State-Sponsored Art

While I’m on the subject of the entitled middle classes, consider this from Times columnist Oliver Kamm today:

There are three points to make here.

Firstly, the prime beneficiaries of state-sponsored art are the metropolitan middle classes. They are the ones who receive the cash, produce the art, work in the galleries, and go and look at it. Nepotism and cronyism is rife in the arts grant world, and the recipients often have close, personal relationships with those awarding the monies and commissioning the projects. And the poor folk being taxed to pay for it don’t watch plays and visit art galleries anyway: the middle classes like to pretend they do to justify raiding their wallets, but they don’t. In other words, when you hear a member of the middle classes – particularly if they are one of the metropolitan elite and a journalist – calling for state-sponsorship of the arts it should be interpreted as a request for the taxpayer to subsidise their own leisure pursuits.

Secondly, the idea that state funding ensures controversial projects get made is laughable. Of course this might not be apparent to somebody who lives in a liberal left bubble in London, but state-sponsored art is subject to similar ideological purity tests in Britain as it was in the Soviet Union: if it offends the sensibilities of the decision makers (who are invariably left wing), or doesn’t align with their politics, it won’t ever get any backing. What we do see, however, is absolute dross which nobody in their right mind would ever look at, let alone pay for; and political protest pieces against capitalism, the Iraq War, Donald Trump, etc. which looks as though they were done by a special needs kid. (If you want examples, spend a day over at David Thompson’s place: he’s built quite the career documenting this crap.)  When left-leaning folk talk about “controversial art” what they mean is “mind-numbingly conformist art”: the subject of Kamm’s comment is a production of Julius Caesar in which the Roman leader is dressed up as Donald Trump – and then stabbed to death, of course. Why, how edgy!

Thirdly, even if we assume controversial art doesn’t get made without state funding (which is demonstrably false: see this, for example, or this) why is that a bad thing? Does humanity need “controversial” art that nobody wants to pay for, akin to deciphering hieroglyphics (say) for the sake of advancing mankind’s knowledge? I doubt it.


Feminists and Film

The Oilfield Expat put up a good post about a year ago asking why, if the Patriarchy is busy dissuading women from studying engineering and pursuing it as a career, so many women nevertheless studied chemical engineering, leading to the process engineering departments of oil companies being full of them:

If there is a patriarchy preventing women from becoming well-paid and successful engineers, they’ve overlooked the Process department.

I was reminded of that yesterday when I saw the good folk at Samizdata link to this Spiked! article on what they call feminism’s war on art:

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) announced last week that it had adopted a system called the ‘F-rating’, intended to draw attention to films regarded as feminist.

These ratings are intended more as a provocation, designed to make people think about how women are depicted in film, and represented in the industry. As the F-rated website describes it: ‘The stories we see on screen need to be told by a broad spectrum of people to represent our diverse culture. Without change, we will train the next generation to only recognise white males as the protagonists and the ones in control of the cameras, scripts and budgets.’

The underlying assumption with feminists is that in the arts world, as with everywhere else, women are kept from participating fully by the deliberate actions of, presumably, men. The idea that perhaps women might not want to go into the film industry in the same numbers as men, or that they might simply be crap at the tasks therein, doesn’t seem to enter the mind of the modern feminist.

The problem with the feminists’ assumptions over women in the arts is the same as the one that The Oilfield Expat highlights in a different context. Whereas he asks “What about the Process Engineers?”, I ask “What about the literary world?” If there is an overbearing Patriarchy keeping women from being scriptwriters and film directors, you’d have thought a similar mechanism would be in force in publishing and literature.

Regardless of whether a Patriarchy exists, in the arts or wider society, literature is one area where women have indisputably held their own against men, and they have done for generations. Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters are canons of English literature, held in the same regard as Dickens and Hardy. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein achieved unprecedented commercial success and spawned an entire genre of horror stories, films, and plays. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind is considered one of the cornerstones of American literature selling over 30 million copies, as is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The most successful children’s author by quite some margin is Enid Blyton, although perhaps she ran into some Patriarchy at the beginning:

Blyton’s manuscripts had been rejected by publishers on many occasions, which only made her more determined to succeed: “it is partly the struggle that helps you so much, that gives you determination, character, self-reliance – all things that help in any profession or trade, and most certainly in writing”.

