexual. I think I've managed to replicate that colour in the Red Mannheim. God had left the building.

And you can get a sense of what was left after 'God had left the building' from this review of the 2008 production:
On a stage covered in tons of peat, 16 women and 16 men carve their ritual sacrifice out of the weight and duty of Bausch's frighteningly visceral choreography. It's rare to see her dancers in unison - especially on such a scale - and the impact is absolutely thrilling.
The sexual overtones are threatening and driven by biological instinct: the men are predators, the women are prey and the fear of rape is their unspoken bond.

Sex and violence. I wonder whether the St Paul's authorities are entirely comfortable with this reading of the work? But it's not all sex and violence. Mark again:
I also like the red as it corresponds to the story of the Mannheim - I wanted to represent this ambiguity in the red - sometimes it represents the flames, sometimes it might be the Red Army.

Probably more political than it seems at first blush, too.

Like a lot of Mark's work The Red Mannheim resists being encapsulated in a few neat, summary phrases. It transcends the often trite conceptual gimmicks, the unamusing punch-lines, the hackneyed philosophy of too much contemporary art. It's layered, referential, allusive and resonant. The critic Craig Raine, a long-time supporter of Mark's, was at the private view, his presence emblematic of the almost literary qualities of Mark's work, I wonder?

But even if you knew nothing about The Red Mannheim's history or its creation you would still surely be struck by both its power and its delicacy: the scarlets, crimsons and charcoals are redolent of heat, sexual, diabolic or restoratively warming to taste. One also senses the lick of flames, kindling, consuming and charring. The odd drip of black paint suggests it might be melting.

It evokes more than an ultimately destructive heat, however. Its vividness in parts is lively, literally so: it's the bright blood of childbirth or the softer glow of embryonic flesh illuminated by the probing camera of a thousand TV documentaries. And it's inevitable that a palate of reds and blacks, by turns vivid and sombre, will communicate diverse emotions: rage, desire, despair and even hope.

It's hardly an entirely reassuring work. But it's one with a subject that despite being charred and ruined is nevertheless infused with life and energy. It's a remarkable transformation, as Mark suggests:
I think it looks more powerful now than when it was this rather cute rococo work. What's happened to it has made it more powerful, more primitive. It's interesting how history and time act on things - the altarpiece in this way is a palimpsest. Through the disasters of the 20th century we can still see the 18th century and, I think, a lot more than that.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Downfall vuvuzela

The Downfall thing set off for Prestatyn a while ago. But the vuvuzela, truly the Raging Horn, gives it a new lease of life. Hilarious.

"Our knowledge...is limited."

This scathing review of the World Cup televised commentary goes some way to confirming something I'd suspected: that England don't do well internationally because most English people involved in football are thick. Indeed, they revel in their thickness:
Before the Algeria versus Slovenia game in Group C on Sunday, Shearer seemed to be speaking for the entire BBC panel when he said, "Our knowledge of these two teams is limited." Limited! What the former England striker was saying was that he hadn't done his homework, that he hadn't spoken to any of his vast array of contacts in the game, hadn't tapped into the BBC's huge research machinery, hadn't even bothered, seemingly, to peruse the internet for some background on Algeria and Slovenia or even flick through a newspaper or a magazine. Shearer was content to sit in front of the cameras and tell the viewers that, really, he didn't know much. Hardly a revelation to those of us who have groaned our way through his anodyne commentaries in the past, but embarrassing all the same.
[...] 
And here's another one. The Beeb got carpeted by some viewers for their treatment of that Algeria game. So what happened before the kick-off in yesterday's lunch-time match between New Zealand and Slovakia? In a six-and-a-half minute introduction just one player out of the 22 on show was given a name-check, and here is how it happened.
Lee Dixon: "Slovakia have got some decent players, Hamsik, the pick of them. Young player, plays on the left side."
Gary Lineker: "He's at Napoli."
Lee Dixon: "That's right."
Alan Hansen (chuckling): "Somebody gave you him, by the way."
What Hansen meant, I think, was that his colleagues must have been fed the Hamsik reference by another party, that they couldn't have come up with his name all by themselves. It's not like Dixon or Lineker produced a dossier of facts about Hamsik, a file of information on who he is and where he has been. All they did was mention his name and the fact that he was rather good. That was it. Hansen seemed to think this was worthy of a gently-mocking put-down, as if the other two were some kind of class swots. As such, he was almost revelling in his own ignorance. 
There's a lot of this going about, on BBC and ITV. The level of punditry is cringe-making. It's lowest common denominator stuff. Patronising and insulting, much of it. Emmanuel Adebayor's mobile phone started ringing in his pocket live on air the other day. His respect for the viewers didn't even amount to him making sure the thing was switched off. Edgar Davids has been unintelligible, Gareth Southgate hasn't said one interesting thing, Kevin Keegan has been nothing more than a cheerleader for England and Andy Townsend has been his usual bland self, trotting out statements of the obvious with a rapid-fire gusto. "I tell you what, for me, he's gotta hit the target from there!"
And you are paid how much, Andy?

