Monthly Archives: February 2013

Mantel Antics

Hillary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” was a welcome bit of stocking filler for the Christmas just past, this author of great repute having only become known to me with the news of her recent ground breaking Booker Prize success. Being at least as fond of history and literature as the next person I was mildly bemused by this late discovery, but putting this quickly behind me, got stuck into the first part of her Thomas Cromwell epic with some enthusiasm.

I have now been wrenched free of this happy absorbed state by this absurd business of her British Museum lecture and the most direly pressing question of whether or not Mantel was mean about Katherine Middleton. The internet sphere has run riot, with far too many articles already springing up on this matter, and opinion falling either in vehement defence of the author or overly affronted defence of the princess. What’s one more then?

Rather then just weigh in directly, I’m going to try a little experiment on myself. I have yet to read the full transcripts of this speech and was only introduced to this all when I read Hadley Freeman’s article yesterday. This was followed by condemnation after counter-criticism after outrage with even David Cameron offering up his unimpressed thoughts on Mantel’s supposed cruelty in the midst of his Indian road trip. Taking these in, what is my uninformed opinion?

First and foremost, I cannot stand outrage, offence, hurt feelings, whatever you want to call them. A thick skin and a bit of self-confidence is what most of these situations calls for and my knee-jerk reaction to the knee-jerk reactions of most of Mantel’s new detractors was close to, “Aw, better call the waaaaaambulance.” The court of public opinion is a stupid, fickle thing and even if I ever did fall in line with the naysayers I would quickly become disgusted with myself for being susceptible to that kind of gallows justice.

This is all to say, luckily for Mantel, that my natural reaction is to defend her, certainly to the point of reading the damned speech and making up my own mind. Innocent until proven guilty is a cornerstone of proper law completely ignored in that aforementioned false judiciary. It just isn’t good enough in this situation to form your opinion on the opinions of others, Hadley Freeman, Zoe Williams, Robert Jobson, Sam Leith or the Prime Minister.

Right, I have now read the speech. Very intelligent, very engaging and above all it resonates, with me at least. A bit intellectually snobby? Maybe. But that in and of itself is no crime and is probably why several critiques found it hard to penetrate the apparent judgements on Middleton to see the underlying wisdom. Mantel’s comments with regards to the princess would be rather insulting out of context, but this only enforces the importance of context and the need to understand it.

From Middleton to Antoinette to Diana and Boleyn it is a sweeping mini-odyssey into the portrayals and roles of female figures throughout history and well worth a look, if only to shed all of that hot air surrounding it. Mantel’s distaste of the media’s hideous habit of binging on photos and headlines of all things of great unimportance to sate our voracious appetites, is easy to sympathise with. I say leave us starving of innuendo, I want real news.

Incidentally, Mantel closes the speech with the acceptance that this particular issue wasn’t very high on the agenda of public debate. The irony of having pushed it up the order to the nth degree is probably not lost on her. This wasn’t an attack on a person, but on several institutions that deserve a great deal more ire for precisely the reasons Mantel discusses. Certainly more ire than she herself deserves for having dared to discuss them.


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Simon Jenkins on Art

Mr. Jenkins has been making a bit more of an effort than myself recently, exporting works on Cameron’s European overtures, British involvement in Mali, concepts of urban and rural beauty, gay marriage and even suggestions of how the London Met could rehabilitate themselves in the public eye. He deals with all with a characteristic surety, one that often prompts my retorts, and never more so than his most current piece discussing art.

This is a similar theatre to his discussion on film theory, one that I also got stuck into, but in this case I probably feel a bit more vehement in my objections. It goes back to his assertion in that article that film, and by extension art, is essential to the human condition whereas I argue they are both more akin to simply important but often wonderful gratuities. I hasten to re-establish this position while also pointing out a glaring contradiction in his article.

In my repost I put forward a broadly held view that art must be lacking in function. This idea applies more to physical utility, as art of course technically functions in a variety of capacities ranging from an emotional catalyst to, most importantly, a creative exploration of our environment. But art is not remotely the only known entity responsible for these notions and in my opinion not even the most effective. Respectively, human interaction and science supersede them.

