Thursday, December 31, 2009

Change of the guard among the cultural capitals

Each year the European Union names one or more of Europe's cities the European Capital of Culture. In 2009 the honour was shared by Linz in Austria and Vilnius in Lithunia. In 2010 it's the turn of Essen and the surrounding Ruhr region in western Germany, Istanbul and Pecs in Hungary.

The Ruhr is a far-flung region and 53 towns and cities make up the "Ruhr.2010" project, with Essen as the principal city. Like Linz, the Ruhr is struggling with post-industrialisation. Its glory days were built on coal mining and steel production. Today the region is struggling with high unemployment, low investment and falling population. It is hoped that the year as one of Europe's cultural capitals will help the Ruhr valley turn the corner to greater prosperity and a sustainable cultural, social and economic structure.

The thinking behind such optimism derives from the influential books by Richard Florida. His most influential book, The Creative Class, describes how cities and urban regions can boost business activity and secure a better future by attracting creative individuals - the members of the "creative class". Florida's ideas have now become popular in many parts of the world and have been tried with varying degrees of success.

In many ways the Ruhr is an ideal candidate for a makeover a la Florida. Already the region has introduced a number of interesting cultural initiatives and organisations and others - such as the theatre in Bochum - are well established centres. The Ruhr, with its many challenges, will certainly be a good testing ground for the creative industries and the Creative Class theory. Time will tell how powerful the cultural sector is in regenerating old industrial regions in the current economic climate.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kepler: the new Philip Glass opera

The latest opera by Philip Glass is his twenty-second, so he clearly feels attracted to the genre, although few of his stage works are 'operatic' in the traditional, melodramatic sense. The new opera - titled Kepler - is no exception.

The libretto is the work of the Austrian theatre director Martina Winkel and consists of texts taken from the writings of Johannes Kepler, the Bible and the Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was an astronomer who proved that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe and that in fact the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. At the time this was heresy and Kepler was hounded by the religious authorities throughout his life. But the libretto focusses more on Kepler'a ideas and spiritual conflicts than on the day-to-day struggles of a man struggling to reconcile his science and the society around him. It is, then, not really operatic in the traditional sense and could equally be an oratorio. The concept (but not the music) reminds me of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex.

Glass's cool, methodical and ritualistic music is well suited to the scientific and philosophical bent of the libretto. The whole work also has a strong ritualistic element which also fits well with Glass's musical language.

The second act develops a clearer and stronger dramatic narrative and the music at points showed elements of a more romantic language. In that sense it starts to feel a little more like a traditional opera although the libretto never really leaves the rather dry realm of scientific theorizing.

The opera received its world premiere at the Landestheater in Linz, Austria in September. Directed by Peter Missotten, this first production is visually rich with powerful use of light, vibrant copper colours, video projections and the existing architecture of the stage area.

The work is a welcome addition to Glass's operatic output. While the libretto runs close to becoming arcane, the music is approachable, rthythmic and warm and the text does have a certain relevance to some of the key problems facing contemporary science and our wider society.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Rewriting history

This is a statue of Dr Karl Lueger (1844-1910), the Mayor of Vienna between 1897 and 1910. Lueger was a well-known antisemite and was a major influence on the thinking of Adolf Hitler. The future Führer lived in Vienna during the Lueger years and described Lueger as the most powerful German mayor of all time. The statue was erected in 1926 and today dominates a square named after Lueger in central Vienna.

But not everybody is happy about Lueger's prominent place in contemporary Vienna. Now moves are afoot to redesign the statue and the surrounding square to turn it into a memorial against antisemitism and racism ( Submissions for a redesign of the square are currently open. But the proposal is not without controversy. Michael Häupl, the current Mayor of Vienna, has ruled out a redesign of the square and would prefer an explanatory plaque on the statue.

Across Europe during the last twenty years (since the end of the Cold War) many streets, squares and avenues have ben renamed. In the case of Leningrad the whole city was renamed, back to prerevolutionary St. Petersburg. The end of World War II saw a similar rebirthing as countless Adolf Hitler squares and streets were renamed. As much as such rebadgings are understandable, they do, of course, represent a form of historical revisionism. Nobody would want to live in Adolf Hitler Square today. But cases such as Lueger are less clear. He was nowhere near as extreme in his views as the younger Hitler. Many other past national heroes and local identities throughout the world have histories and had views that are no longer acceptable. While we need to warn against racism in all its forms, pretending that it did not exist in the past (and does not continue to exist) is not the solution. In the case of Lueger, a new square and monument against racism would be better. That would allow us to acknowledge the past while charting a more positive and egalitarian future.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Life on the moon

The composer Alban Berg exhorted peformers to play new music as if it was old, and old as if it was new. For well over half a century Nikolaus Harnoncourt has led the musical world in the refreshing of many masterpieces of the classical repertoire. It was fortuitous that Harnoncourt's eightieth birthday coincided with the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Jospeh Haydn. Harnoncourt has certainly done his bit to rescue some of the largely forgotten operas of Haydn. The most recent example of this happy combination was the production of Haydn's 1777 comic opera Il Mondo della Luna at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna that finished its run on 22 December.

I made it along to the last performance and it was a real treat. Harnoncourt's own orchestra Concentus Musicus Wien was in the pit and Tobias Moretti was the director. The young cast was excellent and their genuine acting and movement skills were one of the highlights of the evening. The production was contemporary in feel and made effective use of video in the first act.

The whole performance showed how current, interesting and alive opera can be when the approach to the old is that of a creative team and cast approaching a new work. Just as Berg wanted.

p.s. If you are in Vienna anytime soon and you want to see some fresh, lively opera minus the layers of dusty tradition, check out the Theater an der Wien. It's a wonderful old and small theatre where Beethoven once lived and where his only opera, Fidelio, was premiered. But it's not the history that counts. A recent magazine survey of 50 critics put Theater an der Wien in second place of the world's best opera houses! It's well worth a visit if you want to see opera come alive.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do religion and music mix?

We are used to the idea that the state and religion are best kept separate. I would like to argue that music and religion should follow suit.

Some would argue that music is an ersatz religion, that when also goes well music can bring about experiences in us that are similar to religious ecstasy. If this is true, we should ask what happens when these two powerful cultural phenomena come together in the form of religious music.

Today I heard Franz Schmidt's oratorio The Book with Seven Seals performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This piece is my Exhibit A for why religion and music don't mix. It was written near the end of the composer's life and requires a large orchestra, six singers, choir and organist. With such big resources at hand it is an even greater pity that the music (first performed in 1938) is so run-of-the-mill and uninspired. It sounds like half-baked Hindemith.