OK, some of the people name-checked here aren't English. But aren't they conforming to an English lack of expectation about how clever one should appear when talking about footie? It's surely no coincidence that it's the Scots and the Continentals - the former traditionally and the latter in more recent years - who have usually been over-represented and sometimes (like now) dominated top-flight management. And who can forget the taunting of Graham Le Saux for being gay because, one gathers, he admitted to reading The Guardian?

I'm sure most people who follow the sport can recall many more examples of brainlessness, of how intelligence is thought of as a bit suspect. I can't see how this isn't going to affect performance particularly as footballing cultures in, for instance, Holland and Italy seem to make a virtue of being articulate and, good God, clever.

(By the way, the review's by a man called English writing for a Scottish newspaper - so balanced, then.)


H/t Alex Massie.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Analogue reaches the parts that digital can never reach

An interesting post on the excellent 'Touching from a Distance' blog. Wael Khairy expresses a...
...preference of actual physical books over e-books, letters over emails, photo albums on a shelf over digitalized photo albums on Facebook. There is something unique about the physicality of them all, something that will always be absent from their digital replacements.

The smell of a book as you turn a soft page, or the excitement of checking the mailbox for snail mail is something many of us will always prefer over clicking a ‘Next Page’ icon in an e-book or checking an inbox full of emails.

He goes on to make the point that movies that used physicial props to create their special effects appear to be dating better than ones that employed the more modern CGI. And the models, maquettes and puppets also have more dramatic impact: their physicality, even when viewed through a screen, makes them feel more real:
The full model mechanical shark in ‘Jaws’ will always be scarier than the CGI sharks in ‘Deep Blue Sea’.

But the prime example is the cult sci-fi film 'Silent Running', which...
...looks great twenty-eight years after its making simply because of the physicality of every prop and set featured in the film. Everything from giant interiors to miniatures, to large models, to suits and props looks and feels real. After doing some research, I learned that the main freighter in the film aka the Valley Forge Space Freighter was 28 feet long (8 meters) and took six months to build from close to 800 aircraft and tank kits. The three little drones (Huey, Dewey, and Louie) also known as the three cutest robots in film history (up till ‘Wall-E’ came along) are actually suits worn by double-amputees. The little CGI used back in those days was to enhance scenes not replace them. Duncan Jones recently revisited this vintage sci-fi world with his directional debut, ‘Moon‘. In a year with CGI infested movies (’Avatar‘, ‘District 9‘, ‘Star Trek‘, ‘Transformers 2‘), ‘Moon‘, the film with the least effects and most miniatures was without doubt the most impressive.

A good observation, I think, but one that's only really hit home with me since I started thinking a bit more about why the magnificent productions of Smallfilms still exert such an emotional pull (why I've been watching them again and some observations on their sounds can be found here).

I'm appreciating now that the affection I feel for these classic animations - Ivor the Engine, The Clangers, Noggin the Nog - must arise in good part from their being so obviously hand made. On one level this is obvious. But why exactly is this quality in the work so affecting?

Even without knowing about the particular hands that made them and the very particular enthusiasm of Postgate and Firmin - it's probably not too much to talk about love - you still sense how much went into their creation. It's somehow entirely manifest when you watch the films: the materials carry the mark of the hands, and thereby communicate the efforts and emotions of the makers. And then when you learn about Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin - working in their garden shed, imagining, fiddling, improvising, sticking, painting, twiddling, putting on funny voices, all born from an almost obsessive desire to create and communicate their personal and quirky visions - you begin to understand. We somehow perceive this individual and distinctive warmth in the creation of their hands and it moves us. I'm not sure digital can ever do this.

Things that wouldn't happen without the web

Without the web I don't suppose anyone would have bothered to play chess on roller-coasters.


H/t Tyler Cowen.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Riddles wrapped in mysteries, etc.

