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Thinking about documentaries

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Nowadays I spend quite a lot of my time painting. And I paint a certain kind of portrait; in a certain sense my paintings are similar to documentaries: I’m interested in the concrete realities of people – and particularly their moods. I’m interested in discovering how well I can create a work that points to an objective reality and yet somehow embodies experiential subjectivity.

So, it’s not surprising that I have been interested in documentary film-making too. A long time ago I helped a student prepare their thesis on ‘art and truth’ in the course of which I read about ‘new’ documentary; it was this that helped me to develop a thumb-nail sketch of a theory of documentary. (However, I won’t elaborate on that theory here.)

Perhaps because I was first schooled as a scientist, I was always rather sceptical about documentary film-making: I had the feeling that the maker of such films was inevitably thinking about the reception of their work and therefore would use tricks and techniques to shape the form and content of the films. In other words, I believed that the film-maker would design a piece of film to tell an appealing or riveting story – and, in so doing, would, at the very, least gloss over or distort reality.

But Stella Bruzzi’s (2000) book suggested a corrective to my thinking about documentaries and early theories of documentary practices. Her book is a demanding read – and often couched in the kind of language that is rather obscure and a little bit exclusionary: she tends to write for academics and for people who are used to the discourses of critical theory and cultural studies – but she clearly knows her stuff and engaging with her writing is worth the effort. She includes references to all sorts of actual documentaries and her work culminates in an analysis and discussion concerning the most recent genre known as ‘performative’ documentaries. These are types of film that explicitly reflect performances – either that of their subjects or of the film-makers or of both. In these cases some sort of performance is made for the camera or in response to the camera – but this does not invalidate the realities that are under review.

Stella Bruzzi begins by setting out the objectives and the motivation for her book: she hopes that her writing will serve to invite the reader to re-assess some of the ways in which documentary film has been theorised and she wishes to bring the theoretical discussion of documentary up to date. She thinks that not enough discussion has been devoted to the character of modern documentaries and she asserts that a primary motivation for the book is to introduce an alternative way of discussing documentaries. Bruzzi then turns to outline what she takes to be the enduring ‘shortcomings and pre-occupations’ of documentary theorising.

First, she rejects the idea proposed by Bill Nichols that there has been a kind of evolutionary process at work in the development of documentaries. She does not think that earlier types of documentary – such as the ‘expository’ or didactic – have been superseded by more modern types in a process akin to Darwinian evolution. On the contrary, documentaries remain eclectic and take as their goal the accurate portrayal of a series of facts. There is no good evidence that they have developed from simple to more complex forms.

Second, she takes issue with the assertion that documentaries are doomed to fail because they cannot truly represent reality. She thinks that documentary film-makers always knew that there was a gap between representation and reality and that it would be absurd to think that representation and reality could collapse into an identical thing.

Third, she recognises that the makers of documentary are in fact far less worried about the apparent limitations of the documentary form than academic theorists. In other words she finds that the practice of documentary film-making is aware of theoretical concerns – such as the contrast between appearance and reality – but is not impeded or thwarted by such considerations.

Fourth, (and with good evidence) she thinks that documentaries always reflect a dialectical interplay between maker, subject and audience. This is not fully grasped by earlier theorists. Indeed, just to underline this, James Pope – a modern non-fiction film-maker – remarks that a key question asked before a documentary gets made is ‘why now?’ (I.e. What is the case for making a documentary now?) And this question inevitably focuses on whether or not there is an audience for the work – along with thoughts about what sort of reception might be given to the work. Thus, he emphasises film-making strategies that consider the reality of contemporary audiences and how audience characteristics, tastes and concerns are factored into the documentary-making processes.

Fifth, Bruzzi thinks that, to a greater or lesser extent, some sort of performance is intrinsic to documentary. It may be explicit; thus documentary makers such as Dineen and Broomfield include themselves as central performers in their work; it may be more subtle: the maker may design their work so that it is something performed for an audience. (After all, a documentary is necessarily a communication – otherwise there is scarcely any point in making the thing.)

James Pope, in his reflections on modern types of documentary, has addressed the nature of the performative documentary: he notes that the ‘performative’ is really a development of the participatory mode of film-making; he thinks that the ‘participatory’ type simply reflects the fact that the film-maker is present in the film, asking questions of contributors – and that a truth arises as a result of that interaction. (Truth is therefore dynamic and emergent.) However, he is clear that in the performative documentary the experiences and background of the filmmaker are highlighted, so that the interaction produces a truth that is more evidently subjective. But the presence of subjectivity does not deny the objective. The categories subjective and objective are not mutually exclusive.

