Archive | June, 2013

Twilight in the Magic Kingdom – Philip Glass’s ‘The Perfect American’

29 Jun

The Perfect American

Walt Disney was not a nice guy. This is one of those things you learn when you’re in your mid-to-late teens, having grown up (if you were born at any point from around 1930 onward) on a diet of Disney movies, and it’s a kind of adolescent follow-on to the revelation that there’s no such thing as Santa.

"He's just a lie your parents made up, kids." - Walt Disney, killing two birds with one stone.

“He’s just a lie your parents made up, kids.” – “Uncle Walt”, killing two birds with one stone.

Disney, the man who brought you Mickey and Donald and who established Disneyworld and Disneyland, the self-proclaimed “happiest places on Earth”, was a bit racist and may or may not have had his head frozen in a cryogenic chamber after he died. So not a nice guy, and potentially a little bit nuts.

It’s understandable, then, why composer Philip Glass and librettist Rudy Wurtlitzer (who wrote the screenplay to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidshould consider Disney a suitable subject for an opera. Wurlitzer’s libretto is based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel Der König von Amerika (literally ‘King of America’, translated as ‘Perfect American’), which explores the last year of Disney’s life, as he succumbs to lung cancer and looks back on his life and career.

Christopher Purves as Walt Disney

Christopher Purves as Walt Disney

I haven’t read Jungk’s novel, so can’t comment on the approach he took, but Glass and Wurlitzer’s opera offers us a kind of kaleidoscopic dream, the hospitalised Disney reminiscing with his brother about their childhood in Marceline, Missouri, harrassed by a disgruntled former employee, and plagued by identikit animators who morph into rabbit-like creatures and a small child wearing an over-sized owl mask.

The problem for anyone approaching the life of an entertainer and filmmaker as famous and iconic as Walt Disney is how much you rely on familiar visual and sonic cues to conjure up that life. The Disney Corporation are notoriously protective and litigious, and it’s likely that any direct reference (a few notes from ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ here; a black mouse with red shorts there) would have resulted in Glass & Co. experiencing the full wrath of the Kingdom of the Mouse.

Infringe their copyright, and they send these guys after you.

Infringe their copyright, and they send these guys after you.

Okay, so it was unlikely Glass would ever have offered up a pastiche of classic Disney songs, and he’s not exactly the world’s most adventurous composer, but what’s more interesting is how the show’s designer and animation director, Dan Potra and Joseph Pierce, have played against the Disney aesthetic. There are one or two very brief nods towards Disney’s iconography (the cancerous cells in Disney’s x-rayed lungs turning briefly into the famous Mickey Mouse outline), but otherwise the animal imagery conjured up in both the costumes and impressive projections is something far darker and more primeval than Bambi.

Wurlitzer’s libretto, too, hints at something dark, almost pagan, bubbling away beneath Disney’s veneer of apple pie and traditional, small-town values. On face value the plain verse dialogue appears banal, commonplace. Only as the opera progresses do we pick up on repeat references to animals and Disney’s anthropomorphised characters, usually mentioned in conjunction with Jesus, Moses and Zeus.

The Perfect American

Disney, as portrayed by an excellent Christopher Purves, is very aware that he’s creating a secular iconography for the industrial age, boasting at one point that today’s children are more familiar with Mickey Mouse than Jesus Christ, and there are hints of something darker, pre-Christian and pagan, too, when – before fading into a version of the US flag – the projected backdrop gives us two prominent pentagrams. This is Walt Disney as a capitalist shaman, and the Disney brand as a syncretic religion, fusing the crucifix and totem pole.

There were several points during the show when The Perfect American reminded me of John Gray’s recent book, The Immortalisation Commission, which looked at the various oddball schemes, both in Victorian England and early Soviet Russia, to cheat death. In England it took the form of seances, in Russia the ghoulish image of a waxy, frozen Lenin in his glass sarcophagus (shades of Snow White, anyone?) When, at the end of Act 1, Disney communes with a malfunctioning animatronic Lincoln (Zachary James), there are obvious visual references to Pinocchio, but even more so the scene feels like a kind of seance, with Disney hearing the words of this American icon, but then shaping them and censoring them to fit his own worldview.