Or perhaps not. Note the emphasis on hard work and lack of demands for an F-rating in publishing. A lot of kids today might not be familiar with Blyton’s works, but they will certainly know J.K. Rowling, another female author who has enjoyed staggering success. Less well known would be Richmal Crompton of the William series and Sue Townsend who created Adrian Mole. I could also mention Daphne du Maurier and Joan Aitken, but I think I’ve made my point: if there is a Patriarchal system at work in the arts keeping talented women from realising their full potential, then it is doing a shockingly poor job insofar as female authors are concerned.

The Spiked! article attempts to address this:

Film is unique among artforms. Its emblematical qualities, of capturing and representing appearances, means it often carries the burden of postmodern theories of representation. As such, it has been one of the main focuses of feminist scrutiny.

If you have to resort to language as woolly as that, you’re clutching at straws. My guess is that it is a lot easier for feminists to muscle in on a cushy job around a film set than it is to sit down and write a decent book that people want to buy.


Trump’s Cuts: More Please, and Faster

President Trump’s budget proposal would have a disproportionate impact on organizations in rural and underserved communities.

says The Atlantic under the headline The Real Cost of Abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts.

Back in June I wrote an article on an outfit calling themselves The Figment Project which appeared to be a gaggle of middle-class New Yorkers passing themselves off as artists while helping themselves to taxpayers’ money which they spend, at least in part, on jollies for themselves.

I note from their annual report that The Figment Project draws funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. Perhaps if these funds were allocated properly, i.e. towards genuinely deprived communities instead of middle-aged Burning Man enthusiasts living in Brooklyn, then they would not now be facing the axe under Trump’s new budget. As I said in an earlier post on people passing themselves off as artists:

[T]here is a section of society out there which is not completely stupid (but not particularly bright either) who lack the talent, work ethic, and self-discipline to enter into professional or corporate environments and so attach themselves like parasites to the genuine arts world in order to give themselves some sort of identity.  The problem with the arts world – as opposed to say, law, engineering or music – is there is no quality control: anyone can tag along, dress up in costumes, get drunk, take some photographs, and claim they’re an “artist”.

What worries me is the degree of control and influence these people have over the overall arts world (including taxpayer dollars), and how they distort the image the public have of genuine, talented artists.

It seems finally somebody is doing something about it. Good.


American Painting in the 1930s

A few weeks ago I did something that, I think, I’ve never done before: I went to an art gallery specifically to see an exhibition I was interested in. Last year I was dragged around a display of badly-crafted junk and paint ejaculated at random over dirty patches of canvas in what was called a modern art exhibition in the Palais de Tokyo, but other than that I don’t think I’ve ever been to an art gallery. And yes, that includes the Louvre to which I have free access and I don’t need to queue, thanks to my employer shovelling a load of money in their direction at some point. I also skipped the Hermitage every time I’ve been in Saint Petersburg. Those scraping sounds you can hear are my knuckles dragging on the floor as I hunt for my banana.

This one was different, though. I saw it advertised on the metro, and immediately took an interest. The subject was American Painting in the 1930s and it was being held at the Musée de l’Orangerie. What caught my attention was their use of Grant Wood’s American Gothic in the poster:

I can’t say I was familiar with this painting beforehand but I had seen it occasionally and rather liked it, and I was curious to see what else they had on display. So along I went, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It helped that I knew about the era in question to begin with. I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, and noted other cultural references such as Brother, Can You Spare a Dime and the more recent Cinderella Man. I’m also fairly clued up on the history of America’s industrial development, which meant I could recognise the names and roles of companies, brands, and cities that were depicted in the paintings.