He also neatly points out that in the performative documentary the film-maker is ‘performing themselves for the camera’; this is an important observation and coincides with a broader philosophy of art. (Philosophy of art holds that you cannot ‘get’ the work unless you ‘get’ the artist.)  He continues by recognising the fact that in making themselves ‘obvious we, the audience, know that the results of the film are influenced by their own knowledge.’ In consequence, James Pope rejects Roland Barthes’s perception of the ‘death of the author.’ In modern documentary authorship is alive and well.

In conclusion, the main ingredients in a documentary are the film-maker, the subject and the audience. And, far from failing to access, cheat or distort reality, the documentary can allude to or highlight a piece of the world that is, in some sense, irreducibly ‘there.’ It is not possible for reality and representation to collapse into an identical unity. But it is possible for a plausible narrative and a series of images to combine such as to communicate, sensitively, an actual state of affairs. On a personal note, I think that the documentaries featured in the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ selections are excellent examples.

Into this I was born …

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I think it best to begin with a reflection. It’s a reflection about racism in Britain: I’m wondering if we should all start with the idea that rather than deny racism we should take the view that perhaps a majority of people in the UK are racist. In the place in which I worked for many many years I was used to hearing people say: ‘But I’m not racist.’ Sometimes though I would reply: ‘I think it would be remarkable in our culture not to be racist.’ My reflection was brought about while reading a brilliant novel. What novel? Well, I’ve been reading (slowly) Andrea Levy’s book ‘Small Island.’ It is a splendid and sobering read. Quite how the author managed to find such evocative and authentic ways of using the english language I do not know. Her style is remarkable – and her riveting characters are brought to life through her literary skills.

Her book explores the experiences of four people; two are Jamaican and two are English. (In fact, lots of other characters appear but the four main characters form the central core of the book.) Their lives in the two countries before the second world war, during the war itself and then the post-war years – especially 1948 – are described. And life, more generally for those other characters in both countries is also profiled. I was fascinated by the way the environing cultures were portrayed – especially because I was born into the post-war UK world that Andrea Levy describes.

Something features in her text that has been, to a certain extent, seemingly overcome in the modern contemporary UK. The people – almost all the people that we meet in her book – suffer; and, in the main they suffer hardship. They also suffer emotional hurt and pain. The England that Queenie and Bernard grew up in – lived and endured – was not an easy place in which to be. It was often uncomfortable – and not at all glamourous. And the Jamaicans, Hortense and Gilbert escaped their small island only to find themselves on a bigger small island – that was decidedly and horribly racist.

In many ways I was lucky because, before I had any real idea of the world around me, I was taken off to Singapore and spared the murk and gloom of postwar Britain. And in large part, I escaped the racism. My father played a hugely important role in this because (somehow) he decried racism. And my mother knew how ridiculous it always was to stereotype a people. In Singapore I lived amongst Europeans – and rubbed up against the places and spaces where different ethnicities got on with their lives. They were mainly Malay and Chinese. (The Chinese sculptures were simply spectacularly weird.) And I never heard my parents find fault with any of these different peoples.

But when I returned to England in 1956 it was clear – as Andrea Levy demonstrates – that racism was pretty much normal and pretty much everywhere. In Singapore I had been spared the unremitting social ‘programme’; put differently, and following Bourdieu, I had been spared this aspect of the habitus of the British. Racism and ethnocentrism were, for me, puzzling. But I was not spared some of the imagery that helped to create and sustain racism in British culture; there was an obvious imbalance in the media portrayals of black and white. And perhaps most significantly, it was in the speech and sentiments of so many white English people that I heard derogatory or nasty comments about, as they would say, ‘our coloured brethren.’

Andrea Levy includes several references to this kind of talk in her book. A striking feature of her text is that even in the late 1970s I would still hear groups of public service workers use the same language. (Whilst at the same time denying the fact that they were ‘racist.’)

Here is an episode that I have taken straight from her ‘Small Island’ which nicely captures the post-war reality. And the key point is that this social reality endured and continued to generate racist outlooks into the 1970s – and beyond …

We are in London. It is 1948. Gilbert, a black West Indian man born and raised in Jamaica, is trying to find work. He served in the RAF during the war and was based in the UK. He begins:

‘See me now: I am dressed no longer in my RAF uniform of blue but still, from the left, from the right, this West Indian man is looking just as fine in his best civilian suit. I have a letter of introduction from the forces labour exchange concerning a job as a store man. I take it to the office of the potential employer.

