Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Can't stand the heat? Get out of the kitchen!

Ask yourself, is this photo pornographic? Hardly, you say. And I agree. So why has it been banned from an exhibition at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB)? Because one person did not like it, complained and got their way. Now you, I and thousands of others who like our art uncensored will not get to see the picture. Where is the democracy in that? Where is the protection of free expression? Where the right to participate in a cultural life free of government interference? It should be noted that the photo was to be exhibited in a room with a notice outside warning that the content might not be suitable for children.

This is not an appeal for a free for all. Of course there is a balancing act between the demands of free expression and community values. But there are various laws and protocols in place to help adjudicate in such cases. The Australia Council for the Arts has produced a set of protocols for working with children in art. In a case like this the protocols would require the photo to be assessed by the classification board. It's hard to imagine that the image would warrant anything more than a PG classification (parental guidance recommended).

So why did no one at the BIFB have the courage and moral fibre to follow due process, a process that is designed to respect the rights of all parties, not just moral vigilantes? You guessed it, funding. Tourism Victoria - a publicly funded agency doling out your and my money and a sponsor of the show - told BIFB that to show the work might endanger next year's funding. Enough said? You bet. Self censorship is not hard to "facilitate". So now we have unelected, faceless tourism bureaucrats curating our arts shows.

So how can we - the people who can look at a photo like this and not think of sex - fight back and get the debate back on an even keel? Let's start with a boycott. Take the pledge that you will avoid the BIFB until the censorship stops and the picture is put back on show. If Tourism Victoria thinks censored art is good for tourism, let's show them it ain't.

Art can be controversial. It can generate debate. It should not be reduced to the least challenging common denominator. If Tourism Victoria cannot live with that, it should get out of sponsoring art shows. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Friday, July 29, 2011

"Fresher and healthier ... than in many years" or a Swansong to life?

Gustav Mahler is a composer who inspires great emotions. Music fans generally love of hate his music. It is uncompromising, intense and all-encompassing music that takes no prisoners! So it is no surprise that passions run high amongst fans when a controversial new recording or performance of Mahler's music comes around. Of late, one of the most discussed has been Roger Norrington's recording and recent London Proms performance (25 July 2011) of Mahler's Symphony No. 9.

Norrington has really ruffled quite a few feathers. David Hurwitz writes that Norrington has "
Mahler". Gavin Plumley labelled the Proms concert "an appalling misreading".

Most of the fuss is about the fact that Norrington has his string players eschew the use of vibrato in the belief that this is closer to the sound Mahler himself would have known. But at the heart of the matter is the very nature of Mahler's last completed symphony. Posterity has over the last century woven a thick air of myth around this music. The accepted wisdom is that the symphony is the composer's swansong as he faced death and that it is the world of a dying man that any conductor should aim to recreate. The problem is that this is little more than a cherished myth developed posthumously by critics and other musicians. Vera Micznik pretty much exposed that fact back in 1996 in her excellent article titled The Farewell Story of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. She writes that "the early critics who appreciated the man and his music could not dissociate their grieving at the unfortunate loss of the man from the appreciation of his work." Micznik then delves into the documentary evidence in the form of letters from Mahler around the time he wrote his ninth. Far from being consciously at the end of his life Mahler wrote to the conductor Bruno Walter in early 1910 (precisely when when many writers have him as staring death in the face) that "On the whole I feel myself fresher and healthier in this activity and mode of life than in many years. Do you really believe that a man as accustomed to activity as I am could feel lastingly well as a 'pensioner'?"

Micznik builds a well-documented and historically supported argument that "The farewell story of Mahler's Ninth Symphony should thus be understood both historically and analytically as a fictional narrative: a tale spun through the interaction of various mythologizing techniques common in the historical context in which it originated, and never questioned in subsequent periods." Whether conductors should perform works in keeping with the social accretion that accumulates on famous works or should concentrate on the musical text itself is another debate. But it is fair to say that anyone who wants to hear a Mahler Ninth that is garnered in farewells to life and premonitions of death is willfully ignorant of the composer's own thoughts and sentiments.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Superpower petulance hands power to China

If a superpower wanted to prove to the world that it was on the wain and beginning a descent onto the B List, it could do little better than to ape the current US debate on raising the debt ceiling. It remains to be seen whether Congress and President Obama can nut out a last-minute solution to the budget problems there, but plenty of damage has already been done. Not only has the world economy been subjected to weeks of debilitating financial uncertainty around the possibility of a debt default by the US, but the very petulance and irresponsibility with which both sides, but in particular the Tea Party movement, have approached the situation send a strong message to the rest of the world that this is a country that no longer takes itself seriously. In the last week some Republicans have even resisted proposals to remove loopholes in the tax system. While the outcome of such proposals would be a higher tax take, it is hard to imagine why inequities and unfairness in the tax system should not be eliminated. Blind and irresponsible ideological adherence is the best explanation.

