Thursday, December 30, 2010

Europe's new cultural capitals

Turku, Finland and Tallinn,Estonia are the two European capitals of culture for 2011. They assume the mantle from Istanbul, Essen in Germany and Pecs in Hungary.

Turku is located west of the Finnish capital Helsinki and has chosen to highlight the links between culture and wellbeing. According to a DW report, doctors in Turku will even be able to prescribe attendance at cultural events. Turku is an old university city and the links between the arts and the sciences are also an element of the coming year in the Finnish city.

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, one of three Baltic countries freed from Russian rule when the Soviet Union melted in history. The city's old town is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site and hopes that the focus on culture during 2011 will further boost its bid to be seen as a modern and progressive European state.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A mixed media year

For media companies and their newspapers 2010 was a year of contradictions and mixed signals. The launch of the iPad in April was hailed as the great white hope for media corporations desperate to find a profitable niche in an online world in which readers of news have come to expect free access to news. In July Rupert Murdoch's Times began charging readers to read articles on its website and other Murdoch papers are to follow. Many other newspapers have continued the race to the bottom as they retreat from any role as bastions of serious journalism in the public interest. Investigative journalism has all but disappeared from the mainstream media. Instead, newspapers have become hardly distinguishable from junk mail advertising brochures and lifestyle magazines.

In response we have seen a further growth in the importance of bloggers and other "independent" players the most famous of which is now Wikileaks. It is indicative of the current media landscape that the "investigative" side of this story was undertaken by a group of radicals and not by the media.

And to wrap up the year Hungary's right-wing government under Viktor Orbán has recently announced new laws to curtail press freedom in that country. That alone may seem unsurprising given Hungary's past experience with a Communist dictatorship but things were meant to have changed. Orbán's country is now a member of the European Union and on 1 January assumes its rotating presidency. A serious dispute about the nature of press freedom has broken out between the Hungarian government and many other members of the EU. It is a debate on which the Union should not compromise. A financially healthy, free and critical media is at the heart of democracy.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Where's your Ring?

Everybody wants a Ring these days. Wagner's Ring. Yes, it seems that every self-respecting opera house wants to have a production of Richard Wagner's four-part operatic epic - The Ring of the Nibelungen - in their repertoire. In Germany alone, Lübeck, Hannover, Essen, Hamburg Berlin and Frankfurt all currently have one. And now Opera Australia wants to get in on the act. It is mounting a co-production that will premiere in Melbourne in 2013.

But why? Performing Wagner's Ring is the biggest undertaking in the opera world. And opera has in recent years gone all out to position itself as a an artform of spectacle, especially in countries such as Australia that do not have a long opera tradition dating back centuries. That is fine. There are certainly many spectacular moments in opera, especially in the late-nineteenth century repertoire which dominates our stages. But there is more to opera than just the big, the loud and the lengthy. And it is this side that is getting blended out, with the result that many people who are not grabbed by the bombastic, the romantic and tragic are turned off by the whole operatic genre. Two of these best opera performances I have seen in the last twelve months have been relatively small affairs: Benjamin Britten's chamber opera The Turn of the Screw and Joseph Haydn's comedy Il Mondo Della Luna. Both were at the opposite end of the spectrum from Wagner's Ring. But both are still very much "operas", in the best sense. It is only when we get a rich variety of fare that we really come to appreciate what a thrilling, exciting and rewarding form opera can be. And one with much wider appeal than it currently has in Australia. Let's have the Ring but balance it with some more varied and less-frequently heard repertoire.

Image: Kugel

Friday, October 29, 2010

Chasing tails

These days youth audience programs are all the range amongst arts companies. We are bombarded with dire warnings that the audience for the mainstream arts are "dying out" and companies are throwing large amounts of money to make themselves seem more attractive to the all-important under-35s. This is, of course, money that is coming out of production budgets. The idea seems to be that we should all like the same thing, that our arts companies should be everything to everybody, that there is something wrong if people under and over 35 don't have the same tastes. Some of these programs remind me of the over-50s who squeeze into the fashions of 20-somethings in the vain attempt to convince themselves that they are still young and 'hip', no matter how ridiculous the result.