The culture that is Russia. This is very good. However, further description will not add anything to the experience of watching and listening:



A bit off-topic but for some reason the name of the psychiatrist mentioned in the post from last week, which featured the sad but knifeable academic, is sticking in my mind. Her name was Lenore Boling.

Is it because I picture her looking like Tony Soprano's foxy psychiatrist? Partly. But I think it really is mostly her name that's making her memorable. Lenore Boling. The name of a character in some novel, perhaps by William Boyd. I suppose it evokes fabric conditioner (Lenor) and evisceration (disem-), a pairing that seems appropriate for a psychiatrist. It may also be the anagrams:
Looner Leg Bin
Been Ringo LOL
Glib Noon Reel
Eel-born Lingo
Bling 'Ere Loon
Len Bingo Role
Booger in Nell
Nil Lone Grebo

 And then there's Dr Lenore Boling...


H/t LDN Calling.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Today's health advice

From the BBC News Health page:

- Don't breathe in windscreen wiper water (or if you do make sure it contains screenwash)

- Don't take showers (or don't breathe in showers)

- Do drink lots of tea (yes, just normal tea)

- If you're Scottish ignore the above as you're probably fucked in any event

Got that? Now carry on. More soon.

Being careful with what you watch

Apparently, the 21.9% increase in non-food retail sales last month was driven by televisions bought to watch the World Cup. I experienced an unreasonably warm glow on reading this news. I worked out that we'd bought one TV since we'd been home owners. So that's one in fourteen years (a £200 Sony).

I feel smug not because I look down on TV - I don't (well, not much). I pretty much watch it daily and after most of a lifetime of daily viewing it provides a good part of my mental furniture. I'm also doing my bit to ensure my children turn out the same (thank God for the respite offered by Nick Jr. - even if it is named after the devil's spawn).

No, I get a warm feeling because - despite my love of fine food and wines and the occasional expensive piece of clothing and not forgetting the odd tropical holiday - I have a streak of miserliness. I love having deprived those manufacturers of electrical goods hundreds of pounds over the years.

But I'm having to battle to keep things this way. We currently watch a wide-screen TV, kindly given to me by my brother because he wanted something slimmer (his cast-off is improbably heavy, as if it's full of boulders, and it's almost as deep as it is wide - in fact, it could have been called a deep-screen TV). Unfortunately, T, too, would now like something slimmer and more aesthetic.

I'm basing my opposition on practical grounds:  But you can't see the back anyway! The couple of feet of space we'd save, being behind the TV (obviously) and in the corner of the room, is totally useless to us! And, of course, it almost goes without saying, we can't afford it!

Anyway, I'm sure the thing will break down eventually or perhaps become obsolete or illegal in ways we can't now foresee. A new one will then be our only option, TV repair being a lost craft. And if we're lucky it will be before next year's Rugby World Cup.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Bouncing back right into the net

'Green Vows to Bounce Back' according to the BBC. You'd think he would have had enough of bouncing back, wouldn't you?

Friday, 11 June 2010

Need an Evil Nazi Oil Company Boss?

Apparently, Islamist terrorism may have been good for the careers of South Asian actors in the US:
Performance historian Brian Herrera theorizes that South Asian actors may have gotten a boost from the flurry of terrorist-type roles that followed in the wake of Sept. 11. A one- or two-episode arc as a featured character on, say, 24 would represent a solid credit line for a young actor, potentially opening the door to more interesting opportunities down the line. It's a trend Herrera has noted with other minority groups, though in less-accelerated forms. "So many of the elder statesmen of Latino actors got their start doing gang stories in the '80s," he notes.

Does this mean the BP oil spill will open up more Hollywood villain roles for British character actors? Or do we already pretty much have a lock on these? Need an Evil Nazi Scientist? Well, they already know who to call...

BTW did you know BP's American business (certainly outside of Alaska) is based on three US oil majors: Sohio (Standard Oil Ohio), Amoco (formerly Standard Oil Indiana) and Atlantic Richfield? So it's very much an American company in America. You may remember the name Amoco from the Amoco Cadiz disaster...

Anyway, I wonder who will play Tony Hayward in the inevitable film version? It's probably too much to hope that it'll be bumbling charmer Hugh Grant (left). Alan Cumming perhaps? Would he make a good Evil Nazi Oil Company Boss?

