Friday, 19 September 2008

It’s time we all suffered for the sake of our art

This is the most interesting news comment I've read on the "recession" thus far. That it's written by a Professor of History is perhaps surprising... You'll probably have missed it given that it was in today's Evening Standard.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, professor of history at Queen Mary College, London

Bad times are just around the corner. We can't even enjoy the schadenfreude of the fat cats' failures. Central banks throw good money after bad, down the sewers of the City and Wall Street.

There is no escape from the apparent meltdown of capitalism. Portents of cataclysm multiply. AIG teeters, with trillions of dollars sunk in bad bonds. Merrill Lynch sells out for a pittance. Even Goldman loses the Midas touch and is left with the ass's ears.

But can it really be that bad? While people are suffering, it may seem cheeky to celebrate financial ­catastrophe. Yet history is full of ­examples of poverty redeemed by great achievements.

For one thing, the arts tend to benefit. The Renaissance would probably never have happened without the hard times that made investors in 15th-century Italy turn away from get-rich-quick schemes and invest in culture. Botticelli did some of his best, highest-minded paintings after the Medici Bank crashed in 1494.

In the Bonfire of the Vanities the revolutionaries burned the glitz and erotica that passed for art but the new generation of artists who stepped into the vacant niche included Michelangelo and Leonardo.

When the South Sea bubble burst, England enjoyed the glories of the “Augustan” age of poetry and design. The recession of the Thirties inspired Hollywood with a wonderful series of riches-to-rags, rags-to-riches movies, which in their turn helped ordinary people follow Fred Astaire's advice: “Dust yourself off and start all over again.”

Though art requires patronage, most of it comes pretty cheap. Most great art happens in garrets. Short rations stimulate vast visions.

Unemployment pay has done more than the Arts
Council to keep the arts alive. The arts in Britain have been corrupted into trashiness by high prices, easy money, and the curse of celebrity ­values. Austerity might trigger a new era that may not glisten but may yield real gold. And some things that are better even than art thrive in adversity: love, ­spirituality, friendship, humanity, trust. Clichés have one great virtue: they tend to be true. It really is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Money really can't buy love. Mimi showed great taste in loving Rodolfo and leaving her fat-cat protector in La Bohème.

Comfort induces bovine contentment but is hostile to happiness, which is a dynamic state that emerges from ­struggle. Unemployment is evil but can be turned to good: enforced leisure is, at least, leisure. Financial worries ­corrode the soul and can poison ­relationships; but when extreme ­adversity teaches us to cope with them, their menace ebbs.

Abundance is bad for you. A tighter-belted Britain would be less obese, less profligate, less self-indulgent, less stuffed with junk food and trash values. The less surplus you have to splurge, the less likely you are to take the kind of mad risks that have wrecked so many big businesses.

The common culture we have discarded over the past half-century was never very good. The patriotism was jingoistic, the religion shallow, the “family values” sometimes oppressive, the social disciplines tainted by class-consciousness. But we have discarded them without finding anything worthwhile to share in their place.

A spell of austerity will concentrate our minds. We will rethink the ­economic dogmas inherited from the era of Reagan and Thatcher. We'll see the virtues of democratically regulated economies. We'll close the wealth gaps that have disfigured society with unconscionable inequalities.

We'll start relying more on the networks of families, friendships and neighbourliness in revulsion from unrestrained individualism and the cult of competition. I hope we'll regulate the markets so that incompetent executives can no longer work up billions of dollars of debt before taxpayers have to rescue them.

And if we really learn from experience, we'll never again allow predatory directors to milk their businesses, stiff their shareholders and insult their workers with obscene differentials in pay. We may even end up happier.

When Wall Street suffered its worst-ever crash in 1929, the media overflowed with stories of financiers' suicides. Most turned out to be hysterical inventions that passed into urban legend. There is life after losses. People who can find the strength and support among their families and friends to live through austerity will recover some, at least, of their lost comforts.

Disaster makes people rethink their lives. People who realise, through hard experience, that they can do without luxuries cannot be corrupted by their possessions. Prosperity will re-emerge, and it may again threaten to infect us with greed. The question is not whether we will get through straitened circumstances but whether we will use them to make society better.

With little to lose, I feel indemnified against the worst effects of the current disaster. As I watch financial panic from the security of my own modest circumstances, the spectacle reminds me of the closing scene of an adventure movie. Disaster buries the longed-for treasure or the forbidden city. The heroes escape, safe but impoverished. The baddies, who cannot bear to abandon their hoard, get squashed in the crash.