When composers like Schmidt are overcome by the calling to set religious texts to music it seems that it is music that comes off second best. Perhaps they are blinded by their religious fervour to the point that they fail to notice that the music flowing from their pens is second rate. That is my argument for keeping music and religion separate. Religion only subjects music to extra-musical imperatives such as the worship of a supernatural being and music, at least in the case of many twentieth century composers, is the one that comes off worst. Let's keep them apart.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In the Führer's footsteps

I was in Munich the other day. I went to see the Haus der Kunst (House of Art). This is a large art museum that is now home to contemporary exhibitions. When I was there, there was a show by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. But what I really wanted to see was the building itself. It was built under the Nazis in the late 1930s and survived the war more or less intact. Hitler intended it to be the new home for German art. In his mad world German art would be freed of Modernist influences and the art of jews, Communists and anybody else he didn't approve of. And this museum was to be the new home to this ideologically cleansed German art. It was an embarassment to the Nazis that the exhibition of works by the banned, so-called "degenerate" artists (everybody that Hitler didn't like) was more popular than that of the officially approved new German artists who were shown here at the Haus der Kunst.

Nazi ideology placed considerable importance on the arts. For those artists prepared to tow the party line (and with the required racial profile), the Nazis were good for business. Hitler himself was an artist of sorts and was keen to open the new museum himself when it was finished in 1938. There is a well-known photo of him delivering his speech to a bevy of luminaries in this very building. The building has changed very little since then. The monumental pillars of Nazi architecture are all there, the megalomania is still very present. It is not hard to find the exact spot where the Führer stood to delivery his speech and his views on arts policy. It is still somehow an eerie experience, standing in the footsteps of the most "evil" man in history. Europe is, of course, full of traces from Hitler and the Nazis, but for me at least, this was the first time I had stood in the same spot where he stood and delivered one of his withering speeches. It was a sobering moment indeed.

Photo: Adolf Hitler opens the Haus der Kunst with a speech in the main hall. The hall still looks much the same today.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bernhard in Brandl

Gmunden is a country town in Upper Austria. It sits at the top of Lake Traun, a long and narrow mountain lake in the Salzkammergut. Gmunden is a strange kind of place. It's a kind of upper-class Royston Vasey. The landscape is beautiful and the town is also pretty. If you are just passing through or spend a day or two here you probably wouldn't notice much unusual. But if you stay much longer you start to notice that money really does not buy happiness. All in all the Gmundner don't have much to complain about. And money is certainly not a problem. But that doesn't mean you see too many smiles or obviously happy people around. 

If you want to understand that uniquely western ability to resist happiness despite having satisfied all your basic needs (and more), then the writing of Thomas Bernhard is a great place to start. Bernhard is Gmunden's contribution to great literature. A writer of novels and plays, Bernhard used to hang out in the cafe in the centre of town, the Cafe Brandl. Bernhard's writing is acerbic but somehow ecstatic, destructive but loving. He captures the artificiality of society and then turns the knife again. Sitting in Brandl is a good way to get a feel for Bernhard, although it is hard to say exactly how or why. He was certainly a writer with a deep connection to those around him, the community of Gumnden and Austria, with all its querks and curiosities. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tony Abbott to lead the Libs into oblivion

The Liberal Party has found it's own Mark Latham. It must be something to do with the electoral cycle. Parties seem to think that the first term or two in opposition are a good time to try a few wild experiments. In the case of the Liberal party it has also jumped back two years. It has clearly learnt nothing from its 2007 election defeat and the intervening two years of political history.

A lurch (back) to the conservative right is the last thing the Australian electorate is going to reward anytime soon. The Howard years are over. Perhaps it is a natural part of the electoral cycle that newly minted opposition parties spend the first term or two still believing that they are still in government. After eleven years in power the remnants of John Howard's government are certainly having trouble coming to terms with the fact that the world has moved on.

At this rate it is going to be a very long time before the Liberal Party can offer a serious alternative for contemporary Australia as distinct from an alternative that involves turning back the clock. Recent polls indicate that the Liberal Party is heading for electoral oblivion, particularly if the climate change skeptics who are now calling the shots get their way and another round of dithering becomes the order of the day. Maybe time travel back into the good old days seems like an attractive alternative to the party's parliamentary members. Bon yoyage!

Photo: Bart Fields

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Artists in Australia to benefit from resale royalty rights

Last Thursday the Australian Parliament passed resale royalty rights legislation for visual artists. The Arts Minister Peter Garrett described it as a "red letter day for Australia's visual artists". The introduction of such a law was an election commitment made by the Australian Labor Party during its 2007 campaign. It follows almost twenty five years of on-again off-again debate in Australia about the merits of resale royalty rights for visual artists.

Under the new law artists will receive a proportion of the proceeds when their works are re-sold. The system only applies to works first sold after the law's introduction, which is expected to occur by mid-2010. It is also limited to sales over $1,000. The royalty will be payable until seventy years after the death of the artist, as is the case with other forms of copyright. The rate will be five percent of the sale price although administration costs will also be deducted before the final payment is made to artist. The scheme will be administered by a central authority as is the case for copyright royalties in the music and publishing industries.

The new law will bring Australia into line with European Union member countries. It is expected to be particularly beneficial for Indigenous visual artists in Australia. It is in the Indigenous art market that some of the most extreme cases of price inflation that have failed to benefit the original creator have occurred. While the new legislation is not going to solve all of the financial problems facing visual artists in Australia, it may help some to keep the proverbial wolf from the door and allow them to spend more time on their creative practice.

Photo: Šrotíř David

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Good-bye noughties

Next month the first decade of the twentieth century ends. Yes, the days of the noughties are numbered. Ten years ago we were all getting ready for the millennium bug. The "experts" were predicting a computer meltdown at midnight on New Year's Eve 1999. What a fizzer that was! Remember? Probably not, it was such a non-event. Then there was SARS. And then Bird Flu. This year's armageddon is (or was meant to be) Swine Flu. Anybody like to hazard a guess at what it will be next year? Scaremongering is now big business and we all love nothing like a good scare. Happily the media is happy to oblige with another beat-up.

9/11 was also part of the noughties. Now that was big! Funny that none of our experts saw it coming. They were too busy whipping up artificial crises. Ditto the great financial meltdown. How many economists are there in the world? And how many saw that one coming? Why do economists still have jobs?

So how was it for you? The noughties, I mean. That time since the race narrowly escaped the millenium bug wipeout, almost ten years ago. I reckon the noughties were, all in all, not too bad. Technology delivered us some cool new ideas and gadgets: social networking, iPods, blogging, Google Earth. If the 90s was the Microsoft decade, the noughties belong to Google. In the arts, we saw the return of kid lit' with the boy wizard. The greatest film event was the Lord of the Rings. Musically I think it was an average ten years. A period of consolidation without any major new stylistic developments. Check out NME's top 100 for the decade here. We also saw contemporary visual art experience a great bubble of interest. Maybe the decade belonged to the visual arts. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. Prices soared before falling back again after the GFC hit. What the next decade brings, only fools would dare predict. Do you want to go first ...

Photo: Pavlunka

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Questions on going to Berlin

I am going to Berlin next month. My timing is good, because the German capital is flavour of the month in the media at the moment. The papers are full of reports about the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago this month and there have been plenty of TV documentaries on the city. I have been reading and watching with great interest and making notes-to-self on things to see and do.

But then I got thinking about how best to approach a visit to a city such as Berlin. There is much more to Berlin than just the Wall and the Third Reich. Is it "right" to visit the city with pretty much only those two historical events in mind?