Shopping Asda from Périgueux

As the Euro's so strong British expats in France are buying food from British supermarkets and getting it delivered:
"It's just so much cheaper for us to buy our food this way. I'm now spending £300 a month at Asda, which is about 70% of my food budget. The food in France is lovely, but you can come out of a supermarket here with just two carrier bags having spent €100. I still try and buy my fresh fruit and veg in France, but most other things I now buy from Asda. I also miss my home comforts, such as white sliced bread, baked beans, jelly and ready meals. I even buy peanut butter and digestive biscuits for a French friend of mine. There's just so much more variety in UK supermarkets."

This woman lives in Périgueux, a place abounding in truffles, foie gras, Roquefort cheese, Bergerac wine, and excellent duck and goose (add a baguette and a tomato and you've got a meal right there). I'd find it infinitely depressing to be living there and shopping at Asda. If I couldn't afford to eat like the French, I think I'd move back home. I mean, what's the point?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Live with the living

In 1984, my marriage to Cindy was in serious trouble. I had started once a week therapy with a McLean Hospital based psychiatrist named Lenore Boling, and I used the sessions really just to give voice to my unhappiness with what my relationship with Cindy had become. Despite the unhappiness, I do not think I ever shed a tear in those sessions over the shambles of the marriage. One day, however, I started talking about my work. I tried to explain to Dr. Boling that in all of my writing, whether it was on Kant's First Critique or Hume's Treatise or Das Kapital, my goal always was to plumb the depths of the author's central idea and recast it in a form so simple, so clear, so transparent that I could hold it before my students or my readers and show them its beauty. As I said these words, tears started to well up in me, and I finally had to stop talking because I could not finish. It was the only time in twenty years of psychotherapy that I cried openly in a session. Ever since that day, twenty-five years ago, I have understood that it is this intellectual intuition of the transparent beauty of an idea, not the desire for status or recognition or money, that has throughout my life been the driving force behind my writing and teaching. This is why it makes little difference to me whether reviewers agree with what I say, and it is why I am made somewhat uncomfortable by praise. The intrinsic beauty of the idea is the focus of my concern. It seems that I am, after all, more capable of shedding tears for the central argument of the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding than I am for a failed marriage or even for a deceased parent. I am not at all sure that is admirable, but it is closer to the truth about myself than I have ever come before.

Written by an academic who, I would say, has provided something of a definition of the intellectual, at least in its pejorative (and English) sense: 'I am, after all, more capable of shedding tears for the central argument of the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding than I am for a failed marriage or even for a deceased parent.'

On reading this, an initial feeling of sympathy rapidly turned to chill. Surely, a lot of the world's troubles have come from this sensibility? Indeed, it may be that intrinsic to this sense of 'intellectual' is a lack of empathy, of personal feeling, elsewhere found in the autistic and even in the psychopath (cf. Robespierre to Pol Pot and numerous points in between).

But not all academics are intellectuals. I'm re-reading a collection of the writings of Richard Cobb (if you read one other thing today, read his obit). This passage, on walking in Paris and against the abrupt rationalisations of Haussmann, seems apposite in this context. He urges us:
...to push beyond the formal facades of the grands boulevards, triumphal arches and the geometrical perspectives of streets, arcades and buildings designed for collective show and for the glorification of State power. Les Mystères de Paris lurk in dank, leprous places, and Haussmann knew what he was doing when he ordered the levelling of the Butte-des-Moulins to make was for the avenue de'Opéra, and cut through the maze of the old cité, rue de Jérusalem, the lair of the tapis francs, to construct, in their place, an enormous neo-Gothic Palais de Justice, the triumph of Authority over Individualism. At least that is how I see it, that is the angle of vision that gives me most satisfaction. Just as I like my history to look inwards, from light into semi-darkness, from the street into the interior, if posssible even to cross the threshold and negotiate the dark staircase, enjoying on the hand the smooth curling wood of the banister, just as I want my historical itineraries to be capable of reconstruction in terms of both walking distance and regular habit - to and from work, the different itineraries of leisure or of the seasons, and again the different promenades de dimanche - all of which will contribute to a sense of reassurance, of predictability and continuity (because discontinutiry in history is utterly alarming), so I feel that Paris should be both walkable and walked, if the limitless variety, the unexpectedness, the provincialism, the rusticity, the touching eccentricity and the often tiny scale of the place are to be appreciated.

Measured using a human scale ('in terms of walking distance and regular habit') and rooted in the particular ('the smooth curling wood of the banister'), this passage is also without dogmatism ('At least that is how I see it...'). As far away from intellectualism as you could get, and where the first passage above chilled, this one warms.

