A weekend of art

I spent the weekend in Paris and got down into some kulcher, as the kidz call it. On Saturday night I went to a show called Kiss & Cry in a small theatre somewhere around the Strasbourg-St. Denis metro. When I sat down I saw eight or nine models of various scenes in miniature – a house, a beach, a railway – several people standing around all in black, some very high-end video cameras on booms and a giant screen hanging above everything. I guessed right away they’d act out scenes with the models, film them, and project it live on the big screen, and this is basically what they did for an hour and fifteen minutes. The two principle actors used their hands and fingers instead of their bodies in wonderfully choreographed movements against a miniature background of considerable complexity. The effect worked very well. A team of about 10 people ran from one “set” to another, filming, mixing, inserting sounds, and creating all sorts of special effects in real time, including floods, blizzards, sandstorms, reverse-gravity, and deaths. For the audience, the most interesting aspect of the show was to watch the technicians at work on the miniature sets and see how it appears simultaneously on the big screen. In terms of technical skill, coordination, and discipline it was highly impressive and showed what can be achieved by simple models, decent cameras, and a lof of imagination.

On Sunday I went to an exhibition of modern art by the Argentine Tomás Saraceno in the Palais de Tokyo. A sign near the entrance let visitors know what they were getting into up-front:

“A planet free of borders and fossil fuels”, eh? Why how original. Because if not from the creations of edgy artistes, where else would we hear debates on environmentalism and open borders? “New ways of thinking”, indeed.

The first exhibit was basically a bunch of cobwebs which, although impressive and expressing undeniable aesthetic beauty, left me wondering why it was the artist and not the spider whose name is on the exhibition:

I spent most of the time looking for an actual spider, and eventually I saw one: it was huge. Sadly, it didn’t leap from its web and sink deadly poisonous fangs into the neck of an annoying child. Now that would have been art. Note also the exhibition is in pitch darkness, as was most of it. This might be my inner Philistine speaking here, but I’m of  the opinion that if your visual masterpieces are best seen in the dark, they’re probably not very good. Much of the exhibition concerned spiders and lots of woolly guff about cosmic particles which I don’t think the artist really understood. One room showed a video of a diving bell spider shot in ill-focused black and white, which made me think I’d be better off simply watching Animal Planet. Or perhaps it was the appallingly crap footage which made it art.

A bit further along the artist’s exhibits started rambling on about thermodynamics, which he didn’t seem to understand much of either. Certainly, there was no mention of steam tables. The best he came up with in relation to the subject was an acknowledgement of the fact that certain particles move upwards through the atmosphere “independently of fossil fuels”. Who knew? To illustrate this he presented a picture of the earth with various particles moving about, a bit like those .gifs you see on Twitter which map plane flights or marine traffic in real time. Only the .gifs are generally more interesting. I got the impression this chap latches himself onto a scientific subject in order to lend his work gravitas, but doesn’t bother to learn the discipline in question. Like Laurie Penny calling herself a nerd, I think a lot of artists pretend they are involved in science and  engineering in order to give the impression they are not empty-headed lightweights who would last about three minutes in a lecture on fluid mechanics. For example, one piece introduced the subject of space elevator – an interesting enough subject for a visual artist to cover – but this was little more than a premise for another sermon from the pulpit of environmentalism. Apparently any such device must be made available to all species, not just humans. How the blue whales will manage is anyone’s guess. Anyway, his depiction of the concept was six helium balloons in the dark. Another exhibit was a room full of string which the artist called Algorithms, perhaps in the hope he’ll be offered a job in Google.

Next we wandered into a room where a bunch of helium-filled balloons with marker pens hanging off them drew random patterns on the floor as they moved in the air. The blurb beside the exhibit talked in lofty terms of natural motion and forces beyond human consciousness (although not the artist’s, obviously) but I noticed the air currents in this exhibition hall were driven solely by a big f*ck-off industrial-sized HVAC unit hanging off the ceiling while guzzling fossil fuels. If it weren’t for this, his stupid balloons wouldn’t have moved and it would have been too cold for anyone to visit them.

The balloons set the scene for more woolly guff about “aerocenes”. Now I don’t know what they are, but it appears they’re against capitalism and fossil fuels and are worried about climate change. So your typically dim lefty, then. Have a read for yourselves, or not.