As an aside, something that was largely forgotten in the celebrations surrounding the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the wall this week, was that 9 November was also the date of the November Pogrom in 1938 (also known by the Nazi term Kristallnacht) when 91 people were killed.

But back to the questions. How, in this case as tourists, should we value the relative importance of events in history? It would be easy to spend four or five days in Berlin viewing nothing but the wall, the Holocaust memorial, the Stasi musuem etc. etc. But wouldn't this skew our appreciation of history? What about the contemporary arts scene in Berlin? What about the Berlin of the nineteenth century? What about its art collections and galleries? What about following the footsteps of famous people who have lived in Berlin as you would in many other great cities. The list includes Edward Munch, Marlene Dietrich, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Weill, Felix Mendelssohn, Hegel and Humboldt to name but a few. And what about the great Berlin cabaret tradition?

There is more to Berlin than is currently meeting the eye courtesy of our slavish and simplistic media. For my guide, tune in next month.

Photo: Wolfgang Staudt

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Who needs a conductor?

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has recently had a very public falling-out with its now-departed Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Oleg Caetani. As a result it seems that some members of the orchestra - or at least Robin Usher writing in The Age today - are wondering if they need a Chief Conductor at all. Robin Usher is right to point out that going sans artistic director would be a step outside the norm amongst orchestras around the world, but his list of great orchestra/conductor partnerships overlooks the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra that knows a thing or two about orchestral playing and does not have a Chief Conductor. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and The Chamber Orchestra of Europe are two other fine ensembles that prove you can more than get by without a Chief.

Still, I think Usher is right. The MSO should have a chief conductor. The difference between the MSO and most of the other Australian orchestras is the way artistic directors and chief conductors are appointed. Most of Europe's great orchestras are thoroughly democratic institutions and individual players have greater control over the destiny of the orchestra than do their colleagues in Australia. The Vienna Philharmonic, for example, has the legal status of an incorporated private association. The Managing Director is a member of the orchestra who leave his or her desk to attend rehearsals. The Chief Conductors of the great orchestras are hired and fired by democratic processes involving all members of the orchestra. This boosts the sense of belonging, collegiality and "ownership" amongst players.

It is curious that despite Australia's fabled egalitarian beginnings, in general organisations such as universities, orchestras and major corporations are becoming less collegial and democratic. There is certainly lots of the ubiquitous "consultation" going on but many people are now cynical about how genuine this, especially as opportunities for democratic decision making are quietly being whittled away. The MSO needs a chief conductor. One chosen democratically.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Art and politics before the Fall

The media are a buzz with stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of this historic event, the most important moment in the protracted end of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War in Europe was a political milestone that also had far-reaching implications for the arts.

Isolated from the West for over forty years, artists in the countries of the Communist Bloc developed their own artistic language. They lived under oppressive and dictatorial regimes that left little room for free expression or dissent. But while many artists produced compliant art in the service of the all-seeing state, others were able to subtly or secretly pursue more radical forms of expression in a game of cat and mouse with the authorities.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the "triumph" of the West, the work of most artists from the former East suffered the same fate as the political and economic system and was discarded to the bust bin of history or at best to the cabinet of curiosities we in the West use to convince ourselves that we know (and knew) best. Only now are the first exhibitions and film festivals starting to ask whether the art of the Eastern Bloc might have some merit, at the very least as historical documents. The German Historical Museum in Berlin (Deutsches Historisches Museum) is currently hosting the exhibition Art of Two Germanys / Cold War Cultures. The show features 350 works by various artists and writers from East and West Germany and contrasts the differing approaches in the two countries without indulging in simplistic conclusions. Hopefully it is just the beginning of a more extensive of a more sensitive and less jingoistic assessment about how art and politics mix.

Image: A.R. Penck, Der Übergang, 1963, Ludwig Collection, Aachen

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Obama names his arts team

President Obama has appointed the members of his Committee on Arts and the Humanities. Chaired by First Lady, Michelle Obama, the Committee is notable for its inclusion of high-profile Hollywood stars including Sarah Jessica Parker and Forest Whitaker. Cellist Yo Yo Ma also got the gig.

One of the tasks ahead for the Committee is to rehabilitate the USA's flagging cultural diplomacy program. Cultural diplomacy is the attempt to favourably influence public opinion in foreign countries through cultural exchange. It was a key element in US efforts to "win hearts and minds" during the superpower struggle of the Cold War. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 US cultural diplomacy has lost direction. Its primary agency, the US Information Agency, was wound up in 1993 and some commentators see this withdrawal from the field as partly to blame for the animosity toward the US way of life seen amongst disaffected youth in many parts of the world today.

Obama's cultural diplomacy program will focus on Mexico and China and one of the major sub-programs uses film as a tool for international cultural understanding. Under the title American Film Institute 20/20 the film program has since 2007 brought international guests to the US for workshops, conferences and screenings while showing the world another side to the US film industry. Let's hope that Sarah Jessica Parker and Forest Whitaker also see the benefits of film beyond the world of Hollywood!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bring back the Spiegeltent

The Melbourne International Arts Festival wound up over a week ago. Maybe you didn't notice. Maybe you never noticed it had even started. This year was the first festival of new Director, Brett Sheehy. It was a much more "in door" festival than we become used to over recent years. This year's Festival had minimal street presence. In the last few years the Spiegeltent had helped get the festival out among the people and created a certain "buzz" around the city. Located on the Forecourt of the Victorian Arts Centre it was always a hive of activity from noon until late. Passersby could hardly fail to notice.

This year Callum Morton's sculpture/installation Valhalla occupied the same space. But it was never going to have the same social function as the Spiegeltent. The Tent also brought in audiences who would not otherwise attend mainstage Festival events. This year's Festival also seemed to have cut that crowd adrift.

The program seemed generally to move toward the more traditional, Euro-centric, arts-festival fare. Not that I am complaining about that. This is not about weighing up different artistic tastes. Its just an appeal to bring back - if not the Spiegeltent - some form of public gathering place for the life of the Festival. A good arts festival should be more than just a string of arts events!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Francis Bacon's 100th birthday

This week - 28 October to be precise - was the 100th birthday of the British painter Francis Bacon. He was a driven man whose uncompromising, energetic and powerful pictures matched his famously tragic and extreme lifestyle. Bacon was the most important painter in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. His big, powerful canvases demand the viewer's attention and never leave you untouched or ambivalent. At a time when abstraction was all the rage, Bacon - a more-or-less self-taught artist - pushed the figurative to its boundaries and with it the human form. Almost all of Bacon's works focus on one or two people and he had a fascination for the human mouth and the body in motion. The gaping mouths of the Pope pictures he painted during the 1950s spectacularly reflect his oral fixation. Based on Velasquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), these are some of the best known Bacons. His predilection for the body in motion was fostered by Muybridge's 1887 book The Human Figure in Motion. David Sylvester's book Interviews with Francis Bacon is still one of the best books on twentieth century painting. One thing is for sure about Bacon's paintings, you won't find many on corporate boardroom walls! And that is a good thing.

