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 www.linz09.at/kepler

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