Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Amnesty Interactive

Amnesty International in New Zealand has come up with a neat idea. If you go to this site, your Facebook history is scanned and you find out which of your activities will mean you fall foul of the authorities in specific countries, and how many times you might risk imprisonment, torture or even execution. Of course, their app is simply searching for specific words, so it’s potentially as clunky as Facebook’s own attempts to determine what sort of person you might be from what you post, and thus which advertisers might have an interest in you.

For example, because I had expressed a fondness for the popular beat combo XTC, the Amnesty bot decided that I take drugs. XTC = ecstasy, geddit? Also in the likes list was gospel music, as a result of which I am assumed to be a Christian. Now neither of these is the case, which at first implies a certain flaw in the whole thing. But then you realise what it really means; if a state decides that being a Christian is against the law, you don’t actually need to be a Christian to fall foul of that law. In just needs an authority figure to infer that you’re a Christian, perhaps from your CD collection. Oppression is just as bad when it’s incompetent, arbitrary and misinformed as it is when it’s ruthlessly efficient.

And if you’re interested, by Amnesty’s calculation, for my online sins I’d be beaten 55 times, tortured 52 times, imprisoned 47 times and shot dead just the once.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The death of fiction?

A sequel of sorts to the previous post, prompted by a piece in the Globe and Mail. Ignore for a moment that the author begins his narrative while he’s doing a poo and focus on his argument for the resistance that his students display to reading long books:
English teachers have held on to the 19th- and 20th-century novel with grasping, wrenching fingers. I’ve been one of them, and truthfully I’m not sure why. The novel is a distinctly Western convention, and a new one at that – it arrived two centuries after the printing press. The Industrial Revolution increased leisure time, so longer pieces became more attractive – and writers benefited from being paid by the word. While a teen’s reading material 100 years ago might have been as narrow as a few books on a bedroom shelf, a student in my class today has an endless range of possibilities.
All true; and moreover, the notion that novels written in English could be the subject of serious academic study, on a par with Greek and Latin classics, is even newer. But if its period of cultural ascendancy is at an end, we have the problem of a period of transition. Older people will hold that knowledge of Austen, Dickens and Updike is a crucial part of our culture, even if they haven’t actually read them; the young can’t even be bothered to pretend. I don’t know if Hirsch has a prescribed list of novelists that must be “known”, but this does again suggest that by the time anyone has identified such a canon, the goalposts will have moved. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

ED Hirsch and his unknown knowns

Suddenly the name of ED Hirsch is popping up all over the place. Doesn’t ring any bells? He promotes an educational theory that he calls Cultural Literacy, which revolves around elements of knowledge that students are expected to have acquired by a specific stage in their learning, to enable them to function in the modern world. It sounds pretty good so far, especially to a grumpy old sod whose preferred leisure activity is banging his head against the floor in response to the slack-jawed idiocy of some of the contestants on Pointless, but particularly those who identify themselves as students.

However, even a moment’s thought reveals two serious objections to Hirsch’s ideas. One is that it has the potential to turn education into a vast, Gradgrindian exercise in knowledge dumping, with no time allocated for real understanding. Did you ever collect Panini stickers? Do you remember going through someone else’s collection and muttering “Got that... got that... got that... haven’t got that...” I’m sure that’s not what Hirsch had in mind, but when his system is allied to the league table approach of British education, that’s what you’re going to get. The other problem, of course, is the question of who actually decides what these all-important facts should be, and what educational (or political or moral or social or economic) criteria they use to reach their decisions. And at the same time, what precisely do they mean by “knowing” a subject? For example, the right-of-centre think tank Civitas argues that by the end of his or her first year of education, a child should be expected to know about English Civil War. Which I think is wonderful, because this means that from the age of six, kids will be well versed in the ideas of the Levellers and the Diggers and the Putney Debates, and from then on it’s a doddle to get into the fine tradition of British dissent, of John Wilkes, of Tom Paine, Peterloo, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Rebecca riots, the Suffragettes, the Kinder trespass, the Jarrow marches, the 43 Group, the Committee of 100, Grosvenor Square, the Miss World protests, Greenham Common, the Poll Tax riots, Swampy, Brian Haw, Occupy St Paul’s and... Do you reckon maybe they didn’t think this one through?