Happy Birthday Francis Bacon!

Check out the Tate's recent Bacon show here:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Austrian musical haikus

It is one hundred years since the Austrian composer Anton Webern composed his String Quartet Opus 5. Webern has a reputation of being the writer of some of the most intensely concentrated music ever written. The French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez has compared Webern's music to Japanese haiku poems. The String Quartet was the first milestone in this remarkable development. Webern's complete works fit onto three CDs. The second movement of his Opus 5 is just thirteen bars long. The whole five-movement quartet takes five minutes to play. When you reach this level of concentration, every note counts. Nothing is superfluous. There is no "padding".

It is remarkable to realize that this music is already one hundred years old. It seems much more recent. Webern was so far ahead of his time. His Opus 5 predates Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913) and were written around the same time as Gustav Mahler was writing his last works.

Webern died tragically in 1945. He created a body of work that remains unsurpassed in its concentration, intensity and musical beauty. The nuts he left are not easy to crack, but take the time to explore his music, and the rewards are fulsome.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Callum Morton's Valhalla

Callum Morton’s walk-through sculpture work Valhalla is installed outside the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne until 24 October. It was originally commissioned for the 2007 Venice Biennale and the current installation is its first in Australia.

The piece is a three-quarter scale model inspired by a house designed by Morton’s architect father. The outside of the two-story building is derelict, grey and vandalised, the windows are boarded up. But when you go up the steps and enter you find yourself in the shiny, tiled interior of a lift-foyer of the type that occurs in contemporary office and apartment blocks around the world. It is spotlessly clean. The cleaner’s bucket and mop sit in a corner.

Located on a busy thoroughfare in central Melbourne, the exhibition attracts its fair share of tourists, lunchtime strollers and visitors to the nearby National Gallery of Victoria.

It is a work that moves the artistic experience into the heart of the viewer. The three-quarter scale is disconcerting as you stand in front of the three faceless and soulless elevator openings wondering if they are going to open. Morton’s work is superficially simple and uncomplicated. You soon realise that the drama takes place in your own reaction to the space, not in the space and the building itself. As you stand there, uncomfortably close to the ceiling you notice the confused reactions of your anonymous companions. The grungy exterior of the building has led you to expect some sort of hard-hitting commentary on this or that aspect of contemporary life. But the piece is anything but didactic. The rumbling noises emanating from the bowels of the building are portentous. But the terror never materialises. Except in our inner-most fears.

Click here for more information

Monday, October 5, 2009

Safeguarding the Tango

UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural, educational and scientific arm, has been protecting the world's cultural and natural heritage since 1972. But it was not until 2003 that it developed a legal framework for preserving endangered intangible heritage such as dance, oral traditions, music, rituals and traditional performing arts.

The Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, speaking recently in Abu Dhabi, said that he was "surprised, upon my arrival in UNESCO (in 1999), to note the relatively low priority given to living heritage compared to the strong focus on the tangible part of the world’s cultures”. In response, UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 and 114 countries have now signed up.

At its meeting in Abu Dhabi last week UNESCO's intergovernmental committee made the first additions to the List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Representative List now has 166 listings. Among the recent inclusions are the tango, India’s Ramman religious festival and France’s Aubusson tapestries.

Under the Convention signatory states undertake to 'take the necessary measures to ensure the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage present in its territory.' These steps can include education programs, documentation and requesting international assistance. Intangible heritage listed as "endangered" may also be eligible for financial assistance from UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund. Elements currently on the endangered list include the Qiang New Year festival in China and the Cantu in paghjella: a 'secular and liturgical oral tradition of Corsica'. The Qian New Year festival was added after 'the 2008 Sichuan earthquake destroyed many of the Qiang villages and devastated the region put the New Year festival at grave risk.' In the Corsican case UNESCO notes that a 'sharp decline in intergenerational transmission caused by emigration of the younger generation and the consequent impoverishment of its repertoire' has placed paghjella at risk and warns that 'unless action is taken, paghjella will cease to exist in its current form, surviving only as a tourist product devoid of the community links that give it real meaning.'

For more information go here: UNESCO

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Klimt's returned. Now for Vermeer.

Another spectacular restitution claim against a major art museum emerged today in Vienna. The family of Jaromir Czernin is claiming the circa 1666 painting The Art of Painting by Jan Vermeer was sold under duress in 1940 and is now illegally in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The work would normally be considered priceless.

Up to 1940 the painting was in the possession of Jaromir Czernin. He was the brother-in-law of Kurt Schuschnigg, the ill-fated Chancellor of Austria as Nazi Germany annexed its smaller neighbour in 1938. Czernin and his wife were subjected to various forms of harassment by the Nazis and his family now claims he sold the painting to Adolf Hitler under duress. Earlier assessments of the case found that the sale to Hitler was legal and that the post-war transfer of the painting - the biggest ever completed by Vermeer - from Hitler's estate to the Republic of Austria was correct.

The case follows on the heels of the famous restitution of a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt painted in 1907. This painting was returned to the niece of its pre-war owner after a ten-year international legal battle. It was eventually sold in 2006 for US$135 million.

The new Vermeer case also promises to grab headlines and will be an interesting opportunity to see how far restitution practice has progressed after the messy and protracted stonewalling of the Austrian government over ten years in the Klimt case.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Obama Bounce

Public opinion polls indicate that US President Barack Obama is enjoying much greater levels of public support among major European allies than his predecessor did. According to the Transatlantic Trends 2009 survey, just over three quarters (77 percent) of respondents in the European Union and Turkey "supported U.S. President Barack Obama’s handling of international affairs". In the last year of the George W Bush presidency the same measure was down to nineteen percent. The authors of the Transatlantic Trends Survey describe the President's appeal to Europeans as an "Obama spell".

But the news is not all good for President Obama: he is considerably more popular in Europe than he is in his own country and amongst the people who elected him. The people of Central and Eastern Europe are also less enthusiastic about the new President than are their West European counterparts.

When it comes to the big issues there were some other interesting trends. Americans are much less inclined to trade economic performance for environmental sustainability than are the Europeans, 73 percent of whom would be prepared to sacrifice some economic growth to help deal with climate change. Americans also feel more adversely affected by the current recession.

The Obama bounce has brought European enthusiasm for the United States back to around the average levels seen over the period since the end of World War II. Now all Obama needs to do is get his compatriots (and voters) to see things the way the Europeans do! French lessons for New Yorkers, perhaps?

Further details on the survey results are available from Transatlantic Trends.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The inspector makes a timely return

If you happen to be in London between now and 14 November make sure you see An Inspector Calls. J. B Priestley's 1944 play is an old-fashioned pot-boiler that sketches the self-destruction of a well-to-do British family when confronted with the implications of its disregard for other people. This production was originally mounted by the Royal National Theatre in 1992 and has itself become a classic. After its National season it moved to the West End, where it played for over a year. It has now been revived and is on at the Novello Theatre in the West End.

