Crowded Squares

How art changes us and the world

We have a great life here in Alaska, and we’re never going back to America again!

To explain some things, if nothing else than to relieve the tension around my brain:

  • Used WordPress as blogging platform extraordinaire
  • Stolen away by Blogger due to apparent issues with my browser
  • Discover source of issues
  • Return to WordPress – with new blog name!
  • Crushing of soul as realise my old template was disgusting
  • Hours experimenting with new templates loom before me
  • I cry bitter tears

Some films remind you why you ever placed your faith in art

It’s easy to forget the transformational power of art, until a film comes along and challenges you to remember.

That’s Metropolis, a 2001 anime based on Fritz Lang’s 1927 original about a young robot heroine created by the megalomaniac Duke Red to control a vast supercomputer and take over the world. The film does not elaborate on the spirit of Lang’s film – technological existentialism, the anxiety of steel replacing flesh – but instead goes after the most fundamental experience of animation, Fischinger with a plot. Depth is unnecessary: all life resides at the surface, pulsing, glowing, confronting, withdrawing.

Tima, the robot heroine, gazes upwards, caught in a beam of light
Robot heroine Tima gazes up at Metropolis

The city setting is another Fascist vision, but one soon undercut by the seditiousness and rebelliousness that permeate everything on the screen. A riot of light, colour and jazz greets us when we are taken into the undercity of the lower caste, but even though it is clearly overpopulated, there is a sense of space which is lacking in the wealthy overcity.

Everything feels agitated, as if the effervescent screen surface wishes to rise up in sympathy with the revolution taking place in the plot. In the climactic explosion near the end, the union of sight and sound rends altogether as we watch it with Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” playing over the muted action. It’s really quite beautiful.

A shot of the jazzy undercity, known as Zone-1
The jazzy colours of the undercity

Metropolis achieves continuity with the grand themes of science fiction while presenting something wholly new, a vision of the conjunction of colour, movement, sound and affect, and leaves a permanent mark in its wake. Does it matter that the ideas are not terribly subtle, the story handled clumsily, the characters more like caricatures?
This is a film that reminds us of some central truths about the aesthetic experience, and asks us where in that experience does the origin of action lie? If the role of art is to shake us up, keep us on our toes, then this is a great work of art.

Why it’s good that Miley isn’t a feminist

Post-Disney Miley hasn’t quite taken sexualisation to another level, but she is going to enormous lengths to flout what is considered ‘ladylike’ and ‘acceptable’ behaviour. The inevitable slut-shaming has been nothing compared to the feminist reaction.

Miley defends her image by claiming that her own frank self-commodification empowers other women to accept and use their sexuality. (I suspect she means her idea of sexuality.)

Two things about this.

First, as the information age opens up new and more honest channels of communication, it’s easier (and more important) to scrutinise social relationships, contest narratives, break boundaries. Celebrity, too, is bigger and more far-reaching than ever before in history.

Miley Cyrus winking and flipping the bird at the camera
Miley by Terry Richardson, August 2013

More than ever, a greater number of people are being made aware of the sexualisation of a young woman and are discussing it in an increasingly frank, informed way. And, like everything else, the more we talk, the more we evolve.

Second, a debate about sexuality and empowerment is centre-stage once again. Some people roll their eyes at this. That’s fine. The surrounding discourses about women and power, galvanised by controversy, continue to ferment and drip-feed back into the public forum. Change is almost always a good thing, and every time this old scandal pops up, the public consciousness changes. If you roll your eyes, you have an opinion, more importantly you express an opinion, and talking is all that’s needed.

Miley Cyrus, the biggest feminist in the world? I don’t buy it. But she is the biggest magnet for feminist vitriol in the world right now, and that’s important too.

Frieze Masters: a useful farce

The capital is coming down from old glam high.

Since its launch a decade ago, the Frieze art fair has established itself as a pivotal London event that attracts international art collectors with deep pockets.

I was caught by this reaction to the show last week from Guardian critic Jonathan Jones which struck me as particularly bleak and uncompromising. “The Selfridges of art”, he calls it, after he observes a clueless visitor buying a poor copy of a masterpiece that was actually painted by the original’s son. “Shining trash sold by posh hucksters to rich idiots…innocence is over.”

Pieter Brueghel’s “Census at Bethlehem”, 1566
Pieter Brueghel’s “Census at Bethlehem”, 1566

Why should it feel like time to give up?

That some of the old masters are only ever passed around the elite – Brueghels and Toulouse-Lautrecs bought, sold, mutilated and stashed away by millionaires – can only leave an absence in the world, a deprivation in the cultural economy, footprints of this shadowy group with disproportionate wealth.

To anybody who cares to notice, and to many who don’t, the question may occur of why individuals should be allowed to mangle significant pieces of our shared history. As the gap between haves and have-nots widens, the more we feel it, the more we talk about it. There are discussions about what obscene wealth should entitle one to. In short, in the very act of buying and mangling these old masters, the no-chin brigade engender and encourage progressive values.

After all, as Jones points out, they’re only human.