But isn't a “bum on a seat" "a bum on a seat” no matter what age it is? Is the emphasis on youth alienating the older and more mature audience, which has always been the core audience for the “heritage” arts? There is also a demographic argument that says that the population is ageing and that in terms of pure numbers the population – and therefore the potential audience – is growing fastest in the over-50 bracket, so why throw large amounts of money at a population sector that is numerically in decline?

There is quite a bit of “group think” going on in this debate, i.e. “if all the other arts companies are chasing the youth market then we had better do that too”. Maybe a company that says, “we are going to different, we are going to look after a more mature audience” would be highly successful, if for no other reason than they would differentiate themselves from the rest of the industry. Or is that kind of diversity too frightening to our arts companies?

Image St Stev

Friday, October 15, 2010

Germany's first Hitler exhibition opens

The first ever German exhibition about Adolf Hitler opens in Berlin today. Under the title Hitler and the Germans, Nation and Crime the show is being hosted by the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

The exhibition is divided into sections dealing with the relationship between Hitler and German society, the Nazi state and the dictator's rise to power. In an article published in the magazine Der Spiegel the curators describe the great caution they have taken to ensure that the exhibition does not present any opportunities for perverse "hero worship". They have aimed to achieve "critical distance" to their subject and none of the items on display are thought to ever have been touched by Hitler.

Nevertheless, the exhibition marks a new milestone in the historical treatment of the genocidal dictator. With the passing of time, the proportion of the German - and European - population with first-hand experience of Nazism is below ten percent. Germany has become a "post-memory" society; at least as far as the Third Reich and World War II are concerned. People today only "know" Hitler and his regime from history books, films, family recollections, site visits and the education system - including museums. At the same time the Nazis have moved into the realm of popular culture and there is a risk that the full horror of Hitler's regime will slowly be lost on future generations for whom Hitler is little more than a mythical symbol of evil. To some extent that is an unavoidable result of the march of history. But it is also something that well-curated exhibitions can help prevent.

Image: Ruins of buildings and vehicles lie in Berlin's Mohrenstrasse after the Anglo-American air attacks on the 3rd of February, 1945, (source: German Federal Archive)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Less is more

One of the great challenges for us today is dealing superfluity and information overload. The industrialization of information production has meant that we face a constant bombardment of information that cries out for our attention. The result is that as a society we have lost the ability to see the wood for the trees. Information is power, or so the saying goes. But wisdom is information on steroids. And yet wisdom - the ability to analyze, understand and organize information - has been pushed into the background by our fascination with information.

Here is another way in which the arts can help us. The sculptures of Constantin Brancusi or Alberto Giacometti, haiku poetry or the carefully crafted words of a great novelist show us what can be achieved by focussing on the essence and cutting away the superfluous. The creative process is often about going from the raw block of marble to the core truth. Artists can spend inordinate lengths of time refining their works, usually be removing, refining and cutting back in the knowledge that it is easy to be verbose but a great achievement to be able to reduce an idea or expression to its very quintessence. If our public and political life displayed a similar desire for cutting through the superfluous, the irrelevant we be a lot closer to being able to deal with some of the other great challenges facing us today.

Image: Alberto Giacometti, Standing Woman I, 1960 (photo: Dick Heiser)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cultural overflow?

This afternoon I listened on CD to a symphony by a Russian composer. In the evening I went to my favorite Indian restaurant and enjoyed a fiery vindaloo. Later I got home and watched a great new documentary on the Baroque period of art history on TV. That is a fairly typical Sunday for me and probably pretty standard for many people these days. But in human and cultural history the consumption of such a range of diverse cultural experiences is anything but typical.

We have never had such easy access to the cultural expressions and practices of humanity. For around $500 you can build your own collection on DVD of, say, the 25 greatest films ever made. The same could be said of most other artforms, even if you would have to make do with prints of the great paintings.

This wealth of art and culture at our fingertips is fantastic. But what if it also reduces our ability to really get into one particular culture or artform? Are we becoming jacks of all cultural trades and masters of none? Have we also lost intimate and thorough contact with our own cultural roots as we jump from Russian to Indian and on to Japanese or American culture with apparent equanimity.

