Thursday, May 29, 2014

News about nudes

There’s an interesting story nestled away in a Telegraph article about how art dealers have to amend their sales pitches to sell to new markets. It’s nestled because in this brave new Faragiste world the headline has to stress a passing remark about the fact that galleries and museums in the Middle East are less likely to want to buy nudes, which prompts a predictable collective bellow from the swivel-eyed commentariat. Hey, that’s how journalism works now, I do get it, but surely within the trollbait they could have secreted some sort of chinstrokery about how this was belated revenge for 19th-century Orientalism, when artists such as Adrien Henri Tanoux depicted a Middle East that appeared to be populated solely by underclad ladies; enabling respectable gentleman to deploy a quest for cultural enlightenment as a cover story for checking out exotic boobies and botties. The National Geographic defence, we’d come to call it, I suppose. And it’s the heirs to those pillars of Victorian society who are now grumbling in the comment box about these Muslamics coming over here and stopping good, honest Anglo-Saxon absinthe-sipping, opium-puffing bohemian perverts from painting Soho trollops in the altogether.

There is, however, another angle which just about makes the copy, even if it fails to attract the attention of the below-the-line crew. Philip Hooks from Sotheby’s suggests that one criterion a potential art buyer might consider is how damaged and miserable the artist was:
“There are things that happen to artists in their lives which influence the way we appreciate them and the way we appreciate what they produce... Things like unhappy love affairs, attractive muses that they had hopeless attachments to. Madness is very good news actually, but not, strangely, illness. The idea is that if an artist is mad he may be connecting with some great genius inside himself.”
Which is dangerously close to the idea that successful contestants on TV talent shows need to have a compelling narrative, preferably one involving grief and hardship, before we are permitted to enjoy their rendition of a Mariah Carey song. And I’m rather more worried about this than about the idea that some museum in the Emirates won’t buy a watercolour because it’s showing a bit too much ankle.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Haruki-san and Uncle Joe

As I keep explaining to people whether they’re interested or not, Cultural Snow takes its name from a passage in Haruki Murakami’s novel Dance Dance Dance: scroll down to find out more. Inevitably, as soon as I’d started blogging under that label, my initial enthusiasm for Murakami’s works began to ease off a little. I’d still buy the books when they came out, not even waiting for the paperback, but they all started to feel a little samey, what with the lonely protagonists and the talking animals and the enigmatic, damaged girls and the non-penetrative sex and the jazz and the cooking interrupted by phone calls. After getting hold of his most recent blockbuster, 1Q84, with its Chip Kidd cover and left-field typography, I tried to get into it, I really did, but things ground to a halt after about 150 pages. It wasn’t entirely the author’s fault, though – I’d reached a point where most of my reading was taking place in transit and lugging around HM’s doorsteppiest doorstep yet didn’t, like, fit with my lifestyle choices, y’know.

Then, since I was going to Japan and it seemed somehow appropriate, I bought the Kindle version and started again. And yes, the protagonists are lonely and the girls are damaged and there’s quite a bit of jazz but hey, what’s wrong with that? And the sex is penetrative this time, if deeply weird and unsettling. And, near the beginning of the third and final volume, something catches my attention. (It’s a phone call in a kitchen but the recipient isn’t cooking, just drinking coffee, so that’s a bit different, I guess.)
Tamaru was silent again for a moment, and then spoke. “Have you heard about the final tests given to candidates to become interrogators for Stalin’s secret police?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“A candidate would be put in a square room. The only thing in the room is an ordinary small wooden chair. And the interrogator’s boss gives him an order. He says, ‘Get this chair to confess and write up a report on it. Until you do this, you can’t leave this room...’”
“So what kind of confession did the interrogator candidates extract from the chairs?”
“That is a question definitely worth considering,” Tamaru said. “Sort of like a Zen koan.”
“Stalinist Zen,” Aomame said.
After a short pause, Tamaru hung up.
Stalinist Zen. Cultural Snow. Stalinist Zen. It has a certain ring to it, no? Time for an Opal Fruits-style rebrand? Let’s see.

Friday, May 23, 2014

In Hakone: part three

Part one here.