I enter and am greeted by an Englishman who smiles on me and shakes my hand.

Come in. Sit down,’ he tells me. A cup of tea is brought and placed beside me. All good signs – I have the job. I comfort myself. The man takes up the letter to read the contents. Everything is in order.

So you were in the RAF?’ he ask.

Yes, sir.

I was in the RAF. Where were you stationed?’ There then followed a short conversation about those days, before the man said: ‘Myself, I was in Falmouth’. For the next hour I am having to shift delicately on my seat and pinch myself so my eyes do not close, while this man acquaint me with his time on radar. On a pause between his breaths I shrewdly remind him of the job I had come to see him about. Was it to be mine?’

No sorry,‘ he say.

His explanation was that women were working in the same factory. Not understanding his meaning I said that I did not mind. He smiled and then he told me, ‘You see, we have white women working here. Now, in the course of your duties, what if you accidentally found yourself talking to a white woman?’ For a moment the man sounded so reasonable, so measured, I thought him to be talking sense.

I would be very courteous to her,’ I assured him.

But he shook his head. He wanted no answer from me. ‘I’m afraid all hell would break loose if the men found you talking to one of their women. They simply wouldn’t stand for it. As much as I’d like to I can’t give you the job. You must see the problem that it would cause.

Once my breath had returned enabling me to speak I asked him why he could not have told me this an hour before I still had feeling in my backside. He tell me he wanted to be kind to an ex-serviceman.’

And so it went on. Gilbert reports that ‘In five, no six places, the job had gone for vanish with one look upon my face.’’

Even when he gets a job as a postal worker collecting and delivering mail in the Victoria district of London he meets terrifying and intimidating racism from fellow workers – and, for fear of losing his job, he decides that the best strategy is ‘hanging his head’ and simply bowing to the abuse.

I’ve been very interested in the culture of the United Kingdom ever since it became necessary for me to have some grasp of it in order to fill my professional role. I spent a lot of time listening to people talking about their attitudes including their attitudes towards immigrants. My sense remains that a part of the deep psyche of the white English (especially those aged 50 or more) – is that it is, at best, wary of ‘foreigners,’ and at worst cruelly racist.

Andrea Levy’s book is brilliant because it reveals the limited sympathies of the people of the United Kingdom.

Post Script

The photograph at the top of this post features the great American jazz and blues artist Billie Holiday singing the song,  ‘Strange fruit‘.

Words and identities …

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Words speak us more than we speak them.’

This wonderful line was recently spoken on television by John Malkovich. He was playing the role of the famous detective Hercule Poirot. I think the line can mean two things:  First, we ‘give ourselves away’ through the words we speak; they serve as identifiers of who we are – our status, quirks, habits of thought and so on; they are, in a sense, markers (and the skilled detective can use this information to good effect). Second, the words that are ‘out there’ in the world tell us more about who, in general, we are than we can ever manage, on our own, to say.

In a different context – in this case an interview – John Malkovich was asked, among other things: ‘Which book changed your life?’ – to which he replied:

‘So many, but certainly ‘The Sound And The Fury‘ by William Faulkner. “No battle is ever won, he, William Faulkner, said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”’

(And the photograph  above? It was taken in London close to St. Pancras station)

 

Stasiland: how some stories are told

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Stasiland: I was given this book as an early Christmas present. Its author, Anna Funder, presents an account of the experiences of people who lived in what was once the German Democratic Republic – i.e. East Germany. Their lives were lived under the oppressive conditions of State Surveillance. Initially in Anna’s book we meet ‘Miriam’ who tells us about her life in East Germany. Miriam tried to escape to West Berlin when she was 16 years old. Her escape attempt was very nearly successful but, following her capture, she was subjected to terrible interrogation and subsequent imprisonment. Her life was then rendered entirely tragic when, some years later, her partner Charlie, who was also seen as a subversive, died in prison. She did not accept the authorities’ account that he had committed suicide.

As we learn more about Miriam, Anna Funder pauses to make an observation about how we tell the story of our life and of  ‘who’ we are. She makes the following observation – after first hearing Miriam’s account – and writes:

Some people are comfortable talking about their lives, as if they can make sense of the random progression of events that made them what they are. This involves a kind of forward-looking faith in life; a conviction that cause and effect are linked, and that they are themselves more than the sum of the past.’