Image Balouxmix

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The aging arts

Last Saturday I spent the day handing out how-to-vote cards at two polling booths in suburban Melbourne. Apart from the long hours standing outside, it is always a great experience. Because everybody in Australia has to vote it is a great way to do your own little social experiment and form your own impression about the Australian population. You take on a particular role that brings you into direct personal contact with hundreds of strangers from all age groups, economic and social groups and every type of political persuasion.

This year I was struck by the number of frail elderly people there seemed to be in my little survey cohort. We all know that most western societies are aging rapidly as birth rates drop and we all live longer, but to get a glimpse of this trend with your own eyes really brings it home.

It got me thinking (again) about the impact this demographic development will have on our arts and cultural life. It is accepted wisdom that most people become more conservative in their artistic taste as they age. The readiness to explore the new and to take risks often wanes in indirect relation to our delight in reliving the familiar and tried and tested. What does this mean for arts programming? Many arts companies today place great store in their innovation, creativity and novelty. But the audience for that is quite possibly diminishing in number. How will the arts look when half the population is over fifty?

Some would argue that the effects of this trend are already emerging with "heritage" artforms and "heritage" programming increasingly dominating our cultural landscape. Are the arts headed for a future as frail and aged as the people who I seemed destined to meet last weekend?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Walls of the mind

Today is the 49th anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall. The beginnings of the Wall date from 13 August 1961. Back then few thought the hastily-constructed barrier would stand for over twenty-eight years. At the time it was conceived as a way of stopping the flood of East Germans out of their dysfunctional country and into the more promising West. For a while it seemed to have the desired affect and the East German economy began to stabilise. People settled in and began to find a way to co-exist in the shadow of the Cold War.

Almost fifty years later, and over twenty years after the fall of the Wall in November 1989, the division of Germany is still present in many respects. Surveys show that only 61 percent of former East Germans are pleased with today's unified Germany. In the former West the figure is 71 percent. Economic differences remain pronounced. Progress toward the reduction of wage differentials between the two former states has been slow.

The continuing after-affects of the Wall is testimony to the power of mental barriers, the walls in people's minds. Many conflict zones around the world still have walls and there are many other more (slightly) subtle barriers that are designed to keep poor people out of wealthy western countries. The East Germans government built its wall to keep people in. Today most western governments are building virtual (and real) walls to keep people out. Either way, the most inhibiting walls, barriers and boundaries are in the heads of politicians and their short-sighted supporters.

Photo: one of the few remaining sections of the wall in its original location. Taken in January 2010.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Instant gratification, flamenco and cultural hollowness

Recently I was at the wedding of two friends. The bride was a Spanish woman who comes from a family of flamenco dancers and teachers. Her mother, cousins and aunts are all initiated into the proud tradition of Spanish dance. At the reception we were all treated to a wonderful display of flamenco by the bride and her extended family.

Beyond the entertainment value of the dancing the revelation of this occasion was the respect shown by the younger women to their older relatives on the dance floor. The young dancers were all very talented and capable, but as the elder generation of women came to dance it was clear that there was something in their dancing that it takes a lifetime to learn, something that only people who had experienced some of life could understand and express. It was also something that the younger women clearly respected while knowing that they could only learn to master their danceform through decades of dedication.

But western society has become so dominated by a youth cult that we have lost sight of this extra something on display on this night. Fast, strong, youthful and beautiful bodies are all that count. Experience, patience, long-term dedication and devotion to a lifetime's project are not the kind of attributes that cut much ice today. Instant gratification, short-term thinking and the expectation that people in their early thirties should already have everything sorted have killed off lifetime achievements and left us with the hollowness at the heart of so much of our contemporary culture.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Grab for cash an admission of musical bankruptcy

The Vienna Philharmonic is a great orchestra with a wide and fascinating repertoire. Every year on New Year's Day it plays the world's most famous orchestral concert. This is also one of the most lucrative events in the classical music calendar. The global TV rights alone see to that.

But New Year's day comes but once a year. And so in recent years the orchestra has been mounting an outdoor concert in the grounds of the picturesque Schönbrunn Palace in June. So far so good. But why does the program have to be more or less the same old waltz fare that traditionally dominates the January concert? This year's Schönbrunn concert began promisingly enough with film music from John Williams' Star Wars score. But already the second number threw us back into the ballroom of the Strauss clan and their ilk.