The production is the work of Stephen Daldry, whose other credits include Oscar-nominated films such as The Reader, The Hours and Billy Elliott. The set design brings out the claustrophobic intensity of an arrogant family turning in on itself against the background of age-old generational conflicts. The themes of hypocrisy, social and economic class structures and the inability to deal with unpleasant truths are as contemporary as ever.

The economics of J. M. Keynes are back in vogue and the political thinking and writing of Priestley - a contemporary of Keynes - are also deserve an airing. The play was written as the beginnings of the great postwar settlement - led in Britain by the Labour government of Clement Attlee - were emerging from the fog of battle. This was a time of renewal and of a feeling that "things would never be the same again." Only a few months ago our political leaders were promising that the patently corrupt world of turbo-capitalism would also be banished forever. The backsliding on those commitments has already begun. Perhaps Priestley's play in this wonderful production can help ensure that the will for change remains alive. The inspector's return is timely indeed.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Adolf Loos: denuding architecture in 1909

The design for Vienna’s Loos Haus is 100 years old. The what, you ask! The Loos Haus is a building in central Vienna designed by the modernist architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933). It is regarded as one of the most important buildings in twentieth-century architectural history.

Adolf Loos was one of the most notorious artists in turn-of-the-century Vienna, where his friends included the composer Arnold Schönberg, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the acerbic social and political commentator Karl Kraus. He lived a tumultuous life and his rigorously modern architecture offended the conservative elites of his day. His most famous essay was titled Ornament and Crime (Ornament und Verbrechen). This biting but visionary work was published in 1908 and described ornament in design as degenerate, primarily because it meant that items of design quickly went out of fashion when a new ornamental fad emerged. Loos foresaw a future when architecture would be free of ornamentation and “the streets will … glow like white walls.”

The so-called Loos Haus was commissioned in 1909 by the prominent Viennese company Goldman und Salatsch. The building Loos designed can still be seen today and looks as strict as ever amongst the nineteenth buildings and directly behind the old imperial palace. As building began in 1910 the Viennese and their emperor were so shocked by the bare external walls that the City Council ordered a stop to work. Construction eventually resumed when Loos agreed to the inclusion of window boxes. But the old Emperor Franz Joseph never liked the building. Little did he know that within ten years of the Loos' building being finished World War I would blow apart the Austrian Empire, drive the royal family into exile and usher in a world of architecture that owed a great debt to Adolf Loos.

Photo by Recluse 26.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Australia signs up to cultural diversity

Australia’s Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett, today announced that Australia was signing up to the United Nations Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. It is the 101st country to do so.

The Convention came into force in 2007. Australia, under the government of John Howard, was one of six countries that did not support ratification of the Convention when it was originally adopted in 2005. In 2007 the government of Kevin Rudd committed to ratifying and in September 2008 called for public submissions in response to the planned ratification. “This is an important step in support of our diverse cultural heritage and a vital artistic life for our citizens”, Mr. Garrett said.

The Convention has nine stated objectives including "to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions" and "to create the conditions for cultures to flourish and to freely interact in a mutually beneficial manner". It also aims "to encourage dialogue among cultures with a view to ensuring wider and balanced cultural exchanges in the world in favour of intercultural respect and a culture of peace" and "to foster interculturality in order to develop cultural interaction in the spirit of building bridges among peoples."

Eyebrows were raised when Australia opted to abstain from the 2005 ratification vote. Some critics of the convention see in it an attempt by countries such as France and Canada to limit the global power of US culture such as Hollywood. The most prominent opponent of the agreement was the USA and it has still not signed up. Nor is it likely to do so in the near future. The main sticking points are the articles (five and six) that allow signatories to introduce measures aimed at protecting "cultural expressions" they feel are threatened by those of other countries. The US argues these provisions are open to abuse. They may also cause conflict with the free-trade commitments made by member countries of the World Trade Organisation.

Australia's signing up to the Convention is not going to shake the world of international culture and law but it is another welcome sign that the Rudd Government is putting the country's multilateral relations on a more even keel after the arrogant indifference of the Howard years.

Click here to read the Convention

Monday, September 21, 2009

The digital era reaches the concert hall

The Berlin Philharmonic's launch of its Digital Concert Hall is the latest chapter in the development of alternative media as platforms for the broadcast of the performing arts. It is a web-based video service featuring full-length concerts by the orchestra available either live or from an archive dating back almost two years.

Free-to-air television stations around the world have become increasingly reluctant to broadcast theatre, opera or orchestral performances that appeal to small, specialised audience cohorts. But performing arts companies need the publicity that broadcasting brings. They are also keen to use broadcasting to reach audiences in regional areas without incurring the costs of touring.

YouTube is one medium that carries short videos of performances but the quality is generally not good enough to adequately represent an opera, orchestral concert or theatre performance. The Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall delivers video recordings of the orchestra's performances in quality that is very close to that of a DVD. It is also possible to watch the concerts live, although this is only attractive if you live in an area that is close to the European time zone. The Philharmonie, the concert hall that is home to the Berlin Philharmonic, has been specially equipped with remote-controlled video cameras that free the stage of the visual culture of bulky TV cameras.

If the idea catches on with other performing arts companies and venues it will give music, theatre and dance lovers unprecedented access to the world’s great performing arts companies from the comfort of their own homes and at a time of their choosing. For the companies that are able to deliver quality performances coupled with reliable software and net infrastructure it could also be a source of additional income (the Berlin Philharmonic charges €9.90 for 72-hour access to a single concert recording). An online golden age for the performing arts could be just around the corner.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In praise of mistakes

Philosopher Julian Baggini last month published a guest essay for the British think-tank Demos on the virtues of mistakes. Mistakes are the result of risks. But without risk innovation is impossible. Baggini argues that we need to be more embracing of mistakes and calls for a "mistake-tolerant political culture".

We are so mistake-averse as a society that politicians routinely get involved in increasingly spectacular rhetorical contortions designed to avoid making a mistake. But, as Baggini says, it is impossible to be an effective politician without making mistakes. In the words of Einstein, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

My last blog argued that our affluence had made us more conservative in our musical tastes. It also plays a role in our aversion to mistakes. We have become very self-satisfied. Our pioneering spirit has largely disappointed. Our public life seems to have shifted to a defensive mode aimed at conserving what we have, even if it means doing without the things we might achieve and acquire.

In his conclusion Baggini writes that 'the status quo is not working so well that messing with it is not a risk worth taking.' That is the crux of the matter; how do we assess how well the status quo is working? It seems that at present too many are too complacent about the status quo for them to risk embracing mistakes and more innovation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Who killed musical innovation?

The other day I heard a radio announcer on a classical music station arguing that contemporary orchestral music is under-represented in today’s concert repertoire when compared to the concert programs of the nineteenth century. Basically, the argument was that it takes twentieth century composers much longer to get into the standard repertoire than it did their nineteenth century counterparts and that was an indictment on modern orchestral composers.