Finally we saw the artist had enlisted some slave labour volunteers to help him build a  giant balloon made of plastic bags from various countries – including Palestine in case anyone doubted his intersectional wokeness. The idea was it would fill with warm air, ascend, and blow around a bit. The way the artist described what most schoolboys learn from Ladybird books would have you thinking he’d just cracked cold fusion, but I suppose the average lefty who turns up to modern art exhibitions is sufficiently awed. In a room laughably described as a workshop I saw this picture on the wall:

What this shows is distillation columns in a refinery or chemical plant. What it does not show is chimneys. However, in order to make a refinery look more polluting, the artist has photoshopped it to look as though smoke is coming out the top of them. Now unless the plant is undergoing a serious industrial accident, this is impossible. One of the reasons I’m not in a full-blown panic over environmental degradation is those who claim to care the most about it often resort to outright lying over its extent. On the other wall of the workshop was a chalkboard inviting people to leave messages. I drew a methane and an ethane molecule and left, secure in the knowledge that a thousand visitors would pass by before anyone would get the joke. I suppose the irony would be lost on the artist himself, who can while away the hours pontificating over loosely-grasped scientific concepts thanks only to the excess wealth produced by a society built on fossil fuels and capitalism.

So if you’re in Paris next weekend and fancy a spot of culture in between the teargassing of rioters in yellow vests, I can recommend Kiss & Cry at the La Scala theatre. I can’t recommend Tomás Saraceno’s rubbish at the Palais de Tokyo.


A paucity of talent

From the BBC:

This year, we felt it was time to direct the spotlight away from Hollywood and celebrate the best cinema from around the world. We asked critics to vote for their favourite movies made primarily in a language other than English. The result is BBC Culture’s 100 greatest foreign-language films.

The problem with asking people what they think is they might give troubling answers, as the BBC has discovered:

If there’s anything disappointing about the final list, it’s the paucity of films directed or co-directed by women. There are just four out of 100. But we made sure to contact as many female critics as male ones; of those who responded, 94 (45 per cent) were women.

The obvious conclusion is women don’t make particularly good films, something even women critics agree with. However, the BBC devotes an entire, separate article telling us this isn’t so. So what is? Why, sexism, of course!

This troubling result puts the current conversation about the dearth of women film-makers in a wider context: by being barred from the exercise of their craft in cinema, women run the risk of being excluded from its history.

So women were barred from being directors, eh? Then how come four films directed by women made it onto the list?

“It’s a matter of volume,” says producer Deborah Calla, Chair of the Diversity Committee of the Producers Guild of America, the West Coast Chair of Women’s Impact Network, and advisor to the Geena Davis Institute. “There are fewer films directed by women, and so there are fewer films directed by women winning awards or being picked by festivals. Women directors end up having a smaller footprint.”

I wouldn’t have thought it matters if only ten women were directing films if their output was good enough. Welshmen are not underrepresented in marathon running because not enough of them train.

Scarcity leads to invisibility, and invisibility leads to more scarcity – and thus the history of cinema comes to be written and taught with little or no women in it.

I’ve written about this before and asked why, if sexism prevents women prevailing in the arts, they have been so staggeringly successful in publishing. Are we to believe studios were hotbeds of patriarchal oppression while publishing houses were staffed by woke feminists?

As cinema progressed from novelty to business, however, women were pushed off sets and out of studios.

So despite their talents, women were kicked out of studios because of business interests? Is this a roundabout way of saying their output didn’t sell? After all, our aforementioned booksellers didn’t seem to mind Agatha Christie, did they?

“We are on the cusp of great change, not just in Hollywood and the West, but worldwide,” adds Kelly. “We are half the world and we need to tell at least half the stories because up until now we have been hugely outnumbered. The exclusion is systemic, and the change will not be easy, but it is happening. I look forward to a time when it isn’t an issue and a director doesn’t need the prefix ‘woman’ in front of that title.”

I have a feeling Kelly is going to remain disappointed, unless she’ll be satisfied with watching mediocre female directors being applauded by SJWs as they receive participation trophies for films nobody will watch. For I suspect what’s happening is being a director requires a certain technical ability, obsession with details, risk taking, and stubborn perseverance which are more commonly found in men than women. Simply put, most women aren’t interested in becoming directors and, when they are, they don’t do a particularly good job of it. There are some exceptions – Kathryn Bigelow and Sophia Coppola have made some good films, although it would be hard to deny they’ve benefited from close proximity to male masters of the same craft – but in general women don’t make very good films, and can’t compete with men in the way their sisters who write books can. The BBC may just as well have compiled a list of the 100 best rock drummers and complained only a handful of women were on that.


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?