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