Artist celebrated, therefore clueless

Yesterday I got roped into going to a contemporary art exhibition of works by Subodh Gupta, an Indian artist I’d never heard of. Most of it was so-so, although not completely terrible, and this wasn’t bad:

What amused me, though, was the blurb which accompanied it:

I suppose he’s right in one sense: the duality of alluring excess and crippling starvation is a result of capitalism, without which you’d only have the latter. But it amused me that an Indian should complain about capitalist excess in a country which is mired in absolute, grinding poverty because it stupidly embraced socialism and continues to do so. If Gupta wants fewer Indians suffering from crippling starvation it needs more capitalism, not less:

Then again, this was an exhibition held in a gallery on the left bank of the Seine. No doubt the chap who commissioned it spends many an evening harrumphing to the dinner guests gathered on the terrace of his nearby two-million euro apartment about how terrible inequality is. To be honest, I’d have more respect for Gupta if he trotted out a few lines of boilerplate Marxism just to keep his paymasters onside than if he actually believed it. I suspect it’s the latter though; as I said to my companion yesterday, it’s nigh-on impossible to find an artist these days who isn’t some form of demented lefty.


The Art of Simon Stålenhag

Over the weekend I came across the works of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, who depicts a world where technology peaked and then for some reason regressed, leaving behind a society at 1990s levels amid the wreckage of what was achieved before. I’m not really an arts person, but I find this sort of thing very good:

I find myself wondering what these weird machines and artifacts were, what they were used for, and why things went wrong. The pictures remind me of the Fallout series of video games, particularly New Vegas.

Continue reading


A Very Modern Appointment

The BBC has put up a wholly uninteresting article about Lily Cole’s role in a Bronte Museum. Every year or so I hear this woman’s name and have to remind myself who she is: a model-turned-businesswoman who studied History of Art at Cambridge. What’s much more interesting is the actual blog post written by one Nick Holland which started the row:

Over the last few years it has become increasingly apparent that something is rotten in the state of Haworth’s Brontë Society. Annual General Meetings have descended into open warfare between modernisers and traditionalists, but it seems now that the council is being run along the lines of BBC farce W1A. For the last two years or so, a consultancy has been advising the Brontë Society on what to do – with pathetic results.

The drive now is for one thing – attracting a young audience. Being trendy is the ultimate aim, with the Brontës themselves relegated to the sidelines. The museum has a wealth of Brontë treasures, but they are now favouring the display of artificial items they feel will appeal to a modern audience.

From what I heard at the time, and what I’ve seen shared on social media, many people believed these ridiculous items were authentic, when the fact was the authentic items were locked away in storage. The rot had set in.

The drive to attract younger members to the Brontë Society is a pointless one. We hear people say, echoing the consultants, that the membership is too old – ‘look at the events, look at the meetings, everyone is old!’ In today’s society it has become a crime to be old.

This could have been written about pretty much every major Western organisation or body I can think of. With the long march through the institutions complete, the cultural Marxists are now sweeping up what they didn’t capture first time around.

This is relevant, too:

I am unfortunate enough to have encountered Lily before as a few years ago I had a front row seat of a new play about Helen of Troy at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Lily had the title role, and the play was so bad that it is the only one I have ever walked out of at the interval. If the acting was bad, and believe me it was, the dialogue was even worse – one line in particular was of such clunking ineptitude that it has remained with me forever: ‘women smell my power, men smell like sex’. It was when Lily delivered this line with all the passion of the announcer at Piccadilly station that I began longing for the train home.

Things rarely improve once a dose of modern feminism has been injected, do they?

This was, quite simply, the worst play I have ever seen, and the writer of it? Simon Armitage, the incumbent creative partner at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. So here we see one of the many problems with Lily’s appointment – nepotism. Nepotism is a disease particularly rampant in literature, so that the best way to get a book deal is to be a journalist, a celebrity, or a friend or relative of one. This is particularly evident at this time of year, when newspaper’s lists of the ‘books of the year’ feature writers bigging up those who share the same agent or publisher – an act known as ‘log rolling’. We now have a Brontë log roll, as Simon Armitage passes on the baton to his friend Lily Cole.

This is how #metoo campaigns start.


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.