Part two here.

The first time I visited Japan, among many other wonders, I found myself in a toyshop in Harajuku that was populated not just with wild and wonderful Japanese products but also side orders of Western TV culture that had enhanced my own childhood but then apparently disappeared, like the shape-shifting Barbapapa and plucky little Krtek (The Mole). It was as if some of my earliest memories had been tucked away in a safe place on the other side of the world until I was ready to visit and retrieve them again. You see, Japanese people have many of the same cultural reference points that we do: it’s just that they approach them from a different angle, in a different order, with different priorities.

With that in mind, we arrive at The Museum of The Little Prince. My relationship with the original book has shifted over the years: I adored it at first, even though the edition I owned was a tie-in for the crappy 1974 movie; then grew away from it as I entered my teens because it was soppy and childish and possibly a bit Goddy; and eventually came to realise that it was actually a book about the pilot rather than the prince itself and that made it all feel OK. The narrator is an unwilling existential hero, hell-bent on isolation but at the same time desperate to get back to a childhood that probably wasn’t that great in the first place, Pooh via Camus.

(After all these years, I’ve only just noticed that the boa ate the elephant trunk-first.)

In other hands a museum dedicated to Saint-Exupéry’s work might have turned out to be a little tacky, with staff decked out in fluffy blonde wigs and an interactive game in which you try to kill the baobabs and save the rose. (I’ve just found out that there’s a new movie coming out next year and I hope it’s a complete disaster so they won’t be encouraged to build a Little Prince Theme Park. Oh God, Jeff Bridges is playing the pilot, which is perfect casting. Damn.)

Anyway, the Japanese museum isn’t that bad. There’s a lot about the author’s life, with plenty of photographs and manuscripts and a recreation of the New York room in which he started work on his novella. There are some statues of the main characters but they’re quirky rather than kitschy. You soon realise, though, as you sip on café au lait topped with cocoa stencils based on the illustrations from the book, that this place is less about The Little Prince or its author, more about an idealised notion of Frenchness — which is a little odd, as the book isn’t even set there. One you pass through the wrought-iron gates into a precisely coiffed garden you have a cute little courtyard of mocked-up shopfronts, including one of Saint-Exupéry’s own birthplace. And once you’re done, the gift shop is packed to gunwales with je ne sais quoi both echt and ersatz: imagine if the National Trust operated in Provence. That.

But in a way this is appropriate. If The Little Prince is about yearning for an unattainable state of innocence — that sort of childlike state that’s been hovering around wherever we go in Hakone — the Museum of The Little Prince encapsulates that state of mind, offering Japanese visitors a sensibility that probably never existed and certainly doesn’t now and most of them will never find out one way or another. I’m reminded of Paris syndrome, a condition identified by a Japanese psychiatrist among his compatriots who visited the city and found it to be a far more disturbing place than they’d imagined. Much safer to take a vacation in a purpose-built simulacrum of Paris, or maybe on an indoor beach.

Or you could just read a book instead.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Editor shaming

So anyway, things went a bit strange yesterday what with work stuff and having to miss a cookery lesson and the imposition of martial law and that kind of thing and so I started a Tumblr sort of thingy, for editors and writers to admit to their most embarrassing goofs, or to have them exposed. Feel free to contribute, because no other bugger has yet.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Nothing to see here

You may have noticed that Thailand is now under martial law, but that’s not the same as a coup. Older readers of this blog may recall the coup of September 2006 and my baffled responses thereto, which led to a couple of interesting years writing for The Guardian’s Comment is Free site. Anyway, nostalgia and semantic quibbles aside, very little seems to have changed here, there are no bullets pinging off nearby walls and Bangkok traffic is still abysmal. If you were soppy and sentimental enough to be even the slightest bit concerned, please stop or I’ll get all tearful.