It was this particular short piece of text that led me to put her book down and think about what I had just read. It may be that Anna Funder’s comments are immediately understood by the majority of her readers. However, I know myself – and I know that I can ‘get the wrong end of the stick’ so I need to make sure that I have properly understood what I am reading. Added to this, my initial reaction was that, although I am reasonably comfortable talking about my life, I am now in the first phase of old age and this makes a difference as to how I think about just about everything: in fact, I certainly do not experience a ‘kind of forward-looking faith in life.’ If anything, I realise that I may not live for that much longer and, therefore, it is difficult to have any sense of a ‘forward-looking faith in life.’ My horizons are limited. So, since my first reaction was not entirely to agree with her remark I wanted to try and make sense of her serious observation.

First of all, I think that it is plainly true that ‘some people are comfortable talking about their lives’ whilst others are not. In fact, I do not think that my mother was ever particularly comfortable talking about her life. Why? Well, I think this is because of the devastating traumas that she suffered – first as a refugee and second as a result of her mental illness following the birth of her third child. And my father-in-law had very little to say about his life; he plainly had a dreadfully restricted childhood and was singularly  disinclined to dwell on his early or even later life experiences.

But Anna Funder actually goes on to note that those people who are comfortable talking about their lives seem to be able to ‘make sense of the random progression of events that made them what they are.’ This, I think, is a very interesting statement. But I asked: Is that what those of us who are (or were) comfortable talking about our lives actually do? Long ago, in their investigation of a person’s personality and character, the social psychologists and anthropologists Clyde Kluckholm and Henry Murray had acknowledged the role of chance (of randomly occurring events and happenings) in the formation and unfolding of a person. It certainly seems as if we are all subject to a huge number of random events and some of these can really make an enormous difference to our lives. Yet we probably do find a way, in the stories that we tell, to create a rather non-random account of how we ‘got’ to where we are. I think that this must be because we live according to some sort of hierarchy of plans, projects and values and they serve both to motivate us and to guide us towards some sort of future situation. Is Anna Funder saying this? Is she saying that, despite the truly enormous number of random events that befall us, we are disposed to create accounts that subsume or ignore these events and tell the story of our lives as if it were proceeding according to some plan and intention(s)? I think she is: she is probably saying this because her next sentence declares that this making sense of our lives (which involves a kind of forward-looking faith in life) includes ‘a conviction that cause and effect are linked …’

On reflection, I think that this is true; we probably do, in the main, live through ‘hope’ – which must be a kind of ‘forward-looking faith in life’ – and we do, indeed, live through the belief that ‘cause and effect’ are linked. This is obvious if we imagine a young person taking the kind of steps that they hope will lead to a job or career and their version of the ‘good-life’. (Doing this will lead to that.)  Yes, cause and effect are understood to be linked. However, as I noted above, I am fairly certain that as a person ages – and begins to face the approach of their death – there must be a diminishing of any ‘forward-looking faith’ in life.

In the last part of her observation, Anna Funder writes that whilst people have the conviction that, in their lives, cause and effect are linked, they are not ‘the sum of the past.’ Again, I had to think about this: I suppose that if we were just the sum of the past, then our lives would be denied the possibility of transcending that past. However, I have some difficulties with accepting her assertion because, following Pierre Bourdieu, it does seem as if we are inextricably formed by our past and that just about everything we do reflects our past. So, if we are not the sum of the past, what exactly is Anna Funder talking about? Unfortunately she does not tell us. I think she must be referring to the immaterial aspect of ourselves – that aspect that moves across time, that looks back and which, perhaps more importantly, looks forward (in imagination) to possible states of affairs – to possible conditions and experiences that are always and necessarily more than just the sum of our past. I think she must be identifying the active ‘I’ that is at the very core of our being and which makes and sustains our sense of an integrated self.

Overall, then, Anna seems to be saying three things:

First, those of us who are comfortable talking about our lives do seem to overlay all the myriad happenings that we experience with a coherent story. Perhaps much of the oddness and maybe even some of the significant chance happenings in our lives are not included in our accounts.

Second, most people reveal that they have or had a ‘forward looking faith in life.’ They were or are hopeful – and they organise their life such that events might lead to hoped-for outcomes – that cause would precede effect. They have the idea that their life is ‘going somewhere’. (This, though may change as a person grows older.)

Third, a person is not simply ‘made’ by the past and determined by the past; they do not, in the accounts they give, construe themselves as constituted simply as the sum of their past. They have something immaterial about them that is future-oriented. And this reveals the power of the human imagination. In imagination we create possible futures.