Zachary James as Lincoln and Christopher Purves as Disney

Zachary James as Lincoln and Christopher Purves as Disney

This scene is revealing, because it demonstrates that the “American Dream” that Disney – or at least this Disney – is interested in isn’t the one laid down by the country’s great, historic statesmen, but a kind of vapid, Norman Rockwell vision of an America that never really existed in the first place. Disney’s ideas are less Utopian, and more reactionary; an attempt to reverse the very revolution (which included locomotives and the cinema) that got him where he is in the first place. When confronted, at the beginning of Act 2, by Andy Warhol – a 2nd generation artist similarly obsessed by mass production and secular iconography – Disney’s brother Roy turns the foppish, camp-as-Christmas pop artist away in horror.

The Perfect American

The Perfect American is not without its flaws. Glass, as already mentioned, isn’t particularly versatile, and all-too-often coasts along on autopilot. Much of the score is familiar, with only the odd moment (such as the Copland-esque flourishes during the Lincoln scene) to make it stand out from the rest of his body of work, and some audiences may struggle with Wurlitzer’s unfurnished, prose-like libretto, expecting something more obviously lyrical or witty.

Where the opera succeeds is in its performances – many of which are great – and its marriage of subject, subtext and very powerful and provocative imagery. It takes a scalpel to the mentality of a man who considered himself a storyteller, yet relied on others to tell his stories, and a lover of all human beings, though he (allegedly, and to borrow a phrase) considered some human beings more equal than others. The production is rich in ideas and symbolism (the test card framing Disney’s deathbed alternately takes on the appearance of a target and a ticking clock) that are ultimately far more memorable and vivid than any of its tunes.

‘Last of the Summer Wine’ With Explosions – Stallone & Co. return in ‘The Expendables 2’

28 Jun

Sylvester Stallone’s face is fascinating. Oh, he’s always had unconventional looks, owing to the paralysis of his lower face, but he’s now entering the realm of the sideshow. I first noticed this when he rocked up in one of his two recent-ish comeback movies, 2008’s Rambo. 

"Wait... Shouldn't Rambo 3 have been called Rambo 2: First Blood Part 3. And how come the 4th film's called just 'Rambo'?"

Wait… Shouldn’t Rambo 3 have been called Rambo 2: First Blood Part 3? And how come the 4th film is just called ‘Rambo’?

In Rambo we were meant to believe that Stallone’s character, the eponymous, troubled Vietnam vet, had spent the last 20 years of his life living in the backwoods of Thailand. What made this curious wasn’t Stallone’s Hollywood tan (I believe they have sunlight in Thailand, and Rambo is meant to be an outdoorsy type), but the fact that he was dying his hair and had clearly had “work done” since fighting alongside the brave men of the Taliban in Rambo III.

"You can ride a horse, American. But can you fly a plane?"

“You can ride a horse, American. But can you fly a plane?”

Let’s be clear here, I’m not having a go at anyone who wishes to look their best, even as they stumble into their mid-to-late sixties. Stallone has an impressive physique for a man who, if he were British, could have collected his bus pass in 2006, and I’m sure it’s in no way augmented by regular injections of monkey serum or yak’s testicles or any other weird, untested freakishness. But still… Sylvester Stallone’s face is fascinating. 

There are times, early on in The Expendables 2, when it seems to have been given a little CGI airbrushing to remove some of its more leathery creases, but elsewhere it looks like a mixed grill, twitching and mumbling its way towards sentience.

A mixed grill dressed as Magnum PI.

A mixed grill dressed as Magnum PI.

Fortunately, in the Expendables franchise Stallone is able to offset the visible signs of ageing by surrounding himself with a cast of action stars of a similar vintage. In the first film we had (a surprisingly good) Dolph Lundgren, looking like what would happen if the Easter Island heads were given a makeover by Tom of Finland, and Mickey Rourke looking like an educational film designed to warn children about the dangers of being Mickey Rourke. There were blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-cameos from then-Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger and his and Stallone’s fellow Planet Hollywood restaurateur Bruce Willis.