It's one of the oldest story-lines in the world. The Bible has a formula for dealing with the debacle that follows ­corruption, materialism and greed. When Sodom and Gomorrah buckle and crumble, anyone who looks back is lost. But Lot is happy to escape with his life. The moral is clear. Don't look back.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

We're warmongerers. Deal with it.

Reading a book on Aeschylus' The Orestia this evening I came across a quote by Jean-Pierre Vernant on fifth-century Athenians: "War is to a man what marriage is to a woman." Which means war is everything to an Athenian man. Like everything. Really. War makes men men. Chest thumping all around.

And now a comparative perspective: "I've been to war. I've raised twins. If I had a choice, I'd rather go to war." Guess who? None other than our own, inimitable G.W. Bush.

So what I want to know is why so many liberal intellectuals are anti-war if warring is clearly just keeping in line with the heritage of Western civilization? War is just another thing we inherited from our ancient Greek forefathers, along with all those other great Greek institutions - like, um, the "Olympics" (nekkid wrestling!), citizenship (pride, patriotism, and passports! Sieg Heil), and uhh...democracy (we would like to take this opportunity to direct your attention to the above G.W. Bush quote and ask you to reflect upon the state of democracy in the Western world - apologies for the lack of subtlety). We love democracy, patriotism, and especially our Olympians, so why don't we love war too?

Monday, 15 September 2008

And now for something personal...

The most frequent complaint of these wayward sentiments (made by my motley crew of loyal readers) is that, though they appear as if belonging to a blog, do not actually constitute a blog, rather a mere collection of essays. 'Tis true to be sure - I like essays - it means I can make believe I'm writing my own newspaper column, but without the pressure of deadlines or word count. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to occasionally take on the mantle of confessional (compulsive?) bloggette.

Starting now.

Two firsts for Monday the 15th of September. I started a new job, and given that "working" is a concept I find in every way unpalatable and reprehensible (academia partially excepted, of course), I was looking forward to today with trepidation and apprehension. I needed not worry, however, as my new post is pretty swish. I am, as of today, the newest editorial assistant at the Architects' Journal - part time so I can still PhD (yes, it
is a verb), good pay (the publishing industry's equivalent of spotting a narwhal in the middle of a desert), cool editor, and an equally groovy editorial team (afternoon "water cooler" chat consisted of a discussion of the merits (or not!) of Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions"). I'm quite fond of writing, keen on architecture, too opinionated for my own good, and a fascist pig dog when it comes to editing AND I've already snagged an invitation to the private viewing of Gerhard Richter's new show at the Serpentine next week. Me and the AJ are going to get along just fine. Oh yeah!

In an attempt to ensure my bottom spends good time on a chair in the library, especially now that twenty hours of my week are now dedicated to the AJ, in a whimsical fever of, uh, whimsy, I joined the London Library a few weeks ago. Today was the first opportunity I'd had to consummate my membership and I wasn't disappointed. There's a nice frisson of sexual tension given that the overwhelming majority of LL users are either male or very masculine looking women. It also doesn't help that the floors in the stacks are metal grates, meaning that anyone on the floor below looking up may have caught an eyeful of my stockings and knickers. Needless to say, I won't be wearing dresses in the library anymore. Don't want to encourage the pervy old men. The selection of books is ace and open stacks are such a good idea, especially compared to the Fort Knoxness that is the British Library. But the best thing I discovered in the library this afternoon was in the Members' Room where I retired after a few hours of reading to revive myself with a cup of tea. I picked up the magazine nearest me to page through and then noticed it wasn't actually a magazine. The cover letter on the manuscript politely explained that the author of the screenplay resting in my hands had been unsuccessfully pitching said manuscript for the last three months. He had bribed a friend, a member of the Library (which incidentally is rather costly to join), to surreptitiously sneak the manuscript into the Members' Room so that any directors or producers (who happened to be members of the Library) might take pity (or interest, whatever) on his script and make his dream come true. The best bit was the post script which indicated that, for their trouble, the kindly producer/director would be treated to a "large drink" and that the author would make a "small donation" to the library. Though I am neither kindly nor a producer nor even a director, I was intrigued by the gumption of the author and turned to page one only to find (not unexpectedly) that the writing was terrible and the story even worse. If you're going to go through the trouble to hob-nob with the great and glorious of the LL, at least make sure you've got a good story to tell and then do it justice by telling it well. For all the awfulness of the script, I was quite taken with my studious afternoon in the reading room and look forward to many more such productive sessions surrounded by the charms of the library. In trousers mind...