What must have helped Anna to derive her conclusion was not only her theory of personal-story-telling but also the fact that Miriam, after the death of her partner Charlie, had led her life in a kind of ‘non-time.’ Anna writes:

For Miriam, the past stopped when Charlie died. Her memories of picnics, or cooking meals or holidays, her real life, are memories of where ‘she’ is a ‘we’ and those are the things that she and Charlie did together. It is as if the time after his death doesn’t count. It has been a non-time laying down non-history.

I am one of the lucky ones. To date I have not experienced a kind of ‘non-time’ nor a ‘non-history.’

For me, her text certainly has the power to help us consider what is entailed when we ‘tell’ the story of our lives. And more: in the New Year I will visit the Stasi Museum in Berlin and Anna Funder’s nightmarish accounts will certainly haunt me: they will, I know, be my shadowy companions.

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Paris – a book shop

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In a few hours I was to return to England. A majestic deeply orange and crimson sunset the night before had prefigured this glorious November day: the sun shone and the sky was high and white and atomic blue. And so the day began.

Years and years ago I had passed in front of the remarkable bookshop that is named ‘Shakespeare and company.’ But I had almost forgotten what it was like so I decided to spend my last hours in Paris walking down to the Seine and re-visiting that special place. I was also searching for a second-hand illustrated book that I had seen in a Paris book stall a few days earlier. I had hesitated to buy it and by the time I had resolved to do so the book had gone. Maybe ‘Shakespeare and company’ would have the book …

There is a wonderful series of monuments that I passed on that splendid day; amongst them was the Musee des Arts et Metiers (full of inventions) and the cloisters of the Lutheran church, the Église des Billettes, and the ‘Centre Beaubourg’ – with its high art and celebration of all the rejections of artistic convention and tradition. There’s the wonderful Tour St. Jacques – and then all the lovely bridges that cross the Seine and the views of Notre Dame – this time from the back.

One of the most attractive features of the Seine is that it lent itself to the eyes of the Impressionists with its huge ripples that are such a pleasure to paint – and its various shades of green or grey or sky blue. If you follow a ripple you get lost in a kind of visual impossibility: nothing stays the same. And just to help the artist, leaves, the colour of raw sienna or Vandyke brown or lemon yellow, still cling to the many trees that line the quays of the river. There was even a huge slow-moving barge that edged into view as I was crossing the bridge. I had to stop and watch its dignified progress. Maybe Marcel Proust had once seen the same barge!

Then I was over and onto the left bank: it’s a nostalgic realm, once a place of the great writers and poets and playwrights and philosophers – all those people who, not so long ago, made Paris the artistic and ‘ideas’ capital of the western world. Their ghosts and echos remain. But now it’s a space for rich Americans and rich Asians – and rich but discreet and elusive French – and droves of alert tourists looking for the paradigm photo. (Oh well.)

I’d forgotten where ‘Shakespeare and company’ actually was; ‘Further on, past a small square and turn to the left and then you’ll see it’, a woman in a bar told me. She was right.

The bookshop is a kind of ‘must see’ and ‘must visit’ if you’re in Paris and wish to enjoy the high points of printing press culture. It’s here that words matter. I loved the place. Outside there were signs telling you which department was where and there was an homage to Walt Whitman – quite high up on a wall. Outside, too, there was a small table with a chess-board top. I sat at the table and my wife took a photo of me. I was looking for a pencil at the time. Nearby there was a small stall selling second-hand books at very reduced prices. Frantz Fanon’s ‘Peau noire masques blancs’ was there. (A propos literature, his observations include the remark “A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.” His more famous remarks concerning the psychological effects of colonisation are devastating.)

Inside there were sections on cinema and poetry and the classics and – well sections on everything really. And there were serious literary types and lots of young students from all over the world who were insouciantly ignoring the signs: ‘No photographs please’.

I couldn’t find the book I was searching for.

But I did find an area with a host of books concerned with the feminist struggle – and I thought that they would serve as a valuable resources to complement the International Day for ‘The Elimination of Violence against Women’ – which is taking place on 25 November. Moreover, I discovered that in various bars and restaurants all over Paris, debates and discussions have been planned to take place all through the night in an attempt to develop theory and practice in relation to the prevention of such violence against women.

It was now half past three in the afternoon. My train would be departing for London from the Gare du Nord in a few hours time. What a shame I could not find that book.