In any case, if every single schoolchild did end up knowing about every single subject on the list, sharp-elbowed middle-class parents would insist on their own offspring knowing more. If the kid next door knows about acorns, Mexico and Henry Moore (all on the Civitas year one list), yours needs to know conkers, Bolivia and Degas. Until you find out that the brat down the road knows mistletoe, Honduras and Bernini. And ultimately, it’s the same kids as it always was who get left behind.

However desirable it is for members of a society to have a common corpus of knowledge, its actual components will ultimately be pretty arbitrary unless there happens to be a dominant ideology (overt or otherwise) behind their selection. Of course, if I were in charge, I’d insist that every three-year-old had an intensive knowledge of spin bowling, tapas, the novels of Douglas Coupland and the first three Velvet Underground albums. (I’ve always thought Loaded is overrated.) Because, seriously, how can you cope in the modern world, let alone go on Pointless, without knowing stuff like that?

PS: If you really want arbitrary, check out this list of the six best novels since 1919. How many of them should a child have read by the end of school, Dr Hirsch?

PPS: And you are still reading my Infinite Jest Blog, aren’t you? That’s OK then.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The browning version

Bruce Norris, the author of the play Clybourne Park, has refused to allow his play to be staged in Berlin after he discovered that one of the African-American characters would be played by a white performer in blackface. Meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company has come under fire when it emerged that the Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao would be performed by a mostly Caucasian cast.

Meanwhile, a glance at the credits for Baz Luhrmann’s much delayed movie version of The Great Gatsby reveals that the corrupt Jewish businessman Meyer Wolfsheim will be played by Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan. But he doesn’t white up. So that’s OK.

PS: Accusations levelled at Cloud Atlas as well. Such larks.

PPS: Tom Sutcliffe covers similar ground in The Independent

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Blessed are the Piss-Takers

Thousands of Muslims descended on Google’s London headquarters last weekend to protest against the apparent “age of mockery” in which we find ourselves. This could easily turn into another anti-Islam diatribe (Jeesh, not only are they opposed to gay rights and bacon sandwiches, they haven’t got a bloody sense of humour either!) but these tiresome, beardy placard-wavers are far from the only ones. Indeed, some of the most unlikely people seem to have developed unusually thin skins recently.

Frankie Boyle, for example, scourge of political correctness and all that, is suing a newspaper because it said a horrid thing about him. And check out the guidelines on the comments thread of the Liberal Conspiracy site: “Abusive, sarcastic or silly comments may be deleted.” So silliness is a threat to liberal values now, is it? Some have argued that the problem is about excessive reliance by the police and others on section 5 of the Public Order act, under which a student was arrested for calling a police horse gay, among other travesties. I just think it’s a sign of the coming apocalypse, which probably puts me in the same boat as some of the bores and loons of varying religious and ideological persuasions who are complaining the loudest. Funny old world, innit? Oh sorry, I forgot, you don’t do humour, do you?

It should be fairly obvious, and I’ve gone over it umpteen times before, but I’ll spell it out. If an institution, whether it’s a religion or a political party or a football team or whatever is liable to fall apart at the first hint of piss-taking, then it’s probably a pretty decrepit institution in the first place and the mockers are only hastening an inevitable decline. And if said mockery offends you or hurts your feelings, well just sit yourself down while I list all the things that offend me on a regular basis until you die of abject boredom.

Are we really entering an age of mockery? I don’t know, but looking around, I bloody well hope so.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Damien Hirst vs the (Art) World

Well, maybe one shouldn’t expect cutting-edge coverage of contemporary art from the Express, but I reckon they’d be pretty good at picking up the vibe in Ilfracombe. The blameless Devon townlet is the location for Damien Hirst’s latest project, a 66-foot brass figure called Verity, and one Karen Farrington went to find out what they think of it. Opinion is mixed, as it usually is when it comes to big new statues. Paul the hotel porter can’t stand it and neither can Julie the Lib Dem councillor. But Peter from the yacht club and Dawn who owns the pub both think it’s fab. Caroline who runs the chippy doesn’t like it much herself, but thinks it’s a good thing if it attracts tourists.