The result is an admission of programming failure and musical bankruptcy. Of course an outdoor concert on a warm summer night needs toe-tapping favorites, but overloading the program with Viennese schmaltz tells the casual viewer at home that there is no entertaining classical music other than the same old waltz numbers. It is a pity when there is so much other great music for a balmy summer evening.

Gustav Mahler, 150 years old and a man of our time

Gustav Mahler's 150th birthday was celebrated yesterday. The great Austrian composer once predicted that his time would come and history has proven him right. His ten symphonies are now fixed stars in the international orchestral repertoire, despite their great technical demands on players and the financial demands on orchestra managements thanks to the large number of players required.

But as recently as the 1960s Mahler's music was still exotic and rarely performed. Many commentators have commented on parallels between Mahler's musical world and the spiritual needs of our world. The man himself, a complex mix of intense and demanding perfectionism and a touching fragility seems to resonate with our time. His struggle with religious belief makes Mahler familiar to us. He wants to believe but never quite succeeds.

The kaleidoscopic shifts in the music anticipate the cutting between scenes and camera angles in modern cinema. Mahler's integration of musical material from outside the world of "classical" music is a premonition of postmodernism

Gustav Mahler is 150 years old and yet an artist of our time. Many happy returns!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pulp fiction reaches the papers

What should we do about newspapers? They are increasingly controlled by companies that are focused primarily on short-term profit. Their pages are dominated by infotainment and lifestyle features and in many papers the content has been forced to the edges by full-page and half-page advertising. Experienced journalists are being fired and ever more content is syndicated with a resulting drop in diversity of opinion. The attempt to maintain a semblance of political independence and objectivity in commentary seems to have gone out of fashion. The German public intellectual Jürgen Habermas has written an excellent article on this question (see 'Media, Markets and Consumers: the Quality Press as the Backbone of the Political Sphere' in Europe The Faltering Project (2009).

Newspaper publishers argue that the problem lies on the demand rather than the supply side. They believe that the public is losing interest in serious political, economic or social analysis and journalism. Circulation is all that counts, and they cannot make people read (and pay for) content that does not interest them. Some commentators argue that the blogosphere and other new-media sources are compensating for the decline in serious journalism in the traditional press. Others are skeptical about such claims.

Meanwhile an information divide is emerging in many western societies. A small elite is aware of how information and opinion is controlled and manipulated. Its members use the few remaining sources of quality journalism and information to further cement their power. They are well enough educated and experienced to cut through the infotainment flood. The great mass of the population seems happy to surrender any potential role in the intellectual and political structuring of the society in which they live. The entertainment of superficial and short-lived "scandals" - usually about "them up there" - suffices to satisfy the desire to feel "informed". The attention span is short and the next breaking celebrity divorce or restaurant review is only a flick of a page away.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Whither Britain's cultural life?

Britain has finally emerged from the political wilderness of the last week when the election of a hung parliament led to five days of speculation as to who would become the next Prime Minister. People interested in culture and the arts will now be wondering what the future holds under a coalition government led by the Tory David Cameron.

Experience shows that the most important feature of an arts minister or prime minister, as far as the cultural sector is concerned - is their level of personal engagement with the arts and culture. Political ideology is not so important. In Australia, the Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating was famous for his love of orchestral music, in particular the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. It was on his watch that Australia's one and only national cultural policy, Creative Nation, was launched in 1994.

Today, self-confessed arts aficionados are rare amongst politicians. They are keen to be seen in the crowd at sports events, but not at the arts. With most politicians these days keen to portray themselves as followers rather than leaders - thus there obsession with opinion polls - any appreciation of the arts is probably refined to the prime ministerial living room.

The UK's previously shadow minister for the arts, Jeremy Hunt, claims to enjoy opera and says that arts funding will not be radically cut under the new government. Only time will tell a) whether the new UK coalition can stand the pressures of running the country, and b) whether David Cameron really gets culture and the arts.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The White Ribbon

Don't miss Michael Haneke's new film The White Ribbon. I don't normally do reviews or straight recommendations here, but this film is a must.

It has the power to restore your faith in film as a medium. Shot in black and white and with almost no music, the film's austerity is a great antidote to the many contemporary films that are overburdened by effects, flashy sets and locations. Its claustrophobic intensity means that the 144 minutes pass with 'ease'.