Back in 2006, my usual method for writing a blog post would have been to find an article in The Guardian and get slightly annoyed with it for 500 words or so. So in that spirit may I first draw your attention to the thoughts of one Zillah Byng-Maddick, who sounds like an obscure slice of beatnik slang (“man, the way that cat played those bongos was zillabingmatic”) but is in fact the CEO of Future Publishing. She envisages a business model in which the lines between content (what used to be known as editorial) and marketing are blurred to the point of irrelevance so as to reach a point at which
...our expert, trusted content enables us to attract large communities of highly engaged customers who want to buy things, and that’s exceptionally appealing to our clients.
The problem is that those customers (I think she means readers) are only “highly engaged” up to the point at which they feel they’ve stopped reading an article and are instead being cold-called by someone who wants to sell them something. When that happens they tend to turn their attention elsewhere.

Now, some would argue that the average reader doesn’t much care about such niceties, that she or he will happily absorb reams of crass, blatant plugging and hype while strap-hanging on the 7:43 from Rickmansworth so long as there’s a celebrity angle or a horoscope or something about cakes or a decent pair of knockers attached. Well, think again. Readers — some of them, at least — are deeply sensitive souls, to the extent that the slightest deviation from sweetness and light can tip them over the edge into a traumatised, catatonic state. This is the case at least for students from the University of California at Santa Barbara and other institutions who have requested that literary works contain “trigger warnings” lest the unsuspecting reader should chance across references to racism or suicide or, well, pretty much anything that isn’t very nice. The warnings for a work such as American Psycho would probably be longer than the book itself. “It seems to me that that way madness lies,” says John Mullan of UCL, shamefully neglecting to preface his comment with a trigger warning about references to madness, lying and seeming.

Of course, the obvious thing would be to preface all Future publications with a trigger warning that everything contained therein is a bit of marketing copy and readers unduly sensitive to such nastiness should steer clear. How zillabingmatic would that be?

PS: Padraig Reidy very good on triggers at Index on Censorship. 

PPS: And Jay Caspian Kang in the New Yorker.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

In Hakone: part two

Part one here.

So after an extraordinary dinner (cherry-blossom sushi, anyone?) and a midnight dip in a sulphurous onsen we arise suitably refreshed to attend the Modigliani exhibition at the Pola Museum. It’s a good show, interspersing Modigliani’s own works with those of his friends and contemporaries (including Picasso, who seems to get bloody everywhere in Japan) and tells the tale of a short life that ended in pissed poverty at the age of 35. In fact, the bohemian destitution that informs Modigliani’s paintings casts an inevitable pall over proceedings and you wonder whether it might be better to look at them individually, stripped of the biographical barnacles and the inevitable sense of melancholy that they bring.

Someone at the museum must have been listening because within the permanent collection they have three paintings that are stripped of any identifying material. No artist, title, date or anything. The deal is that you just look at them and consider how they make you feel, almost like a child who’s never seen a painting before. It’s a superb idea which I completely ruin by spotting that the first two paintings are by Kandinsky and Delvaux. And I’m thrown back to my English S-level paper (or was it Oxford entrance?) which included an unseen, unattributed text to which we were expected to respond; I spotted immediately that it was by Ben Jonson and throughout the whole exam I was debating whether to drop that fact casually into the answer to show off what a clever bastard I am or not mention it because if I did that would suggest I’d prepared for something that was meant to be spontaneous. I can’t remember now what I did in the end. And I didn’t get into Oxford.

But not for the first time, I’m stuck in a paradox, wanting to learn more but wishing I knew less because to be honest it’s often more fun that way. The third mystery painting, incidentally, turned out to be by a Japanes surrealist called Koga Harue, of whom I’d never heard and whose stuff I’d like to investigate more — although I guess that means I’ll find out just that little bit too much and the fun will wear off again. I suppose we’re going back to the notion of innocence, an idea that’s fascinated me since a brilliant man, since departed, explained Blake to me by means of reference to the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner:
Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world with his chin in his hands called out, “Pooh!”
“Yes?” said Pooh.
“When I’m — when — Pooh!”
“Yes, Christopher Robin?”
“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”
“Never again?”
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”
Incidentally, one of my very earliest memories is of a family holiday in Devon and a visit to the bookshop that Christopher Robin Milne owned in Dartmouth. At one point a middle-aged man popped his head out from what must have been the store room and my father whispered that it was Christopher Robin himself. And I believed him, but a few years later I started thinking that it was just some random employee and Dad was humouring me; or that it may or may not have been Christopher Robin, but Dad just wanted to create a world for me in which it was. Only in the past few years have I come to the firm conviction that, yes, it really was Christopher Robin himself.