Quite a few of the paintings, particularly those created by the aforementioned Grant Wood, depicted rural landscapes and the agricultural life which was clobbered by the Great Depression and the dustbowl conditions. I probably found these the most interesting, originally hailing from a farming region myself (albeit one considerably wetter). I was interested to note that one of them – Fall Plowing – was owned by the John Deere Art Collection and depicted an abandoned plough.

I then proceeded to bore by companion with an (inaccurate) explanation of who John Deere was and the huge developments in the mechanisation of agriculture that occurred in the US following WWII.

Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare made a powerful point:

Another section concentrated more on the political side of things, with a lot of the painters having obvious Communist sympathies – hardly unusual for the time (or now!). A particularly good painting was Peter Blume’s The Eternal City.

The picture above simply doesn’t do the colours justice. The man in the room on the left was painted so well that the original makes it look backlit, and the turquoise of the head (Mussolini’s, I think) was almost fluorescent. One thing that was obvious from this collection was how much better the paints were compared to artworks of previous eras and how much better preserved they are. Not being hung for a century in a room with an open fire probably has something to do with it, though.

Philip Guston’s Bombardment, which depicts an aerial attack during the Spanish Civil War, was also very good. Again, the picture below doesn’t do the colours justice.

The exhibition tour finished with a projector on a loop showing clips from films of the era including Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and The Grapes of Wrath among others. I believe the purpose of this was to emphasise how much the Great Depression influenced American culture, and it showed there were two elements to this: works showing its terrible effects and those depicting hope and the country’s eventual climbing out of it.

The exhibition is finished now; I went on one of the last evenings and it was packed. If everyone else’s experience was like mine, it is easy to see why. It was excellent, and I think it’ll be a long time before I am as impressed by what is hanging on the wall of an art gallery. Hopefully that scraping sound has softened a notch.


Czartoryski’s Sale

This is interesting:

The Polish government has bought a world-famous art collection, including a rare Leonardo da Vinci painting, for a fraction of its market value.

The Czartoryski collection was sold for €100m ($105m; £85m) despite being estimated at about €2bn.

The head of the Czartoryski family, which owned the collection, said it was a “donation”, but the board of its foundation resigned in protest.

The Czartoryski Foundation’s management board said it was not consulted about the sale, which was negotiated between Poland’s culture ministry and Adam Karol Czartoryski, a descendent of Princess Izabela Czartoryska, who founded the collection in 1802.

Mr Czartoryski, the foundation’s head, said he was following his ancestors who “always worked for the Polish nation”.

“I felt like making a donation and that’s my choice,” he said.

I have no idea how foundations work, let alone how this one worked, but I suspect Mr Czartoryski (or his forebears) ceded partial control of the Czartoryski Foundation to a board but retained certain rights, one of which was the right to flog the collection.

The Czartoryski Foundation’s board of management said it did not oppose selling the collection to the government, but that it was concerned that selling without due diligence – including estimating a fair price – may be against its bylaws, Reuters reported.

It may be?  You’d have thought a board of management would know this, wouldn’t you? I suspect they are just pissed off they’ve been utterly bypassed by Czartoryski and/or stood to gain something should the collection have been sold at full price.

Either way, it’s hard to see what Czartoryski has done wrong.

Chairman Marian Wolkowski-Wolski told the news agency there was a risk of the collection’s eventual dispersal out of public control.

Erm, it wasn’t in public control when it was part of the Czartoryski Foundation.  What angle are you pushing here, madam?


Ship of Fools

I’m late to this, but I see there has been a deadly fire in an “artists’ collective” in Oakland, California:

Dozens of people are feared dead after a fire broke out during a rave at a converted warehouse in Oakland, California.

Authorities have confirmed nine deaths but say they are preparing for the death toll to rise as high as 40.

Oakland fire chief Teresa Deloche-Reed said between 50 and 100 people were thought to have been inside the venue.

The venue was hosting a concert by electronic group Golden Donna, along with six other acts. The venue had been announced on Facebook earlier in the day.