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Paris – street life

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It’s November in Paris. The first chill winds have turned the air sharp and crystal-clear. I’m staying in the 10th Arrondissement – and very close to the Canal St. Martin. In fact, when I was learning to paint and learning about the history of art I studied a number of artists amongst whom was Alfred Sisley; his works include one or two of the canal itself; and, I can just about discern the building in which I stay in the hazy background of one of them. Nowadays the canal is one of those zones in Paris that is full of hip and semi-bohemian mainly well-heeled youngsters. The old factories and tanneries are long gone. The big fat black cargo barges too. The original Hotel du Nord is still there – and it helps to confer the idea of ‘authenticity’ on its immediate surroundings.

If you were to walk down from the Canal St. Martin to Republique and then on to the beautiful architecture of the Marais you will see many many cafes and restaurants packed with the young, dressed in their up-to-date fashion and glazed with the sheer loveliness of their excited and hopeful faces. There’s all to play for! It’s a great sight and is all about the expression of a post-industrial deeply-mediated culture awash with images and surplus and online ‘communities.’ Ethnically it’s mainly white. And perhaps the most intense expression of this seemingly happy and consumerist culture is found in the Rue Montorgeuil nearby in the 2nd – the 2eme – arrondissement: in November’s early evenings this street is simply a’buzz with the shine of the happy hours – drenched in romance, allure and seduction. To experience it is to be immersed in the western world that has, more or less successfully, been brought into being.

But it’s not all good news; and not so by any means. In fact, if I look down from the windows of the traditional high-ceilinged flat in which I write and paint I can see what looks like a thriving culture of drug-dealing: cars arrive and leave their warning lights flashing; exchanges take place – exchanges that involve a secretive hair salon that functions as a locale and information centre for drugs – and once the deals are done the cars speed off. Sometimes, right under my nose, I can see men preparing various cocktails of drugs in the cars – mainly cigarettes spiked with whatever the dealers are providing.

The woman – she’s a grandmother – who lives above me is increasingly displeased with the unsettling character of the neighbourhood. She’s a tough nut and has even chucked a bucket of water out of the window of her flat and over the ne’er-do-wells – just to show her displeasure. She tells me that the police are not really in a position to do anything because the dealers will simply evade justice and move elsewhere. There are a number of tramps and beggars too – along with some people who are plainly mentally way off the scale: in front of me I see the disposed and the deranged. Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m on the edge of skid row (as the Americans have defined it.)

You have to be rich to escape the realities of our metropolitan world.

It would be easy to become very cynical about the world that is Paris – and, more generally, the world of western towns and cities. The privileged young are plugged-in to pleasure; the marginal are failing by the wayside; the less privileged classes are on the make. Buy in or lose out.

But the city is well-organised and its systems just about hang together; The people who keep the city going – the ‘key workers’ – put up with all the inconveniences, frustrations and difficulties. They put up with rudeness; they put up with relatively low pay. They are remarkable and long-suffering. Amongst them there is a man who has a pretty dismal job. I see him passing by my flat on most days; he’s employed by the city of Paris to do some street-cleaning. His ethnicity is manifestly different from the youngsters in the cafes of the Marais or Rue Montorgeuil. It’s an important job because rubbish bags are left on the street; they get opened and their contents are strewn over the pavements; Why? Well, the very poor search the bags of rubbish for whatever they deem has any value. So the pavements get to be a mess. (Often a vile mess.) Anyway, I was intrigued the other day because the street cleaner did not seem to be focussed on cleaning the streets: he had a long pick-up tool and he was poking this pick-up tool through some railings. Next to him was a woman from an Asian country. She was pointing through the railings. She looked very worried. The street cleaner spent quite a long time as if fishing for something with his pole. And then it became clear what he was fishing for! The Asian woman’s cap had blown off in the swirling winds and disappeared deep down behind the railings. The street cleaner had managed to retrieve it for her. Gaily she put on her silver cap, murmured a few words to the man and went on her way. The man duly returned to his never-ending job of doing his best to keep the streets clean.

I thought about this micro-episode of life and work in Paris. My sense is that the modest virtue of consideration – consideration for others – is diminishing. It’s a fragile virtue but it’s really a great virtue. Nietzsche might disagree and consider such a virtue a part of a ‘slave’ ethics; his critique of our various moral schemes is truly beguiling and his acute perception of humanity’s limitations is something I can neither ignore nor dismiss. However, I do not think that consideration for others necessarily enslaves; instead it reflects our wonderful powers of imagination. And here, in the 10eme arrondissement of Paris, a street cleaner made every effort to help someone retrieve a prized possession. He showed real consideration as well as patience. I think he went beyond the call of duty – and I admire that.