Cobb's writings are full of descriptions of the particular, based on close and sensitive observation. Elsewhere he describes his working method. The historian, or rather his sort of historian, is...
...a stationary witness, an observer of a whirling collectivity of which he is not a part. He...is lonely, given to fantasy, having to make do with a few scraps of evidence, in an effort to give life to the passing faces. In his passionate desire to know, to establish contacts, there is an element of self-identification; he is both the blonde girl and the young man, and the red-faced, leather-coated gas man in the peakced cap, and the hard-faced woman in her late forties who looks as if she runs her own small business. He...is attempting to break out of loneliness, even if it is a matter of living with the dead. For, to live with the dead, he must live with the living. Loneliness gives him that extra perception, those qualities of curiosity, imagination, and compassion, that are the necessary tools of his trade. I can only speak from experience; and history is experience. One becomes a certain sort of historian because one is a certain sort of person. I have always been a very lonely person, and like others simlarly placed, I have sat in restaurants, picking up fragments of conversation, have headed for the café open late at night...

An instinctive, natural, commonsensical Burkean. When reading Cobb, I'm also regularly reminded of one of my favourite novels, Naipaul's 'The Enigma of Arrival'. There are parallels between the two writers in that they're both working outside their native cultures, in Cobb's words, inhabiting 'a second identity'. And Naipaul not only shares Cobb's power of close and sensitive observation: they both narrate their accounts personally but unobtrusively and without inflection; they create effect through the layering of detail upon detail, this way almost imperceptibly establishing something that approaches the substance of a matter.

But I think the reason I find this sort of writing as engaging as I do - and why I keep returning to it (typically, I rarely re-read) - is that its solving of ordinary mysteries does nothing to diminish, and in fact reinforces, a wider sense of mystery. Ultimately, it evokes a kind of wonderment at what it is to be us, a wonderment too large to be encompassed by a theory.


H/t Tyler Cowen.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Into the dustbin of art history

I do like a grand, sweeping historical theory. Particularly when it's applied to the state of contemporary art: I mean, it's not as if it's not in need of a bit of broad-brush explanation; there's so much that is puzzling and absurd.

There's an interesting piece in this month's Prospect, which seeks to place what's currently being made in the context of a theory of a 'late style' in art movements. This time, the focus is not the prices (although these are still described as 'absurd') but on an attempt to answer a question that's bothered more than the odd art historian and really has to be asked in the incredulous and querulous tones of a Brian Sewell:
Why is so much contemporary art awful?

Apparently,
We’re living through the death throes of the modernist project—and this isn’t the first time that greatness has collapsed into decadence.

There's a common 'late style'...
...a pattern typical of these end-phase periods, when an artistic movement ossifies. At such times there is exaggeration and multiplication instead of development. A once new armoury of artistic concepts, processes, techniques and themes becomes an archive of formulae, quotations or paraphrasings, ultimately assuming the mode of self-parody.

The immediate comparison is with the rococo painting of the eighteenth century:
...there are compelling parallels between much of the contemporary art of the last two decades—not only the work of the expensive artists who made the headlines like Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, but also many of the conceptual artists patronised by public galleries—and French rococo, a movement that extolled frivolity, luxury and dilettantism, patronised by a corrupt and decadent ancien régime. Boucher’s art represented the degradation of the baroque school’s classical and Christian values into a heavenly zone of soft porn, shorn of danger, conflict and moral purpose. Similarly, Hirst’s work represents the degeneration of the modernist project from its mission to sweep away art’s “bourgeois relics” into a set of eye-pleasing and sentimental visual tropes.

Personally, I enjoy occasionally wallowing in a 'heavenly zone of soft porn, shorn of danger, conflict and moral purpose' (T's not so keen). And I have to say I enjoy doing so in the company of a Jeff Koons (below) - an artist who I've always found intellectually fascinating and visually intriguing, not least because of his conscious reworking of rococo and the Baroque for a mass consumer age - as well as in the more decorous surroundings of the Wallace, which abounds not just with Bouchers but also some precious Watteaus and Fragonards (above) (Hirst, for me, not so much).

But then:
This kind of art is not all “bad.” A late style may dazzle us with its beauty, amaze us with its scale, impress us with its craftsmanship, charm us with its wit, or stun us with its excess and opulence. It always trumpets the spirit of its age—and is often highly valued by many critics in its own day.