According to recent research by the Pew Research Centre 46 percent of Americans believe that China has already or is destined to replace the US as the world's superpower. Legislators in the US have clearly taken this to heart. None are prepared to take hard decisions. There seems to be little willingness to make responsible compromises in the interests of the nation and the wider world. The thought that as the political leaders of the world's biggest power they might have some extra responsibility to look beyond their own, narrow ideological preoccupations seems totally foreign to them.

China, meanwhile, has jumped at the leadership vacuum in the US Congress. It has done more than most to ameliorate the crisis in the Euro Zone by buying extra government bonds in Europe. Its politicians seem more pragmatic and ideologically flexible than there counterparts in the USA. Has the US abdicated? Not just yet. But its politicians should ask themselves whether they have what it takes to fill the boots of a superpower.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Castorf to direct 2013 Bayreuth Ring?

Frank Castorf looks set to direct the 2013 production of Richard Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen tetralogy. Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer and recently appointed Co-director of the famous festival, confirmed this week that she was in discussions with Castorf after film director Wim Wenders turned down the offer to direct the 2013 Ring. It will be a special season that year as Wagner fans celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of his birthday.

Castorf (60) is artistic director of Berlin's Volksbühne theatre and is known for strong, contemporary theatre that has been labelled 'post-dramatic". He is certain to ruffle some of the more conservative feathers in Bayreuth.

Keeping it in the (artistic) family

I recently saw the film Nannerl: Mozart's Sister (2010). It is the work of the French filmmaker René Féret and half his family. Yes, when you watch the credits roll past it soon becomes apparent that many of the actors are family members of the Féret clan. Two of the leading actresses are his daughters. And father René wrote, produced and directed the film.

There aren't many films that involve parents directing their own kids. It must be an "interesting" experience for all concerned. But there many other ways in which artists combine intimate relationships and their creative work, some with outstanding success, others that end in tears.

The real-life relationship between Wolfgang Mozart and his father Leopold was a complex one. The elder Mozart was himself a respected musician but also drove his children very hard as they spent most of their childhood on tour.

Conductors seem to have a penchant for romantic relationships with prima donnas, as do film directors with leading ladies. The composer Gustav Mahler was infamously harsh on his wife when he forbade her to compose until near the end of his life. Richard Strauss on the other hand seems to have been the subject of a tyrannical wife (a former singer). Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears formed one of the most famous and productive musical/personal relationships of the twentieth century.

The question remains whether the intimacy of these various relationships in any way enhances the art making of the people concerned. In answering, it is difficult to generalise. Clearly in some cases it does. In other cases the mixing of the personal and the artistic clouds the latter. It can be a highly rewarding exchange. René Féret must have felt some sense of pride in the acting skills of his daughters. At least let's hope so! It certainly must have brought an intriguing family dynamic to a film about the relationships in one of the great musical families. Artistic lives imitating artistic lives!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

God Gave Physics the Easy Problems

What use are theories that have no predictive power? That is a question many economists and political theorists should be asking themselves these days. Back in 1989 hardly anyone in the world of political science was able to predict the collapse of European Communism, the biggest event in world history since the end of World War II. In 2008 it was the turn of the economists. The vast majority of their number totally failed to see the collapse of international finance and the US housing market. Today it is once again the political scientists who failed to give us any warning of the impending revolutions now sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

In the natural sciences the ultimate test of any theory is its ability to predict events. Economics is perhaps the social science that most aspires to the rigour of the natural sciences, but 2008 exposed its many failings. Political theory is not far behind on both counts.

Perhaps the problem is an even broader one. Maybe we are too enthusiastic about reaching consensus in social theories. The great debates within the social sciences tend to be sequential, and the various disciplines seem mostly to move from one consensus to another rather than coming to terms with the possible simultaneous existence of multiple consensual models. Debates between specialists too often seem set up to establish one valid theory. The co-existence of multiple theories seems like a weakness that embarrasses a discipline, largely because a theory in the natural sciences is universal and all-encompassing. In this sense the social sciences would do well to relax their burning desire to emulate the natural sciences. In the words of one group of political scientists: 'God Gave Physics the Easy Problems' so let's accept that neother economics nor politics is the same as physics.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Nanny land

A friend from France recently asked me why Australians seemed to have little problem with their governments giving them advice in the form of media and advertising campaigns that urge people to change their lifestyles. Certainly Australia is home to many publicity drives that urge us to stop smoking, to slow down on the roads, to check our superannuation accounts and so on. The French would, at least according to my friend, be far less tolerant of government 'interference' in their private lives.

