Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Criticism: it’s not what you know

It’s frequently said, with varying degrees of regret, that there’s no need for full-time critics any more. Do potential punters really need to know what someone from The Guardian or New Yorker said about a specific book or restaurant or movie or conceptual installation, we’re asked, when anyone can see that it got four and a bit stars on Amazon or TripAdvisor?

I’m a little torn on this. I see exactly why TripAdvisor exists, and I’m glad that it does, but it does require a healthy dose of scepticism on the part of the reader; not just when it comes to disguised conflicts of interests (giving a crap review to a rival, for example) but also straightforward ignorance from the reviewer. I was talking to a hugely skilled and experienced chef yesterday, the sort of guy who can take all sorts of criticism on the chin, but he was deeply irritated that someone had said that his ravioles were all wrong. Not bad, note – wrong. “I make them how they’re meant to be made,” he sighed. “If someone doesn’t like that, fair enough. But I really don’t know what this guy’s comparing them with.”

I sympathise with the chef, so you’d expect me to be singing hosannas to Ted Gioia, who in a Daily Beast piece last week railed against music critics who don’t have any grounding in musical theory. Well, no. Apart from the fact that I used to scrabble around on the fringes of the music crit biz and I couldn’t tell a diminuendo from a diminished fifth, this does suggest that technical ability should be the most important consideration when it comes to judging music, which would ultimately mean that Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Level 42 are somehow empirically better than Bo Diddley or the Ramones, a prospect I simply refuse to countenance. And moreover, modern popular music – even more than any other art form – has been about rather more than the music for several decades. How could one possibly contemplate, say, a Public Enemy album in purely musicological terms? (Further responses to Gioia’s piece from Ian Rogers at The Vine, Jody Rosen at Vulture and Mike Powell at Pitchfork.)

So who are the authority figures supposed to be? What are the criteria? Who judges the judges? As the BBC announces plans for an updated version of its legendary art history series Civilisation, heads are being scratched as to who would be the best frontperson. Kenneth Clark, the original civiliser-in-chief, certainly knew his stuff, but would a similar level of patrician assurance suit Civ 2.0? No, but at the same time we wouldn’t fancy Ant and/or Dec in the role either. Or, for that matter, someone randomly plucked from TripAdvisor. We need an expert whose expertise is implied, not woven into his bespoke suit.

At least art and music benefit from functioning criticial communities, both professional and amateur, informed and otherwise. I’ve long wondered how the fashion industry would function if there were a solid mass of critics who felt sufficiently empowered not simply to report on the latest Versace show but to offer a qualitative analysis, to say that a whole collection is good or bad or mixed, just as their counterparts in other fields would be able to say about a new Beyoncé album or Martin Amis novel or Tracey Emin retrospective. Indeed, what are the chances of there being a successful fashion journalist who argues that Versace’s clothes look as if they’ve been designed by a committee of colour-blind drag queens? Sure there are catty fashion blogs, such as the still-funny-sometimes Go Fug Yourself, but they do seem to reserve their vitriol for the people wearing the clothes rather than the people who make and sell them. If such a daft concept as normcore had come along in any other field, the critics’ knives would have been out, but Vogue journalists seem to have their bullshit detectors disabled when they get their first paycheck: all they can offer is a very gently furrowed brow. Surely it’s better to risk the occasional interruption from someone who doesn’t know who Donatello or Donatella are than to jettison all critical intelligence entirely?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