But Karen’s not satisfied with that, oh no. She also wants to find out what yer actual experts think. And do you know what? They bloody well hate it and they bloody well hate Damien. But hold your bifurcated cows for a moment; which experts did she ask? Well, Julian Spalding, whose anguished Jeremiad about conceptualism I discussed a few months ago; his quote about Hirst being akin to the Mafia provides the article’s headline. And David Lee, who publishes The Jackdaw, the main purpose of which is to lay into conceptualists and their hangers-on. And of course Charles Thomson of The Stuckists, who simply wouldn’t exist if Damien and his like weren’t around to annoy them. The most staunch defenders of the YBAs, the likes of Jopling and Serota, Collings and Saatchi, don’t get a look in. So if you only had to the article to go on, you’d get the impression that Hirst has no support whatsoever in the poncey, up-its-own arse modern art world, whereas a lot of the good folk of Ilfracombe are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Rather than being a sinister conceptualist Mafioso, Hirst comes across as an honest craftsman, cast out of fashionable London society but finding respect with the decent Express-readers of the provinces; he’s like LS Lowry, maybe, or Beryl Cook.

I’m not entirely sure that’s the impression the article was meant to convey. In fact, the piece is so out of sync with its headline, maybe it should be considered as an arch piece of conceptual art in its own right. Karen Farrington for the Turner, I reckon.

Monday, October 15, 2012

On Looper

So I saw Looper at the weekend, and it was pretty good, I thought. Clever concept, good acting and although there were effects, they were used sparingly, to legitimate ends, not simply for cheap thrills. I’d heard a bit about the make-up work that supposedly helps us to believe that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are the same person, but to be honest, it just made me think that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was wearing a funny nose, so he looked a little bit less like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but not noticeably more like Bruce Willis. I did like the diner scene, where they sat staring at each other as if they were in any number of films in which one actor plays two roles and – through the magic of split-screen or some such jigger-pokery – confronts himself. Ideally, of course, they’d have made use of the technology depicted in the film and sent an older Gordon-Levitt back from the future; or pulled a younger Willis forward, whichever is cheaper.

But is it just me, or do films these days tend to be more about other films than about people or things or ideas? Of course, this doesn’t mean that the director is consciously borrowing from other film-makers, or paying homage or spoofing or – heaven forbid – ripping them off. To be fair, Rian Johnson doesn’t set out to be the cinematic answer to DJ Shadow or The Avalanches, concocting art almost entirely from samples of other art; it just feels that way. The author dies as soon as he signs off the final edit; this is all in the reading.

So in Looper I spotted thematic or stylistic elements of, in no particular order: The Omen; Carrie; The Terminator; A Matter of Life and Death; North By Northwest; Twelve Monkeys; The Sixth Sense; Mad Max; The Matrix; Léon; The Usual Suspects; Source Code; Back to the Future; Blade Runner; Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea; not to mention a fat handful of Doctor Who stories (say, Genesis of the Daleks, with its killing-baby-Hitler parable, City of Death and The Angels Take Manhattan). Oh, and given the fact that the only women in the story are reduced to the archetypes of wife, mother, servant or whore (or combinations thereof), sexual politics straight out of Mad Men.

But again, maybe that’s just me.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Jimmy Savile: a few thoughts

No, this isn’t really about Jimmy Savile himself, or what he did, or what he’s alleged to have done. That’s all bad; it’s pretty clear that the man was a vicious abuser who used his charitable deeds as both cover and as a cynical, implicit bargaining tool; you don’t need me to tell you any of that. This is more about the responses and reactions to what we know.