Are Australians too trusting of their governments? Has the "nanny state" taken over down under? Certainly Australian political history gives less cause for concern than that of most countries. The USA was settled by pilgrims feeling religious persecution at the hands of government in the UK. Later, the civil war there killed more people than all of America's other wars on foreign soil. The Germans have particularly traumatic memories with democratically government that turn themselves into genocidal dictatorships. The French too have been through a famous revolution that went wrong and still have memories of the collaborationist Vichy government during WWII that shipped thousands of French citizens to extermination and forced labour in the Third Reich. Australian politics, in comparison, are, thankfully more like a Sunday kindergarten picnic.

It is not that the legal situation in the USA, France or Australia is radically different. Smoking in indoor public places is banned in all three. Driving when drunk is also illegal. Perhaps Australian governments are more proactive. After all, the point of such laws is to bring about behavioural change. And prevention is the best cure. It is a better outcome for all concerned if people abstain from drink driving before the law gets involved. Similarly, there are financial benefits for nations that have a healthier population. With the skyrocketing cost of medical treatment in most Western countries, this is more true now than ever. So maybe a publicity campaign with a policy objective makes good sense.

Dame Edna Everage is reputed to have said that if Germany was the "fatherland" and England was the "motherland", then Australia was "auntie land". Maybe she meant to say "nanny land".

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A bit rich

This week's edition of the Economist newspaper features a sadly imbalanced and ignorant attack on public sector unions. Membership of these workers' groups have remained relatively high as unions in the private sector have fallen over the last twenty years. This fact throws up two questions: why is the public sector still heavily unionised and why are membership densities in the private sector down. The first question assumes that there is some sort of unwritten number that represents the ideal level of union membership that the public sector is unhealthily above. That is the question that the Economist pursues instead of asking why private sector unions are below a healthy level. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the more unionised a national workforce is the higher the standard of living is.

The central argument of the article is that the public sector unions are facing a challenge as governments in many countries impose financial cuts on their respective public sectors. Up to quite recently German school history text books were infamous for treating the Third Reich as something akin to a natural disaster that was unfortunately visited on the population. Now the Economist is doing the same with the current economic crisis. It writes that 'Governments almost everywhere — particularly in the rich world — are being forced to cut back public spending' with the result that public employees are being asked to carry the can. The article omits to mention by who or what the governments are being forced. Presumable some sort of unavoidable natural disaster like the arrival of Nazism in Germany. In fact what is behind the difficulties of governments are the failings of the banks and financial sector. The article makes no attempt to explain why public sector employees should be asked to rescue the banks when they are the last who were responsible for the financial debacle.

This is not a question of pinning the blame. But it is very hard to learn from mistakes when the analysis is blind to the real cause. The disastrous state of public finances in Greece, Ireland, the UK and the USA is due to the enormous mistakes of private sector banks, not public sector employees and their unions.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Demise of the retail dinosaurs?

Some of Australia's largest retailers are calling for a change in tax laws to reduce the difference between their prices and those of online competitors, particularly those from overseas. So far retailer's appeals have rightly earned little sympathy. These corporate heavies seem to think that a ten percent saving from avoiding the relevant tax makes the difference between in-store and online shopping. They seem determined to insist that consumers shop on retailers' terms. Instead, what we may be witnessing is the death of a business model and the triumph of a new one with far reaching repercussions.

The essence of traditional high-street retailing consists of attracting customers into visiting a store in a convenient location and making the experience so rewarding that they will come again. But the rents for such real estate are high and every square meter has to be used to maximize returns. There is a whole science behind how retailers use shelf space and shop layouts to boost sales. The simple physical stature of the average human sets limits on  shelving, and that is just the beginning. The alternative model - filling online orders from a warehouse in a low-rent area on the urban fringe - has a lot going for it. Retailers can stock more goods per square meter of floor space because shelves can extend much higher and there are no inefficient hierarchies of good and bad shelf space. These benefits are further multiplied if automated retrieval systems are used. The benefit for consumers are lower prices, greater product variety and choice. A good website is also much easier to use and search for product comparisons and information than it is to get reliable information from shop-floor staff who are often just school kids on holiday jobs with little idea about what they are selling. 

A wider shift away from antiquated bricks and mortar retailing to online shopping would free up valuable inner-urban real estate for housing, cultural and leisure activities or public space. The death of the retail dinosaurs could be the birth of a better urban landscape.

Image: Cobalt 123