Certainly nineteenth-century audiences listened to much more contemporary orchestral music than we do. But who is to blame, if, indeed, we agree that the orchestral concert hall has become a museum - with the average age of works performed somewhere around, at a guess, 125 years - and that this is a regrettable situation? Traditionally, music lovers blame the composers. They are meant to write to the tastes of audiences. But what if audiences have become intolerably conservative? What if the world’s orchestras have closed their books and are happy to pander to audience taste for the ‘canon’? Nineteenth-century composers got into the repertoire much quicker because the repertoire of the day was much more contemporary. There was more room for them and audiences had a thirst for the new.

Affluence plays a big role here. We are more affluent than in any era in human history. Affluence and conservatism go hand in hand. The more affluent we become as a society, the more we hanker to protect our affluence. This attitude spills over into our culture and the pioneering spirit is replaced by a desire to protect the familiar and to bask in the self-referential desire to have our “taste” confirmed. The obsession with “taste” is an off-shoot of affluence.

Technology is also important. Today, for a few hundred dollars you can easily assemble a collection of recorded music that spans the last 500 years and in the comfort of your living room go on a musical journey between Gregorian chant and the music of John Cage or Steve Reich. Such a luxury is unprecedented in human history. Beethoven knew very little music that was not written by his contemporaries. The average music lover today knows much more music than Beethoven did. And it is almost entirely more than a century old.

Nothing is to blame for the mothballing of our orchestral culture more than the self-satisfied conservatism of our audiences.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New opera by Philip Glass ready to go.

A new opera by Philip Glass has its world premiere in the Austrian city of Linz on 20 September. Titled Kepler it is based around the life of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). The libretto is the work of Martina Winkel, an Austrian writer, and the performance will be conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. For further info go to

Kepler lived through dramatic times. When he died in 1630 Europe was in the grip of the Thirty Years War, the devastating struggle for religious supremacy in central Europe. In 1617 his mother was even tried and convicted as a witch. Kepler was deeply religious but was able to combine his beliefs with radical scientific inquiry that laid the foundations of modern astronomy.

The scientist previously attracted the attention of the twentieth-century German composer Paul Hindemith. His opera Die Harmonie der Welt (Harmony of the World) was premiered in 1957 and the title refers to a book by Kepler titled Harmonice mundi.

The mix between political turmoil, the search for knowledge and the perennial struggle between the individual and society is a potent one. We look forward with keen anticipation to what Philip Glass makes of it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Iron Curtain: twenty years gone

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Yes, just twenty years. Twenty years ago crowds of demonstrators defying the infamous Stasi East German secret police took hammers, chisels and pickaxes to the Berlin Wall and tore down the final legacy of the monumental defeat of Hitler’s Germany. The Cold War – Act Three of Europe’s horrifying twentieth century tragedy that began in 1914 – had finally ground to a halt. The weapons may have fallen silent in 1945, but the fear had only subsided, not evaporated. In East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968 the Soviet Red Army reminded the world that a secure peace based on individual and national freedom remained a dream.

But what was this final act like? And why did it end with a whimper and not with the much-feared World War III? The Cold War is receding into memory even though our fascination with retro design, fashion and living is breathing new life into our selective memories of the 1950s and 60s, a time when we all lived under the threat of nuclear Armageddon. The Cold War was a time of monumental change the outcomes of which we are still living with.

In the West these were the glory days of democracy. The de-mobbed soldiers returning from the devastated cities of Europe were not going to accept a return to the old social structures of the 1930s. In Britain the new Labour government introduced a universal health care scheme and brought public education into the twentieth century. Black GIs returned to the US with their eyes opened about racial segregation. Many Afro-American GIs had experienced more civil liberties as members of the occupations forces in post-Nazi Germany than they had ever know at home in the “land of the free”. The civil rights movement was heating up.

Ancient power structures were under threat and technology was aiding and abetting the new trend. The age of mass communication was dawning. The march of the radio, record player and the TV set had begun. Popular opinion among the entire population was becoming important as everyone now had the vote; man and woman, rich and poor. And mass public opinion was being shaped by the new player on the political football field: the media. As Anthony Giddens has pointed out, in this new world order revolutionaries no longer head for the Bastille. It is the TV and radio stations you need to control.

The Cold War world was also a period of burgeoning personal wealth for the common man. Automobiles, refrigerators, televisions and holiday travel became affordable for the average wage earner. The world began to shrink and the global village was born. In Europe people became tourists in nearby countries that had been enemies a generation before. Tourism and international travel became an important source of inter-cultural exchange and understanding.

This was also the golden age of cultural diplomacy. The Cold War was a battle for hearts and minds and culture became a potent weapon. Film, radio and popular music were all important elements in the Western message about how good life was in the "free" West. In the early years of the Cold War the US occupation included exhibitions of American consumer products and domestic wares. An idealised image of ‘the way America lives’ was projected into Germany’s ruined cities and accompanied by a unique amalgam of democracy, consumerism and mass-communication technology. It was a potent mix and became the essential tonic in the attempts by the Western allies to rehabilitate Germany as a member of the international community.

Twenty years on, some feel that the triumphant West has gone from "moral supremacy" to decadence and arrogance. A glorious age of peace has certainly not materialised. International cultural exchange remains important if we are going to reach a sustainable peace.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Richard Strauss: did he mean it?

The anniversaries keep coming, particularly the sixtieths. The German composer Richard Strauss died sixty years ago today. He lived a long and very productive life and his works are still prominent in the repertoire. His “greatest hits” include the operas Salome, Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra and the tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the opening of which shot to iconic status when it featured in Stanley Kubrick’s cult film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But I have never been able to fully overcome some lingering doubts about Strauss’ status as a great composer. His technical mastery is beyond question. The sheer brilliance of his writing for orchestra and for the voice is outstanding and produced some of the most memorable moments in opera. But does his music have that extra something that makes great art?

I once asked Simon Rattle if he planned to conduct the entire cycle of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. In response he said he was not sure about conducting the Eighth because he was not convinced that Mahler “meant it”. (He has, however, gone on to perform and record the entire cycle, including the Eighth.) That is my problem with Richard Strauss. I am not sure he really meant much of his music. There is not much “heart” in the music. The passion that is there seems staged, like that of a great actor.

Strauss and Mahler were contemporaries and friends, the latter being just four years older. But what a difference there is between the two. While I share some of Rattle’s doubt about the Eighth, few would question Mahler’s commitment to his art and his personal “presence” in his works. He meant it! Strauss was a wonderful craftsman but only rarely did he rise to the heights of great art.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Barbed wire and cuckoo clocks

In November 2009 it will be twenty years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain that separated West and East Germany for forty years. Germany is gearing up for various commemorative events to remember the victims of the Communist regime in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), commonly known as East Germany.

One of the most ambitious projects is an exhibition called Art of the Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures (Kunst und Kalter Krieg / Deutsche Positionen 1945 - 1989). Curated by Stephanie Barron, Senior Curator of Modern Art, LACMA and Dr. Eckhart Gillen, Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH, the touring show started at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and next opens on 5 October in Berlin at the Deutsches Historisches Musuem.

