Saturday, 23 February 2013

So, What's New?

According to a newspaper article I read, there is a plan to tap the geothermal currents under Glasgow and use them as a source of heating for the city. The headline ought to have been "Free Heating from Sustainable, Natural Resources" but instead it focussed on the supposed novelty of the idea which, as any half-fledged eco-warrior will know, is laughable: factories in Finland, cities in Scandinavia and practically the whole of Iceland have been doing it since the fifties. Why are we so late in adopting what appears to be a sensible idea? Cynics will be quick to answer that vested interests - the power companies - are protecting profits from free or cheap sources of energy. Sympathisers, on the other hand, will have devised a convoluted economic justification.

A third possible explanation is that this is a classic example of our tendency to 'start from scratch': those foreigners may have had a good idea but, since it's not ours, we'll ignore it and find one of our own. Humans have been discovering things ever since brain capacity evolved but corresponding collaborative action has been sporadic. The net result is an incoherent jumble of socio-political theories and a profusion of conflicting economic activities. Will the incremental accumulation of human knowledge ever coalesce into a consensus of  what is best for humanity? Or will each new generation continue to behave as if it had nothing to learn from its predecessors? I fear the latter.

And yet, in art there is hope: it is evident that artists, musicians, poets and writers are less afraid to acknowledge the influences of previous generations and other minds. Artistic traditions and styles once rigidly conformist have become more fluid as our different cultures mingle in the global market-square. And this is a process which is accelerating in sync with communications technology. The work of artists from pre-history is the earliest evidence of civilisation that we can see, but it is far from primitive. When Picasso first beheld the wonderfully preserved, 40,000 year-old paintings in the caves of Monte Castillo, so astonished was he by their spare but perfect accomplishment that he said "I have been wasting my time" (or words to that effect). In a way he was right: that particular form had reached perfection, yet he continued to find new ways of expressing life as art - to the amazement and delight of his expanding audience.

The willingness of artists to absorb the influences of others and incorporate them into their own distinctive creations was something I noticed this week at the Whitworth gallery, where the mountains of Snowdonia are the subjects both of an exhibition of classic watercolours from the museum's historic collection and of a series of 1940s paintings by John Piper displayed in the adjoining space. The earlier works are exquisite in their execution and comprise some of the best examples of landscape painting from their period: in that sense, they may be considered to be conventional. Piper's works, on the other hand, are more experimental. Made with a mix of watercolour, gouache and inked lines, they are less eidetic. I would have been interested to see photography as a third element of the exhibition so as to appreciate its special contribution to the story
Nevertheless, having walked often in these mountains, I found myself recognising some of the places and some of the feelings - in so far as they can be visually expressed. But, over and above that, what struck me was the way that great art strives to express itself without conceit or vanity. In doing so it holds out hope that mankind is capable of coming together in some kind of mutually beneficial consensus. Art, in this respect, trumps all of our other activities and proves the point simply by being the oldest trace of human civilisation.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Year of The Snake. Really?

With my birthday imminent I am reminded of the time when, as a self-obsessed youth, I discovered my personal Sign of the Zodiac. I thought it a neat way of defining my personality - and of gauging the suitability of potential girlfriends. Identifying my sign relieved me of the anguish of identifying myself: it substituted fate for responsibility, karma for chaos and lulled me, briefly, into believing that the world was an ordered, harmonious place and that my part in it was pre-ordained.

The reality check came along soon enough - at around chapter 7 of Linda Goodman's Sun Signs - when I read that my nose is typically aquiline, which it isn't. And neither, I argued, were the noses of all the Eskimos born under the same sign as me. Thus I discovered the flaw in Linda's theory which brought down the whole house of cards and left me with an abiding cynicism for the "logical" part of “astrological”.