Other 'end-phases' are identified in some of 'the styles of the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries', namely 'mannerism, rococo and academic painting'. What do all these styles - along with today's contemporary art - have in common? They're all formulaic, narcissistic, sentimental and cynical (each term is convincingly described and justified in the piece).


So what is to be done?
There have been inspired and important artists at work during the last ten years, just as there were in the late 19th century. But in order clearly to see what is in front of our eyes, we must acknowledge that much of the last decade’s most famous work has been unimaginative, repetitious, formulaic, cynical, mercenary. Why wait for future generations to dismiss this art of celebrity, grandiosity and big money? To paraphrase Trotsky, let us turn to these artists, their billionaire patrons and toadying curators and say: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals. You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of art history!”

I'm not really comfortable agreeing with Trotsky, not least because he was very often wrong. But there's surely something in this proposal. And perhaps the most interesting question that follows from it is whether there exists today an equivalent of the Impressionists, a set of artists who are working outside the confines of official art, and doing something different and exciting but currently unappreciated?

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The limits of a vulpine education

The fox story. I'd been expecting it to happen. Anyone familiar with foxes and with how common they are in central London would be. That is, apart from this fox expert, the only one quoted in the BBC online report:
John Bryant, a pest control consultant who specialises in foxes, said the attack did not sound like typical fox behaviour.
He said: "They will walk into houses, walk round, mess on the bathroom floor and sometimes sleep on the bed if people are not around.
"It just doesn't make any sense to me."

So why exactly wouldn't a hungry, scavenging predator, who'd lost all fear of man... well, you know the rest. What manner of pest control consultant is this? Dear reader, I googled him.

J Bryant doesn't kill or even remove foxes:
Humane deterrence techniques allow the nuisance animals to remain in their territory, but ‘educates' them to either change the behaviour that is causing a problem, or to avoid the location or property where they are causing a nuisance.

Presumably, he would get close enough to apply any homeopathic remedies that might be needed, clearing up an outstanding query. Though I don't expect he'll be doing so much business now:
Since the incident pest controllers set fox traps in the back garden of the house. A fox was discovered in one of the traps on Sunday night and was destroyed by a vet.

Monday, 7 June 2010

History does rhyme

Further to this and this, Johann Hari reviews a book on Prohibition and draws a parallel with today's prohibition of drugs, one that 'hangs over the book like old booze-fumes—and proves yet again Mark Twain's dictum: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."'

How did it start? Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions:
...a coalition of mostly well-meaning, big-hearted people came together and changed the Constitution to ban booze. On the day it began, one of the movement's leaders, the former baseball hero turned evangelical preacher Billy Sunday, told his ecstatic congregation what the Dry New World would look like: "The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever rent."

Not so much. As it turned out, there was...
...a massive unleashing of criminality and violence. Gang wars broke out, with the members torturing and murdering one another first to gain control of and then to retain their patches. Thousands of ordinary citizens were caught in the crossfire. The icon of the new criminal class was Al Capone, a figure so fixed in our minds as the scar-faced King of Charismatic Crime, pursued by the rugged federal agent Eliot Ness, that Okrent's biographical details seem oddly puncturing. Capone was only 25 when he tortured his way to running Chicago's underworld. He was gone from the city by the age of 30 and a syphilitic corpse by 40. But he was an eloquent exponent of his own case, saying simply, "I give to the public what the public wants. I never had to send out high pressure salesmen. Why, I could never meet the demand."
By 1926, he and his fellow gangsters were making $3.6 billion a year—in 1926 money! To give some perspective, that was more than the entire expenditure of the U.S. government. The criminals could outbid and outgun the state. So they crippled the institutions of a democratic state and ruled, just as drug gangs do today in Mexico, Afghanistan, and ghettos from South Central Los Angeles to the banlieues of Paris. They have been handed a market so massive that they can tool up to intimidate everyone in their area, bribe many police and judges into submission, and achieve such a vast size, the honest police couldn't even begin to get them all. The late Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman said, "Al Capone epitomizes our earlier attempts at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomize this one."

It's far more moral to support drugs' legalisation than their continued prohibition, a point underscored by a 'nasty irony':
One insight, more than any other, ripples down from Okrent's history to our own bout of prohibition. Armed criminal gangs don't fear prohibition: They love it. He has uncovered fascinating evidence that the criminal gangs sometimes financially supported dry politicians, precisely to keep it in place. They knew if it ended, most of organized crime in America would be bankrupted. So it's a nasty irony that prohibitionists try to present legalizers—then and now—as "the bootlegger's friend" or "the drug-dealer's ally." Precisely the opposite is the truth. Legalizers are the only people who can bankrupt and destroy the drug gangs, just as they destroyed Capone. Only the prohibitionists can keep them alive.