Of course, childhood and innocence aren’t one and the same. The Pola also contains a number of pictures by the European-based Japanese artist Léonard Foujita, a friend and contemporary of Modigliani who outlived him by nearly 50 years. Some of his most startling works involve children, who are depicted somewhere on the continuum between cute and evil, like possessed Kewpie dolls. Several of the pictures are downright disturbing, although not in the same way that the sexualised nymphets of Balthus disturb, in a show we visit when we get back to Tokyo. But that’s another story.

And I start wondering whether Foujita’s depictions of childhood – and indeed of France — might have a special resonance in Japan. But maybe that’s because I know where we’re going next.

Part three here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


The meme revival carries on apace as Philip Willey asks me to muse about writing (rather than blogging per se, I guess, although obviously the two overlap). The deal is that I answer four questions then nominate three people, so keep reading to the end to find out whether you’ve been handed the black spot.

Why do I write what I do?

I write different things for different reasons. Sometimes I’m paid to write and although I often have little or no say on what the subject matter is I do try to make it a bit more than mere hack work, although I may be deluding myself. The problem is that very often when the work-writing is done for the day I’m not terribly inclined to do any non-work-writing — and no, live-tweeting The Archers doesn’t count as writing.

When I do stir myself from this torpor, my main outlet is this blog, which I write simply to get ideas of mine out in the open. I’ve noticed in recent years that the communal, rhizomatic, conversation-driven spirit that encouraged my blogging when I started has receded quite a bit; it’s more a matter of putting up a discrete essay now and again and occasionally someone bothers to respond (and thank you if you do). Sometimes I wonder why I still do it. But I do still do it, which must mean something.

I do have about half a dozen barely-started novel(la?)s knocking around my hard drive, most of them with splendid beginnings, tolerable endings and a big gaping hole where the middle should be. Why do I (try to) write these, when the word on the digital street is that The Big Serious Novel Is Dead? Maybe because I’m and old fart — now officially in my late 40s — and still wedded to the idea that a book on a shelf is somehow more worthwhile than a fistful of ones and zeroes.

Back in the olden days, I used to write books and other things about popular music, but I don’t do that very often now. Partly because I’m less interested in it, but also because I get the feeling that people are less used to what I think about it. I’m not quite clear which came first.

Incidentally, this is a pleasant elaboration on the usual question – “Why do you write?” – to which the answer is essentially that I can’t really do anything else.

What am I working on?

If by “working on” you mean “things upon I haven’t yet quite given up” the various fiction bits and pieces include (forgive me if I don’t give away too many secrets) something farcical about a restaurant critic; something terribly postmodern with lots of footnotes about a book that doesn’t exist; something absurd about occupied France during World War II; and something a bit mid-life-crisis-y. Then there’s this blog post and further episodes of aesthetic edification in Japan, following on from the previous blog post. Well, you did ask.

What is my writing process?

It depends on the subject matter and the medium for which I’m writing but usually I write a number of subject headings – either on paper or directly into my laptop — then juggle them around until they achieve some sort of coherent structure. It’s similar to the initial sketches before you begin a painting. Once I’m happy with that I start writing.

How does my writing differ from others of its genre?

I’m not quite sure what my genre is, to be honest, but if you can be bothered to Google me, most of the references are to things that I’m written about music. So, looking back at what I did write when that could conceivably have been described as my genre, I’d say I rely far less on primary sources and interviews than other writers, more on critical analysis and theory with a bit of taking-an-idea-for-a-walk whimsy. I guess my approach owes something to the likes of Greil Marcus and Morley/Penman in their pomp. Of course this type of book is unpopular with those readers who prefer their books to be variants on either “and then Thom Yorke out of Radiohead did this and said this” and/or “and this is why Leonard Cohen is brilliant. The End.” Well, tough, frankly.

