Archive for December, 2008

Art and Language

Posted in Art, Language on December 31, 2008 by richardblandford


Some art, yesterday.


Going through some boxes, deciding what to chuck out, I came across some old art magazines.  Now, in a previous life, I was doing a PhD in the history of art, something I abandoned to take up novel writing.  The reasons for this are quite complex – financial considerations, career prospects, lack of ability – but one of the major factors was that half the time, I hadn’t a fucking clue what anybody was talking about.

This is because there is no useful style of writing for discussing art today.  Much art writing is influenced by critical theory – your Baudrillards, Kristevas and the like.  All good stuff, although dense and sometimes obtuse, but they can write like that and get away with it because they’re brilliant.  If anybody who is less than brilliant tries their hand at it, then chances are they’ll come over sounding like a pretentious twerp.

(I’m not sure why there’s such a strong link between critical theory and art.  They generally make students read it in art schools, although most of it is rooted in subjects like philosophy and sociology, and there’s no real evidence that it makes anybody’s art any better.  If you just got everybody to read Robinson Crusoe or something instead, would their art really be any worse?)

The real problem with art writing at the moment is that it’s just not good writing.  Rather than explaining complex ideas in a simple way (which is what Good Writing does), art writing explains what are relatively basic ideas (art is easier to understand than, say, quantum mechanics) in a fantastically complicated manner.  Take this random extract from an exhibition review I found in a magazine from the box this morning:

Foster has suggested that the ‘artist as ethnographer’ is heir to the neo-Avant Garde’s pioneering of political and institutional critique.  Although Piper could claim a different lineage, many of the works in ‘East’ complied with this model and, through reframing social interaction, presented a critical distance.  As Foster outlines, one possible dilemma for such practices is that the aim ultimately become a place in the museum and therefore in history, a goal which can dull the dialogical relationship a work might have with its audience: the aim being to critique rather than to affect a scene or audience.

Ok, I’m taking it out of context, which is unfair, but even so, did you remotely understand any of it?  Did you even want to?  Or did the words repel you with their willful desire not to communicate?  Also, the repetition of ‘audience’ at the end is ugly.  Did no one edit this?

I have to declare that I am not entirely innocent. I once wrote an exhibition review for artwank mag Frieze which I’m sure I’d find painfully embarrassing today if only I could bring myself to read it.  It’s documented here for posterity, unfortunately (After this, all my suggestions for reviews were rejected, and it became clear that I had been cast out of the kingdom of Frieze forever.  I’d somehow failed them, it seemed, with my publishable exhibition review).

I am not alone in realising the problem of all art writing being terrible.  A number of years ago, just before giving yet another wad of cash to Damien Hirst for winning the Turner Prize, the incredibly clever musician Brian Eno pointed this very thing out to a roomful of glitter-arty folk.  Unfortunately he ran out of time before he could tell them what to do about it, but expanded upon his view in this article.

As Eno says, the inability of art insiders to communicate to those on the outside adds to the belief much of the general public possess that art is pretty irrelevant to them.  But does it have to be this way?  People can talk about pop music and film in ways that are intelligent and yet perfectly clear (Sight and Sound shows up all art magazines for the pseudobabble they really are, and is accessible and therefore popular enough for many corner newsagents to stock it), so why not art?  I propose a punk-style Year Zero for art writing, where all the old worn out phrases (strategy, engage, investigate, subvert, liminal, specifity etc.) are thrown out, so that new ways of writing about it can be discovered, and hopefully leading to something that isn’t alienating to 99.99% of the population.

I’m not saying it would be easy.  Every time I try to write a simple sentence about art, the urge to use phrases such as ‘abject matrix of strategic singularity’ is quite overwhelming, even when describing the gallery car park.  Also, all the decent art’s in bloody London, and I can’t afford the train fare.  But next time I’m up there, I’ll set myself the challenge of coming back and writing about what I saw, here on this blog, and see if I can come up with something that’s fresh, intelligent, and of quality, doing justice both to the art itself as well as the English language.  And if I manage it, Brian Eno has to buy me lunch or let me polish his already shiny head.  Stay tuned!


Christmas viewing

Posted in Film, TV on December 30, 2008 by richardblandford

Some shit on telly.