The building did not have a sprinkler system and firefighters did not hear any alarms when they arrived, Ms Deloche-Reed said.

The warehouse, which houses artists in improvised studios, was packed with furniture, mannequins and other objects, obstructing firefighters’ efforts to put out the blaze, she added.

“It was filled end to end with furniture, whatnot, collections. It was like a maze almost.”

The only exit from the second floor was a staircase made from wooden pallets, Ms Deloche-Reed said.

I occasionally encounter people who wax lyrical about “artists'” squats and other instances of “artists” taking over a building, thinking that doing so is exceptionally cool and edgy.  Not one of them has ever mentioned the potential consequences of occupying a premises which falls foul of any number of building codes and is uninsured.


Officials have opened a criminal inquiry into a fire that killed at least 36 people at a warehouse party in Oakland, California.

The premises had already been under investigation prior to the fire over possible building code violations.

The warehouse had no sprinklers and one ex-resident called it a “death trap”.

Officials described the interior as like a maze, with the warehouse packed with furniture, mannequins and other objects, the only exit from the second floor a makeshift stairwell.

The building, known as the Ghost Ship, was used to house artists in improvised studios but several reports say people were illegally living there too.

Neighbours had complained to the city about rubbish piling up on the street outside, and about the illegal tenants.

I don’t give a fuck how edgy or cool the people responsible for this place thought they were, if they have broken the law and people have died as a result then they ought to get the book thrown at them, same as the rest of us would.  Tim Blair has more:

Consider the number of people who might be implicated in potential wrongful death lawsuits, right down to every Oakland hipster café that allowed promotional flyers for this venue to every website that invited people on Friday night. Interestingly, with 36 confirmed dead in the deadliest US fire since 2003, artistic Oakland types are worried about other sketchy venues being shut down.

This is no different from driving an uninsured vehicle down the street with no license.  Much as though I dislike a lot of government regulation, some of it is sensible and stops innocent people getting hurt or killed.  People ignoring regulations because they self-identify as “artists” is something that should never have been tolerated in the first place.


Soviet Art

Once again via David Thompson, this article by Michael Totten on the ludicrous state of modern art is worth reading in full, and is fully consistent with what I wrote here.

The bit I want to discuss here, though, is this:

By obsessing over politics above all else, identitarian artists of the twenty-first century resemble the Socialist Realists from the Soviet Union in the early- to mid-twentieth century. One could charitably call Socialist Realism an artistic style, one that glorified peasants, factory workers, and Communist values, but it was nurtured by a totalitarian police state and was the only “style” allowed by the government lest hapless artists wished to live out the remaining days of their lives in a Siberian slave labor camp.

At least the Russian Socialist Realists were talented artists. They produced totalitarian propaganda, yes, but they did it competently. Their paintings are interesting and engaging, and not just because they’re curious historical artifacts.

I actually quite like the Soviet Realism art, not so much for aesthetic beauty but, as Totten says, for what they represent historically.  I particularly like those in this sort of style:




Of course, one must understand that they represent bullshit propaganda of the highest order in support of an abominable regime, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are not engaging and, in the context of what they represent, historically interesting.  And the artists who created them undoubtedly had considerable talent and skill.

I remember once searching the internet for a story related to the Waffen SS and stumbling across websites and forums devoted to this and other German units, full of people posting photos and pictures of various artifacts from WWII.  I wasn’t surprised, but was rather glad, that the sites weren’t centres of Nazi worship but were instead frequented by incredibly nerdy blokes who simply had a historical interest in the Waffen SS and its symbology.  As, I must confess, do I up to a point: I have a huge hardback book full of photos of the Waffen SS which I picked up at a jumble sale years ago, and it’s a good one.  What I don’t have, however, is a giant Nazi flag hanging up on my wall and an admiration for their policies or methods.