Were you ever reduced to sadness quite so much by any artistic creation, as you were when saying goodbye to a friend for the last time? Were you ever made happier by the same than when saying hello? And was anything artistic ever more valuable an exploration than the sometimes imperceptible scientific creativity that has led to our continually improved mastery of everything in the world and beyond? Art is superfluous next to these.

I should be very careful to delineate my understanding of art, the arts and artistic mediums. While artistic in a sense, I do not see literature, music, film or television as art in its true form, and in an academic sense the “arts” are anything really outside of pure and social sciences. “Art”, with so much repetition the meaning is fast becoming lost, is to me very specifically the rendering of the physical or conceptual into a new physical medium, such as painting or sculpture.

Being no expert in this field I can only suspect that makes me quite the traditionalist, and admittedly I’ve immediately limited the scope for what art can achieve. However, this scope is the roughly the same that Jenkins is applying to his discussion of the fascinating Ice Age relics that are currently being housed in the British Museum. He suggests they are windows into “a world of painters and sculptors who must have produced many such objects…”.

Undeniably so. Not to get carried away with the idea that every Ice Age hominid was an artisanal toiler, whittling or carving the day away, but around 50,000 years ago behavioural modernity had developed. More likely than a society of artists though, there were fewer specialists responsible for a great deal of these surviving works, a theory proposed by archaeologists in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”. These marvels often possess idiosyncratic details.

It is much the same as today. Most of us possess a creative streak to some extent and a few even have the clarity of vision and skill to transfer their thoughts into the world with great efficacy. The point is that from the earliest age of the modern human to this day, artistic creation has been a feature and is almost irrefutably a natural instinct of ours. So why then, as Jenkins ultimately alludes to, does art need to be part of the national curriculum?

Exposure was about the only valid defence for its inclusion in my opinion, but now I would give the average child more credit in terms of their curiosity and self-propelled development than others might. The sum total of our formative educations is not limited only to that which school imparts. Even if I were to concede that this added exposure through the schools doesn’t technically do any harm, it’s still a useless institution for the subject.

This proposal probably comes down to what we see as the core purpose of under-16 schooling. Is it to nurture and grow talent where it is seen, or is it simply to churn out the basic template of a young member of society who is ready to invest in their skills from that point? To all levels of education I would apply the former case, and this makes art a particularly wasted subject in our current educational structures. Incidentally I believe these structures make most subjects less effective.

It’s a criticism based on the “jack of all trades, master of none” principle. There is a vaguely defensible argument for a rounded education, but I think most of us would agree that the vast majority of informations taught to us at school became very quickly redundant or forgotten depending on which professional path you took. Pythagoras theorem and every chemical formula, physics equation and grammatical conjugation was almost wilfully ejected post-GSCE in my case.

My personal belief is that after literacy and numeracy are achieved, specialism should be sought out. More attention should be given to children at a younger age to determine what their strengths are and these should be pursued more vigorously. The outcome would hopefully be exceptionalism in their fields rather than broader competence. The idea behind this is that exceptionalism is most determined by the simple factor of input hours.

Some are born gifted in a certain fashion, but the only way to truly unlock those innate qualities is practice. Practice, practice, practice. And a bit more practice. Malcolm Gladwell suggests around 10,000 hours is the benchmark to truly distinguish oneself, and I apply this to all subjects, especially art. Even the most astonishing visionary could never be a great artist without the requisite technical talents, drawing etc., and that takes time to achieve.

Time that could never be adequately given over to nurture any genuine talent in our current school system. Leonardo da Vinci went to apprentice at the age of fourteen and was committed to this for ten years, which took him from a purportedly burgeoning talent to one of the finest artistic and intellectual beings of all time. Damien Hurst was a school reprobate until he finally landed at Goldsmiths and became a producer of art’s worst conceptual abominations.

Perhaps an unfair comparison but the underlying point is there. Hurst might have just beaten the national curriculum, which wasn’t imposed until 1988, but his limited artistic environment as compared to a true master is perhaps one of the reasons why he seems to publicly lack any technical artistic skills. The same actually applies to so many cases in the modern world of art, not just the world of modern art. There is less skill.