51 things the MH370 story is about

  1. It’s about 239 people.
  2. It’s about an aeroplane.
  3. It’s about mystery.
  4. It’s about absence.
  5. It’s about the families and friends.
  6. It’s about the several meanings of “missing”.
  7. It’s about the pilot.
  8. And then it isn’t.
  9. It’s about Anwar Ibrahim.
  10. It’s about blondes in the cockpit.
  11. It’s about the point at which the certainty of grief would be better than the ignorance of hope.
  12. It’s about corridors.
  13. It’s about Schrödinger’s cat.
  14. It’s about 9/11 but, seriously, what isn’t?
  15. It’s about China. Ditto.
  16. It’s about too many disaster movies.
  17. It’s about pings.
  18. It’s about being told to pray.
  19. It’s about the sneaking suspicion that the much-vaunted transition to the so-called Asian Century may involve more than a few mis-steps along the way.
  20. It’s about stolen passports.
  21. It’s about –stans.
  22. It’s about conspiracy theories.
  23. It’s about the Zionists.
  24. It’s about the Illuminati.
  25. It’s about electric cars.
  26. It’s about the point at which Buzzfeed does a “What sort of MH370 conspiracy theory are you?” type of thing.
  27. Or maybe there’s a Hitler parody.
  28. It’s about cockups.
  29. It’s about the internet.
  30. It’s about how 24-hour news has to be filled with something, anything, even if it’s nothing.
  31. Especially if it’s nothing, because that’s cheaper and easier.
  32. It’s about sharks, circling, jumping.
  33. It’s about wondering how this story would be turning out if more than three Americans had been on board.
  34. It’s about press conferences.
  35. It’s about The Rapture.
  36. It’s about the Marie Celeste.
  37. It’s about Lost.
  38. It’s about Glenn Miller.
  39. It’s about how quickly we forget Ukraine. And Oscar Pistorius.
  40. And Syria. 
  41. And whatever it was we were concerned about before Syria. I forget. Edward Snowden? Phone hacking? 
  42. Dave Lee Travis?
  43. It’s about 4’ 33” by John Cage.
  44. It’s about Smile by the Beach Boys, or at least Smile as it existed in our imaginations, at the point where multiple different bootlegs intersected, before they actually released the real album and all the fun went out.
  45. It’s about Google Maps.
  46. It’s about people who are suddenly experts on aviation.
  47. It’s about Chris Goodfellow and his startlingly simple theory.
  48. It’s about Rupert Murdoch.
  49. It’s about Courtney Love.
  50. It’s not about you.
  51. It’s about _____________
PS: Will Self on the collective delusions that get us into the sky in the first place.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Stephen Bayley and Claude Lorrain, accidental hipsters

I’m reading Stephen Bayley’s new book Charm, in which he discusses the 18th-century notion of the picturesque and the influence of the landscape artist Claude Lorrain, a hundred years before:
So much so that picturesque enthusiasts carried with them a ‘Claude glass’ – a distorting optical glass that turned a modern green English valley into antique Italy. Charm distorts the ordinary in the same way.
And I don’t know whether it’s an indication that Bayley is supremely self-disciplined or simply utterly out of touch that he manages to move onto the next paragraph without once mentioning the conceptual similarity between the Claude glass and Instagram filters. That said, here’s an article on how to make your own Claude glass, which includes references to film cameras and the phrase “ultimate hipster way to take a picture”. So maybe Bayley, in avoiding such a clunkingly obvious comparison with yet another social media package used by millions of – ugh – ordinary people, some of them decidely un-charming, is just being archly, knowingly, skinny-trouseredly, Zeitgeisty, in a retro kinda way, with a fixed-gear bike and some comedy facial hair.

And maybe by September everyone in Shoreditch will look like Claude Lorrain.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Hey, I just learned me a new word: agnotology. It’s strangely appropriate that I didn’t know it until recently because according to the LA Times it’s the academic study of ignorance, a subject that’s always fascinated me. Robert Proctor, the academic discussed in the article, focuses on the way that big business creates and manipulates ignorance to its own ends: I’m fascinated by the gaps in people’s knowledge, what we can assume people know or don’t know, how to tread the line between going way over your audience’s head and patronising the poor buggers. It’s all about constructing a cultural canon in an environment in which most people have access to unprecedented levels of knowledge at the flick of a finger but simply can’t be arsed to go there.

This comes into the frame when I’m at work: do I need to explain where Bavaria is; that Sancerre is a wine; who makes Birkin bags and why that matters? If I don’t tell them, will they Google it? Probably not. But it’s more complex than that. Only the other day I was confronted with the following sentence: “Venezia is the Italian spelling of Venice, Italy.” It’s factually accurate and grammatically correct but ultimately so wrong-headed it achieves a kind of lop-sided beauty all of its own. Knowledge, but no understanding. And I’m not released from such obsessions when I’m off duty. Last week I was listening to a semi-final of the quiz show Brain of Britain on Radio 4, in which the contestants were asked to identify what sort of musical instrument an 808 was. The first chap thought it might be some sort of drum, which was judged to be not quite enough, so the others threw various percussive guesses into the mix, oblivious to my screaming, “It’s a drum machine it’s a drum machine you idiots it’s a bloody drum machine for crying out loud!” at them until I was curled up under the table, sobbing to a four-on-the-floor beat.

