Monday, January 30, 2012

Self-immolation in gold leaf

Pop music has been eating itself for the last few decades. The world of the visual arts is catching up quicker than you can read another curator's catalogue essay about the glory days of Vienna and the beginnings of modernism. The world's great galleries and museums never seem to tire of raking over the coals of the Klimt-Schiele-Hoffmann-Freud-Mahler complex in search of yet another way to present the ever-fascinating "beginnings of modernism".

The Austrian Belvedere Gallery in Vienna is the latest contributor to the all-too-familiar pantheon of exhibitions in the "fin de siècle Vienna" genre. Under the imaginative title "Klimt / Hoffmann, Pioneers of Modernism" the Belvedere is currently running an exhibition that yet again tries to breathe life into this old war horse.

This year is the 150th anniversary of Gustav Klimt's birth and no doubt the Belvedere is only one of numerous galleries around the world that will be cashing in on the event. There is certainly plenty of money to be made out of Klimt's big gold masterpieces. What a pity it is that there is so little new to be said about them.

Self-immolation in gold leaf promises to be the most appropriate title for much of the coming year on the international art exhibition circuit.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Poles apart

The other day I was an observer at a training seminar for people who want to be life coaches. One of the activities dealt with polarities in the language we use and the way we think. It began with a little brainstorming. Participants suggested a range of polarities - day/night, life/death, right/wrong, good/bad, love/hate, open/closed - and so on. You get the picture.

It was an interesting exercise and and soon there was a whiteboard full of polarities. Two things grabbed my attention. There is no doubt that a lot of human thinking works in polarities and extremes. But this is an example of the ways in which human thought and perception are divorced from the reality of the world outside our heads.

Reality consists of spectrums of phenomena rather than simple polarities. Where does day end and night begin? Love and hate are often close bedfellows (apathy is the true opposite pole of both). Only very rarely is anything totally good or entirely bad. Truth usually lies in the confusing middle ground and our penchant for thinking in polarities often represents a dangerous simplification.

That said, there is one essential polarity that is central to human perception and thinking: that between "I" and "you", between the internal and external worlds. Curiously this polarity did not occur to anyone in the brainstorming I observed. This is particularly interesting because it is the primal polarity and imbalances here can be at the root of so many other psychological problems. When we confuse our perceptions with external realities disaster can be the result and when we fail to reach a healthy amalgam - somewhere on one of those spectrums - between our own existence and that of those around us we all too often fall into an empty world of simple polarities.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mahagonny 2012

Tonight (24 January) the Vienna State Opera will perform the premiere of its new production of the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht has never been performed at the Staatsoper before. It was first staged in Leipzig in 1930 and Nazi protests ensured that back then it had only four performances. The full opera was preceded by a smaller version, the Mahagonny Songspiel.

The new Vienna production promises to come quite close to the Brechtian ideal of epic theatre. The stage design and costumes have a strong surrealist element and reflect Brecht's desire for theatre to have a clear "distancing effect" on audiences. The famous Alabama Song is sung by Jenny Smith and a sextet of doll-like figures dressed in orange. In the pit Ingo Metzmacher promises to deliver a refined and intelligent reading of the score while the French director Jérôme Deschamps aims to remain close to the text.

I have never found that Mahagonny's more popular older sister - the Threepenny Opera - really achieved much in terms of social critique. The songs quickly became too popular for that and too often productions drift of it drift into a comfortable kind of kitsch. The new Vienna Mahagonny promises a more contemporary and thought-provoking experience.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Value and Price

A friend of mine has for more than five years followed a family rule by which he and his wife never mention the price of anything they purchase. Oscar Wilde said that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. So the idea behind the family's rule is to counteract the problem that Wilde describes.

How often do we come home to show our partners something we have bought and the first thing we tell them is the price? Why? Is a dress, a pair of shoes or a shirt that cost $25 better if it costs $125, or for that matter, if it costs $5?