Like any great film, The White Ribbon leaves you with more questions than it answers. Some commentators see it as a study of prototypical National Socialism. But that is too simple. The strict social hierarchies, deep-seated deference to authority and willingness to "turn a blind eye" are all features of the village Haneke depicts. They are also prerequisites for fascism. But they were, in 1913, not exclusive to Germany. They could also describe life for many people in countries such as Britain, France, Sweden, the USA and Australia. And yet these countries did not adopt Fascism in the 1920s and 30s.

That said, it is fascinating to watch the film and think that the children who were around the age of ten in 1913 would become members of the generation that were the leaders and decision makers of the Third Reich. The real perpetrators, Hitler's Willing Executioners, to borrow the title of Daniel Goldhagen's book, were on average in their late thirties and early forties during the Third Reich, most having been born around 1905. Haneke's film is a thought provoking study of their collective childhood.

It is also very welcome to have a film about a period of European history - the last days before World War I - that has been overshadowed by films about events during and surrounding World War II. In many ways the latter conflict cannot be understood without having familiarity with the earlier war. Haneke's film is a wonderful contribution to establishing that familiarity.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

How bad it can get

If you are ever in doubt about how bad things get when the arts and politics get too cosy, check out the list of the World's Ugliest Statues on the website of Foreign Policy magazine.

I am not saying that the arts and politics don't mix. They do. The arts cannot exist outside the realm of politics. Nothing can. Politics - understood as the process of organising human co-existence - influences, shapes and regulates all human activity on level or another. The only way to exist outside the filed of politics is to move to the proverbial desert island and to live there on your own.

Looking at many of the statues on the Foreign Policy list, it is tempting to think that a lonely island in the middle of nowhere might be a good place for a lot of overtly political statues.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The war of the arts

What do war and the arts have in common? They are both capable of fostering that amorphous thing called 'national identity'. Countries around the world use the commemoration of military events as rallying calls that serve to cement a single dominant national identity. And arts and cultural policies around the globe almost all include a line about how the arts foster that same national identity. So national
Identity is supposed to consist of shared memories and myth-making about past military exploits mixed with some deep-seated pride in our arts. Sport is the other big ingredient. 

Why are arts and cultural commentators so keen to embrace such company? Do we really think that artists are motivated by a desire to 'create for the fatherland'? Is their greatest go to defend the artistic homeland against invasion? Yes, there have been artists who espoused nationalist views and there has been no shortage of politicians who have exploited the work of artists for political ends. But the art of nationalist artists is not usually any good as art. And in fact much great art has come from the spring of international exchange. Crude nationalism is the enemy of good art.

Image: John Singleton Copley, The death of major Francis Pierson 6 January 1781, 1783, Tate Gallery      

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Memory and art

Bernhard-Henri Levy recently wrote an article on the 'real and potentially dangerous revisionism' of films such as Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. Levy notes that 'the truth is that Nazism is becoming a new playing field for the amusement of the bad boys of Hollywood' and that 'Art comes out on top. Not memory'.

The delicate balance between 'memory' and fictional narrative is one that has always been at the heart of the storyteller's calling. Homer's Iliad - written around 2800 years ago - tells of the great Trojan wars of the ancient world. We will never really know what happened so long ago, but we can safely assume that Homer had his allegiances and his prejudices that shaped his account of history. Shakespeare was also a great 'revisionist'. Or did you think that Henry V was a balanced and factual account of the battle of Agincourt?

Art is not science. History does its best to serve 'memory', art does not claim to do so, nor should it be required to. Tarantino is not a documentary filmmaker. Slowly the people who personally experienced World War II are passing away and our 'memory' of it is becoming entirely 'mediated'. It is formed entirely by books, films, site visits and the education system. This is a natural process that has also happened to every war and major historical event. Time marches on and the events of the past become the stuff of fiction. In an age old process, memory and narrative become one.

Image: The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Sunday, March 7, 2010

More equal than others?

Tonight (US time) the latest round of Academy Awards will be announced. The Oscars are one of the biggest events on the annual international arts calendar. But why?

There are a number of answers. The film industry sees the decisions of the Academy as markers that each year slightly readjust the celebrity hierarchy. An Oscar not only boosts the earnings of the current crop of films. It also tells the studios who is hot for the next round.