First, about the rumours that were apparently circulating for decades about Savile’s behaviour, and the fact that nobody ever acted about them. Well, of course there were rumours, because Savile was a very famous person and there are always rumours about very famous people. Way back when I was completely outside the media loop, I heard rumours about Jimmy Savile; oddly, all of them revolved around his apparent fondness for acts of necrophilia, which he supposedly indulged under the cover of his voluntary work as a hospital porter; I don’t recall anything about child abuse. And I heard other rumours too, about all sorts of people, about the Queen Mother and Michael Portillo and Morrissey and Bobby Moore and Prince Edward and Bill Treacher and Jason Donovan and Patrick Moore and Kevin Keegan and Gerald Kaufman and Una Stubbs and any number of Radio One DJs. Some were accusations of serious criminal behaviour, some were about harmless quirks that, supposedly, the relevant parties preferred not to disclose. Anyone remember Scallywag magazine? The John Major story was pretty bland compared to some of the stuff they came up with.

I have no idea how many of these tales were wholly or partly true and I probably never will. I’m not suggesting that the accusations about Savile are fabricated, but if journalists followed up every celeb-related rumour that some bloke in the pub insisted was God’s honest truth, there would be a hell of a lot of libel suits knocking around, and even more dead-cert stories that turned out to be dead ends. You need more than urban myth or gut instinct. Yes, Savile was odd, eccentric, weird, creepy. People said dodgy things about him. He had strange hair. The same goes for Chris Jeffries, the entirely innocent Bristol landlord caught up in a murder investigation a couple of years ago. That didn’t end well for the papers concerned, did it?

But a big chunk of the press seems to be using the Savile saga as leverage to redeem itself after the whole phone-hacking/Leveson enquiry saga. Look what happens when celebrities get the upper hand, they bleat, when the fine upstanding spirit of British journalism is cowed by libel and privacy laws. Which is utter bollocks, frankly. If they were using their various scams and skulduggeries to expose real, serious, extensive wrongdoing rather than just dicking around below the surface of Hello-magazine banality, then we’d be impressed. It was in the public interest to know that Savile was abusing girls; it was not in the public interest to know that Charlotte Church might be having boyfriend trouble. Which one made the front pages?

Moreover, certain papers also see the scandal as a stick with which to wallop their eternal nemesis, the BBC. Yes, I don’t doubt that there was a culture at the BBC in the 60s and 70s and even into the 80s that by modern standards would seem pretty toxic and that some men were able to use their power and influence to take sexual advantage of people with less clout. Again, that was bad and wrong, and we need to know about it. But are we to understand that everybody employed by The Sun and The Mail and The Telegraph at the time was entirely without sin? Or that, had any equivalent rumours been knocking around about high-profile journalists and editors at those papers, there wouldn’t have been a temptation to either cover things up, or deliberately look the other way?

Again – bollocks. The BBC was a product of its time, as was (and is) every other institution. It looks wrong now, but it was wrong everywhere, not just in the studios of Top of the Pops or Radio One. Low-level sexual assault could be passed off as horseplay and if anyone complained, it was evidence of a sense-of-humour failure or lesbianism or the time of the month. And once you allow that, the tolerance level for bad behaviour rises incrementally, until you get vulnerable girls being molested in dressing rooms.

But that wouldn’t be tolerated now. And this is the ultimate, sanctimonious hypocrisy of those currently laying into the BBC. A modern-day Savile would be stopped in his tracks because women and children would be empowered to speak up. He wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt just because he was rich and popular and male. And do you know what caused this turnaround? Not the fearless investigation of plucky newspaper journalists, that’s for sure. No, it was the changes in attitude wrought by feminism and by so-called political correctness, gone mad or otherwise; the very social forces still roundly condemned on a regular basis in The Sun and The Mail and The Telegraph. As it happens.

PS: In the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan goes deeper and further back.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Rothko vs the Yellowistzzz

OK, I’m officially bored with people defacing works of art in the name of art (or anti-art or something along those lines). The joke’s just become too ingrown. Yeah, yeah, Vladimir Umanets, you got your name – and that of your precious Yellowism – in the papers. But you also knew that deep down that for most people your stunt would simply provide yet another excuse to trot out all those tiresome “a-child-of-five-could-do-that” whines about modern art; which LC, incidentally, has curated into a rather fetching conversation piece in its own right. Maybe he should ask Mr Umanets to scrawl all over his blog.