When I’m a professor of agnotology that’s going to be my first lecture, pretty much.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Kitty and Playboy: at it like rabbits

 The news that the French retailer Colette has created a Frankenstein splice of Hello Kitty with the Playboy bunny has provoked some harrumphing in certain quarters, with objections focusing on the suggestion that the overtly sexual overtones of the Playboy brand are an unsuitable match for a character that’s aimed at small children. The odd thing though is that, in Asia at least, many of the most devoted acolytes of Hello Kitty are women in their 20s, 30s and beyond; and Playboy, far from being a byword for sleazy pornography, is just one more aspirational brand. While the Thai edition of the magazine is full of purportedly attractive young ladies, there’s considerably less flesh on show than in the average copy of a British magazine such as FHM and it’s probably read by a similar demographic (eg, sweaty-palmed boys). So it could be argued that Hello Kitty is in some ways a more adult brand than Playboy and it’s the former that’s corrupting the latter.

Thursday, March 06, 2014


Reading Kevin Jackson’s superb Constellation of Genius, about all the extraordinary artistic, cultural, political and scientific jiggery-pokery that happened in 1922, Ulysses, The Waste Land, Pound, Stravinsky, Stalin, Chaplin, Satchmo, Kandinsky and all. And a random but telling bit of arithmetic pops into my head: the mid-point between that year and this year is 1968 — the year I was born and another that’s had whole books written about it. For some reason I find this disquieting. And I can’t decide whether I ought to write a poem or start a revolution.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Who does he think he is?

(This is prompted in part by a blog post by my friend Namwan, about the moment she realised nobody else had a bloody clue either.)

Very, very occasionally, I go to some sort of social gathering – not a party per se, I’m far too old and tired to do that sort of thing any more – and someone will ask me The Question: “So, what do you do?” It’s so dangerously close to “So, who are you?” that every time I encounter it I find myself teetering on the edge of an existential crisis. And of course, rather than actually dealing with the problem, I construct a banal response-cum-coping-mechanism that will satisfy my new acquaintance’s curiosity without encouraging any further probing.

This wasn’t always a problem. Way back in the mid-90s I was a contestant on A Well-Known TV Quiz Show and between my being accepted and actually recording the episode I went through three different job titles. Confusion inevitably set in so I responded to Magnus Magnusson’s (yes, it was That TV Quiz Show) request for my occupation there was a brief pause and he said “That’s not what I’ve got down here.” It wasn’t the first question I got wrong that day.

Later I had a brief spell when I enjoyed a job title that actually prompted people to say, “Wow, that must be really interesting!” which was nice, although it was also the only job from which I’ve been fired, which wasn’t. And since then I’ve done a number of things that are to a greater or lesser extent connected with words, sometimes juggling two or three of them simultaneously and frankly it’s too much effort to explain it all to someone who’s only really making polite conversation so I just say “I’m a journalist.”

Which isn’t exactly a lie, because I do write things that then appear in periodical publications. But it might serve to mislead someone who thinks that journalists are either battle-hardened crusaders for the truth or sleazy dredgers-up of titillating scandal. I’m neither of those. But there’s also been a shift towards the notion that anyone with a smartphone and a Twitter account is a journalist these days. I’m not one of those either and I do still hold true to the notion that there’s a distinction between news on one hand and Buzzfeed quizzes on the other. And I do have sympathy with the stance of those such as Barney Hoskyns who are campaigning against the tendency to take advantage of journalists and other creatives by asking them to work for nothing “because it’ll get you some exposure.” But that does raise the question of what a journalist’s work is. If I write something and then someone wants to interview me on the radio about it, I might say OK, because it will draw attention to my work. And although I’ll be using my verbal skills I’m not actually writing, so I don’t feel so dirty.

But once of or twice over the past few months I’ve been approached by e-mail by people who are writing pieces about the current situation in Thailand, asking me what the hell’s going on. I respond by e-mail, which makes it seem more like work, but at the same time I know the reason they’ve got in touch is less because I used to write things for The Guardian back in the last decade and more because I happen to be in Bangkok. So since I’m not being a journalist, what if I throw in a few factual errors or spelling mistakes? Is it OK not to be paid then?

Maybe I should just blur a few edges and call myself “a writer”. Because that’s what I do and the term doesn’t insist on payment as part of the deal. Quite the opposite, it seems, as this article in today’s Observer by Robert McCrum suggests. And then if I ever do get off my arse and go to a party we can talk about the gap between wanting to be A Writer and actually Writing.

Although, as Truman Capote would doubtless have argued, I’m not really a writer – I’m a typist.