One of the unexpected side-effects of becoming an author is that the urge to pay that much attention to what other people are up to creatively somewhat leaves you, as you get too wrapped up in your own thing to care that much. Consequently, I’ve found myself going to the cinema and renting DVDs less and less, and the only music I now listen to is that of Beverley Craven and Tasmin Archer, as its got a nice feel to it and doesn’t demand much of my attention when I put it on. Actually, that’s not quite true. I also like to listen to Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed, for much the same reasons.

Anyway, for this reason, this Christmas, many of the big film premieres are of things I haven’t already seen, which is something of a first. Due to an enforced lull in my work schedule (welcome in most professions, but not so much when you’re entirely freelance), I’ve found time to catch up on various films I’ve missed over the past few years.

First of these was V For Vendetta, the movie version of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, of which he does not approve, to the point of having his name removed from the credits. I haven’t read the original, but if I had, I am reliably informed, the film version would have appalled me with its cowardly abandonment of the explicit anarchist stance of the main character, V. As it stands, I found myself mildly entertained, enjoying a lot of the concepts and the visuals, but frustrated by the tiresome unwinding of a back-story far too unwieldy for a reasonably short film. Also, the amount of time that’s actually passing in the main story is also often unclear, so that a year went by without me realising it, which was disorienting to the point that I almost stopped caring about what was going on. It would have probably have worked better as a TV series, or even a graphic novel. Oh, hang on.

Next up was Roman Polanski’s version of Oliver Twist. This follows hot on the heels of his return to form, The Pianist, ending a dry spell that includes some of the most embarrassing examples of filmmaking by a major director outside the oeuvre of Woody Allen (Early 90s sex thriller Bitter Moon is so detached from anything even remotely resembling good taste that its own twisted logic takes over, giving it an unexpected integrity, if not dignity). Now that the deviant director’s found the talent that he left down the back of the sofa some time in the late 70s, the idea of him tackling Dickens is quite exciting. Indeed, his singular vision means that all sorts of details contained in the original book but usually skipped over in adaptations are highlighted, while other aspects, such as the identity of Oliver’s mother, a key feature of every other version, are dropped completely. I never liked that side of the story anyway, so that’s all right by me.

Unfortunately, Polanski’s London, actually a set in Europe somewhere (he can’t enter the UK in case he’s deported to the USA, where he still faces an outstanding sentence for incredible naughtiness), is barely populated, and it has the feeling of being filmed at some Victorian amusement park after closing time. Also, none of the principle parts, such as Fagin, Nancy or Bill Sykes stick in your mind in the way that they do in David Lean’s version which, despite Alec Guinness’s dubious fake nose, has to still be considered definitive.

What becomes clear in Polanski’s version is that Oliver Twist is not really about Oliver at all. He spends much of the story being repeatedly kidnapped, and is essentially passive once he gets to London. Rather, it’s Nancy who has to make the hard choices, and is transformed by the events that occur. Oliver’s story is just a passage we follow that leads us to Nancy. It’s really all about her, even though she doesn’t make it to the end of the book.

Terry Gilliam’s derided The Brothers Grimm was surprisingly enjoyable. Although as muddy and awkward as much of his work, it nevertheless was quite spirited, and it reminded me of the sort of thing they used to make for kids when I was growing up – Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal etc. Not a masterpiece, but nice.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, however, was vile, a darker fairy tale than anything the Grimm’s or Gilliam himself could ever dream up, or want to. I’m with Philip Pullman on this one. CS Lewis’ original books are really quite nasty machines designed to manufacture needless guilt in children in the name of a passive aggressive god-bully. If art can be described as lies that contain the truth, then propaganda is a lie that conceals a further lie. And propaganda is what they are. Ok, rant over. Almost.

There are so many things that are stupid in this story. Firstly, the children are transported to Narnia, a land populated by talking anthromorphised animals.  Here, Edmund, one of the children betrays the rest of them to an evil Witch who rules Narnia, something for which he must experience good old Christian shame before gaining their forgiveness and acceptance. At no point, however, do they or Aslan, the talking lion that they bizarrely turn to as a moral guardian, despite him not actually earning this position in any way, consider any of the mitigating circumstances. Firstly, Edmund’s just unexpectedly entered a magical kingdom, and doesn’t really know what’s going on. Secondly, the witch lies to him, and thirdly, every time he thinks about not giving her information, she threatens to kill a fox. Ok, he’s not entirely blameless, but he was under a lot of pressure. If it happened in the workplace he would be let off with a written warning.