This week, coincidentally, I was invited to a gala show of traditional Chinese performance arts to celebrate the start of the Year of the Snake and, being ignorant of its significance, I did some research - nothing intense or time-consuming, just a little light googling to enable some polite conversation with my host. To my dismay I learned that there is a Chinese Zodiac which, like ours, is based on nonsense and to which, like ours, I was irresistibly drawn to check out my personal profile. The charts show that I was born in the year of the pig - an animal which, contrary to widespread prejudices elsewhere, in China is attributed with aesthetic sensibility and a philosophical, intellectual approach to life.  I found myself basking in the warm glow of this agreeable résumé of my character, having momentarily lost sight of my rational faculties.

Subsequently I sat in the front row of a two-hour show featuring the folksy performance arts of Sichuan Province comprising an assemblage of colourfully dressed dancers, fearsome acrobats, highly-pitched singers and scratchy-sounding instruments. Without a map to consult I was baffled by the place names quoted, especially when it came to the turn of the Tibetan tap-dance troupe. From what little I know of the region, Tibet is a province in its own right but I thought better of raising the question since I am aware of the sensitivities stirred up there in recent years. Whether the show authentically represented the various ethnic traditions I am not qualified to judge but I have to say that the diversity and intricacy of costumes and dances made our own equivalent - Morris dancing – look like a hastily improvised charade. A suspicion lingers, however: are these entertaining, colourful distractions deliberately promoted as propaganda to disguise the dominating intent of the Han people?

It was a question I could not raise with my host, whom I know to be dedicated to the official line, so we engaged instead in talk about the Chinese preoccupation with symbols of good luck - although even this became tricky when I introduced a touch of English irony by suggesting that the mass of Chinese people seem to have had very little of it in modern history. Nor did I voice my opinion that zodiacal systems, like moribund folk-art, seem to lead us into a cul-de-sac of fatalism and that, by  encouraging people to identikit themselves, they limit personal ambition: the more you are defined the less you grow.

The exhortation to “be yourself" may sound like good advice -if you are sure of who you are - but I have come to prefer the more aspirational "Don't be yourself: be someone a little nicer".

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Beggaring Belief

Prominent US economist, Robert Reich, is the star of a new film - Inequality for All - which promotes his long-held and convincingly argued view that capitalism and, ultimately, democracy are doomed unless they undergo fundamental change. He quotes many statistics, among them this one: 50% of the wealth of the U.S. is now owned by just 400 individuals. He seeks to demonstrate how this grotesquely unequal wealth distribution has, among other things, wiped out a key engine of economic growth - the purchasing power of the middle classes. Furthermore, the situation he describes is a repeat of that which pertained in 1928, just prior to the great depression of the 1930’s, so there are no prizes for guessing what is about to happen. And there is no reason to be smug, for the U.K. is following the same pattern.

But surely we have all learned to be sceptical of statistics? Successful academics, politicians and shareholders have always been able to interpret them favourably in support of their cases and, back in 2008, the credit-rating agencies famously manipulated them to reassure markets that the banks were in good shape.  A sensible precaution against such misinterpretation is to test all statistics against common-sense in the form of everyday observations and anecdotes. For example, a nifty indicator of the level of economic activity in a given period is the corresponding number of white vans sold. We may not have direct access to actual sales figures but it is plain to see the vans on our roads.  Back in the heady days of easy credit and (unsustainable) growth it seemed that every other vehicle was a white van, speeding aggressively towards the next opportunity, its occupants wild-eyed with urgency and the prospect of well-paid work. Nowadays the iconic Ford Transit plant near Southampton is closed down and vans are becoming fewer, dirtier, more bashed-up and recycled; their occupants hollow-eyed, listless and disillusioned.

There is talk of realigning the wealth imbalance: even within that bastion of capitalism, the English Football Premier League, a mutual agreement to limit the amount of money allocated to players is imminent. But this could be a hollow gesture if, as one pundit believes, the star players will continue to receive high fees while savings will be made by cutting the pay of their less talented team-mates. Meanwhile city traders and bankers insist that they must have bonuses because high wages alone are not sufficient to get them out of bed. And so the system which brought economic calamity remains fundamentally in place.