This time around, as well as the return of Jason Statham, Jet Li, the aforementioned Lundgren, Terry Crews, and MMA star Randy Couture we get repeat cameos from Schwarzenegger and Willis, a new one from Chuck Norris (prompting a toe-curling scene referencing “Chuck Norris facts”), and – as the film’s Euro-villain, Vilain (that’s his actual name) – Breakinstar Jean Claude Van Damme. All these 1980s action stars and – miraculously – hardly a grey hair in sight. Norris’s beard, in particular, is a significantly darker hue than it ever was in the mid-1970s, while Van Damme’s hair looks like it’s been treated with Cuprinol. Half an hour into the film I began wondering why the film’s producers hadn’t struck a lucrative sponsorship deal with Just For Men.


And the thing is, that last sentence isn’t even a wisecrack, because I don’t think I have ever seen a film that so cynically squeezes money from its paying audience as Expendables 2. 

Here is a film whose stars, with the exception of young pup Statham, stopped being bankable a good 15-20 years ago. As if to hammer that point home, both Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s most recent “solo” efforts, The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head tanked at the box office. Put ’em all together, however, and a paying audience will queue around the block. After that point, the filmmakers don’t quite know what to do. This was a problem with the first film, which I think had Eric Roberts in it, and a plane that was also a big, flying gun, and… uh… some explosions… but of which I remember absolutely nothing else. And this is a film I watched earlier this year

Already, vast chunks of Expendables 2 are slipping from my memory. I’m having to resort to notes to remember what happened, because the main thing I remember, the main thing the film is about, is, “Hey… It’s Schwarzenegger. And Terry Crews just told him he’d be terminated if he didn’t take care of his gun. Ha! Do you get it! He said he’d be terminated. And Arnold Schwarzenegger played the Terminator.”

"And then you can 'Jingle all the Way' home, motherf**ker."

“And then you can ‘Jingle all the Way’ home, motherf**ker.”

What I can remember of the film’s plot (rather than its raison d’êtreinvolves some dodgy Eastern European types, headed by Van Damme, who are mining uranium in some dodgy part of Eastern Europe (Bulkrainia?) to make some sort of weapon. If it’s ever stated what JCVD intends to do with his weapon (oo-er) I missed it in among all the things going bang.

Pictured: Things going bang.

Pictured: Things going bang.

The last act, which takes place in one of those airports where they don’t have any police or security because it’s Eastern Europe, is a series of in-jokes for action fans, including about half a dozen riffs on “I’ll be back” and one baffling, doesn’t-make-the-slightest-bit-of-sense nod to “Yippee ki-yay!” There are also no fewer than three occasions when Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Willis comments on their age, as if to say to the audience, “Yeah… We know we’re getting on a bit, but you liked our movies when you were a kid and probably too young to watch them, so humour us, okay?”

Look at this, but think of this.

Look at this, but think of this.

I can’t deny there is some fun to be had, watching three 1980s action heroes charge into battle (even if it does leave Statham, Crews, Lundgren et al standing on the sidelines twiddling their thumbs), but the minute the end credits roll the film disappears as swiftly as the poorly rendered CGI smoke from one of its many, many explosions (see above). Expendables 2 isn’t so much a film with a coherent plot and characters as it is a nostalgic box-ticking exercise, and that’s a shame, because as well as getting older and wrinklier its retro stars are infinitely more comfortable in front of the camera. Jean Claude Van Damme makes a very good villain, especially in his final showdown with Stallone, and Schwarzenegger seems to have used his political career to hone a sense of comic timing (I particularly liked the scene with him and Willis driving through the airport-cum-warzone in a Smart car).

Given a decent script, by somebody like Shane Black, Expendables 2 could have been so much more than a big screen fan convention, or an episode of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ with more explosions. It could have been to action movies what The Wild Bunch was to Westerns. Looking at IMDB I see a third film is scheduled for 2014, so perhaps this time they’ll get it right.

Then my eyes scan down the page and I see they’ve cast Nicholas Cage.

Ah, well.

Pictured: Academy Award®-winner Nicholas Cage's last 5 movies.

Pictured: Academy Award®-winner Nicholas Cage’s last 5 movies.