I had to make a similar distinction when I found myself interested in the Soviet Union (my obsession with Russia was always more an obsession of the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet eras; modern-day Russia doesn’t interest me much any more, having now lived in it).  I used to buy items with the Soviet symbols on them, and sometimes even wear them:

Which, I hope, didn’t make me the same as the middle class twats who display the hammer and sickle when screaming “Smash the State” in central London.  I’d not wear the hammer and sickle any more, or really anything Soviet, because my obsession has declined and I’ve grown up a bit and now wear different clothes.  But I still find myself admiring Soviet symbols and artwork, such as this which is on the wall of an old Pioneer camp just south of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (I wrote about it here back in 2007, I don’t know if the camp and its murals still exist).

And also this wonderfully optimistic mural which I found in the Sakhalin town of Nevel’sk:

What I still find fascinating about Soviet art and other aspects of Soviet culture is that they belong to a country which simply no longer exists.  People say the past is another country, but in the case of the Soviet Union this is literally true.  Culture changes with time and you can visit any country and see its cultural history, but I think the Soviet Union is the only country I can think of which ceased to exist – taking its artistic culture with it – almost overnight.  What emerged from the wreckage in the form of the independent states retained aspects of the Soviet culture to varying degrees, but in all cases they were fast moving in the other direction leaving vast swathes of cultural history abandoned, owned by nobody and claimed by nobody.

You can still see it, especially the well-made examples such as those on the Moscow metro system, but even they seem increasingly alien as modern Russians prefer to commemorate different eras of their history.  Eventually Lenin’s body will be carted away and buried somewhere, the murals will fall into disrepair or be replaced by something more modern, and the last remaining Soviet citizens will die out, taking with them the memories of films, plays, and music which nobody else would even understand.

Except this rather odd Brit, of course.



This amused:

Film director Ken Loach has criticised the current crop of TV period dramas for indulging in “fake nostalgia”.

In response to a question about Downton Abbey in a Radio Times interview, Loach said: “This rosy vision of the past, it’s a choice broadcasters make.

Loach said nostalgic dramas were “the opposite of what a good broadcaster should do, which is stimulate and invigorate”.

Allow me to translate that for you:

How dare those awful oiks watch things they enjoy rather than the artistic masterpieces I am paid handsomely to create with taxpayers’ money!

As an additional point, Downton Abbey must seriously grate with the BBC chiefs.  The BBC was always considered the global leader in “costume dramas” and in theory it is they who ought to have spotted the opportunity for Downton Abbey and reaped the millions its extraordinary success has generated.  But that fell to ITV, their bitter rivals in the ratings wars, who are dependent on getting eyes on the screen rather than simply lifting billions from British owners of television sets on threat of imprisonment.


Not Funny

This is a never ending problem, isn’t it?

Around 200 people walked out of Amy Schumer‘s show in Tampa, Florida, on Sunday when she called Donald Trump a “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The paper claimed Schumer was met with loud booing about halfway through the show when her jokes switched from raunchy topics to more topical matters, including gun control and the upcoming presidential election.

Artists, actors, writers, comedians – and I use those terms charitably – of a left-wing bent cannot resist the temptation to use their popularity as a platform to sound off on politics.  The result is usually tedious in the extreme.  Take this by way of example:

During her show, she asked a Trump supporter to join her up on stage so he could explain why he was voting for the GOP candidate. The audience member responded that he was voting for Trump mainly because he didn’t trust his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

People paid money to go to a comedy show and found themselves in a political Q&A session.  No wonder there was booing.

This comes from living in a bubble.  I am sure Schumer’s hilarious jokes about Trump go down a storm among some audiences, i.e. those who share her politics to the letter.  They then take their show to the wider world and find nobody is laughing.  I remember when Chris Rock first burst onto the scene with Bring the Pain, which was fresh, pithy, and hilariously funny mainly because he was providing an insight into black American culture that had never been described in such terms before.  Fast forward a few years and he’s on stage saying “Barack Obama!  Barack Obama!” and his audience is going wild.  This isn’t comedy it’s politics, and it only works if your audience shares your political view.