The writers I’ve decided to lure into this particular web are:

Madeleine D’Arcy, who writes short stories and used to say “aargh” a lot. Maybe she still does.

Ian Hocking, who writes SF sort of things and also teaches.

James Henry, who writes stuff for kids and stuff for telly, sometimes both at once.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

In Hakone: part one

(Something odd and slightly unnerving happened a bit over a week ago. You know how JK Rowling claims that the entire storyline of all seven Harry Potter books dumped itself in her head when she was stuck on a train in the Chilterns or the Cotswolds or somewhere else beginning with C? Well, I had a similar experience, but with a vast and rambling blog post that just appeared and wouldn’t go away. However, when I next put fingers to laptop, nothing came out. Maybe I need to move into a cafe in Edinburgh, I thought, which was a bit of a problem because I was in a rather sweet little hotel in Tokyo at the time. So I parked it and thought I’d come back to it. And then Philip Willey tagged me in another one of those deliciously retro meme chases and I thought, OK, I’ll have a go at that first but I couldn’t even do that. It was as if the enormous, throbbing, pulsating wordblob wasn’t content with refusing to enter the world, it was stoutly refusing to let any other thoughts to see the light either. And without delving into tired metaphors about gestating elephants and/or terminal constipation, I realised that the only way to get things shifting would be to do it in chapters. So, anyway. This.)

“A child could have done it.” That’s what they say about modern art, isn’t it? You know who, the saloon-bar sneerers, the ones who don’t know much about art and don’t much like what they do know. The aesthetic wing of UKIP, basically. There are various responses to this, from Susie Hodge’s rather literal-minded contradiction to the Groucho-esque request to find said child. The latter makes the most sense to me: much about great art involves shedding your inhibitions. Yes, if a four-year-old did it, we wouldn’t pay much attention, but for a 40-something to get inside the mind of the four-year-old, that’s impressive.

And in this frame of mind we find ourselves at the Hakone Open-Air Museum, an hour or so from central Tokyo and a brisk hike to Mount Fuji. The bulk of the space is a sculpture park with over 100 pieces covering most emotional states: moving, perplexing, arousing and just plain fun. Kids run around, gawping at the towering, shiny beasts, with a particular fascination for the figures blessed with huge arses. And I’m reminded of my nephew George on his first visit to London Zoo, at the age of three, transfixed by the wobbly great botty of a female gorilla.

In the centre of the park is the Picasso Pavilion, which holds a pretty respectable collection of the old rogue’s pieces – obviously there are few of the sort of pictures you tend to see on tea-towels but there’s plenty to enjoy. It’s particularly strong on works from his later life – there’s at least one painting from 1972, the year before he died — and includes a lot of ceramics from the 1950s. Several of the plates have images of the fauns that captured his imagination around the time, some of them little more than quickly painted doodles, eyes-nose-mouth-horns-done. In objective terms maybe they’re not that amazing but there’s a cheeky exuberance that makes them endearing. It’s not about knowing they’re by Picasso, and therefore by definition Great Art; it’s that Picasso knows they’re not so important and yet they go out under the brand of probably the best-known artist of the past 100 years and end up in a vast temple to his genius which elevates them from being mere doodles on dinnerware and gives them a sort of subversive charm.

And then I wonder if I’m rather overthinking the whole thing. Would it maybe have been better if the pavilion hadn’t had Picasso’s name splashed all over the side, if I hadn’t known I was going to be in the company of the Great Artist; if, in fact, this had been an extension of the sculptures, many of which I enjoyed, but I’m damned if I recognised or could now recall more than one or two of the sculptors’ names. I start to wonder whether there might be mileage in a museum where the visitor is essentially sight reading, presented with paintings and sculptures stripped of attribution and explanation and context. Here it is. What do you reckon to that? Good? Bad? Indifferent? Is it by Pablo Picasso or Beryl Cook or Anthony Hancock or Nat Tate and does that matter anyway? A child may or may not have been able to do it, but how old do you have to be to appreciate it – and how old are you when you stop appreciating it?

And then, the following day, my dreams come true. Sort of.

Part two here
Part three here.