Wednesday, August 30, 2023

About good art

This, by one Jash Dholani, has been provoking much derision on Twitter over the past few days.

The easiest and most obvious response is to find examples that contradict Dholani’s reductive categorisation (the first, for example, would allow any number of Hallmark Christmas romcoms to make a better claim to being “good art” than, say, the oeuvres of David Lynch or Luis Buñuel, which is almost too silly to contemplate) but, inevitably, I’m going to zoom in on Dholani’s view of canonicity, or the “Hall of Fame” as he puts it. The assumption that great art is made with a eye to becoming part of the canon really misses the point of why anyone would want to create anything; and in any case, it’s not the artist who decides. That’s the job of the gatekeepers, the academics, critics and ultimately the consumers of art.

And the same applies to those who might want to “destroy the canon”, although I remain skeptical as to whether that will ever happen. Instead, the canon has always been and will always be in a state of flux. It happened as far back as the first century BC, when Virgil’s work began to acquire more renown than that of Ennius (who he?); and carries on today as the likes of Alexander Pope and Walter Scott are pushed out of the nest by... well, choose your own names, but Toni Morrison springs to mind. Dholani’s own Twitter handle is oldbooksguy, which would suggest he sees the canon as some sort of refuge for the Dead White Males, but its composition never stands still, even if change comes so slowly it’s practically imperceptible. And the new admissions (which Dholani classifies as “good art”) are the ones prompting that incremental change, which he presumably sees as a bad thing.

Ah, hang on. I know what Dholani’s chart reminds me of. It’s J Evans Pritchard all over again.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

About Barbie

I enjoyed the Barbie movie, and was quietly impressed with how it sneaked references to Proust and Kubrick into a big-budget, candy-coloured Hollywood extravaganza. But I think Ian Leslie gets things right:

Rather than advancing intellectual ideas, it uses intellectual-sounding talk as a colour in its tonal palette, a striking and funny contrast to the vacuity of its characters. Barbie tickles the frontal cortex, site of Deep Thoughts, but its purpose is to raid the hypothalamus, source of endorphins.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

About Thaksin

Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand, has returned from his long exile after the monarchy/military nexus that really runs things decided he was the lesser of two evils. If you want some understanding of how we got to this point, for crying out loud don’t read this article that I wrote for The Guardian because the coup that toppled him happened when their regular woman in Bangkok was on holiday. Mini-me suggests: 

Provided he [General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the coup leader] sticks to his word and hands over to a civilian administration within a fortnight, and that administration immediately calls elections where vote-buying can be at least minimised, if not eradicated, a damaging and frustrating period of uncertainty will have ended. 

Well, Sonthi did hand over power – to another general. And Thailand’s fragile democracy is still trying trying to piece itself together. Proof, if ever it were needed, that proper, grown-up journalism was never going to be my forte.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

About TikTok

Every generation is told that its own crazes and foibles are the equivalent of vogueing while the Titanic goes down, and then 40 years later, they see the apocalypse happening live in the actions of their children and grandchildren. So it’s probably just a sign that I’m very, very old that the end of this article by Barrett Swanson resonates so much: 

TikTok is a sign of the future, which already feels like a thing of the past. It is the clock counting down our fifteen seconds of fame, the sound the world makes as time is running out.

Sunday, August 06, 2023

About the middlebrow

 You know, I could get behind this...

Thursday, August 03, 2023

About University Challenge

Having written a whole bloody dissertation on the subject, I’m all for interrogating the criteria on which questions are chosen for quiz shows. However, James Delingpole’s article about University Challenge in the Spectator jettisons any pretence of objective investigation in favour of snobbery and perhaps worse.

I said when Amol Rajan was announced as the new host that those grumbling about so-called diversity hires should be satisfied that, like his predecessors, Rajan is a Cambridge-educated male. Not good enough for Delingpole, apparently, who sneers that, apart from dropping his “H”s, he went to “insufficiently medieval Downing”; he hints that there were “any number of reasons” that he got the gig but judiciously avoids mentioning them, The Spectator finally having cottoned on that explicit racism is more trouble than it’s worth. Then there’s a bit of knee-jerk transphobia, and a chance for the author to air his preposterous climate change scepticism. So far, so Delingpole.

But then he gets on to the questions themselves and his biggest worry appears to be that there are just too many mentions of people who are, and I can hardly bring myself to say this, female and/or non-white. Again, there’s a valid debate to be had about whether the content of the show should represent what the canon is, or what we might want it to be, but Delingpole has decided already, apparently from a position of blimpish ignorance. Dismissive references to “whatever it was Clara Schumann may have written” say far more about the author than about the question setters or Schumann herself. If Mrs Dalloway is “unreadable”, one has to assume Delingpole hasn’t read it, so the value of his opinion on its worth is negligible at best. And rather than show any curiosity over a book of which he’d never heard (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) he simply assumes because he didn’t know it (and, implicitly, because it’s about black people) it isn’t as good as Dostoevsky. Many books have been written defending the glories of the traditional Western canon, but Delingpole’s argument seems to be that he went to Oxford – and a proper medieval college at that – so he knows best.

Ultimately he falls into the same trap as Nick Fisher did when responding to Derek Malcolm’s list of the greatest movies; he’s confusing his own limited intellectual horizons for good taste. But there’s one more thing that grates. Delingpole defines himself as a libertarian conservative, a supporter of market-based solutions to most of our problems. One of the landscapes that such policies have changed beyond recognition in recent decades is academia, where syllabuses now have to reflect what the customers want to study. And yet when the customers decide they’d rather read Woolf or Ellison than Chaucer or Dostoevsky, and the universities accede, the right-wing media suffers a collective aneurysm. You won, James. Get over it.