PS: As a side-note, Van Damme’s character’s name is pronounced ‘Verlaine’, like the bisexual French poet and lover of Rimbaud (pronounced ‘Rambo’), after whom First Blood author David Morrell named his most famous character. Maybe screenwriter Richard Wenk isn’t so dumb, after all.

Conceptual Art is Dead (and about f**king time)

23 Jun

In 2006 the gallery at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts (Londoners should imagine Battersea Arts Centre, but better) exhibited Gallery Space Recall by Simon Pope, an artist who had represented Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2003. The work consisted of… nothing. The walls and floor spaces were empty. Instead of looking at pieces of work crafted lovingly by the artist, visitors to the exhibition were invited to remember previous exhibitions they had gone to.

Be still, my beating fists.

Be still, my beating fists.

It marked, for me, the nadir of conceptual art; the point when it went beyond parody and vanished up its own fundament. Having long been subjected to the accusation that it was like the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, here was conceptual art using that fairy tale as its template. There was nothing to see, but seeing nothing made you a philistine.

What’s more, it was a perfect illustration of conceptual art’s very worst traits; cultural navel-gazing and the assumption that the viewer would already be immersed in that world. This was art about art for the benefit of artists and people who already know about art. If you fell outside that spectacularly narrow group, you could fuck off, you fucking pleb.

Martin Creed's 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227, the lights going on and off.  In which the light goes on and off. Fucking seriously.

Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227, the lights going on and off. In which the light goes on and off. Fucking seriously.

In my mind, it’s no coincidence that this kind of conceptual art should come to dominate Britain’s art scene when it did, during the late-1990s and early 2000s. This was a time of economic prosperity, when the country’s creatives were, by and large, still in love with our government. They had very little to react against other than a kind of sketchy, nebulous “conformity”. Marcel Duchamp’s prediction, that the artist of the future would be “a person who points his finger”, looked dangerously close to coming true.

Of course, the ultimate irony of a movement that began with the intention of making art less elitist, less bourgeois, was that from Duchamp’s urinal to Damien Hirst’s rotting carcasses and Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed (one of the great shibboleths of conceptual art) the exact opposite happened. Art became inexplicable  to the newcomer, a high-walled fortress accessible only to those “in the know”. Forget craft… Craft was bourgeois. Forget work that was actually about something; having something to say was just so ’80s.

As the decade known nauseatingly as the Noughties wore on, however, something interesting started to happen. First, in 2003, Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize with lovingly crafted pots featuring sexual imagery; work that took skill to create and was actually about something. He was followed, in 2006, by Tomma Abts. Though abstract, her paintings were breathtakingly beautiful, painted with stunning control; a celebration of the amazing things a skilled artist can do with paint and a paintbrush. And there… I’ve said it. Skill. Here we had artists winning the Turner Prize, the tabloids’ cultural bête noire, whose art couldn’t have been created by a six-year-old or “any old Tom, Dick or Harry”.

Or Tammy, Doris and Nancy.

Or Tammy, Doris or Nancy, for that matter.

Since then I’ve been to a number of exhibitions of contemporary British art, at the Saatchi Gallery, the Royal Academy and, yes, Chapter Arts, and I’ve seen this trend continue. Artists, it would seem, are returning to craft. Tracey Emin is now a professor of drawing at the Royal Academy. Even Damien Hirst went back to more traditional painting… with less-than-successful results.

This isn’t to say that art should return to some atavistic, pre-Duchamp state of grace, in which only traditional painting and sculpture are valid. There is still plenty of room for experimental films, photography and installations. The Mexican artist Teresa Margolles won last year’s Artes Mundi with work featuring bloodied tiles taken from a crime scene and a rusting hot-plate, and yet was an emotionally engaging, accessible piece that was actually about something. Jeremy Deller’s projects, which include an inflatable “bouncy castle” version of Stonehenge and a brass band playing rave classics, are very “conceptual”, but also entertaining and thought-provoking.

Jeremy Deller's Acid Brass.

Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass.