Not that you can’t make money out of it.  John Oliver seems to do extremely well out of telling sophisticated, educated Europeans and Democrat-voting Americans how thick Americans are.  But he’s preaching to the converted: they’re not laughing because he’s funny, they’re laughing because he is telling them what they want to hear and allows them to feel smugly superior.  A decent joke shouldn’t depend on who you want to win an election.

I don’t know if right-wing comedians do the same.  I expect they do, but they don’t get allotted the same airtime on the likes of the BBC and regular columns in newspapers.  I also expect right-wing comedians would be hounded out of the studio by a baying mob of the Permanently Outraged if they broached any subject which was even remotely controversial, i.e. immigration.  I suspect a lot of this has to do with state funding, with any budding artist or comedian needing to pass a strict political test before being commissioned.

If this keeps up, the arts in the west is going to look like that of Enver Hoxha’s Albania after a decade or two.


The Cruel Sea

Shift over, survivors of the North Atlantic convoys! Here’s a real story of nautical hardship:

When British artist Rebecca Moss was told over a ship’s breakfast one morning to sit down and brace herself for bad news, she wasn’t expecting to hear she was now stranded at sea.

She was told by the captain of the Hanjin Geneva that its South Korean owners had gone bankrupt, so the ship was barred from international ports.

The 25-year-old is taking part in an artist in residency programme, which was meant to be “23 Days at Sea”.

I don’t know what “art” she was supposed to be creating on this vessel had things gone according to plan, but it’s hard to imagine that the world will be denied a cultural treasure by this turn of events.

Rebecca figured it would just be a hiccup when she first heard the news.

She thought their ship would be redirected to a different port, or that a boat would be sent to fetch the passengers.

That was 13 days ago.

Aren’t artists supposed to draw inspiration from something new, something different, something unexpected, something challenging?  Any artist worth their salt would see this as an opportunity.  Alas, our intrepid artist-in-residence aboard the Hanjin Geneva sees only an opportunity to whinge:

“I have found the indefinite duration the most difficult aspect to deal with as an artist,” she said. “Formulating a strategy to make work becomes impossible when things could change at any minute”.

You’ve been stuck on a ship for 13 days.  You mean to say you’ve not been able to work because things could have “changed”?  This woman makes Frank Gallagher from Shameless look like a regular Stakhanovite.

Her daily life on board she says, is structured around meals.

Presumably if Hanjin had stayed in the black she’d have been working double shifts on engine maintenance.

There is enough food and drink on board to last them a few weeks.

Pity.  Live tweeting acts of cannibalism sounds like something worth following.  Especially if the tweeter is the one being eaten.

The programme, which started last year, sends artists across the Pacific Ocean each year between Vancouver and Shanghai and is meant to spark their creativity.

Yet God forbid anything happens which might potentially cause dreaded change.  Or mild inconvenience.

“I was, and am, excited about the trip as it chimed with a lot of my interests as an artist,” she said.

Getting free publicity for doing fuck all?

Her proposal for the trip was to explore how comedy arises in the tension between a mechanical system imposed into nature.

Leaving aside the issue of tension between a single system, this sounds about as funny as the cargo manifest.

“The situation is completely ironic,” she said. “It is bizarre how much it suits my interests.”

Hang on, weren’t you telling us a few minutes ago that you weren’t able to work?  Or is that what she means?

“I want to be informed of a definite plan for how the passengers are going to be able to disembark. I can work with a plan,” Rebecca said.

Funny how often these carefree, spontaneous, maverick “artists” need everything to be safely arranged in advance.  Usually by someone else.

The first thing she wants to do when she gets on land, she says, is meet up with other artists “in whatever place that ends up being”.

Which, I suspect, means meeting up with like-minded layabouts who are as much artists as I am a beekeeper.

“Every day I hope will bring news that we will get into a port,” says Rebecca. “(But) nothing has changed.”

Yeah.  So you could have done some work after all.

Unfortunately, she is now back on dry land and “due to start the final year of a postgraduate degree in fine art.”  Lucky us.