So why did Prohibition end?
After the Great Crash, the government's revenues from income taxes collapsed by 60 percent in just three years, while the need for spending to stimulate the economy was skyrocketing. The U.S. government needed a new source of income, fast. The giant untaxed, unchecked alcohol industry suddenly looked like a giant pot of cash at the end of the prohibitionist rainbow. Could the same thing happen today, after our own Great Crash? The bankrupt state of California is about to hold a referendum to legalize and tax cannabis, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pointed out that it could raise massive sums. Yes, history does rhyme.

I wonder how radical those LibDems could be if they really put their minds to it?

Friday, 4 June 2010

Bones, unmade beds and sandals

This piece on artnet seems to me to contain some terrific insights. It surely explains pretty much everything about the absurdities of today's art market. So why do people pay such ridiculously high prices for what are intrinsically worthless objects?
Prior to the Renaissance, and even during it, the supreme objects of popular and official veneration were not works of art: they were the relics of the saints. That is to say, pieces of the saints’ bodies, and objects which they had worn, touched, or with which they were associated. It is in the culture that flourished around such relics that we find the ancient analogue of our own art-world. From early in the first millennium AD and for a period of over a thousand years relics -- essentially useless and worthless pieces of bone or hair or skin, or scraps of cloth, or other random objects – were collected and worshipped with a fervor that is today reserved for art.
They were protected by gorgeous cases (reliquaries) and housed in purpose-built prestige edifices, viewed by tourists in their thousands, traded by kings and emperors, stolen, seized as war booty, held as collateral by bankers and of course faked by unscrupulous dealers. They, more so than mosaics, paintings or sculpture, were what drew pilgrims and locals to the great shrines. They were embedded into webs of discourse (for the relics, as for Foucault, discourse was "everything") and were the focus of institutionalized rituals that emphasized their eternal spiritual power. And here, in the relic-cult, we find huge sums paid for objects whose production costs and material value were zero and whose status, outside of the relevant context, was mere rubbish.

Having a sceptical Protestant sensibility I've always thought the behaviour of the the art market was a bit rum. This article is long and well-reasoned, it relies on lots of good historical research and reasoning and it thoroughly explains the phenomenon for me. So that's one more distasteful thing about the modern world we can dismiss.

And laugh at. As we know, nearly everything we learn about the human experience as it relates to politics and religion has already been prefigured in The Life of Brian. We must now add art as one of its special subjects. When you watch the scene below, substitute the hapless Brian for the knowing Tracy, artfully shedding everyday bits and bobs for her dusty followers to pick up and venerate. Laughing all the way to the juniper bushes.



H/t Tyler Cowan.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

It's the sparrows now

Having been infested by moths we're now assailed by an incessant and implausibly loud chirruping of sparrows. One jarring note emitted repeatedly by two of the little yobs. It's been two days now.

I suppose there's a turf war going on in our back garden. I feel like a civilian victim caught in the middle. And I'm not even going to think about bloody sparrow poetry. Any tips on getting rid of them?

Trampled by the march of events

The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.

That's the economist JK Galbraith - and he should have known having written favourably about the Soviet economy before events proved him misguided.

Show is so much more effective than tell. We see this in war, where conventional wisdom is usually disproved - disastrously - in the opening phases. The maverick and ignored generals of the inter-war period turn out to have been on to something. We also see it in economic crashes (which is what Galbraith was probably referring to). The new paradigm is shattered not because someone very clever points out its absurdities but because they lead it to implode as the world moves on.

Are there any useful conclusions to be drawn from this? I suppose you could say that if you want to win an argument, it may be best not to talk but to do. Speed the world up. However, with the really big stuff - like the Euro, the pre-crash banking system - you may just have to be patient (unless you're a hedge fund manager).


H/t Hugh Hendry.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

For richer, for poorer

I keep reading how the Eurozone's problem is that it is a monetary union but not a fiscal one. If it were the latter, it's argued, fiscal transfers to depressed economies would even out income levels and all would be well:
The euro could easily have worked, on one condition: that the euro-zone became a country. Otherwise, it was always doomed. There is a simple explanation for this. In all countries, rich regions and rich people subsidise poorer regions and poorer people. This enables the latter to use the same currency as their prosperous neighbours. Without fiscal transfers, the poorer areas would not be able to earn enough. So the logic of the euro was that the rich countries would transfer funds to the poorer ones.