Rather, this is a celebration – and hopefully one that isn’t premature – to mark the death of conceptual art at its laziest, its most vapid, its most dangerously nihilistic. If art can be anything, by anyone, the word loses all meaning and anything that follows and places itself beneath that banner loses all value. Art, once enjoyed by people from all walks of life, becomes the exclusive preserve of the elite; the chin-strokers who’ll happily discuss “the complex nature of beauty, and the complex beauty of nature” illustrated by a rotting cow’s head while Hirst falls cackling into a bed covered in banknotes.

Thankfully, after a blockbuster retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012, his star is finally in the descent. Prices of his work, once as ludicrous as those of single bedroom flats in central London, are beginning to drop. He was recently forced to lay off a number of the technicians and engineers who actually make his work for him while he sits there, like a scruffy Barbara Cartland, coughing up ideas with all the enthusiasm and creative passion that most of us hack up phlegm.

"Hmm. What next? Fuck it... Where can we get a gazelle?"

“Hmm. What next? Fuck it… Where can we get a gazelle?”

In London over the weekend, I saw multiple clues that this particular tide is turning. At the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition you’ll see Grayson Perry’s amazing series of tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences. Inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, these epic works take a warm but satirical look at modern Britain, with all its idiosyncrasies, and are a real highlight of this year’s show, which as always is a bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet of art.

From The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry.

From The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry.

 Meanwhile, the younger artists on show at the Saatchi’s eclectic but entertaining show Paper seem as committed to big ideas as they are craft. Their work is unafraid to say something, to be about something. Anne Kevans’ oil paint sketches of war criminals and mass murderers as children are incredibly powerful, as are Eric Manigaud’s pencil drawings of psychiatric patients and painstakingly recreated aerial shots of a devastated Cologne in 1945. Ten years ago there’s every chance UK critics would have dismissed Yuken Teruya’s trees made exquisitely from designer label and fast food paper bags as twee, but they’re stunning.

From LVMH, Yuken Teruya.

From LVMH, Yuken Teruya.

The signs are promising. The stranglehold that the talentless and the profligate have had on contemporary art is starting to loosen. The emperor has at least – and at last – got his pants back on.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

The Dangers of Cosy Consensus

7 Jun
Photo from the Guardian.

Photo from the Guardian.

One of the more pathetic arguments bandied about by the far right whenever we’re discussing immigration is that you’re “not allowed” to discuss immigration, that the “liberal, left-wing media” have shut the debate down completely, which is daft because it often seems like our pundits, politicians and think tanks do little else but discuss immigration on a never-ending loop. That said, every so often us lefties will do something that feeds right into that argument, and doesn’t so much give the other side ammunition as hand it the key codes to a nuclear arsenal.

Case in point: The author David Goodhart (that stony-faced chap above). Now, David Goodhart comes across as a bit of an attention seeking git (he’s essentially the thinking man’s Jeremy Clarkson that A.A. Gill clearly wishes he was), but when he was snubbed this year by Hay-on-Wye, I found myself feeling a bit queasy.

Goodhart, you see, is the author of a book, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration, which is apparently largely critical of the UK’s immigration policy in the last 60-odd years. I say “apparently” because I haven’t read it, so can’t comment on the book itself, but it’s been attacked from some quarters and praised in others. Fair enough… Immigration is a contentious and divisive topic. It’ll happen.

If they could read, there's every chance they would love it.

If they could read there’s a good chance these men would love it.

What left me feeling uncomfortable were the reasons Goodhart claims he was snubbed. According to him (and I should point out, this is all coming from Goodhart himself), Hay’s organiser Peter Florence didn’t invite him to the festival because he – that is, Florence – “stands for pluralism and multiculturalism”. Now, leaving aside the fact that “standing for pluralism” suggests one might support the right of views that contradict your own to be heard, the first reason this struck me as a little odd is that the festival is sponsored by The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that isn’t exactly renowned for its Kumbayah stance on immigration.  Here, for example, from last month is an editorial piece claiming immigration has left the UK with “an alarming legacy”. Or here‘s Telegraph blogger (and author of the similarly-themed The Diversity Illusion) Ed West, warning us that taxpayers are funding charities that support immigration. Heaven forbid!

And let’s not even get started on the comments their readers post beneath said articles…

But if we must, this is a pretty good place to get started, right here.