Blame I feel is to be placed on the modern form of education. As it is, it is barely suitable for the teaching of the core sciences, English and maths, with barely enough time dedicated to those to achieve impressive levels. But for anything else that also requires really significant investments of time, such as art, music and drama, it is hopeless. Besides, what could paltry art classes really add to a human instinct that stretches back tens of millennia?

Just to reiterate, I do believe that art is a fantastic and unique aspect of humanity that stretches back through our history, and is a part of us. And that is precisely the reason why teaching it in our schools, as they are, is a complete waste of time and the idea that dropping it from the curriculum would be detrimental to children and our wider culture, holds no truck with me whatsoever. Don’t bring that new age nonsense to my door if you’d be so kind.

Despite this, I will end on the same startling tangent as Jenkins did in his article. Gove is indeed yet another flip-flopping embarrassment to the name of competent and assertive governance. His Ebac plans were shredded for being an overly radical and narrow re-imagining of an already flawed system, and I generally agree with the criticism. Not, however, because he was trying to scrap the arts. It was a distillation of an already bad idea.

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Mind the Gap

The Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge

The gauntlet was thrown down on Monday to the WordPress community, and we are to lay out our positions on the battle between ebooks and the fast dying breed of physical, printed books. This is a fairly straightforward issue in this writer’s opinion. As things are, whether it be 10 or 50 years from now, the physical book will cease to be in mainstream circulation, driven off by the incredible convenience of the Kindle or similar device.

There are three clear emotional positions to take on the matter however, the first being that you are a die-hard, hard copy lover to whom the ebook is a sad and loveless thing. Where is the joy in your cherished book collection being contained in grey sliver of plastic not larger than even a small collection of short stories? The attractiveness of a beautiful bookcase filled with quality works is hard to ignore, if you care even a little for literature.

The opposite position doesn’t necessarily carry a dislike for the physical book, but certainly can. Ever had a book melt on you? To be more precise, has the glue binding for your copy of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” ever vanished in the southern French sun, to subsequently allow a stiff breeze to blow half of it into the nearby swimming pool? Ever tried to read a book on the crowded public transport, forcing strange contortions upon yourself just to balance the copy and turn the page?

Then the ebook is probably your friend. If I’m going on holiday for two weeks, I may well want a good few books for the trip and the obvious logic of carrying a little over 200 grams of Kindle, instead of potentially several kilograms of book, is there. If there’s a hint of WiFi at my destination I need not be concerned with a misfired purchase, being able to peruse a sample before near instantaneously downloading the whole thing at my discretion.

Detractors from the device are evident, of course. My paperback has only a limited sensitivity to water and won’t run out of battery because I forgot to turn it off. I’m not overly concerned with dropping my printed texts off a balcony and neither would I be concerned with their theft. An ebook fetches a better price than my tatty old copy of Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder”. And perhaps egotistically, no one can see that I’m reading that arty, thoughtful novel on the ebook.

Ultimately, I see no need for this to be a Marmite issue, there’s no need to camp out so firmly on one side or the other, nor be conflicted at all. I think the two could exist in harmony, with the right conditions. A brief look at the thoughts of my fellow bloggers will reveal that both are acceptable or preferable in different circumstances. We all want to maintain and expand our bookshelves, for the visual and tactile pleasures inherent…

But we can’t deny the convenience of the ebook. And with bookstores shutting down left, right and centre it seems that convenience is winning the battle. I, like many, love bookstores, it’s upsetting to see them go and this probably drives most individual’s dislike of the ebook. I personally don’t see why they can’t fight the fight of literacy and enlightenment together. Don’t challenge me on the logistics yet, as I haven’t worked them out, but why not have a digital purchase be complementary with every physical purchase?

The lesser price of a digital purchase is down to the lack of printing and shipping expenses, and primarily covers the intellectual property value. Why then, if purchasing the more expensive physical copy, should I not receive a digital version given that I’ve already paid for the intellectual property as well as everything else? Could this not give the High Street bookstore a reprieve from the onslaught of the electronic age?

I don’t think the printed book will ever cease to exist completely. More likely it is going the way of the record, cherished by a certain clique of enthusiasts but otherwise ignored by iPod fanatics. It doesn’t have to be a tragic thing in that regard. If anything, like the record it might create a new degree of self-satisfaction and superiority for being a traditionalist. Hard to imagine your average literati would complain about that.

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