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A short note about loss – Paris, 11 November 2018

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It had rained fairly steadily throughout the 11 November. I was in Paris. In the morning I had seen and heard the very large number of blue and black windowless vans passing by, vans that were taking the thousands of security personnel and riot police down towards the places where the commemorations were to take place. Many Heads of State had gathered in Paris to acknowledge the centenary of the ending of the Great War.

The newspapers had forewarned the residents of Paris that around 10,000 troops and police were to be deployed to protect those Heads of State (and their respective entourages of associated dignitaries) from terrorist or other forms of attack. (I rather smiled because I learned later that one or two women who belonged to the feminist group femen had been ‘led away’ – so as not to disconcert or disrupt the proceedings. 100,000 versus 1 or 2 wasn’t much of a contest.)

In the late afternoon I left the flat in which I was staying and walked down to the river Seine. In the late afternoon light on a mid-November day a rain-soaked Paris looked beautiful. The drenched streets and pavements shone with gorgeous lights and the fallen leaves laid intricate bronze and green and yellow patterns that made me feel as if I was in a painting or a magic land. The Seine, too, was alight with reflections. And it was a time to reflect …

I walked away from the quais of the Seine past Chatelet and I looked towards the magnificence of the Hotel de Ville – the ‘city hall’ of Paris. In the wide and open spaces in front of the Hotel de Ville the city had organised a stylish and thoughtful commemoration to lives lost and ruined in the first World War. They had, for example, created flowerbeds – that ranged, from left to right, in blue, then white, then red flowers; the flowers were tiny and the flowerbeds were vast.

And then I looked again at the astonishing achievement that is the Hotel de Ville. And as the suffering and loss of life were being remembered I could not help thinking that the British had made a great mistake in their decision to leave the European Union. I thought this, simply because, as a citizen of the EU, I somehow had a direct ‘share’ or ‘interest in’ or association with the Hotel de Ville – and in fact with all the great achievements that have taken place on the land area that is called Europe. In a strange and curious way I shared in the ownership of the Hotel de Ville and I did not want to lose this unusual sense of ownership.

At that very moment I would have liked all the people of the UK to come and stand where I was standing and I would say: ‘This is part of us. But I think we have failed to grasp our shared ‘ownership’ of such a remarkable cultural achievement. And surely we are lesser for it.’

Then it was the day after the 11 November … and I was one day closer to loss.

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A sign in New York City

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Well, this is one way to try and deter thieves.

The sign was stuck up in the window of a New York toy shop. Among other things, the shop had a number of very alluring  and rather splendid remote controlled cars.

A visit to this particular toy shop was featured in the  television programme: ‘Last Chance Lawyer, NYC.’  The criminal defence attorney, Howard Greenberg, who ‘stars’ in this programme, drew our attention to the sign.

I suppose New York does have a rather distinct culture. And, in a sense, this sign is the perfect riposte to the cliche: ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ This sign has just six words – and that’s the long and the short of it.

Post script: As the cultural commentator P.J. Villiers remarks, the sign has ‘neither finesse nor irony.’ (But it does have sellotape.)

 

 

The trouble with Brexit

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The trouble with Brexit  – and with acceding to the so-called ‘will of the people’ to leave the achievements of the European Union – is that it is not really the ‘will of the people’ at all; but worse, it misses the point of knowing something about and valuing our shared history; it also misses the point of the importance of neighbourliness and the delightful phenomenon of charm. (In fact, it misses several points.) As far as I can tell the European Union was born out of a vision, held specifically by two Italian thinkers – and the rubble of the second world war – a vision that translated into words which basically said: ‘Look, we can do better than this’ – and, overall, the result is that ‘we’ really have done better than before. The countries of Europe are doing their best to do well and to fare well. They offer their citizens a great deal; in return, they ask: ‘Please can you play the game?’ (and play it fairly.)

The cultures and societies and political systems that make up Europe are extraordinary achievements. And, it is not true to say that the United Kingdom doesn’t owe Europe ‘anything.’ In fact, it owes almost everything to ideas and examples born and manifested in Europe – from the Greeks, the Romans and the continental Philosophers of the Enlightenment. In the United Kingdom, we – the people – benefit from a culture of dissent – and this culture has its roots in both the heat-haze and the clear skies of the Mediterranean and the salons of the capital cities of Europe.