But if we must, this is a pretty good place to get started, right here.

Now I should point out, I have nothing against the Telegraph. The newspaper, its writers and readers are all entitled to their opinions. I actually wrote a blog for the Telegraph back when the internet was still in black and white, and for a while was one of their pet lefties, appointed mainly to piss off their regular readers and rack up plenty of comments.

Writing those blogs and reading the comments people left behind was, more often than not, like peering into a Lovecraftian abyss of insanity, but sometimes, sometimes, someone would disagree with me in terms that were polite, reasonable and considered. I still came away thinking they were wrong, or at least that I was more right than they were, but I could at least believe that they had come to their conclusions after a great deal of thought.

The other thing that struck me was that for many readers having someone spout anything that was pro-immigration, pro-gay rights or pro-welfare state was terrifying. They were used to commenting on articles that were anti-immigration, anti-gay rights and anti-welfare state, and all agreeing with one another in increasingly vitriolic soundbites. To anything else, they had only these words of advice:

“Why don’t you f**k off to the Guardian?”

We later traced 90% of those comments to a PC belonging to this man.

We later traced 90% of those comments to a PC belonging to this man.

They had reached, in their own crazy little way, a point of cosy consensus. In the comments section of the Telegraph they went unchallenged. Is it any wonder so many of them believe the equal marriage bill is undemocratic when, as far as they’re concerned, just about everyone in the country is against it? (In fact, the most recent polls suggest at least 3 out of 5 people in the UK are in favour.)

What bothers me, then, about David Goodhart’s snub is that it seems to imply that there is – or should be – a consensus on topics such as immigration among Britain’s intelligentsia, and that anyone who disagrees should feel the bitter, Siberian winds of exile until they’ve learnt their lesson. What exacerbated this was how little reaction there was from anyone on the Left. Too many seemed to see Goodhart’s inherent gittishness as reason enough for the snub, and his very vocal protests as nothing but sales-savvy attention grabbing.

Exhibit A: He's currently Nos 2 and 3 in Amazon's chart of "Books Popular With People Who Are A Little Bit Racist"

Exhibit A: He’s currently Nos 2 and 3 in Amazon’s chart of “Books Popular With People Who Are A Little Bit Racist”

Now, I can’t really argue with that last point. It’s likely more people have learned Goodhart’s name in the last couple of weeks than ever knew it before, so in that respect he’s pulled something of a coup. But whatever we think of him, his book or his views, somebody should have said something, shouldn’t they? Certainly, if a world-renowned literary event turned away someone with left-wing views simply because they held left-wing views, we would be up in arms, wouldn’t we?

I worry that a liberal way of thinking has become a lazy, default consensus for far too many people; in much the same way that bellicose, ruddy-faced imperialism was Britain’s default system of thought 100 years ago. I worry that whenever that way of thinking is challenged, rather than meet it head on and take it apart – which, let’s face it, isn’t usually that difficult – we’ve begun slamming the door in our opponents’ faces, or sticking our fingers in our ears and singing, “La la la… I can’t hear you… la la la…”

Too often we mistake the fact that our opponents’ concerns shouldn’t matter with the idea that they don’t, and dismiss them accordingly. If someone complains to you that they were “the only white person on (their) bus” the other day (as one of my aunties once did), rather than tell them to shut up and stop being so bloody racist (which, admittedly, is tempting), ask them why it matters, and keep asking them until they either a) Give you a decent answer or b) Realise they’re being a bit silly. I can guarantee, they will almost always work their way around to B eventually, but in doing so they might just have allowed you to see the world through their eyes, and learn a little about why they freak out about that sort of thing. The pair of you will also have entered into a meaningful – and hopefully fruitful – dialogue. What you won’t have done is shut that dialogue down from the word go.

The immigration debate is one without end, and so it should be. The UK’s ability to take in newcomers will never be a constant, and so it’s likely our immigration policy will, like my belt size, forever be in flux, waxing and waning to meet demand. It’s my opinion that the “immigration debate” is actually three different – though interconnected – debates that both the far right and far left confuse with one, i.e. “Race”. In my view, any debate on immigration should at some point splinter off into separate discussions about economics, resources, and social cohesion, and the people having that debate shouldn’t be the likes of us, the ill-informed and hot-headed, but economists, civil servants and sociologists.