For cinema goers, the Academy's verdict acts like an arbiter of good taste. It not only tells us the films we ought to have seen, it also confirms our own taste if the films that we like are also those that the Academy's experts give their stamp of approval.

The role of this kind of authoritative approval in contemporary culture is full of contradictions. Traditional authority in the form of the university professor talking down to us about the virtues of renaissance art is out. Experts talk about a democratisation of the arts occuring. Postmodern relativism told us that everybody's opinion on what made art good was equally valid. But our enormous adulation of the Academy Awards (and the attendant opportunity for some celebrity worship) shows how reliant on expert validation we remain. Clearly, while our opinions are all equal, some are more equal than others!

Photo: Stephen McKay

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rammstein off to Belarus after all

Recent media reports indicate that the German band Rammstein will after all be allowed to appear in Belarus. The Belarussian Ambassador in Berlin has assured the band that the concert will go ahead on 7 March and has passed off the proclamations of the Public Morality Council as "private opinions".

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Belarus bans Rammstein

Belarus has banned the March concert of German rock band Rammstein. The band is currently on a sell-out European tour and was scheduled to play in Minsk on 7 March. The nation's Public Morality Council found, however, that the band promoted "homosexualism, masochism and other deviations, cruelty, violence and obscene language" (see here).

The band has never been afraid of controversy. Its songs often pick up on controversial current social themes and treats them with irony and satire. Rammstein's latest album - Liebe ist für Alle Da - includes a song about the Fritzl case, that of an incentuous father gained worldwide attention for imprisoning and raping his daughter who he kept locked up in the cellar of there home in Austria. But the band's sense of irony seems to have been lost on the moral watchdogs in Belarus.

In a delicious irony of its own, The Public Morality Council invokes Belarussian traditions of "anti-Nazism" to further justify its anti-libertarian position against the band and its music. Too bad that its language and thinking is so redolent of Fascism, but all the better for we connoisseurs of irony!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Let's start really communicating

The world today faces many challenges, just as every other generation before ours has. And one of the biggest challenges we face is how we talk and write about the challenges facing us. 

We are surrounded by communication. But the quality of the communication we practise today has sunk to such a low level that poor communication itself has become one of the biggest challenges we face. 

Our public discourse has become burdened with meaningless motherhood statements, hollow rhetoric and evasive generalisations. In our attempts to avoid accountability and responsibility we hide behind untestable platitudes and trendy jargon marinated in evasive drivle. This kind of communication has become so prevalent in the public sphere that we have created a parallel universe, happily divorced from life's harsh realities. 

These realities call for a radically different language. We need  clean, direct and honest language if we are going to have any hope of dealing with the very real challenges we face. Let's drop the double-speak. Let's find the courage to make genuine committments when we enter the public debate. The alternative is a trip to Hell in the proverbial hand basket of sickly platitudes and motherhood statements!    

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Politics and memory

The German city of Dresden suffered a series of the most destructive bombing raids of World War II between 13 and 15 February 1945. The exact number of casualties will never be known, but reliable estimates range between 25,000 and 35,000 people. Today the bombing of Dresden remains one of the most controversial operations of the allied air forces in World War II.

Sixty-five years later commemoration of Dresden's suffering has become a political hot potato. A 2006 two-part TV mini-series titled Dresden The Inferno helped raise German awareness of the city's fate, even though the film was burdened with a fictional and highly unlikely love story between a British pilot and a German nurse. The commemoration of the dead from Dresden began in the first years after World War II and was politically charged from the beginning. When Germany was divided in 1949 the city found itself in communist East Germany and Dresden became a symbol of American capitalist imperialism. In 1950 signs with slogans such as "We Hate the American Warmongers Who Murdered Dresden".

Today the controversy remains and this weekend's commemoration looked like it would be overshadowed by extreme-right political groups who were keen to push a neo-Nazi agenda and portray the bombing as an attempt to destroy German culture. Last week a German court overruled the City of Dresden's ban on a march by extreme-right groups to commemorate the attacks. Police warned of violence as the Mayor of the city called for a human chain around the city to stop the rally. Eventually the rally was called off and the day passed without any major incidents.

