rfm’s 2011 round-up: culture outside the bubble

December 3, 2011 at 9:53 am | Posted in art, musings, not bloody music | 2 Comments
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So on to culture outside the confines of the no-audience underground…  Again, I remember the equivalent post from last year being quite long and comprehensive and again, this year I may try and keep it more to the point.  Frankly, I’ve been so busy with music and with writing this darn’d blog that my experience of culture at large has been relatively meagre.

Television has passed me by completely.  I didn’t even watch the adaptation of The Walking Dead, preferring to keep it on the pages of my beloved comic.  I’m not against TV – what a tiresome position that is – we just use it as a sedative, an analgesic or a window through which to watch sporting events.  Comics I trimmed back on for financial reasons and, apart from the aforementioned soap-opera-with-guns-and-the-undead-in-it I haven’t missed the medium at all, which surprises me a little.  Well, to be fair, my heavily-thumbed collection of Maakies books is rarely off the bedside table…

The best film I saw at the cinema this year, by some distance, was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which, despite having an arch style that occasionally overwhelmed the content, was pleasantly close to being proper adult entertainment.  In fact, I was so impressed that it inspired me to read the other two books in John Le Carre’s ‘Karla’ trilogy: The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People, both of which I relished despite an almost Dickensian wordiness (they total 1000 pages in the editions I have) that would put me off a story less gripping.  And seeing as we’re talking about the written word…

Here are the books that I read in 2011. Far fewer than last year, and mostly polished off in the first few months.

The best book I read this year was Wuthering Heights, with Madame Bovary running it a close second.  There is obviously no need for me to write another word about these universally acknowledged classics, so instead I will draw your attention to my favourite book of the year: The Conman by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo.  This is an intriguing account of a systematic, large-scale and long-term art fraud conducted by charismatic liar and fantasist John Drewe and his unwitting – at first at least – stooge John Myatt a talented ex-teacher with a knack for fine art forgery.  I am fascinated with ideas of provenance (the word used as title of the US edition of the book) and authenticity and this is an irresistible window onto the art market where those notions are at their most mystically powerful and philosophically interesting.  It is written in a pacey, journalistic style and, in its way, is as exciting as the Le Carre spy thrillers.  Very funny in places too.

(Grumpy Aside, 1 of 2.  The worst book I read this year is World War Z by Max Brooks.  It is an account of a Zombie plague and, despite the promising subject matter, is relentlessly boring.  This is a structural problem.  Being an oral history, collated after the ‘war’, we know that every person being interviewed survived. Thus, although the situations described may appear perilous there is no actual jeopardy, that is: no danger of death. So what you have is a book about a zombie apocalypse that affected the whole of humanity for ten years during which time millions died yet none of the dozens of characters we are introduced to are among them.  What kind of bullshit ‘horror’ story is that?  The other issue is, given that we spend no longer than a few pages with each person, we have no time to get to know them.  Thus all we have is a catalogue of one damn thing after another featuring people we don’t care about and who survived it anyway.  I dragged myself all the way through it and ended up thinking: who gives a shit?  This failure is currently being made into a film starring Brad Pitt.  Whoo boy.)

Now onto some unarguably genuine visual art…

The best exhibition I went to was the Henry Moore at Leeds Art Gallery in the Spring. At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious: it was a joy to examine these sculptures in three dimensions.  To see, for example, the exquisitely carved back of a mother and child piece familiar to me only from reproductions, and thus only from the front, was almost magically moving.  Likewise the grain of the wood or the texture of the stone never comes across adequately in pictures and the light reflected by a bronze, immutable in a photograph, is alive ‘in the flesh’.  Further thoughts on this topic, plus a ‘sublime-to-the-ridiculous’ comparison with the Damien Hirst show that replaced it, may appear in a short article for The Jackdaw in the New Year.

(Grumpy aside, 2 of 2.  Some people are surprised that I am so dismissive of contemporary visual art, especially conceptual, award-winning gallery art, given that I am so keen on sometimes difficult experimental music.  Are not the scenes akin?  I would argue: absolutely not.  Whilst the music I write about is inventive, emotionally resonant and created by a crowd of clever, irreverent, self-sufficient polymaths purely for the joy of it, the art scene is stuffed with venal, pompous idiots creating ‘work’ of no aesthetic worth that is meaningless without reams of accompanying verbiage.  Not only that but they demand subsidy and praise whilst they do so.  The two scenes are polar opposites.)

Finally, the best, as tradition dictates, has been left until last…

Our trip to Venice provided all the greatest visual art experiences of the year.  In fact, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that, as a whole, the city was the greatest visual art experience of my life so far, nor can I imagine it ever being bested.

As with Wuthering Heights, I wonder if there is anything I could possibly add to the millions of words already written about Venice.  However, the experience was so wonderful that I feel compelled to offer a little at least.  My bit of guidebook-style advice is to go for as long as you can afford.  Most visitors seem to come for a day or a long weekend but we decided on a week and that allowed us the time to acclimatise to the rhythms of the place, to figure out its mazy geography and to take in a sizeable number of the main attractions at a pace leisurely enough to thoroughly soak it up.

Next, if a place charges an entrance fee then pay it gladly and, if when you are inside there are additional little fees to see extra bits and pieces then pay them too.  It is an expensive city but this is not the area in which to scrimp – the return on your investment can be huge and any kind of fee, even a couple of Euros, cuts the number of visitors sharing the experience exponentially.  We wandered through parish churches the size of English cathedrals filled with exquisite Renaissance art and we had them more or less to ourselves because either a) they were more than a few minute’s walk from the tourist hotspots and/or b) they charged a few Euros to get in.

And what masterworks.  As well as visiting must-sees such as the Byzantine mosaics of the Basilica di San Marco (the pre-booked queue-jump – at one Euro each – was the bargain of this young century), the unrivalled collection of pre-19th Century art at the Gallerie dell’Accademia and Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (pictured above, possibly the most perfect man-made object I have had the privilege of seeing) the luxury of being there for a week allowed us to seek out less renowned marvels.

We wandered about the Sala Superiore of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco using the handheld mirrors provided to view the terrific Old Testament scenes painted by Tintoretto on the ceiling.  We visited the Chiesa di San Sebastiano to see the paintings by Paolo Veronese, went through an unobtrusive side door and found ourselves in a sacristy filled with his work.  So stunned were we that we sat in absolute stillness and silence, completely alone, until the movement-sensing light went out and we had to wave our arms around to get it back on.  We sat on the steps of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute and marvelled at the view of the Grand Canal (see photo above).  We took the waterbus over the lagoon, through the hazy sunshine, to the eerie remains of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello and walked past a restaurant hosting a noisy convention of gondoliers.  And so on.  A series of near-perfections, perfected by sharing them with my beloved. 

On that happy (soppy!) note, I’d like to officially call Radio Free Midwich’s 2011 to a close.  I may write one more post with some details of a live show and new midwich product to look forward to in the New Year but aside from that the reviewing and commentary will recommence after the festivities.  Have a lovely Christmas, comrades.  Ho, ho, ho.

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