If you cut price from your vocabulary for a while you will find that other qualities come to prominence. Soon you start to notice the colour, the cut or the material of a dress or shirt. The sensual aspect of the things we buy is revitalized.

Try it. Of course, it is a challenge that requires both parties to agree. While one agrees not to ask the price the other needs to agree not to brag about a particular "bargain" or about how much they paid. But it's worth it if the reward is a greater sense for the "value" Oscar Wilde so dearly missed and that seems to have all but been lost from contemporary society.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Messengers and mirrors

As seven European countries had their credit worthiness downgraded last week renewed calls went out for the creation of a European rating agency. The underlying thinking is that the negative ratings reflect some sort of Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to torpedo the good burghers of continental Europe. But also part of the mix is the old desire, if not quite to shoot the messenger, then at least to replace him with one bearing better news.

Meanwhile the mainstream news media is replete with warnings about GFC2.0. In Europe "crisis" is the word of the month and will probably become the word of the year. Yet this is a message we seem happy to wallow in.

What is it that keeps us hankering for negative stories from the mass media? It is the oldest rule in the book that you can't sell newspapers with good news stories. But too often we put the blame on this lamentable situation on the news media. In reality we get the media we deserve. The news media are a mirror that reflects our society back at us. Like any other successful service in a market economy, the news media makes money by satisfying demand and desires.

We are not the victims of the news media, we created the beast and continue to nourish it through our indiscriminate consumption of its output.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Glorious decadence

LunchIn a competitive environment complacency is one of the most dangerous states of mind to inhabit. Complacency befalls those who think themselves to be in the lead or close to it. And that is where it is, of course, most dangerous to the future prospects of those same leaders. If you are trying to catch someone ahead of you complacency is generally less of a problem - although, of course, those in second position cannot be complacent about those in third!

When you combine the temptations of history with the potential for complacency the mix can be toxic. Such is the situation in good old Europe these days. European public life is still suffused with the unshakeable belief that the continent is the fountainhead of all culture, education and wisdom. When a few years back the OECD's PISA international educational rankings showed that central European countries such as Germany, France and Austria were falling behind the educational attainment of kids in places such as South Korea, Finland, Singapore and Australia the shock was palpable. In some circles it even went as far as to questioning the measurement scheme itself, even though it was developed by an international organization with no overt national preferences. Shooting the messenger is always an option when the message is not the desired one.

Today it is the economy that should be the greatest concern for Europeans. But, here too, complacency remains the order of the day. Nowhere else do you see so clearly that the obsession with history and past achievements that prevails in too many parts of Europe can be a burden to those trying to manage the challenges of the present and those of the future. Is glorious decadence a European invention or did the Europeans just perfect it?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Modernism: art's suicide?

I was at an exhibition a few weeks back. The question the curator wanted to tackle was whether modernism had "murdered art". If so, it would, of course, be a case of suicide. After all, it was modernist artists who confronted their predecessors and, if the thesis is right, ushered in an Oedipal tearing down of earlier understandings of what art is.

The core of the curatorial position was that "Modern art ... opposed everything associated with representation and replaced it with reality." Central to the idea was the arrival of Marcel Duchamp's Ready Mades. Artists such as Duchamp, so the argument went, were no longer seeking to "represent" reality. Instead they were creating it.

The argument has its merits. But it misses the target in some subtle ways. In particular, it overlooks the ways in which the context in which art is experienced remove an object from "reality" and make it into art. When Duchamp displays a bicycle wheel or an upturned urinal in an art museum they do not have the same "reality" as such objects outside the museum. The museum denudes them of their previous "realities". A bicycle wheel in an art museum is not a bicycle wheel. Even if the artist has done very little to transform such a Ready Made, the context does the work and turns it into art. That is the social function of art institutions. Remnants of the original, intrinsic "reality" remain, but to view such Ready Mades as "reality" rather than "depictions" underplays the social and cultural function of the institutional in the arts