The next thing that is stupid is that the Witch then demands the life of Edmund in a sacrifice. Aslan offers the Witch his own life instead and is killed. But then he comes back to life again a bit later because of some magic thing. Which means that he knew that he was going to come back. And that means that he cheated, as his sacrifice was not an equivalent to the one demanded of Edmund. Even Jesus, who is secretly Aslan in human form, believed on the cross that he had been abandoned and faced his death with despair. But Aslan is big crafty cheat, and I don’t like him.

In Aslan’s absence, leadership of the forces of good falls to the eldest boy, Peter, who must lead them into battle against the Witches’ forces. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I was in an army, and about to fight an old-fashioned battle with swords and shit, a pubescent boy who’s just fallen through a wardrobe from another dimension with absolutely no military experience would not be my first choice of leader. Surely there would have been an otter or something amongst the talking animal kingdom that would have been more qualified?

Anyway, Peter’s unsurprisingly rubbish at leading an army, and they almost lose, but then Aslan turns up and everything’s all right again. The Witch is killed, but it’s ok, she deserved it, like Saddam Hussein did.  No pesky trial required or anything.

Finally Aslan makes the four children joint rulers of Narnia. None of the inhabitants mind, which is strange as they’ve just lived under a hundred year-long dictatorship. Wouldn’t they be crying out for democracy? Surely a few months into their reign, the children would be victims of a Romanov-style massacre at the hands of some Trotskyist ferrets.

As for the implications of the children growing up in Narnia, only to fall back through the wardrobe and become children again… I don’t even want to think about it, except to say I’m confident the phrase ‘what the fuck’s happened to my gonads?’ is uttered by someone no more than five minutes after the story ends.

Finally, Superman Returns was dreary beyond belief. I mean, how do you do that? How do you make a film with Superman in it that dull? I hated it so much I actually longed for Nuclear Man from Superman IV to turn up and liven things up a bit. Even Richard Pryor’s misjudged turn in Superman III was at least entertaining on a basic level. This was absolute pish, with Superman and Lois Lane reduced to attention-deflecting holes in the screen that made you realise just how accomplished the performances of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the original were.

Still, I’ve got Fantastic Four to look forward to. I know it’s not meant to be any good, but at least it looks lively. One day someone’s going to make a superhero film that’s an unarguable masterpiece (although I think Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie comes close). I’d like to see a three and a half hour Silver Surfer movie, in the style of Tarkovsky’s Solaris. And a Doctor Strange movie directed by David Lynch, and possibly starring him as well. Anybody got his address? I’ll send him a treatment and see what he thinks.  In the meantime, I see that Mutiny on the Buses is on again.  Now that’s quality.

The Third Policeman

Posted in Books on December 29, 2008 by richardblandford



Another dip into the pile of books purchased in a nice shop in Bexhill-on-Sea this summer leads me to
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien.  At the time of purchase, I knew nothing about it at all, and the only reasons I got it was firstly because I had a vague memory of someone writing an article about O’Brien being exceptionally good, and secondly it had a particularly well-designed cover (recent Flamingo reprint).

The book itself is very strange, so strange in fact that although written in 1940, it did not see publication until 1967 on account of its strangeness.  I did not know it was going to be strange when I started reading.  By Chapter 3 however I was thinking, my, this is a bit strange.  

Now, years ago, I chanced upon a novel in the library of Manchester Metropolitan University, where I was studying, called The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, by Kenneth Patchen, in an original edition from 1945.  Knowing nothing about it, I decided to take it out and read it, simply to find out what a book published in 1945 with that title could possibly be like.  It turned out to be a highly surreal tumble of a story with 101 impossible things happening before breakfast which, although obviously daring and innovative, I have to say, I found very annoying.

When I realised that The Third Policeman was taking a turn for the strange and fully intending to stay that way for the rest of the novel, my immediate feeling was, Christ, not again; this better not turn out like that ‘Pornographer’ novel. Happily, it didn’t.  Obviously, with it being strange, describing how it did turn out is a bit hard.  I can, however, say that it involves a murderer finding himself trapped at a police station where an obsession with bicycles prevails, before discovering eternity down a lift shaft.  There is also an interwoven commentary on the life of an eccentric thinker named De Selby, with footnotes directing the reader to non-existent texts about the man.