Dresden remains symbolic for the political charge contained in many historical events from different parts of the world. The way we remember, commemorate and interpret the past remains one of the most important elements of our present and future.

Image: Wanderer above the Mists , Caspar David Friedrich (1818) Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Peymann and Richard

Claus Peymann is one of Germany's greatest theatre directors. These days he is the Director of the Berliner Ensemble, a small company with its own house in the former eastern half of the German capital. From the late 1980s through to 2000 he was Director of the Burgtheater in Vienna, one of the most important and prestigious stages in the German-speaking world.

Peymann is widely regarded as a member of a dying breed of theatre director. In a theatre landscape increasingly populated by bland managerial types in directorial roles he is not afraid to be political, provocative and controversial.

Now in his early seventies, Peymann's most recent production - Shakespeare's Richard II - shows what a master he has become. This version of an older production opened at the Burgtheater on 9 January. It is a reworking and partial recasting of a production from the year 2000.

It is hard to imagine better theatre. This is gripping, exhilerating and enthralling drama. Michael Maartens in the title role was able to captivate his audience like a king speaking to his loyal subjects. He held the packed theatre in thrall. The rest of the star-studded cast was also of a consistently high standard.

But, of course, the evening really belonged to Peymann, the grand signeur. The piece is not overtly provocative for a modern audience and Peymann has eschewed superficial point scoring or cheap shots at contemporary politics. Instead, the production is tightly directed with a lean but not minimalist stage design. The text is allowed to speak for itself. Richard II is one of Peymann's favourite Shakspeares and the production does not get in the way of the play's clear and elemental drama.

Richard II is not a fashionable play. It is hard-core political theatre and an ideal vehicle for a director of Peymann's caliber. The only thing left to wish for is more directors of Klaus Peymann' ilk and fewer bland managers at our theatre companies.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Balancing acts required

The Nazis left Vienna with three enormous concrete flak towers that were used as platforms for anti-aircraft guns during World War II. At the end of the war they were left as silent reminders of the Third Reich and all its inhuman madness. They are still standing today and are an ongoing source of discussion among politicians and urban planners. One of the towers has been used as an aquarium since 1957 and in 1991 the US artist Lawrence Weiner painted a text on the upper section as part of the Vienna Festival in that year. The text reads "Smashed to pieces (in the still of the night)".

Now the aquarium's owners want to expand it and to paint the outside of the tower with appropriate undersea motives. But these plans have been called into question by Vienna's culture minister, who does not want any development to affect the integrity of the artwork.

It is another interesting example of the seemingly eternal conflict between preservation of the past (even when, as in this case, it is a past many would rather forget), development and commercialisation of valuable urban space and the integrity of public art. The balancing act required is as delicate as ever and creative but sensitive solutions are the only way out.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Do more channels make for better TV?

You can never have too many TV stations, can you. More broadcasters mean greater variety and there should be "something for everyone". At least that is the theory. After watching - or not-watching as a result of acute boredom - German and Austrian television for the last six weeks I am beginning to wonder about the wisdom of this thinking.

There is no shortage of free-to-air channels - although you have to pay TV licence fees in Austria, so nothing is truly "free"-to- air. But what strikes me the most when channel surfing in Germany or Austria is the propensity of low-budget programs. (You find the same in Italy.) These are usually live-audience talkshows in the comedy or music genres. What there does not seem to be much of is better-quality, larger-budget in-house drama productions.

This got me wondering. Maybe the large number of TV stations has split the marketplace into too many small companies that do not have the financial clout to venture into serious in-house production. There are, of course, exceptions. Germany's ARD and ZDF do produce some quality TV, but most of the small, commercial operations seem content to run the standard Hollywood fare combined with "cheap and cheerful" studio junk.

In economic terms there are too many small players who have divided the market too thinly between themselves. Maybe there is afterall something to be said for fewer stations producing better quality. More is not always better.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Albert Camus to be Pantheonised?

Albert Camus was one of France's greatest twentieth-century authors. He died in a car crash on 4 January 1960 and fifty years later President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to transfer his remains into the Pantheon in Paris, the ulimate hall of fame. There lie the remains of French national heroes dating back to the Revolution in 1789. Today the French President choses candidates for internment in the Pantheon and recent additions have included Alexendre Dumas and the resistance fighter Jean Moulin.