Walking around the city - past boarded-up shops, cut-price drinking joints, pawn-brokers, neglected civic buildings and facilities - I have noticed how easy it is to become lulled incrementally into acceptance of the aggregating symptoms of economic malaise. I have also noticed an increase in the number of beggars on the streets. Over the years I have become inured to their pleas for money because frequent rumours of fraudulent or professional beggars have made me sceptical of their destitution and wary of being tricked into charitable acts. But something happened this week which made me stop and think again about beggars.

There are different types: aggressive, passive, rude, polite, drunk, sober, dishevelled, tidy, male, female, with dog, without dog, physically able and physically disabled. Many of them ply the same streets as the buskers, mime-artists and performers - to whom I might donate (depending on merit). But I came across a beggar sitting on the pavement, his back against a wall, his head held down and a sign in his hand informing everyone that he was hungry. His sober clothing, respectable middle-aged appearance and abject look of misery implied that he was recently impoverished. Something made me put my hand in my pocket and drop coins into his hat. Was I persuaded by the statistic that most middle-class households are only three pay-cheques away from destitution? Or had I, perhaps, just witnessed a new and powerful phenomenon: begging as street-performance?

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Five-Star Review

Last week I discovered that some artists make all their work by cutting paper with scalpels and that this, unknown to me, has been going on for thousands of years. Well, you can't know everything but perhaps I have become too focussed on mainstream forms of culture - those which have a more popular appeal, or are more titillating, or have access to top PR, or a combination of all three. I became aware immediately, for example, that Quentin Tarantino had released a new film and that my favoured reviewers had awarded it - after the fashion of the hotel-rating system - four stars.

Paper-cut art has a lower profile than blockbuster movies but a Chinese acquaintance recently presented me with a lavishly produced book of bird illustrations made from finely cut-out coloured papers - a traditional Chinese technique - just at a time when there was an exhibition showing locally which featured the work of half a dozen artists who use paper-cutting techniques to create their pieces. While the Chinese book, on its own, was interesting, my appreciation of it was limited to admiration for the skill and patience that must have gone into its production. But the coincidence of the exhibition inspired me to give the subject more consideration and curiosity obliged me to investigate lest the profundities of paper-cutting should pass me by: after all, "you don't know what you don't know".

Assuming she might be interested I persuaded my Chinese acquaintance to come with me to the exhibition. She straight away scanned the gallery for anything resembling the traditional Chinese form before telling me that she didn't understand the purpose of abstract art. This was not a good start and I was afraid I might have insulted her by implying that the revered traditions of Chinese paper-cut art could in any way be compared with the upstart, frivolous hackings of western imitators. But she showed polite interest and took some photos of one or two of the large-scale works while I attempted to explain the play on words implicit in the show's title, The First Cut, in so far as it relates to a popular song from the 1960s. It was a bad idea. I suggested we might go for coffee. After we parted, I went to see the Tarantino film.

I've seen a couple of other films since then (winter being a good time for retreating indoors for an hour or two of fantasy) and have taken to star-rating them, as the critics do, only to find that it's not as simple as it may appear. Whereas, in the case of hotels, ratings may be fixed by assessing measurable factors such as location, cleanliness, efficiency of service and quality of fit-out, with movies everything is more subjective. Expressing an opinion on the calibre of cinematography, direction, script or acting represents the opening of debate rather than the fixing of status. One critic's "beautifully shot" might be another's "poorly lit", for example, and my personal assessment of Marvel Heroes Assemble, awarding it an impressive four stars, does not mean that I (or anyone else) should eagerly anticipate its sequel.

And so, having realised that the star-rating system is inadequate to the purpose, I have rejected as glib my initial urge to apply it to either The First Cut or the book. Let's just say the exhibition revealed some astonishing skills and presented some interesting artistic ideas while highlighting a few differences of perception as to the nature of art. As far as the book is concerned, it wouldn't feel right to put it on Ebay too soon, so it will probably gather dust on a shelf for a while.