And in any case, there’s nothing new about it. I ran through the most notable examples of recent years a while ago; but some restoration work on frescoes in Valencia Cathedral has uncovered an even older example. Apparently a 17th-century workman had scratched a full set of gentlemen’s trouser equipment into an angel’s wing. Unfortunately he isn’t around to expand on his aesthetic justification.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

A few words about gay marriage

I don’t think I’ve made any particular reference to gay marriage in this blog before, mainly because I didn’t see much point. I mean, I’ve long assumed that the whole thing would just trundle into existence eventually, to a few bleats of outrage and then within a matter of years we’d look back on the days when consenting adults weren’t permitted to marry someone of their own gender with the sort of bemused horror we now reserve for bear-baiting or child chimney sweeps. But apparently not. It seems that David Cameron is under pressure from Conservative constituency chairmen to abandon the whole idea.

Now, let’s be very clear. I support traditional marriage, which I take to mean marriage between a man and a woman. 12 years ago, I entered into such a traditional marriage. And if I thought that allowing two men or two women to marry would disrupt or destabilise my marriage or that of other traditionally married people, I’d be rather concerned at the prospect. But nobody has yet been able to explain to me how the legalisation of gay marriage would harm my own traditional marriage or any other traditional marriage to the tiniest degree. And since the so-called institution of marriage is nothing more than the sum of all those traditional marriages, past, present and future, I really don’t see the problem. Several million multiplied by zero is still, so far as I recall, zero.

I’m also baffled by the opposition coming from the Conservative Party. My hazy grasp of modern political philosophy tells me that Conservatives (see Republicans, right-wingers, etc) favour freedom as their guiding principle. Labour (Democrats, the left) lean towards equality. Many ideological clashes occur when these two great principles come into opposition. So you’d think that a law change that offers both freedom and equality would meet with rousing acclamation on both sides of the house. Apparently not.

Now, one argument against gay marriage that I do encounter is that it offends the sensibilities of various religious groups. Well, that’s a pity but, you know what? There are probably several thousand things about the modern world that offend me: reality TV; the smell of Kentucky Fried Chicken; fake tan; people who say “less” when they mean “fewer”; the brain-dead loudness of most action movies; my own increasingly saggy and decrepit reflection in the bathroom mirror. To be honest, I also get pretty offended by the inane platitudes of a lot of the aforementioned faith groups, and I’ve never quite understood why my aesthetic prejudices are less deserving of protection than their supernatural taboos. But it’s a modern, complex, interconnected world, with all the mess and noise that entails, so I just do my best to avoid KFC and my face and religious fundamentalism; and when such encounters are unavoidable I grit my teeth and remind myself that there are other, more delightful things around the corner that might compensate for the temporary glitch. Maybe those who oppose the idea of gay marriage because an old man in a dress tells them to could follow my example and just try to ignore it. It won’t go away, but you may find that it stops bothering you if you stop bothering it.

And it’s become something of a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true: if the idea of gay marriage offends you too much, maybe you should try to avoid marrying a gay person.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Hanbury Street: who nose?

Not entirely sure what to make of this. An LA graffiti artist, Mear One, has painted a mural in Hanbury Street, east London, which, according to how you choose to interpret it is either an attack on global capitalism or a collision of several different bonkers conspiracy theory tropes with a distinct stench of anti-semitism. “Oh, but those big-nosed guys on the Monopoly board aren’t meant to be Jewish,” say the picture’s defenders. “They’re just, y'know, capitalists. With big noses.” The fact that the mural appeared in a predominantly Muslim area has escaped nobody’s attention.

Without wanting to descend to a pointless game of whataboutery, maybe those Danish cartoons were just pictures of some bloke. With a turban. Oh, and while we’re there, check out Amazon’s Dachau jigsaw; and, from a free speech perspective, William Saletan at Salon. My view? None of these things should be banned; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s sensible to do them either.

Meanwhile, on a cheerier note: over here, I write an entire blog post about one footnote.

PS: Panic over. The mural’s going. But not before it becomes the victim of another moment of impromptu street art.