For most of the Cold War and the twenty years since its end it has been customary to see the ultimate failure of East Germany as an indictment of its political and economic systems. It was also widely assumed that this failure could be directly transferred to the culture of East Germany. Surely the work of artists living under a Communist dictatorship would be inferior to that of their colleagues who enjoyed the artistic freedoms that existed in liberal democracies. For most of the last two decades since the West got unfettered access to the art of East Germany that certainly seemed to be the assumption. The Art of Two Germanys exhibition now goes some way to reassessing such crude assumptions. The interplay between political systems and artists is rarely straight forward. Orson Welles in the film The Third Man (see last blog) put it nicely if a little cynically:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

p.s. Those lines are not the work of Graham Greene, who wrote the story of the Third Man. Orson Welles added them while shooting the film.

© Brian Long 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Happy Birthday, Third Man

If you have never seen Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning film The Third Man, you should get hold of the DVD and reserve the couch for a great cinematic experience. The film first screened on 2 September 1949 and on its sixtieth birthday is as watchable as ever. It stars Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, the screenplay is based on a book by Graham Greene and the best-selling soundtrack is a classic of film music.

The film was shot in the streets of bombed-out post-war Vienna and could almost serve as documentary with its shots of “real-life” rubble piles and fractured buildings. The wonderfully suggestive suspense sweeps you up and keeps you enthralled to the end.

The film captures the bleak days between World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. The cynicism of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and the dog-eat-dog emphasis on individual survival at the heart of the film bring home the moral, political and ethical climate at the beginning of the post-WWII world. Indeed, we should ask if much has changed. As Harry Lime stands looking at people on the street below he is asked whether he thinks about his victims.

You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays. Sound familiar?

© Brian Long 2009

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

1933 art auction in dispute

For sometime now there has been an ever-growing list of cases of people lodging claims for the return of artworks and artifacts they claim were stolen or sold under duress during World War II. These snippets from a tragic historical drama of immense proportions often feature complex narratives and the outcomes are rarely clear-cut. A number of countries have set up special commissions or committees to deal with the decisions on who is entitled to disputed works.

Britain's Spoliation Advisory Committee has recently delivered its verdict in a very murky case involving eight drawings that are now in London's Courtauld Institute. In the early 1930s they had come into the possession of Professor Carl Glaser whose heirs last year claimed they had been sold under duress and should be returned to them. Glaser auctioned most of his substantial art collection in May 1933 after the Nazis came to power and removed him from his position as Director of the Staatliche Kunstbibliothek (State Art Library) in Berlin. Glaser was born to Jewish parents but had converted to Catholicism in 1914. The drawings were bought by Count Antoine Seilern and in 1978 they were part of a bequest that ended with the Courtauld in London.

The Courtauld argued that the Berlin auction was not a forced sale as a letter survives from Glaser to the painter Edvard Munch in which he describes having 'freed myself of all my possessions, so that I might start over again completely new' after the recent death of his first wife. The prices for the works were in line with market expectations at the time and Seilern was known to be an anti-Nazi who never attempted to hide the provenance of the drawings.

In its argument, the Courtauld concedes that Nazi persecution was a factor in the 1933 but argues that the decisive factor was Glaser's own "free choice". In its judgement the Spoliation Advisory Committee decided that 'the claimants’ moral claim is insufficiently strong to warrant a recommendation that the drawings should be transferred to them.'

Glaser's heirs have now reportedly appealed to the British culture secretary to have the Committee's decision disregarded.
The Art Newspaper also has a story on this case here.

Like so many before it, this case proves how difficult it is to deal with disputed transactions that took place sixty or seventy years ago. Nevertheless, the difficulty of reaching a correct decision should not deter people from attempting to find a just outcome. Recent high profile cases such as that surrounding Maria Altmann's successful claim to famous gold portraits by Gustav Klimt have thrown the spotlight on this shady corner of twentieth century history and it will be a while yet before all of the proverbial skeletons are out of the closets.

© Brian Long 2009

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lies, damned lies and statistics

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has released its report on Cultural Funding by Government, Australia, 2007-08.

Total funding was up from $5.6 billion to $6.3 billion. This represents a return to increased funding per person after the preceding year saw a drop in funding per person. But, as Michelle Gratten notes in Melbourne's Age newspaper, most of the funding, and most of the increase, goes on "environmental heritage".

Why is the funding of environmental heritage not a matter for the environment budget and the corresponding statistics? National parks and the like have a cultural element, but their environmental significance is greater than their cultural importance.

The over-extension of the word "culture" is common today. Just think of the debate around the nature and definition of the term "cultural industries". The anthropological argument is that everything is "cultural" because everything exists within the framework of a system of shared beliefs and social processes that is at the heart of culture. The danger in this all-inclusive definition is that it irons out differences of degree. While everything may exist within a cultural frame, not everything contributes equally to that culture. These differences have been lost as the arts in particular pursue a misguided attempt avoid the label "elite".

So, in the case of the present statistics, the funding of environmental heritage is listed as "cultural" alongside libraries, museums, dance companies and arts centres. The result is that the funding of "culture" appears substantially higher than the portion that goes to "core" cultural activities, those whose primary focus is the creation of shared meaning, beliefs and experience. The use of the word "culture" is about more than semantics. With it come official statistical reports and the decisions that are often based on such numbers.

© Brian Long 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nationalism and art

Installation View:
Liam Gillick
How are you going to behave?
A kitchen cat speaks

La Biennale di Venezia 2009
53. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte
German Pavilion
Courtesy Liam Gillick

The Venice Biennale is one of the world's most important contemporary art exhibitions. It features nationally selected artists who use their country's pavillion to exhibit their work and generally the artists are chosen by some sort of national process. In Australia they are selected by the Australia Council for the Arts, the Federal arts funding and policy body.

So it was quite a departure from tradition when the German pavilion at this year's Biennale featured a British artist, Liam Gillick (born 1964). What a daring move! This is a clear break with the nationalist tradition of the Venice Biennale. And the Germans were not alone in taking this new direction. The Curator of the Hong Kong pavilion was a German, Tobias Berger.

The pavillions in Venice are themselves part of the artistic experience and today many works are site-specific. So Gillick spent a lot of time coming to terms with the history as well as the architecture of the German Pavillion. It was originally built in 1909 and has seen many transformations reflecting Germany's troubled political history.

Nationalism and art have never really been happy bed fellows and it will be interesting to see whether other nations follow the German example at Venice in 2011. Somehow, I doubt few will.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Strength in numbers

Arts organisations frequently fail to exploit possible synergies between them. Often they see themselves as competitors when in fact they have more in common than they think. What is more, visitors and audience members don't usually buy into such rivalries. Brand loyalty is not really an issue in the arts. The same people who visit one gallery or exhibition, will just as easily visit another "competitor" museum a few weeks later.

So it is good to see a host of major British museums, galleries and arts companies combining their resources to create a new online shop called Culture Label. Museum online shops have up to now been pretty basic when compared to other major online shopping options. Online selling via a state-of-the-art website can be expensive and resource intensive. But museums and galleries are becoming ever more dependent on their retail departments for cash as funds from the public purse become scarce. So an initiative like Culture Label may be an important step in the direction of greater profits and better service for shoppers.