At first glance Camus would seem like a suitable addition to the worthies in the Pantheon. But President Sarkozy, the man behind the latest nomination is anything but a devotee of French literature, having once said that you have to be a "masochist or crazy" to enjoy reading his nation's literary classics. 

Critics, commentators and friends of Camus accuse Sarkozy of cynical cultural positioning and point out that Camus could not stand the arrogance of Paris and wanted to be buried in the country next to his wife, as he currently is. 

It looks like another example of politicians exploiting the arts and artists. Today the two are as closely entwined as ever. Politicians see the arts as a tool for fighting unemployment, boosting school attainment, attracting tourists, renewing cities, combatting unemployment and even fighting youth crime. Artists are increasingly happy to reciprocate, particulalrly when funding is part of the deal.  

Members of the political class have long used sport to boost their profile and electoral attractiveness. That trend now seems set to add another tool to the range of instruments available to politicians who are happy to exploit the arts.         

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Museum of Polish History announced

Warsaw is to be the home of the new Museum of Polish History. Paczowski et Fritsch Architects from Luxembourg was recently announced as the winner of the architctural competition for the museum. It will have exhibition space of around 10,000 square meters and will house the permanent collection of the museum, which was established in 2006.

The winning design will feature a glass facade located next to an existing Baroque castle and will straddle a six-lane freeway that was built during the Communist era and is considered a blight on the landscape. It is budgeted to cost between €80 and €90 million, most of which is to be financed by the European Union. Construction is set to begin in 2011.

Museums can play a central role in establishing, defining and sustaining national identity. Poland could become a prime example of this potential. For much of their modern history the Poles were sandwiched between the Russians, the Germans and the old Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1939 Nazi Germany made a secret deal with Stalin's Russia to divide Poland between themselves, which they promptly did after Germany invaded in September of that year, sparking World War II. When the soviets emerged as one of the victors in World War II, the Poles fell under Communist rule and it was not until 1989 that genuine democracy and human rights returned to the country. The seeds of the revolution that eventually led to the collapse of Communism in Europe were sown by the Polish trade union Solidarity in Gdansk.

So there is plenty of very interesting and important history in the annals of the Polish nation. It should make for a fascinating museum that in turn will help boost Polish national self-confidence and help the Poles to a confident and hopeful future.

Photo: Paczowski et Fritsch

Friday, January 1, 2010

Hello Gustav

Every year brings its round of anniversaries, commemorations and jubilees. When it comes to composers, 2010 is the year of Gustav Mahler, whose 150th birthday falls on 18 May. Mahler' breakthrough is one of the biggest stories of the last sixty years in music history. Certainly if you compare concert programs of the pre-World War II era with those of the period since 1945 the name that has gone from to obscurity to omnipresence is that of this Austrian symphonist whose greatest works come from an intensive twenty-year period between about 1890 and his death in 1911 at the age of just 51.

Mahler was better known as a conductor than as a composer during his lifetime but once famously pedricted that his "time would come". Posterity has proven him right. There is a hardly a concert season of a major orchestra any where in the world that does not include at least one of Mahler's symphonies even though most of them are large and expensive to perform. They are very popular among conductors and the recording industry has also taken to his music with great enthusuiasm. Probably only the symphonies of Beethoven are a more popular subject for complete cycles released as boxed sets.

Mahler's Jewish heritage (he converted to Catholicism in his 40s) certainly held his music back during the 1930s and his breakthrough also owes a lot to the efforts of conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter and Bernhard Haitink. But there efforts alone do not explain the way in which Mahler' music has struck a nerve in the post-World War II era.

Mahler's ability to combine the banal with faith in the creation of a better world reflects the schizoid dreams of the post-Auschwitz world. His mixture of the bitter and the almost unbearably sweet somehow speaks to a world that enjoys unprecedented levels of technological progress and comfort while living with an equally unparralleled risk of nuclear obliteration. The sheer size and ambition of his music certainly fits well with the event culture of today's music life.

Maybe, as with all great music, there is something in Mahler's that helps it speak to so many people, something that cannot be adequately captured in words, something inherently musical and perhaps even timeless, almost 150 years after his birthday.

Photo: Adolph Kohut