That said, if some newspaper columnist, stand-up comedian or telly pundit wants to stick their oar in, that’s their right; but they should all be allowed that platform, when that platform is meant to be one without a political agenda, and not just those whose views match our own. That kind of lazy consensus, in which our opinions go unchallenged, is a one-way ticket to stagnation.

Having said all that, if this was The Sunday Times’ Rod Liddle we were talking about, I’d fully support his being tied to a rocket and fired into the fucking sun.

A Guggenheim for Wales?

4 Jun
Photo by Jon Pountney

Adam Price at the Pierhead. (Photo by Jon Pountney)

Last Sunday marked the launch of the Sunday School, a series of free talks given at Cardiff Bay’s beautiful Pierhead Building. There are six talks planned in all, on a variety of subjects, but the inaugural talk was the proposal by Adam Price (former MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) that Wales should join the likes of Bilbao, Venice and Abu Dhabi in having its very own Guggenheim.

Now, it should be pointed out that this isn’t, at present, an official proposal; the application form isn’t in the post, the Guggenheim’s men and women with clipboards aren’t this second wandering in small groups around the waste grounds and abandoned power stations of Swansea, Cardiff or Newport. It’s just an idea.

It’s important to say this because, though the Guggenheim’s international office in Bilbao knew about the talk, their colleagues in New York felt it necessary to tweet this:

Consider our chips pissed on.

Consider our chips pissed on.

So there isn’t going to be a Guggenheim in Wales any time soon, but does that mean there shouldn’t be one? And does Wales even need a Guggenheim – or something like it – in the first place?

Wales has many of the cultural blocks that go towards nation building. We have national teams in rugby and football, a national opera company, a national theatre, a national museum. We have our own national anthem, and – of course – our own language. It seems a national gallery for contemporary art is one of the few things we’re missing.

Along with one of our dinosaurs.

Along with one of our dinosaurs.

Whenever debates like this surface, there are invariably a small, dedicated band of rabble rousers in the press who will bend over backwards to give their readership a simple choice.

“Do you want an art gallery or do you want a children’s hospital?”

"Sorry, darling. You can't have your heart transplant. The Tate needs that money for a new acquisition."

“Sorry, darling. You can’t have your heart transplant. The Tate needs that money for a new acquisition.”

This is essentially what happened when plans were drawn up, back in the 1990s, for an opera house in Cardiff Bay. It was called Cardiff Bay Opera House and much like Sydney’s would have been the jewel in the waterfront’s crown. Zaha Hadid’s winning design beat competition from the likes of Norman Foster and Itsuko Hasegawa, and everything seemed on the verge of being green-lit when the Millennium Commission withdrew its support.

The media campaign against the project was tinged with inverted snobbery (“Opera? Who wants to go and see opera?”) as well as a vague subtext of xenophobia; Hadid being an Iraqi-born architect designing a major British project 4 years after the first Gulf War.

In the pages of the local and national press the debate was invariably framed in terms of, “Which would you rather? A rugby stadium or an opera house?” As if the people of Cardiff, or indeed Wales, deserved one but not the other. As if you, yes you were allowed only to like rugby or opera. You bloody peasants.

In the event, of course, Cardiff got both a stadium (the Millennium Stadium) and an opera house (the Wales Millennium Centre), but as long as we don’t call it an opera house that’s fine, and everyone can go and watch Les Mis or the Britain’s Got Talent auditions and not feel in the slightest bit elitist.

Of course, if we’re going to have a bloody great big gallery money will be an issue, and right now more than ever. Even when this country was on its uppers, in the late 1990s, you would hear folk complain about how National Lottery money was being spent on the arts when – in their view – it should have been spent “on hospitals”. Never mind that the whole point of the National Lottery was that it would take the burden off the taxpayer and fund the nice things in life, the jam to make our daily bread that little bit more interesting. No… Some people would rather live in a world where all culture is dictated solely by market forces and ends up being an endless marathon of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.