I am very disappointed that so little regard is given to the history of Europe and the relationship of that history to United Kingdom culture. What particularly disappoints me is the rejection of the framework that unites our friends and colleagues who live, work and think about ‘things’ on the continent of Europe.

I’d like to take one simple example that tells me something valuable – and which is something that anyone can ‘come across’ in Europe. It’s taken from a recent visit to Berlin. In Berlin, not only did I have the wonderful luck to stay in a flat with three young German women who spoke three languages perfectly and who were plainly good people (studying medicine and political science and social psychology respectively) but I also had a good conversation and a great exchange of ideas in a place called Hard Wax.

Here’s an outline of the Hard Wax experience:

Well, I don’t really know much about ‘Techno’ music; but my guide book – the Lonely Planet book on Berlin – included a short reference to a record store at the end of Gotbusser Strasse in Kreuzberg . So I went there. And it was wonderful because even before entering the store I discovered that all-about were workshops and tiny businesses doing good things. In  Hard Wax itself I met a young woman. She helped me navigate through the records and selected ones that someone in England might like. And she took her time doing this. Then we had a discussion about elite art – the kind of art that gets to be shown in exclusive galleries. And I said that I was uneasy about the fact that the elite circuit of art seemed to be full of works that criticised the media and consumption, production and capitalism – but at the very same time this elite establishment and its clients participated in and fed off the very system that the art (apparently) criticised.

I don’t like that,’ I said.

Yes,’ she said, ‘I know what you mean: it’s shit.

But it was the way she said it: serious, long-suffering, aware of the hypocrisy and of the irony. She was studying philosophy and was about to embark on a year of study specialising in aesthetics; so we talked about that, too. And when I said that a philosopher I knew had asserted that the aesthetic dimension is absolutely central to human life and existence and to all our perception – to the fundamentals of our being – she said:

Yeah – but I’m going to have to think about that.’

And I knew that she would.

That’s the kind of lovely exchange that anyone can enjoy as they travel through the cultures of Europe. It’s worth being an engaged participant in those cultures and not just a casual visitor. That – and the promise of peace – is the point of the European Union.

 

 

 

The Art Show

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I went to the Art Show. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The single work occupied the whole of an exhibition room. Among other things it shows how media and technology are literally ‘in your face’.

The Art Show is a very large installation. It was developed between the years 1963 until 1977. Situated within the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, the curators provide notes which describe this extraordinary work as follows:

‘It is one of the major works by Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz. Its theme is the opening of an art exhibition in a gallery and it entered the collection of the Berlinische Galerie in 1996. The first ideas for this walk-in scene with ironic qualities were worked out by Edward Kienholz in the United States as early as 1963 and 1967. The realisation of the work is, however, closely connected to Berlin. With a grant from the DAAD (The German Academic Exchange Service) – the husband-and-wife artists spent several months in Berlin from 1973 onward. In 1974 they decided to spend part of each year in Berlin to realise the Art show.

The tableau (in the show) consists of nineteen figures, fourteen collage-like works of art on the theme of casting the bodies for sculptures, furnishing and installing the gallery space – and, installing electrical wiring.

For the figures, the couple molded friends and personalities from the art scene of the 1970s, including their three children. All of the figures wear the clothing of the people modelled. By contrast, their faces are distorted with air conditioning vents and fans from junked cars. They radiate warm air. (!) When visitor press the buttons on the figures, a comment on art by the person depicted is heard with background noise from an art exhibition opening.’

One of the reasons that I like going to contemporary art exhibitions is that, for me, they are often full of surprises. I find myself enjoying the sense of being ‘woken up’ and they demand that I ask the question: What is this about?’ Even if I do try to answer that question I often do not find anything like the answer which the artist intended. However, I rather liked listening to the assertions made by the people depicted in The Art Show. In fact, some of the comments made by these ‘personalities’ were very demanding. One, for example, contrasted ways of thinking in science and philosophy with those of conceptual artists. The former distinguish between theory and practice: theory concerns itself with understanding whilst practice concerns itself with altering or bringing about change in the empirical world. Quite what the latter (the conceptual artists) do is not always clear!

The photographs show some of the figures in the Kienholz’s work that is exhibited in the Berlinsche Galerie. But I have also included a photograph of another work of art on show in plein air (for all to see) near the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. The plein air figure is deliberately provocative and amusing. He makes people smile. The performance artist also speaks to whomsoever may wish to listen. His assertions were often gnostic and other-worldly.

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