It's then argued that the Euro will struggle to survive because the Germans and other 'rich regions and rich people' won't dip into their pockets to allow the 'poorer regions and poorer people' to muddle through. But this is only a part of the story and not really the substantive part.

It's not enough that the 'richer regions' acquiesce in the transfer of funds. The 'poorer regions' have to resign themselves to the low growth and relative poverty they're locked into through their sharing of an interest rate and an exchange rate that are too high for them and a monetary policy that's too restrictive. They must also now resign themselves to not being able to restructure their excessively high debt - debt they took on when an unsustainable boom was fuelled by the common interest rate being inappropriately low for them - as this is an option that appears to have been ruled out as part of the recent deal.

Fiscal transfers are a form of mitigation, they seek to offset relative poverty by evening out income levels. However, mitigation doesn't resolve the underlying problems of excessive debt, a lack of competitiveness, an overaccumulation of now worthless assets many of which sit on the balance sheets of crippled banks. These are being addressed through policies of austerity that threaten deflation and long-term depression in these 'poorer regions'; and they have to be ever more austere as the options of devaluation and reflation are not available. But even if these policies prove successful it may take many years for their benefits to be felt.

It may be that the Euro establishment are relying on the 'poorer people' to acquiesce in their fate. And it's not as if this doesn't happen in other currency areas. However - and this is the real sticking point for the Euro project - this acquiescence always depends on a sense of shared nationhood between richer people and regions and poorer people and regions. It's the mirror image of the 'richer people' being willing to make transfer payments, and the more critical of the two as it's on this side of the equation that the real sacrifices are being made. It's an act that relies upon the mutuality and solidarity that are to be found in established communities, the sense that everyone's in it together.

For instance, people in the city of Liverpool, a place that's been economically depressed for a good part of the last forty or fifty years, have had to put up with interest and exchange rates that have been too high for it (just to be clear, I make no analogy here between the reasons for Liverpool's relative poverty and that of the Eurozone's struggling economies). North Sea oil, a booming City of London, a prosperous and more economically important South-East have periodically contributed to making British economic policy more restrictive and/or sterling higher than Liverpool might have found preferable.

Sure, transfer payments from richer to poorer people and from richer to poorer regions in the UK have gone some way to making this situation tolerable. But you wouldn't say this sorted things out for Liverpool; it's been pretty bloody for the city.

Nevertheless, at no point did Liverpudlians seek to establish their own (devalued) currency, their own (lower) interest rates and their own (looser) monetary policy. As a proposition it's close to being totally inconceivable. This is because Liverpool is irrevocably and on every level - historical, emotional, cultural, linguistic - part of England and, more broadly, Great Britain.

Such a long-standing, powerful and organic bond does not exist between any European nations, let alone between ones as diverse in almost every way as, say, Germany and Greece. On the other hand, Liverpudlians have spoken the same language (you may have to take my word for it), shared the same capital, fought in the same army, played in the same leagues, sent representatives to the same Parliament, lived under the same law, acknowledged the same sovereign and so on as the rest of the country for many generations and, in some instances, for several centuries.

These links have also facilitated a great deal of labour mobility, important in allowing regions to adjust to decline: Liverpool's population is almost half of what it was in the first part of the twentieth century. Such a level of migration from one country to another is inconceivable in the contemporary Eurozone.

So even if the Germans (and Dutch, Danes, Finns, etc.) agreed to bung the Mediterranean countries a few billion Euros on a regular basis, it's extremely difficult to see the Spanish, Greeks, etc. acquiescing in living off welfare, all for the sake of a sense of European solidarity. An entrenched, powerful and popular feeling of solidarity with the rest of the Eurozone simply doesn't exist. To pretend otherwise is fantasy - and a major reason we find ourselves in this situation.

The creation of a common European economic government - not that the rich countries look as if they're going to be willing to fund it - is one thing; the creation of the true and lasting European nation that would be needed for it to operate is altogether another.

By the way, it feels strange to argue on these lines against a project that claims to be progressive. The sort of argument that I've deployed above was used to criticise the workings of the Gold Standard in the inter-war period: the sacrifices demanded, it was argued, were incompatible with democracy and pluralism (the existence of trade unions, in particular). I'm not sure that some of the Euro-progressives would be happy to be lined up alongside the highly-conservative bankers who advocated the Gold Standard, but there you are, history always contains its ironies.