We could discuss the importance, the necessity and the relevance of art until the heat death of the universe. And, of course, if life really was a case of binary choices (“Dialysis machine… or ballet?”) we’d have to choose the life-saving option, but it isn’t, and so we don’t.

“Ah,” says the straw man in this argument. “But why should we, the tax payer, have to pay for the arts?”

This, of course, brings us back to the reason we have a lottery, but even without the lottery there would be good a solid case for state funding of the arts. You could, for example, argue that benevolent (i.e. non-interfering) state sponsorship encourages far greater innovation and experimentation than art propped up by commercial interests; the flourishing of American music, theatre and the arts during and immediately after America’s “New Deal” years being a fine testament to this.

But even if we’re talking in terms of cold, hard business, public funding of the arts still makes sense. For every pound spent on arts and culture the taxpayer gets, on average, four back. In the case of Bilbao, in particular, we see a region whose authorities made the brave choice to stump up what is known technically as a “f**kload” of public money to win itself a Guggenheim; and that decision reaped dividends. Prior to the building of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao received around 25,000 visitors annually. In 2009 the city was visited by over 600,000. Even now unemployment in Bilbao, a former docks town comparable to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) is over 4% lower than Spain’s national average. (Newcastle, with – at the time of writing – 7.8% unemployment matches the UK average exactly.)

Photo courtesy of dalbera, via Flickr.

Photo courtesy of dalbera, via Flickr.

Leaving aside the question of funding, what does a museum like a Guggenheim (or a Tate, or a Hermitage) give a place? I would argue that it can be one of the vital ingredients in a region’s civic pride, contributing to people’s idea of their corner of the world as a place worth living in. Ask anyone grimly hanging on to a city as overcrowded and overpriced as London, Paris or New York why they stay there, and chances are they’ll cite something cultural. When those of us who don’t live in London feel envious of those who do, isn’t it the Southbank/West End/Brixton Academy/Wembley Stadium [delete according to taste] we wish we had right next door?

These places matter, and they make the people who live near them think that they matter too. And as for the contents, I genuinely believe that looking at art is good for us. I don’t care what inverted snobs will say. Art, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, makes you feel something, think something, and if it’s great it will carry on making you think and feel something long after you stop looking at it.

I grew up in a very working class household, in a very working class part of the country during the 1980s when, according to some cynics, I should have been glued to the telly box stuffing my face with BSE-infected beef or lost in a world of increasingly violent video games. And yet a day trip to see Cardiff Museum’s modest-but-impressive art collection was never anything less than awe-inspiring. I can still remember looking up, wide-eyed, at Graham Crowley’s The Poetics of Space (named after the book by Gaston Bachelard) and, as soon as we got home, sitting down and writing a story about a spooky, wall-less house in a creepy, near-deserted town. Growing up in a home where there wasn’t the money for foreign holidays or day trips to theme parks, museums and galleries meant a great deal to me. Seeing paintings was sightseeing.

Now, I may be a bit of a snob, but I’m not enough of a snob to think all 10-year-olds are like the 10-year-old me, or that all kids should be, but some are, even now, even when they all have Angry Birds, “miao miao” and disturbingly easy access to pornography. To deny those kids access to art because we think it’s “elitist” or it’s “not their kind of thing”, is the very worst kind of snobbery. A museum of contemporary art in Wales could serve not only as a showcase for the best in modern Welsh art but as a window on the world of contemporary art for countless thousands of young people.

In discussing the Guggenheim satellites that never were (including Rio, Taicheung and Helsinki) Adam Price was sure to point out that many of these projects – particularly Helsinki – failed because they came to the general public not as ideas but as finished proposals.

“Hey everyone!  We’re applying for a Guggenheim!”

They also began, almost without exception, discussions that led to other, more successful projects. If some of us want a museum of contemporary art (whether it’s a Guggenheim, a Tate or a Hermitage) in Wales, rather than lobby the national and global titans who hold the purse strings until they send around people with clipboards, we should begin a discussion at the grassroots level, and I think that discussion may have begun at the Pierhead Building last Sunday.

The next Sunday School talk, ‘Drama: Conversation, Charisma and Chance‘ takes place on Sunday June 16th.