There’s always a danger with willfully absurd novels that because anything might possibly happen next, then it doesn’t matter what actually does.  Happily, The Third Policeman escapes this very neatly as everything is all tied up within its own internal, mind-bending logic.  In fact, I would go as far to say that all the office bores up and down the land who think they’re so clever because they read Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, and discuss and quote them at any opportunity (there’s one in most offices, particularly in the public sector), should all read The Third Policeman and bore people by quoting it instead.  It would distance them from their colleagues still further, but it would finally make them as clever as they always thought they were.

Incidentally, I was unfortunate enough to look up the book on Wikipedia to try and get some context while still reading it, and found out that not only did it feature in an episode of TV show Lost, but that the writers have claimed it as a major influence and possibly even containing the key to the programme’s mystery.  Indeed, the whole thing has a Lost-like feel to it, not to mention several familiar motifs.  Once I had that piece of information, rather than considering the way the book’s elements relate to each other (which is, of course, the Correct Way to read a novel), I could not help but consider instead their relationship to Lost (despite me not having seen an episode for ages now that it’s on Sky and I have to pay for it).  Thus, my experience was polluted by needless trivia.  Oh well.

(This is not the first time I made this mistake.  I once read all one million words of Samuel Richardson’s mammoth novel Clarissa in the belief that it held vital clues as to who killed Laura Palmer.  By the end of the book, I had to concede that I was none the wiser, and had, in fact, been looking in completely the wrong place.  Sometimes you can take intertextuality too far, I’ve discovered.)

It’ll have your eye out

Posted in Books, Film with tags , , , on December 18, 2008 by richardblandford

Here is an interesting photograph.  Other than the obvious two, there are three further points of interest.

1.  It is of recently deceased fifties glamour model, Bettie Page.

2. It was taken by silent movie comedy great Harold Lloyd.

3. It’s in 3-D.  If viewed through the appropriate glasses, the experience should be reminiscent of Granville being comforted by Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in Open All Hours.

Apparently in later years, Lloyd was a keen experimenter with the stereoscopic camera, taking pictures not only of Page, but also Marilyn Monroe and various Hollywood starlets, some of whom had their boobies out at the time.

A selection of these can be found in Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3D, with text by Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne and, bizarrely, Hart to Hart’s Robert Wagner. It comes with a pair of 3-D glasses modeled on Lloyd’s own iconic pair.

Harold, immediately after taking above photograph of Bettie Page.

Humorous Dip

Posted in Books with tags , on December 15, 2008 by richardblandford

I have recently being enjoying the Superdickery website. This is essentially a site dedicated to finding puerile humour in old comic book panels when taken out of context. This is a noble endeavour, up there with saving the children and healing the world. If you do not agree, then you’re not my kind of person, and I reject you.

Teen TV

Posted in TV with tags , , , on December 11, 2008 by richardblandford

These days, teenagers are represented on television by programmes like Skins, in which they live absurdly hedonistic lives full of drugs and sex, punctuated only by the odd death of a family member or serious hospitalisation of a friend. If your life is not as intense as this, it implies, then you have failed as a teenager, and deserve to be spurned by your peers who rightly see you as an emblem of death, as happened to the Welsh girl at the end of Series 2.

Things were not always thus. In the eighties, teenagers on TV generally just moped about looking forward to the moment they could sign on whilst hanging about slabs of concrete hiding from skinheads who wanted to duff their heads in. On no account would anybody have any fun, but on the plus side, your girlfriend would look like she was in the Human League (or else be Linda Robson). Check out the strangely comforting bleakness of the clips below and escape to a more innocent time of no prospects and overwhelming despair.

And finally, 80s teen alienation expressed through the medium of acid folk:

Urgent Abba Update

Posted in music, TV with tags , , on December 11, 2008 by richardblandford

I’ve just been forwarded a clip by an anonymous source called David of Abba appearing with Mike Yarwood, who’s doing an impression of Larry Grayson hosting the Generation Game. Not so much of a Bergman influence this time round, more the carnivalesque spirit of Fellini. Apparently Agnetha hated the pressures of being famous, which raises the question, why does she always look like she’ s having so much fun? (Agnetha would go on to become a recluse who ended up having a relationship with a mad stalker. This fact makes her the 54th most interesting person on the planet.)