The site is still in the Beta testing phase, but it allows shoppers to buy products from the Tate, The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Barbican, Shakespeare's Globe and many more. The site seems well organised and user-friendly and the range of products on sale reaches from homewares and kids clothing through to original artworks. The Director, Peter Tullin, says that the "time for cultural shopping has arrived". Maybe the arts industry is about to discover strength in numbers is better than a lone-wolf existence.

For more info' check out this YouTube video.

© Brian Long 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

Reading the past

I love reading old newspapers. It is a great way to get direct access to the way people used to think. It also bypasses hindsight as we see the strength of opinions held then that now seem laughable. Anybody who reads old newspapers will take today's opinions and truisms with a slightly bigger pinch of salt. Old news also teaches us how little genuinely new there is under the sun.

Take The Times exactly one hundred years ago today. Back then the Times reader could delve into articles such as 'The Importance of Art', 'Works Of Art And The Tariff', 'Literature In The Colonies', 'Mr. Shaw's Play In Dublin' as well as the announcement of the establishment of the Imperial Arts League.

Public debate about the arts was clearly alive and well. Back then censorship was the cause of many debates. One of the most heated on this day a century ago concerned the production of a play by George Bernard Shaw, The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet downloadable here or readable online at Google Books). The censor was unhappy with the portrayal of prostitution on the stage and concerns were also raised about the use of certain phrases from a religious context.

Perhaps what is most conspicuously absent from the article is something that does set the cultural climate of 1909 apart from that of today: the lack of threats to withhold funding for the offending play. In 1909 theatre was almost exclusively a commercial operation. Governments did not fund the arts. Today, when almost all - especially controversial - art relies on state funding, the possibility of such funding being withdrawn as a result of public controversy has the potential to assume the role of the government censor in Shaw's time. The process is more subtle and less overt, but the outcome more or less the same. Self-censorship is often the result as controversial artists today rub against the boundaries of social norms, just as they did in 1909.

© Brian Long 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The ultimate bad guys

Quentin Tarantino's latest film Inglorious Basterds shows that Nazis retain their stranglehold on the role of pop culture's "ultimate bad guys". During the Cold War they still had some competition from the Communists, for example in James Bond films. But today the Nazis clearly dominate the evil stakes. This should not be so.

Why doesn't the Japanese treatment of the people of occupied China in the lead up to and during World War II get them some credit as evil-doers? Why don't we have any films (or computer games, for that matter) about great escapes from Soviet gulags? The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom a book by Slavomir Rawicz recalling such an escape a trek across Siberia during WWII would be a good candidate.

In his book Manufacturing Consent, Naom Chomsky argued that Cold War America's obsession with Anti-Communism meant that people's lives were differently valued. He showed that the death of an anti-government priest in Communist Poland was, in terms of US news media coverage, many times more important than the death of an oppositional priest in US-dominated Central America. Likewise, our obsessive use of the Nazis as the bad guys without equal implicitly undervalues the lives lost at the hands of other evil regimes.

Indeed, you might think that with the passing of time the cinematic potency of the Third Reich would slowly diminish. Far from it. The number of films - both facts-based and fictional - that feature Nazis is on the rise. Historians talk of us now being in a "post-memory" era, a time when most people have had no direct experience of the National Socialist dictatorship. In this phase of historical awareness our knowledge of the Third Reich (and of World War II) is mediated by film, TV, museums and the education system. For his part Tarantino, portrays the Nazis as stock-in-trade bad guys and many reviewers agree that Christoph Waltz steals the show as an SS officer. The film is an entertaining black-humoured action-drama that leaves you wondering when Hollywood is ever going to expand its list of stereotypical bad guys. Don't hold your breath!

© Brian Long 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Melbourne International Arts Festival 2009

The program for the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival has hit the streets and immediately set itself apart from the programs of the last Artistic Director.

Brett Sheehy is the new Artistic Director following on from stints as festival director in Sydney and Adelaide. His first Melbourne festival has all the hallmarks of a nicely rounded, if perhaps somewhat "safe", contemporary festival.

The London Philharmonic will play two concerts from the heart of the orchestral repertoire and the local symphony orchestra also features. The theatre and and dance components seem, however, curiously dominated by performers from Germany. Sasha Waltz and the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg are the headline acts with the latter performing Sebastian Nuebling's production of Simon Stephens' play Pornography. It does seem a little curious to invite a German company to perform a contemporary English play in Australia in German! It is a pity there will not be an opportunity to see some of the work of Germany's young writers in Melbourne. Even some Georg Büchner or Heiner Müller (both in the repertoire in Hamburg) might do more for the expansion of the horizons of Melbourne audiences than a British play in German.

© Brian Long 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009


So it is forty years since Woodstock. That makes the age of the average member of the crowd now about 60. What is left of the mythical summer of love? Not much, you would have to say, apart from the nostalgia for lost youth. The popular music industry has long been subsumed by the multinational corporations. Back then rock 'n' roll was seen as a serious threat to Western society's moral foundations. Now it has been tamed. Or maybe it was never a threat in the first place. A generation of kids dropping out never was going to trouble corporate America too much. And soon enough the hippie drop outs were dropping back in, just in time for the yuppie 80s.

It is curious that one of places where popular music really did have a political impact was on the other side of the iron curtain, in the Soviet bloc. There, listening to rock music was seriously rebellious and more than a little dangerous. As it covertly penetrated into the East, Western popular music carried a highly charged political message of freedom, individuality and intergenerational rebellion that eventually helped unseat the ruling regime. Most importantly it was something that the Communist authorities had no hope of countering or emulating with homegrown alternatives. Western popular music was (and is) as much part of the capitalist system as General Motors, IBM or Westinghouse. But it was easier to see that from Moscow
than from the mud at Woodstock.

© Brian Long 2009

Friday, August 14, 2009

Making cash from art

Australia is close to introducing a Resale Royalty Right for visual artists. Former rock-star turned Arts Minister, Peter Garrett, introduced draft legislation to the national parliament in November 2008 and the relevant committee has given the proposed law conditional approval. Parliament has not passed the draft law. Under the proposal five percent of the sale price would go to the creator of the work as royalties. There is no cap on the royalty amount but no royalty is payable on the first sale. But Garrett has fallen out of favour with supporters and opponents of resale royalty rights. Visual artists feel that the scheme has been watered down to please auction houses and dealers while art sales industry maintains its deep-seated opposition to the administrative burden that comes with such a scheme. In Australia the most howling discrepancies between the price paid to the artists and the prices on the secondary market have occurred in the case of indigenous artists and it is Aboriginal painters who probably stand to do best out of the new scheme. The market for Australian aboriginal artwork has grown very rapidly over the least two decades and accusations of unscrupulous, exploitative and fraudulent activities are rife. The introduction of a resale royalty right is not going to stamp out crook practices but it may help make artmaking a little more lucrative for Australia’s Indigenous artists and is for that reason alone worth supporting. Further info:

© Brian Long 2009