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.